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Monday, December 31, 2007

Valencia Oranges

I finally got the opportunity to do something that is as embedded in the culture of Valencia as anything; I was able to go to an orchard and pick oranges. Oranges are as synonymous to Valencia as paella, something a short drive in the countryside here will quickly confirm. The entire coastal plain in this corner of the Mediterranean is packed with orange trees. I have been bike riding through these orchards all year, smelling the hypnotic blossoms and almost tasting the sweetness of the fruit in the air. In December the trees are almost breaking with the weight of the harvest and anyone with an orchard is screaming for pickers.

We drove south of Valencia, past Xátiva to the village of Chella. The family of an acquaintance has a small huerta with a few dozen orange trees near their home in the village. The parents are a bit beyond doing their own harvesting but the trees are still producing an absolutely prodigious amount of oranges and persimmons. Someone needs to go out and pull them off the trees. When I was asked to volunteer I fairly jumped at the chance.

Just seeing the countryside out this way is enough reason to take me away from the city for a day, or the rest of my life. The valley is dotted with lonely village church steeples and defensive towers built by the Arab occupants a thousand years ago, but mostly there are orange trees—another product left behind by the Moors. The mild, frost-free winters assure a strong yield, year after year. It was sunny and warm on this late December day, perfect for picking oranges.

We arrived a bit later than scheduled and I was ready to head out to the orchard and start filling bags with fruit. I quickly remembered that I was in Spain and that there would have to be a bit of eating before anything else could be attempted. Not only was this Spain, but a Spanish country home, so I walked into the middle of something resembling an American Thanksgiving dinner. After introductions I was seated at the table and force-fed dish after dish. All I could think about was the futility of someone trying to go on a hunger strike while seated at a Spanish grandmother’s dining room table. I’m sure that I would be able to resist whatever cruel tortures the CIA could dream up at Guantánamo much better than I can refuse to accept anything in the way of food offered by a Spanish host.

There were three kids at the table, ages 3, 4, and 8. The 8 year old girl could barely contain her disappointment in me when I admitted that I didn’t know anyone from High School Musical, and she would have been completely devastated to know that I don’t even know what that is. I’m never too shy about eating and I was only too happy to be stuffed like a Christmas goose with shrimp, rice soup, and cocido. I ate at least twice as much as anyone else at the table.

I don’t know if it is just because I like kids or that my Spanish skills are more suited to conversing with the little guys, but I always seem to gravitate to the playground when I am in these sort of mixed-generation, social settings here in Spain. I was quickly recruited to go outside and play pilla-pilla which seems to be a sort of hellish Spanish version of tag where I was cursed with being it no matter how many times I caught one of the kids. I think that Spanish kids take advantage of me in games because of my status as a foreigner. Just the other evening I was trying to teach my 5 year old friend to play chess when he invented his own rather Machiavellian version of the game in which all of his pieces on the board seemed to have super powers enabling them to take out my players at will. I didn’t stand a chance.

The late afternoon sun was threatening to slide behind the mountains to the west when we finally drove about a half kilometer out to the orchard. This area is a collective of the village with each family having their own trees, some of which were already completely stripped of fruit, others in desperate need of harvesting. When we began picking I was immediately astounded by the output of every tree. It is common for a single orange tree to yield 100 kilos of fruit. After less than a half hour of picking we had more oranges than 50 people could consume in a week—now I just need to find about 45 more people, either that or set up my own stall in the Ruzafa market.

I think that I would really like to have my own bit of land here in Valencia. I would like to have a few fruit trees and enough olive trees to keep me in oil and olives for the year. The odd-shaped raf tomatoes that are grown here would also be a lot of fun to grow on my own. I also need to grow my own basil as this is my favorite herb. I’ll have to find a garden that I can commute to on my bicycle from downtown Valencia. Perhaps I’ll just get my own country estate with free pilla-pilla games for the kids. Cheating encouraged!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Note To Self: Stop Eating!

Note To Self: Stop Eating!

I had my first cocido prepared by a real Spanish person today. Everything was almost ready when I walked in and the first first thing that I noticed was the absolutely huge stock pot on the stove. I immediately had a serious case of stock pot envy which I attempted to translate into Spanish and was then lectured on the finer points of Freud´s views on male and female roles regarding phallic motifs. Whatever dumb joke I has brewing in my head with regards to my stock pot envy was erased by a five minute discussion on psychoanalytic theory.

Something everyone learns when living and eating in Spain are the names for the different meals throughout the day. Desayuno is breakfast and consists of coffee and perhaps a piece of some sort of bread-based product. I´ve never been much of a breakfast person so I just stick with coffee. I drink about twice as much coffee as the average Spanish person and would give my left (insert vulgar body part here) for a 20 ounce cup of American brewed coffee in the morning. I should just break down and buy and American coffee maker but it´s a little late now; I am quite sure that I would now find American coffee to be too weak for my tastes—even in the morning. When I order coffee in a bar or restaurant I order a “cafe americano con leche, which is an espresso with almost double the normal amout of water and milk.

After breakfast comes almuerzo which means “lunch” in Spanish but in Spain it means a mid-morning snack, usually a sandwich and a beer or soft drink. This meal is taken between 10:30 and 12:00, más o menos.

Lunch is called la comida here so don´t let anyone catch you calling it almuerzo, or lunch. This is the biggest meal of the day. This is when normal Valencianos have their big rice dishes such as paella or baked rice. This is also the time when any self-respecting Spanish person would dine on a heavy dish like cocido. Make sure that you always wear loose-fitting pants to this meal.

Then comes the merienda, or the afternoon snack. If you haven´t noticed already, the Spanish eat a lot, or at least they do in theory. We have already had four meals and it is not even six in the afternoon. The merienda isn´t too well defined and only serves as a designator for whatever you shove into your fat pie hole in the time between lunch ( la comida ) and whatever you wolf down during before-dinner drinks. I need to take a meal break in just the amount of time it takes me to describe what these people eat during the course of a day.

Tapas aren't a big part of the culture in this corner of Spain but it´s not like Valencianos will say no when someone places a bit of food in front of them along side whatever it is that they have ordered to drink. I was actually quite disappointed when I learned when I first moved here that they don´t really have tapas here. After living here for a year I can rarely even look at food during this time of day that is set aside for tapas in other parts of Spain. Eating four meals previously in the day tends to weaken my appetite.

Late in the afternoon comes la cena, or dinner. I say late in the afternoon but what I really mean is really late at night, at least as far as dinner is concerned, dinner for an American. The Spanish don´t stop calling this part of the day "afternoon," so en la tarde (in the afternoon) can mean twelve o´clock at night. They usually only say buenas noches when they are going to bed. The evening meal is usually of a lighter fare than in the afternoon, at least in their way of thinking. “¿Arroz en la noche?,” Valecianos will recoil in horror when you tell them that you ate rice for dinner, yet they will eat a loaf of bread with their "lighter meal" and think nothing of it. Their views on diet and nutrition are more ruled by tradition than science or logic so I wouldn't bother trying to tell them otherwise.

For today´s afternoon meal I was having cocido. It is called puchero in Valenciano, or pagan as I kid my Valencian friends about their language. Puchero has most of the same ingredients as Cocido Madrileño except they also throw in meat balls which can contain pine nuts as a nod to their Mediterranean roots. Cocido/puchero is more of an event than a menu item. The cooking and eating process is highly regulated according to family and/or regional exigencies. Valencianos like to serve a first course of rice made with the stock of the boiling stew. Other people make noodles using the stock.

Echar una cabezada means “To take a nap.” This phrase comes in very handy after eating more than I can lift in one sitting.

Friday, December 21, 2007

War on Christmas Update

This is the last in our series The War on Christmas in which we here at the Discover It Institute in Seattle, Washington have examined the godless attack against America’s biggest shopping holiday and birthday of our savior.

This is part of our The Science of Christmas initiative in which we attempt to prove through scientific method that Christmas is real. We felt that we could provide more conclusive evidence than the 10,000 letters addressed to Santa Claus that vindicated Saint Nick in Miracle on 34th Street. We think that only through scientific methods could we coerce retailers into returning to the good old days when clerks could greet shoppers with “Merry Christmas” instead of the hyper politically-correct “Happy Holidays” now currently in vogue and something we feel is the root of all of America’s problems.

We began with a list of Christmas truisms and exposed them to the cruel scrutiny of scientific investigation.

For most of you, apocryphal accounts of flying reindeer and popular ballads of the exploits of Santa’s sleigh drivers are all the proof you need, but we wanted to establish this fact scientifically. We traveled to the Lapland region of Finland to find a herd of reindeer. We transported fifteen of the sturdiest examples of the breed to our testing center at the Space Needle in Seattle. Working closely with a team of aerodynamic engineers from Boeing Aircraft we joyfully launched the reindeer, one by one, from the top of this 184 meter Seattle icon.

Can reindeer fly?

The short answer is “Hell no.” The Boeing people actually said that what they saw was the exact opposite of flying, but many of the test subjects certainly displayed characteristics of a species that desperately wanted to fly, and that is good enough for us. On a side note, reindeer meat is quite flavorful and tender, although the tenderness may have been the result of dropping the animals from 605 feet.

For our next experiment we enlisted the help of 65 year old Armando Escovedo. We lowered the retired Seattle fireman into a chimney and waited to see how long it would take him to make it into the living room.

Could Santa Claus slide down a chimney?

Although paramedics pronounced Mr. Escovedo dead at the scene after spending nearly three hours extracting him from his sooty grave, we feel that our test subject may have had other health issues that contributed to his demise and to the failure of our experiment. We are experiencing some difficulty in finding another old, gray-haired, and overweight volunteer for further investigation into this matter.

Although they refused to identify themselves as elves, we employed a group of midgets to work under harsh artic conditions fro our next experiment.

Could a group of elves make toys for every child on the planet?

Yes! Yes! Yes! This experiment was a resounding success and we proved, without a doubt, that working a small group of “elves” 20 hours a day, seven days a week our team was able to crank out a hell of a lot of toys. Granted, the toys were kind of crappy, and thanks to an Amnesty International report we’re not exactly going to win any awards for being employee-friendly, but given the right incentive, it certainly is possible to have a small group of height-challenged workers produce a prodigious amount of toys. The trick is to keep them properly motivated at all times. We recommend keeping family members hostage, frequent beatings, and providing an open bar at all company functions.

We could have gone on with our tireless inquiry but let us remind you that our sister institute here in Seattle, the Discovery Institute, had even less of a factual basis behind their highly-successful Intelligent Design initiative which has cost the United States government millions of dollars in legal fees to keep out of public schools.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Good Food Nation

Good Food Nation

Much more so than Americans, Europeans are often well defined by the food they eat. This is especially true here in Valencia which has a cuisine rich with many dishes unique to this community as well as those adopted from the rest of the Spanish culinary repertoire. I have found that the food here helps to define the people in a manner which is almost as important as their language and history. Those aspects of culture are all interrelated and it is difficult to separate them or say where one begins and the other ends. A Spanish person’s sense of identity is closely related to the food they eat.

One of the questions that I have the hardest time answering is when Spanish people ask me what sort of food we eat in America. I wasn’t raised with a very well-defined menu. Like most Americans I think I have developed a sort of hodge-podge approach to food. I take bits and pieces from the national cuisines of countries far removed from each other. I cook lots of Mexican stuff, albeit with an American flavor; I have borrowed heavily from Asian rice and noodle dishes; Italian and French influences can be found in the meals that I prepare; but very little of what I cook could be defined as purely American. You could probably call my cooking American Ethnic.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have our own American cuisine; it’s just that I don’t really specialize in that sort of cooking. I think that it would be very beneficial to the American character if we were to lay out a uniquely American cuisine, once and for all, and inculcate our citizens in this menu. It should be taught in schools, these 50 or so menu items that all Americans would recognize as our national cuisine. Mothers could teach these dishes to their sons and fathers could teach their daughters.

Thanksgiving is the only culinary American holiday, rich with traditions shared by almost everyone in the country. People who haven’t cooked anything all year long will enter the kitchen on this day and attempt dishes of considerable complexity. If we could only get our fellow countrymen and women to adopt a few more feast days we would be well on our way in developing an American cooking tradition that would be a source of pride for all of us. Just imagine if another four times a year we all put forth the sort of effort that goes into pulling off a Thanksgiving Day feast.

I have decided to treat some Spanish people to a real American meal, the first for all of them as far as I know. None have been to the U.S. but they all admit to loving McDonald’s. Spanish people are not afraid to criticize your cooking, even when they are guests in your house. That is sort of a Spanish tradition and tends to keep people on their toes—it also makes people better cooks.

Parmesan Pork Chops

• 1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs
• 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
• 1 tablespoon sage (I pick this out in the country on my bike rides)
• 1 teaspoon lemon rind, grated
• 2 large eggs
• 1/4 cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
• Pork chops, about 1 inch thick (I suggest finding a good butcher shop to buy your chops and have them cut to order. My butcher in the Ruzafa market is as good as it gets. Here in Spain if you buy the whole unit of whatever it is you are buying it comes out cheaper. I was making this dish for four people but ended up buying enough pork chops to feed my entire extended family. I can’t help myself.)
• 1/8-1/4 cup butter
• 2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 425F degrees.
2. Mix in bowl, bread crumbs, grated parmesan cheese, sage, grated lemon peel.
3. On a plate put flour seasoned with salt and pepper, coat chops with flour.
4. Dip in whisked egg.
5. Dip in bread crumb mixture.
6. Melt butter and olive oil in an oven-proof skillet.
7. Brown chops till golden.
8. Transfer to oven and bake till meat thermometer says 150 degrees, about 20 minutes.

Country Biscuits

• 2 cups flour (I used half whole wheat and half white flour)
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (or use salted and leave out the salt)
• 3/4 cup milk

1. Combine flour, baking powder& salt.
2. Cut the butter into the flour using 2 knives or a pastry blender, keep cutting until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs.
3. With a fork stir in the milk, very gently, until a soft dough forms.
4. Don't over mix.
5. Place the dough on a baking sheet (jelly roll pan) and with floured hands press it into a 9" x 9" square.
6. Use a spatula or the dull side of a knife and cut the dough into 12 biscuits without actually cutting them apart.
7. Bake in 400F oven for about 15-20 minutes or until they are golden.
8. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for about 10 minutes.

Green Beans Almandine

• 1 lb. fresh green beans, trimmed
• 1 Tbsp. butter
• 2 Tbsp. olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted if desired
• 1 tsp. lemon juice
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• 1/8 tsp. white pepper

1. Trim beans and rinse. In heavy saucepan, place green beans in cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until crisp tender. Drain well and set beans aside.
2. Melt butter in saucepan and add garlic and almonds. Cook, stirring constantly, until almonds begin to brown.
3. Add beans along with lemon juice, salt, and pepper and toss gently to coat.

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

As American as Apple Pie

As American as Apple Pie

I have been nominated to make a traditional American apple pie for an upcoming dinner some friends and I are planning for the holidays. I have never attempted an apple pie, in fact, I rarely, if ever, make any sort of dessert items. I have made cheesecake before but getting the sour cream necessary for this recipe seems all but impossible here in Spain. My first step was to search out recipes for apple pie on the internet.

There certainly is no shortage of different ways to make this dish. What I found curious is that many of them simply assume that you will be using a store-bought pie crust. I have never had a pre-made crust that tasted any better than cardboard, yet this seems to be the base from which many people construct this American classic. Is this because people are lazy, too short on time to make crust from scratch, or feel they are unable to make it from basic ingredients?

If you are too lazy to make it yourself I suggest that you take an even lazier approach and simply shovel raw sugar, apple slices, butter, and flour into your fat gob. It doesn’t get any easier than that. If you don’t have time then perhaps you need to streamline your life a bit to make room for some of the truly finer things in life, like eatable food. I suspect that most people shy away from making pie crust because they feel they can’t pull it off. This was probably my handicap until I finally gave it a try.

The thing is, cooking something a bit adventurous isn’t like rebuilding the engine of your car or rewiring your house. If you screw up your car repair or the rewiring job, you could actually put you and your loved ones in physical danger. These are also things that you don’t have to do very often so learning how to do them yourself may not seem like it is worth the effort. If you screw up a recipe you can just shovel the mistake into the trash and start over. All you have wasted is a bit of flour, butter, salt, and sugar. Mastering a few dishes in the kitchen is also something that is going to pay off for as long as you continue your career in eating. As I wrote in a previous essay, I am what you would call an eater. I eat things. I plan on eating things until things start eating me.

One thing that I can say about myself is that I’m not afraid to fail. If I were I’d never get anything done. My entire life seems to be built on a foundation of failures, failures which have been something a bit less than complete. They have been strong enough to bear the weight of the subsequent failures that I stack on top of them. A botched apple pie would seem like the equivalent to a Nobel Prize along side some of my more epic disappointments.

As it turns out, my very first attempt at this American staple didn’t turn out too badly. I used too much butter in the pie crust and the apples, but it tasted pretty good. The above photo testifies to my flat-mates opinion of my pie. As you can see, it is mostly gone and I made it less than 12 hours ago. As soon as I pull this off to my satisfaction I will post a recipe. Until then I will keep trying.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The fortress at Sagunto seen through a chumbo cactus. They call this fruit tuna in South America. I was out of water on this bike ride and picked some of these spiny little buggers by hand and ate them on the trail. One of my favorite fruits and a great source of water if you are out and forgot money to buy a bottle along the way. Sagunto is only one and a half hours away for me but on this trip I took a bunch of lengthy detours and it turned into a five hour day. There are lots of great day rides from Valencia and this one rates high on my list. The bike trail goes aslmost all the way there and the rest of the trip is on an all but deserted stretch of road which winds through orange groves and old estate homes, and you always have a view of the wonderful fortress in front of you as you pedal.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Cooking by the Numbers

Seafood paella: not my best effort in the kitchen.

Some of you probably think that I have nothing better to do than spend the day shopping for the many ingredients used in some of the Spanish dishes I cook. To this all I can say is “touché,” very perceptive of you (Note to self: take on even more hobbies to fill up gaps in my free-time). Shopping can sometimes interfere with my other free-time activities so even I must look for ways to make short cuts. I can still pull off some pretty good meals even when I don’t have time to shop thanks to the packaged arreglos, or arrangements they sell in Spain.

An arreglo de flores is a flower arrangement in Spanish and these arreglos are arrangements of ingredients needed for certain Spanish dishes. To make Cocido Madrileño there are separate arrangements available in supermarkets for vegetables and meat combinations that go into this dish. There are also arrangements available for baked rice, traditional paella with rabbit and chicken, puchero (Valencia’s idea of cocido), as well as frozen arrangements which are handy during the off season for certain vegetables.

The butcher shops and vegetable stalls at the market are only too happy to make you a custom arreglo for whatever it is you are cooking, but there are times when I just don’t feel like going to the market, or I get the urge to make something after the market has already closed (usually by about 2:30 in the afternoon). For my first seafood paella, or paella de mariscos, I chose to use a frozen seafood arrangement I bought at the big supermarket by my apartment. I wasn’t quite sure if I would be able to pull this off properly so I didn’t want to spend a lot of time and money buying the seafood ingredients at the fish market.

This arrangement comes pre-packed and frozen with clams, mussels, whole shrimp, and squid. It’s easy enough to make as you just sauté the green beans in the paella pan, add fish stock along with the contents of the arreglo and bring to a boil. Then you are the rice and peas and simmer until the stock has all been cooked off—call it “seafood paella for dummies.” It wasn’t exactly my most shining moment in the kitchen but it wasn’t bad. I can’t see myself making seafood paella very often because I much prefer the traditional Valencia paella with chicken and rabbit.

Another time-saving trick that every self-respecting Spaniard knows about is the Fabada Asturiana and Cocido Madrileño available in cans made by Litoral.® I’ll bet that there is at least one can of this in every kitchen in Spain for those food emergencies when you are really hungry and don’t have time or the desire to cook. I used to have a can of the Fabada Asturiana on my shelf but I just had it for breakfast (something no Spaniard would attempt).

I have also bought pre-made tortillas that aren’t bad at all and certainly save a lot of time. It takes me at least 45 minutes to make a tortilla de patatas. I enjoy making this dish so much that I rarely lower myself to buy a pre-made model, but it’s nice to know that the store-bought ones are worth eating.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Where Are You From?

America's upper "Left" hand corner.

I have had a sort of unwritten rule that I have adhered to in a life of many moves. I never ask people where they are from. Besides the awkwardness of trying to end that question on anything but a preposition (at least in English), I just don’t think that it is a very interesting thing to ask of someone you have only recently met. A person’s birthplace will usually become apparent after a bit of conversation without having to inquire about it directly, if you will only bother to listen to what they are saying.

I think I came to this opinion back when I was living in the dormitory at Indiana University. Back then most of the dorms weren’t coed so we would arrange mixer parties in the lounge of our floor and invite one of the female floors in the same residence hall. At these parties you could hear the same questions being asked over and over: “Where are you from?” and “What’s your major?” My joke back then was that we should have made name tags for everyone that gave your hometown and major and we could have eliminated about 90% of the bothersome conversation going on. Students could just go around and read the tags which would free up energy for drinking whatever hellish punch had been prepared by the guy on the floor with the best fake ID.*

This being the third time in my life that I have lived outside the U.S. for a good length of time, I don’t get that question nearly as often as you would think. Most people I talk to immediately realize that I am not Spanish and a guiri (foreigner) is a guiri is a guiri to most folks. It is also easy for me to tell where someone is from by their accent in Spanish, whether they speak it as a second language or with a Latin American accent. As I said before, I also don’t find a person’s nationality to be interesting in and of itself.

When people do ask me where I am from I have gotten into the habit of answering, “Seattle” (pronounced carefully as Sea-ahh-tell to help non-English speaking people understand). Most Spanish people I have talked to have heard of Seattle and have a very favorable opinion of that great American city. Young kids here all associate Seattle with Grunge and Fraiser, not the worst things to be linked to if you are a large American city, as opposed to, say, crime and violence. I think that saying that I am from Seattle defines me more accurately than simply saying that I am American. I actually chose to live in Seattle; it wasn’t just an accident of birth.

Despite what is portrayed in America’s far-right media, I have never had a negative reaction from anyone when I tell them I am from the U.S.A. In fact, I would say that the opposite is true; people have an extremely high opinion of America and Americans. I think that I probably behave better when I am in another country but I would like to think that I have contributed favorably to this high opinion foreigners have of Americans. I would say the same thing about Seattle; it is difficult for me to imagine that anyone could have anything but a high opinion of one of America’s most liberal cities.

*That would have been me with the best fake ID. I had my old Hawaii driver’s license which was like a credit card with raised numbers and letters. All I had to do was shave off a number and move it over to my birth date.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Las Campanas de San Valero

I think that it is safe to say that Valencia is fairly noisy as far as cities go. I live above a very narrow but heavily used street so car horns can be heard most hours of the day. The Monday street market brings vendors who start banging iron poles together as they begin setting up their stalls usually well before I am awake. There is no escaping the heinous whine of tiny motorbikes anywhere in this country. There is one bit of noise that enters my apartment that thoroughly charms me every time I hear it: the bells of San Valero church.

Every morning you can hear the smaller bells ringing to signal the daily mass at this 15th century iglesia. The larger bells ares rung at irregular times during the course of a day. All of the bells are rung together for weddings and other special occasions and this can be heard throughout the entire neighborhood of Ruzafa, or the center of the universe as I call my new home. To me the ringing of the bells is very comforting; this sound is as much a part of where I live as the physical structure of the church itself.

Directly below my apartment lies the Plaza/Plaça Doctor Landete. The street sign is written as I wrote it, in both Spanish and Valenciano. The plaza begins at the steps of San Valero and sort of circles my building. On one side is the Ruzafa Market and on the other end of the plaza there is a small fountain. There are two nice outdoor cafes on the square which makes this area a natural meeting spot for the entire neighborhood.

Café Nou is the more modern and the bigger of the two cafes. The other is called Café El Ganxo which would be gancho in Spanish, or hook in English, but since this is Ruzafa and just a bit more local than many other neighborhoods, most business names are in Valenciano. This probably seems incredibly boring but one of my favorite activities is to sit at a table at Café El Ganxo in the late afternoon. I order a coffee (un café Americano con un poquito de leche, por favor) and read for 45 minutes or so, being careful to look over the top of my reading glasses for errant soccer balls as the plaza doubles as a playground at this time of day.

I also think that it is safe to say that I am completely enchanted by my neighborhood in this hidden corner of Valencia. Except for my bike rides, I will go days without venturing more than a couple of blocks from my front door. Why should I go any place else? I have everything I need right here. If it is out of earshot of the bells of San Valero, I don’t need it.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Existimos mientras alguien nos recuerda.(We are alive as long as we are remembered)

La Sombra del Viento
Carlos Ruíz Zafón

I was wasting some time in a downtown bookstore the other day when I noticed a small section of books in French. Among the modest collection I came across a memoir written by my great-uncle, Marc Bernard. The book is called Vacances and was published in 1953. I have read a few of his books, none of which have been translated into English but most are still in print 25 years after his death. I was never able to meet my uncle although I made a half-hearted attempt to look him up during my first trip to France in 1979. I didn’t have much to go on at the time. I simply traveled to Nîmes where my family had lived. As I later learned, Marc Bernard had actually returned to this southern French city to live after spending most of his adult life in Paris and other places. We never got a chance to meet but I’m sure he would have been pleased to know that his nephew has become a great admirer of his work.

Vacances begins with a wonderful introduction by the French author, Roger Grenier, which describes the career of Marc Bernard from orphan at age 11, to the factory worker and self-taught intellectual who wrote his first novel during a bout of unemployment. He was holed up in a hotel and a maid noticed that he seemed to work night and day. She asked him whether or not he ever stopped writing to eat. “It’s just that I don’t have much to eat.” She made sure from then on that he ate with the others in the hotel.

He had a friend present his manuscript for his first novel, Zig-zag to a Paris publisher who immediately accepted it. Marc Bernard soon went to the office of his publisher, Jean Paulhan, to thank him. There in the office Paulhan asked my uncle if he had read anything by André Gide. Marc Bernard said that he had and that he liked his work. Paulhan then introduced him to Gide who happened to be sitting directly across from them in the office at the time. Paulhan presented my uncle to Gide saying that he was a factory worker who wrote and who had also read Gide’s work. Gide asked him if any other workers at the factory read his stuff. “Non. Je suis le seul. I’m sure that Gide was disappointed to learn that he wasn’t popular among the factory workers of France in the 1920s. They became friends after that and Gide remained an admirer and promoter of Bernard’s work.

He starts out the memoir by declaring that he is a man of vacations and that he wishes that the world were nothing more than a vacation spot, that factories and offices be closed for months throughout the year while their workers and staff enjoy the pleasures of time off. He wished that man could return to the wisdom of our primitive forefathers who dedicated themselves to nothing more than fishing, hunting, and love; activities particularly suitable for vacations.

In Vacances Marc Bernard tells stories about his life full of travel, war, idleness, work, and vacations. What a cool and full life he led. He seemed to be particularly fond of Spain as he dedicated three chapters in this book to my newly adopted country. He writes about two trips he makes to the Spanish Balearic islands. His father, Juan Bernat (my namesake), was born in Soller, Majorca. I haven’t been to Majorca but I plan on making a visit this spring to see from whence I came. I hope to be speaking a bit of Valenciano/Catalan/Majorquino (They are all very similar) dialect before I get there.

He tells a story in the book about a trip he took to Majorca in 1937. He was passing through Barcelona on his way there. He was walking along the beach, smoking a cigar that he describes as being a big as a walking stick (a fondness for puros, or Cuban cigars is another similarity between the two of us) when he was approached by an armed soldier. This was during the Spanish Civil War and my uncle, being a worker, unionist, communist, was obviously a Republican (they were the good guys). He was taken in for questioning on the suspicion of being a German spy for the fascist nationalists. He was asked about the stamp he had on his passport (French) for Majorca two years previous when he took another trip there to explore his roots. He was put in a car with an armed escort and driven into the countryside. After a while he realized that he probably wasn’t going to be executed because they would not have wasted so much gasoline if that was their intention. He was released when someone who spoke French verified that his accent was indeed French. He was then driven back to Barcelona’s Ramblas and bid farewell in the Spanish custom of effusive hugs and handshakes.

The most remarkable coincidence in all of this was discovering a chapter dedicated to Valencia in his book, a book that I discovered while living in Valencia. He was here in 1952 for La Feria, a week of bullfighting, which I assume was the Fallas festival which takes place every year in March. It was during this festival when I saw my first bullfight. As I mentioned, he was from Nîmes, in the southern French province of Languedoc which has bullfighting festivals in the Arènes, a first century a.d. Roman amphitheater. Marc Bernard was obviously a huge aficionado of la corrida and this chapter is one of the most eloquent descriptions of the art of bullfighting that I have read in any language. I would have loved to have attended a corrida with my uncle with the two of us smoking the biggest cigars that money can buy. I wonder if I also inherited my love of fermented grapes from this side of my family.

My detour into French has come at the expense of my Spanish. I recently had lunch in the home of a friend of a friend while I was plowing through this book in French. I felt like my Spanish had never been worse. I was mis-conjugating verbs, speaking with an atrociously bad accent(I thought), and just thoroughly mangling the Spanish language. After lunch, when the adults went out to the patio for a cocktail and to enjoy the late afternoon sun, I chose to stay inside and improve my Spanish by watching a Sesame Street (Barrio de Sesame) video with my newest Spanish amigo, Quino (age 5). In the video a woman walks up to a group of people on the street and starts speaking French. I pointed out to Quino (Valenciano for Joaquín) that she was speaking French. He looked at me with a bit of surprise and asked, “Tu tienes ésta péli?” (you have this video?). Probably the most humorous moment thus far for me in Spain. Gracias, Quino.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Hurry Up And Wait: Part 1

Worth fighting and dying for.

The Spanish have their own system for waiting in lines; something that is required a lot here. When you walk up to the crowd waiting in the post office or at the butcher you ask, “¿El ultimo?” The last person in line will let you know who he or she is and then you are the new último, or the last one.

I have found that the most aggressive line jumpers are female senior citizens. These golden girls will make every attempt to wiggle around your rightful place in the queue and then act like they didn’t notice you when you call them on it. It certainly doesn’t pay to be shy when you are standing in line although there’s no point in losing your manners. I make a point of being firm yet polite, and I always take my large pocket knife out of my backpack and clean my fingernails while still keeping a watchful eye on my place in line.

I have never been forced to toss a Spanish grandmother to the ground with a violent judo throw, not yet. I like to keep the threat of a couple of my more effective martial arts techniques out there on the table, just to keep things honest. I would probably feel bad about slamming an old woman to the ground in front of the market vegetable stall and crushing her like a bag of dried and rotten sticks, but I didn’t write the rules to defending one’s place in line. I also don’t want to be taken advantage of just because I have an accent.

I was waiting to buy olives the other day and had already spent about ten minutes behind a guy who was buying some sort of dried fish thing. Had I been less tired or in a better humor I would have asked him what the hell he was buying and if it was intended for human consumption. Instead I waited as patiently as I could. All I wanted was a small bag of cracked olives. The olives at this stall are well worth even a ridiculously long wait. Another guy came up and asked me if I was “the last.” A minute later an old woman shuffled up pushing her grocery cart and asked who was last. The guy behind me answered and she immediately started in on a story about how she was in a hurry and if she could please move in front of him in line. He quickly and deftly passed the buck to me, directing her to ask me for my place in line. What a coward! I could see that my turn was coming up because the guy in front of me was paying.

I am as polite and gentlemanly as the next guy and I was almost going to let her go in front of me until I realized the archetype I was up against in this battle. I have had the misfortune of being behind women like her and watched as they take more time to order a couple of pork chops as it would take me to remodel a large kitchen. I hesitated a moment and then turned to the merchant and ordered my bag of olives. I wanted to tell granny that I didn’t fall off the turnip truck this morning, but instead I just let out a non-apologetic, “Hasta luego,” as I laid down the exact change for my olives and got the hell out of there.

I realize this isn’t exactly the most harrowing tale you will ever come across but you didn’t see the look of complete evil in this octogenarian’s eyes as I did. The devil in sensible shoes and support stockings. Dogs aren’t allowed inside the market but you never know if one of these golden girls has a West Highland terrier stuffed in her cart ready at a moment’s notice to rip your throat out on her orders. I was victorious on this occasion but how long can my luck hold out? Every day I avoid death is a gift.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

When a Movie Makes You Physically Ill

I suppose that I am one of the few heterosexual males who actually read The Nanny Diaries, or at least part of it before I wanted to make my own guillotine and start lopping off the heads of America’s vulgar ultra-rich. The only reason I tried to read it was because I was going through a phase when I lived in Seattle of noticing the books that people were reading on the bus, or in coffee shops, or where ever. I wanted to get a feel for what folks were buying. A very disheartening exercise at times.

The book is one of the least interesting things I have ever come across. It tells the story of a young girl, recently graduated from college, who goes to work as a nanny for an over-privileged cunt in Manhattan. In the movie the nanny actually allows the child to abuse her sexually and physically. Little Lord Fuck-face pulls her pants down in an early scene that I saw before turning it off. I would have put a cigarette out in his eye for that one. See if he tries that again. No wonder these kids grow up to be date rapists and poorly qualified U.S. presidents.

You get the feeling from the book and the movie that you are supposed to feel a sense of awe concerning the lifestyle of the over-privileged cunt. I mean, this is what we all want, right? This is what we all aspire to be in our dreams, to be super rich and outsource every single human endeavor and emotion, to become sandblasted and airbrushed to within an inch of our pilates-toned asses, and to shop—as if this is some wonderful form of self-expression.

I didn’t get very far along in the story in the novel before throwing it in the trash (disguised as the Seattle Library book deposit). Of course I was too embarrassed to even check it out so I just speed-read it among the stacks. I watched even less of the sickening movie version of the shitty novel. If you are thinking that I sound a little bitter, you can bet your fucking ass that I have been made bitter by this vile piece of trash. The book made a vague attempt to scold* the women who make up America’s new aristocracy. More than anything else it was obvious that the authors just want to walk in the same shoes as their over-privileged cunt masters who have closets full of designer heels.

I really think that it is time for America to stop and take a very good look at the way things are progressing and decide if we want to keep on this course of allowing the top 1% of the citizenry to make all of the rules and call all of the shots. The new American elite make the Czars of Russia look like serfs. I suppose that just about everyone in America thinks that eventually they, too, will be part of this new elite class, the sickeningly stupid progeny of inherited wealth. The fact that so many people voted for one of these nitwits to be our president confirms this theory.

I have always felt that everyone in the world should be forced to clean their own toilet. People need to be reminded on a daily basis that we are all filthy animals, one and all, whether you are Bill Gates or Bin Laden, Madonna or Hilary Clinton. George Bush should do nothing but clean toilets all day.

*I thought a lot about that word, "scold," not wanting to use too strong a term. I also thought a lot about "over-privileged cunt" but couldn't come up with a more vitriolic tag for this sub-culture.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Few Random Thoughts About The Beatles

I remember back when I was eleven years old and my friend Kenny Stillwell and I stole his older brother’s new copy of Abbey Road. His brother was about 18 or so and didn’t much like us kids so we were risking an ass kicking if we got caught. We went up to his attic where Kenny had a sort of clubhouse and we listened to this masterpiece on his little record player for the very first time. I don’t remember how I felt but I have always kept the memory of this moment.

Fast forward to about 1990 or so and I was living in Maryland. I was sharing a place with a former Air Force buddy. Tom and I were farting around the house one day when he put on Abbey Road. After just a few measures into the first song we were both sitting on the sofa listening intently. We listened to both sides straight through without exchanging a single word. When the record finished playing we just sort of looked at each other with an expression that said, “Damn!” No drugs were involved.

I don’t think that it is possible not to be a Beatles fan; it’s like saying that you don’t like Gershwin or Cole Porter. You may as well say that you don’t like music. If you tell me that you don’t like the Beatles I simply won’t believe you.

It’s not like I’m this huge geek of a Beatles fan; I’m just like everyone else on the planet that can recognize wonderfully crafted songs when I hear them. It’s not like I even listen to their music all that much these days. I was just lucky enough to have grown up with their albums playing in the background of my childhood. They left a fairly vast body of work in their wake so I often find myself rediscovering one of their tunes. It is often like hearing it for the first time.

Ritchie Havens did a cover of Here Comes the Sun from Abbey Road that was one of the first Beatles covers I have ever heard and still is one of the best. It has this amazing acoustic intro that lasts over one minute. When Havens finally decides that he’s ready to sing it is absolute bliss.

I read a recent interview in The New Yorker with Paul McCartney where he said that If I Fell was his all-time favorite John Lennon Song. I would have to say the same. I discovered a great cover of this song by Brazilian artist, Rita Lee. She sings it in Portuguese which may even be an improvement, if that is possible on this bit of pop perfection.

The reason I am writing this right now, and the reason for my most recent return to The Beatles was inspired by another Brazilian pop star, Caetano Veloso. He covers a lot of Beatles songs and the other day I was at someone’s apartment when I heard his version of For No One by McCartney from Revolver. I have heard the song a million times but I couldn’t recall the title. I had to sort through a bunch of empty CD cases to find the right one. I would have to say that it isn’t one of their more well-know songs. I don’t know why this is because it about as good as pop music gets. Every singer in the world has covered this tune but no one comes close to McCartney. I think this song, more than any other, demonstrates just how great a voice he has. Don’t take my word for it, watch this video.

I’m trying to learn a really good arrangement of The Long and Winding Road on the piano. I can’t find any good sheet music for this so I am watching a video on youtube that shows you how to play it. Why anyone would prefer this to reading music is a real fucking mystery to me. I think that some musicians think that reading music is some sort of rocket science. If I can read music I think that it is something that can be grasped by anyone.

Monday, December 03, 2007

I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can!

As I write these words I am listening to the sounds of the Spanish, flamenco-influenced group, Ojos de Brujo which I highly recommend to everyone. I try to listen to as much Spanish music as I possibly can although I have been on a bit of a Beatles bender after listening to a Caetano Veloso CD at a party the other night where he covers the wonderful Paul McCartney song from the Revolver album called For No One. What I’m trying to say without going off on a three page detour about The Beatles is that I am trying to insinuate myself as much as I can into the music of this country.

Besides what I read on the internet, I read only in Spanish. My shelf of books I have read in Spanish is growing. I keep a notebook where I put definitions for the Spanish words I have to look up for every book that I read. I like to go back and reread the book soon after I finish to further beat this new vocabulary into my head. I read the local newspaper here in Valencia called Levante. It is a treat to be able to read Calvin and Hobbes in Spanish. I also like to read the Madrid daily, El País, if there is one lying around on top of the bar.

I have mentioned that I share a place with two Spanish women and we speak only in Spanish. With this sort of living arrangement that I have forced myself into, there isn't any room to hide, linguistically speaking.

The only time that I ever speak anything other than Spanish is when I go to a local pub here in Ruzafa. It is owned by two brothers from London and the clientele includes a few British and American expats. I like to go here because the owners are terrific guys but I also speak more Spanish when I go here than when I go anywhere else by myself here in Valencia. The place has a true community feel to it and everyone knows each other. It is one of the friendliest places I have ever frequented. I almost always end up talking with the Spanish customers for most of my time in this joint.

I went to a birthday party over the weekend where I was the only English speaker. Talk about a night of Spanish overload. On a side note, if you are at a party in any country where Spanish is spoken and a lot of dancing doesn't break out spontaneously, check the address because you are obviously in the wrong place.

I rarely eat anything other than Spanish food. I heard somewhere (probably in a movie) that the Viet Cong could smell the Americans in the jungle because they ate American food while they were in Viet Nam. If anyone is trying to pick up my scent all they are going to get a whiff of is pork products, tortillas de patatas, or whatever other local dish I happen to be obsessing over this week*.

It may seem from all I have said so far that I am rather proud of myself. The truth is that I think my Spanish sucks. I can’t believe that I still struggle sometimes with some of the most basic things in Spanish. Learning the language has been a slow, uphill struggle with no end in sight. The good news is that I love it here and I’m having the best time of my life.


This is another typical Valencian dish of dried cod and roasted peppers. Speaking of learning Spanish, I had to buy the dried cod for this dish at the stall where I usually buy my olives. I ordered a fistful of the shredded fish (un puñado de migas de bacalao) and the guy complimented me on my Spanish. I could have kissed him.

Dried Salt Cod
Red Bell Peppers
Olive Oil

Depending on the cod you buy, you may have to soak it in water to remove some of the salt. I bought what they call Bacalao Inglés (English cod) which is low in salt and really tender. I only soaked it for a few minutes and it was ready to eat. You may also have to boil it for a bit depending on what you buy.

Next you need to roast the red peppers in the over until they are thoroughly cooked and then remove the skin. On a side note and to steal a joke from The Simpsons, if you aren’t roasting peppers in your oven every time you turn it on, you are wasting more energy than Ricky Martin’s girlfriend. Roasted peppers in olive oil is a staple dish all around the Mediterranean.

The guy in the olive stall told me to then marinate the peppers and cod in separate dishes with plenty of olive oil. You also add very finely minced garlic to both dishes. Both the fish and the peppers should be cut into tiny nibble-size pieces. A bit of bread and some wine and you are on your way.