Mercado Central

Valencia’s Mercado Central is reportedly the largest market in Europe. I can’t vouch for the veracity of the claim, but the place is huge—some 8,000 square meters of interior space. It’s also beautiful. And kind of creepy. It’s beautiful for two reasons. First, the building itself is lovely. Designed in 1914 and inaugurated in 1928, it’s a modernist wonder of steel, glass and IMG_0532tile work. Light floods into the market from a huge central glass dome. And second, it’s filled with the most gorgeous and colorful  fruits (fresh and dried), vegetables, herbs, spices and nuts you’ve ever seen. Huge pulpy red peppers. Fat bunches of  freshly picked onions—fresh white globes with long green tops, like some kind of mutant scallion. Grapes nearly the size of golf balls. Piles of bright red strawberries that not only look delicious, but actually smell delicious, too. Mountains of sweet oranges. And strange fat pods of what I assume is some kind of bean.

IMG_0408Wandering through row after row of produce stand, the choices are overwhelming. It’s simply way too much for even me, the consummate comparison shopper to assess the quality and prices of produce at each stall. I figure the best practice is to look for the stall with the longest lines of what are clearly locals and just buy there. It’s tougher to figure out a strategy for choosing among the dozens of sellers of Spanish sausages, hams and cheeses. both domestic and imported. The booths run the gamut from small and unpretentious to large and polished. I buy from a small place one day, and a large one at my next visit, before I find the one I’ll patronize from now on for one simple reason: It has a clerk who speaks English and doesn’t seem to think I’m nuts when I say, just give me a different kind of cheese and Iberian ham today from the ones I’ve already bought from you. I want to keep trying new ones!IMG_0422

Along with the produce and deli-type vendors, sellers of olive oils, wines, dried fruits and nuts, bulk quantities of spices—including the saffron essential for an authentic paella Valenciana—fill the central part of the market.  Around the outer edges of the building, it’s a different story. That’s where the creepy parts are—the butchers’ stalls, the poulterers and the fishmongers.

At first, it just seems as if the cases are filled with rows of roasts, chops, steaks, filets and chicken—whole roasters and the usual assortment of breasts, drumsticks and thighs. Then you start noticing items that aren’t usually found at your local Safeway’s meat and poultry section. Or even at that specialty butcher place up the street:

IMG_0412 Piles of chicken feet. OK—maybe that’s not too weird: after all, you see them in Chinatown. But chicken heads? What on earth do you do with a pound or two of chicken heads? Chicken carcasses with the heads and feet still on them, as well as a few scattered feathers. Plus geese, ducks, partridges, quails and a variety of other game birds. Then, there’s the whole rabbits, with their milky eyes staring out of distressingly skinned rat-like faces. Pig’s feet. Pig’s ears. Pig’s everything. And the larger, darker red versions from cattle. Livers, of course. But also kidneys, lungs, hearts, brains, thyroids anIMG_0654_2d what seemed like more organs than exist in your average farm animal. Plus something that looked suspiciously like some animal’s penis, not to mention the whole heads—both pigs’ and calves’.

Once, when I worked on Capitol Hill for a Senator from Nebraska, I toured a beef slaughterhouse and packing plant along with a group of other legislative aides. When it was over we all happily chowed down on thick grilled steaks. After walking through the butchers’ stalls in the Mercado Central, I was giving some thought to vegetarianism. It’s not that I’m bothered by the idea of eating what was once a live animal. Man is, by nature, a carnivore and has been hunting and eating prey for centuries. I have no illusions about where those sanitized deboned, skinned chicken breasts really come from. And, in principle, I applaud the idea of not wasting huge parts of a slaughtered animal.Still, the idea of eating lungs, eyes, tongues, etc. makes my stomach do flip-flops and renders the notion of swallowing even a mouthful of tender, flavorful filet mignon unappealing.

As for the  seafood area, it’s  an exercise in attraction/aversion. There’s the usual salty, fishy smell, of course, andIMG_0426 a general feeling of dampness.  Counters are covered in the most amazing display of sea life outside an aquarium. Tiny fish, intended to be deep-fried whole and eaten. Whole and filleted slabs of larger fish, only some of which are recognizable.  IMG_0428Spiny black sea urchins. Octopus and squid of various sizes and varieties. Teeny, tiny little soft-shelled clams and palm-sized oysters.   Piles of at least a half dozen different creatures which I know must be some  limb on the shrimp family tree  but are unidentifiable. Buckets of wriggling eels. Even as I nearly gag thinking of swallowing some of this stuff, I can’t look away, amazed at the sheer variety and novelty of what’s before me.


Germany and the CELTA

Germany was intended to be a sort of halfway house for the novice expat retiree. I could scrape the rust off my decades-old college German and draw on the experiences of several earlier short vacations there. It was meant to be a gentle, gradual immersion into European culture and being away from my own nest. And in some ways, it was. I was ensconced in a bubble of English language speakers. Both Ulla and Helmut, my very kind and generous hosts for six weeks speak English well and in the 11 years we’ve known each other, since my son Mac and I, hosted their son Martin as a high school exchange student in Arlington, Va., we’ve become close friends. Moreover, I spent four weeks in an all-English speaking course in Frankfurt, learning how to teach English to adult speakers of other languages. That turned out to be unexpectedly brutal.

I’d been warned that the Cambridge certification course (CELTA) was intense. But I figured (as did all my fellow trainees), how hard can it really be? Answer: Very. It wasn’t so much the difficulty of the material. Although much of it was new to me it wasn’t as if I were trying to understand quantum physics. Reviewing and analyzing the language was relatively easy and fun. (Thanks Mrs. Graham for requiring us to diagram sentences in the 6th and 7th grade!) And the pedagogy was, for the most part, logical and readily understandable, once the concepts were made clear.

But putting it all together? It was like trying to simultaneously skip, rub your stomach, pat your head and whistle Dixie—while dodging a barrage of spitballs.

The hours were long: Three hours of “input” sessions in the AM, followed by a half-hour of feedback from the previous day’s teaching practice. Then, an hour break for lunch—often spent frantically making handouts and organizing materials for an upcoming lesson—followed by 2 plus hours of practice teaching. If you weren’t in front of the class, you were behind it, critiquing your fellow trainees and desperately praying not to fall into the same pitfalls when it was your turn. And, finally at the end of the day, a session with the tutor to plan your next lesson. Then home, to work on either the lesson plan, language analysis or lexis analysis (fancy terms for grammar work and vocabulary) or one of the four mandatory written assignments. I haven’t had so many 2 AM nights in a row in decades. And, as my former compatriots at Kiplinger know—I was the queen of late-night work!

But the most difficult part, hands-down, was simply dealing with no longer being the accomplished old-timer who had the routine down pat. It was humbling, even downright humiliating, to have a teaching practice fall flat or an assignment handed back as inadequate. It sometimes seemed to me that I learned everything just too late to put it to use in my lessons. Perhaps my son comes by his learning behavior –an experiential type who has to burn his fingers before he believes the stove really is hot—naturally. After a surprisingly successful first teaching practice, I felt as if I crashed and burned with each new lesson. The next time, I’d solve the problems encountered in the last lesson only to stumble on a whole new set of obstacles.

In the end, I passed, with a good recommendation from my tutors and a touching endorsement from some of the students. That feels great. I made some new friends. I now have confidence that when I take on a teaching gig, I have some notion of what I should be doing. And for four solid weeks, I wasn’t bored for a single moment.


Sitting at Hahn airport in Germany, waiting for my cheapo RyanAir flight to Valencia, Spain, I’m popping gummy bears reflexively. Sugar—more usually in the form of chocolate – is my preferred method of self-medication. I’m more excited and more nervous today than I was six weeks ago when I departed from Washington, DC for Germany, the first stop in a multi-month expat retirement exploration trip

I know no one in Spain. My entire Spanish repertoire consists of three phrases: “Da nada”, “Que pasa?” and, appropriately “No hablo Espagnol”. I have an AirBNB apartment lined up for the month, but other than knowing it’s a fourth-floor walkup in the city center, rented by Ana, a young Valenciana with a fondness for the Beatles, I haven’t a clue about what it will be like. It’s possible that the apartment won’t even faintly resemble the modern one-bedroom flat with a flaming red kitchen prictured in the photos. But assuming it’s decent, I’ll at least have a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in. Since I figure I can always just point at food at the market or on a menu, I’m not likely to starve, either. Food and shelter–what more can a girl ask for?