MEMO FROM THE MEDITERRANEAN
AUGUST 13, 2014
(Listening to “Brimful Of Asha” by Cornershop)
I went swimming with cormorants today. I went down to the sea for my afternoon swim, and instead of the normal scene found just a few people standing worriedly on the shore. Although it probably should have, it had no meaning for me, so I dove in and started swimming south toward Cala Blanca. My usual route. Within a hundred meters or so I saw the problem. Jellyfish. Normally not an issue here, sometimes a change in the current will bring them in near shore, which keeps people out of the water pretty effectively. If there are hundreds of the small brown ones, getting stung is likely, but in this case there were only a few of the large, white versions, which are easy to see and avoid. I kept swimming.
I swam as hard as I could, south along the coast, which is slightly against the current, almost all the way to Cala Blanca, then turned and swam lazily back. I passed perhaps five or six jellyfish the whole time, and steered well clear of them without problem. When I returned to the tosca, I climbed out and a young woman approached me.
“Hay medusas?” she asked.
“Si, pero solo cuatro o cinco,” I replied, proud of myself for knowing at least this tidbit of Spanish.
She smiled and immediately switched languages. “Are you English?”
“American,” I replied, and she nodded.
“How do you say ‘medusas’ in English?”
“Jellyfish,” I told her, “but ‘medusa’ is a much better word.”
She laughed. “Si, si. Perfecto.”
I dove back in and swam straight out this time, using the snorkeling goggles and scouting for interesting life near the bottom. I spent some time looking at the usual schools of anchovies and bonita but then, about sixty or seventy meters off shore, I saw a hell of a commotion near the bottom. Something that looked big was thrashing about and stirring up sand. It was near the periphery of my vision, and at first I thought it was a sea turtle or something, so I swam in hard to investigate.
Turns out it was a cormorant. A pair of cormorants, actually.
Each bird would dive down from the surface like a bullet, swimming with the blistering speed and agility of a penguin. When it reached the bottom - which was sand and about 35 feet deep at this point - it would bury its long, pointy beak deep into the sand and start shaking it around, disturbing clouds of murk and evidently dislodging whatever it was looking for under there. Small fish steered well clear of the pair of them, but odd ones would occasionally wander too close and be gobbled up with a lightning strike of the head. Larger fish schooled and followed the birds, evidently profiting from cast offs, and occasionally they seemed to irritate the cormorants, who would turn and chase them off with a convincing mock attack. When they had gathered their fill - often staying on the bottom for five or six full minutes - they would streak to the surface and bob around in the chop, chewing and swallowing contentedly.
My presence didn’t seem to bother them one bit, and I could get within a couple feet without drawing any reaction whatsoever, so I swam and dove with the pair, watching them work and dine, work and dine, for the better part of an hour. It was mesmerizing; one of the most fascinating encounters with nature I have ever had, and one I would have missed entirely if I had stayed out of the water because of the medusas. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
OF VAPOR TRAILS AND MOONLIT SKIES
“So we were standing around
Fading in and out of fashion,
And there ain’t nothing you don’t got
That we don’t need.”
Our experience here keeps evolving. August has arrived and that means a couple of things for Javea. The first is crowds. Most of Europe is on vacation this month, and virtually overnight what seemed like a sleepy beach town just a few weeks ago now feels decidedly… tighter. The narrow streets are lined with Audi SUV’s and the sidewalks to the beach are packed with streams of red-skinned Northern Europeans, toting inflatable rings and beach chairs. The walkway around la playa is lined with the normal crop of street vendors, but now there are half-assed illegal booths set up as well, with Nigerians hawking fake Vuitton wallets and counterfeit Obey hats. Eating out at night means shooing away a ceaseless stream of men who approach the table and try to hard-sell you roses for your date. Blech. Still very much an interloper myself, it’s amazing how entitled I already feel about my daily life here, and how protective I am of the slightly overlooked nature that for eleven months of the year makes Javea feel like a tantalizing and well-kept secret. But not August. Christ, there is even a Hummer H2 driving around town this week. A HUMMER. It’s yellow, and looks every bit as at home on the Costa Blanca as Nacho Libre would, in full costume, and for the exact same reasons.
The second thing August means is heat. Under the already potent Spanish sun, the rise in temperatures and the commensurate bump in humidity take the climate from balmy and breezy all the way up to blazingly hot. Now granted, we’re speaking in relative terms here. Temperatures even on the worst days of August are in the mid 80’s fahrenheit, with a heat index in the mid to high 90’s, so it’s really not that bad, but compared to the heat indexes of the mid 80’s that were common in July, it can feel pretty goddamned hot. If the breeze blows in off the sea, as it blessedly does at most times, all is well, but when it stops for any reason, man-made or natural, the sun instantly makes Javea feel like the opening scenes of Sexy Beast. We try to stay inside during the peak of the day, assuming we can keep the kids occupied somehow, and I have taken to relaxing on the balcony during the siesta hours, drinking an endless stream of Coronitas, eating huge plates of watermelon, listening to Dead Man Winter and Cracker, and watching the tourists snorkel and sunbathe in the aquamarine water below me.
Thankfully, as the sun gets low in the sky, the sea breeze picks up still further, a reliable combination that breaks the heat’s back in short order and makes everything pleasant again. Sometimes we take the boys and cruise into the old town of Javea for ice cream or just to let them run in the tiny, medieval streets. There is a radio station that plays classic pop songs and which seems particularly fond of ABBA, so we can often be found with windows down and sunroof back, all four of us (even Mateo) singing at the top of our lungs as we roar through town. “Mama mia! Here we go again! My, my, how can I resist you?!”
Altamira spots fig trees when we’re on these drives around the area, and even as we sail past at 80kph she can make careful mental notes of fig quality and quantity. Figs must be picked at the peak of ripeness, because they don’t continue to ripen very much off the tree. Get them too early and they haven’t developed the signature sweetness. Wait too long and they burn. Or some other enterprising thief gets them first. We load chairs and bags into the trunk and return on evening raids, trying to harvest them before someone else does. Today we crapped out. The tree we drove to had been picked clean of all the low hanging fruit (wow, first time I’ve ever meant that literally) and the remaining figs at the top had already been badly burned by the sun. Tomorrow we’ll try another. We may crap out again, but if we score, we’ll lumber home with grocery bags full - an impossibly sweet score - and everyone feasts for weeks.
Last week we went into Valencia - about an hour drive by car - to take the kids to Oceanografic, the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. It is part of the “Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias” (City of Arts and Sciences), a sprawling and beautiful complex in the center of the city that spans several dozen city blocks. But it’s more than just beautiful. It has a… grandeur about it, an inherent pride, like something built for a World’s Fair. It is more common to see that kind of pride, still, here in Europe. The spirt of the Eiffel Tower still lives. Cities here are proud to find the money to build the largest underwater aquarium, or the largest solar energy array. If you wonder why CERN is here and not in the United States, the answer is that it could have been in the United States, and probably SHOULD have been in the United States, but it’s a question of priorities, and the governments and people of Europe prioritize art and science and research and beauty. The roads in Spain are peppered with traffic circles, “roundabouts,” and inside each one is a public art project or a particularly striking piece of crafted landscaping. There is public art everywhere, in virtually all public spaces. There are huge public parks and fields and playgrounds for children to run and play in, and they are always completely and totally free. It makes everyday life beautiful. For everyone.
Personally, I would give up a few aircraft carriers for a little more of that kind of thing in the United States.
Which reminds me, I have been closely monitoring what things cost here. I know there is a perception in the United States that Europe is “expensive,” and that the cost of goods and services, combined with higher tax rates, means that Europeans are commensurately less well off, all things equal. Superficial observations seem to bear this out. A Volkswagen Golf that costs $20,000 in the United States costs about the same here in Euros - 20,000€, but 20,000€ is currently the equivalent of about $27,000, so a basic family car is essentially 35% more expensive here. This is also true of things like Apple iPads, televisions and Nikes. Gasoline, as we know, is much more expensive (although the surge in fuel prices in the USA has closed the gap somewhat.) And since salaries here are comparable to those in the USA, and taxes are higher (usually around 25-30% for pretty much everyone) the party line that Europe is much pricier seems to make sense. Add in the incredibly high unemployment figures we hear for much of Europe and it seems like a recipe for struggle.
Except that it doesn’t appear to work out that way. Other than the news, and the topic of some dinner table conversation, there is little evidence here of “the crisis.” You don’t see homeless people in any numbers, except a very small number in the larger cities. If you look at the average savings of various citizens, you’ll find that the average Spaniard, even in the midst of what they consider to be their worst financial situation since the revolution, has nearly double the amount of savings in the bank compared to an average American. Average net worth is 25% higher here, 40% higher in France, and more than 100% higher in Norway, all countries with very high tax rates, particularly on the wealthy. Everyone I meet here, most of whom have normal, middle class occupations and salaries, has traveled extensively, and while the (rather depressing) “staycation” is growing in popularity in the US, here it is far more common for middle class families to vacation in the Maldives or Dubrovnik or Singapore.
So what gives?
The answer, I think, is twofold. First, there is a decreased emphasis on consumer goods. Those iPads and televisions and sneakers I mentioned? People don’t buy very many of them here. Homes are smaller, and storage space is more limited, so people tend to buy fewer things, but nicer things. With the admission that I’m using sweeping generalizations here, the average European has fewer clothes and shoes, but nicer ones. (I had a closet full of cheap, Target t-shirts at home, that I would wear to go running and to wash the car and stuff. Here, that kind of thing doesn’t really exist. People don’t have the closet space to spare, there is no Target, and they don’t want to be seen in cheap, shitty t-shirts anyway. Not even to wash the car.) Homes are smaller, but there is less emphasis on being home. People go out more. Not to spend money, per se, but to spend time as a family, or with friends. You see people picnicking a lot, and socializing is very, very important here. Few Europeans want to buy a huge house, fit it with a bunch of massive televisions, and stay home watching the Discovery channel every evening. They would rather be out and about with friends and family.
Secondly, though, is that although many luxury consumer goods are more expensive here, lots of more “everyday” things are far, far cheaper. In a previous discussion I mentioned how cheap fresh food is here. Fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and chicken, yogurts… those things are incredibly cheap, and for families, that difference alone is HUGE. Coffee is less expensive here. A very good coffee is 1.50€ per quarter kilo, which equates to about $2.75 per pound, or a fifth of what it costs in the USA. Public parking is very cheap, and unlike the $8.00 or $10.00 parking bills that are common here, we are often paying 0.60€ or 1.60€, even when we’ve been parked for two or three hours. Healthcare is of course the biggest savings, and after living here for a bit, I find that the things you need to live a comfortable life day in and day out are cheaper, while the things you need to live a decadent life, the luxury goods that Americans have been programmed to crave so intensely, are more expensive. In balance, I think it’s a much more intelligent breakdown here in Europe.
RUNNING WITH SENSH
“In fits and starts remembering
The things I should forget,
But I don’t want to
Sanitize my thoughts just yet.”
The news carried a story the other day about the running of the bulls in Pamplona, which took place about a month ago. At the time, they carried stories almost every day about all the details, but this was a follow up about the recovery of one of the German tourists who was trampled. I listened to the story in Spanish, not understanding it completely, but certainly understanding more of it than I did when I arrived, and turned to my father-in-law Carlos. “Carlos, other than the running of the bulls, does anything else happen in Pamplona?”
He grew silent and looked pensive as he thought very hard for a few moments. “No,” he said finally.
Spain is still depressingly bull crazy. Bull fights are big business here, and top toreadors are wealthy celebrities, although usually coming from poor areas of the country. Toreadors don’t die anymore - or very, very rarely anyway - but the bulls still do. Whether famous and well paid or not, the toreador inevitably walks away while the bull bleeds out, a dozen narrow swords sticking out of its neck and back. It makes me angry just typing it. Every country mistreats animals in some way, but here it is more… public. Virtually every village in Spain has its own annual festival, commemorating something about their history or championing their saint, and some of these festivals still involve bulls in some ugly form. Here in Javea, for example, they drive a herd of bulls into the sea for some goddamned ancient reason, and it’s a hideous spectacle to behold. Enough to make you wonder what fucking century you’re living in, and when, exactly, the world will wake up and slough off this embarrassing barbarism toward animals. I’m tempted to join in this year and run alongside the bulls, clutching a Shawnee war club, screaming in a drunken rage and beating the unholy shit out of any man who gets within reach. Maybe I can even drive some of them into the sea, you know… commemoratively. Fuckers.
IT’S THE LINES THAT I FORGET
There is a storm whipping up, and the sea is angry. Carlos told me recently: “The Mediterranean is a very pleasant sea. Very calm and tranquil. Until it is not. That is what makes it dangerous.”
Unlike the Cantabrian Sea in the north of Spain, which quite frankly always looks a little pissy, the Med can lure you into apathy. It hasn’t rained since I have been here. More than 40 days. Not a drop. Every day has been beautiful and sunny and warm and calm, and the sea has been a charming playground and nothing more. But tonight the coast is a roiling hellbroth and the wind is howling across the limestone. Waves hit the shore every fews seconds and explode with deafening booms, throwing white spray forty feet into the air. We took a walk up through the hills above Cala Blanca, and there is an ominous feel to the air. A certain kind of smell. Maybe it’s the negatively charged ions or maybe it’s the fear from the vacationers, still playing bocce in the grass but looking nervously back at the coast and wincing every time a monster wave rocks the tosca. Storm shutters are being drawn all over the Costa Blanca tonight, and bottles of whiskey sitting on side tables. It may be a long night.
In a few weeks we’ll be in Andorra and the Pyrenees, then making our way across La Rioja to Miranda and Santander, followed by a couple nights in Madrid. Then it’s back here so the kids can start school September 3. According the locals, August 31 sees an almost total exodus of the vacationers, and quite literally the morning of September 1 will dawn quiet, calm and very much back to normal.
Sounds good to me.
MEMO FROM THE MEDITERRANEAN
JULY 29, 2014
(Listening to “El Dorado” by 50 Foot Wave)
A cold front blew in while we slept last night, and I woke up to the sound of the wind howling through the balconies and the surf pounding savagely against the shore. My head was aching from a hangover brought about by too many “Bulldogs,” a colossal gin-and-tonic concoction that is distinguished by the inclusion of a handful of juniper berries, thick slices of orange peel, and a healthy dollop of licorice extract. That and the fact that it is served in a goddamned goblet with a capacity of what has to be nearly 15 oz. They say four of them will kill a man, but they are apparently wrong.
Yesterday the temperature was 88F, with an Accuweather “Real Feel” of 94. This morning it is 68 with a “real feel” of 74, and the overnight loss of twenty full degrees has made Javea feel like a ghost town. Whereas I can usually sit with my morning coffee and watch paddleboarders and early morning swimmers frolic in the surf, while the intense warmth of the sun radiates a glow and aura all over the coast, today I see only whitecaps and gray, heavy gloom. Javea today looks like Brighton in November - starkly desolate and seemingly abandoned. The grayness matches my mood, but the aesthetics can’t really be faulted. The sea looks beautiful like this.
Still no internet. More talk along these lines will make me angry and depressed, so I will leave further comment for a future date. Perhaps when the clouds clear off the beach, they will clear off Telefonica’s customer service department at the same time. My optimism, however, remains rather restrained, and I still haven’t been broken of the habits that come from living in a connected world. Many times I reach for something - my phone, perhaps, or my iPad - and, once reminded of its current uselessness, end up staring at it with a mixture of confusion and misery, like a hound dog passing jalapeño seeds.
At least the boys are loving life. Every day they look longer and leaner and larger and stronger. Diego is deeply bronzed and his thick fop of hair is blonding. I sent photos of him lounging languidly by the poolside to my sister, and she said: “Jesus. He looks like an Italian film star from the 1950’s.” She is right. Mateo is growing so fast and maturing so quickly it’s almost alarming. His legs, also a golden tan, are muscled like a five year old’s. In the movie “Rocky,” Sylvester Stallone trained by chasing pigeons around Philly, and I read somewhere that central Florida produces an inordinate number of top athletes because poor kids chase rabbits around the fields for fun. I always think of both these things when I watch Mateo chase gulls across the beaches, sprinting this way and that in deep, soft sand. It’s an exercise that would exhaust me in seconds, but he can keep at it for thirty or forty minutes, non-stop. His ankles and calves are sinewy and he’s alarmingly quick now. He is developing triceps and deltoids, and becoming more powerful and more coordinated all the time. It is so hard to believe he is still just two years old. I don’t think I was ever fully aware how sheltered and sedentary their lives were in the states, but here, where they swim and run and jump and play all day, every day, both the boys are flourishing in ways too numerous to list. That alone makes going slowly broke here in paradise worth it.
THE AUTOVIA TO NOWHERE
“I followed your hillbilly guide to El Dorado,
And I haven’t laughed like this in years.”
There was a fire in the hills above our home last week. A big one; large enough to threaten the community of Benitachell. We could see the flames from our balcony, and hear the engines of the helicopters and planes that were fighting it from above. Both dump water, but the helicopters can refill quickly, dropping buckets down on cables and scooping it up from wherever is close, even the swimming pools behind private residences. The amphibious plane has to come back to the sea to refill, and its route took it directly over our home, again and again and again. We sat out on our top terrace for hours, watching the plane “touch-and-go” on the water, refilling its tanks before powering away at full throttle, roaring at remarkably low altitude directly over our heads. Dumping, refilling, and dumping again.
It must feel Sisyphean, flying that plane. Performing a relatively risky touch-and-go on a choppy sea, flying full bore into a fire zone, dumping what appears to be a thimbleful of water onto a multi-acre blaze, and heading back to sea to start over again. And again. And again.
Living here sometimes feels the same way. It’s hard to put a finger on. My life, to a great extent, has always proudly been a “Sensh Production.” I’ve made my own decisions and taken my own roads, and not many of them have been superhighways. (Excuse me, “autovias.”) I tend to disregard with an almost foolish lack of concern some of the things that other people take most seriously, and contemplate very seriously indeed some of the things that others take most lightly. As a result I have made some galactically bad decisions in my life, and certainly delved deeply into fissures of experience that others would have turned their backs on, and I definitely don’t have the money or the power or the influence or indeed the security that many people my age, the ones who have focused on the tried and true paths, hold. But life… keeps happening, and things have always worked out, and my life has always been interesting. Sometimes in the traditional sense and sometimes in the Chinese sense, but interesting just the same. And that’s all I ever really wanted my life to be, frankly. I never coveted big houses. The cars and motorcycles I lust after are interesting, but rarely expensive. I don’t need power or influence out of my career. I’d rather go somewhere and see something than sit in a man cave and watch it on a huge screen television. I have made certain choices accordingly, time and again, and they have shaped my life along lines I drew when I was really still just a kid.
You choose, I think, when you’re young. You choose a way to live. And few choices are as starkly obvious as the one between the security of conformity and the excitement of individualism. And after you make the decision the hard work is done. The living part is easy, provided you have the courage to stand by your choice.
As I have grown older, and married, and spawned, I have been forced to give many tangible aspects of my philosophy up. I have, little by little, eroded a great deal of that life of individualism, choosing instead to put my time and my money into avenues more suited to a stable family life. And as a father I have, by definition, begun to lack the courage of my original choice of lifestyle. Some of that is inevitable, but goddammit, that doesn’t make it any more palatable, and I don’t want to give it all up. I CANNOT give it all up. Not now, not ever. I don’t want to drone along the superhighway of life, missing the small roads that wind through the interesting towns. I don’t want to forgo the unplanned trip through unknown territory and choose instead the pre-packaged bus tour that stops at all the museums. I want to buy an old Citroen 2CV and explore the coast with Altamira, finding little hideaways with a loaf of coarse bread and a hunk of chorizo in the back seat, even if we have no idea where we’re going when we strike out in the morning. I refuse to let my life become a monument to fear and indecision, a constant prayer to security and caution, and therefore miss drinking deeply from the wine goblet of life - the very thing that makes life worth living in the first place.
Fortunately, I am in the perfect place, at the perfect time of my life, surrounded by the perfect people to battle what amounts to an existential crisis. I need to learn the language here and start taking control of my destiny again. Hope springs eternal.
CATCH AND RELEASE
“Life and a cup of instant chaos by the window…”
During the day we have taken to swimming off the tosca now, leaving the sand beach for evening romps. Diego is terrified of the threat of sea urchin spines, and Mateo doesn’t like the sight of churning waves. So I typically do most of the swimming and Altamira takes the boys walking along the rocks, showing them how to catch the small shrimp, crabs and fish that collect in the holes of the tosca. It’s a scene out of 1962.
If you follow the coast south from the front of our home, in a few hundred meters you hit Cala Blanca (the White Cove.) It’s an idyllic lagoon with deep, cool water and exposed cliffs of tosca that teenagers are fond of diving off of into the sea. Erosion into the limestone cliffs has created caves and tunnels along the shore, and the boys will run and explore and throw rocks. Keep heading south along the coast and another few hundred meters reveals Cala de Francés (Cove of the French), which looks a great deal like a scene from a movie about paradise. The tosca there has eroded into hundreds of small pockets, which fill with fresh seawater when the tide is high and which are exposed as myriad azure pools when it recedes again.
There are more coves still, as you move further along the coast, but beyond Cala de Francés they are accessible only by raft or kayak, as the limestone cliffs of the shoreline become too steep and treacherous to walk, the water is too shallow to use a boat, and swimming would provide too great a risk of being dashed against the rocks if the surf kicked up.
Further south still is Cap de la Nau, which juts proudly out into the sea and from which large luxury villas - many owned by Germans - look out over the water to the distant lights of Ibiza and Mallorca. Then next down is La Granadella with its beautiful rock beach and charming surfside fisherman’s restaurant. Last weekend we went further down still, to Benitachell, a community built (largely by Germans) into the side of a tall mountain which plummets away down to the sea. We braved the incredibly steep (22% gradient) road to the rock beach and found an amazing little seaside bar, open every day until 2:00AM, with a DJ spinning downtempo house tunes and bartenders blending exotic concoctions for the select few who know about the place. When the surf hits a rock beach it sounds very much like any other beach, but when it recedes off the stones it makes an almighty crackling sound that is as disarming as it is wonderful. If you like you can sit there, sipping drinks, and listen to the crackling, spitting surf, occasionally eating grilled cuttlefish or squid, and forget that anything else exists.
Which sounds like the perfect opening scene for a new Sensh Production.
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.