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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The New News

Reading the newspapers here is a lot like trying to read them as a child. I often lack knowledge of the social context of the stories which means that I’m just reading words on a page. This is especially true when it comes to the local scene. International news is not a problem; it’s the same as in English. It’s almost impossible to avoid soccer news. It makes up a good portion of the daily newspapers. This is in addition to the several soccer dailies in circulation.

If I feel like keeping up with the war in Iraq I read the excellent Madrid daily, El País. From what I have read so far I’d say their in-depth coverage can only be matched by the New York Times. I read a feature about Sadr City from November 24 that was very gritty and descriptive. Americans would be well served to read a little more outside-the-green-zone reporting. After the horrible car bombings of November 23 in which over 150 Shiites were killed, El País didn’t hesitate to call this an all-out civil war.

But for the most part Spanish newspapers are concerned with Spanish news. Like most cities in Europe, news kiosks seem to occupy almost every corner. Valencia has several daily newspapers including at least one written in Valenciano, Valéncia hui, or Valencia Today. I don’t know how they can compete but there are four daily sport newspapers that deal primarily with Spanish soccer: As, Super Deporte, Marca, and Sport.

My contact with the Spanish press has been casual at best. I’ve been too preoccupied with finding a place to live. I read as much of the papers as I can while I am having a cup of coffee or a beer. If I find an article that interests me I’ll take the paper home for further study.
TV news is about my last choice of programming but it’s on pretty much all the time and is hard to avoid. If it pertains to things or events about which I am familiar, I am able to understand it well. The more arcane matters of Spanish politics and society are a little more of a challenge for the newcomer.

I told myself before I left that I was only going to get my news and entertainment through Spanish or French sources. I have a subscription to The New Yorker magazine that I may forward here once I get an address but I may keep 100% faithful to my original promise. I really don’t care much about the news, anyway. Today over coffee with someone we got on to the subject of American politics. I began an explanation of the whole liberal/conservative split in America and I stopped myself short. I was boring myself half to death. The only reason that I have any interest in Spanish politics—at least for the moment—is for the cultural literacy it affords me.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

El Jardín del Turia

Before I got here I had read a little about Valencia’s Turia Garden, a park that meanders from the northwest corner of the old city to the southern reaches and will soon run all the way to the port. This marks the 30th anniversary of the park when this former river bed began the change from a muddy expanse of debris and overgrowth into what is now a signature feature of the city.
There is a new causeway for flood waters to the west of the city which left the old river bed superfluous. At one point there was talk of using the site for a highway but in December of 1976 the Spanish king, Juan Carlos, handed over this area of Valencia to be used as a public park. Perhaps it isn’t coincidental that his was only a year after the death of the Spanish dictator Franco.
The Turia Garden is like a Central Park that comes to you. It stretches from one side of Valencia to the other. You have to walk down to enter the park, as if you were descending into a subway entrance. About midway through the park there is a subway stop. The park is bordered on both sides by the ancient stone river walls and is crossed by 18 bridges, the oldest of which date back to the XIV century.
The park is a blend of aesthetic beauty and function. There are manicured gardens as well as forests of pines and date palms. Fountains and ponds are scattered throughout the park which now is something like eight kilometers long. A separate bike path runs from one end to the other. I saw some Spanish kids playing baseball the other day, they weren’t playing very well but they were trying. One kid fielded an infield grounder and then stood there thinking whether he should kick it or throw it to first base. There are rugby fields, diamonds, basketball courts, and, of course, soccer fields all of which have lights for night games. There is even a rock climbing wall hidden under one of the ancient bridges.
There are a few scattered cafes inside the park, but for the most part it is free of any sort of commerce—there is plenty of that above the park on either side. There is no vehicular traffic in the park, aside from the kiddie train the rolls by occasionally. Although it is only a few hundreds yards in width, the park is incredibly quiet because it is below the level of the street. The Turia Garden is a perfect refuge from the city above and around it. It is one of my favorite things about Valencia.

Monday, November 27, 2006

I’m OK, Your Team Sucks

When I get to the point when I’m not stumbling around lost, finding landmarks purely by luck, dead reckoning, and kilometers of aimless walking; when I half-way know a section of town, it’s time to get lost in another area. This seems to be a recurring theme, an overriding metaphor in my life. I doubt that anyone could be more of a creature of habit, or find as much comfort in the familiar as I, but every so often I like to move over a couple of time zones, a couple degrees of latitude, and even more in longitude, and start all over from scratch.

I suppose that I could have started all over from less scratch that I did this time. I already spoke quite a bit of Spanish before I got here, and I have been to Spain a few times, but this is all pretty new. When I am around at the African immigrants here in Valencia I can only think that their former lives were a lot more different than what I left behind in Seattle. The languages I hear them speak are unlike anything I have ever heard before—and I have studied a few languages. As much of an outsider as I think I must be in this culture, the African immigrants must feel even more out of place.

I seriously doubt that anyone would assume that they are Spanish. Just this afternoon as I was walking into my building, I was approached by a couple of guys from Madrid who were going to the big football match at Mestalla Stadium. Real Madrid is playing Valencia CF (Club de Fútbol) tonight at 7:00, or 19:00 as they write it here. The out-of-towners asked me about bars in the neighborhood. They had parked in the lot across from my building and were planning to walk and drink the ten or so blocks to the stadium. I pointed them in the right direction and wished them luck.

I am often taken for a local—something that never happens to me in Mexico, no matter how hard I try to blend in. I really like it when, like today, I am asked directions from Spaniards and I am able to help them out. Usually it’s me asking the questions.
Tonight, as I mentioned before, Real Madrid is in town to play Valencia CF at the stadium near where I live. I walked over to the stadium before the game just to check out what goes on. It is a lot like big games in the States, except that there isn’t a crazy amount of automobile traffic. Most people either walk or take public transportation. In Seattle I would guess that a majority of people at football and baseball games arrive either on foot or by bus. There are people on the sidewalks around the stadium selling bags of peanuts and sunflower seeds. All of the bars around the stadium are too full for a novice like me to even try to enter. Lots of fans bring their own beer and drink it in the open areas around the stadium

As game time neared on my walk back to my apartment, I noticed that every bar with a television was packed to the rafters. The bars with big screen TVs had people standing outside looking in the windows. After passing dozens of crowded neighborhood restaurants I find one where I am able to make my way inside and install myself at the bar.

Once the game begins the language barrier falls like the Berlin Wall, This important match has brought out the entire city, and many, I quickly notice, are immigrants. There are Sub-Saharan Africans, Arabs, Eastern Europeans, East Indians, and at least one American. This isn’t going to turn into a homily about how sport brings us all together; it just means that people were swearing at the TV in a cacophony of foreign languages. The bar was like an obscene tower of Babel. No lessons to be learned here, folks.

Valencia CF controlled the ball for much of the game but it only took a few seconds for Real Madrid’s Spanish superstar forward, Raul, to take a pass from Robinho to score what would be the only goal of the night.

Earlier in the day I had a coffee at the café near the bus stop and started to read an excellent article on the history of the Turia Park, the converted river bed that runs through Valencia. I meant to pick up a copy of Las Provincias newspaper to finish the story and now it would be too late to find a kiosk. I noticed a guy at the end of the bar reading this paper. When time ran out and Real Madrid left the field with a win, the bar emptied in a matter of minutes. I was able to scrounge the newspaper along with the soccer daily Marca which had a three panel, time-lapse photo of Ronaldinho’s bicycle kick goal against Villarreal the night before. This over the head and backwards kick was made famous by another great Brazilian, Pele. For some reason that kick is called a chilena in Spain. It is one of those goals that will be shown on TV for the next century. It happened a couple days ago and I’ve already seen it a dozen times, at least.

My bill for the two beers I had during the game came to less than what the two newspapers would have cost at a kiosk, so drinking is cheaper than reading in Spain. That’s a lesson I won’t forget.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Lost, Found; Insider, Outsider

After two weeks I feel like I can get around fairly well. I fought my way up to the counter of a butcher stall yesterday at the crowded central market. Saturday is probably the busiest day because almost everything is closed on Sunday. I bought some magro which is very lean pork loin. I had the woman slice into thin cutlets. I also bought a couple of dried chorizo links just to try them out. I made a pork loin sandwich for lunch when I got home but I haven’t decided what to do with the rest. It just looked too good not to buy it. I think that is the point of daily shopping: you can buy whatever it is that looks the best that day. I also bought a couple of beautiful red peppers.

Like almost everyone else walking through the downtown carrying shopping bags from the market, I stop at a café to have a beer before I get on the bus back home. I’m nothing if not a follower.

I’m still pretty lost in the dog-eat-dog world of the crowded central market; it will take a lot of shopping trips before I will feel like anything other than a dumb tourist. For anyone who enjoys cooking, the Mercado Central in Valencia is about as good as it gets. All you have to do is take it home and do something with it. I don’t know which part I like better: the shopping or the cooking. The eating and drinking part rates way up there as well.

I have at least three maps of Valencia. I carry a small compass on my keychain. I have been walking tirelessly (and sometimes not so tirelessly) all over town these past two weeks, and there are things that I only seem to find by accident. When you are in the old part of town walking around in circles, and feeling embarrassed about it, you quickly notice that a lot of other people are also walking in the same circles. Little by little I am beginning to actually find my way around this labyrinthine historic section. I still carry a map but I only consult it clandestinely. I know it sounds ridiculous but I think consulting a map in public is totally dorky. I think it has something to do with everyone’s desire to be an insider, not an outsider; a local, not a tourist; found, not lost.

I am still lost when it comes to how the whole European football league is structured. To the outsider, it is more of a maze than Valencia’s old city. With one win over Athens’ Olympiakos squad, Valencia CF went from desperation to first place in their division. It is still very early in the season so I am not panicking just yet. I have actually been paying closer attention to the news and arts section of the newspapers instead of the sports.

It is in learning Spanish that I am the most impatient to find my way. If I am at home, I have the television turned on. I’ve noticed that I am beginning to pick up more and more. Not just when I am paying close attention to a television program I am watching or a conversation I have with another person. I understand more of the background noise of the Spanish being spoken around me. Without really meaning to eavesdrop I heard some people bitching about how crowded the buses have been compared to years past.

The thing about learning a new language is that there is no finish line. It never ends. You can always learn more. No matter how many new words I write down in my little notebook, no matter how many TV shows I force myself to watch, I’ll always be an outsider when it comes to Spanish. And then there is Catalan or Valenciano—I can’t even tell the difference between the two languages at this point.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

New, Old

New, Old


I noticed something the last time I was in Spain a couple of years ago: They don’t tear down buildings. No matter what a fucking wreck it is, it ain’t coming down. I don’t think that they would let a natural disaster destroy an historic edifice, let alone let one fall down simply through neglect or a misguided idea of progress. Everywhere you turn in Valencia, and other places in Spain, you see heroic, quixotic efforts to rebuild crumbling structures that give the Spanish ties to their past.

I have come across façades of old structures, and nothing more than the façades, like only a couple of feet deep, that are in the process of being rebuilt. I can’t imagine how much it must cost to preserve these dilapidated remnants, these ruins of the past, and incorporate them into a new construction. It would certainly be less expensive to raze the old buildings and start from scratch. Spain appears committed to cling to their past no matter what the cost.

The Mercado Central, Valencia’s old city market, is undergoing an 11 million Euro, three year rehabilitation project. The Mercado Colon, inaugurated in 1916, has been completely renovated and is now a showplace of old and new urban architecture. It is part urban mall, part old school market, and 100% the place to be and be seen. Chic cafes blend with a flower market. A big chain bookstore takes up part of the lower level along with a few food specialty shops. On one occasion a big fashion show that took up a big section of the market didn’t seem to conflict with, or give the slightest notice to, a group of older women out for a cup of coffee on their nightly rounds of shopping and socializing. It’s the architecture of inclusion.

At the same time, Spain seems equally committed to the new. A few blocks from my apartment is the Ciutat de les Ciencias y de les Artes, a museum to art and science, but museum is a terrible word for this futuristic campus at the southern end to the lovely Jardín del Turia. The Ciutat, more than anything, is a nod to Valencia’s future and its pledge to be as excellent in its present, and future as their ancestors were in their past. It seems to me that the Ciutat is Valencia’s answer to the Pyramids, to Machu Pichu, to the Acropolis, and to every other awe-inspiring man-made achievement. This campus seems to be present day Valencia’s wish to be compared favorably to the beautiful architecture of its past.

The home to Valencia’s revered football club, Valencia CF, is only a ten minute walk from where I live. The stadium is called Mestalla. It reminds me a lot of the Kingdome when I first arrived in Seattle. The Kingdome was home to both the Seattle Mariners and the Seahawks, but it was a total eyesore. Not a single person lamented when they blew up the Kingdome, because in its place they built the beautiful new home for the Mariners, known in unfortunate corporate-speak as Safeco Field. Valencia CF is now in the process of soliciting bids for a new stadium. The candidate that seems to be getting the biggest push is a very Frank Ghuery-esque futuristic structure that has a roof over all of the seating. I am a little bit of a newcomer to be in on all of the dialogue that is going on for the new stadium but all I do know is that, like the Kingdome in Seattle, no one here will miss the old Mestalla stadium. Whatever they decide to build, it seems they are determined to build something great.

It’s impossible not to notice all of the real estate offices all over town. They are on almost every block. There are for sale signs hanging from hundreds of balconies. I don’t have the figures on home ownership here in Valencia but I would assume that it is fairly high. There are commercials all over the television about the government’s commitment to home ownership for the Spanish, and how it is a good thing for their children.

I have to interrupt here with an announcement. I just saw an ad on TV that I thought had something to do with alcoholism—something that I didn’t think they thought was much of a problem here in Spain. It had really somber music and had images of wine chugging. It turns out that the commercial was about recycling your empty wine bottles. Excuse me while I finish my glass of wine and stop laughing. I’ll have to see it again to explain it to you.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Repreive

I couldn’t find a place to live so I had to go the more expensive route and extend my stay where I am now. I hate to be rushed when I am apartment shopping. I usually try to look at no less than 15-20 places to make comparisons and find the best deal. I have a couple more weeks to look.

It doesn’t get completely light here until after 8 in the morning so it doesn’t really pay to get up any earlier. I get up, make a little pot of espresso, turn on my computer, turn on the TV, and sit down to write and learn Spanish. I try to overdose on listening to Spanish, every day, all day, to the point that I won’t even listen to music unless it is in that language. I haven’t spoken a word of English since my brother left last Sunday. My listening comprehension has improved noticeably in the two weeks that I’ve been here.

I am already addicted to a couple of morning cooking shows. In two different programs I like how they get ordinary people to participate. They either teach them a dish to cook or let them whip up their own favorite. Not only do they show the cooking process but they also film the people as they go to the market to do the shopping. Daily shopping is such a big part of people’s lives here that it would seem disingenuous to leave out this essential element to dining.

After the shopping and cooking is completed, they show the ordinary person’s ordinary friends show up for the meal. My dream is to be featured on one of these programs. I could cook something Mexican and blow these amateurs right out of the water. The menus that they feature have been fairly simple so far, but I find the shows to be a gold mine for learning Spanish.

I have been shopping at the Mercado Central in the downtown whenever I am in the area. I still haven’t dove into the huge amount of seafood available here in Valencia but that will be my next big dish. On one of today’s programs they made seared bonito (I first learned the name of this years ago in Spanish and don’t know the exact translation. It is some form of tuna, I believe) with a sauce of onions, honey, and tomato. Easy enough but I may have to try a seafood paella next.

I watched Y Tu Mamá Tambien last night without the benefit of subtitles. I first saw this movie at a theater and was fairly blown away by the rapid-fire Spanish spoken by the two central male characters. I have since brushed up on my Spanish profanity and this time around I understood probably 90% of the movie. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of movies in Spanish. The dubbed films are a lot harder for me to follow. Los Simpsons is also kind of a ball-buster at this point in my learning curve.

It has been raining to the point of flooding in most parts of Spain while this part of the Mediterranean coast has enjoyed day after day of sunshine and warm weather. I was starting to feel a little rundown yesterday, but after spending the afternoon running around doing errands I think that my flu bug—or whatever it was—forgot all about me. You could get away with wearing short sleeves—even at night.

It’s time to head out and go look for a place to live. Right next to my bus stop there is a café where I will have a café cortado (espresso) and read the paper. To be truthful, there is a café next to damn near everything here in Spain. There must be a thousand of them in Valencia. It is hard to imagine that you could ever be farther than a single block from a place where you can stop to get a coffee or a beer.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

There are a few more pictures on my pic page


Mercado Colon Posted by Picasa

View from apartment balcony Posted by Picasa

Beach walk Posted by Picasa

Estacio del Nord (train station) Posted by Picasa

Palau de Musica Posted by Picasa

Street the old section. Posted by Picasa

Plaza del Ayuntamiento Posted by Picasa

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Cafe de noche. Posted by Picasa

Smart car Posted by Picasa


Posted by Picasa
Homeless?

Apartment hunting didn’t go so well this evening and I had to walk all over hell before I decided on a place to have a beer. My legs are killing me from the lame run I had yesterday. I haven’t had a really great work-out since I left Seattle at the end of September. I did 60 push-ups today—I used to do 1,000 in a single day. I couldn’t wait to get the bus back home tonight. It would seem that I have a lot of problems but I tell myself that I’m still living in Spain.

The reason I was in a hurry to get home is that Real Madrid is playing Olympique Lyon tonight in Madrid. The last trip I made to Spain, my brother and I were lucky enough to see Real Madrid play at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium during the heated Copa del Rey play-offs. I am also making another paella tonight. This time with longanizo sausage and fresh habada beans. I shouldn’t, but I’ll probably smoke another Cuban cigar on my balcony at the end of the night, since the weather is so fine.

Earlier this evening I walked over to a great neighborhood near the center of town to look at an apartment. The street it is on is beautiful and historic. I was a bit early so I strolled around the block and was pleased to find several cool cafes and bars as well as a supermarket. I rang the buzzer and walked up the four flights of stairs.

I had traded a few emails with the woman who was renting the apartment. She warned me that she had a little dog. I told her that although a small dog had killed my entire family, I had forgiven the killer and now I love small dogs. I also told her that I wrote comedy and if she didn’t find this funny then she should consider herself in the majority. I decided not to take the apartment and sprinted home to catch the game.

Paella is a lot like the fried rice I learned to make as a kid in Hawaii: whatever leftovers you have in your fridge can be used to make this dish. I may be leaving this apartment in a couple of days so I used the sausage as well as the habadas, an onion, garlic, chicken stock, and some olives. The game got pretty hot and heavy and Nistlerooy blew a penalty kick that could have put Real Madrid ahead with two minutes to go in the match, so I can be excused for ignoring the paella and letting it burn a little. It turned out pretty well for the most part and Real Madrid settled for a draw with Lyon. Europeans seem to be content with not winning all the time, so I decided that I was satisfied with my less-than-perfect paella. I actually like burned rice (Only a little was burned; I was watching a penalty kick with two minutes left in the match—I’m supposed to watch the damn stove?).

Another morning, another cooking show. I’ll wrap this up with a little food vocabulary.

Vegetales

Cohombro, cucumber
Cebolla, onion
Cebolleta, leek
Escarola, endive
Pimiento (rojo), red pepper
Remolacha, beet

And I couldn’t find this spice in my dictionary the other day and I couldn’t think of the name for it in English to save my life:

Cúrcuma, tumeric

My favorite area in town--so far. Posted by Picasa

Valencia Pics


Notice that the street sign is in Valenciano, not Spanish. Posted by Picasa

Cafe Sant Jaume (another angle) Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Music is the spice of life, and so are spices

I took a new bus into the downtown tonight which is always a thrill. OK, so it isn’t a thrill for normal people, but for me it’s a new learning experience. This one, the #4, goes to the Plaza Ayuntamiento like the other one I have been taking but the stop for it is only a block from where I live. Not to digress here but the other thrill in my life is watching the weather reported in Catalán while I type this. I guess you can say that I’m easily thrilled.

I want to share an apartment with a Spanish person for the first few months I’m here to force me to speak Spanish around the clock. This morning I sent out some emails to people looking for roommates and I was going downtown to check on my replies. I got to the square at around 7 o’clock so I decided I’d get a beer somewhere to give people more time to respond to my morning inquiries. I walked a few blocks north of the Square and turned down a side street. I walked into the first place that looked decent and sat down at the bar. I ordered a caña (a small draft beer) and started to read the newspaper on the bar.

I told the bartender that I should catch up on the news but the only thing that interests me right now is football. The main Valencia team, Valencia CF, is doing rather poorly but Barcelona is playing magnificently. They trounced Majorca the night before and everyone was talking about the game. The Brazilian superstar Ronaldhino is like a god over here and I was reading about his brilliant assist in that game when I noticed the music playing in the bar.

It was Seal’s greatest hits, an album and an artist I haven’t listened to in ages. He was enormously popular at one time and then went out of vogue because he was so popular. I remember one Seattle hipster dude say that his Seal CD was the worst one in his collection. What a stupid twit. I probably play this game myself but I hate it when music has to pass some sort of coolness test, as if it can’t be judged simply on its merit. Seal’s music has tons of merit, especially if you haven’t heard it in forever and you are sitting in a really amazing café.

Right about when I noticed the music, I looked out the window and noticed where I was. I had passed by this corner two days previous when my brother and I were out walking around on Saturday afternoon. I took a bunch of pictures of this very spot because I thought that it was just impossibly charming and quaint and beautiful. It’s like Paris with palm trees. The bar is called Marrasquino and is across the street from Sant Jaume, another picture-perfect café.

I talked with the bartender about the music and he told me that he always plays this CD when he opens. He says it gets him in the working mood and the customers always love it. When I left I thanked him for the beer and the great music. I always love it when the music in a bar or café is a direct reflection of the people working there. Besides what I write, listening to this CD was my only contact with English all day.

A big part of acquiring a cultural literacy is learning about food, at least that’s the way I see it. There is a television program in the morning called La Cocina de Localia on the Localia network that features the different cuisines of Spain. The recipes today were pretty basic but I learned quite a bit of food vocabulary watching it. I plan on being very fluent in food soon. When I get settled in my new apartment I’ll start doing a lot more cooking.

I have noticed that spices are extremely cheap. The small bottles in the supermarket all cost less than 1E. These same spices in the States are $3-4. Spices can also be bought in bulk at the central market. The spice stalls are an olfactory overdose. I am going to make a vocabulary sheet for cooking that I’ll share.

Las Especias - Spices

Ajo – garlic
Azafrán - zaffron
Canela – cinnamon
Comino – cumin
Sal y pimienta – salt and pepper
Jengibre – ginger
Perejil – parsley
Pimentón – red pepper, cayenne
Albahaca – basil
Hierbabuena, Menta – mint
Laurel – bay
Romero – rosemary (The garden of the music conservatory near where I live has rosemary bushes. I can reach through the fence and harvest all I need.)

That’s all I can think of for now. I took a picture of a spice stall in the market to familiarize myself with the different things here in Spain but most of them are new to me—in any language.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Life Is Good

I guess that saying that life is good when someone is at the beginning of what is not much more than the longest vacation of his life is stating the obvious. Forget about the fact that I need to get out of this apartment in four days and I don’t have any good leads. Never mind the lousy standing of the U.S. dollar in Europe at the moment. I am in understandably high spirits.

I got up early this morning and looked at the map to find the apartment I needed to cheeck out. The woman from the apartment agency gave me the keys to a place that she described as sort of basic. She apologized for the working class neighborhood and the fact that the place doesn’t have an elevator and the apartment is on the fifth floor. I was planning on taking a couple of busses to get there until I noticed that it was next to the Patraix metro stop. The closest metro stop to where I live is about eight blocks away through a neighborhood full of shops. I stopped to look at a cool pair of shoes that I saw on a previous walk. I don’t want to buy anything until I move so I just looked.

The metro charges by zones that you have to pass through. The Patraix stop lies directly west of here so it is in the same zone. I cost me a 1.20E in the automated machine at the station for my ticket. The metro looks pretty new and it is super efficient and clean. It let me out only about three blocks from where I was going.

The neighborhood was fine and I wouldn’t have any reservations about living there but I had a few problems with the apartment. As it is on the fifth floor with no elevator I thought that hauling a bike up and down every day would really be a challenge. The kitchen wasn’t good enough for someone who is planning on doing a lot of cooking. To its credit the place had a great balcony off of the main bedroom. I don’t think that I will take it but I have it as a backup.

When I returned the key to the agency I got invited to a new restaurant opening cocktail party. As I don’t know a single person here I am hoping to meet some people. I spent the rest of the morning at an internet café tracking down apartments to share on a Spanish variety of craigslist. I’ll go back tonight to see if I got any responses.

The weather is still unbelievable. I went jogging through the Jardin del Turia park this afternoon wearing only my short sleeve Mexico soccer jersey and shorts. A lot of other people had the same idea. When I got home I had a glass of wine and smoked a really fine Cuban cigar that only cost 1.25E. I sat on my 8th floor balcony as I smoked my Gonzales cigar and listened to Latin music on my iPod. I am totally committed to listening to only Spanish music, at least for a few months. I have enough of it so I won’t have to hear the same song twice, although I heard a lot of great tunes this afternoon that I wouldn’t mind listening to over and over.

I know that when I mention Gloria Estefan a lot of people will role their eyes, but her stuff in Spanish is really good. Her CD, Mi Tierra, is magnificently produced by her impresario husband, Emelio. I have a lot of Benny More hits on this playlist. I was first introduced to this old-school Cuban crooner from the soundtrack of the movie The Mambo Kings which is a great place to start if you want to explore Cuban music.

Right before I left the States I called a friend who had just returned from Mexico on business. He told me about a singer who was currently in heavy rotation on the radio there. I downloaded a few of hr songs before I left and when I got here and turned on the radio in the apartment, her single, Limon y Sal, was playing. I like the unsentimental lyrics and the catchy chorus grabs me like it does everyone else in the Spanish-speaking world:

Limón Y Sal
Tengo que confesar que a veces no me gusta tu forma de ser.
Luego te me desapareces y no entiendo por qué. No dices nada romántico cuando llega el atardecer. Te pones de un humor extraño con cada luna llena al mes.

Pero a a todo lo demás le gana lo bueno que me das sólo tenerte cerca siento que vuelvo a empezar.

CORO:
Yo te quiero con limón y sal, yo te quiero tal y como estás,
no hace falta cambiarte nada,
yo te quiero si vienes o si vas,
si subes y bajas y
no estás seguro de lo que sientes.

Tengo que confesarte ahora
nunca creí en la felicidad
a veces algo se le parece, pero
es pura casualidad.

Luego me vengo a encontrar con tus ojos me dan algo más
solo tenerte cerca siento
que vuelvo a empezar.

CORO

What the lyrics mean in a nutshell is that she knows her lover has faults but the good outweighs the bad. I can send you the song if you email me at leftbanker@gmail.com
Hasta luego.

Domingo Flojo

, Lazy Sunday

If you aren’t to judge a book by its cover then you certainly shouldn’t judge Valencia by its airport. It seems to be a work in progress but at the present time it is rather far from impressive. In fact, it is without a doubt the least impressive public structure in all of Valencia and hardly is fitting of such a beautiful city. The main train station downtown is absolutely majestic, as are a lot of other municipal buildings.

My brother got on a plane back to Chicago this morning. I was disappointed that we weren’t able to take public transportation to the airport. The subway doesn’t go out to the airport but that extension is under construction. I thought that one of the city buses went out to the airport but I must have been working on old information. We had to get out the door before daylight and we hadn’t walked 50 feet when a cab passed down our little side-street. Sun was just coming up and the rest of Valencia seemed to be on their way home to bed after a long night at the clubs. The cab driver was so agitated that he almost ran over us when he turned off the ignition with the car in reverse. He said that he had just dealt with a very drunk passenger. The cab was only 14 Euros and I didn’t charge him to listen to his previous fare.

As inexpensive as the cab was I intended to take a bus back to town just on principle. There is a shuttle from the airport that dropped me off behind the Estació del Nord for 2.50E. I just had to walk around the train station and catch the #19 back to my apartment. The next time I have to take or pick someone up at the airport I’ll know what to do. Let me know when you are coming.

I would like to find a more permanent place to stay before the end of the week. Today I will begin looking in earnest. I also will start a more intensive study of Spanish. I’m watching Malcolm in the Middle in Spanish as I type this. I’ve never seen the show before in English. It’s pretty funny. On the other channel there is a Jim Carey movie called Bruce el Poderoso (Bruce the Powerful?). I normally wouldn’t be caught dead watching a TV sitcom or a Jim Carey movie, but in Spanish I can write it off as an educational experience.

The weather continues to be absolutely perfect. Sundays are pretty slow in Valencia. Almost everything is closed. Automobile traffic is sparse as they and jaywalking becomes slightly less than life-threatening. Valencianos spend Sunday afternoons filling the sidewalk tables of restaurants along the streets in quiet, urban neighborhoods. The adults sit around and sip wine while the children kick soccer balls around on the open boulevards. It would have been difficult to find better weather than we’ve had here for this kind afternoon. There seems to be a sidewalk restaurant for every family so the buses going to the beach at Malvarosa are about the only things crowded on Sundays like today. There are even enough football fields to go around.

As lazy as I felt today I decided to take a very small detour on the walk back to my apartment. I was rewarded with the discovery of a bus stop only one block north of where I live that has four lines going pretty much everywhere. I was walking about four blocks to catch the #19 to the Plaza de Ayuntamiento. I was living like an animal back then.

I haven’t even used the subway yet. I haven’t really needed it as the bus system is so efficient. I have rarely waited more that 10 minutes for a bus and usually it is less than five minutes. Of course, a bicycle would cure most of my transportation issues, but as much of a bike fanatic as I am I figured a place to live is a bit more pressing.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Week #1

Another day, another paella; this time I made it with chorizo, a spicy sausage. I wandered into the central market downtown yesterday by accident so I bought some habadas, large green beans that come in pods. The woman in the market stall had a little device that split the pods open to remove the beans. I have made habadas from dried beans but I have never seen them fresh like this. I added the habadas to my paella after I began cooking the rice. I don’t think I will ever get tired of cooking or eating paella, I doubt that I will run out of different ways to prepare it, and any excuse to cook with saffron is a good excuse.

The central market is, without a doubt, the most remarkable collection of food items I have ever seen under one roof. Everything that this part of Spain has to offer for the table is being sold here in one of the hundreds of small stalls. I am too overwhelmed by this place to really begin to write about it. I will need to go there a few dozens times to shop so that I can begin to do it justice in words. Yesterday I started to write down the different varieties of fish for sale. I was too hungry to finish the task and decided that I needed to take pictures so I could remember what each species looked like.

The market—and Spain in general—is like Disneyland when it comes to hams and other types of dried, cured pork products. What I have found curious is that although there are plenty of specialty shops that sell the Jamon Iberico, the whole leg quarter hams, there don’t seem to be many bars and restaurants that offer this delicacy. In other cities in Spain pig legs hangs by the dozens in almost every public eating and drinking establishment. In Madrid I wouldn’t be surprised to see hams hanging in an optometrist’s office. Where is all the damn ham in Valencia? This is just another fact of Valenciana life that I will have to figure out.

Valencianos also don’t seem to be as addicted to tapas like people are in other parts of the country. Many of the bars look like they cater to this Spanish institution but rarely do you see the crowds of people flocking to the bar for tapas as I grew accustomed to in Madrid, Sevilla, and Toledo. There are plenty of tapas places all around town but they just don’t seem to experience the two, huge tidal shifts of clients in the afternoon and early evening.

Prices

After a week in Spain I have come to the conclusion that almost everything here is cheaper than in the States, at least where I lived in the States. I will list the prices for a bunch of things in Euros (about 1.25 to the dollar, so something that costs 10E is $10.25)

Coffee 1.20-1.50 E
Small Beer 1.50E
Bus 1.10E
1 Liter Chicken Stock 1.00E
Loaf of Bakery Bread .49-.85E
1 Kilo Rice .57E
Kleenex .69E
12 Eggs 1.09E
Day Bike Rental 2.00E
Various Dried Salamis 1.65-4.85E
Bottle of Spanish Brandy 5.75E
5 Liter Jug of Wine 3.75E (Priceless!)

If you know how to cook and have access to a kitchen you can eat like a king for very little. Yesterday I bought a quarter kilogram of mushrooms for 1.75E. They are called revellon and they look perfect for risotto. It will be a nice change of pace to have a meal without pork. Oops, I forgot that I bought some loganiza sausages that I wanted to try. The pork-free day will have to be Sunday, or the next day, or the week after. That porkless day may have to wait until I leave Spain.

Alcohol is as prevalent here as pork—this is like some sort of Muslim hell. Wine, beer, and spirits are cheap and ubiquitous. What is as popular here as I’ve seen in other parts of the country is the habit of stopping by the local bar in the afternoon and early evening for a beer. Spaniards usually drink little beers called cañas, draft beers that come in a wine glasses or similarly small vessels. I’m sure that there are plenty of drunks here but you don’t notice much in the way of public intoxication. The drinking age is 18 and is posted in almost every bar, but you rarely see young people under about 25 drinking.

I have always said that it is logistically impossible to get drunk in Europe in a bar or restaurant. The service here is just not set up to facilitate heavy boozing; it isn’t the right pace for it. I can rarely remember having more than one drink in the same place.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Catalán, Valenciano, and Other Languages

It is probably extremely premature for me to try to explain this ancient language after being here for less than a week. My understanding of Catalan (They call it Valenciano here) is definitely a work in progress but I think I can say a few things about the language with a bit of accuracy, if not authority.

If a mixture of Spanish and English is Spanglish, then Catalan should be called Sprench: a mixture of Spanish and French. Catalan is one of the official languages of the state of Valencia, as it is in the state of Catalonia whose capital is Barcelona. Most of the street signs here are in Catalan so instead of avenida and calle they say avinguda and carrer. Ciudad Vieja becomes ciutat vella. Instructions at the bus stop are in both Spanish and Catalan. The mingling of the two languages seems pretty effortless to my untrained eyes and ears.

When I was doing my initial research about moving to Spain I considered Barcelona but decided that the influence of Catalan would be a hindrance to perfecting my Spanish. I knew that they spoke Catalan in Valencia but I figured that it was less prevalent here than in Barcelona. I may have been correct in this assumption but there are plenty of folks here that speak the language. I rarely hear anything but Spanish when I eavesdrop on people although I did overhear an old woman yelling at her unruly dog in Catalan.

Before I arrived I thought that Catalan would be a nuisance. After only a few short days I have already come to see learning Catalan as a challenge, a really cool challenge. I tried unsuccessfully to buy a Catalan grammar book yesterday but I’m sure they are around. I remember reading somewhere that of all the Romance languages, Catalan is the closest to Latin. You can see this in the verb declensions and the endings of a lot of the nouns. The “at” ending of Universitat is closer to Latin that the other Romance language endings for university. My mother’s maiden name is Bernat, a Catalan surname. I read something my grandfather wrote stating that our family hails from the Balearic Islands, another Catalan-speaking enclave.

On television there are shows and news programs in Catalan. During the news reports I have watched they will conduct interviews in Spanish and Catalan. I especially enjoyed a cooking program in Catalan that was followed by a travel and nature show. With my background in French and Spanish I am usually able to get the gist of what they are saying on TV and I can easily read most of what I read. From what I can tell so far I would say that it is a very phonetic language, meaning it sounds like it is written—which is a lot more than you can say about the nightmare of a language in which I now write.

As far as people’s interactions with me thus far, Spanish is the only thing spoken. Perhaps I’m wrong about this but Catalan seems to me like some sort of secret handshake amongst the locals. At this stage it doesn’t seem like a language that I need to learn to survive. Learning Catalan will be a luxury.

I haven’t really begun my Spanish immersion as my brother is still here with me. Today I went downtown by myself and studied a bunch of Spanish proverbs on the bus. After I ran a few errands I stopped at a café for a coffee. Almost all the cafes have a stack of newspapers on the bar. I read one of the soccer rags and the local newspaper, El Levante. After six beautiful days we got a little bit of rain so after lunch I felt no guilt about staying in and watching a couple hours of television. I love it how I can watch TV and actually be learning something valuable.

There are a bunch of well-produced public service announcements during the commercial breaks. My favorite is one that advises Spanish people, who are accustomed to only a cup of coffee in the morning, of the advantages of eating breakfast. Another one warns drivers to wear seat belts and also to make their children wear them. At the end of the advertisement there is a very graphic depiction of a child being thrown through the windshield when the car makes an abrupt stop. It seemed like a very effective way to get this message across.

I watched a game show called Saber y Ganar (Know and Win), a quiz show like Jeopardy. I totally got my ass kicked but I was proud of myself for just understanding the questions. I watched a few minutes of Family Guy dubbed into Spanish. Now I will be able to say that watching Los Simpsons is educational.

I am very anxious to improve my Spanish and I can hardly wait for the months to go by and see how much I improve. I feel that my Spanish is already good enough to have an intelligent conversation. There are a lot of little things that I need to pick up which come only through living and learning. Speaking a foreign language well requires first-hand experience in countless situations. I welcome all of these situations, in Spanish and Catalan.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Paella

Valencia is probably best known for its native dish of paella, a rice dish most often made with seafood. I must admit that I have never tasted this Valencian delicacy, either here or elsewhere. It is prepared in a round, flat frying pan with two handles that is taken from the stove and placed on the table. These pans, or paelleras, are sold almost everywhere here in sizes ranging from 8 inches to almost two meters in diameter. If you shop at the central market in the old part of Valencia you will see dozens of stalls that sell almost nothing besides paelleras. I noticed that we had one among the pots and pans in our apartment.

Paella is a very flexible dish that can be made with chicken, rabbit, beef, or even vegetarian style if you don’t feel like seafood. Most Valencian recipes call for shrimp, squid, mussels, clams, and scallops. I have never seen finer seafood than what is available here in Valencia and I have lived near an ocean my entire adult life. The shrimp here are absolutely incredible and the largest variety are almost as big as cats. They are hideous creatures that would be terrifying if they weren’t edible.

Besides the rice, the other essential ingredient in Paella Valenciana is saffron. The Saffron filaments, or threads, are actually the dried stigmas of the saffron flower, "Crocus Sativus Linneaus". Each flower contains only three stigmas. These threads must be picked from each flower by hand, and more than 75,000 of these flowers are needed to produce just one pound of Saffron filaments, making it the world´s most precious spice. Saffron is horribly expensive in the United States and is kept under lock and key in upscale grocery stores. I must admit that I have never tried paella and I have never had any dish made with saffron. I looked up a bunch of recipes for paella online and almost every one recommends using something other than saffron as the seasoning. Paprika is a common substitute. I thought that this would be a good time to learn about paella.

In spite of the embarrassment of riches in the seafood department I thought that I would attempt my first paella with chicken as it is less delicate as far as its cooking time. I picked up a whole chicken (head and all), and a bag of short grain rice at the market. I couldn’t even remember the name for “saffron” in English when I was shopping, but I thought that I would recognize it when I saw it in the spices aisle. I also knew that I could substitute paprika if the cost was prohibitive. It turns out that I found a box of three servings of saffron for about $1.25. It comes in very, very small individual packets. I had heard that as far as this spice goes, a little bit will do ya, but I was doubtful that such a puny amount could flavor such a large dish as I was about to attempt.

Heat a bit of oil in the paellera and add the chicken pieces. After they begin to cook add minced garlic and onion. When the chicken is thoroughly browned, make an opening in the middle of the pan and add a can of whole tomatoes along with some diced fresh tomatoes. Stir in the saffron at this point and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes. Add about 1 ½ cups of rice to the dish and make sure it is all covered with liquid. You should not stir the paella once the rice has been added; instead just move the pan around on the flame to insure a constant and equal heat. My paellera is rather large so I used two burners on the stove to cook. I also had a few cups of hot chicken broth on hand to add to the paella as the rice cooked and absorbed the fluid.

As soon as I added the saffron to the tomato and chicken mixture I was almost overwhelmed by the flavor it imparted. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to be able to pull off this dish but whatever the hell I ended up with was going to taste pretty good because of the saffron. When the rice was almost cooked I added about two cups of cooked peas to the dish just because I remember seeing peas in paella in a picture some place.

I think that I am a pretty good cook. Sometimes when I try a new dish it takes me a few times to really nail it. To this day I have trouble making a Spanish tortilla, a sort of egg and potato omelet. You have to cook the tortilla on both sides which requires flipping this incredibly unwieldy dish. To this day when I set out to make a Spanish tortilla I never know if I will be able to pull it off. I felt less disappointed in my failures with tortillas when I saw a Spanish movie in which one of the young characters tries to make a tortilla and completely fucks it up. So I when I try something new I am always prepared, if not for complete failure, at least for mild dissatisfaction. With that said, I would like to announce that my paella was just about the best thing I have ever made in my entire cooking life.

After my first attempt at paella, and after I have finally tasted this wonderful dish, I look at my dinky little paellera and I feel like the guys in the movie Jaws when they see what they are up against. “I think we need a bigger boat.” Paella takes between 45 minutes to an hour to make, so it is fairly time consuming. If I am going to make paella, I want to make a big load of it. Before I try a seafood version I want to get a bigger pan.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

You Gotta Eat


All of the basic food groups. Posted by Picasa

Getting Around

Getting Around

Walking is wearing me out so I jumped on a bus yesterday near where I live and it took me to within a few steps of the place I was headed downtown in the Plaza de Ayuntamiento. The extensive routes are mapped out on almost every bus stop. I will be doing a lot less walking and taking more buses and subways—at least until I get a bicycle. I am thoroughly impressed with the amount of dedicated bike paths I have seen all over Valencia. I would imagine that they are gearing themselves up to move a lot more people around town on bikes in the future. That is my kind of future.

I have come across what will probably be one of my favorite cafes in the old section of Valencia. There are actually two small cafes that share an old courtyard just off the Calle del Mar, one is called Sol i Lluna (Sun and the Moon), and the other is called O’Clock. They both have a bit of indoor seating as well as the outdoor tables in the courtyard. Adjacent cafes keep track of which customers are theirs by having slightly different tables and chairs from their neighbors. These two cafes are on a quiet street sheltered by the three walls of a restored building that houses an art gallery. It’s not as if there is any shortage of great places to go for a beer or a cup of coffee but this spot really stands out for being so out-of-the-way. I have a feeling this will be the first place I take a date.

Walking home last night from downtown I took a slightly different route only one block east of the normal way. I was amazed to come across perhaps a dozen restaurants that looked interesting, including a Lebanese place. This slight deviation on the walk home made me realize how much I have to discover as there are still thousands of new ways to walk around the city. The only part of Valencia that I am familiar with at this point is the old city center, and I have a lot to discover there. The newer parts of the city—like the neighborhood I walked through last night—make up perhaps ten times the area of the old section. Every block seems to have its own restaurant and bar. I have a lot of work ahead of me.

With all of the public transportation, bicycles, and people walking, there are still a lot of automobiles. Traffic is heavy everywhere and from the looks of things around my apartment building, everyone seems to own a car, whether or not they actually drive it or not. These city dwellers seem to have the same attitude about cars as I did in Seattle: they only drive when they absolutely have to. Parking is pretty much a nightmare everywhere so people get pretty creative about where they leave their vehicles. Double parking is fairly epidemic and I haven’t figured out what people do when they get boxed in. Most cars around my neighborhood look as if they haven’t been driven in weeks so I suppose most folks just keep their little mini-compacts as some sort of abbreviated status symbols.

Cars are incredibly small here, especially when compared to the SUV-happy suburbs in America. My old VW Jetta would look like a luxury sedan over here as most cars are considerably smaller. The extreme end of the compact car world—at least for now—is the Smart Car. These two and now four seat micro-compacts are as long as most SUVs are wide and fit just about anywhere in the urban parking environment. You see a few SUVs here but I don’t know how people park them or negotiate the narrow inner-city streets. I guess you need the extra power and four wheel drive when you get wedged between two buildings in the old city.

The relationship between automobiles and pedestrians is like the Sunnis and Shiites, the Serbs and Croats, the Hatfields and McCoys. When you are crossing an intersection you cannot see the traffic light, only the green walk signal. When it starts to flash you have about four seconds to get the fuck across the street or risk being ripped apart by the angry line of automobiles waiting indignantly with their engines revving. It reminds me of the movie The Road Warrior but with better gas mileage. Fortunately all of the cars are scrawny little things so you can probably fend them off with a rolled up newspaper.

As a pedestrian you are obliged to share the sidewalk with the little dogs favored by almost all Europeans. They are the canine version of the snarling subcompact cars screeching to and from every stop light. Dogs seemed to be allowed everywhere except the beach. The Spanish haven’t yet decided to make owners clean up after their pets so along with oncoming cars; you must also keep a constant vigil against the hazards of dog poop.

You can get almost anywhere in the city on a bike without having to ride in the street. The bike paths, or Carril Bici, are mostly on the sidewalks along the curb. Among the advantages to these dedicated bike paths is the fact that you can ride at night with little fear of getting hit by a car. The paths are painted along the sidewalks to give pedestrians a warning that bikes may be coming from either direction. Biking is fairly popular here but it hasn’t caught on to the degree it has in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or Zurich. If you are the least bit fit this seems to be the best personal transportation option. Bicycles are also fairly cheap and people here tend to opt for better models than the crappy Chinese bikes favored in Amsterdam. I hope to have my own crappy bike within just a few days.

When I’m traveling around unfamiliar cities it seems like most of my time is spent finding nice places to hang out and then hanging out there. I suppose that life, in general, is pretty much the same thing.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

You Gotta Eat

You Gotta Eat

There are good neighborhood bakeries everywhere and I have a weakness for a hearty loaf they call a campesino, or country bread, which cost about a dollar each. The big supermarket also makes good bread. I will have to get into the habit of doing my grocery shopping at several places in order to get the best quality and prices.

I am on the Spanish schedule of having only a cup of coffee in the morning, a big lunch around 2 or 3 in the afternoon and then dinner sometime after nine at night. This corresponds to the merchants’ schedules as many shops close at around two o’clock for siesta and reopen at around five. I have heard that this way of life is sort of fading out in Spanish life as the retail industry is being taken over by bigger franchises but the siesta seems alive and well in Valencia.

The Spanish attitude about work is still quite different from the American business work ethic. The Mercadona supermarket in my neighborhood is closed on Sundays while the restaurants on my block are open Sunday and closed on Mondays. I wouldn’t say that most businesses take Sunday off but I also wouldn’t expect to get much done that day. It’s also a big day for football games so Sunday is like two holy days in one.

I am taking full advantage of the great kitchen in this place. It has a gas stove and I have plenty of cookware. I wasn’t able to haul my beloved cast iron skillet across the Atlantic, not this time, but I feel vindicated in my choice of bringing along a lot of my own cooking utensils. I have my favorite pepper mill, a stainless steel pot with a lid, a big meat cleaver, a set of flatware with steak knives, a small cheese grater, and a beautiful olive dish that was a gift from my sister-in-law. After living in Spain for three years she became somewhat of an expert on dishware and she assures me that this olive serving dish can only be found in Portugal.

Last night I made lentils and a dish of mixed sausages and chorizo with onions. The lentils came out especially fine because I picked up a pre-packaged vegetable soup medley of carrots, leeks, celery, and some other thing that I’ll have to look up as I don’t recall what it is called in English. The garlic here is exceptional. If I had this served to me in a restaurant here I’d be talking about it forever. This hearty meal was accompanied by a generous amount of Masia de Altigon red wine—now in handy five liter plastic jugs. I can’t believe that the table wine is 12% by volume alcohol because I’ve been drinking the stuff like Hawaiian Punch with no effect other than it makes the food taste better.

For lunch I have been eating a lot of dried, cured meats. I’m in the process of wading through the seemingly endless choices in this area of the grocery store. The cheeses are nothing to write home about but I feel that it’s my job to write home about everything—even unremarkable cheese. It is hard to spit in Spain and not hit an orange tree so I’ve been eating these wonderful seedless clementine oranges that are similar to mandarins. There are two types of take-out chickens for sale: spit roasted (Asado) and grilled (Criollo) and both are delicious and cheaper than cooking at home.

The Mercado Central in the Ciutat Vella (Old City) is the best place to shop for fresh vegetables, meats, fish and seafood, spices, and olives. I bought a pound of mixed olives and some anchovies after tasting a dozen or so varieties.

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.

Etiquette

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.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Leaving

Leaving

My entire life now fits into four checked bags weighing 50 pounds each (exactly 50 lbs.), a carry-on bag, and another small shoulder pack. I have three laptop computers, a 300 gig external hard-drive, a digital camera, and a 20 gig iPod. I am bringing several dictionaries: Spanish, Spanish/English, French/English, Arabic/English, and Portuguese/English. A few books: a dual language Quran; my holy book, The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins; and a few Spanish novels.

As I recite the list of my material possessions I realize how much stuff I still have after breaking down my apartment in Seattle a little over one month ago. As it turns out, the heavy cast iron skillet will have to wait until someone comes to visit and can Sherpa this over for me. It will be a huge relief to clear customs with all of this swag.

Although it is sunny and warm here in Chicago, I will be wearing a lot of clothes when I board my flight at O’Hare. A heavy shirt, a leather sport jacket, and a really heavy winter coat will weigh me down so that I can spare some extra weight in my checked baggage. This was a very complicated and technical packing job. I am leaving with everything I planned on taking. I have left behind a few boxes of books that I hope people will bring over for me. Tops among the books that I will miss is my very dog-eared Cambridge Complete Shakespeare.

By this time tomorrow I will be in a cab in Valencia, Spain looking for the apartment I have rented for the first couple of weeks. After dropping the bags off, the first stop will probably be for a café con leche. That will mark the starting point for my life in Spain. I hope to see you in Valencia.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Day in the Life

In order to ensure confidentiality I will use the following legend:

Dad: #1
Daughter one: A
Daughter two: B
Son: C
Dog: Dog

I visited one of my oldest friends over the weekend. I got a taste for the family life. I’ll try to chronicle it as well as I can. Hanging out with his great kids was sometimes fairly hectic and always thoroughly entertaining. The day was a little like juggling chain saws but with a few juice boxes thrown into the mix.

Saturday Morning:

We all get up early. I take the dog out and let him run loose in front of the house. It’s quite cold outside and the dog is as anxious to get back inside as I am. I drink a cup of coffee and read a magazine on the couch. It is all quite relaxing until my friend comes downstairs and announces that the Saturday express will be rolling out in ten minutes. I’ll have to take a shower when we get back. I put my coffee in a travel mug and jump on board as we pull out. The pace for the rest of the day is like a high-speed chase scene in a thriller. Just for fun I lean out the window and shoot a pistol at cars behind us.

#1 doesn’t wear his seat belt so an alarm beeps for about twenty seconds every time we get in the car. This becomes a running joke for the entire weekend. I start off with a mildly sarcastic observation, “Don’t worry, it turns off after annoying the living crap out of everyone.” At one point I get the kids on my side and we all make annoying noises of our own until it stops beeping. #1 is immune to the “fight fire with fire” approach. Besides not wearing a seatbelt, #1 also engages in other at-risk behavior while driving. He text messages and talks on his cell phone, reads from a pile of mail cluttered on the dash board, changes CD’s in the stereo, turns around to discipline the children, and drives like a NASCAR veteran who is delivering a transplant organ. He is, without a doubt, the best driver I have ever known.

His knowledge of side streets and short cuts would put any mapping software to shame. He is like a shark that cannot stop moving. If the light turns red he will turn right and find an alternate route. His mood is cheerful and never once does he display symptoms that in any way approach road rage. In this world, driving is preferable to idling, even if the short cut takes longer. Driving becomes a sort of game, a game that #1 always seems to win.

The traffic everywhere out in suburbia is heavy and intense. People drive fast because they have such great distances to cover, anything less than full speed means spending even more time behind the wheel. We spend enough time in the car on this day to use more than one tank of gas. #1 also has a great new car. I’ve never been a fan of cars but if you live in this environment a top-notch vehicle is probably a requirement. His kids know the lyrics to all of the songs in the CD player from spending so much time being shuttled back and forth to activities. The kids fight over the music but they often find common ground and then they all sing along together in the back seat. They are like the Van Trapp family from The Sound of Music but in athletic gear.

I get the kids to play games in the car as we drive. We try to find nail parlors. There are enough to keep us busy. B gets extra credit for finding a nail place that is also a tanning salon. That wasn’t in the rules but it just seems right to give extra credit for a nail place that also offers another beauty treatment. I also suggest that whenever anyone talks they must do so to the tune of The Star Spangled Banner. C performs well at this game but the others veto the exercise.

Our first stop this morning is a soccer game for B. #1 screeches to a halt and B falls out of the car and scurries to the field where her game is scheduled. Next we drop off A at an adjacent field for her soccer practice. #1 then finds a parking spot as close as possible to the B’s field. #1, C, and I take along a football to keep us entertained during B’s game. Game over, back to the car, pick up A from practice, and on to the bookstore.

Frequent trips to the bookstore are obviously an integral part of life for the kids as they are all familiar with the store’s layout. As we pass through the doors A, B, and C scatter to their respective enclaves of literature. A reads university-level stuff, B favors thick tomes of fantasy literature, and C reads smart aleck-in-training texts: joke books, riddles, and graphic novels. Within minutes we are at the checkout counter and on our way again.

After lunch and a few minutes of down time, B, C, and I go for a bike ride. Back home and then on to C’s football game at the same huge complex where we went for soccer in the morning. We drop off C for his pre-game practice and then head out to the mega-store to pick up some sort of weird toy that C needs for a birthday party he has after his game. Evidently, C was given rather explicit instructions by the birthday boy on the present he is supposed to offer up. It is some kind of robot Leggo-esque thingie. I ask C if we can get a Barbie instead. NO. Kids have no sense of humor when it comes to robot Leggo-esque thingies.

Shopping for a birthday present while C is practicing is the kind of multi-tasking that seems to be required for survival in this harsh environment. We get back to the field for the start of C’s game. Watching nine-year-old kids play football is more cute than anything. It's as if they don't possess enough gravitational pull to actually make tackles.  His team wins 2-0 on a safety. I overhear one of the kids exclaim, “We slaughtered them!”

Back home and C takes a shower (or maybe not). He changes into his costume (Scream character) as A wraps the gift. #1 drives C to the party while I start to cook dinner. The logistics of this day are something along the lines of a space shuttle launch.

Cooking for kids means that you have to find out what they will and will not eat and then tricking them into eating it anyway. They give you their dietary restrictions and then you find loopholes. B says that she doesn’t like cheese on her pasta so I incorporate Parmesan into the sauce. B finds this to be acceptable. I think that the kids are a little fussy about their food and then I remember that many of my friends are vegetarians, some are even vegans. There is nothing fussier than being a vegan.

At the party C won a certificate exclaiming that he had the scariest costume. I tell #1 that no matter what happens to C in this life they can never take that away from him. I never won scariest costume and look what happened to me. I think everything started to go downhill for me the day I didn't win that damn award.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Bush Loses War in Iraq

This is a headline that could have been in newspapers every day since we first invaded Iraq. I have always been of the opinion that any war in Iraq would be un-winnable unless we were willing to overwhelm and completely disarm the nation. We all know today that Iraq is a nation of 25 million inhabitants deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines, something the neo-con architects of the war did not seem to take into consideration. The war would be over in a matter of months, we would be greeted as liberators, the reconstruction would pay for itself through oil revenues, and Iraq would quickly morph into a bulwark against terrorism and a beachhead of democracy in the region. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. Did Bush lose the war from the very beginning?

Or perhaps Bush lost the war when he stood by and allowed the looters to destroy the infrastructure of the Iraq government? Remember Rumsfeld’s asinine statement about how free people are free to loot? We didn’t allow free people to loot the oil ministry; that’s just a little too free for a freedom lover like Uncle Donald?

I think that you get the idea. I am already tired of this rhetorical device because Bush has made far too many mistakes in the prosecution of this war for me to give each one a paragraph. I have been watching the President make the round of campaign stops before the election. At each speaking opportunity, Bush claims that the Democrats do not have a plan in Iraq, that the Democrats’ only plan is to “cut and run.”

I have read just about everything that I can get my hands on concerning the war in Iraq and if Bush has any kind of plan he is keeping it super-duper top secret. The only plan that I can see is that he will stay in Iraq long enough to get past these elections and then make some sort of half-assed excuse to withdraw. Our troops do not have the overwhelming numbers that would be required to defeat the insurgents and stop the internecine fighting that is spiraling out of control.

Bush claims that if the Democrats regain power their plan will be to take our troops out of Iraq, which will lead to civil war and chaos. This may be true but how would anyone be able to tell the difference? A classified briefing prepared two weeks ago by the United States Central Command portrays Iraq as edging toward chaos, in a chart that the military is using as a barometer of civil conflict. October was 4th deadliest month so far for U.S. soldiers. I don’t know what your definition of “improvement” is but the 4th deadliest month in 3 ½ years is not mine.

I think that what is really tearing this country apart is the fanatical loyalty shown to Bush by his base. If the Bushies were able to display the slightest degree of critical thinking they would have challenged many of the President’s decisions concerning the war; the biggest one was the refusal to fire the Secretary of Defense after the initial round of miserable failures in Iraq. This blind loyalty was never more in evidence than immediately after 9/11. There weren’t too many people losing money in the far right pundit industry. It got so bad that even a complete ass hat like Dennis Miller got a conservative talk show.

But when neo-con tools like Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, pro-war cheerleaders and former Bush groupies, finally begin to speak out against the President, there may be some cracks in the wall. As the old saying goes, even the most cowardly hound will chase a fleeing rabbit. The rabbit isn’t running away just yet but it seems to be getting its feet in the right direction. Of course, Fox News will continue to stand by the White House on the war, even if that means going against the top generals who are calling for Rumsfeld to resign. Ratings are dropping for other right-wing mouthpieces and it may be time for a lot of them to soften their views and question Bush if they want to salvage their careers.

The fact is that Bush enjoys almost complete control of the country and has been able to prosecute this war any way he has seen fit. He must take responsibility for the utter failure of his Iraq policy. The current talking point in neo-con circles is that the blame for our failure can be placed on the dissenters, as if this country is unable to win a war unless we have 100% consensus. This is a democracy; we will not have a full consensus on anything. It is not the Iraqi insurgency that is in its final throes, as Vice President Cheney pointed out some time ago, but I hope that the end is in sight of America’s willingness to be lead much further down a path of endless war and occupation.