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Thursday, May 31, 2007

La Vie Quotidienne

La Vie Quotidienne

If you think that my other essays are stupor-inducingly boring, wait until you read this one about day-to-day concerns of life for an American in a Spanish city.

Adiós, Bloodsuckers

I can’t speak for all of Europe, but I know that apartments on the Mediterranean don’t have screens in the windows. This was the case in my beautiful apartment in Greece where I lived a long time ago. About this time of year the mosquitoes come looking for you while you are sleeping. It is remarkable how they happen to find me up here on the fifth floor, and how they crawl underneath my blinds which are pulled down to only a couple of inches off the floor, but they do. They aren’t a problem during the day or when I am up and awake at night. They wait until about 3 in the morning before they fly in and attack my arms and buzz in my ears.

I also remembered from all those years ago in Greece that there is an easy and inexpensive remedy. Back in Greece I had this tiny electric gizmo that plugs into a socket and slowly burns a tablet of insecticide. I found the same thing at my local supermarket for something like 3€. This one uses either the little tablets or burns a little reservoir bottle of fluid. I used it last night for the first time and it was a resounding success. I am using the reservoir bottle which claims to last 45 days. I’m good until July. This may not sound like such a big deal to anyone who has screens on their windows and who doesn’t have mosquitoes buzzing in their ears at 4 a.m.

Feast or Famine

I love to cook but I despise cooking for one person. I kid my Spanish roommate that whenever I prepare a meal I do it for my entire extended family, none of whom are living in Spain at the time. I would love to cook for ten people every day, but cooking for only me is not very interesting. I end up cooking such huge portions that I am forced to eat the leftovers for two or three days, or I just throw them out.

You can’t even order paella in a restaurant for only one person so cooking a single portion is out of the question. A pan for making paella is called a paella and not a paellera as my Valencian friends have pointed out. A paellera is the person making the dish and not the pan itself. This is a mistake non-Valencian Spaniards make that pisses off the locals. Anyway, my paella pan is big enough to serve five or six people. They make smaller pans but paella is so much trouble to make that it seems stupid not to make a lot of it.

I cook enough beans that I could eat them morning, noon, and night. Once again, beans take a while to cook and it seems silly to make a small portion. This means that I almost always have a bunch of lentils, black beans, pintos, kidneys, or habadas in the fridge at any given time.

I hate shopping except when it comes to food. I buy compulsively; I stock up on kilos of tomatoes if they look good; I buy meat in bulk from my butcher; I load up on olives like they are going to stop making them sometime soon; I have stuff in my freezer I can’t even remember buying just because I must have thought that it looked cool. I can’t help myself.

I am forced into eating things against my will because I have ticking time bombs about to go off in the form of over-ripe tomatoes, yogurt expiration dates, and Tupperware containers full of two day old paella. I feel like a little kid who is being punished for pelting someone with a tomato by being forced to eat a kilo of tomatoes. I feel like a contestant in the State Fair lentil eating contest, and all of this while I am trying to get lean for the beach. I know that the header to this section was “Feast or Famine,” but I’m no good at the famine part.

The solution is to get my stateside friends to come over for a visit to help me eat all of this damn food that I can’t keep from buying and cooking, either that or marry a Spanish widow with about eight kids. I would consider that option if she had a cool dog.

It’s funny but I don’t seem to need any help consuming all of the booze that I buy—also enough for a family of ten.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

My Two Cents (Currently 1.47 euro pennies and falling)

Or
Is There Any Good News from the Bush Administration?


I read in a Spanish economic journal an opinion that the dollar will make a 20% gain against the euro. The dollar has been sliding against the euro for the past several years and has been tanking pretty good since I arrived over six months ago. I certainly would not expect a 20% gain any time soon. The U.S. economy is being crippled by the Iraq War and Bush is digging a hole that we won’t escape from any time soon. This is worse than Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts (some of which he was smart enough to repeal, unlike Bush’s tax giveaway for the richest Americans) coupled with a heavy increase in defense spending. The Reagan crisis wasn’t rectified until Bill Clinton took office and was able to balance the budget almost ten years after Reagan left the White House.

I don’t think that America has even begun to see the ill effects of George W, Bush’s completely irresponsible fiscal policy, irresponsible for everyone except those profiting from the war and, of course, the oil industry. Business is always good for the oil industry, especially when administration after administration refuses to acknowledge that we even have an energy problem in the U.S. and citizens don’t even bat an eye when gas prices spike upwards of a dollar or more over a couple of months. According to Republican thinking, people are supposed to scream bloody murder when taxes are raised to provide more government services for citizens, yet when gas prices gouge a family’s budget so that Exxon can reap $36.2 billion in profits last year, we are supposed to sit back and admire the marvelous ways of the free market.

I think that $4 a gallon would be the best thing imaginable for the American economy. Higher fuel prices would more accurately show the true cost of petroleum which would steer our economy towards fuel efficiency. This has been the case in Europe for years as you can quickly see by the efficient cars they are forced to drive and the mass transit systems already in place. Higher taxes on gas would channel our economy towards efficiency and we could use the revenue to speed along the process. The tax now is being collected by the oil companies. They use their gains to buy second and third homes around the world, private jets, and for propaganda to poison the minds of Americans against alternative energy and the ills of pollution. Show me a “scientist” who opposes the consensus view on global warming, and I’ll show you someone who receives regular checks for the oil industry. They use the profits they gain from us to pollute not only our environment, but our minds if we allow them.

I made a bet with a friend a few months ago. He said that gasoline would drop to $1.50 a gallon before it inched back up to $3 a gallon. He lost that bet. Higher gas prices have an effect on just about every aspect of the American economy because we have done absolutely nothing in the last 30 years to do anything that would change our complete dependence on oil, imported or otherwise. Higher fuel prices coupled with our growing national debt due to the war probably means that the dollar won’t soon be making any gains against the euro.

I would like nothing better than to be wrong about my predictions for a continued weak dollar, I have a lot at stake in the matter as an American living in Europe on American currency. I would say that the dollar has fallen about as far as it can for now against the euro, but this doesn’t mean that it has to go up. I predict a less than 5% adjustment, either up or down, for the next year. I hope that I am wrong.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dogs and Cats Living in Sin



Dogs and Cats Living in Sin

I pass by some sort of abandoned house on one of my bike rides down along the beach. I usually just speed by it but today I rolled into the driveway to check it out. I was immediately surrounded by four or five small dogs all yapping away like their territory depended on it. There were also lots of straggly stray cats living there. You know what dogs say about screwing a cat, “It’s fun until your friends catch you doing it.” They didn’t stop barking until I started peeing over everything and then they just sort of slinked away in shame.

Now maybe this inter-species orgy doesn’t go against the teachings of whatever church you signed on with, but steamy dog-on-cat action certainly violates everything that I hold sacred in evolutionary biology. Cat-on-dog action is just unspeakably unwholesome—even on the internet. There’s a new sheriff in town, fellas. No more unnatural acts. I’ll be checking in from time to time.

Monday, May 28, 2007

La Ciudad y Los Perros


I would be neglecting my duties in the chronicling of Spanish life if I didn’t write something about how much people here love their pooches. I happen to like dogs a lot so I don’t mind all of the negative aspects of sharing a dense urban environment with man’s best friends. Some of you may be asking, “Dogs have a down side?” I’m trying to keep this upbeat and positive so I’ll limit my answer to one word: sometimes.

I realize that “sometimes” is a little vague but it usually means early in the morning, when I’m sleeping, or at least I was sleeping, you yapping little dust mop, wherever you are. Lucky for you I’m too hung over to get out of bed and come looking for you. Lucky for you firearms are not as readily available as they are in my homeland. I try to return to my dream where I was hitting a very small dog with a very large board with a nail sticking out of it. Nice doggy, now hold still. While I’m fantasizing I may as well use the same length of board to hit the workmen below who begin drilling promptly at 7:30 a.m. and then go for morning beers at 7:55 and don’t get back until noon. Maybe when I’m finished hitting them (I suggest getting comfortable, this could take a while) they can build me a nice bookshelf out of my weapon.

True story: Today I walked by the little café that shares the same courtyard as my building. It was 10:25 in the morning and already there was a table with an empty bottle of wine and several beer bottles. But today we are talking about dogs, not eager-beaver workmen who begin work in earnest at 7:30 a.m., complete with plenty of extremely loud power tools along with their own repertoire of vulgar throat-clearing noises, only to work long enough to wake me up completely, and then they head off to get their morning drink on. They deserve their own essay—or shooting spree.

I would guess that at least one quarter of the households in Valencia include a dog among their occupants. Most of the people with dogs have smaller ones, the kind that you probably can’t rely upon to go for help if you are ever trapped in an abandoned mine. In fact, most of the dogs here have more in common with hamsters than they do with Lassie or Old Yeller. Just as most people here choose to drive small cars, they also prefer smaller dogs, and for the same reason: better fuel economy.

Unfortunately, I live in a Spanish household with no dog, big or small. As much as I love the pooches, I’ve never had one of my own. Dogs take up too much of my baggage allowance when I travel. Most of the people I have met so far in Valencia are also dog-less. If I ever take out a personal ad on a Spanish dating site mine will explain that my most stringent requirement for a woman is that she own a cool dog. Dating a woman with a cool dog always sucks, too. When you break up you end up missing the dog as much as the owner. I have never missed an ex’s cat.

The dogs here all seem to be very well behaved. If they have such things as leash laws here most people are in violation, yet their loose mutts never seem to stray very far or get into mischief. You see dogs waiting patiently outside of grocery stores while their masters are inside buying all of the strange things Spanish people buy in grocery stores. People take their pets with them practically every where they go. The main cathedral in Valencia actually has a special pew set aside in the back just for dogs. I’m not sure if that is true or not but it should be. If dogs aren’t allowed in churches this might explain why nobody here goes any more. I guess the Catholic god is more of the cat-loving type of superior being.

I guess that you could say that dogs have a privileged place in Spanish society, sort of like movie stars have in American society except without the drug rehab and DUI arrests. Dogs don't have any issues that can't be remedied with a rolled up magazine. Even considering all of the crap and barking, I think Spanish dogs are a lot better behaved than American celebrities. The subjects of American tabloids leave a bigger mess in their wake than any Spanish chihuahua, and just try cleaning up Paris Hilton's latest social dump with nothing but a plastic shopping bag wrapped around your hand.

As much as I love dogs, even I have to say that they tend to get a little messy here in Valencia where not everyone feels obliged to pick up after their little one. This wouldn’t be so bad except they don’t have the dog poop clean-up brigades like they do in Paris where squadrons of motorcycles patrol the city vacuuming up dog crap. No kidding. There are cleaning crews that scour each neighborhood but they can’t keep up with the prolific output of so many canines. More and more people are taking it upon themselves to clean up after their dogs but I think the education process could use a little push from the government.

For this I have volunteered my services as a writer. I will donate my creative talents to make Valencia completely free of dog poop through a series of public services announcements on television. In one ad a very small woman walks her very small dog down the street. The dog stops to do his business and while the woman is distracted while talking to someone on the street, a very large man does his business on her very small dog. In another ad a group of children are joyously playing on the sidewalk when one of them steps in a fresh pile. In slow motion the child runs in horror down the street. We freeze-frame to show the child’s anguish, copying the famous Viet Nam War photograph of the child hit with napalm. I have many more ideas but this would be a good start.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Books and Movies



I have been a big fan of Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa for a long time. He has always been my favorite Latin American writer and now that my Spanish is a lot better he may top the list of all-time favorite contemporary writers. He has been fairly prolific and I sort of got too far behind in my reading to keep up with him. I plan on catching up while I am living in Spain. While I'm at it I will probably reread the books I have already read.

I am currently reading his latest novel published in 2006. He was born in 1936 so he is getting up there. I have breezed through the first 90 pages of Travesuras de la Niña Mala and I think that, so far, it is one of his best novels. The story parallels the author’s own life from his youth and early adulthood in Lima, Peru and then on to Paris where he worked as a translator. It is great to see that one of my literary heroes has improved with age. His descriptions of life in Lima during his childhood are sharper and more revealing than those of his earlier novels.

I have set a goal of reading at least 40 pages a day in Spanish, not including newspapers and magazines. Reading is the best way for me to learn new vocabulary and reinforce words I have already learned. I get a special sort of pleasure out of looking up a word I don’t know and then coming across the same word in a different context the next day. When that happens I usually have that word locked into my memory.

Just about everything I do inside the confines of the Spanish language I am able to write off as “educational.” I can watch a movie that may be a complete piece of shit and feel good about it because it is helping my aural comprehension. I think that I mentioned before how I was reading translations of a couple of spy novels that I had read in English years and years ago. I picked up a lot of great vocabulary from them.

I don’t learn many new words from watching movies in Spanish; I just reinforce words that I already know as well as strengthen my listening skills. Most of the television is pretty crappy here so I stick mostly to movies for this exercise. I have seen a lot of Spanish movies as well as some American films dubbed into Spanish (with Spanish rather than Latin American accents). I haven’t been able to find any Spanish books on tape. I think this would be a great way to learn. I have found a few podcasts in Spanish but tracking them down takes too much time.

Something that I need to do more of is reading out loud. It is tiresome and boring but it is the best way to work on pronunciation. I sometimes talk to myself out loud in Spanish when I am bike riding which gets some weird looks from people when I am caught doing it.

I often think about how easy it would be to learn English as a second language. First of all, there are tons of movies in English, as well as television shows, all of which are readily available in most corners of the world. It is also easy to find books in English as well as periodicals. If English had not been my native language I’m quite sure I would have learned it by now.

Learning Spanish is like conducting a war on several different fronts. I sort of doubt I’ll ever be standing on a ship with a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” unfurled behind me. There is no finishing this task. Luckily, there are many rewards along the way, like this wonderful novel by a favorite writer. With every day that goes by, with every book that I read and every movie that I watch, I only hope that I am getting less Borat and more rico-suave.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Virtual Bike Ride


After I have everything ready and I step out the door, I face one of the biggest challenges in my bike ride for the day: carrying my bike down five flights of stairs to the lobby of my building. I could take the elevator, and I do on the return, but that just seems sissy to me. In front of my building I mount up and head down the little alley for a half a block and turn right. I cross one street and ride over to Aragon Avenue directly in front of the soccer stadium. This is where I get on the bike path and where I can now ride without interruption all the way, some 14 or so kilometers, to the beaches south of town.

I am never in a hurry picking my way along this part of the bike path. There is a lane marked for bikes that sometimes is and often isn’t respected by pedestrians. I don’t mind taking it easy along this particular corridor as I have two hours or more of riding ahead of me and there will be plenty of time for speed

Until I am out of town this is sort of the scenic route. I pedal past the Palau de la Música and then I skirt along the Turia Gardens Park. I don’t ride in the park because there are usually too many people and there is a bike path that runs along the top north rim of the park that I usually have all to myself. I have a fantastic view of the Ciudad de las Ciencias y las Artes along my ride and at the end I cross over to the other side of the park and pick up the bike path that leads out of town.

It takes me less than 15 minutes to get to this point and by now I am warmed up and ready to open up. This is a great stretch for an extended sprint as the path has no interruptions for a couple of kilometers. I only have to worry about the occasional gypsy pushing a shopping cart of chatarra, or scrap. This seems to be a major trail for the junk merchants and I have dubbed this bit of the bike path the Chatarra Route. I just let out a few whistles and they will either list to starboard or to port to allow me to get by.

This next part really needs a picture to explain. This crazy pedestrian bridge spans a set of railroad tracks and a highway to keep bikes out of harm’s way. After the bridge there is a brand new addition to the bike trail: a rather dreary couple of kilometers in the shadows of the huge cranes that service the port of Valencia which leads to another bridge across a canal. From here the trails follows the beach at Pinedo.

On weekends this section is too crowded for good biking so I take a backstreet through town. Yesterday was a nice enough day although it was a bit overcast and windy and there wasn’t a soul on this entire stretch of beautiful beach. The bike trail on this first part of Pinedo Beach isn’t too great but you can’t beat the view. After this is the recently-completed new section of Pinedo Beach which is fantastic. The bike trail goes along the refurbished sand dunes for a couple of miles until it used to end at the weird abandoned factory. I would have to dismount here and walk across the sand and then ride through the factory which is littered with broken glass—a flat waiting to happen.

They just built a new wood walkway so I can get around this hurdle without getting off my bike. A bit further along I just yesterday discovered a new expanse of the bike trail that links Pinedo with the sports complex adjacent to the beach at El Saler. This was the last link in the chain for the bike trail from Valencia all the way to the end of El Saler. El Saler is another fantastic bike trail winding around the dunes behind the beach.

It doesn’t end here. South of El Saler you can either follow a gravel road closed to automobiles for a half a kilometer and then meet up with a back road along the beach, or take a cool gravel road that runs through the dunes and sea pine forest a bit inland. I see lots of crazy birds back in this area and I chase a quail or two off the road almost every time I come through here. What I like most about this section of the trail are the smells. The sweet smell of pancake syrup from the wildflowers reminds me of my summers bike riding along the coast in Greece. On the south end of this road there is a chain across the road and this is one of the few places where I have to dismount to walk around it.

I ride on an access road for about a kilometer until I get to a road that has been closed to automobile traffic. I follow this until I have to cross a bridge over one of the spillways into the sea from the lake at La Albufera. On the other side of the bridge there is a brackish water lagoon with an island in the middle of it filled with nesting sea birds. This area is all back country of abandoned roads and narrow paths, some of which are accessible on a bike.

There is a lot of area for discovery back here and there are also a lot of great beaches. Actually, this is all one long, uninterrupted beach. It is finding access to the beach which is difficult. I have been stopping at one stretch of beach in the middle of nowhere that actually has a beach shower. I can get off my bike here and run along the beach for a bit. When I’m ready to get going again I can rinse off in the shower. They have also recently added a wooden path down to the beach so I can ride almost to the water’s edge.

From here I can either head back for home or take a side-trip over to the village of El Palmar which is sort of stranded out in the lake of La Albufera. El Palmar is know for its paella restaurants and is a favorite destination for Valencianos who want to have lunch outside of the city.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Things Money Can’t Buy



Things Money Can’t Buy

• No matter how rich you are you can’t insulate yourself from hearing Hotel California at least another 1,000 times before you die. I am living on another continent under an assumed name and that horrible song comes on over the Muzak in the book store where I am shopping. What is a guy in self-imposed exile supposed to do? How could being fabulously wealthy help me in this situation? It doesn’t cost anything to stick my fingers in my ears and say, “ Na na na…I can’t hear this, na na na…I’m not listening.” Do you remember that bar scene in the first Star Wars movie? Hotel California was playing on the juke box. You can’t escape it anywhere.

• Money can’t buy you knowledge of a foreign language; for that you need lots of hard work and apparently a larger brain than the one I was issued.

• Money can’t free you from the utter vulgarity and offensiveness of the human body. We are all the same. I don’t care if you are Bill Gates, the sultan of Brunei, or a guy who cleans public toilets in Calcutta (Calcutta was voted as having the dirtiest public toilets in the northern hemisphere…or is Calcutta in the southern hemisphere? Are there only two hemispheres? It seems like there should be four. Whatever, Calcutta has gross public toilets. I think that even geography professors can agree on that.). No matter what tax bracket you occupy, your body is an inventory of foul noises, discharges, growths, oozings, drippings, odors, and leaks—and those are all above the waist. What goes on inside your pants is too disgusting to discuss on the internet. I’m trying to keep this clean.

• I don’t care if you are James Bond drinking French wine at $250 a glass; drink enough of it and you will wake up the next day feeling like shit. Hangovers are mercilessly democratic.

• Money can buy love, sex, hand jobs, blow jobs, erections, fake boobs, inflatable dolls, dildos, butt plugs, cock rings, ben-wa balls, pocket rockets, French ticklers, nut busters, colon extenders, prostate clamps, urethra enhancers, testicle tighteners, and rectum high-lighters (OK, some of that shit is made up. Can you name them?). What money can’t buy are the things you need to say to a woman during sex if she likes the talkative kind of sex. Talking dirty isn’t just about laying out a bunch of four letter words, it’s an art form, you moron. Maybe your lover is as much of a slob as you but I doubt it. You can start by reading some poetry, and unless your mate is also your prison bitch you aren’t getting any sexier by listening to that hip hop crap.

• I think that we can all agree on one thing, even the Palestinians and the Israelis, even the Sunnis and the Shiites. We all know that nothing tastes better than well-cooked bacon, and it isn’t expensive at all. Forget about lobster and caviar; bacon has those beat hands down. Bacon tastes better than a lobster and caviar soufflé, so skip the fancy French restaurant and order a BLT.

So why do we kill ourselves trying to make money when it can’t buy the important things in life? All that I need is some well-cooked bacon, cheap Spanish wine, and a Paz Vega look-alike and I’m a happy, farting, burping guy who can talk dirty with the best of them. Hotel California is a curse that the entire universe must endure.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More Definitions:

More Definitions:

Kids


One thing about living in Valencia is that I’m not used to being around a lot of little kids. Hardly anyone with a family lives in downtown Seattle in my old neighborhood; the families mostly live in the areas of town with single-family homes or out in the suburbs. In Valencia there are no areas with single-family homes, and there are definitely not any suburbs, which means that I am constantly keeping an eye out for stray soccer balls in the street and dodging baby carriages out on the bike paths.

The good news is that I love kids so being hip deep in yard apes is a fringe benefit of life here in Spain. Rearing children is sort of a community project over here. Kids run wild through the streets with rather spotty parental supervision. It’s not like kids can get away with much since everyone in the neighborhood knows who they are, where they live, and where their parents go for a drink every evening. Every balcony in every apartment building is a potential vigilante spying down on what the kids are up to in the courtyards and playgrounds.

Keeping Spanish kids occupied has to be the easiest job in the history of entertainment: just give them something round to kick. Kicking a ball must be one of the most basic of human instincts, “Do you want to feel the baby kick?” It starts in the womb and they come out kicking and screaming. This sort of conduct is heavily encouraged in this football-crazed nation—the kicking and the screaming. Along with these natural types of behavior they teach the little ones how to fake a foul. It takes a village to win a free penalty kick.

Between my eight-story apartment building and the one next door there is a one story building that houses a night club and some sort of retail outlet. All of the little neighborhood thugs have set up a street soccer pitch between the two high-rise apartments, complete with goals chalked on the brick walls. I was awakened from a nap the other day by the steady and incessant thump of a soccer ball against the side of my building. I looked out a window and noticed that there were six soccer balls stranded on the roof of the nightclub and store. I wonder how many soccer balls in all of Spain have met similar fates? I imagine that that the Spanish equivalent of Santa Claus could be a mysterious visitor who comes once a year on to the rooftops of every city to liberate the lost soccer balls. That would be great news for the children and bad news for anyone trying to take a nap in the soccer-frenzy hours of the late afternoon.

Spanish kids learn how to kick before they learn how to walk,v and as soon as they get ambulatory every object, man-made or otherwise, is a ball in play: cats, dogs, your leg, the table leg, each other, and most definitely anything that is even remotely round. They will kick anything once and if it moves they will kick it again.

About 90% of the interaction between Spanish men and their children involves kicking a ball back and forth. I think that the number one reason why Spanish men want children is to have someone on the other end of their goal attempts. None of their friends want to guard the net so Spanish dads usually make their kids play goal keeper for the first few years. In Freudian terms, part of becoming an adult here is when children force their fathers to finally play a little defense. Dad is forced to stay home in the goal tender’s area while they learn how to drive a car or go out on dates.

to be continued...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Definitions


Plaza del Negrito

Definitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Homeric Gut Check

Homeric Gut Check

Sometimes I just settle into a grove. Call it a routine. Somewhere I wrote an essay where I called this a rut-tine. As lacking in wit as that bit of word coinage may have been, I’m feeling even less clever these day. Perhaps doing so much in Spanish is affecting my thinking in English? I sort of like this excuse because it implies that I have something better to do than try to be interesting in my native tongue.

I rolled over another minor milestone last night. I watched a Spanish movie without subtitles and I understood about 95% of it. The movie is called Sex and Lucia starring Paz Vega. I have had the movie since well before I arrived in Spain but it was way over my head, linguistically speaking. It isn’t any longer. Lots of naked Paz Vega in this movie who is the polar opposite of the old, fat, and naked foreign tourist from my last essay. I was loaned another movie by the same director, Julio Medem, called Los Amantes del Círculo Polar. No Paz Vega in this film, naked or otherwise.

I am currently reading a translation of a John Le Carre novel just to improve my vocabulary. I read the books years and years ago so I know the story. This is a great asset when reading in Spanish because since I already know the story I just have to learn the new words. I have found that the best way for me to learn is to make sure that I understand every single word before I move on. I used to read over parts that I sort of knew the gist of, just to move through the story. Now I think that I am advanced enough to make sure that I examine every single word. I read 43 pages yesterday and I only had to look up 10 words with “Hubcap” being the only noun, the others being fairly esoteric adjectives and verbs.

Along with learning Spanish, my other obsession right now is my personal fitness. That isn’t being truthful. It isn’t my fitness I am obsessing over but my nearly 50 year old carcass. I am just wondering if it is humanly possible for me at this age to have a completely amazing body like the 25 year old punks I see at the beach, like I had when I was that age. Since I used Ahab’s quest for an analogy in my last essay, this time I’ll say that I’m like Odysseus trying to get back to Ithaca. Of course, instead of a boat I’m traveling by bike. Instead of the obstacles Odysseus confronted I face perils like pork products and Spanish wine that want to keep me from reaching my destination of a flat stomach.

I am calling this Operation Speedo. It’s not like I’m planning on wearing a banana hammock, or a ball bag, or whatever you want to call it. It’s just that Operation Speedo sounds catchier than Operation Tasteful Swimwear That Doesn’t Look Completely Ridiculous. Besides, Speedos aren’t very popular over here anymore, especially if you aren’t old, fat, and German. I have two weeks until June; that should be enough time.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Just One

How many old, fat, and naked foreign tourists does it take to completely ruin about 500 meters of pristine Spanish beach? If I had written that last sentence in Spanish the declensions for gender would indicate that I am talking about the male of this particularly grotesque species. How do I know that he is foreign? I don’t know for sure but past experience on Mediterranean beaches tells me that I probably guessed correctly. German would be my first pick as far as nationalities go; that's just the way they roll.

This inquiry is not some sort of riddle or the opening line of a bad joke; it’s a simple rhetorical question to which we all know the answer. How many turds on your plate are enough to make you lose your appetite? For those of you who think that last sentence was in bad taste let me remind you that nothing is more tasteless than an old, fat, and naked foreign tourist.

So I’m riding down the beach bike path on a glorious day when I look up and on the sand dune in front of me stands the old, fat, and naked foreign tourist in all of his glory. All that I can do is shout out, “Porqué, porqué, porqué, porqué?” as I pedal by. Why, why, why, why old, fat, and naked foreign tourist? How could you possibly think that there is even one person on this earth who would want to look at your frightful human form? There is really no up side to being exposed to an old, fat, and naked foreign tourist but at least his gut was big enough to cover most of the truly horrifying parts of his misshapen and hairy carcass.

There you stand on the crest of a sand dune, like a hirsute scarecrow. If I ever wanted to have 500 meters of pristine Spanish beach all to myself I would hire an old, fat, and naked foreign tourist (OFNFT) to stand atop a dune. I guarantee that no one else will want to share this space with you.

I quickly ride past OFNFT but I will have to look at a lot of topless Spanish beauties to scour that image from my mind. You are like a visual Exxon Valdes, OFNFT. Who is going to rescue the sea birds that have been traumatized by this toxic spill of hair and bald spot and grease and flab and suntan oil? Green Peace says that their people won’t move in until someone makes OFNFT at least put on some shorts and preferably a burka.

I consider myself to be a pretty tough guy but how do you defend yourself against an OFNFT if you are attacked? I have read that you should try to stuff something in his blow hole but I have the feeling that is exactly what OFNFT is looking for as he ambushes unsuspecting bicyclists on this stretch of pristine Spanish beach. Harpoons are awfully heavy to take on my bike rides but I don’t know of any other way I can go by this stretch of beach and feel safe. I didn’t want it to be this way but OFNFT has turned me into a two-wheeled Ahab.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Public Good

Carmen Alborch
I happened upon what I thought was a magazine sitting on the top of the bar in a restaurant that I frequent. It turned out to be campaign literature for the socialist candidate ( PSOE PSPV Partido Socialista Obrero Español/ Partido Socialist País de Valencia) for mayor of Valencia, Carmen Alborch. The magazine is a very slick, glossy affair with over 100 pages, all with photographs. I suppose that campaign literature is all about false promises but I think it is extremely interesting to see the sort of promises the Spanish want from their political leaders. I think they are completely different from those we Americans have come to expect.

First of all, there is nothing in the literature or in the campaign about abortion, gay marriage, or evolution. I haven’t seen anything equivalent to our Terry Schiavo affair, no stupid emotional issue that has nothing to do with the constituency and everything to do with divisive politics. No one talks about prayer in schools or stem cell research. What they do talk about are issues that have direct and immediate bearing on the public good. They already have good public health care so they talk about improving it. The public good seems to be something we have ceased to even consider in our survival-of-the-fittest, every-man-for-himself version of democracy.

The heart of the campaign magazine is made up of a feature entitled, The City of 100 Faces which asks 100 citizens of Valencia what they would like from their government. A lot of the requests are for meat and potato things like jobs, affordable housing, and better public health care, but most of what is featured in the campaign magazine are pretty lofty items, at least they seem lofty for American standards.

The first request comes from an unemployed youth for work and cheaper apartments. Number two is a woman asking that Valencia become a more cultured city, not just on a grand scale with museums and concert halls, but culture that filters down to the lives of all citizens. More and better public transportation is another request. This is in a city that I think has an excellent public transportation network. I felt a surge of pride when I went into my metro stop and noticed that the new line had opened going from the port to the airport.

Each request is followed by the mayor-elect stating, “Me comprometo,,,I promise…,” which adds up to a lot of promises. I realize that it is just campaign rhetoric but the point is that all of the requests are for the public good. There is no call for fewer taxes. People prefer things like better bike trails, more public spaces, more funding for the arts, shorter work weeks, educational benefits for the elderly, and a lot of other silly socialist notions.

I think that the nature of city life demands that people think collectively because what is the use of a government that helps only one small segment of the society while ignoring another? Dense urban living doesn’t allow much in the way of insulation from the less fortunate, so it’s better to raise everyone’s standard of living. There aren’t any really bad neighborhoods in Valencia and there aren’t any wealthy neighborhoods either. There are nice buildings but right around the corner there will be an apartment building that isn’t quite as nice.

The rich (that’s very relative here) don’t have the luxury of avoiding anyone below their economic status. Poor people aren’t viewed as the enemy in Spain as they are in America. The poor are viewed as a problem that needs to be resolved, like public transportation or health care. Government isn’t looked upon as something that we need to get off our backs, but as a means for solving a vast array of social, cultural, and economic issues. I was never able to understand the hostile attitudes of American conservatives towards government. Their panacea for all of the country’s problems is handing control of governmental responsibilities over to private industry which is a pretty lousy strategy for things like health care and public transportation.

In a democracy I have never understood how people can have such a hatred of government. If you don’t like the one you have you can always elect another. Try doing this if you don’t like the directors of a private company.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Six Months/Seis Meses

Today marks my six month anniversary, or whatever the hell you call it, of my time here in Spain. More than anything I wanted to mark this milestone by thinking that my Spanish has improved very appreciably during this time. There is no test I can take to quantify just how much I have learned and most people around me are too nice to say anything other than that I speak the language a lot better than I did a half of a year ago. Six months is the blink of an eye as far as a lifetime is concerned so I guess that I shouldn’t expect miracles.

I have spent the past few days frantically trying to improve my Spanish, more so than usual. I have been reading everything I can get my hands on, as well as reading over people’s shoulders when I can’t get my hands on anything. I read out loud to improve my accent. I do my rolled Spanish R drill: rr con rr guitarra, rr con rrr barril, qué rápido corren los carros, los carros del ferrocarril. I try not to do this in public. I wasreading out loud in the park today and an old lady walked by and tried to give me some spare change. Tomorrow I’m going to write “Will Learn Spanish for Food” on a piece of cardboard and practice down in the main square in Valencia.

I watched a movie last night in Spanish without subtitles. Gracias por Fumar is a dubbed version of Thanks for Smoking. There was almost nothing that I didn’t understand. I had read the very funny book by Christopher Buckley so that probably helped. I have a couple of Spanish movies to watch that someone lent me. Those will be bigger challenges.

I spent the entire day today reading. I went through a couple of newspapers as well as Magazine magazine. I also plowed through 30 or so pages of one of the books I am reading in Spanish. As I write this I’m listening to some Spanish music, if you can call Manu Chao Spanish music.

Learning a new language is really tough; you can’t just soak it up through osmosis. You probably could soak it up if you were a lot smarter than I am or if you had a lot of time. I’m not sure just how much time I will have so I have to make every day count. If I can have more days like today I’m pretty sure that I may actually get around to learning this maldito idioma.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Leg-Powered Entertainment


For about the past month or so I have been going completely ape shit with the bike riding. I pedal for over two hours a day, five and sometimes six days a week. There isn’t much rhyme or reason to my training; I just get on my bike and ride as hard as I can. I left my pulse rate monitor at home and I don’t have a computer on my bike so there is not much of a way for me to gauge my progress. I haven’t really thought about it much. I just love to ride and there are some fantastic areas to explore just south of town.

A new section of the beach bike trail has just been completed which connects to the trail from Valencia. This begins in the middle of town on the south end of the Ciencias complex. You can get on the trail here which takes you to the edge of Nazaret, an old neighborhood near the port. There is a pedestrian bridge over the highway and after you ride over this there is a new trail that goes farther south to Pinedo. There is a new bike bridge over the Turia River here that is very welcome because crossing on the vehicle side of the bridge was always a little frightening. From here the trail goes along the beach at Pinedo.

On weekends and holidays the beach is crowded and I usually forgo the bike trail for a back street where I can ride a lot faster. It’s hard to beat the scenery at the beach, however, so sometimes I sacrifice speed for bikinis. Yesterday I also broke up a dog fight. A dog that was off-leash ran up to a guy who was walking his dog. Both where medium size dogs and the off-leash pooch began to get aggressive. The guy started swinging his dog around by the neck trying to keep the two mutts from making contact. I saw it all happening as I was riding down the boardwalk. I stopped and shouted at the off-leash dog. He immediately stopped and ran away. You just have to know how to talk to dogs.

Just past Pinedo is a brand new section of beach and bike trail that is just beautiful. The bike trail is wide and completely separated from the pedestrian path. This new section is probably about three kilometers long. It ends abruptly in the sand. Past this there is a cool abandoned factory that looks like a movie location for the end of the world. I walk my bike through the sand and rode through the factory. There used to be an open gate on the other end of the factory but it was closed yesterday. I looked for another way out, but, short of climbing over a three meter wall with my bike, it looked like I would have to back-track around the factory. As I was riding back I noticed that the metal gate I passed on previous rides had a hole in it. I was able to wiggle my bike past the gap in the fence, climb through myself, and continue riding south.

Immediately south of the factory the trail continues, but only for another half kilometer or so. You need to get back on the highway and ride for maybe two kilometers until you reach El Saler where the trail picks up again along another great beach area. This is also where the sand dunes begin and the entire area is being preserved as a nature reserve. The beach trail ends at a gravel road that has a chain across it to keep cars out. I can either continue south along this road or go a little inland and take a trail that goes through the dunes and marshes.

This whole area is like a dream-come-true for anyone with a cycle-cross bike. The gravel roads are hard-packed and fast so you really don’t need a mountain bike which seems to be the overwhelming favorite among most cyclists who don’t have road bikes. There are few places that you can go on a mountain bike where I can’t follow on my cycle-cross, and my bike is loads faster on the bike paths and gravel roads. A road bike is useless on anything but the paved surfaces so my bike is a great compromise. I still bristle at getting passed on the highway by racing bikes but as my fitness improves it is getting harder and harder for the racers to get by me.

South of the El Saler public beach is a huge expanse of sand dunes, deserted beaches, lagoons, marshes, and trails. It looks that at one time they were planning to develop this area for commercial and residential use but changed their minds and made it into a wilderness sanctuary. There are abandoned roads zigzagging all through this area. There are also lots of trails for hikers and bikers. I find something new to explore almost every time I ride through. I am often asked directions down there and they definitely have asked the right person. I probably know this entire area as well as anyone.

I should probably be exploring another side of Valencia’s outskirts. I already have ridden a lot on the north end of the beach but I have yet to go inland towards the mountains.

I carry a backpack water reservoir that holds about two liters. On some days this isn’t enough and it isn’t even summer. I also carry two spare tubes and a tire patching kit. I haven’t had a flat in a long time, although my folding clown bike has a flat right now that I’m too lazy to fix. I usually carry along a bag of nuts and dried figs and dates just in case I go completely overboard and bonk-out somewhere far from home.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The America’s Cup: Part I



The America’s Cup: Part I

Like everything else about Valencia, my knowledge of the America’s Cup sailing races is an ongoing operation. I’ve never really followed it in the past. I have thrown the races a peripheral glance whenever anything happened in the past that filtered down to the general public. Since Valencia is the host to the 32nd
America’s Cup and the first time the race has been held in Europe in its 155 history, it’s hard for me to avoid.

I have read that the city has spent 800,000,000€ in preparation for the races with most of this going into the new port facility. Since I arrived in November I have been aware of how much effort the city has been putting into making sure the races go off well and Valencia is seen around the world as a vibrant and progressive metropolis. From what I have seen so far it was money well spent.

On one of the first days I spent here in Valencia I remember seeing a really cute TV commercial about the Cup. In the ad a racing sloop was shown hoisting a sail in heavy wind with a quick cut showing a woman hanging a sheet on a clothesline on the top floor of an apartment. Next was a shot of water splashing over the bow of a sailboat with a cut to a group of little kids stomping in a puddle. At the end of the ad there was the message: La Copa de America: Lo vamos a ganar todos (The America’s Cup: We’re all going to win it). The commercials also aired in the local language. I suppose the first job of the organizers was selling it to the locals.

The port construction was impressive to watch. I ride by this way almost every day on my bike so I saw it progress over the past six months. The best way to show the new port is to direct you to the America's Cup website. The city has done a lot more than build the new port. All of the older buildings near the port underwent a facelift as well. There is new highway access to the port along with the brand new metro line that connects the port to the airport.

The new port is a sprawling amusement park with miles of walkways, dozens of new cafes and restaurants, playgrounds, visitor centers, concert venues, huge screen televisions for watching the races, as well as harbor facilities for your yacht (I spelled that correctly after only two tries). Because the distances between the facilities are considerable, bikes seem to be the favored mode of transport here. There are bikes everywhere. The port organizers are still installing bike racks as more and more people are realizing that this is the way to go if you are going to visit the new showplace of Valencia. It looks almost like Amsterdam with great hordes of bikes lying dormant everywhere.

The new marina is easy to get to from almost any part of the city if you are on a bike. There is a bike path Carril Bici that runs the length of the Avenida del Puerto which runs directly into the port and another on Avenida Blasco Ibañez for the north end of Valencia which ends at Malvarosa Beach a bit north of the port.

The Competitors

The teams are more under corporate sponsorship but they are designated by country. I guess jingoism sparks more interest in the race than rooting for a company. Here is a breakdown of the boats.

SUI - Alinghi
USA - BMW ORACLE Racing
ITA - +39 Challenge
RSA - Team Shosholoza
NZL - Emirates Team New Zealand
ITA - Luna Rossa Challenge
FRA - Areva Challenge
SWE - Victory Challenge
ESP - Desafío Español 2007
ITA - Mascalzone Latino - Capitalia Team
GER - United Internet Team Germany
CHN - China Team

The Races

16 April - 12 June Louis Vuitton Cup - Challenger Selection Series

23 June - 4 July America's Cup Match by Louis Vuitton

The television coverage of the races is impressive. There are cameras on every boat in the race as well as helicopter shots and all sorts of strange angles. It is fun to be in front of one of the big screen TVs with a crowd of people cheering on a boat as it makes a quick sail change. I have done a bit of sail racing in my day but I certainly have a lot to learn. The port is a great place to finish my bike work-out in the afternoon. I can have a beer, sit in the grass, and watch some beautiful boats.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Making the Rounds: Shopping

Buying groceries is not one-stop shopping here in Valencia. I’m sure that there may be a few lazy Spaniards who rely on the large chain grocery stores for all of their needs but most people go to several different specialty shops to round out their dietary needs. The longer I live here, the less I buy at the chain stores. Every day I am finding other sources for the few things I still buy at the chain store. Small, private businesses still flourish in Europe but they are under siege from the big guys. We all need to do our part to help out.

When I shop in the small markets I know exactly where my money goes. I may be on a budget but I don’t need to save a few pennies if it means turning my back on the local merchants. What I gain by going local is much better and personalized service; something that is invaluable for a recent immigrant learning the language. My vocabulary of foods is pretty extensive since I shop almost every day. When you go to the supermarket you don’t talk to anyone. You just shove your stuff in a basket, pay, and leave. It’s a little more complicated than that in the little places.

Supermarkets have terrible produce here in Spain. Everything is prepackaged to expedite checkouts. I will only buy fruit or vegetables here if I am thoroughly desperate, and I’m almost never desperate. For produce I go to one of the verdurías that are on almost every block, and most of the time I go to the same one just out of loyalty or whatever. I don’t get much practice with Spanish here because the guy is Indian and my Spanish is better than his. A lot of the signs in the store are spelled wrong.

The produce is decent but Spain is different from the U.S. as they rely a lot less on hothouse vegetables. If something isn’t in season is just doesn’t look too good. On the flip side, when you get a good tomato it’s really good. A good tomato is not a small thing in my book. The local tomato variety are called raf and they are wonderful. They are weird shaped with folds in them. We haven’t seen the best of these yet but I’ve had a few really great ones. I can’t wait for summer. There is another unique variety of tomato called rambo that are pretty tasty.

My butcher is quickly becoming my best resource here in Valencia. I stop into his shop a two or three times a week. Yesterday I got a bit of pork loin and a bone to use for a pot of beans I was making. He also has farm fresh eggs that are better than the ones at the supermarket which are also pretty good. I try to buy as many non-meat items as I can from Fernando because I like giving him my business and I can only eat so much pork. He has great chickens and once in a while I’ll buy a hen to use in a soup. There is barely room for two people to stand inside his shop but I like waiting in line behind another customer just to eavesdrop on how they order.

While I wait I usually pick out a bottle of wine or a can of olives that I have tried before. He has a lot of other delicacies on sale at slightly higher prices than the supermarket, but I buy stuff here because out of convenience. It’s not like anything could be more convenient than the supermarket twenty steps from my front door, it’s just that if I need something and I can pick it up at the butcher shop this saves me a trip into the hectic chain store.

I only go to one place for my olives and that is a little stall in the Mercado de Algirós which is about five or six blocks from where I live. This is the place to get seafood and just about anything else. The butcher shops here are too hectic for me to deal with and the same with the produce stalls. Both have great quality stuff but it’s a little too intimidating for an outsider. This place reminds me of the floor of the stock exchange during a rally.

The bread here in Valencia is quite good. I mention this because in other parts, notably Andalucia, the bread isn’t so good. However, I’m not a big fan of the crusty French-style baguettes so I treat the bread like a fancy desert that I only pick up once in a while. I actually prefer a pre-sliced variety of whole grain bread I get at the supermarket. It also keeps longer than the French bread which turns to stone in a little over 24 hours. I am also not tempted by all of the pastries in the bakery windows. Sweets have never been my thing.

What is my thing? How about this to close out:

Sangria

In a ceramic pitcher pour one bottle of red wine, one cup of Spanish brandy, the juice and fruit from one squeezed orange and one lemon. Allow this to chill and before serving add a bit of club soda or 7Up. My friends who lived in Andalucia call a variation of this Vino tinto de verano, or summer red wine.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Professor Frink's Virtual Chili

I don’t have a very good reason for posting this picture here except that I think this is one of the funniest things that I had ever seen on The Simpsons, and that’s saying a lot. It is from their 8th season in an episode where Homer goes to Springfield’s chili cook-off. This image appears for only a second on screen and if you blinked you would have missed it next to the other booths at the cook-off. Professor Frink is the show's pastiche of Jerry Lewis from The Nutty Professor. If there were any justice in the world I would be able to imitate Frink’s voice from the show, although in this episode he didn’t have a speaking part. A picture really is worth a thousand words but not a thousands words spoken by Professor Frink because that dude is nutty.

The best line in an episode filled with zingers comes after Homer has sampled Cheif Wiggums' fiery-hot chili. The Doctor says, "By all medical logic, steam should be shooting out of his ears." To which Crusty replies, "His ears if we're lucky."

P.S. I just realized by accident that I have a program that can take a still shot from any video which allowed me to capture this great frame (too bad the quality is sub-par).