Thursday, May 18, 2017

Thanks, Henry!

Monday morning, I got up, ate breakfast, and started the coffee, after which I headed into my office to see what disasters had befallen the world since last night. I also checked the e-mail and, as usual, one of the mails was my daily news digest from the New York Times. And there, in the obits, was the headline:

Henry Chung, Who Helped Bring Hunan’s Flavors to America, Dies at 98

I looked at the coffee cup I'd grabbed. 

One side

The other side
After I got over the shock of the coincidence, I had one of those "I had no idea he was still alive" moments, but I knew the Hunan Restaurant still existed because I'd attempted to go there with a couple of friends a year or so back. It being Easter weekend, it was closed. My friends were a bit skeptical: they'd heard it wasn't as good as it had been. But that just made me want to go more: in the novelty-obsessed world of San Francisco (and elsewhere) foodie-ism, there's always a rush to find the newest, the latest, and the most authentic. The Hunan fulfilled only one of those slots in the 21st century. 

I read the obit with interest. I'd known Henry, but not known a lot about him. Of course, it was impossible to go to the restaurant without knowing Henry: he was as friendly and garrulous a man as ever walked the earth, and it was clear that the restaurant was a mission. I know, because I was an early convert. 

When the Hunan first opened, I was working at City, a magazine where a bunch of ex-Rolling Stoners were working, which was, I surmise from looking at the map, on Pacific just off of Columbus in the bit of San Francisco where Chinatown blends into North Beach. Of course, Broadway is the official boundary, but even back then it was getting blurrier, and the stretch of Kearny between Portsmouth Square and where Columbus crossed it was a bunch of nondescript businesses, as well as a couple of bars and restaurants nobody in their right mind would enter at any time of day. In other words, rent was cheap, just the thing for an ambitious Chinese restaurant startup. I think the only reason Michael Goodwin stopped in there was because it was a new place, not as obviously trashy as its neighbors. Michael was from New York, and he was Jewish, so the soul-food element may have figured in. Or maybe he was just on his way to a deli and passed the exhaust fan. 

In any event, he came into the office, raving. "Hey, check this out!" He had one of those classic cardboard takeout containers with the wire handle. And, when he opened it, an amazing odor came from within. "What is it?" "Smoked ham and vegetables from this new Chinese place." "Wow, where is it?" "That's the best part; it's just around the corner!" And so it was. 

I don't want to pretend that City's patronage at lunch established the Hunan as a hip place to eat, but I do think that the money we spent there was part of what made Henry able to make the rent at first. But only at first: Within a year, it became the first restaurant I'd ever seen that had a line in the street. It didn't hold many people: there were a number of tables ingeniously squidged into the irregular space and a much coveted counter where you could watch Henry and his family prepare the dishes. What you couldn't do was find out what some of the stuff he was using was. Michael innocently asked him one time what kind of wood he used to smoke his ham (and duck) and Henry threw back his head and laughed. "I'm not gonna tell you that!" he said. (Probably this was because he was doing it himself, illegally, if the tale he tells in his cookbook -- that he steamed American bacon or used Canadian bacon -- is to be credited: I know what those things taste like, and, well, no. And, of course, there was the duck.)

My friends and I were frequent enough visitors that he stopped warning us "That's hot" or "Lotta garlic in that one." We'd just say "GOOD" and he'd chuckle and get to work. I can't even remember all of the stuff I enjoyed there over the years. Scallion pancakes, for one. Wow, they were a revelation, although they're common enough these days. Dungeness crab, in season, treated far less politely than the garlic-butter-and-parsley treatment it got at Fisherman's Wharf, and spectacular for what Henry'd done to it. We had a protocol for dining there: if the line hadn't reached Washington by the time we arrived, we'd stand. Two people around the corner and it was too late. Four years after he opened, he'd acquired another property on Sansome, a cavernous place where there was never a problem getting a seat, which is not to say it was often very empty. Same good food, just a long line of woks to prepare it in. 

Shortly after opening the new joint, Henry, with the help of Tony Hiss, a journalist who specialized in China, put out a cookbook. 

My copy
I went down there right away and bought one. 

He got the tall part right
But, with California at my feet and Chinese markets just across the bridge from where I lived, I never made anything out of it. Why should I? Henry and his team did it better than I ever could. In fact, I never attempted any Chinese cooking when I lived in California. Again, why should I?

The reason came to me about a year later, when I packed up everything I owned (including Henry's cookbook) and moved to Austin, a true Chinese food desert. (It pretty much still is.) I may have tried my hand at Chinese, but I never really got it. I did, however, return to San Francisco in 1980 on a visit and I must've eaten at the Hunan, because I got the coffee cup. Somewhere in its peregrinations, it got chipped, as you can see, but the damage wasn't enough to toss it. Anyway, it brought back good memories. 

Another thing I may have picked up on that trip -- or a subsequent one -- was a jar of Henry's Hunanese chile paste. I still wasn't cooking Chinese food because Austin had only one store, on Airport Boulevard, that stocked the necessities and because none of the Chinese cookbooks I had seemed do-able. But I brought it back as a memory aid or something. At any rate, it was in my possession when the Austin Chronicle, to which I was contributing a food column as Petaluma Pete, ran an issue on picnics. I was asked to come up with a couple of recipes and wound up making one of the most inspired mistakes of my career when I made a potato salad out of The Vegetarian Epicure book and accidentally started one recipe and finished it with the recipe on the facing page, all made better by my using green New Mexican chiles. Boy, that was good! And, inspired, I then invented Chinese cole slaw, by taking Henry's "rich salad dressing" recipe and dumping it into the slaw mixture. Wow. 

I finally learned Chinese cooking in Berlin, driven by necessity and using a five-euro Ikea wok. They're not bad learners, although you burn through them soon enough. Eventually I acquired a spun-steel wok like you're supposed to use and got good with the help of cookbooks by Fuchsia Dunlop and the folks at the Big Bowl, a chain I've never even seen, but whose book wound up in my hands. Poor Henry, relegated to the never-used category. 

Nowadays, I almost never eat Chinese food at home: my diabetes flares up with rice and rice products  in a way it doesn't with wheat, although I don't eat much of that, either. Most East and Southeast Asian cuisines also use a lot of sugar. I tend to save my breaking of the diet with Chinese food for the incredible Cuisine Szechuan in Montreal. But Henry's passing sent me to the bookshelf for his book, and I see that a lot of the recipes in it don't call for sugar at all. Hmmm...

And I realize now that Henry Chung is one of my heroes. He was almost 60 that day he signed my cookbook, and he lived to be 98, making people happy and building a little empire of Henry's Hunans with his sons. Hell, he was in his late 50s before he even got started! If that's not something to aspire to I don't know what is. So I raise a glass (but, forgive me, not of one of those awful Chinese spirits) to Henry, and thank him for his life. And for you, I'll tell you how to make Chinese cole slaw:

Henry's Rich Hot & Sour Dressing 

2 Tablespoons sesame seed paste (or crunchy peanut butter)
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
4 Tablespoons vinegar (I'd use rice vinegar here)
1 Tablespoon hot red pepper oil
1 teaspoon hot red pepper powder (you could also use Hunanese chile paste if you can find it to    substitute for these two ingredients)
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 Tablespoon finely minced scallions
1 Tablespoon white wine (the book was written before Shao Shing became widely available, and I'd suggest that instead)
1 teaspoon hot mustard (optional)
½ teaspoon salt
1-2 cups chicken broth

Combine. Dump over slaw vegetables and let it sit a couple of hours, then mix before serving. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

When I'm 68 1/2

I don't get asked to do this sort of thing much anymore, which is fine with me, since for the most part I'd rather write about other things or work on my book, but someone was kind enough to send me the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt Pepper last week, and I decided to play it last night. Herewith, some thoughts. 

* * *

The weird thing is not that Sgt Pepper is fifty years old, it occurred to me this morning as I lay abed looking for a good reason to get up at the ungodly hour of 7:30. It's that I was only 18 ½ when it came out, and that I found it inevitable when it happened. I'd already gone to San Francisco, where the good folks at 1836 Pine, the people who'd started the Family Dog, took me in for a few days while I roamed around the fragile, doomed attempt at Utopia they were building. One night they'd left a tab of acid on the dining room table for me, because they trusted I could handle it, but I didn't take it. Not yet, I thought. That had been February, and I was supposed to bring back a report for Aspen, the magazine in a box. I'd dutifully interviewed Alan Cohen, one of the proprietors of Haight Street's Psychedelic Shop and one of the editors of the Oracle newspaper, who was articulate enough, while at the same time (although this bit didn't make it into the excerpt they ran) gently suggesting that the thing to do wasn't, as Scott McKenzie suggested in his about-to-become-a-hit "San Francisco (Flowers In Your Hair)", to come there, but to make it happen in your own home town. That advice certainly resonated with me, and when, a month or so later, I returned to college, I found, unsurprisingly, that a lot of my friends there were of the same mind. That's when I took the acid. 

I'd caught as much music as I could in my few days in California, most notably the "Second Annual Tribal Stomp" on either February 17th or 18th, headlined by Big Brother and the Holding Company, which I recorded on a remarkable new tape format called the cassette, a recording that was in high enough fidelity that it awaits a friend's attention and, presumably, the permission of the Joplin estate, to be publicly issued. 

I wuz dere!
I also got to see Country Joe & The Fish at the Old Cheese Factory (aka Finnish Hall) in Berkeley, another show at the Avalon with Lee Michaels and (visiting from L.A.) the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and, just around the corner from the Pine Street house, the Light Sound Dimension and the Orkestra, a psychedelic "multi-media" event (ie, a light show and some horrible music courtesy of future Manson murderer Bobby Beausoleil) that I remember walking out on.  

This kind of thing appealed to me more than the Beatles, although they'd caught my attention with Rubber Soul and even more with Revolver, but, in a way I didn't yet understand, things were different in England, no matter that George Harrison visited Haight Street a little after I did, after soaking up the Monterey Pop Festival. I liked music that jumped off a cliff, hoping for the best, because I knew it could be very good indeed when it took flight. Like most Americans, I didn't get pop music, which, as they were about to make perfectly clear, was the milieu the Beatles (and not the Rolling Stones, whom I preferred, of course) inhabited.

Still, there was no denying the power of this thing when it appeared a couple of months after I returned to school in March.  Everybody bought a copy, myself included, and it just as it was reported happened throughout the Haight-Ashbury, it poured out of dorm windows, open to the newly-hatched spring. Everybody was listening to it, all the time. I was. I don't even remember where I got my copy, but it was presumably in the campus bookstore like everyone else. (Not necessarily: I was also known to catch rides to Dayton, where a sort of hip record division of one of the big department stores stocked things like Kinks singles, which I couldn't live without). 

Of course, due to its ubiquity, Sgt Pepper became one of the first models of a problem all pop potentially has: being enjoyed to death. I'd kind of like to look at my copy of the thing again (it's nearby, buried in the bowels of the Barker Texas History Center in an archive where I donated all my vinyl many years ago) to see just how worn it was. I listened to it a lot, perhaps expecting more revelation than was actually in the grooves, which was a product not only of the times, but of my being a teenager. I know that there soon came a point when I no longer listened to it, and in fact, until the release of the complete Beatles catalog on CD a few years ago, I hadn't paid it any attention at all until I was obligated to for a Fresh Air piece

And so to last night, when I lugged the 5 lb. 14 oz. box (I just weighed it) onto the couch and opened up the facimile album cover with its six discs and figured I'd listen to the work-in-progress stuff as much as I could, and then onward to what was supposed to be Giles Martin's astounding new mix of the original. 

Image stolen from Rolling Stone
I was actually surprised. I got through three of the CDs: the two of studio snippets (including work on both "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields") and the stereo mix of the final product. The studio stuff was fun, and, in the case of George Harrison leading the Indian and Western string players through the instrumental track of "Within You, Without You," quite engaging, since I'd never realized that he actually had much knowledge of Indian musical vocabulary. (There's nothing particularly challenging about the track, but what he does is make sure the Indians adhere to his sense of time, which is different from the one in which they're used to operating). 

In a number of cases, the unfinished tracks have details that are in the finished product, but ones of which I'd been unaware and which the new mix -- every bit as spectacularly detailed as I'd read it was -- makes audible. The harp and string bits for "She's Leaving Home" are presented naked, which is fine with me: I remember hearing this and thinking "Jeez, 'Eleanor Rigby' but more mawkish!" And the sharp new sound re-emphasizes the Beatles' instrumental acumen even when the final product ("Good Morning," "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite") is less than interesing. Oh, and speaking of instrumental acumen, nobody who hears this will ever again accuse Ringo Starr of being a plodding dimwit. He and George can battle it out for the title of Most Virtuosic Beatle. 

The best part of not having listened to this record in at least eight years (that Fresh Air program is dated 2009, and I doubt I listened too hard then) is that I was able to take it in without nostalgia, as an event happening in May, 2017. I guess at some point I'll look at the little film on the making of the record, and for sure I'll read most of the hardback book that gives the package most of its heft, because it's not by the Usual Suspects, but people like Joe Boyd, whose take on the times (if his superb book White Bicycles is any indication) should be fresh and un-cliched. 

As for the fifty years that have passed since I first slipped this on to my record player, it's been full of surprises, some delightful, some not. When I was 64, there was no one to feed me (I can do that myself quite well), no kids (let alone grandkids), and (thank heaven) no holidays on the Isle of Wight -- and it's still that way. But I get by with a little help from my friends, and, as someone once said, tomorrow never knows. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Changes, Part 1

What, no posts since Christmas Eve? But that's what it says here, so it must be true.

The why is a combination of things. I was homeless -- technically -- for a couple more months after that last post, and having to move yourself back into a house that's not quite what it had been is, in some ways, worse than moving in for the first time. I'm still repairing damage the contractors did, and my landlord has kindly consented to repair other damage, like putting curtains back up and getting lights to work. It was several weeks after I moved back that the place was even slightly functional, and it still isn't: there's more shelving to buy and stuff to put onto the shelving. As a matter of fact, there's an uncompleted shelf here in the office that's just waiting for another pair of hands to get it started. Then, perhaps, I can put the books that are sitting in the middle of the floor up onto the unit and be able to walk across the room.

None of this made me want to write about it, though. I mean, you spend a day hauling boxes out of the garage, tossing books that have tufts of mold growing on them (the result of the idiot contractors not dealing with them correctly -- hundreds of dollars of books and CD box sets in the garbage), dealing with the mold's effects on your respiratory system, and you're just plain too tired to write, not to mention wondering who'd want to read it.

The other stereo speaker was in here somewhere. Took a month to find it, though.

The mess in the garage, early on

Then there's the fact that it seems a Sisyphean task, putting this all in order. But, like I said, I've mostly done it. Or made a big dent in it, anyway.

I used the opportunity of this change in my life to make some other changes. Anticipating the book advance for the second (and -- whew! -- final) volume of the rock and roll history, I went and bought a new car. Well, not new, exactly, but one with the new tech I'd admired in the Peugeot I'd rented last spring in France, and the old tech of a CD player. I've got a lot of CDs, a lot I haven't yet listened to. Having a car that'll take me as far as I want to go, assuming I keep it gassed up, I'll have that opportunity.

I've already made a couple of trips in it, because I've been promoting the first volume of the history: to Cactus Records in Houston, for instance, doing an in-store in a store where Hank Williams did an in-store (they have pictures on the wall).

Almost got writer's cramp
Also went for a couple of days in Galveston, since I don't enjoy swimming, but beach towns are cool in the winter. This particular one is a weird mixture of touristy and off-beat.

Architect here seems to have been a bit confused...
Anything to get out of that attic!

I also went to New York on a book project that didn't work out, and, of course, a quick trip to Montreal, which is always fun.

But inevitably, I had to come back and try to get back to work. I'm almost there, but, well, there are some changes.

First, I got some awful news: my book hadn't sold very well, and my advance for the next one would be halved. This hit me hard: being homeless had cost me several thousand dollars I'd rather not have spent (okay, including the trips). I should have seen it coming. Inexplicably, it didn't get reviewed a lot and only one of them was in a major newspaper. Fortunately, it was very good. But the New York Times didn't chime in. More seriously, the radio show for which I've labored for over 30 years, presenting rock and roll history in much the way I do in the book, refused to have me on to talk about it. This is a big deal: Fresh Air is one of the major media outlets for new books. And, on a personal level, two of its other contributors had books out last year, and they did get on. No reason was given for their shunning me. Believe me, I asked.

So I quit.

I quit because in my world, you don't treat people like that. To tell the truth, it felt good, although it means there'll be a little less money coming in (not much: this is NPR), but I'm working hard on replacing that exposure for my work and ideas. Stay tuned.

I also realized that I was going to be back to something I knew how to do: live frugally. The trip to Europe I'd planned for, well, right about now, had to go, although I'd really like the kind of spiritual rejuvenation these trips give me, but even though I know well how to do them inexpensively, I really couldn't do it at the moment. And by "spiritual," I don't mean the Romanesque churches I obessively seek out, but, rather, the luxury of being in a different, and, to me, more congenial society, where people are for the most part more civil towards each other and cooperation can edge out competition as a reason for doing things. To say the least, I am not living in that society at the moment.

In fact, I may be the only person I know who saw this alleged surprise of an election coming. I have not been very happy moving back to the States, and the State of Texas in particular, since outside the bubble of Austin there are some nasty people here. Two of them represent this state in the Senate, for instance. But Americans seem so addicted to spectacle, to what I've come to think of as the Entertainment Industrial Complex, that electing a reality TV star over a wealthy, unpopular, and subtle woman was a no-brainer. I suspect the country will survive, but I also think it's broken, and won't be even close to fixed for many decades to come.

Exactly what I'll do about this I can't say. Obviously, given what I do for a living, I can't make long-range plans, so, as I jokingly tell people, I live like the alcoholics: a day at a time, except I can have a couple of beers or some wine with dinner.

But it's time for some changes. The title of this blog, for instance, has come to mean something utterly different than when I jocularly started it with this name. I was moving to a city that, at least in its center, where I was living, actually was on a hill. (Well, according to geographers, three hills, but not so's you'd notice). Now, there are echoes of Ronald Reagan, invoked by today's elected extremists as an icon, although he'd likely be horrified at their behavior. I knew it had its origin in a Jonathan Edwards sermon, but, well, I'd like a different name for it, and a different look, perhaps.

And because my book pretty much vanished from public sight (I realized this when Chuck Berry died, and I didn't get a phone call to comment or do an article or anything), I need to use it to promote my book, my next book, and all my other projects as they come along. So I have to get back into that.  I need to post short bits of promotion instead of long posts like this most of the time, and I need to get more active because I'm an utter failure at Twitter and the rest of that (pretty good with Facebook, which may have sent some of you over here), but little bits of blog posts will be easy enough.

Reminder: Here's what it looks like, folks. Paperback coming later in the year, but why not buy a hard-cover now?
But right now, I need a new name for my blog that will better reflect my -- and our -- new reality.

No, hold on. Right now, I need to get out and take a walk. With Texas, you never know when the last day of the first half of the year will be, after which it'll be too hot to do that, and I find that an hour's walk brightens things up immeasurably. Not much else is gonna do it today while our elected government is condemning the poor to a slow, agonizing death, so since it's sunny, the birds are singing, and the temperature is temperate, I'm outta here.

See you in the future.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Notes From An Attic: The Never-Ending Vacation, Maimondes' Autograph, Promoting The Book, And More

Two months since I've touched this blog? Apparently so. And a very odd two months it's been. To recap: in early October, while on vacation in Spain, I received photos of water seeping outside the door to my house, which water proved to be the result of a toilet valve failing and 48 hours' worth of uncontrolled release of water. The landlord quickly shut it off, but sheetrock, ceiling, and wooden floors all needed replacing. He predicted three weeks or more.

More. If the most optimistic forecasts are correct, I'll have been out of the house for three months by the time I get to move back in. Christmas and New Years will be elsewhere. Fortunately "elsewhere" isn't as onerous as it might be: after a week and a half in a horrible, expensive, poorly-run "extended stay" hotel, a Facebook friend offered me one of his airbnb properties, this not being the high season, and I moved into an attic on his property. It has its down side.

First rule: don't be tall. Photo credit: Special K
Also, I packed for a three-to-four-week stay here, which meant I grabbed a few clothes and some kitchen stuff that was either in excess of what I needed or not enough. There's a stove (oven doesn't work) and a microwave, but cooking has been a problem. When the weather got cold, I had to buy some new shoes (fine: the winter shoes I bought in January sucked, and REI will take them back) and a down jacket thing (already have one, but can't get to it). Fortunately, the place is centrally located, which means I can walk a lot of places, and driving isn't quite the pain it is down south, where you have to drive places to get places. You kind of have to get out of where you are before you can start going where you're going, if you see what I mean. Here, it's a lot more like living in a city.

So I'm still living out of a suitcase, eating out much too much for my comfort (both dietary and financial), but things could be worse: the main focus of the past couple of months has been assuring a smooth launch for The History of Rock & Roll, Vol. 1, which has certainly been interesting. Fortunately, so far most of the reviews have been very positive, and I've mostly done interviews with really intelligent people, like Gil Roth, whom I'd never heard of before, and Michaelangelo Matos, whom I had. There have been some radio interviews, most notably on KQED's Forum, which had the most chaotic, ill-prepared, ignorant host I'd ever dealt with. He'd never so much as opened the book, knew nothing of its subject, and couldn't keep the conversation on track. Unfortunately, I had a severe attack of cedar fever just as the mike went live, so I wasn't at my best initially, either. Fortunately, I recovered. The host...maybe not so much. And there was the Bellowing Celt who called in, completely bonkers. I'm still shaken, but I suspect that's the worst of it.

That cedar fever, too, has slowed me down some: there was a cold snap in Austin and the trees went wild. Me, I went to New York and Montreal, where it was cold enough, caught some kind of flu in all the subways and airplanes and trains and whatnot, so I had to deal with that and the cedar disease when I got back. I haven't been very active, to put it mildly. Oh, and in November there was the Texas Book Fair, where all the music book writers were up against one another, so who do you think got the crowds: Thomas Dolby, me, or the woman who wrote a biography of Guy Clark, beloved late Texas songwriter, who, instead of having a panel in the Capitol building, had the Paramount Theater at her disposal, and had several local high-profile songwriters on board to do some of Guy's songs? I got to the signing tent, there was a huge line...but not for me, of course: her publisher had sensibly augmented Barnes & Nobel's supply. B&N only had 30 books for me to sign, and five were for the store. There were a lot more at Book People, though, for the official release event, and I even had to go down again to sign another raft of them there. (They have 'em on mail-order, too, if you want one).

Still there, newly renovated for your Manhattan office address. Brill himself was in the menswear biz. 

This is all pretty un-chronological, I see, but at the end of November, I went to New York for a week on a project totally unrelated to the book (but got a bit of promo, if you can call five minutes' worth of interview on an AM New York Jesus station "promo": who knew New York had a Jesus station called THE ANSWER? Who knew New York had a Jesus station at all? What can the listenership of an AM station like that be?). Before I left, though, I decided to go to a couple of museums as long as I was in town, and it really felt good.

MOMA had the first US retrospective of Surrealist painter Francis Picabia, whom I'd mostly known as a major pain in the ass to the entire Paris art scene throughout Cubism, Surrealism, and beyond. It wasn't until after I saw the show that I learned that at the age of 15, Francis, son of a wealthy man, learned to paint so that he could copy his father's collection of old Spanish paintings, replace them with his copies, and sell the originals to dealers so he could buy expensive stamps for his stamp collection. That, however, is consistent with the rest of his life, as is the excerpt from one of his writings that gives the show its title: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction. His thoughts certainly did: austere drawings of machines that actually do nothing, colorful abstracts, odd cartoon-like stuff, bland but disturbing hyper-realist oils, some of them sourced from soft-porn magazines, during the German occupation of France, and, if your feet are tired, you can sit and watch a film he and René Clair made called entr'acte, which was shown during the intermission (entr'acte) of an Erik Satie ballet. It's exhausting and goofy, and the show made my day. Heads off to Picabia!

The show I knew I wanted to see, however, was up at the Met, and I devoted a day to it: Jerusalem, 1000-1400, Every People Under Heaven.  It was a bit odd: having not quite returned from a trip to Spain to try to get a handle on the three-culture Christian-Jewish-Muslim culture there, from which Crusaders went off to try to "reclaim" the Holy Land, here I was in New York watching the story from the other end of the telescope. It's not a particularly arty show, because two of the religions involved weren't much on representational art, and also because a lot of the prize exhibits are books. Delicate and tending towards fading, they're displayed in darkish rooms, and you really have to want to look at them -- and you need to to get the show's message.  Here's a beautiful illuminated manuscript, obviously French 14th century, groaning with gold leaf, showing a biblical scene. The lettering's in Hebrew, though, and it was used by the Jewish community of Tours. Here is a deluxe fold-out map of Jerusalem, prepared for tourists -- or, rather, for a tourist, since it's hand-lettered and hand-illustrated. Of course, the guy who did it had never been there, but it's still amazingly accurate. Over here, a letter asking that some hostages be freed -- the caption says such letters are quite common from this period -- signed by Maimondes! That gave me an electric shock and once again reminded me that this story I've been chasing -- whatever it is -- spreads over a huge area. I have to say, the show is huge, painstakingly fair to all sides, and not only fills in a lot of blanks on the three-culture story for me, but also shows that the idea of the tourist trap is millenia old: lots of the stuff on display was made for pilgrims to take back to Europe with them. Only open until January 8, so get down there if you can.

Most of the rest of my time has been spent waiting for the house down south to be finished. At some time after the first of the year, I'm confident that my publisher will make an offer for Vol. 2 of the book, and I can get back to doing what I do best: writing. I may attempt a couple of signing tours -- I'm trying to work one up with Amtrak so that I can take the train up the West Coast -- which I'll have to finance myself. But that's in the future: right now I want to move back into my house, sit on my couch, sleep in my bed, and cook in my kitchen again. Three months is too damn long. When you're walking up Madison Avenue (to the Grand Central Oyster Bar: some things never change) and you realize that you're taking a vacation from your vacation and soon will be on a train to Montreal to visit friends as a vacation from the vacation to the vacation, you realize how much you miss having a home.

Of course, I've been feeling that way for about two years now, and the recent election only firmed up my decision to leave again once this next book is finished. I could, and no doubt will, go into that in some detail. But not today. Today is Christmas Eve in the attic. I have to stockpile some food for the weekend. Ho ho ho, y'all.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Barcelona, Back To Texas, Viewing The Ruins

The room might not have been great, but Barcelona still was. I only had the afternoon to do all the things I'd planned, if I could beat back the drumbeat of the oncoming chaos I was sure would greet me in Texas. One thing I knew: I'd need some new clothes, because I wouldn't have access to mine for a while. Anyway, all the weight I'd lost in the past year meant all the pants I had that fit me -- two pairs of regular ones and one of Levi 501s -- were in my suitcase. I had the Levis on. They'd need washing soon.

I've always like the clothing I'd seen in the high-end Spanish shops along the Paseig de Gracia and, indeed, on some of the Spanish men walking along the street, so, since it was nearby, I went over to the Corta Inglés, the giant department store one sees all over Spain, to see what it offered. It was much like any other department store except that it had Spanish stuff (and, of course, a giant supermarket in the basement, the only part of the store I'd ever been to). The guy at the Hugo Boss boutique on the men's floor even suggested I look at Spanish brands, which were just what I wanted, as it turned out, and considerably cheaper than what brands I can get in Austin like Ralph Lauren and Boss and so on were offering. Two shirts and a pair of pants later, I had what I needed. I'm not a shopping-as-therapy kind of guy, but it did feel good to know that I wouldn't be naked in Austin.

And yes, I did head to the basement to pick up three cans of olives stuffed with anchovies and a couple of cans of Spanish tuna. I'm not a complete idiot.

And, as is my custom, I had my last dinner in town at the always-wonderful Nou de Granados, one of my favorite restaurants: a nice salad, and oxtails in a wine reduction on a pillow of truffled mashed potatoes, garnished with potato chips. Don't sneer at potato chips in Spain: they're a great example of the virtue of simplicity. I can't eat many because of the diabetes, but when they're perfectly crisp and greaseless but redolent of fine Spanish olive oil -- as these and many I was offered at bars were -- they put Lay's and the like to shame.

The next morning I woke early, had a decent breakfast downstairs in the hotel and grabbed a cab to the airport. Barcelona to Paris Charles de Gaulle (the hellish Terminal 2) to Atlanta to Austin. I was lucky: not only had I bought economy plus fare (recommended for large or tall people and/or people with legs, not to mention those of us who've experienced lower vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism as the result of a long flight), but it was a Tuesday, so not that many people were travelling, and I had no seatmate. Air France has a fairly crappy selection of films (unless you've always wanted to see The Angry Birds Movie with Arabic subtitles), so I had lots of time to read and think.

Something that's always annoyed me about the menu at the Nou has been the silly errors in the English translation, in particular "backed" for "baked." If I lived in Barcelona, I'd offer to edit their menu in exchange for a bottle of wine or something. (They've also confused "cherries" with "cherry tomatoes," the former of which one doesn't really hope to see in the Caesar salad -- and doesn't) But something Miguel had said in Madrid clicked in my head. He'd noted that Franco had suppressed the teaching of languages during his reign. I knew he'd suppressed Catalán and Basque and Valencian because he rightly feared that allowing them would lead to nationalism, but apparently all foreign languages were ignored until the university level, when it's arguably harder to learn a new tongue. So unlike Germany or France, elementary school kids didn't start adding languages until after Franco was gone.

Of course, this was just the end-point of the story I'd been living in for the past couple of weeks: in 1492, Spain expelled its mathematicians, physicians, philosophers, navigators, businessmen, bankers and intellectuals -- ie, its Arabs and Jews -- turning the country into a land of peasants under the mighty heel of an autocratic church and its Inquisition and a bloated and not very intelligent class of aristocrats, up to and including the royal family.

King Fernando VII, by Goya (detail). Does this look like a reasonable man? An intelligent one? Right on both counts, and obviously Goya detested him.
By the time Spain revolted and threw out the Inquisition in the early 19th century, it had missed the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and had to import British and German workers to ramp up their technology. Fortunately, those workers did a great job -- and the Germans taught the Spaniards how to make good beer and sausages. To this day, a Frankfurt is a Spanish joint featuring beer and sausages! But the progress was halted again with the appearance of Fascism in the 20th century: it wasn't until 1974 that the transition to democracy -- and cultural freedom -- began, which is why the vibe of post-Communist Berlin is still noticeable in the air.

Spanish design of the '60s and '70s: a collection of SEAT automobiles in the Valencia train station. 

I think this explains a lot about Spain, and why it appeals to me: the process of discovery of new possibilities is still in the air, the Catalan secession movement may not succeed, but, like the Scottish one, may force some interesting and needed change, and the arts and the young people who make them, are still charging ahead.

* * *

Meanwhile, I was on an Air France flight back to a country where, for the first time in its history, it was being challenged by an overtly Fascist candidate in a Presidential election. And, on a more personal level, I was returning to a house that was unlivable and many possessions that had been destroyed, including materials I'd need for my next book. To soften the blow, I rented two nights in the most reasonable hotel I could find, actually a big B&B in Travis Heights that I found on the Hotel Tonight app. The first night, I just crashed, destroyed by 20 hours of flying and changing planes, including two hellish airports, CDG Terminal 2 and Atlanta, where CNN is blaring at an unreasonable volume out of the sound system. The next day, a friend and I went to see what was left of my house. 

It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't as bad as I feared. 

Looking from the living room into the office: the toilet that exploded was in the bathroom whose entry is seen on the left. 

These giant honking dehumidifying fans were everywhere. The electric bill will be stupendous, but I do believe the damage will be far less because of them.
Not a great picture, but a lot of stuff was saved. 
My landlord was great: he sprung into action and got a company involved that specializes in this kind of rescue. Despite my lack of renters insurance, his insurance covers the packing and storage of the contents of the house until it can be rebuilt. (Presumably they also bring the stuff back, too). The company gave me the weekend to take what I wanted for the period ahead, which, jetlagged and just a bit traumatized, I sort of did. I checked into the Extended Stay America on the corner of W. 6th and Guadelupe for a week, and arranged for a Facebook friend's airbnb to be my home for a month after that. Heaven knows if the renovation will be done by then; the landlord says the construction folks say it'll be ready by Thanksgiving, but he thinks mid-December is more likely. Whatever. All I can do is take it a day at a time, passively waiting for word.

Eventually, there'll be dealing with Austin Water and the electric company. On November 6, I'll be on a panel at the Texas Book Festival with Joe Nick Patoski and David Dunton, my agent, talking about writing about music from two viewpoints: biographical (Joe Nick's specialty) and historical (mine) and how the two approaches do in the marketplace. It's free, and I'll be signing some early copies of both the rock and roll history and the Michael Bloomfield book. If you're in town, drop by. If you can't make it then, there'll be a rock and roll history release party at Book People on the 19th.

* * *

This hotel I'm writing this in is a circle of hell, and I'll be glad to be shut of it in a couple of days (the parent corporation has been pestering me with e-mails for my thoughts, and boy are they going to get them!), but when I moved in, I decided to try an experiment. Downtown Austin, in the 20 years I spent in Europe, changed utterly and completely. It's like aliens dropped an entire new city onto a few square miles, but I decided to try a little experiment while I'm here and spend as much time walking and looking at the new city as I could. There are primitive cooking facilities in the hotel, and there's the Whole Foods corporate mothership within walking distance, again making it my neighborhood supermarket like it was 30 years ago (except in a different location and with about a dozen times the floor-space). Waterloo Records and Book People are also at 6th and Lamar, and there are loads of new high-rises and boutiques and restaurants scattered all through the west downtown and what the property developers call the "warehouse district," which, yes, it used to be. 

There's been much talk during the development of this of a "revitalized downtown" and a "walkable city" and how much revenue the property taxes will bring the city. I had lunch with a lifelong Austinite who used to live downtown yesterday, and his views were very interesting. "When I was down here," which was in the '70s and '80s, "the residential population of downtown was between 1000 and 2000. Now it's more like 20,000," although another friend had noted that many of the new buildings are 30% empty because they're used as second residences or "investments." I mentioned to my friend that as I'd walked the streets -- something not too many other people seemed to be doing -- I'd noticed that not only the people I'd seen, but the whole way the residences were marketed, were young, rich, and white. The boutiques also slanted that way, and certainly the restaurants did. (Many are parts of luxury chains with branches in upscale parts of California, Arizona, and elsewhere in Texas, and there's a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse not far from my hotel). 

"Yeah," he said, "there was a lot of talk about rentals and a certain percentage of affordable housing, but in practice the way that plays out is that the renters of the affordable spaces live there for a while and then get offered enticing buy-outs so the developers can up the prices or condominiumize the place. As for the places that are already condos, they're hit and miss." He pointed out a couple that are pretty full, and indeed there's one particularly hideous one near me that's all lit up at night with just about every unit seeming to be full. Others, though, especially some of the more expensive ones, don't seem to be much occupied at night. Still, they keep building them and advertising luxury. Certainly West 6th, which is the thoroughfare I'm on and which I walk daily, is lined by very upscale bars (and a few corpses of failed ones), in contrast to East 6th, which has been party central for ages, and attracts frat boys and sorority girls to bars where the aim is to get blotto. West 6th isn't much different, but I sense that the bars are more expensive here. Offering valet parking for $6 to $10, which you won't see on the other side of Congress Avenue, they seem tonier, the patrons better-dressed and maybe more seniors and MBA candidates or law-school types than on the other side. It's comforting that UT's jeunesse dorée has its own blotto-toria. 

As for the restaurants, I've found very few I'd want to return to. An exception is Lambert's, which has made a workable gimmick out of very good barbeque served in a fine dining context. But even there, the sheet listing the day's specials included a $27 shot of bourbon. As I remarked to a friend last night, for three times that you could probably buy an entire bottle of it. And Manuel's is doing a good job with upscale Mexican food, which needn't be as expensive as you'd think. The service bordered on servile when I was there, but it's usually a good bet. 

It's a cliché for old Austinites to lament what's passed, but to me, there's change and there's change. I'd be a lot more in favor of the new downtown if it were more racially, economically, and culturally inclusive. It's not. I love the idea of waking up what was a wasteland of auto parts shops, printing supplies, and derelict spaces, but it looks like greed had far more to do with it than I'm comfortable with. Imagine that. 

And yet, and yet... One of my favorite memories of West 6th was the spring day I had lunch at Hut's Hamburgers (still there! -- although now paired with an inedible pizza joint) and was walking back to my car, crossing the small bridge over Shoal Creek, and saw a mother turtle plodding down the creekside, with five or six youngsters following her. The other day, I was walking back from Whole Foods on the other side of the street and saw something by the creek. I stopped and held my breath: a heron, four feet tall, was stalking down the creek. It was a really magnificent bird, and I edged closer to the side of the sidewalk to look at it. A Type 1 jogger, togged out in expensive sportswear with some sort of phone/music player strapped to his bicep, swooshed past, hissing "Thanks" as he went by. I didn't do it for you, man. But I'd do it for a few seconds more with that bird. Anytime. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Tarragona: End Of The Trip, Sorta

The couple seated across from me on the train from Valencia had a couple of English-language local papers for the Costa del Something on the table. There are enclaves of coastal Spain that cater to retired Brits and are called Costa Brava, Costa Blanca, and the like, although the names probably preceded the expats. There are the same kind of sea-facing boring apartment blocks that de Gaulle built on the Languedoc coast, and they're largely peopled by right-wing British folks. I even recognized the papers: they were just like one published in France, whose name I forget, which deals exclusively with problems British people face in an environment where they don't speak the language, don't talk to the locals, don't understand the customs, rarely eat the food, and still feel privilege. They're there for the sunshine (which, admittedly, is a scarce commodity where they're from), inexpensive high-proof wine, and, in Spain, untaxed cigarettes, not necessarily in that order. They don't much like the locals (who return the favor), and they positively despise Americans, as I was reminded when the train stopped to let on some passengers and a guy and a woman, obvious tourists making their way through Europe, came into our car. They were both stocky, and I noticed the woman, in particular, because she was East Asian and had impressive muscles, hardly a delicate lotus blossom of a stereotype. They hoisted their bulging backpacks up onto the luggage rack, and my neighbor remarked to his wife "He didn't even offer to help her with her pack. You know why that is?" She said no. "Because he's American," he hissed. He picked up the paper and showed her an article headlined "The perils of Brexit," and said "I'm tired of seeing rubbish like this. They never talk about the good bits." Which, as I understand it, will make it more difficult for him to live in Spain.

The train was a slow one, taking two hours along the Mediterranean coast to my last unknown stop, Tarragona. It sounded interesting: Roman settlement, big seaport, Visigothic Christian presence, and, for the gastronome, home of the fabled romesco sauce, which is made out of olive oil, crushed almonds, and a particular dried red chile that isn't hot: recreating it in the US involved chile ancho. I'd had it once in Barcelona with a mixed-vegetable tapa, and again in Valencia with that mixed vegetable plate, but it's most often served with seafood, so I was ready for that.

But how much of the town would I get to see? For the first time in my visit, the clouds were dark, and the Mediterranean was choppy, its water varying from slate-colored to black ink. The sere, brown countryside I'd been seeing had made me forget about rain, except for its absence. But this didn't look good for a pedestrian visit to a city. It held off until I reached my hotel, charmingly located above the city's bus terminal. It seemed to have been airlifted in from Czechoslovakia in 1979: sort of modern, with much polished wood and stone, a totally indifferent front-desk staff verging on mildly hostile, and a room that was just a smidgen smaller than would have been comfortable. I checked my watch: it was almost 4:30, so I'd better figure out what was where. But by the time I got to the lobby, it was raining. Still, I intuited that this wouldn't last long, and I was right: a half-hour later it stopped and the clouds looked a bit friendlier. Off I went.

I knew that the traffic circle just outside the hotel was the beginning of a rambla, one of those delightful Spanish streets divided by a strip of park where people walk, and that the rambla ended at the Mediterranean Balcony which looked from a height onto the sea. Turning left from there would take me to the Roman Circus, the remains of a giant chariot-racing arena. There wasn't much to see from the balcony, since the clouds were lurking offshore, and the harbor was full of container ships waiting their turn, so I was off to the Circus.

The moody Med, shot the next day from the Archeological Museum
At the Circus, the guy sold me a combination ticket good for several other attractions -- and good the next day, which was good because everything was going to close at 7. He also warned me that, the next day being Sunday, everything would close at 3 in the afternoon. Thus, I figured, I'd have to do all my inside activities early, and walk the streets afterwards.

The Circus didn't particularly thrill me: it's only partially excavated, since most of it lies under enough dirt to support the buildings of the nearby neighborhood, and, as I've said, I'm not thrilled by Roman art or architecture. Next to it is a Roman tower, to which the Spaniards added a story in the 14th century for the king to stay in when he was in town. Pretty dull. The Archeological Museum would have to wait for Sunday, so I just wandered aimlessly. Pretty soon I found myself at the Cathedral, and a quick look at its sign confirmed what I figured: closed to visitors on Sunday. Better take a peek.

Swarming with tourists on Sunday, of course. But again, no steeple.
It's not the grandest cathedral on the outise, although all those saints are pretty charming, each one holding a scroll with his name on it.

Hi! My name is St. ______!
I hustled inside, and was awed. Not so much by the architecture or the art in the chapels, but because an organist was playing early Baroque Spanish organ music, which is some of my favorite music in the world: I used to own about 15 LPs of it, and have quite a bit in digital form. The organ itself was set up especially for this music, too. Off to one side, there was a glass door leading to the Diocesian Museum, a magnificent collection of Spanish Romanesque art that the bishop's people had saved from crumbling churches in the state of Tarragona. I rushed through it, wishing I didn't want to be back in the main sanctuary listening to the organist. Then there was the cloister, again, gorgeous. I whizzed around it. Back inside. But the Cathedral was going to close in about 15 minutes, so I reluctantly decided to leave. Fortunately for me, I got lost trying to find the exit. There was, as there always is, a gift shop that I found, with exactly zero recordings of this organ. Crazy. I finally found the exit and pushed the door and walked out, the spell broken. I will very likely return -- Tarragona's only an hour's train ride away from Barcelona, after all -- but I'll make sure to do it during the damn organist's lunch break!

I wandered down the steps in front of the Cathedral (dedicated to St. Tecla, the town's patron, and surely one of the more obscure saints out there) and found myself in a square into which gigantes were gathering. I'd seen these outsize figures before, this spring in Girona, but not in this quantity.

I have no idea what was going on, because they are supposed to show up (as are the famous castells, the human towers for which the city is renowned) for the festival of St. Tecla in mid-September. In any event, they were gone by that night.

I made it back to the hotel after some wandering, and finding a big square lined with restaurants that would be a good place to find dinner. And, later, I ascended the hill again and chose a restaurant that had fish with romesco sauce. At last! The waiter didn't speak any English, but we communicated and I placed my order. He came out again with the menu. No romesco. Grrr: I ordered langoustines in garlic sauce and then hake with what the menu called "burned garlic." I'd been notably garlic-deficient on this trip, so it was time to make up for that. It was just okay, and instead of a wonderful Spanish draft beer, they had Amstel. The Dutch are gradually taking their revenge for the years the Spanish colonized them (yes, they did: how do you think the Prado got all those Bosches?), I guess.

It was damp and chilly the next day, so I headed to the Archeological Museum first thing. To my disappointment (but not surprise) it was 100% Roman, but at least it was dry.

The plaza outside the Archeological Museum. Notice umbrellas.
One thing I liked in it was a few mosaics that had been found in town, including this wonderful depiction of the fishes of the Mediterranean:

The menu for a Roman seafood restaurant? No, it was originally on the floor, and the Romans didn't have restaurants.
A lot of the museum is given over to Roman inscriptions, which I think is one of the most boring of the subsets of Roman archaeology, since they're mostly gravestones or celebrations of military victories. I read a little Latin, but the Romans didn't put spaces between their words and, worse, often left some vowels out. But there was a temporary exhibit about a remarkable structure some ways out of town, Centcelles. It has Roman mosaics, Arab baths, and Christian features, and was in ruins until a German team started digging in the '50s. They're still at it, and the wild thing is, despite all the artifacts and art that's been uncovered, nobody knows what it was. A rich farmer's house that the Arabs added the baths to? They're crowd-sourcing guesses, and you have until January 8th to add yours at the museum.

The Archeological Museum wasn't included in the ticket I'd bought at the Circus (although its ticket also gets you into other sites it administers, I found out too late and with no time). I wandered around, and discovered the only bit of Jewish presence I saw in Tarragona (although apparently an arch near the Archeological Museum was the gateway to its judería). It was an inscription on a stone supported by two Roman tombstones around the corner from the Cathedral.

Thanks to a couple of medieval Jews I keep on retainer for just such emergencies, I found that this reads "This is the gravestone of Rabbi Chaim bar Yitzchak," and a date nobody can make out.

It was lunch time, and it was sprinkling again, so I went into one of the few places that was open for lunch. I just wanted a couple of tapas and a beer, and the waiter urged calamari with onions on me, so I also ordered some blood sausage with "chopped eggs." The calamari were standard fried calamari (but good: I suspect any restaurant in Spain that produces calamari with the texture of pencil erasers doesn't last a week) with a few crisp-fried onions on top. The blood sausage sat atop a bed of fried, cubed potatoes with some padron peppers. I asked the waiter if "huevos" was a local term for "patatas," and all he said was "my mistake." Since the potatoes a) weren't very good, and were probably frozen, another cardinal sin in this country and b) bad for my diabetes, I concentrated on the sausage (excellent, and redolent of cumin) and the padrons. Now, you know that the Spanish say that every sixth padron is hot? I'd had several dishes of them on this trip, with zero heat, which is disappointing because the sport is part of the deal. These? Every one made me fear I'd leak earwax, they were so hot. Dang.

Padrons, but harmless Madrid padrons
The rain let up again, I wandered, and came upon the city walls box office, which was on my Circus ticket, so I went in and absorbed far more than I wanted to know about the Roman walls and how they were added to by the Spanish in the 18th century. I wandered some more, and decided I'd had it with Tarragona. As with the Reina Sofia in Madrid, I wasn't in the mood. Despite my being perfectly aware of the fact that I couldn't do anything in Austin until I got back on Tuesday, and that I had a nice day ahead of me in Barcelona, something in my mind was tugging my attention away from what was in front of my nose. I walked down the hill, then back up later for a really bad meal in a Basque restaurant on the square, one of the few open on Sunday, then back down to the hotel. The staff refused to help me get a ticket off of my Spain Pass ("Why don't you buy one out of a machine like everybody else?"), so I woke up the next day and did just that. Bonus: the train stopped at the Paseig de Gracia station a couple of blocks from my hotel. Non-bonus: the hotel gave me the first sub-standard room I've ever had there.

I proclaimed the vacation OVER.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Valencia: Catastrophe In Paradise

The coating of hucksterism that comes with tourism is annoying, albeit in my case, in a selfish way. I'd have preferred to stroll the streets of Toledo making discoveries on my own and with Naomi as a guide to the unseeable, but that's simply not possible. It is possible, of course, that less-concentrated doses of what I was seeing could be found in the countryside, in villages and smaller cities. But the purpose of this trip was just to dip my toe into Spain and see what I might want to see again. In Toledo, I'd missed many of the churches, the Alcazár, and more. In Madrid, I obviously need to visit the Prado again, filtering out the stuff I'm not interested in, and return to the Reina Sofia when I'm more in the mood for the artistic revolution of the early 20th century.

So I was good and ready to re-enter Toledo's magnificent train station and head into the wild unknown. Not, of course, totally unknown: I'd been in the province of Valencia before, in January, 2011, to do an interview at a rock festival in Castellón, and, since it was my first trip to Spain, I stayed an extra day to wander around, which I certainly did. In some ways, Castellón was kind of rinky-dink, a small provincial city, and in other ways it was fascinating. I bet myself that the provincial capital, Valencia, would be better, so I added it to this trip because, I saw, it also had a bunch of the history I was trying to figure out.

It took a while to get there, changing in Madrid and being welcomed by the turtles, then getting on another train which started out in that dull, flat, brown terrain but, as we approached the Mediterranean, sprouted some lovely mountains, rivers, and lakes. Then came the industrial outskirts of a city and bang, we were in Valencia. I liked what I saw from the cab as we sped to the hotel, and I definitely liked the hotel.

What's not to like?
The Hotel Caro was to be my splurge on this trip, and boy did I make the right choice. You want archeology? We got archeology: the building was the former residence of one Marquis de Caro, and in gutting it to put the hotel in, they found all kinds of stuff. Eating breakfast in the restaurant, there were weathered stones on either side of the passage into another room. Most of the relics are captioned, and this just happened to be the gate in the wall of the Arab city. In my hotel. (Breakfast was excellent, and not even the party of 10 screaming Dutch tourists could ruin it. It had all the usual breads and cold cuts and cheeses one gets in Spain with some unusual stuff, of which my favorite was a two-inch pickle sliced in half and filled with that excellent Spanish tuna, a dish that became problematic when it was time to eat it: the pickle was hard, and the tuna squished out when any pressure was applied to the pickle. Tasted good, though. But sloppy.)

And by "the Arab city," I'm invoking Valencia's history. It was settled when the Romans found it, I guess by Iberio-Celts. The Romans made quick work of them and established a trading outpost, Balancia, with Jews helping manage the trade. The city was destroyed in 75 BC by Pompey during the Roman Civil War, and the city, remote as it was from the eastern Mediterranean, where the action was, remained empty (or mostly so) until somewhere between 5 BC and 5 AD, when Visigoths stumbled upon it: a mostly-built port right on the Mediterranean! Cool! They had a huge party, and at the end of it threw all the leftovers and crockery down a dry well, for which archaeologists thank them. Next came the Moors, who stayed for centuries, although El Cid's army recaptured it between 1094 and 1101, only to be driven out again. In 1238, Christian Spaniards conquered it, and have held on to it ever since.

It was mid-afternoon when I arrived, so I went for a walk to see where I was. The hotel was tucked away on a quiet back street, but it was easy enough to find (one great thing about Roman-built cities: the roads are built to a grid, and it's pretty easy to find your way around, at least if you have New York in your head), so I felt free to ramble. And I did, camera in hand.

No idea. A block from the hotel. 

The Cathedral has an octagonal spire. Thanks, Arabs!

Serrano gate and towers

The Basilica at the end of a street
Like Barcelona, Valencia is home to some of the coolest street art in the world. This guy is omnipresent.

"In the kingdom of the blind," which I didn't know was a quote from Erasmus (and maybe isn't: don't believe everything you read in the street!).

The bullet holes in the Quart towers made me nostalgic for my old neighborhood in Berlin when I first got there, before they erased the evidence of the battle. These were inflicted in, I believe, 1833, when the French wanted in. 
Here he is again, a particularly nice one. I shot many more.

And am I right that this is a Banksy?
As I reached the end of my walk, I suddenly realized that I'd circumnavigated the old town, and was just a block or two from my hotel. I was also bushed: it was still summer here (as it was in the rest of Spain, actually), so I retreated to the hotel room after getting dinner suggestions from the always-helpful front desk. I was told there was a tapas joint just down the street, and I got a couple of other suggestions, which I researched as I relaxed.

Still tired as dinnertime approached, I walked to the tapas place, although I actually wanted a full meal. But I forgot that there are tapas places and tapas places. I ordered the "three queens" (marinated white anchovies, regular anchovies, and sardines: incredible), a plate of grilled vegetables with romesco sauce (the waitress warned me it was very big, and it was) and one of their tostas, a big slice of grilled bread with a topping; in this case three local sausages. To go with it, I noticed some local beers, one of which, XIII Hombres, called itself an "American IPA." Not only was it, but it was absolutely amazing. I had another.

The next day I arose lazily, took my time showering, and turned on my iPad to see what the e-mail had brought. And what it had brought was very bad news, indeed: I had asked a nearby friend to check the house every now and then because although I'd held my mail, UPS and FedEx don't do holds, so there was a possibility of a package on the front step. The friend had been called away by a death in his family and was in Buffalo, and he'd delegated the porch watch to another guy. This guy had shown up and seen water pouring out from under the front door, photographed it, and sent it to Buffalo, where it got forwarded to me in Valencia. I immediately sent it to my landlord, who went over to see what was happening, and what was happening was horrible: the toilet near my office had blown a gasket, and was shooting water out at a quick pace. It had flooded the entire house to a depth of 1 ½ inches, and caused ceilings to fall in and floorboards to warp. Anything that was on the floor, which included CD boxes and the entire inventory I'd had for sale at my Amazon store, was soaked. The closet opposite the toilet contained all my t-shirts, meaning what I had with me was all that I knew were wearable.

As I thought about it, I realized that there was nothing I could do. I didn't have renters insurance because I'd been almost dead broke when I'd moved back to the US, and then I'd just never thought of it. The damage was most likely done in the first couple of hours, as the paper fibers soaked up the flood. Even if I'd been in Austin, I might have been elsewhere when it happened. It was done. I didn't know just how badly, but it was done. I had another night paid for in my hotel, a couple more in Tarragona, and a last one in Barcelona, so I might as well finish the trip. Dealing with it would have to wait until I got back. I made a note to find a hotel in Austin, and then did what any rational human being would do when such a spiritual crisis hit: after breakfast, I went back to the room and prepared to go to church.

The dome of the Mercado Central
Valencia's Mercado Central, the central market, is one of the largest in Spain. Unlike the ones in France it doesn't open in the early morning and shut at 2; it opens at 9 and stays open until the early evening.  There are over 1000 vendors, most of whom seemed to be out in full force on the day I went. And there was an amazing variety of stuff.

Pimentón is what we call paprika, and the Spanish take it very seriously as an important ingredient in their cooking. The heat levels aren't particularly scary, but the deftness with which a good cook adds it to a dish is. 

Does anyone know how you're supposed to eat these little crablets I saw all over Spain (but not on menus)?

Live eels, swimming vigorously. 

I hear those red shrimp are incredible. I'll find out how incredible next time. 

Tiny eggplants of some sort. No idea what to do with them. 

Beans and more beans
Believe it or not, this is a pretty mediocre selection of olives and pickles for Spain, and the only reason I shot this is they were so compactly displayed. 
Fresh cheeses. You have to know what basket-imprint means what variety of cheese: they mature in wicker baskets that leave the impression of their weave on each piece. 

I bought some ham and lomo (cured pork loin) and a bunch of spicy chorizo (a cold-cut, not like the Mexican kind we get in Texas) from a nice lady at the Francés stand, and some equally sealed-in-plastic olives from a stand called Oiled & Salt (it's legal to bring the meats in if they're sealed), and headed back to the hotel to drop them off.

Believe it or not, after that long trek through the Mercado, I wasn't hungry: I'd indulged myself at breakfast on purpose. And, just a block from the hotel was a promising-looking archeological museum, so I headed over there. It turned out to be a continuation of the stuff found under my hotel: mostly Roman remains, a whole lot of the feast pottery from the Visigoths, and the remains of a small Visigothic chapel, which is thought to be where the city's first saint (whose name I didn't write down) was martyred. L'Almoina, as this center's called, is a modern building built over a 20-year dig, illuminated by a glass ceiling looking down on it all from the plaza outside. It's got ruins of the crossorads of the two main streets of the Roman city, the Arab fort, and various tombs. It's also got technical problems, making many of the explanatory videos either distorted or just plain not working, and when I was there there was a crew of filmmakers blocking access to a lot of stuff and shooing the few visitors away.

One thing I'd loved in Castellón, unexpectedly, was the art museum's entire floor of Valencian ceramics. This art came to this part of the world with the Arabs, and I fell in love with the primitive designs. I wanted to see if I could score a piece -- reproductions are still being made in the traditional designs -- so I also wanted to see what the Museum of Ceramics had to offer. This is in one of the most over-the-top houses I've ever seen, evidence that in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Spanish nobility had waaaay too much money.

It was kind of hard to shoot, but you get the idea

The interior is ghastly, too, and the museum personnel distinctly unfriendly, a novelty for Spain. But, over in one room, they had some of the plates I'd admired:

 The other major piece of folk art there is a Spanish tiled kitchen.

But there was nothing for sale, either there or in the surrounding neighborhood, that I could see. I was somewhat less enthusiastic about buying a piece, too, when I reflected that I didn't know where I'd be living and I didn't really want to lug it around with me back in Austin.

So I decided to check out the municipal art museum, and realized when I crossed the river that I was actually slightly hungry, so after a nice dish of fried calamari and a beer in the adjoining restaurant, I went into the museum itself and saw some wild medieval altarpieces and even wilder baroque ones and some more ecclesiastical art (Spanish depictions of Christ tend to center on the Easter story, with him getting whipped, crucified, pierced by the lance, wearing the crown of thorns, and being taken off the cross, and he bleeds like an overripe tomato: the blood gushes in torrents), a couple of nice Goyas, and a lot of people in uniforms staring at me. I was touristed out: hotel time again.

Dinner, later, was at the same tapas bar with the same huge portions and a couple of beers from the XIII Hombres brewery that were a bit gentler. I remember a tremendous gazpacho, a seafood salad, and...something else. (The tapas bar, incidentally, is called Bar Almudin after the street it's on, and the huge Arab building across the narrow street, al-Mudin, and Bar Almudin has been there since 1932). I realized that there was some anxiety humming in the background, and tried to sort it out. Some of it was the usual "the vacation is ending" stuff, and there was also the certainty that I had no idea what was going to happen next, once I got back. I'd taxied to the railroad station in the afternoon and had my ticket for tomorrow's trip. I'd go to Tarragona, but I really wanted to stay in Valencia. I had a feeling I hadn't even scratched the surface and that there was much yet to discover and enjoy. But the vacation was, in fact, ending, and I was being propelled into the future, like it or not.

15th century tiles in my room in the Caro

Site Meter