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Friday, January 30, 2009

Ways to Save the Planet I Learned While Living in Spain

Don't get me wrong, I hate hippies as much as the next guy. It's just that living a little more frugally isn't going to kill anyone. I thoroughly despise the attitude of certain people in America who ridicule anyone who even mentions conservation, as if it is positively un-American to use less energy. How can anyone defend unbridled consumption as some sort of virtue?

This sort of falls under the category about how learning to live with less doesn't mean a diminished standard of living. Spanish people don't do all of these things because they are incredibly environmentally-conscious citizens, they do it because it saves them money, money they could better spend on wine and ham. There's a catchy slogan somewhere in that last sentence.

1) Use a pressure cooker to speed up cooking times. My pressure cooker was broken and I finally realized that it could be fixed. I went to a cooking supply store a whole half block from my house and they repaired it in five minutes. The 15€ price tag seemed a bit steep but it was well worth it. I just cooked garbanzo beans in a matter of 30 minutes. They usually take four freaking hours. My pressure cooker story leads me to the next thing.

2) Repair old items, if possible, instead of simply adding their carcasses to the landfill. Do you really need to replace your cell phone every six months?

3) Hang dry clothes instead of using a dryer. I realize this isn't always convenient but it is always possible. We use a clothes drying rack that we put in front of a window. In the summer stuff dries in a matter of an hour or two. If you are already heating your house in the winter hang drying clothes indoors makes complete sense.

4) Public Transportation. You should use it once in a while if for no other reason than to see what it’s like for people who do use it.

5) Bikes. I've been a bike fanatic all my life so it's exciting to see Valencia really get behind bicycles as a mode of transportation. I swear I notice more bikes on the road here every day. The climate in most of Spain is ideal for bikes but people in Belgium and the Netherlands are much more enthusiastic in the use of bikes and their weather is lousy. I rode all winter in Seattle. Riding in the rain still beats driving a car in my book.

6) Use heat and air conditioning sparingly. Try putting on a sweater in the winter.

7) Drive a fuel-efficient car. People here drive small cars, comically puny at times.

8) City living is infinitely greener than suburban life. 54% of New Yorkers take public transportation to work, by far the highest percentage in the country. The logic of city living was something else that I realized long before arriving in Spain. My life in downtown Seattle wasn't too different than how I live here. I have already talked about this exhaustively.

9) Our hot water heater heats the water as it flows through the pipe so there isn't a huge tank that has to be heated up. I don't know what the savings are with these heaters but I'm sure it's considerable.

10) Wear clothes more than one day. Something most Spanish people do is change clothes when they are at home. When you are home you wear sweats or whatever which keeps your street clothes neater and cleaner so that you don't have to wash them after wearing them out a single day. Someone told me that they do the same thing in Hungary and they call them “house clothes.”

My Favorite Thing

My Favorite Thing

If I had to say what it is I most like about living here, I would have to say the bike trail leading out of Valencia to the beaches directly south of the city. I ride this trail almost every day that I ride, and I get out about 5-6 days a week, weather permitting—and it usually does. It takes me about an hour and a half to go from my front door to the end of the trail at El Saler beach and back. I can pick up the bike trail about a block from my apartment. After only about ten minutes of riding I am out of the city and pedaling past farm land. The only interaction I have with automobiles is at a few intersections leaving town. For the rest of the ride it's uninterrupted bliss.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

New Deal, New Mentality

New Deal, New Mentality

America needs more than a new New Deal, it needs a major overhaul in our values. A quick reading of today's New York Times tells the tale of what we can only hope is a tectonic shift in the way Americans think about wealth and excess. Unfortunately, it seems that instead of taking Tom Wolfe´s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, as a cautionary tale, for the past 20 years many people used its message of greed and hunger for status as an instruction manual. We have been buried under tales of the lucky few in America who have managed to acquire unbelievable fortunes. We built an entire culture around flaunting this wealth to the middle and lower classes. Instead of being horrified from watching excess heaped upon further excess, the folks in the cheap seats grew to admire these new brain-dead monarchs. Viewers were always led to believe that they, too, could someday expect to live like the protagonists in these vaudeville acts of greed. This life was only a lottery ticket away, and for those too impatient for the winning ticket, they could finance their version of Donald Trump's lifestyle with credit cards with minimum monthly payments at 20% interest (a rate that would make Tony Soprano blush).

What few people seem to understand about the current crisis is that it's not about cyclical economic forces, most of our problems were created by a culture of mindless greed. The folks that seem to know less about what has been driving our economy into a deep crater are the people doing most of the driving. A group of GM executives show up in Washington with their hats in their hands looking for government charity. It didn't even occur to any of these morons that arriving in their private jet was probably not sending the right message. The fact that they are still playing the role of successful capitalists would be humorous if it wasn't bordering on the criminal. Nor did it sound out-of-touch for A.I.G. officials to spend a big chunk of their bailout money on a private spa outing for its bosses. Wall Street banks are still giving out huge bonuses to their employees at the top of the pyramid while laying off thousands of lower echelon workers.

There is some good news. Union membership seems to be on the rise. In an attempt to salvage some of their corporate image many companies are canceling orders for private jets. Citigroup decided that perhaps they could live without a $42 million aircraft. How many coach plane tickets can you buy with $42 million? How could a publicly-traded company possibly make money for its shareholders when the corporate officers are all making tens of millions of dollars annually? There should be a new law that says that CEO salaries must be clearly displayed right next to how much you have to pay for a share of stock. This seems like a more accurate prediction of future performance than short-term share price gains which can be easily manipulated to lure investors. How to steal legally. I mean, this is what they teach people in business schools these days, isn't it? It seems that our best and brightest have focused their energy on creating new profit bubbles, the bursting part to be repaired by lower minds who don't have second home mortgages or yacht payments to worry about. Another NYT article reported on young women's problems with dating Wall Street bankers during the crisis. On a blog these women write, a 24 year old mistress of a banker laments not getting the royal treatment as of late. You know that the economy is bad when even the whores have to do a little belt-tightening. I always thought that industry was recession-proof. My comment on this site stating this was immediately removed. Who ever thought whores were so sensitive?

I can't say that I mind seeing layoffs in the luxury goods market. I don't think that our economy will be too damaged by the loss of a few thousand jobs in the corporate jet industry. I also would applaud layoffs in defense spending, an industry whose end result doesn't even produce true capital goods. Think of all of the tanks America has produced in the past 20 years and then think about what little good they have done our servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fighter jets aren't much of a help in a guerrilla war, ditto that for aircraft carriers, destroyers, nuclear missiles, and submarines—to name just a few bloated items on the defense spending list.

Conservatives have taught their underclass supporters that it's OK to be fabulously wealthy. Ronald Reagan's famous quote the he still believed America was a place where a guy could make a million bucks has been the words behind the fantasy. We are all going to get filthy rich, at least if you believe the folks at National Review or the American Enterprise Institute. The society of ownership was what the former president called it.

We were told for years that socialized medicine was for wimps and communists who couldn't afford to pay for private insurance. Of course we have learned that our system of private insurance providers is leaving a vast percentage of our population without a shred of coverage. And what's going to happen when that bubble bursts? Medical costs have risen so much in recent years that most people couldn't afford to pay for a few stitches out-of-pocket. A lot of what conservatives have been chanting over the past generation has turned out to be even worse than failed policy, it has been slickly-packaged lies. How much longer are they going to deny global warming? How much longer can we survive without publicly-funded mass transportation? And does anyone, anywhere still believe that our economy should be completely free of government regulation?

Just like how it is going to take President Obama a few years to repair the damage left in the wake of the former White House residents, it will take years to reconstruct American values. It's not going to be easy. How do you teach people that it's OK not to be rich?

First we'll need to turn off the relentless onslaught of pro-rich propaganda. I knew something was drastically broken with America when Princess Di died. I was completely flabbergasted by the outpouring of grief that was manifested over a period of weeks. The mere idea of royalty should be totally repugnant to American citizens, or don't they teach the whole “all men are created equal” nonsense in schools any more? This was a princess, someone who is supposed to be different from you and me simply by the accident of her birth. They tried to paint her as some sort of medieval saint because she preformed a few photo opportunities with the disadvantaged. She never actually worked with the poor and even these photo sessions didn't obstruct her lifestyle of endless shopping and vacationing in exotic locales. Next, she died in a car wreck because her driver, her employee was driving at at incredibly unsafe speed down crowded city streets because she didn't want to be photographed? That's when I knew that many of us had crossed over into some sort of parallel fantasy universe of princesses and palaces brought on by a few too many episodes of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and other programs that beat it into people's heads that the super-rich were super people.

Next we need to tell Hollywood ix-nay with the ich-ray as Crusty the Clown would say it in his unaccented pig Latin. Stop making everyone rich in your films and movies, as if wealthy people are the only ones capable of leading interesting lives. Just watch a newer Woodie Allen movie to see just how boring rich people can be. Hollywood, for the most part, is more out-of-touch than any sector of our society. Perhaps the film moguls need to go out in the field and study the average American, Dian Fossey-like. If Hollywood does make a movie about the middle class or lower, it's usually some sort of horrifically violent work that drives home the need to either get rich as quick as you can or stock up on firearms even faster. Have you ever noticed that the job of about half the people in movies is advertising executive—as if this is the only other job besides movie star that Hollywood can imagine.

How about showing people who live in normal houses instead of exposed-brick lofts or idyllic country estates? I have noticed that Spanish movies are more apt to portray middle class people as they truly live in Spain. Perhaps this is because their smaller film budgets require them to film more on location instead of creating a middle class fantasy on a set some where. Hollywood loves to say that they are just creating a fantasy world where viewers can escape for a couple hours, but I see a much more sinister end result from this constant bombardment of how cool it is to be stupid and rich. I don't know if the intention is sinister, or if the producers are just clueless from having lived in lala land for too long. We already have generations of people born into the Hollywood elite and have never even seen any other world. Believe me, this shows in the work they do.

I think we have simply given up on the idea that a person can live with dignity no matter what tax bracket they inhabit.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Coming to a Theater Near You

Sneak Previews of Movies Coming to a Theater Near You

(Not really for my highly-sophisticated readers but something I submitted somewhere else)

3 Men and a Baby's Funeral

Three men of very questionable sexuality are forced to care for an infant with hilarious and ultimately fatal results. Don't try this at home! LOL

The Skinhead in the Striped Pajamas

Finally some justice on the planet when racists are sent to concentration camps. (A little boy wearing a yarmulke with a ferocious German Sheppard at his side pokes the tattooed and muscle-bound skinhead with a stick through a barbed wire fence)

Ladybug Man

The last of the insect-inspired superheroes—we promise. Really.

Hannibal Gump

The first mentally retarded serial killer. “Life is like a bowl of internal organs.” (Gump sitting on a bench wearing a dorky seersucker suit with the Lecter mask)

National Lampoon's Vacation in Hell

Lured by cheap airfares and a rising dollar, the Griswolds decide that this year it's Wally World in Baghdad! Clark desperately tries to escape as jihadists argue over the theme music to add to his youtube beheading video. Jihadist 1, “I think it should be My Heart Will Go On.” Jihadist 2, “We used that on the last video.”

Harry Potter and the Small, Dank Cell

It had to happen sooner or later. He's a magician but he can't make this marijuana arrest disappear completely. Sentence Suspended.

You Drive Miss Daisy, Bi-atch!

Snoop Dog is hired to drive around some old, wrinkled white hag.

Home, Not Alone

Macaulay Culkin and his girlfriend pretend they aren't home when MJ drops by for a visit, flowers and box of chocolates in his hand. (Michael Jackson grabs himself and let's out one of his patented “Yee HEE who”s as the couple cower on the other side of the door)

Bridget Jones's Poorly-Written Suicide Note

We wish. (A post-it note on the refrigerator door next to a coupon for ice cream reads, “By the time you read this I will already be dead and unable to make more movies”)

Honey, Bin Laden Blew Up the Kids

America's favorite bogeyman is back and more terror-licious than ever. Rated G for all audiences.

Some Complete Piece of Crap Starring Some No-Talent from SNL

Does it even matter what the story is about?

Sex and Disease and the City

What's the sound of four tramps clapping? “Another round of martinis and then it's off to the clinic for shots of penicillin.”

Indiana Jones and the Depends® of Doom

At the old folks home a very old Indy hasn't been changed in four days. Now he's in the fight of his life...to breathe!

Indian Jones and the Wrong Flavor Fruit Cup

Indy in his wheel chair with trademark hat and bull whip. “Hey, I wanted peach.”

Indiana Jones and the Email Attachment that He Can't Open

Brideshead Regurgitated

A really lame, really dusty movie about old, rich British people who have probably never had sex and if they have they thought it was icky and shameful.

Sister Act IV

The bloody saga continues. Starring Vin Diesel and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A View of Summer

A View of Summer

I wake up really early almost every day. At least it's early for Spain, early like 7 o´clock, sometimes earlier. At this hour there is already a lot going on at the Ruzafa Market next door, but that's about it. Barely a car passes on the street below and forget about pedestrians. At this point in winter it doesn't start getting light until around 8 o'clock so I'm walking around in the dark for at least an hour every day. This is also the coldest part of the day. I'm not complaining, I stopped complaining about the “cold” because it really isn't cold here in Valencia. With that said, I really love summer here.

I was just looking through my pictures, mostly because most of them are terrible and need to be deleted. I came across this one that tells the story about why summer here is so great: a rooftop barbecue with lots of friends, beer, and food. This rooftop terrace is about as good as it gets for a summer party. From up here you can see all over the city. The sunsets are almost always spectacular over the hills to the west of Valencia. The group in the picture is probably less than half of the crowd that usually shows up whenever there is a party at this flat. I find it remarkable that most people here in Valencia don't take advantage of their rooftops for this sort of thing. Seattle also had some spectacular patios with views of the city and the Puget Sound. I just hope that this apartment stays in the hands of friends when summer returns.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Falling Through the Cracks: Discovering Nick Drake

Falling Through the Cracks: Discovering Nick Drake

Place to Be

When I was young, younger than before
I never saw the truth hanging from the door
And now I'm older see it face to face
And now I'm older gotta get up clean the place.

And I was green, greener than the hill
Where the flowers grew and the sun shone still
Now I'm darker than the deepest sea
Just hand me down, give me a place to be.

And I was strong, strong in the sun
I thought I'd see when day is done
Now I'm weaker than the palest blue
Oh, so weak in this need for you.

Perhaps I'm the only person left on the planet who hasn't discovered Nick Drake. At least I hadn't up until January 23, 2009 that is. I hope I am the last person because everyone should already be a huge fan of this great music. If any of my friends listen to his stuff then they didn't tell me about it and they never played it when I was around. I have no idea how I could have possibly gone this long without hearing these songs. He just sort of fell through the cracks. What a shame but what a marvelous artist to have discovered at this point in my life. I feel lucky and blessed.

I was in my favorite new bookstore/café in Ruzafa, Ubik Café yesterday looking through the stacks of used books. There was music playing but it was pretty soft in the almost empty store. I didn't really notice the music until I moved to the back nearer to the speakers. This is why I know that I have never heard his music before, because I knew immediately that I was listening to something really, really good. I absolutely stopped what I was doing and listened. I asked the guy working there who we were listening to. I had to have him repeat the name because I had never heard of the singer before and the guy's pronunciation was a little off. I just shook my head, sort of pretending that I knew of him. How could I not know about a guy who puts out music like this.

As soon as I got home I looked up Nick Drake's name on Wikipedia (I'm such a fucking nerd! Someone please punch me really hard, or give me a wedgie.). I quickly glanced at his vital statistics and at first I thought he was born in 1974. Great, another young British kid burning up the charts, easy enough to get by me these days as I hardly listen to popular music. What first struck me with the song I heard was its stark, sort of hands-off production. It was just about as pure as singing gets and utterly timeless. When I corrected my mistake and saw that 1974 was the year he died I almost couldn't believe it. The fact that I had never heard of him before makes me ashamed, embarrassed, and angry all at the same time. I feel like someone who was never taught to read and walks into a library one day.

When I think back on all the complete shit masquerading as music that was shoved down my throat on FM radio in America back then, it makes me sad to think that this guy was completely ignored. What a crime. The good news in the tragic story of Nick Drake's life is that so many new listeners have so much catching up to do.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Language Lab

Language Lab

I thought I would pass along a couple of my techniques for learning Spanish, or any other language I am studying. I have said over and over that reading is an essential part of picking up new vocabulary. The more you read, the faster you will learn Spanish. I have always been a fairly heavy reader so this isn't a chore for me. The reading part isn't a chore but the foreign language part is a pain in the ass—although less and less every day. Even when my Spanish really sucked I read quite a bit. I can't believe that I was able to make it through some of those books. With every new book that I begin, I read faster and with much better comprehension. My vocabulary grows exponentially and I have the notebooks filled with words I have looked up to prove it.

A trick I use whenever I am reading a book I bought—as opposed to library books or one borrowed from friends—is that I always have a red pen handy to underline new words I come across. I don't stop to look up every unfamiliar word as I am reading unless it is absolutely essential to understanding the text. I will also immediately look up a word if it appears twice in a passage I am reading. After I have finished reading for that session I will go back and look up the underlined words and write down the meanings in a notebook. I will also write down other forms of the word, be they adjectives, verbs, nouns, or whatever the case may be. I also try to write down as many synonyms for the new word as I know or can find. I will sometimes write down the sentence containing the word as this helps me to get a grip on words that are more conceptual or more difficult to grasp. Something I don't do often enough is to go back and review a book by searching out the underlined words and read the context to see if the meaning has stuck with me or not.

If anyone has a better method please share it with me. Reading in Spanish has always been a great pleasure, but as I improve I read faster and with greater understanding. I like to read books by fairly contemporary Spanish authors as I feel this is the best way to learn how to speak the language spoken in Spain today. However, books that have been translated into Spanish are, generally speaking, easier to read than books written in Spanish. I suppose this is because a translation is going to be a lot less idiomatic. I usually read a translation and then follow that with a book originally written in Spanish.

I just finished El Padrino (The Godfather) and am following that with El Amante Albanés by the Spanish novelist, Susana Fortes. I have quite a stack of books I want to read so I try to keep to my reading goal of a minimum of 50 pages a day. Some days are easier than others. I picked up a copy of The Old Man and the Sea in Spanish which I will read next. That should be a snap to read. As I have said before, my ultimate goal is to red Don Quixote and I don't mean the young person's version I have on my shelf.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

President Barack Hussein Obama: Color Esperanza

President Barack Hussein Obama

Color Esperanza (the color of hope) by Diego Torres

Sé que hay en tus ojos con solo mirar
que estas cansado de andar y de andar
y caminar girando siempre en un lugar
(I can see in your eyes that you are tired of wandering, going in circles

Sé que las ventanas se pueden abrir
cambiar el aire depende de ti
te ayudará vale la pena una vez más
(I know that the windows open, change depends on you, it will help and it's worth it one more time

Saber que se puede querer que se pueda
quitarse los miedos sacarlos afuera
pintarse la cara color esperanza
tentar al futuro con el corazón
(Know that you can do it if you want, leave your fears and send them out, color your face with hope, touch the future with your heart

Es mejor perderse que nunca embarcar
mejor tentarse a dejar de intentar
aunque ya ves que no es tan fácil empezar
(It's better to lose than never leave, better to try that not, but it's not easy to begin

Sé que lo imposible se puede lograr
que la tristeza algún día se irá
y así será la vida cambia y cambiará
(I know that the impossible is possible, sorrow will fade, and life changes and will change

Sentirás que el alma vuela
por cantar una vez más

Vale más poder brillar
Que solo buscar ver el sol

Excuse my clumsy translation. I'd rather translate all of Don Quijote than a few verses of a song. I discovered this rather saccharin Latin pop song on the same day that Obama was sworn in as president of the United States of America. Excuse me just this one day of optimism, I think we all deserve it after eight years of fear mongering, war, and economic collapse that defined the previous administration (I no longer even have to say his name!). Watching as the former president finally boarded the Marine helicopter I kept thinking of that line from The Lives of Others, “I can't believe my country was lead by men like you.” I wish I could take some solace for these past eight years in knowing that the previous occupants left office in disgrace. I can only have hope for better things to come.

The good news is that liberals will only have ourselves to blame for the country's ills—at least after we've cleaned up the mess left us by the last bunch. This song seems inspired by Obama or the opposite. I think it is curious that I first heard it only hours after he took office.

The inauguration was televised here in Valencia on three local channels as well as CNN, with coverage in Spanish and Valenciano. Just by chance, the church bells at San Valero next door to my house starting pealing wildly right when the helicopter took off taking you-know-who away from the presidency for the last time. That was pretty cool.

Enjoy the video.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Mall on Wheels

The Mall on Wheels

Too lazy to go downtown to shop? Can't even be bothered to browse the shops in the neighborhood? Just wait until Monday and the mall will set up right on your front doorstep. At least it does for me here in the heart of Ruzafa. Every Monday, bright and early enough during these winter months that it is still dark outside, a caravan of vans hauling trailers pull into my neighborhood and set up for the weekly street market. If you miss it on Monday and can't wait a week, you just need to find out where they go on Tuesdays. That would be a few blocks away on the other side of the train station.

I like how they set up practically on the steps of the 15th century church of Saint Valero. I guess the whole money changers in the lord's house doesn't apply to the Monday market. Maybe the priests shake down the vendors for a piece of the action, or vice versa. I can just hear the threats being made, “Nice little church you got here, padre. It'd be a shame if sumtin' were to happen to it.” In the two years I have lived here there have been very few violent turf battles between the vendors. There was the massacre last year when machine gun fire was exchanged between a stall selling baby clothes and another that sells sweaters for hamster-size dogs. We are trying to put that behind us and move on with our lives.

There is a lot of barking at the market. In the words of Malcom X, vendors try to entice shoppers by any means necessary. I find the shouted sales pitches to be pretty entertaining on some mornings. At a stall selling shoes the merchant shouted at a woman old enough to be my grandmother, “Hot stuff, come abuse me.” Another favorite is, “For the love of God, don't pass by without even looking.” Most of the comments have to do with how the vendors are the victims of crimes committed by their customers because the prices are so low.

You can find just about anything you want for your home in the market, as well as clothes, pet supplies, shoes, bed linen, plants, along with bootleg movies and music—compliments of the African immigrants who control this sub-sector of the economy. I get a kick out of the stalls that sell nothing but underwear. I call them the Underwear Hut. You will see a group of middle aged women rooting through a huge pile of lingerie that would make your average porn star blush with embarrassment. In some stalls the clothing items are arranged neatly on hangers or folded in orderly stacks. These are stalls for the filthy rich who are willing to pay as much as 10€ for a single item of clothing. Other stalls simply have huge stacks of garments that you have to burrow through to find what you want. I go to one of these stalls to buy my sportswear for working out or cycling.

At around 2:00 pm the market breaks down, leaving a huge mess in its wake. A city cleaning crew is right on their heels sweeping up and disposing of the refuse left behind. By 3:30 pm the neighborhood is back to normal with hardly a trace of the whirlwind of commerce that was choking the streets only a few hours ago. About all that is left is an errant tissue from a shoe box blowing along the sidewalk.

Today I bought a big table cloth for the dining room (8€), a big flannel pillow case for a meter-long pillow I have on my bed, and a Rabobank team bike jersey for only 2€. Not a bad haul although I have had better days. There is always next week.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sopa de Lentejas

Lentil Soup

This is about as unsophisticated as cooking gets. It's basically the same recipe that you use for cocido but instead of garbanzos I use lentils. I give away a lot of what I cook to friends which explains the Salvation Army soup kitchen-size pot. I figure that I will use the same amount of energy to cook a huge batch or a smaller one. I don't freeze stuff that I cook, I'd rather just give it away.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Keep Hammering Away

Keep Hammering Away

Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins once said that if he missed a day of practice on his horn he would notice, if he missed two days his band would notice, and if he missed three days the audience would hear it. It's sort of the same thing with learning Spanish. The task of learning Spanish is always present, like a cloud that hangs over you night and day. There are no days off. If you aren't moving forward you are being left behind. I sometimes feel almost frantic to improve my Spanish; to learn more words; to round off the American edges on my accent; to conquer a new idiom or two; to finally get a grasp on that damn vosotros form they don't teach much in America. It's not any sort of race, there is never going to be a finish line, but I feel that if I don't study every day I am somehow losing.

In two years I have gone from being the “just off the boat” new guy. Then I moved up to the motivated intermediate. Right now I think that I am among the “fairly fluent but still with much to learn” subcategory. I can have a conversation about just about anything unless I am absolutely lacking in vocabulary for that particular subject. I recently had some plumbing issues to take care of in the apartment and I realized that I have none of the necessary vocabulary. I suppose that part of the process of becoming bilingual is experiencing every situation and learning from it all of the vocabulary, grammar patterns, and idioms. If there is a way to speed up this process I'd like to know about it.

The only way that I have learned to speed up learning Spanish is by reading. I mean, you can't really talk any faster. I suppose that I could listen to the radio more frequently as this improves my listening comprehension. Watching movies and television isn't too efficient because lots of movies don't have much in the way of dialogue. You can read more words in about 15 minutes than are spoken in some films. Reading, on the other hand, is a very efficient use of your time if you are learning another language. It is also the best way to develop your vocabulary. If you don't read The Godfather in Spanish then how will you ever learn how to make someone an offer they can't refuse, or say that to someone in Spanish?

I am at the point where a lot of foreign people think that I am Spanish when they hear me talk. This has more to do with their own low level of Spanish than my verbal skill, but still. That's kind of cool when people tell me that. I recently found a cell phone on the road while I was working out on my bike. I picked it up and did a redial of the last number that came in. It turns out the owner was on the other end as he had been calling his phone from a friend's cell. I immediately recognize his accent as Romanian as we spoke about where we could meet so I could return his phone. It was sort of a pain in the ass as his Spanish was pretty lousy. We finally did meet up and he was very grateful. He had left his phone on the roof of his car and drove off. It just so happens that I was on a stretch of road I normally avoid but couldn't on this day because the bike bridge was under repairs. I tried to make a joke about the difficulty of two immigrants trying to converse on the phone. I noticed that he look a little insulted—like I had made fun of his Spanish. I realized that he probably thought I was from Spain. I explained that I was American and he seemed shocked.

It's not just the language that seeps into your system. You find yourself becoming more Spanish in all aspects of your daily life. Your eating hours either shift to the Spanish schedule or you are left incredibly out of sync with everyone else. The types of food that I eat would be hardly recognizable to the average American. Last night I didn't feel like cooking so I just I just made some tapas of bread with anchovies, tomato, and a tortilla I had made the day before. I topped this off with some olives and a glass of red wine. Little by little this square America peg is getting hammered into a round slot.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In Parenthesis

In Parenthesis

My comments are out. The system I was using finally disappeared. My blog is so screwed up that I can't even get the normal blogger comments to work. On the bright side, my page loads really quickly without the comments, and I didn't get too many comments even when they were an option. As I have said before, all meatloaf recipes, pictures of plastic surgery gone horribly wrong, and hate mail can be sent to me at leftbanker at gmail dot com.

Sometimes defeat feels really good. Let me explain. Last winter in Valencia was hardly worthy of the name. I can't remember turning on the heat in the apartment more than two or three times. I rode my bike all winter in mountain bike shorts. I swore that I wouldn't resort to dorky tights for my winter rides this year. But this year it's different. It has been cold. At this moment the thermometer is right at freezing. I have had my heat on almost every day, although we only use it for an hour or two. I have returned from bike rides with my legs as red as beets, not too mention the days I have missed because I simply couldn't make myself go out and do it. For the past week I have been on a mission to get into top physical form, or as top as this old carcass is capable of achieving.

Yesterday I wore a pair of nylon sweat pants on my ride. It was actually comfortable. I didn't have to do a mad, all-out sprint at the half-way point in my ride because I was freezing half-to-death. I did find the bike bridge was out for repairs when I got outside of Pinedo. I back-tracked into Valencia and salvaged my ride by making my way around the historical section of the city. It was practically deserted on this sunny, late afternoon in January. Even when it's cold in Valencia we still are blessed with a wonderfully clear sky. It has snowed in much of Spain so I have no reason to complain at all. Valencia actually has about the warmest winter temperatures in all of mainland Spain (The Canary Islands screw up the average temperatures in Spain whenever you include them).

I may have put on long pants but I still refuse to ride in the rain or even when it is wet. It's dangerous, for one. Of all of the nasty spills I have taken while bike riding, most were because of wet pavement. Wet streets also destroy your bike, or this destroys my bikes faster than I can do it on my own. I have actually ridden so much in the past two years that I wore out my chain. I don't think I've ever done that before, and I've done lots of riding. I have worn out about four sets of tires in two year, not to mentions dozens of tubes and too many flats to count. I have had a lot of flats (pinchazo is a Spanish word I wish I had never needed to learn).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

No Reservations

I've recently become obsessed with an American television series called No Reservations hosted by the author Anthony Bourdain who wrote, among other things, the bestseller Kitchen Confidential. From the few episodes I have seen thus far, he basically just travels around the world, eats, and drinks—not a bad gig if you can get someone to pay you for it. So far I have watched the shows about places that have meant a lot to me over the course of my life: Paris, Greece, Peru, Mexico, Italy, and Spain.

It's not a cooking show in the traditional sense where you are shown how to make a certain dish. No Reservations is a celebration of food and drink from around the world. What sets it apart from other cooking/travel shows is the writing and the insights of the author/host. More than just about any other travel writer I have read (let alone cooking show dorks) Anthony Bourdain really gets the places he visits—or at least he really tries to really get them.

One thing he said during an episode about the U.S.-Mexico border stands out in my mind: “When I started to look at Texas with the same respect I show other lands I started to find much to love.” Bourdain does have a great respect for the countries he visits, but he seems to have an even greater respect for the culinary traditions of the people and the places that he visits while making his show. He often gets into the thinking of great chefs by exploring their cooking roots, this means going back home, whether that is on a Greek island or in a Mexican village. Out of all of the places he visits on his show, the one place to where I most want to return is Mexico. I love the food there more than anywhere else I have every been.

I can't wait to go back and learn more about Mexican cooking, especially with my new and improved Spanish. I think I will have to try the recipe for mole I learned on a trip to San Miguel de Allende I made back in 2002. I have never tried it since I was there. I think that I can find all of the ingredients here in Spain. Finding people to ate this with me is another problem. I miss people who like spicy food. I desperately want to smoke a cigar with someone who smokes cigars. Oh brother, where art thou? His observations on that standard of European society, the cafe, reflect my own thoughts almost exactly. Another observation he made about life in Spain really hit home with me. He was commenting—among other things—on the Spanish way of life, of having a coffee or a glass or wine or a tapa in a little corner bar. He wondered why he didn't have these things every day. In a nutshell this is why I came here. I wanted these things every day and that has made all the difference.

One thing that is particularly annoying about the show—and it has nothing to do with the show itself—is that American television requires that there be a parental warning after each break in the episode. It's positively embarrassing that our government feels that we are so delicate that we need to be protects from every coarse word, every casual remark about abusing alcohol or drugs, every off-color comment about sex that you hear on the show. It's as if we lost and the Mormons have taken over the entire country. I've never understood people who are offended by profanity. It's just words, people. Just because we don't let people say the word “shit” or “fuck” on America television doesn't mean we will have a world without poop or sex. By the way, those two words are bantered about on Spanish television in an extremely casual nature, as if they were both just two more things that make up what is called human existence.

What people in America should be more concerned with is our casual acceptance of depictions of extreme violence on TV—something that I believe lowers our collective sense of outrage when we hear about violence in real life. What do the folks who require this childish censorship think would be the worst-case scenario if we allowed profanity and nudity on TV? We are already one of the most violence and crime-ridden cultures on earth, maybe a little sex and dirty talk would do us some good? When I watch an American movie or TV show that portrays violence in America I am invariably asked if this is how it really is in my country. I am ashamed to say that it is like these movie portrayals, at least sometimes in some places. We need to work on that. We need to stop glamorizing violence, stop making it sexy and cool. It's incredibly uncool and unsexy.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Shop 'Til You Drop Or “It” Drops On You

Shop 'Til You Drop Or “It” Drops On You

Shopaholic spinster found dead under 3 feet of unopened goods

A spinster who obsessively hoarded clothes died in her home after a mountain of suitcases fell on her, burying her alive. The woman, 77, owned 300 scarves as well as thousands of trinkets and valuables.

There's a lesson in this story. Or is it a metaphor? I always get those mixed up. Or am I thinking of a moral? A paradox perhaps? I guess it could be a cautionary tale but I'm pretty sure it's not an analogy. Pretty much any way you slice it, the old gal is with her maker now. That's if there is such a thing as heaven, and my gut feeling tells me that there isn't. I am one hundred percent positive that you can't “take it with you,” as they say. The “it” in this case is all of the crap she had stuffed into her house and garage. Even if there were a heaven, or life after death, or a place where you meet your maker—be it god or Allah or Buddha (is he a god?) or Krisha or whoever you worship—even if there were such a place, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't really need to take your “trinkets” with you, whatever the hell they are. Is there a trinket aisle at Wal-Mart?

So why was this in the paper in the first place? Not in the paper like a newspaper but on a web page, although the web page is from a newspaper, so why? One poor old woman getting buried by her own trinkets doesn't qualify as news, not in my book. She looks a bit like Margaret Thatcher. Now that would be a news story: “Margaret Thatcher, Compulsive Shopper, Buried Under Trinkets!” But it wasn't Margaret Thatcher so it really isn't news unless there is something for readers to gain from it. I suppose that for most people it's just entertainment, like reading about celebrities. You people are really need to find a hobby. The really sad part about this whole story is that if this woman was a compulsive shopper it means she bought all sorts of stuff. I'm thinking that at some time or another she probably bought a shovel which would have come in really handy when all that crap caved in on her. I'm just thinking out loud here but if she did have a shovel but couldn't reach it that would have been really ironic, or malapropos, or apropos (if you can keep those two straight you are smarter than me, or I, I went and opened a whole other can of worms there), or tragic, or whatever. You know what I mean. And it's all kind of like sad but not “boo-hoo” sad. Just the kind of sad you feel for some stranger you read about on the internet. You can't go too overboard on the sadness thing every time you come across a sad story like this.

Come to think of it, there is something to be learned from this. If you are a shopaholic then about every 10th thing you buy—be they trinkets, scarves, or whatever—every once in a while you need to pick up a shovel, you know, just in case. Either that or you need to be equally as obsessive about stacking all of your crap as you are about buying it—maybe more so. Still, I'm not trying to be judgmental about the lady, I'm just saying. I don't think anyone has ever died from being too organized. So there is the lesson for you: Get organized before you find yourself buried under a bunch of suitcases with no shovel.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Mi Barrio

Ubik Café

There is a cool new café in Ruzafa. I thought that I would take this occasion to introduce everyone to my great little neighborhood, one place at a time. Ubik Café is a café and used bookstore that is on the calle Literato Azorín in the heart of Ruzafa. Good coffee, beer, wine, and whatever other spirits people consume in Spain can be sipped at the bar or at one of the library-type tables. Hip little places like this are a dime a dozen in Madrid and Barcelona but for Valencia it's a bit special. I can already tell that I will be a regular here. On my first visit today I had a cortado and bought a copy of Antonio Muñoz Molina's El Jinete Polaco as well as a Spanish translation of Mario Puzo's The Godfather (el Padrino). The gangster book is to help me pad my 50 page-a-day reading minimum. They have a ton of books with many priced as low as 1.50€ so I got two books and a coffee for 4.20€. If you are in the neighborhood, drop by for a visit.

Just An Observation

The people of Valencia are less tolerant of cold as anyone I've ever lived around. As soon as the temperature drops below about 65º Fahrenheit (still don't like the Celsius thing) girls switch from wearing incredibly sexy summer clothing to ultra-dumpy arctic gear, from bikini to parka in the span of about one week . If the temperature drops to below 50º every single verbal exchange begins with one or both parties complaining about the cold. I suppose that it is a relative thing but I don't think that it ever gets really cold in Valencia. At least this is what I used to say but after living here for a couple of years I have had my defenses lowered. Right now it is below freezing. That seems really, really cold to me.

An odd paradox about Valencianos—and this may be true of other people on the Mediterranean—is that even during the coldest days of winter, these warm-blooded people like to sit outside at cafés and restaurants. I see people at the beach restaurants eating outside in the afternoon, and this is on days when I wear four layers shirts and sweaters. In more northerly cities in which I have lived, it is rare to see people sit outside once the temperature drops to a level requiring jackets. When I was walking around with my camera this morning all I found were empty tables outside but it was unusually cold.

Monday, January 05, 2009

I Know Why the Caged Bird Got Ate (and other stories)

Warning: The following essay contains the word “poop” several times and therefore may not be suitable for younger readers. Either that or it's only suitable for younger readers.

Xativa, Spain. This was the location of the first reported falcon attack against a canary, a once cheery little fellow who probably thought he was safe in his cage on an apartment balcony. Witnesses said the falcon landed on the canary's cage on an apartment balcony. I can imagine the canary was feeling smug in his cage and started talking smack to the falcon. “Oh, look at the big stupid falcon. I'm so scared.” The raptor then stuck one of his talons through the bars, neatly diced the canary into bite-sized pieces, pulled the bits out from between the bars, and ate them. No kidding. Canaries are tiny little birds and there are millions of pigeons for falcons to dine on so I'm guessing he ate the canary out of spite because he was annoyed with the wise-guy song bird.

There have been several reports by local citizens reporting birds attacks. These ate crimes (I am so sorry for that) are not all perpetrated by falcons and hawks, people have also reported seeing sea gulls attack pigeons. The workers in the Valencia area animal control bureau who field these calls basically just tell people to grow up. This is the way life is really is. Don't these people watch all of the nature shows on TV? Perhaps they thought they were witnessing some sort of intra-species bird-on-bird perversion. I have seen three articles in the local paper on this subject so I think they are just trying to assure people that it's normal for big bird to eat little bird.

I have stopped complaining about dog poop on the sidewalks of Valencia. This isn't because the problem has gone away, I just got tired of being the only person who seemed bothered by it. I have noticed that Barcelona doesn't have this problem as most dog owners there clean up after their pets. I had never seen any sort of ad campaign in Valencia to get people to scoop up in their pet's wake. I have come across very few street signs urging folks to clean up. I was surprised to come across an article in the Valencia daily, Levante, about a campaign in the neighborhood of Patraix in which residents are trying to raise awareness of this problem. Their idea was to decorate dog waste with holiday motifs. Another article in the same paper some days later said there was talk of initializing a program in which dog waste found on the street will be tested for DNA. I think people have been watching a bit too much CSI.

Both the DNA testing and the poop decorating scheme seem like such passive-aggressive approaches to solving the problem. What ever happened to just screaming at offenders, “Hey, clean that up. Were you born in Madrid?” That's what you say to people in Spain instead of, “Were you born in a barn?” At least that's what people say here in Valencia. I'm not sure if Madrid suffers from this dog poop problem. One look at the sidewalks in Valencia will make you wonder if the rest of Spain says, “Were you born in Valencia?”

I propose a more drastic and direct approach to combat dog poop on the sidewalk. We need a campaign of television announcements to raise public awareness to this crisis. I thought to myself, “How would Leni Riefenstahl deal with this issue?” If you think that employing the techniques of this influential filmmaker and chief propagandist for the Third Reich is going a bit overboard, then you haven't been forced to play dog crap hopscotch down a narrow sidewalk in my neighborhood. I have a commercial in mind.

First, you need a moving musical score. Something brooding and ominous, sort of Schindler's List-y but more melodramatic. Open with a sunny winter day in one of Valencia's lovely parks. A mother and father are teaching their son how to ride his first bike, probably a Christmas gift. After a few strides the father lets go and the boy is pedaling all on his own. But up ahead a Jack Russel terrier is squatting in the bike path. The little boy cheerfully rings the little bell on his handlebars—just like dad taught him to do. The dog moves out of the way but he has left behind the steaming remains of yesterday's Purina. The little boy frantically applies the brakes, but it is too late. Cut to stock footage of the world's great disasters: the Hindenburg explosion, Nagasaki, Joseba Beloki's horrible crash in the 2003 Tour de France, and the World Trade Center collapsing (too over-the-top?). The aftermath. The inconsolable parents, the distraught emergency medical team agonizing over their inability to save the child, and the Jack Russel nonchalantly peeing on the front tire of the ambulance. A cemetery on a cold, gray afternoon. The young couple approach a tiny tombstone and the father places a Power Rangers action figure on top. A Power Rangers figure or whatever toy is in season this year, the toy your kid won't stop screaming about until you buy it for him, even though you gave him the speech about not raising him just to provide another consumer for the marketing departments of the world. Of course you caved in and bought it for the little animal. If you didn't someone probably would have called child protective services and had your kid taken away from you. On the other side of the cemetery the little dog plays with a chew toy, mocking the parent's grief. Fade out.

I'm just sort of thinking out loud but I think you get the mood I'm after with these commercials.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Chelva, España

New Year's Eve in Chelva, España

I spent New Year's Eve (Noche Vieja in Spain) in the village of Chelva, about 70 kilometers from Valencia. A friend from the neighborhood here in Ruzafa rents a place in the village where he spends weekends with his family. I used to do the same thing when I lived in Athens, Greece years ago. Some friends and I rented an apartment in the village of Araxova up in the mountains. We used it for skiing weekends in the winter months. The apartment in Chelva is absolutely enormous and has four floors. There is a fireplace on the top floor and a wood burning stove in the huge kitchen.

There were 15 of us in all, with a big mix of nationalities. Because we are in Spain, there was way too much food. We began the New Year's celebration with a incredibly diverse banquet which included a Russian soup, hummus, Finnish salmon, stuffed turkey, meatballs, a tortilla de patatas, an array of sausages (my contribution), olives (also my contribution as I am a total snob when it comes to olives), cheeses, salads, and bread. I ate for a solid hour. I barely talked to anyone as I stuffed my fat face.

Besides the rustic setting and the United Nations make up of the group, it was a typical New Year's party. Before midnight we headed up the hill to the village square in front of the cathedral. The square is undergoing major renovations so most of it is fenced off. We stood on the steps of the cathedral holding our twelve grapes and waited for the bells to ring in the new year. Evidently, the bell ringer had the night off so after a short fireworks display we took matters into our own hands and counted the bells as we ate the traditional twelve grapes, one for every ring of the bell. There were only a few dozen other people in the square and no one really knew what to do. I prompted our group into singing a rendition of John Lennon's “Power to the People.” Don't ask me why. I think I will make this a new tradition on New Year's.

As usual, I was the last to bed and the first one up in the morning. I walked around the village and took the pictures you can see if you click on the title. When I got back a few hours later everyone was up. We had an English breakfast of eggs, bacon, rashers, toast, and beans...and coffee, lots of coffee. After breakfast (which we finished at around 3 in the afternoon) we went for a walk along the river and through the village. When we got back we had a tremendous lunch of everything left over from the night before. That made three big meals in less than 24 hours. Even for Spanish people that's a lot of eating.