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Friday, May 29, 2009

What's in Your Book Bag?

What’s in My Book Bag is the game we play in which we reveal the contents of our book bags, backpacks, satchels, briefcases, purses, and man bags. I just noticed that “manbags” written as a compound word looks like something dirty, or is sound dirtier as two separate words? What do you think?

My own choice of carrying container is a bike messenger bag that I have had for some years and is my almost constant companion when I am out of the house. I was going to buy a new one just before I came to Spain two and a half years ago but they seemed to have not been in fashion any longer and I couldn’t find one. Sic transit gloria Gap or however you would write that fashion retailer’s fickle tastes. I always found one or two flaws in the Gap bike bags I used to buy. When a new model was introduced it had a feature the old bag lacked but left out one of the things I liked in the model that was usurped. I always felt like I could have designed a perfect bag but I was never asked. So I can be seen cycling or walking all over Valencia with my old bike bag, warts and flaws and all. Why do I need it and what is inside?

If backpacks are simply fashion accessories then they are the most useful item on this list of vanities. The trend of carrying backpacks began with American college students, I would imagine. Very soon students from kindergarten to doctoral candidates were hauling their crap around in small nylon packs. Although no longer officially enrolled in any accredited institution, I have been a student my entire life. I call my life the Harvard of the real world. I think it was William F. Buckley who said that he was terrified to leave the house without a book for fear that he wouldn’t have a useful way to spend the few moments it takes for traffic lights to turn when he is walking about town. I would have to go along with that sentiment and add that I also don’t want to be caught without a pen, paper, and my Spanish/English dictionary. Let me dump out the full contents.

In a handy pocket on the shoulder strap I have my cell phone. In the small front pocket I have an assortment of pens: a red one for highlighting unfamiliar Spanish words in the book I happen to be reading, another ballpoint for writing notes, and a permanent marker. I have a disposable lighter which I bought a couple of nights ago. An African guy came in the bar selling all sorts of trinkets. I have seen him dozens of times and he is always pleasant and smiling. I felt guilty because I had never bought anything from him. I asked for a lighter as I dug a euro coin out of my pants pocket. He said they were three for one euro. I decided to haggle so I said I would give him one euro for two lighters and I wouldn’t pay a centime more. Faced with my strong bartering prowess he immediately relented. I gave one of the lighters to someone sitting next to me. What I find to be completely incredible is that not only is it possible to manufacture three cigarette lighters in China, ship them to Spain, and sell them for 1€, but that the African middleman who roams the bars hawking this stuff can make a bit of money for himself in the deal.

Along with the lighter, as sort of its fraternal twin is a cigar cutter. I used to just bite the end off of cigars but this cutter was really cheap and it works really well. I generally only smoke cigars for big football matches. Unfortunately—at least as far as my lungs are concerned—there have been a lot of big matches lately and I have been smoking like a chimney which is in direct contrast to my quest to be the oldest man to enter the Tour de France this year. Football season is over (at least if you are a Valencia CF fan) so I can probably remove these two items from my bag. On second thought, I will keep the lighter because I am often asked for a light for someone’s cigarette and I hate to say no to a pretty woman, no matter what the request. I guess I’ll leave the cigar cutter in there as well since it doesn’t take up much room.

I have a mini Leatherman® tool that I got “free” from REI a few years ago in Seattle. By “free” I mean that they gave me this tool after I probably spent $10,000 in other outdoor products during that particular fiscal year. The tool has pliers and a cork screw so that gives it the right to permanent residency status in my bag. I also have a three and a half inch Gerber® lock blade pocket knife. There was a time when you were allowed to carry one of these on an airline flight. Now I wouldn’t be surprised if I could end up in Guantanamo for walking around with this in my bag. I would leave this at home except I have heard too many stories of people getting jumped and robbed at knife point by groups of young men, usually immigrants. I don’t like the idea of unilateral arms reduction, at least not on a personal level. I also know how to fight with a knife as I have had lots of instruction during my jiu-jitsu years. On a happier note, I also have a tube of 15 SPF lip balm. That’s it for the front pocket.

In the main compartment I have my Nikon® Coolpix camera—not that I can be bothered to use it much. Next to the camera I have an eight inch (21 centimeters, to be exact) spiral notebook. On the front of every page I have Spanish vocabulary words that I have looked up and written down. This is the fourth of these notebooks I have filled thus far during my stay here in Valencia. I don’t know if this is a good method for memorizing words but I can’t think of any other way. On the back of each page I just write notes on whatever the hell I write notes about. I always joke that when I die I want someone to please burn all of these notebooks because if anyone were to take the trouble to actually read these notes they would think that I was completely out of my mind. In my defense I have to say that just about anything you may read in one of these notebooks will be taken out of context, the context being the rather odd way my brain seems to work.

Along with my Spanish/English dictionary that is so often in my possession that it is almost organically attached to my body, I have the book I am now reading. It is Pregúntale al Polvo (Ask the Dust) by the Italian-American writer, John Fante. I stress the Italian-American part because I was introduced to this great writer by an Italian friend not too long ago. I had never even heard of Fante and I think that I am fairly well-read by anyone’s standards. Fante now ranks among my favorite American writers and I may even condescend to read him in English some day.

The last thing in my bag is my MP3 player which has a computer-generated audio book of the Mario Vargas Llosa novel Travesuras de la Niña Mala. It sounds like R2D2 is the reader but I understand it perfectly well. I get a kick out of the way in which the computer voice gets fooled by certain words. Instead of saying siglo veinte, or twentieth century in English, it pronounces XIX as “six” as you would say xix in Spanish. For further kicks try writing a comment on You Tube in Spanish and then have the audio preview read it back to you. It has the worst Spanish accent in recorded history. Stupid computer voices. I read the book about a year ago and I have already listened to the whole thing in Spanish. I still have it on my MP3 player because I haven’t found a book in Spanish to replace it so I’m just listening to it again (and again). I have tons of audio books in English but they don’t help me with Spanish.

What’s in your book bag?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Valencia, Where You Really Are What You Eat

I have mentioned before that I live next door to the Ruzafa Market, one of the city’s biggest. I awake six days a week to the comings and goings there as trucks begin arriving before the sun rises and things don’t calm down until about 3 pm. It would be impossible for me to ignore food from the vantage point I have a couple of floors above all of this commotion. The whole of life on this Iberian peninsula is somewhat analogous to living next to this vast marketplace for vegetables, meat, seafood, and everything else you need to make just about any sort of Spanish meal you could imagine. Everyone must eat so to say that food is important to Spaniards doesn’t begin to define their attitude about cooking. It would be like saying that water is important to fish. There is a very strong bond that the Spanish have with cooking and it is something that I adopted very early in my residency here in Valencia.

One of the biggest tourist attractions here is the Central Market downtown. It is a big attraction not because there aren’t other noteworthy sites around town but because the Mercado Central is truly something to behold. Its magnificence speaks volumes about the relationship Valencianos have with food. Some cities have a big mosque or a lavish cathedral; Valencia has the Central Market. Its worshippers are devout and extremely loyal bordering at times on the fanatical—if you don’t believe me just try to get between some Valencian granny and her seafood purchase. I’m not saying that violence is common in the markets here but you just need to learn to avoid certain situations, usually those involving an octogenarian, her shopping pushcart, and your rightful place in line. Not only do you have to keep your eye on the golden girls but quite often they have a Yorkshire terrier tied up at one of the exits which are ready to rip your throat out at their command. Survival in this environment requires working knowledge of the law of the jungle mixed with the samurai code.

Something that is difficult for Americans to understand, or at least something that is completely different from our own way of life, is just how much food defines Valencianos, even more so than people from other parts of Spain. I have talking about this with a lot of people lately and at first everyone tells me that in Andalucía food is ridiculously important in day-to-day life, or that in Asturias they have a traditional cuisine second to none, and what about Granada which practically invented tapas? In reply I simply say “paella.” The response I get is either silence or, “Oh yeah, paella. Got me there.”

We Americans have our national flag and Valencianos have paella. Last year when Valencia Club de Fútbol was in the final of the Copa del Rey their fans laid siege to the area around the stadium in Madrid by making paellas during the tailgating parties, or whatever the hell you call them in Spanish. Paella became the battle standard of the contingent from Valencia. I don’t think any other region of Spain has a dish that is quite as iconoclastic as paella Valenciana. As far as the local identity is concerned, food plays almost as big a role as the language, whether that is Spanish or Valenciano.

Once you realize this you may forgive the people here for guarding their recipes for jealously. Change one single ingredient in paella or baked rice and you’ll never hear the end of it from your local friends. You can improvise all you want, just don’t call it by the name they use for that dish. This doesn’t mean that I don’t tease my Valencian friends half to death whenever I cook something. I like to invent enormously elaborate names for the dishes I cook if they detour from the local recipes that are written in stone. “I call this ‘dish rice made in a style remarkably similar to paella but I wouldn’t dare call it paella for fear that some old Valencian grandmother would drop dead if she even got a hint that some immigrant was calling a dish paella when he profaned this venerable recipe by adding a bit of sausage.’” I usually keep going on and on until someone tells me to shut up, and that the point is taken.

Improvisation and variation in cooking are fine but you need to know the basics which provide you with the true north on your gourmet compass. I take great pains when I first learn to make one of the local dishes so that I am as close to the traditional recipe as possible. You will find a certain amount of variation from one person’s version to the next but they are usually fairly similar. When I set out to make a local dish I compare several recipes and boil my version down from all of them assuring that what I make is pure, 100% Valencia.

I have a couple of gurus, so to speak, when it comes to Valencian cooking. One of them is la cocina de Juanry. I think he is about as authentic as you can get. He’s like the Valencian grandmother I never had although I don’t know how he would feel about this relationship.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Madrid Confessions

Madrid Confessions

I recently just finished the audio book of Travesuras de la Niña Mala by Mario Vargas Llosa (MVLL), a book that I had read in print a little over a year ago. I found the audio version on the net. It is one of those computer-generated recordings that sound like a robotic telephone operator—sort of tedious but my Spanish is good enough now to understand it. As I pedaled along the beach bike paths during the four or five days it took me to listen to this 700 page novel I was constantly amazed by Vargas Llosa’s story telling skill. Of all of the novels of MVLL, this is the most straight-forward story with no flashbacks or jumps in time. For this reason it was incredibly easy to read in Spanish. Listening to the audio version, even as read by R2D2, was a snap. I actually stopped short on my bike ride today because I forgot to recharge the battery on my MP3 and it died only a few minutes from leaving the house. I promptly turned around and rejuiced the battery before heading out again. I desperately wanted to keep hearing this great tale of love and obsession.

I try to listen only to books in Spanish but I can’t find enough in this language to satisfy my appetite. I was given a preview of the audio book by Ben Curtis of Notes from Spain called Madrid Confessions. He certainly has his target audience nailed as I have become completely addicted to audio books. Ben is a great story teller. My own writing style isn’t really about telling stories. I am more or less just a wise-ass so I have a lot to learn about story telling. Note from Self to Self: learn how to tell stories.

Madrid Confessions tells the story of his life since moving to Madrid over a decade ago, a subject of particular interest to me although I have seven and a half years until I reach the decade mark in my Spanish residency. An audio book, or a book conceived specifically for broadcast is an audacious concept in my opinion. One thing that I noticed in his narration is that he doesn’t seem to be reading from a script (although he must be) because he has a very relaxed and intimate style. It is more like he is just having a conversation and at times you are almost tempted to interrupt to ask a question or to add something to the dialogue or to go up to the bar to order a couple more beers. I even found myself raising my hand as you would in a classroom but he never called on me.

He has a great story about talking about football with the guy at his garage and how it is a topic you can share with almost everyone in Spain. I call it the Esperanto of morons (I'm fluent!). Football is the common language spoken by idiots everywhere on earth, even in America more and more. His story has a darker and more serious side to it. It was a bit terrifying. He talks about his initial dip into the deep, cold waters of the business world. Entrepreneur is French for “unemployed” as he quotes from the Urban Dictionary.

It was a lot of fun listening to it and it made me realize how I need to do more in the way of storytelling in my own writing.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Traffic Jam

I have been paying rather close attention to the manner in which traffic is managed here in Valencia. As a cyclist I am also very interested in how bicycles are being integrated into the urban transportation model. As a sort of by-product of these two interests I also recognize ways in which pedestrian traffic could be encouraged. I am also a consumer of mass transit as I frequently use the Valencia metro (and now and then I hop on a bus). I have made no secret of my hatred of the automobile but I am also enough of a realist to understand that the car will probably be with us for many years to come. I just don’t understand why Valencia spends so much money to encourage people to drive their cars instead of opting for mass transit, walking or cycling.

Something that drives me crazy is when I notice how the city has widened streets for automobiles when the current traffic patterns simply don’t warrant this extravagance. Why make more lanes than are necessary? All this does is send the message that driving is the most favored method of getting from one point in the city to another. These three and four lane streets come at the expanse of adequate sidewalks and bike paths. There are so many streets in Valencia that could use one less lane for cars in order to put in a bike path, widen the sidewalks, or both.

I should have started off by stating that I think that Valencia has an excellent mass transit system. The metro is fast and efficient and ever growing. Buses are everywhere, easy to use, and inexpensive. The city also has great bike paths that crisscross the city as well as venture out into the neighboring countryside. The new bike path to El Saler beach is getting more and more popular on weekends. On some Sundays there are actually traffic jams on the bike path. The trail is less than two years old so a lot of locals don’t even know about it yet. I can’t understand why anyone would drive to the beach when it is so easy to get there on a bike.

I just think that it is unfortunate and short-sighted to place so much emphasis on automobiles in the urban transportation model. Every time a street is widened to make more room for cars, pedestrians and cyclists lose something in the deal. Every kilometer-per-hour increase in the speed of automobile traffic is an added danger for people on foot or on bicycles. Every dollar spent to expand public parking is money that could have been spent to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

The way I see it, a lot of the automobile traffic here in Valencia is just so completely unnecessary. People have very short distances to travel. They probably take more time looking for a place to park than they did driving to wherever they are going. There are other, much more efficient options open to people. Bicycles should be encouraged throughout the city. For people to feel safe on bikes there needs to be more dedicated bike paths everywhere. I am an extremely experienced and aggressive cyclist yet there are many streets in Valencia where I refuse to ride for fear of being flattened by cars. Drivers need to be forced to respect pedestrians and cyclist, something the police here are very loath to do. At many intersections drivers only have a yellow caution light at the crosswalks which means that as a pedestrian you are taking your life in your hands just to cross the street on the green “walk” signal.

Valencia has a lot of things in its favor to encourage bike traffic. They city is on level ground (nothing here like the hills in Seattle), the weather is favorable for cycling almost year-round, and distances between points in the city are not very great. Reasons not to drive a car are innumerable with lack of parking topping the list. I think that with just a bit of encouragement from the local government Valencia could improve on the dismal amount of bike commuters it has now (1.6%). They need to work on ways to glamorize bike commuting.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The New and Improved Me

We may be a bunch of stinkers but we make a great softball team!

I’m nothing like I used to be. Do you remember the way I was before? Wasn’t I just awful? I think we can all agree on that, at least everyone who survived my worst moments. The things I used to do! The way I treated people! I can’t believe how mean I was back then. Sorry about your cat. That was the old me, now I’m a completely changed person. The difference in me is like night and day, like Stalin and Gandhi (Stalin was the bad one, right?). I’m a much better in every way. I think everyone would agree and not just because they fear for their lives if they don’t. I should get some sort of award for most improved the human being. Nice kitty.

Not to obfuscate my problem in abstruse technical jargon but before I was what most medical professionals would call a “heel.” I was only looking out for number one and guess who that was? I was clearly número uno and according to the doctors looking out for number one—me—was not making me happy. Sure, I was making a ton of money. It goes without saying that my sex life was completely off the charts and completely illegal anywhere but in the Red Light district of Amsterdam. Even there they told me to “tone it down a few notches” which is hard to say when you are gagged. So what if I could snap my fingers and have my enemies brought to their knees. The doctors told me that I wasn’t happy. I didn’t believe the first few who told me this; I had them disappeared. My insurance company thought this was a novel approach in dealing with escalating medical expenses. They have been seeking my advice now for years.

But deep down inside I think that I always knew that something was missing. My excesses made the early years of rock and roll seem like a Jane Austen novel, one of the really boring ones when you can’t tell if she is alluding to sex or the heroine has some sort of stomach ailment. I should have known that I had gone too far when Michael Jackson brought charges against me, alleging that I groped him when I had him over for a sleep-over at my palace. When MJ says you are a degenerate menace you should probably sit up and take notice. Instead I paid him off and accelerated my decadent lifestyle. I tried to convince myself that at least I was boosting the economy with all the money I was shelling out in payoffs and for lawyers.

As I led my armies across the steppes of Asia, playing polo with the heads of my vanquished enemies, I tried to block out the lamentations of their widows and the cries of their orphaned children—my new 40 gig MP3 player made this a lot easier. Slowly I was becoming dissatisfied with my way of living and I didn’t exactly know why. I once derived so much pleasure from watching a village burn while a Kenny G song played through my headphones. Now I look at the flames rising above the rooftops and I think, “What is the point?” and, “What the hell happened to Kenny and what does the G stand for?” If I was responsible for his demise I’d like to apologize.

I tried to ignore the warning signs of my behavior: high blood pressure, trouble sleeping, lack of communication with loved ones, and war crimes tribunals. I started to take notice of my problems when I narrowly side-stepped a Mossad assassination attempt and later I was forced to flee to Brazil to avoid a firing squad in The Hague. Safe from extradition I carried on with my depraved conduct, but a sense of emptiness continued to gnaw at the heart of my being. I thought I could counter my existential dread by clear cutting a Pennsylvania-sized swath of the Amazon rain forest just for fun. It was fun but I still didn’t feel right. I had a problem, the kind of problem that you can’t fix with a new squadron of F-20 fighter aircraft.

My new doctors, who had witnessed the fate of the last group of my personal physicians, assured me that I was completely normal, so I had them imprisoned. We used “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a euphemism that makes me chuckle even today in my more enlightened state of being. When the doctors finally cracked they told me that my problem was that I was a selfish jerk. I thanked the doctors for their honesty and they said “you’re welcome” and that I could pay their receptionist by check or credit card. I knew they were right and besides, I didn’t want to be deposed like the Shah of Iran, or overthrown like Baby Doc Duvalier, or ignominiously toppled like Saddam Hussein. Nor did I want to keep on going forever at any cost like Saturday Night Live—I was a tyrant but I wasn’t completely heartless. It was time to change and let the healing begin.
I began by ordering an extra ration of gruel for my grandfather who I had thrown in prison some years before. I was told he had passed away but I still felt good about my gesture. I think that he would have been proud of me. Now I’m all about Toys for Tots, Make a Wish, Guardian Angels, and Meals on Wheels. I want to be part of the solution instead of being the entire problem. From now on I want to spend my days Big Brothering, Boy Scouting, Little Leaguing, Sunday schooling, paying it forward, Salvation Army-ing, and youth ministering. In fact, take any do-gooder cause and I’ll make a clumsy verb out of it.

I haven’t actually done anything even remotely compassionate so far. Let’s just say that I’m taking baby steps, making the transition a little at a time. So far I have been atrocity-free for almost two weeks! Genocide-less for one month! Some of my subjects have even been whispering timidly about holding free elections. Let’s not go overboard, people; I’m still getting used to this whole humanity deal. Do me a favor and give this “benevolent dictator” thing a try. You don’t have to worry about death squads, dungeons, complete disregard for human rights, or most of the other horrors of my former ways, but I’ve always been the type of person who likes to keep the options open.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Rei de Copes

I can’t seem to get away from football, not that I’ve tried very hard. It was impossible not to miss all of the people who showed up in Valencia as early as Monday wearing the red and white jerseys of Athletic Club Bilbao. The Bilbao fans were everywhere from beachside restaurants to every bar in town and every tourist attraction in between. This year’s Copa del Rey final was hosted at Valencia’s Mestalla stadium. Valencia CF won this trophy last year and I remember that it was a pretty big deal, but the game was in Madrid so I didn’t get a very good idea of just how seriously the fans take this game.

If I needed further evidence of this I found it last night when I had to pass by the stadium a couple of hours before the game last night. I used to live a block from the stadium so I have seen more than my share of crowds on game nights. Last night’s final was unlike anything that I have seen so far at Mestalla. As soon as I got on the bike path near my apartment in Ruzafa I noticed that all of the bars and restaurants were filled with people wearing either the team jerseys of Barça or Bilbao, mostly Bilbao. Oh my God were there a lot of Bilbao supporters. I can’t believe they left behind enough people at home to take care of their pets while they are visiting Valencia. “You’re on your own, Fido. I’m going to the game and I’m coming home drunk.”

In fact, there were about 40,000 Bilbao fans as opposed to half as many from Barcelona. Valencia’s response to the onslaught of outsiders from Bilbao seemed to be—at least as reported in today’s paper—a sort of “Thanks, but no thanks” attitude. The bar business was appreciated but the Bilbao fans uprooted all of the plants on the bridge of flowers which crosses over the Turia park. The paper mocked the Bilbao supporters by saying that it was no wonder so many showed up to back their team when you consider that the youngest fans who truly remembered their last victory are now sprouting their first grey hairs. Ouch! Of the Barça fans the paper reported that they came, they took the Cup, and they left.

The way was so littered with fans that I practically had to walk my bike along the entire bike path that runs down Avenida Aragón in front of the stadium. I only wish that I would have brought along my camera. This must have been the least Spanish final of La Copa in a while: the separatist Basques versus the separatist Catalans. Euskadi vs. Catalunya. You could actually here a lot of jeering whistles when they played the Spanish National Anthem before the game. I didn’t hear anyone speaking Euskara or Català in the street so I suppose that Spanish is still the lingua franca of sports fans.

I suppose they use Spanish so that others can understand the insulting football chants they sing, like when a group of Barça supporters all chanted in unison when they turned the corner and first got a glimpse of Mestalla, “This isn’t a stadium, it’s a foosball table.” Granted, Barça's home field of Camp Nou is huge, but Mestalla is pretty big. A local Valenciano told the group good-naturedly to have a bit of respect. After the game the Barça players all donned jerseys emblazoned with “Rei de Copes,” Catalán—not Spanish—for “King of the Cups” in reference to their dominance in this tournament.

All I was doing was riding past on my way across town but I have to say that the atmosphere was thrilling. I haven’t experienced anything like it since I was in Madrid when Spain won the Eurocopa. It would have been fun to attend the game but it seemed like a private party. I was relegated to watching it on television like all the other fans of teams that weren’t in the match. Bilbao scored first on a remarkable header from a corner kick. The Basques went crazy. And then Barça played like they have all season and put on a clinic of creative scoring. This was the first title to fall to Barcelona this year in which they hope to capture two more. They could clinch La Liga this weekend, on Saturday if Madrid loses to Villarreal, or if they win on Sunday against Mallorca. The last title in this year’s quest will be against Manchester United in the final of the Champions League in Rome on May 27. Futbol Club Barcelona has been a real joy to watch this season and I hope to see them win it all.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mar y Montaña

This is a very easy recipe that also happens to be delicious—always a good combination. A cuttlefish is truly a revolting little creature both in and out of the water. I have always loved squid, especially the batter-fried variety I could never resist in Greece.

I got this recipe here:

El Cocinero Fiel

He is about the best video blogger on Spanish food. I have cooked at least a dozen of his dishes so far and they have all been well worth it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Doldrums and New Breezes

Perhaps the most difficult thing about trying to master another language is that you can never rest on your past accomplishments (assuming you have any past accomplishments). I have recently passed through a couple of weeks in which I haven’t been as diligent about my reading in Spanish. I’m sure everyone goes through the doldrums from time to time when learning Spanish, or any language for that matter. With my sails flapping without effect I felt like my Spanish was actually worsening with every passing day.

It was partly due to laziness and partly because I couldn’t find a book I could really sink my teeth into. I have already listened to all of the Spanish books on tape that a friend gave me. Ironically, I requested that these people visiting from Seattle record some books in Spanish from the Seattle public library as I can’t find many here in Spain. Consequently I have been listening to books in English on my daily bike rides and consequently I have noticed an erosion in my Spanish.

I put the brakes on my skid yesterday by doing quite a bit of reading. I am trying to finish a book I am enjoying very much but it is proving to be quite a challenge. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why one book is difficult to read while I can pick up another and read it straight through with hardly consulting a dictionary. Often I find that books by the same author can fall on both sides of this linguistic barbed-wire fence. José Luis Sampedro’s La Sonrisa Estrusca is a mere 255 pages but has presented quite a barrier as far as my Spanish goes. I have been stuck for a couple weeks now trying to finish it, a few pages here, a few the next day—nothing like my self-imposed schedule of reading 50 pages in Spanish a day. I really like the novel so far so yesterday I sat down and plowed through about 30 pages. I also read out loud for about 30 minutes which I think is an excellent tool for improving pronunciation and overall fluency. Reading out loud for a half an hour is probably more speaking than you would do in an entire day.

I had to more or less will myself out of my trance of Spanish inactivity. I have a couple of Spanish movies to watch. I don’t find movies to be a very good tool in learning the language but every little bit helps. Movies also provide very needed help in cultural assimilation. Just the other day I was in a conversation with some Spanish friends and I felt left out because I hadn’t seen the popular movie they were referencing. I plan on filling that cultural void later today by watching the Spanish film Rec. I don’t want to lose my reputation for being the hardest working immigrant in Spain, at least when it comes to learning the language.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Chelsea 1-1 Barça

Barça really pulled one out of their butts last night at Stamford Bridge to advance to the finals of the Champions League with Manchester United. After the 0-0 draw at Camp Nou last week Chelsea had the goal they needed early on in last night’s match with a terrific shot by Michael Essien in the ninth minute. From this point on Chelsea had the sort of game they relish and that fans despise: a defensive slog in which they throw the entire squad in the box and then counter attack with lightening speed. Barcelona was fairly stifled throughout the match and, like in the first game, seemed timid and afraid to make a mistake instead of playing with brilliant abandon like they do so well.

I just couldn’t believe that Barça was going to play two games without scoring a single goal (as they had done last year). It was probably the worst officiated game that I have ever seen and the referee lost control of the match very early on. The culmination of the terrible calls came in the 66th minute when Abidal was given a red card when he didn’t so much as touch Anelka. Now Barça was facing a formidable defense with 10 men. In the 93rd minute Iniesta came through once again and stunned the crowd with the second great goal of the game.

I started off watching the game at La Tasca de Russafa but it was incredibly over-crowded. I left that firetrap at the break and walked a block down the street to El Faro. The atmosphere wasn’t quite as festive but at least I could move around without pushing someone over. When Barça scored I actually shook hands with a few of the other patrons whom I had only seen once or twice before while watching other matches at the bar.

I can understand people who think that watching sports on television is a moronic pastime. I sometimes feel this way if it concerns a sport that doesn’t interest me. After a great game like this one I feel a lot better about life in general than I probably should. I mean, why should I care if one sports team defeats another? All that I can say is that I’ve never felt that elated after walking out of a symphony or an opera, and I like symphonies and operas as much as the next guy (and probably more than the average knucklehead sports fan). I don’t want this to sound like an apology or an excuse for indulging in an activity that some would say is hardly worth the time of a serious person. It was a great night to be a sports fan. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

City Life

"First life, then spaces, then buildings—the other way around never works." – Urban Architect Jan Gehl

“How best to build our cities?” This is quite possibly the most important question a society can ask yet few communities even bother to raise the issue. From what I have seen of many cities, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of city planning at all. Cities are simply pushed along by commerce with local governments too feeble or completely unwilling to demand that growth be managed in a sensible way. The prevailing philosophy seems to be that what is good for the strip mall is good for the residents.

Copenhagen reduces by 3% its parking spaces and streets every year. Amsterdam has had a similar program over the past ten years which has drastically reduced automobile traffic in its historic canal district. As Mr. Gehl points out in the video, reducing roads simply gives citizens the incentive to travel by means other than the personal automobile. More often than not, the roads we are building aren’t vital to development; they simply provide what is known as induced traffic. If you build the roads the cars will come. If you provide safe places to ride bikes more people will choose this means of transportation which is infinitely healthier and more sustainable than the automobile.

A full third of the residents of Copenhagen effect their inter-city transportation by bicycle. Valencia is way behind Copenhagen with only 1.6% of people here electing to use bikes to travel around town. Most people in Valencia feel that it is dangerous to ride a bike here. There is quite a good network of bike trails around Valencia and to outlying areas. The problem, as I see it, is that pedestrians and cyclists are not respected in the urban model. The automobile in Valencia is little more than a terrorist weapon with drivers bullying pedestrians and cyclists at every intersection and on every thoroughfare. Valencia has vastly improved its bike path network in just the few years that I have lived here. Just today there was quite a traffic jam along the bike path which leads to the beaches south of town. More people are discovering this trail that is just a little over two years old.

Valencia is working towards their future in many ways. There is a new metro line being built that will go from the city center, pass through my neighborhood of Ruzafa, and then service the port area at Nazareth. Even with what I think is a pretty solid public transportation system, only 12.3% of Valencianos use it. These statistics are for the entire community of Valencia so I’m sure that city rates are much higher than this 12.3% but still probably nowhere near the numbers that Madrid boasts in this department.

Why should cities fund public transportation and bicycle paths? A lot of American conservatives would argue that we should let the free market decide. The glorious “free market” that we hear so much about. If public transportation and bike paths are so vital then the private sector would provide this service on a for profit basis. Of course, this is a childish argument because government subsidizes the auto industry to an astonishing degree at the expense of just about every other alternative. The same goes for the airlines. Parking is also heavily subsidized by local governments and most suburban businesses provide parking to accommodate traffic models for the peak days of the year with the lots going fallow for the rest of the time. Road construction projects require staggering amounts of capital outlay. If an American city were to spend 1/1000 of what they spend on roads to develop a bike path system, it would put Copenhagen to shame.

Why are cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen so far ahead on the issues of mass transit and bikes? I was talking to someone here in Valencia about why people here don’t use public transportation or ride bicycles. I said that it was from lack of education. Immediately after I said it (in Spanish) I realized that I didn’t mean lack of education (which can be interpreted as being rude in Spanish). What I meant to say is that Valencia lacks the public relations apparatus to sell the idea of bikes to their citizens. I think that what Valencia needs is a way to portray bike riding as somehow glamorous. As is the case in much of the United States, the perception of public transportation is that it is for people who can’t afford their own car. Could there be a bigger sin in America than not owning a car? We often say that you are what you drive.

At a time when we should be extremely concerned not only about energy use but the regimes that we are financing by our heavy dependence on foreign crude, America’s oil use increased 17% between 1990 and 2000. That increase only serves to illustrate how little concern we have for our future. Besides stemming the tide of militant Islamists funded by our petro dollars, planning for the future can also be something as basic as providing pedestrians a place to sit down, as Mr. Gehl mentions in the video. I think that it is like setting up an ambush: first you have to lure people out of their homes and cars, and then you can sell them on the bigger ideas of what it means to live in a vibrant city.

I think a big problem for many people is that they just don’t know what they are missing by living in a city with a lot of life. They are only familiar with their lives of relative isolation in which they go from their private home to their private car, without really taking their fellow citizens into account. If you haven’t already noticed, automobiles seem to bring out the absolute worst in just about everyone. I am always amazed at how aggressive drivers can be even in the confines of a parking lot. Many drivers act out in aggressive manners they wouldn’t dream of walking down the street. It’s like their car becomes their evil alter-ego. Walking, biking, and mass transit forces people to be a lot more civilized towards one another. It has a calming effect.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Arroz de Mariscos

As I have said many times, Valencianos really only call something a paella if it is a true paella valenciana (with chicken and rabbit). Anything else to them is just rice. I just made this because I have only tried to make it once before. To be honest, I much prefer a real paella. I just like to film the dishes I make to sort of remind myself of what I have in my repertoire. ¡Buen provecho!