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Thursday, November 29, 2007

On Driving and not Driving




I have lived in a few different places in my life and I can say one thing with a bit of authority: People everywhere are lousy drivers. I think that there are many different reasons that motivate people to behave badly behind the wheel of a car and these reasons often have to do with where they live. Americans drive badly because they are assholes in a hurry. Europeans drive atrociously because they are infantile and have watched too many car races on TV. Consider the fact that more and more of these accidents-waiting-to-happen are also trying to use a cell phone as they drive and this should be all the reason you need to opt out of automobiles and take the bus on both continents.

Although, for the most part, Spanish motorists are rather terrifying, I have noticed that a certain type of driver in Spain behaves in a courteous, almost civilized manner. These drivers will use their turn signals; they actually yield to pedestrians at cross-walks; they obey the speed limit and other traffic laws; and they don’t use their horn as some sort of obnoxious, offensive weapon. It is easy to pick these drivers out in traffic because they will have autoescuela, or “driver’s training,” written somewhere on their vehicles. This goes to show that Spanish drivers knew the proper rules of the road at some point in their careers behind the wheel; it’s just that many of them choose to forget everything they may have learned in driver’s education the minute they are allowed to drive without the watchful eye of a chaperon.

I have now gone almost one year and a half without driving an automobile. I honestly wouldn’t mind if I never drove again. I doubt I will be lucky enough to avoid this nuisance but while I live here in Spain I’m pretty sure I won’t ever be in the driver’s seat. I haven’t even been in a car since I was in a taxi several months ago to go to the airport. I can now get to the airport on the new subway line. Avoiding cars is probably more beneficial to a person’s health than ending a lifelong habit of smoking. Unfortunately, as a cyclist I still have many intersections with other people who choose to drive cars.

I am fairly fortunate on this account because Valencia has a great system of bike paths that keep cyclists out of harm’s way for most of their travels. You still need to cross a lot of street intersections which can be a crap shoot more often than not. A red light doesn’t seem to mean a lot to many Spanish drivers so you need to be extremely vigilant every time you cross a street on a bike. Never take it for granted that a car will stop for you when you have the cross signal because the red light to many drivers is only a very mild suggestion that they should perhaps slow down, and stopping is almost out of the question.

I have developed a special technique that is almost foolproof in assuring that I can cross the street without getting flattened by a
Spanish driver hopped from watching too many Formula 1 races on Sunday afternoon. This tactic may seem a bit cruel since I am placing babies and senior citizens between myself and speeding automobiles, but I can assure you that it is very effective. I have learned how to use human shields to protect me from aggressive motorists. Interested? Keep reading.

If there is a senior citizen or a woman pushing a baby carriage in the crosswalk, I can be almost certain that traffic will come to a stop. People here are very respectful of babies, and they are scared shitless of imperious older folks. When it comes to cars and cross walks, babies and octogenarian Spanish widows are like having a big brother around to protect you from the playground bullies.

I have never much liked cars and driving, so trading my car keys for a transit pass was very easy for me. I have even accepted walking as a means of getting around. If I am going to the center of town, because of the crowds, it is almost too much trouble to ride my bike. I wouldn’t even dream of trying to get around Valencia in a private automobile. I can’t believe that anyone would prefer to drive from one part of town to the other when there is such an efficient system of metro and busses. Even when you do manage to get to your destination by car, there is almost certainly going to be a serious parking problem, but as someone who doesn’t drive, that’s no longer my problem.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Free Hugs

Free Hogs

Free Hugs, Abrazos Gratis, Gratis Knuffles, Câlins Gratuits, Inc.

He oido muchas cosas que me inspiraron graves dudas sobre la raza humana, pero ésta no es una de ellas.

-Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

I realize that I am way behind the times and I’m quite sure that this is very old news to everyone except me but I happened upon one of the “Free Hugs” videos on Youtube. This international movement was started by an Australian named Juan Mann after he returned to his country and found there was no one there at the airport to give him a hug as he saw happening with other travelers around him.

After watching a few of the many videos filmed all over the world I came to the following realization: “Free Hugs” sounds silly in English, but not nearly as silly as the Dutch translation of “Gratis Knuffles.”

I couldn’t help but add my own entrepreneurial twist to the whole movement. I suppose that free hugs are fine but isn't that like communism, or socialism, or one of those bad things? Why not manufacture a very high quality hug and target the 38-45, white, upper middle class market group? Free stuff is only for poor people, and let's face it, poor people are icky. Giving shit away for free isn't any fun for people who make a point of separating themselves from the masses with every single material item that they purchase. Let's do something for those hyper-consumerists. I sent the following letter to the web site of the Free Hugs Movement:

Your video was so inspiring that I have started my own movement called “Hugs: Only 100€ (taxes not included, void where prohibited, you must be at least 18 to participate, offer not valid in Hawaii or Guam.”

The name isn’t as catchy as “Free Hugs” but my accountant tells me that a catchy name isn’t everything. Things are rather slow at this early stage of the movement but I figure that if I can get just three customers a day I can quit my job as a prison guard.


P.S. My “Free Waterboarding” campaign was a dismal failure. I was also nearly ripped to shreds by enthusiasts here in pork-loving but English-challenged Spain when they misread my “Free Hugs” sign as saying “Free Hogs.”

*Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after hugging a hippy or you may contract salmonella.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Greek Lemon/Egg Chicken Soup


I don’t know what inspired me to make this classic. I was looking for a new Spanish dish to try. Instead I decided to whip up this soup that I haven’t made in ages. It is one of the easiest Greek dishes in my repertoire. The simplest Greek dish in my repertoire is a Greek peasant salad and that is still probably my all-time favorite dish.

Avgolemono Soup

1 whole chicken
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
3 bay leaves
3 eggs
1 Lemon (juice)
1 ½ cup rice
Salt & pepper

Place the whole chicken in a pot with water. Add the onion and garlic with the skin, bay leaves, and salt and pepper. Boil for about two hours. Drain the stock through a colander and pull the chicken off the bone and set aside. Return the stock to the burner and add the rice. Beat the whites of the eggs until they are a bit stiff and then add the yolks and continue beating. Add the lemon juice to the eggs. Add a little of the hot stock to the egg/juice mixture making sure not to let it curdle. Keep adding hot stock a little at a time until the eggs and stock are thoroughly mixed. Add this to the stock along with the boned chicken.

That’s all there is to this dish. It is really satisfying, especially on a cold day (We don’t really have cold days here so how about cool days?). It has a great sweet/salty flavor and the eggs act as a thickener like a cream-based soup. I ate two big bowls of it earlier today and I feel like the button on my jeans is going to blow out and kill some innocent bystander.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Things We Lost in the Fire

My external hard drive seems to have crashed on me for no apparent reason. I had nothing on it except a whole fucking lot of music—probably 90-100 gigs. I also had about 150 of my all-time favorite movies on it, as well as every episode of The Simpsons, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Entourage. I haven’t given up hope. I still may be able to recover everything once I can find someone qualified to take a look at it. I feel like shouting at my hard drive with a bullhorn to assure everything trapped inside that help is on the way, like survivors in a mine cave-in, or a child trapped in a well.

I have very little of what was on my hard drive backed up. I sort of thought that was the point of a hard drive, and how are you supposed to back-up 300 gigs? The truth is that I don’t really need or especially want anything that I may have lost in this bit of technological amnesia. I am just a neurotic collector of books, movies, and music. I have had to part ways with most of the thousands of books I have collected over the course of my life. Try to move across the country or to a new country with a huge load of books. It gets really, really, really expensive.

I have collected lots of music. I started out with vinyl. I couldn’t wait to make the change to CDs simply because they represent an appreciable reduction in size—a big help when moving. I traded my collection of about 1,000 CDs for my external hard drive. I may have lost all of it. Easy come, easy go.

In this age of internet piracy it would be easy enough to replace everything that I may have lost. Hell, I could probably write a book on the subject. The truth is that I am better off without all of that digital clutter in my life. It seemed that the more gigs of music I added to my hard drive, the less I actually listened to music. I was overloaded. It’s kind of like how some forest fires are actually healthy for nature as they get rid of a lot of useless underbrush. I had a lot of useless underbrush on my hard drive, stuff I wouldn’t ever watch or listen to if I were to live another 100 years.

As luck would have it—or perhaps because I am by nature generous with my friends—I have been able to recover the best part of my music collections from the music DVDs I made for people in the pre-crash era. One of the things I immediately replaced on my laptop from a DVD I made for a friend was Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s English Suites. His playing of English Suite #2 in A minor still brings tears to my eyes. I often think that this is the only piece of music I really ever need. Everything else is just clutter, the useless underbrush, the trees that keep me from seeing the forest.

I will still attempt to save everything that I lost, but all of that crap is just going to have to get comfortable. Help may be a long time in coming. I will be listening to this Bach piece for quite a while before I decide that there may be other music in the world worth having around.

Friday, November 23, 2007

This Aggression Will Not Stand!

As I was riding along the beach bike trail today I came across another old, fat, naked pervert standing within a few meters of the bike path doing some sort of pulling motion in the groin area. I was really hauling ass through this stretch so I just kept pedaling. I did my usual loop around El Saler beach but before I came back to the area inhabited by pervos, I stopped and picked up a couple of big rocks to throw. When I returned, creepy was still standing there flogging away and looking fairly pleased with himself that he had another visitor.

His expression changed radically when he saw me bearing down on him with my arm ready to throw. I let off the first cannonball which hit way in front of him but with enough force to spring up and really scare him. I could have easily nailed him with the second shot but I showed a bit of mercy and just threw for effect. He started to run into the bushes and I passed. He must have thought it was over at this point because he started to return to his masturbatory staging area. I stopped, dropped my bike to the ground and started throwing every rock I could get my hands on. He started to run away and I began yelling at him that families and children use this bike trail. I asked him if that’s what he was looking for, to violate a child. He whimpered a “no” as he picked up his clothes and ran in the other direction, away from the trail. I told him that I ride through here daily and if I saw him again I would kick his ass (Te daré una paliza, puto.).

Do you think that I overreacted/under-reacted?

Important Pervo Update!

He’s back! I rode past his spot yesterday and I could see him from about 100 meters away. He also saw me and immediately started frantically bushwhacking naked through the scrub pines and saw palms. When I got closer I yelled to him, “No seas tímido, quiero sacar una foto para mi página web.” (Don’t be shy; I want to take a picture for my web page). Perhaps the camera will prove to be mightier than my threats to do him physical harm. There’s a new sheriff in town and he’s packing a digital camera.

One part of me almost admires this creep. Think about the sort of commitment it must take to keep this perverted vigil in the cold weather, standing amongst the thorns and vermin, patiently waiting to ambush the very occasional cyclist that may pass by here on a weekday. I tip my hat to you, creepy, but if I see you there tomorrow I'm going to peg you with a fist-sized rock, so help me god.

Mi Barrio

My new neighborhood of Ruzafa is Valencia’s most well-kept secret. Before I moved here in the middle of September I had never been here, or if I had I don’t remember it and saw nothing that would have compelled me to explore further. Although Ruzafa is only a few blocks from the borders of the heavily-touristed downtown area, we don’t get many tour bus stragglers around here. Besides the church of San Valero, there aren’t a lot of things people would find in the guide books.

I just picked up a sort of insider’s guide to Valencia called Go! that lists lots of cool bars and restaurants in town. I guess that it really isn’t too much of an insider’s guide since it is available for free, but it is in Spanish so most tourists are unlikely to seek out these places.

Ruzafa is very disproportionately represented in this hipster guide to Valencia with dozens of entries under bars, restaurants, and cool shops. Even if I had looked at this guide before moving to the neighborhood I probably would not have attempted to track down any of the places mentioned in Go!, or if I had tried to find any of them I would have failed.

It takes time to learn los entresijos del laberinto, the ins and outs of the muddle of Ruzafa. Many of the blocks in the neighborhood are triangular in shape so you can imagine the problems that newcomers face in trying to find their way around.

Even my trusty key chain compass did me little good during my first few weeks here. The easiest way I have found of staying found, as opposed to lost, is to learn a few street names.

Literato Azorín runs in one direction and parallel you have the calles Cuba, Sueca, and Cadiz. I would leave a trail of bread crumbs when I leave home but the pigeons would eat them. These are all of the street names you need memorize to find a couple of dozen cool places to have a drink, get a bite to eat, or have a conversation.

This last bit is what I find to be the most charming aspect of my new residence. People here actually talk to me. Just about every place I go I know the people who work there by name, whether it’s my egg lady, the gals at the vegetable stand, or the four or five cafes I stop in for coffee or a glass of wine. My bike shop guy recognized me in the market the other day and said hello. I have only been in his shop once to buy new tires for my bike (I have gone through two sets of tires already in one year—that must be some sort of mileage record).

There are lots of great places I have only been to once or twice since I moved—it’s hard to make it to all of them. I frequent a bar run by a couple of brothers from London that is a really cozy joint. There are lots of Brits and a couple of Americans who hang out there. I tend to sit with the Spanish folks I have met. It’s kind of ironic that I speak more Spanish in this English pub than I did in the Spanish places in my old neighborhood. I don’t know if it is because the people here are friendlier or because my Spanish has improved to the point where locals aren’t bothered by talking to me. It is rather tiresome speaking with someone with a less-than-full grasp of the language.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Spice is the Spice of Life


I miss you, old friend.

Lo Que Pica, Sana

Every once in a while I get an urge for Mexican food. I tell people here for a laugh that what I miss most about the United States is Mexican food. People here aren’t too partial to spicy food and I have learned to leave out the hot stuff when I cook, unless I am certain that I am the only one who is destined to eat the spicy stuff. The bag of wonderfully hot red pepper flakes I bought at an Indian grocery store here has gone almost unused.

I also miss my almost thrice-weekly visits to one of several Vietnamese restaurants in Seattle that specialize in phô, a beef broth with noodles, fresh basil, bean sprouts, and lots of hot sauce. I would put in so much sriracha sauce and hot pepper oil in my bowl that it looked like tomato soup by the time I was finished. When the soup came to the table I would add the shredded basil and a squeeze of lime. Then I would thoroughly mix the noodles in the broth. Only then would I add the prodigious amounts of hot sauce. The noodle-mixing part can be a bit messy and if you have already added the hot sauce you are more likely to stain your clothes with the bright red mixture (If I thought of it beforehand I would also wear a dark, phô-friendly shirt on Vietnamese restaurant days).

Then comes the hot sauce. First I would take the squirt bottle of sriracha sauce and paint a little scene on the surface of the bowl: perhaps a couple of palm trees and a bright sun, or maybe a sailing ship. After this I would add a couple spoonfuls of hot pepper oil for some real heat. By the time I had finished eating I would be crying like a 13 year old girl at the end of Titanic. Part of my phô-eating ritual is going into the restroom at the end of the meal to blow my nose.

I haven’t found any Vietnamese restaurants here for phô and the Mexican food I have found is nowhere near as hot as I require. I am afraid that I will start to lose my legendary tolerance for hot food. I will no longer be able to indulge my artistic whims with bottles of spray-on hot sauce. I will have to raise my hand along with the other chumps when the waiter asks who wants the mild sauce on our burritos. I don’t want to be a hot food weenie. I like being the Homer Simpson of scorching cuisine. I like to out-jalapeño pepper my Mexican friends. It has taken many years to turn my stomach and intestinal track into something resembling cast iron and I’m afraid it is going to turn back into regular human flesh if I don’t keep in practice of trying to destroy it once in a while with habañeros and Asian chiles.

I am going to make sopa de tortillas, this being the Mexican variety of tortillas made from corn. This would be a perfect time to spice up a dish to help me with my feared immune deficiency with spices except that my Spanish friends really like this dish so I have to tone it way the hell down as far as the hot seasoning goes.

Sopa de Tortillas

for the stock
Chicken carcasses (They sell these at the supermarkets here for 1€)
2-3 onions (with skin)
2 garlic gloves (with skin)
Carrots
Celery
5-6 whole black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
A few drops of olive oil

Just throw all of these in a large stew pot with water, simmer for 1-2 hours, and strain.

for the soup
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 onion
10-15 corn tortillas
1 can of sweet corn (optional)
Cilantro

Cut the chicken into small pieces. Chop the vegetables and sauté them with the chicken until browned. You can also grill the chicken first and then cut it up. Chop up the tortillas and add to the simmering stock. Liquefy the tortillas with a hand mixer. The mixture shouldn’t be too thick as it will get even thicker as it cooks. You don’t want to turn it into a paste. When the liquefied mixture is simmering you can add the chicken and vegetables and cilantro. Garnish the soup with diced avocado and a couple of corn tortilla chips.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Boredom/Hunger

The words for “boredom” and “hunger” are the same in Spanish. OK, that is not true. It is true that my own body cannot distinguish between boredom and hunger so I usually eat or cook if I am bored. I spend a good portion of every day foraging around my little corner of Spain for good things to eat. I have become quite an expert on the bakeries in my neighborhood of Ruzafa. I can ride past a bakery at full speed on my bicycle, look in the window, and tell you whether or not the bread they sell is worth buying.

I am also on the look out for new cooking utensils. I am not able to do the drive-by appraisals of these stores as I do with the bakeries as the joints that sell kitchen wares don’t have much in plain view from the street. I already have a very well stocked kitchen but there’s always some new gadget that I come across that I can’t seem to be able to live without once I figure out what it is for. I am equal parts “old school” and “gimmicky” when it comes to kitchen gear.

I love my clay baking dish, or olla de barro as they are called in Spanish. I am constantly looking for new things to cook in it. Its main purpose is for the Valencian staple dish of baked rice (arroz al horno or arross al forn in Valenciano). There is more to a clay baking dish than baked rice and I’m out to discover as many recipes as possible, even if I have to make shit up. Whenever I walk into a restaurant and they have food displayed in these clay dishes my little heart skips a beat as I visualize making the same thing at home. I adapted the following recipe from something I saw somewhere.

It was a dish with chicken leg quarters baked with tomatoes; everything else in my recipe I made up. I have to say that it is one of the best things that I have invented and certainly the best thing that I have cooked for the first time.

Chicken and garbanzos

4 chicken leg quarters
16 oz can of whole Italian tomatoes
2 cups cooked garbanzos
3-4 garlic cloves
1 onion
Sal, pepper, saffron

Clean the chicken and season with salt and pepper. I shredded a couple of cloves of garlic and rubbed the paste on the chicken. In the clay baking dish (mine is about 18” in diameter) add the can of tomatoes. Squish the whole tomatoes with your hands so it makes a sort of rough sauce. Add a chopped onion to this mixture along with the saffron. I used a pre-packaged saffron and seasoning mix that they sell here in Spain. Place the chicken pieces on top of the sauce and place in a pre-heated oven (approximately 370° but I still just guess with the centigrade oven I work with). When the top side of the chicken has browned take the dish out of the oven. Add the cooked garbanzos to the dish as you turn over each piece of chicken. When the other side of chicken has browned you can take it out of the oven. I made rice to go along with it although I also bought a good loaf of bread just to cover all of my starch bases.

If I make this again I will use the frozen garbanzos that another Spanish cook recommended to me and add them at the beginning. I realize that for Americans unable to find inexpensive saffron this dish is sort of cheating. Saffron added to raodkill would make a pleasant dish. Or perhaps saffron isn't so expensive in the States these days. As low as the dollar is now, everything from Europe should be dirt cheap. If anyone in the States can comment on the price of saffron there I would be very interested.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tempest

Directed by Paul Mazursky. Starring John Cassavetes, Gena Rolands, Susan Sarandon, Vittorio Gassman, Raul Julia, and Molly Ringwald.

The first time that I saw this film was at an outdoor cinema during the first summer I lived in Greece. I doubt that it is even possible for anyone, anywhere to have a better summer than I did that year. I doubt that it would be possible to improve upon this wonderful movie, although I was beginning to think that I may have overly-romanticized this film because everything else around me that summer was so perfect. This would have been 1984 and I hadn’t seen the film again until last night.

It’s not like I didn’t try to see the film again. When I got back to the States a few years later and the whole video craze was in full bloom I looked for a copy of Tempest in every mom and pop video store in the Washington D.C. area without success. Years after this came the internet and Amazon.com. I tried to buy the film but I could only find it on VHS format and I had already abandoned that technology. I could never find it on DVD anywhere until a few weeks ago. I bought it and had it mailed to my brother’s home in Chicago and he relayed it to me here in Spain. Even Homer’s Odyssey only took ten years.

As I said, I saw the movie at a little outdoor theater in a southern suburb of Athens called Glyfada which, although attached to the sprawl of the capital, has more of a beach town feel to it than big city. These little theaters were rather impromptu affairs that looked like someone had just set out a few chairs in their back yard and invited a few friends over. All that I remember is that they seemed to specialize in movies that were filmed in Greece. This was probably why I went to see Tempest.

My date for the evening was my girlfriend at that time and she had come over to Greece to spend the summer with me. Eileen was tall, smart, athletic, fun, and beautiful. I remember that on the evening we saw this movie she was wearing a white knit dress that showed off her great legs. We had already traveled around Greece quite a bit before we saw this movie so we knew all about idyllic island playgrounds and deserted beaches. In fact, we could have been scouts for future film locations in Greece except that we wanted to keep some of these places secret.

I have praised this movie for so many years that I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t live up to the memory I had of it after seeing it so many years ago. I don’t think anyone could blame me for over-rating it considering the perfect setting for the first time I saw it. As it turns out, I’ve been a bit conservative in my praise.

It is hard for me to imagine that a movie this good could even be made in this day and age. The run time is 142 minutes which for a romantic comedy (or whatever the hell it is) is very, very rare. If these kinds of movies make it to two hours these days it’s some sort of miracle. I didn’t remember that the movie goes for almost two and a half hours but I immediately was aware of the slow and deliberate pace of the story—something not synonymous with boring. The director has a story to tell and he isn’t about to be pressured into rushing things. A more hurried pacing of the film would have defeated the purpose of why the characters had escaped to a deserted island in Greece. In fact, the story involves two islands: Manhattan and an enchanted Greek isle hidden somewhere in the crystal-clear Aegean. It’s difficult to say which one looks more beautiful in film.

As I watched this movie for only the second time in 23 years, I felt like I was watching a movie made by adults, for adults. I don’t get that feeling very often when I watch movies. Most of the time I’m lucky if the movie doesn’t insult me, although I avoid the worst of the comic book remakes and low-brow action flicks. I know that most movies are exactly made with my demographic in mind. Tempest, on the other hand, has found in me the perfect target audience.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Two Wheeled Anti-Depressant

On some days there seems to be a conspiracy to lower my spirits. The dollar drops another couple of points; my computer’s hard drive fails and wipes out more stuff than I care to even think about right now; a couple of other bad things happened, but it’s all too depressing to chronicle here. The good news is that it is sunny and warm on this November morning, like it is almost every morning here in Valencia. My head is throbbing because of my problems as I prepare for my daily bike ride.

I get dressed in my cycling get-up of mountain bike shorts, clip-in shoes, and jersey-du-jour (today it’s a Portugal national team soccer jersey). I fill my backpack water bottle, double-check that I have my house keys before I close the door behind me, take the elevator to street level, and push off for the ride. I am still fairly overwhelmed with the problems that I will have to confront eventually, but for now I have to deal with the sometimes-annoying task of picking my way through the traffic and out of Valencia on a bicycle. During this first leg of the trip, the bike trail has a lot of intersections with automobiles and pedestrians that keep me from getting up enough speed for my bicycle therapy to take its full effect.

On the first length of trail that is uninterrupted by people or cars I am able to finally stretch my legs and work into a good sprint. It isn’t long at all before my body has other more serious problems to deal with besides my quotidian worries and not-very-interesting problems that have sprung up out of nowhere. Now my body has to deal with real issues like trying to send enough oxygen to all of the vital areas and fighting massive lactic acid build-up. If my mind persists in focusing on the boring, practical problems from earlier in the morning, I just hammer down harder on the pedals until the pain forces these thoughts from my head.

Besides the physical exertion, the natural beauty of the Albufera nature area acts as a distraction from whatever the hell it was that was getting on my nerves only a half hour ago. Although we are creeping inexorably towards winter, it is sunny and warm on this afternoon and there are actually people sunbathing on the beaches along my route. I am wearing a long sleeve shirt under my jersey that I am tempted to remove except that I don’t want to slow down. It feels good to actually feel hot for a change so I leave it on.

Besides the distraction of my cardio-vascular crisis, I am also looking for food for my pet turtle. He has recently been turning his nose up at the fish that he used to eat so now I am looking for other things to add to his diet. It is really hard to think about problems you are having with your bank or your computer as you pedal along at 20 something miles per hour all the while scanning the trail for insects and other possible fodder for a pet turtle. I think to myself that this is what a seagull must be viewing as it sweeps along the shore. I catch three grasshoppers and a snail on this excursion and store them in an empty water bottle I root out of a beach trash barrel.

The turtle belongs to the other occupants of my house, but since we don’t have a dog, I have adopted him as my own. I call him El Conde de Monte Cristo because his overriding passion seems to be to escape from his plastic pan where he lives in my living room. I have made it really nice for him with lots of cool rocks to swim around and fresh plants changed regularly. One time I took him out and put him on the coffee table just so that he could see that the world outside of his pail isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He immediately darted for the side of the table and jumped off. I can’t believe that he didn’t hurt himself. Back in the pail he went.

I don’t know if this breed of turtle eats snails but I put the one I found in his tank. I figured that if he didn’t eat it then perhaps they could be pals. The snail didn’t live more than a couple of hours. I don’t know if he drowned or the turtle attacked him but the score is now: Turtle 1, Snails 0. The turtle seemed to be scared shitless of the live grasshopper I dangled in front of him. I left one of them in there just in case he changes his mind and wants to try a few bites. El Conde doesn’t seem very excited about the bottled turtle food he gets either. He does appear to be growing so I guess that he must be eating something. I think the cooler weather has just slowed his metabolism; I know that it has slowed me down.

After I have sprinkled the day’s catch around the rocks that make up the little turtle’s Chateau d”If, I take a shower, get dressed, and walk downstairs to the café in the little plaza in front of my apartment. There isn’t a cloud in the sky and not a hint of a breeze on this afternoon, which makes it perfect for sitting at an outside table. I order a café con leche and read at least 40 pages of my book. Right now I am finishing up a translation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises which is called Fiesta in Spanish (A much more appropriate title in my opinion.). I haven’t read this book since I first read it when I was 16 or 17. It’s not a little ironic that I am rereading it all these years later in Spanish while living in Spain. I think that is what I had in mind when I read it the first time around.

The coming darkness and the church bells of San Valero tell me that it is six o’clock. The little plaza has been gradually filling up as it does every day at this time. It turns into a playpen for the little kids, a football pitch for their older siblings, and a meeting spot for the parents who fill up the rest of the tables around me. My body will feel the glow of the afternoon bike ride until I fall asleep in the evening. This euphoria seems to be my system thanking me for ending the punishment I inflicted on it while riding. If I tried I could probably remember what it was that was bothering me earlier in the day but I have some cooking to do and some friends to meet later tonight.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Cocido Madrileño


I have now made it all around the weather dial in this particular corner of the Mediterranean and I know what lies before me in the coming months. I can still ride my bike in shorts and short sleeves during the warmest part of the sunny afternoons, but a jacket is now required in the late afternoon and evening dress codes. My new apartment has heat, unlike last year’s model, although I haven’t needed to turn it on just yet. I do close the windows when the afternoon sun slips around the side of my building. The sun only seems to inhabit a few streets in the south-by-southwest corner of the city. It drops below the buildings somewhere more south than west this time of year and avoids you like someone who owes you money. Each day it leaves work earlier and earlier and wakes up less vigorously. Winter is coming it would seem, although we don’t really get much of one here in Valencia.

The Spanish, who are so quick to undress almost completely during the hot summer months, will just as quickly resort to their winter wardrobes at the first hint of cooler temperatures. While foreign tourists are still at the beaches trying to milk a few more days of tanning, the locals are bundled up in heavy parkas and complaining about the cold. I don’t want to be the one to tell them that the winters here shouldn’t even qualify as winters. They are more like a six week chilly period between fall and spring, more just dates on the calendar than a meteorological event. I pity any Valencianos who are forced to endure a real winter somewhere.

Along with the change in clothing there is also a marked contrast in what people cook during the winter months. Grilling and cool salads are replaced with baked goods and pots requiring several hours on top on the stove. Longer cooking times also seem a lot more appropriate during the colder months. The processes of cooking are as important as the end product when people are trying to keep warm.

Cocido Madrileño is a hearty meat stew with vegetables and garbanzo beans that, while generally attributed to the capital city, is a traditional winter dish throughout Spain. Like almost every other dish here, you will find as many different recipes for it as there are people cooking it. A few things about this dish seem to be standard: the meats and the garbanzos. Everything else is up to personal interpretation. The meat part of the dish includes pork bones, a boiling hen, bacon, chorizo, and morcilla (blood sausage). I can’t believe that I have yet to make a foray into this traditional dish from Madrid since I am such a fan of beans and stews. I think that I have shied away from it because I have had so many conflicting opinions on just how I should go about putting this dish together.

It’s not only the recipes that vary but also just how to go about eating the dish once you have finished cooking. Some versions call for the broth to be set aside and mixed with pasta noodles. Some people cook the vegetables (cabbage, potatoes, carrots, celery) separately along with the chorizo so that they don’t have the life cooked out of them in the stew pot. This will reduce the flavor of the broth so maybe you should add vegetables to both pots. Instead of avoiding this dish because of all of the varying recipes, I will just try to adapt as many different ideas as I can into forging my own variation. It’s not like you can go very wrong with a dish of garbanzos, a couple kilos of various types of meat, and vegetables.

The easiest thing to do, especially for the beginners, is to buy the pre-packaged meat and vegetables called Arreglo de Cocido. The meat package comes with a bit of pork rib, bone, pork tenderloin on the bone, beef, bacon, and chicken. The vegetables come with celery, carrots, beets, leeks, and something called chirivia which I can’t identify or find in a dictionary. I have decided to go for the easy method and just throw all of this into a pot with the garbanzos that I have pre-soaked. The only other ingredient I have added was water, bay leaves, salt, and pepper.

The garbanzo beans take forever to cook, even after I pre-boiled and soaked them. After almost two hours of simmering I added some peeled pieces of potato to the pot and seasoned it with saffron.

I don’t even know what cocido is supposed to taste like since I have never had it before. It is something that you won’t find in most restaurants here; I have never seen it on a menu. It is one of those traditional dishes that are made almost exclusively at home. It isn’t a particularly sophisticated dish but I’m sure there are a lot of subtleties that have escaped me on this first attempt.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Auto-Entertainment

Every Monday there is a street market in my hood where a caravan of little booths move in and sell every sort of clothing item you can imagine. It is mostly about clothes but there are booths selling other kinds of merchandise. It’s kind of like the mall coming to your neighborhood. The caravan moves around the city every day of the week so each neighborhood can have a crack at their stuff.

They start setting up early in the morning right below my window. The day begins with the police towing any vehicle not heeding the warnings about the parking rules for Mondays. The sounds made by the towing is soon replaced by that of metal against metal as the nomad businessmen assemble their booths and get their products on display. After that mostly what you hear until they close down at around 2 p.m. is the sound of vendors barking out their prices, “Un euro, un euro, todo un euro!” I like the life it injects into the neighborhood every Monday—not that this lively neighborhood really needs any more energy.

There are several of these booths that I call the Underwear Huts which sell nothing but every sort of underwear imaginable. They hang some of their product up on lines to show off what they have. One of these Underwear Huts had an absolutely enormous pair of tightie whities on display. They must have had a 60 inch waist, of whatever the hell that is in the metric system. I didn’t think they had such fat people in the metric system. Remember Pee Wee Herman’s wonderful gag using the giant underpants? You could easily use these tightie whities as a hammock. I was tempted to buy them just to hang up with my wash to freak other people out. Maybe I could have magic-markered in a huge skid mark just for added freak-out effect.

I have a terribly maladjusted inner dialogue going on but I keep myself laughing. Someone has to make me laugh. I’m not quite articulate enough in Spanish to get as many laughs from people as I would like so I am forced to crack myself up as often as possible, usually in ways not really fit for print.

Mostly this auto-entertainment takes the form of imagined conversations and shouted insults at macho Spanish drivers. I will see some kid flying down the street on his moped going 70 mph, in a tucked position to lower his wind resistance to juice more speed from his 20 hp mini bike, and I will scream out, “You call yourself a man? How about giving that thing a little gas?” I least I shout it out in my mind. It’s not like he could hear me anyway since most of the mopeds here are positively deafening. Short of stretching a piece of piano wire neck-high across the street, this is the only way that I can keep my sanity in the sea of obnoxiously loud and speeding mopeds.

The other day I was cycling along the bike path at the beach. There is a section that I call La Cala de los Viejos, Gordos Nudistas (The Old, Fat Nudists’ Cove) that seems to be the gay cruising beach. If you are gay and have an absolutely repulsive body, this is the place for you. It can be truly frightful at times and is, unfortunately, unavoidable if you take the bike path. When I pedaled past I saw a midget standing on a dune. Thank God he wasn’t nude, at least not yet. I don’t need to feel penile-ly inferior to a dude who I have been taller than since I was in fourth grade. I was struck with the thought, “A gay midget, what will they think of next?” I had just assumed that with all of the midget porn being produced, they had conscripted and converted even the homosexual midgets to fill the ranks of this burgeoning industry. Way to fight the power, my man. I would have given him a fist-in-the-air, black power salute but the trail gets a bit tricky here and I needed both hands on the bars.

It was uplifting to me to think that this young man had escaped the tentacles of the worldwide midget porn cartels and was roaming free here at the La Cala de los Viejos, Gordos Nudistas. And then I thought to myself, “If there is such a thing as gay midget porn, I swear to fucking God that I want to go to my grave not knowing about it.” I guess you could say that I am a “little homophobic.” Perhaps I should have written that "little homo" phobic? I struck the thought from my head by imagining myself on a pristine stretch of deserted beach, sipping a tropical punch, and swinging in a hammock made out of a pair of gigantic underpants.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Price of Conservation

The Spanish are frugal when it comes to energy consumption. It’s not because they are a country of eco-hippies; it’s because most energy here is rather expensive and they would rather spend their money on ham and wine than put it into their gas tanks or send it off to the electric company. Maybe instead of spending their money on energy they choose to take another day off and not even earn the money in the first place. What is more important in life: A couple of tanks of gas or a day off with family and friends? Assuming that you don’t work for the oil industry I think most people would choose to have another day of vacation.

One of the first things that you notice as an American when you visit Spain is that they all drive small cars, some of them are really small. Some of them look more like children’s toys, like something that could run on a couple of D cell batteries. If you wonder why they drive these cars, your questions will be answered the first time you go to fill up. Gasoline in Spain costs about twice what most people in the United States pay. If wine in Spain was as expensive as gasoline, I’d have to find a new hobby, and the new hobby certainly wouldn’t involve an automobile.

As good as public transportation is here, I’m surprised that so many people choose to even own a car in the first place. Besides high fuel prices, there is no place to park and traffic is nightmarish during most of the peaks hours. I think it must be a sort of a status thing where people feel like they deserve to drive around town because they make enough to own a car. I have never been able to understand people’s fascination with the automobile. I feel that cars were the biggest mistake in the course of human history.

Hot water is a bit of a precious commodity here as well. When I lived in Greece many years ago I used to follow the Greek custom of only turning on my water heater before I was going to take a shower or do the dishes and then turning it off promptly when I had finished. Most people here have a gas hot water heater that heats the water directly when you turn on the spigot instead of storing hot water in a huge reservoir. These hot water heaters are also about the size of a small suitcase, an important consideration when you live in an apartment and space is valuable.

Clothes dryers are almost unheard of here. Valencia has nice weather with something like 300 days of sunshine a year so hang drying clothes is almost never a problem. During the summer and the months attached to it on either side of the calendar year, clothes are dry in a few hours when left on a line either on your roof or the balcony. If I have the choice I will never use a dryer again, not unless they make one as energy efficient as the sun. This also adds a lot to the lifespan of your clothes.

People also use electricity pretty sparingly. Air conditioning is not nearly as common here but it is becoming more so because it gets really, really hot in the dogs days of summer. I lived without it my first summer here and I made it through without much complaint. I used a fan for sleeping but during the day I really don’t mind the heat. The apartments all have wonderfully cool marble or parquet floors that are the next best thing to air conditioning. My apartment didn’t have heat which meant that I had to suffer for about five weeks during the chilliest part of the winter. If my apartment had a clothes dryer I would have crawled into it and stayed there for almost all of January. Going without heat is asking a bit much of a man in man’s quest to be more environmentally conscious.

There are lots of lights on timers which shut off after a set time. You find these in the hallways of apartment buildings and in some public restrooms. Some of the timers are so comically short that I wonder whether or not I may be playing a part in some sort of funny home video pranks. Like the timers in these incredibly small bathrooms that go off after you are nowhere near ready for them to go off. You don’t know whether to stay the course or try to turn around and grope around for the switch. No matter what, it gets about as messy as a Stevie Wonder doing a drive-by shooting. They say that when you lose one of your senses your other senses become more acute. In this case, it’s usually your sense of embarrassment. Once again, I don’t think that we need to take this sort of drastic measure to save the planet.

So the Spanish are more conscious of the energy they consume. This has nothing to do with the fact that they are more concerned with the environment; it is a matter of simple economics. They use less energy because it is more expensive than it is for Americans.