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Monday, December 28, 2009

The Great War/Wall on Terrorism

I don’t know if I am the first writer to make the analogy between our war on terrorism and China’s Great Wall. Unfortunately, it seems that our president was unable to make the connection as he stood on this monument to failure. America’s failure in its current wars will not be accompanied by any sort of monument or photo opportunity; our colossal failure will simply be measured in lost opportunities, in what we could have done as a nation if we had chosen a different path besides war and a continued reliance on the use of arms to solve what is essentially a political and law enforcement problem. We won’t have a physical reminder of our current fiasco like China’s wall. At least the Wall serves today as a tourist marvel. Our folly will simply be billions of dollars in military and civilian hardware abandoned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Great Wall of China, like the Cathedrals in Europe and America’s war machinery dumped in Iraq and Afghanistan, serves as a testament to what could have been. Instead of a wall that proved to be largely ineffective, what if the Chinese had built something else with those resources? What if we had chosen another path besides war to combat the rise of Islamic extremism? It’s impossible to imagine a worse outcome for America than the disastrous past few years, a debacle that will continue to plague America and stifle achievement in other areas.

Our true enemy in this war is not Islamic extremists. They have never posed a true threat to this country. Of course we were all lead to believe that we have been living in imminent danger for the past eight years because fear—whether real, perceived, or invented—has always been used to manage populations. I’m sure that there China probably did have a bit to fear from their neighbors to the north but the Wall seems like more of an exercise in futility and megalomania than a defensive structure. The fear of invasion was probably a very useful and powerful tool in Chinese politics in the centuries of wall construction. The urban myth that the Wall can be seen from the moon is untrue but here doesn’t seem to be much construction during this period that may have actually benefited the average Chinese person even when you examine the terrain with a microscope.

The same legacy of failure and waste plagued most of the Christian era in Europe. Examples of the benevolent nature of religion in European cities are pretty hard to find. Cathedrals they have, dozens in each major city. During this era the church used the fear of god as a mechanism for control. By control I mean grinding the peasantry into the mud and taking the side of the monarchies while doing very little to help the common man.

For almost 50 years Americans were taught to be scared shitless of the Soviet Union until that pathetic beast crumbled and died after decades of rot. America’s intelligence apparatus wasn’t able to predict the Soviet Union’s collapse even as citizens physically dismantled the Berlin Wall, another less ambitious testament to a failed military and social strategy. Our current intelligence apparatus is even more incapable of explaining how to counter Islamic fundamentalism or just how big this threat really is. You could argue that the CIA and NSA are two more Great Walls but that will have to wait for another essay.

What is doing the real damage to America is our outrageous military budget. By and large the American people don’t want these wars to continue, we had an election last November that proved that. So who does want our military campaigns to continue? It certainly isn’t the soldiers fighting the wars. A lot of the generals running the show and calling the shots seem to be enthusiastic about the whole mess we have created. I would attribute this to the fact that they are less concerned with the results than they are with their own careers in the military and then the much more lucrative civilian military contracting jobs they hope to walk into after they retire. Either this or they are just plain stupid and refuse to face the facts, facts that they should have learned from Viet Nam. Once American soldiers set foot in predominantly Islamic countries we lost the whole “hearts and minds” campaign. And remember that Iraq was completely secular under Saddam Hussein—I doubt that you will be able to say that again anytime soon.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Leftbanker’s Christmas Message to the World*



Hey, what the hell, if the Pope can do it then so can I? This may seem a bit ironic considering the fact that not only am I not a Christian but I’m a life-long atheist. Yes, I really mean life-long. I never for a second believed in any of the shit my Catholic parents more or less forced us to endure as children. I suffered through mass after excruciatingly boring mass, at least until I was smart enough to tell the folks, god bless'em, that I was going to the early mass. With that said I skipped out on church and went to the park and played baseball, football, basketball, or skated. I am the only person I know who had “Atheist” proudly emblazoned on U.S. military dog tags. I think this is sort of a gutsy move for a young kid. I really hate Christmas and always have. Even as a kid I thought that it was retarded. With that said, I would like to deliver my Christmas address to the world.

OK, maybe not to the whole world because to be truly honest, most of the world probably cares less about Christmas than I do—god bless them. You see, most of the world isn’t Christian either. Granted, a lot of them believe in some other form of hooey that is sometimes even more repugnant than the tenets of Christianity but that is something for another essay. This fact isn’t going to stop me from giving my message to the world. My message is one of enlightenment and peace and not nearly as lame as the words that spew out of the Pope’s mouth on this day every year since I can remember.

What I really think is fantastic is how a lot of people in America now have the courage to say out loud that religion is bullshit. Well, maybe it isn’t courage, maybe it is just the same herd mentality, the courage of the mob, the sort of thing that made religion popular long ago. Now we are just a mob that is a bit more rational. I just think that if you have arrived at this point in the 21st century and live in the West and you still believe in these far-fetched fairy tales, then you haven’t been reading much. Why do I need a stupid fairytale like the Old Testament Genesis when I have Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale? And just how am I supposed to feel about Christmas? Should I be waiting patiently for Santa? Should I send a birthday card to Jesus? I am grateful for one thing about Christmas: it is a day off from work.

And what do we do when we have a day off from work? We go to a bar and get loaded and try to hook up. Pathetic you say? Tell me how you spend the day and I’ll probably tell you the same thing. The good news is that in my immigrant-intensive barrio of Russafa (I used the Valenciano spelling of “Russafa” instead of the Spanish “Ruzafa” to be more ethnic), there are so many non-Christians around here that you would hardly notice that it’s a holiday. No one seemed to have sent the “Christmas is a holiday” email to many of the bars, restaurants, hilal butcher shops, newsstands, green grocers, and other businesses.

Here is another irony: I am not one of those grumps who have a hemorrhoid whenever he sees a Christmas tree or a nativity scene in a public place in a supposedly secular nation (Yes, Spain is a secular nation—at least on paper). What does upset me is when otherwise rational people tell me that they believe in this silliness. The truth is, I just don’t believe that they really believe it themselves. I just think that a lot of folks are in so deep that they are afraid to admit that it’s all bullshit. They are afraid to break the cycle of tradition that has been handed down to them. It’s like being afraid to have the family pet put to sleep after you receive the diagnosis that it has a fatal and debilitating disease. It’s like Republicans not wanting to admit that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are complete pieces of shit because these people have said otherwise for too long. Saying anything to the contrary now will make them look stupid and lacking in foresight. All I have to say to them is that being stupid and lacking in foresight is a hell of a lot better than continuing to believe in a dangerous lie even after all the facts are in.

I know what a lot of people would say if they read what I have written thus far. They would say that I need to “lighten up” and “chill out.” These are people who generally have never had an opinion in their entire lives and haven’t ever come close to having an original thought. Religion is tailor-made for people who are terrified of ever having an original thought; it’s made for people who simply want to blindly accept everything that is placed before them to save themselves the bother of making their own decision; religion is for people too afraid to look behind the curtain.

I suppose that I had it easy. I grew up in a being exposed primarily to Catholicism which is about as ridiculous as religion gets…unless it’s Islam or Judaism or Hinduism or Mormonism (Is that an “ism?). It was really easy for me to resist Catholic beliefs because I never really understood what those were, exactly. I mean, come on, saint? What the hell are saints? And I remember my priest trying to explain the holy trinity to my class of first graders. My eyes rolled back in my head so hard I almost fell over backwards.
I think that Judaism is also pretty damn vague as far as what they believe in or what purpose their religion serves. At least Islam provides a very clear-cut set of beliefs about how you should comport yourself in this life and what you should expect when you croak. It may all be perfectly stupid but at least it is comprehensible to the average slob—and I am nothing but an average slob.

The thing is, I am an average slob with a healthy respect for the role doubt should play in a person’s life. I have never been one to take anything at face value. I have never been prone to believe in Bigfoot or ghosts or extraterrestrials. I have never experienced anything in my life that couldn’t be explained by the laws of science. I hold astrology in complete contempt, as any sane and rational person should, so why should I fall for religion, or Santa Claus? Santa seems to be in the same league of as religion when it comes to farfetched ideas. Sorry, I just can’t buy into any of it.

Would the world be a better or worse place if all of a sudden people just stopped acting out all of the Christmas nonsense that has become so much a part of our consumerist society? I doubt it could possibly be worse for it. I think the world would be a much better place and a hell of a lot less annoying—at least for me.

*I have always loved the Charlie Brown Christmas special so I guess that I’m not a total asshole in the eyes of Christians.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Beginner’s Guide to Dive Bars


The cruel fact is that there just aren’t enough bars in the world so you can’t always pick and choose where you go for a drink. A dive is generally a place where you’ll probably feel more of a need to wipe your feet as you leave than you did on the way in. You can almost always spot a dive from the outside but if you were fooled by the exterior some sure give-a-ways that you're in a dive are dead animals mounted on the walls, a pool table in worse shape than a hillbilly’s front yard, a jar of pickled eggs, mullets, black eyes, and lots of “ain’t”s (there are dive bars in non-English speaking countries so I should probably amend this to say “bad grammar” except I ain’t smart enough to detect bad grammar in any language besides English).

Keep it Simple

Don’t order a martini unless you want a glass of luke-warm rot gut vodka and an olive that looks like it rolled behind the cigarette machine a few months ago yet somehow made it into your glass. In fact, avoid drinks that require any sort of fruit or garnish, and ordering wine is just asking for a fight. Even the ice may be suspect depending on the local drinking water. Stick to plain-and-simple domestic beer and whiskey. The good news is that the last time I checked these two staples contain alcohol (Completely overcome with the spirit of investigative journalism, I actually checked out this fact last night).

The Bathrooms

I've been in bathrooms so squalid that I interrupted the stream of my pee so that germs and other critters couldn’t swim, salmon-like, upstream into my pride and joy. You're a lot safer just doing your business in the parking lot—no one will notice, I promise. On a further anthropological note, some of the best graffiti I've ever read I found in dive bar toilets—sort of ironic when you consider that about the only thing the customers read in these places are arrest warrants and eviction notices.

Se Habla Baseball

Unless you are at the bar in the roll of a Dian Fossey-like researcher, you will want to interact with the local wildlife. A safe lingua franca of dive bars is baseball. Talking about sports is sort of the Esperanto of knuckleheads, a sub-group I claim as one of my own. Just say a few kind words about the team the locals support and you will have friends for life, or until closing time—whichever comes first. Even if I were miles behind enemy lines in a dive bar in the Bronx I think I could find a few good things to say about…gulp (this is really difficult for me)…the Yankees.

E Pluribus

My first dive bar was a place called the 101 Club. I guess that stood for Dive Bars 101 and was a required course at my university. It was as crappy as any bar I have ever seen; sort of like a rough Mexican cantina but without the good food. The jukebox had the worst music ever collected in one place. One night I pumped in about five dollars worth of quarters and looked for the worst song I could find. It happened to be Paper Roses by Marie Osmond so I played the B side about thirty times and went back to playing pool. After the miserable little tune had played about six times we looked around to see how this was registering with the other patrons. None of them even seemed to notice the awful music or that it had repeated half a dozen times.

The point that I'm trying to make here is that hicks are different from you and me. They're a tougher breed who fight our wars, install our cable TV, fix all the shit we break, and their kids beat up your kids. Next time you're in a dive bar show your appreciation and buy a round of drinks.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Opera in el Mercado Central de Valencia



This is from La Traviata but I'm not too familiar with Verdi so I can't say for sure. I wish they would come to my market here in Russafa. If this doesn't bring tears of joy to your eyes then you had better have a doctor check that out for you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Putting Everything in Context




Fundamentally, no word really means anything in isolation, almost all words derive their meaning from the totality of language (and silence, as an alternative to speech...) in which they occur, and that includes the other possible word choices one could have made instead of the word one did choose. It´s a very dynamic, active model and every language approaches the communication of reality in a different way.
-Txiri


I found this wonderful quote on a forum on the wonderful resource called wordreference.com. I will fall back to the old adage, “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” which is what we say for almost everything we aren’t clever enough to come up with on our own. This entry was in a forum about the Spanish expression “desde luego” which I learned—after living here only three freaking years—means “of course.” In my defense I have to say that I know several other ways to say “of course” and “desde luego” is probably the least literary manner to say this, and up until now most of how I express myself in Spanish is a result of the vocabulary and expressions I come across while reading. While I still believe that reading is the best and quickest way to ingest information, I am advanced enough in my Spanish foray to include other learning devices.

I watch a couple of Spanish series on television, more as educational tools than entertainment but it’s nice when the two go hand-in-hand. As I have said many times before, I can justify any sort of silliness if it is helping me to learn the language. This can even mean watching Ace Ventura dubbed into Spanish, yes, Ace Ventura. I still think that reading is the fastest way to learn new vocabulary and grammar but listening comprehension is also necessary. I don’t think that TV and movies are a very efficient method of learning simply because there often isn’t a lot of dialogue, especially in a lot of movies. I would certainly prefer to listen to recorded books but I won’t to complain again here about the vast shortage of recorded books in Spanish.

TV shows have, in general, much more dialogue than movies and are therefore a better way to improve listening comprehension. My latest learning tool is the American TV series How I Met Your Mother dubbed into Spanish as Como Conocí a Vuestra Madre, a show I probably would never watch in English but I have been very entertained thus far with the Spanish version. I’ve learned a lot of new vocabulary (I have www.wordreference.com open on my laptop when I watch the show), some of it is probably too slangy and hip for me to use but other words I hope will be useful (putilla = slutty could be a good one). I can’t believe that I have lived in Spain for three years and had to learn from Barney on Como Conocí a Vuestra Madre that the innocuous reflexive verb meaning “to brush,” cepillarse, can also mean “to do someone.” It’s not like I even had to look up the alternative meaning as the context made it very, very clear that it was something of a sexual nature.

Even the words and expressions I don’t plan on using, because of their slang or too hip nature, I am grateful to have learned simply because they add to my overall fluency in Spanish. Your vocabulary can’t ever be too big.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chicken Cacciatore

Don’t ask me why I made this staple of old school American-Italian cooking. I had some chicken leg quarters and I was looking to make something different, or just something that I haven’t made in a long time. I also had a small amount of dried garbanzos I wanted to clean out of my cupboard. I began with my tomato sauce recipe (something everyone should know how to make). Next I cooked the garbanzos in my pressure cooker along with a bit of chorizo, onion, garlic, bay leaf, and salt.

I salted the chicken pieces which I had cut into legs and thighs. I dredged the pieces in flour and fried them in olive oil until slightly brown. You don’t have to cook the chicken fully because you will cook it again with the sauce. I arranged the chicken pieces in my clay baking dish. I made the sauce from the tomato sauce and the beans and poured this over the chicken. Then I baked the dish for about an hour covering it for the last 30 minutes to keep it moist.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Visca el València*




Valencia held on for the win last night against Bilbao despite a late and very dubious penalty call. The shot hit the post for a bit of frontier justice. I don’t think I could have watched Valencia CF suffer another draw because of a late-game foul like last week. At least last week’s penalty was deserved. The win puts Valencia ahead of Sevilla with 28 points. David Villa scored his 11th goal in twelve games. I have been saying how fun it is to watch Valencia play this year but I wouldn’t say that about last night’s match. The team looked fairly rudderless without David Silva who will miss about a month. I hope the team can get it together without Silva before the next game.

This Saturday Valencia hosts Real Madrid and a win could give us a tie for second in La Liga (with Real Madrid) behind Barça. Valencia did manage a draw against Barça earlier this season and a draw against Madrid wouldn’t be horrible. Valencia certainly is capable of winning against Madrid and any other team in Europe, for that matter. The team has fantastic players with five of them on the Spanish National squad. In the area of management is where Valencia is lacking. I just don’t understand how you can lose money on a European football team is a city as big as Valencia and with a team with so much tradition.

Barça doesn’t suffer from the problem of poor management. The team has more money than god and fills their huge stadium every single week. There only seem to be and handful of teams in La Liga here in Spain that are legitimately capable of beating Barcelona: Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia, and perhaps Villarreal and Atlético de Madrid, and these teams have to play the game of their lives to win. Barça does occasionally lose to lesser teams but it’s a fluke.

*Hooray for Valencia in Valenciano. This is a line taken for the hymn of Valencia Club de football. Feel free to sing along:


És un equip de primera
nostre València Club de Futbol
que lluita per a defendre
en totes bandes nostres colors.

En el Camp de l'Algirós
ja començaren a demostrar
que era una bona manera
per a València representar.

Amunt València, Visca el València, és el millor
Amunt València, Visca el València del nostre cor.
Units com sempre els valencianistes et seguirem,
en cada estadi per a que triomfes t'animarem.

En la capital del Túria
és el València qui vist de blanc
i defén la camiseta
ple de coratge per a guanyar.

En Mestalla continuaren
sempre esforçant-se per a triomfar
i les glòries arribaren
i en competència continuaran.

Amunt València, Visca el València, és el millor
Amunt València, Visca el València, del nostre cor.
Units com sempre els valencianistes et seguirem,
en cada estadi per a que triomfes t'animarem.

Amunt València, Visca el València, el campió!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

World Cup 2010

The World Cup groupings are out and it’s time for everyone to post their opinions about how the tournament will play out next summer. What the hell else do I have to do while I sit at home waiting for the football match to come on TV at 22:00 between Coruña and Barça?

Group A:
South Africa
Mexico
Uruguay
France
And leaving this group for the next round… South Africa, Mexico. France got in by the skin on their ass with a hand ball by Henry against Ireland in a playoff game because they didn’t qualify outright from their lame-o group. The host team always advances, that's just the way it is.

Group B:
Argentina
Nigeria
South Korea
Greece
… Argentina, Nigeria. I predict that Argentina won’t even lead this group and may qualify on goal differentials. Maradona was a great player but he is a retard as a coach.

Group C:
England
USA
Algeria
Slovenia
…USA, England. England was shit-hot in their group and the USA did beat Spain last summer.

Group D:
Germany
Australia
Serbia
Ghana
…Germany, Australia.

Group E:
Netherlands
Denmark
Japan
Cameroon
…Netherlands, Cameroon.

Group F:
Italy
Paraguay
New Zealand
Slovakia
…Italy, Paraguay. God, I hate Italy.

Group G:
Brazil
North Korea
Cote d’Ivoire
Portugal
…. Brazil, Cote d’Ivoive. Portugal may squeeze by if Ronaldo is healthy. This is hardly the "group of death." Brazil is certainly capable of winning it all but I just don't like how this team has meshed together thus far.

Group H:
Spain
Switzerland
Honduras
Chile
… Spain, Switzerland

I have to go with Spain winning it all next summer. Spain is incredibly deep at every position. They could easily field two great teams but just one should be sufficient to make it all the way. A lot can happen during the weeks of play.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Simple Solutions for Big Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barça 1, Madrid 0

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Confessions of a Valencia Bike Commuter


View from my bike.

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias



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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Few Feet Below Rock Bottom

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

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

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

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Saturday Commute





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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

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


A corner fruit and vegetable shop.



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

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

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

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

Monday, November 02, 2009

Don’t Know Much about History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

How to Survive and Prosper during a Summer/Semester/Year in Europe


Travel Light
I’m not talking about losing ten pounds before you leave, although this isn’t a bad idea considering how much more you will be eating and drinking while away. I mean travel with just a backpack, preferably one that fits in the overhead. Here is a simple rule of travel: carry only the amount of baggage that you can carry while outrunning a cop. I won’t say how I came up with this observation but let’s just say that it’s based on a true story. Your sense of adventure will be directly proportional to how light you are. Dragging two clunky suitcases may give you more clothing options but you’ll be too tired to go anywhere.

Keep it Simple
Call it quits with the boyfriend/girlfriend before leaving, that way you won’t have to explain anything when the pictures start making the rounds on Facebook of you lying face down in the gutter in the Amsterdam red light district or giving a lap dance to a Greek goat herder. They always say to keep your story simple and nothing is simpler than saying, “I’m single.”

Se Habla Español
You studied Spanish, French, German, or Italian for a semester or two, now it’s time to start using it. Foreign languages aren’t just a general education requirement, people actually speak them. You probably speak one of these languages better than most Europeans speak English. A simple Buenos Días or Bonjour when entering a bar or shop will go a long way in how people perceive you. Just remember that when you’re talking to someone about how much you like their little country don’t use the word “little.”

When in Rome Eat What the Romans Eat
The late-night, cheap food of choice for drunks almost everywhere in Europe is döner kebab or gyros or shawarma or whatever the hell name they use for a sandwich of pita and meat—either lamb or chicken. Döner kebab is actually Turkish for “It’s not cat, goddammit!”

Adhering to a vegetarian diet while in Europe is more of a hassle than traveling in an iron lung. Take your pick: spend the day in Paris searching for a vegan restaurant or actually see the place. Finding anything to eat in Spain that doesn’t contain pork is all but impossible; even the deserts have bacon bits. If you have religious proscriptions against certain foods I’m pretty sure that Yahweh, God, and Allah will forgive you for trying some jagerschnitzel, they probably won’t even mind if you go back for seconds.

Be Moderate with the Alcohol
Just kidding. For many American university students this is the first time they have been able go to a bar legally. The problem is that the service is so slow in many cafés that getting drunk is logistically impossible. You’ll sit down and wait 15 minutes for a waiter to take your order; 15 minutes after that he’ll deliver the drinks…maybe. It’s possible that the slow service will mean you’re more sober when you get back to the hotel than when you left (wasn’t that an episode of Star Trek?). I’ll shut up now because I’m sure that nobody reading this needs any help from me as far as drinking is concerned.

The New Americans
Believe it or not, people in Europe like Americans, so give them a reason to like you, too. They even respect the U.S. soccer team. Leave your University of Nobody Gives a Shit t-shirts at home and try to comport yourself like you would in a police line-up. And if you do something really bad just say you’re Canadian.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Catadau, Spain

Once again it’s all about food as I arrived in this village in the hills south of Valencia. We were seated at a table with twenty other folks, mostly senior citizens and we were passing around vials of different substances as we tried to guess what they were. This is pretty standard procedure at a wine tasting session and I did a fairly good job of identifying the spices—cumin, pepper, nutmeg—but I was stumped by the clove and the extract of oak. The wine we tasted was nothing special and all we could think about was how unfavourably it compared with the bottle of Rioja we shared earlier with an appetizer of cured ham and bread.

It was an informative presentation and everyone was having a good time. I even got a few laughs with the Robert Hughes quote about how we drink wine not for the subtle flavors but for the effect. Another presenter began a discussion on how several different types of cheeses are made but then I got lost when he switched from Spanish to Valenciano. It was time to move on and see a little more of the fair.

Catadau was having a festival of “ecologically-conscious” foods but it was mostly just an excuse for producers to hawk wine, sausages, olive oil, dried fruits, olives, breads, and everything else that ends up on a Spanish dinner table. We had bookended going to the festival between the wine and ham snack earlier and a more ambitious dinner we had planned for later that evening so I didn’t go too crazy on eating. I also was travelling light so I had to refrain from buying some of the beautiful sausages on sale.

I am always amazed to find that the folks in these little towns live just about the same way as city dwellers. They live in apartment buildings, which means a fairly high population density, which means you can walk everywhere. Before heading back up the mountain to my friends’ house we stopped in for a drink at a nice little bar in Catadau. It was still an hour before the start but a lot of people in the bar were anticipating the evening’s match between Valencia CF and Barcelona which was being played at Mestalla. As it turns out Valencia wasn’t able to convert several dozen good opportunities into a goal and had to settle for a draw. Any team in Spain would be thrilled to walk away with one point after playing Barça but I felt that Valencia had totally out-played their rivals from Cataluña.

I came by bike this time, at least from the metro stop at Font Almaguer. From there it’s about 13 kilometers to the village and the first leg of the ride is humping over a nice long hill. After that you coast the other half of the way down the other side into the river valley. We have had wonderful weather for cycling this fall and I have been out quite a lot. In fact, earlier in the morning I rode to my new job at Rocafort outside of Valencia, another 45 minute ride. I was running a little late on this morning which means I had to really scream through the little villages along the way

From Rocafort I jumped on the metro with my bike in tow on the #1 line which goes to Castellón. I bought a metro pass for 13.60€ for ten rides within the ABC zones. I have become quite a consumer of the Valencia metro system which means I have a wallet stuffed with passes for the A, AB, ABC, and ABCD zones which each have a different price.

The weather now reminds me of the Midwest but these days of mid October in Valencia feel like the first few days of September back in the US. There is just the slightest hint of cool weather in the morning and at sunset with daytime temperatures still reaching 25 degrees. You can’t ask for better weather for bike riding and my only complaint was that I had to carry a change of clothes for the weekend and a heavy pair of hiking shoes. I don’t really like bike touring as I like to ride fast and light. I have been wanting to do an extended bike tour of Spain but now it looks like it will have to wait until spring as I am too busy now.

I think that I would like to go to Granada by bike. I haven't been there before and it seems like it would be a good trip on a bike. Going north to Barcelona is too flat for me; I really miss riding in the mountains and I have lost a lot of my hill climbing power as the ride to Catadau showed me. If I do it I think I will stick to the absolute minimum as far as gear is concerned. I see people bike touring with ridiculously large loads of gear and I just wonder what they could possibly be carrying that is so important. I'm thinking a change of clothes and a credit card would do it for me. If I need anything I could just buy it and then give it away when I mount up the next day

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Obama Wins Nobel Prize: Conservatives Incensed!

-From The New York Times, October 9, 2009 But it is also a potential political liability at home; already, Republicans are criticizing the president, contending he won more for his “star power” than his actual achievements.

I think that this event is the clearest evidence thus far which should convince Obama that he should cater only to the most liberal sectors of America and stop trying to appease conservatives. There have been a lot of moronic criticisms of the president these past nine months but this is mind-bogglingly idiot. Winning the Noble Peace Prize is a great honor and it bestows a lot of prestige upon our country after years of America being seen by a lot of the world as a rogue state. That some see that Obama winning the award is somehow bad for our country is completely unfathomable to me. Obama certainly deserves to be criticized for some of his actions as president, but winning an award isn’t one of them.

Conservatives openly cheered when Chicago lost its bid for the 2016 summer Olympic Games simply because Obama did a very small part to sell Chicago to the Olympic committee. Much of their criticism of the president is so utterly infantile in nature that it is hard to believe that the people voicing these tirades often represent the leadership of America’s conservative movement, if that is what you can call it. On the matter of health care Republicans are more intent on simply blocking any kind of reform instead of offering any reasonable alternative.

I think what conservatives really hate the most about Obama (and they don’t hate him because he is black because of course they are not racists so don’t even try to bring that up), what conservatives truly despise about Obama is his charm and popularity—as if these two things are a hindrance to running our country and being an effective statesman. They mock him for being popular in Europe, as if getting along with our closest allies is somehow contrary to the role of the president of the United States of America. They would have him be more like George W. Bush who was fairly despised by people everywhere.

I often think that perhaps America did the wrong thing by fighting the Civil War and holding on to the south. Perhaps that was the time to split the country in two. We seem more bitterly divided now than at any time since that great conflict. We are divided on every single important issue of the day with the two sides both garnering almost half of the populace. I see now way out of the morass of modern American political debate and I certainly don’t see anything on the horizon that would make me believe that things might soon get better, that we will become less splintered and factious.

I see no way and no reason why Obama should spend another second trying to accommodate conservatives. He needs to take the attitude of his predecessor and proceed with his plans knowing that he has a mandate from the voters (unlike Bush who had nothing even approaching a mandate). Why should he compromise when there is absolutely nothing he could possibly do that would be viewed as favorable by his opposition? Even Obama himself was shocked and humbled with winning the award. “Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations,” he said after news of winning the award arrived at the White House. His own self-deprecatory attitude will do nothing to placate the completely contrarian right-wingers in America. It’s time for him to tell them all to fuck off and move quickly forward with liberalizing this country as he promised as a candidate for president.

Obama needs to just say, “OK, I get it, you hate me (but not because I’m black because of course none of this has anything to do with racism).” And then he needs to put into motion his true vision for America and not some watered-down compromise that the conservatives will hate in any case. Obama was voted into office on a platform of promising health care reform so reform our damn health care already.

Why were we so concerned in America when a handful of ill-informed hillbillies descended on Washington to protest…I’m not really sure what they were protesting? Who cares about a few hicks? We already had a plebiscite, it’s called an election and Obama won handily. That cannot be disputed so if a few thousand anti-abortion kooks, gun nuts, racists, and incredibly stupid people march in the streets why should we take notice? Most of the folks who lead the opposition in America aren’t even reasonable adults. Their mouthpieces—at least the loudest one—represent just about the lowest form of discourse this country this country has every offered. Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck are the moral of two children in the playground who counter every argument with, “Oh no it isn’t.”

For a long time now America (and much of the modern world) has given a loud voice to some of the basest elements of our society while almost completely ignoring the most talented and educated among us. If you doubt this just look at a newsstand and you will find a sea of magazines bearing the faces of half-wit movie stars and athletes. Reasoned discourse is constantly being trumped by the vulgar shouting of proto-fascists and thinly-veiled racists. This is mostly true because of the sad fact that too many Americans are ignorant slobs who can’t be bothered with understanding complex issues. Why bother trying to understand the intricacies of the health care issue when you can just shout “No socialized medicine!” at the top of your lungs? Why bother to take a look at the health care systems of other countries that are actually doing a good job in this area when you can listen to Rush and have him tell you exactly what to think, and all in short declarative slogans? Why listen to an articulate essay by Keith Olbermann when it is so much easier to have Glen Beck tell you how much he loves America and he won’t let a Muslim president take it away from you? I dare you to compare Keith’s show with those of Rush and Beck and tell me that Olbermann isn’t the brains of that trio.

The conservative voices in print are also a pretty vulgar lot. A lot of conservatives actually respect know-nothings like Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter. They are treated as legitimate voices on the right even though they constantly spew out some of the most absurd and inflammatory rhetoric. I can’t even think of a liberal pundit who could match half-wits with those two. I certainly don’t agree with the politics of Michael Moore or Bill Maher on every issue but compared to Malkin and Coulter, Maher and Moore should also get a Nobel Prize. Malkin, Coulter, Rush, and Glen Beck now actually represent the “brains” of the conservative movement. Frightening.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Valencia 3, Genoa CFC 2

(See game highlights)

It’s only October 2 and already we are in the throes of European football competition. As an American now heading into my full third season here I really like how interest in the game is kept at a fever pitch throughout the entire year. Champions League and UEFA qualifying matches begin almost at the onset of the season keeping interest in the game fairly frantic from start to finish.

Valencia hosted Genoa last night in a UEFA qualifier. Valencia was trailing 0-1 then moved ahead 2-1 only to have Genoa tie it up with a penalty kick. Once again David Villa came through with a penalty kick after being fouled. Valencia is now even with Lille with 4 points in Group B. I think Valencia CF has a fantastic group of talent which means they have a slight chance of finishing third overall in the Spanish Liga after Barça and Madrid (assuming something terrible happens to Sevilla between now and the end of the season).

In the Champions League all that I can say is that if I were forced to bet everything I had on one team at this point in the competition I would have to go with Barça once again although Real Madrid has a fantastic team this season. For my dark horse pick in this year’s Champions League I will go with Sevilla. I won last year’s pool among friend by picking Barça (no surprise there) and choosing Villareal to go the farthest among our dark horse picks.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Heavy: My Anti-Thin



Heavy is the opposite of not heavy and not being heavy has been the dream of every American since before Barbies® were invented or before Baby Gap starting making big and tall sizes.  Vast swaths of citizens in this great nation have waged a pitched battle against the evil forces of gravity for most of their lives. Heaviness is relentless and unforgiving. Plump never sleeps. You can run but you can’t hide, and especially not behind the refrigerator which doesn’t have enough cubic feet to keep you even remotely decent. Put on some pants and try hiding behind the minivan.

New tactics to out-fox fat are the purging techniques, which make sense if you think about it.  We take in calories only through the mouth but we can expel them through a host of orifices. So why not use them all? This will leave the intake of food vastly outnumbered by the forces of expulsion.  The plan goes something like this: You eat something and then you eject it out of every hole in your body, sometimes even having new holes surgically implanted.  Who among us couldn’t use another blow hole? With this sort of fire power a Hostess Twinkie doesn’t seem to have a chance.

But gravity never sleeps, it takes no sick days, and it shows up uninvited at all of our major religious holidays.  Fat never excuses itself by saying, “Sorry, did I come at a bad time?” It is a pitiless foe preying on the old and infirm as well as the young and the restless.  In the old days fat mostly spared the poor but not anymore. Poor folks represent a ballooning new market (other acceptable puns for “ballooning” include “burgeoning,” “mushrooming,” “hefty,” and “sizeable,” to name just a few).

Heavy keeps coming at me. Heavy is kind of like the Terminator if the Terminator were an ice cream topping or a brand of tortilla chips. I can’t slow it down by blocking its path with empty liters of soda or discarded popsicle sticks. I wonder why I’m out of breath and then I remember that I have a Philly cheese stuffed in my mouth, but I shouldn’t be winded just from riding the bus. Heavy gets on at the next stop and asks to sit down next to me.  Heavy is reading Chili Fries Digest magazine and eating a box of donuts. He politely offers them to me. Heavy talks the driver into pulling into the drive-thru at the fast food joint on the corner. I order a #3 and move to another seat. I need the room. 

We say that the bad guy in a movie is the “heavy.” Heavy is the bad guy and thin is mostly the good guy. Even a thin drug addict has a better image than a heavy person.  Remember those anti-drug commercials with the eggs and the frying pan? Man, those made me so hungry.

I think that there is one thing upon which we can all agree: Fat is not funny…except for Hardy, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Roseanne Barr, John Candy, the fat one in The Three Stooges, Ralf Caliendo, Sam Kennison, Jackie Gleason, Curly, Lou Costello…OK, so I guess that fat is almost always funny.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mediterranean Autumn

Life on the Mediterranean isn’t bad at all during these days of early autumn, especially if you are a cyclist. The weather is perfect for just about every human activity. It’s almost impossible not to stop at every outdoor café for a coffee or a beer. I have traded in my flip flops for my cleated cycling shoes and I have upped my mileage (kilometerage? Spell-check certainly hates that metric alternative) from lazy beach rides to long exploratory missions into the vast network of villages surrounding Valencia. The environs of Valencia never really interested me much before; they were simply obstacles to pass on my way into the countryside. More and more they have become the destination as I find that they have their own attractions of history and architecture.

As I explore these areas I am quickly become one of the foremost experts on the bike trail network of Valencia. I am constantly amazed by the depth and breadth of the bike trail system here. Name just about any two points in the Valencia Community and you can probably get from one to the other on a bike path. The problem with the bike paths of Valencia is that not enough Valencianos use them. It is really a shame how few people effect their transportation needs via bicycles. Even during this perfect weather you don’t see many people on bikes. The local government needs to do more to sell the whole idea of bike riding to the general public. I think a lot of people’s rejection of the bicycle as a means of transportation is their belief that automobiles are the right and privilege of middle class life. For this same reason many people prefer to drive in heavy traffic rather than use the effortless and staggeringly efficient mass transit network.

I can get around town and even out into the surrounding areas of Valencia much quicker on my bike than is possible in a car. When you factor in parking there isn’t any contest. I can even beat the metro on my bike when you include walking to the stations and waiting for trains. Riding at a fairly leisurely pace I rode from my apartment in the center to Valencia to Rocafort (about 20 kilometers) in less than an hour. I doubt if I could match that by taking metro. I turned around and rode back although I had every intention of just boarding a train at some point along the route. It turned out to be too nice a day for me to get off my bike so I pedaled all the way home again—not bad for a guy who was too sick to get out of bed only a couple of days previous (I had been stricken with the dreaded Swine Flu. Newsflash: it’s not some sort of deadly Andromeda Strain, people. It’s the flu.).

I didn’t have much time for tourism on this particular trip but I’ll get around to it soon as this will be a regular destination for me I the months to come as I plan on being out in that area three times a week. I had my camera with me but I didn’t bother to take a single snapshot which says a lot about my lack of commitment in the photography department.

I am always struck by how life in these outlying villages is just about the same as life here in the city: People live mostly in apartments; there are bars and other businesses on every block; people generally walk everywhere; and public transportation is excellent. I could move to one of these small towns and my lifestyle would hardly miss a beat. I would probably have to start speaking Valenciano but just about everything else in my life would be the same.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Secret of My Success*


One of the most revolutionary advances in my attempt to master Spanish cost me exactly 1.25€ at a mini Chinese Wal-Mart. I bought a pair of cheap ear bud headphones with a five meter cord that I can plug into the television in my new apartment. The TV in my old place didn’t have the jack for headphones. The sound quality on TVs without some sort of surround sound system isn’t very good and I had a hard time understanding programs and movies. I go to the neighborhood movie house to watch movies because the sound quality allows me to understand the Spanish a lot better than when I watch stuff at home. It was startling for me when I first plugged in my new headphones; it was like my Spanish had instantly improved by about 35% percent or so. My life will never be the same.

Watching television recently I have been a little disappointed in my ability to understand. I simply avoided a lot of shows simply because I understood so little that I didn’t think that watching them was a good use of my time. I have always been very satisfied with my reading ability in Spanish and also with my conversational level. I don’t have too many problems in either following or contributing to a discussion. Television was always my weak side, my lado flaco. As it turns out, I didn’t have a language problem; I had a hearing problem.

My new apartment also has cable TV which means that I have at least a few more viewing options including two channels in French. With the headphones I can also watch French television without too much straining. I am actually amazed at how well I understand this language that I have left to languish as I have worked so hard to improve my Spanish. I suppose that learning French is just collateral damage from improving greatly in another Romance Language. I’ll take all the help I can get, especially if it means I don’t have to do anything.

I have always known that I hear movies better through headphones. I’ve noticed this when I watch a Spanish movie on my computer—I just never had the ability to use headphones with a television before. I am going to make a statement which few people would admit and even fewer would be proud of: excluding football, I have watched more television in the past few days than I have in the past two years or so. I am watching shows that used to really kick my ass, linguistically speaking. I have always had a hard time following some of the Spanish sit-coms. I used to understand only about 60%, if I had to estimate. Now I am watching Aquí no Hoy Quien Viva and La Familia Mata and even dubbed American series while understanding almost as if they were in English.

For the past few months I have felt like my Spanish has been languishing in a sort of purgatory of my own inability to focus on doing what I know it takes to improve. With my two recent moves in the sweltering heat of August it’s possible that I wasn’t working on my Spanish as diligently as usual, but it seems that I haven’t been spinning my wheels as much as I thought. Now if I can only figure out a way to plug in a set of headphones when I go to a bar to watch football!

*I use “success” very subjectively in this case. What I consider to be a success is probably someone else’s definition of an abject failure.