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Friday, February 13, 2009

Shelter



Shelter

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?
or
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.

Ruzafa

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.