Monday, September 29, 2008

Viviendo en Valencia (Living in Valencia)

Now that you have enjoyed seeing our apartment in Valencia, we thought we would take you through a typical day in our lives here.

8:30 a.m. -- We like to get up early and get started on our day. Because we have a 5 liter hot water tank, we do not linger in the shower.

9:00 a.m. – We sit down to breakfast, which generally consists of Frosted Flakes (called “Frosties” in Spain), toast or other breakfast bread and jelly, and coffee.

10:00 a.m. – We creep down the dark stairway, clinging to the railing for dear life, and we step out onto the Calle de Juan de la Mena (the street we live on). Then we walk four blocks to the Metro station. Ken always figures out the correct line and stop for our destination before we leave. Today, we were headed to the train station, which is only one stop away.
This train station is very pretty--here are some photos:

10:15 a.m. – We arrive at the train station, the Estacion Nord. Ken consulted the schedule for the commuter trains that take you to the suburbs of Valencia city and we purchased tickets for the train to take us to the small town of Puig. According to Valencianos, this is pronounced “pooge.” Mother of Ken had no clue how to say the name of this place.

10:40 a.m. – We board the train with no idea what time the train is going to leave or even if we are on the correct train, although we were told by the station information goons that the train would leave from the first track. Apparently, Ken gives Spaniards the impression that she knows what is going on in this country because she was repeatedly asked if this was the train to Castellón.

10:41 a.m. – A red haired lady boards the train and asks Ken if it is the train to Castellón, to which she replied that she thought it was and gestured toward a Spanish couple sitting nearby who were able to confirm that it was the correct train.

10:45 a.m. – An old man boards the train, turned to Ken, and asks the same question. She repeated her response.

10:46 a.m. – Same thing.

10:49 a.m. – Again with the train questions.

10:55 a.m. – Yet another query, this time from a young woman.

11:01 a.m. – A tiny Spanish woman boards, asks if it is the train to Castellón and if she can sit next to Mother of Ken. In these instances, Mother of Ken pretends to be deaf and smiles benignly at everyone.

11:07 a.m. – More people with more questions about the train and its final destination. Why did we choose to sit next to the door? Note to self: sit in the back corner next time.

11:12 a.m. – Other people begin to answer the questions about the train to give Ken a break. A young woman boards the train and sits next to Ken and begins to eat rice cakes. At least these had no odor (see previous blog about the ham Cheetos and garbage sandwich).

11:22 a.m. – We finally pull away from the station, on our way to Puig (remember—“pooge”).

11:25 a.m. – We make our first stop and an old man sitting behind Mother of Ken begins to cough violently.

11:27 a.m. – Still coughing. Ken and Mother of Ken make eye contact. Big mistake. For three weeks, we have been a magnet for people with respiratory problems manifested in horrible, hacking coughs. Ken and Mother of Ken begin shaking with silent laughter. The tiny woman next to Mother of Ken gazes back and forth between them trying to figure out what is going on. Mother of Ken chooses this moment to make a cross with her fingers (think warding off vampires style), which the tiny woman sees. A look of naked fear and consternation crosses her face.

11:30 a.m. – Second stop. Still coughing.

11:40 a.m. – Fifth stop, el Puig (the “pooge”). The man was still coughing when we exited the train.
11:41 a.m. – We find ourselves walking along a deserted street with a field of trash on one side and some houses on the other, looking for a monastery. Spying a bell tower in the distance, we walk toward it.

11:55 a.m. – Mother of Ken notices that the monastery is at the top of a hill. She reminds Ken that after Toledo, she is not “doing anymore hills.”

11:59 a.m. – We climb a slight incline (not a hill) to the entrance, where we are able to join the last morning guided tour at noon. The only way to see the monastery is to take a guided tour and Ken hates these.

12:06 p.m. – We begin our guided tour along with a Spanish man and his adult son and two older Spanish women. The tour is in Spanish, so Ken translates for Mother of Ken along the way.

12:30 p.m. – As part of our guided tour, we are taken to the choir loft of the main church, where a wedding is in progress. The man and his son and Ken and Mother of Ken stay only briefly so as not to intrude on a private ceremony. However, the two Spanish women decide to stay and observe the wedding. Perhaps they wanted some cake?

12:35 p.m. – The tour is over and we are heading back to the train station for the ride back to Valencia. Along the way, we observed several young dads building a fence around a playground. In what seems to be a universal practice, several other men were looking on, offering suggestions but not really helping. This is the same phenomenon that occurs whenever a man opens the hood of a car.

1:10 p.m. -- We board the train to Valencia. No one asks a single question and no one coughs.

1:40 p.m. – We arrive in Valencia, Ken purchases tickets for our train to Madrid on Tuesday, and we head to the Metro.

2:00 p.m. – We arrive at the Corte Ingles (think Spanish Macy’s) and head to the restaurant on the sixth floor where there is also a phone that we plan to use to call home.

2:15 p.m. – We are seated at the restaurant and we perused the menu, which is quite expensive and we struggle to find something that looks good. We settle on carpacchio and paella valenciana.

2:25 p.m. – The carpacchio is served with some blob of pureed stuff on top. We still don’t know what it was, but we pushed it to one side and ate the rest.

2:40 p.m. – The paella is served, with great ceremony. The waiter brings a special small cart to your table from which he serves the paella by performing an elaborate set of scraping and scooping movements before placing the rice onto plates and presenting them to you. We thought we would try the local version of paella, although we were aware the eating it in the department store restaurant diminished some of the authenticity. Each region of Spain has its own twist on paella. Our paella valenciana consisted of what we believe to be chicken legs, pieces of pork that most people would throw away (knuckle, ear, etc.), and SNAILS. That’s right, gentle readers, we were served snails in our paella. Mother of Ken got six of them. And just so you don’t think we are pulling your leg, here is a picture of one of the snails that Ken smuggled out of the restaurant wrapped in a napkin. Her purse smells like mollusks now, but we did it for the sake of the blog, so we hope you appreciate it.

2:42 p.m. – We have eaten all parts of this dish that we intend to eat. The rice part was pretty good and the few pieces of chicken and pork that we ate were pretty good, but the presentation left a lot to be desired. In a word: unappetizing.

2:50 p.m. – We begin to attempt to get our check so that we can be on time for our three o’clock phone call to Kansas.

3:00 p.m. – Still trying…

3:05 p.m. – Still trying…

3:10 p.m. – The restaurant manager comes over to ask if we would like to be served more paella or look at the dessert menu. We ask him for the check.

3:12 p.m. – While Ken is in the ladies’ room, Mother of Ken sits innocently at the table. The restaurant manager comes to clear the table and in his haste, he knocks over Mother of Ken’s water glass and the empty water bottle, causing quite a ruckus. Then he begins jabbering wildly in Spanish, pointing at the water on the floor, which Mother of Ken interprets as a caution not to slip and fall. He leaves, but quickly returns with some paper towels. While he is cleaning up the water, one of the waiters comes by and makes a snide remark, or at least that’s what Mother of Ken thinks he did.

3:15 p.m. – We finally pay for our lunch, which cost far more than it was worth. Thankfully, the phone we planned to use was right outside the door, so we hurried to make our phone call.

4:00 p.m. – We complete our phone call to Father and Brother of Ken and make our way to the grocery store in the basement of the store. This is called a “supermercado.” We enjoy browsing the aisles to discover the gastronomic delights of Spain (all this while trying not to gag at the stench emanating from the fish counter). On this trip, we took pictures of some of the items that we thought you’d like to see.

Here are Bimbo brand tortillas:

And shrink wrapped corn on the cob:

We also took a picture of something called “Sea Salad,” which is dried sea vegetation. The picture didn’t turn out very well, but here it is anyway:

4:45 p.m. – We get back on the Metro with our grocery bags. This is significant because no one in Spain goes anywhere without some kind of plastic bag of something. We are not kidding. So, merely by carrying a grocery bag from the Corte Inglés, Ken was instantly transformed into a native Valenciana and at least four people asked her questions at the Metro station.

5:00 p.m. – We return to our apartment, put our groceries away, and have a snack because we are starving after the disgusting lunch.

5:15 p.m. -- We relax by watching the first season of CSI until dinner time.

8:00 p.m. – Mother of Ken slaves away making dinner while Ken takes a shower because we don’t have enough hot water for both of us to take one in the morning. After our lunch today, we are reminded how grateful we are to have an apartment where we can cook for ourselves. Tonight, for example, we had chicken cutlets, salad, rice and potatoes, and bread. Among other things, we have also made an entire roast beef dinner here, complete with shepherd’s pie made from leftovers.

12:00 a.m. – Put on new gold and silver lamé dresses and head out for a night on the town.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

In the ghetto

On Tuesday, we left our lovely apartment in Barcelona and boarded the train for the three hour trip to Valencia. The train was very crowded and luggage accommodations were at a premium. Our suitcases ended up underneath two of the heaviest suitcases either of us has ever encountered, including our own. In addition, there was a very chatty Spanish man in our coche who was in and out of his seat like a jack in the box. Even Ken’s glares of death didn’t seem to faze him. To make matters worse, the girl in the seat next to Ken pulled out a garbage sandwich, which smelled so vile that Ken and Mother of Ken simultaneously looked up from their reading and across the aisle at each other in horror. Compounding the stench were her ham flavored Cheetos, which she washed down with some tropical fruit juice. In preparation for their escape from the squalor in which they were riding, Ken and Mother of Ken jumped out of their seats as soon as the city was in sight and began the arduous task of collecting their luggage.

For those of you unfamiliar with train travel in Spain, there is a tiny area available for luggage and it behooves the savvy traveler to access his or her luggage and be prepared to jump off of the train as soon as it stops. Keep in mind that this area is quite small and is often near the restroom. Ken and Mother of Ken successfully extricated their luggage from the luggage rack, coming very near to needing the jaws of life to remove it. Shortly thereafter, an elderly lady who had been in our car came out into the luggage area carrying a bulging plastic sack and her purse while dragging her wheeled suitcase. She insinuated herself in between Ken and Mother of Ken and forced Mother of Ken and three suitcases into a small doorway. She asked repeatedly which side of the train we would be exiting; Ken replied that she did not know and then the lady turned to Mother of Ken to ask the same question. Mother of Ken does not speak Spanish, so she smiled politely and pretended not to hear.

When we arrived in Valencia, we took a short taxi ride to our apartment to meet Antonio the Apartment Guy, who prides himself on speaking “Spanglish.” After introducing ourselves to Antonio, we looked around the street and were underwhelmed by its appearance. Hoping for the best, we followed him through a wooden door into the foyer of our apartment building. This is what we saw:

With sinking hearts, we dragged our luggage up three flights of narrow, worn, broken stairs with little light to guide us. Note to our gentle readers: we are not kidding about these stairs. Mother of Ken had a flashback to the tower at the cathedral of Salamanca. Take a look:

We almost fall on the bottom step every time:

Mother of Ken attempting to safely descend the stairs:

Gasping and wheezing along with Antonio, who remarked that our luggage was heavy, we entered our apartment. To our great relief, it bore no resemblance to the stairway. We have a nice living room/dining room/kitchen area with a washing machine, dishwasher, and an espresso maker. Mercifully, there is no bidet. One odd thing is the décor, which is mainly Asian-influenced, however, there is a calf skin rug on the living room floor and a rug that looks like brown grass in the bedroom. Additionally, one corner of the living room has several pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford.

The door to our apartment:

There is one bedroom with the most comfortable mattress we have encountered during our several weeks in this country. There is a strange light behind the headboard, giving it an ethereal quality.

The highlight of the bedroom is the closet, which is made up of many trendy components, but isn’t very functional.

In order to access hanging items, we must grasp a pole and pull with all our might. This results in a clothes bar being lowered to Mother of Ken’s eye level. Ken bursts into uncontrollable laughter each time Mother of Ken pulls her clothes rod down. There are several cubbies and drawers plus a pull out pants rack on each side. The closet also features a motion light that comes on when you open the sliding door, but it remains on for anywhere between one and ten minutes after the door is shut, creating an eerie green glow.

The bathroom door is etched glass, which you can see in this photo:

We are keeping the blinds in the kitchen closed. If we didn’t, this is what we would see:

And no, we have no idea what that big green octopus-like thing is.

Our dining room table is quite lovely, but it is too high even for ginormous Americans like us. We have confiscated the cushions from the strange futon in the corner to use as booster seats for the short chairs that have been placed around the table.

One of the best things about this apartment is the plethora of throw pillows in various colors, one of them a particularly gorgeous turquoise (you can see this one on the bed in the above photo), which we find extremely pleasing. We have a flat screen TV with satellite, but we don’t get any channels in English. So, we continue watching DVDs on Ken’s laptop.
Some of you might wonder how we dispose of our trash. In Spain, there are large containers scattered about for this purpose. This was the view from our balcony one morning:

It’s like this every day.

All in all, we are comfortable and enjoy preparing our own meals, which we will discuss in a later blog.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The ecstasy and the agony

Since our arrival in Barcelona, we have been enjoying the convenience of having our own washing machine:

We have done seven loads of laundry, including three of dark clothes. Please note that our washing machine is certainly not a jumbo capacity work horse, but we are glad to have it just the same. The only downside is that we don’t have a dryer, so clothes are hanging from the shower rod, the door handles, the appliance handles, and draped over the backs of chairs. We do have a fold out drying rack, which is perfect for delicate items. One pair of wet jeans would cause this thing to collapse.

We feel right at home because everyone else in our “neighborhood” has hung their laundry out to dry too. Here are some views out of our front window:

With our laundry situation under control, yesterday we headed out to the National Museum of Catalan Art at the site of the Palau Nacional, which was built for the 1929 International Exhibition. Obviously, people in 1929 liked to climb stairs. There are at least 15 flights of stairs that one must scale to reach the door of the museum.

Two views of the city from the hill where the museum sits:

The fountain in front of the museum:

Some of the stairs:

From the main street, this is the walk toward the museum:

Mother of Ken was perspiring profusely in the mid-September 1000% humidity here in Barcelona. Keep in mind that all of this occurred after a 30 minute walk from our apartment. Ken and Mother of Ken have nearly come to blows over how many miles this actually was. Mother of Ken called it the Trail of Tears. At any rate, we got right to work, beginning with the Romanesque art. We spent the majority of our time in the Gothic art section with Ken dictating notes regarding the works of art to Mother of Ken. We found several works that are important to Ken’s dissertation as well as several images of Mother of Ken’s favorite saint, Peter Martyr. Do a Google image search for paintings of him--he always has a knife stuck in his head.

There were also many fine examples of St. Michael the Archangel slaying the dragon, including one of particular interest painted by Francesco Maffei.

For the uninitiated, medieval people seem to have a fascination with a subject we will call the “Lactating Virgin.” These are paintings that depict the Virgin breastfeeding the baby Jesus. The Virgin’s breast bursts from her clothing, as you can see in the following example by Pedro Berruguete:

Mother of Ken counted no less than 13 of these types of paintings and expressed her disgust at each sighting.

A mere five and a half hours later, we emerged from the museum, descended the endless stairways, and began our journey back to the apartment. We were grateful that we could fix supper in our apartment instead of having to go out in search of food.

Just for laughs, we thought we would include a picture of the hamburger bun wrapper. This is a common brand of bread in Spain, like Wonder Bread is in the US:

Friday, September 19, 2008

Barcelona, Here We Come

We were not sad to leave Toledo this morning. One interesting thing we found out was that cabs could make it to our hotel door, which was infinitely better than us dragging our suitcases up the hill and trying to load them on a busy street. However, curbside pickup required the inventive driving skills of our cab driver, who backed down the equivalent of about four blocks of the steep street, dodging parked cars and pedestrians. This is a picture of the street from the top of the hill:

After being whisked to the estación, we went through security and boarded our train.

It is noteworthy that there is significantly more room than an airplane plus we each had an arm rest.

We had a brief layover in Madrid and then we boarded the high speed train to Barcelona. The trip was uneventful, but long. We decided to wait until everyone in our car had disembarked before we attempted to exit the train with our copious amounts of luggage. Little did we know that at the back of our car was a mother with two boys, one in a wheelchair. As we tried to move past her, she started to push the chair into the aisle. Ken and Mother of Ken tried desperately to exit quickly while the “assistants” yelled at us to get out of the way so they could put the handicapped lift in place. We were puzzled as to why they were trying to do this before everyone else had exited the train as the platform outside of the door was only three feet wide and could not accommodate all of us and our luggage.

After squeezing into an elevator and going up to the main floor, we exited the train station and got in line at the taxi stand. Mother of Ken looked around and there behind her was the woman with the two boys (the one in the wheelchair). A few minutes later, as we were pulling away from the station, Ken noticed this family in the cab right behind ours where they remained for several blocks. We told our cab driver, “step on it!” Ha ha—we are just kidding.

We arrived at our apartment and found Joan Ramon, our contact person, waiting for us. To Ken’s great relief, he was not some kind of creepy person, but a very nice man. He showed us up to our apartment and boy were we impressed! The apartment has a complete kitchen, including a washing machine, a lovely living room/dining room area, two bedrooms, and a full bath with no bidet. We have a flat screen TV, a CD player, and good air conditioning.

The kitchen:

The cabinets (this one conceals the dishwasher):

The dishwasher:

The living room:

The bathroom:

The bedroom:

Our first order of business was to go to the supermercado to procure food and laundry detergent. Side note: in the produce section of the supermercado, we were accosted by a stranger who noticed we were looking at the peaches and started screaming at us in English, “Peaches! Those are peaches! Spanish peaches!” Needless to say, we became very interested in the potatoes on the other side of the aisle.

When we returned to our apartment, we immediately began sorting our laundry (two weeks worth) and trying to figure out how to use the machine. Soon, the washer was whirring away and we were preparing a snack of Catalan bread and cheese. Later in the evening, we prepared hamburgers, oven fries, and a salad for dinner. Surprisingly, Spanish hamburger meat isn’t too bad.
Mother of Ken's "apron":

Ken cutting potatoes with the one knife that we found in the drawer:

Ken taking the pan out of the oven:

Hamburgers cooking:

The dining room table:

Mother of Ken had been disappointed for the past two weeks because there is no decaffeinated coffee in Spanish restaurants. She and Ken were able to procure some decaffienated coffee at the supermercado, and enjoyed several cups after dinner. This was the highlight of her week.