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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.