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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Letter from Spain

Letter From Spain

I have been working on something else and don’t really have much in the way of an essay to offer. I will just write down a few thoughts and send it out as I would a letter to family or friends.

About the only advice that I can give for learning a foreign language is just go out and learn a lot of words. This comes after the tedious part of first learning the grammar. I had a pretty solid background in Spanish grammar before I got here but I had some major holes in vocabulary.

I have been wearing out my Spanish/English dictionary and I have the vocabulary lists to prove it. I start a new list for every new book that I begin. I mentioned that I looked up about 75 new words for the last novel I read. In my latest reading assignment, La Edad Secreta by Eugenia Rico, I have made it to page 85 without using a dictionary at all. That is because I forgot to bring it yesterday. Without looking up a single word I have been able to read this extremely insightful novel very easily. I have had a lot more luck finding good novels to read in Spanish than I have in English, at least lately. I can’t remember being excited about two novels in succession in my native tongue. I highly recommend this novel as I think it has been translated into English. The title in English would perhaps be The Secret Age.

The plot, in a nutshell, concerns a woman who has recently been misdiagnosed with a fatal disease and decides to leave her unfaithful husband and just drive off. She doesn’t get very far on her own and picks up a man in a gas station who is 20 years her junior. If you think that this sounds kind of Thelma and Louise-ish, don’t worry, I did, too. What gives the novel strength and vitality is the author’s amazing insights into so many things that I can’t even begin to list them. Call it writing your guts out.

I have to admit a bit of misogyny as I was a bit gun shy about reading another work by a female author after the last novel I plodded through by another Spanish woman. I was afraid more for my linguistic weaknesses as books about feelings are generally more of a challenge for someone learning the language. I have been rewarded with a thoroughly entertaining novel full of a lot of wisdom considering the author was only 32 when she wrote it. It also helps that the chapters are mercifully short.

The night before I began this novel I was paging through my new kid’s dictionary and I came upon the word “mono” which in Spanish means monkey or single. I found another meaning for this word as a one-piece coverall that mechanics wear. I came across this word in this novel and at first I couldn’t remember what it meant until she went on to say that the person with the “mono” had dirty hands and the light immediately went on. It’s only one damn word but it illustrates a bit of the learning process and how words come into your vocabulary. I bought two other books along with this one yesterday. All of them are by contemporary Spanish writers because I am finding that this is the best way to learn the vocabulary of the everyday language.

The weather has been rather dreary lately. I check a weather page on the internet for Valencia and usually I see the smiling face of the sun but for the past week or so that grinning face has been replaced with a sun wearing a burkah of dark clouds. I have some laundry on the balcony that will not dry in this wet weather. The only thing I have to say is that if I survive this winter I will never complain about the hot summer months ahead. I can’t wait to put out wet clothes and bring them in dry later that same afternoon.

It seems ironic that someone from Seattle wouldn’t have an umbrella. I rarely used on there although I had several. I told someone here that because of the high winds that generally accompany the rains in Seattle the only thing umbrellas are good for is humiliation when they explode on you. I got off the metro yesterday and it was pouring. I ran in to the nearest Chinese mini Wal-Mart and waited in the line of about 8 other people also buying umbrellas. I kidded the girl in front of me that she shouldn’t have waited for the intense rain to buy her umbrella and I told her mine was for my grandmother.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Sunni Family Disappointed Suicide Bomber Son Forgotten So Soon After Car Bombing

Sunni Family Disappointed Suicide Bomber Son Forgotten So Soon After Car Bombing

Bagdad - The family of Ahmed al Basur told a local reporter that they couldn’t believe that everyone had already forgotten about their son only a day after he sacrificed himself to Allah in a car bombing at a Shiite market. The blast only killed three other people beside Ahmed al Basur, a recent barber school drop out. The news of his attack was soon overshadowed by reports of a bigger and more deadly car bombing the next day carried out by Khalid Ras al Teez, valedictorian of his high school class.

“We can’t believe that butthead Khalid had to go and steal our son’s thunder. We think it was in very poor taste,” Ahmed’s parents confessed. “He should have let Ahmed milk the headlines for at least a couple days before his attack. He just lucked out with the higher body count because that pre-school bus just happened to be driving by. We had barely put Ahmed’s big toe and part of his ear in the ground and Khalid goes and blows himself to hell. He always was a little show off.”

When questioned, Khalid’s parents said that their son was always highly goal-oriented and it wasn't his fault if the al Basur’s son was an under-achiever.

Valentine’s Day Poem From Husband Creeps Out Wife Of 23 Years

Bill Ocher, fired from three different employers because of sexual harassment complaints from coworkers, decided that he wanted to do something special for Valentine’s Day for his wife of twenty-three years. He wrote her a love poem.

“I guess that he was trying to be romantic for once in his life but he must be so out of practice that he’s completely alien to the concept. I’ve been living with the man for most of my life but I have to tell you, I was about ready to get a restraining order. Since we are saving up for a new clothes dryer I decided to go the more economical route so I bought some pepper spray. If he tries to spring any of the acts on me that he wrote about in his “love poem,” he’s going to get two eyes full of hurt,” said his wife, Agnes.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Soy Un Escritor Frustrado

Soy Un Escritor Frustrado

Aren’t we all frustrated writers? Everyone has frustrations with the written word, some more than others. Some people have problems filling up the space on the back of a postcard while I’m sure that even the most successful writers have their complaints. You don’t even want to get me started on my personal battle with words. I can’t even figure out how to get out of this paragraph except to say that I am a frustrated writer is a great title for a novel. I wish that I had thought of it first.

I was looking for something to read as my most recent novel in Spanish was almost entirely tedious and a fairly epic struggle against an excess of adjectives, lack of story, and even less in the way of insights. Since I’m on a budget I first looked through the bargain bin and only saw one prospect, El colonel no tiene quien le escriba by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I have already read that short novel and I was really looking for a contemporary Spanish writer. Soy un escritor frustrado, by José Ángel Mañas, caught me with the title. At 5€ it was in my price range, and I easily read the first page so it was linguistically feasible.

It is odd to me why some books are so easy for me to read in Spanish while others may as well be written in Italian, a language I’ve never studied. I wrote down every word that I needed to look up in this novel and the total came to something like 75. For a 220 page novel that isn’t too bad. I wonder if there will ever be a time when I have no need for a Spanish/English dictionary? If that time ever comes it won’t be soon.

This was the first novel I have read since I arrived in Spain that wasn’t like a tough homework assignment. It read the whole thing is two days, which is a long time to read a 220 page novel in English but in Spanish is is blazing. Besides being so proud of myself just because I was able to read the thing, Soy un escritor frustrado is a good novel. Its humor is about as dark as it gets while still being able to see the words on the page. Without this humor the story would have been pretty hard to stomach at times and by using humor the author was able to take the reader deeper and deeper into the abyss. The reader is overcome with the Stockholm Syndrome in which the kidnapped become enamored with their captors.

The book was made into the French film, Imposture which I have not seen. If the film fails to capture the brilliant humor of the novel it is probably pretty terrible. I would stick with the book. I will reread this book now that I have looked up all of the vocabulary. This helps me to retain the new words and idioms. Besides being highly entertained, I learned a lot from this novel about modern Spanish speech (as opposed to Latin American Spanish).

I doubt that there is a bookstore open on Sunday so tomorrow I want to get one of the new histories of the Spanish Civil War that I see so many people reading right now. I only am familiar with the broad strokes of the war so along with the Spanish lesson I’ll fill in one of the gaps in my knowledge of history.

I picked up a diccionario junior or a kid’s dictionary at the Sunday flea market in the stadium parking lot near where I live. It was 1.50€ and I think it will turn out to be a gold mine of a learning tool. It is illustrated which really helps in learning new objects. I have always had a weakness for dictionaries. Here in Spain I have several: Spanish, Spanish/English, French/English, Portuguese/English, Arabic/English, plus my new kiddie dictionary.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Baked Rice Valenciano

Baked Rice Valenciano
Expat Dies in Grease Fire

This is called Arroz al horno in Spanish and Arros al forn in Valencià (The left leaning accent is correct in the language of Valencia, or Valencià as they call it.). I have been warned that this dish, although rather simple, can be difficult to pull off. I am writing this in real-time so we’ll see how I do.

4 cups rice
8 cups chicken stock
1 potato
2 cloves of garlic
1 bulb of garlic
3 roma tomatoes
Morcilla sausage
A bit of bacon or pancetta
1 ½ cups of cooked garbanzo beans
Olive oil

I cheated by cooking some potatoes in the pressure cooker. I will probably make a tortilla in the next couple of days and I like to use pre-cooked spuds so it takes less time and uses less oil. Yes, I try to cut down on oil once in a while.

Cut the potato in slices and sauté in olive oil with the pancetta and the sausage. Sauté the garlic bulb briefly in the pan. Remove all these ingredients and set aside.

Shit! I burned myself with a grease spatter. I need a time-out to go get a little brandy for the pain.

Sauté the chopped garlic gloves in the same oil and put the rice in the pan and coat with oil.

My brother is calling my on the Skype. I pour myself another brandy and turn off all of the burners. We do a three-way conference call with one of my brother’s old army buddies who visited me in Seattle last year. We trade stories unfit even for the internet. My apartment reeks of pork products. I think I am assimilating.

In a large baking dish (Here they use a large, round clay dish) place all of the ingredients. The tomatoes should be cut in half and spaced around the pan. The stock should be hot when you mix it. Place the garlic bulb in the middle and bake in a pre-heated oven at 350° for about 20 minutes.

While this is in the oven I clean the kitchen which has been thoroughly destroyed by the initial cooking procedures. The place still reeks of pork so I open the balcony door even though it is about 5° C outside. I also came up short in the stock to rice ratio and now I have to add stock to the baking rice dish. They told me this was going to be tricky. I pour myself a glass of wine as a precaution against a possible failure.

The cooking instructions I found were rather vague. My initial motivation for attempting to prepare this dish came from a Valenciano cookbook in a language I don’t speak. I love the pictures. The Spanish recipe I found later was almost as imprecise. Most of the time when I made rice back in the States I used a rice cooker like any self-respecting Asian person would do, but here they insist on the old-school method. I just hate the thought of all of that wonderful sausage going to waste because I fucked up the liquid-to-rice ratio.

No more brandy. The good news is that I have enough cheap Spanish wine on hand to float a small boat. I bought a bottle of wine at the store today that cost about 3€ and I felt like I was being extravagant. I think that it is the height of gauche when James Bond or some other douche bag makes a big show of ordering an expensive bottle of wine. What nouveau riche trash! As if the height of sophistication is fetishistic wine knowledge. Just drink your swill and shut your cake hole.

So the baked rice didn’t come out to great. I should have lined the top of the dish with the potatoes to shield the other ingredients from the heat. I also had the over up too high but that I blame on the Celsius conversion and the fact that the oven temperature setting isn’t very precise. It wasn’t a total failure and I was able to eat it. It usually takes a few tries to nail down a new recipe. I’ll have to find a restaurant that features this dish to get more of an idea of how it is supposed to turn out.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


In the courtyard of the Valencia library.

Valencia Cathedral built between 1252 and 1482 on the site of an earlier mosque.

North side of the silk exchange

Inside La Lonja de la Seda

Click on photo to imbiggin

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Cooking Under Pressure

After paella I would say that fabada, or bean stew, is the second most famous Spanish dish. It originated in the Asturias region in northwest Spain between Galicia to the west and Cantabria to the east. The dish has now migrated to every other area of the country. It is a fairly simple meal to prepare if you have all of the essential ingredients. I was planning on making cassoulet but changed my mind after I came across a recipe for fabada in a gastronomic guide to Asturias. I just needed to make a special trip to the butcher to fill in the ingredients I didn’t have in my kitchen.

I remember first coming upon fabada by accident on my second trip to Spain when I was traveling by car through the Pyrenees. We had been driving all morning and we found an old inn off to the side of the road. It was one of those places that don’t have a menu, instead you just order whatever they have prepared that day. On that day they had fabada and my memory of Spanish cuisine has been favorable ever since.

I have always loved beans and any dish using beans. I had a professor in college who was from Spain and he swore that he lived on nothing but rice and beans when he was a student. I was extremely poor when I was a student so I followed his lead. I added the other poor-man’s ingredient, potatoes, to my humble diet. Rice, beans, and potatoes are still the staples of my diet.

Fabada Asturiana


White beans
Chicken stock
Morcilla sausage (blood sausage made with rice)
Think bacon slices
Bay leaf

My trick with cooking dried, white beans is to soak them overnight, change the water, and then bring them to a boil for two minutes. Take off the heat and let soak for one hour. Most recipes call for either an overnight soak or the quick boil but white beans and black beans need both, in my expert opinion. Drain and rinse and then they are ready to be cooked. I sautéed a little of the bacon in the pot before I added the beans and the chicken stock. I also added a little garlic, onion, and the bay leaf.

I cooked the chorizo, onion and garlic, bacon, and morcilla separately and in the order written because of their different cooking times. I reserved a bit of the chicken stock and added this to the cooked meat and then added the saffron. I mixed the cooked meat with the nearly completely cooked beans and added the diced ham.

I have recently been initiated into the use of a pressure cooker. I slightly over-cooked my beans because of the drastically reduced cooking time when using a pressure cooker. I have noticed that pressure cookers are used by most Spanish families, probably because they are so stingy with energy usage. Beans that normally take over an hour to cook are ready in twenty-five minutes or so.

My fabada turned out rather well in spite of the beans being slightly over-done. The only thing you need to accompany this dish is good bread and olives, of course.

I was anxious to use the pressure cooker again so I used some potatoes and other vegetables and made a potato soup. I cooked the potatoes first in the pressure cooker with stock while I sautéed onions, zucchini, red pepper, and garlic in olive oil. When the potatoes were finished I added the sautéed vegetables to the pot. Because pressure cooking heat whatever is in the pot past the boiling point up to 280° the heat from the potatoes further cooked the vegetables and this helped cool the potatoes. I liquefied the soup a little but left chucks of the vegetables. I want to try a meat dish in the pressure cooker so I went out and bought a big chicken. I don’t know what I am going to do but I’ll figure something out.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Parking and biking

Parking and biking

Valencia is a city of about 800.000 inhabitants. That would rank it among one of America’s ten biggest cities. As is the case in most American cities, parking is a huge problem in Valencia. One thing that you don’t see here are parking lots, at least surface lots. There are underground parking facilities in almost every building—at least in the newer ones. Trying to find a parking spot on the street can be a desperate affair. In an attempt to come to terms with this problem drivers here have come up with some interesting solutions.

Double parking is an extremely common and accepted way of leaving your automobile. What people do when they double park is to leave their car in neutral with the emergency brake off. If someone that you have blocked in needs to get out they can simply push your car forward or backward to make room for their egress. When I am sitting in one of my favorite sidewalk cafes reading a book in the afternoon, watching people park almost always is more interesting than what I am reading.

Sometimes the double parker doesn’t leave enough room for another driver to get out. In this instance the blocked driver will lean on his horn to try to summon the offender. For some reason, this seems to happen a lot in the late afternoon. This must be a bad time for parking because you often hear horns glaring. This is one of my least favorite aspects of city life here in Spain. The other day I was leaving the market and a guy blasted his really loud horn right when I was walking by. I called him a “cocksucker” and a few other choice English expletives. He looked at me like a whipped puppy and didn’t understand why I was upset. Everybody does it, after all.

I have mentioned that I live a block away from Mestalla Stadium where Valencia Club de Fúbol plays their games. When they have a match my neighborhood becomes an instructional clinic in the many methods of illegal parking. It is really quite entertaining to see the places people will put their dormant automobiles. Because most of the street corners are handicap accessible, cars can easily drive up the ramp and on to the sidewalks and park anywhere. Sometimes the police will issue tickets and sometimes they won’t. A couple of days ago during the game someone had parked right in front of the exit for the stadium metro stop. I was waiting for someone to push the car into the middle of the street. The attitude here with creative (illegal) parking is, “Hey, we all do it.”

I can’t imagine why anyone would bother driving around Valencia when public transportation is so fast, inexpensive, and efficient. Bicycles are very popular here and I’m sure this form of personal transportation will explode exponentially in the next few years. It will be interesting to visit Barcelona and see how bikes have caught on there. Barcelona is considered to be the most progressive Spanish city and it leads the way in bike paths and encouraging bicycle commuting.

I am already looking to buy a folding bike. I love the bicycle I have now but it is really more for exercise and bike touring. Now I need an every day bike to use to get around town. A folding bike also makes sense when you live on the fifth floor and your building has a small elevator. I have been keeping my eye out for a used one. Folding bikes are very popular here as almost everyone else lives on the fifth fucking floor, some without an elevator. I used to think that folding bikes were silly but they sure beat the hell out of walking.

I’ll either get a folding model or a really crappy bike that I can just lock outside somewhere and not worry about it getting stolen. I have heard so many warnings about bike theft that I lock my beautiful new cycle-cross bike when I leave it on my fifth floor balcony. I don’t know, maybe thieves could rappel down from the roof and steal it? A ninja could do it.

*The photo is a metro advertisement that I think captures the essence of public transportation.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Fitting In, Sticking Out, and Getting Around.

Fitting in, sticking out, and getting around.

Going out has changed considerably in the short time that I have been here. I remember how timid I was initially when I went into a bar or restaurant, not knowing what or how to order. It wasn’t that I lacked the language skills, and I could always understand everything, it’s just that things are quite different here than in Mexico or even other parts of Spain with which I was familiar.

It isn’t as if I have conquered all of the barriers, both linguistic and cultural, that were before me, but I do feel a lot more comfortable in most situations having to do with dining and drinking.

Valencianos have different habits than Madrileños or Sevillanos. For one thing, people here drink mostly beer. You either order a caña, which is a small glass of tap beer, or a tercio, which is a bottle of beer (called a tercio because it is a third of a liter). People here do drink wine but it is not as common as it is in other parts of Spain. I don’t know why this is because they produce pretty good wine in this region.

I have also adopted the Spanish pronunciation model in which certain syllables take on a lisp. In Spain plaza is pronounced as platha and dice is pronounced dithey. In Latin American Spanish they have dropped this syllable and use only the S sound. This was the way I learned to speak the language but since I am here I have switched. It can be difficult at times, especially if you don’t know how a word is spelled. The Spanish pronunciation is at once more elegant in my opinion and much less ambiguous than Latin American Spanish.

I have noticed that many immigrants have difficulty with the lisping Spanish pronunciation so they stick to the Latin way. It must be all but impossible for a Chinese person to make that strange sound. It is getting a lot easier for me to pick up on different accents in Spanish and now a lot of Latin Americans sound quite odd to me although it isn’t like anyone in my semi-literate stage of learning this language can be some sort of accent snob. Other than the slight difference in accent, Castilian Spanish is not much different from Latin American Spanish. A different word here, a different verb there, but it isn’t like they are really different.

My speaking ability still has a long way to go, and that is putting it as politely as I can, but I’m fairly happy with my comprehension level after two month. I went to see a documentary on the ancient history of Mexico the other night and I understood everything being said. I watched about an hour of the movie S.W.A.T. in Spanish last night until it got so unbelievably retarded that I had to turn it off. How could any American sit through that dog in English? I’ll admit that I am a culture snob, but a this point I have to suffer through some pretty low-rent shit in order to learn the language.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Just a few things that conservatives are wrong about

Just a few things that conservatives are wrong about and views they will later regret having

-The war in Iraq
It’s difficult for me to imagine how this war could have gone worse than the way it has. I suppose if we wait around a bit longer we’ll see. It is amazing that there are still a few people who actually think we can “win” this thing. They make the holdouts at the Masada look like quitters.

Most neo-cons desperately wanted intelligent design to be taught in American public schools. ID is dead but I’m sure that they are cooking up some crazy new counter theory. They feel it is an insult to believe that we evolved from monkeys. If it make you feel better we actually came from a lot more humble organism than the monkey.

-Gay Rights
How would you feel if you looked at an old news reel and saw your mother or father spitting on a young black girl because she had the audacity to want to go to school? That’s kind of how future generations will look upon the people who now oppose gay rights and gay marriage.

-Global Warming
The neo-cons will not get on board with global warming until they literally have to get on board to avoid drowning after the ice caps melt. I always thought that being conservative meant erring on the side of caution. If a steam roller were coming towards you would you wait for further study or would you try to get the hell out of the way?

-Socialism and Taxes
When the United States starts to make Brazil look like it has an equitable distribution of income even the most dyed-in-the-wool Republicans should start taking notice—or build bigger walls around their mansions with vats of boiling oil on top of them. Even many people in American big business understand the need to develop a national health care policy.

-The Environment
Their opposition to conservation, public transportation, alternative energy sources, reduced energy consumption, and everything else having to do with the environmental movement is nothing short of the vilest form of nihilism. To many neo-cons, conservationists are just about the worst scum on the planet. Eco-terrorists, tree-huggers, environmental whackos are a few of the names they use to describe people who are trying to make the world a better place.

If I have been seriously wrong on a major political issue I’d sure like to hear about it.

All I have to show after a four hour bike ride south of Valencia

All I have to show after a four hour bike ride south of Valencia

This little cathedral is in Nazaret, the old port neighborhood in the southern-most section of Valencia.

This is Cullera, the best looking of all the little beach towns south of Valencia. I can't wait to go skorkeling here in the summer.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Two Months

Two Months

Today marks my two month anniversary here in Valencia and I was really anxious to pass this milestone thinking that my Spanish has improved greatly. To that end I sacrificed my own dignity last night and watched a really horrible movie with actors I absolutely cannot stand—call it taking one for the team. I can’t think of what the movie is called in English but it stars Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, and Keanu Reeves all intertwined in some ridiculous love triangle, or quadrangle. God, the shit I’m willing to endure for my personal edification.

I guess that tomorrow is officially my two month anniversary so I really got a head start on the Spanish shot in the arm. This morning I cranked out about 40 pages of a novel in Spanish. It is by the Spanish author Susana Fortes, who I discovered two years ago when I was in Madrid. I read one of her essays in the RENFE (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles) magazine on the high speed train from Madrid to Sevilla, or the AVE as it is called here. AVE is the acronym for Alta Velocidad or high speed and it also means bird in Spanish. I loved here essay called, Trenes de Memoria, so I bought a couple of her novels. The one I am reading now is called, El Querido Corto Maltés.

The novel is a bit of a chore to read but I did crank out 40 pages in a couple of hours. I had to look up about 15 words that were essential for comprehension. I was quite pleased with all of the vocabulary that I encountered that I have learned since I arrived two months ago. I can’t wait until I can read almost anything with full understanding.

I really enjoy reading the columns in the Madrid paper’s Sunday magazine. I don’t read El País every day because I am too cheap to pay for it, but every time I find it I am rewarded with good writing and excellent reporting.

I am sitting out on my balcony, smoking a Cuban cigar, and enjoyng the last hour of daylight (1 minutes and 5 seconds more daylight than yesterday) on this sunny winter afternoon. By the way, it got up to 68° today. Among the many pleasures of my balcony is listening to all of the song birds that my neighbors keep for pets and leave out on their balconies—they sure beat the hell out of listening to little dogs yapping. I was thinking about buying a bird myself and then I became too overwhelmed thinking about all of that responsibility. I guess that I’ll just stick with the vicarious experience provided by my neighbors. If you are reading this, neighbors (and I know you aren’t), thank you.

After lunch today I took a bike ride down to the beach and noticed the cool sailboat fountain that you see in this post. I think that my photography is improving because I adhere to a simple rule: take lots of pictures because with digital they are all free. Out of 50 shots I might get a couple that are adequate and the rest I simply delete. I’ve taken more pictures in since arriving in Valencia than I have in the rest of my previous life. To be honest, I’ve never been to keen on visual art and I’ve always found taking pictures to be a huge bore when I travel. Now I just take my little Nikon digital everywhere I go and snap a picture here and there.

The birds are all quiet now as the sun hides somewhere behind the buildings to the south west. It is still comfortable although my nose is a bit cold—nothing that a glass of brandy can’t fix. I have plenty to talk about when I talk politics in my favorite bar later this evening. I poured over a couple of newspapers this morning while I had a couple of coffees.

The big news is that my neighborhood has been declared a Zona Auditoriamente Saturada, or ZAS, which means that the neighborhood bitched enough about the loud discos that stay open to all hours of the morning and now must close earlier. The clubs hate it, I love it. There is a disco almost directly below my bedroom and some mornings there were 100 drunk kids from the Erasmus program (a foreign exchange program for college students featured in the French film, L’Auberge Espangole) singing soccer chants at the top of their lungs. Valencia is well known for its late, late night life, and although I am all for people having a good time, there is something to be said for common courtesy. I’m sure none of those snot-nosed Erasmus punks would like it if I were outside their windows screaming at the top of my lungs while they were trying to sleep. The new law will keep me from pouring boiling oil on top of the late nighters.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Graffiti and Dog Poop and Art and Vandalism

Culturally speaking, Spain is a nation of icons, whether they are vanished, fading, or continue to exert influence on modern Spanish society. The sword, once a symbol for Spanish conquest, is now found only in museums and tourist shops. The corrida, or bullfighting, although still present on the Iberian Peninsula, no longer instills the passion it once did in the hearts and minds of the Spanish people. The soccer ball has usurped the corrida as the dominant icon in modern Spanish society. It even beats out the Catholic Church; if you don’t believe this compare attendance figures at cathedrals with the huge crowds at football stadiums. The spray paint can is also a dominant cultural icon in Spain although most people here wouldn’t acknowledge it or even understand what I mean by this.

I am talking about the graffiti that is everywhere in Spain, like some modern architectural disease. I have never felt that graffiti is much of an art form. In fact, I hate it, at least in most of its varieties. It is to visual art what rap music is to poetry, or what Keanu Reeves is to acting. It is puerile at best and mostly just petty larceny—sometimes not so petty (Think of Keanu in Much Ado About Nothing).

There are almost no sacred cows when a vandal teen intersects with a can of paint. There is very little real public art in Valencia that hasn’t been tagged. Even La Lonja de la Seda, the silk exchange built in 1492, Valencia’s gothic architectural masterpiece and UNESCO World Heritage site, was recently a billboard for graffitists who scrawled “Copamericanos terroristas” in red letters on an exterior wall. Valencia is hosting the upcoming America’s Cup race and I imagine that La Lonja is easier to spray paint than a 12 meter racing sloop. This trenchant message reflects the world view of someone who probably painted the words while balancing on a skateboard and is too stupid to see that defacing of a cultural icon is terrorism. The blemish was quickly removed but not without leaving the stone slightly damaged. Damn those Americans boaters.

The Lonja was just recently restored and the architect who oversaw the work said that anti-graffiti paint was not applied to the exterior walls of the Lonja because it gives the stone façade an improperly bright appearance.

About 99.99% of the graffiti is just vandalism with not the slightest nod to artistic expression. Most of it isn't even communication; it is the urban teen's answer to a dog peeing on its territory. When graffiti does try to communicate something it seems even more pathetic.

I remember seeing a slogan painted on a wall in Lima, Peru many years ago. It was some rather long-winded sermon about the communist party being the only political group that looked to the future. The vandal had begun the slogan in huge red letters, five feet high. He quickly realized that he was quickly running out of wall so he started making the letters smaller, and smaller, and smaller until the letters in the last word weren’t much bigger than this type font. So much for the foresight of the Peruvian communist party. If I had a picture of that work I would file it under "Ironic Metaphors."

Almost none of the graffiti here in Valencia is political. I can almost understand political graffiti but the tagging variety popular here and in most large American cities is a mystery to me. About the only thing being communicated to me is ugliness. I’m not a psychologist. I don’t care to get inside the head of graffiti vandals although I would like to see the outside of their heads connecting with an aluminum baseball bat, you know, for art’s sake.

I have read about the ways to prevent graffiti besides the anti-graffiti paint but one thing that I have noticed here in Valencia is that vandals usually won’t mark over someone else’s work. About the only thing little dickheads with paint cans seem to respect are other little paint can-wielding dickheads. If you are a business owner and you don’t want the little shits defacing your storefront, the best thing to do is have someone with at least a hint of artistic ability paint you walls first.

I don’t think that painting graffiti murals over every square inch of exposed exterior surface is the answer—I don’t think the human eye could handle that much vulgarity. That would be like having rap music on every radio station, or a Keanu Reeves film festival.

Besides graffiti, the other thing that detracts from the beauty of Spanish cities, call it another steaming cultural icon, is that which is left in the wake of man’s best friend. Lots of people have little dogs here and lots of little dogs means lots of little dog poop which most often is left on the sidewalk, or in tree wells, or in the grass at parks, but usually finds its way to the bottom of your shoes. Dog poop is little Barfy’s answer to graffiti. You quickly become adept at playing a kind of dog shit hopscotch as you walk down the sidewalk. France seems to have the same laissez-faire attitude when it comes to cleaning up after pets, but they also have legions of professional dog poop cleaners who scour the streets on motorcycles equipped with dog poop vacuums (I'm not making this up).

Once again, a psychologist could probably explain these issues, graffiti and dog poop, with the same discussion of anti-authoritarian, post-Franco mentality of the Spanish people. It’s as if someone will be labeled as a fascist if they tell anyone to pick up after their dog or to stop defacing a public monument with a can of spray paint. Perhaps the Spanish do not view either of these issues as a problem, or not a problem big enough to warrant much of a response. There is a fairly aggressive anti-graffiti campaign but it seems that the average citizen here has become somewhat immune to the ubiquity of spray paint vandalism. Most of the dialogue you read about graffiti in the newspapers concerns the more benign, artistic forms.

In my status as a casual observer and recent immigrant I can’t offer much insight as to how they feel about these two matters which to me are rather obnoxious. I suppose that if and when they feel that they are worth addressing they will do something about it. Until then, watch your step.

Albufera Nature Park

Albufera Nature Park hastily toured

I rode down to the Albufera nature park south of Valencia again yesterday. It was a lot easier this time since I figured out how to pick my way past all of the new construction in that area. They are renovating the entire southern port area before the America’s Cup begins this year. Once you are beyond the construction detours the road is beautiful for cycling. The highway looks fairly new and it has a wide shoulder leaving plenty of room for cyclists.

I must have seen over 500 cyclists along the route yesterday. I started out at eleven in the morning and by that time almost everyone else was returning to Valencia. There were big groups of club riders flying along the opposite side of the highway. I thought for sure that I would get passed going south by a peleton. On my side I only passed a single other rider all the way to El Perelló.

This resort town is about 14 miles from where I live, at least as the crow flies, or Google Earth flies. I scooped out this entire park on Google Earth before I left. El Albufera is a huge wetlands preserve. It reminds me of South Carolina’s low country. There are lots of dunes, sea pines, and saw palms and every sort of wading bird you can imagine. I was planning on dawdling on my way back and check out some of the back roads. I wanted to get pictures of as many of the bird species as I could. Maybe the next time I go.

I rode down around El Perelló just briefly. There is a great beach there, although I still haven’t seen any places that might be good for diving. I started back north and was planning on stopping for a coffee in El Palmar a few kilometers north when I was passed by a line of about eight riders.

I don’t like getting passed. I don’t care if I am riding a cycle cross bike that isn’t built for speed and I don’t care if it is a group that is passing me. I got in the rear of the peleton and drafted for a bit before they pulled away. At one point they were about a half kilometer in front of me when I decided to turn on the gas. I stayed within a 100 meters of them all the way back to the port in Valencia. No matter how hard I tried I wasn't able to reel them back in but I thought I did well considering I was chasing eight riders on racing bikes riding in a slip stream line.

This was the best workout on a bike that I have had since I can’t remember. I plan on getting in bike-racing shape really soon. I’m still happy with my choice of a cycle cross bike but I wish I still had my racing bike. The cycle cross is definitely the right choice around town. The cobble stone streets in some parts of the old town would beat you half to death on a racing bike. I also like the fact that I can explore unpaved roads. Looking at the satellite photos on Google Earth I can see that I have a lot of off-road ground in the Albufera park.

If anyone knows how to take a photo of a Google Earth screen please let me know.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

I'm too tired after my 3 hour ride to write any more than this sentence.

Another day, another holiday

Another day, another holiday

Today is El Día de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, which is when people hand out gifts to their kids. It is January 6th and they are still screwing around with the Christmas holiday. On the surface it is the celebration of the Epiphany, or the day Jesus was revealed as the savior, but it just seems like another excuse to ir de puente as they say here in Spain, or stretch a holiday into two solid weeks of vacation. Good for them.

As with everything else they do, much of this holiday relates to food. The big tradition on this day is the round holiday pastries they make called, rosca de reyes. Everything will be closed except for everything run by immigrants. I stocked up an enough food to feed everyone on my block. I usually buy whatever looks good and then decide later what I'm going to do with it. I picked up some tomatoes and a couple of eggplants.

I plan on taking advantage of the lower level of automobile traffic to ride my bike to the nature park of Albufera. The park encompasses a huge marsh to the south of Valencia. I rode down there yesterday just to figure out how to get there from where I live without getting on the highway. It was a little bit of a puzzle getting there but after a few wrong turns I finally made it as far as El Saler. Today's ride should be less than 50 miles altogether. The weather is great, as always.

Friday, January 05, 2007

On Learning Spanish

On Learning Spanish

I am coming up on two months here in Spain and already I feel like things have really opened up for me, that I see things more clearly, and that I’m actually starting to fit in (at least in my own illegal immigrant sort of way). I am not intimidated by language situations as I know I can muddle through just about anything that I encounter. I still have a lot to learn and I get frustrated with myself at times and think that I’ll never speak Spanish well.

I still haven’t even really started to learn the second person plural familiar pronoun, vosotros, and all of its verb declensions. This form is not used in Mexico and Peru where I learned Spanish initially. It’s not an important gap in my knowledge of the language but I need to start incorporating this into my speech.

My strategy in learning Spanish calls for lots of reading. I read every newspaper I can get my hands on. I look up damn near every word that I don’t know. I have pages and pages of vocabulary in my little notebook that I review whenever I get the chance, like when I’m walking down the street or riding the subway. Some words stick and some don’t. I really hate it when I have already looked a word up before and then I am stumped when I come upon it again.

If I am home I usually have the television turned on or I listen to the BBC in Spanish via the internet. I can follow the news rather well and talk shows aren’t too big of a problem. Movies are still a struggle to understand. I just have to force myself to pay close attention and understand as much as I can. The hardest things for me are the cartoon shows, Los Simpsons, Futurama, and Padre de la Familia (Family Guy). The animated voices are really difficult to hear. When I can watch and understand an entire episode of Los Simpsons I will really feel like I have achieved something. It’s important to set high goals for yourself.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Final Product

What’s better than drinking red wine, eating fantastic olives, and cooking great food? While I’m waiting for you to answer I’ll have another sip of wine and another of these wonderful cracked olives. I have cooked a lot of dishes with calamari and there is a simple rule: either cook it fast (like deep frying), or cook it slow (like simmering it for 30 minutes), otherwise it turns to rubber. I am doing the slow cooking method tonight with a saffron calamari risotto.

I got the idea for this from my fishmonger (Yeah, I have a fish monger!) at the Mercado de Algirós today when I bought my squid. It wasn’t too busy there today and the woman really took a lot of time to explain to me the various types of squid available to us lucky Valencianos. She talked me into buying the less expensive calamari since I was planning on using it in a sauce. She said that this squid goes great in a sauce with tomatoes and rice. The half kilo of squid came to 4 €; that’s a lot of calamari.

I was about to write down the recipe for this dish until I realized that being the iconoclastic chef that I am, this is probably not even risotto. I’m sure that I am offending Italian as well as Spanish culture with the dish I concocted tonight, but damn, it is good.

P.S. Next to my wine glass you can see the book I am reading, the poems of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. More on him later but I’ll leave you with a little bit of one of his works called, Flies Enter a Closed Mouth.

En qué medita el tortuga?
Dónde se retira la sombra?
Qué canto repite la lluvia?
Dónde van a morir los pájaros?
Y por qué son verdes las hojas?


Es tan poco lo que sabemos
Y tanto lo que presumimos
Y tan lentamente aprendemos,
que preguntamos, y morimos.

What does the tortoise think?
Where do shadows go?
What song does the rain have in its head?
Where do birds go to die?
And why are leaves green?

We know so little
And presume so much
And learn so slowly
And we ask, and we die.
(translated by me)

The Spanish Table

The Spanish Table

I have learned that whenever I use my oven I need to bake as many potatoes as can fit around whatever else I am cooking in there. I use the baked potatoes for my cheating version of a Spanish potato tortilla. This dish usually calls for you to sauté the thinly sliced potatoes in olive oil until they are completely cooked which takes about 40 minutes and requires about a cup of olive oil. Using my pre-baked potatoes I can slice them thinly and sauté them for just a few minutes before I add the eggs. I also use cheese in my tortillas which isn’t very Spanish. They make a tortilla francesa with cheese but that is something separate. I’m not too big on tradition and I prefer my tortilla de patata with cheese.

This dish is still tricky for me to cook although every tortilla I have made so far in Spain has been respectable. The trick is turning this rather unwieldy dish over so that the other side cooks. I cook it on one side with the pan tightly covered so the top of the tortilla solidifies. I think that using cheese makes it even more liquid on the top side. Flipping it before the bottom side burns is difficult because the top part can be very runny. You are also not supposed to brown the potatoes but I prefer them lightly browned so that’s how I make it. I eat the tortilla as a bocadito between two slices of fresh aldeano or peasant bread and lathered with a little of my Mediterranean oil.

I made a trip over to the Mercado de Algirós to buy olives. That’s all I was planning to buy but I couldn’t help picking up a few dried sardines. The guy at the stall told me how to prepare them and warned me that they are fairly salty, which means that they are loaded with salt. I also bought some calamari and the woman gave me a refresher course on how to clean them. I had done this before often enough when I lived in Greece but that was a long time ago. Since then, when I buy fresh squid I get it cleaned for me.

I bought a half kilo of partidas, or cracked olives (xafés in Valenciano). These are my favorite olives that I have found here in Valencia. I just found that my huge new olive container isn’t quite big enough for my entire assortment. I’ll have to eat them faster. Whatever the hell I decide to do with the squid, the olives will be a good accompaniment. That’s true with olives regarding almost all of the food here in the Mediterranean basin.

I like the idea of eating sardines almost as much as I like eating them. They remind me of when I lived on the Mediterranean before. I will probably just filet them and marinate them in olive oil. Just thinking about this food makes me want to go for a bike ride to clean out my arteries before I clog them up again.

Entertainment Officials Report New Reserves Found Miles Below Lowest Common Denominator

Entertainment Officials Report New Reserves Found Miles Below Lowest Common Denominator

Officials in the entertainment industry revealed today that they have struck upon huge new reserves of television material lying miles beneath the lowest common denominator which now plagues the airwaves.

OK, I came up with that phony headline for a contest over at my favorite blog, www.onegoodmove.org. I think that we as citizens share most of the blame for the almost total lack of quality in what we choose to ingest from the culture around us. There is no shortage of intelligent choices we could be making in our entertainment consumption, yet reality TV, mediocre talent, and the lowest common denominator occupy our primary attention.

If you go to Youtube, the popular web site for videos, they feature the following videos:
-a farting baby
-strange faces and noises I can make
-New Year’s beavers cartoon
-Pigs are like men (animation)

The New York Times has a story on how libraries in Fairfax Country, Virginia are cutting back on classics to make more room for modern bestsellers.

I could cite more examples of the decline of Western civilization. I could look in the TV Guide and see what’s on prime time tonight, but I think we all get the idea. I am guilty of doing a lot of intellectual slumming myself. It’s not like I sit around playing classical music on the piano and then read a Shakespeare play before drinking a glass of port and going to bed. I don’t see anything wrong with watching an hour or two of shitty television, or reading a popular novel, or listening to the latest popular tune. I do think it’s a problem when as a society we feel that there is no need for anything beyond these ephemeral entertainments.

I may often be too lazy to actually do it but at least I know that it is better for me to read a Shakespeare play than to watch another episode of The Simpsons (and I don’t mean to pick on that show because it is one of the best examples of quality modern entertainment—God help us). As I write this my eyes are rolling back in my own head so far that I feel like I am going to fall over. I’m another voice telling us how stupid we all are, another hack complaining about the closing of the American mind. I should stop but I’ve already gone this far.

As I try to assimilate into a new culture I am made more aware of the things in American culture that separate us from Spanish culture and which things bridge these two worlds. America’s cultural hegemony is evident everywhere in Spain, anyone who has ever left the country is aware of this. If you look closer you will see that although Spain borrows a bit from the United States, it has its own popular culture which doesn’t intersect often with ours.

Popular culture is almost as different here as are our two languages. Within the United States the fragmented popular culture is like an ever-growing group of separate dialects only completely understood by those who have invested the time necessary to become fluent. If people are talking about Paris Hilton, or American Idol, or Survivor I am able to understand less than if they are speaking Catalan. The accelerated fragmentation of popular culture makes communication between factions more difficult. I wrote about how the English of rap music has changed more in twenty years than the English of Chaucer almost 600 years ago. I was talking with a group of people the other day and they introduced me to an acquaintance of theirs from London. His cockney accent was so pronounced that I switched languages and was better able to understand him in Spanish (although his accent in Spanish was very unusual). I immediately recognized that conversation as metaphorical.

As with anything else, there are elements of popular culture that are good and those which are completely vapid. For the most part, the more insipid aspects of pop culture are those that mutate the most quickly. America’s Funniest Home Videos are forgotten before you are three seconds into the commercial break while some of the new HBO series are breaking new ground, not only in television, but in how film can be used to tell stories.

I really don’t know what I am saying except that it seems to me that there is more momentum in popular culture towards the vulgar than the sublime. In an era with such heavy levels of popular culture consumption it is just easier to produce large amounts of trash than quality. With 24 hours news, sports, and entertainment programming, television will naturally gravitate towards what is the easiest and most profitable to produce. I don’t understand how these same forces drive literature and music. I’m no businessman but it seems like it would be just as easy to promote and sell quality music and books as it is to market Paris Hilton songs and Da Vinci Code quality pabulum.

I couldn’t even name a new author of fiction whose work we all should be reading and talking about. The voices we should be listening to are drowned out by the airport bestsellers. Who has time to ferret out the modern day classics when there are farting baby videos to watch?

Monday, January 01, 2007

Bike Tour

Bike Tour

For me, life with a bike is a lot better than life without a bike. In fact, almost all of my stay here on the planet has been in the company of a bicycle, or bicycles in the best of times. They are my main source of exercise, transportation, and recreation all at the same time. My first month here in Spain was a living hell of endless walking. I wish that I could say that I am a better person for what I endured that month but every time a I ride around town and see just how far I was walking it gives me cold shivers just thinking about those sad, bike-less times.

Yesterday the temperature was inching close to 70 degrees (try writing that sentence using the metric system). New Year’s Eve is called Nochvieja in Spain and it is, of course, a holiday. Not that the Spanish need much of an excuse to take the day off, but this is a fairly big holiday for them. It was a great day to bike around town because there was very little automobile traffic.

I have mentioned that Valencia has a great network of dedicated bike paths—as do many European cities. These usually run along the sidewalk nearest to the street. Pedestrians often stray into the bike path, or Carril Bici in Spanish, but they know they don’t belong there and will move out of the way when they see you approaching. Automobiles have an equal amount of respect for cyclists here and will give you the right-of-way at all times. I have never had a car honk at me, even when I’m, doing something stupid, like riding the wrong way down a very narrow street. About the only vehicles with assholes for drivers are the mopeds which seem to have only two speeds: idling and full blast. I haven’t figured it out yet but mopeds really bring out the worst in people.

Either on foot or on bike I have traversed almost every street in the old section of Valencia. I am still being rewarded by new discoveries as I was yesterday when I happened upon the Plaza del Carmen. I was riding down the wrong way on a one way street when I came upon the shaded plaza and the cathedral; something I wouldn’t have tried on a normal day of traffic. I spent a good part of the afternoon meandering through the narrow streets and alleys of Ciutat Vella where the only hazards were avoiding pedestrians and dodging soccer balls. I lot of the time I was riding around the old section I couldn’t even hear an automobile. I was rewarded with the sound of church bells ringing, or the music of a violin coming from the balcony of an apartment.

I can cover a lot of ground in a three hour bike ride. I rode through the Real Gardens where I took this picture of families taking advantage of the sunshine at the park café. I crisscrossed most of the downtown and before I went home I rode down to the beach. On a bike it’s only five minutes from where I live, or 13 hours if you are walking.

From the look of things from my balcony it seems that everything will be shut down today as well. I need even less of an excuse to go for a bike ride than Spanish people need to take the day off.