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Monday, November 13, 2006

First Impressions

First Impressions

This was one of the easiest 8 hour flights I’ve ever had. A meal, a glass of wine, a nap, and the next thing I remember was the hostesses coming by with breakfast—call it the Ambien® school of civil aviation. My bags were checked through all the way to Valencia so when we landed in Madrid I just had to show my passport to the Spanish customs agent. There was no line, and when I say no line I mean I just walked up to an empty counter. Clearing customs took about 20 seconds, give or take ten seconds. There was no customs or immigration at all in Valencia. I picked up my bags and walked out to the cab stand.

The cab driver was a little overwhelmed when he saw the excess baggage we were carrying, but it all fit inside and we were on our way into Valencia. The city looked crappy and industrial on the drive in from the airport, but almost all cities look crappy and industrial on the drive in from the airport. We found the office for the apartment rental and my brother waited in the street with the bags while I went up to get the keys to our place.

When I booked the reservation for the apartment while I was in Chicago I didn’t hear back from the agency about how we were to check in when we arrived in Spain. I sent them an email in English asking how it was done. They didn’t respond for about five days. I had a few more questions so this time I wrote them an email in Spanish. This time I heard back in a matter of minutes. I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote in English the first time.

After I got the keys we had a rough time trying to convince a cab driver to haul all of our luggage. Two cabbies declined before we found a more adventurous driver. Before I left the realtor’s office I asked if the address for our apartment would be easy to find and she assured me that any cab driver would be able to take me there without a problem—she even provided a map with the street circled. We soon found out that the map was wrong and we couldn’t find the street. I was beginning to think that perhaps we had been swindled. Our cabbie was more tenacious than we had a right to expect, and after meandering for about twenty minutes, we happened upon our street, Pere II el Ceremonioso, simply by accident. A few minutes earlier we asked a man walking down the sidewalk less than a block away if he had heard of the street. The entire area looks fairly new so it’s easy to explain people’s ignorance of their own neighborhood and the faulty map.

The apartment was on the 8th floor with a view of the huge expanse of apartment buildings in eastern Valencia. The unit reminded me of my apartment in Athens: marble floors, modern appliances, and shuttered windows that block out every bit of light. This would be home for the next couple of weeks. It turns out that the apartment has one of the best showers I’ve ever used.

My first objective after a long flight and an eight hour time difference was to get a café con leche as soon as possible. We walked towards the old, downtown section of the city. Walking was slow as we dodged cars and meandered through narrow streets. The first place we stopped looked like beer would be a better choice if you believe in the “Do as the Romans do” principle. All of the Spanish men were having an early afternoon caña (a small glass of tap beer). Good thing that I am easy to please. We finally sat down for a coffee at the beautiful Mercado de Colon, a covered, open-air market that has been converted into a small urban mall. The coffee was excellent and my opinion of Valencia was gradually changing for the better. It’s funny how a good cup of coffee in a pleasant surrounding will do that.

From this point on things just got better as we wandered around the historic section of town. A beautiful plaza of polished marble, next to a gothic cathedral, next to a medieval fortress, all connected by narrow streets or wide boulevards and shaded by date palms. But, without a doubt, the most spectacular thing about this Mediterranean city founded by the Romans is the Jardin del Turia, a huge park that was once a river that ran along the eastern side of the old city of Valencia. The river has been diverted and the bed is now the home to miles of soccer fields, gardens, bike paths, playgrounds, picnic areas, fountains, and whatever other recreational pursuits you can think of. The park is bordered on either side by the stone wall that once contained the river and is spanned every kilometer or so by bridges, both the of the ancient variety that once crossed the river, and the ultramodern structures built to cross the best city park I have ever seen.

Our apartment lies to the southeast of the historic district of Valencia. Instead of fighting the traffic and the labyrinth of narrow streets to reach the downtown, we can walk over to the Jardin del Turia which is like an express lane for pedestrians. We’re probably about three kilometers from the downtown so we already know this park pretty intimately. After only two days I have a life-threatening case of bicycle envy. I may have mentioned this once or twice before but I’m not much in to walking.


As we are living on the 8th floor we take an elevator to our apartment. I immediately noticed that Spanish people greet you when you are sharing an elevator. A simple, polite “Buenas Tardes” when they get on and then a “Hasta luego” when they get off. It is such a simple thing but it seems to fly in the face of the stoic American custom of ignoring other passengers. It seems rather ridiculous to pretend like others don’t exist when you are confined to such a small space.

The kitchens in the apartments in my building all face into a small shaft. There is small balcony attached to the kitchen that holds the washing machine. Over the rail to the balcony there is a clothes line to hang laundry. There is an apartment on the other side of this shaft that is about twenty feet away. I have not been out on the balcony when someone from the neighboring apartment is on their balcony so I don’t know what the etiquette is for screaming across this narrow expanse. Live and learn, as they say.

Yesterday in the elevator a little boy in a stroller handed me his “chulìsima” (very cool) toy boat. After I admired it for about five seconds he reminded me that it was his. It took a team effort to get him and the stroller out the front door when he made it to the lobby. Parents here are a lot more trusting of strangers with regards to their children. Kids pretty much just run wild and seem to be under the collective care of everyone.

Friday Night Lights

Spain, like just about every other country on the planet, is fairly delirious when it comes to soccer. To keep up with the game and to gain a bit of cultural credibility I try to read at least one of the daily soccer newspapers. Valencia has two football clubs, one of which is among the top teams in Europe and is currently in third place in the Spanish national ranking.

There is a small, concrete football pitch around the corner from our apartment that is in constant use. Kids play pick-up games throughout the day. This past Friday some sort of intense league play brought out the entire neighborhood. The game on the small field is fast and furious much like half-court basketball games. Next to the soccer court players warmed up by kicking balls around on the basketball court. There were also matches being played on the dozen or so official-size fields we passed on our walk into town. Everywhere you go kids kick balls back and forth across plazas, streets, alleyways, and even up and down stairways. At the beach I saw a two-on-two volleyball match played with only kicks and headers. If there is a round object and a few square meters of open space there will be some form of soccer.

Barcelona played Zaragoza last night and we caught the second half of the game in the little restaurant in front of our apartment building. There is also an ice cream parlor, a beauty salon, a place that sells roasted chickens to go, and another restaurant on this little side-street. La Bodegueta d’Enmig, which is Catalan for I don’t know what, has a nice big flat screen television that faces out onto the terrace in front of the restaurant. We got a pitcher of beer and a small plate of squid (about $5) and watched the game. The patrons here were all rooting for Barcelona as I would guess that all Catalonians stick together in important matters like football although I would also imagine that the rivalry between Valencia and Barcelona is fairly bitter.

The neighborhood grocery store is a constant source of entertainment. I like the hand-held baskets that you can also drag around on their wheels. Near the entrances they have a place where you can lock up you own wheeled grocery carts that all little old Spanish ladies use for shopping. I shop at a store called Mercadona, closed Sundays. There are many things you would find in America and a host of products unique to Spain.

Probably my favorite thing about Spain and what I missed the most since I was here last, are the bewildering variety of dried sausages. Cured sausages come in a huge array of shapes, sizes, and flavors. In addition to the sausages there is the obligatory aisle that caters to the Spanish love of all things ham. Entire cured hams—complete with hoof—hang from hooks near the meat section. You can buy the whole leg or smaller portions. There are also a lot of weird canned seafoods like squid, squid in ink, squid in American sauce (We have our own sauce? Ketchup?), octopus, clams, mussels, and huge one kilogram cans of tuna.

I bought an eight liter bottle of water and a five liter plastic jug of red table wine. The vino was almost as cheap as the water and definitely cheaper than bottled water in the States. It was 3.75 Euros. Gasoline here costs something like .95 Euros a liter so leave it to Spain to offer wine at a cheaper price than fuel for your car. Instead of a campaign that tells you not to drink and drive the Spanish probably have one that says you should drink instead of drive to save money. If you are wondering, the five liter wine is totally drinkable and is better than many wines for which I have paid six dollars or more for a glass in restaurants.

Our apartment is almost equidistant from the downtown as it is from the beach. It is early Sunday morning and almost everything is closed. I need to find a cash machine as I am completely out of money. There is a sort of roundabout way to get to the beach on the metro but we decide to walk. It is November 12, 2006 and the temperature is somewhere around 23º. I don’t really know what that means just yet but suffice it to say that there are people in swimsuits when we get to the beach. The beach is nothing special but it is a beach and it is nice to see the Mediterranean again after almost twenty years. It will be a good destination when I get around to buying a bike. There are lots of bike paths all around town and there is one that goes from downtown all the way to the beach.

I guess this is a good time to say something about the unbelievably good weather we’ve had since we arrived. I checked Valencia’s weather online and the week before it had rained every day, to the point that there was serious flooding in some parts of the state. For the past few days it has been sunshine and shirt-sleeve weather. I don’t know whether or not this is unusual for this time of year. With all the walking that we’ve done, rain would have been an inconvenience. At this point I can probably get around on public transportation if rain forces me off the streets.

I have only been here for a few days but I am impatient to know everything that I need to know about how to live in Valencia. I think that I have done a pretty good job finding myself around town so far. The biggest problem is that all of the maps I have come across come in some varying shade of bad. Not so much bad as just “good enough for government work” that seem to have a more Latin attitude than the stoic German maps that will reflect every single feature, both natural and otherwise. Map or no map, walking around the maze-like streets of any European city is confusing at first—even with my trusty pocket compass. The good news is that I really don’t have anything better to do at this point than to wonder around in a semi-lost state and enjoy the beautiful architecture.

The newer neighborhoods seem to be built with the same disregard for through streets and any sort of coherent quadrant system as the ancient section of the city. It is as if the city blocks a put together like a stoned child putting together Leggo pieces. The trick is to take a new route every time you leave home. When I am walking around downtown I just need to head towards the Jardin del Turia for orientation.

My linguistic orientation is also in the embryonic stage. I read two Spanish newspapers cover-to-cover on the flight over so I think that my Spanish is pretty good. I can hold a good conversation about literature or politics in Spanish, but it is the little details about the language that I need to learn. It doesn’t help living in a city where almost all of the street signs are in Catalan. Everyone speaks Spanish and most of the television is also in Spanish. I watched a comedy show the other evening that was in Catalan and I was able to follow along fairly well. I know that I’ll get there but I am as impatient to perfect my Spanish as I am to learn the lay-out of my new home.

I guess what this first letter is about is my initial feelings for my new home. I chose Valencia almost completely at random. I passed through this city on my first trip to Europe when I was 19 and I only spent a couple of days. I have a very vague memory of the train station and the Mercado de Colon from that previous visit. I figured from the beginning that if I didn’t like it here I could go somewhere else. During my first few hours in Valencia I entertained that notion several times. After a few short days I have come to believe that Valencia is more beautiful and interesting than I could have hoped for when I was doing my research. I am enjoying every minute so far but I know that it will be a lot more interesting and rewarding as I get to know this place better and as my Spanish improves.

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