Of Saints and Shoes

Easter and Holy Week in the U. S. are pretty wan affairs these days. The Easter Egg Roll at the White House, a neighborhood or family egg hunt and perhaps dinner with the extended family. For many of us, the highlight is sneaking some jelly beans from our children’s candy filled baskets or perhaps nibbling the ears off their  chocolate bunnies. For my family, at least, it’s also pretty nonreligious. Not so, in Spain, predominantly Catholic, at least nominally. Intricately woven designs made of palms make their appearance on the Sunday before Easter and concerts, processions, special masses and all maIMG_0715nner of holy business fill the next seven days. In Valencia, the highlight of Santa Semaña is the procession on Saturday evening, when the men, women and children of scores of religious fraternities march through the ramshackle maritime district of El Cabanyal. There’s a sameness to much of the procession, which was not yet finished when I and fellow American visitors Gerry and Dennis called it quits after more than four hours. But the colorful costumes and exotic religious nature of the event easily holds the attention of someone like me, whose religious upbringing might best be described as half-hearted. As children, my siblings and I were trotted off to my mother’s Methodist church on most Sundays, but her enthusiasm for organizing and enforcing our attendance waned as we grew older, and my father’s lapsed Catholicism did nothing to bolster it. Most of what I know today about the Bible and early Christianity comes from movies and novels – entertaining but not entirely reliable sources. So I was glad to have Gerry, a graduate of a parochial school education and product of a dyed-in-the-wool Irish Catholic family, as my guide to the various Bibical characters and saints marching by us. IMG_0699 croppedSalome—yes, she of the seven veils—was easily recognizable and clearly the prize role for the neighborhood sexpot. Though the Biblical Salome would have been a teenager when she danced for her stepfather King Herod and demanded the death of John the Baptist in return, the Salomes we saw ranged in age from a prepubescent 10-year-old  to a siren well past the likely age of Salome’s mother. All, however, strutted their stuIMG_0705 croppedff imperiously, uniformly posing with hand on hip and a haughty sneer on their faces. The Herods, the legions of Roman soldiers and the occasional Jesus were also easy to identify. Ditto, the personage Gerry refers to as the BVM—Blessed Virgin Mary, for those of us who didIMG_0711 croppedn’t have the benefit of a nun-led education.. There seemed to be multiple incarnations of her—one with a crown of thorns and another who clearly took pride of place in each fraternity’s group: of marchers.This Mary wears black mourning clothes and a long veil, topped with a halo, a combination which  I can’t recall ever encountering in Methodist Sunday school classes. In fact, I don’t remember Methodists making much of Mary at all, except in her role in nativity scenes. IMG_0710 croppedA slew of other female characters paraded by, some carrying grapes and others dates, bread, wheat, bandages and a cloth, which sometimes had an image of Jesus on it. The one carrying this I assume was St. Veronica, whose claim to fame was wiping Jesus’s face as he struggled to carry the cross up ;Mount Calvary. How does someone with a severely deficient religious education know this? It once came up in a semi-drunken game of Dictionary in college. (Did you know that a veronica is a handkerchief?) IMG_0735Like any good parade, this one also included some beautiful floats, many covered with flowers.. Each fraternity carries or wheels what seems to be essentially a mobile shrine, often with a statue of Christ on the cross or the BVM or some other Easter-related holy body.  Some of the floats are especially pretty after nightfall, when dozens of votive lights twinkle on them. And then there are the hooded guys. Their outfits would look an awful lot like Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods if it weren’t for the vibrant colors of most of them: green and yellow, royal blue and white; red and purple, etc. In this case, they wear hoods not to terrorize or to escape responsibility for their actions butIMG_0707 to symbolize their belief that the acts of charity they perform should be anonymous. So what does all of this have to do with shoes, you may ask. Well, you see, Gerry and I noticed that all of those guys marching in their rainbow-hued robes had shoes—sandals, actually—that matched their robes. Purple sandals. Teal sandals. Gold sandals.  Orange sandals. Where do you suppose they get them, we wondered? The colors were far more likely to be found in women’s shoes, but they would hardly be large enough. Though Spanish men aren’t typically very big guys, their feet still seem to be considerably larger than your average ladies size 8 or 9–or even a 10 or 11, which are hard enough to find my big-footed female friends tell me. It wasn’t until a few days later that the shoe dropped for me–when I found out that Spain, particularly, the area around Valencia and south of it, in the Alicante region, is a major world shoe producer. Though in total output it’s dwarfed by China, Spain is the 6th largest exporter or shoes and the 7th largest in per-capita shoe consumption. (And, yes, Virginia, the U.S.is number one in per-capita consumption.) IMG_0766So, it’s probably pretty easy to get mauve-colored man sandals made. And lest any of you conclude that Spain can only produce espadrilles or colorful chunky sandals, let me remind you that American fashionistas (including, notably, Sex in the City character Carrie Bradshaw) adore the designs of Manolo Blahnik. Though his company is now American, Manolo is definitely Spanish and got his start designing for Spain’s very style-conscious females.

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Las Fallas — Part I

It’s impossible to decide which aspect of Valencia’s city-wide festival is the most impressive: the explosive volume of the Mascletàs; the controlled chaos of the nightly pyrotechnical fireworks; the 800 or so elaborate IMG_0489monuments, some nearly 100-feet tall; the neighborhood light displays; or the thousands of traditionally clad men, women and children who march to the Plaza of the Virgen to offer flowers, used to decorate a 45-foot wooden statute. Add in the food—giant pans of paella in makeshift sidewalk cafes, churro stands, sausages sizzling over hot fires and more—and well, it just can’t be compared to anything in the U.S.To even come close, you have to imagine New Orleans Mardi Gras crowds and parades combined with the family atmosphere, IMG_0283 croppednoise and pyrotechnics of IMG_0287 croppedthe Fourth of July, plus over-the-top Christmas decorations and the religious pageantry of Easter. Then picture it all pumped up on steroids—for four days.

Though the details are lost in the murky history of the Middle Ages, the origins of the festival seIMG_0365em to be secular, overlaid with a significant veneer from the Catholic Church. Centuries before electric lights   lengthened the short winter days, Valencian carpenters and other artisans constructed parots, wooden supports for lanterns to allow them to work later into the day. When spring brought more IMG_0307daylight hours, they gave their workshops a thorough cleaning and burned the parots, along with any broken artifacts, leftover pieces of wood and other detritus from the winter. Over time, the night of the bonfires became a sort of celebration of spring, and children would go from house to house begging for any discarded items to add to the piles. By the mid 1700s, las Fallas had become a regular municipal event. Somewhere along the way, the tradition of the spring burnings was co-opted by the church and the datIMG_0439 croppede became fixed as March 19, the day of St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.

According to my trusty (and incidentally quite swoon worthy) Valencian guide to the most noteworthy Las Fallas monuments, the tradition of using the discarded parots to poke fun at fellow Valencianos is centuries old as well. Because the contraption looked rather like a pointing scarecrow, the townspeople began to dress them up, often adding features that identified them as a particular person. By the 16th IMG_0292_croppedand 17th centuries, if it was known, for example, that the butcher was having an affair with the baker’s wife, the parot was likely to bear more than a passing resemblance to the meat-cutter, with a heavy dusting of flour. Gradually the costumed parots evolved into tableaus of giant figures, typically surrounded by smaller ninots, or dolls.

The monuments wereIMG_0386 originally made of cardboard, paper mache and wax; in recent years, they are constructed of light weight lumber, moldable cork and polystyrene. Each of Valencia’s neighborhoods erects at least one fallas, and typically two—the main one and a smaller one for children, called the infantil. (WalkinIMG_0355 croppedg around, it sometimes seems there is a giant lurking around every corner; there are nearly 400 fallas in the city itself.)

Neighborhood associations work on their fallas all year-round, raising money to build them, hiring the artists who design and make them and helping to erect them. An estimated one million tourists flood the city for the celebration (more than doubling its regular population) and the event as a whole is big business. In recent years, an estimated 750 million euros a year is poured into the monuments, the fireworks, hotels and restaurants, transit, security, flowers, music and other costs.

Each neighborhood fallas has a theme and nearly all use the opportunity to issue stinging commentary on public affairs and to mock loIMG_0372 croppedcal, national and even international public figures.This year’s winning fallas (yes, this is a fiercely competitive exercise) espoused the idea that “everything is play-acting”, and the ninots surrounding a 100-foot-tall dancing couple included IMG_0375_croppedStalin, Hitler, de Gaulle, Kim Jong-il and other departed world leaders, dancing and drinking, suggesting that they weren’t really dead, but living it up in Benidorm, a popular Spanish resort town. Fidel Castro waited nearby to join them when his time came. The country’s major newspapers were  represIMG_0361_supercroppedented as fun-house mirrors, distorting the facts they reported. Even President Obama and global security interests got a ribbing.

Other themes: A future in which everything, including sex is pictured quite differently–look closely at this amorous couple!. (Indeed many of the monuments feature some pretty racy figures.) Also, the inevitability of change. And of course, what the Spanish simply refer to as “Le crisis“.

IMG_0362
The fallas are judged on creativity, skill and wit. But there are other criterion as well. Complex engineering is expected, for example, with cantilevered figures, mimicking the original parots’ cantilevered arms. Most importantly, they must be IMG_0303made entirely of flammable materials, because on the last night, the Nit de Cremá, a string of fireworks inside the monument is ignited and the structure is burned IMG_0512to the ground. The last to go are the winner for the year and the monument on the Plaza de la Ayuntamiento, the city’s main square. This year, it was an  enormous lion–beautiful both whole and when burning. By morning, all was cleaned up; not even the ashes remained.

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.

Settling In


This weekend I stopped being a tourist. Well, not entirely—I still can’t speak Spanish and continue to gawk at 14th century buildings. But I did spend most of the weekend more or less as I would have in Baltimore or Arlington.

First, I did the laundry. But instead of shuttling the wet clothing from one modern appliance to another, I dried them the Spanish way: hanging them on an expandable rack attached to one of my apartment windows. I clipped my clean clothing  to the rack, which extends out over a sort of interior courtyard, silently praying that nothing fell. Four stories down, the interior space seemed to contain just some mechanical equipment, a few buckets and the like. Besides, I had no earthly idea how to get there, and I presumed it was accessed only  by the first floor apartment. Or perhaps even the neighboring building. Either way, I didn’t relish  trying to recover any escaped undies from strangers I couldn’t communicate with.IMG_0535

Electricity is expensive in Spain, so almost no one has a clothes dryer. Most households have washing machines, though—often located in the kitchen. Enjoying an average of more than 300 sunny days a year, Spaniards let Mother Nature do the job for free.

Domestic adventure, number two:  Grocery shopping. Flavorful cured Spanish ham and cheese with fresh bread makes a great supper, but I was getting a bit tired of it. Time to see what it’s like to have to find the specific ingredients I need to make a real meal. Fortunately, the Mercado Central is less than two blocks away from the apartment.

Reportedly the largest market in Europe, it’s a treasure trove of fruits, vegetables, nuts, dried beans and lentils, meat, poultry and seafood. Not to mention olive oils, breads and pastries, wine and cheese. (More on this marvelous market coming later.) But I’m a from-the-recipe cook and don’t often wing it with whatever I find in the market. Plus the cooking equipment in the apartment is minimal—one small and one largish pot, what appears to be a pressure cooker minus the top, and a small skillet or two. So I decided on soup.

I knew the market had bacalao, the Spanish name for the salted codfish that I recalled being sold in a small wooden box at Rhode Island grocery stores when I was a child. I’d only once found it in the D.C. area, using it to make a Portuguese fish and vegetable soup. I figured I could find a similar recipe online.

The cod wasn’t too  pricey at about  6€ for a bit more than half a kilo. But the vegetables were an unbelievable bargain.  Five carrots, two stalks of celery, two kilos of tomatoes, a clove of garlic, a couple of fresh onions. All for less than 4€ (about $4.50 at today’s exchange rate). Wow, at a farmers’ market in Baltimore or DC, that would have run me well over $10, and I couldn’t have bought just 2 stalks of celery. (The lady at the booth just breaks them off and breaks them in half to fit nicely in a bag.) Two more euros at another “exotic” produce booth where I bought a fresh fennel bulb, and another euro for a loaf of crusty bread and I was set. But the fruit looked too good to pass up. Ditto the piles of artichokes. So, I bought two kilos of sweet oranges (1,5€), a big box of strawberries ( another 1.5€) and five small artichokes (1€!) . The grand total for my haul: 15€.

Now, with the soup simmering on the stove, I’m ready for the last order of business this weekend: Catching up on Downton Abbey. I’d left the U.S. after the first four episodes of this season and hadn’t had the time (or inclination, really) to find out how to watch the show online from Europe. I knew that Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and other services weren’t available in Europe. But a little googling, $55 for a year-long subscription to  a VPN (virtual private network), which makes it look as if my computer is in the U.S.  and I was streaming Lady Mary’s latest escapades.  Four episodes later, and I was on to The Good Wife.  No more English language TV withdrawal pangs for me, and the retired life continues to look sweeter and sweeter!

Indolence and Noisemakers

It’s after 6 p.m.  I’m still in bed.  Yes, I was up and out last night till past 2 a.m. watching the spectacular Las Fallas Nit de Foc fireworks  (worthy of a post of their own). And no, I haven’t actually been asleep all day. Since about 10 a.m., I’ve alternately read or browsed the web for a few hours and drifted back to sleep to the sound of nearly constant firecrackers set off across the city. I was definitely awake at two this afternoon, when the last Mascletá of the officially four-day, unofficially two-week-long festival went off a few blocks away at the city’s main plaza.

Las Fallas, in general, and the Mascletá, in particular,  is a 12-year-old boy’s pyrotechnical dream. When I think of the mischievous delight my son and his fellow miscreants had in designing their own jerry-rigged noisemakers, blowing up everything from potatoes to discarded GI Joes, I know they’d give their right arms to be in Valencia during Las Fallas. (I strongly suspect that some young Valencianos have sacrificed body parts to the gods of loud noises.)

Everywhere, all day and all night, people set off firecrackers. Tots  throw and stamp on those tiny poppers. 5-year-olds and their dads light and throw what I recall as salutes.  Teens and adults set off explosives that sound powerful enough to take out a car or a small building. They seem to be constantly going off just a few feet away, scarring the dickens out of unseasoned visitors like me. Mentally, I hear the perpetrators, like the bad guys in an old Western, gleefully shooting firecrackers at my feet, saying “dance, tourist, dance.”

Every day during the festival, the city sets off  its own barrage of the loudest possible fireworks. Crowds throng to the plaza and the streets surrounding it awaiting the moment when the first nearly deafening boom announces the day’s entrant to what is essentially a competition for the best—that  is, the loudest, most pulse-pounding, smoke-billowing—Mascletá of the festival. The din lasts for at least five minutes, and the noise is amplified by the echoes off the buildings surrounding the Plaza. The ground trembles. Tourists are warned to keep their mouths open when at the plaza for the event, lest the pressure from the explosions damage their ears. No one talks about earplugs, however, and I notice what seems to be an extraordinary number of audiologists’ offices and hearing aid stores around this city. I wonder if anyone has done a study to see if Valencianos have a higher-than-usual rate of deafness?

The surprising thing about the Mascleta is that it’s not cacophony. There’s a rhythm to the noise, with waves of smaller, quieter fast pops, interspersed with and underpinned by crescendos of bigger explosions. It’s rather like listening to an all-percussion musical performance, and it makes you want to stamp your feet in unison.

So, after nearly a week of the noise and pageantry that is Las Fallas, as dusk arrives today I’m still lolling in my rented apartment, occasionally nibbling the sweet local strawberries I bought at the market yesterday and munching some of the fresh bread, Serrano ham and manchego cheese, I also picked up. I feel a bit guilty wasting this time in such a lovely city, lying in bed. But I’m also enjoying it, thinking “Ah, this is what retirement is about: doing nothing if that’s what I want to do.”

Still, it is the last night of Las Fallas. The night when hundreds of Fallas sculptures across the city are set alight; the last one, the huge lion at the Plaza de la Ajuntament, well after midnight. The last night to catch a glimpse of some of the spectacular Fallas I haven’t yet seen and to check out the reportedly fabulous light displays in the Russafa neighborhood. I guess it’s time to get up!