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Monday, November 10, 2008


An Introduction

What am I trying to accomplish in what I write about Spain? I am not trying to over-romanticize the country or paint it like some Photo-Shopped post card you find in tourist trap rip-off joints. At the same time, there is just way too much for me to love about having the wonderful opportunity to live in Spain for me to spend much time on anything negative. I let the citizens of Spain handle all of the criticism, Most of the time I stick to highlighting all of the things I love and admire about life here. Sort of the flip side to the aphorism, “No one is a prophet in his own country,” is the one that says you should only be a critic of your own homeland—no matter where you live, you probably have your hands full critiquing your birthplace. It is especially annoying to read travel writers who bitch about the places they visit without understanding them in any meaningful way. I always find it more insightful for a writer to explain something to me than to blindly criticize. Isn't travel supposed to be joyous and fun? No one said travel is always going to be easy. Even if I were on the verge of freezing to death in Antarctica I could probably appreciate the view.

It's not like I'm some sort of starry-eyed Pollyanna who can't see any of the ills in modern Spanish life, but I think it is more important to convey to American readers how Spain deals successfully with the some of the challenges inherent in creating a modern, urban society. I must highlight the urban part. Spain's urban nature is one of my favorite characteristics of the peninsula. Spain is incredibly urban, even many of the smallest hamlets are set up like major urban centers with people living in apartment buildings of 4-6 stories. Valencia has a population of over a million yet I can walk practically anywhere in a matter of 30 minutes. There is great public transportation here but it hardly seems worth it when you can just walk to about 90 percent of your destinations. I can get anywhere in town on my bike in less than 20 minutes. Seattle is very similar to Valencia in size and in the robust nature of its urban center. I walked or rode my bike almost everywhere in Seattle. I have been singing the praises of city life for quite a while, I am positively evangelical on the subject. I'm a fanatic, an urban extremist. Even if there were no ecological benefits to be derived from city living, I would still preach its quality of life merits.

I can barely remember back when I needed to drive a car every day, I only know that it irritated the living shit out of me and I felt cars were stealing my life. Even if you forget about how much they cost and how dangerous driving is, to me just being inside a car is a soul-deadening experience—and double down on that if you are in stuck in traffic. I would have to sit down and think long and hard to remember the last time I was even in a car. I consider this sort of forgetfulness a huge luxury, much more so than driving around in an expensive sedan. There isn't a sports car invented that has more appeal to me than a seat on a comfortable train. Too much of American society is built around the automobile. I consider this bit of urban/suburban architecture to be one of the greatest mistakes of the 20th century, a mistake we will have to rectify in the next 25 years if we want to continue improving human life on the planet (not to mention saving the lives of countless other species). I know that we can't simply do away with cars, but we can marginalize them to a certain degree.

I see automobiles as much more of a convenience than a necessity here in Spain. For anyone living in Valencia, you can get around just fine without one. Cars provide a bit of convenience, especially to people with families. I suppose getting the whole family on the train for a trip out of town could provide a bit of a challenge, although it is certainly within the realm of possibility. Getting around Valencia in a car seems more of a nuisance than a convenience, with or without the family. Like almost every other urban center, Valencia suffers the ills of traffic congestion and lack of parking. One of the most exciting urban developments is going on in Amsterdam which is simultaneously removing parking and narrowing roads in its urban center. I think that this is about the only way to effectively deal with these two issues. The more you try to give in to congestion and parking, the worse they get.

I'm not trying to paint some idyllic water color of Spanish life, but I do think that it is useful to detail the aspects of this society which I feel are worthy of emulation. In a lot of the travel writing that I read, not only do I get the feeling that the writers don't really understand the culture of the place they are describing, but I think many don't really care enough to insinuate themselves fully in the host country. In the case of those writers who just seem to be slumming it long enough to crank out an article or a book, I find this attitude to be incredibly condescending. A lot of other writers just seem to take their preconceived notions about where they are going and stow it into their fanny packs with the rest of their travel gear. I never learn anything from these authors as I have my own preconceived notions about the places they are talking about: Tuscany is sunny and people drink wine, Provence is choked full of quaint villages and olive trees, or whatever boilerplate Conde Nast travel magazine view of the world they are regurgitating. I remember thinking that I sort of wanted to be a travel writer in that sense. Who wouldn't want to get paid for traveling? Then after I read about three travel magazine articles I realized that I could never hope to bend my writing style to fit that model. Most travel writing seems to have sort of a one-size-fits-all formula. Start off with some little historical tidbit, throw in something about how you, too, can be an “insider,” and then top it off with descriptions of expensive meals and even more expensive hotels. I've never been a big fan of guidebooks when I travel and I certainly have no interest in writing one.

So just what is it that I am trying to communicate in what I have written about Spain? More than anything I would like to make people laugh with the stories I tell about my life in Spain. Humor is about the only way I can make my writing the least bit entertaining. I don't think that I have the skill to simply write entertaining descriptions of life here, at least not yet. I am hoping my writing can improve to the point that I don't have to be a fool to have people read my stuff. There are worse things than being foolish. Right off the top of my head I can come up with “boring.” I also try to explain how to go about daily life here in Spain without stumbling every step of the way, as I did when I first arrived. I would have loved to read essay like some of mine to help me decipher the simplest aspects of life here that seem anything but simple to the outsider.

What I like most about reading travel writing is when I feel I have learned something about where the author has been. I have tried to write something that I wish I could have read before I got here, something to walk me through the ways and enigmas of everyday Spanish life. I had to learn everything through trial and error, sort of on-the-job training. There were many times when I felt like the whole process was like trying to put something together without a set of instructions. I want what I have written to be the instruction manual for anyone who cares to know more about how people live in Spain. I write quite a bit about Spanish food and cooking so consider this to be a recipe book about how to...how not to make all of the same mistakes I did upon arriving in Spain.

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