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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Spanish Soccer 101 (for Beginners)

I was already a pretty big fan of soccer before I moved to Spain. A big reason I have followed the sport is because I was lucky enough to attend a Real Madrid match when I came to Spain for a visit a few years ago. The 2006 World Cup finals in Germany were extremely popular in Seattle where I was living at the time. I would go to a bar and watch the games as early as six in the morning among crowds as big, boisterous, and beer-fueled as anything you see on a Saturday night. That was all good preparation for appreciating football in Spain.

The Spanish first division, ominously referred to as "La Liga" here, contains 20 teams, with every large city in the country fielding at least one team in this competition. The second league is made up of 22 lesser clubs. Each year the bottom three squads in the first division are sent down to the second and the top three in the second are promoted. Valencia currently has two teams in the first division: Valencia CF and Levante. As of this writing, Valencia CF is one point behind the leader while Levante is in last place. Teams are awarded three points for a win and one point for a tie. If there is a tie at the end of the season the winner is decided on a goal differential. The odds against this are fairly staggering so it never happens, except last season when Madrid was declared the winner on goals after the very last game of the year.

The Spanish football season starts at the end August and ends some time in May. There are international games in June, July and August, so I suppose that soccer is a yearlong sport. It’s kind of like our baseball, football, and basketball rolled into one super sport. It’s not that people here don’t take other sports seriously—basketball is very popular in Spain—it’s just that soccer has a special place in their hearts—probably where religion used to be before people here pretty much gave up on it. There aren’t many new cathedrals going up in Spain these days, now they build huge new sports stadiums. Teams in the Spanish Liga play one game a week, unless they play two games. Matches are on Sundays unless they are on Tuesdays, or Thursdays, or any other day of the week. Football is as essential as oxygen for lots of people here and they need to breathe it in on a regular basis.

I remember when I first came to Spain and I noticed that there was a soccer daily newspaper. I thought that a daily paper dedicated to soccer was a bit excessive. How much news could there be if there are only one or two games a week for each team? I thought that a daily paper for soccer was excessive until I realized that there is a daily paper for soccer FOR EVERY TEAM! I’m sorry, was I shouting?

I like sports as much as the next slob but this just seemed a little crazy to me. At least it did at first. Now I realize that one daily newspaper for each club is just about enough, that is if you supplement this with the regular newspaper’s coverage of soccer. Some cities have two soccer dailies. Of course, you also have to watch the constant television broadcasts of soccer news. How else are you going to see a replay of Baptista’s bicycle kick last night? I guess that following scores and different European leagues on the internet just goes without saying.

I am lucky enough to be living in a city that has a really good team. Valencia made it to the quarter finals of the Champions League in 2007 before finally bowing out to Chelsea. Valencia is back in the Champions League playoffs along with three other Spanish teams: Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Sevilla. I suppose that the Spanish are no more sports crazy than Americans except they dedicate most of the fanaticism towards one sport and it goes on almost all year. If this isn’t enough soccer worship for anyone’s taste you have to remember that every two years there are also the European Cup finals or the World Cup.

Just like in the United States, bars here are often heavily saturated with sports, if by sports you mean football, and if by saturated you mean that people just won’t shut up about it. Just like soccer in Spain takes on the roll of our three main sports of baseball, football and basketball, bars in Spain double as restaurants and coffee shops. Just like the Spanish football season lasts almost all year, people go to bars early in the morning until late at night. More than likely, the bar will have a television tuned to sports news or an actual game, if one is being played somewhere on the planet. The bar tops are littered with football newspapers and regular papers usually opened to the sports section.

I go to a bar at least once a day at the absolute minimum; I have to have one professional cup of coffee every afternoon. Quite often I go more than once a day depending on how much coffee, wine, beer, or food I decide to consume when I am out of the house. This is why I first decided to become fluent in Spanish football conversation. Talking about football is the great equalizer; it’s the great ice breaker, even if my Spanish language skills aren’t always up to the task. Talking about sports is sort of like the knucklehead’s version of Esperanto, the universal language. An offhand remark about football goes a long way in establishing my credentials as a local in the places I frequent. A casual reference to a player in the league who is currently tearing up the nets helps to gloss over any errors I make in grammar or diction.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Of Threats and Lessons Learned

People in Spain are very passionate about soccer. This seems like a rather cliché observation coming from an American who has spent so little time in this country. It seems like something someone would say who was seriously lacking in creativity and original thought. I’m saying it not because I lack creativity or original ideas; I’m saying it as a defense against charges that I threatened an 11 year old boy with violence while watching a football match on television. I have a few other remarks for the jury, or the judge, or whoever you speak to in a Spanish courtroom (I hope I never need to learn this the hard way).

I realize that it is perfectly acceptable in Spain to bring your children to a bar. The Spanish make little distinction between bars and restaurants; they are both places for everyone to enjoy. I realize that it is not unusual for young children to stay up to watch a soccer match on television that begins at 10:00 p.m. on a school night (At least I believe that it is a school night. You never know here with the hundreds of holidays on the calendar). I don’t mind if an 11 year old boy watching a match with his father expresses a lot of opinions about the players, even when most of these opinions are unfavorable and often insulting. With all of this understood, there are still rules to follow when you watch a match in a public place and the sooner this little loudmouth learns these rules the better.

The game was between Real Madrid and Betis (a team from Sevilla). I have noticed that most people in Valencia are Real Madrid fans; at least they are when our own club isn’t playing. Tonight, in this bar, everyone seemed to be rooting for Madrid, including the opinionated juvenile delinquent up too late on a probable school night but who can tell in Spain where people take off work with some of the flimsiest excuses you are ever going to hear. The youth in question showed his support in a sort of New York manner: by criticizing every player on the Real Madrid squad. Guti is slow, Casillas is a lousy goalkeeper, Sergio Ramos can’t pass, and on and on. Everyone has a right to their own opinion. Spain is a free country, at least I think that it is. Is Spain a free country? We say it all the time in America but I’m not really sure exactly what that even means.

I do know that there are limits to freedom. I don’t think that it is acceptable behavior in any bar in Spain to insult one of the best players for the Spanish national team and the fulltime ace forward for Real Madrid, Raul. It’s just not done. You don’t scream “fire” in a crowded theater and you don’t trash about Raul. This is why I told the little punk next to me that he was going to get a serious beating if he ever got down to insulting Raul in his inventory of criticism for the Real Madrid team. His father seemed to agree with me as he threw his hands in the air in a gesture that means, “What are you gonna do?” This gesture translates into any language. I don’t know what you’re going to do, dad, but I’m going to give your kid a vicious beating if he starts talking trash about Raul. I’d be doing it for his own good. I wouldn’t expect that a Canadian kid would have lived to see his first zit if he talked smack about Wayne Gretzky, Muslim kids don’t mock the Prophet, and this little runt needed to learn that in Spain, if you have anything bad to say about Raul, you keep it to yourself. Everyone at the bar seemed to agree with me on this.

I don’t think any Spanish court would convict me on this crime of threatening a minor, especially since Raul scored the first goal of the game on a penalty kick.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

¿Algo Más?

¿Algo Más?, or “anything else?,” is what you hear every time after your order has been filled at the market. My Spanish has improved by leaps and bounds since I arrived here some ten months ago. Just the other day I explained to a Spanish friend in great detail about the mortgage crisis in America and how this is playing havoc on the exchange rate here in Europe (If I had known before I left just how poorly the dollar was going to fare, I would have converted all of my savings into half-off pizza coupons). My Spanish is pretty good these days but I still don’t know how to say “no” when someone asks me, “¿Algo más?”

I just want to fit in; I just want to be anonymous. How can I do this when I go to the market and buy such puny amounts of food? I don’t even have one of those cool market baskets on wheels than any self-respecting Spanish shopper takes with them when they go to buy groceries. I sometimes feel like I am the only person in this country who cooks only for himself.

I very rarely just order the exact amount that I need for whatever I have planned to cook for that day. Today, for example, I had everything that I needed and I was on my way out the door of the market when I noticed a type of chorizo that I hadn’t seen before in one of the butcher stalls. I bought two big links, “just to try,” as I told the woman working there. When she asked me if I wanted anything else I felt like I wasn’t even in control of myself any more. I ordered four hamburger patties. Just when I plan on getting around to eating these wasn’t clear to me then and is even more of a mystery now that I have had time to inventory the contents of my bursting-at-the-seams refrigerator.

I now live with two Spanish women who don’t give me much help in consuming the vast amount of food I buy and cook regularly. I think that more food falls off of my plate on to the floor than both of them eat, combined, during the same meal. I have even started using the marker board in our kitchen, like the restaurant chalkboards you see all over Europe that announce the daily specials, to advertise what I have cooked and that I need help eating it. If they don’t get on board the leftbanker gravy train I may end up as the “before” picture in some weight loss program.

I buy big pans, really big. My paella pan is big enough to roast a whole pig, something I plan on doing some day when I can catch one of those slippery little fellas. Spanish people cook a lot with these cool clay baking dishes. When I went out to buy one I measured my oven so that I could buy the biggest one that it could hold. Back in Seattle I had a pot for making stock that was as big as those cauldrons the cannibals in the cartoons used to try to cook Bugs Bunny. I could have used it as a sort of low-rent hot tub. I think my quest for size in cooking is not some sort of over-compensation for my diminished sense of masculinity. The only part of my body that isn’t big enough for my liking is probably my liver, but that’s only because of the amount or red wine I drink over here. My fetish for bigness in cookware is probably because I have never got over the fact that although I come from a large family, I have remained single and childless.

Shopping and cooking have become two of my favorite pastimes here in Spain. I like them both more than eating, but I like eating a lot, a lot. Some men restore old motorcycles or build model train sets. I go to the market and pester anyone there who will talk to me. The gorgeous woman who sells me my eggs told me a story today about how her mother used to make her a treat to take to school that was bread soaked in red wine with sugar on top. You can’t make that stuff up. My butcher gave me his recipe for pork stock. The woman at the vegetable stand told me how many potatoes to put in my tortilla de patatas (it seems like an awful lot of potatoes but I’m going to trust her on this). I used to have to walk six or seven blocks to get to my old neighborhood market. Now I can practically trip from my front door step and fall into the Ruzafa Market. I think that I will be there almost daily.

I take shortcuts through the market when I am on the other side coming home. This could prove to be dangerous as I already have toxic levels of pork in my system and it wouldn’t kill me to walk the extra steps around the outside of the market. But the market is fun, the market is exciting, it’s where everyone goes. It’s like a disco during the daylight hours. There is no cover charge but if you’re like me, you’ll always spend more than you planned.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

It’s Time to Renew America’s Message

The war in Iraq has probably done more to recruit potential terrorists worldwide that any event since the first Arab-Israeli war. America’s war on drugs has had a similarly reverse effect of what was intended. It has created some of the world’s most powerful criminal organizations. I remember seeing William Bennet, the self-righteous former “Drug Czar,” on a TV talk show during his tenure combating drugs. He was asked to point to a single thing that proved that America was winning the “war on drugs,” a terrifically expensive campaign that was, by then, already decades old. He started reciting seizures and arrests when he was stopped by the host who said that this didn’t illustrate that we were winning. It was hard to tell if Bennet was being stupid or mendacious in his response.

Conservatives continue to see drugs as a law and order issue. Their solution has always been to lock up drug offenders. That certainly has worked well for us over the past 40 years or so as a stroll through most American inner cities will show.

Our belligerency against Cuba has kept Castro in power for over 50 years in a very unstable region of the world. America’s strategy in the Cold War enabled some of the worst abuses in human rights in Latin America, simply because those regimes claimed to be anti-communist—most never claimed to be democratic. Our support of military dictators in the region probably did more to recruit potential communist sympathizers than the writings of Mao, Lenin, and Che Guevarra put together.

With the invasion of Iraq, America has replaced Israel on the Islamic world’s shit list. Now the Muslim world has an even more formidable enemy, now they are the David against the U.S. Goliath. They were humiliated continuously when these roles were reversed in their wars with Israel. Israel is still targeted for destruction by the Muslim extremists, but Israel will now have to wait in line as they take out their frustrations on America. In fact, now the Muslim extremists target the entire Western world in their diatribes. Even cartoonists are singled out as targets for the wrath of the followers of Mohammed.

I guess America’s leaders just feel that it is important for us to be at war with someone or something. After arming to the teeth half of all of the half-assed nations on earth during the Cold War, and with our Soviet rivals arming the other half, we now live in a world that has ostensibly been without a world war in 60 years, yet is full of regional conflicts, each with a seemingly endless supply of weapons. We are now talking about a war with Iran, a country that was one of the biggest buyers of U.S. arms for a generation. This wasn’t the only of our Cold War strategies that came back to bite us in the ass.

During the height of the Iraq-Iran War, Henry Kissinger said, “The only pity is that only one side can lose.” America was an ally to Iraq in this war, true to our Kissinger strategy of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend no matter how loathsome they may be.” So we armed all of the enemies of our enemies. As another famous man once said, “The chickens are coming home to roost.” Kissinger was wrong about only one side losing; more than one side has lost in our disastrous policies in the Middle East. We have lost.

Just like our war against communism, the war on terrorism is a battle against an idea. Just like communism, you cannot really wage a war against terrorism and the elements we associate with it. Bush has made a disastrously valiant attempt to use our military to defeat an idea. People talk about “winning” and “losing” in Iraq, as if we will even know if either happens (although I think we lost the day we invaded). Those involved in dreaming up the war in Iraq have conveniently changed every definition of success there to reflect their own failures in policy. It is impossible for me to look at our policy in Iraq and see anything but failure, and a failure we will feel for a generation.

After shying away from the myth that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, the neo-cons pushed for a new reality. They said that we were in Iraq to create a new state that would be a “bulwark against terrorism and beachhead of democracy in the Middle East” (I am borrowing their words—they sicken me as well). It seems to me that it would be a lot easier to convince our allies in the region to adopt the principles of democracy than to impose it upon our enemies. Saudi Arabia is about as far from being a democracy as you can get, yet they are supposedly one of our main allies in the region. If the idea America wishes to project to the Middle East can’t even take root in an allied nation, what hope do we have of it being accepted in enemy territory?

At the beginning of the Iraq war the neo-cons lambasted anyone who tried to compare the situation there to our failed policy in Viet Nam. Five years later President Bush wanted to link the two conflicts by laying the blame for our losses in both theaters on those who opposed the wars, saying that those Americans lack the resolve to win. First of all, I fail to see how resolve on this issue will insure success. Resolve is blowing yourself up among women and children for your cause, something I hope no American would consider for any reason. What failed us in Viet Nam and is failing us in Iraq is the lack of resolve in the idea we are trying to impose on the regions.

I don’t know too many people who think that complete pacifism is the way to effect policy, but warfare has had more than its share of disastrous outcomes. It is impossible for me to imagine how Iraq could be worse off, how the entire arena of Islamic extremism could be worse had we not invaded Iraq. The issue of America’s crumbling economy under the staggering cost of the war, and the human casualties is another matter altogether.

For the past 25 years or so America has been failing in its message to the world. We are slipping in our stature as the beacon of democracy, equality, and opportunity. Our idea is less compelling, less convincing to the world than it once was. We need to work on our idea here at home. This means we need to stop exporting it abroad by force.

Islamic extremism presents a challenge to America’s ideas of freedom and democracy. It is a feeble challenge and one that would quickly die under the light of casual scrutiny but a challenge that cannot be faced through warfare. Warfare has strengthened the position of the extremists in Islam and has made their voices heard from Morocco to Afghanistan, while America’s message has been lost in our heavy-handed approach to terrorism.

Here in Spain, it is easy to see the stark contrast between the Muslim world and the West. On the one hand, you have oppressive religious states that seek to control every aspect of human life. Religious police roam the streets in many countries punishing women for showing a bit of hair or for wearing make-up. The sexes are almost completely segregated. Alcohol is prohibited. Spain has nude beaches and has more bars than any country on earth. Which idea do you think will win out in the end?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Saturday Night Lights

It’s pissing down rain here, Seattle style, so I’m stuck at home tonight. I have my choice right now of watching The Englsih Patient in Spanish or the football game on La Sexta, the heavy weight TV station in Spain. The game is Barcelona against Sevilla in Barcelona. They are also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the stadium there, Camp Nou.

There is still more than the better part of an hour before the game starts so La Sexta is showing all of the festivities at the stadium in Barcelona. Everything at the stadium is being translated by the announcers for all of the slobs like me who don’t speak Catalan. It looks like a great time tonight in Barcelona. Their squad is so loaded with talent this year that it’s difficult to believe that they could lose a single game.

Their newest addition is French superstar, Thierry Henry, formerly with Arsenal. They like showing a clip of a game where Henry is literally getting his jersey ripped off his body by a defender and he uses the back of his foot to kick the ball between both his and the defender’s legs to score a goal. As if Barcelona even needed another star player. Every member of their team is a world class player: Ronaldinho, Messi, Deco, Marquesa, Abidal, Iniesta, among others. They don’t have a single player that any other team in the world wouldn't kill someone to sign.

Oops! I just turned the channel during a commercial break and The Simpsons is on the next station so it appears that I’ll miss the first part of the match. It looks like a good one. Gotta go.

Friday, September 21, 2007

And da food? Fagedaboutit!

And da food? Fagedaboutit!

I was so pleased with myself that I had my camera on this urban bike safari. I got some strange looks for taking pictures of this place, "Da Dong" isn't quite so uproariously funny to Spanish speakers. Or perhaps all of the people giving me strange looks are just normal, well-adjusted adults, unlike the photographer.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Class, today we are going to watch a film.”

Yea, a movie! These days, instead of feeling like a lazy slob for watching a movie, I feel like I am improving myself. I can justify watching the biggest piece of shit ever filmed as long as it’s in Spanish. Movies are a good tool for learning Spanish, especially without the crutch of subtitles. This is a passive, yet very effective way to improve listening ability in the language. I even watch quite a few American movies dubbed into Spanish, but I prefer to watch movies made in Spanish, especially those made in Spain. I still feel that reading is the best method for improving vocabulary because in two hours of reading you come across a hundred times more words and different grammar constructions than you do by watching a movie, but movies have their place in the learning tree.

I am only just beginning to discern the country by country difference in Spanish accents. Spain probably has the easiest accent to recognize because of the lisping of the “z,” and the “ci” and “ce” combinations which are pronounced as “s” in Latin American Spanish. If there is a combination of an “x” or “s” along with the lisping sound, you must pronounce both. This means that a word like “piscina,” while pronounced “pee sea na” in Latin American, is pronounced “peace thi na” in Spain. I am sorting this all out little by little, and movies are a big help.

Besides the linguistic boost I get from watching Spanish movies, they also help to build my cultural literacy in my new country. It sort of works both ways. Watching a movie helps me understand the culture, while living here I learn things to help me better understand the movies I watch. Learning more about Spanish culture certainly allows me to better appreciate the tiny details I see in their movies.

I like the authenticity imposed on Spanish movies by their small budgets. Instead of some elaborate Hollywood set, most movies here are shot on location. The result is that the movies look a lot more like real Spanish life than American movies mirror life in America. I recently watched a really good movie called Tapas that depicts life in Spain down to every detail. For example, in the beginning of the movie an old woman is walking down the street on a hot day and notices a dog locked in a car. She takes a piece of pipe out of the garbage and smashes the window to free the overheated pooch. It’s a tiny detail but she grabbed the pipe out of a skip, or a large metal dumpster, which you see on almost every block in Spanish cities. They use these to carry away the debris when an apartment is being remodeled—and they are always having to remodel in this country that doesn’t ever tear down old buildings.

Even the people in Tapas look like normal people you would see on the street. I think that the problem with Hollywood films is that the people making them are so entirely removed from what most people consider to be America that they actually think that they are being a faithful witness to our world. I remember reading about the movie Father of the Bride (a piece of shit I wouldn’t watch under pain of torture). In the movie, the family was supposed to be middle class yet they lived in a million dollar home. To some ultra-rich movie mogul, that is middle class.

Here are just a few of the movies that I have seen thus far that I would recommend:

La Niña de tus Ojos
Lucía y el sexo
Todo Sobre mi Madre
Y Tu Mamá También
El Laberinto del Fauno
Mar Adentro

I’ll add to this list as I watch more movies. I am just now really trying to increase my collection of movies in Spanish.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."

I was brushing my teeth today when I got to thinking about that quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. I wasn’t actually brushing my teeth; I was squeezing the toothpaste out of the tube. But that’s just when the idea popped into my head. I did most of the thinking about it as I was brushing my teeth so I guess that what I said in the first sentence is accurate. My electric toothbrush goes for two minutes before it stops so I also had time to think about where I was going to watch tonight’s football match between Valencia CF and Schalke 04. I’ll probably go back to my old neighborhood and watch it at one of my old haunts, although I watched the Spain/Russian European basketball final at a cool sports-oriented bar in my new neighborhood. Anyway, rich people probably get rich because they can keep a single thought in their head for longer than it takes to brush their teeth.

The rich probably don’t bother squeezing their toothpaste from the bottom like you are supposed to do. This insures that all of the toothpaste comes out. Rich people probably just squeeze the tube anywhere they feel like squeezing it. “Fuck it,” they probably say to themselves, or to their butlers, “I’ll just buy another tube.” Not me, I’m a bottom squeezer. In fact, I have been doing such a heroic job of getting everything out of this particular tube that I have probably expended more effort than they did trying to save those coal miners. It’s not like things are so bad here financially at Leftbanker Industries; that’s just the way I was brought up I suppose.

If you are brought up to be a bottom squeezer, then you will probably remain one for life. Even if I won a $300 million lottery I’m sure that I’d still be a bottom squeezer. Just because I have a few extra bucks in my wallet I’m supposed to get all Kennedy Compound wasteful and grab a tube of toothpaste and squeeze it any place that rocks my boat? Why don’t I just take up playing Russian roulette while I’m at it. Why don’t I put two bullets in the gun just to make things more interesting? I certainly can afford another bullet.

Like hell I’ll squeeze from anywhere but the bottom, you name brand, albacore-tuna eating jackass. Listen Mister “I always order appetizers with my meal even in expensive restaurants,” there is a reason people squeeze from the bottom. People like you and the “I leave the shower on even while I am shampooing my hair” crowd really make me sick. What happens when the world’s supply of toothpaste has been depleted? You’ll be wishing that you had some of that toothpaste stuck at the bottom of all of those tubes you carelessly flung into the trash after groping them any which way, like a teenager on his first date.

Listen rich boy, I know that you think that you are better than me because you don’t make your girlfriend hide in the trunk when you go to a drive-in (Esther, I said I was sorry for forgetting you were in there until after the first feature, but admit it, Big Mama’s House isn’t your kind of movie anyway). Rich boy, I know you feel superior because you have never forced one of your own children to fake an epileptic seizure in front of your building just to distract the pizza delivery guy from the 30 Minutes or It’s Free place. But I have something that you will never have: It’s called dignity.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I Am Lars Vilks!

Lars Vilks is the Swedish artist who drew a cartoon of Mohammed with the body of a dog. Al Qaeda has put a $100,000 price on his head. Muslims can be touchy fuckers at times. I think that what everyone in the West should do is draw their own caricature of the prophet and publish it. Everyone! Just like when John F. Kennedy declared, “Ich bein ein Berliner,” we should all declare ourselves to be Lars Vilks. I am a terrible artist, as you can see, but I think that it’s the thought that counts. It’s difficult to tell whether the body is a rat, a dog, or a squirrel.

This is what everyone should have done when the Danish cartoons came out and Denmark was targeted with protests and all sorts of hate from Muslims around the world. If every newspaper published the cartoons it would be a little difficult for those offended by such childishness to decide who to go after. I fully expect some Al Qaeda dipshits to take flying lessons (not bothering to attend landing classes) so they can fly a plane into their computer and kill me.
Original Cartoon

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunday Morning Discoveries

You say immigrant explosion and I say ethnic diversity.

A wedding at San Valero

I went for a bike ride this morning, not so much for exercise but to familiarize myself better with my new neighborhood of Ruzafa. This is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Valencia and is of Arab origin. The name evidently comes from the Arabic word for garden, although I can’t find it in my Arabic dictionary, and I tried a half dozen or more spellings. It turns out the church behind my apartment, San Valero, was built on the site of another church that burned in 1415. The bell tower was completed in 1740 and it burned in 1939 and was rebuilt.

I guess the Arab origin partly explains the souk-like, labyrinthine nature of the street here. I was beginning to miss the great access I had to the bike trail system from my old apartment. I could go a block from my front door and link up to the bike trail and follow it all the way out of the city for about 20 kilometers along the beaches south of Valencia. I discovered this morning that my new place is also about a block and a half from another bike trail that also links up to the bike path out of town. If you ride a bike, Valencia is about as good as it gets.

Spain, once a fairly homogenous place, is quickly becoming a country of immigrants. My neighborhood of Ruzafa is a testament to this fact as a short walk in any direction will prove to you. There is a street here called Calle de Cuba that should be renamed Calle de China. It is the home to dozens of businesses owned by Chinese immigrants. There are a lot of Halal (Kosher, for lack of a better translation) butcher shops catering to Muslim. Spain’s biggest immigrant population is from Ecuador and there are several restaurants in the neighborhood that feature food from this South American country.

Indian and Pakistani natives also make up a sizeable portion of the neighborhood’s population and they also have their own businesses. If nothing else, all of these immigrants make me feel like my Spanish is not too bad.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Culture and Language

Spanish people get picked on in Europe because they don’t speak English. With only 18% of Spaniards able to speak, read, and write English at a high level, they lag behind most other European Union countries in this regard. They pick on themselves incessantly for their monoglot ways. There are countless advertisements for English language courses and every conceivable gimmick is held out to entice, cajole, and bully Spaniards into learning this odd, Germanic tongue. Being less than perfectly fluent in Spanish, or any other foreign language, I understand how Spaniards feel about their lack on acumen in English. People criticize Americans all the time for our unwillingness to learn other languages and I think that we have a lot in common
with the Spanish in this area.

Like Americans concerning English, I think that most Spanish people think that the Spanish speaking world is pretty big. Just for a review, here is a list of the countries where Spanish is spoken:

• Argentina
• Bolivia
• Chile
• Colombia
• Costa Rica
• Cuba
• Dominican Republic
• El Salvador
• Equatorial Guinea
• Guatemala
• Honduras
• Mexico
• Nicaragua
• Panama
• Paraguay
• Peru
• Puerto Rico
• Spain
• Uruguay
• Venezuela

Along with these countries I would add that the United States has more Spanish speakers than every country on this list except four. There are hundreds of millions of people who speak Spanish spread pretty heavily over three continents. Spanish is also one of the favorite choices for those of us who want to learn another language. It’s a big world out there if you can speak Spanish.

The Dutch are well-know for being proficient in languages. It seems that just about everyone in the Netherlands speaks English with almost native fluency. I’m sure that many residents of Holland speak more than one foreign language; it seems almost a part of the national character. Dutch is also spoken in Belgium and has about 20 million speakers worldwide. The Dutch world is positively dwarfed by Spanish. Learning another language in the Netherlands isn’t a hobby, it’s practically a requirement. If you’re Dutch and you don’t speak another language, your world is rather small and homogenous.

I have talked to many Spanish people about English and most of them who don’t speak it just don’t want to learn. Some of them think that they probably should have a better understanding of English, mostly for professional reasons, but they just don’t feel compelled to go out and learn it. I think the same is true of many Americans. Why should someone who lives in the United States bother to learn a foreign language? And if they do learn another language, which should they choose? Dutch? German? Chinese? It takes an incredible amount of work to reach a level of proficiency in any foreign language; work that many people feel is better used to further their professional careers, and many jobs have no use for another language.

Besides career advancement, another reason to learn another language is enjoying the fruits of a different culture. In this respect, I think many Spanish and English speaking natives feel that their own culture has enough to offer. Spain has a vibrant popular culture of music and movies; the same is true of most Latin American countries. If your native tongue is Rumanian, or Greek, or Albanian, I think that your choices in pop culture are somewhat limited, at least compared to English and Spanish speakers.

Believe it or not, lots of Spanish kids don’t really like English/American rock and roll, although many do, of course. Lots of Spanish kids don’t look for music outside of what is produced in Spain. Flamenco, flamenco fusion, and Spanish pop seems to be all that a lot of people here need when it comes to music; they don’t even bother with Spanish music from other countries like salsa and meringue from Latin America.
In my opinion, the Spanish have the most distinct and idiosyncratic lifestyle of any Europeans, perhaps of anyone in the world. It seems to me that Spanish people don’t really feel the need to search for identity outside of their very defining culture. I think that this has a lot to do with their unwillingness to learn English. Why should they learn English? So they can act more like Americans? It just doesn’t seem to me that this is something they are after.

I guess that it’s easy for me to defend the Spanish for not learning English because I’ve had to defend Americans for not learning whatever foreign language our detractors would have us learn. Native speakers of Spanish and English have a very rich and extensive culture to occupy their energies. Learning another language for us is a luxury, for the most part, not a requirement. Those of you who find that learning to speak another language is essential shouldn’t be so hasty in judging Americans or Spanish people who speak only their native tongue.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Pumped Up and Deflated

I had to pick up a couple of things at the market this morning in preparation for the fiesta this afternoon so I asked if there was anything else we needed. I was told no and headed out the door. Before I made it to the stairway in the hall our door opened and I was asked to pick up five loaves of bread. I got so excited I almost skipped to the market. Let me explain.

Whenever I go to the bakery I usually only buy one loaf of bread and I can never even finish this by myself before it goes stale. The bakers always ask me when I order my single, lousy little loaf of bread if I would like anything else. I never do want anything else but I almost want to order more just to fit in. I see older Spanish women at the bakery ordering prodigious amounts of bread. Do they work in an orphanage? Perhaps they run a soup kitchen which requires them to buy so much bread every day? These are the kind of thoughts that go through my mind as I walk out of the bakery with my one, little, shitty, loaf of bread.

But today I was going to buy five loaves! I felt like a Spanish Pinocchio. “Today I am a real boy!” Since I was buying such a very Spanish quantity of bread on this day I didn’t feel like such a dummy bothering the baker to explain to me the different loaves they had for sale. There are certain privileges that come with being such a big spender (total price for five loaves: 3.45€).

Some guys enjoy the status of wearing an Armani suit or driving a Porsche. With women, who the knows what their idea of status entails? A Prada bag? Gucci shoes? For me, right now, it’s walking around carrying five loaves of bread. Cancel that shipment of Viagra; I don’t need it anymore, not today, thank you. I didn’t want to walk straight back home; I felt that I needed to show off a bit. I decided that I’d go have a coffee at the bar in the market, and not my usual, touristy café americano, I ordered an espresso, or a café solo as they call them here. God, I really wanted someone I knew to see me right now. Just when I was at the height of my status high, an older Spanish guy elbowed up to the bar to get a REFILL on his red wine. It was 09:44, that’s a.m., like “in the morning” for you civilians. So much for me being a big shot. I just got punked by some 80 year old stud. I felt like half a sissy. If he had one of those cartoon thought balloons over his head it would say something like, "Out of my way, coffee boy. Maybe you should go fix your makeup."

I laid the money for the coffee on the bar and slouched out the door.

Settling In

I ambled around Barcelona for 11 days without once getting disoriented. I got lost in my neighborhood yesterday walking two blocks from my apartment. The streets run circular, perpendicular, crosswise, and a few ways that streets are not really made to run; it’s almost obscene. It’s like a labyrinth made up of Middle Eastern kebab joints, internet cafes, beauty parlors, ethnic grocery stores, Hilal butcher shops, and bars—lots of bars. Thank God for that. I missed the market yesterday which closes at around 14:30H so I was looking for a green grocer. Since the market is right in the middle of this labyrinth, there isn’t much need for a green grocer. That’s like bringing coals to Newcastle.

Stumbling around looking for some bananas, onions, and tomatoes really illustrated how bizarre the streets are in my new hood. I’m glad that I live right next to the Ruzafa Market as this is a landmark big enough for even a newbie cab driver to find some night when I’ve been out too late. I couldn’t find my way back home if I lived on some of these streets with a GPS and a pack of bloodhounds. I just discovered the Spanish spelling of “Ruzafa” (and Spanish pronunciation). I’m relieved because the double “s” of the Valenciano version, “Russafa,” just wasn’t sitting well with me—it’s incredibly un-Spanish. I guess that I’ll just have to live with the wacky urban planning of this area.

There must be some provision in the Spanish constitution that states that every neighborhood must have access to a wonderful market for produce, meat, seafood, fresh flowers, olives, and everything else that Spanish people eat, drink, smoke, and generally use to adorn their table tops. I used to go to the Algirós Market which was about six blocks from my apartment. Now I could jump out of my window and land on the Ruzafa Market. I will probably tell horror stories to little kids around here about how I used to walk SIX BLOCKS to go to the market. Those were hard times back then.

I think that I still have to go to the Mercado Central downtown to buy my olives. There is a stall there that has the best ones I have found so far in Spain—and I look everywhere. Besides that, the two gals who work there are totally hot. It’s like the Coyote Ugly of olive stalls.

The Ruzafa Market is really beautiful. It is super clean and even has a cool little café inside for those of us who can’t afford to get too far away from an espresso machine. The seafood section is in its own little closed-off corner of the market, I guess to keep the seafood smells smelling like seafood and the other smells left on their own.

I bought a couple of chicken breast for a dish I am making and the woman I bought them from spent at least a minute extolling the virtues of these two particular chicken breast. They were pretty nice, I must admit. I asked her if there was a place in this market where they sell Latin American food items. She got on the intercom and asked around for me. There isn’t an intercom so she just yelled across to the vegetable stall next door to her stall. They asked me what I was looking for and a I told them that I needed jalapeños, among other things. It turns out they sold jalapeños, or something that looked somewhat similar. The smelled like they had a bit of heat to them. I also bought a bunch of cilantro.

The day previous I stopped into a Latin grocery store in my neighborhood run by a woman from the Dominican Republic. They have pretty good corn tortillas that aren’t too expensive. I used to go into joints like this in the States, more than anything just to get a feel for being in a Spanish speaking country. In the places State-side, I just felt like the gringo who spoke a bit of Spanish. Now my Spanish is good enough that I was having a fairly involved discussion about the ingredients necessary to make certain Mexican dishes. I was looking for hominy, or maiz blanco as the Mexican call it. The Spanish don’t eat much corn so they don’t call it anything. She showed me some dried corn. “No, that’s what Mexican feed to their chickens. I’m looking for the soft, fresh corn that usually comes in a can.” She got a laugh out of that. I found some hominy but she said that it wasn’t the soft kind of corn. I haven’t tried it yet but I think she is mistaken.

I am just getting to know the Ruzafa neighborhood but so far I like what I see. I found two used book shops—something I had never seen in Valencia. I bought another novel by Manuel Vicent for 1€. Across the street from one of the shops is a great little Horchatería with a lot of nice sidewalk tables. I sat down in the empty café to get a coffee. A server asked me what I wanted. “Un café americano, cuando puedas.” A coffee, whenever you can. I told her I was never, ever in a hurry. She said not being in a hurry was a real luxury. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

It looks like I will be making enchiladas for a sort of international potluck dinner tomorrow that I am attending with one of the roommates. I went out in the hood during the evening with her and we ran into almost everyone who is going to be there tomorrow. It’s like the Valencia United Nations. Along with meeting a lot of great people I also became aware that Ruzafa is the best kept secret in Valencia. There are dozens of really cool bars and restaurants that I would have never discovered without an insider showing me the way. They are all way off the tourist trail and you won’t find any of them in the Lonely Planet Guide.

After nine months I finally feel like the locals are opening up to me. I hope that my enchiladas are a hit at the party tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

New Home

I was a bit disappointed to leave Barcelona. It is a fantastic place and eleven days just wasn’t enough. I’m not sure how much time I would need to really do this city justice but I’d guess that at least six months would be a good start—six months and a good bicycle. Eleven days would have to make do for now; I had a train to catch at 14:30.

Public transportation to the rescue, again. I was staying two blocks from the Fontana metro stop in the Gracia district. The L3 green line goes from here to Sants Station. What could be easier? There is a security check at the station but it’s just a scan of bags and barely slows down a good walking pace. Then you just find your car, find your seat, stow your bag, and relax.

This was one of the few times in my life when I have actually watched the in-flight movie, or whatever the hell you call it on a train. Today we would be watching Rocky Balboa (dubbed) and it began just a minute or two after we pulled out promptly at the assigned time. I didn’t even have time to get a coffee. I waited for the boxing scene finale to go to the club car. Someone should tell Rocky that he doesn’t need to take every single punch thrown by his opponents; it’s perfectly legal in boxing to dodge punches.

The trip is a little less than three hours from Barcelona to Valencia which is not even enough time to get bored. There is a metro station just outside Valencia’s Estación del Norte and if I still lived at my old place I could take a line that drops me off a block from my door. My new place isn’t on any metro line. I could have taken the #19 bus but I decided to walk instead. It’s only about 12 blocks or so. Any misgivings that I may have had about leaving Barcelona evaporated as soon as I entered my new neighborhood.

The area around the Russafa Market is very lively. The plaza was completely full of people sitting in cafes and kids playing in the open areas. This wasn’t going to be too bad. There are at least a half dozen cafes that share the square with the market and the rest of the neighborhood has everything you need—just what you would expect from an urban Spanish neighborhood.

Both of my new flat mates were in when I got home. They are really nice. I had a lot of unpacking to do as all of my stuff was thrown behind a couch in the living room before I left for Barcelona. After I got most of it sorted out I needed to go to the grocery store for a few things. There wasn’t anyone home at that time to ask but I knew there was a Mercadona a couple blocks away. I couldn’t believe that I had to walk almost three entire blocks to find a grocery store. In my old place I just walked across the street. I’m living like an animal. Of course, I’m sure that there is another store a block away in the opposite direction—that’s just how they roll here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

24 Hour Bike Tour

I was afraid to leave the rented, big, Dutch bike I rented outside of my apartment at night because the chain they gave me with it was fairly unimpressive. They gave me two rather unimpressive locks for it, not including the built-in lock for the rear tire. If I were a professional bike thief I would target these bright orange monsters to steal. You can buy a bolt cutter at any Chinese Wal-Mart here in Spain for about 7€; these would cut through most bike locks quite easily. Instead of leaving it on the street I decided to keep it in the apartment. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

My apartment is on the top fourth floor. The staircase winds around the elevator shaft and it was difficult going up this narrow spiral when all I was carrying was my backpack. The elevator seemed like the prudent choice and this old model is actually deeper than the one where I used to live in Valencia. These Dutch bikes have a terrifically long wheelbase which I didn’t factor in but I was able to get the monster in the elevator. The problem was that I had a hell of a time shutting the doors. There are two doors that come together inside the elevator and then an outside door. I guess that I need to start doing more yoga exercises to help me through these contortionist routines, but I did get the doors shut and I was on my way to the fourth floor.

Coming out of the elevator proved to be a bigger challenge because the door to my apartment is only about three feet directly in front of the door to the elevator. Trying to get that bike out of the elevator I couldn’t help but think about all of the problems inherent in childbirth. When I finally did pop out I cried just like a newborn. The next morning I thought that I’d try taking it down the stairs. That would have to be easier than the death-trap elevator. I got so stuck I considered calling 911 but then realized that they don’t use that over here. What’s the number you call when you are stuck in a coal mine? I blame the American public school system for not teaching me more about geometry, or calculus, or physics, or whatever damn science knowledge would have prevented me from making this quixotic gesture and realizing that the stairwell was too damn narrow for the big, heavy, monstrous, rented Dutch bike.

Early on Sunday morning is a great time to explore on a bike. The Spanish are never early risers and especially not after Saturday night. I used the natural slope of the city to tack towards the north and the cathedral of Sagrada Familia. I had been by here earlier in the week but I just saw it from one angle as I was too lazy to walk all the way around it. There is a beautiful boulevard that approaches the cathedral from the north that was all but deserted on this morning. I hate the fact that mankind is still devoting endless resources to the construction of churches when there are so many things needed by so many people, but this is a cool-looking church. It looks like a Disney castle.

I really notice how incredibly clean this city is, especially when compare to Valencia. Everyone cleans up after their dogs which hasn’t caught on yet where I live. People also seem to take great pride in their city—as they should—and I even saw a man pick up garbage off the ground at a beachfront park and throw it away.

Barcelona is an easy city to explore because you can’t get lost. All of the streets run on a grid. Just walk down the hill and you will get to the waterfront. In all of my meanderings I was never lost or even slightly confused about my location. I didn’t need a map to tell me where I was, just to identify what I had passed.

The bike trail system is fairly extensive and there are plans to make it much bigger. They also have bike racks all over the city. Most apartment buildings have bike racks in front of them. Traffic here is a lot friendlier to bikes. People in cars will always give you the right-of-way, even mopeders—the scum of the earth—are courteous towards cyclists. Overall, Barcelona is a very bike-friendly city as we say in the cycling world.

Some Spanish tourist in a car looking for directions stopped me in the street and asked if I was from Barcelona. I told them (in Spanish) that everyone in Barcelona now was a tourist. The internet café by my apartment is always filled with Australians for some reason. The old city area is filled to the brim with out-of-towners. Unfortunately, there will be one less tourist in Barcelona when I leave today at 14:30. I just check my train ticket and I like the part that says that boarding stops two minutes before departure. I’m sure they make lots of exceptions to this rule. I remember getting scolded by airline employees because I arrived late for a flight. I was an hour early!

P.S. I was watching a program on French soccer sensation, Thierry Henry, who now plays for Barcelona. It was obviously produced while he still played for Arsenal as it was in English with Catalan subtitles. He is amazingly articulate in English, much more so than most athletes are in their native language. During the program there was an anti-racism ad featuring Henry and Ronaldinho. There wee holding up placards with stuff like “I love football” and “I like the sound of the ball hitting the net.” Then they held a sign saying something like “People still judge us by the color of our skin.” Then they were joined by Pujol, a white Spanish player, and they said in English that if people are making racial slurs “Stand up! Speak up!”