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Monday, December 31, 2007

Valencia Oranges


I finally got the opportunity to do something that is as embedded in the culture of Valencia as anything; I was able to go to an orchard and pick oranges. Oranges are as synonymous to Valencia as paella, something a short drive in the countryside here will quickly confirm. The entire coastal plain in this corner of the Mediterranean is packed with orange trees. I have been bike riding through these orchards all year, smelling the hypnotic blossoms and almost tasting the sweetness of the fruit in the air. In December the trees are almost breaking with the weight of the harvest and anyone with an orchard is screaming for pickers.

We drove south of Valencia, past Xátiva to the village of Chella. The family of an acquaintance has a small huerta with a few dozen orange trees near their home in the village. The parents are a bit beyond doing their own harvesting but the trees are still producing an absolutely prodigious amount of oranges and persimmons. Someone needs to go out and pull them off the trees. When I was asked to volunteer I fairly jumped at the chance.

Just seeing the countryside out this way is enough reason to take me away from the city for a day, or the rest of my life. The valley is dotted with lonely village church steeples and defensive towers built by the Arab occupants a thousand years ago, but mostly there are orange trees—another product left behind by the Moors. The mild, frost-free winters assure a strong yield, year after year. It was sunny and warm on this late December day, perfect for picking oranges.

We arrived a bit later than scheduled and I was ready to head out to the orchard and start filling bags with fruit. I quickly remembered that I was in Spain and that there would have to be a bit of eating before anything else could be attempted. Not only was this Spain, but a Spanish country home, so I walked into the middle of something resembling an American Thanksgiving dinner. After introductions I was seated at the table and force-fed dish after dish. All I could think about was the futility of someone trying to go on a hunger strike while seated at a Spanish grandmother’s dining room table. I’m sure that I would be able to resist whatever cruel tortures the CIA could dream up at Guantánamo much better than I can refuse to accept anything in the way of food offered by a Spanish host.

There were three kids at the table, ages 3, 4, and 8. The 8 year old girl could barely contain her disappointment in me when I admitted that I didn’t know anyone from High School Musical, and she would have been completely devastated to know that I don’t even know what that is. I’m never too shy about eating and I was only too happy to be stuffed like a Christmas goose with shrimp, rice soup, and cocido. I ate at least twice as much as anyone else at the table.

I don’t know if it is just because I like kids or that my Spanish skills are more suited to conversing with the little guys, but I always seem to gravitate to the playground when I am in these sort of mixed-generation, social settings here in Spain. I was quickly recruited to go outside and play pilla-pilla which seems to be a sort of hellish Spanish version of tag where I was cursed with being it no matter how many times I caught one of the kids. I think that Spanish kids take advantage of me in games because of my status as a foreigner. Just the other evening I was trying to teach my 5 year old friend to play chess when he invented his own rather Machiavellian version of the game in which all of his pieces on the board seemed to have super powers enabling them to take out my players at will. I didn’t stand a chance.

The late afternoon sun was threatening to slide behind the mountains to the west when we finally drove about a half kilometer out to the orchard. This area is a collective of the village with each family having their own trees, some of which were already completely stripped of fruit, others in desperate need of harvesting. When we began picking I was immediately astounded by the output of every tree. It is common for a single orange tree to yield 100 kilos of fruit. After less than a half hour of picking we had more oranges than 50 people could consume in a week—now I just need to find about 45 more people, either that or set up my own stall in the Ruzafa market.

I think that I would really like to have my own bit of land here in Valencia. I would like to have a few fruit trees and enough olive trees to keep me in oil and olives for the year. The odd-shaped raf tomatoes that are grown here would also be a lot of fun to grow on my own. I also need to grow my own basil as this is my favorite herb. I’ll have to find a garden that I can commute to on my bicycle from downtown Valencia. Perhaps I’ll just get my own country estate with free pilla-pilla games for the kids. Cheating encouraged!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Note To Self: Stop Eating!



Note To Self: Stop Eating!

I had my first cocido prepared by a real Spanish person today. Everything was almost ready when I walked in and the first first thing that I noticed was the absolutely huge stock pot on the stove. I immediately had a serious case of stock pot envy which I attempted to translate into Spanish and was then lectured on the finer points of Freud´s views on male and female roles regarding phallic motifs. Whatever dumb joke I has brewing in my head with regards to my stock pot envy was erased by a five minute discussion on psychoanalytic theory.

Something everyone learns when living and eating in Spain are the names for the different meals throughout the day. Desayuno is breakfast and consists of coffee and perhaps a piece of some sort of bread-based product. I´ve never been much of a breakfast person so I just stick with coffee. I drink about twice as much coffee as the average Spanish person and would give my left (insert vulgar body part here) for a 20 ounce cup of American brewed coffee in the morning. I should just break down and buy and American coffee maker but it´s a little late now; I am quite sure that I would now find American coffee to be too weak for my tastes—even in the morning. When I order coffee in a bar or restaurant I order a “cafe americano con leche, which is an espresso with almost double the normal amout of water and milk.

After breakfast comes almuerzo which means “lunch” in Spanish but in Spain it means a mid-morning snack, usually a sandwich and a beer or soft drink. This meal is taken between 10:30 and 12:00, más o menos.

Lunch is called la comida here so don´t let anyone catch you calling it almuerzo, or lunch. This is the biggest meal of the day. This is when normal Valencianos have their big rice dishes such as paella or baked rice. This is also the time when any self-respecting Spanish person would dine on a heavy dish like cocido. Make sure that you always wear loose-fitting pants to this meal.

Then comes the merienda, or the afternoon snack. If you haven´t noticed already, the Spanish eat a lot, or at least they do in theory. We have already had four meals and it is not even six in the afternoon. The merienda isn´t too well defined and only serves as a designator for whatever you shove into your fat pie hole in the time between lunch ( la comida ) and whatever you wolf down during before-dinner drinks. I need to take a meal break in just the amount of time it takes me to describe what these people eat during the course of a day.

Tapas aren't a big part of the culture in this corner of Spain but it´s not like Valencianos will say no when someone places a bit of food in front of them along side whatever it is that they have ordered to drink. I was actually quite disappointed when I learned when I first moved here that they don´t really have tapas here. After living here for a year I can rarely even look at food during this time of day that is set aside for tapas in other parts of Spain. Eating four meals previously in the day tends to weaken my appetite.

Late in the afternoon comes la cena, or dinner. I say late in the afternoon but what I really mean is really late at night, at least as far as dinner is concerned, dinner for an American. The Spanish don´t stop calling this part of the day "afternoon," so en la tarde (in the afternoon) can mean twelve o´clock at night. They usually only say buenas noches when they are going to bed. The evening meal is usually of a lighter fare than in the afternoon, at least in their way of thinking. “¿Arroz en la noche?,” Valecianos will recoil in horror when you tell them that you ate rice for dinner, yet they will eat a loaf of bread with their "lighter meal" and think nothing of it. Their views on diet and nutrition are more ruled by tradition than science or logic so I wouldn't bother trying to tell them otherwise.

For today´s afternoon meal I was having cocido. It is called puchero in Valenciano, or pagan as I kid my Valencian friends about their language. Puchero has most of the same ingredients as Cocido Madrileño except they also throw in meat balls which can contain pine nuts as a nod to their Mediterranean roots. Cocido/puchero is more of an event than a menu item. The cooking and eating process is highly regulated according to family and/or regional exigencies. Valencianos like to serve a first course of rice made with the stock of the boiling stew. Other people make noodles using the stock.

Echar una cabezada means “To take a nap.” This phrase comes in very handy after eating more than I can lift in one sitting.

Friday, December 21, 2007

War on Christmas Update



This is the last in our series The War on Christmas in which we here at the Discover It Institute in Seattle, Washington have examined the godless attack against America’s biggest shopping holiday and birthday of our savior.

This is part of our The Science of Christmas initiative in which we attempt to prove through scientific method that Christmas is real. We felt that we could provide more conclusive evidence than the 10,000 letters addressed to Santa Claus that vindicated Saint Nick in Miracle on 34th Street. We think that only through scientific methods could we coerce retailers into returning to the good old days when clerks could greet shoppers with “Merry Christmas” instead of the hyper politically-correct “Happy Holidays” now currently in vogue and something we feel is the root of all of America’s problems.

We began with a list of Christmas truisms and exposed them to the cruel scrutiny of scientific investigation.

For most of you, apocryphal accounts of flying reindeer and popular ballads of the exploits of Santa’s sleigh drivers are all the proof you need, but we wanted to establish this fact scientifically. We traveled to the Lapland region of Finland to find a herd of reindeer. We transported fifteen of the sturdiest examples of the breed to our testing center at the Space Needle in Seattle. Working closely with a team of aerodynamic engineers from Boeing Aircraft we joyfully launched the reindeer, one by one, from the top of this 184 meter Seattle icon.

Can reindeer fly?

The short answer is “Hell no.” The Boeing people actually said that what they saw was the exact opposite of flying, but many of the test subjects certainly displayed characteristics of a species that desperately wanted to fly, and that is good enough for us. On a side note, reindeer meat is quite flavorful and tender, although the tenderness may have been the result of dropping the animals from 605 feet.

For our next experiment we enlisted the help of 65 year old Armando Escovedo. We lowered the retired Seattle fireman into a chimney and waited to see how long it would take him to make it into the living room.

Could Santa Claus slide down a chimney?

Although paramedics pronounced Mr. Escovedo dead at the scene after spending nearly three hours extracting him from his sooty grave, we feel that our test subject may have had other health issues that contributed to his demise and to the failure of our experiment. We are experiencing some difficulty in finding another old, gray-haired, and overweight volunteer for further investigation into this matter.

Although they refused to identify themselves as elves, we employed a group of midgets to work under harsh artic conditions fro our next experiment.

Could a group of elves make toys for every child on the planet?

Yes! Yes! Yes! This experiment was a resounding success and we proved, without a doubt, that working a small group of “elves” 20 hours a day, seven days a week our team was able to crank out a hell of a lot of toys. Granted, the toys were kind of crappy, and thanks to an Amnesty International report we’re not exactly going to win any awards for being employee-friendly, but given the right incentive, it certainly is possible to have a small group of height-challenged workers produce a prodigious amount of toys. The trick is to keep them properly motivated at all times. We recommend keeping family members hostage, frequent beatings, and providing an open bar at all company functions.

We could have gone on with our tireless inquiry but let us remind you that our sister institute here in Seattle, the Discovery Institute, had even less of a factual basis behind their highly-successful Intelligent Design initiative which has cost the United States government millions of dollars in legal fees to keep out of public schools.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Good Food Nation

Good Food Nation

Much more so than Americans, Europeans are often well defined by the food they eat. This is especially true here in Valencia which has a cuisine rich with many dishes unique to this community as well as those adopted from the rest of the Spanish culinary repertoire. I have found that the food here helps to define the people in a manner which is almost as important as their language and history. Those aspects of culture are all interrelated and it is difficult to separate them or say where one begins and the other ends. A Spanish person’s sense of identity is closely related to the food they eat.

One of the questions that I have the hardest time answering is when Spanish people ask me what sort of food we eat in America. I wasn’t raised with a very well-defined menu. Like most Americans I think I have developed a sort of hodge-podge approach to food. I take bits and pieces from the national cuisines of countries far removed from each other. I cook lots of Mexican stuff, albeit with an American flavor; I have borrowed heavily from Asian rice and noodle dishes; Italian and French influences can be found in the meals that I prepare; but very little of what I cook could be defined as purely American. You could probably call my cooking American Ethnic.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have our own American cuisine; it’s just that I don’t really specialize in that sort of cooking. I think that it would be very beneficial to the American character if we were to lay out a uniquely American cuisine, once and for all, and inculcate our citizens in this menu. It should be taught in schools, these 50 or so menu items that all Americans would recognize as our national cuisine. Mothers could teach these dishes to their sons and fathers could teach their daughters.

Thanksgiving is the only culinary American holiday, rich with traditions shared by almost everyone in the country. People who haven’t cooked anything all year long will enter the kitchen on this day and attempt dishes of considerable complexity. If we could only get our fellow countrymen and women to adopt a few more feast days we would be well on our way in developing an American cooking tradition that would be a source of pride for all of us. Just imagine if another four times a year we all put forth the sort of effort that goes into pulling off a Thanksgiving Day feast.

I have decided to treat some Spanish people to a real American meal, the first for all of them as far as I know. None have been to the U.S. but they all admit to loving McDonald’s. Spanish people are not afraid to criticize your cooking, even when they are guests in your house. That is sort of a Spanish tradition and tends to keep people on their toes—it also makes people better cooks.

Parmesan Pork Chops

• 1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs
• 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
• 1 tablespoon sage (I pick this out in the country on my bike rides)
• 1 teaspoon lemon rind, grated
• 2 large eggs
• 1/4 cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
• Pork chops, about 1 inch thick (I suggest finding a good butcher shop to buy your chops and have them cut to order. My butcher in the Ruzafa market is as good as it gets. Here in Spain if you buy the whole unit of whatever it is you are buying it comes out cheaper. I was making this dish for four people but ended up buying enough pork chops to feed my entire extended family. I can’t help myself.)
• 1/8-1/4 cup butter
• 2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 425F degrees.
2. Mix in bowl, bread crumbs, grated parmesan cheese, sage, grated lemon peel.
3. On a plate put flour seasoned with salt and pepper, coat chops with flour.
4. Dip in whisked egg.
5. Dip in bread crumb mixture.
6. Melt butter and olive oil in an oven-proof skillet.
7. Brown chops till golden.
8. Transfer to oven and bake till meat thermometer says 150 degrees, about 20 minutes.

Country Biscuits

• 2 cups flour (I used half whole wheat and half white flour)
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (or use salted and leave out the salt)
• 3/4 cup milk

1. Combine flour, baking powder& salt.
2. Cut the butter into the flour using 2 knives or a pastry blender, keep cutting until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs.
3. With a fork stir in the milk, very gently, until a soft dough forms.
4. Don't over mix.
5. Place the dough on a baking sheet (jelly roll pan) and with floured hands press it into a 9" x 9" square.
6. Use a spatula or the dull side of a knife and cut the dough into 12 biscuits without actually cutting them apart.
7. Bake in 400F oven for about 15-20 minutes or until they are golden.
8. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for about 10 minutes.

Green Beans Almandine

• 1 lb. fresh green beans, trimmed
• 1 Tbsp. butter
• 2 Tbsp. olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted if desired
• 1 tsp. lemon juice
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• 1/8 tsp. white pepper

1. Trim beans and rinse. In heavy saucepan, place green beans in cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until crisp tender. Drain well and set beans aside.
2. Melt butter in saucepan and add garlic and almonds. Cook, stirring constantly, until almonds begin to brown.
3. Add beans along with lemon juice, salt, and pepper and toss gently to coat.

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

As American as Apple Pie



As American as Apple Pie

I have been nominated to make a traditional American apple pie for an upcoming dinner some friends and I are planning for the holidays. I have never attempted an apple pie, in fact, I rarely, if ever, make any sort of dessert items. I have made cheesecake before but getting the sour cream necessary for this recipe seems all but impossible here in Spain. My first step was to search out recipes for apple pie on the internet.

There certainly is no shortage of different ways to make this dish. What I found curious is that many of them simply assume that you will be using a store-bought pie crust. I have never had a pre-made crust that tasted any better than cardboard, yet this seems to be the base from which many people construct this American classic. Is this because people are lazy, too short on time to make crust from scratch, or feel they are unable to make it from basic ingredients?

If you are too lazy to make it yourself I suggest that you take an even lazier approach and simply shovel raw sugar, apple slices, butter, and flour into your fat gob. It doesn’t get any easier than that. If you don’t have time then perhaps you need to streamline your life a bit to make room for some of the truly finer things in life, like eatable food. I suspect that most people shy away from making pie crust because they feel they can’t pull it off. This was probably my handicap until I finally gave it a try.

The thing is, cooking something a bit adventurous isn’t like rebuilding the engine of your car or rewiring your house. If you screw up your car repair or the rewiring job, you could actually put you and your loved ones in physical danger. These are also things that you don’t have to do very often so learning how to do them yourself may not seem like it is worth the effort. If you screw up a recipe you can just shovel the mistake into the trash and start over. All you have wasted is a bit of flour, butter, salt, and sugar. Mastering a few dishes in the kitchen is also something that is going to pay off for as long as you continue your career in eating. As I wrote in a previous essay, I am what you would call an eater. I eat things. I plan on eating things until things start eating me.

One thing that I can say about myself is that I’m not afraid to fail. If I were I’d never get anything done. My entire life seems to be built on a foundation of failures, failures which have been something a bit less than complete. They have been strong enough to bear the weight of the subsequent failures that I stack on top of them. A botched apple pie would seem like the equivalent to a Nobel Prize along side some of my more epic disappointments.

As it turns out, my very first attempt at this American staple didn’t turn out too badly. I used too much butter in the pie crust and the apples, but it tasted pretty good. The above photo testifies to my flat-mates opinion of my pie. As you can see, it is mostly gone and I made it less than 12 hours ago. As soon as I pull this off to my satisfaction I will post a recipe. Until then I will keep trying.

Saturday, December 15, 2007



The fortress at Sagunto seen through a chumbo cactus. They call this fruit tuna in South America. I was out of water on this bike ride and picked some of these spiny little buggers by hand and ate them on the trail. One of my favorite fruits and a great source of water if you are out and forgot money to buy a bottle along the way. Sagunto is only one and a half hours away for me but on this trip I took a bunch of lengthy detours and it turned into a five hour day. There are lots of great day rides from Valencia and this one rates high on my list. The bike trail goes aslmost all the way there and the rest of the trip is on an all but deserted stretch of road which winds through orange groves and old estate homes, and you always have a view of the wonderful fortress in front of you as you pedal.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Cooking by the Numbers


Seafood paella: not my best effort in the kitchen.


Some of you probably think that I have nothing better to do than spend the day shopping for the many ingredients used in some of the Spanish dishes I cook. To this all I can say is “touché,” very perceptive of you (Note to self: take on even more hobbies to fill up gaps in my free-time). Shopping can sometimes interfere with my other free-time activities so even I must look for ways to make short cuts. I can still pull off some pretty good meals even when I don’t have time to shop thanks to the packaged arreglos, or arrangements they sell in Spain.

An arreglo de flores is a flower arrangement in Spanish and these arreglos are arrangements of ingredients needed for certain Spanish dishes. To make Cocido Madrileño there are separate arrangements available in supermarkets for vegetables and meat combinations that go into this dish. There are also arrangements available for baked rice, traditional paella with rabbit and chicken, puchero (Valencia’s idea of cocido), as well as frozen arrangements which are handy during the off season for certain vegetables.

The butcher shops and vegetable stalls at the market are only too happy to make you a custom arreglo for whatever it is you are cooking, but there are times when I just don’t feel like going to the market, or I get the urge to make something after the market has already closed (usually by about 2:30 in the afternoon). For my first seafood paella, or paella de mariscos, I chose to use a frozen seafood arrangement I bought at the big supermarket by my apartment. I wasn’t quite sure if I would be able to pull this off properly so I didn’t want to spend a lot of time and money buying the seafood ingredients at the fish market.

This arrangement comes pre-packed and frozen with clams, mussels, whole shrimp, and squid. It’s easy enough to make as you just sauté the green beans in the paella pan, add fish stock along with the contents of the arreglo and bring to a boil. Then you are the rice and peas and simmer until the stock has all been cooked off—call it “seafood paella for dummies.” It wasn’t exactly my most shining moment in the kitchen but it wasn’t bad. I can’t see myself making seafood paella very often because I much prefer the traditional Valencia paella with chicken and rabbit.

Another time-saving trick that every self-respecting Spaniard knows about is the Fabada Asturiana and Cocido Madrileño available in cans made by Litoral.® I’ll bet that there is at least one can of this in every kitchen in Spain for those food emergencies when you are really hungry and don’t have time or the desire to cook. I used to have a can of the Fabada Asturiana on my shelf but I just had it for breakfast (something no Spaniard would attempt).

I have also bought pre-made tortillas that aren’t bad at all and certainly save a lot of time. It takes me at least 45 minutes to make a tortilla de patatas. I enjoy making this dish so much that I rarely lower myself to buy a pre-made model, but it’s nice to know that the store-bought ones are worth eating.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Where Are You From?


America's upper "Left" hand corner.


I have had a sort of unwritten rule that I have adhered to in a life of many moves. I never ask people where they are from. Besides the awkwardness of trying to end that question on anything but a preposition (at least in English), I just don’t think that it is a very interesting thing to ask of someone you have only recently met. A person’s birthplace will usually become apparent after a bit of conversation without having to inquire about it directly, if you will only bother to listen to what they are saying.

I think I came to this opinion back when I was living in the dormitory at Indiana University. Back then most of the dorms weren’t coed so we would arrange mixer parties in the lounge of our floor and invite one of the female floors in the same residence hall. At these parties you could hear the same questions being asked over and over: “Where are you from?” and “What’s your major?” My joke back then was that we should have made name tags for everyone that gave your hometown and major and we could have eliminated about 90% of the bothersome conversation going on. Students could just go around and read the tags which would free up energy for drinking whatever hellish punch had been prepared by the guy on the floor with the best fake ID.*

This being the third time in my life that I have lived outside the U.S. for a good length of time, I don’t get that question nearly as often as you would think. Most people I talk to immediately realize that I am not Spanish and a guiri (foreigner) is a guiri is a guiri to most folks. It is also easy for me to tell where someone is from by their accent in Spanish, whether they speak it as a second language or with a Latin American accent. As I said before, I also don’t find a person’s nationality to be interesting in and of itself.

When people do ask me where I am from I have gotten into the habit of answering, “Seattle” (pronounced carefully as Sea-ahh-tell to help non-English speaking people understand). Most Spanish people I have talked to have heard of Seattle and have a very favorable opinion of that great American city. Young kids here all associate Seattle with Grunge and Fraiser, not the worst things to be linked to if you are a large American city, as opposed to, say, crime and violence. I think that saying that I am from Seattle defines me more accurately than simply saying that I am American. I actually chose to live in Seattle; it wasn’t just an accident of birth.

Despite what is portrayed in America’s far-right media, I have never had a negative reaction from anyone when I tell them I am from the U.S.A. In fact, I would say that the opposite is true; people have an extremely high opinion of America and Americans. I think that I probably behave better when I am in another country but I would like to think that I have contributed favorably to this high opinion foreigners have of Americans. I would say the same thing about Seattle; it is difficult for me to imagine that anyone could have anything but a high opinion of one of America’s most liberal cities.

*That would have been me with the best fake ID. I had my old Hawaii driver’s license which was like a credit card with raised numbers and letters. All I had to do was shave off a number and move it over to my birth date.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Las Campanas de San Valero

I think that it is safe to say that Valencia is fairly noisy as far as cities go. I live above a very narrow but heavily used street so car horns can be heard most hours of the day. The Monday street market brings vendors who start banging iron poles together as they begin setting up their stalls usually well before I am awake. There is no escaping the heinous whine of tiny motorbikes anywhere in this country. There is one bit of noise that enters my apartment that thoroughly charms me every time I hear it: the bells of San Valero church.

Every morning you can hear the smaller bells ringing to signal the daily mass at this 15th century iglesia. The larger bells ares rung at irregular times during the course of a day. All of the bells are rung together for weddings and other special occasions and this can be heard throughout the entire neighborhood of Ruzafa, or the center of the universe as I call my new home. To me the ringing of the bells is very comforting; this sound is as much a part of where I live as the physical structure of the church itself.

Directly below my apartment lies the Plaza/Plaça Doctor Landete. The street sign is written as I wrote it, in both Spanish and Valenciano. The plaza begins at the steps of San Valero and sort of circles my building. On one side is the Ruzafa Market and on the other end of the plaza there is a small fountain. There are two nice outdoor cafes on the square which makes this area a natural meeting spot for the entire neighborhood.

Café Nou is the more modern and the bigger of the two cafes. The other is called Café El Ganxo which would be gancho in Spanish, or hook in English, but since this is Ruzafa and just a bit more local than many other neighborhoods, most business names are in Valenciano. This probably seems incredibly boring but one of my favorite activities is to sit at a table at Café El Ganxo in the late afternoon. I order a coffee (un café Americano con un poquito de leche, por favor) and read for 45 minutes or so, being careful to look over the top of my reading glasses for errant soccer balls as the plaza doubles as a playground at this time of day.

I also think that it is safe to say that I am completely enchanted by my neighborhood in this hidden corner of Valencia. Except for my bike rides, I will go days without venturing more than a couple of blocks from my front door. Why should I go any place else? I have everything I need right here. If it is out of earshot of the bells of San Valero, I don’t need it.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Vacations


Existimos mientras alguien nos recuerda.(We are alive as long as we are remembered)

La Sombra del Viento
Carlos Ruíz Zafón

I was wasting some time in a downtown bookstore the other day when I noticed a small section of books in French. Among the modest collection I came across a memoir written by my great-uncle, Marc Bernard. The book is called Vacances and was published in 1953. I have read a few of his books, none of which have been translated into English but most are still in print 25 years after his death. I was never able to meet my uncle although I made a half-hearted attempt to look him up during my first trip to France in 1979. I didn’t have much to go on at the time. I simply traveled to Nîmes where my family had lived. As I later learned, Marc Bernard had actually returned to this southern French city to live after spending most of his adult life in Paris and other places. We never got a chance to meet but I’m sure he would have been pleased to know that his nephew has become a great admirer of his work.

Vacances begins with a wonderful introduction by the French author, Roger Grenier, which describes the career of Marc Bernard from orphan at age 11, to the factory worker and self-taught intellectual who wrote his first novel during a bout of unemployment. He was holed up in a hotel and a maid noticed that he seemed to work night and day. She asked him whether or not he ever stopped writing to eat. “It’s just that I don’t have much to eat.” She made sure from then on that he ate with the others in the hotel.

He had a friend present his manuscript for his first novel, Zig-zag to a Paris publisher who immediately accepted it. Marc Bernard soon went to the office of his publisher, Jean Paulhan, to thank him. There in the office Paulhan asked my uncle if he had read anything by André Gide. Marc Bernard said that he had and that he liked his work. Paulhan then introduced him to Gide who happened to be sitting directly across from them in the office at the time. Paulhan presented my uncle to Gide saying that he was a factory worker who wrote and who had also read Gide’s work. Gide asked him if any other workers at the factory read his stuff. “Non. Je suis le seul. I’m sure that Gide was disappointed to learn that he wasn’t popular among the factory workers of France in the 1920s. They became friends after that and Gide remained an admirer and promoter of Bernard’s work.

He starts out the memoir by declaring that he is a man of vacations and that he wishes that the world were nothing more than a vacation spot, that factories and offices be closed for months throughout the year while their workers and staff enjoy the pleasures of time off. He wished that man could return to the wisdom of our primitive forefathers who dedicated themselves to nothing more than fishing, hunting, and love; activities particularly suitable for vacations.

In Vacances Marc Bernard tells stories about his life full of travel, war, idleness, work, and vacations. What a cool and full life he led. He seemed to be particularly fond of Spain as he dedicated three chapters in this book to my newly adopted country. He writes about two trips he makes to the Spanish Balearic islands. His father, Juan Bernat (my namesake), was born in Soller, Majorca. I haven’t been to Majorca but I plan on making a visit this spring to see from whence I came. I hope to be speaking a bit of Valenciano/Catalan/Majorquino (They are all very similar) dialect before I get there.

He tells a story in the book about a trip he took to Majorca in 1937. He was passing through Barcelona on his way there. He was walking along the beach, smoking a cigar that he describes as being a big as a walking stick (a fondness for puros, or Cuban cigars is another similarity between the two of us) when he was approached by an armed soldier. This was during the Spanish Civil War and my uncle, being a worker, unionist, communist, was obviously a Republican (they were the good guys). He was taken in for questioning on the suspicion of being a German spy for the fascist nationalists. He was asked about the stamp he had on his passport (French) for Majorca two years previous when he took another trip there to explore his roots. He was put in a car with an armed escort and driven into the countryside. After a while he realized that he probably wasn’t going to be executed because they would not have wasted so much gasoline if that was their intention. He was released when someone who spoke French verified that his accent was indeed French. He was then driven back to Barcelona’s Ramblas and bid farewell in the Spanish custom of effusive hugs and handshakes.

The most remarkable coincidence in all of this was discovering a chapter dedicated to Valencia in his book, a book that I discovered while living in Valencia. He was here in 1952 for La Feria, a week of bullfighting, which I assume was the Fallas festival which takes place every year in March. It was during this festival when I saw my first bullfight. As I mentioned, he was from Nîmes, in the southern French province of Languedoc which has bullfighting festivals in the Arènes, a first century a.d. Roman amphitheater. Marc Bernard was obviously a huge aficionado of la corrida and this chapter is one of the most eloquent descriptions of the art of bullfighting that I have read in any language. I would have loved to have attended a corrida with my uncle with the two of us smoking the biggest cigars that money can buy. I wonder if I also inherited my love of fermented grapes from this side of my family.

My detour into French has come at the expense of my Spanish. I recently had lunch in the home of a friend of a friend while I was plowing through this book in French. I felt like my Spanish had never been worse. I was mis-conjugating verbs, speaking with an atrociously bad accent(I thought), and just thoroughly mangling the Spanish language. After lunch, when the adults went out to the patio for a cocktail and to enjoy the late afternoon sun, I chose to stay inside and improve my Spanish by watching a Sesame Street (Barrio de Sesame) video with my newest Spanish amigo, Quino (age 5). In the video a woman walks up to a group of people on the street and starts speaking French. I pointed out to Quino (Valenciano for Joaquín) that she was speaking French. He looked at me with a bit of surprise and asked, “Tu tienes ésta péli?” (you have this video?). Probably the most humorous moment thus far for me in Spain. Gracias, Quino.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Hurry Up And Wait: Part 1


Worth fighting and dying for.


The Spanish have their own system for waiting in lines; something that is required a lot here. When you walk up to the crowd waiting in the post office or at the butcher you ask, “¿El ultimo?” The last person in line will let you know who he or she is and then you are the new último, or the last one.

I have found that the most aggressive line jumpers are female senior citizens. These golden girls will make every attempt to wiggle around your rightful place in the queue and then act like they didn’t notice you when you call them on it. It certainly doesn’t pay to be shy when you are standing in line although there’s no point in losing your manners. I make a point of being firm yet polite, and I always take my large pocket knife out of my backpack and clean my fingernails while still keeping a watchful eye on my place in line.

I have never been forced to toss a Spanish grandmother to the ground with a violent judo throw, not yet. I like to keep the threat of a couple of my more effective martial arts techniques out there on the table, just to keep things honest. I would probably feel bad about slamming an old woman to the ground in front of the market vegetable stall and crushing her like a bag of dried and rotten sticks, but I didn’t write the rules to defending one’s place in line. I also don’t want to be taken advantage of just because I have an accent.

I was waiting to buy olives the other day and had already spent about ten minutes behind a guy who was buying some sort of dried fish thing. Had I been less tired or in a better humor I would have asked him what the hell he was buying and if it was intended for human consumption. Instead I waited as patiently as I could. All I wanted was a small bag of cracked olives. The olives at this stall are well worth even a ridiculously long wait. Another guy came up and asked me if I was “the last.” A minute later an old woman shuffled up pushing her grocery cart and asked who was last. The guy behind me answered and she immediately started in on a story about how she was in a hurry and if she could please move in front of him in line. He quickly and deftly passed the buck to me, directing her to ask me for my place in line. What a coward! I could see that my turn was coming up because the guy in front of me was paying.

I am as polite and gentlemanly as the next guy and I was almost going to let her go in front of me until I realized the archetype I was up against in this battle. I have had the misfortune of being behind women like her and watched as they take more time to order a couple of pork chops as it would take me to remodel a large kitchen. I hesitated a moment and then turned to the merchant and ordered my bag of olives. I wanted to tell granny that I didn’t fall off the turnip truck this morning, but instead I just let out a non-apologetic, “Hasta luego,” as I laid down the exact change for my olives and got the hell out of there.

I realize this isn’t exactly the most harrowing tale you will ever come across but you didn’t see the look of complete evil in this octogenarian’s eyes as I did. The devil in sensible shoes and support stockings. Dogs aren’t allowed inside the market but you never know if one of these golden girls has a West Highland terrier stuffed in her cart ready at a moment’s notice to rip your throat out on her orders. I was victorious on this occasion but how long can my luck hold out? Every day I avoid death is a gift.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

When a Movie Makes You Physically Ill

I suppose that I am one of the few heterosexual males who actually read The Nanny Diaries, or at least part of it before I wanted to make my own guillotine and start lopping off the heads of America’s vulgar ultra-rich. The only reason I tried to read it was because I was going through a phase when I lived in Seattle of noticing the books that people were reading on the bus, or in coffee shops, or where ever. I wanted to get a feel for what folks were buying. A very disheartening exercise at times.

The book is one of the least interesting things I have ever come across. It tells the story of a young girl, recently graduated from college, who goes to work as a nanny for an over-privileged cunt in Manhattan. In the movie the nanny actually allows the child to abuse her sexually and physically. Little Lord Fuck-face pulls her pants down in an early scene that I saw before turning it off. I would have put a cigarette out in his eye for that one. See if he tries that again. No wonder these kids grow up to be date rapists and poorly qualified U.S. presidents.

You get the feeling from the book and the movie that you are supposed to feel a sense of awe concerning the lifestyle of the over-privileged cunt. I mean, this is what we all want, right? This is what we all aspire to be in our dreams, to be super rich and outsource every single human endeavor and emotion, to become sandblasted and airbrushed to within an inch of our pilates-toned asses, and to shop—as if this is some wonderful form of self-expression.

I didn’t get very far along in the story in the novel before throwing it in the trash (disguised as the Seattle Library book deposit). Of course I was too embarrassed to even check it out so I just speed-read it among the stacks. I watched even less of the sickening movie version of the shitty novel. If you are thinking that I sound a little bitter, you can bet your fucking ass that I have been made bitter by this vile piece of trash. The book made a vague attempt to scold* the women who make up America’s new aristocracy. More than anything else it was obvious that the authors just want to walk in the same shoes as their over-privileged cunt masters who have closets full of designer heels.

I really think that it is time for America to stop and take a very good look at the way things are progressing and decide if we want to keep on this course of allowing the top 1% of the citizenry to make all of the rules and call all of the shots. The new American elite make the Czars of Russia look like serfs. I suppose that just about everyone in America thinks that eventually they, too, will be part of this new elite class, the sickeningly stupid progeny of inherited wealth. The fact that so many people voted for one of these nitwits to be our president confirms this theory.

I have always felt that everyone in the world should be forced to clean their own toilet. People need to be reminded on a daily basis that we are all filthy animals, one and all, whether you are Bill Gates or Bin Laden, Madonna or Hilary Clinton. George Bush should do nothing but clean toilets all day.

*I thought a lot about that word, "scold," not wanting to use too strong a term. I also thought a lot about "over-privileged cunt" but couldn't come up with a more vitriolic tag for this sub-culture.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Few Random Thoughts About The Beatles

I remember back when I was eleven years old and my friend Kenny Stillwell and I stole his older brother’s new copy of Abbey Road. His brother was about 18 or so and didn’t much like us kids so we were risking an ass kicking if we got caught. We went up to his attic where Kenny had a sort of clubhouse and we listened to this masterpiece on his little record player for the very first time. I don’t remember how I felt but I have always kept the memory of this moment.

Fast forward to about 1990 or so and I was living in Maryland. I was sharing a place with a former Air Force buddy. Tom and I were farting around the house one day when he put on Abbey Road. After just a few measures into the first song we were both sitting on the sofa listening intently. We listened to both sides straight through without exchanging a single word. When the record finished playing we just sort of looked at each other with an expression that said, “Damn!” No drugs were involved.

I don’t think that it is possible not to be a Beatles fan; it’s like saying that you don’t like Gershwin or Cole Porter. You may as well say that you don’t like music. If you tell me that you don’t like the Beatles I simply won’t believe you.

It’s not like I’m this huge geek of a Beatles fan; I’m just like everyone else on the planet that can recognize wonderfully crafted songs when I hear them. It’s not like I even listen to their music all that much these days. I was just lucky enough to have grown up with their albums playing in the background of my childhood. They left a fairly vast body of work in their wake so I often find myself rediscovering one of their tunes. It is often like hearing it for the first time.

Ritchie Havens did a cover of Here Comes the Sun from Abbey Road that was one of the first Beatles covers I have ever heard and still is one of the best. It has this amazing acoustic intro that lasts over one minute. When Havens finally decides that he’s ready to sing it is absolute bliss.

I read a recent interview in The New Yorker with Paul McCartney where he said that If I Fell was his all-time favorite John Lennon Song. I would have to say the same. I discovered a great cover of this song by Brazilian artist, Rita Lee. She sings it in Portuguese which may even be an improvement, if that is possible on this bit of pop perfection.

The reason I am writing this right now, and the reason for my most recent return to The Beatles was inspired by another Brazilian pop star, Caetano Veloso. He covers a lot of Beatles songs and the other day I was at someone’s apartment when I heard his version of For No One by McCartney from Revolver. I have heard the song a million times but I couldn’t recall the title. I had to sort through a bunch of empty CD cases to find the right one. I would have to say that it isn’t one of their more well-know songs. I don’t know why this is because it about as good as pop music gets. Every singer in the world has covered this tune but no one comes close to McCartney. I think this song, more than any other, demonstrates just how great a voice he has. Don’t take my word for it, watch this video.

I’m trying to learn a really good arrangement of The Long and Winding Road on the piano. I can’t find any good sheet music for this so I am watching a video on youtube that shows you how to play it. Why anyone would prefer this to reading music is a real fucking mystery to me. I think that some musicians think that reading music is some sort of rocket science. If I can read music I think that it is something that can be grasped by anyone.

Monday, December 03, 2007

I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can!


As I write these words I am listening to the sounds of the Spanish, flamenco-influenced group, Ojos de Brujo which I highly recommend to everyone. I try to listen to as much Spanish music as I possibly can although I have been on a bit of a Beatles bender after listening to a Caetano Veloso CD at a party the other night where he covers the wonderful Paul McCartney song from the Revolver album called For No One. What I’m trying to say without going off on a three page detour about The Beatles is that I am trying to insinuate myself as much as I can into the music of this country.

Besides what I read on the internet, I read only in Spanish. My shelf of books I have read in Spanish is growing. I keep a notebook where I put definitions for the Spanish words I have to look up for every book that I read. I like to go back and reread the book soon after I finish to further beat this new vocabulary into my head. I read the local newspaper here in Valencia called Levante. It is a treat to be able to read Calvin and Hobbes in Spanish. I also like to read the Madrid daily, El País, if there is one lying around on top of the bar.

I have mentioned that I share a place with two Spanish women and we speak only in Spanish. With this sort of living arrangement that I have forced myself into, there isn't any room to hide, linguistically speaking.

The only time that I ever speak anything other than Spanish is when I go to a local pub here in Ruzafa. It is owned by two brothers from London and the clientele includes a few British and American expats. I like to go here because the owners are terrific guys but I also speak more Spanish when I go here than when I go anywhere else by myself here in Valencia. The place has a true community feel to it and everyone knows each other. It is one of the friendliest places I have ever frequented. I almost always end up talking with the Spanish customers for most of my time in this joint.

I went to a birthday party over the weekend where I was the only English speaker. Talk about a night of Spanish overload. On a side note, if you are at a party in any country where Spanish is spoken and a lot of dancing doesn't break out spontaneously, check the address because you are obviously in the wrong place.

I rarely eat anything other than Spanish food. I heard somewhere (probably in a movie) that the Viet Cong could smell the Americans in the jungle because they ate American food while they were in Viet Nam. If anyone is trying to pick up my scent all they are going to get a whiff of is pork products, tortillas de patatas, or whatever other local dish I happen to be obsessing over this week*.

It may seem from all I have said so far that I am rather proud of myself. The truth is that I think my Spanish sucks. I can’t believe that I still struggle sometimes with some of the most basic things in Spanish. Learning the language has been a slow, uphill struggle with no end in sight. The good news is that I love it here and I’m having the best time of my life.


*Esgarraet

This is another typical Valencian dish of dried cod and roasted peppers. Speaking of learning Spanish, I had to buy the dried cod for this dish at the stall where I usually buy my olives. I ordered a fistful of the shredded fish (un puñado de migas de bacalao) and the guy complimented me on my Spanish. I could have kissed him.

Dried Salt Cod
Red Bell Peppers
Garlic
Olive Oil

Depending on the cod you buy, you may have to soak it in water to remove some of the salt. I bought what they call Bacalao Inglés (English cod) which is low in salt and really tender. I only soaked it for a few minutes and it was ready to eat. You may also have to boil it for a bit depending on what you buy.

Next you need to roast the red peppers in the over until they are thoroughly cooked and then remove the skin. On a side note and to steal a joke from The Simpsons, if you aren’t roasting peppers in your oven every time you turn it on, you are wasting more energy than Ricky Martin’s girlfriend. Roasted peppers in olive oil is a staple dish all around the Mediterranean.

The guy in the olive stall told me to then marinate the peppers and cod in separate dishes with plenty of olive oil. You also add very finely minced garlic to both dishes. Both the fish and the peppers should be cut into tiny nibble-size pieces. A bit of bread and some wine and you are on your way.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

On Driving and not Driving




I have lived in a few different places in my life and I can say one thing with a bit of authority: People everywhere are lousy drivers. I think that there are many different reasons that motivate people to behave badly behind the wheel of a car and these reasons often have to do with where they live. Americans drive badly because they are assholes in a hurry. Europeans drive atrociously because they are infantile and have watched too many car races on TV. Consider the fact that more and more of these accidents-waiting-to-happen are also trying to use a cell phone as they drive and this should be all the reason you need to opt out of automobiles and take the bus on both continents.

Although, for the most part, Spanish motorists are rather terrifying, I have noticed that a certain type of driver in Spain behaves in a courteous, almost civilized manner. These drivers will use their turn signals; they actually yield to pedestrians at cross-walks; they obey the speed limit and other traffic laws; and they don’t use their horn as some sort of obnoxious, offensive weapon. It is easy to pick these drivers out in traffic because they will have autoescuela, or “driver’s training,” written somewhere on their vehicles. This goes to show that Spanish drivers knew the proper rules of the road at some point in their careers behind the wheel; it’s just that many of them choose to forget everything they may have learned in driver’s education the minute they are allowed to drive without the watchful eye of a chaperon.

I have now gone almost one year and a half without driving an automobile. I honestly wouldn’t mind if I never drove again. I doubt I will be lucky enough to avoid this nuisance but while I live here in Spain I’m pretty sure I won’t ever be in the driver’s seat. I haven’t even been in a car since I was in a taxi several months ago to go to the airport. I can now get to the airport on the new subway line. Avoiding cars is probably more beneficial to a person’s health than ending a lifelong habit of smoking. Unfortunately, as a cyclist I still have many intersections with other people who choose to drive cars.

I am fairly fortunate on this account because Valencia has a great system of bike paths that keep cyclists out of harm’s way for most of their travels. You still need to cross a lot of street intersections which can be a crap shoot more often than not. A red light doesn’t seem to mean a lot to many Spanish drivers so you need to be extremely vigilant every time you cross a street on a bike. Never take it for granted that a car will stop for you when you have the cross signal because the red light to many drivers is only a very mild suggestion that they should perhaps slow down, and stopping is almost out of the question.

I have developed a special technique that is almost foolproof in assuring that I can cross the street without getting flattened by a
Spanish driver hopped from watching too many Formula 1 races on Sunday afternoon. This tactic may seem a bit cruel since I am placing babies and senior citizens between myself and speeding automobiles, but I can assure you that it is very effective. I have learned how to use human shields to protect me from aggressive motorists. Interested? Keep reading.

If there is a senior citizen or a woman pushing a baby carriage in the crosswalk, I can be almost certain that traffic will come to a stop. People here are very respectful of babies, and they are scared shitless of imperious older folks. When it comes to cars and cross walks, babies and octogenarian Spanish widows are like having a big brother around to protect you from the playground bullies.

I have never much liked cars and driving, so trading my car keys for a transit pass was very easy for me. I have even accepted walking as a means of getting around. If I am going to the center of town, because of the crowds, it is almost too much trouble to ride my bike. I wouldn’t even dream of trying to get around Valencia in a private automobile. I can’t believe that anyone would prefer to drive from one part of town to the other when there is such an efficient system of metro and busses. Even when you do manage to get to your destination by car, there is almost certainly going to be a serious parking problem, but as someone who doesn’t drive, that’s no longer my problem.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Free Hugs

Free Hogs

Free Hugs, Abrazos Gratis, Gratis Knuffles, Câlins Gratuits, Inc.

He oido muchas cosas que me inspiraron graves dudas sobre la raza humana, pero ésta no es una de ellas.

-Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

I realize that I am way behind the times and I’m quite sure that this is very old news to everyone except me but I happened upon one of the “Free Hugs” videos on Youtube. This international movement was started by an Australian named Juan Mann after he returned to his country and found there was no one there at the airport to give him a hug as he saw happening with other travelers around him.

After watching a few of the many videos filmed all over the world I came to the following realization: “Free Hugs” sounds silly in English, but not nearly as silly as the Dutch translation of “Gratis Knuffles.”

I couldn’t help but add my own entrepreneurial twist to the whole movement. I suppose that free hugs are fine but isn't that like communism, or socialism, or one of those bad things? Why not manufacture a very high quality hug and target the 38-45, white, upper middle class market group? Free stuff is only for poor people, and let's face it, poor people are icky. Giving shit away for free isn't any fun for people who make a point of separating themselves from the masses with every single material item that they purchase. Let's do something for those hyper-consumerists. I sent the following letter to the web site of the Free Hugs Movement:

Your video was so inspiring that I have started my own movement called “Hugs: Only 100€ (taxes not included, void where prohibited, you must be at least 18 to participate, offer not valid in Hawaii or Guam.”

The name isn’t as catchy as “Free Hugs” but my accountant tells me that a catchy name isn’t everything. Things are rather slow at this early stage of the movement but I figure that if I can get just three customers a day I can quit my job as a prison guard.


P.S. My “Free Waterboarding” campaign was a dismal failure. I was also nearly ripped to shreds by enthusiasts here in pork-loving but English-challenged Spain when they misread my “Free Hugs” sign as saying “Free Hogs.”

*Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after hugging a hippy or you may contract salmonella.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Greek Lemon/Egg Chicken Soup


I don’t know what inspired me to make this classic. I was looking for a new Spanish dish to try. Instead I decided to whip up this soup that I haven’t made in ages. It is one of the easiest Greek dishes in my repertoire. The simplest Greek dish in my repertoire is a Greek peasant salad and that is still probably my all-time favorite dish.

Avgolemono Soup

1 whole chicken
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
3 bay leaves
3 eggs
1 Lemon (juice)
1 ½ cup rice
Salt & pepper

Place the whole chicken in a pot with water. Add the onion and garlic with the skin, bay leaves, and salt and pepper. Boil for about two hours. Drain the stock through a colander and pull the chicken off the bone and set aside. Return the stock to the burner and add the rice. Beat the whites of the eggs until they are a bit stiff and then add the yolks and continue beating. Add the lemon juice to the eggs. Add a little of the hot stock to the egg/juice mixture making sure not to let it curdle. Keep adding hot stock a little at a time until the eggs and stock are thoroughly mixed. Add this to the stock along with the boned chicken.

That’s all there is to this dish. It is really satisfying, especially on a cold day (We don’t really have cold days here so how about cool days?). It has a great sweet/salty flavor and the eggs act as a thickener like a cream-based soup. I ate two big bowls of it earlier today and I feel like the button on my jeans is going to blow out and kill some innocent bystander.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Things We Lost in the Fire

My external hard drive seems to have crashed on me for no apparent reason. I had nothing on it except a whole fucking lot of music—probably 90-100 gigs. I also had about 150 of my all-time favorite movies on it, as well as every episode of The Simpsons, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Entourage. I haven’t given up hope. I still may be able to recover everything once I can find someone qualified to take a look at it. I feel like shouting at my hard drive with a bullhorn to assure everything trapped inside that help is on the way, like survivors in a mine cave-in, or a child trapped in a well.

I have very little of what was on my hard drive backed up. I sort of thought that was the point of a hard drive, and how are you supposed to back-up 300 gigs? The truth is that I don’t really need or especially want anything that I may have lost in this bit of technological amnesia. I am just a neurotic collector of books, movies, and music. I have had to part ways with most of the thousands of books I have collected over the course of my life. Try to move across the country or to a new country with a huge load of books. It gets really, really, really expensive.

I have collected lots of music. I started out with vinyl. I couldn’t wait to make the change to CDs simply because they represent an appreciable reduction in size—a big help when moving. I traded my collection of about 1,000 CDs for my external hard drive. I may have lost all of it. Easy come, easy go.

In this age of internet piracy it would be easy enough to replace everything that I may have lost. Hell, I could probably write a book on the subject. The truth is that I am better off without all of that digital clutter in my life. It seemed that the more gigs of music I added to my hard drive, the less I actually listened to music. I was overloaded. It’s kind of like how some forest fires are actually healthy for nature as they get rid of a lot of useless underbrush. I had a lot of useless underbrush on my hard drive, stuff I wouldn’t ever watch or listen to if I were to live another 100 years.

As luck would have it—or perhaps because I am by nature generous with my friends—I have been able to recover the best part of my music collections from the music DVDs I made for people in the pre-crash era. One of the things I immediately replaced on my laptop from a DVD I made for a friend was Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s English Suites. His playing of English Suite #2 in A minor still brings tears to my eyes. I often think that this is the only piece of music I really ever need. Everything else is just clutter, the useless underbrush, the trees that keep me from seeing the forest.

I will still attempt to save everything that I lost, but all of that crap is just going to have to get comfortable. Help may be a long time in coming. I will be listening to this Bach piece for quite a while before I decide that there may be other music in the world worth having around.

Friday, November 23, 2007

This Aggression Will Not Stand!

As I was riding along the beach bike trail today I came across another old, fat, naked pervert standing within a few meters of the bike path doing some sort of pulling motion in the groin area. I was really hauling ass through this stretch so I just kept pedaling. I did my usual loop around El Saler beach but before I came back to the area inhabited by pervos, I stopped and picked up a couple of big rocks to throw. When I returned, creepy was still standing there flogging away and looking fairly pleased with himself that he had another visitor.

His expression changed radically when he saw me bearing down on him with my arm ready to throw. I let off the first cannonball which hit way in front of him but with enough force to spring up and really scare him. I could have easily nailed him with the second shot but I showed a bit of mercy and just threw for effect. He started to run into the bushes and I passed. He must have thought it was over at this point because he started to return to his masturbatory staging area. I stopped, dropped my bike to the ground and started throwing every rock I could get my hands on. He started to run away and I began yelling at him that families and children use this bike trail. I asked him if that’s what he was looking for, to violate a child. He whimpered a “no” as he picked up his clothes and ran in the other direction, away from the trail. I told him that I ride through here daily and if I saw him again I would kick his ass (Te daré una paliza, puto.).

Do you think that I overreacted/under-reacted?

Important Pervo Update!

He’s back! I rode past his spot yesterday and I could see him from about 100 meters away. He also saw me and immediately started frantically bushwhacking naked through the scrub pines and saw palms. When I got closer I yelled to him, “No seas tímido, quiero sacar una foto para mi página web.” (Don’t be shy; I want to take a picture for my web page). Perhaps the camera will prove to be mightier than my threats to do him physical harm. There’s a new sheriff in town and he’s packing a digital camera.

One part of me almost admires this creep. Think about the sort of commitment it must take to keep this perverted vigil in the cold weather, standing amongst the thorns and vermin, patiently waiting to ambush the very occasional cyclist that may pass by here on a weekday. I tip my hat to you, creepy, but if I see you there tomorrow I'm going to peg you with a fist-sized rock, so help me god.

Mi Barrio

My new neighborhood of Ruzafa is Valencia’s most well-kept secret. Before I moved here in the middle of September I had never been here, or if I had I don’t remember it and saw nothing that would have compelled me to explore further. Although Ruzafa is only a few blocks from the borders of the heavily-touristed downtown area, we don’t get many tour bus stragglers around here. Besides the church of San Valero, there aren’t a lot of things people would find in the guide books.

I just picked up a sort of insider’s guide to Valencia called Go! that lists lots of cool bars and restaurants in town. I guess that it really isn’t too much of an insider’s guide since it is available for free, but it is in Spanish so most tourists are unlikely to seek out these places.

Ruzafa is very disproportionately represented in this hipster guide to Valencia with dozens of entries under bars, restaurants, and cool shops. Even if I had looked at this guide before moving to the neighborhood I probably would not have attempted to track down any of the places mentioned in Go!, or if I had tried to find any of them I would have failed.

It takes time to learn los entresijos del laberinto, the ins and outs of the muddle of Ruzafa. Many of the blocks in the neighborhood are triangular in shape so you can imagine the problems that newcomers face in trying to find their way around.

Even my trusty key chain compass did me little good during my first few weeks here. The easiest way I have found of staying found, as opposed to lost, is to learn a few street names.

Literato Azorín runs in one direction and parallel you have the calles Cuba, Sueca, and Cadiz. I would leave a trail of bread crumbs when I leave home but the pigeons would eat them. These are all of the street names you need memorize to find a couple of dozen cool places to have a drink, get a bite to eat, or have a conversation.

This last bit is what I find to be the most charming aspect of my new residence. People here actually talk to me. Just about every place I go I know the people who work there by name, whether it’s my egg lady, the gals at the vegetable stand, or the four or five cafes I stop in for coffee or a glass of wine. My bike shop guy recognized me in the market the other day and said hello. I have only been in his shop once to buy new tires for my bike (I have gone through two sets of tires already in one year—that must be some sort of mileage record).

There are lots of great places I have only been to once or twice since I moved—it’s hard to make it to all of them. I frequent a bar run by a couple of brothers from London that is a really cozy joint. There are lots of Brits and a couple of Americans who hang out there. I tend to sit with the Spanish folks I have met. It’s kind of ironic that I speak more Spanish in this English pub than I did in the Spanish places in my old neighborhood. I don’t know if it is because the people here are friendlier or because my Spanish has improved to the point where locals aren’t bothered by talking to me. It is rather tiresome speaking with someone with a less-than-full grasp of the language.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Spice is the Spice of Life


I miss you, old friend.

Lo Que Pica, Sana

Every once in a while I get an urge for Mexican food. I tell people here for a laugh that what I miss most about the United States is Mexican food. People here aren’t too partial to spicy food and I have learned to leave out the hot stuff when I cook, unless I am certain that I am the only one who is destined to eat the spicy stuff. The bag of wonderfully hot red pepper flakes I bought at an Indian grocery store here has gone almost unused.

I also miss my almost thrice-weekly visits to one of several Vietnamese restaurants in Seattle that specialize in phô, a beef broth with noodles, fresh basil, bean sprouts, and lots of hot sauce. I would put in so much sriracha sauce and hot pepper oil in my bowl that it looked like tomato soup by the time I was finished. When the soup came to the table I would add the shredded basil and a squeeze of lime. Then I would thoroughly mix the noodles in the broth. Only then would I add the prodigious amounts of hot sauce. The noodle-mixing part can be a bit messy and if you have already added the hot sauce you are more likely to stain your clothes with the bright red mixture (If I thought of it beforehand I would also wear a dark, phô-friendly shirt on Vietnamese restaurant days).

Then comes the hot sauce. First I would take the squirt bottle of sriracha sauce and paint a little scene on the surface of the bowl: perhaps a couple of palm trees and a bright sun, or maybe a sailing ship. After this I would add a couple spoonfuls of hot pepper oil for some real heat. By the time I had finished eating I would be crying like a 13 year old girl at the end of Titanic. Part of my phô-eating ritual is going into the restroom at the end of the meal to blow my nose.

I haven’t found any Vietnamese restaurants here for phô and the Mexican food I have found is nowhere near as hot as I require. I am afraid that I will start to lose my legendary tolerance for hot food. I will no longer be able to indulge my artistic whims with bottles of spray-on hot sauce. I will have to raise my hand along with the other chumps when the waiter asks who wants the mild sauce on our burritos. I don’t want to be a hot food weenie. I like being the Homer Simpson of scorching cuisine. I like to out-jalapeño pepper my Mexican friends. It has taken many years to turn my stomach and intestinal track into something resembling cast iron and I’m afraid it is going to turn back into regular human flesh if I don’t keep in practice of trying to destroy it once in a while with habañeros and Asian chiles.

I am going to make sopa de tortillas, this being the Mexican variety of tortillas made from corn. This would be a perfect time to spice up a dish to help me with my feared immune deficiency with spices except that my Spanish friends really like this dish so I have to tone it way the hell down as far as the hot seasoning goes.

Sopa de Tortillas

for the stock
Chicken carcasses (They sell these at the supermarkets here for 1€)
2-3 onions (with skin)
2 garlic gloves (with skin)
Carrots
Celery
5-6 whole black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
A few drops of olive oil

Just throw all of these in a large stew pot with water, simmer for 1-2 hours, and strain.

for the soup
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 onion
10-15 corn tortillas
1 can of sweet corn (optional)
Cilantro

Cut the chicken into small pieces. Chop the vegetables and sauté them with the chicken until browned. You can also grill the chicken first and then cut it up. Chop up the tortillas and add to the simmering stock. Liquefy the tortillas with a hand mixer. The mixture shouldn’t be too thick as it will get even thicker as it cooks. You don’t want to turn it into a paste. When the liquefied mixture is simmering you can add the chicken and vegetables and cilantro. Garnish the soup with diced avocado and a couple of corn tortilla chips.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Boredom/Hunger

The words for “boredom” and “hunger” are the same in Spanish. OK, that is not true. It is true that my own body cannot distinguish between boredom and hunger so I usually eat or cook if I am bored. I spend a good portion of every day foraging around my little corner of Spain for good things to eat. I have become quite an expert on the bakeries in my neighborhood of Ruzafa. I can ride past a bakery at full speed on my bicycle, look in the window, and tell you whether or not the bread they sell is worth buying.

I am also on the look out for new cooking utensils. I am not able to do the drive-by appraisals of these stores as I do with the bakeries as the joints that sell kitchen wares don’t have much in plain view from the street. I already have a very well stocked kitchen but there’s always some new gadget that I come across that I can’t seem to be able to live without once I figure out what it is for. I am equal parts “old school” and “gimmicky” when it comes to kitchen gear.

I love my clay baking dish, or olla de barro as they are called in Spanish. I am constantly looking for new things to cook in it. Its main purpose is for the Valencian staple dish of baked rice (arroz al horno or arross al forn in Valenciano). There is more to a clay baking dish than baked rice and I’m out to discover as many recipes as possible, even if I have to make shit up. Whenever I walk into a restaurant and they have food displayed in these clay dishes my little heart skips a beat as I visualize making the same thing at home. I adapted the following recipe from something I saw somewhere.

It was a dish with chicken leg quarters baked with tomatoes; everything else in my recipe I made up. I have to say that it is one of the best things that I have invented and certainly the best thing that I have cooked for the first time.

Chicken and garbanzos

4 chicken leg quarters
16 oz can of whole Italian tomatoes
2 cups cooked garbanzos
3-4 garlic cloves
1 onion
Sal, pepper, saffron

Clean the chicken and season with salt and pepper. I shredded a couple of cloves of garlic and rubbed the paste on the chicken. In the clay baking dish (mine is about 18” in diameter) add the can of tomatoes. Squish the whole tomatoes with your hands so it makes a sort of rough sauce. Add a chopped onion to this mixture along with the saffron. I used a pre-packaged saffron and seasoning mix that they sell here in Spain. Place the chicken pieces on top of the sauce and place in a pre-heated oven (approximately 370° but I still just guess with the centigrade oven I work with). When the top side of the chicken has browned take the dish out of the oven. Add the cooked garbanzos to the dish as you turn over each piece of chicken. When the other side of chicken has browned you can take it out of the oven. I made rice to go along with it although I also bought a good loaf of bread just to cover all of my starch bases.

If I make this again I will use the frozen garbanzos that another Spanish cook recommended to me and add them at the beginning. I realize that for Americans unable to find inexpensive saffron this dish is sort of cheating. Saffron added to raodkill would make a pleasant dish. Or perhaps saffron isn't so expensive in the States these days. As low as the dollar is now, everything from Europe should be dirt cheap. If anyone in the States can comment on the price of saffron there I would be very interested.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tempest

Directed by Paul Mazursky. Starring John Cassavetes, Gena Rolands, Susan Sarandon, Vittorio Gassman, Raul Julia, and Molly Ringwald.

The first time that I saw this film was at an outdoor cinema during the first summer I lived in Greece. I doubt that it is even possible for anyone, anywhere to have a better summer than I did that year. I doubt that it would be possible to improve upon this wonderful movie, although I was beginning to think that I may have overly-romanticized this film because everything else around me that summer was so perfect. This would have been 1984 and I hadn’t seen the film again until last night.

It’s not like I didn’t try to see the film again. When I got back to the States a few years later and the whole video craze was in full bloom I looked for a copy of Tempest in every mom and pop video store in the Washington D.C. area without success. Years after this came the internet and Amazon.com. I tried to buy the film but I could only find it on VHS format and I had already abandoned that technology. I could never find it on DVD anywhere until a few weeks ago. I bought it and had it mailed to my brother’s home in Chicago and he relayed it to me here in Spain. Even Homer’s Odyssey only took ten years.

As I said, I saw the movie at a little outdoor theater in a southern suburb of Athens called Glyfada which, although attached to the sprawl of the capital, has more of a beach town feel to it than big city. These little theaters were rather impromptu affairs that looked like someone had just set out a few chairs in their back yard and invited a few friends over. All that I remember is that they seemed to specialize in movies that were filmed in Greece. This was probably why I went to see Tempest.

My date for the evening was my girlfriend at that time and she had come over to Greece to spend the summer with me. Eileen was tall, smart, athletic, fun, and beautiful. I remember that on the evening we saw this movie she was wearing a white knit dress that showed off her great legs. We had already traveled around Greece quite a bit before we saw this movie so we knew all about idyllic island playgrounds and deserted beaches. In fact, we could have been scouts for future film locations in Greece except that we wanted to keep some of these places secret.

I have praised this movie for so many years that I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t live up to the memory I had of it after seeing it so many years ago. I don’t think anyone could blame me for over-rating it considering the perfect setting for the first time I saw it. As it turns out, I’ve been a bit conservative in my praise.

It is hard for me to imagine that a movie this good could even be made in this day and age. The run time is 142 minutes which for a romantic comedy (or whatever the hell it is) is very, very rare. If these kinds of movies make it to two hours these days it’s some sort of miracle. I didn’t remember that the movie goes for almost two and a half hours but I immediately was aware of the slow and deliberate pace of the story—something not synonymous with boring. The director has a story to tell and he isn’t about to be pressured into rushing things. A more hurried pacing of the film would have defeated the purpose of why the characters had escaped to a deserted island in Greece. In fact, the story involves two islands: Manhattan and an enchanted Greek isle hidden somewhere in the crystal-clear Aegean. It’s difficult to say which one looks more beautiful in film.

As I watched this movie for only the second time in 23 years, I felt like I was watching a movie made by adults, for adults. I don’t get that feeling very often when I watch movies. Most of the time I’m lucky if the movie doesn’t insult me, although I avoid the worst of the comic book remakes and low-brow action flicks. I know that most movies are exactly made with my demographic in mind. Tempest, on the other hand, has found in me the perfect target audience.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Two Wheeled Anti-Depressant

On some days there seems to be a conspiracy to lower my spirits. The dollar drops another couple of points; my computer’s hard drive fails and wipes out more stuff than I care to even think about right now; a couple of other bad things happened, but it’s all too depressing to chronicle here. The good news is that it is sunny and warm on this November morning, like it is almost every morning here in Valencia. My head is throbbing because of my problems as I prepare for my daily bike ride.

I get dressed in my cycling get-up of mountain bike shorts, clip-in shoes, and jersey-du-jour (today it’s a Portugal national team soccer jersey). I fill my backpack water bottle, double-check that I have my house keys before I close the door behind me, take the elevator to street level, and push off for the ride. I am still fairly overwhelmed with the problems that I will have to confront eventually, but for now I have to deal with the sometimes-annoying task of picking my way through the traffic and out of Valencia on a bicycle. During this first leg of the trip, the bike trail has a lot of intersections with automobiles and pedestrians that keep me from getting up enough speed for my bicycle therapy to take its full effect.

On the first length of trail that is uninterrupted by people or cars I am able to finally stretch my legs and work into a good sprint. It isn’t long at all before my body has other more serious problems to deal with besides my quotidian worries and not-very-interesting problems that have sprung up out of nowhere. Now my body has to deal with real issues like trying to send enough oxygen to all of the vital areas and fighting massive lactic acid build-up. If my mind persists in focusing on the boring, practical problems from earlier in the morning, I just hammer down harder on the pedals until the pain forces these thoughts from my head.

Besides the physical exertion, the natural beauty of the Albufera nature area acts as a distraction from whatever the hell it was that was getting on my nerves only a half hour ago. Although we are creeping inexorably towards winter, it is sunny and warm on this afternoon and there are actually people sunbathing on the beaches along my route. I am wearing a long sleeve shirt under my jersey that I am tempted to remove except that I don’t want to slow down. It feels good to actually feel hot for a change so I leave it on.

Besides the distraction of my cardio-vascular crisis, I am also looking for food for my pet turtle. He has recently been turning his nose up at the fish that he used to eat so now I am looking for other things to add to his diet. It is really hard to think about problems you are having with your bank or your computer as you pedal along at 20 something miles per hour all the while scanning the trail for insects and other possible fodder for a pet turtle. I think to myself that this is what a seagull must be viewing as it sweeps along the shore. I catch three grasshoppers and a snail on this excursion and store them in an empty water bottle I root out of a beach trash barrel.

The turtle belongs to the other occupants of my house, but since we don’t have a dog, I have adopted him as my own. I call him El Conde de Monte Cristo because his overriding passion seems to be to escape from his plastic pan where he lives in my living room. I have made it really nice for him with lots of cool rocks to swim around and fresh plants changed regularly. One time I took him out and put him on the coffee table just so that he could see that the world outside of his pail isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He immediately darted for the side of the table and jumped off. I can’t believe that he didn’t hurt himself. Back in the pail he went.

I don’t know if this breed of turtle eats snails but I put the one I found in his tank. I figured that if he didn’t eat it then perhaps they could be pals. The snail didn’t live more than a couple of hours. I don’t know if he drowned or the turtle attacked him but the score is now: Turtle 1, Snails 0. The turtle seemed to be scared shitless of the live grasshopper I dangled in front of him. I left one of them in there just in case he changes his mind and wants to try a few bites. El Conde doesn’t seem very excited about the bottled turtle food he gets either. He does appear to be growing so I guess that he must be eating something. I think the cooler weather has just slowed his metabolism; I know that it has slowed me down.

After I have sprinkled the day’s catch around the rocks that make up the little turtle’s Chateau d”If, I take a shower, get dressed, and walk downstairs to the café in the little plaza in front of my apartment. There isn’t a cloud in the sky and not a hint of a breeze on this afternoon, which makes it perfect for sitting at an outside table. I order a café con leche and read at least 40 pages of my book. Right now I am finishing up a translation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises which is called Fiesta in Spanish (A much more appropriate title in my opinion.). I haven’t read this book since I first read it when I was 16 or 17. It’s not a little ironic that I am rereading it all these years later in Spanish while living in Spain. I think that is what I had in mind when I read it the first time around.

The coming darkness and the church bells of San Valero tell me that it is six o’clock. The little plaza has been gradually filling up as it does every day at this time. It turns into a playpen for the little kids, a football pitch for their older siblings, and a meeting spot for the parents who fill up the rest of the tables around me. My body will feel the glow of the afternoon bike ride until I fall asleep in the evening. This euphoria seems to be my system thanking me for ending the punishment I inflicted on it while riding. If I tried I could probably remember what it was that was bothering me earlier in the day but I have some cooking to do and some friends to meet later tonight.