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Monday, February 23, 2009

Eat or Die

I am what you would call an eater. I eat things. I eat bite-sized plants and animals whole. I cut larger plants and animals into smaller, more manageable parts before eating. I eat cute little animals, and I eat ugly fruits and vegetables, and vice versa. If humans have been known ever to have eaten something, I will eat it. I will eat things which no man has eaten before. Raw, blanched, blended, steamed, boiled, stir-fried, poached, scrambled, stewed, simmered, tossed, frozen, thawed, and Buffalo-style are just a few of the ways I will devour a plant or animal. Sometimes I will mix two or three of these techniques together to stuff my face. Variety is the spice of life, as they say. Variety is good but this soup needs more salt. Spice is also the spice of life.

If you don't eat you will die. Try not eating. You will die. Life will throw out your scrawny carcass when you starve to death but death will eat you right up, bones and all. Death has an incredible appetite. I don't want to die so I eat. Death is often only a bagel with cream cheese away from where I am sitting in this coffee shop. Death circles like a vulture…waiting…waiting for me to miss a meal, waiting for me to screw up and starve to death. Death is patient. Death asks to borrow my newspaper. Death reads the box scores. Death sees that my team is in last place. Death smells death and leaves me to finish my bagel. Death instead goes to circle the clubhouse. I sigh with relief but cut it short because I remember that sighing with your mouth full of food is impolite. A near-death experience is no reason to lose your manners.

Death is relentless and so I eat relentlessly. Death never sleeps. It is difficult to eat while you sleep which is why people die in their sleep. My solution is to dream about eating. I'm not dead yet so maybe I'm on to something. Death does not play fair; nod off for a second and death will be all over you like a sweaty undershirt. I nap with a ham sandwich in my hand, an over-sized bag of generic cheese doodles resting on my stomach, a cooking show glowing in front of me. You can't be too careful. Actually you can be too careful, like the time I tried to go to sleep using a chicken drumstick as a pacifier. I woke up choking and had to give myself the Heimlich maneuver by throwing myself against the pizza delivery boy who just happened to be at the door. $10.50 for two sausage and pepperoni pizzas. I gave him $15 and told him to keep the change for knocking the wind out of him.

They say that eating too much can kill you. Lord knows I have tried to kill myself by eating too much, but so far all I have to show for my trouble are a few pairs of pants I can't wear any more. I keep them hanging in the closet just in case, just in case I lose a few pounds. You never know when a cholera epidemic will break out. When it does at least I'll have something nice to wear. Not eating will kill you faster than eating too much. Besides, while you are killing yourself by eating too much you can watch TV. There are worse ways to go—unless you don't have cable in which case I would rather be eaten by sharks.

Sharks gotta eat too. And what about worms? If we don't die what are they supposed to eat? We are trapped in a seriously vicious circle. Just thinking about it makes me hungry. I am hungry all the time so I guess you could say that everything makes me hungry. Go ahead and laugh but I would suggest that my survival instinct is just stronger than yours. About the only thing that doesn't make me hungry is eating. Eating keeps my mind off hunger. At least it does unless I am planning another meal as I eat. Thinking about bacon makes me hungry, even if I'm eating a cheeseburger.

They say that you should never shop when you are hungry but my grocery store has a strict “no outside food” policy. They have also forbidden me to try the free samples of food products they are promoting. They say that I didn't respect the “one sample per customer” rule on the free stuff. They told me not to bother wearing disguises to get free samples. I can't believe they saw through my one-armed Mexican revolutionary costume and the pregnant nun get up. Now I get my groceries delivered. I make my order during lunch. I ask if the delivery person can stop by the Chinese carry-out joint on the way over. I need a little something to tide me over until dinner.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent Bugliosi

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
At the very beginning of this book Bugliosi is giving a lecture to a to a group of lawyers. He asks them how many think that there was some sort of conspiracy behind the JFK assassination. Most of the lawyers raise their hands. He tells them that he can change their opinion about this in less than one minute. He then asks them how many have bothered to read the Warren Commission report. Only a few people raise their hands. Case closed.

I honestly didn't have much of an opinion about the JFK assassination before reading this book, but I certainly wasn't a conspiracy theorist. Oliver Stone's movie made me laugh out loud. I probably wouldn't have bothered with this huge book had the author been anyone but Bugliosi who is such a fine writer that I would read anything he wrote. He quickly convinces me that there isn't any credence to a conspiracy in the JFK affair. LHO did it and it was an open and shut case. He also convinces me that the Warren Commission dealt with the issue in a conclusive and comprehensive manner. Bugliosi also convinces me that anyone saying anything to the contrary is a fucking nut job or a lair.

Bugliosi meticulously examines and disarms every single kooky claim by the conspiracy nuts. JFK was killed by a lone kook working alone. Period. More than 40 years after the murder it's time everyone realize that these are the undisputed facts of the case.


View all my reviews.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Book

The Book

I am working to beat some sort of continuity out of what I have been writing about my stay in Spain. You can see it here. I also have comments over there if anyone has any opinions. This is going to be a hell of a lot of work. I have a tendency in what I write to say the same things again and again. Half of the time it wasn't very interesting the first time around.

In football news, Valencia CF only managed a draw with Málaga last night which leaves us tied with Sevilla for third place in La Liga. On the 18th of this month the UEFA Cup starts up again with Valencia going to play FC Dynamo Kyiv.

Friday, February 13, 2009



Finding a place to live in Spain was relatively painless. I used an internet market place site much like the one I used to sell all of the stuff in my apartment in Seattle. At first I had to rent a place short-term for my brother and me. He came over to help Sherpa some of my belongings and give me a hand with getting settled in my new city. Once I arrived I looked for rooms to rent as I wanted to live with Spanish people to force me to speak the language all day, every day. My Spanish was a little rough when I first arrived and I wondered if would be able to jump through all of the hoops necessary to convince someone to let me share their apartment. It took me a little longer than I thought to find a place and my brother had to go back to the States. This left me all alone to move my junk over to the new place. Another move. Ugh.

After a flurry of emails and a few ungrammatical phone calls, I was able to find a place. From the old place to the new was only a matter of about two kilometers—too short to take a cab but a long way to schlep about six heavy bags. I thought that I was traveling pretty light until I had to carry everything I owned half-way across Valencia. I needed to vacate the expensive holiday rental so I did it all in one back-breaking afternoon. Moving always is a pain in the butt, even if you are down to a few suitcases. I was sharing the place with a young professional who turned out to be a fountain of information about Valencia.

The best part about the apartment was the wonderful balcony, one of the best I've seen here. Most balconies are barely big enough for two adults standing shoulder-to-shoulder, mine was like an outdoor living room. I moved in to the apartment in the middle of December, but the weather was mild enough to spend afternoons out on the patio which really helped to alleviate the initial stress about moving to a city where I didn't know a soul and barely spoke the language.

Before I came I didn't give much thought to how I was going to find a place to live. I have sort of a naïve innocence about certain practical matters and I just assume that things will work out. Things did work out well but it wasn't because of much effort or planning on my part. I think that I just lucked out but I don't really believe in luck.

I was so relieved to finally find a place that I didn't really give the place much of a look before I moved in. As it turned out the place was great. It had plenty of sunlight throughout the whole day. Many Spanish apartments can be pretty gloomy as only certain rooms have windows that open on to the street. They call these exterior and interior rooms with the interior rooms having windows that open on to sort of an open elevator shaft in the middle of the building, or they have no windows at all. This apartment was 100 percent exterior and had open windows in three different directions—something you really appreciate during the cold, damp winter months.

Brother, can you spare some long underwear?
It’s not the cold; it’s the humidity.

Without meaning to offend the friends and family of anyone who may have actually frozen to death, I am going to describe the weather here as bitter cold. Now, if you look at the actual forecasts for Valencia you will see that it has been in the 60s almost every day, with the lows in the low 50s. That’s pretty warm, but that’s if where you live you have any sort of insulation in your home. The beautiful parquet floors, which are like a solid slab of marble and which keep these places cool during the hot summers, actually conduct the chill right up into your bones. It’s like the opposite of insulation, it’s like anti-insulation.

I have a theory—a theory I hope to never prove—that the floors are so cold in my apartment that my tongue would stick to them. I have a little electric space heater in the living room but that thing is about as effective at keeping me warm as someone trying to fend off frostbite with a cigarette lighter during a Mount Everest blizzard. Nanook of the North, Scott of the Antarctic, make room in the igloo for John of Valencia. God, an igloo sounds so warm and cozy right now with a nice whale blubber fire burning in the hearth, or whatever the hell igloos have instead of a hearth.

Instead of sissy shit like insulation and central heat, I have the Spanish equivalent: brandy. Some people here will get a little brandy in their morning coffee, called a café tocado, or “touched” coffee. If the temperature keeps falling I may start the day with a brandy touched with coffee. Without meaning to offend the friends and family of anyone crippled by alcoholism, I am going to make a coffee and brandy right now.

It is a little after five in the afternoon and although it is still light for another hour or so, the sun has cowardly set behind the buildings to the south of mine, like a geeky kid with glasses hiding from the neighborhood bully. Who would have thought that the powerful Spanish sun that attracts so many visitors to the beaches here in the summer would now quiver in its boots at the sight of a 98 pound weakling? It is so cold that I am actually calling the celestial body that makes possible all life on this planet, the sun, a sissy.

Either the sun needs to butch up a little bit or I have to, and that ain’t happening, not when it comes to being cold. I can take a lot of pain. Without meaning to offend anyone tortured at Abu Gharib, I just don’t see what’s so bad about water boarding. I love water, bring it on. Isn’t it a bit like bogey boarding? Being menaced by guard dogs? I love dogs. Just turn on the heat already, I’ll tell you anything you want to know.

Right now I am trying to conjure up the hottest day that I have ever experienced. I am doggedly attempting to recapture how uncomfortable I was on that day, sitting in the blistering sun. Perhaps it was in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, or in the Amazon basin. That memory is as fond to me now as a child’s first Christmas. I would take away the memory of the first Christmas of every kid on the planet if it would raise the temperature in my apartment ten degrees. Sorry kids, and I’ll take that blanket, too. For you it’s just a security thing, I’m freezing to death over here. Grow up already! While we’re at it I’ll also take those cute slippers that look like rabbits.

It is summer in Argentina right now. They speak Spanish there, right? Before I book this flight let me just check the weather forecast for the weekend. It is supposed to get up to 69 degrees on Sunday. I can’t wait. I have been as cold as a stone for over a week. The only time I am warm is when I am in bed, in a hot shower, or at this kebab place around the corner where the ovens heat the place up nice and cozy. Beers are cheap there so it kind of works out on several levels.

Maybe they will let me shower over at the kebab joint, because although my shower is good and hot, once I turn off the water the real agony begins. I actually screamed it was so painful this morning. It’s not like I need to shower. It is so cold that my body doesn’t secrete anything. Nope, all my pores are slammed shut like the front door when a Jehovah’s Witness walks up to the house.

So if you come by my apartment and I’m not home, go over to the kebab place. I’ll be standing as close as I possibly can to the oven that roasts the meat, waiting for spring.

So I suffered a bit with the cold those first few months but I liked the apartment. The kitchen had a huge window that looked over the street eight floors below. I really appreciated the gas stove as I immediately began doing a lot of cooking, picking my new roommates brain for Valencian recipes. He turned out to be quite a good cook and he walked me through the basics of the local cuisine. He had some great Valencian cookbooks that I read cover to cover. I also began to understand, little by little, the importance of the tradition behind the local cooking. I used to mock my Valencian friends whenever they would be so incredibly rigid about how a dish was to be prepared. I soon realized that a person needs to be grounded in the basics. Without the foundational knowledge of the local cooking, the people here would lose a link with their past, something I didn't understand since I came from a culture that had little in the way of food traditions. Food was just something we ate, it wasn't a part of our identity as it is here in Valencia.

This first roommate I had was very grounded in the basics. He was from an agricultural village in the country which means he was probably more comfortable in Valenciano than Spanish. People from the outlying areas of the Valencia Community often feel like they are more Valenciano than the people here in the capital city where the language is hardly spoken in the street. The folks from the country and smaller towns also feel that they are more connected to the cooking traditions of Valencia. It's not as if there is a civil war about to break out between city dwellers and the rural population, but as Valencia becomes a city of immigrants—many of whom barely speak Spanish, let alone Valenciano—there is a greater sense of local identity among the country folk where Valenciano is much more prevalent.

Catalán, Valenciano, and Spanish

It is probably extremely premature for me to try to explain the ancient languages of Valenciano and Catalan after being here for such a short time. My understanding of Valenciano is definitely a work in progress but I think I can say a few things about the language with a bit of accuracy, if not authority. It is extremely similar to Catalan spoken in Barcelona and Catalonia. I still cannot distinguish between the two but I only recently have been able to identify different accents of spoken Spanish.

If a mixture of Spanish and English is Spanglish, then Catalan/Valenciano should be called Sprench: a mixture of Spanish and French. Valenciano is one of the official languages of the state of Valencia, along with Spanish. All official documents are in both languages. Most of the street signs here are in Valenciano, so instead of avenida and calle they say avinguda and carrer. Instead of calling the historic center of town the ciudad vieja becomes ciutat vella. At least much of the Valenciano I come across is recognizable to Spanish speakers, for the most part.

I have never been addressed in Valenciano while living here. I have never had anyone speak to me in Catalan while visiting Barcelona. If I am in a social setting with a group of people from Valencia, they immediately switch to Spanish if they were speaking Valenciano before I entered into the conversation. On television there are shows and news programs in Catalan and Valenciano. During news reports they will conduct interviews in Spanish and Catalan depending on whether or not the person being interviewed speaks that language or only Spanish. I have come across very few people who have learned Valenciano as adults. Spanish people from other parts of the country seem less willing to learn the language than other immigrants.

I knew an Italian who recently moved to Valencia and was learning Spanish. I interrupted him watching television one afternoon and I asked him why he was watching the Valenciano station. He didn't even realize that he wasn't watching Spanish. He told me that he understood Valenciano better than Spanish. I don't if Italian is closer to Valenciano than Spanish or if my friend is totally nuts. I have also heard from many friends who speak Valenciano that it is easy for them to learn Italian. As I speak a bit of French I notice a heavy influence of that language in Catalan and Valenciano. I always tell my friends here that when I learn Spanish (a good subjunctive phrase in Spanish, by the way) I will start learning Valenciano.


We lost our lease at the first apartment after I had lived there for nine months so I had to find another apartment to share. My Spanish had improved quite a bit in this interval but I can't say that finding a new place was easier. I looked at a few dozen places and either they didn't want me living with them or I didn't want to live with them. I finally found a place to share with two younger Spanish women, neither of whom were Valenciano. I would miss the wonderful patio at my old flat but the new place was in a neighborhood that I didn't know very well before but would soon come to love. This place also had a great kitchen and we were a stone's throw from the market. I had lucked out once again, both with the apartment and the roommates.



Living in an apartment building means taking the elevator regularly. I immediately noticed that Spanish people greet you when you are sharing an elevator. A simple, polite “Buenas Tardes” when they get on and then a “Hasta luego” when they get off. It is such a simple thing but it seems to fly in the face of the stoic American custom of ignoring other passengers. It seems rather ridiculous to pretend like others don’t exist when you are confined to such a small space. As when you enter and leave an elevator, people also offer a greeting when they enter and leave a business of any kind. What I found curious and charming is that other customers, most of the time complete strangers, will also bid you farewell after you finish your cup of coffee. This will be a tough habit to break when I live in the States again. Greeting total strangers will surely paint me as some sort of weirdo. Perhaps I will try to single-handedly impose a bit of civility on our culture.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nice Doggy

Nice Doggy

Where do I begin
To tell the story
Of how great a love can be?
The sweet love story
That is older than the sea
That sings the truth about the love she/he/Rex/Lassie/Fido brings to me
Where do I start?

- Lyrics by Carl Sigman (and me), Music by Francis Lai

Where do I begin, where do I begin to tell the story of the Spanish and their love of dogs, big and small? Mostly small because almost everyone lives in an apartment and who's got room for a Saint Bernard? Just as most people here choose to drive smaller cars, they also prefer smaller dogs, and for the same reason: better fuel economy.

Whether they are bigger than wolves or smaller than hamsters, the dogs here are almost always well behaved. If they have such things as leash laws here most people are in violation, yet their loose mutts never seem to stray very far or get into mischief. You see dogs waiting patiently—or not so patiently—outside of grocery stores while their masters are inside buying all of the strange things Spanish people buy in grocery stores. People take their pets with them practically every where they go. The main cathedral in Valencia actually has a special pew set aside in the back just for dogs. That's probably not true but it should be. That would be hilarious. If dogs aren’t allowed in churches this might explain why nobody in Spain goes any more. I guess the Catholic god is more of the cat-loving type of superior being.

Just walk down a sidewalk here and it is immediately evident that dogs have a privileged place in Spanish society. Dogs in Spain have the same sort of status as movie stars have in American society, except without the drug rehab and DUI arrests. For the most part, dogs don't have any issues that can't be remedied with a rolled up magazine. Celebrities in America usually need a little firmer punishment than a rolled up magazine. What usually works best in their case is a good swat with a board with a nail sticking out of it. Spanish dogs are a lot better behaved than American celebrities even considering all of the poop and yapping—I'll let the reader wonder if I am referring to Spanish dogs or famous actors. The subjects of American tabloid newspapers leave a bigger mess in their wake than any Spanish chihuahua. If you don't believe me just try cleaning up the latest social dump you read about in The National Inquirer with nothing but a plastic shopping bag wrapped around your hand.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Few Random Thoughts on Clothing and Fashion

It's not that I'm not a fan of the thong bikini, it's just that it isn't right for all women and definitely not for men. Yuck! Let's just say that the backsides of some women are not automatically enhanced by this meager shred of fabric. The main purpose of a thong is to plumb the lascivious and salacious depths of the minds of all who behold the wearer of the garment. I have often seen cases in which the thong evokes horrifying images of a villager being swallowed by a crocodile.

Do you ever think that Hitler mustaches will come back in style? I can't think of any other historic figure who single-handedly poisoned a style for at least a generation and perhaps for eternity. Even hard-core white supremacists and skinheads don't walk around with Hitler mustaches. Here's the thing, I think that Hitler mustaches probably always looked fucking stupid which is why I can't understand how this clown had such a profound effect on people. Charlie Chaplin had a mustache like Hitler but he was a clown.

I can't believe anyone uses the words “fashion designer” and “genius” in the same sentence. How smart do you have to be to raise a hemline or wrap a sash around something? Maybe if someone actually made some sort of revolution in clothing, like removing the ephemeral nature of fashion from what we wear so that instead of worrying about how we dress we could all move on to more important things, things like just about anything other than fashion. And fashion designers, I got a project for you. How about designing an off-the-rack dress shirt that actually fits? Most shirts are made for the kind of guy whose belly is about twice as big as his chest. I realize Elton John is a big spender but how about making clothes for the rest of us?

Here's what I look for in fashion: anything that doesn't make me look stupid and anything that won't make me look stupid when I look back at myself a couple years from now in a photograph. I remember watching a French movie from the 1960´s and noticing the shoes a guy was wearing. They were black leather dress shoes with a buckle instead of laces. I thought they looked cool when I saw the movie sometime in the 1980s. I have had a pair of those shoes since then. I try to follow the same rule for haircuts. I'd rather be anonymous than stick out like something desperately in need of being pounded down. If I want to distinguish myself from the crowd I'll try to do it with ideas, not by buying something made by Ralph Lauren.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

So You Want to Be a Millionaire: A Wall Street Cautionary Tale

Companies pricing luxury items "are not selling goods, they are selling an emotion," says Jens Baumgarten, head of financial services at Simon Kucher & Partners, a strategy and marketing consulting firm.
-Forbes Magazine

Is greed an emotion? Shamelessness? Vanity? Hubris?

Back when Ronald Reagan was talking about “welfare queens” he was merely speaking hyperbolically, which is basically lying but with a party stamp of approval. He was referring to the apocryphal recipients of government aid who were driving around in Cadillacs. Welfare queens? I mean, what kind of royalty drives American? Maybe a Hummer that has been converted into a limo, but that's just for when you have too many high-priced escorts to take the Maserati. As far as lavish excesses go, we have a certain panache that those fictitious welfare cheats never dreamed possible.

Our worst fears of socialism are about to come true if we allow government to limit executive pay to $500,000 for companies receiving part of the Obama stimulus package. They can't possibly mean $500,000 a year? Granted, we all voted for candidates who opposed raising the minimum wage, but we didn't mean for us. Don't you remember watching with horror that show So You Want to be a Millionaire? A millionaire? All we could think was, “There but for the grace of God go I.” As terrifying as that program was, now we may be dealing with a federal government that wants us to work two years just to make it to the slumdog millionaire's club.
1) With a range of 3,400 nautical miles at Mach 0.80, the Gulfstream G250 corporate jet has the capability to whisk away you and three of your board members, also under indictment for securities fraud, to the closest country that does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. which is:

A) Brazil
B) Tunisia
C) Laos
D) California

So what if we all make Marie Antoinette look like some sort of under-paid case worker for social services? We deserve everything we have. Do you think it's easy to install an entire government, from lowly congressmen right up to the president who will systematically lower our tax rates to the point where the rate paid by the richest 400 Americans fell to 17.2 percent through the first six years of the Bush administration?*
2) How many $40 bottles of Bling Water does it take to fill your bath?:

A) 40
B) If you have to ask, you can't afford it.
C) Is that sparkling or without gas?
D) $40 seems like a lot but you get a nickel deposit on the bottle.

How is it even constitutional for them to limit our pay? They should just give us the federal money and let the free market take over from there. Sure, we all support drug testing for welfare recipients and that they show proof that they are working or looking for work, but those are poor people, they can't be trusted. Many of them spend their food stamp money on excesses like ice cream and cookies. They can be so out of touch. We promise to spend tax dollars responsibly, like $87,000 for an area rug for the CEO's office at Merrill Lynch or on a spa holiday for A.I.G. executives.
3) How long can America's richest citizens count on the support of the bottom 80% of wage earners?:

A) Until the presidential election of 2012
B) Until we say so.
C) As long as poor folks keep playing lotto and believing they are one scratch away from being our neighbors.
D) Are we certain that all those guillotines have been destroyed?

Need a lifeline? You can make a call to Czar Nicolas II and family. No answer? Just let it ring. All of this talk is starting to sound like class warfare. That's what we call it when the other side decides to fight back. We prefer things to be like they were before, kind of like the moral equivalent of those glorified petting zoos where rich guys like Dick Cheney "hunt." You know, the places that keep the animals caged up until the great white hunter lumbers by, is given time to calmly finish his glass of single malt scotch, load, fire, have the guides administer first aid to other members of the party, and then fire again. We've made it even easier for the accuracy-impaired by just having them shoot pre-packaged meat right in the butcher aisle at the supermarket, although radical anti-gun hippies have made this illegal in some states.
3) This question was posed to Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street: How many yachts can you water-ski behind?

A) 1
B) More than 1
C) Don't I pay someone to water-ski for me?
D) Find out the record number of yachts someone has water-skied behind and simply add one more yacht. Do we have to do everything for you?

And now for the final question.
2) How much is enough?

A) Can you repeat that, I was busy demeaning my maid.
B) Is this a trick question?
C) A lot, an awful lot.
D) Certainly a lot more than $1 million.

Who wants to be a millionaire? Not us, that's for sure.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Cousin, Cousine

Cousin, Cousine directed by Jean Charles Tacchella was probably the first French movie I ever watched, at least in French with English subtitles. I was in my first year of college French at Indiana University and this movie was suggested by my teacher, a very enthusiastic grad student and mentor to all of his students. At that time the Midwest was my birthright and I had rarely traveled outside its familiar confines. I knew that I wanted to get away from where I had lived almost my entire life up until then, but I didn't know how to do it or know where to go. I was studying French mostly because it was a required part of an undergraduate degree. I suppose that I just saw it as another course, like economics or history. After watching this movie at an off-campus art house movie theater, I couldn't help but think that the French were very different from the people I knew. At that time, as far as I was concerned, “different” was the same as “good.” I immediately developed an overly-romantic view of France that I hold to this day. Cousin, Cousine also gave me an overly-romantic view of love that I have maintained to this day.

I just watched this movie again recently, a film that was made in 1975 yet holds up extremely well, both as a timeless work of art and as something capable of speaking directly to me. In some ways I think that I haven't changed a single bit over the course of what has been my adult life. I still think this movie is just about the sexiest thing ever put on film, a story about two people who become best friends before consciously and deliberately deciding to be lovers.

I don't even know where to begin as far as my praise for this beautiful film. I love everything about it, even the music remains wonderfully whimsical—a lot of movie scores from the 70s are woefully dated. Cousin, Cousine has soured me on a generation of American films that don't have the slightest clue about how to portray ordinary people. The central characters are a handsome couple but not movie star perfect. They haven't been air-brushed, surgically enhanced, and stair-mastered to within an inch of their lives. All of the characters in this movie have ordinary (if not dumb) jobs. Hollywood's idea of a normal person's job is an advertising executive, and forget about accurately portraying all of the other details of middle class life. I think it was this movie that started my prejudice for books and movies about ordinary people, people I can recognize from my own very ordinary life.

If you haven't seen Cousin, Cousine I think you should give it a look, if you can find it. It should only take about the first 15 minutes or so to turn you into a francophile.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Why Valencia?

Photo by Juan Flores

Why Valencia?

As far as where I chose to live when I moved to Spain I have to say that my selection process was a bit on the random side. I knew for a long time that I wanted to live in Europe again, somewhere, anywhere. I was deciding between France and Spain when a trip I took with my younger brother to Spain. We visited Madrid, Sevilla, and Toledo on what was one of the best vacations I've ever had, thanks mostly to some friends who live in Madrid who shaped our travel plans. When the time had finally arrived for me to move to Europe, I knew I was going to Spain. As much as I loved Madrid and the other places we visited on that trip, my past experience of living in Greece tipped the scales towards living somewhere on the Mediterranean.

I knew that I wanted to live in a fairly large city as I was comfortable living in a city the size of Seattle and anything smaller would have been like wearing a too-small shoe. I must admit that I never considered Málaga, another rather large Spanish Mediterranean city. I considered Barcelona but I was a bit reluctant to move there because of the heavy Catalan influence—I was moving to Spain to learn Spanish, after all. The truth is that before I started looking seriously into moving to Spain, I wasn't even aware that people spoke Valenciano in this part of the country. Valenciano is very similar to Catalan. I would say that it is merely a dialect of Catalan but I might get beat up by some of the more chauvinistic locals for saying that. My knowledge of Valenciano/Catalan is fairly scant, but I still am unable to tell them apart whether spoken or written. I apologize for that.

With a little research into the matter I determined that Valencianos were more apt to speak Spanish—at least in the street—than their counterparts in Catalonia. I had traveled to Barcelona twice before and I loved the city, as almost everyone does. The language issue bothered me a bit and also its size, as I figured that a big city like Barcelona would be more expensive and perhaps less user-friendly for a recent immigrant. I had also traveled to Valencia once before and stayed there for only a day or two on my first trip to Europe. I couldn't remember anything about the city from that trip except the beautiful train station and the huge central market.

I wish that I could say that I spent hours and hours doing painstaking research into my choice for where I was going to move in Europe. I mean, I didn't exactly throw a dart at a map of Spain and then move there with nearly all my remaining worldly possessions. In truth, this would be an insult to dart throwers as there is a bit of skill in that game. No, my selection of my new home was more like a behind the back, over the shoulder toss. I'm not a lucky person by any means—I don't even believe in luck—but in hindsight I would have to say that by choosing Valencia, I hit a bullseye with my throw. I wouldn't change my choice for anything. Once I arrived I thought about perhaps moving to another Spanish city to get a fresh perspective on the country, but I could never bring myself to leave Valencia. It's my home. I chose rather well as it turned out. As random as my selection process may seem, I suppose that if I examine it more thoroughly there is quite a bit of logic involved.

I think that I would be very comfortable living just about anywhere on the Mediterranean, my life in Greece taught me that much. I could have moved to Marseilles, or Genoa, or Tunis for that matter, and I would have found much to love about living in those places. The Mediterranean has its own climate with which I was familiar. The weather is far from perfect but there are many months of perfection throughout the year. Time had not erased those cold, wet winters in Greece from my memory, but I could never forget the wonderfully sunny summers. And of course there was the food.

There is an indelible stamp on Mediterranean cooking that can be found in every corner and cove on this inland sea. In our era of global trade, it's possible to get just about any food product you want anywhere on the planet but there were many things I had missed about Mediterranean food. It wasn't just the basic ingredients, things you can probably buy in any good, upscale supermarket in the United States, what was missing were all of the little things that when taken together make up the essence of the Mediterranean diet. Things like the wonderfully odd-shaped tomatoes that are impossible to beat when the season is right. The different types of beans that are native to the basin. Olives of every character, shape, and flavor, and olive oils to match any dish. But it wasn't so much the flavor of foods that I missed, it was something else. A grilled sardine, some fried squid, roasted lamb or pork probably taste the same anywhere they are prepared, to say otherwise would be dishonest or verging on the overly-romantic. The element that was missing from Mediterranean cooking when I lived in America was their reverence for food. It's difficult to overstate the importance of food in the lives of the people who inhabit the shores of this sea that has been called the “middle of the earth” by many of the cultures that border it.

On a clearly anecdotal basis, I have to say that everyone I have met from Spain, France, Greece, and Italy all seem to have a much greater appreciation for food than most of the Americans and Brits that I know, unless those Americans or Brits have learned to revere food while living on the Mediterranean. This isn't to say that the Mediterraneans are superior to us, they just take food more seriously than we do. We have different priorities and values. The importance that these people place upon food is something that perhaps we reserve for other things. I wouldn't care to say what these other things might be, but I will say that I find American and British humor to be far superior to the Spanish or French version. They have paella, coq au vin, and risotto. We have Seinfeld and Monty Python's Flying Circus. The good news is that we can share.

I have met Italians, Greeks, French and Spanish people who admit that they can't cook but who can will whip up veritable miracles of simplicity in the kitchen using ingredients common throughout the region. I've never met an Italian who couldn't make some sort of memorable dish with only a bit of pasta, some olive oil, and a vegetable or two—I've also never met an Italian who doesn't eat pasta every day, if not with every meal. It never ceases to amaze me how the Spanish will raise the lowliest of food items to an exalted level. A slice of tomato and a single anchovy will be shaped into an elegant tapa to accompany a beer or a glass of wine; a plate of olives will prime a first course at dinner; even a bag of store-bought potato chips will be decanted into a dish before being served. The have a great respect for food because it is their inheritance, their birthright handed down over centuries.

What I first found to be close-mindedness on the part of Valencianos when it came to modifying—in any way—their local dishes, I soon found was just a respect for their own traditions. There are just certain dishes in their culture that they feel cannot be improved. I feel the same way about a handful of things that I prepare. Change just one ingredient every couple of years, or even every generation and before long you will have lost sight of the original dish entirely. Some of my first impressions of Valencianos regarding their cuisine was of a people hog-tied and impaired by their own traditions. I quickly realized how foolish I was for thinking this; it would be like mocking a person for caring for the foundation of his house. Without embracing their culinary past, every day in the kitchen would be like reinventing the wheel. It took me a while to come around to their way of thinking. I was a decent cook when I arrived in Spain, and inspired amateur at least. As my cooking experience with Valencian food expanded, I came to base my own recipes firmly on the basics. I gradually learned that to know your way around you have to know where you started.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Super Easy Pizza Sauce

Super Easy Pizza Sauce

1 Onion
3 Cloves Garlic
½ Cup Red Wine
1 16 oz. Can Whole Tomatoes (entero) (I mush the tomatoes with my hands)
1 16 oz. Can Tomato Puree (triturado)
1 Small Can Tomato Paste (doble concentrado)
Olive oil, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, oregano, 2 bay leaves, pinch of sugar

Sauté onions and garlic until translucent, then add spices. Add wine and allow for most of the wine to evaporate. Add the other ingredients and simmer for about two hours. The sauce should be fairly thick and it will thicken even more after you let it cool.

I learned this simple recipe years ago and I still find it makes an excellent pizza sauce. Most pizza joints have terrible sauce that tastes like it came right out of a can, which it probably did. If you are going to do something, do it right. That's what I was always told. If I am going to pay someone to make a pizza for me I expect them to make it at least as well as I would at home if I had the time.

We are all forced to take shortcuts in life, but sometimes you have to stop and ask yourself just what you are doing with the time you are saving. There are things more important than food—I suppose. I just think that most of those more important things can wait until after you've had a good meal.

I have to say, this sauce is absolute perfection. No kidding. I can't see why I would change a thing about this recipe. It's not just a pizza sauce. I bought some ready-made meatballs from Mercadona. I used to think that they had too much filler in them but I have grown quite fond of them. I placed them in my clay baking dish and put them in the oven along with a tray of potatoes. I perforated the potatoes with a fork, lathered them with olive oil, and salted liberally. If you are going to turn on your oven you may as well cook a couple of things at once. When the meatballs were done I tossed them in some of the sauce. Then I put the meatballs and sauce on a baguette with some fresh mozzarella cheese and threw that in the oven. A meatball sub and a baked potato—I guess I'm still an American after all.

P.S. The cold baked potatoes are great on a salad which is why I will cook a bunch at a time.