Important Notice

Special captions are available for the humor-impaired.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Les Mercredis Français (French Wednesdays, at least I think that's what it says)

It looks like I have settled into a groove and Wednesdays will be my day for French class.  I have class at 10:00 and I always ride my bike at least a half hour early to Cabanyal so that I can study before class. I read out loud for a bit so that when I begin class I sort of hit the ground running—if you can call my present level of French “running.” It’s more like crawling through the mud but at least I’m trying. I can’t wait to travel to France again as I am feeling pretty comfortable with the language. I understand almost everything my teacher says in class and we rarely resort to speaking Spanish. If I do eventually move to France I don’t want to start off with the language as slowly as I did here in Spain.   

If there is a better way to learn foreign languages than the way I am doing it these days then someone needs to speak up. As I have said before, I mostly just read a lot. Of course, I also speak Spanish all day long but I still feel that reading is the best way to build new vocabulary.  My trick is to underline unfamiliar words in red pen as I am reading and then later look them up on wordreference and write the definition in the margin. My latest book in Spanish, James Elroy’s Réquiem por Brown, has few signs of my linguistic vandalism and the words I do need to look up are pretty obscure as many of my Spanish friends were miffed by them. After something like a month of reading I am only on page 318 of Alex Garland’s La Plage but I am enjoying it and I feel that my French is improving rapidly. That little paperback is pretty scarred up from my red pen.

I read about 100 pages of the Elroy book at a single sitting but since then it has been languishing in second place in my book bag pecking order. I had three occasions to sit in a café yesterday to read and each time I chose to read in French. More than anything I want to get this first book in French behind me and move on to something else.

The most important thing in learning another language, I think, is consistency. You have to make some sort of an effort every day. That’s pretty easy if you already live in the country but quite another thing if you don’t.  Reading is about as close to full immersion as you can get when learning a foreign language. When I read I am 100% inside the language. Reading may be a bit passive when compared to conversation but you can’t always find another person to talk with during the course of your day. You can always pull out a book.

Monday, October 25, 2010

How to Fry an Egg

There isn’t much room for embellishment when making a fried egg but there are a thousand ways to make it less than perfect.  A friend of mine shared this page for the best fried egg you will ever make.Fernand Point, a Frenchman considered to be the godfather of modern cuisine, would test new chefs by having them prepare this simple item. If they failed, he would pistol whip them to within an inch of their miserable lives. OK, that part about the beating isn’t true but it should be if he really wants to be called “the Godfather.” My point about Mr. Point is that the man liked a good fried egg.

A fried egg isn’t just a breakfast item, it’s an excellent way to dress up a serving of rice, or beans, or rice and beans. A fried egg makes dishes look jolly, adding a perfect touch of color and depth to many recipes.  I am paraphrasing his technique here for the sake of simplicity, and I also use less butter, but the idea is still the same. Take a small non-stick skillet and melt a tab of butter at low heat. Carefully break the egg in the pan and cover. Cook on one side only until the egg reaches your desired level of firmness. The butter will release a bit of water which helps to steam the egg in the covered pan—oils do not release liquid which is why butter is essential to this recipe.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Other Football

a piece I wrote for publication in the EEUU

Think of baseball, basketball, football, and hockey rolled into one sport and you’re approaching the importance that soccer has in most European countries.  You may need to throw in golf while you’re at it…and tennis...and perhaps NASCAR and professional wrestling.  And bowling. The epic seasons of around 40 matches begin sometime at the end of August and end in May—and that’s just the regular season. There are a host of competitions besides the national leagues both during the year and at the end.  Every two years there is either the Eurocopa or the World Cup which means another six weeks of play during the summer.  As saturated with the sport as they are in Europe, most fans are despondent during the few fallow weeks in late July and August. The football-less boredom drives some to go as far as actually talking with spouses and children, working, and generally making an attempt to be a part of society.

Games are on Sunday, unless they play on Saturday…or almost any other day of the week depending on the circumstances. In Spain many games begin as late as ten at night, even on week nights—a very Spanish thing where restaurants are empty until 11 o’clock in the evening and the streets of Madrid are awash in people at 2 am. Fewer and fewer games are on regular television so more and more people are forced out to their favorite bars to watch the matches on pay TV—as if Europeans need another reason to go to a bar.

The best thing about the European football year is that the playoffs begin at the very beginning of the season. The Champions League is the European club championship held every year and featuring the best teams from the previous season.  The tournament begins with round-robin group play in the fall and the elimination process continues until late spring of following year. The final match is the most watched annual sporting event worldwide with over 100 million television viewers, more than last year’s Super Bowl. The Champions League combines the drama of a sports final with the tension of an international war.  Imagine the Pittsburg Steelers in the Super Bowl against the Beijing Rams (I am just making a point here and as far as I know China has no plans to purchase the Rams—but the world is changing).

In addition to the Champions League there is the Europa League which is the playoff competition for the lesser clubs across the continent. If you are still looking for more playoff competition, all of the national leagues have their own inter-club championships which are separate from the regular season. 

The bottom line is that Europeans have a serious soccer addiction. If you happen to be an American living in Europe and you have a bit of a sports addiction you will probably catch the soccer bug very quickly. Even if you are just passing through for a visit it doesn’t hurt to be a bit fluent in football lingo.  Most major clubs have at least one daily newspaper devoted to news of the team and these rags litter the tops of damn near every bar on the continent.  Discussing sports is sort of like the international language, the Esperanto of wannabe jock morons like me all around the world. Even though I don’t speak the language I can rattle off the names of a few local soccer stars and I’m instantly one of the boys in Munich, Milan, Amsterdam, or Manchester (they speak some other kind of English in Manchester so stick with football news unless you have an interpreter).

Book and Bars

As I get back into studying French I insist on using the formal pronoun “vous” with my teacher even though she is younger than I. I told her that I need the practice because we almost never use the formal pronoun “usted” here in Spain. You might use it when addressing very old people but even then you risk having them telling you to lighten up. I am still reading La Plage by Alex Garland. It’s taking me a while but I am enjoying the book and I have found little difficulty with the French apart from having to look up a lot of words. I have found almost no grammar mysteries in the book.  I underline every word I don’t know and then later look it up on www.wordreference.com.  I write the definition in the margin (sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish if that is clearer for me) and then I go back and reread the passage.

I picked up a couple of used book at Ubik Café last night. I can’t say that I am a big James Elroy fan but I bought Réquiem por Brown for 2€. I hate to admit it but I liked the font size in the book which was probably the biggest determining factor in my purchase. I hate how a lot of paperbacks here in Europe are in some sort of ultra-micro print. Anyway, it should be an easy read in Spanish. I also bought Je M’en Vais by Jean Echenoz who won the Prix Gouncourt for this novel in 1999 (my grand-uncle won it in 1942 as you can read in the link).  I have a lot of books in the queue.  I love Ubik Café, besides being a great place for finding cheap reads they also have good wine by the glass and great tapas.

I also stopped in for a quick visit at a new bar in the neighborhood called La Bicicleta. How could I now go to a bar named La Bicicleta?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nikon R.I.P.

Why isn’t there a picture for this post? Because I was flying down the street on my bike trying to fish my camera out of my messenger bag when it fell and was subsequently run over by about 50 cars and trucks. I didn’t even bother to go back for it. I just left it in the road like a dead animal. I suppose that I could have retrieved the 2 gig card in it. On the bright side, I’ve been looking into buying a strictly video camera to improve the quality of my cooking videos (at least improve the film and sound, whether they will be better is doubtful).  I have my old camera around here somewhere. I suppose you really should replace these forms of very ephemeral technology about every two years, even if they haven’t been run over by a line of angry Spanish motorists.   

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa Wins Nobel Literature Prize

I’m just finishing the last few pages of Mario Vargas Llosa’s epic novel, Travesuras de la Niña Mala (The Bad Girl). I think this is the third time I have read it in as many years and each time it is better. Granted, the first time I read it my Spanish was rather crappy. It took it with me to read on the train to Barcelona because the book I was reading—the Stieg Larsson thing—is as big as a suitcase. I don’t really have anything to add to what I have already said about this novel.  Below is the quick review I wrote after my first reading. It’s obvious that I’m not a book critic (I wouldn’t want to be). I just like jotting down a few thoughts on books I have enjoyed—sort of like taking amateur photographs.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
MVL wrote this when he was 69 and it´s great to see him getting better with age.  I read this book in about four sittings which is pretty fast considering my level of Spanish.  It is a truly epic novel spanning the lifetime of one of the characters. It was interesting how the life of the main character mirrored Mario Vargas Llosa`s life in Peru, Paris, London, and Madrid.

As a student of Spanish I found this easy to read whereas I had a lot of difficulty with La Fiesta del Chivo from the same author. Some time after I had read the book 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 rejoiced the battery before heading out again. I desperately wanted to keep hearing this great tale of love and obsession.  

I hope he writes for another 30 years.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Barcelona II

Wow, Barcelona really sucks on a bike. I don’t remember it being so bad the last time I was here. The are few bike paths and the traffic is horrible. I’ll take Valencia any day—at least as far as bikes are concerned.  To paraphrase The Smiths, there’s more to life than bikes, but not much more. As bad as riding around the city was, it beats walking around the city.

Since I know Barcelona from previous visits I don’t feel obligated to run around like an idiot touching all of the bases required of tourists.  Where I am staying is in such a great location. I skipped up to the Boqueria market this morning to buy some olives to accompany the great bottle of wine I brought along on this trip. It took longer once inside the market to find a stall selling olives than it took me to walk there from my apartment.

From yesterday’s solid 10 hours of walking and today’s cycling, my legs feel like cement. Humping up Montjuic after wine and lunch was a chore.  On the ride down we stopped in the quiet Plaça Surtidor and had a beer from the restaurant of that name.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Probably what most impressed me as a young traveller in Europe on my first visit were the trains. Ever since I’ve loved trains and I try to travel by rail whenever possible. I started out by taking a Valenbisi bike from my apartment to Valencia’s Estación del Norte. The TALGO train to Barcelona was 15 minutes late in leaving—not very Spanish, as I’ve found trains here to be a marvel of precesion. We still arrived at the scheduled time at Barcelona Sants station which looks more like an airport than a train terminal. The train was completely booked as this is a holiday weekend for Valencianos (October 9th is when they celebrate the reconquest of the city from the Moors by Jaume I).

From Sants Station I descended into the Metro, bought a ticket, checked the map, and walked through the bowels of the city to my platform. It was a direct line to the Liceu stop and the sign indicated that the next train was due in three minutes. From the metro stop to where I'm staying is about three blocks. My big complaint about Barcelona is that I can't use their bike share system. Unlike Valencia's model theirs is only for residents. It's too bad because they have stations everywhere.

As I was packing earlier in the day I was sweating. This probably explains the fact that I only brought along one pair of long pants. Waking up this morning was the first day without total sunshine that I have experienced in about four months. I just can’t break out of the summer mentality. It’s not like I risk freezing to death; I just feel a little under-dressed, too casual. I can get away with it because I’m just a tourist after all. I made a decision not to bring a rain jacket. I fugured if it was going to rain I could just visit a museum or two. On my last visit to Barcelona I didn’t go iinto a single museum.

Between the tourists and the immigrant workers you hear almost nothing except bad English here. One of the features of living in the Barri Gotic is hearing all of the late night-earlyu morning revelers, almost all of whom are speaking pigeon English. If it isn't bad English then it's even worse, mostly cringe-worthy Spanish.

*The photo above is the Valenbisi station at the Estació del Nord

Friday, October 08, 2010

Further Embellishments on the Definition of Lazy

I needed to go to the supermarket this morning. It’s about four blocks from my house; way too far for me to walk. Instead of taking my bike which requires opening up the storeroom downstairs, unlocking two chains, and then opening up the two big doors on the street I thought I’d take a Valenbisi bike. We have two stations in opposite directions that are about a block from my door. My first choice of stations didn’t have any bikes so I had to walk to the other for a total of three blocks walked. I rode the four blocks to the store and parked at a station about a half a block away. I had a coffee and read some French. I did my shopping and returned by bike but instead of leaving the bike at the station where I got it I rode a few blocks out of the way so that I could leave it at the first station that still didn’t have any bikes. I did my good Valenbisi deed for the day but I ended up walking about as far as I would have without a bike. It sounds stupid, I know, but I like riding bikes.

Valenbisi Update

I must have set some sort of Valenbisi speed record just now coming back from my French class in Cabanyal. 19 minutes! Read it and weep, wheel suckers. Granted, I made a total mockery of Spanish traffic laws but this still goes down in the record books.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Urban Solutions

I finally got my www.Valenbisi.es card to work. There was nothing wrong with the card or with the system and if you do it correctly the access is immediate. You first need a Mobilís card for the Valencia bus and metro system which you can buy at any tobacco shop. Next you log on to the web site and follow the instructions (Spanish, Valenciano, and English are offered). It costs 18€ for a year’s subscription and after charging your credit card you will receive a PDF receipt with all of your information. Next you need to verify your PIN number online by responding to an email. Next you take the card and your receipt to any Valenbisí station and register your card by punching in a few required numbers on the station keypad.

Once your card has been activated you just need to scan it at the station, enter your PIN, and press #1 which tells you to select a bike. It will show all of the available bikes at that station and you enter the number of the post of the bike you want to take. At the bike post you press a button and the bike is released. From this moment you have 30 minutes to ride the bike and then you must dock it at another station or pay a tariff. The system is designed for short trips of less than 30 minutes which is why rides under 30 minutes are free. You could make 100 trips a day of less than 30 minutes and not pay anything more than your annual fee of 18€.

If I have one problem with the Valencia system it’s the name, Valenbisí. It doesn’t really roll off the tongue like the Paris system called Vélib or the one in Barcelona called Bicing and in Lyon it’s called Vélov—very cool.  I know it’s not a big deal but I talked about this with some Spanish friends and they agreed with me. I’m pretty thrilled that the program has started so I’ll learn to live with the clunky name. The goal in Valencia is to have 275 stations with 2750 bikes available. I don’t know how close they are to this so far but it looks like they are working full steam ahead to finish all the proposed stations. I have two stations within a block from my apartment.

The system was inaugurated back in June and it looks to be quite a success already. Valencia is perfect for this type of program for many reasons: distances around town are quite short, Valencia has no hills, the weather is perfect for cycling almost all year, and there already exists an extensive network of bike paths. I predict that the city will look completely different in as little as six months from now. The culture of bikes is being thrust upon Valencia. I have noticed the Valenbisi bikes all over the place, especially near the University on Blasco Ibañez (a major boulevard with bike paths on either side of the street).

I saw a comment on a forum discussing bike share programs and someone asked, “Why don’t people just buy their own bikes?” There are a lot of reasons why people like bike sharing so I’ll just list a few. For one thing, many people who live in cities don’t have a place to keep a bicycle.  If you live on the third floor of an apartment building and you don’t have an elevator, a bicycle can be very inconvenient. If you are leaving town you probably wouldn’t want to leave your bike at the train station.  If you are commuting across town by bus or metro you may still be rather far away from your destination and bike sharing can take your that extra kilometer. You don’t have to worry about maintenance or theft.

One intangible item in this formula is the Valenbisi bikes are just cool. I know this cool factor will wear off with time but there is no denying it now while we are in the initial phases of the project. By being a member and using the bikes you can’t help but think that you are involved in making the city a better place for everyone.  Whenever I ride these bikes I feel that I am advertising for a more sustainable transit system and cleaner air. And what could be cooler or more hip than riding a bike downtown to visit and art exhibit on a Sunday afternoon?   I was patting myself on the back so hard today that I almost lost control of my bike.Besides, everyone knows that bikes are a lot of fun.

I heard one planning engineer describe the more successful bike share programs as “transformational” meaning that they actually transform the city. I believe this will happen in Valencia, a city without much of a bike culture. The more bikes people see on the streets of Valencia the more they will start considering cycling as a transportation option.  Not only will more and more people start participating in Valenbisi (there are already about 25,000 members) but more people will begin riding the bikes that they own and haven’t used much. The program in Paris has caused an increase of 20% in new bike sales.  Increased ridership increases safety for cyclists and with increased safety you will see even more people using the bike as a transportation tool.
There are times when the program is too popular, like this empty station in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. This station often is without bikes even though it has 30 posts. It is also a station that accepts credit cards (not all do) which means out-of-towners can get bikes here (only residents are allowed to use Barcelona's system). Fortunately, there was another station a few hundred meters away that had bikes.