Important Notice

Special captions are available for the humor-impaired.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Governor's Cup crew 1990

Governor's Cup crew 1990. The end of a very, very, very long weekend.

At the America's Cup Port, Valencia, Spain. The boat on the screen is the Spanish challenger in the Louis Viutton Cup.

New Zealand Leads, 2-1

I had already written an entire entry about the America’s Cup and how that it was now tied 1-1. The 1-1 tie showed that the New Zealander’s boat was almost a match for the Swiss defender, Alinghi, and then they went out and won anather come-from-behind race today. Not that any of you give a shit about sailboat racing in the first place, but this is turning out to be a rather exciting America’s Cup. I have become a huge fan and out of all of the regattas so far in the Louis Viutton series, I have only missed a few of them. How many opportunities will I get to be so close to this great event?

I had a couple of great summers in Annapolis, Maryland crewing on sailboats. Granted, it was nothing even remotely approaching this level of competition, but it was a lot of fun. Like so many other things in my life, I did it just long enough to get a taste for it and then I moved on to something else. With the Louis Viutton and America’s Cup races I am being forced to relearn a lot of the stuff I forgot about sailboat racing.

I watch the races at the port on these wonderful big screen televisions that they have posted in three different areas. On the south end of the port there is a TV set up inside of a covered warehouse that was part of the old port. As this is closest to the Emirates Team New Zealand headquarters, the place is lousy with Kiwis. On the north end there is a TV set up on a grassy knoll. This seems to be rather neutral territory. Right around the corner is the biggest crowd and this one definitely sways towards the Swiss.

I have watched and greatly admired the skill and guile of the Kiwis and I have to say that they are my emotional favorites. However, if the Swiss win again this means that more than likely the America’s Cup will return to Valencia. Homeland (currently at least) wins out over heart, so I have to route for Alinghi.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Lock Down

Spanish people have a thing about doors, big heavy things capable of withstanding a siege. You first notice this in the historic sections of Spanish cities. It seems that most of Spain was built with some sort of defensive purpose in mind—even a lot of churches were built with security as a major concern. There are forts, castles, towers, and walls all over the country, giving testimony to a past rife with wars, invasions, and raids. The Visigoths threw out the Vandals, the Moors defeated the Visigoths, the Moors were finally expelled by the Christians and through all of this violence, people needed good, solid doors. I mean, a door’s primary function is to keep people (and armies) out; if this wasn’t the case then castles wouldn’t even have doors, would they. They might have screen doors to keep the bugs out in the summer but not the heavy, steel reinforced entries found not only in castles but in modest Spanish farm homes. On the Iberian peninsula, people are serious about their doors.

Spain hasn’t been invaded in a long time, unless you count the throngs of Scandanavian tourists who show up at the beaches each summer or the present invasion of New Zealanders here for the America’s Cup, yet Spaniards insist on having tremendously sturdy doors. The door to my apartment has five hinges each measuring about eight inches. The deadbolt locks in at the bottom, middle, and top, each one with three bolts. The lock takes four key turns and pushes the bolts out more than an inch into the frame. It is steel reinforced all around. You could use one of those battering rams that they use on cop shows in the USA as a door knocker here. If someone on the inside doesn’t want you to get in, you aren’t coming in through the front door. Try a window.

This door fetish is part vestigial security concern formed by their bellicose past and part paranoia fueled by current myth and hyperbole. People here seem to have an almost irrational fear of thieves. This became apparent when I first bought my bicycle. I would guess that I have been warned about bike thieves at least 25 times; almost any time that bicycles are mentioned someone will comment on the rash of bike thefts plaguing the city. I was so freaked out at first that I would lock my bike when I left it on my balcony—and I live on the fifth floor! What was I afraid of? Ninja gypsies? People often chain their bikes with two, three, and even four different locks. Why not just booby-trap your parked bike with plastic explosives or build a moat around it?

I have heard so many horror stories about theft in Spain that the skill and audacity of thieves has taken on a mythical aspect. Thieves will cut out the bottom of your purse/ backpack/ gym bag/ pocket to steal your valuables. Thieves will pounce on your unattended bicycle like a pack of hyenas the moment you turn your back. Make sure you fully lock the door every time you leave the apartment. Pickpockets are everywhere. You think to yourself that it can’t all be true and then one day as you are walking through a crowded market, and just like that, you realize that someone has stolen your boxer shorts. Why didn’t you listen? You can bet that after the underwear-napping you, too, will be all about security.

I’m not suggesting that theft isn’t a problem but I hardly think that it warrants such eternal vigilance. Not only have I not been the victim of theft but I have had people go to extremes to return my property, like the time a guy ran me down because I didn’t take my money out of the ATM. I often leave my bike unlocked when I am able to keep and eye on it, just kind of fishing for bicycle thieves. I haven't even had a nibble so far.

Travel guides for Spain almost always include warnings about theft. It’s like travelers all come from some idyllic wonderland where no one steals anything. It’s like people need to be warned that they need to use common sense. Why don’t they warn you to look both ways before crossing the street while you are on vacation? Remember, running with scissors can be dangerous in Spain! As for the Spanish and their doors, I think that they firmly believe sooner of later the invaders will return, whether they be pagan Vandals, Islamic Moors, or hoards of sun burned British retirees . Make sure the door is locked before going to bed.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Cork You

Cork You!

Valdepeñas, Spain

Dear Makers of Lenorio del los Llanos Wine,

Right now I am calmly sipping a glass of your wine and enjoying a plate of olives, I am the picture of serenity and sophistication. This was not the case only a few short minutes ago as I was struggling violently to remove the cork from a bottle of your wine. From the effort I was exerting you would have guessed that I was trying to free my only child from beneath a huge boulder. If I had been trying to free my only child, I can only hope that the little angel was already dead so as not to hear the polyglot aria of obscenities I was singing as I yanked for all that I was worth, and then some, on the stubborn bit of cork that was dangerously positioned between me and my wine, like a clueless hiker separating a mother grizzly and her cubs.

I really like your wine. It is a fine product and very reasonably priced. I would like to offer a little advice on how to make your product a little more accessible to the general public. MAKE THE CORK EASIER TO EXTRACT! I am an adult male in great physical shape. I weigh about 180 pounds and I do 1.500 push-ups three days a week as a part of my fitness regimen yet I almost pulled my back out trying to get the cork out of your bottle. No kidding. Perhaps you could suggest some other upper body exercises that would aid me in opening your bottles. Either that or you should have a list of chiropractors on the back of the label.

If this is your subtle way of trying to get me to drink less, let me assure you that this is a failed strategy. I already thought out a back-up plan if I couldn’t open the bottle using conventional methods. I was planning to break the top off the bottle and then pour the wine through a coffee filter. Brute strength won out in the end but I was going to get at the wine one way or another.

Saludos, Un Cliente Fiel

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I Ham What I Am: A Pork Lover’s Paradise, a Vegetarian’s Worst Nightmare

I have a pig’s rear leg sitting on the counter in my kitchen, its little hoof pointing daintily upwards as if it’s trying to get a perfect ten in a diving competition. In almost every other country in the world that would be a little strange but in Spain it’s as natural as a paper towel rack is in an American household. These pig legs are called jamón serrano or jamón ibérico and you see them hanging from the rafters in bars and restaurants in every corner of Spain. Cured ham is one of the most popular delicacies in Iberia and for good reason: ham is good. It is dry cured here and then sliced paper towel thin. It’s a bit like ham jerky for lack of a better description. Jerky is good, and ham is even better, so what could possibly be better than ham jerky? While you are thinking in vain I’ll just cut myself a few thin slices—this pig leg isn’t going to eat itself.

Jamón is more established in some parts of the country than others but you can find it everywhere. In most parts of Castilla and Andalucia it is positively ubiquitous. In Madrid I once took a cab that served jamón. I just made that up but it sounds like a money-making idea to me. Here in Valencia it isn’t quite so popular but people still eat it whenever they get the chance. You can buy jamón in every supermarket and meat store in town.

One of the bars in my neighborhood specializes in jamón as the owner is from another, more jamón-friendly province. There is always a ham mounted in a slicing rack where someone is almost always slicing away, trying to keep up with the customer demands. Next to the carving station there are a dozen or so hams hanging on the wall like players waiting to go into a game. All of these benchwarmer hams have a little upside down umbrella underneath them to catch any fat that still may be draining out of the salt cured and dried legs. I eat so much ham that I probably need one of these drip cups. I’m not going to say where it should go.

It’s not like the only part of the pig that gets eaten here is the hind legs. Just look in my refrigerator and you can probably find the rest of the carcass. In the butcher shop meat case you’ll find the feet, ears, belly, ribs, and heads. Nothing goes to waste because that’s why they invented sausage. As much as I like Spanish hams, I’m an even bigger fan of the wide variety of sausages they make here. They have become my drug of choice, not that I have abandoned my other drugs of choice. A sausage wouldn’t be much fun without wine to go with it.

Villages all over Spain showcase their products by holding Bacchanalian celebrations of wine and pork products. Spanish people take their meat very seriously and they are too preoccupied at these events with the food and wine—and they are probably too well-adjusted and mature—to stop and think of the humor potential of being, literally, in the middle of a sausage fest. My own puerile mind can’t help wanting to scream out, “Don’t you get it? It’s a sausage fest!” Evidently they don’t.

You may want to ask me, “Don’t you think that you eat too much pork?” All that I can say is that it’s a complicated matter and a very difficult question for me to answer if I want the answer to be “no.” I love pig. I eat a lot of it. I eat so much that the other day I burped and it sounded a little like an oink. It’s just that it is difficult to avoid pork in Spain. Pork finds its way into so many of the national dishes that it is conspicuous by its absence in those few recipes that call for some other animal. And yes, there are recipes in Spain that do not call for pork; you’ll find them at the bottom of page 1,113 in the All the Recipes of Spain cookbook, right after the dessert section (all of which use at least a tea spoon or two of pig meat sprinkles).

You can’t get many of these wonderful Spanish pork products in America because of U.S.D.A regulations or whatever. I have decided that an easy way to get rich is to start an international smuggling cartel. I tried to start my jamón traficante business last week by smuggling a ham into the country disguised as a pregnant nun. By the time I got to Kennedy Airport in New York all I had was bone. I shared with everyone around me on the flight so at least I made some new friends. If you are an importer of illegal goods, never use your own product. I think I saw that in a movie once. I don’t like drugs very much so if I were a cocaine dealer this wouldn’t be a problem, but Spanish ham is just so good.

Some Spanish hams are almost as expensive as cocaine so it is fairly common to see overweight men in hot pants and halter tops standing on corners in the shady areas of town doing whatever they have to do to feed their habit. I have not yet reached this level of depravity although I sometimes will buy ham instead of other basic household necessities. I mean, how often do you really need to wash your hair? If it were possible I would buy cheaper wine to give me more money to buy pork. The wine I buy now arrives at the supermarket in one of those cement mixer trucks. I guess I could quit drinking to afford more ham. Ouch! My liver just kicked me like an 8 ½ month old fetus. White Slavery: Too high a price to pay for Spanish ham? That is a question only you can answer. Now where did I put that mini skirt and boa?

Monday, June 18, 2007



Coffee is recognized all over the world as one of the greatest gifts to mankind. Spain isn’t too different from the United States in many respects but just like every other aspect of their daily lives, the Spanish bring a host of idiosyncrasies to the way that they choose to celebrate coffee. As a fairly heavy coffee drinker myself, I couldn’t help noticing the differences.

When I lived in south Florida I thought that the walk-up coffee window in restaurants was a Cuban thing. There was a place called La Habana Restaurant just down the road from my apartment with great food and the little coffee window that opened to the sidewalk on the side of the place. People would step up and order their little Cuban coffees, a cortado or a café con leche, and either knock them back immediately or take them to go, this was in America, after all, even though you couldn’t tell from the very Latin aspect of the neighborhood. I loved this place because it made me feel like I was living in some exotic locale.

I had been to Spain a couple of times before back then but I didn’t notice that this tradition was firmly in place in the mother country before being exported to the colonies. It certainly is something you notice if you live here. On the surface, Spanish life seems to consist of a succession of short coffee breaks, and the walk-up coffee window is right there on every corner to feed this coffee fixation.

Coffee usually takes one of three forms in Spain, the most popular being a cortado, a shot of espresso served in a small glass with a bit of hot milk poured on top. Café con leche is an espresso served in a coffee cup filled with hot milk. A café solo is an espresso. That’s about it, no flavors, no variations in size like the bewildering polyglot nature of American coffee shop sizes with their grandes, ventis, mediums, and talls (mustn’t say “small”).

Spaniards don’t usually sit around and savor a big cup of coffee; they prefer to take their caffeine in small, short doses. Most people take their coffee standing up at the bar or out in the street. In fact, in Madrid it’s almost impossible to find a café where you can sit down as is more the custom in France. Madrid was recently rated as being at near the top of the list of cities where people walk the fastest. Stopping in for a coffee doesn’t slow them down much and sometimes it seems that they barely miss a step.

Valencia is a little less frantic than Madrid but most people still choose to take their coffee standing up. They are usually pretty quick about it unless they are in a larger group, which is usually the case during the mid-morning coffee break. In my particular neighborhood the cafes are completely full at about 10:30 every weekday morning, weather permitting (which it does most days of the year).

I can hear the chatter from one café below my window and the raucous seems spirited, purposeful, and organized at times while often it is playful and anything but serious. This interruption in the day is a lot more social than a coffee break and would better be described as a mid-morning happy hour. This is also when a lot of people have their first glass of wine or beer of the day, just enough to hold them over until it’s time for lunch, usually after 2 p.m. and as late as 5 p.m. From five floors above this café I can tell a distinct difference in the noise of the conversations during the mid-morning breaks than the gatherings at other times in the day.

The mid-morning break is the most organized and busiest siege on the coffee bars. From then until closing, coffee drinkers wander in and out throughout the day, usually unaccompanied, or in pairs, ordering a cortado, reading a bit of the newspaper, and filing out again as quickly and as quietly as they came.

Coffee is every bit as important in the lives of many Americans but there are significant differences. Spain hasn’t taken to the idea of coffee to go. It’s possible but a fairly rare occurrence. Coffee is integrated into the bars and restaurants here with little reliance on coffee specialty shops, just as coffee itself is woven into the other beverages people order. I don’t think that Spaniards are as desperately addicted to caffeine as most Americans seem to be, myself included. I don’t think that I could ever get enough caffeine in my system if I relied on the tiny little cups they use here to ration out my favorite drug. I am one of the few customers that I notice who drinks a café Americano, an espresso which they allow at least double the amount of water to filter through the grounds. It’s a bit bitter for most people’s taste but it is as close as I can find to American coffee (thus the name).

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Spanish Work Week

Everybody’s working for the weekend…and holidays.  Mondays are also a good day to take off, and forget about nights, hardly anyone works nights.

First of all, to say that this is about the Spanish work week is a bit misleading. A work week implies an agreed upon amount of days set aside for work for every calendar period consisting of seven, 24 hour time periods. This also assumes that the Spanish work week is something that can be measured, but can you quantify the pleasure of that first cup of coffee in the morning when you told the boss you needed to go out to buy a printer cartridge? Can you count the collective smiles of a city shut down because of a transit strike? How do you calculate the joy of ditching work after a two-bottles-of-wine lunch? If the best things in life are free then the next best things are time off and paid vacations.

No, “work week” is an inadequate way to describe the average Spaniard’s time card for any given seven day period. I’m not even sure that they have time cards in Spain. If they do I’m sure that they are some sort of wacky, surrealist things designed by Salvador Dali which serve more as an allegory about the futility of keeping track of hours worked. The time clock itself probably doubles as an espresso maker. All that I’m saying is that when you are talking about work in Spain you can take your preconceived, American notion about a Monday to Friday work week and toss it out like a losing lottery ticket. What a second, let me just check that number one more time before you toss it. That ticket could be my way out of this forced-labor camp.

The day of the big Christmas national lottery is practically a holiday, practically a religious holiday complete with chanting—no kidding. Assuming that you have yet to win the national lottery—and everyone here assumes that they will win it eventually—you probably do have to go to work at some point in the week.  I’ll try to walk you through “the daily grind” as best I can but much of it is still unclear to me.

On Sundays and holidays practically everything is closed. Quite a few things aren’t open on Saturdays. Many things that are open on Sundays are closed on Mondays. So this gives you Tuesday, but Tuesdays are like Mondays in America, so don’t expect anyone to be too excited about work, even if they did condescend to show up. Only a fool would buy a car made in Spain on a Tuesday. It's easy to tell which cars were made on Tuesday because the ashtrays are full and the radio will be tuned to the soccer talk station.

Wednesdays are solid, everything is open, but it’s Wednesday so what do you expect? Wednesdays are más o menos at best. Thursdays are definitely on. It’s balls to the wall. Take no prisoners. Always be closing. Coffee is for closers. Oh yeah, Thursdays are definitely huge in Spain. Either lead, follow, or take the day off to play soccer in the park because your league has a big game on Saturday. There is no stopping the Spanish economic juggernaut at this point in the week.

And then comes Friday. It’s a good, solid work day, but for many it’s the last day of the week, even if they started on Tuesday. No one is out to pull a muscle or anything. Just take it easy, pal. Are you trying to make the rest of us look bad? There are plans for the weekend to be discussed, calls to be made, and text messages to write. What do you want to do, work yourself to death? Whatever it is can wait until next week.

The average work day in Spain is equally as complicated. Lots of cafes open at 7 a.m.—at least they say they do, I’ve never been up that early to verify. During many months of the year it’s still dark out at 7 a.m. so why would I be awake? I’ll just take their word on it. So at least apocryphally speaking, someone is up early minding the store. Or at least a store because I’m sure that something in this country has to be open at 7 a.m. I have yet to see a cop but I’m sure a few of them are working the early day shift.

The majority of people don’t get moving until between ten and eleven in the morning. Things are really bustling by eleven. By bustling I mean workers are dressed and at least on their way to work. Before work they stop off at a café and have a coffee or maybe a beer if they had a rough night or don’t have a busy day ahead of them. They might opt for a caajillo, or a coffee with a little brandy. Just one, mind you, and never more than two. Then it is off to work, time to grease the wheels of Spanish commerce and industry. It’s time to scratch and claw your way to the top. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and get some serious work done.

At least until 1:30 or 2 p.m., then it’s time for siesta. It’s time to put everything on hold and hit the cafes for a beer or a glass of wine. Then you make your way back home for a big lunch. And why not have a little wine with your meal? You earned it. It’s not like you’re an airline pilot, and even if you are, you can fly a 747 with a couple of nice glasses of Rioja under your belt—it relaxes you. After lunch you kick your shoes off and have a nap. You may as well because there is nothing good on television, except Los Simpsons. After that you can sack out for a few.

At around 5 o’clock the hellish rat race begins all over again, although for some it doesn’t start until 6. A lot of people just say “Screw it” and blow off the rest of the day completely. Between 8 and 9 everything starts to shut down and the cafes fill up yet again.

No one works at night except bartenders in the clubs that stay open until 4 a.m.  Don’t feel too sorry for these guys; the discos are usually only open three days a week. There must be police and ambulance workers on call during the night. I’m sure that if you find yourself in an emergency you will get through to someone if you just let the phone ring about 30 times; I mentioned how the shades in people’s houses make them very dark and facilitate a really deep sleep.

Your rescue crew will be on the way right after they make a little pot of espresso and have a cigarette, perhaps two. And please give them a few minutes to turn on the television to check the football scores that they may have missed from last night. You need to keep up to date on Real Madrid and Barça football.  If one of their players made some sort of spectacular goal the rescue crew will have to wait until they get a chance to see the replay a couple of times. A round of high fives and the ambulance crew will be speeding to your location. Remember to apply direct pressure to your wound and try not to go into shock.

To say that Spanish business hours are not set in stone is putting it mildly. It is more accurate to say that business hours are written in the sand at the beach or in a secret code. There is a café in the courtyard near the front door of my building. I really like the place but I never know when the guy is open, and he is almost never open. His operating hours seem to be on a strictly need-to-know basis, and although we are on a first name basis, I evidently don’t need to know. Perhaps his place is invitation only?

It is common to see notes posted on locked doors apologizing for why they are closed. I saw a very solemn message on the window of a restaurant explaining that they would be closed on a Monday so the workers could rest. It was worded like an obituary. I guess that having the previous day off must have just worn the staff out. In lieu of flowers the bereaved request that you buy them a bottle of wine at the place next door where they will be recovering.

People goof off everywhere but the Spanish have taken it to new levels that slackers in other countries cannot even imagine. As if there aren’t enough holidays already, Spaniards have created something called puentes, or bridges. These are days that they will tack on to other, legitimate holidays which tie them to the weekend thus making a rather comfortable vacation out of a single day off. If the holiday falls on a Tuesday people will take off Monday and have a four day weekend.

Most Americans probably don’t have a problem with that. Taking a personal day on a Monday before a paid day off on Tuesday probably seems like staying on pretty firm ground to most Americans. That’s a pretty solid “bridge” and one that probably won’t get you canned. Unfortunately, our government cut us off at the pass by assigning all of our national holidays to Mondays.

Where the Spanish really get creative is when a holiday falls on a Wednesday and they have to take two days to bridge it to the weekend, or they may just take the whole week off. This is fairly common practice in Spain but to Americans this has crossed over from being a nice, solid bridge to some sort of rickety affair made with vines across a bottomless abyss of unemployment and no heath insurance that would scare the daylights out of Indiana Jones. This “bridge” concept has gone from a fairly harmless holiday supplement to more time off than most U.S. companies grant workers recovering from the loss of a limb.

I don’t know about you but just thinking about all of those tiny little paroxysms of work makes me exhausted. Just let me sit down and catch my breath. How long can this go on? How many vacation days do I have left this year? Five? It’s only December 10th, how am I supposed to make it? They love holidays so much that they have begun to cannibalize other national celebrations. Halloween has grown in importance in the past few years in Spain, not because they like the idea so much but because they seem to have run out of things to celebrate. The Spanish themselves sometimes forget why they are taking the day off. For some of the long-forgotten religious holidays people have dubbed these days off as “San Bricolaje” or Saint Home Improvement because they are good days to putter around the house doing upgrades.

Just like in America and many other parts of the Western world, immigrants do all of the heavy lifting in Spain so none of this applies to them. Immigrants here are like the Denny’s of Spain: They’re always open. A lot of immigrant business owners here don’t seem to have much of a grasp on the idea of siesta and many haven’t even learned the word for “closed.” One of the cafes I frequent is owned by a Chinese couple who work every day, seven days a week and 52 weeks a year. They work from seven in the morning until late at night, day after day. I walked by their place and they had a sign in the window announcing that they were closing early on Saturday night to celebrate Chinese New Year. They closed two hours early in observance of this very important Chinese holiday.  Most Spanish people took off at least two days to celebrate Chinese New Year.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Santa Maria Monastery, El Puig, Spain.

Four Hours on a Bike Near Valencia

After freezing my butt off this past winter I swore that I wasn’t going to complain about the heat during the summer. It isn’t quite summer yet but temperature have been in the high 80s already. I’m not complaining but today’s overcast skies provided a welcome break from the pounding sunshine. It was a great day for a bike ride out in the country—not that there have been too many bad days for biking.

My only complaint with the heat is that I can only carry so much water. I can always stop some place and tank up and this is happening more and more. I was out four hours today and I didn’t exhaust my backpack water bag. I must not have ridden very hard because I also felt fine without eating anything along the way. Today’s ride was more like a tourist excursion than a workout.

I headed north along the bike path that goes to Alborraia and on to Puzol but detoured and headed towards the sea. The road that runs along the shore is kind of rough and slow so I took a side road that skirts the main highway north to Barcelona. There are only a couple of ways to cross over the highway and I chose the overpass at Al Farnals beach.

I stopped at a café on the beach for a coffee and almost talked myself into going back home. It would have been a decent 1 ½ to two hour ride at this point. Instead I started back inland and pointed myself towards the Monastery of Santa Maria in El Puig which rises above the coastal plain. I came across a little tower right on the beach here that I think is called Torre de Graia, or something like that. I didn’t have anything to write with and I figured that it would be in my book and I could look it up when I got home.

From here I just pointed my bike at the monastery and pedaled. It’s a beautiful building started back in 1238 under Jaime I but heavily modified in the 14th century. There are the ruins of an old Arab fortification on an adjacent hillside where I climbed to get a picture of the monastery. It kept looking as if it was going to rain so I started heading back towards Valencia. Along the way I came upon a couple of metro stops for the line that runs out to Rafelbunyol which could come in handy if I ever have any bike problems in this area. Or if I’m ever too much of a sissy to ride home I can get on this line and it drops me a few blocks from home without a transfer.

Go See Sicko

I watched an advanced screening of Michael Moore’s newest movie, Sicko, and I have to agree with almost everyone else who has seen it thus far. It is funny, sad, poignant, highly entertaining, and one of the most important American movies to come along in over a decade. The movie reveals the horrible flaws in the American health care system as well as unravels to web of lies we have been told about countries with socialized medicine.

The movie points out that America’s health care system ranks 37th among western industrialized countries. I’m sure that if you are rich enough you can get the best health care in the world in an American hospital, unfortunately we aren’t all rich and some 46 millions of us are without health insurance. The movie’s main emphasis is pointing out that many people who do have health insurance are unable to get the care they need because of the profit motive that underlies our system which is controlled by private insurers.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Comic Genius George Saunders

The only American publication I still receive here in Spain is The New Yorker. It gets here a little late so you'll have to excuse the late news. Probably my favorite funny person in the world, George Saunders, has a story called Puppy in the May 28 issue. Not to spoil this mess of a story for you but I found this part laugh-out-loud funny. Why did I find it laugh-out-loud funny? It just is.

But if no one took the pup he’d do it. He’d have to. Because his feeling was, when you said you were going to do a thing and didn’t do it, that was how kids got into drugs.

I will probably steal this line, not in print but in conversation. When I do I doubt that I will get a laugh, just a blank stare and a "I think I have to go now."

This is one of the funniest things that I have ever read. It's taken from a George Saunders story in Pastoralia called The Barber's Unhappiness. A group of people are forced to take a remedial driver's education course for speeding violations. The instructor gives this tortured discourse on safety:

"What I was saying was that, our aim is, we're going to be looking at some things or aspects, in terms of driving? Meaning safety, meaning, is speeding something we do in a vacuum, or could it involve a pedestrian or fatality or a family out for a fun drive, and then here you come, speeding, with safety or destiny of that family not held firmly in your mind, and what happens next? Who knows?"

"A crash?" said someone.

"An accident?" said someone else.

"Crash or accident both could," said the instructor. "Either one might or may. Because I've seen, in my CPR role, as a paramedic, when many times, and I'm sorry if you find this gross or too much, I've had to sit in our rescue vehicle with a cut-off arm or hand, even of a kid, a really small arm or even limb, just weeping as if I hadn't been thoroughly trained, as I know none of you have, but I have, and why was I holding that small arm or limb and bawling? Because of someone like you yourselves, good people, I know you are, I'm not saying that, but you decided what? What did you decide? Or they. That person who cut off that kid's arm I was carrying that day I was just saying."

No one knew.

"They decide to speed is what you did," said the instructor sadly, with pity for both the armless child and the otherwise good people who on that fateful day had decided to speed, and now sat before him, lives ruined.

"I didn't hit nobody," said a girl in a T-shirt that said Buggin'. "Cop just stopped me."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Creative Writing Gone Horribly Wrong

Do you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that you think you should write down? This is one that I probably should have forgotten and gone back to sleep.

For whatever the reason, people love a good serial killer story. I hate movies and books about serial killers but what the hell do I know? I’m going to have to get with it some day, I’m going to have to get off my ass and write a serial killer story. That’s where the money is, that’s the ticket out of this dump, that’s the way to fame and fortune. I mean, how hard could it be? They all seem to be about the same to me. You pit the cop against the brilliant but evil serial killer in an ever-escalating battle of wits and wills. Write something like that and it’s sure to be a bestseller.

But I don’t want to write a serial killer novel. I want to write uplifting stories about the heroic nature of the human spirit. I want to write a story about a man with one leg shorter than the other, or maybe he has one leg longer than the other, it’s difficult for doctors to tell. I personally feel that it doesn’t matter either way and that the doctors have spent too much time and money trying to determine if one leg is shorter or the other is longer. Their curiosity has more to do with who will win the office pool at the clinic on this matter than furthering science. Let’s just say that the man in my story has legs of two different lengths, with the right leg being considerably shorter than the left. I’m guessing that the right leg is at least eight inches shorter than the left, or the left leg is eight inches longer than the right leg, but I think that it would be just plain rude to go and measure it. Maybe I can do it while he’s sleeping.

In addition to his irregular legs, one of his arms is shorter than the other. Even an untrained lay person can say this with authority because just look at it! His left arm doesn’t even reach his belt. If he needs to retrieve his car keys from his left pants pocket he has to bend enough to make any yoga instructor envious. Now that I am taking a really good look at this guy it’s pretty obvious that his right arm is a lot longer than it should be but I think that he has enough troubles already to break this bit of news to him.

In addition to these considerable physical deformities he also suffers from seizures which throw his entire body into rather violent spasms. His convulsions are so powerful that they actually can pull his pants down to expose his underwear and turn his hat sideways or completely around on his head.

He is destined for a life of loneliness and poverty because who would hire such a misfit? And then one day Hip-hop hits the scene and he gets a well-paying job in Britney Spears' dance troop.

What do you think of my story so far? What? OK, I’ll turn him into a vile monster who preys on young women, but I’m keeping the other stuff.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Smiths

The Smiths

I was living a few hundred miles south of Mat at this point in my life when we—Mat, all my friends, and I—came to the same conclusion about The Smiths. They just seemed to reach higher than the previous highs we had experienced in new wave music. It is so hard to say that they were better than The Clash or Elvis Costello but they managed to become our favorite group in a sea of great music. The Clash definitely came first but we were all hit harder by The Smiths.

It was 1985, give or take a year. I was living in Athens, Greece or more accurately, Glyfada, a beautiful beach town just south of Athens. I was serving in the United States Air Force along with all of the best friends and the greatest group of guys and gals I’ve even had the privilege of meeting. Few of us had telephones in our otherwise gorgeous apartments so we all used to meet up at my friend Bob’s apartment in the early evening to decide what we were going to do.

Bob had a great stereo and an even better patio off of his living room where we would have some happy hour cocktails and listen to new music that anyone decided to bring with them. I guess that 1984-5 makes me a late-comer to The Smiths but I was hooked the first time I listened to Hatful of Hollow. A lot of the other music at the time was also great but I think that most of us would agree that this group cut us all the deepest.

In no particular order of preference there was Johnny Marr’s great music and beautiful sound on the guitar. Of course, Morrissey was absolutely the hippest hipster of the 80’s: great haircut, super-cool clothes, and ultra-existentialist view of his own celebrity status. The best thing about The Smiths was my own observation at the time that either one of two things were true about them: either Morrissey was trying to be funny, in which case he was, or he was being serious, in which case he was fucking hilarious. How would you interpret a song lyric such as, “Why do I smile at people who I’d much rather kick in the eye?”

American culture was pretty alien to me at this stage of my life although I did read Rolling Stone magazine religiously as well as Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly. On the other hand, we were all totally jacked into British pop music to the extent that we used to be at the hipster record store in Glyfada the day an important album was released in Greece. From the fresh purchase at the record shop it was only a matter of hours before the album was being disseminated amongst all of our friends at Bob’s apartment before over cocktails before we headed down to the tourist bars to meet up with other friends or flirt with foreign tourists.

In most of the round-table discussions we had with other Europeans in Greece in that era there was a lot of disagreement except when it came to The Smiths. French, Austrians, Germans, and even the Greek kids agreed that they were the best band going. I hated Ronald Reagan back then but I couldn’t tolerate some Austrian douche bag criticizing him for one time being an actor when their president (Kurt Waldheim) was a former SS officer. About The Smiths there was rarely an argument, no matter where you called home.

I remember going to the hipster record shop in Glyfada the day The Queen is Dead came to Greece. I’m not sure about this but we probably went straight to Bob’s place to listen to this great album, one of the best of that era in out opinion. That was probably the last time that I really anticipated a release of a rock album although I still follow popular music to this day.

There was something about The Smiths that spoke to all of us at that time when we were truly without a care in the world and right where we wanted to be. I had a magnificent apartment overlooking the Saronic Gulf islands and the best friends I’ve ever had in my life, most of whom are still my closest friends. It will probably take a dozen more essays to fully articulate exactly why this particular British pop group articulated the way we felt at the time and why no group since has had the same effect—at least for me.

Perhaps I grew up. I went on to study piano and discovered Bach and Mozart. I was even more devastated by their music but that was completely different. Being into The Smiths was, at that time, having my fingers on the pulse of everyone around me. My love of Mozart, Bach, and Chopin is a completely different appreciation of music, less personal but more profound.

I’m much more of a writer than I am a musician and literature affects me much more philosophically than music. Visual art hardly touches me at all, but back in the ere or The Smiths music was a grounding intellectual force that I haven’t know since.

Learning Experience

Along with learning the language I am picking up some useful things about how to behave while I am here in Spain. One tip I would pass on to fellow travelers is never stop and ask a Spanish farmer for directions while you are riding around lost in the countryside. The few times that I have done this I didn’t think that I was ever going to get away. If you happen upon two Spaniards out in a lonely orange grove, and you ask for help finding some place, you are really in for it.

I wish that I had a recording of the two Spanish farmers trying to direct me to a little town called Lliria the other day. It was really hard for me not to break out laughing as the two battled back and forth on the best way for me to get there. You would have thought that they were arguing about the Spanish Civil War.

It turns out that I was probably about ten times farther away than I thought I was when I asked. If I had known this I wouldn’t have bothered them. I don’t carry a map with me so I am just going on my compass reading and dead reckoning, as sailors call it. They were going back and forth for so long that I took a good look around me because I thought that perhaps they were stalling while someone else got into position to throw a net over me.

I’m sure that they could get top dollar for a curiosity like me, not to mention what they bike could bring in. They would probably keep me in a cage and take me from village to village charging people 1€ to see the stupid American. Little kids could poke me with a stick. Anyway, Siskel and and Eibert finally agreed on directions which turned out to be right on the money; pretty amazing considering how far away I was from my destination and how I was in the middle of nowhere when I happened on my two rescuers.

I started pedaling towards my destination and their directions unfolded just like they said. I had already been out more than an hour and a half and it was a hot day so I didn’t feel the least bit guilty when I stopped into the first train station I saw. I finished this leg of the trip sitting on my ass with my bike tethered to the inside of the metro car. I bought a ten ride card for about 11€ that I can use whenever I want to use these trains that service the outlying areas of Valencia. They are a great way for me to extend my day trips by bicycle, or rescue me if I just want to get home.

I finally made it to where I wanted to go after having to go towards Valencia, transfer to another line, and then take this train to the end of the line at Lliria. From here I figured it was only 45 minutes or so to the castle I wanted to see in the village of Chulilla. With no map and only unmarked roads I just guessed and started riding. After riding for about 40 minutes I realized that I had guessed wrong and headed back. Back in Lliria I humped to the top of the mountain that overlooks the village to visit the ruins of the Hermitage of Santa Barbara. The ruins weren’t much but thanks to the commanding view from the top I was able to find the road that leads to Chulilla.

On my next attempt to get to Chulilla I will take the train from my house to Lliria and pedal from there. I probably should have asked for directions in Lliria on this trip but I only had one day and you never know how long getting directions will take.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Castellanization: Fitting in and Sticking Out

Castellano is how Spaniards refer to the particular Spanish spoken in Castilla, the state that is home to Madrid. This is thought by some to be the purest form of the Spanish language. This is where the lisping Zs and C were born and where they use the familiar plural form of Vosotros not used in many Latin American countries or in the southern Spanish province of Andalucia. Castellanization—my clumsy coined word—is a lot more than just speaking the language, it is the whole process of trying to insinuate myself into the culture of where I now live.

Overall it is all very gradual, although some processes of Castellanization impose themselves on a willing ex-patriot American much faster than others. As soon as I stepped off the plane I decided that my name here would be Juan. It’s not like John is so difficult for Spanish people to pronounce but I just wanted to streamline my introductions and I thought that it would be easier to adopt a Spanish name than try to mispronounce my English name every time I meet someone.

If you look in my cupboards and my refrigerator you will see that my diet is completely Spanish. About the only thing an American would recognize in my fridge is the occasional diet coke but even that is a called coca cola light here. In most bars in Spain you will see hams which are entire pig legs swinging from the rafters with a little cup under them to catch the fat that drips off. I eat so much pork that I should probably have one of these drip cups of my own (Just where to put it presents an embarrassing problem I won’t discuss here). I have read accounts that the Viet Cong could smell the American soldiers in the jungle because of the American food there were still eating in Viet Nam. I can assure you that my BO is 100% Spanish.

I quickly made the pledge of allegiance to the local Valencia football club which is probably more important to people here than whatever country my passport says is my home. I have said before that talking about sports is sort of the Esperanto of knuckleheads. Screaming at the TV during a big match is the surest way to fit in to any crowd. There is a pretty large immigrant population here so in order to communicate with them I also need to be fluent in Eastern European, South American, Mexican, and African football teams. Casual remarks like, “How about them Boca Juniors (a club from Buenos Aires)!” or, “Do you really think Rumania has what it takes to go all the way in the Eurocopa?,” go a long way in establishing my street cred with the other illegals. All that this cost me was a quick glance at the sports page and now I can live off of this international goodwill for weeks. Who ever said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing?

Some aspects of becoming Spanish seem to be taking forever. The most important among all of these assimilation factors is learning the #&!! language (Fuck off, spell-check; I didn’t want to curse in this essay). My struggles with the language have been well documented here in the past. You should expect to hear a lot more from me on this particular front in my war to blend in.

Something that is almost as difficult as the language is keeping up with the bewildering array of holidays and festivals. I never get the memo when most of the holidays spring up. I grew up Catholic and still the seemingly endless string of pseudo-religious festivals make me feel like I’m from another planet. I don’t get the feeling that Spaniards care much about the spiritual aspects of the church, they just love all of the pomp and circumstance (and paid holidays) that go along with Catholicism.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Let He Who Is Without Retarded Footwear Cast the First Stone

Let He Who Is Without Retarded Footwear Cast the First Stone

I have something I need to get off my chest. I have a confession to make. I figure that if I admit to it, things will go easier for me in the long run. I’m willing to take responsibility for my actions but I think that coming clean should serve to cut me a little slack. Here it is: I bought a pair of those retarded sandals that everyone hates. I feel that there are some mitigating circumstances in my case that need to be explained before I am tried, sentenced, and executed by a jury of my über-hip peers.

It’s like that scene in The Silence of the Lambs when the chick trapped in the well sees the fingernail stuck in the wall. I don’t want anyone to come upon my retarded sandals by chance and then have them scream bloody murder, “Oh my God, he’s got a pair of those stupid fucking sandals!”

It’s not like I am going to wear then in public. I just got them to wear while I am in my apartment. It is just too dusty to walk around in bare feet no matter how many times I mop the floor. They were also really cheap at the Chinese Wal-Mart, something like 6 €. Anyway, I did it. I went out and bought a pair and now I have to live with the fact that I own a pair of these retarded sandals.

Technically they are clogs which makes them more repugnant and embarrassing to people like me, people who are not hippies, people who are not full-time stoners, people who don’t have more than five cats, people who eat red meat, and people who may recycle and write a check to the Sierra Club once a year but don't go overboard on the whole “save the earth” thing.

For fuck’s sake, give me a break here. It’s not like I’m walking around in public in a thong Speedo like a lot of other folks around here. I would say that these sandals are the tube tops of footwear but I already said that I don’t wear them outside my apartment. I almost wore them to the grocery store across the street from my place one day when I was cooking and discovered that I needed something. I changed footwear because you never know when you may run into someone you know, even when you are thousands of miles from home.

I know that no matter how convincing I make my case, no matter how convenient this footwear may be for use in my apartment I know that I will probably have to endure a beating or two for making this choice in shoes. Lord knows I deserve it.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


Reading is truly the key to learning another language. Reading provides the most concentrated learning experience. If I read for an hour I am able to ingest more information, more words, more grammar patterns than I could in an hour of movie watching or an hour of conversation. Those are also important aspects of becoming fluent in another language but reading is quickest route to fluency.

I am currently reading three novels at the same time. This isn’t really by choice; it’s more out of necessity. I started reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, Travesuras de la Niña Mala, at the library. I can’t get a library card because I am not a resident so I have to read it there. I go in and crank out 40 pages at a time. It has been one of the better reading experiences I have had in quite some time—in any language. The main character, Ricardo Summorio (I think that’s his name), mirrors the life of Llosa himself from his life in Peru until he graduated with a law degree and then soon moved to France where he worked as an interpreter.

The novel, which spans several decades thus far, glimpses into the political situation in Peru and the cultural life of Europe seen through the eyes of a Peruvian ex-patriot. If my Spanish were anywhere near as good as my English I would read this book in a single sitting. It has been very easy for me to understand but I still can’t read very fast in my newly adopted tongue. A couple more trips to the library and I’ll wrap this one up. I would categorize this novel under “page turners,” something all great novels should be. How can you describe a novel as great if it is difficult to read or just plain tedious?

I am also reading another Llosa novel called La Fiesta del Chivo that someone loaned me. This novel is about Santo Domingo during the Trujillo era, a period of history about which I know very little. This novel, for whatever reason, is a bit more challenging linguistically. I have mentioned before that novels which deal with the psychology of the characters are more difficult to read for me than more plot-driven stories. I’m glad that I have this one on loan because it may take me a while to plow through it.
My other book is a novel by Lucía Etxebarria called Un Milagro en Equilibrio. I actually bought this one at full price (8.50€). I chose it because it won the Premio Planeta in 2004, a major Spanish literary award, and because it sold 400,000 copies. I figure that it will lead me on my road to Spanish cultural literacy. I haven’t read enough to comment on what it’s about but I can say that I love the way she uses language. I like reading contemporary Spanish writers because I get good view into the modern language.

It seems that I have made a considerable advance in my Spanish fluency because I have been getting a lot of compliments from the people with whom I come into regular contact. I’m not a good judge of my own Spanish; I think that it sucks but I’m just a dumb American. I do know that it is getting easier and easier for me to read Spanish but I still have a long way to go. I eventually want to be able to read Don Quixote which few Spanish people have read in its entirety. I guess this is a little like a student of English wanting to tackle Shakespeare—also not read much by a lot of native English speakers.

I think that what interests me most about becoming fluent in Spanish is not being able to communicate with people in dozen of Spanish-speaking countries on two continents—although this is kind of cool—but being able to read the literary output from writers who have influences hundreds of millions of people.

The coolest thing by far is just fucking living here. I hope that I have been able to convey a fraction of the joy that I receive every day that I spend in this beautiful and infinitely interesting country. The truth is that I have loved every place that I have ever lived. I grew up in the Midwest of the United States of America and I loved that place. It’s a shame—at least to me—that nothing survives of what I wrote while I lived in Indiana. I wasn’t much of a writer back then (not that I claim to be much of one now) but I thoroughly loved the summers I spent there swimming in the quarries, and learning how to love bike riding. This has all been well chronicled, not by me, but in the wonderful film Breaking Away. If you have never seen this movie I highly recommend it and I would say that it is the sweetest movie ever made.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Excuses for Stopping in at the Bodega for a Glass of Wine

There is one on every corner of every block. Often there can be two or three in the middle of the block. They are everywhere, these places to stop in for a quick glass of wine, or a not-so-quick glass of wine if there is anything even remotely interesting going on inside—and there usually is. There must be at least 1,000 of these small places in Valencia whether they call themselves a bodega, a cervecería, a sidrería, a café, a bar, or a restaurant. If there are 1,000 places to grab a glass of wine or a beer then you’ll need at least 1,000 excuses to visit. I’m the cautious type so I have more excuses than are legally required in Spain.

-The bodega is right next to the bin where you drop off your recyclable plastics. I drop off my bag of recyclables and I stop in for a glass of wine; it’s called multi-tasking. I also recycle glass and paper separately. The bodega is also near the trash bin so this excuse counts as four which is really multi-tasking. I could take all of my trash out at once but where’s the fun in that?

-Football also encompasses at least a dozen or more excuses. The bodega is the place to watch a game, watch the highlights of a game, watch a funny segment on football bloopers; I think you are getting the point. I can also read one of the several football daily newspapers lying on the bar. Football accounts for at least 90% of the business in most of these joints. I wonder what is going to happen in the short interim when this year’s season ends and next year’s season begins. We are only talking about a week or so, but still. Spain without football? I suppose everyone goes to the bodega for a glass of wine to moan about there being no football.

-I was cooking and I needed to go down to the store to pick up something I needed. This is a great excuse to go to the bodega. I turned the heat on the stove down low so I won’t burn down the apartment. Besides, I think that my kitchen has an automatic sprinkler system. I’ll have one more glass, please.

-I run out of wine at home so I stop in for a quick one before I go to the supermarket to buy another bottle of wine. This may sound redundant to you but I see things differently since I moved here.

-My cable TV is out in the apartment. This probably means that it isn’t working at the bodega either but that’s a chance I’m willing to take.

-The bodega is an integral part in the quotidian life of the Spanish people and I need to be there to experience it. While I’m there I need to drink a glass of wine or two or I’ll look like an idiot.

-The bodega recently installed air conditioning. I can stop in to beat the heat. It’s actually kind of chilly this evening so I’ll wear a sweater. I’m not using this excuse tonight but what about in July when it’s really hot, smart guy?

-The bodega is right on the corner so at least I won’t drink and drive. I don’t have a car but there are other consequences of drinking far from home. What if I got drunk somewhere across town and then used the wrong metro card on the way home? I could waste a three-zone fare card on a one-zone ride. Also, friends don’t let friends take cabs drunk. Trying to explain to a cab driver where I live would be a chore for someone who is both sober and completely fluent in Spanish—two things I will probably never be at the same time. Every time that I order a glass of wine at my bodega I feel like I am dodging a bullet.

-I don’t want to bore you with a lot of details concerning balance of payments, international currency fluctuations, and other macroeconomic insights that you wouldn’t understand anyway, but just trust me on this one: America and Spain are both counting on me to prop up our mutual reliance on free trade. Excuse me, I have to get back to work now.

-I hate to use the excuse that the bodega is between the metro stop and my front door because there is a bodega between everything and my front door. I’m surprised that there isn’t a bodega in the lobby of my building or on the elevator. I live on the fifth floor, how long am I supposed to go without a glass of wine? I promise that I will only use this excuse as a last resort.

-The bodega is a good place to practice Spanish. I can also speak Spanish at the market, or the library, or museums, or at home with friends, or just about anywhere. This is Spain and they speak Spanish here (at least when they aren't speaking Valenciano, or Catalan, or Basque, or Gallego like in the movie I saw last night). I think there is something that you aren't fully grasping here and it's kind of important. I can get a glass of wine at the bodega. Seeing that this is Spain, they probably serve wine at the library, I just don't know where to ask.

* I’d like to compliment myself on the sort of Robert Frost title but remember, friends don’t let friends drive sleighs drunk through a snowy wood.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Castles and Towers in the Community of Valencia

Castillo de Sagunt with the Mediterranean in the background.

Castles and Towers in the Community of Valencia

Sometimes our expectations get the better of us, especially if you suffer from an overly-romanticized idea of how some things, like life, should be. It’s kind of like cooking a dish that doesn’t turn out too well. I have had plenty days when I went out in search of some idea that I had in my head, only to find everything from minor disappointment to full-blown disasters. Today was one of those days that went much better than the idea I had in my head. I suppose that when you go out in search of Spanish castles you just may over-shoot the mark of what you had anticipated.

I found a book in my apartment called Castillos, Torres y Fortalezas de la Comunidad Valencia that lists all of the major and minor fortifications in the Valencia province, or community as it is called here. Some of them date back to the pre-roman, bronze age but most are from the bellicose era when Christians and Moors were battling for this part of Spain. I love the book and I want to see as many of these places as possible but a lot of the sites seemed a little too distant to reach on a day trip from Valencia on a bicycle. I haven’t really pushed my limits so far on bike rides; my longest rides are about two hours out before I turn around. In the next couple of weeks I plan on getting new street tires for my cycle-cross bike that will make it a lot quicker which means I can cover more ground in a day.

The directions to the various fortifications, in all states of repair and disrepair, are extremely vague in the book so I had little hope of actually being able to track down very many of these historic landmarks. I had an even vaguer plan when I rode away from my building in the heart of Valencia this morning at 10 a.m. I had a lot of water, a bit of money, and my camera, as I skirted my way out of town to the north. I haven’t done a lot of exploring out this way and had been thwarted on a previous excursion when I couldn’t find a way around the autovía that runs to Barcelona. I was able to dodge the traffic and pick my way to the next little city outside of Valencia. I didn’t have a destination in mind when I left but I was hoping to accidentally run into an old fortification or two at some point on my ride.

As I coasted down a quiet street in this quiet town I saw the spire of an old cathedral in front of me. I figure that if something is old enough I should probably stop in for a visit. As I approached I could hear little kids romping around and screaming. I pulled into the square in front of the cathedral and saw the kids running around in church clothes chasing a soccer ball. Just another joyous Sunday morning in a small Spanish town. At least that’s what I thought until I saw that there was a funeral in progress. Kids really don’t know shit about appropriate behavior at funerals. I felt a little guilty taking a picture but I thought that tourism can’t be put on hold just because someone decides to check out. If it means anything to the deceased, I didn’t get a very good picture.

My next landmark was a mountain farther north. As a former resident of Washington State, I miss the mountains. I haven’t climbed a hill, a real hill, since I got here in Spain. With just a big pile of rocks to guide me I was able to run into a few bike trails out this way. I later discovered that the network of trails is fairly extensive and I can’t wait learn this area as well as I know the southern flank of Valencia. I found a trail on my return trip that takes me from these outer regions to within four or five blocks from my house, and I saw new trails being built all over. Valencia is completely committed to bike trails. It can’t cost much to build bike trails and once they are in place the upkeep is next to nothing. Wherever you live, you should demand that they build bike trails.

I was just getting my legs warmed up when I spotted my first tower. I was riding out of a little hamlet when I noticed the small structure on a lonely hilltop. These little towers were a defensive structure for local residents if they were attacked. This tower has a commanding view of the entire countryside for miles around. I couldn’t find a way to get close to the tower because there was a fence around it for some sort of construction company. Usually .I wouldn’t let a fence stop me but there were people working inside. Who works on Sunday in Spain? I think this tower is called Torre de Puzol and is of Muslim origin. This was a modest discovery for the day and I would have been happy with this one find.

I continued north from here along a quiet road past old country estates and through vast expanses of orange groves. I crested a small hill and I could see the vague outline of a huge fort on top of a mountaintop farther to the north. I had already been riding for over an hour and the fort looked to be at least six miles away. It was only 11:20 a.m. and I knew that I had another ten hours of daylight to make it back to Valencia. If I could find a way to this castle I was going to ride there today.

It turns out that the path there was very self-explanatory and a beautiful piece of road. Not a single car passed me on this stretch except a guy driving slowly while his dog got a workout along side and a support car for a bike club. Damn, I need to find a bike club that has a support car. That’s what I call living.

On the way I passed a beautiful old country estate called Hort el Rabosero. I think that I need to live there some day. This old country mansion has a commanding view of the Mediterranean as well as the castle I was on my way to visit. I don’t have an odometer on my bike; I have a watch and I was under two hours out on this excursion. In the past few weeks I have ridden five hours or more in a day so I wasn’t worried about dragging my ass back home—at least not yet.

I didn’t even know where I was going until I got there today. It turns out it was Sagunt: a destination I thought was too far for a day trip. I guess that it’s time for me to revise my estimates for day trips. Now that I was beneath the castle I needed to find how I was supposed to ride up into it. They built this thing to be impregnable so I wasn’t about to scale the walls on a bicycle. I needed to find a way up so I rode through the city. By chance I found the tourism office and was given directions and a map to the fortress entrance.

As I pedaled up the miserably steep approach to the castle, I got a lot of looks from other tourists on foot probably thinking, “I can’t believe you are riding a bike up this hill. I can barely walk up it.” I wanted to shout out, “I’m from Seattle. I used to ride up Queen Anne hill to go to my piano lessons. I used to ride 18 miles up Mount Rainer just for fun! This little bump isn’t shit.” The road really is incredibly steep, and although I was handling it well, my bike, which I have dubbed Rocinante, was groaning under the pressure. Rocinante needs some spokes tightened; I was doing just fine in the driver’s seat.

I left my bike with the curator at the museum in what is called the Plaza de Armas. of the castle. I walked around a bit before I eavesdropped on a group of locals speaking in Valenciano (although it may have been Catalan—I can’t tell the difference) who were admiring the view from the top. You can look down towards Valencia and see the major landmarks there like the Ciudad de las Ciencias. The view from up there just about takes the air out of your lungs if the ride up didn’t do that already.

Riding back down the hill to the city of Sagunt I could hardly believe the steepness of the grade. I was burning my brakes going down and I had ridden up this monster just a half hour ago. Now I knew why people were looking at me funny. There is a lot of other things to see in Sagunt. I’ll have to visit the Roman amphitheater on my next trip out this way.

This was one of the best bike rides I have ever had, and that is saying a lot. I have memories of riding the coast road from Athens to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion; humping from Monterrey to Big Sur and back on a Saturday afternoon; grinding through North Cascades National Park; speeding along the Florida coast; winding through gorgeous southern Indiana farm country; exploring Venetian fortresses in the Peloponnesus; I’ve had my share of great cycling destinations. Today certainly rates up there with the best of them. I’ll need a lot more days like today if I am going to make it to all of the sites in the book.