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Monday, May 21, 2007


Plaza del Negrito


Valencia, like any city of its size, is difficult to define. At first glance you may notice row after row of apartment buildings, some of which are a bit on the bleak side and you will certainly never find the tidy and grassy expanses which define most American suburbs. There is the ubiquitous graffiti that scars almost everything that stands still for any length of time. If you didn’t know where you were you may mistake some areas of the city for a dreary Eastern Bloc industrial city. One the other hand, you will never come across anything comparable to the hopeless squalor present in most large American inner cities. There really aren’t good neighborhoods or bad neighborhoods here in Valencia; some buildings are nicer than others but there isn’t anything like an affluent part of town.

The cities public services don’t seem to show any favoritism. The metro system covers most areas of town and the buses extend everywhere else. Both are inexpensive and efficient. Miles and miles of impeccably-maintained public beaches flank the city to the east and the Turia Gardens Park snakes through the center of the city like a flowing oasis.

I think one of the major factors in the Spanish quality of life is their definition of themselves culled from centuries of tradition and history. There are characteristics common among all Spanish citizens and then there are the regional and local variations which in Valencia are even more idiosyncratic and defining. Valencia has its own language, its own food, its own time schedule, and its own way of doing just about everything.

At times the traditions of Valencia seem to me like a millstone around their necks. I was having a cup of coffee with someone a few weeks ago in the late afternoon. We were discussing our dinner plans for the evening and I mentioned that I was going to take another crack at making paella to which she replied in horror, “Rice? In the evening?” It’s as if I was going to mix bleach and ammonia. You don’t eat rice in the evenings here in Valencia, it’s just not done. Lord help you if you try to alter a few ingredients in some of Valencia’s signature dishes. If you are going to do something crazy, like make baked rice without garbanzo beans, remember not to invite any locals to your blasphemy thinly disguised as dinner.

Something that sets all Spaniards apart from most other Europeans is the lunch hour. In France, for example, lunch is generally served until 2 o’clock which presents a problem for Spaniards visiting their neighbor to the north because in here people just begin thinking about lunch at 2 o’clock. Restaurants are usually full at around 3 o’clock and on weekends the midday meal gets dragged even further into the late afternoon. I guess that this probably isn’t such a big deal unless you happen to be Spanish. They place about as much importance on lunch every single day as Americans do on things like 50 year wedding anniversaries and college graduations.

Tradition here creeps into everything. There are really only three ways to order coffee with the most popular being a cortado. This is a shot of espresso with a bit of heated milk added to it and served in a small glass. Next is a café solo which the Italians call an espresso and the French a café express. Café con leche is the third choice which is espresso with heated milk served in a cappuccino cup. I sometimes order a café americano which I will sometimes have to walk the barman through as few people order this exotic drink of espresso with extra water forced through the grounds.

Valencianos are further defined by the other drinks they order in cafes. Almost no one here drinks wine and a few times when I have ordered a vino tinto—the most common drink in other parts of Spain—I have been met with a blank stare. “You know, red wine,” I remind them. Here people drink beer for the most part, at least when they aren’t drinking coffee or soft drinks. Another acceptable beverage to order in a café is a gin and tonic, or gin y tonic. Nobody says ginebra which is “gin” in Spanish, at least not when ordering a gin and tonic. Spanish brandy is also popular, a lot more so than wine is, at least outside of the context of meals. I think that I am the only person in Valencia who orders wine in cafes so they all keep at least one bottle on hand for me. People drink plenty of wine with meals here, just not between meals. I don’t know why that is because they make plenty of good wine in this province whereas the beer they drink is run-of-the-mill bottled beer.

To be continued…

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