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My trip to Spain was mostly just so that my mother could finally meet her pen pal of 30+ years. I did hope I could get some touristy stuff in, but there was something I hadn’t counted on: the siesta (afternoon nap). I knew about it, I knew Spaniards still did it, but I totally neglected to consider how it would affect my stay. Many places do close for the afternoon break. Some days I went up on the roof of the building to sunbathe with the pen pal’s daughter. Other days, I got online while the siesta was going on.

Unfortunately, 2 days of my short one week stay were spent waiting at the airport. My flights were fine, but my mother had the bad luck of coming in on March 29th, which was the “huelga general,” meaning “general strike.” Oh boy.

Demonstrations didn’t get rowdy in Valencia (if they happened at all, I didn’t see any), but things were a mess in Madrid. I didn’t think we’d feel any effects since my mother’s flight was coming in from Paris, but alas, her flight was cancelled. The airline, Air Europa (with which I’m not terribly impressed), didn’t put the passengers up in hotels, or at least, not my mother, so she spent one whole day waiting in Charles de Gaulle. Meanwhile, as my mother didn’t have a cell phone and the phones in the airport kept swallowing her money and that of anyone else who tried to use them, we had no idea when she would come in. So we just kept going back to the airport to greet all three flights coming in from Paris per day. When my mother finally did make it to Valencia, her luggage was AWOL. Luckily it arrived the next day. The loss of time was even greater for her, since she was originally going to stay only 5 days.

Now that the negative aspects of the trip are out of the way, let’s talk about the good.

The Architecture

Mercat Central = Central Market.

First, there’s the architecture. There’s buildings that are hundreds of years old all over the place. It’s absolutely beautiful. There’s also some modern buildings in the City of Arts and Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencas) that are interesting, but…not as nice in my opinion as the old architecture.

Since I want to show the detail in these buildings, I will upload only a few photos, but leave them at their original really large file size.

Here we have a photo from the side of the facade of the Mercat Central, or Central Market. Inside, there are many stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables, and meats. Of course, there’s Spanish hams hanging all over the place too. I also saw eel and this really weird sea creature that looked like…it was like a dried bamboo shaft with this white thing squirming inside. It was so weird. Oh, “navajas” is what they were called (meaning “knives”) and it was a type of mollusk.

Another incredible building is the Lonja de la Seda, or Silk Exchange. It was one of the first buildings built in the Gothic style that was not a church. The scope of this building was too big for me to capture with my wee little camera, but the above linked Wikipedia article has a nice shot of the central hall, and here’s a shot of a candelabra there:

The dragons (and Big Brother) are watching you!

Valencia Cathedral is a huge complex whose many parts can easily be mistaken for separate buildings if you’re not paying attention. The Miguelete, or belfry, is visible from quite a distance, and in front of the Gate of the Apostles, there’s sometimes reenactments of the Tribunal de las Aguas, the Tribunal of the Waters. I didn’t get to see a reenactment, but I did get to see a woman in the traditional Valencia dress, complete with the intricate hair ornaments.

Chance sighting in front of the Gate of the Apostles.

Is this angle disorienting enough? ^o^

Going through a throng of tourists towards Valencia Cathedral, with El Miguelete, the belfry, standing in the center background.

The Climate & Atmosphere

As you may have guessed from the clear blue sky in these photos, Valencia has wonderful weather. It was cloudy on maybe 2 days the whole time I was there, no rain, and an average daytime temperature of 24C (75F). Considering this was late March-early April, you can imagine how hot the Mediterranean summer must get. Actually, according to my mother’s pen pal, that’s the reason for the siesta: it’s too hot in the afternoon to do anything!

Speaking of “Mediterranean,” I got to see the Mediterranean Sea a few times. Unfortunately, it was overcast all the times that we went in the daytime.

Waves breakdancing. *Rimshot*

Valencia has a famous festival that I missed by a few days. It is the festival of “fallas” (the “ll” being the same letter as in “tortilla” or “llama,” to give a pronunciation of ファヤス) or “ninot” as in the local language. It started out with people just gathering up old things they weren’t using anymore, and setting them on fire. Then, someone started arranging these things into shapes. Eventually, they became the gargantuan satirical structures they are today. But they still get set on fire on the last day of the nearly 3-week festivities.

This is all well and good, and I had wanted to see it. But one of the interesting things about traveling and staying with locals rather than in a hotel is that you also get to hear things that don’t get printed in tourism pamphlets. They told me that people go a little crazy with the fireworks, and that fireworks are regulated by law but that in practice everyone gets their hands on them. From what they were saying (due mostly to the fact that I didn’t learn Spanish academically I can’t say I understood 100% of what was being said) it sounded like people were even lighting M-80s. This is of course dangerous, and apparently, despite all the incidents of kids or young adults losing fingers or otherwise suffering bodily harm on account of playing with these miniature bombs, people continue to set these off during the festivities. Add to this the fact that there’s lots of drinking in the streets going on, and I suddenly didn’t want to see the fallas festival anymore. ^o^;

In any case, the leftover party atmosphere was nice. Some of the decorations were still up, and some people were still doing street BBQ.

My mother’s pen pal said that it was Romani who did these street barbeques.

I had missed fallas, and was about to miss the start of the next set of festivities, those for Semana Santa (Holy Week). There were tons of vendors outside of Valencia Cathedral on Palm Sunday selling the whitened palm fronds, many twisted into decorative shapes. Many churches in the area also have special processions. The faithful put on historical costumes and parade around the street with various floats. The one that I saw had a float with Jesus on it, and in front of the float walked a man dressed as Jesus.

Now, for me, the most striking thing about this procession was the costumes some of the men were wearing…

?!?!

These costumes, called “capirote,” of course predate the Ku Klux Klan’s sheets by centuries. Maybe this is even where the Klan stole the idea from? In any case, it was a bit startling at first, but I know that those connotations are absent from the minds of the people in and watching the parade. I had had the same sort of reaction the first time I saw my students in Japan doing the Roman salute to the school principal during Sports Day. Despite knowing in advance that that would happen, it can still be a bit jarring to see when you’ve grown up with a different set of connotations.

Am I terrible for hearing GACKT screaming “Jeeesuuuuus!!!” in my mind when they walked by?

The whole time I was there, the orange trees in the street were in bloom and covering the city in a soft fragrance. While the oranges of these trees are sour (so I was told), the scent of the orange blossom is sweet.

See the oranges in the trees? ^o^

The Food

Despite having lived in Japan for nearly 3 years now, I still think it’s kinda weird to photograph my food, and felt too self-conscious about it to actually do it around my mother’s pen pal and her family. I regret this now, especially that I didn’t photograph the paella the pen pal made for me my first day there. Well, Wikipedia’s article on paella has some good pics.

I was a bit surprised that the paella the pen pal made included rabbit. I had never had rabbit before. It tasted like liver to me, which surprised me. Isn’t everything supposed to taste like chicken? Ahaha…

I was also a bit surprised by the daily buying of baguettes. Of course, to them it’s just pan (bread). I know that corn or flour tortillas are a food of the indigenous people of what later became Latin America, so I didn’t expect to see them in Spain as the main carb consumed with each meal; I had assumed that carb would be rice. But it’s bread. Baguettes. Bought daily fresh from the supermarket, and placed on the table without a plate under it, or even in the cutlery drawer without a bag. I’d seen this handling of bread in movies, and in the back of my mind it gave me a slight discomfort. Of course, everything’s clean so there’s really nothing to worry about.

I do have one photo of some local food. I met the sole JET participant from Spain last year at the seminar for the Linguistics and Pedagogy course. When I told her I would be visiting her country, namely Valencia, she told me to make sure I had an “horchata con fartón.” I knew what horchata was as it’s common in Latin America as well, but I’d never heard of fartón. Turns out it’s a type of sweet bread usually eaten with horchata. Churros, I was told, are for eating with hot chocolate.

Deeeeelicious!

As for the horchata itself, it turned out to be different from what I was used to. Horchata, in my mind, was a drink made from rice. But it turns out it can be made with something else as the main ingredient. In Valencia, that ingredient is chufas.

The tubers of Cyperus esculentus, from which Valencian horchata is made.

The tubers of Cyperus esculentus, from which Valencian horchata is made.

My second night in Spain, I actually felt a bit nauseated, because living in Japan had changed my eating habits. I wasn’t a big oil user to begin with, and what oil I did consume back home had usually been olive oil. In Japan, olive oil is very expensive, so I largely make do without. But in Spain, there’s oil on everything at every meal time. I didn’t think this would be a problem, since I’d consumed olive oil many times before. But thinking back I had felt the same discomfort when I had gone to the States after my first 7 months in Japan. So I figured my stomach just needed some time to reacquaint itself with oil, and indeed, that was all it was.

The Language

Anyone who knows Spanish may have wondered why I wrote that the Central Market was the “Mercat Central” instead of the “Mercado Central.” That’s because when people of the Americas say “Spanish,” they’re actually referring to “castellano,” the language of Castille. “Spanish,” or “español” to say it in castellano, consists of several languages spoken by the people of Spain, which also includes valenciano (also known as catalan). To me, Valencian sounds and looks like a mixture of Spanish and French. Indeed, if I hadn’t studied French, I would not have been able to understand things written in Valencian. Signs in public places tended to be written in both Valencian and Castilian, so I didn’t really have a problem. It was only in the Museum of Fallas that there was lots of untranslated Valencian. But I ain’t gonna say that I didn’t feel like a G for being able to figure out that “hui” was Valencian for “today” on the basis that “today” in French is “aujourd-hui.”

I’m a language ballah!

XD *Ahem…* (Well, it also helped that “ayer” was in the same title, meaning “yesterday.”)

The Journey Home

The day before I was to set off on the long voyage back to Fukuoka, we heard news that Air France’s baggage handlers were going on strike.

Good grief!

Luckily, the strike ended a few hours before my flight to Paris, so I was able to escape without feeling the effects of the strike in my own flights. (My mother likewise got home on schedule the next day.)

In Valencia’s airport I was surprised to find turrón, a sweet dessert usually eaten around Christmas. But it’s considerate to have it available year-round at the airport, for those not fortunate enough to visit in the Christmas season. The one I bought was made from almonds. I bought two boxes: one for sharing, and one for not sharing. XD

In the Paris airport I indulged in a pack of macaroons from La Maison du Chocolat (one pack for me, and one pack for English Club). Since I was in one of the world’s fashion capitals I thought of going into the designer shops, but even with a strong yen working in my favor I figured I wouldn’t get far in there. >o<; In Seoul I spent the long layover likewise walking about the shops and indulged in a beautiful mother-of-pearl jewelry box.

The main reason I wanted to unpack: to get at that turrón! XD

I’d like to go back to Spain one day. I had wanted to go to Madrid at least as a day trip, but what with the general strike, it just wasn’t possible.

Well, that was a little bit about my first trip to Europe! It would’ve been a different experience for me had I gone from the States, but things were colored in unexpected ways by the fact that I was going not as an American, but as an American who lives in Japan.

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