MEMO FROM THE MEDITERRANEAN
JULY 17, 2014
(Listening to “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” by Luff)
It’s been two weeks without access to the internet, and things are as tense as they get around these parts. I’m nursing a bad ear infection and a foot full of painful sea urchin spines, alternating between bottles of Mahou and vials of powerful cipro, while complaining incessantly about the lack of bandwidth. Altamira, weary of my bitching, yells at me about being “typical” and I yell back about “life in the third world.” Then we both laugh like jackals and open more beer. What difference does bandwidth make? The waves lap at the tosca just meters from our windows, the sun is warm and bright every day, and the breeze is cool and comforting every night. Life is good here on the Costa Blanca.
I flew out of Dulles two weeks ago today, with a thicket of thunderstorms threatening to scuttle the trip at the last moment. Not just rain, but real “wrath of god” type stuff. I stood there in front of the ticket agent while huge drops battered the glass all around us, the noise bringing an uneasy quiet to the entire terminal. One of my checked bags was two pounds overweight, and although some agents will overlook a little thing like that, mine wasn’t one of them. “That’ll cost you $200 unless you can get it down to fifty pounds. Like… two hundred ADDITIONAL.” I nodded and started opening the bag, attempting to move something heavy into my carry-on, which was already packed to the gills with camera gear. “You have to get it down to weight,” he said again. “Or it’s two hundred MORE than you’re already spending. Do you understand?” I nodded. He watched me struggle for a minute or two and then said again. “You’re already spending $100 for the extra bag. This would be $200 MORE unless you can get it down to weight. Got it?”
That was enough. “Do I get it?” I screamed as I stood fully and squared around to face him. “DO I GODDAMNED GET IT?!” My voice sounded extremely loud in the quiet terminal, even to me, and people were looking nervously at us now. A deranged madman shrieking vulgarities inside an airport terminal has never been a welcome sight, but since 9/11 it gets people particularly jumpy. “Jesus fucking CHRIST, what’s not to understand?! I’ll get the goddamned bag down to weight, okay? JUST STOP TALKING TO ME.”
Screaming profanities at an airline employee is always a low-percentage move, assuming you want to get on a flight. Airline employees are like Home Owners Associations - they have way too much goddamned power and seem to get off on exercising it. They can pull you off a flight and have you slapped in handcuffs so fast it’ll make your head spin, so there was a part of me that was already expecting my little show of defiance to come back and bite me. But it didn’t. The ticket agent looked cowed, nodded silently and turned away.
I pulled a heavy sweater and a couple of books out of the bag, which got it down to 50.2. “Hey!” I called to him, pointing at the scale. “There.” He nodded and turned away again to print my boarding passes, and while his back was to me I stuffed the sweater and books right back into the bag and slid it off the scale. I was on my way to Madrid.
Altamira’s parents picked me up at the airport and promptly forgot where they parked. Wandering around the lot they kept muttering numbers and looking expectantly at me, as if they half assumed I might somehow conjure the location. We finally found it, a silver Lexus sedan, loaded my luggage and left Madrid heading east toward Valencia with me behind the wheel.
Madrid is in the geographical center of Spain, and is a huge city. It takes a long time on the ring roads to make your way out of the sprawl, and once you do you find yourself in an arid, desert landscape that looks and feels a lot like a road runner cartoon. Indeed, they filmed many of the infamous “spaghetti westerns” in this region.
Once on the major highways I got my foot down and made time, cruising at 140kph and really only slowing when I saw the signs for pending radar speed checks. Blast due east out of Madrid and in less than three hours you hit Valencia. Turn south along the coast and in another hour, through the orange and lemon groves that made Valencia famous, you’re in Javea. A small beach town of about 30,000. Home.
The old downtown of Javea is the kind of small, medieval village you see throughout Spain, and it’s set inland a couple clicks, but we live on the coast, in Javea beach. The harbor area is a protected cove, with tall rock-faced capes to the north and south that have a white cast slightly reminiscent of Dover, England, and a lighthouse keeps watch from the tallest surrounding point. There is a horseshoe shaped beach of soft sand, but the majority of the coast is “tosca,” a hard carbonate substance that looks a bit like exposed coral, or maybe the surface of the moon. It’s less inviting to the feet but the locals prefer it and so do I.
Towering over everything is Montgo. A massive inverted cone of a mountain that looks like a dormant volcano, but isn’t. You can see it from everywhere in Javea, even in the middle of a moonless night. If you asked a child to draw a mountain, he would draw Montgo, and its presence can be felt all over the area.
Pretty much everyone speaks Castilian Spanish here, but most locals also speak Valenciano, a subset of Catalan and the traditional language of the region around Barcelona. Official government signs tend to favor that language, which looks and sounds to me something of a hybrid between Spanish and French, and which spells the town “Xabia.” I have yet to bump into another American, but walking around you hear UK English spoken periodically, and there is an English language radio station and shops and bars catering to British tourists. The same can be said for German, and to a lesser extent Russian. Apparently there are more than 90 nationalities represented in the permanent population of Javea, and everyone is accustomed to trying to communicate as best they can. In that respect, it’s a good place for a gringo like me, whose sum total of Spanish has been gleaned from three dozen Dora The Explorer episodes.
No matter how you slice it, this is a beach town, and the pace moves a bit slower than Madrid or Bilbao. Altamira has been trying to get the internet installed in our home since she arrived nearly a month ago, but still to no avail. I was talking to Doug, an ex-pat from Manchester about it, and asked him what I could expect. “Nothing’s fast here, mate,” he quipped, rolling his eyes. “Up where you live, near Cala Blanca, is the best. Maybe 4 m/s. But you can’t count on it. Could be 2. Could be 1 sometimes. For some reason it’s the worst down here in the harbor, where all the banks are. 1 m/s is normal.” I told him I might have a problem with that. “Yeah,” he replied. “It’s… ‘retro.’”
ASSIMILATE OR DIE
I was on the paddleboard today. The sea looked smooth as glass when I left the house, but by the time I got on the water the wind had kicked up and there were three foot sets breaking at the entrance to the cove, one after the other. I could paddle out like a bastard, then turn and ride the swells halfway back to the beach. It was heaven.
I don’t miss the news. Jesus goddamned christ, I don’t miss the news. There are a lot of reasons to be miserable and depressed and stressed out in this world, and the self-serving 24 hour news cycle just isn’t worth it. Another Malaysian airliner went down today, this time to a missile or some such shit, and I can’t bring myself to watch the tidbits of coverage, even though they’re in Spanish. 80 kids onboard. Christ. I can only imagine what CNN is doing with it. Yeah, I don’t miss the news.
Or the food. I have decided to try to eat like a Spaniard, even if I don’t instinctively like what’s on the plate. Pan fried anchovies? I just eat them and shut up. There are few fat people here and the virtual absence of processed food has to be largely responsible. The fishing boats come in to the harbor every afternoon and there is an auction right there on the docks, so the restaurants are buying tonight what they will serve tomorrow. Anchovies. Octopus. Prawns.
Fresh fruit, vegetables and breads are incredibly cheap here, and that points to a serious difference between the USA and Europe. Consumer goods are comparatively expensive here. An iPad, for example, or a pair of Nikes, or a Volkswagen. Those things are expensive here. But some other things are very, very cheap, and fruits and vegetables are among them. Take “donut” peaches for example, or “Paraguayos,” as they are known here. They are locally grown and explode with flavor in your mouth, and they sell for a euro a kilo. The same is true for almost all fruits and vegetables, and everything tastes better. That isn’t the comment of a temporarily happy ex-patriot, it’s a statement of fact. The fruits and vegetables simply taste better here. More flavorful. And they are incredibly, magnificently cheap. Walking around our grocery store (which has the perfectly Orwellian name of “Consum”) is a real pleasure.
The breads are cheap too, and a fresh-baked loaf of coarse, rustic French baguette can be fifty cents. For breakfast we might have a toasted baguette covered in crushed fresh tomatoes, drizzled with oil and a dash of sea salt. Lunches are the big meal - usually fish or mussels or a paella - often with salad and Iberico ham wrapped around chunks of fresh melon. We snack all day on cherries, watermelon, oranges, and slabs of quince paste over “queso de Burgos” (the Spanish version of mozzarella.) Dinners are light again. More ham, perhaps, or yogurt and nuts and more fruit, and there are huge, five-liter jugs of local muscatel - the sweet wine famous in the region. Red meat is not a knee-jerk choice for most Spaniards, and neither is chicken, so even with drinking beer all day and eating ice cream for dessert and basically eating whatever I want whenever I want, I feel like I’m getting into the best shape of my life.
JUMPING SOMEONE ELSE’S TRAIN
It seems like a lifetime ago that I was threatening ticket agents in Dulles. It’s almost 10:00pm now, and the beach is still full of families, kids running around and laughing, parents and grandparents drinking wine and talking, teenagers skateboarding and flirting and sneaking into the darkening sea for one last swim. You hear dance music and smell weed and listen to the street vendors selling hand made jewelry and objets d’art, and if you look over your shoulder you can see the outline of Montgo, a still darker hole in the already dark sky. Tonight, in the harbor, there will be a huge festival with fireworks and a mock battle of the Moors vs. The Christians, and I’m wagering heavily on the Moors. They’re due.
We’ll be there, half drunk and dancing. Fuck the bandwidth.
"St. Cajetan" by Cracker
The house looks kinda weird empty of furniture. Nothing on the floors except discarded beer bottles and scraps of packing material, a half dozen old Polaroid cameras and a whacking great big pair of speakers. (I still have electricity, goddammit, and as long as I do there will be music. Fuck the neighbors if they don’t like Cracker.)
Altamira and the boys are in Spain already. They landed in Madrid days ago and are probably making their way to the Mediterranean by now. Getting her ready for that trip took a bottle and a half of crianza and enough Xanax to paralyze a donkey, which is perfectly reasonable fortification for traveling with a two-year old boy who refuses to be disciplined. I can picture Mateo now, kicking the ever-loving shit out of the seat back in front of him, throwing his toy cars through the cabin to fall on some poor bastard’s head, and screaming at the top of his lungs like a lowland gorilla on acid. Christ, almighty, it’s lucky they allowed them on the plane.
At any rate I’ll be following in their footsteps in a couple weeks, but right now I have this crap to deal with. Moving everything into storage and disposing of all our leftover booze.
Altamira and I spent the last few days visiting the horses and meandering around Middleburg, Virginia, our old stomping grounds. Altamira needed the closure and I needed to get it out of my system. She could live there forever, but not me. I’m a city boy at heart and the horseflies and lack of cell signal get me jonesing for civilization after just a few hours. Different strokes, I suppose.
Christ, Costa Rica just beat Italy in the World Cup and if that doesn’t signify the dawn of the apocalypse I don’t know what does. These are crazy times. Earlier today I passed a brand new Range Rover with 32” mud terrain tires and “FARM USE” tags, which takes the wretched excess of the wealthy to altogether new heights. Forgive me, but I am pretty sure “FARM USE” tags are legal in Virginia with the intent to allow farmers to use their agricultural vehicles on public roads in rare, brief and unavoidable circumstances, not so some entitled, hunt country dickbag can tool around in an $80,000 luxury SUV without ever visiting the DMV. But perhaps I’m wrong, because such vehicles are commonplace in these parts. Consensus facit legum. But I digress…______________________________________________________________
The sounds of the forest echo off the empty wood floors more than they used to, and when the crows go ape shit I know something threatening has arrived. They’re going ape shit right now, probably because I dumped the last of the dog food on the ground out back and the foxes have returned. I like foxes, and crows every bit as much, so I just leave them to their own devices and let them have it out. Old school. Besides, I couldn’t do a damn thing about either one even if I wanted. Both are smarter and more ruthless than I am, and they know it as much as I do.
Most of the work here is done. I’ll be off to Spain soon, and I’ll miss this house. It backs up to a huge farm, and my Indian neighbors bring me food regularly, even when I can see in their eyes they wish I’d turn down the Cracker.
THE “MORRIS MINOR”
5 slices fresh cucumber
Several leaves of fresh mint
1.5 oz Tanqueray Rangpur Gin
0.75 oz Pimms #1
0.5 oz simple syrup
Muddle the cucumber and the mint in a shaker, then add the gin and the Pimms and let the mixture sit for a few moments to infuse. Add the simple syrup and shake briefly, then pour into an old fashioned glass full of ice, top with a couple splashes of soda water and garnish with a thick slice of cucumber.
(And if you think the first one is good, wait until you taste the sixth.)