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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Riding Lessons

Riding Lessons

Valencia is really a great place for bike riding, both in the city and out in the surrounding areas. I am reading the Vicente Blasco Ibañez classic, Cañas y Barro, which is set in the Albufera marshland just south of Valencia. I ride my bike there a couple of times each week so I thought that I’d head there today. One of the biggest challenges for me is dodging traffic to get to the outskirts of town. I have learned a few tricks over the course of my bike riding life and I have recently added a new one to my repertoire. I now use newborn babies as human shields. Intrigued? Keep reading.

You read that correctly folks, I use human offspring to shield me from getting run over by automobiles. When I am tearing down a busy street on my way out of town it is pretty much a crap shoot if drivers in oncoming side streets will respect the red light they face or if they have their own interpretation of what red means. Because I am such a pansy about having grave bodily injury inflicted upon me, I slow down when I come to the side streets, even if I have the green light. If, however, I see that a woman pushing a baby stroller is crossing the opposing intersection, I feel that it is fairly safe for me to proceed through the green light. No one wants an infanticide on their driving record, not even psychopaths, not even moped scum. That kind of thing will raise your insurance rates.

To be fair, Spanish drivers are exceptionally courteous to cyclists. Sport cycling is very popular here and on any given day you will see hundreds of cyclists on this highway south of town. No one has ever honked their horn at me, and we all know how much Spanish drivers enjoy honking their horns. Sport cycling is thoroughly ingrained in the culture in Europe. Let me give you an example.

Today on my way out of town I went through a traffic circle and caught up with a line of cars backed up behind a cement mixer that was having a bit of difficulty climbing a rather steep overpass. I was able to slingshot through the traffic circle and pass the whole line of cars and the truck. On the next overpass a few hundred meters farther, someone in the passenger seat of a car stuck their arm out the window and offered me a box of juice as a reward for my recent uphill sprint. I didn’t take the juice because I was carrying more water than I needed for this ride but it was a nice thought. This is the sort of thing you see during the Tour de France and shows the positive view Europeans have toward cyclists. We aren’t just people in their way as they drive from point A to point B; we’re heroes.

When I got to the hamlet of El Saler in the Albufera, I backtracked along the beach path. I was coasting along when I noticed a beautiful woman walking ahead of me. Just as I passed, her little dog came out of the bushes and starting sprinting after me. I picked up some speed and looked behind me: little Rex was gaining on me. I went into an all-out sprint for about a half a kilometer and yet the little Jack Russell/Dachshund mix was still snapping at my heels. I didn’t want the dog chasing me all the way home so I stopped. He caught up to me and looked disappointed that the chase was already over. His master was running up from behind so I slowly pedaled back with the dog following.

When dog and beautiful master were united she thanked me and I said, “De nada.” I spent the rest of the ride home going over in my head all of the clever things that I should have said to her. I don’t blame my lack of seduction skills on my Spanish; I’m not too rico suave in English, either.

Besides negotiating my way out of town, the next big challenge in my bike rides is getting me and my bike into the tiny elevator in my building, then I have to somehow manage to push the button for my floor. I am usually too beat at the end of my rides to carry my bike up to the fifth floor. I’m getting better at this elevator yoga thing but I still find it kind of comical. One day I was waiting for the elevator and an older woman walked up. I let her take the elevator and told her that I would wait for it to return. I said that we could all three—she, I and my bike—go together but only if we got married first. She didn’t get it. I told you that I’m not much of a charmer with women.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Life and Death and Spanish Football

Life and Death and Spanish Football

I was just about to head out on my bike to go watch one of the opening ceremonies for the Fallas festival here in Valencia. I’ve been told that Fallas is one of the biggest and most extravagant festivals in Europe. This was in conflict with a Valencia CF football match on television. I have been watching enough football lately and it wouldn’t kill me to miss a match. Simply making the decision to do something cultural instead of drinking beer and watching soccer made me feel superior.

Good thing that I just happened to walk out on my balcony just before I headed out the door because I saw that it was starting to rain pretty hard. That’s a good thing to know before you carry your bike down five flights of stairs. It looked like drinking beer and watching football was going to win out over a cultural excursion. The slobs once again beat the snobs. I couldn’t very well be expected to hike downtown and then stand outside in the rain. I had no choice, my hands were tied.

Instead, I walked the two blocks* over to my favorite sports bar in the Plaza Valencia CF in the shadows of Mestalla Stadium. It had stopped raining on my way over and I was feeling a bit guilty for not going to the ceremony, but about three sips into my first beer I noticed that it started coming down pretty good. That should teach all of those blue-blooded elites who went to the Fallas opening.

Valencia was playing Gimàstic from Tarragona. The left leaning accent on the “a” in Gimàstic should clue you into the fact that Tarragona is another Catalan city. All that I know about Tarragona is that it is somewhere on the coast between Valencia and Barcelona. The game would be there on this evening which explained why my part of town near the stadium wasn’t in complete chaos as it is on game nights.

There were a lot of draws in the games played so far in the Spanish league on this Sunday and at halftime it was 0-0 in this match. Since I have arrived here in Spain some three months ago I have seen the build up that one Spanish television station has been creating for the Barcelona-Real Madrid match in March. That station is going to televise the game and they have been counting down the days. The first commercial that I noticed mentioned that the epic confrontation was 100 days away, as if they were referring to some looming catastrophe or biblical reckoning.

The halftime commercial for this game showed a man in the shower. They showed his bare ass as he was washing up (It’s hard to believe Americans went ballistic over a woman’s breast). He gets out of the shower and slips, hitting his head really hard on the sink. They show him lifeless on the floor of the bathroom when suddenly his eyes open and he gets up. They cut to a caption that says, “This isn’t a good time to die,” and then you are reminded that there are only 14 days until the Barça-Real Madrid match. No one in the bar laughed at this commercial but me. Then I realized that maybe it wasn’t supposed to be funny and perhaps I should start taking my Spanish Professional League soccer a little more seriously. This same station was urged to pull another similar commercial that showed a man apparently dying in a traffic accident and then getting back on his feet as if nothing had happened. You can see the spot here.

Valencia scored in the second half. I paid my tab and walked outside to watch the remainder of the game on one of the outdoor televisions. I was really hungry and I wanted to go home to eat but I couldn’t drag myself away. Tarragona ended up scoring in extra time so Valencia had to settle for another draw. I must have jinxed Valencia by leaving early.

*In Spain, city blocks are called manzanas which is the same word for “apples.” I just learned this when someone I was talking to corrected me on my Latin American use of cuadras to signify “blocks.” Not that any of you give a shit but I just thought that I would write this down so I would remember.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The not-so-simple life

The not-so-simple life


The days are slowly getting longer: tomorrow there will be two minutes and 31 seconds more daylight than today. It doesn’t sound like much but it adds up over the course of a mild, Mediterranean winter. The sun won’t set until 6:48 this evening. The added light and the mild temperatures make it easier to sit outside and enjoy the terrace of my favorite cafe. We are always told to enjoy the simple things in life. I don’t consider cafes to be simple things; I think they are an essential ingredient of a happy existence.

Cafes here in Valencia are as casual as humanly possible. They work pretty mush the same everywhere that I have been in Europe. You sit down and eventually some one will even take your order. A cup of coffee or a glass of wine will show up sooner or later. On this evening I sit back and take a sip and watch as throngs of bewildered tourists, desperately looking at maps, try to navigate the labyrinthine Carmen section of Valencia.

That was me only three short months ago. Now I know just about every street and alleyway in this old quarter. I come down here on my bike almost every Sunday morning. There are few other people on the streets. It is so quite that I can hear the vibrations of the church bell after it has stopped ringing as I coast silently through the narrow streets. I can get around almost wearing a blindfold now but as a writer I like to have a name for everything. I have been photographing every plaza, cathedral, street sign, and everything else of interest in Valencia so that I can remember what everything is called.

I am sitting in the Plaza Esparto which is adjacent to Plaza Tossal. My conversational Spanish has improved quite a lot since I arrived, and although I have a long way to go, I am not stumbling blindly in the language like the tourists with their maps in this beautiful old part of town.

You never finish things in a café; it is more like “to be continued.” On evenings like these—and things will only get better—Spain seems hopelessly romantic and charming to me, but what would you expect from someone who calls his bicycle “Rocinante?” We haven’t seen the server in quite a while so I walk inside to pay the bill. The girl recognizes me as if I were someone she vaguely knows and is trying to remember my name. I ask for the check and have to remind here what we ordered. I no longer have to force myself to say “Hasta Luego” when I leave, it just comes naturally.

Enjoying a café is not as simple as it seems. It is simple like a glass of wine is simple or like a wonderful olive is simple. It takes a certain amount of skill and learning to arrive at where I am now. It takes a while to know your way around and there are no maps to show you the way. All that I can say is that you will know you are there when you arrive.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

La Afición

La Afición


I first learned the word “afición” from Hemingway, and because he didn’t bother to give me any guidance I mispronounced it for years afterwards. It should sound like “a-fee-thion.” For Hemingway in the 1920’s afición meant a passion and understanding of bullfighting. He always spoke of it as something almost secretive and meant only for a chosen few, and of course he was one of the chosen. As much as I’d love to write about Spanish life like Hemingway, I can't for a lot of reasons. Besides my lack of writing talent I can say that things are radically different here in Spain many decades after Hemingway’s time. I think the changes are almost entirely for the good.

This is my fourth trip to Spain. I have spent a lot of time in Mexico and Peru and now in I live in Spain. I have yet to go to a bullfight. The season for the corrida, as it is called in Spanish, is still months off. I will probably go at least once while I am living here just to see what it is all about although I must say that I’m not very curious about it.

Even as a young kid reading Hemingway, I thought that having afición for the bulls was probably not my style—no matter how much I wanted to be Hemingway, or Spanish, or French, or some kind of Euro-weenie. I admired Hemingway because he spoke French and Spanish, not because he went to bullfights. I completely didn’t understand his thing about fishing, either. We pretty much see eye-to-eye on the whole issue of booze but I would imagine that his eyes were a lot more bloodshot than mine.

Since my first visit to Spain I have witnessed a drastic change in the standard of living and the overall progress of this country. My first visit was in 1979, a few short years after the fall of a brutal and stifling dictatorship. Back then I remember Spain as dirty, inefficient, and rudderless. Today the country is liberal, progressive, and highly modern in almost every way. It is only natural to assume that their attitudes about bullfighting and soccer have also evolved.

Afición now relates more to soccer here in Spain than it does to anything having to do with bulls. You don’t see little kids imitating matadors when they play, but they try their best to duplicate the artistry of their favorite soccer players. There are several daily newspapers dedicated almost entirely to soccer. It is a national obsession unlike anything we have in our country. If you were to combine basketball, football, and baseball you might approach what soccer means to the Spanish public. Hemingway would be writing about the games being played in the great stadiums of Spain were he alive today. As a disciple of the one of the greatest American writers I feel that it is my duty to chronicle the most important Spanish obsession of my era, and that obsession is fútbol. There isn't anything exclusive about afición for soccer, it's the most inclusive club in all of Spain.

Some of the most difficult passages that I have thus far read in Spanish have been florid accounts of soccer matches. Instead of recruiting their sports writers from the country’s journalism schools, Spanish newspapers must troll university poetry departments. Every Spanish Hemingway wannabe must be a sportswriter. Today the newspapers are filled with accounts of Valencia’s “glorious tie” with Champion’s League rival, and Italy’s best club, Inter Milan.

The match was played in Milan’s San Siro stadium in front of only 35,000 fans while back in Valencia every bar with a television was standing room only. Every seat faces the screen making the restaurants look more like movie theaters at game time. In the three bars in the Valencia stadium plaza there were hundreds of fans screaming and cheering. It was a terrifically exciting match. Twice Valencia came from behind to tie the game, the second time with only four minutes left to play. The two teams will meet again on March 6, 2007 to determine who goes on to the quarter finals. You can bet that Valencia will play in front of a packed stadium.

I could completely ignore bullfighting while living here in Spain but trying to avoid soccer would be next to impossible. You are literally hit on the head with it; at least you are if you don’t pay close attention when walking by a group of young boys kicking a ball around. It is especially hard to become a fan when you are living in a city whose team is doing rather well and has high hopes of a championship season.

I don’t claim to have afición, I just like to drink beer and watch sports on TV.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Valencia CF vs FC Internazionale Milano

The European Champion’s League soccer season is heating up, Last night Real Madrid defeated Bayern Munich 3-2 in Madrid. Tonight Valencia travels to Milan to plan Inter. I haven’t made too much of an effort to fully understand the intricacies of the different leagues and how points are awarded, but I have watched a lot of the crucial matches. I will definitely be parked in front of a television this evening for the Valencia game.

Soccer provides me with a nice bit of cultural literacy that I can share, not only with Spaniards, but with fans from all over. After Sunday’s game against Barcelona I struck up a conversation with a group of Japanese soccer fans at a bar by my house. Two of them spoke pretty good Spanish after having lived in Valencia for a couple of years. I can’t imagine how difficult Spanish must be for a Japanese student. It is hard enough for me and English shares thousands of words with Spanish.

I found it a little odd that none of the Japanese fans spoke any English at all. What they all did speak, including the two women I their group, was baseball. As soon as they found out I was from Seattle the first question that pops up is, “What do you think about Ichiro?” It was great to talk about baseball although I had to help them along with a lot of the Spanish terms.

After baseball we talked about how Spanish people are total sissies when it comes to eating hot food. We all agreed that the food here is excellent but sometimes you just need to scorch the inside of your mouth with something spicy. What I wouldn’t give for a tearfully hot bowl of pho but there are no Vietnamese restaurants in Valencia. I already asked around.

It is really a kick to be able to watch all of these great games live. I believe that tonight’s match begins at 19:45 local time here in Valencia which means you can see it on the East Coast at 13:45—a good way to spend your lunch break…and then some. Although the game is in Milan I will still go over to my sports bar on the other side of the stadium from where I live as there is more of an party atmosphere in this square. I watched the second half of the Real Madrid game over there last night and there were quite a few people in attendance. I will try to remember to bring my camera this time. I could curse myself for not bringing it to Sunday’s game because the square was a complete madhouse before that home game. I only live two blocks away and I was going to go get my camera between halves but it was raining pretty hard so I did the smart thing and continued drinking under the patio canopy.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Valencia CF 2, Barcelona FC 1

I knew there was a big game today, about as big as they get here in Spain. Barcelona is in town to play Valencia. They are first in the Spanish league and we are third. The game starts early for Spanish standards. 7 o’clock is when it kicks off, or whatever they say, in an effort to accommodate another big game between Sevilla and Atlético Madrid, which airs after the Valencia game ends.

I live a block from the stadium so I notice the buzz as soon as I leave my apartment in the morning. There is a big flea market in the parking lot adjacent to the stadium every Sunday. I usually walk through the crowd to look for books in Spanish. Today I find a copy of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and a hard-bound Spanish/English dictionary before I call it quits and cross the street for a cup of coffee. At one o’clock in the afternoon the bar is already beginning to fill up with football fans. This isn’t any different than Sundays before a Seahawks game in Seattle.

The square adjacent to the stadium is packed with fans not lucky enough to have a ticket. Automobile traffic isn’t permitted on these streets on game nights, which makes it all a little more tranquil considering there are an extra 70,000 people in the neighborhood. There is also an army of cops after there was a riot at a soccer match in Sicily last week in which 80 some policemen were injured and one was killed by unruly fans. Soccer hooliganism isn’t s Spanish custom. As I admire the cops on horseback I make sure to avoid the piles of dung on the sidewalk. The only laws broken at Spanish football games have to do with littering—the streets are covered with empty beer cans.

My favorite stadium bar is packed to the rafters. The sidewalk in front is twenty rows deep with fans and getting a beer outside looks pretty hopeless. I push myself inside and up to the bar. The owner, Manolo, is a celebrity in Valencian soccer circles and he has seen me enough times in his place to pick me out in the crowd and serve me a beer. I ask him about his recent trip to England when the Spanish national team beat England in a friendly match. At the half I walk back over to the Bodega Iberica.

Valencia scores a goal set up by their master forward and play-maker, David Villa. He is one of the best players in the game. Everyone in Spain already knows this but it is a bit of a secret elsewhere. Valencia scores another goal almost immediately afterwards and things are looking good for the home team.

Brazilian superstar, Ronaldinho, pretty much has had his way when playing in Valencia’s Mestalla stadium but he misses two free kicks on this particular evening when he kicks high into the defensive line. On his third attempt he kicks a brilliant grounder that puts Barcelona within one point of Valencia with only minutes left in the match. We hung on to win this one. The season is getting really interesting.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Yes, We Have No Horse Meat

I guess that I should wait to write this post until after I have actually tried some horse. Horse meat that is, they eat it over here. There is a store that threatens to sell horse meat (in the picture) across the street from my building but it is never open, or at least I’ve never seen it open, so I presume that horse meat isn’t too popular. They don’t sell it in the supermarkets, and you won’t find caballo on any restaurant menus that I’ve seen, but they do eat it. I asked around.

There is a stall at the Mercado de Algirós that sells horse meat. I checked it out the last time I was there. I mean I took a look, I didn’t eat any. They weren’t giving out free samples, or maybe they did but by the time I go there it was all gobbled up. Horse meat is a really dark red and the piece the woman was cutting looked pretty fatty. I would have thought horse meat to be very lean. I guess that I have a lot to learn about horse meat, or maybe I won’t learn more about it. I haven’t decided yet.

It is funny to think that I come from a culture where there is a significant taboo about eating horses. I have eaten some weird stuff in my life so it’s not like I’m easily frightened by what some people think of as food. I’ll try almost anything once. Most people eat some pretty horrible looking sea creatures. I have even eaten guinea pig before, a critter some people keep as pets. There is something about eating horses that goes even beyond our taboos about eating cats and dogs. I’m not saying that I would eat a cat or a dog before a horse. Let’s just say that when my brain receives and interprets signals from the body about hunger, the first impulse it sends out isn’t, “Hey, I have an idea: Let’s go with horse meat tonight.”

Am I alone in thinking this? For all that I know you people are all just dying to sink your teeth into some rare horse flesh. You are really starting to gross me the fuck out. There is no way that I am going to kiss you now until you have flossed and brushed. If there is anything worse than horse meat it’s the horse meat that’s been stuck in your teeth for three days.

See, now I’m just being culturally insensitive, so just put down your horse burger and come over here and give me a big fat kiss. Holy Jesus! A horse meat burp? You’re a real class act, young lady. You’ll never get a husband with manners like that. On second thought, I just don’t think this is working out between us, Little Miss Horse Meat Breath. Don’t take it too personally; I’m not attracted to vegetarians either. It’s not you, it’s me. I think that I probably just watched too many cowboy movies as a kid to eat a mode of transportation.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Cullera, Spain


Cullera, Spain

File under "Life doesn’t suck"


I am not quite ready to unfurl the “Mission Accomplished” banner, but I think the worst of the brief little hiccup of a winter is behind me. I don’t mean to awaken the sleeping monster of winter by gloating but holy shit is the weather ever gorgeous. The mirror in my bathroom no longer fogs up when I shower, if I place a bare foot on the parquet floor an arctic bolt is not shot into my body, and I think that my nose stopped running.

The cold had sapped my workout mojo something fierce. I realize that I can’t make up for almost two weeks of sitting on my ass and shivering, but I made a valiant effort today with a really hard four hour bike ride. It was warm enough to ride in shorts and a short sleeve jersey. My legs are the color of uncooked chicken but after today I’ll look a little less ghoulish. I need to pick up some sunscreen—I wasn’t thinking about that a week ago when I was huddled in my bed under a down comforter.

I made it to Cullera in a few minutes over an hour and a half. As you can see from the picture above, Cullera is beautiful and worth the bike ride. I farted around for a few minutes and then headed back to Valencia. I had planned on taking it a bit easier on the return trip and stop and take a few pictures. As it turned out, I only took this one photo. Once I started back I got into a groove and just hammered all the way back home. I was pretty beat by the time I got back home and could barely drag myself into the shower to wash off all of the dried salt encrusted on my face.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Things I love About Spain (Part II)

There are a lot of storefront churches in Valencia. There is one right next to one of the cafes that I frequent. The other day I saw a woman come up to the outside, walk-up window of the café, order a glass of wine, knock it back, and then walk into the church for service.

-Pork is something of a sacrament in Spain. I joke with people here that there must be a planet somewhere in the universe where pigs have bars with human legs hanging from the ceiling. If you haven’t been here before, the first thing you notice is that almost every bar has dozens of hams, hooves and all, hanging from the rafters. I saw a stall at a flea market selling women’s stockings that had mannequin legs hanging from the tent poles displaying the product. I wish I had my camera that day because it looked kind of like my parallel pig universe.

-Ham flavored potato chips

-Imagine baseball, football, and basketball rolled into one sport. Then throw in mom, apple pie, and hot dogs. That is soccer in Spain.

-When you order a glass of wine or a beer they will give you a little something to nibble on to go with it. This custom isn’t as popular in Valencia as other parts of Spain.

-Bars always have newspapers lying around. This is great for students of the language. I read at least one newspaper every day, sometimes three or more.

-Olives. I cannot do justice to this precious fruit, and certainly not in this entry. Suffice it to say that it is impossible to overestimate the place of the olive in Mediterranean life.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

I Went for the Pork, I Stayed for the Olives


Coarsely translated: Sausage Fest

I went for the pork, I stayed for the olives



I didn’t really set out to buy olives, and although I think it is worth it, good olives can probably be found without spending three hours on a train with a metro ride to the station on either end. I really was out to see the Muestra del Embutido, or sausage festival in Requena, Spain. I had read about it earlier in the week in the newspaper and thought about going and then I was prompted again by someone who knows my weakness for Spanish pork products. This would be the first time I had been out of Valencia since I got here, besides some long bike rides.

I have never been a big fan of airports; they are simply a means to an end. I have to admit that I love train stations. The bigger ones in the U.S. and in Europe have a majesty that airports, in their modernity, could never match. I guess part of my fondness for train station has to do with the fact that I think train travel is exciting and sophisticated. I wonder if I will ever get over my tendency to over-romanticize train stations and train travel? I hope not. If you love train stations you won’t be disappointed by Valencia’s Estación del Norte.

Everything went smoothly, but the train station in Valencia was a little confusing for the first–timer. I walked in, saw a ticket counter, stood in line, realized I was in the wrong place, went to the information booth, asked about the cercanías (local trains), was told to go to the window directly to the left, walked over but noticed an automatic ticket machine, and bought a 3.60€ ticket to Requena. I didn’t know when I was leaving or on what train but I had a ticket. I walked around the beautiful station and found the platform for the cercanías. There is an outdoor café right in front of the platform so I sat down and read.

Once we got going the view out the window quickly beat out my book for my full attention. The train meandered into the hills east of Valencia and passed through a couple of rocky, uninhabited canyons without even a trace of goat trails. After passing through a series of tunnels we stopped rather unceremoniously, and without an announcement in Requena.

I had no idea where I was going but all I had to do was walk out of the front doors and I could see a crowd of people on a street several blocks below the station. The festival itself was like most street festivals I have been to in Seattle. They are just an excuse to eat and drink. For 9€ you get a tray and a wine glass and then it is up to you to fill both of them as many times as you can.

There was just too much of a scrum at the stalls selling sausages to take some home with me. Besides, I didn’t notice anything above and beyond the quality of the meats I have available at my local market. I left the festival after only one lap and looked around the old section of the city. After I maxed out my rather anemic camera memory I headed back to the center of town for a glass of wine before my train back home.

When it comes to olives I always have the time, money, and extra room in my shoulder bag to carry them. The problem is figuring out whether or not I have room in my refrigerator for another bucket of olives. The olives that I bought in Requena are the best I have had so far on this visit to Spain, and I have had a lot of good olives.



Friday, February 09, 2007

The Road Warrior


Mopeds: Fun for the whole family.

The Road Warriors

I want to like motor scooters, I really do. They get about a million miles to the gallon and take up very little room on the street. You can park about ten of them in the same space needed for one economy car. I should love motor scooters. I do love motor scooters, but I really hate the mindless bags of protoplasm that act as their guidance mechanism, sometimes referred to as riders. Motor scooters are the tequila of internally combusted transport vehicles; they bring out the absolute worst in people.

Here in Europe scooters are without a doubt the most lawless of all licensed vehicles. The single biggest transportation menace is people on bikes in the Netherlands but that is another story. Cars have become progressively more comfortable with the idea of pedestrian traffic while the relationship between people on foot and mopeds is slightly more violent than the one between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. From the way I see things in Spain, it seems that they are using the movie The Road Warrior as a driver’s training film. I half expect people on motor scooters to be shooting cross bows at other drivers and hurling poisonous snakes.

From the way the young hoodlums drive mopeds over here I am pretty sure that they don’t have accelerators, they simply have an on/off switch for the gas. They are either stopped at a traffic light, snarling angrily, or they are barreling full-tilt down the street. When you watch mopeds it appears that the riders have no control over their speed. Their necks whip backward and forth violently every time they hit the gas or brake. I have seen bronco bull riders more in control.

AND SCOOTERS ARE SO LOUD. I’m sorry, was I screaming? My hearing has become slightly impaired lately. It is a common ailment in Mediterranean countries that have more than their share of mopeds. Instead of mufflers I think scooters have a bullhorn they attach to the tail pipe to amplify their noise emissions. I can't imagine that anyone would actually build a machine this noisy so owners must remove any noise-reducing baffles so that their scooters are as loud as a prepubescent 747s. And this is just the engine noise.

There must be some law in European Union countries that states that the smaller your vehicle, the louder the horn you are required to honk almost constantly, and never for any purpose. Yesterday I walked past a guy sitting on a scooter in front of an apartment building. Just as I walked past he blared his horn, I suppose to summon someone living in the building. From the volume of his horn he could have awakened someone from the dead on the 110th floor. I am still unable to react quickly or instinctively in Spanish. In this case I screamed a startled obscenity in Englsih. The guy on the scooter just looked at me timidly like he didn’t know what I was upset about. He obviously doesn’t see anything wrong with inducing a 20% hearing loss in a complete stranger.

I have always thought that horns should come equipped with a meter that registers every time you use them. People should be required to pay 5€ every time they honk their horn. When I first got here I thought that moped riders honked their horns for no reason but I soon began to understand their method. You honk your horn when someone pulls in front of you, when someone is about to pull in front of you, when turning left, when you are approaching a pedestrian crossing, when driving up on the sidewalk…I think you get the picture I’m trying to paint. If someone is riding a scooter alone in the forest, he will honk his horn. If a tree falls in the forest and lands on a guy on a scooter, how long will he honk his horn before he realizes that no one is coming to save him?

Researchers at the University of Valencia recently conducted a study to determine whether riding a moped turns people into aasholes or if it is only assholes who buy mopeds in the first place. After months of interviews and study, the answer they came up with was “Yes.”

I get my revenge on motor scooters when I ride my bicycle. I can accelerate as quickly as most scooter and around town I can keep up with them pretty well. There is nothing a snot-nosed moped rider hates worse than being out-done by someone on a bike. When a scooter is behind me on a narrow street I keep to the middle so they can’t pass. I can hear their little two-stroke engines furiously red-lining behind me and I chalk one up for the home team. Scooters are kind of like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz; just one of them isn’t very intimidating but there are always hundreds, thousands of them. Sometimes it is nice to separate one from the herd and put them in their place.

Another thing that I do to piss off scooterists when I am on my bicycle is to draft behind them in traffic. They really hate that for some reason. I can see them looking at me in their rearview mirrors, desperately trying to find more power to pull away. You can almost see their little brains working to conjure up every cliché about getting more speed: A ship captain screaming down to the boiler room to throw more coal on the fire, a Roman cracking the whip on a slave galley, Captain Kirk bitch-slapping the snot out of Scotty to go faster and screw it if the Enterprise breaks up in the process. If I am drafting I can keep up with most of the smaller scooters for as long as I want. I am like a tick on their butt that they can’t reach to pull off. You have to learn to enjoy the simple things in life.

I promise that I will stop picking on motor scooters as soon as they all lose their acute case of Napoleon complex. Guys, you have little bitty engines, just deal with it. I’m sure there are women that love guys with little bitty engines. I personally don’t see how it’s possible to please a woman with such little bitty engines but I may be wrong. I am probably not wrong but don’t give up hope, and keeping honking those horns. Women love that.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Learn Spanish in 7 Days

What if you aren’t satisfied by the slow, gradual approach to learning a language? “I’m an American,” I scream to no one in particular. I come from the country of fast food and 15 minute ab workouts. I buy microwave toast because I don’t have all day to wait around for my bread to come out of the toaster and I definitely don’t have the years it takes to properly learn another language. I was ready to give up until I came across just the book I was looking for called, Learn a Language in 7 Days, by Ramon Campayo. I will start right now. Today is Thursday so I’ll know Spanish by next weekend. To celebrate I think that I’ll go to a little place here in Valencia that is kind of a secret that serves Spanish food.

Day 1

Mister Campayo, or Señor Campayo (I’m learning already) claims that to master another language you need only a few things: vocabulary, grammar, and keys to pronunciation. To learn foreign vocabulary he suggests that instead of trying to memorize tedious lists of words, you make word associations. The mind works through images, not vocabulary lists. To all my language teachers I now ask, “What the hell were you thinking with those lists you tortured us with?”

He gives the following example to illustrate his point. The German word “Essen” means “to eat.” Campayo says that he takes the letter S from this word and imagines the curves to be the stomach of someone who “eats.” Wow, that was easy. So “Essen” means “fat” in German. I think I got the hang of this. Let me see if I can do it.

Thumbing through my illustrated Spanish dictionary I come across an unfamiliar word “Despeñadero” which means “cliff” in English. All that I have to do to hold this word in my memory is make a visual association. I can’t think of an association in English, and besides, it’s fairly flat here in Valencia and I’ll probably never need the word for “cliff.” It also has one of those squiggly n’s in it that are hard to make on my English speaking computer. Let me find another word.

I find the word “Farola” which means “street light.” Now all that I have to do is come up with an association for this word in English that will help me to memorize the Spanish term. “Farola” sounds like “far.” I’ll bet that the first street light was made somewhere far from Valencia, but I’m not sure so I’ll have to look it up. I’ll try Wikipedia. I’m not sure of the address so I use Google.

When I get to Wikipedia I remind myself to create an entry for myself. You can just make stuff up on Wikipedia, almost everything there is bullshit. I create an entry saying that I was the first person to bridge the porn star and rodeo clown professions. I spend most of the rest of the afternoon trying to think up appropriate porno movie titles for a rodeo clown. Most of them involve a bull’s horn and places in the human body not particularly suitable for bull horn insertion. Finally I get back on track and look up “street lamp.”

OK, that was a little inconclusive because are we talking about electric street lamps or gas? Neither of them was first used in Valencia but Paris used the first gas lights and Paris isn’t really too “far” from here, but I will stick with “far” as part of the association for “farola” which means…shit, I forgot already. I’ll look it up again. Street light! Street light is what it means in English. Why can’t I remember that? Then I remember the whole point of this exercise. Now I just need an association for the second part of the word, “ola.”

The first thing that pops into my head for “ola” is Johnny Ola from Godfather II who was played by the guy who plays Jr. Soprano on The Sopranos. Is that show over now or are they going to have more episodes, because it seems like they just kind of left us hanging there at the end of the 6th season. I just thought of somethig kind of weird. Here I am trying to remember stuff in Spanish and I come across Junior Soprano who has Alzheimer’s so he can’t remember stuff. Don’t you wish that they made more movies about gangsters? That is definitely my favorite genre. I even liked parts of Godfather III which most people think was a big steaming pile of…what was I doing again?

You know what? To hell with “farola.” I don’t really have to learn that word. How often does the word “street light” come up in conversation anyway? I tell you what, I’ll learn that word if I get a job working for the electric company here in Spain.

Day 2

I forgot to bring the damn book with me today so I just decided to stop for lunch and have a cerveza. I already knew that word means “beer” before I got to Spain so I don’t feel so guilty taking today off from learning Spanish in 7 days.

Day 3

That word association thing wasn’t much fun so today I’m going to learn a little Spanish grammar. I’ll try to memorize some of these verb conjugations.

Is it 8 o’clock already? I must have fallen asleep. Time to put the books away and watch the soccer match on TV. Watching soccer on Spanish TV makes the language seem a lot more foreign than it already is. About the only word I can understand is “goal” and sometimes they will go an entire game without saying it and when they do they stretch it out so it lasts about two minutes. GGGGGGOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLL! Note to self: Televised soccer is not a good learning tool.

Day 4

Today is some sort of Spanish holiday. Don’t ask me what it is they are celebrating but everything is closed so I think that I should take the day off in a display of cultural integration. Even God took a day off and he invented the whole “Do it in 7 Days” thing.

Day 5

Today is review day where I go over everything that I have learned up till now. Let’s see, I know how to say “Mister” and “Beer” in Spanish. Those words are “Señor” and “Cerveza.” OK, maybe just one and then it’s back to the grind of learning Spanish in 7 days. There is a nice café right across the street from the library where I’m studying.

I’m back but I don’t think that I’m in very good shape to study any more today. Besides, I just learned the words for wine, pitcher, brandy, bigger glass, sherry, just leave the bottle, bathroom, and a shot called a “Flaming Grandmother.” It was kind of hard to pronounce so I ordered four of them. Everyone knows that repetition is the key to learning another language.

Day 6

Tengo Resaca means “I have a hangover.” I’m going back to bed.

I am coming down the home stretch in learning Spanish but they don’t play baseball here so they probably don’t say “coming down the home stretch.” I only have one day left to learn the language so I’m not about to waste it learning what they say here instead of “coming down the home stretch.”


Day 7

I think when he said that you could learn Spanish in 7 days he was talking like they do in the Bible. In the Bible they say the earth was made in 7 days, but now scientists say that the earth is 4 billion years old, so if you divide 4 billion by 7 then that is how long the Bible meant by one day*. 4 billion years seems like a long time to learn Spanish; even for someone like me. Besides, my lease is up next December.

*This means that the 15 minute ab workout takes longer than advertised.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

How To Conquer the World: Part One

America’s return on the bazillions of dollars we have spent on armaments since the end of WWII must represent the worst investment in the history of mankind. Korea, Viet Nam, and now Iraq represent military failures to all but the most deluded of neo-cons. However, these three conflicts are all but microscopic compared to the countless other skirmishes we have won during this same timeframe without firing a shot. I am talking of our artistic, cultural, linguistic, and technological hegemony.

The problem is that our most recent failure, Bush’s debacle in Iraq, is working to undermine our leadership in fields other than warfare. People around the world still look to the United States, and the English speaking world, as a beacon for entertainment, invention, scientific achievement, and many other lifestyle issues, but it seems that our influence has been waning. Americaphilia, if there is such a word—and there should be, is losing a bit of its old vigor thanks to some poor foreign policy choices by the present administration in Washington.

In my travels I have never come across anything that in any way could be construed as Anti-American. Sure, I’ve heard a bit of criticism for something our country has done but I have never experienced anything unpleasant on a personal level simply because I am American. Most foreigners have an overly-romanticized vision of our country because of movies, pop music, and American products. I’m sure that the most extreme left-wing radicals and proto-fascist radicals watch The Simpsons, of whatever they call it in their countries.

A shining example of America’s military impotence is our stance towards Cuba. This tiny island nation has stood in defiance of the Goliath 90 miles to its north for 45 years. It has been able to do so not in spite of our military and economic blockade, but because of it. How long would Castro been able to holds the reins of power if we had simply opened our doors to Cuba and cooperated with the makers of their popular revolution. I say this with a certain amount of cynicism but slogans like Viva la Revolución are no match for Have a Coke and a Smile, the latest CD from Modest Mouse, or the third season of Entourage.

George Bush never traveled overseas before he was president. This would not be so remarkable for a working class American as travel takes time and money, but Bush came from one of the nation’s wealthiest families. His refusal to travel shows an astounding lack of curiosity on his part. What he would have learned had he used a passport in his earlier years is that America’s influence around the world is immeasurable. The voice of America—and by this I don’t mean the silly propaganda apparatus, Voice of America—is clear and constant throughout the world. Instead of smart bombs and Bradley fighting vehicles, we should realize that we have a much more effective technique for getting our message heard around the world. I’m not sure we know what our message is exactly. We should probably work on that first.

Movies, music, and books in English are louder than bombs. Any native English speaker quickly realizes this when traveling in countries where our language is not spoken. The other day I was waiting in the metro station when a Beatle’s song came on over the P.A. system. I looked around me and almost everyone was silently singing along to “If I Fell.” I can’t imagine that we could ever develop a weapon with the power of this three minute song.

The problem right now is that it is difficult for much of the world to see past the mistakes that we have made, or make that the mistakes Bush has made, to see the aspects of our culture that are highly admirable. We should learn that we have solved very few problems with the might of our military but we every day we are conquering the world with our popular culture.

No one has ever been able to tell me what victory will look like in Iraq. Not even the most ardent neo-conservatives can articulate their most hopeful vision for that country. If we were to pull out today I can’t see how things would be much worse than if we stay another year of two. I said this same thing three years ago. I don’t think anyone is willing or stupid enough to come in and try to restore order after we leave.

I have always felt that terrorism is a law and order problem and requires good police work. Applying a military solution to a police problem just seems to be asking for trouble, and trouble is what we got. Most people are now of the opinion that we have created more problems by invading Iraq than we ever hoped to solve. I am not one to say “I told you so” but in the case of the Iraq invasion I did say that it was a terrible idea. It is disturbing to go back and read what the neo-con pundits were saying in the days leading up to the invasion and the “triumphant” weeks thereafter. The worst part about this is how they ridiculed, demonized, and questioned the patriotism of anyone who didn’t agree with them.

I think it is essential that liberals see to it that people do not forget the outlandish claims the neo-cons were making about the Iraqi invasion. We need to throw their words back at them before they get a chance to rewrite their own history as so many of them are doing. Like rats from a sinking ship conservatives are trying to distance themselves from the Bush administration. It’s called “covering your ass” in the language of the military.

Andrew Sullivan, conservative jackass and wrong on just about everything having to do with this war, is a good example to cite when chronicling the arrogance of the right in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. In his blog post of April 1, 2003 he mocks the dire predictions of some journalists about the difficulty involved in invading and occupying Iraq. He closes the post with the admonition, “There's more accounting to do. “ Yes there is and we must do it.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Is the Vacation Over?

Is the Vacation Over?



At what point does the honeymoon of a vacation end and the day-to-day grind of life begin? I suppose that I will always be a tourist here in Spain. I can’t imagine ever ceasing to be completely captivated by a narrow street in the old section of town, or a cool wrought iron balcony. The great food and wine that I drink no longer seems exotic or foreign, although I enjoy it more with each meal that I prepare. I have adopted the Spanish custom of making even the lightest, smallest snack a sort of culinary occasion. I can’t tell if I am changing or if I’m just reverting to the way that I used to live when I lived on the other side of the Mediterranean.

I know now that the language will continue to vex me for years and years. I can’t even guess how long it would take someone to be completely comfortable with the context or life here, the background, the cultural literacy necessary to understand everything going on around you. I don’t kid myself that I will speak Spanish like a native or fully grasp Spanish politics, at least not any time soon.

I can try, however. I plod along in the language, word by word. It very often seems completely hopeless when I look at the pages and pages of vocabulary words that I have written down and looked up in the dictionary. How can I ever remember all of these words? I think that perhaps I am too old to be doing this. I seem to remember that I was a lot better at digesting hundreds of vocabulary words when I studied during my college years. Everyone knows that it is easier to learn a language when you are young, preferably very young, like before you are 16 or 17. I missed boat one by at least a generation.

I started a new book in Spanish last night before I went to bed. This book is a work of Spanish journalism. Before I passed out I had plowed through almost 40 pages with only a minimal consultation with the dictionary. It amazes me how often I will look up a word and then immediately come across it again in another context. It is as if the entire language is a secret that is being revealed to me one word at a time. The act of reading becomes an exercise in which my glasses continually bring the pages into better focus.

My aural comprehension is on the same arc. I watched a Spanish movie last night. La Escopeta Nacional directed by the Luis G. Berlanga from Valencia. I have found that when I watch movies on my computer I have a much easier time understanding because the sound quality through the headphones is much better than television speakers. This movie is in Spanish and Catalan with subtitles. I am still only beginning to understand the nature of Catalan and Valencià, languages which seem to bring an almost schizophrenic nature to this part of the country, at least it seems that way to me. I haven’t formally begun to study Valencià but I can at least recognize it when I hear it now. I was going to say, “One word at a time and one language at a time,” but I will probably start learning some Valencià very soon. I certainly have enough time.

One of my favorite tools for learning Spanish is wordreference .This is an online dictionary which is the easiest and quickest to use. They also have a language forum where you can post questions on vocabulary and grammar. I usually get a response a few seconds after I post. This resource really saves a lot of time when you are reading. Plowing through a dictionary takes more time and if you only have a verb that has been conjugated you sometimes don’t know where to look. Wordreference accepts conjugated verbs and verbal nouns. You also do not need to even use the cursor as the page automatically brings you back to the search mode after you enter. Call it a lazy man’s jackpot or a lifesaver.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Of Zeros and Ones and Marble

Salvador Giner Vidal, born in Valencia (1832-1911), was a composer dedicated mostly to religious music. This statue is right off of my metro stop.. I am trying to document as much about Valencia as I possibly can. It is so easy just to walk by something like this and forget about it. I don't mean to insult the guy but I think a one sentence description is good enough.

He has his own statue so who the hell am I to rain on old Salvador Giner’s parade, besides, he has a fountain for that purpose. Just think of how few people in the history of human civilization have had a statue erected in their honor—and one that wasn’t later torn down by an angry mob. I would settle for my statue being razed by a mob; it’s the original thought that counts. I don’t think a statue counts if you have it built for yourself, that’s kind of what tombstones are for. I’m not a big fan of self-aggrandizement and I don’t know how one goes about self-promotion.

Then again, I guess building your own statue in your image is no worse than having some other organization do it for you, whether it be the Catholic Church, which is responsible for many of the statues in the European Christian era, or a political party which commissioned the rest. In the end, future generations will judge us more on our actions than marble statues carved in our likeness, if they judge us at all.

Take this Salvador Giner, dead now for almost 100 years. I’m sure that he accomplished a great deal in his lifetime, enough so that others thought him worthy of a fountain and a statue, yet I wouldn’t even know his name if I hadn’t taken this photo. When I looked at it on my computer I Googled his name and extracted my single sentence description from Wikipedia. Just about anyone nowadays has a Wikipedia entry and everyone can be found on Google.

The zeros and ones that honor individuals in the digital age are not as impressive as statues made of marble and bronze, but they may well turn out to be more durable. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, statues of the heroes of communism fell like trees in an Oregon forest. The U.S. invading forces orchestrated the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. The anemic handful of Iraqi statue-topplers in the end required the assistance of an American tank to bring Hussein down and fulfill this clumsy propaganda stunt the Bush administration needed for this unpopular war. In the digital era all someone has to do is hit a delete key to erase all traces of your existence.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Wine and Democracy

Wine and Democracy

In one of local free newspapers that are always lying around the metro stations there was a column lamenting the fact that wine consumption has dropped in Spain. In many European countries that is considered a bad thing and I would agree. People should drink wine, and plenty of it. The author put most of the blame on the fact that restaurants charge too much for wine which has lead to a reduction in restaurant wine sales of 9%. Restaurants here generally charge double the retail price for a bottle of wine and sometimes as much as three times. The author seems to be saying that wine is in danger of losing its democratic and populist standing if it is priced out of reach of consumers, any consumers.

I think that American restaurants begin with three times the retail price and up to four times as much. It isn’t unusual to pay $9-11 for a GLASS of wine in some places. I was at a restaurant in the Chicago area before I came to Spain and I asked the bartender for a modestly-priced glass of wine. She charged me $14. I guess I looked like I had either fallen off the turnip truck that morning or that I was made of money. This was in a decent restaurant but nothing top tier.

In almost every James Bond movie there seems to be an obligatory scene showing Bond as being some sort of incredible wine snob. “Yes, I’ll have the 1962 Chateau Trou du Cul.” Fetishistic wine knowledge is generally portrayed as the height of sophistication and breeding, whatever the hell that is. I don’t think you would ever find Bond buying wine at the bargain rack at Trader Joe’s.

Somewhere between the Bond-esque wine douche bag and the slob who gargles with his vino there is room for the way wine is supposed to be consumed. Wine is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. We produce some of the best wine in the world but there doesn’t seem to be the same effort by producers to reach the entire American market. We still see wine as a luxury.

Wine in Mediterranean countries is seen as more of a basic right, like free speech, than a luxury enjoyed only by the elite. The prices that I would pay at the wine bargain bins back home seem almost extravagant to me here in Spain. The grocery store across the street from my apartment has a fairly large selection of Spanish wines and I don’t think that any are over $10, most are under $5, and there are many for as little as 1€. I wonder which wine Bond would choose.

People sometimes buy an expensive bottle of wine with the intention of keeping it for a special occasion. The wine is supposed to improve with age; at least that’s what the books say. I’ve never been able to keep a good bottle around for very long. The good ones get knocked off right along with the cheaper bottles when you have friends over. Binge drinking has no respect for the connoisseur in us.

The attitude here seems to be. “Today is a pretty good day to drink wine, so why wait?” As far as that fancy bottle you were planning to save, drink it today. You can always go out and buy the same thing when you have something big to celebrate. The point is that you should celebrate every day, or at least every good meal. Any meal that you have taken the trouble to prepare deserves to be served with wine.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

It May Be Winter

It may be winter but not too cold to sit on my balcony

A few weeks ago I complained about the cold. I was just kidding back then. Now I am really bitching about the cold. Once again I am fantasizing about what it will be like here when it is really warm. That time will be here soon enough and will last for many months. I am waiting patiently. In fact, tonight I am waiting patiently out on my balcony as I smoke a Cuban cigar and write these words.

I have one of the better balconies that I have seen in Valencia and I’m sure that I will get a lot of good use out of it when the weather turns for the better. It adds a good 100 square feet or so on to an already big apartment and provides a good view of the neighborhood from the fifth floor perch.

I have been eating a little too well and with the rain I haven’t had a chance to ride my bike. I really noticed this today when I put on a pair of pants I haven’t worn since I got here that only fit if I am at my trimmest. I was planning on doing some shopping at the Algiros market today but all I got were a huge bag of olives. The two women at the olive stall got a big kick when I ordered in Valencià. On the way home I stopped at the green grocer and picked up some Canary Islands bananas and some Roma tomatoes. I feel like too much of a tub to eat anything tonight, but that doesn’t keep me from having a glass of brandy.

Today at 6:55 people in Europe were to observe a five minute lights out in honor of the global warming conference in Paris. It wasn’t about saving five minutes of electricity but simply a means to draw awareness to this issue. American right-wingers constantly pooh-pooh this topic and practically fall over laughing whenever the temperature is lower than average—as if this negates all of the scientific evidence that points to global warming. I just want all of the right-wingers to say for the record that they think global warming is a hoax. As I mentioned in an earlier essay, they have been wrong about so many other things. Go
ack and read what all of the neo-cons were saying about the war. Talk about being deluded.

Even if we are wrong on this point, all it means is that we spend some money to clean up the planet—not too much of a downside in my opinion. If global warming is happening, as most reputable scientists believe, and we do nothing about it, what will be the downside? Remember that old Bill Cosby gag with god talking to Noah? "How long can you tread water?" By the way, I was napping through the lights out, or apagón as they called it here in Spain. My short nap helped to save the world.

I have noticed that Al Gore is a rather revered figure here in Europe, as he should be. He has dedicated himself to public service along with presidents Carter and Clinton. It will be great when Gore wins the Academy Award for his film and gets to give a real speech at that fatuous celebrity fuck-fest. He makes me proud that I am American.

I have been so intent upon inculcating myself in Spanish life that my origins rarely come up in conversation here. Seattle is really hard to pronounce, or mispronounce, in Spanish so I usually just tell people I’m from the west coast. If they persist I tell them Sea-ah-tell and describe the immense natural beauty of the emerald city. The next place that I live I will be telling people about how great it is here in Valencia, even during the cold days of winter.