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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Few Thoughts on China

I’ve never been to China and I don’t have any immediate plans to rectify this glaring hole in my first-hand knowledge of world geography. I do buy a lot of Chinese products so I feel myself to be a bit of an expert on Chinese manufacturing. After all, I live right across the street from a variety store that sells Chinese goods and is run by Chinese immigrants. What further qualifications do I need to hold forth on this subject? Why don’t you just sit back, listen, and learn.

I call these stores Chinese Wal-Marts because they are run by Chinese immigrants and they have an inventory equal to that of most Wal-Marts even though these places are not much bigger than a two bedroom apartment. If there is something that you need for your home I would say that there is about a 99% chance of finding it at one of these variety stores. I am not exaggerating. Garden products, patio furniture, clothing, shoes, kitchenware, tools, bedding, cleaning products, toys, and electronic gear can all be found in aisle one. OK, I may have been stretching the truth there but these places really are amazing in the breadth of their inventory. The crazy part is that absolutely everything they sell is manufactured in China.

Just about everything they sell in these stores is also inexpensive. I have been fairly happy with the quality of these products but I have also bought stuff that is of the lowest possible quality imaginable. I bought a sewing kit the other day that had a safety pin that was of such poor quality that it really couldn’t even be called a safety pin but rather a reasonable facsimile of a safety pin. I bought a bottle of something that you are supposed to use to clean your floors that smelled worse than the most polluted Yangtze River water which was probably what it was. At .75€, polluted Yangtze River water must be a big money-maker to some budding young capitalist in that country.

I bought a large beach towel that I will use for a tent the next time I go camping because this thing repels water better than gore-tex. I guess they don’t have beaches where this towel was made so they don’t realize that a beach towel is supposed to absorb water. I bought an ice cube tray which on the first use produced ice cubes laced with bits of plastic, as the tray seemed to dissolve when I put it in the freezer.

Overall I would say that I am very satisfied with the products I have purchased from China, and even the crappy stuff was outrageously inexpensive. After a while you sort of get a feel for what you can safely purchase at the Chinese Wal-Marts and what you should look for somewhere else. I went to a chain grocery store near my house to buy new ice cube trays. They were still made in China but they probably had to pass through some sort of quality control before making it on to the shelves of the local Mercadona, and I probably had to shell out an extra .75€ or so for that privilege.

What I don’t understand is how the United States, and the rest of the industrialized world, can completely relinquish almost all of our manufacturing to these new Chinese capitalists? Have all of the countries of the West reached this sublime service industry plateau where we no longer need to make a single thing? Surely we must have one river polluted enough to sell bottles of it as cleaning fluid for .75€ each.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Too Hot To Think

We are in the real dog days of summer. You can feel exactly when the wind stops at any time of day—even when you are sleeping—by the rise in temperature. I leave my house to go to the beach at four in the afternoon and sometimes I will stop to have a beer or a coffee at one of the cafes overlooking the sea just to put off facing the blazing sun. There is a strong offshore headwind on the bike ride to the beach. At least it is cool. On the way home the breeze shifts, coming from the west like the air in a convection oven.

It may sound like it but I’m not complaining; I am just moving a little slower these days. The Mediterranean is warm to the point of barely being a refuge from the heat. Everyone in the world is at the beaches so they are a little crowded. I don’t have the energy to ride the extra half hour to my private beach—at least not every day. I usually just stop at the new Pinedo beach. On a bike I can find a spot that is far enough from the parking lots to be too crowded.

I stand my bike up in the sand as close to the surf as I can. I dig a hole for both wheels and stand it up straight so I can hang my shirt and pack on it. Even in these hours of the late afternoon I try to limit myself to less than two hours in the oblique sun. Showering at the beach after a long swim is one of life’s great pleasures. Yesterday there was a kid with a guitar playing gypsy music on the beach path within earshot of where I was showering—just in case I had forgot that I was in Spain.

The earlier part of these days is best spent as idly as possible: reading at a shady café, preparing food in a cool kitchen, shopping in the grocery store that actually has air conditioning, or anything else that keeps you out of the sun. The days seem to begin more slowly and don’t really get up to speed until the sun has set at around 9:30 or so. Lunches in restaurants start later and later every day, reflecting the intense heat and the idleness of the population boom of vacationers. No one sits down in a restaurant for dinner until it is completely dark outside and for a lot of diners the meal doesn’t begin until after midnight, as if postponing the evening meal to the next day will offer some relief from the heat.

There are a lot of advantages to these scorching days of mid summer. I love it that I can take a shower without turning on the water heater. When I was freezing my ass off last winter I couldn’t imagine taking a shower with anything but the hottest water possible. It still is a bit of a shock when you first hit yourself pointblank with the stream of cold water. Other than this initial jolt I couldn’t imagine raising the water temperature a single degree. Cold beer becomes euphoric. You can thumb your nose at convention by chilling red wine. White wines have more appeal during summer. There are probably cold, nonalcoholic out there but I’m not going to sing their praise.

It is also the season to discover some of the lovely Spanish rosé wines. Most of these are from Rioja and almost all of them are modestly priced. I ran across the street from my building to the Mercadona to take a peek at their rosés and because they have air conditioning. I asked them if I could live there for the next couple of weeks, preferably near the ice cream or in the wine aisle. A quick glance of their rosés:

Rioja Region:
San Asenio 2.55€
Romeral 2.65€
Comportillo 1.69€
Marqués de Cáceres 4.50

Valencia:
Baron de Turis 1.09€
Castillo de Lliria 1,30€

I would have sprung for the Cáceres but I didn’t want to come off as a bourgeois pig at the cash register so I opted for the Romeral. These rosés are all fairly dry shouldn’t be confused with a white zinfandel which no adult should be caught drinking. They go great with a salad, which is about all you’ll feel like eating. The good news is that the tomatoes are looking great.

Nothing Special Summer Salad

(Sort of like a Greek salad but I don’t think that I put enough energy into it to do justice to that fine dish)

Tomatoes
Onions
Cucumber (peeled)
Red and Green Pepper (peeled and seeded)
Fresh Basil leaves (chopped)
Feta Cheese
Olives

Dressing:

Cumin seeds
Salt
Pepper
Garlic clove
Red pepper
Small can of anchovies
Olive Oil
Red Wine Vinegar

Crush first 5 ingredients together with a mortar and pestle with a bit of olive oil to make a paste. Cut the anchovy filets into small pieces with kitchen shears and ad to paste. To this I add more olive oil, red wine vinegar, a pinch of oregano, and pepper.

Toss together the dressing and vegetables and refrigerate. Add feta and olives when serving. The rosé should be well chilled and when I say well chilled I mean about as cold as it can get and still qualify as a liquid.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Toilet Whisperer

Or
The Dumbest 300 Words Ever Written


As much as I hate the ever-widening socio-economic gap in modern society, as much as I inveigh against our culture of the haves and the have nots, I still want to rub your noses in the fact that my bathroom has a toilet that flushes correctly. All you have to do is pull up on the handle and release it. The toilet will then flush and refill itself, almost like magic if you’ve been used to living months with a toilet that doesn’t do this simple task very well. You don’t have to jiggle the handle until you think that it has returned to the proper position and then come back into the bathroom after a few minutes because you can hear that the valve in the tank has not sealed so you have to jiggle the handle again. Please don’t hate me for living in this new state of luxury. Remember, thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s toilet that doesn’t need to be fiddled with every fucking time you take a leak.

I used to be just like you with your busted toilet. I used to have to finesse the handle on my toilet like someone bowing a Stradivarius, furiously working towards the finale of a movement (Pardon the musical-intestinal pun—the worst sort of pun). It took out-of-town visitors to motivate me to finally fix the thing once and for all. It finally took someone to actually tell me, “Dude, your toilet is broken. Do something.” Sometimes it takes an impartial observer to put your life into perspective. I was living like an animal but I didn’t know it. Hell, even a cat will complain when its litter box needs work.

All that it took was one of those plastic handcuff thingies that plumbers and cops use. They are sort of like the half brother of duct tape as far as their ability to fix almost anything. It has only taken me 8 months to do it and in this time I have probably wasted enough water to irrigate every golf course in Phoenix, Arizona for a summer.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Racial Profiling the Illegal Immigrant Way


I was sitting in a café the other day with three friends: a guy from Cameroon, a Romanian, and a gal from Central America. Across the street a group of Chinese workers were furiously working inside of a storefront. The renovations they were doing were fairly major as this site used to be an empty warehouse. They had installed huge windows and marble stairs with inset lights. Whatever they were building looked like it was going to be a pretty big affair.

I asked the others at the table if they knew what this new spot was going to be when they finished. My African friend said that it was going to be a “Buffet Libre or a Chinese buffet restaurant. I asked him how he knew this and he just shrugged his shoulders. He finally admitted that he didn’t know. “What else could it be? They’re Chinese,” was his follow up.

The Romanian guy said that it looked like it would be a variety store, or a chino as they are called here because almost all of these types of stores are run and owned by Chinese immigrants. It didn’t look like it was going to be a variety store. The windows and the marble stairs were a little too nice for a chino. I asked out loud if maybe it was going to be a fancy night club or a disco.

The girl from Central America immediately replied, “Oh no, Chinese don’t run places like that.”

I guess that I was the only one at the table who hasn’t learned everyone’s place in contemporary Spanish society. I have been able to make a few observations so far. I have noticed that the Chinese do run most of the chinos and they do own a lot of buffet libres. They also seem to own quite a few bars and cafes around town as well as stores that sell inexpensive clothing for men and women. I was in one of these places the other day and I bought a couple of great bootleg national soccer jerseys (Argentina and Portugal) for 5€ each—they usually cost about $65.

The folks from the Indian subcontinent seem to have cornered the market on corner fruit and vegetable markets. They also seem to be the communication moguls here as they own most of the locutorios or internet and telephone cafes. A lot of immigrants from all over call home from these businesses. You can see the rates listed for more countries than you thought existed on this planet. I guess no one calls the United States because I never see rates posted.

The sub-Saharan Africans seem to have a monopoly on bootleg DVDs to the point that a word has been coined in their honor. A bootleg DVD or CD is said to be top manta which refers to the Africans’ salesroom. Manta means blanket and these immigrants lay out their illegal merchandise on blankets in the street. This makes it easy for them to fold up shop and make a run for it if the cops decide to take an anti-business stance to this type of commerce. Top is borrowed from English and refers to something like “Top of the charts” and means any kind of popular music or movie, so Top manta means “top of the blanket.” I don’t think they have a word for “Intellectual Property” in Spanish as of this writing.

The Africans will also go ambulatory with their wares and you see them hawking stacks of the latest DVDs in bars and restaurants all over Valencia. I was at a café one day reading a book when I saw an older woman next to me looking through a stack of movies. She ended up buying four DVDs, one of which was a porno that from her lack of embarrassment may as well have been a copy of The Little Mermaid for her granddaughter. I’m sure it was respectable filth and not midget porn or a snuff flick, but still. I guess that I need to loosen up, I’m in Europe.

I certainly don’t know what is expected of American immigrants here in Spain, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. Besides a few students here for a semester, I haven’t come across any other estadounidenses, which is the proper term for us. As soon as I figure out what I’m supposed to be doing I’ll start doing it. Until then I’m just having fun trying to keep track of everyone else.

Refrán of the Day:
Más vale perder un amigo, que perder una tripa. (Said when you have gas)
It's better to lose a friend than blow a bowel.

Friday, July 20, 2007



Mi Disco Duro Es Tu Disco Duro

“My Hard drive is your hard drive,” is sort of my modern take on the wonderful Spanish saying, “Mi casa es tu casa..” I envy my Spanish friends who are trying to learn English because they have so many wonderful learning aids in the form of English music and movies. My hard drive is home to much of this media in English and I try to share it with everyone.

I think that a great tool for language learning is to watch a movie in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. I don’t really need this crutch for most movies that I watch in Spanish now but I still use this technique for French movies. I have been finding subtitles for all of my favorite movies in English for my Spanish friends who are students of my native language. I’m not sure if Super Troopers will make any sense to a non-American, even if they understand every word, but they still need to watch this movie if they want to continue being my friend. It’s required and don’t think that you are off the hook just because you read the book.

I don’t know how I could have avoided this movie for so long seeing that it came out in 2003, but I just got around to seeing Love Actually. I am turning on my friends to this, at times brilliant little film about the intertwining love lives of what seems to be about half of the population of London. Some of the stories work better than others but the movie gets five stars in my book just for working so hard to make people smile.

There is a musical sequence about two thirds of the way through the film that highlights one of the major conflicts in the story. Emma Thompson has just come to the realization that her husband is cheating on her and in a little over two minutes we see her plunge into incredible sadness and pain only to see her bounce back—for the sake of her family—in a feat of remarkable courage. I can’t imagine many film actresses could have pulled off this incredible scene.

Were Joni Mitchell not referenced twice before in the movie, once directly as this sequence begins, I would have never even considered that it was her singing her old classic, Both Sides Now. It’s one of those amazing remakes that lead you to believe that the song was fresh out of the head of the artist. I, like everyone else, grew up with this song first recorded by Mitchell in her folksy, girlish voice back in 1969. The original is beautifully produced with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. I was 11 back then so I didn’t have the chance to hear Mitchell perform this song in a NYC coffee shop. This recording is the next best thing, but to say this song is the next best thing to anything hardly does it justice.

I haven’t heard her sing this song in a long time; I couldn’t even say how many years it has been. It seems like a lifetime but of course I recognized the song immediately in the film. It’s like recognizing a familiar voice on the phone, even if it’s been a while. But I didn’t recognize this voice. I had to wait to make sure when I read the credits at the end. Mitchell has matured into a crooner of the first caliber. The new production is as bare as the original; it’s almost as if there is no music at all. There is a shimmering orchestral background that serves, more than anything, as a platform for her to stand on, a musical stage. It’s like a vast roiling ocean beneath her voice that breaks only occasionally to carry her into a bridge. You can hear her breathing over the orchestra although you will be left breathless. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could coax, squeeze, cajole, or persuade more emotion out of one song like Joni Mitchell does in this remake of Both Side Now.

Words and music and heart and soul by Joni Mitchell

Both Sides Now

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and they snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way that you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
And you leave ‘em (them) laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions that I recall
I really don’t know love, I really don’t know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say I love you right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way

But now old friends they’re acting strange
And they shake their heads and they tell me that I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life, I really don’t know life at all

Send me an email if you want to listen.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Peluquería

Peluquería, Barbershop

I haven’t traveled enough to know this for sure but I think barbershops are pretty much the same all over the world. I have only been three times since I arrived in Spain. I used to keep my hair pretty long which tends to keep one out of barbershops. In these three visits I have noticed that my Spanish is definitely improving because I understand all of the chit chat that goes on between the barber and the other customers—at least when it is in Spanish and not Valenciano. I suppose the Valenciano will come later if I stay here for long enough. By my calculations I should understand Valenciano by my 20th haircut.

As has been my custom over the course of my entire life, I like to go to a real barbershop and not some hair emporium for boys. I just figure that I probably get a better haircut from someone who has been doing this their whole life instead of some pimply kid at the hip places who just learned how to use a pair of scissors. A couple of my favorite barbers have been women but all of the barbershops have been the same, and this includes the customers as well as the staff.

Barbershops are usually thinly-veiled houses of worship to professional sports and my new one is no exception. Posters claiming Amunt Valencia CF, or I love the local football team, cover the walls. The magazines are all related to this sport although the guy waiting next to me is reading the local paper. He is reading about football even though there hasn’t been a local game in over a month and there won’t be another for another month.

This is a one chair shop and my turn arrives. I take a seat and give him his instructions, “Muy, muy corto esta vez, por favor. No es la temporada para pelo largo.” I want it really short as it has been hot and sometimes humid these days. A short discussion of the weather follows. He starts to shear me like a spring sheep as the shop fills up. It’s rather small, about size of my bedroom, and with three customers waiting it is as full as a trendy bar during a Friday evening happy hour only more animated. An old guy, who just came in, jokes about the pile of what used to be my hair on the floor (Where do you think I got the line about a spring sheep?). As my hair comes off it, is like an arctic wind has entered the shop.

The barber tells a couple of jokes that I understand and I give a fake laugh. I suppose that telling bad jokes is sort of an occupational hazard in this industry. I add a few not-very-funny comments along the way, an occupational hazard of wise-asses who aren’t completely fluent in the language.

The barber finishes, I stand and pay, and as I leave everyone bids me farewell according to the custom here in Spain. I like this part about the Spanish barbershop.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I Learned it on Google



I Learned it on Google

I don’t think I’ll get much of an argument from anyone if I say that the internet has put tremendous power into the hands of anyone with a computer. But is there such a thing as too much information? Do the people at Google monitor each and every search request that comes in? Do they try to contact the parents or do they look the other way when they get a search like this :

How long can my little brother stay at the bottom of the pool not moving like that?

I’m sure they get thousands of requests like this:

Does masturbation make you go blind?

And a few minutes later:

Are you sure masturbation doesn’t make you go blind?

Or this one of a more sinister nature:

Will bleach remove DNA from my wood chipper?

And

What if you masturbate while you type, can that make you go blind?

Just to get rid of this guy, let me answer that one. The answer is “no,” it won’t make you go blind. As far as my studies have shown you can ride a motorcycle while “doing it” with no adverse effects. Just remember to try to get outside for at least an hour or so a day—the body needs that vitamin D.

This request came from the office of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California.

How can I remove a Barbie™ from my rectum? (We can only hope that it is SCUBA Barbie™)

Followed shortly by:

How long can I leave a Barbie™ in my rectum?

Or this request from Rush Limbaugh’s IP address:

“Glory hole site map” NYC area

And:

Glory holes La Guardia Airport

Or perhaps they subscribe to the “Hear no evil, see no evil, and we are not liable when creeps use our search engine to aid and abed in their atrocities” school of thought? You just know that the people who work at Google have a file they pass around with the most outrageous search requests. If you work at Google, please forward me that file. I can clear my morning schedule with one phone call. Wait a second, I don't have a morning schedule and I don't have a phone so I could really use some good reading material.

I can’t see this going anywhere good or less offensive so I’ll end it here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Little Malarial Mosquito That Could (Almost)


Better luck next time, fucko.


Most inspiring tales have humble beginnings, and what could be more humble than a mud puddle in equatorial Africa? Even in the lowly world of larva, your mud puddle was nasty and nothing to write home about. Almost the moment you got airborne out of that pestilential backwater, a fierce wind carried you north across the great Sahara desert where another wind, the sirocco, swept you farther north and out over the Mediterranean Sea. During the flight, other mosquitoes in your swarm told stories of older siblings who had the fortune of landing on cruise ships in the Mediterranean, ships full of fat, thin-skinned tourists who provided an eating orgy for the half-starved mosquitoes on this same pilgrimage. All your party can muster up en route is a garbage scow registered in Liberia with a crew so scraggly and diseased that you decide to hold out for better prospects.

It has been over a week since you said goodbye to your little mud puddle, a week of adventure and little blood. Just when you think that you can’t hold out any longer and are about to do a belly flop in the sea, you see lights on the horizon. Someone in the swarm who has made this trip says that it is Rome up ahead. Ah Rome, the Eternal City. You have always wanted to see Rome. Maybe you will stick it to the Pope, so to speak. The Coliseum would be a good spot to hunt…oops. A strong easterly sweeps you back out to sea. Goodbye Rome, hello Valencia, Spain.

You would have liked to check out the beach as there is less in the way of clothes to get to bare skin. Instead you finally come down in the heart of the city. It is something like 3 a.m. and there is no one in the street. Almost crazed with hunger you fly up, and up. Somewhere in one of these endless apartment buildings there awaits your first meal in over seven days. You fly into an apartment on the sixth floor. No pesky screens in this country. The kitchen and living rooms are empty. As you attempt to enter the bedroom you are repulsed by a chemical being emitted from a socket on the wall. The anti-mosquito device is just too powerful.

Is this to be the end, not only for you but also for the malaria protozoan parasite that rode as a stowaway all the way from the steamy jungles of Africa? What a cruel evolutionary demise for the both of you. “Adiós, protozoan parasite. Adiós, little mosquito.” You land on this strange plastic thing that hums quietly. Death is near.

But then someone enters the room, and get this, HE ISN’T WEARING A SHIRT! You are almost delirious from hunger and it is difficult to see in the darkness. The great shirtless one sits down and touches the strange plastic thing that hums quietly. Miraculously the strange plastic thing lights up. It is like seeing a lighthouse in a storm. You point your needle and fly as fast as you can, sticking it into the hilt in his chest. You take out so much blood that you almost faint. What happened to protozoan parasite? I guess this is where he gets off. He didn't even thank you for the ride. You don’t want to, but you pull out your needle and flap your wings. You are so full that it is going to take extra effort to get off the ground again. You flap your wings furiously and start to move just as you see something coming your way. It is a long limb with five digits at the end. What could it be?

SPLAT!

Note to self: buy a can of aerosol bug spray for when I can’t sleep at night and want to do some writing at my desk which is outside the range of the bug zapper I have in the bedroom.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Proverb a Day

A la cama no te irás sin saber una cosa más*

I translated the following from my Diccionario Júnior:

Refrán (Proverb or saying) Popular phrase repeated traditionally in the same manner that reflects things man has learned and seem like great truths.

The Spanish language is up to its eyelids in proverbs. I remember that what I loved the most about my very first Spanish grammar book were the proverbs that came at the beginning of each chapter. I’m sure that the other languages that I have studied over the years have their fair share of proverbs; I just can’t recite a single saying in French, or Greek, or Arabic. I can go toe-to-toe with just about the best of them when it comes to Spanish proverbs.

At the Sunday flea market I picked up a copy of Los Mejores Refranes Españoles with 11,225 proverbs. This is by far the best 2€ I have spent since I got here. I’m sure my time would be better spent cramming vocabulary or grammar into my head but I just like learning Spanish sayings—I can blame it on that first text book I used. I suppose that these pithy little sentences make the sometimes-tedious process of learning a new language a little more fun. At least it was until I read about 200 of them. It’s like when you were in high school and your parents found heroine in your room so they make you shoot up all of the heroine and after that you can’t hardly look at heroine anymore. That’s how I feel now about Spanish proverbs.

So just like with a big bag of heroine, you need to pace yourself when you buy a book with 11,225 Spanish sayings. I think that I will try to memorize one each day so that in one year I will be a complete geek.

*Never go to bed without having learned something new. This has always been one of my favorite sayings…in any language. I make an attempt to fulfill this promise to myself although some days are better than others.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Bikes and Books

I have been busy trying desperately to improve my Spanish via reading so I guess you could say that I’ve been boring. It is also too sunny and hot to do much bike touring right now. I’m not apologizing, that’s just the way it is.

Tour Update

If you haven’t been paying attention to this year’s Tour de France then tomorrow might be a good time to start as the Tour moves into the first mountain stage. This is usually where they separate the men from the boy, or at least it separates the guys who can compete at this torturous level through brutal mountain passes and those who are better at other cycling disciplines. One of the heavy pre-Tour favorites, Alexandre Vinoukorov, took a nasty fall yesterday 25K before the finish. Not only did he tear off about half of his ass and required stitches in his knee after the race, he also lost over a minute to the leaders. A tough break for the Astana team.

Even with all of the recent doping scandals in the sport I’m still a huge fan and the Tour de France has been a sacrament for me every year since I was still in high school. I don’t even need there to be a Lance Armstrong superhero in the race to spark my interest. Hell, I’ll even watch it in Spanish. Just call me hardcore.

Out of something like 190 riders in this year’s race, I counted over 50 Spanish participants. Last year’s winner was a Spaniard, if you forget about the hijo de puta, Floyd Landis. Interest in the race is pretty high in Spain but I haven’t found a cool place to watch the race. I just watch at home. It comes on at 15:45 every afternoon.

Books

The rather bothersome task of learning Spanish is always with me. It’s like a boarder that I have taken on and follows me everywhere that I go. I have not sought out English conversation and I avoid the places where Brits and Americans hang out like the plague. I would like to have recorded some of my conversations in Spanish at different periods of my stay just to see how I have progressed (I assume that I am progressing). I am quite sure that my reading ability is improving greatly but I still find some novels that are too difficult for me to read. I am at a loss to fully explain why it is that I can read some novels almost without the use of a dictionary while with others it seems like every sentence is a struggle.

At this moment I am in the middle of two books. No Es País Para Viejos by Cormac McCarthy is his most recent novel in translation (No Country for Old Men I believe is the title). I know that it seems silly to read a translation of a book in English as there is so much Spanish literature to discover but I saw this at the library in the new books display and couldn’t resist. Anything that I read in Spanish is a great help to me in adding to my vocabulary and understanding of Spanish grammar besides that fact that he is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I have already read Spanish translations of The Crossing and All the Pretty Horses. He used so much Spanish in the originals in those two books that I think that they would be very irritating to read in English if you don’t have a fairly sizeable grasp of Spanish.

No Es País Para Viejos is set in Texas and for some reason it takes place in 1980. I have yet to figure out why he chose this particular year for the novel but I’m sure that will be revealed to me with time. The good news is that the book is not any sort of linguistic challenge for me in my adopted language and I have been reading 40 pages a day. The library has wireless internet so I can use http://www.wordrefence.com instead of my Spanish/English dictionary. I can type with one hand with the book in the other so I don’t even have to put it down while I search for an unfamiliar word.

I read the McCarthy novel at the library and at home I am reading Son de Mar (1999) by Manuel Vicent for which he was awarded El Premio Afaguara. I was wandering through the library stacks when I happened upon this novel. I read that the author is from these parts and after reading a few pages I quickly decided that I wanted to keep reading and that it is a novel that I am able to read—two important requirements. I was able to pick up an inexpensive paperback copy at the bookstore. My budget doesn’t allow me to buy every book that I want to read and the Cormac McCarthy novel on comes in an expensive hardback edition. I can’t get a library card so I have to read that book while I am there. I don’t mind going to the lovely library and it keeps me out of the scorching, mid-afternoon sun.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Riding with the peleton and running with the bulls

Riding with the peleton and running with the bulls

I go along, day after day, living my life here pretty much taking many things for granted. I’m in another country and the language is different but the mundane aspects of daily life are pretty much the same everywhere. You eat, drink coffee, exercise, read, watch television, or whatever. I go for weeks at a time barely recognizing the fact that I am living in a culture that is markedly different than my own. I try to blend in as much as I can. I know my way around Valencia better than most and I am killing myself trying to hammer Spanish into my head. As my Spanish improves and I become more familiar with how things are done here, my life becomes more normal. And then every once in a while something hits me and I realize than things are very unusual in my new home.

Sometimes it’s something really insignificant that leads me to this thought. Just this weekend I couldn’t stop thinking about how odd it is to see the Tour de France live and in the late afternoon. In Seattle there is something like a ten hour time difference so on some days I would go to my gym at six in the morning to watch the live broadcast of the day’s race, but most of the time I would watch the rebroadcast that starts at eleven in the morning.

For a Tour de France kook like me it’s pretty cool to see it on TV live, although I miss Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin, the great announcers on the Outdoor Life Network. It is also great to have two entire pages of the newspaper dedicated to the Tour every day. They have their priorities straight here. I am thinking about heading up to the Pyrenees in a couple weeks with my bike to catch one of the great mountain stages when the race passes through Spain. I have climbed bigger mountains in Washington than anything they do in the Tour. Granted, I never climb three or four big passes in one day but still, we got big mountains in Washington. Climbing up Mount Rainier would make a great finish for a Tour stage.

July 7th was also the beginning of the festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, or the running of the bulls. Every day at 8 a.m. they show all of the crazy drunks running through the street being chased by huge bulls. If you aren’t up at 8 you can see the rebroadcasts all day long. Yesterday nine people got gored. Just good, clean fun as far as the Spanish are concerned. I have never had any desire to go to this festival and I definitely wouldn’t care to take my chances in a sprinting match with a 500 kilo bull. As I told a Spanish friend, this is one aspect of Spanish life that I don’t mind experiencing on television. Getting gored by a bull isn’t on my “to do” list while I make this place my home.

One thing that is very easy to get used to here is the weather. It is just about perfect. It is sunny and hot during the day and then when the sun goes down it cools off considerably. The humidity is rather low which is common in the Mediterranean basin. It is exactly how I remembered it from the years that I lived in Greece.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

More Thoughts on the Tortilla de Patatas


I have my own way of making a tortilla de patatas that involves a lot less oil and is much easier than the traditional method. Most Spanish recipes call for cooking the peeled potatoes in a lot of olive oil without browning them. This takes a lot of oil and a lot of time. You almost have to deep-fry the potatoes. I cook my potatoes ahead of time, either in boiling water or in the oven if I am cooking something else that requires the oven. I then take the peeled, almost-completely-cooked potatoes and sauté them in just a bit of olive oil. They will have a consistency close to mashed potatoes. I add this mixture to the beaten eggs in a bowl to blend.

The trick (or one of them at least) is that you need the right size pan for the amount of eggs you are using. I use an eight inch, non-stick sauté pan that works for tortillas with 4-6 eggs. You need to cook the tortilla at a very low temperature so that the bottom doesn’t burn. I cover the pan which I think helps to firm up the top of the tortilla and makes flipping it a little easier. To flip it, cover the pan with a plate and hold the bottom of the plate and turn the skillet upside down. Slide the tortilla back into the pan with the uncooked side down. Reshape it with a spatula. I flip it three times so that it cooks twice on both sides. Whichever side looks the best I leave up for serving.

This simple Spanish dish can be found almost everywhere. It is a popular item on sandwiches. It also fairly screams out for improvisation—something that is frowned upon in most Spanish cooking. The Spanish are never more traditional than they are when it comes to food. As much as I love a traditional tortilla de patatas, I would love to see a clever innovation to this dish. I think the best way to achieve that might be an accompanying dish.

I prefer to eat this dish after it has cooled so this may dictate what would make a good side dish.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Swiss Alighni Team Wins America’s Cup


This was the incredible finish. Alighni is at the bottom.


Does the America’s Cup have to be over? Yesterday’s race was absolutely amazing. The New Zealander’s were leading on the second upwind leg but they had a bad position to leeward of the Alighni boat. Just before the marker for the last windward leg they crowded the Swiss boat and received a penalty. Alighni passed the marker first and both boats raced towards the finish with spinnakers flying. Not only were the New Zealanders down by 11 seconds at the marker, but they would also have to perform a penalty turn-around at some point before the finish. It seemed completely hopeless. Then they got a huge advantage in wind and pulled way ahead of the Swiss boat and were doing their penalty maneuver just before the committee boat at the finish line. Alighni sailed past and beat them by one second and defended their America’s Cup title by beating New Zealand 5-2. This means that the next Cup will also probably be in Valencia.

Instead of waiting four more years, can’t we just have another America’s Cup next week? Valencia is all set up for it already and all of the boats are here. Why wait? The weather is perfect and there are plenty of spectators, we just need someone to make the call and start racing again.

I have made it down to the port for all of the America’s Cup races and most of the preliminary Louis Viutton Cup matches as well. On race days I did a bike ride along the beaches to the south of town and finished up at the port. I would usually stop and get a beer before I got there because the beer lines at the port were too long. I will miss all of the excitement and the beautiful boats.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Gazpacho



Gazpacho

I made gazpacho for the first time in my life yesterday. Now that I live in Spain and I made it once I guess you could say that I’m kind of an expert on the subject of this cold, tomato soup. I have heard it described as a liquid salad which sounds more accurate than calling it soup. What I can say with authority is that it’s really good and it’s almost impossible to screw up. What more do you want out of a menu item?

Since I have adopted a Castillian accent to my Spanish I now pronounce this simple yet wonderful dish gath pacho. I know, don’t you just want to punch me right in the face? Of course, that would be a little difficult for you unless you finally decide to get your ass over here for a visit, so until you do I will keep annoying the living shit out of you. Did you know that the French for gazpacho is le gazpacho? Wow, I could almost feel the air from your punch against my nose. Nice try.

It has been hot here lately with temperatures in the upper 30’s (I knew the metric system would piss you off, too. Keep swinging like that and you’re going to tire yourself out before the end of this essay). It’s hot but not Florida hot. It hasn’t been humid at all but 39 degrees is definitely hot enough to push you towards lighter, cooler foods. Not me, of course, I’m too much of a glutton to ever actually crave lighter foods. I once ate an entire bucket of fried chicken while in a Turkish bath. I just figured that since I was in Spain and it is summer I may as well make a batch of gath pacho.

All of the produce markets are up to their eyebrows in good tomatoes right now so I got four big, juicy rambo tomatoes. I don’t know why they call them rambo but I suspect it is because they like Sylvester Stallone. You need a cucumber and here they come in little pint-size versions that are about half the size of an American cucumber. The recipe calls for a bit of bread so I bought some of this five seed whole wheat stuff they sell at the supermarket. I rarely eat the bakery baguette variety of bread. It can be interesting when it is fresh from the oven but decidedly uninteresting shortly after this initial freshness has passed. This recipe calls for the bread to be soaked in water which would leave the baguette bread completely lifeless so I opted for the five seed hippy bread.

Gazpacho

- 4 tomatoes (peeled and chopped)
- 1 onion (chopped)
- 1 cucumber (peeled and chopped)
- 1 garlic clove (diced)
- 1 red pepper (seeded and chopped)
- Bread (I used three slices of the 5 seed stuff. Soak it in water briefly and then squeeze out the water)

I had a zucchini lying around (or aubergines as the Brits call them. That’s a good punch you’re packing there—for a little girl!) so I peeled it and cooked it in boiling water for a few minutes.

Salt, pepper, a dash of cumin, a tablespoon or two of olive oil, and a few dashes of red wine vinegar (No, not balsamic).

I just threw all of this together in a pot with a bit of water and then liquefied it with my 750cc, 105 horsepower hand mixer. No kidding, this thing is powerful. Most recipes call for you to strain the soup in a food mill after mixing but mine was completely liquefied. I chilled all of the ingredients before so it was ready to eat as soon as I finished mixing.

I prefer to drink gazpacho out of a glass instead of treating it like a soup and trying to use a spoon. So you kids out there fighting over whether gazpacho is a beverage or a soup just break it up. It’s both.

There are hundreds of variations on this dish but I think this is one of the more traditional recipes.

Monday, July 02, 2007

TV

I don’t watch a lot of television. I’m not saying this as some sort of pseudo-intellectual posturing. I don’t watch much television not because I’m some sort of hippie* but because the programming isn’t very good here and my TV doesn’t have a headphone jack. In order for me to understand Spanish television really well I need to listen through headphones which is why I have little trouble watching movies in Spanish on my computer. The programming situation is something over which I have no control. Even if it means improving my Spanish I pass on watching an episode of Friends.

Between my television speakers and the funny voices they use, Los Simpsons continues to be a real challenge for me. I watched it last night and laughed out loud at this part: Homer gets upgraded to first class on a flight and the stewardess asks if for dinner would he like a steak or two steaks. Homer asks, “Can I have both?” I have laughed about that every time I’ve thought about it and I’ve thought about it about 100 times already.

I wouldn’t be caught dead watching CNN in the States but you can easily catch me watching it here. For one thing, it is in Spanish instead of Catalan or Valenciano. I will sometimes catch myself flipping through the channels and stopping on a news story only to realize a minute or two later that they aren’t speaking Spanish. Watching CNN is strictly for the Spanish lesson because it’s a pretty lousy source of news—in any language. You can get more information scanning the newspaper headlines when you walk briskly by a kiosk than you can watching an hour of CNN.

I like to watch bullfights on television. It’s not to improve my Spanish because they are mostly on the local station which broadcasts them in a blend of Spanish and Valenciano, but I just like watching bullfights. Just the array of wild pastel colors is enough reason; everything looks just like it does in those posters you see advertising the corrida. This may sound stupid but I just like the fact that I’m watching a bullfight on TV. In the ever-shrinking world of globalization and cheap airline flights, it’s still something that that says, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” and definitely not Seattle. If the Seattle PETA crowd knew I was watching a bullfight they would burn me in effigy. The effigy would be made of natural hemp fibers and they wouldn't actually burn it because that causes pollution but they wouldn’t be too happy with me. A mock burning of an effigy goes along better with their whole passive-aggressive approach to changing the world.

*I like saying this in Spanish and it always gets a laugh, although I don’t know if they are laughing at me, with me, or they just thought of something funny on their own. “What, you don’t eat meat? Eres alguna especie de hippy? (Are you some kind of hippy?) I recycle my humor to get the most mileage and if this means moving to another country then that’s what I’m willing to do.