Quantcast

Important Notice

Special captions are available for the humor-impaired.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Sage Advice



“Never pass up a chance to take a leak.”
-Anonymous


Actually, it wasn’t anonymous who coined that sage bit of advice. Anonymous gets credit for a lot of stuff he didn’t come up with himself, the thieving Greek pirate. Anyone who knows me will recognize that wise counsel as something that I often attribute to my grandfather. My grandfather didn’t come up with it either. I just attributed it to him so as to give the words a bit more weight. I was the one who came up with what could possibly be the best advice you’re ever going to get in this life.

There is an episode of Seinfeld in which George shows off his encyclopedic knowledge of good public restrooms in Manhattan. I don’t know Manhattan very well but the rest of America has a pretty good reservoir of good public bathrooms. I think that George’s proclivity for finding good bathrooms in Europe would be a more valuable talent as they are fairly rare over here.

This isn’t such a big problem for me for several reasons. First of all, and I don’t know whether or not I have revealed this little secret to you, but I am a boy, and boys have decidedly greater options when you are talking about good public bathrooms. We have a different definition of “good” than that of most women. We also have a much different definition of “public” which at times means just that, public, as in “exposed to general view” as opposed to “accessible to or shared by all members of the community.” I’m not an animal; I don’t pee in public in the city, but let’s just say that when I am out in the country, finding a bathroom never seems to be a problem. The Spanish countryside: The world’s biggest toilet. It’s not a slogan that you are likely to read in one of those stuffy, Conde Nast travel publications, but it is the truth. When I am out bike riding I am forced to ignore my own advice of never passing up a chance to take a leak. If I didn’t, I would never get anywhere.

As far as locating a good public bathroom, downtown Valencia provides a bigger challenge than the great outdoors. Of course, every bar and café has a restroom, but they expect them to be used only by paying customers. Buying a coffee or beer just to use the restroom seems like bailing out your boat instead of fixing the leak, if you will pardon the pun. When I speak about public restrooms, I mean those where you can just walk in without being expected to buy anything or in a place that is big enough that no one will notice that you are not an actual customer. The second reason that this issue isn’t such a big deal with me is that I seem to have an extra large bladder. It probably fills up the area in my body where decorum and taste are usually found. I suppose that you are able to tell from this essay that I was born without those two human essentials.

At times I am utterly dumbfounded by the lack of public facilities. At large, outdoor public events there seems to be no nod towards this consideration. I have boarded trains at the Valencia Estación del Norte many times and only when I was returning from my last trip did I discover the whereabouts of the restrooms there (on the north side). The good news is that there are bathrooms on the trains. I can only think of one public restroom in all of Valencia: downstairs at the Mercado Colon (and the recently uncovered facilities at the station). That’s it. There are probably more. Where is George Costanza when you need him?

So my advice to you is to never pass up a chance to take a leak. It could be a long time before you have another opportunity.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Maps, Newspapers, and Bridges

Some cities are fairly self-explanatory and getting around is easy. Most cities have streets set up on a grid system so all you have to do is take a quick look at a map to get oriented and that's that. Valencia isn’t one of those cities. Valencia is more like Amsterdam which is like a maze within a labyrinth defended by moats. Valencia is a confusing city to find your way around, with many boulevards running diagonally and many streets sometimes changing names in midstream. With lots of triangular blocks it probably helps to use trigonometry to find short cuts. During your first few days in cities like Valencia and Amsterdam, there is no getting around the fact that you are going to get lost a few times. You may even remain lost for your entire stay. You shouldn’t fight it, just try to enjoy yourself.

If you sit in a café in the old section of Valencia you will see throngs of tourists consulting maps in a desperate attempt to find their way around the maze of circular streets, dead ends, crooked walkways, and other man-made obstacles to navigation. If you sit long enough and take notice you will see people walking in circles—I know because I did the same thing during my first few weeks of living here. I have carried a compass on my key chain for many years and that helped me a lot more than the maps that are available everywhere. A compass is also easier to read and not as obvious as unfolding a map in the middle of the sidewalk.

I always feel a little self-conscious carrying a map around because I hate looking too much like a tourist. I would say the same about fanny packs and money belts. You can spot these kind of tourists from satellite photos. I think that it is a natural human tendency to want to belong somewhere, to feel comfortable, and to be at home wherever you may be. It is hard to feel comfortable when you are carrying a map with you. Of course, I needed a map just like all of the other tourists but I would only consult mine furtively, under a café table or behind a dumpster. I was going to live here and I didn’t want to look like another lost tourist, even if I was lost.

I gradually learned my way around the old quarter. I still consult a map occasionally, especially when I think that I know my way around a certain area but suspect that there is probably a quicker, more direct way of getting there than the way I have staked out. I am almost always correct in my suspicions. I often saved myself several blocks by consulting the map and looking at the big picture. Sometimes I found things on the map that were only a half block from places that I walked past every day. More often than not, I just found things by complete accident.

Even after I knew my way around town fairly well, I was still lost culturally and linguistically. It’s not like Spain is such a strange and foreign place, but they certainly do have their own way of doing almost everything, and I had to learn all of these from scratch. When I first arrived my Spanish wasn’t nearly good enough to understand much of what was on the television, I also didn’t know anyone here. This meant that I had to rely almost entirely on newspapers and books to learn about Valencia and Spain.

Newspapers were my map to the cultural and political side to life in Spain. It’s where I learned the ins and outs of the Spanish football league, the broad strokes of local and national politics, and just about everything else you need to know to be able to participate in the society around you. Where I felt self-conscious about looking at a map, I felt like reading a newspaper and carrying one under my arm made me stick out less. As much as people claim to be their own person and to be nonconformists, most people really just want to fit in. I desperately wanted to fit in and nothing made me feel more at home than when I would be asked directions by a Spaniard and I was actually able to steer them in the right direction.

During my first month I was entirely confounded by the Spanish holidays. Between the national and locals holidays, there didn’t seem to be too many days left over to actually get anything done. I would be out trying to do a bit of shopping only to be caught off guard by a holiday and find everything closed for the day. It reminded me of a time a few years ago when I went out to eat at a Chinese restaurant in Seattle’s International District. All of the restaurant employees and most of the Chinese customers were carrying on as if this were just any other day of the year; and to them, people of a non-Christian heritage, it was just like any other day. My friends and I joked that no one had sent these people the memo that today was Christmas. Now I know exactly how they must feel. I usually wouldn’t learn what the holiday was until I read about it in the newspaper the next day. No one had sent me the email.

When I first arrived I was particularly bewildered by the holidays in December that seemed to last for days and days. I was lost and I couldn’t seem to find my bearings until I read a wonderful essay by Elvira Lindo in a Sunday edition of the Madrid newspaper, El País, that answered many of my questions about the holidays and matters relating to the Spanish attitude towards work and taking vacations.

The author lives in New York and the subject of her essay was the temporary inhabitants of her sleeper-sofa, Spaniards who had cobbled together a week’s vacation out of a couple of days off for holidays. They call it a “bridge” when a long weekend is built around a weekday holiday. Sometimes the bridge is a fairly solid affair, like when people take off the Monday before a holiday on a Tuesday to make a four day weekend. Sometimes the bridges can be as rickety and perilous (as least as far as some employers are concerned) as anything you might see in an Indiana Jones movie, like when people take the whole week off when the holiday falls on a Wednesday. To translate a “bridge” like this with the phrase “take a long weekend” hardly does it justice.

It turned out that the week I was wondering about contained the two holidays of Constitution Day and The Immaculate Conception. The author pointed out that even her fellow countrymen who believe in neither, and can agree on almost nothing, are of the same mind when it comes to “bridges.” Elvira joked that a Spaniard doesn’t emigrate, he goes on a bridge. Spanish people always find it amazing that we don't have a word in English for their concept of a vacation bridge.

I felt like I had been let in on a secret. Having the concept of bridges explained to me was the first insider thing that I remember learning in Spain. It seemed like I saw things a little clearer after that, like after you look at a map of where you are going and you say to yourself, “Oh yeah, now I get it.” A map or a newspaper can save you a lot of head scratching, a lot of time stumbling around lost, and they can also open places and things that would have taken you a lot longer to discover through experience. When you are in the middle of deciphering a new culture, there are going to be a lot of eureka moments—sometimes dozens in single day, if you are lucky. You have to look in as many places as possible for guidance.

I finally got to the point where I didn’t need a map, at least not very often. My compass went back to being just a decoration on my key chain. My dictionary will always get a lot of use and I still write down in a little notebook every word that I look up. I did the same thing back in college with English words whose meanings I didn’t know at the time. I remember years later coming across those words that I had written down on index cards. As I shuffled through the deck, I found it amusing to think that there was a time when all of those words were foreign to me but had moved on to become part of my everyday vocabulary. I couldn’t help but look a little condescendingly upon my former, less articulate self.

I remember back then how pleased I would be with myself when I came across a word that I had looked up. I feel the same way now every time that I read almost anything because I recently looked up just about every word that I know in Spanish. Instead of looking up words that I might find on a graduate school entrance exam, my new vocabulary lists are now more about survival. You can usually tell the contents by the container but it’s still a good idea to know the words for “bleach” and “mouthwash.” And I do know the words for shampoo and cream rinse, but the bottles look exactly the same which is why I washed my hair with cream rinse for five straight days. Man was my hair ever soft. For many of the things that I have had to learn here I didn’t have the benefit of a map, or a dictionary, or a guide book. I just had to learn them through trial and error and imitating people around me.

It’s like my entire life is now about building a bridge between the place where I lived most of my life and this new place. It can be frustrating, entertaining, and hilarious at times, but always interesting. I still consider myself to be a young man, but I don’t think I have enough years left in this lifetime to ever get to know the language and culture of Spain the way I think that I know my own. As long as I’m here I’ll keep working at it. I think that it gets easier as you go along, although I haven’t found it to be any easier just yet—not that I’m complaining.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

National Alternatives to Suicide Bombing


Suicide bomber, Italian version.

The Muslim world, from Morocco to Afghanistan, is starting to get a bit of a reputation for trying to resolve conflict via suicide bombings. To most Westerners, it would seem that Muslims have rather radical views, with suicide bombing being the most radical. It is impossible for us to imagine anything so important that you feel the need to blow yourself to pieces along with a lot of innocent people. I think most Westerners believe that suicide bombers represent the most extreme elements in the Muslim world. However, if I see someone who looks to be of Middle Eastern descent wearing a bulging overcoat, my first thought isn’t that he is trying to smuggle outside food into a ball game.

It’s just that most Westerners have different ways to express the sort of pent-up anger that would lead a Muslim to blow him or herself to kingdom come along with anyone unlucky enough to be within range of the blast. I think that these ways of expressing anger differ from country to country and are defined by the national character stamped upon the citizens of these countries. What might lead one person to commit a suicide bombing mission might push someone from France, Spain, Australia, Britain, Italy, or the United States in an entirely different direction.

The kind of rage that makes one person strap on a vest packed with TNT and walk into a crowded market would cause an entirely different reaction with the average America. We Americans are more likely to attack people where it really hurts: in the pocketbook. Instead of engulfing ourselves and those around us in a fiery blaze, Americans would just take their business elsewhere. We may even spend more money at the alternative business just to emphasize our displeasure. That will really show those bastards!

Suicide bombing is just too messy and vulgar for the English. They are more apt to show their disgust by being icily-polite and coldly-courteous. After an English person cruelly inquires about the health of your family, you may just wish that you had been the victim of a bombing. Trying to come up with a rejoinder for such a well-mannered assault can be harder than searching for lost body parts after an explosion in an airport.

The Spanish are equally as passive-aggressive as the English; they just have other methods. Most anger in Spain is somehow vented through car horns. Sometimes you will hear someone leaning on their car horn for so long that you ask yourself, “Is it even possible for a person to be that much of an asshole?” Normal traffic problems trigger almost biblical bouts of honking. I often think that all of the injustices committed against the people of Palestine would not warrant car horn blasts of such duration and frequency. Imagine if the Spanish were really annoyed.

I have no idea as to what the French might do. France is still a mystery to me in many ways despite all of the hours I have spent torturing myself learning French grammar and irregular verb conjugations. What the French do they don't share with the tourists. I think what this probably means is that the French would just ignore an offense because today the weather is just too fine in Paris to do anything but go out and do whatever the hell it is that Parisians do on a warm Sunday afternoon. Tomorrow, however, they will surely conduct a huge protest in the streets which always ends with a McDonald’s getting fire bombed (although it could have been caused accidentally by a carelessly thrown cigarette butt). While the pompiers put out the blaze, everyone else watches from the terrace of the nearby cafes.

Italians would obviously just invent some sort of extremely vulgar hand gesture in response to a terrible wrong. Only they would know what the gesture means, but you would get the general idea that they weren’t happy about something. While they are giving the secret hand signal they are also letting go with a few, rapid-fire phrases that you don’t understand but probably have something to do with the terminal end of your mother’s intestinal track.

Australians don’t ever seem to get upset over anything. If the dirtballs from al Qaeda carried out an attack against Australians, they would still get invited to someone’s backyard barbeque. As long as they show up with a case of beer, Australians are willing to let bygones be bygones.

Mexicans would either punch you in the face or hug you to within an inch of your life, depending on their level of Dos Equis and tequila and whether a slow ballad is playing or a rowdy ranchera. Either way, there are going to be a few bullet holes in the ceiling so watch out for falling plaster.

After the recent terror attack in Scotland where one of the suspects was apprehended by average citizens and roundly thumped, I think the Scottish would respond to a grave injustice by giving someone a head butt.

The Scandinavians would mess up the directions on the self-assembled furniture they sell you. "Insert L#3 into Z#5? There is no Z#5! Curse you Sweden!"

I have completely exhausted my supply of national stereotypes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

All the History You Need to Know About Valencia


The original arms granted to Valencia by Jaume I.

All the History You Need to Know About Valencia

People had been living in this area of the Mediterranean since before recorded history. A city was founded here by the Romans in 138 B.C. which they called Valentia Edetanorum. In the 6th century A.D., after centuries of Roman decline, the city was taken over by the Visigoths. This is a part of their history that locals here rarely discuss. Most Valencianos sort of see the Visigoths are their hillbilly ancestors who ran things for a while until more civilized folks moved in. In arguments at home when the insults are flying, the Visigoths are always on the other side of family.

Valencia was under Muslim rule for centuries beginning in 714 A.D. They brought with them oranges, olives, silk, rice and ceramics which were to remain integral to the local economy for centuries afterward, some are still vital today. They also introduced irrigation to the area and because of this the region is one of the most productive agricultural regions in Spain. Other than these things, and the great architecture they introduced, and their relatively tolerant view of other religions, the Moors didn’t do much for Valencia and the rest of Spain, at least not if you believe the history written by the eventual victors.

In 1094 Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid from the Arabic meaning “The Man” or “The Boss,” took back Valencia from the Moors. El Cid converted nine mosques into Christian churches which went a long way in assuring his popularity with the clergy which was the only literate class in this era. He was rewarded for his deeds with the Lay of El Cid, the oldest preserved tale of heroic deeds in all of Spain. He died five years later in 1099 and the city was recaptured by the Moorish dynasty of the Almoravids in 1102. Writing a heroic tale of El Cid’s very short-lived conquest of Valencia would be like someone writing a song praising a bad car repair job. I would say that El Cid’s conquering and Moor-evicting feats were way over-rated.

The single most celebrated event and date in Valencia is October 9, 1238 when Jaume I, king of the Crown of Aragon, entered Valencia and freed it, once and for all, of Moorish occupation. The people here are Spanish which means that they have a love for holidays, but October 9th is the most important of the dozens of holidays throughout the year. On second thought, the spring Fallas festival is a huge affair. They take their holidays here pretty seriously so trying to rate them in terms of importance is a dangerous business. Perhaps it would be safer if I were to simply say that October 9th is an important day for Valencianos. I don't think I am stepping on any toes when I put it that way.

This date in history marks the beginning of Valencia as an independent kingdom and has shaped the way Valencianos have thought about themselves from that day to the present. Part of the national character of Spain involves the ways in which the different regions of the country either try to emphasize how different they are from the rest of Spain or how their region epitomizes the true essence of what it means to be Spanish.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bars, et cetera



Bars, et cetera

Spain has more bars per capita than any other country in the world, with something like six bars per thousand inhabitants—three times more than the United Kingdom and four times more than Germany. If you have walked more than a half a block without encountering a bar, check the map because you probably aren’t in Spain. Bars are one of the most popular of the privately owned businesses in the country and everybody seems to be in the business. Six bars for every thousand Spaniards seems like an underestimate, at least in my neighborhood where the ratio seems closer to one bar for every five people, including children.

Speaking of children, the drinking age in Spain is 18, unless the bar has a sign that says it won’t serve anyone under 16, in which case the legal age there is 16. I’m not sure but I don’t think that they have an official age at which people can drink in a bar; it is up to the bar owner and the young people to decide for themselves. Absolutely anyone can buy alcohol in stores. I have seen ten year old kids buying wine at the grocery store, presumably for the folks. You will never see anyone checking identification and you also won’t see kids getting drunk in a bar. At least I never have, and I have spent quite a bit of time in these Spanish institutions. Kids aren’t about to screw up too badly in bars because there is a good chance that their parents or neighbors will be hanging out in the same place. Kids here learn how to behave when they go out by direct example. In America we keep kids away from bars and booze until they become of age and then we expect them to know how to act in and around these new influences.

This isn’t to say that there are no problems with kids drinking in Spain, but it isn’t something you hear a lot about unless it involves a traffic accident. It seems that they give kids the benefit of the doubt and let them make their own decisions about alcohol. As big a role as alcohol plays in the lives of the Spanish, there isn’t a lot of abuse in any age group. I think this is true in all Mediterranean cultures.

Just as with cafes in France, it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of bars in the quotidian life of the Spanish. Whether it is called a bar, a restaurant, a cervezería, a bodega, a tasca, a bocatería, a cafetería, a taberna, or a half dozen other things, the function it serves will generally be the same. The purpose a bar serves here in Spain is a pretty tall order, something that might explain all of the different names they use. You see a lot of bars in Spain that can’t decide on just one of these name designations so they use two or three of them on their displays.

Starting at the beginning of the day they function as a coffee shop, at mid-morning they host the coffee break of the office workers, then comes the before-lunch coffee or beer, followed by the lunch crowd, followed by after-lunch coffee or cocktail, after-work meetings with friends, before-dinner drinks, dinner, after-dinner coffee and cognac, and then some places even morph into something of a night club. Even with all of that coffee I’m worn out.

There is a rather comforting sameness to bars in Spain; most of them look pretty much like all of the others. Elegant ceramic tiles cover the floors and walls, and the bar top is usually stainless steel. There is a glass covered cooler on top of the bar which displays the food selections. In many parts of Spain a small appetizer, or tapa is served with every drink that you order. This custom isn’t very common in the Valencia Community or in Catalonia; not that bars in these two regions lack a variety of good things to eat. All Spaniards, even the Catalonians and the Valencianos, have the same instincts when they have a drink and in the tapa-free region of Valencia, customers will ask for algo para picar, something to nibble on.
Beer and wine are the most popular drinks served in bars, besides coffee. Coming in at first place as the most ordered beverage is the caña, of a small draft beer. Cañas usually hold about 8-10 ounces. A doble, or double caña, is just that. Beers are also served in bottles, either in a 1/3 liter bottle or a 1/5 referred to as a tercio and quinto, respectively. Wine is also a popular beverage, more so in Castilla and Andalusia than in Valencia where I live. Vino tinto, or red wine is often served chilled during the hot summer months. This practice is also common in southern France where the summer days are scorching and where they don’t produce a lot of white wine, the wine traditionally served chilled. If it has to do with wine, and they do it in France, I think that it is an acceptable practice.


It’s nice to know that you can file “going out to a bar” as an educational experience. If you are a foreigner living in Spain and trying to learn the language, bars provide an easy way to practice what you know. Besides talking with the staff and customers, you can read one of the newspapers lying around on top of the bar. When I first arrived in the country I remember looking up every unfamiliar word in the newspaper headlines. I thought that if a word was in a headline, this means that it must be important. Why bother putting a word in large, bold print if it isn’t worth knowing? I don’t know if this makes any sense but you have to start somewhere when learning a new language. No matter where you look, there are going to be a lot of words you don’t know, so you may as well start somewhere.

Every bar has a slot machine, at least one. I sometimes hear the cartoonish noises from the slot machines when I am lying in bed at night, or I’ll have one of the catchy tunes stuck in my head as I walk around town. The slot machine music doesn’t quite have the chart-topper quality as say, the theme song to Ms Pac Man, but they can be excruciatingly annoying in their own way. I’ve never been a gambler and have never invested a single coin in one of these things, although I have often thought about paying other people not to play them when I am trying to read. The slot machine sound effects are almost as bothersome as the unmuffled whine of a moped or the constant yapping of a small dog—two other noise hazards ever-present in Spain. I suppose that if I started playing the slots I’d stop complaining about them. Then I’d just have to figure out what to do with the yappy dogs and the mopeds.

To be continued…

Monday, October 08, 2007

Something You Don’t See Every Day



Something You Don’t See Every Day

October 9th is a big day for Valencianos. It is the day they celebrate the re-conquest of Valencia by Jaume I, it’s when Valencia expelled the Moors in 1238. The defeat of the Moors is celebrated all over Spain and mentioned at every possible occasion. It’s a pretty big deal to Spaniards, that’s why they begin celebrating here in Valencia almost a week before the actual holiday.

This Saturday evening there was a pageant recounting the victory of Jaume over the Moors which was held in the little square in front of Saint Valero church. The set for the pageant cut the little plaza in two with one of my favorite new cafes serving as the backstage area. I happened upon my new hangout between acts in the pageant and the entire cast was in the café getting into character for the next part of the play.

Most of the cast was in full battle regalia of the Moors, complete with chain mail suits, armor breast plates, and helmets and shoulder pads with long metal spikes. Most of the cast was also fairly drunk—I think they had been making a whole day of the celebration.

I waded into the café trying to avoid a permanent eye injury from one of the spikes and also saving a half dozens drinks from being swept off the counters by careless swords and javelins. Paco, the owner, and his staff were working furiously to serve the drunken army of Moors before the next scene. I took my usual glass of red wine and cautiously leaned back against the bar to enjoy the show.

There were damsels, maidens, princes, and princesses in the mix, but the most fervent bar customers were the Moors with their armor, scimitars, beers, and rum and cokes. In the pageant celebrating Jaume’s victory over the Moors, the Moors were the party animals. I was talking with one of the Moors and told him that they made bad Muslims who have a proscription against alcohol. I pointed to the bar top littered with beers, bottles of wine, and cocktails all in various stages of consumption. I also told him that they all probably had at least a kilogram of pork products making their way through their digestive system—swine is also a no-no for the followers of Mohammed. They made lousy Moors but exemplary Spaniards.

A woman came over from the stage area to say that they were going to begin the next part of the pageant. The Moors began another assault on the staff. Their order for yet another round of drinks was every bit as frantic as any battle seen in this part of the peninsula. Drinks were served, checks were paid, and then the singing started. What would a Moorish invasion of Paco’s bar be without a boisterous rendition of Valencia CF football chants? I thought this was just about the funniest, most entertaining thing that I had experienced in my time here in Valencia but there was something even better.

A few meters from the door of the café, a group of children were kneeling on a park bench looking over the back into the bar. I wish that I had a picture of these four kids looking on in amazement and wonder at the rowdy Moors who also happened to be big fans of Valencia Club de Fútbol.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Tortilla: An Ode to Eggs, Potatoes, and Olive Oil


Simple Perfection

...(and salt, don’t be stingy with the salt.)

Every family has its own method for making tortillas, their own secret.
-3,000 Años de la Cocina Española by Rosa Tovar and Monique Fuller

The first thing we Americans learn upon visiting Spain is that a Spanish tortilla is completely different than the Mexican variety. A Spanish tortilla is a sort of omelet made with eggs and some other kind of filler. The Mexican variety of tortillas, either made with corn or flour, are hard to come by in Spain. We are lucky to have Mexico as our neighbor. Their food has permeated our culture on many different levels. Spanish food is less well-known to Americans and the tortilla is a good place to begin.

The Spanish tortilla is probably my favorite dish here in Spain. I get a craving for it on a regular basis. It is a perfect food in my opinion, a wonderful balance of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Eggs are a fantastic source of protein, potatoes are as good a place to get carbohydrates as you can find, and olive oil is a fat made in heaven. And don’t forget about the salt. I thought I already told you about this?

Tortillas are sold in almost every bar in Spain. Tortillas are served as a tapa, alone like a slice of pie, or you can get a tortilla sandwich. You can get tortillas made with zucchini, artichokes, spinach, mushrooms, cheese, and just about anything else you can imagine. The most popular and what probably defines the tortilla in Spain is the tortilla de patatas made with potatoes. This is my personal favorite.

After returning from a few weeks in Spain a few years back I saw a sign for “Tortillas Españolas” in a Seattle restaurant I frequented. I was with a friend who had spent a lot of time in Spain so we were both anxious to get a fix of this great combination of simple ingredients. I was served scrambled eggs with potatoes—not the same thing as a tortilla. I didn’t complain because I really like the restaurant but I realized that no one who worked there, from the cooks and dishwashers, to the waiters and bartenders, had ever been to Spain to allow this dish to be called a tortilla.

This was when I started trying to make tortillas at home (notice the use of the verb “to try”). I am a fairly good cook and I can usually nail just about any recipe after a couple of attempts but my forays into tortillas generally ended in something considerably less than a success. I will give a basic recipe so that you can see how easy it looks on paper.

Tortilla de Patatas

6 eggs
3 pounds of potatoes
Olive Oil
Salt

Peel and slice the potatoes very thinly. Sauté the slices in a generous amount of olive oil being careful not to brown them. When the potatoes are cooked, drain off the excess olive oil. Beat the eggs in a bowl and add the cooked potatoes and salt. Transfer this to a sauté pan. Cook on one side being careful not to brown the mixture. Cover the pan with a plate and flip the tortilla and return it to the pan so the other side cooks. Reshape the tortilla with a spatula as the other side cooks. Repeat this again.

This sounds pretty simple and straightforward and it may be for some people. I had my share of disasters. I was becoming a bit discouraged until I watched a Spanish movie I rented about some street kids living in Madrid. One of the kids offers to make a tortilla for everyone. As they begin to eat it everyone spits it out because he didn’t even cook the potatoes ahead of the egg mixture, he just threw everything into a pan. This scene made me think that perhaps I wasn’t a complete klutz in the kitchen and there was more to this deceptively simple dish than what the recipe explains.

I have learned to cook this dish fairly well since I moved to Spain. I bought a special non-stick pan especially for tortillas. I have experimented a great deal with how I cook the potatoes. I used to bake the potatoes ahead of time if I was using the oven for something else. I found that this required that I use a lot less oil than is normally the case—not that I am really out to use less olive oil, I practically drink the stuff right out of the bottle. I thought that this method was a nice shortcut because sautéing the potatoes in oil takes forever. I have returned to the sauté method just because I am trying to be more authentic and they cook it this way for a reason. It tastes better.

Just what “authentic” means when talking about this icon of Spanish cuisine is difficult to define. Absolutely every Spanish person I have interviewed concerning this dish has their own truco, or trick. People’s recipes for tortillas are as individual and defining as fingerprints here in Spain, so be careful not to leave a half-eaten tortilla at a crime scene or they might track it back to you. My own recipe has been distilled from dozens of others and is still in the developmental stage. It may never leave that stage and move on to anything more permanent—it’s like the jazz solos of recipes.

While rummaging through the kitchen at my first apartment in Valencia, I came across an odd plastic thing that looked like a lid for something. My roommate back then told me it was for flipping tortillas. He never used it and instead preferred to use a plate. It was purchased by a former roommate who also never used it. In the spirit of integration, I never used it either but I took it with me when I moved to a new place. I began using it and I found it vastly superior to the plate method of flipping. The plastic flipper has a knob handle on one side which makes it easier to hold than a plate. I anoint it with a bit of olive oil before using (the Spanish use the verb untar, to anoint, whenever they splash olive oil on anything). They make a special pan for making tortillas called a vuelvetortillas, or tortilla flipper, but I don't know anyone who has admitted to using one. It's kind of like cheating in my book. some people cook one side in the pan and then they transfer the dish to the oven to cook the top part. This seems wimpy to me.

I have a few trucos of my own when it comes to making this dish. For example, I prefer a ridiculously high potato-to-egg ratio. I credit this discovery to the woman at the vegetable stand in the Ruzafa Market near my apartment. I told her I was going to make a six egg tortilla and she suggested I purchase two kilograms of potatoes. This seemed like a laughably large quantity of spuds but I loved the way it turned out. Instead of a potato omelet, it is more like potatoes with a thin veneer of egg. And I think that this bears repeating: Don’t be shy with the salt—that’s why they keep it in a big bowl by the stove instead of some wimpy shaker.

Tortillas are great because you can eat them any time of day. I eat them for breakfast sometimes, although you’d never find a Spaniard doing this. While having a beer or a glass of wine, a small portion on a toothpick makes a great tapa. Stuffed in a loaf of bread they make a hearty sandwich. A slice of tortilla makes an elegant side dish for a meal.

Spain seems to have wonderfully fresh eggs; even those you find in the big supermarket chains are quite good. I buy mine from one of the stalls at the market and they are always very fresh. The abundance of nice, fresh eggs probably explains a lot about why this dish is so popular here.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Sexy, Sex-filled Sexfest

Hot LDS Action!

The following essay contains material not suited for younger readers. On the other hand, if your emotional age is over 17, this will probably seem childish. Comedy truly is the razor’s edge.

Get ready people, you are about to embark on one of the most erotic adventures of your life. Very soon you will be coming across passages with words like “zipper,” “undergarments,” and even “crotch.” Draw the curtains, turn off the phone, lock the door, and grab a mop and bucket for the clean-up because you are in for the ride of your life. This essay is going to make all of that internet porn you’ve been downloading look as boring and as mild as a visit from a couple of Mormon missionaries. All you have to do is drop your pants, sit back, and keep reading. Please ask the Mormon kids to leave at this time unless they are wearing approved safety goggles.

What makes my essay so radically different is that I’m not afraid to go out on a limb, to swim upstream, to take the path not taken, to explore virgin territory, if you’ll pardon the pun. Because of my unfashionable stance on this issue I have been the target of violent demonstrations around the world. I know that I am a rebel, an anarchist, and a lone wolf, but I have never sought popularity. I don’t care if I am criticized for taking this position but here it is: I happen to like women’s breasts. There, I said it. And furthermore, I am also a fan of the larger variety of these female organs. Go ahead and insult me for taking this heroic and daring position; I’m sure that I have been called worse things by better men. Not only do I enjoy boobs on a physical level but I plan on writing about them in this essay. If you are sickened by the prospect of reading an article which may contain two, or even three female breasts, then perhaps this isn’t the essay for you.

I cannot yet go into explicit detail as to the content of this essay; we must first weed out all of the minors and adults who aren’t ready for such raunchy, no-holds-barred depictions of human desire. Without offending the kids and the prudes who have not clicked off this page thus far, let me just say that I will be using a lot of obscene vocabulary in my descriptions, a lot of words that rhyme with “icky,” if you know what I mean, and I know that you do.

This essay will contain young girls, girls so young that they are “barely legal” as they say. In fact, not only am I employing girls who only just turned 18 today, but I am writing this essay on an airplane that is racing towards the international dateline, which, if we cross it, will render these birthday girls illegal. Give back the party favors, girls, I may be going to jail. In the top left corner of this page there is a Global Positioning System link to my private jet. Legal? Illegal? It’s too close to call at this stage. Perhaps we will cross the dateline and then go back. Legal territory, illegal territory, in, out, in, out, in, out, all day long. Would that still be some sort of crime? Even over international waters? If it isn’t, it should be. Use the GPS tracking icon provided as a further visual aid in your quest for a partner-free orgasm.

This is difficult to appreciate over the internet, but I didn’t write this essay on a computer. I used a tube of lipstick and a well-worn, silk G-string—a girl’s G-string, wise-ass. Granted, I had to retype the thing on my computer because my handwriting is terrible and the panties were really, really small, but that shouldn’t lessen the heat for the readers.

As a matter of fact, you won’t even have to read the essay. It will be read to you by a woman whose voice is so sexy that she makes Mae West’s signature, “Why don’t you come on up and see me sometime,” sound like a squawking parrot. You will practically be able to feel her breathing on you. We mean on a medically-approved erogenous zone, not there. What is wrong with you, you sick fuck? But hey, whatever works for you, I suppose. There are no inhibitions contained in this essay. Anything goes, and when I say anything, I mean anything! Except whatever the hell it is you are doing right now. Please stop that.

Notice: This essay has been discontinued per order of the Morals and Decency Division of Interpol. The author has been placed under arrest after a spirited chase through the red light district of Amsterdam in which the suspect was clad in only a towel and high heels.

Readers are advised to remove all traces of this essay from their computers. And wipe off your monitor; once that stuff dries it's impossible to get off.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Not-so-Fast and the Bi-Curious

Just like in America, Spain has more than its share of young males who have seen the movie The Fast and the Furious a few too many times. You see lots of souped-up little cars flying down the street with the stereos blaring some sort of retarded dance beats. You often ask yourself, "Is that an underpowered shitbox car with four, hard-of-hearing dudes in it or is it a gay night club on wheels?" Whatever else it is, it's definitely a desperate cry for help.