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!

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OMG-Spanish Hot Chocolate!

Valencia is a city with an overabundance of food.  I’d swear that two of every three store fronts is a café, tapas bar, gelato stand or or some other sort of food seller. Tiny 5-foot wide storefronts sell sandwiches of fresh bread and delicious Spanish ham, beers and soft drinks. Only slightly larger take-out places showcase three-foot-wide pans of paella, dishing up lunches of authentic paella Valenciana (chicken and rabbit) to hungry passers-by.   And because this is the week of Las Fallas, Valencia’s incredible end-of-winter/beginning-of-spring festival, the streets are also lined with tents and booths selling freshly fried buñuelos (a sort of Spanish funnel cake), grilled sausages and more.

When I discovered the Valor café on the Plaça de la Reine, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.. Valor is, of course, a maker of Spanish chocolate and the café’s menu is nothing but this food of the angels. Chocolate granitas. Chocolate crepes. Chocolate gelato. Chocolate lava cake. Chocolate fondue. Chocolate everything. Since it was my first meal of the day, I decided to be temperate. I ordered by pointing on the menu to a picture of what looked like a cup of hot chocolate and a buñuelo. What arrived was delicious but nothing like what I was expecting. I’ve always believed in the rich variety of hot chocolate: the kind made with milk (preferably whole, not namby-pamby 2%, or even worse, 1%), a generous  scoop of high quality cocoa (can you say Ghiradelli?) and a big sloppy schlag of sweetened whipped cream. That’s a pale shadow of the Spanish stuff.

First, the hot chocolate here is dark brown, not the usual muted milky cocoa color. A rich bittersweet brown: the color of melted Lindt chocolate bars. Then there’s the consistency. It’s liquid, but barely. Pop this stuff in the fridge for an hour and I’m pretty sure you’d have fudge. Think pots de chocolate right when they come out of the oven and are barely done—the middle is still wet and liquid, but thick. Finally, a serving is substantial: an average sized coffee cup, not some dinky little expresso thimble.

When the waiter put my first cup in front of me, I was nonplussed.  Was I supposed to drink it? If so, how? I had visions of thick brown goop glopping out of my cup and down my chin. The presence of two packets of sugar and a spoon on the saucer further puzzled me. Did they think I could possibly want to make this stuff even sweeter and thicker?

So I watched and waited, looking around to see what others were doing with their cups of melted chocolate. Alas, no one at a nearby table had ordered hot chocolate. (Despite temperatures only in the mid 50s, Valencianos were queuing up at the gelaterias and ice cream stores). I knew you could dunk the buñuelo in it, thanks to a picture in the menu. So I settled for doing that while I tried to figure out if I’d look more foolish attempting to slurp up the stuff from the cup or asking for some hot milk to pour into it. Once I’d scarfed up about a third of the cup along with half of the golden crunchy goodness of the buñuelo, I was too stuffed to care about the rest anyway. So I just paid the bill and headed off to see the nearby Roman ruins.

By the time I ordered my next cup, I’d watched half a dozen people in the Horchataría de Santa Catalina order and consume hot chocolate. Yep, they drink it from the cup (makes a helluva milk mustache). They also spoon it up and dunk. Any which way, it’s wonderful.

Valencia!

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?