Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Christmas costumes

So, I'm back in Madrid and the city's Christmas lights are on, and there's a Christmas market in the Plaza Mayor. Unlike the Christmas market in Prague, this one features absolutely nothing to eat (at this point, anyway; some more stalls that seem like they might be food stalls are just being set up.) The stalls, instead, are divided into three basic categories: first, there are the stalls that sell standard-issue Christmas ornaments (lights, stars). There are also the stalls that sell nativity sets and accessories (like a strange plastic gel to use as water). Finally, and making up more than a third of the stalls, are those that sell masks, wigs, and tambourines. These stalls also feature things such as whoopie cushions.

So, in every town that I've visited, I've tried to eat whatever's typical of that town. In Valencia, there are a few things: oranges, paella, turrón (nougat), and agua de Valencia, a liqueur.

Of the above, the only thing that I really had was oranges.

There were lots of turrón places, but they were closed every time we went by them (although I did have a little bit of packaged turrón, egg yolk flavored, of all things. It was quite good; think of it as having been more a custard flavor than an egg yolk flavor.) The one bar we went to and had the presence of mind to ask if they had agua de Valencia didn't (and the stores were all closed by then), and I'm allergic to shellfish. Oh, well.

I chalk up ny not having tasted enough typical Valencian stuff to the fact that I got there on a Saturday and left on a Tuesday morning: Spain is closed on Sundays, and a lot of restaurants are closed on Mondays. Next time.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Shebam! Pow! Blop! Wizz!

It merits mention: those Valencianos really like to set things on fire, particularly if accompanied by loud noises. In short, they have fireworks for everything here.

The biggest holiday here is Las Fallas, which take place over the course of a couple of weeks in March. While the Fallas are technically in honor of San Jose (and I'm not on a Mac right now, so I have no idea how to make diacritical marks), they're actually an excuse to set things on fire. There are lots of parades starring papier-mache effigies. At the end of the whole thing, they put a few of the more elaborate ones in the Fallas museum, and the rest of them, well, they need to dispose of them in some way or another, and fire is as good a way as any, no? And once you're setting things on fire, may as well make some noise and set off some fireworks ...

This sounds an awful lot like Shamm en-Nessim in Port Said in Egypt, which is another springtime effigy-burning holiday, except that that one involves the consumption of a lot of rotten, ahem, cured, fish (and I'm not sure if it involves fireworks; I didn't go to Port Said for it.) The Fallas are sometime during Lent, though; maybe there's some connection? On the other hand, the desire to set large decorative items on fire must be some sort of universal human drive. Anthropologists out there: is that one of the qualities by which the development of culture is measured?

I plan on coming back to Valencia for the Fallas. Did I mention that I have research to do here?

Anyhow, yesterday, Julia and I walked around the ciutat vella, and after having gone up the Miguelete tower in the Cathedral, we walked around the cathedral proper. There was a baptism going on and, since they normally charge for tickets for a cathedral audio guide, and the baptism was in a chapterhouse-like chapel that would otherwise have been closed, we went. (Baptisms don't last very long.) At an appropriate moment, we left the baptismal mass to see the rest of the cathedral. When we exited the cathedral, the baptism crowd was there. And then they started throwing candy. This wasn't a piñata's-worth of candy, though. These were garbage bags upon garbage bags of the stuff. And they weren't just tossing it into the crowd; they were hurling it. One of the candy throwers threw a handful of stuff to the left, though, and a second guy said, "No, no. Not over there. Watch out." (This was in Spanish, though.) I looked on the ground, and noticed that there was a large thing on the ground that looked like, oh, maybe forty feet of papery, thick electrical cord doubled over onto itself.

A second later, when the explosions started, I realized that the cord had been fireworks.

Today, we went to the center of town and went to the market (a nice steel-framed-and-glass thing with terra cotta decorations, from sometime in the nineteen teens), where I bought a few oranges, of all things, and took some photos of the hanging meats and piles of fruit. Then it was off to the Biblioteca Valenciana and the Archivo del Reino de Valencia, which are currently in the same building. The building is a sixteenth-century monastery (that's had a few remodelings) and it's a little bit outside of the center of town. It was built on an old Muslim stronghold.

I found an article about a series of paintings depicting the expulsion of the moriscos from Valencia in the library, and I wanted to get a photocopy of it, but they didn't allow copies of that particular item, since it was only four pages long. I found the same article on microfilm, though, and had no problem preinting it from there. So there.

In the archive, I found references for the books that list the confiscated real property of the moriscos dating from the early seventeenth century to well past the middle of the century. I managed to get through one of them. I also looked through the guide to the maps, plans, and drawings in the archive and found three things that could possibly be useful. There weren't a ton, though. Note to self: there are thousands of architectural drawings from the eighteenth century. Next time, I may jsut work on a later time period.

Tomorrow morning, I'm off to Madrid again. I need to pack up since I leave for Morocco on Thursday!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Valencia, Valencia

Hey, so I'm in Valencia now, and it's very pretty, and very cold (not in an absolute sense, but I didn't bring the world's warmest clothes, and the apartemnet where I'm staying is drafty.)
Valencia is the third-largest city in Spain, and, one imagines, the source of my family name. I got here yesterday (Saturday) in the afternoon, and I'm staying until Tuesday morning. Unfortunately, I won't be staying late enough on Tuesday to see the Tribunal de las Aguas, when all of the farmers gather together in the market square to complain about their neighbors' irresponsible irrigation practices, or somesuch.

Last night, I went to see the Decemberists play; I'd gone to see them the night before, too, in Madrid. The sets that they played were the same both nights, with one variation, and were short, since they were the openers. Also, they didn't have all of their gear, and it was strange to see them sans keyboard, melodophone, etc. However, as I'd missed their San Francisco shows (having moved to Spain a week beforehand), I was happy to have the opportunity to see them play at all. I imagine I won't be seeing them again until 2007. I took them some of the brownies and chocolate chip cookies that I'd made for Thanksgiving. They liked them, I am told.

Friday, Jason, one of the Fulbrighters, and his recently-enfianced threw a Thanksgiving dinner. They're the ones who live in Fuenlabrada, which is an hour and a half outside of the center of Madrid by metro, and about forty minutes by train. I went over there on Thursday night to bake a bunch of things (cornbread, brownies, and cookies), and then all day Friday was spent in general harvest holiday warmth. I helped to remove some of the feathers from the turkey, although it had ostensibly been ordered de-feathered. The food was delicious; a store in Madrid called Taste of America was the source of the cranberry sauce, canned pumpkin, and candy corn.

I guess I mentioned before ... it's cold here. My hands are numb, so I'm going to stop writing now. I've got to get up early to go to the archive!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

El Escorial/Aranjuez/El Escorial/Toledo

Those are places I've gone, and I haven't posted anything. I will. At some point. I'm going to Valencia this weekend, though (it's not just because the Decemberists are playing. I swear.) Then I move to Morocco next week. So time's a little tight, to say the least. And due to the lack of comments about postings, I don't think that anyone's reading anything, anyway. Alas.

In Toledo, I bought some merengues from the nuns who sell merengues. I'm a sucker for food sold by nuns at convents. These nuns were jsut sitting behind counters; I much prefer the stuff that cloistered nuns sell. You have to tell them your order through a grated little window, and then there's some sort of lazy susan/dumbwaiter involved (it's usually a dumbwaitery lazy susan), and the entire transaction goes on with your only having heard a disembodied little old nun's voice.

Also, I spent 5 hours at the Prado on Sunday, in order to answer the question: is it possible to see everything at the Prado in a single day?

The answer: Yes, but only if ten rooms are closed (as they were), and you skip the large temporary exhibition that you've already seen. You (you consisting of me, in this case) will be really tired and cranky afterwards, though.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Xmas/signs of an impending consumer holiday

So, weeks ago, I had been at the Corte Inglés supermarket (it stays open the latest.) Overall, the Corte Inglés is a strange, strange place, like a high-end Walmart: it has a stranglehold on the department stores of Spain, has supermarkets, bookstores, record stores, travel agencies, real estate offices (that sell buildings made by Corte Inglés developers, I believe), and so on.

Anyhow, a few weeks ago, I bought some nougat (turrón) and marzipan at the supermarket. I brought them home, and the landlady was astounded that they were out already, as, supposedly, they're Christmas things. As of today, there are large Christmas-tree-style ornaments hanging in the arches of the Plaza Mayor.

The largest marker of a Christmas-consumer winter holiday, though, here, is that they sell lottery tickets. Everywhere. Spaniards are crazy about the lottery. The tickets don't cost, say, a Euro or two; they cost twenty. And people buy lots of them.

When I was in high school, the nuns would yell at us to, "keep the Christ in Christmas!" They did not like the word Xmas at all. But I love it. Xmas, Xmas, Xmas. Anyhow, seventeenth-century Spanish monks wrote things like "Xianos viejos" for "old christians" all the time. Those anti-historicist high school nuns!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Tuna Fest

Last weekend (the weekend of the 7th, not this weekend that just passed), I did pretty much what I do every other weekend. I took a train ride to El Escorial on Saturday, and then a bike ride to Tres Cantos today. The highlight of the weekend, though, was the free entertainment: as I was walking home on Friday evening, there was a tuna leaving the Plaza Mayor. A tuna is a band, traditionally affiliated with a facultad (college/division) of a university . It consists of a big handful of folks, and they play guitars, lutes, ukuleles, tambourines, and occasionally, accordions (and I saw one with a standup bass, but I think that that's an exception.)

Think of it as a musical fraternity with a penchant for early modern dress.

The ones that I saw were from the facultades of derecho--schools of law--from all over Spain, and they were having a contest on Saturday evening, so after having gotten back from El Escorial, I went and saw a part of it, and then I went to a party that a friend of Misty Carter (from Emory, and who I've run into twice in Madrid) was throwing.

This post was originally going to be longer, but then I realized that I haven't posted anything in over a week! So, I will discuss El Escorial in another post. Oh, and churros. Delicious, delicious churros.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Hey, that's pretty sharp

I saw this guy yesterday, with knife-sharpening shop set up right off of the plaza mayor. Note the handy umbrella-carrying capability.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Roasted Chestnuts

How did anyone let me go through more than thirty years of my life without tasting one of these things?! These are great! They're not too sweet, not bitter, have a nice somewhat crumbly consistency and, like the also-very-delicous rhubarb, are poisonous when raw.

Also, whoa, I just looked at the web site for my high school (which I hadn't looked at in forever, and hadn't been bothered to look through it when I linked to the last entry, but then I left the window open, so I looked through it now), and apparently they teach an introductory Arabic class. You know there's demand out there for a foreign language if a medium-sized (there were a hundred and forty two people in my graduating class, if I'm not mistaken, but then the school went and went co-ed with the boys' school next door, so, let's say three hundred a class) school that doesn't teach German or Japanese (back when I was there, they taught exclusively Romance languages--Spanish, French, Italian, and Latin, and that's still what they teach) is teaching it as an elective.
Cuenca, Halloween

Saturday I went to Cuenca, which is a two and a half hour train ride east of Madrid; it's pretty much halfway between Madrid and Valencia, so I made plans to meet up with Julia, the Fulbrighter who's in Valencia writing a dissertation about orange worker labor history (it's called "The Orange Proletariat" and then there's the requisite part after the colon that explains the sassy title.) On Sunday, I didn't go riding because I hadn't picked my bicycle up from the Fulbright office on Friday (since it had been raining); it rained on Sunday, too, though. I considered picking my ride up from the Fulbright office today (Oct 31st) to go for a ride tomorrow (it's a holiday--All Saints' Day, is it?), but it's supposed to rain then, too. NOTE (since I ended up posting this on November 1st): It didn't rain after all; the weather was perfectly autumnal, with a tannin-scented breeze and all. Dammit.

Anyhow, Cuenca is a lovely little city with a big gorge and dramatic views and houses called the hanging houses because they, well, are at the very edge of the cliffside with balconies that cantilever over. It's got a strange little cathedral with a facade that dwarfs the interior, and a nice chunk of city wall (although the entire city doesn't need to be surrounded by a wall because of, ahem, the cliffs.)

After the gently rolling (boring) landscape surrounding Madrid, Cuenca is a beautiful change of scenery. According to Julia, because of the dramatic landscape, it was ridiculously expensive and difficult to transport oranges from Valencia to Madrid until pretty recently (I know that I'm putting this in really precise terms here--I'm not sure if she's talking centuries or decades.)

Have I complained about the pastries in Madrid yet? I think I've neglected to, so I will now: they lack subtlety. And the ingredients are, in a word, crap. I'd rather pay a little more for something delicious than invariably be dissapointed by wax-for-chocolate (as good as prepackaged doughnuts, sold here in Spain in spackages that say "American donuts," are.) Anyhow, in Cuenca, after meeting up at the train station, Julia and I (the train from Valencia to Madrid and the one from Madrid to Valencia meet up in Cuenca, conveniently) stopped for coffee and breakfast pastries, and there the pain au chocolat was absolutely delicious! The pastry actually had flaky layers! The chocolate actually tasted like chocolate, and was evenly distributed throughout the pastry (is there anything more disappointing that having a chocolatey first bite of pain au chocolat to then discover that that was the only bite with chocolate?) Naturally, I wanted to stop by the same pastry shop before the train back to Madrid. Naturally, it was closed. Alas.

Halloween here was alright: I didn't dress up as anything, and I don't think that trick-or-treating exists, but there was an occasional person in costume around. Other than a vampire costume, I couldn't really tell what most costumes were supposed to be. Being as the day after Halloween is a holiday, though (this is a holiday we got off when I was in high school, too, being as it was Catholic school), the Spaniards seem to have assimilated it into their standard retinue of drinking days which, if the opening days of the bar/restaurant downstairs are any indication, are every day other than Sunday and Monday.

Today, I had Indian food for lunch (if a meal at 5 pm counts as lunch; then again, it was my first meal today, so maybe it counts as breakfast. I ate cereal for dinner, though.) I ordered the palak paneer at a place down by the Plaza de Lavapiés, and the spinach was nicely spiced with no single overwhelming element, really creamy, and overall delightful. The paneer, instead of being chunkc, was little gratings included in the spinach. I would have appreciated actual cubes, since I really enjoy the slight resistance and creamy neutral flavor of paneer, but overall the meal was delightful. The naan was soft and warm, and the chai wasn't too cinnamony (a crime), or too cardamomy. I have a good amount of leftovers, too, since I was planning on going running at seven and didn't want to eat too much. I took a lap around the Buen Retiro park with Evelyn, another Fulbrighter; it was only a 45-minute run, but I'd gotten there before she did and so I did some lunges while I was waiting. I love/hate lunges because I feel like an alien while doing them (that's the love part), and hate them because I know that tomorrow, I will be in pain.