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March 28, 2013 / A Mindful Traveler

An Interview with Grant Cogswell

Grant Cogswell

Grant Cogswell

A modern renaissance man, Grant Cogswell is a political activist, writer, entrepreneur, and expatriate.  He is best known for his efforts to create a citywide monorail system in Seattle and his subsequent campaign for the Seattle City Council, dramatized in the film Grassroots.  He recently published the poetry collection The Dream of the Cold War: Poems 1998-2008.

Cogswell is the owner of Under the Volcano Books in Mexico City, an English-language bookstore which he describes as “an embassy for the soul of the English-speaking world.”  In the same spirit of interchange, he recently presented the documentary, “The Real Mexico” which takes visitors into the heart of Mexico City.  He kindly spoke to me on the occasion of its release.

Given your strong ties to Seattle, what led you to move to Mexico and to open up your business, Under the Volcano Books, there?

My ties to Seattle were doubly – triply, even – broken. I´d really thought, in the 1990s, that the city presented a new possible direction for what we up north call America. Toward sustainability, and the social interconnectedness of real city living. To put it briefly, as I discovered over the course of a decade fighting to build public transit and push other environmental initiatives, I was wrong. Hey, I only wasted my entire youth. 

I first visited D.F. [Mexico City] in 2005, and was immediately enamored. A native Californian who grew up in Europe, heavily influenced by time in Paris and Andalusia, this city with the sky and plant life of the Pacific Rim instantly felt like home. It only lacked a great English bookstore, something I had the knowledge to put together. It was a natural decision.

You start of the film by talking about “letting the country into your life.”  How did you do this, and how would you recommend other travelers or expats do this, either in Mexico or elsewhere?

If you just bear down through a country as different from your own as Mexico is from the United States, without opening yourself to the cultural perspective of the locals, you´re really dialing it in. Going native, on the other hand, is basically impossible. But to let it change you – and to my disposition, the Protestant chill of American life needs changing badly – is a gift. I´m still way, way too gringo for my Mexican girlfriend, in so many ways, but I am already after three years a kind of hybrid. Of course to do this, if you want to do it, requires a real uprooting, which is in some ways painful. But for me it was inevitable.

“El Monstruo” as Mexico city is nicknamed, is enormous and disorienting, but you describe it as a city of “neighborhoods and neighbors.”  What do you think is the easiest way for someone to break down El Monstruo, or any big city for that matter?

If you´re visiting for a short time, there are a handful of must-sees (the Zocalo, Tlatelolco, Xochimilco, Condesa-Roma). But to really spend daily relaxed time in a neighborhood setting – any neighborhood setting – is the real way to observe the particular rhythms and charms of life here. You can´t just gulp it down in a week and move on, because you risk absorbing nothing. But of course, there´s always the next visit.

You liken the relaxed attitude of Mexicans (and especially chilangos – residents of Mexico City are known) to Buddhism on a number of occasions.  Considering all the difficulties the country has been through, how do you think people are able to maintain this perspective?

I think it´s because of the difficulties the country has been through. The tragic perspective of this country is both its blessing and its curse. Because it entirely lacks the Protestant notion that the world can be perfected by human effort, it’s a psychically healthier place to be than North America or northern Europe. The flipside of that is that corruption is rife and nobody really tries very hard to move up the ladder: social mobility is almost nonexistent. So why should you wear yourself out worrying about it?

You talk fondly about pulque and pulquerias in the film, can you recommend a pulqueria to readers of this blog? 

Pulqueria Los Insurgentes (four stories of pulque, by Metrobus Durango) has gentrified and grown a little chilly since its inception three years ago, but still probably is the most fun and reliable place in the city quality-wise with the exception (in the quality department) of La Bonita (on Tamaulipas in La Condesa) which is high falutin’ Condesa style and charges a steep 100 pesos a liter, but their product is impeccable.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.  I notice  Under the Volcano Books  recently moved from the Roma neighborhood to Condesa, which you describe as the nicest in Mexico.  How has the change been? 

We were stuck at the end of an alley in a not very attractive corner of Roma, so moving to the heart of Condesa has been a total game-changer. We get a lot more travelers, and people bringing in books every day to trade, which means we don´t have to make frequent book runs to the US anymore except for our fifty or so best-selling titles. The American Legion Bar downstairs is a unique place, an uncanny meeting point between cultures, and a beautiful place to get your drink on. I couldn´t be happier.

Watch The Real Mexico with Grant Cogswell.

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