Death on the Tile

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Dateline: Squarely in the Midst of Glazed Madness

Some people think staircases are the most dangerous part of the house. Others argue for the kitchen, what with its hot pots and ever-present potential for food poisoning. And a hard-core clique thinks it’s the bathroom, what with its water, slippery surfaces, and potential for naked electrocution. For me? Tiles, regardless of room, will be the death of me. In the end.

They are the “femmes fatales” of home installations. So sexy. So alluring, in all their various varieties. Marbles that look better than the real thing; wood looks that never need varnish; amazing colors, shapes, finishes, and proportions. The promise of eternal gleam, easy cleaning, and no pesky germs is the siren song of these porcelain devils.

When you know you’re gorgeous

I’ve been mad for tiles since last January, and I use the word “mad” advisedly. It’s becoming a sickness. January was my first trip to Avenida Division del Norte, a broad avenue named after Pancho Villa’s revolutionary battalion that stretches for dozens of miles. It’s the galactic center of an infinitely expanding tile universe. There’s something like five friggin’ kilometers of tile stores, ranging from big chains to a bunch of scrappy mom & pops. I’ve walked all five kilometers at least once, and I’ve walked certain parts more than I care to admit. The sheer quantity and variety of tile stores is truly overwhelming. But it’s also simultaneously insufficient. There’s an amazing amount of duplication. All the stores have stone looks, wood looks, and a very few colors. But anything that will go well with a 1930s house? Uh, not so fast, gringo!

In truth, the whole problem is with me. Had I gone with “Plan A,” I’d now be the happy owner of a modern-ish penthouse somewhere north of Álvaro Obregón. That penthouse would be one unit (not five!), a single expansive level, and have a fabulous view. It’d be so easy. If it were really bright, maybe I’d buy a few acres of a dark marble tile and luxuriate in a somber, nearly “emo” style. Were it a bit dimmer, well, I’d go for some lighter marble style, say “statuario,” or something resembling Carrera. By now, it’d be done, and I’d be moving on with my fabulous, Mexican-urban life.

But no. This is not my fate.

Instead, I bought a 1930s house, with apartments, and another house next to it.  Rather than just be another Penthouse Denizen, I figured it’d be much (much!) cooler to be an anachronism instead. I’d live my life like it was 1930. (Sorry Prince, not 1999.) I’d relive the Jazz Age with its speakeasies, surreptitious cocktails, flappers, and the rest, all the while worrying about Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

The fantasy

This was the fundamental mistake which led to all the others.

At first, I fell in love with the marble tiles. They truly are amazing. Just looking at them, you can’t imagine they aren’t marble. Yet in their artificiality, there’re actually better. Glossier. Harder. Bigger. More stain-resistant. They’re what you’d get if you applied eugenics to forms of stone. And there were seductive possibilities. Like with that handsome guy at the bar, who’s eying you with dark, sultry looks. Sure, he stocks potato chips in a delivery truck by day. But by night, he’s one hot sonofabitch. No, we’d not have a lot to talk about. But there’d be other compensations. Such were the marble tiles, what with their over-the-top elegance and sangfroid.

And you only have to take one look at the Chrysler Building in New York to know that marble and Art Deco have been joined at the hip since that 1925 exhibition in Paris which started it all. But after a long and ultimately fruitless flirtation with marble, Julio quickly disabused me of the idea. “Your house has terrazzo on the façade. You need to use terrazzo in it, if you want to be period-correct.”

He was right and I didn’t disagree. And I do like terrazzo. But still, a part of me hankered for a marble look, and in my fantasies, my Roma Sur house was a close second to the Chrysler building. Dream on, Gringo!

Part of this tile problem was at least solved in the kitchen. As you’ll recall, I have some rather lovely, green, but rather destroyed terrazzo tiles there. After a consultation or two, I decided that they were beyond saving. Fortunately there were contemporary options that were very similar, and I ultimately ended up picking a green and beige checkerboard pattern that’s period correct without being OVERLY green. Which is a continual danger in my kitchen. Still, that terrazzo was ordered a few weeks ago, so now I’m committed. So far, not to a mental institution, but I’m not ruling that out as an ultimate fate. Especially if the installation and grinding-down become a nightmare. Because these products are “artisanal,” which is marketing-speak to say they’re a little on the crude side. Unpolished surface, not totally-straight sides, not quite ready for prime time. Which means that after installation, a small army of respirator-clad folks with dangerous-looking machines will re-coat my house with dust before a victory over the kitchen tiles can be declared.

Tiles Chosen for The Kitchen
How the Kitchen Floor Will End Up
The Impossible Dream. At Least Color-Wise

And of course we haven’t yet even spoken of the walls in the kitchen. I’m one of the 41 people left in Mexico City, perhaps all of the Americas, who have a sort of turquoise/seafoam green tiles covering every vertical surface of my kitchen. Those of you who’ve been reading along already know that those tiles have holes, cracks, and other “issues” which give them, ahem, “patina.” If I lived in a perfect world, I’d be able to march out to any tile store and buy another 213 new ones and kiss “patina” goodbye. Hello, sterile and perfect!!! Hahaha…. Dream on, Gringo! Oh, the promise is there. There are still stores in Mexico City which have displays of such tiles. Those stores are manned by sincere, helpful types who will explain that they just need to look for them. “Just send me a ‘WhatsApp’ and I’ll check with my supplier.” Days and weeks go by. Initial messages are answered. “I’m out of the office, but I promise I’ll check Monday.”

“I’m having a little trouble getting through to the vendor, but it’s a busy time of year.”

“They’re saying they’ll have to double-check with their suppliers.”

The weeks wear on. Eventually, these guys stop answering their WhatsApp messages, and you’re back at tile one. But it’s months later, and you’re still wondering what you’re going to do about all of those cracked tiles. I’d say I’ve been down that road with the kitchen tiles. But I’m unfortunately still on it, sort of like that Keanu Reeves film “Speed.” If the bus stops, then my kitchen will explode. So I keep looking.

Must find matching tiles!

I’ve managed to salvage maybe a dozen tiles from parts of the wall that we’ll never see. But it’s literally back breaking work. Most of these tiles are close to the floor, which means I need to spend extended time bent over, gently tapping a thin spatula under the tiles I want to remove. My most recent attempt was more successful after I decided to heat up the tiles with a torch. But it’s a torturous process, with each rescued tile taking a good 10-15 minutes to save. Oh, and the ones that ultimately break take just as long. And after an hour or so I have to stop, or I’ll need emergency chiropractic care. My success rate? Oh, I’ve managed to save about 20%-23% of the tiles I’ve tried to chip off the wall. The rest lie in shards like the broken dreams of easy replacement.

Other tile dangers continue to lurk. Like the fact that I rather dislike the terrazzo that’s in the entry and fireplace hall. Sure, the overall scheme is nice: black border with a cream interior. But it’s that cream interior that grates on the nerves. It’s beyond ordinary. It’s the terrazzo that’s in EVERY SINGLE MERCADO in the entire Republica Mexicana. Seriously. Go anywhere and you’ll see that terrazzo. Worse, it’s in bad condition. This was my biggest objection to terrazzo. There seemed to be little alternative. I’ve looked at lots of beige-ish terrazzo, but most of them leave me cold. Which fed my unhealthy desire for marble.

Who doesn’t have this beige terrazo?

Guillermo’s terrazo

The beige tile problem seemed to have a solution. Some weeks ago, I passed by a new restaurant under construction in Condesa. It had some very nice terrazzo, new and nicely done. Since it was a Sunday, no one was there. I went back a few days later and managed to get the number of the guy who did the terrazzo: Guillermo.

We exchanged messages a few days later where he agreed to come see my house. I thought we hit it off. He even had several money-saving ideas. “Why don’t you just polish what’s there? I can fix the edges and the holes. That makes much more sense.” I said I wanted something different than the “mercado” tile. He also said he could polish and seal the pasta tile on the second floor hall. He’d also be able to replace the broken tiles in the small bath. He’d even be able to make me kitchen counters. He seemed like a godsend. Maybe my tile problems would soon be over? We agreed that I’d send him an email detailing all that I wanted and that he’d send me a quote as to how much it’d cost.

Well, here we are weeks later and he’s stopped responding to my WhatsApp messages.

Other tile problems continue to dog me. I’ve already talked about the impossibility of replacing the blue tiles in my main bath. Fortunately, I haven’t had to break any of those. But I was recently browsing one of the 47,000 tile catalogs that I’ve downloaded to my laptop, and I came across some tiles that are amazingly close to what’s in my blue bath. Fifteen by fifteen centimeters, a size that’s literal “blast from the past.” Better yet, they’re a current model in the 2022 general catalog of Dune, a Spanish tile company with a subsidiary in Mexico. “Perfect!” I thought. “I can copy the design of the main bath to the back bedroom bath,” which is the same horrid 1980s beige as the half bath downstairs. The tile I want is called Tabarca, and the colors of interest are “Cielo” and “Marino,” a lighter and darker blue respectively.

“Not so fast, Gringo.” I called around to see about this tile. Few of Dune’s distributors even had it in their computer. One did, but said they had no samples. But I could order it, and it’d come from Spain. In three months. And by the way, there would be no returns, despite the order “sight unseen.” Also they’d be sold by the piece. At 15×15 cm at 130 MXN each, that’s almost $6,000 MXN per square meter, or about $27 a square foot. This would make it one of the most expensive tiles I’ve ever seen. Have I mentioned that I’ve seen a lot?

A call to the local office of Dune was supremely unhelpful. No, we don’t know who has a sample. You can get that tile here in gold color. But the blues you want, well we don’t know. That would be fine if I wanted a copy of one of Donald Trump’s bathrooms. But I had other things in mind. They also refused to even hint at an MSRP. I said I was well aware that stores could charge whatever they thought the market would bear. But no deal. The woman on the phone even checked with someone else. “We can’t tell you anything about the price.”

I’ve since been back to Avenida División del Norte looking for samples of Tabarca tiles. No luck so far, though I did get a price quote which put them back into the realm of reasonable: $1,228MXN/M2, or about $6 USD/square foot. Now if I could only see what they look like in real life, I might summon up the nerve to order some.

Meanwhile, we’ve discovered that the flooring under the ugly, beige, 1980’s tile in the half-bath downstairs is original, marbelized, green pasta tile. It’s under a quarter-inch of thinset, and needs to be excavated. But will it be worth the trouble? Or will it only be more back-breaking work for nothing? As with everything on this project, the results are mixed. I’ve chipped away enough to see that the underlying tile is interesting, but chipped and worn. There’re also some ugly patched areas. Will it be worth restoring? Only time and lots of back-breaking toil will tell. Meanwhile, am I crazy for even trying to find out? Will I ever find samples of Tabarca? Should I just have a tile store pick tiles for me and install them? I just can’t decide, and it’s driving me mad.

Recently uncovered ground floor half bath floor. Worth saving?

Oh, and I had my guys rip up the floor in the main, blue bath. But have I picked out a new floor? Noooo! I’ve talked to Julio about some possibilities, but he’s been maddeningly non-committal. I’m leaning towards small hexagonal tiles, mostly white, interspersed with a few black ones. While that’s more Victorian than Deco, those tiles were still widely used in the 30s. There are also some very large octagons available too, but I’m not sure I have the nerve to go there. It could either be great or a lifelong embarrassment.

Light blue tiles in small bath can be easily replaced. Plus I’ve also got more of the border tiles.

But there have been a few rays of hope in an otherwise bleak situation. I managed to find a used tile store, or at least post in the Mercado Hidalgo. There I was able to buy 53 sky blue tiles which can be used to fix the small bathroom attached to the northeast bedroom. And they even had some new, cobalt tiles that match the border on the wall. I only need one, maybe two, and was able to buy them. They might even get some tiles that match the kitchen; we’ll see. I was also able to find some edge tiles in a talavera store that will work well to replace the tiles that border the shower door in that little bathroom. Are they an exact match? No, but they are close enough that no one who’s not looking will notice.

Are those edge tiles an EXACT match? No, but good enough for an antique bathroom.

Meanwhile, I’ve been on an extended break from the house. I returned to Boston on the 14th, and am currently waiting for my passport to be renewed. Hopefully that goes more easily than the tiles. As for the tiles, I’m still dreading my return to Mexico City. Some day I hope this will all be behind me. But for now, it has become a painful and challenging obsession. So if you find me in a gutter somewhere, clutching a bottle of tequila and muttering about glazes, sizes, and whether the tiles are rectified or not, well, you’ll know what happened.

Saludos and Happy New Year!

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