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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Around the Neighborhood: Buying Locally

Just my own block provides for quite a lot of my needs. If you are to drift a few hundred yards in any direction there are a dozen other worlds that open for you. For the most part, Ruzafa is a maze of narrow streets with barely enough room for one car to pass. The are few through streets to facilitate normal traffic so everyone but local inhabitants avoids this area of town. The new metro under construction further adds to what is already a nightmare for drivers. On a slight twist of the famous quote from former General Motors president, Charles Wilson, “What's good for General Motors is good for America,” I always say that what's bad for cars is good for the rest of life on planet earth.

For pedestrians and bikes, Ruzafa is a pretty calm neighborhood. There are painted crosswalks on almost every corner, something we pleaded for in my old downtown neighborhood in Seattle, to no avail. A couple of bike paths that form part of a city-wide network flow in and out of the area. From these you can get to just about anywhere in and around town. Bus service is impressive and, as mentioned, the new metro line will link up Ruzafa to the rest of network. Parking is a complete nightmare everywhere in Valencia and especially so in the souk-like labyrinth that makes up this old neighborhood. It's hard to imagine why anyone would feel the need to drive, I don't see any convenience in it.

The distances around the neighborhood are just too short to even consider driving a car. Within about five blocks of my apartment there are four major supermarkets. Coupled with the Ruzafa Market, the dozen or so smaller specialty grocery stores, and the green grocers, no one in all of this area has to walk more than about three blocks to do most of their shopping. It's not like people don't drive, but you don't see the massive four and five lane traffic jams inherent in even smaller U.S. cities during rush hours. A four lane street is a bit out of the ordinary here and anything wider is very rare. In the land of strip malls, a six lane thoroughfare is almost a requirement. The layout of these commercial areas makes walking all but impossible. In a dense urban environment, driving seems pretty futile. It just seems to me that a lifestyle that requires a trip in the car to do just about everything is seriously flawed.

Not counting my daily excursions, I probably go for days, and sometimes even weeks, without leaving my little neighborhood. Why bother, everything I need is only a few steps away. I feel guilty buying food items anywhere but in the little circle of merchants I frequent. Sometimes I will walk through Valencia's Mercado Central and as much as I am in awe of the selection available there, I rarely, if ever, buy anything. Why would I? I have my own market. Shopping anywhere else would be like cheating on a spouse. Or even worse, it would be like supporting Barça over Valencia C.F. I feel like these vendors depend on me. It's not like they would miss me if I went somewhere else to shop, but I would be missing out on a lot. It sort of like the old adage, membership has its privileges. What membership in my little community of merchants bus is service and recognition. I like how these people say hello to me when we pass on the street, and I'm just a newcomer. To most other people around here these people are neighbors and relatives.

There are a lot of advantages to buying locally, even if you spend a few extra dollars. I think this is the worst aspect about America's compulsion for bargain shopping: the few cents you save driving to Wal-Mart is hardly worth undermining the sort of community provided by locals businesses. The places where I shop are owned and operated by people who may live right next door to me. I see them walking around the neighborhood. I firmly believe that for every penny people save shopping at the big, corporate outlets, a penny is taken from a middle class business owner. I realized a long time ago that I would rather pay more for something if I could buy it from a business with a local owner, preferably someone I can see behind the counter. I have also been too lazy to drive out of the downtown areas where I have lived in order to shop at the big retail outlets. There aren't any K-Marts in city centers.

You can find the owner hard at work in just about all of the cafés, bars, restaurants, and shops that I frequent in my neighborhood. I like the fact that every time I make a purchase the money goes directly into the pocket of someone I know, most of whom are friends. I always feel good about paying. The other day, a woman gave me change for the bread I bought at the bakery. I wasn't paying close attention—I never do with things having to do with money—and she gave me back the wrong change, but I wasn't sure. She was busy so I stepped aside and went over all of my transactions for the morning. It took me about five minutes but I came to the conclusion that she had given me ten euros too much. Had it been in the supermarket I wouldn't have bothered, not that I would be any less honest, but I wouldn't have taken the time to figure out my money trail. On another occasion I turned around and walked back a block to return one extra euro I was given in change at one of my local Pakistani-owned vegetable markets. In these instances I was dealing with an actual human being and not some huge corporate monolith. Virtues like honesty and trust are difficult to establish with a commercial entity. When you know the people who own the businesses in your neighborhood you feel more connected, more rooted. This is especially comforting to an outsider; each day I feel less like a foreigner and more like a resident.

I have never fit in so quickly anywhere I have ever lived, even though I have the language issue, which becomes less of a barrier every single day. I think that the challenge of learning Spanish has made me work harder at being sociable. If I don't take time to talk to just about anyone who will have a conversation with me I feel that I am wasting an opportunity. As my ability in Spanish grows, I have been able to come across as a complete person, with a sense of humor and a grasp of the world around me, including Spanish political and cultural references. I have been gradually shedding my persona as the stereotypical foreigner with a comical accent—at least I hope that I have lost some of that persona. It's like I am gradually growing out of a very bad haircut. You reach a certain point when learning another language where an intelligent person begins to emerge from the depths of bad grammar and simplistic vocabulary—that is if the person is intelligent to begin with. Before this point on the language learning curve, even the smartest people seem like idiots.

The good news is that there are a lot of cognates in Spanish of English words. This means that because I have a pretty good vocabulary in English, I also automatically have a good grasp of Spanish vocabulary. I think people here are sometimes surprised to hear some rather eloquent words come out of the mouth of someone who barely spoke the language not too long ago. I feel sorry for the Chinese and Arab immigrants who have to start all over in Spanish from scratch as there are few, if any cognates and the grammars are completely different. After two years in Spain my Spanish is better than most of the Chinese I meet in the neighborhood, some of whom have been here for ten years or more.

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