Tuesday, August 22, 2006

¡Hola, Chicos, Chicas!

(This post was written on August 12th)

Now that we've finished our course we have a couple of days just to hang out without worrying about getting to school on time, do homework or pretend to be able to speak Spanish. So today was Saturday, and you realise that the Spanish do weekends a bit differently. I don't know quite what they do, but they certainly don't swamp the town centre and do shopping on a Saturday, and the place is pretty quiet on Sundays too, although there is a bit of a flea market in the morning. I had to do some internet stuff this morning while BetterArf visited a laundry (what a star!). Then we met up for lunch and headed off to the beach. Lunch was a bit tricky because we were too early - Spaniards don't think about eating lunch until 1.30 pm at the earliest. We were about an hour early and both starving so we hit on the idea that El Corte Inglés might serve food on an all-day basis. We were right. El Corte Inglés, by the way, is a hugely popular chain of department stores: they have five massive stores in Valencia alone. We finished our lunch with a slab of This Chocolate Cake Will Almost Certainly Kill You.

Then we visited the music department of El Corte Inglés to see if we could pick up a CD. One of our Spanish teachers had challenged our intellects by playing us a couple of songs by Spanish band Amaral: she gave us the lyrics to some of the songs with odd words missing. Our task was to guess what the missing words were. We had no chance of working out the answers, but we quite liked the sound of Amaral, so we wanted to see if we could get one of their CDs. As it happened our quest was ultra-succesful - the CD Pajaros En La Cabeza (Birds In The Head?) was on special offer, reduced to €6.90 from about €18.

Having completed our shopping expedition we took the Metro to the beach. Valencia has beautiful beaches, but today it was also having a bit of a hurricane. It was somewhat unpleasant so we left and returned to town. Back at the hostal, BetterArf had a snooze while I read The Guardian (which by some magic of technology is available from about 10am on the day of publication), and had a glance through the weekly Costa Brava Times. This is an English-language rag that will be very useful for us, but the letters page is just like that of 7Days! It's full of stuff from whingeing Brits. Ick.

One of the recurring topics on our Spanish course was what and when the Spanish eat. And drink. Basically they just nibble at stuff all day long, and then stuff themselves silly just before bedtime. Interestingly, people in the Valencia region have the longest life-expectancy of anywhere in Europe. This is attributed to the diet: hardly any meat, lots of olive oil, no butter, plenty of salads, lots of garlic, and, most importantly, plenty of good red wine.

Well, I know why they don't eat a lot of meat in Spain: they have no idea of how to cook it. I had a steak at a supposedly decent restaurant during our first week. I don't recall ordering warmed-up shoe leather, but that's what I got. If we managed to get to the University an hour before the class started we could get a good lunch for about €5 at the Campus Caff. But the evening nibbles make up for any shortcomings in the meat department. Tapas are one of the world's great culinary inventions, and the other one is pintxhos. There is a bar called Lizzaran that sells these. They are a Basque speciality consisting of a slice of stick bread (baguette) topped with pretty much anything you can think of - a slice of ham or salami with a couple of olives or potato chunks - smoked salmon with cream cheese or blue cheese - a red pepper stuffed with tuna - a hunk of tortilla. Lizzaran has at least thirty different combinations and the one thing they have in common is that the toppings are stuck onto the bread with a toothpick. You fill your plate with as many pintxhos as you want, and at the end they count the number of toothpicks and charge you €1 each.

Valencia's main claim to fame in the food department is, of course, Paella. I'm going to be a bit heretical here and say that I am not very impressed. We already knew that the 'paellas' you get at most tourist restaurants are rubbish. If the restaurant has a poster or menu featuring photos of the different types (including a curry one), you know that you will get factory-made junk that is rapidly heated in a special machine. We mentioned this to one of our teachers and she recommended we try La Rosa or La Pepica at the beach.

So we took the tram down to the beach one day after school and walked a long way in the wrong direction until we came to a tourist information office. They sent us back the way we had come, and eventually we arrived at a terrace of about thirty restaurants. La Rosa was the second one on the terrace and it was closed. We walked along the whole length of this terrace, and everything was closed. This was about 8.15 pm. The last restaurant was La Pepica where a waiter told us they would be opening at 8.30. So we went away for a bit, and returned at 8.45. The place was heaving, but they gave us a little table. It's quite a smart place that has been going for about 100 years and has a picture of the owner with King Juan-Carlos. The waiters are all very smartly-dressed, and mostly in their fifties.

We ordered Paella Valenciana and when it was ready the waiter showed it to us in its pan and then took it away to stick it on plates (our table being too small to accomodate the huge flat dish). I manage to eat about one-third of mine, and the waiter seemed to be personally insulted that I'd left so much. Well, two things. A: there was far too much and when I am full I stop eating. And B. I didn't really like it. Ah well.

Some of the work we've had to do on our course is to compare our home town/city to Valencia. Odious I know, but our teachers and classmates have been very interested to hear what we have to say about Dubai. And I have been very interested to see how much emotion I keep bottled up about life in Dubai. You all know that we made the decision to leave Dubai last summer when we visited Valencia and Barcelona. And you know that we will be leaving next summer and moving to Spain. This is a city and country that works. Traffic management and public transport are superb. The place is steeped in art and culture. The people are happy and relaxed. The environment and way of life are very healthy. It is a true democracy. It is vibrant. Pensioners are called 'jubilantes'. Life is for living and enjoying. I love it.

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