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Friday, January 25, 2008

Mi Barrio por la Ventana

Replace the cat on the sill with my pet turtle and replace the Eiffel Tower with the Ruzafa Market and you have my version of Marc Chagall’s, Paris par la Fenêtre (Paris through the window). My living room has about forty square meters of ceiling-to-floor windows that look over the street below my apartment in the heart of this neighborhood. It’s like having an enormous television screen along an entire wall. No matter what time I tune in, there is always something good to watch.

The street below is busy and well-traveled but it isn’t noisy. Cars and even motorbikes have their velocities choked by all of the double parkers in front of the market. What should be a two lane street is reduced to a single thoroughfare that is often blocked by someone stopping to drop off/pick up a passenger or two. There is also a bus stop on either end of the street which further slows down traffic to not much faster than a brisk walk. One look at the snail’s pace on this road and you wonder why anyone would bother driving a car in Valencia.

Most of the traffic under my window is on foot. The market opens way too early for me to know the exact time and closes at around 2:30 every afternoon, Monday through Saturday. You see folks with shopping carts, baby strollers, dogs, or a combination of these three plying along the broad sidewalks. Kids on their way to and from school, people going to work, old folks just out for a chat, street vendors, beggars, musicians, mimes (We have a one legged mime who hangs out on the corner!); if you are out to observe the tidal flows of Spanish street life, you couldn’t find a better lookout post than my living room. It’s a wonder I ever bother to leave the house with a view like this.

Directly below me there is a sidewalk flower shop. Across the street are two lottery offices, one with an annoyingly constant dirge spoken out through a pair of tinny loudspeakers. Even when I am right outside the lottery shop I can’t understand a word that is being said through the loudspeaker. For all I know the lotto joint could be cautioning us of an imminent attack or warning us all about a tornado. I don’t know why they have the loudspeaker on all day; people are going to buy lottery tickets even if the speaker tells them not to. Addictions sell themselves.

I can see four cafés from my house—not including the one directly inside the market or the one just around the corner. I stop in at one of them almost every day for what I call “a professional cup of coffee.” My first cup in the morning I make myself and enjoy the great view from my couch.

Just about everything that I need in the world can be obtained within spitting distance of where I am sitting as I write these words. My turtle, the Count of Monte Cristo, seems to enjoy the view from up here as well. He climbs on to the top of a rock in his little pond and looks to be analyzing the life on the street below. There are other cool neighborhoods to explore, I guess, but I like mine. I need to break out of my little pond if only to make my bike rides a little more interesting.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

There's No Place Like Babel

There’s No Place Like Babel

If Spain is becoming a country of immigrants then my barrio is the epicenter of this phenomena. Ruzafa is home to a dizzying array of languages and cultures. Pakistanis, Rumanians, Russians, Chinese, Sub-Saharan Africans, Arabs, and at least one American all call this little corner of Valencia our home—not to mention the Spanish-speaking Latin American immigrants. The semi-official language of Ruzafa seems to be heavily-accented Spanish. You know things are a bit out of hand when people hear me speak Spanish and think I’m a native. You can file that under “the blind leading the blind.”

There is a café that I frequent in my neighborhood that is run by a Chinese family. The father speaks barely a word of Spanish while the mother knows enough to take orders from the patrons. They have a teenage son who speaks great Spanish although he seems to prefer Chinese movies and music from what he has on his laptop computer. The customers come from everywhere and it isn’t uncommon to hear at least three different languages being spoken besides pidgin Spanish. To add to this cultural hodge-podge, the television is often tuned to Canal Nou, the local station in Valenciano. I wonder if the parents can even tell the difference between Spanish and Valenciano.

If you have ever studied a non Indo-European language you may have some idea of the difficulties Chinese people have trying to learn Spanish. Imagine having absolutely no cognates, not to mention a different writing system. Now imagine that your new home has two official languages and that where you live is full to the rafters with trash like me who speak broken Spanish and little to no Valenciano. This is something to think about the next time anyone criticizes immigrants for not learning the language of the host country.

The English-speaking island in the immigrant sea of Ruzafa is very small indeed. In fact, it consists of only a few barstools in the English pub called Sinpy Jo’s. The pub is owned by two brothers from London by way of Scotland. The name of the pub is an Anglicized twist on the Spanish Sin Pijos, or something without affectations or airs. I would say that this place is extremely convivial except that I’m afraid that I’d get beat up for saying the word “convivial.” Hell, I'd beat me up for saying it. Even in this Gibraltar I end up speaking Spanish most of the time. I try to avoid speaking English at all costs otherwise I just get confused when I return to Spanish. I am also making a very half-hearted attempt at learning Valenciano. Perhaps when I feel a bit more erudite in Spanish I can conscientiously put more effort into the local lingo.

I can’t speak for any of the other immigrants in my neighborhood but my goal is to assimilate as quickly as possible. Learning the language is the arduous and most time-consuming aspect of integration. Adopting the Spanish lifestyle is something that most of the immigrants in my neighborhood seem to have picked up on fairly quickly. That's the really easy part.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Weather Report

Weather Report

I have lived in the tropics and sub-tropics in other stages of my life, and this is my second time I have been perched on the rim of the Mediterranean. I have never really courted good weather; it has sometimes just been part of the package. The fact that I spent eight years living in Seattle will attest to the fact that I am not afraid of bad weather (although I happen to think that Seattle has beautiful weather, but I’m in the minority). I certainly didn’t come to Valencia for the weather, but I not about to complain about all of the sunshine. Valencia seems to bask in an almost perpetual springtime.

By the time I pulled up stakes in Florida for my move to Seattle I was absolutely sick of the heat and sunshine in the sunshine state. I would miss the warm ocean when I left but the constant brightness just wasn’t really congruent with my nature. I think that my nature has had to change along with learning a new language. My gloomy, introspective, northern perspective has had to do an abrupt about-face here in sunny Spain. The bright Spanish disposition is further magnified by the waters of the Mediterranean. A northerner with an overcast personality doesn’t stand a chance here in this bright corner of the great middle sea.

As I look out one side of my window this morning I can see a small patch of sky above the next door apartment buildings. If I were looking for this color in the paint store I would probably look for something called “really absurdly blue sky blue” or something like that. If I were to meet a person as ridiculously cheerful as this morning sky I would assume that they were on some sort of medication. It is the middle of winter, after all. The sky has no business being this bright and joyful, especially this early in the morning. I haven’t even finished my coffee and it’s like I am being pulled outside by brute force. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my friends would bang on the door for me to come out and play baseball when what I really wanted was to watch cartoons. You can’t stay inside and watch cartoons here in Spain; the sun won’t let you.

The sunshine has had a huge influence on the Spanish way of life, a country known for its vida callejera, or street life. People here always prefer to be outside rather than inside. Even on those rare days that are cold and wet folks like to sit outside in the cafés or stand at the walk-up coffee windows—it’s in their blood. On these unseasonably warm and sunny days of winter you really have to fight the crowds to find a place to sit in the sun—just as my little pet turtle likes to pull himself out of his pond and sun himself on the rocks.

I know exactly how my turtle feels. I, too, feel sluggish when it is cold and wet. Instead of staying inside and watching cartoons on blustery days, he just stays at the bottom of his little pond underneath a big plastic bug. On days like today he will be splashing around as soon as the light hits his little world. Me too.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Stately Leftbanker Manor

Bike Ride to Sagunto

I realized that this great old masia has been abandoned for some time. The gate was opened so I went in to look around. It was kind of creepy, complete with banging shutter on the top floor. I was only worried about dogs (there are twin dog houses right at the top of the walkway to the front porch). I would have loved to have seen this place in its full bloom. It has a swimming pool and a garden with orange, lemon, and banana trees. The view from the upstairs patio is hard to beat. I don't think I could live here, however. I'm too much of a city person and would miss everything about my neighborhood.

Friday, January 11, 2008

There But for the Grace of God, Skate I

Just about all of us have had our moments of self-doubt when we question the course our lives have taken. Let’s face it, what teenager doesn’t believe that he/she will one day be rich and famous? Most of the time we fall short of our naïve and unrealistic goals we set for ourselves back in adolescence. I think we should all take great comfort in the fact that at least we didn’t overdose on drugs in a cheap San Fernando Valley hotel room at the age of 40 while performing as a member of the Ice Capades, like Christopher Bowman. At least we won’t be remembered as the bad boy of figure skating. If the words “figure skating” are found anywhere on your obituary, you’d better pray there is no afterlife because you are going to get beat up as soon as you check in. Double down on that for “ice dancing.”

Besides swelling up my self-esteem, I've also learned a valuable lesson from Bowman’s tragic demise: never die in a cheap hotel room—for any fucking reason. I don’t care if you threw yourself on a grenade to save a bunch of children; dying in a cheap hotel room is going to leave a stink on your good name no matter what—even if you don’t have a good name. Just throw one of the kiddies on the grenade instead. In fact, you’d better throw a couple of kids on the grenade because children are small and can’t absorb shrapnel like adults. What a bunch of kids are doing in your cheap hotel room is the subject for another essay.

If you're staying in a really nice hotel then feel free to participate in all of the high-risk activities you want: Overdose on drugs, cook up a batch of meth, or try to do some sort of Cirque du Soleil sex act. Put a rodent up your butt if for no other reason than to give the guys doing the autopsy something to talk about. If rich people do it, it’s called eccentric, but if you're poor it’s just creepy. If you're on a budget and are staying in a crappy hotel, don’t fucking die, man. It’s just too tacky. You have to be extremely careful if you are staying in a fleabag motel. Staying in shitty hotels is sort of like masturbation: Everyone does it, just don’t get caught.

There may actually be some benefits in being a member of the Ice Capades, but I’m not going to sit around and try to think of any. If you are down on your luck, or if you are just itching to perform in an ice skating show, do it under an assumed name and try not to croak while you are in their employ. Try to think about how your poor family will be embarrassed.

I think overdosing on drugs is pretty gross but if that’s how you want to check out, I won’t talk you out of it. A lot of supposedly cool people died that way. Just do your reputation a favor and spring for a decent room for once in your life.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Changing Cafés

Changing Cafés

I used to go to the Uptown Espresso in Seattle’s Uptown/Lower Queen Anne neighborhood. I lived a couple of blocks away so I logged a lot of hours there. I liked the fact that the employees played whatever music they wanted. Even if I didn’t really care for the music, I liked the fact that it reflected the tastes of a real human being. Sometimes I will actually like an individual song in some canned music play lists, but in the aggregate you can almost hear the people sitting around a board room trying to come up with songs that will make people consume faster. I wrote about corporate music in an essay called “The Huey Lewis Factor.” I think the title says it all so there’s no need to actually read the essay.

I thought a lot about background music while sitting in Uptown Espresso. Certainly no one could accuse them of trying to exploit music for profit, or use it as some sort of marketing strategy, not when you are listening to an hour and a half set, commercial free, of Black Sabbath at 7 a.m., thanks to the whims of the 18 year old barista/rock drummer. I wish that every retail business didn’t feel the need to pipe in muzac during business hours. Silence is definitely preferable to canned/corporate play lists.

This particular Uptown also had a good bike rack right out in front that doubled as a seating area when there was fine weather and a big crowd. It also made a great hitching post for those local Seattleites lucky enough to own a dog or two.

My new café doesn’t have wireless access or any sort of music, unless you count the bells of the 15th century church a few steps across the plaza. For weddings and other special occasions they ring every bell in the tower. It’s almost enough racket to shake your café con leche right off the table.

I think that cafes fill a very fundamental human need to share space. Just being in the same place with others, even if you aren’t talking, is a very necessary form of human communication.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Cure for the Common Cold

Careful on the left: Cyclist's snot rocket. The oldest trick in the book.

I wrote about this back in August of 2002 and I stand behind the claim. I have not had a cold or the flu in all this time and I was free of these scourges for many years prior to that date. I developed my technique completely on my own but have come upon scientific studies that back up my ideas. I recently learned that one aspect of my health system is part of a millennia-old Indian yogic tradition. The other part of my system could possibly have been thought up by hippies as well but I haven’t seen anything in print. I don’t really care who gets the credit for this; all I can say is that I haven’t had a cold or flu symptom that has persisted more than 48 hours in something like 12 years. You can either believe that and follow my advice or keep spending more on Kleenex and over-the-counter bullshit remedies than I do on Spanish wine (perhaps wine is another of my secrets?).

The first part of my system is called “nasal irrigation” in the article explaining the yoga approach. My own technique is a bit more aggressive and has been called “water boarding” by a friend. While showering simply tilt back your head and spray warm water into your nose and blow it our forcefully in the “Italian handkerchief” fashion. This can also be called a Greek fisherman’s handkerchief. I have also learned that it is called a Spanish cyclist’s handkerchief which presents yet another danger of riding in the peleton here in Valencia. Perhaps in our more tolerant society we can leave out all of the national pride associated with this nose-cleaning technique and call it by the more politically-correct name of “snot rocket.”

In the yogi tradition they use a little teapot to cleanse the nasal passages but I think that a shower nozzle does a better job. Think about it. Say you are in your garage changing the oil in your truck when you spill a half a quart on the floor. Are you going to go into the house and get a cute little ceramic teapot filled with warm water to clean up the mess? Hell no you’re not; you’re going to get out the power sprayer and blast that garage floor to within an inch of its life. Your nasal passages are at least as disgusting as that garage floor but if you want to fork over your hard-earned money to "The Man" and use the little teapot thing, go right ahead.

I have seen scientific research that suggests that viruses enter the body through the mucus membranes in the nasal passages but they usually require up to 24 hours to enter the system. This is why you need to do this every day.

I don’t know if the yoga hippies are going to back me up on the second part of my cold and flu prevention. It is another thing I came upon by my own experience and observation. If you do come down with cold or flu symptoms—and I know immediately upon waking up in the morning if I am coming down with something—you need to get yourself into a steam bath or sauna. I prefer to use a steam bath as they tend to be hotter. A steam bath or sauna mimics the body’s response to cold/flu symptoms which is a fever. You are basically just boosting your body’s defense mechanism. When I have the occasional cold/flu symptom it is almost always because I missed a day of water boarding in the shower. After two days of the steam bath/sauna I am back in fine health.

Lastly, remember: If you pick it, it will never heal. I learned that at Harvard Medical School before dropping out because school was interfering with my TV watching schedule. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything I have said here thus far but it’s just something that I like to say completely out of the blue. Go ahead and try it some time. I guarantee that it will get a laugh. If not a laugh then at least a very strange look which is almost better in my book.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

At the Movies

At the Movies

I went to the movies last night, and when I say movies I must emphasize the plural; it was an honest-to-goodness double feature. I can’t remember ever going to a double feature except perhaps at a drive-in theater about a million years ago. This particular theater is in my neighborhood of Ruzafa and I had walked by it a number of times but had yet to actually walk inside. I had kept an eye on the billboard outside to see if there were any films I might want to take in. I noticed that there were always two films showing and the price was usually 3€. This is considerably less than what they charge at the downtown cinemas in Valencia. When I was told that this price was for both movies I was skeptical to the point of forcing the person to inquire at the ticket booth when we walked by yesterday. Sure enough, it was 3€ for a double feature.

The first feature was a joint Spanish/Ecuador production called Qué Tan Lejos (How Much Further) which turned out to be a rather pleasant on-the-road movie that looked like a travel advertisement for the country. Two women who don’t know each other meet on a bus ride from Quito on their way to south to the town of Cuenca. One of the women is Spanish, from Barcelona, and the other is a young Ecuadorian. Without caricaturizing the women, even I could immediately pick up on the huge cultural differences between the two native Spanish speakers.

The Spanish woman—or Catalana seeing how she was from Barcelona—was almost comically ebullient and effusive, just like the woman sitting beside me.

I think that Spanish people see Latin America as their own precious gem to be savored and appreciated. Latin Americans see the Spanish as rich Europeans. At one point another woman on the bus calls the Spanish girl a “gringa” which got a laugh from everyone in the theater. What I found most interesting about the film was hearing the two very different languages, Spanish and the Spanish spoken in Ecuador, spoken side by side. After a year here in Spain I could really pick up not only on the accents but on the differences in the vocabulary.

In between the two features there was about a ten minute intermission. I knew that the time period required to watch two movies was a bit long for Spaniards to pass without some sort of meal. I was ordered to pack a small sandwich and a bottle of water because there isn’t much at this theater in the way of snacks—only a vending machine with candy and soft drinks. With the lights on during the break I noticed that just about everyone else had packed in supplies and I instantly became envious when I noticed the couple in front of us drinking beers. I joked that there was a group in front of us who had brought in an entire paella. In terms of humor I couldn’t think of anything more cumbersome and unwieldy to eat in a movie theater than paella.

The second feature was a pretty dumb American movie dubbed into Spanish, something I wouldn’t dream of sitting through in English. In Spanish I can file junk like this under “education.” I was able to follow every word of the movie even when I was on the verge of nodding off to sleep.