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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.

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