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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Brother, can you spare some long underwear?

Brother, can you spare some long underwear?
It’s not the cold; it’s the humidity.

Without meaning to offend the friends and family of anyone who may have actually frozen to death, I am going to describe the weather here as bitter cold. Now, if you look at the actual forecasts for Valencia you will see that it has been in the 60s almost every day, with the lows in the low 50s. That’s pretty warm, but that’s if where you live you have any sort of insulation in your home. The beautiful parquet floors, which are like a solid slab of marble and which keep these places cool during the hot summers, actually conduct the chill right up into your bones. It’s like the opposite of insulation, it’s like anti-insulation.

I have a theory—a theory I hope to never prove—that the floors are so cold in my apartment that my tongue would stick to them. I have a little electric space heater in the living room but that thing is about as effective at keeping me warm as someone trying to do the same with a cigarette lighter during a Mount Everest blizzard. Nanook of the North, Scott of the Antarctic, make room in the igloo for John of Valencia. God, an igloo sounds so warm and cozy right now with a nice whale blubber fire burning in the hearth, or whatever the hell igloos have instead of a hearth.

Instead of sissy shit like insulation and central heat, I have the Spanish equivalent: brandy. Some people here will get a little brandy in their morning coffee, called a café tocado, or “touched” coffee. If the temperature keeps falling I may start the day with a brandy “touched” with coffee. Without meaning to offend the friends and family of anyone crippled by alcoholism, I am going to make a coffee and brandy right now.

It is a little after five in the afternoon and although it is still light for another hour or so, the sun has cowardly set behind the buildings to the south of mine, like a geeky kid with glasses hiding from the neighborhood bully. Who would have thought that the powerful Spanish sun that attracts so many visitors to the beaches here in the summer would now quiver in its boots at the sight of a 98 pound weakling? It is so cold that I am calling the celestial body that makes possible all life on this planet, the sun, a pussy.

Either the sun needs to butch up a little bit or I have to, and that ain’t happening, not when it comes to being cold. I can take a lot of pain. Without meaning to offend anyone tortured at Abu Gharib, I just don’t see what’s so bad about water boarding. I love water, bring it on. Isn’t it a bit like bogey boarding? Being menaced by guard dogs? I love dogs. Just turn on the heat already, I’ll tell you anything you want to know.

Right now I am trying to conjure up the hottest day that I have ever experienced. I am doggedly attempting to recapture how uncomfortable I was on that day, sitting in the blistering sun. Perhaps it was in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, or in the Amazon basin. That memory is as fond to me now as a child’s first Christmas. I would take away the memory of the first Christmas of every kid on the planet if it would raise the temperature in my apartment ten degrees. Sorry kids, and I’ll take that blanket, too. For you it’s just a security thing, I’m freezing to death over here. Grow up already! While we’re at it I’ll also take those cute slippers that look like rabbits.

It is summer in Argentina right now. They speak Spanish there, right? Before I book this flight let me just check the weather forecast for the weekend. It is supposed to get up to 69 degrees on Sunday. I can’t freaking wait. I have been as cold as a stone for over a week. The only time I am warm is when I am in bed, in a hot shower, or at this kebab place around the corner where the ovens heat the place up nice and cozy. Beers are cheap there so it kind of works out on several levels.

Maybe they will let me shower over at the kebab joint, because although my shower is good and hot, once I turn off the water the real agony begins. I actually screamed it was so painful this morning. It’s not like I need to shower. It is so cold that my body doesn’t secrete anything. Nope, all my pores are slammed shut like the front door when a Jehovah’s Witness walks up to the house.

So if you come by my apartment and I’m not home, go over to the kebab place. I’ll be standing as close as I possibly can to the oven that roasts the meat, waiting for spring.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Making the Rounds: Grocery Shopping

Making the Rounds

A: Grocery Shopping

After less than two months I feel that I am really starting to settle in to life in Spain. Local politics, football, and entertainment are all becoming less mysterious. I eat Spanish food. I drink Spanish wine, and in moderation, oddly enough—it’s the way here. I shop like they do: almost every day and in several different stores. Daily shopping is a ritual in Spain, as it is in many European countries. The architecture has been tailored to cater to the needs of the little two-wheeled shopping baskets that the Spanish drag around on their daily pilgrimage. Places that are still waiting for wheelchair access already have the steeper little ramps that accommodate these carts.

For the odds and ends you go to the chain grocery stores, which in my case is the Mercadona across the street from my building, and when I say “across the street” I mean that it is about twenty steps away (see the photo on left). There is another large, chain grocery store on the next block. I haven’t been in that one yet because it is too far away. OK, I’ll get off my lazy ass and go check it out right now.

It’s called Caprabo and I don’t like it very much and not just because there is an easy anagram in there for crap. It is in the middle of the next block which is just too far for me, and get this, you can’t enter through the Pol y Peyrolón side, which is my street. You have to walk around the block to the Avenida Cardenal Benlloch to enter. At my Mercadona you can enter through both sides. What the hell? Am I supposed to go on some kind of walk-about every time I need a bottle of wine?

What cracks me up about these chain outlets is that they all have garage parking for their customers. I don’t see how anyone in Valencia, and certainly not in my neighborhood, could live more than about three blocks away from the store that they would ever need to drive.

My Mercadona has a butcher and fresh seafood counter. There is also a lot of prepackaged meat and seafood. I like that you can buy a whole rabbit or a pig’s head. I have spent most of my adult life living near the sea; I have spent a lot of time swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving; yet there are a lot of terrifying creatures for sale in the seafood markets of Valencia that quite possibly could have changed my whole opinion about the deep. They have shrimp here as big as Jack Russell terriers and would scare the living shit out of me if I ever were to come face-to-face with one underwater (Do shrimp have faces?).

Because Spanish people like to eat Spanish food you can get prepared items like tortillas (the Spanish variety made with eggs) and a lot of the other items that you will see at a typical tapas bar. I like the little croquetas that you deep fry. These are little breaded balls of pork, chicken, or cheese. They have frozen packets of vegetables for making paella. They have prepackaged fresh vegetable medleys for making soups. All of the fruits and vegetables here are packaged and priced, not bulk like in American markets. I don’t buy fruits and vegetables here, however.

The Mercadona (or at whatever chain store where you choose to shop) is a good place to buy rice, oil, dried beans, spices, beer, wine, detergent, paper products, milk, and cheese. These places have the lowest prices on all of these items.

For vegetables and fruit you go to a verduraría, or green grocer. For bread there are several bakeries in my neighborhood. I tend to frequent the places where people made an effort to be nice to me—and this is really most places. I am slowly making my way through all of the different bread choices at my bakery. I buy pastries there just to be polite.

There are several meat markets in my neighborhood. I bought a beautiful whole chicken that I baked last night. From the looks of its wonderful yellow skin, I would bet that my chicken was walking around as free as a bird no later than yesterday.

For olives I have to walk a few blocks over to the Mercat d’Algirós; you can’t get good olives at the grocery store. I am partial to the cracked olives and the big gordales variety. It’s well worth the short walk and I love any excuse to go to the market located on the little Plaza San Felipe Neri. I will stop for a coffee at the sunny little café across the street before I wade into the crowded market. The woman at the olive stall will let me sample as many olives as I want—more than I want usually. I always buy quite a lot of olives and it never seems to be enough. I have to go to the Mercat d’Algirós again this morning.

I think that I have mentioned this place before but I have another stop on my rounds for provisions. There is a Pakistani grocery store that I think is networked into the whole Pakistani mafia here. The Pakistanis seem to have cornered the internet/phone service kiosks that are in every neighborhood, much like the Chinese have a monopoly on those crazy mini Wal-Mart stores. I go to the Pakistani grocery for dried beans and exotic spices. I bought some hot chili powder and after I opened it the first time it made the entire apartment smell like a spicy curry dish. I had to buy an airtight plastic container for the remainder.

I guess that it goes without saying that I have been cooking a lot. I won’t bore you with listing everything I have cooked this week but I’ll describe my breakfast this morning. I made a tortilla yesterday which is the Spanish variety made with potatoes and eggs. I made a sandwich (bocadito) of this on fresh French bread and drizzled with my infused oil. I will leave you with this easy recipe.

Mediterranean Oil

2 cups olive oil (mine tastes really green and almost sweet)
2 tbl sp minced garlic
2 tbl sp grated parmesan cheese
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
Pinch of oregano
Salt and pepper
A couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary (It grows everywhere here, just like in Seattle.)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Enjoy Your Days Off

The holidays are fairly low level here in Spain. There are certainly traces of the consumerist orgy that Christmas has become in the United States, but those voices are being shouted down by the Spanish populace too busy going about their lives to give much notice. People buy a few presents but I don't think anyone goes off the deep end. The most popular decoration is a Santa doll climbing up a rope ladder that people hang from their balconies. I’ve seen little kids dressed up as Santa, I’ve seen a string of lights or two hanging from apartment balconies, there may even be a Nativity scene on display in a public area, and people take the day off (except the immigrants), but Christmas here doesn’t have a fraction of the grotesque hysteria it has acquired in America. I don’t think that it ever will.

The big thing here is the Christmas lottery with the drawing held a few days before the big day. The drawing is called The Day of Health because if you aren’t “touched” by the lottery people say that you have your health. The drawing is on just about every TV channel. Little kids in school uniforms chanting the prizes to be given out draw the numbers. There are interviews on the streets with people who hope to win and the lucky few who have already won something. It is impossible to miss the spectacle. Everywhere you go the TV is tuned to the lottery. I didn’t play; I don’t gamble.

After the lottery, Christmas simply came and went. Except for most people taking the day off it wasn’t a very big deal. I heard a bit of holiday music, but it didn’t start in November and it certainly wasn’t ubiquitous. All of the little Chinese mini Wal-Marts had decorations for sale—they sell everything. Almost every one of them had these really annoying electronic toys that play electronic holiday music. If I was in one of those stores for over 15 minutes the noise was enough to drive me crazy. That’s kind of how I feel about holiday music in America that starts at Thanksgiving and lasts until January 2nd. The whole idea of Christmas annoys me like those shitty little Chinese-made, electronic toys. I can’t wait for the batteries to die sometime during the first week of the New Year.

If you do believe that Jesus is your savior, I don’t see how you couldn’t be incredibly offended by what goes on in his name during the holiday season. The ridiculous commercial juggernaut that has become absolutely crucial to the American retail economy is a hell of a lot less respectful of your God than anything that I have ever written. I would have to say that about 99% of what goes on during the holidays hasn’t a single thing to do with religion. Trees, Santa, elves, reindeer, presents, decorations, wreaths, are all just items up for sale. It is absurd to think that anyone could find spirituality in any of that, and if they did we couldn’t possibly respect them for it.

I think that it is up to atheists to stand up and speak out against this commercialization of the holidays. Christians themselves don’t seem to feel any repugnance to all of the garishness that goes on in their savior’s name, so it may as well be the non-believers to put a little dignity back into this holiday.

I don’t know how we are supposed to go about this task other than professing our disbelief. I am not a Christian and although I grew up in a Christian household, I never was. I never believed in any of it but I had the most difficulty getting my little six year old mind around that impossible concept of hell. I never believed that a person would be made to pay for their sins in this fleeting existence for all of eternity. From that point of departure the other teachings of the church melted like a snowman on a summer day.

I was watching a panel discussion about the nature of religion and God with leading clerics from many religions. It struck me that no one can possibly know anything about God so listening to these people’s superstitions would be about as rewarding as listening to some stoner’s view on the universe—it is completely without merit and a waste of a rational person’s time.

About the only thing good that I can say about Christmas is that a lot of people have the day off. I can drink to that.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Spain by Bike

I finally broke down and bought a bicycle the other day. I decided on a cycle-cross model. I have always wanted a cycle-cross bike just because I think they look cool. I could really never justify one in the past, if not for the price then for the fact that I already had three bikes in a rather small apartment in Seattle. When you have zero bikes in your personal stable, room to store one is not an issue. I have never really had a use for these bikes which are a blend of mountain and racing bike.

I figured that a cycle-cross bike would be the best compromise for a guy who would probably be forced to live with only a single bike. I got an Obrea Eibar Sport, a Spanish-made bike that was certainly the best deal I found for the money. I couldn’t find anything used and I just ran out of time. I was sick of walking everywhere and needed a vehicle for my workouts. I brought over a bit of gear from my past cycling life in Seattle. I had a set of clip-in mountain bike pedals, shoes, tools, a hydration pack, and some clothing.

As soon as I rode away from the shop with my new toy I started to second-guess my decision. I could have gone for the model without the front suspension. A stiffer ride is preferable in most situations because more energy goes into propulsion because the suspension absorbs a lot of your work. I should have gone for street tires instead of the thin off-road rubber I chose. Maybe I should have gone for a straight racing bike model?

For me first serious ride I put on the clip-on pedals, filled up my water pack, and rode down to explore the new port that was built mostly to host the 32nd America’s Cup to be held here. I was able to scope out the whole area in about a half an hour—something that I would have never done on foot. From here I headed north.

There is a bike path that goes the entire length of Valencia’s waterfront. Instead of taking the bike trail I opted for the dedicated bus lane where I wouldn’t have to slow down for pedestrians or little kids trying out their new Christmas bikes. The only thing I had to worry about in the bus lane where buses. I figured that I could outrun most of them. I got to the north end of Valencia and turned down a narrow access road. The signs said there was no exit—at least not for cars.

At the end of this road there is a small nature park adjacent to the water. There is a pedestrian bridge over an small estuary lagoon that I rode over. On the other side the paved road was gone and in its place was a muddy dirt road. As the road went from bad to worse and I picked my way over ruts and mud puddles I felt completely vindicated in my bike choice.

I continued on this path until I reached the next little beach town north of Valencia. It isn’t the absolute most charming village I’ve come across in the Mediterranean basin, but for a day ride it wasn’t bad. The road north from here really turned to shit and I was even more pleased with my new bike.

I plan on doing a bit of bike touring here in Spain and possibly the south of France. I certainly don’t ever want to ride on the highways here as people drive too fast. This means I will limit myself to smaller paved roads and dirt and gravel paths.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Things I Love About Spain

- I love how they have a picture of a whole dead pig in the grocery store newspaper advertisements.

- I love that people always—always—say “hello" when they see you in your building.

- I love that people stand up in bars and will go to the equivalent of a walk-up drive-thru window for coffee.

- When you leave a restaurant or bar you always say, “Hasta luego.”

- That Sporting events sometimes start at 10 p.m.

- That restaurants are empty until 10:30 on weekend nights, and then fill up to rugby scrum proportions after that.

- There is a whole world in a single city block. Life here is so intensely urban, even more so than downtown Seattle.

- That people will sit outside in a café even if it’s a bit chilly. Tonight an old lady asked me if she could have the outside table I was about to seat myself at. She said that she liked to rest her feet on the cement block under the table that is used to weight down the umbrella. When I started to sit down on the other side of the table she asked me if we didn’t speak the same language. I told her in Spanish that I thought that she meant that we would share the table. She laughed and said that she had friends showing up who wouldn’t understand. I moved over to the next table.

- People eat olives all the time

- That every cup of coffee you get here is incredible

- That every cup of coffee costs less than 1.50€

(to be continued)

Friday, December 15, 2006

Not Keen on Travel

I go to the public library in downtown Valencia almost every day. I like the old building. I like the park around it with its Corinthian columns in various stages of disrepair. I really love the cafes that fill the quiet street in front of the library. The shaded sidewalk is wide enough to accommodate two rows of tables where students drink coffee and eat tapas while pedestrians stroll past into the heart of the old city.
If I’m going to the library I usually will take the metro from where I live. I get on at the Aragón stop and get off at Angel Guimerà. When I pop up above ground I’m only about two blocks from the where I´m going. With a metro card, one trip costs only .50€. You can almost always get a seat on this line, unless you are going early in the morning or traveling at around 5 p.m. From my apartment to the library is about 30 minutes total.

I am used to drinking larger American coffees so I will brew a pot of espresso at home. I had to buy a bigger coffee maker yesterday as the one we had only makes a half a cup at a time. My new monster makes a cup and a half. This is enough to keep me civil, at least until I can get another coffee somewhere in transit.

Take your pick of places to grab a quick coffee, they are everywhere. I always stand or sit at the bar for my morning cortado. I find a newspaper in the stack at the end of the bar and read the morning news while eavesdropping on everyone around me. Through my snooping I learn little things about how to order, what to order, how to address the staff, and how to politely ask for the check. I learn about prices and menu items. It’s all a great bargain for the 1€ I pay for the coffee.

As I’ve mentioned before, I always have a newspaper with me when I am ambling around town. On the metro, a newspaper helps me to blend in with the other commuters. With each time I walk down into the tunnel I feel more like I belong here and less like a bewildered tourist. You really know when you are becoming acclimated to a new city when you know which street exit at each metro station to take to get you closer to your destination. If you know the transit system well enough here you can land just about anywhere in town with smart bomb precision. Yesterday I was looking for a bike shop in an unfamiliar area of town and when I surfaced from the metro I was only two blocks away.

The process of becoming familiar with a new place means that you stick out from the crowd less and less. Everyone claims that they strive to be different, but we all know that isn’t true. We like to blend in, whether it be with the masses or those in our peer group. I am striving to be accepted. It’s a full-time job and I am working hard at it. I have the vocabulary lists I am learning to prove it.

For this reason I don’t like travel, or I should say that I don’t like travel nearly as much as what I am in the process of doing now. I prefer to hunker down in one spot and try to live in a manner as close as possible to the local populace. I prefer staying in apartments to living in hotels; I prefer to cook the local fare at home to dining in restaurants; and I much prefer speaking the local language than trying to find people who speak my language.

I also prefer to see life in a foreign land through the perspective of the people who live there instead of judging them by the standards of where I’m from. That seems like an almost not-worth-mentioning bit of common sense, especially for experienced travelers.

I remember when I first saw the cover of Paul Theroux’s book, The Pillars of Hercules, a memoir of a trip he took around the Mediterranean. I was at a small local library in south Florida at around the time the book was released and I thought to myself, “Damn, that should be my book.” I had been practically raised on Theroux’s travel books, starting with The Great Railway Bazaar. More than Theroux's books, I just love the genre of travel writing, although I think that I have read everything that he has written. With detractors like me, who needs non-detractors?

At the Valencia public library I happened upon The Pillars of Hercules completely by accident. I couldn’t resist picking it up and reading it again since I was now living in the country where he begins his travels around the Mediterranean Sea. I also remembered that his travel writing always has somewhat of a dour tone, as if he suffers constantly from diarrhea when he is on the road.

Talk about finding the rough in the diamond, he barely had a single, even mildly pleasant thing to say about Spain. He goes on for pages about the brutality of bullfighting. I have never been to a bullfight although I have traveled quite a bit in Spain and Latin America. I may go to one here, and I may not. I really don’t think that it is for me. I also know that I am not a vegetarian which means that animals die to feed me. I certainly wouldn’t go to a couple of bullfights, then presume to understand what it is all about, and to judge others who follow this ritual. He actually mocks Hemingway for having enjoyed bullfighting so I won’t feel guilty mocking Theroux.

After bitching and whining about practically everything he sees, eats, and hears in Spain Theroux seems charmed by the company at a party he is fortunate enough to attend in Barcelona. He praises the witty conversation of this eclectic band of artists, philosophers, professors, and other intellectuals, but give him more than a couple of minutes and he is sure to see a down side. “It was a bright, cliquey, old-fashioned, unself-conscious gathering of people, neither fashionable nor wealthy, but all of them talented—and, incidentally, every person at the table was smoking a cigarette.” Why in the name of hell would he feel obliged to point this out? But this is a guy who didn’t like the food in Spain.

Later in the book he has almost nothing good to say about Greece. He says their beaches are dirty. I lived in Greece for three years but I don’t remember the dirty beaches. I was too busy enjoying all of the beautiful ones. I could find negative things to write about while I’m in Valencia but I won’t. This isn’t from the “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” school. This is about making the most of where you are. It is easier to mock things that you don’t fully understand than to educate yourself so that you do.

In order to figure out the mysteries of new places you have to stay put for a while—the longer the better. I have never believed in the adage “if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything,” but if you don’t understand something, saying something negative just sounds ridiculous to me. I think it is much more interesting for me to write knowledgeably about how great the food is here than for someone to complain about it in a state of almost complete ignorance. Even in the most modest of Spanish restaurants I can find something good to eat and drink. The longer I stay, the more I get to know a particular place, the deeper my appreciation grows for it. This is true of every place I have ever been. There are a few where I may have stayed too long in my life, for whatever the reasons might have been. Most of the places where I have traveled, and have sometimes made my home, I have not stayed long enough.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Els Nostres Menjars (continued)

When Valencianos speak about “their” food, they are speaking in a very literal sense. Everything (almost everything) they eat they either farm,, fish, raise, hunt, or forage themselves. Of course, this is easier to do when you live in one of the most bountiful regions in the world. It would be difficult for me to imagine any other area that has such a wide variety of food coupled with an excellent climate.

Valencia is known as the breadbasket of Spain. Just take a walk through one of the markets in town and this will be pretty obvious. There is a smaller version of the Mercado Central near where I live in the tiny Plaza San Felipe Neri called Mercat Alguiros. I am gradually working up the nerve to shop here more often. Not only am I battling a bit of a language barrier but also a lot of little old Spanish ladies who don’t have time for some thumb-sucking, bed-wetting American who can’t decide on what kind of olives he wants. My favorite strategy is to wait in line and listen to the person in front of me. When my time comes I just parrot what they ordered. The first time I did this I ended up buying a kilo of pork—a lot for one person and probably more than my heart can handle since I don’t have a bicycle right now to help keep all the valves open and running.

And speaking of breadbaskets, you are rarely of of sight of bakeries in Valencia. My favorite bread is a loaf called and aldeano (village) that I buy from the bakery below my apartment. If that place is closed (and it almost always is closed) I walk over to the corner and get a regular loaf (barra). I found a place in the neighborhood that is open on Sundays so now my biggest challenge is not eating bread. This is difficult to do when you are also ingesting upwards of two quarts of olive oil every day.

In other parts of Spain I remember the bread being almost universally bad; this was also the case in Greece. Bread in these places was hit or miss with a lot of misses. Getting bad bread in Valencia is even rarer than drinking a bad glass of wine. I have yet to complain about the wine and I almost always praise the bread.

I remember back in leaner times when I would go without all but the most basic of spices. With a medicine-size bottle of cumin costing almost five dollars, sometimes the chili would have to be a little bland. Even though I arrived here on a very strict budget, my kitchen is already up-and-running with every spice that I can think of, and many more I didn’t even know existed until I learned their names in Spanish. All of those same small bottles now cost less than one dollar each.

In all of the places that sell kitchen supplies there are condiment containers with the names written on them. I bought a thing for azúcar or a sugar bowl. Like most of the others for sale, it is a modest little affair that holds about a half a cup. I guess you don’t need a lot of sugar close at hand when you drink such tiny little cups of coffee. Salt is a completely different story. Most of the countertop containers for keeping salt handy when you cook hold about two cups of this condiment, called the flavor of flavors over here. Forget about salt shakers, they are too wimpy for kitchen use.

At the little Indian bodega in my neighborhood I can buy a huge thing of chili powder for 1€, whole coriander seeds, turmeric, and curry powder. I buy stuff here that I may never use just because I can and it makes me feel more like a well-rounded cook for doing it.

In his book Dictionnaire amoureux de la cuisine, Alain Ducasse calls olive oil the most beautiful of his culinary tools. Olive oils are like wines in their complexity and how they give testament to the soil and the regions that produce them. Once again, this kitchen condiment is like a Spanish birthright. It is inexpensive and plentiful. I bought a one liter bottle of extra virgin olive oil for 2.65€. I don’t know whether olive oil is inexpensive in Spain because they use so much of it or they use so much of it because it is inexpensive, but they use a lot of it. You will be hard-pressed to find a dish in which it isn’t used with extreme liberty. In even the most prosaic circumstances, the Spanish will use to verb Untar (to anoint) when describing how they use this essential ingredient.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Els Nostres Menjars

As if I’m not already up to my eyelids (Párpados) in one language, I just got a couple of beautiful books in Valenciano shoved in front of me. Els Nostres Menjares (our cuisine), by Martí Domínguez is one of the most definitive books on the cooking of this region of Spain. I have touched briefly on the subject of Valenciano, the language spoken here in the state of Valencia, and I’m sure this will be a recurring theme as I learn more about the dialect. It is impossible to ignore because most public signs are posted in Valenciano. I am still not able to differentiate between Valenciano and Catalán. One thing at a time, or at least no more than two things at a time.

I have also mentioned that everyone here speaks Spanish as well as Valenciano. Spanish is taught in schools along with the local dialect. Spaniards are rather proud of the fact that their inhabitants speak languages other than Spanish. In fact, Spanish here is almost always referred to as Castellano, or Castilian, to differentiate it from Catalán, Valenciano, Gallegos, and Euskadi (the Basque language).

Allow me to translate from the Valenciano introduction to the cookbook of Martí Domínguez. “Cooking is one of the most important physiological functions of man, without nourishment, life cannot continue, and the way in which he does it gives testimony to the individual and to the collective society. It is an important ethnographic standard of each individual community.”

I would say that language is an equally important sociological function of man and as I learn more about Valenciano I will better understand this region. This cookbook is a great anthropological study of the region, not only for the recipes, but also for the full-page color photographs that chronicle the bounty of Valencian food and the traditional cookware used to prepare it.

I brought home a new paella pan that I picked up at one of the stalls outside of the central market. I had used the same kind of pan at my other apartment. The pans are inexpensive and well constructed. They are made of non-stick steel and seem to be made to last forever. I was told that these pans are “modern,” not exactly a bad word but not completely trustworthy either. Traditional Valencianos prefer to use cast iron paellas which tend to burn the rice on the bottom giving the dish a distinctive flavor.

Another common item in Valencian cooking is the use of earthenware ceramic dishes for baking. These are also on sale at every market and Chinese variety store. In Els Nostres Menjares, just about every dish is displayed in either a cast iron paellera or an earthenware dish. How the food is cooked is as important as the dishes being served and the language used to describe it.

But to call cooking and language merely functions of life does them an injustice; there are more like art forms. Cooking is a sort of combined art and to the people of Valencia, as with almost all Spaniards, the pig is the summa artis, the highest art of flavors. If the Eskimos have 2,000 words for “snow,” then Spaniards have at least that many ways to make a pig fit for consumption. The most creative way of dealing with pork, which combines an endless combination of spices, along with a mixture of the noblest and most modest sections of the animal, is found in sausage, or el embutido.

When I asked my barber, Carlos, why you don’t see a lot of hams hanging in cafes like you do in other parts of Spain, he said it was because they were too smart. He considered the Spanish hams to be an extravagance, and that it was more frugal to stick with only those parts of the animal that can be eaten. Leave the hooves and bones at the butcher shop. It’s not that jamon ibérico cannot be found here, but you see a lot more sausages, such as morcillas (blood sausage), loganiza, and chorizo. Needless to say, there isn’t much going to waste when it comes to a Spanish pig.

When I got to the library this morning the place was almost completely full. I needed a table next to a power outlet and I finally found a place at a table surrounded on three sides by cookbooks. This was quite a coincidence seeing that I had begun this essay earlier today at home. One of the treasures that I came across was A Cooking Lover’s Dictionary by Alain Ducasse translated into Spanish from the French Dictionnaire amoureux de la cuisine. I don’t know if this is available in English but it is a great read and a fine way to spend a good part of an afternoon, especially when you are planning a big meal in the evening featuring a host of Mediterranean staples.

I just noticed that there is even a little sign above this area of the library that says in Valenciano, El Racó de la Cuina. I didn’t even have to use my new Valenciano-Castilian dictionary to tell me that means “The Kitchen Corner,” although in these languages the word for kitchen is also the word for the art of preparing food.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Maps and Newspapers

I take a seat and order a 1€ cup of coffee and dig a 2€ El País Sunday edition out of a stack of abandoned newspapers at the bar (At least I think they are abandoned; maybe I’m stealing.). I read this Madrid daily whenever I find it lying around. I have yet actually to buy a newspaper here, not when I can swipe one when I stop in some place for a coffee. The classier places mount their papers on a stick like at the library. You can’t swipe the papers at the classy places. I avoid the classy places.

Besides improving my Spanish, reading—or just carrying—a newspaper helps me to disguise myself as someone other than a casual tourist. I notice that if I’m walking down the street with a paper in my hand I am much more likely to be asked directions. You would think that a tourist carrying a map would be a more appropriate candidate to give directions. They do have a map, after all, but a newspaper gives you instant authority. Lost people carry maps; people in-the-know have a newspaper under their arm. I keep my map hidden. Maybe I should hide it inside the paper?

I’m not as lost these days as before as I make my way around Valencia, at least not physically. Culturally I’m still stumbling around, feeling my way with arms outstretched and my ears open. The newspaper is a sort of map for the cultural maze in which I now live. I read a wonderful essay by Elvira Lindo in Sunday’s El País that answered my question about the two holidays of this past week and also matters relating to the Spanish attitude towards taking vacations.

The author lives in New York and the subject of her essay was the temporary inhabitants of her sleeper-sofa, Spaniards who have cobbled together a week’s vacation out of a couple of days off for holidays. They call it a “bridge” when a week off is built around a weekday holiday. This week was the holidays of The Constitution and The Immaculate. The author pointed out that even her fellow countrymen who believe in neither, and can agree on almost nothing, are of the same mind when it comes to “bridges.” Ir de puente (to go on a bridge) means to bridge an entire week of vacation across a midweek holiday. Elvira says that a Spaniard doesn’t emigrate, he goes on a bridge.

I should translate the entire essay. It was one of the most enjoyable pieces I have read so far in Spain. I felt like I have been let in on a secret. It seems like I see things a little clearer now, like after you look at a map of where you are going and you say to yourself, “Oh yeah, now I get it.” A map or a newspaper can save you a lot of head scratching, a lot of time stumbling around lost, and they can also open places and things you may have never learned through experience.

I don’t use my map very much these days. My compass has gone back to being just a decoration on my keychain. My dictionary I still carry with me most of the time when I leave the house. I write down in a little notebook every word that I look up. I did the same thing back in college with English words whose meanings I didn’t know. I remember years later coming across these words that I had written down on index cards. I shuffled through the deck of vocabulary and I found it amusing to think that there was a time when these native words were foreign to me.

I am trying hard to immediately absorb these new Spanish words. I will flip through my notebook while I ride the bus. It helps when after I look up a new word I come across another reference to it somewhere else. This happened this morning as I watched the news and saw a reference to the Puente Festivo, something that would have been completely foreign to me without Elvira Lindo’s article that I had just read.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Otra Fiesta

It turns out that Friday was some sort of holiday, too. I screwed my back up a bit so I was just planning on kicking back at home most of the day anyway. I needed a few things for something that I was cooking, however, so I was a bit disappointed when I saw that the big Mercadona grocery store across the street was closed. They are like Denny’s except replace “Always Open” with “We’re Closed Whenever We Feel Like It.”

Just like the holiday on Wednesday, the only things open were those businesses run by the immigrants. I mentioned the little variety stores run by the Chinese. There seems to be at least one on every block. There are at least five of them within one block of where I live. It is absolutely amazing to me how much stuff they pack into these little stores. Since I just arrived and I need everything, the Chinese 1 euro stores have been a godsend.

They aren’t really 1 euro stores, but some of them advertise themselves this way. They seem to be the Spanish answer to Wal-Mart. They have toys, clothes, school supplies, kitchen stuff, cleaning products, hardware, pet supplies, and way too many other things to list. The only difference is that in these stores you don’t see morbidly obese women in stretch stirrup pants. It’s a good thing, too, because as narrow as the aisles are, they would seriously jeopardize the inventory. I will list some of the stuff I have picked up at the 1 euro stores with the prices.

Coffee Maker -10.5€ (shitty, it leaks)
Speakers for my laptop 15.€ (pretty kick ass for the money)
Juicer -1.5€
Big coffee cup -.70€
Serrated knife -1.50€
Various sizes of Tupperware knock-offs
Bathroom scrub brush -2.€
Coat hangers -2.0€
Q-tips -.70€
Vegetable rack -7.0€
Shipping container full of immigrants ready to work –Priceless

Ok, I’m just kidding about that last item but wouldn’t that be a time-saver?

Will I ever get tired of the 1 euro stores? As amazing and convenient as they are, there is a downside, a seamy underbelly. Like the really fucking annoying Christmas decorations that play tunes. Yesterday as I was shopping I was subjected to a constant barrage of a one foot (.32 meter, the metric system is a little too prosaic fo print) Santa Claus belting out these notes: do do do, do do do, do dee do do do, do do do, do dee do do, do dee do do do dee do.* I looked all over the store for the baseball bats so I could take Santa out, but the game hasn’t really caught on over here and it’s hard to silence an obnoxious Santa with a soccer ball.

The euro stores usually have security cameras and there is always an ancient Chinese woman about four feet tall who stands vigil and follows you with an imperious stare that practically screams out, “Don’t even think about shoplifting, fucko.” Like I would risk getting banned from this paradise by shoving a hairdryer down my pants? I’m in this for the long haul, little old, mean-looking Chinese lady.

Usually I try to write a minimum amount of words for the day’s essay, and a lot of this was made up of prices and notes to a Christmas song, but I’m heading out to go shopping. The stores are open today and the 1 euro stores don’t sell wine.

*Jingle Bells

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Strung-Out Runaway Loses Eye in Orgy Mishap

Did you see that headline in today’s newspaper? It’s not all fun and games after all. The group sex thing isn’t quite so appealing now is it, Mr. Hot Rocks? Eye gougings happen a lot more often than the people who make porn flicks want you to believe. As far as they are concerned, it’s just endless amounts of joyous hole stuffing. The last thing they want you to know is that, with alarming frequency, one of the orifices being serviced is someone’s eye socket, and it doesn’t end there.

Face facts, orgies are extraordinarily dangerous. It’s hot and sweaty, and there’s a lot of lube—both natural and man-made. Slippery kills; or at least slippery can be uncomfortable and hugely embarrassing. I don’t care how many Playmates are attending your orgy, it ain’t worth it if you are bent over sticking your tongue in Miss Novemeber’s ear and you get bent over accidentally by some clumsy hillbilly who only got invited because of the size of his penis. It’s dark. Did I mention that? You are running a lot of risks in your quest to cop the perfect nut. The nut being copped could be right in your own blow hole, my friend.

Your insurance probably doesn’t even cover traumatic eye injury due to wayward intercourse. Forget about Blue Shield paying for your therapy after Lester inadvertently plows you like a wheat field in spring. If your employer even thought that you were engaging in group sex, they would drop you from their health plan faster than you can drop your pants around your ankles.

Even a threesome presents a variety of safety issues that you may want to consider, even after you have poured a half dozen cosmopolitans into your girlfriend and her old college roommate. Let’s be honest here, you are no Olympic gymnast at this point in your life. You could screw your back up trying to nail a perfect dismount. Leave that stuff for the experts.

Sexual relations with just a single partner can also lead to you being hauled away in an ambulance speeding towards the emergency ward. Perhaps you should just tone down your kinky sexual fantasies and consider the safety benefits of masturbation.

Better yet, just put that thing away. Unless you are wearing goggles and a fluorescent vest you could still do yourself some irrevocable harm. And I’m just talking about old-school jerking off. That new thing with the belt around your neck that all the kids are doing these days opens up a whole new can of safety worms. Do you need me to spell it out for you? You may think that an eye patch is a sexy accessory, but the loss of depth perception due to mono-vision will destroy your Grand Theft Auto score. As awful as it may seem, thinking about Whoopi Goldberg in a thong could be the safest thing you could possibly do.

Happy Holiday

Happy Holiday?

I remember going out to eat at a Chinese restaurant in Seattle’s International District a couple of years ago on Christmas day. All of the restaurant employees and most of the Chinese customers were carrying on as if this were just any other day of the year; and to them, people of a non-Christian heritage, it is just like any other day. We joked that no one had sent these people the memo that today was Christmas. Now I know exactly how they must feel.

Today is some damn Spanish holiday or other. I guess that I could find out but for today it is more fun to be completely ignorant. It is really quiet today, quieter than any day since I’ve been here. Just about everything is closed, the buses are running sporadically, and there are very few people out on the street. I could use a day off myself after moving.

Like the Chinese immigrants open on Christmas day in Seattle, about the only people not observing this holiday here in Spain are the immigrants. I bought a few things at an Indian market and next door I used the internet café, also run by Indians. The immigrants from the Indian subcontinent seem to run a lot of small grocery stores and kebab restaurants.

I was going to wait until tomorrow when things open up to do some shopping for things I need for the apartment until I came across a variety store run by some Chinese folks. They seem to have a monopoly on these stores. The place has just about every item that you need for the home all crammed into a space the size of about two dorm rooms. I bought some adapters for the plugs to my American electrical devices, some bathroom supplies, coat hangers (perchas is what they call them here), and a much bigger coffee maker than what is in the house.

This evening Real Madrid was playing Dynamo Kiev. I decided to check out a place I had walked by a few weeks ago when my brother was here called New York. I saw a couple days ago that they have a big screen TV and show all of the big football matches. I went there early in the first half and Madrid was already trailing 0-2. There were two female bartenders and about ten customers in the entire place. After being totally ignored for almost 15 minutes one of them finally took my order: a Heineken for 3.50E—the most expensive beer I think I’ve paid for in Spain. I won’t be back.

At the half-time break I walked closer to home and stopped in at La Ibérica, a café a half a block from home. I sat at the bar and ordered a caña. I was wearing an Argentine football jersey under my jacket. A waiter walked by and told me that I wasn’t allowed to wear that jersey in this establishment. I recognized his Argentine accent even before he told me that he was just kidding. He was from Buenos Aires and detested the club I was representing. I buttoned up my jacket to cover up the Club Athletic Boca Juniors jersey I had on just to be on the safe side.

La Ibérica was just beginning to fill up. I knew that Spaniards couldn’t spend the whole day at home. At the 84th minute of the match David Beckham made a brilliant corner kick and Ronaldo scored Madrid’s first goal. I turned to the African dude next to me at the bar and said that it was a little late in the game. He said that football was unpredictable and that it was always up for grabs. Sure enough, two minutes later Ronaldo was fouled and scored a beautiful penalty kick to tie the game.

When I asked the Argentine waiter what his favorite European team was and he said Barcelona, a round of hoots went up from the other people watching the game. When he asked me my favorite I was a lot more diplomatic in adamantly choosing Valencia CF. I may be from out of town but I am not stupid. I forgot to ask my new-found friends what the holiday was today.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Give Me My God Damned Coffee!

I woke up in my new place today, a little late because I had the blinds down and my room was as dark as pitch. I went to the grocery store to stock my kitchen yesterday. In fact, I made two trips. Why not? The supermarket is about twenty steps from the front door of my building. As soon as I woke up I realized that I forgot to buy coffee. I couldn’t find any coffee in the kitchen and the little espresso maker looks like it belongs to someone who doesn’t drink much coffee—at least not at home. I wasn’t panicking.

As I just said, the supermarket is only two skips away. I walked out on my balcony and almost let out a scream when I saw that it was closed. I figured there must be some holiday which would explain why there were about 200 people in the street below me last night at 4:30 a.m. I didn’t get the memo for the holiday. Then I noticed that the three cafes that I can see from my balcony were also closed.

I quickly got dressed and walked outside. The bakery on the corner was open so I was able to have a shot of coffee. Spanish take their coffee in diminutive doses: a cortado here, an espresso there. I’m sure by the end of the day it all adds up to the daily recommended amount, but I need a lot more coffee in the morning than what fits inside an espresso cup.

The Spanish also don’t like to linger over their coffee like we do in America; that’s why they often do it standing up at the bar. For this reason I didn’t want to sit at one place and throw back the five or six shots it was going to take to get my engine to turn over. I left the bakery and starting walking to the next café.

The next place I found was completely packed but next door there is a little grocery store run by some east Indians. Thank God no one gave the Indians the memo about the holiday. I found coffee and the mother lode of dried beans, rice, and spices. I would have loved to look around a little more thoroughly but I had to go home and shoot up. The Indian grocery store would be there in a few hours but I wasn’t going to last too long with so little coffee in my system. I decided against getting another cortado along the way back and went straight home.

I loaded up the tiny little espresso maker and put it on the stove. The stoves here don’t have pilot lights so you need to start them manually. The little lighter by the stove that serves this purpose was completely out of fuel and I couldn’t find any matches. This was really turning into a cruel joke. I considered breathing in the gas fumes while my mind raced through all of the ways I had learned to make fire—I did go to Air Force survival school, after all. It wasn’t pretty but I lit the hot water heater—which has it’s own pilot—and from that small flame I ignited the end of a piece of paper and then lit the stove. I was fairly proud of my Yankee ingenuity until I let the stove go out when I was fucking with the flame. I did finally make a bit of coffee, and then I repeated the whole process for another cup. I need a bigger coffee maker. I need a nap, or a drink.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Lessons Learned and Quickly Forgotten

In every language that I know, and in every country where I have lived, moving sucks. I though this one was going to be easy. All I have is what two people brought over on an airplane. Four checked bags weighing in at 50 pounds each and a couple of carry-on bags. I’m only moving about a mile away, if that. How hard could it be?

It turned out to be pretty hard. So much for the easy move, I don’t think there is such a thing. The problem is that I didn’t have enough vessels to hold all of my swag so I couldn’t just throw it all in a cab and be done with it. I ended up making about six trips with the heaviest part of each load in my backpack. Yesterday I made three trips back and forth. I didn’t feel like I needed a work-out after that.

I have only a few things now at the old place. I will miss this apartment. I was just beginning to get to know my way around and become recognized by some of the people in the area. Now I have a new couple of blocks to stake out.

The new place is somehow even more urban and concentrated than the area I’m leaving. Where before I had to walk a couple of blocks to the supermarket, now it is across the street. I have a café across the courtyard from my doorway and a bakery a few steps around the corner. There are at least a half dozen other cafes within one block. There is a metro stop about three blocks away. These are just the things that I know about now. I’m sure that a few short walks in different directions will uncover all kinds of treasures.

I will probably walk the three blocks to take the metro into to the downtown only to find a bus that will take me there that stops a half block from where I live.

There is an electronics shop on the corner of my block. I need a few things: a surge protector, some adaptors for the funky European plugs, and some speakers for my computer. I also need some coat hangars to help me get organized. I have to look that word up in the dictionary because I haven’t been able to find any through casual looking. I also want to pick up a history book about Valencia and a Valenciano grammar book that I was recommended.

I have put off buying anything of substance because I knew that I would be moving and I would have to carry it. Now I have a home base that I can start filling up with all of the junk that I jettisoned when I left Seattle. For my next move I’ll buy a wheelbarrow or a donkey. I’ve always wanted one of those.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Spy, Clown

If a voyeur is someone who clandestinely watches the actions of others, what would you call a person who compulsively eavesdrops on the conversations of strangers? An écouteur perhaps. Whatever you call it, I’ve become it. I feel like a spy as I stand at the counter of a café sipping my coffee and trying to understand what is being said around me. It’s not that I care what they are saying; I just care about being able to follow their conversations.

Just about every day I stop at a café right behind the bus stop. I order a cortado, a shot of espresso topped off with hot milk. I couldn’t even make a guess as to how many cortados are consumed in this country every day. The coffee is excellent everywhere and you can buy it everywhere. There is a sit-down café at the big grocery store by my house. There are probably five other cafes on the same block.

People wash in and out of cafes in waves throughout the day like tides. Crowds flow into the cafes in the morning for a coffee and flow out again to go to work. In the early afternoon the rush is on for another coffee or a caña, a small beer often served in a wine glass. From about 2-3 in the afternoon is the lunch hour. After 6 p.m. people start leaving work and usually take another coffee. From about 8 until late people stop by the cafes for beer, coffee, or coffee with brandy. I haven’t noticed many people drinking wine in the cafes as they do in other parts of Spain that I have visited.

The tapas hour that I grew accustomed to in Madrid, Sevilla, and Toledo is quite different here in Valencia. First of all you don’t see the Serrano hams hanging in the bars. Although they are sold everywhere here, it is not sold in cafes, at least not in the same way as in other parts. You won’t see dozens of hams hanging above the bars nor the special racks that mount the hams for easy carving.

The afternoon and early evening tapa hour that is positively frantic in Madrid, is barely noticeable in Valencia. There is no shortage of bars that have the same sort of tapa fare as they have in Madrid and elsewhere, but you won’t see the throngs of people scrumming the bar area of the restaurants. In truth, I am still trying to figure out the rhythms of Valencia.

It seems to me like every part of Spain has its own secret tide chart that dictates the rhythms of daily life. You can’t go wrong or look too out of place if you stick to drinking cortados and cañas. For a spy like me, the important thing is not to stick out; you have to try to blend in with the crowd.

When I speak Spanish it is impossible for me to blend in. I will always have an accent. Because I speak it imperfectly I find myself speaking in a more animated fashion, at least during short exchanges. I speak with a more sing-song cadence to my speak which I have found lets people know that although my Spanish is imperfect, I’m not retarded. In fact, I may even have a sense of humor. I had a coffee before I got on the bus today and I saw in the paper an article on nutrition. It had a graphic of the food pyramid. I told the girl at the cafe that my pyramid´s base is coffee, then beer and wine, next cigars, and finally pork. She didn´t laugh and asked me if that was all. She did laugh when I asked her if there was anything else.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Food and Travel for Everyone

According to recent figures, 20% of the Spanish population lies below the poverty level. This is about the same figure as the United States. Spain has come a long way in its effort to eliminate poverty and provide housing for their citizens while the United States is going in the opposite direction.

I mentioned before a cooking show that I have seen several times in which the host chef teaches people how to cook and entire meal and then we watch as they take this knowledge home with them to entertain their friends. We follow as the guests shop for the ingredients either in a big grocery store or their favorite street market. They bring everything they need home to their kitchens and prepare the meal.

I have seen my share of cooking programs in the States and they are almost always some version of yuppie culinary heaven. Martha Stewart provides more of a fantasy than an instructional guide. I think that most American cooking shows are more sophisticated than their Spanish counterparts, but the Spanish programs seem more geared to everyday life, meals that people would actually cook every day of the week.

My favorite part is when the guests begin cooking in their own kitchens. Every kitchen I have seen so far is an extremely modest affair—most aren’t even as nice as where I now live now. In Spain, almost everyone lives in an apartment. In Valencia I have yet to see a private home. I’m sure that there are lots of fantastic apartments in town, but most people live at pretty much the same level.

When the meal is prepared the guests and their guests sit down in their modest dining rooms to eat. This is how most Spanish live, in small apartments with small kitchens and dining room tables that seat four people. I can’t imagine many people could think that the way they live is inadequate from seeing these modest Spanish homes. This program isn’t about turning food into a symbol of status; it is about sharing with friends. During one segment I noticed the clock on the dining room wall. They were eating at the very Spanish hour of 12:30 at night.

As I write this a travel show came on the TV. A Spanish guy who speaks almost no English travels to London. Like other Europeans, the Spanish are very concerned with vacations and travel. They see these things as a right, like health care and housing. In the same report on Spanish poverty levels, there was also a statistic lamenting the fact the 40% of Spaniards can only afford one week of vacation a year.

The host of the travel show takes the viewers to all of the usual London attractions and at the same time he seems fairly obsessed with prices. Who isn’t concerned with prices when they travel? As a goof, he goes to the Savoy Hotel for tea at 60 Euros per person. He totally mocks the high life and soon ditches his Saville Row suit for blue jeans. He also makes fun of his tiny hotel room. His advice for visiting London: good shoes and a lot of money.

Once again, like the way food is presented in the cooking show, travel is shown not as some wild extravagance, but as an essential ingredient in life and should be available to everyone. This is a theme I will search out and explore.