I was settling into a bedroom in a beautiful two-story home in Mexico City in June, 1959, expecting to enjoy summer study with my high school collegue Mary F, a history teacher who traveled with me. We would attend Mexico City College on the outskirts of the city on a mountainside. We had been met at the airport by the Senorita's maid and dropped at the door in front of one of the houses in a fashionable neighborhood. Time enough to have supper and unpack. Our hostess was an artist, and appeared excited to have American boarders for the duration of the summer.
However during the night something attacked me. I jumped out of bed and turned on the lights, pulled back covers to discover---nothing. At this point I'd only heard of bedbugs, but not really experienced them. It was easy to recognize the feeling of what was nestling in my musky mattress. I fought them all night. The next morning I felt as if I'd downed 10 Margaritas without food as I stumbled down the curved staircase for breakfast. How to say "bedbugs" in Spanish? My dictionary was still packed away. Our hostess spoke enough English to say hello and good morning and the maid none. I was a bit jealous that Mary F had enjoyed a good night's sleep. She knew very little Spanish so I was left alone to figure out how to explain to our hostess there were bedbugs in the mattress in the room assigned to me. I knew not to say Tiene (you have) because would mean she owned them; I made my best effort, telling her first, that the mattress needed sol. Then to dispel the quizzical look on her face, I said hay mosquitos pequenos... and then I walked my fingers like the adverts did for yellow pages years later, repeating "... caminan en la cama." She looked at me and said "Absolutament NO" or something similar. I then had to explain "un variedad de mosquitos" but she left the room in a pout.
Mary F and I took the bus to school that one morning, riding in a Trailways-like coach for about 20 minutes and filled mostly with American students. Between classes when students flocked to the snack bar Mary F and I stumbled upon a lovely little Mexican lady speaking good English soliciting summer boarders. She had a nice place, she insisted, for two ladies as we. I repeated my experience the previous night and she said "Come with me after class,I will explain, then you rent from me." Srta. Artista was angry and refused to believe we were moving because of the bedbugs, but she understood we had an ally and wanted our deposit returned. Before long we were stuffed in Sra. Solana's little car on our way to the outskirts of town. We parked and dragged our suitcases across the wide street and entered through a non-descript door in a wall.
We stepped into a fairyland of color: a square area of yard with green grass, shady trees, and colorful flowers. Ten Mexican bungalows huddled in a U-shape around the green area. We were greeted by a monster on four legs they called a dog that stood up to our thighs and only understood Spanish. He had to smell us and hear our voices so we'd be protected on the outside of the fence. Otherwise, he would have torn us up when we inserted our housekey into the outside door. Later we would discover how difficult it was to obtaining taxi rides late at night. One driver asserted that we were located in a dangerous part of town where taxi drivers were robbed. No one in the neighborhood bothered us, despite our having more money probably than the poor taxi drivers.
The little bungalow had a small living room/kitchen and bedroom. The bar separating the living room, or la sala, from the kitchen, la cocina was shaped like an ironing board--for that very use. Every day we'd leave this beauty situated across from the American School,walk into another world to the corner and turn to walk several blocks to the highway and wait for the bus. The streets screamed poverty--people sleeping and cooking in lean-tos,half dressed as they swept the dirt floors of their hovels,as we, bowing out of the way of half clothed children playing in unsanitary conditions. Would we safely return to our little slice of heaven? We passed semmingly unnoticed.
Those darn bedbugs, so tiny and white that I couldn't locate a single one during the night, caused a new experience for Mary F and me. Oftentimes I wonder how we would have fared in that beautiful neighborhood, rubbing elbows with the arts crowd, and having downtown D. F. within blocks of us. Los senores Solana took care of us, explaining Mexico and their fare. They served as our parents for the time we spent with them. Neither Mary F nor I will forget living on Calle Observatorio.
We never missed the artist and her home and the bedbugs she refused to acknowledge.