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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Valenciano Tomatoes

Valenciano Tomatoes

These are the other local tomatoes, called Valenciano.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

An Ode to Tomatoes

You can have your fancy auto-mo-biles and your shiny jewelry, this time of the year I am happy with little more than tomatoes. Valencia has their own variety that are about as good as tomatoes get. July and August are the best months for these Valencia tomatoes and I buy them compulsively from just about every vegetable stand that I pass during the day—and I pass quite a few. It's too hot to cook (although I still cook a lot) so something as simple as a sliced tomato is about all you need. Maybe a pinch of salt, a couple drops of oil if you must, a leaf or two of basil if you have it, and vinegar once in a while just for a change.

These aren't the hothouse variety of tomatoes that you find all year long in most U.S. super markets, or the uninspired tomatoes you find here in the winter. These are right off the vine and still ripening as you bring them home from the market. I had a hothouse tomato lying around a couple of weeks ago, a remnant from those harsher times when the good ones are still in the ground. I had it sitting in my kitchen for a few weeks and it just sat their patiently, not changing color and not getting a bit riper with age. I finally put it out of its misery by chopping it up and throwing it into a soup.

These summer Valenciano tomatoes are very impatient. You only have a window of about three days to eat them before they ripen into mush. They are so good that I don't like to use them for anything but serving uncooked and unprepared. It's almost a waste to make gazpacho out of such beautiful pieces of fruit. I eat them alone or in a Greek salad with cucumber, onion, and green peppers. I serve tomatoes as the base with pasta salads. Basically, I use any excuse that I can find.

My favorites are called raf tomatoes and they are odd-shaped things with the meat separated into different lobes. I have my own little trick for serving them. I use an apple corer to remove the stem base and I push the corer all the way through the tomato. This whole center of the raf is kind of difficult to deal with so using an apple corer works really well. Next I cut it in half from the top. After this you can sit the half on its side and slice the lobes individually.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

La Corrida de Toros

Among the people I talk to here, I've met very few Spanish who claim to be aficionados (followers or fans) of the corrida. To say that it isn't popular among the young people of Spain is a huge understatement. Most young people here seem to be, for the most part, against the corrida, although most won't go so far as to actively protest against it. I did see about 30 people in front of the plaza de toros before a corrida the other night. If people here want to do away with the corrida, they'll have to do it without any help from me.

I live only about three blocks from Valencia's plaza de toros, a wonderful neoclassical structure built between 1850 and 1860 and designed by Sebastian Monleon based on the Roman amphitheater of Flavio Marcel. It is every bit as interesting on the inside as on the outside, and the outside (as you can see from the pictures on the link) is spectacular. I have been to five corrida de toros (bullfight is the atrocious translation which I won't use here) since I moved here last year. I have also seen a few dozen others on television, back when they were broadcast on regular TV. Now the corrida is only carried on the pay channels. I have also witnessed a few bull festivals in local villages in the community of Valencia.

I hadn't really made up my mind on the event until I went this past week and witnessed one of the more thrilling displays you'll ever see. It wasn't just what was going on in the ring that impressed me, but everything going on inside the plaza de toros. Let's just say that it was one of those nights when everything went perfectly. I love to smoke a big, fat cigar and walk all around the structure, from top to bottom. I love the view of the city from the outer galleries. I like to watch as the bulls are removed from the ring and taken directly to the butchers. It's funny to watch as very young kids—boys and girls—watch in complete fascination as the bulls are cut up. “Look, Alejandra, that's where meat comes from!” their parent tell them.

I love how they will let you bring in whatever you want. None of this, “No outside food” bullshit at the corrida. People bring in coolers of beer, sandwiches, wine bags, and bottles of champagne to celebrate the evening.

Some people in Spain say that the days of the corrida are numbered, that it will slide into the past. When and if that happens Spain will become a bit more like every other country in the world and a little less idiosyncratic. I wouldn't like to see that happen. I never try to defend the corrida when I discuss it with Spanish people, and I feel as an outsider I shouldn't criticize it either (not that I would). I just think that it is something that Spaniards will work out for themselves. I will enjoy the corrida while it lasts.

Saturday, July 19, 2008



I used to measure my time in Spain by my haircuts. I still remember my first one, it seemed like such an event, a milestone. Now there have been enough that I have stopped counting. I have been getting the best haircuts of my life since I started going to my new guy here in my neighborhood of Ruzafa. My barber here seems to have that innate sense of all the people who have cut my hair in my life of knowing when I feel like talking and when I just need to get a trim and head out. I suppose this is a talent you learn along with getting a feel for how a person's hair lies on their head.

During my last haircut we got on to the subject of the corrida. With everyone I talk to I usually get around to asking them how they feel about this aspect of Spanish culture. I have met only one person so far who claims to be an aficionado, or fan, of bullfighting (I will say this again, “bullfighting” is a terrible translation for “corrida” which literally means “running”). Even this guy isn't a huge fan but he does go on occasion. Most young kids are opposed to the corida for one reason or another. My barber started off by saying that he didn't really care for it. Enrique looks to be about 60 years old or so. When he learned that I wasn't really a fan myself he sort of loosened up and told me what he really thought about it.

Most of the Spaniards I have questioned about the corrida have told me that they aren't interested in it. I have had quite a few people tell me that they find it objectionable on grounds of cruelty. Enrique was opposed to the spectacle because he felt it held Spain back. He compared it to Spain's monarchy in that both are relics of Spain's medieval past. This was one of the more eloquent arguments against bullfighting that I have heard thus far. As I suspected from his opinions, Enrique is a committed socialist, a dirty word for most Americans. However, I find that socialism here in Spain is a more democratic institution than what we have going on in any American political party. I think there is a lesson in this somewhere, or a metaphor, something.

I was looking for an egg timer at the little mini-Wal-Mart place across the street from where I live. This is one of the few that isn't owned by a Chinese family. I was pulling the timer out of the little plastic box it was in to test the loudness of the alarm. I often put something on the fire and then completely forget about it, only to reenter the kitchen much later to find some sort of disaster where there once was a pot boiling on the stove. As I was taking it out of the box the Spanish woman behind the counter said something to me and walked over. I immediately assumed that she was going to tell me that you aren't allowed to remove items from boxes, et cetera, etc. I stopped going to one of the Chinese-owned stores because I was sick of the impervious old woman who sits in a chair in the middle of the store like some sort of scarecrow scolding the customers for squeezing the Charmin®, if that old reference makes sense to anyone else besides me.

The timer was only 2€ so I sort of snapped at the woman and said I was going to buy it. She basically told me not to be a dick and that she was merely trying to tell me how the timer worked which she did. I apologized and told her that I stopped going to the other Chinese-owned store because I was sick of being barked at every time I examined a piece of the merchandise. She sensed that I was being a little bigoted and told me that people have the right to act any way they want, even if we don't happen to agree with it or like it. Now I felt bad for snapping at her and being a bigot.

I do think that there is a considerable cultural divide between what I feel is an acceptable level of customer service and what I usually find in the Chinese businesses here in Spain, but I think this is mostly due to the fact that I am an American. Our ideas about service are considerably different that those of the Spanish. In both the conversation with my barber and my incident in the variety store, I am thankful that my level of Spanish is such that I can enter into these kind of off-hand discussions. It's something you take completely for granted when you living inside you native language. Until not very long ago, I always felt like I was missing out on a lot of what was going on around me because of the language barrier, or whatever you want to call it. That barrier still exists for my, especially when I am the lone ex-pat in a group of Spanish people. One-on-one I usually understand everything but all bets are off in a group of people who are using a lot of slang, talking extremely fast, and using all sorts of linguistic shortcuts. All that I can do is keep studying and keep listening.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Urban Living and the Environment

At first glance, many Americans would view the lifestyle of the average Spaniard as rather austere: living spaces are small compared to those of Americans who own single-family homes; energy use is stingy in the extreme; most Spanish people live in dense, urban environments; people use public transportation, bicycles, or walk to effect most of their daily obligations; automobiles are small, sometimes almost comically so; and Spain hasn't reached anywhere near America's obsession for material possessions. After quickly adapting to the Spanish lifestyle I have to say that life here is not any harder or less convenient than in America.

Granted, I already lived in a manner quite close to that of Spanish city dwellers back when I was a resident of Seattle. I lived in a dense urban city, in a small apartment, drove a small car, etc. I have become quite accustomed to life here and living any other way now would seem odd. I can't imagine ever using a clothes dryer again, at least not when there is anything like a strong sun shining. If at all possible I prefer to ride a bike to get around, my next choice is walking, followed by mass transit. Cars aren't even on my list.

With sharp increases in the cost of fuel, Americans are going to have to accept drastic changes in the lifestyle people have taken for granted since the end of WWII when the automobile lead people out of the cities and into the suburbs. After only a few months of record prices for gasoline, housing prices in the suburbs are falling and city apartments are gaining in value as more and more people are choosing to live closer to work and other amenities. People are beginning to realize that a ten mile drive—one way—just to rent a video is an absurdity that fewer and fewer Americans can afford.

The problem is that there are many areas in America that don't offer any sort of dense urban center toward which people can migrate. Cities like Dallas, Phoenix, Indianapolis, and Atlanta—to name just a few—have been built around the model of sprawl and suburbia. Most people in these areas live in single family homes and even the apartment complexes there are spread out over many acres. This makes it almost impossible to develop a mass transit system which requires a population density of something like seven housing units per acre.

The first thing that people complain about whenever I mention the advantages to urban living is how inappropriate city life is for raising children. This is a pretty ridiculous argument and assumes that no one in the city has children. Valencia is about as family-friendly a city as you are ever going to experience. This argument against cities also assumes that the mere idea of having a family is somehow at odds with living a remotely sustainable lifestyle. No one is telling you where to raise your family, you can live in a houseboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean for all I care. I just think that gasoline prices in America are finally starting to reflect the true value of oil and many Americans who bought into the suburban lifestyle are finding it difficult to make ends meet. The once unthinkable idea of living in the city is becoming more and more attractive to Americans with families.

What I find odd about Valencia, and the same is probably true of other large Spanish cities, is that as the city grows outward, they are starting to adopt some of the characteristics of American suburbia: Shopping malls with huge parking areas, big box stores, and homes with yards. Not only are these newer residential areas less environmentally friendly than the urban centers, but they are boring and lacking in anything remotely resembling character. I have noticed that the new apartment blocks on the edge of the city are being separated by wider and wider boulevards that can accommodate many lanes of traffic in each direction. The problem is that building more lanes of traffic never reduces traffic but actually spurs even more congestion in something traffic planners call “induced traffic.” I find these newer areas of Valencia to be completely awful on a number of different levels and I can't believe anyone would voluntarily live in these there when they have so many more agreeable choices.

The funny thing about Spain is that even in the smaller towns people live much like people do here in the big cities. Most people in small towns live in apartment buildings which have businesses on the mezzanine floor. About as close as people get to single family homes are city townhouses which are mostly two story affairs, although some have three or more stories with a business on the first floor.

Instead of trying to accommodate the insatiable needs of the automobile, planners should be making roads narrower with broader sidewalks and bike paths. This has been the model in Amsterdam for over a decade. Fewer roads force people to abandon cars in what becomes the opposite of induced traffic which is “induced transit.”

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Things Every Man (and Woman) Should Know/Do/Be

I wrote on this subject once before when I came across Men's Journal magazine's list of 60 things every man should do before croaking. At least 80% of the shit on their list could be accomplished with a credit card and about two weeks out of your life. I suppose they would suggest that with the rest of your life you should go shopping for the silly clothes they hawk in their piece-of-shit magazine. Esquire published a similar list. It was Esquire's attempt at being wise and thought-provoking but it came across as fatuous, smug, and intelligence-insulting—basically Esquire's editorial policy in a nutshell.

I came across another Esquire list of things every man should know how to do that was just as stupid. At least five of them had to do with gambling or playing cards. I'd rather learn how to knit than learn how to play craps or poker. What the fuck is it with gambling that has such a hold on the attention of youth today? Just about every kid I know under 30 plays blackjack or poker on line, sports betting is like an epidemic, and why so many people people think that Las Vegas is the modern equivalent of Lourdes is baffling to me.

Another thing men should know how to do, according to the Esquire list, is be loyal to a brand. What the fuck? That is something that a man should know? Yet another thing the author feels is important enough to make the list is the ability to tell a joke. He then goes on to tell one of the lamest jokes I've ever read. If you gave a chimpanzee a lump of poop and a George Bush figurine, the monkey could tell a decent joke. He would still be a chimp—both the monkey and our president.

I'll just have to make my own list.

I don't think there is any difference in what a man should know and what a woman should know. For the purposes of this essay I use the word “man” to mean Homo Sapiens. I think you'll find my list to be wonderfully democratic and inexpensive. If anyone disagrees with any of my suggestions, I'd like to know why. If you'd like to add to the list, let me know.

1) Know a bit about where we came from, in scientific terms. Evolution is the most amazing story in the history of human knowledge. We no longer have to rely on the ridiculous accounts of our ancestry provided by religious superstition. If you don't know anything about evolution, or reject it, you aren't really a modern man at all. It's fine to be religious but don't be ignorant, and please don't be willfully so. Evolution is no more a theory than gravity or rocket propulsion.

2) Know a general outline of human history with approximate dates. At least know something about human history pertinent to your own ancestry. I am of European heritage therefore I should know about the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, and on to the present era. Without a basic grasp of history you are just spinning through space.

3) Master at least one language and be able to write a decent letter in that language. Writing is at the heart and soul of communication, contrary to popular belief which favors videos or mp3's or yapping on the phone.

4) Have enough knowledge about at least one thing so that you can teach it to others or write a book on the subject. This is the essence of civilization; the ability to pass stuff on to others.

5) See the world, or at least some of it. I have traveled woefully little in my own life. What I don't see of the world before I die I'm quite sure I will regret not visiting. I won't regret seeing any part of it although I may regret staying too long in any one spot. I have loved many things about every place I have ever lived.

6) If you don't already like kids and dogs, learn how. Kids and dogs make your life better, and this is coming from someone who has neither. I just borrow other people's dogs and kids. I think that your talent for charming kids and dogs says a lot about your character, or lack of it. I'm almost always available to babysit or walk your damn dog.

7) Get in really good shape at least once in your life, just to see how great it feels. Define for yourself what it means to be in great shape. Ignore the popular culture ideal of physical perfection because it's mostly a lie (steroids, fake jugs, etc.) and completely unobtainable for most people.

8) Know how to make music of some kind or another, sing, play an instrument (even the drums). This is a basic human need and you need to feed it. No one is saying that you have to be good at it.

9) Get to know the neighbors. You live right next door, say hello. This may sound silly or corny but it's sad how often people live next to someone without so much as exchanging civilities. Living in crowded urban areas has made me more neighborly, believe it or not. Loneliness is preventable.

10) Don't ever say that you don't have time to do the things in life you love. Instead, rearrange your priorities. Don't tell me that you can't afford to travel when you are driving a new car. Tell me you don't really value travel as much as owning a new car and I will believe you.

11) Don't be stingy with love. Spend it like a drunk on payday, I promise that you won't run out or over-draw on your account.

12) Be creative, not a critic. Someone said that no one has ever built a statue to honor a critic.

13) Form your own opinions on important subjects. If you can't, at least borrow the opinions of truly wise people. Rush Limbaugh doesn't have an ounce of wisdom in all of his 300 pounds. Learn to tell the difference between news and opinion. When in doubt, go to the source.

14) Know how to dance, and I mean dancing with real steps, not just hopping around at a disco like someone on fire. I could certainly improve but I know a few basic steps of salsa and I don't look or feel foolish doing them.

15) Learn to live with less. This means drive less, consume less, throw out less, use less water, use less everything. The sooner we all start, the better off we will be. And don't forget to pat yourself on the back for doing it—no one else will. Materialist minimalism does have its own rewards.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bous al Carrer

(Valenciano for “Bulls in the street.”)

After watching the encierro every morning for almost a week on television, and unsuccessful in my attempts to talk anyone into going to Pamplona for the final days of the San Fermín Festival, I opted for the next best and closest thing. There is another week-long festival in the small town of Picassent just a few kilometers south of Valencia. Every day during the Picassent festival there are bulls running around in the streets in one section of the town, religious processions, and lots of food and drink—this is Spain, after all. It wouldn't be quite the same thing as San Fermín, something of a much lesser magnitude, but Picassent is only a twenty minutes from Valencia. Instead of buying a plane ticket for Pamplona I just needed to pull my metro card out of my wallet.

There are dozens and dozens of these bull festivals in villages throughout Spain during the months of summer. Most are not really geared to stimulate tourism, something we noticed immediately in the almost-empty Saturday night train to Picassent. Once we stepped off the train the festival seemed to be in full swing with bar patron spilling out into the street. Most of the festival revelers were soaking wet from being hosed down in the square a few minutes before we had arrived and no one seemed to notice a few tourists who seemed to have got off the train in Picassent by accident. As far as I could tell, we were the only out-of-towners at the festival on this evening. In Valencia I feel that although I may not exactly fit in, I also don't stand out like a sore thumb. Here in Picassent I felt as if I had lost all of my camouflage.

It only took us two beers in two bars to find our way to the section of town where they let the bulls loose. One quadrangle of the town is enclosed in heavy iron gates to keep the bulls in and allow people to escape. The festival had not begun because there were very young children walking around inside the closed area, as well as old folks sitting out on lawn chairs. Still, I was a bit hesitant to climb through the bars and walk around. I kept an eye on all of my escape routes should I happen upon a mad bull or any other sort of threatening livestock.

There are bars and restaurants inside the enclosed area with iron gates and wooden barriers protecting the customers. It's like this entire part of the village is one big shark cage. If I remember correctly, in the movie Jaws the shark bit through the cage like an impatient kid unwrapping a Christmas gift. Not only did I want heavy bars between me and any crazy bull, I also wanted to be on the second floor looking down. There are elevated grandstand areas where people can sit and watch the events which fell right in line with my safety demands. Unfortunately, I didn't see any place to buy a high-powered rifle so I felt like my security was still a bit incomplete.

They let the bulls out into the street one at a time. The bull would run around the square while a few of the braver (or more foolish) of the participants dodged the animal as it galloped past. After a while they would bring a steer out into the street to calm down the bull and then lead it back into the corral. I had brought a cigar along with me, and like at the corrida, this seemed like an ideal place to light up. I am always self-conscious about blowing smoke around so I left the safety of the second story bleachers and climbed down to street-level to light up. At first I stayed inside the barriers but the bull only came by once in a while so I stepped outside into the street. I know that smoking the occasional cigar has its risks but I would have never thought that two of those risks might be the horns attached to a 1,000 pound bull. There were lots of people outside the gates after the bull passed but then I could see the crowd splitting in two as the bull made its way back toward this area. I tried to make may way back inside the bars with as much dignity as possible but that is a bit difficult when you are screeching like a teenage girl in a slasher movie. Smoking can be hazardous to your health.

Back in Valencia later in the evening, I was talking with some Spanish friends about the festival. I stole a joke from Caddy Shack when someone asked me if I had run out in the streets with the bulls. I said that I had wanted to run with the bulls, as I pointed to my knee and winced as if in pain from an injury, but that I couldn't because I was a big coward. I don't think these people had seen the movie so this got a good laugh.

Friday, July 11, 2008

San Fermín

A San Fermín pedimos
por ser nuestro patrón
nos guía en el encierro
dándonos su bendición

(San Fermin, as our patron, guide us in the run, giving us your blessing.)
-Prayer recited three times before the running of the bulls (encierro) in Pamplona. Sung to the tune of “Caesar, those who are about to die salute you!”

A firework is rocketed into the air on July 7th to mark the opening of the Festival of San Fermín, a yearly icon in Pamplona, Spain heavily romanticized by Hemingway. I have visited the lovely city of Pamplona but haven't attended the festival. I can't really say one way or the other how I feel about bullfighting. I've been a few times to see bullfights but I don't plan on going to San Fermín. Maybe I'm too old although even as a young man I possessed an abundance of survival instinct and common sense. I do enjoy watching it on television every morning when they broadcast the daily encierro. This is when the bulls, accompanied by the calming effect of an equal amount of steers (also with long horns), run through the streets of Pamplona among a bunch of people (somewhere between 1,500-4,000) dressed in traditional white shirts with red handkerchiefs around their necks. The idea is to outrun the bulls, some weighing close to 700 kilos, as they make their way through the narrow streets to the Plaza de Toros. The six bulls come from a different breeder every day and will be featured later in the day in the afternoon bullfights. In a Spanish dictionary I found this definition for the verb encerrar from which encierro is derived: to put a person or an animal in a place where it cannot get out. San Fermín covers both of those. The only defense runners have is a rolled-up newspaper and their own swiftness. Sound like fun to you? Me neither.

The encierro begins every morning promptly at 08:00 during the eight days of the festival and is over in a matter of a few minutes. Just about every day at least one person requires the skill of trained medical people. Deaths are not unheard of during the encierro and there have been 14 since they began keeping records in 1924. I have seen many, many serious injuries in the past two years of watching it on television. In an accident unrelated to the encierro, an Irish tourist died at Pamplona this year falling off a high wall (in 2007 two people fell to their deaths at the same spot on the Redín Wall). It's a little like spring break with bulls. Pamplona seems like a dangerous place to be during San Fermín so for now I don't mind being a TV spectator...or I may take a train up there this week. Anyone feel like going with me?

From my Spanish friends I have heard nothing but bad things about the festival at Pamplona. There is nothing but drunk, belligerent tourists; there is no place to stay; everything is overcrowded; and bulls have sharp horns are just a few of the complaints from those who have survived. Most of the people I have talked to admitted to going to the festival when they were teenagers and wrote it all off as foolish disregard for their own safety.

Spanish television broadcasts the encierro every morning and they treat it like a major sporting event. They go over every meter the bulls traverse and show instant replays and slow motion clips of exciting moments. They actually time how long it takes for the bulls to run from the corrals to the bullring. On the coverage one morning they showed doctors and nurses in a Pamplona hospital emergency room watching the broadcast, anticipating the injuries they would soon be treating. If I were a taxpayer here in Spain, I would be a little upset about government health care paying to have some drunk's butt stitched up after a goring.

In 2007 there was a big brouhaha over a man who took his ten year old son to the encierro. They showed the kid running down the street ahead of the bulls. He looked like he was having a blast, something the authorities should consider when the father is sentenced. They have since changed the rules at the festival. This year on the last day of San Fermin, kids under 10 get in free! People do a lot of dumber things at San Fermín than bring under-age children to run with the bulls. In fact, from my view from the couch in my living room, just about everything people do at San Fermín looks pretty stupid.

How many times were you told as a kid not to play in traffic? How many times were you warned of the dangers of alcohol? To me, San Fermín looks like a few thousands people completely ignoring these two bits of sage advice. After the encierro, if you are not already one of those laid out on a stretcher speeding towards the emergency room, they have an even more dangerous game for you to play. People feeling suicidal, and those who have always wondered what it feels like to take a horn in the ass, file into the ring of the Plaza de Toros and get chased around by a young bull that always looks thoroughly pissed off. There might not be any ambulances available after the initial wave of casualties during the encierro so remember to apply direct pressure until help arrives. Keep saying that prayer to San Fermín and see if that helps.

I would never run in the encierro for a lot of reasons—physical cowardice being somewhere near the top of that list. An even greater fear for me than getting gored in the stomach is the total embarrassment of being injured, because you just know that they will show it over and over again on TV. I'm not looking to be the day's entertainment, not like that. I completely understand why other people do it, as stupid as it may seem to me to risk your life in some drunken festival in a remote corner of Spain.

I think the encierro is no different than doing tricks on a skateboard or any of the other “extreme” sports. I think that humans have evolved to such a degree and we have eliminated just about all of the risks faced by our ancestors where now just about everyone can expect to live to a ripe old age. In the past simply surviving the birthing process was a fight against the odds. In an era of seat belts, knee pads, guard rails, non-slip shower mats, child-proof medicine bottles, and life jackets, people sometimes need to feel a little bit of risk in their lives. Everyone rebels against the certainty of life in different ways. Instead of running down a narrow street being chased by crazed cows, I'll stick to ignoring other safety advice, like not closing the lid before striking a match when I smoke a cigar, or leaving my bike helmet at home on occasion. That's about as extreme as it gets for me these days.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Som Campeons*

Som Campeons*

*(We are champions!) A text message I was sent in Valenciano after Spain defeated Germany to win the Eurocopa.

Pase lo Que Pase, España Siempre
--From the start I thought that this motto for the Spanish national football team was rather defeatist.

By default I became a Spanish football fan the day I arrived here in Valencia a little over one and a half years ago. I adopted Valencia Club de Fútbol and the Spanish national team as my own, with all of the ups and downs that come with being a sports fan. During my first year I watched as Valencia CF made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League only to be eliminated by Chelsea here in Valencia after we had fought them to a draw at their home stadium of Stamford Bridge. In the following season Valencia was ignominiously eliminated in the group stage of the Champions League and was looking at a pretty grim season in the Spanish league. Spain managed to beat Getafe in the final of the Copa del Rey, a tournament played within the Spanish league during the season. Valencia had a bad season this year but not all was lost as the Copa del Rey title ensures that they at least have a spot in next season's UEFA tournament (sort of a step below the Champions League). Spain had to push aside Barcelona to get into the final of the Copa del Rey and that victory was one of the sweetest games I have ever savored—at least as far as my professional club is concerned.

While I have been satisfied with the modest success of Valencia CF, the Spanish national team has been on an absolute terror since I had moved to Valencia. Spain won its qualifying group to enter the 2008 Eurocopa finals held in Switzerland and Austria. The Spanish team, known as La Selección, carries a heavy contingent of Valencia CF stars. Once in the tournament, held every four years between the World Cup, Spain managed to win easily all three of their games in the group stage, with Valencia CF forward, David Villa, scoring a hat trick in the first match against Russia. In the semi-final round Spain was paired with the current World Cup champions, Italy.

Spain had not defeated the Italian team in competitive play in 88 years. The game ended in a 0-0 draw and neither team scored during the 30 minutes of extra time. It would go into penalty kicks in which the two teams alternate taking five kicks from the penalty mark. Whoever leads after five kicks wins, if it is still a draw, the first team to lead wins. Spain and Valencia CF have not had the best of luck when games end in penalties. In the 2000-2001 Champions League final, Valencia CF lost in penalty kicks to FC Bayern Munich, a bitter defeat still felt here. Spain lost to England on penalty kicks in the quarter-finals of the 1996 Eurocopa. In the 2002 World Cup, Spain lost to Korea on penalties in the quarter-finals (although they beat Ireland on penalties to get to that game). Italy, on the other hand, is known for coming out ahead in penalty shoot-outs and had beat France on penalties to win the 2006 World Cup title.

Gianluigi Buffon, who plays for Juventus in the professional season, is considered by many to be the best in the world. Iker Casillas, the superstar goalkeeper for Real Madrid, is also thought to be one of the better players at this position. Buffon had blocked a penalty kick in Italy's game with Romania to keep their tournament hopes alive. If you were a betting type person the odds seemed stacked against Spain. In an earlier semi-final match the Croatian squad had come completely unraveled when it went into a penalty shoot-out with Turkey. You could see fear and resignation written all over the face of the first Croat player to make his attempt which he missed badly. David Villa was the first player to take a kick. He approached the ball with a confidence bordering on arrogance. He made his shot easily. In the end, Iker Casillas was able to save two goals to Buffon's one and Spain would move on to take on Russia in the semi-finals.

Spain had already trounced Russia 4-1 in the group stage but Russia looked like a completely different team coming off their victory over Holland, one of the heavy favorites to win it all. Not only did Spain beat Russia again but they gave them another hiding, 3-0. Now Spain had to play Germany in the final match to be held in Vienna. I had already mentioned that I was going to host the final at my place for all of the football hooligans in my circle. Sitting at a bar after Spain's victory over Russia, someone mentioned that we should drive to Madrid on Sunday to watch the final at the Plaza de Colón where tens of thousands of fans had been watching all the previous games. Big crowds aren't really my thing but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to see a bit Madrid again. Besides, I was just about the biggest Spanish supporter of all the people I have met here so far. I was also the most optimistic about their chances from the very beginning since I wasn't saddled with the years of heartbreak like the average Spanish fan.

Madrid Bound

The drive between Valencia and Madrid isn't the most spectacular three hours of driving, but the views seem to go on for thousands of square miles in some parts. There is the odd castle, the occasional village cathedral, and lots and lots of agriculture—mostly olive trees and vineyards, although it seems impossibly dry and hot for grapes. You definitely know that you are driving through Spain as this section of road looks like every travel poster you have ever seen for La Mancha. I got a big kick out of my friend's GPS system that talked to him in a rather sexy Spanish female voice. I wonder if they use the comforting voice of a woman so as not to offend the normal male's obdurate refusal to admit when we are lost? I wonder if she's single?

Through a friend's recommendation we stayed at Hostal Naranco on Calle de la Puebla 6, 2° near the Gran Vía metro. We paid 16€ each for two huge rooms with bathrooms. I have paid over 100€ for a similar room. I had never stayed in a hostel before and I just always thought that they were crappy and only patronized by junkies.

Evidently, this section of Madrid is a gay neighborhood. I didn't really notice. The night after the game, the comedy television news program Intermedio did interviews with gay dudes about who they thought was the best looking player on the Spanish team and one of the guys they spoke with was standing about a block from our hostel. “It's a small world, gay people are everywhere, get used to it,” I think is the message here.

But we weren't here for the room (or a tolerance workshop) so we ditched our stuff and started off towards the Plaza de Colón. We had been delayed by a horrific traffic jam just outside of Valencia so we arrived only about two and a half hours before the game. This meant that we only had time for a quick bite to eat while we jumped into the flow of people heading towards Plaza de Colón. The mob consisted of almost equal parts drunk boys screaming football chants and great-looking young women—and a few odd foreigners, one of whom was wearing his Spanish team jersey.

We got to the square an hour before the game and immediately decided that it would be a shitty spot to watch the match, that's if you could even get close enough to one of the big screens to see anything. The viewing spots were woefully inadequate to accommodate the huge crowds that had been showing up to watch all the games. There were no screens outside of the interior of the square where most of the fans were smashed together. We decided to fall back and find a bar nearby—easier said than done as this area is just about the least bar-friendly neighborhood I have ever seen in Spain. If you want a to buy a Gucci bag or an Armani suit you are in luck, just don't try to buy a beer.

We finally found a place and it was more crowded, smoky, and suffocating that the Plaza. Two people in our group were steadfast in their desire to watch the game from the square so we headed back. Along the way we stopped into a completely overwhelmed convenience store that looked like it was being looted by people wearing Spanish national colors. The mob was actually well-behaved and the checkout lines were orderly and fast. The problem was there wasn't any cold beer. Nothing like a piss-warm Mahou beer on a hot summer evening, I always say. People weren't even waiting to get to the cash register before they consumed their purchases. I popped a warm beer and toasted the coming Spanish victory.

We muscled our way into the outer ring of the Square and I was able to see half of the screen from one direction and the other half on the opposite side. The game began with a huge roar from the crowd. It was on!

I got a kick out of everything people had brought to the square to eat and drink. Every sort of beer, wine, liquor combination was on hand. Lots of kids were drinking huge, one liter cups of sangria. The young guys standing right behind us had a bag of cheese doodles as big as a pillow. It looked like a comedy prop right out of Pee Wee's Playhouse. At one point they seemed to have tired of this snack option and when I turned around I saw that someone had stepped on it, ripping the bag open at the bottom. When I looked at it a bit later I noticed that a box of cheap sangria had turned over, mixing with the cheese doodles making a mess that would soon dwarf the Exxon Valdes oil spill. One of the guys in our group stepped in the goo and he looked every bit as pathetic as those poor, oil-drenched sea birds along the Alaska coast. The Brits call cheese doodles cheezy-what-its, which sounds pretty funny but not as funny as seeing a Brit's shoe completely covered in crappy sangria and cheezy-what-its.

From where we were standing our view of the screen was being blocked constantly by people waving flags or a girl getting up on someone's shoulders. This inspired improvisational chants from those whose views were being blocked. ¡Hijo de puta, que te caes por el culo! (Hey asshole, please fall on your ass). It was hilarious when the person on the receiving end of the chant finally realized they were the target. They would turn around and then meekly slide out of view. At one point two young guys climbed up on a hedge and completely blocked everyone's view in our section. They seemed resistant to the chants so I took it upon myself to wade on up and ask them to please get down.

I asked them very politely if they could move. They basically told me to fuck off and this was their spot. Without losing my temper I explained that they were blocking the view of about 100 people behind them yet they still held their ground, or perch, on the hedge. One of them began to raise his voice to me and I called him an asshole (gilipolla). I told them that I was going back to where I was standing and if I had to come back to tell them to get down, I wouldn't be talking any more, if they knew what I meant. I think they did. Sometimes people just need someone to remind them of their manners. I started heading back to my group and they got down after a short, face-saving interval. I was the hero of the mob. That is until Torres scored his brilliant, run-completely-around-your-defender-and beat-Lehman-to-the-ball goal.

The crowd reacted like no other crowd I have ever been a part of. Everyone who could, shook up a beer and sprayed it into the air which I thought was really immature and inconsiderate until I did it myself, and then I thought it was pretty funny. Everyone was drenched and loving it. Torres, who had a marvelous year at Liverpool scoring 29 goals, had yet to really come alive in this Eurocopa. I had been telling everyone to watch out for him because he was going to bust loose in this final. Luckily, he didn't need to bust loose. Spain was able to keep Germany scoreless and his one goal was enough. In six games Spain had only been scored on twice. While Spain's Iker Casillas is now considered the best goalkeeper in the game, he could have sat in a lawn chair for most of the Eurocopa because the rest of the Spanish defense was absolutely stifling.

The after-game revelry was riotous spontaneity, pure and simple. If there was a fountain, people swan in it; if there was a statue, people climbed it; if there was a bar, people entered, used the bathroom, ordered a quick shot, and left (OK, at least we did that a couple of times). Our group had an informal competition to see who could instigate the most football chants among the mob. My deep tenor chant of EEEEEE-KEEER (Iker Casilllas) never failed to get people going. A popular chant in the mob was “Yo soy español, español, español (I am Spanish).” I didn't really feel comfortable with that one as my citizenship status is merely honorary at this point. Chanting that I am an illegal alien who happens to be a fanatic supporter of the Spanish national squad just doesn't have a nice ring to it in Spanish.

Madrid will probably never be this insane ever again, even when they win the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. What happened in Madrid was the release of several decades of pessimism, defeatism, and self-doubt. What brought Spain out of this funk was a team of players too young to have any doubt about their abilities. Spanish fans maintained a sense of very guarded optimism after the first victory in the Eurocopa. Spain had disappointed too many times in the past for people to get too carried away. The players were another story. From the start they displayed a sense of confidence and belief in the team that carried them all the way to the end, and perhaps further if you are looking at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.