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Monday, November 30, 2009

Simple Solutions for Big Problems

Perhaps this is a bit of over-kill but we need to do whatever it takes to make cycling more popular in Valencia.

Valencia has everything that you would want in a town if you ride a bike: great weather, no hills (I happen to love steep climbs but I’m probably in the minority), and there is a great system of bike paths. With all this going for it the city only manages to attract 1.6% of commuters to travel by bicycle. What Valencia lacks to make cycling more popular are two things: bicycle safety and a positive image of cycling among the local populace. It seems to me that changing these two negatives is the easy and inexpensive part of the bike commuter equation. Improving bicycle safety—and by this I mean protection from automobiles—and upgrading the image of cycling could also be done fairly quickly.

The first thing that is required if you wish to foster a favorable cycling community is to ensure safety. Valencia has a great system of bike trails that separate cyclists from motorists but the system is hardly all-encompassing. If you know the system well it is possible to go just about anywhere in town on a trail but you will still be left to fend for yourself in the street for at least part of your ride. Riding on sidewalks is no longer permitted and police seem more anxious to enforce this law than they are about making car drivers act like part of the human race. Even if you take the bike path from one end of the city to the next you must interact with automobiles at every intersection.

Just last week a cyclist was killed while crossing a street at a green light for pedestrians. At many intersections the green light for pedestrians is mirrored by a yellow caution light for cars entering the crosswalk area. We all know that for many drivers a yellow caution light means hurry up because the light will change to red soon. I have had dozens of close calls with assholes in cars who are going in excess of 60kph through a pedestrian crossing while people on foot and bikes have a green light. In the States many cities have incredibly heavy fines for motorists entering a crosswalk while people are crossing. This needs to be enforced here in Valencia. Maybe the cops who are hassling bikers for being on the sidewalk could help out to calm brutish drivers. My life-long experience as a cyclist has made me an incredibly aggressive biker and I’m always eyeing oncoming traffic—especially when I have the right-of-way.

Drivers here basically do whatever the fuck they want, at least that’s the way it seems to me. I don’t see much in the way of traffic enforcement. People regularly run red lights and absolutely fly through yellow caution lights. Zebra crossings are ignored and I think that they only reason I garner any respect at all as a cyclist is that drivers don’t want to mess with a healthy adult male on a bike. Better enforcement along with a television ad campaign cold make life a lot better for cyclists in Valencia. The fines that are levied for infractions could pay for the TV spots.

As far as the image of cyclists here, I think most people view cycling as something only suited for children or people too poor to buy a new BMW. Cycling certainly isn’t seen as anything even remotely sexy. Once again, I think an effective TV ad campaign could change this attitude in a very short period of time. If marketing people can get people to believe that the brand of dishwashing soap they use will make them sexier, I think that they can make the same sort of sell for biking to work.

Barça 1, Madrid 0

If you live in Spain this game, this “classic” as they call it, is a huge deal. When I first arrived in Spain three years ago I remember that they were running TV spots advertising the Madrid-Barcelona game on the national TV channel La Sexta. “Only 100 days to go before the big game” and then they counted down the days until the apocalypse. Teams in the Spanish league play each other twice a season and last night was the first match up of these two perennial Spanish powerhouses. The hype on TV wasn’t as thick this time because the game was on a pay channel but it was still incredibly big news all over the country. Miss it at your peril!

I certainly wasn’t going to miss it. The problem was that because the game wouldn’t be shown on regular television everyone in Valencia would be out searching for a bar that shows games on the pay-per-view. As many bars as there are in Valencia—and there are thousands of them, thank god—there are even more football fans who wouldn’t miss this game to go to their own weddings (Ladies, check the football schedule before making nuptial plans). We decided on a place just a few blocks from my apartment that seemed a continent away. Almost all of the other people in the bar were Latin Americans and just about all of them seemed to be rooting for Barça. I can understand why most Valencianos will root for Barça against Madrid; it’s sort of a solidarity of language and culture as Catalan and Valenciano are just about the same thing. I don’t really have a theory as to why the Latin American would pull for Barça. I suppose I lean more towards being a Barça fan, too although for me the ideal result of this game would have been a draw, giving both teams—both of them above Valencia in the standings—only one point, thus limiting their advancement over my team. Even in Valencia it’s lonely being a diehard Valencia Club de Fútbol fan.

If I were a bar owner in Spain I would petition that all football games be played on the pay-per-view channels which sends everyone and their grandmothers out into the streets to find a bar playing the match. The little corner where we watched the game is home to three bars, all of which were packed to the rafters with fans. During the half I walked across the street to look into the two other bars. One of the bars was filled with sub-Saharan African fans. A few of them were wearing Real Madrid jerseys although I don’t know if this reflected the general sentiment of that group of fans. The other bar is a pool hall with a giant projector screen and seemed to cater mostly to Spanish fans.

I wiggled my way back to the bar where we were watching, ordered another bottle of beer, and waited to see what would happen after the scoreless first part. After making our way through a mediocre plate of patatas bravas (fried potatoes and a staple in every bar in Spain) we ordered a plate of grilled cuttlefish which was quite good. I need to practice making this dish more at home. It is sort of a pain in the ass to clean cuttlefish and squid but it is worth the effort if the end result is as good as the dish we had last night in Bar Sabina.

Barça prevailed in this game and also took the lead in La Liga. Valencia CF hangs on to fourth position after a bitter draw against Mallorca on Saturday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Confessions of a Valencia Bike Commuter

View from my bike.

I have been doing a lot of bike commuting these past two months in and around Valencia. Because of the fantastic weather we have been enjoying and the spectacular scenery, I have to say that my commuting rides are an absolute joy. One thing that I love about cycle commuting is how you can manipulate your arrival time by simply moving your legs faster or slower. If you are running a little late you can stand up on the pedals and hump for all you are worth and adjust the speed-to-distance ratio until you have reached a favorable formula. If you find yourself a bit ahead of schedule you can slow down and relish the sights along the way. This might mean gazing at the beautiful Torres de Serrano while cruising the path through Turia Park, or checking out a sidewalk café in a village outside of town. One way means more exercise and the other a greater appreciation for the local sights; I think you call this a “win-win” situation.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

I was pedaling home last night from the other side of town when I passed over one of the bridges at La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias which is called the technopolis area of Valencia because of the ultra-modern architecture. I wouldn’t say that I take this sight for granted but most of the time I ride past it at a full-on sprint—not the best vantage point to soak in the views. If you do take a few seconds to consider this sight on a warm and perfectly clear evening in November you’d have to say that it is hard to beat.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Few Feet Below Rock Bottom

If this title were a Jeopardy line the correct answer would be, "Where is America's conservative movement?" Sarah Palin’s book is probably a best seller already. Once again the street party that is America has turned the mic over to a retard. Is this really the best America can do? Every time we give people like Palin a voice in our society we are diminishing the voice of someone else and that someone else has got to have something better to say than this public figure who couldn’t be bothered to read a single newspaper or magazine.

I mean, fucking really? Is this best America can do? A ghost-written biography of a willfully-ignorant beneficiary of every advantage of what used to pass for American middle class life and who now wants to undo everything her working-class ancestors fought to gain in the past century? A woman who never merited every American’s right to his or her 15 minutes of fame let alone two chances at it? Am I supposed to listen to her because she has discovered—somewhere in her late 40s—that she may have half a brain and she should try to use it? “It’s never too late to try” is a fine concept, and I applaud anyone who makes an effort to educate themselves, but if you are starting at her age don’t expect to be in front of the classroom any time soon. Just sit in the front row, study your ass off, and shut the fuck up until you have something intelligent to add to the conversation.

I just thought that we were done with this completely less-than-mediocre celebrity.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Saturday Commute

I have been teaching English on Saturdays at a super-fancy private high school in Rocafort, a small town about 12 kilometers outside of Valencia. The pay is great. I wish that I could pick up another couple of gigs like this one and I would be doing really well, not the I have much to complain about as far as money goes these days. The teaching is a lot of fun and I think that I am pretty good at it. I have spent a good part of my life learning languages and I have learned a thing or two about how to go about it. More on that later. The best part about this new job is the bicycle commute from home.

The ride takes me about 40 minutes or so depending on traffic lights, train crossings, slow Joes in the bike lane, etc. I ride down to the Turia river park until I reach the Turia metro station, from here I ride up out of the river and follow the bike path past El Corte Inglés and Nueva Mestalla (the new football stadium for Valencia CF under construction with no plans for finishing because of money problems with the team). This bike path goes all the way to the Empalme metro stop where the metro goes above ground for the rest of its course.

From here I ride through the village of Burjassot and then Godella. Although these villages are now connected directly to Valencia—by metro and by car—they have retained a village feel. People here speak a lot more Valenciano than you hear in the city—not that I ever hear anyone speaking Valenciano in the street in Valencia and especially not in my immigrant-laden neighborhood of Ruzafa. It is just really nice out there and I haven’t passed a single café that I haven’t wanted to stop in to have a coffee or a beer. Another great thing about my commute is that the weather has been absolutely spectacular these past five weeks that I have been working at the school. It is perfect outside again this morning as I write this. My windows are wide open and there isn’t a cloud to be seen.

On the way home yesterday I noticed some guys playing baseball in a nice field in Turia Park. They were playing real baseball—fast pitch hardball—and they were good. The third baseman made a Brooks Robinson grab to make the final out of the inning and as they were changing sides I asked one of them where they were from. The Spanish De dónde sois? seemed to throw him for a second (Latin Americans don’t use this vosotros form). He made some sort of wise-ass answer.

I asked him if they played here every week and got sort of another wise-ass answer, not insulting but the kind of thing you’d expect from young guys during a sporting event. Then he asked me where I was from. I told him Seattle and then he asked me what my team was. I told him the Mariners, of course. One of the worst teams in baseball I said. He said that we had some great players. I agreed and said that we used to have the great Freddy García (I had guessed he was Venezuelan by his accent). Of course then the tenor of his responses changed completely and he named a couple of other prominent Venezuelan players who had played as Mariners. A couple of other guys joined n the discussion and then they invited me to come to their next practice. I told them I was a little old and slow to play actual games but that I wouldn’t mind throwing a ball around and taking a few swings.

It was such a beautiful day that I rode through the city center on my way home just because I was shooting a video of my commute and I thought it would make it a little more interesting. It was November 7, 2009 and the temperature at 14:30 was somewhere around 24 degrees. I was wearing shorts and a short sleeve shirt. I see a very mild winter on the horizon.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

I’m Done but I’m Not Leaving the Frying Pan

A corner fruit and vegetable shop.

I have been thinking of that story about frogs which may be apocryphal for all that I know, the one that says if you put a frog in water and then raise it to a boil it won’t notice the gradual rise in temperature and it will cook. The same sort of thing has happened to me as far as integrating into Spanish life. I think that I am thoroughly cooked without really ever noticing. I think I am a goner as far as ever being able to go back and live any sort of normal life in the USA, but it's not like I ever had one of those anyway, a normal life, that is. I am quickly coming up on my third year in Valencia. It seems like the blink of an eye and a lifetime all in the same thought.

It’s not like I take my life here in Spain for granted, quite the opposite. I marvel at so many things every single day. The problem is that I am used to the state of marvel and I don’t know if I could live without it now. Just try and take it away from me and there could be trouble. Take the corner green grocers here (but don’t take them from me if you know what’s good for you). These fruit and vegetable shops are found on almost every block here in Valencia and I have grown quite fond of them. I can’t help but look into every one that I pass as I cycle around the city. I compare produce and prices and I am always on the lookout for good tomatoes or anything else that looks interesting. Right now we are entering the mushroom season. When I get a bit of free time I will make a risotto with these great mushrooms called revollones.

I have taken my Spanish a little for granted and haven’t been working on it as diligently as I normally do. I did find an audio book of Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth in Spanish. Although it is read in one of those funky computer voices, the story itself is marvelous for an audio book. It is just great story telling and I understand about 98% I would say. I don’t know how I have learned so much of the vocabulary necessary in a story about a medieval stone mason but I have somehow, I even know the vocabulary for all of the esoteric tools—I doubt I know the names for many in English. I have just begun doing a language exchange in which I teach English and Spanish and in return my Moroccan friend teaches me French and Arabic. My French is pretty good these days as it seems to have improved simply because my Spanish has improved so much. I am reading Alex Garland’s The Beach (La Plage) in French and it is pretty easy going. I wish I could say the same for my Arabic.

Whenever someone asks me ¿Cómo estás? I usually tell them that I don’t have a lot to complain about. These days I should say that I don’t have a damn thing to complain about. If you are thinking about ditching everything and moving to Spain I have a few words for you. Jump right into the pan; the water is perfect.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Don’t Know Much about History

The French Revolution is something overlooked in American education, at least if you listen to conservatives. They seem to have completely blocked out any lessons we learned about relinquishing all power and wealth into the hands of a select few plutocrats and their usually worthless progeny. I always ask conservatives to point to an example of the sort of society they envision for America. They seem to be nostalgic for the America of the era of Leave it to Beaver, but I think their views better describe 18th century France. I also happen to think that America can do a hell of a lot better than America in the 1950s.

I am now living in the land of my forefathers, in a country that once suffered as much or more than any other in Europe from the excesses of the wealthy rulers; where poverty and misery were much more common than prosperity and happiness; where enormous riches were enjoyed by the very few. The Spain of today is a country with an incredibly strong middle class and where even the very poor have the right—constitutionally guaranteed—of free medical care and education. American, on the other hand, seems to be abandoning its middle class, completely forgetting about the poor, and stacking everything in favor of the richest few.

America was mostly built by immigrants from Europe who wanted a better, more egalitarian society in which all men would be equal and with equal opportunities. After hundreds of years of struggle to reach this point why do so many American conservatives seem to want to return to our awful past where the rich got richer and the poor poorer? With America’s drastically quick slide into huge income disparities only a fool would believe that the poorest in our country are on equal terms with the fabulously wealthy. In the past 30 years we have dismantled many of the safeguards for the poor that we spent the better part of the 20th century literally fighting in the streets at times to achieve.

Conservatives and libertarians say a lot about wanting more individual rights and that these rights are somehow sacrificed when a society tries to work collectively to achieve desired goals. Christ, just mention the word “collectively” and these folks will be out in front of your house with torches and pitchforks. Our almost complete inability to come to an agreement and work together is why we are so far behind Europe on things like mass transit and health care. And don’t even think about raising taxes on America’s top 1% or the middle class mouth-breathers will go completely ballistic. I guess that middle class conservatives see America’s widening gulf between rich and poor as fruitful territory for television programs like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

But we aren’t talking about rich people, folks well off enough to have a big house, even a mansion. Our new elite have amassed a dangerously high percentage of our resources. How could we possibly expect that an individual who earns tens of millions of dollars annually is going to be equal under the law as our most humble citizens? How can anyone think that we aren’t creating a new royalty that lives outside of the law and miles above the standards of most of society? How could anyone see this new royalty as anything but a threat to our democracy?

Somehow we have come to the point where many Americans view taxes as government theft of private resources. Somehow we have reached a point where many people view the government as evil. The last time I checked we lived in a democracy and that means we are the government. If there is anything wrong with our government it is that citizens have relinquished control of it to the elite. With less than 50% of citizens voting in any given election it is certainly a lot easier for a few to control things. For example, if blacks in America complain that they don’t receive adequate representation in our political process it is their own damn fault for not participating in that process. If blacks voted in numbers that reflect their constituency politicians would be terrified of their power. Instead they keep themselves out of the power struggle by telling themselves that voting is a waste of time.

A few questions I would pose to the anti-government conservatives is this: How do we keep from returning to the sort of plutocracy we threw off in the 18th century when we are allowing a few individuals to control so much of our wealth? Once the citizenry has relinquished all power to wealthy individuals and corporations how do expect the needs of the people to be met? If we completely abandon the poorest among us—which we have—how can we expect them to respect the laws of society and how do we deal with that eventuality?

There was an article recently in the New York Times about a rent-a-bike system in Paris that has been heavily vandalized by disenchanted poor youths in the city and surrounding suburbs. The rent-a-bike system seems to represent the new bourgeois in Paris and is therefore a source of resentment among the disenfranchised youth. Solving this problem is going to be more than a police issue but a matter that will deeply challenge the modern ideal of French equality and mobility.

We have much bigger failures in America than a few damaged bicycles, and we have an even bigger bridge to build to our poorest citizens if we expect them to ever contribute in any meaningful way to our society. I see no way to do this without addressing the widening gulf between rich and poor in America, at least this is what history has shown again and again.