Making Sense of My Latest Trip

Barrio del Carmen

That does it for another visit to Valencia. It was only a few weeks this time, and over the very abnormal Christmas period, but since I've been before and know the place, dropping in and out over the years has made it like visiting an old friend. I like to know what's changed and what's remained the same, both for better and worse.

Everyone knows the story of the frog that stayed in the pot while the temperature turned up. It's privileged to be able to travel but it does break you out of the sense that home is the same everywhere. And the more you purge the bromides of the tourist industry from your thinking, the more eye opening it can be.

In Valencia, as anywhere, some knowledge of the local tongue and an effort to read the press or graffiti goes a huge way. Typically, tourists think cafés, beaches, and Calatrava's fashion-magazine architecture, as if the place had no locals. But dig a little and Valencians will talk instead about the rise of Ciudadanos and Vox, two right-wing populist parties. Or they will talk about changes the progressive mayor is bringing in. The 17.5% unemployment rate. Even all the persimmons that had to be dumped this year because there weren't enough buyers for them.

L'Horta, a mishmash of city and country.

A Race


I like to run. (Correction: running is a natural anti-depressant). I sign up for a race here and there to keep my sights set on a goal, otherwise I get demotivated and stop.

I ran one 15k "carrera popular" while we were away. It was in the mountains of Sot de Ferrer, a small town near Valencia. I paid 10 euros and signed up online a few days before the race. During the race, in the middle of the mountains, farmers greeted us with tables of figs, bananas, and water. When we finished there was beer, oranges, and pastries from a local bakery. We were given a slick long-sleeved shirt and bag of swag, and told where the showers were. The only advertising I could find was for the city hall, provincial government, and the local running club which had organized the race. The event was held on a Sunday morning and most of the town was out to watch, though no one cheered as if we were heroes, I mean, just running around in a circle and all.

Contrast this with a half-marathon I ran in Irvine, California last year. That sucker cost $85 and I had to sign up six months in advance or the price would've been higher. It was an "out and back," multiple times around a kind of flower formation, saving on how many streets they had to cut, and hence the cost of police and security. Corporate messaging and flags were everywhere. We started, of course, with the national anthem. Along the way we got Gatorade, one of the sponsors. Everyone was happy, to be sure, but in the forced way Americans are expected to be.

You know, just saying.

Quality


I sometimes joke that when farmers or manufacturers export internationally, they give their best goods to Europe and the leftovers to the U.S., figuring that Americans don't know better anyway. How else is it that you go to a standard supermarket, not a boutique or fancy place, and get larger, fresher, cheaper produce from places like Chile or Peru? How is it that you go to a dollar store, a "todo cien," and the pads of paper are more durable, the screws stronger, and the soap more concentrated?

We have a favourite fruit and vegetable stall we frequent in the Mercat de Russafa. The dudes that run it, Javi and José, work like dogs, waking up at the crack of dawn everyday to make sure they're fully stocked. They spend their day running deliveries on foot in the area (not everyone has an elevator in their building, so it's a lot of climbing with heavy bags) and making sure their largely elderly clients get their day's onion or two.

When we go, it's always a fight. Everything is as fresh and cheap as possible, but no matter how much we insist on this fruit or that, and no matter how long the line of people waiting behind us is, they won't put anything in our trolley that doesn't pass their personal quality inspection.

"No, you don't want that one. It's not ripe inside. I won't sell it to you."

"It's a damn mandarin! Throw it in already."

"I'm telling you, take this one instead. Here, I'll open it up and show you."

"No, no, fine. You don't have to open it. Have it your way. Now, a kilo of those grapes."

"Not those ones. They aren't the best I have..."

We spend a half an hour like this and in the end, our trolley teeming, our bill comes to something like 15 euros. And they're apologetic about giving it to us, such a large bill. 

Teeth


At one point in my twenties, my childhood dentist decided I was big and tough enough to drill a cavity without anesthesia. And ever since then I've been terrified of the dentist and avoid visiting unless I absolutely need to.

Well, it just so happened I needed to in Valencia. "I know a guy who's trustworthy, give him a try," says my spouse. "He's a real no-BS guy." Gallardo is his name.

It's been a few years and so even the cleaning I don't expect to run smoothly. But it's fine, thorough. The dental assistant checks in with me repeatedly. They find a damn cavity in between two molars where I've been able to feel with my tongue that the filling has shifted and chipped. So I'm back a few days later getting it drilled. And really drilled—there was some concern the nerve could've been impacted, in which case I would've been in brutal pain once the freezing thawed and the tooth could've even possibly died. Gracias a Dios, that didn't come to pass.

In addition to this, we wanted a second opinion about our daughter's teeth. A dentist in California had said she had a cavity and needed drilling, and even suggested we cover her teeth with some sort of plastic liner to prevent more cavities. "It's standard now with children," she explained. "With all the candy they eat."

So here's the thing. Two solid cleanings, me and my spouse, a fairly involved operation on my molars, and an inspection of our kid's teeth. I was expecting to break the bank, and we don't have dental coverage in Spain. But the cleaning came to a very reasonable 60 euros apiece and my operation, 80. Gallardo said that if our kid was his, he wouldn't do anything. "It's a spot on the enamel, not a cavity. Get it looked at again in six months but it should be fine if she keeps brushing. As for the plastic liner, no, it can make things worse. We won't do that crap here."

Flags


It used to be that flying the Spanish flag in Valencia was tantamount to giving the Nazi salute. The only place I used to see it was in military installations. Of course, people flew the Valencian flag and if you happened to get stuck in a Catalan nationalist rally, you'd see a sea of red and yellow stripes. But the Spanish flag wore out its lifespan with Franco. Sadly, that's now changed with all the business in Catalonia and the turn to populism in the world. On balconies, in small businesses, even on the sides of farm buildings in the country you see the "rojigualda."

It was similar in London when I lived there over the 2002 World Cup. Beckham was all the rage and many a young man wore the hairstyle. They put away the Union Jack and cracked out the flag of England for the first time since the great old days of the empire, waving it furiously all over the City.

Thankfully in Valencia, the mayor, Joan Ribó, is a progressive type and has tempered some of the patriotism with reminders of Valencia's past. In one square we found a plaque commemorating a certain Margarida Borràs, who had been executed in 1460 for their "gender identity." Similarly, we found signs pointing out where residents, in parts town developers would love to demolish and replace with hotels, had been evicted from their homes by the previous mayor.

The port.

Bikes


It was impossible not to notice how many bike lanes had been put in, and how many people were now cycling, and the calming effect this has had on traffic. I used to cycle in Valencia, but it was rough, no car expected a cyclist and they rarely ceded the way or noticed you were there. Now every driver is on high alert. They stop at crosswalks and travel at half the speeds they used to.

Some streets used to be unpassable with cars parked in any place there was space: up curbs, on the sidewalk, in traffic islands. People would leave their clutches off and double and triple park in rows, so you had to get out and play Tetris with four or five vehicles before you could get out of certain squeezes. Now, lines have been painted and the police simply ticket, problem solved.

People Everywhere


You might think it was the siesta, good food, or even opposition to Thatcher's line, "there's no such thing as society...[only] individual men and women" that we appreciate most about Valencia. But it's something else. It's the thriving downtown, the markets and small shops, the kiosks that still sell something called newspapers, as in actual paper. It's all these people walking, so much the city has had to pedestrianize large swaths. It's the aesthetic care that's been put into the city hall, shining as something important and worth visiting, not just another dreary corporate office. It's the libraries and museums, full. Fully operational public transit, even on Sundays. And how surprising it is how infrequently the right-wing brings up the question of taxation, as if that's a North American perversion, not a native feature of their movement.

The traditional San Silvestre, a 5k walk/run to cap off the year.

It's urban density, in a phrase, that bogeyman of lumberjacks and prairie farmers who've wimped out and moved to cities, and endeavoured to recreate what they fled from in the first place. And it's accepting the human company, shrugging off the annoyances, being graceful about it. Learning, even, to revel in it.

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