Intro to the Yellow Cup

Sometime in the early 2000’s I was at a party having a conversation with a girl I had never met. At some point in the fairly mundane conversation she said “you seem like the type of person who would be interested in that yellow cup”. I was holding a yellow cup at the time and the way she said it made me feel very insecure and self-conscious. What had I portrayed in no more than 5 minutes that lead her to this conclusion? It felt condescending and even though I thought I knew what she meant, I knew this was not a virtue she was looking for and shortly we moved on to other parts of the party.

So, when thinking about what to name a blog of my meandering thoughts and adventures, I was happy this small interaction stuck with me. I was thinking of pun type titles like “search and perch” and “more-monger”, but in the end was relieved when a more personal and meaningful title presented itself.

I don’t remember what I said or did in that five minutes that gave that girl insight into my soul, but I think she was pretty perceptive. Another person, one of my longest and best friends, said I was “a ball of enthusiasm”, defining one of my strongest virtues. Again, I remember feeling self-conscious and insecure. These interactions have clearly stuck with me, and this blog is an attempt to leverage that enthusiasm and interest in many things into a productive outlet for creativity.

The Falcon Attack

When I was 19 years old I was attacked by a falcon. I wasn’t alone and it wasn’t life threatening, but it was, however, one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I’m not going to tell the story now, but if this blog thing turns out to hold my and your interest, I may recreate the magic that was those two days on a mountain in Castleton, VT.

The reason I bring it up is because I reference it when people ask me why I like “birding”. I had an incredible interaction with birds of prey and have been fascinated ever since. My bird fascination doesn’t stop at birds of prey though. I have since seen a woodcock’s mating call, a Kentucky warbler in Massachusetts, and have been corrected by experienced birders that we don’t say “seagull”, and that there are many types of gulls and we need to be specific. Now that I think about it.. before the falcon attack I had a philosophy teacher in Castleton, VT that canceled class so he could see his “700th bird”. We made fun of him, but I remember thinking it was cool.

Music

I’m a musician. I don’t think it takes much to say that, but it did take me a lot. I won’t go into my music bio now, but I am well passed 10,000 hours on a couple instruments and the struggles of professional musicians resonate strongly with me. I am still a fan and love seeing and hearing music. I still get shivers and play occasionally, however around 2 years ago I decided to stop taking music seriously and shifted my focus to other things.

The reason I mention this is because I hope to be sharing musical experiences here in some depth. I know the technical skill and feel intimate with the craft, so I will be sharing reactions and opinions from that perspective. I am still a fan and “ball of enthusiasm”, so I hope it will be fun and informative.

Languages and Travel

Right now, I’m in Valencia, Spain. My girlfriend is going to school here and we found an apartment in the city center, a neighborhood called “carmen”. I’d like to say I live here, and I have been here for months, but I should say I live in Lynn, MA. A city about 10 miles north of Boston and one that does not have the best reputation. It does, however, have a sweet limerick that people like to say when you tell them you’re from lynn.

In the last two years, I have visited ten countries. I’m about to go to Georgia for the first time and will explore the interesting region of the Caucasian mountains. The Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The gateway between the east and west. I am nervous and excited and hope to write a lot about it. I have dipped my toe into learning the Georgian language and it is quite an experience. The alphabet looks like people attempting to draw hearts and is one of the few languages that linguists don’t know the root language for.

Since taking a break from practicing music seriously, I have filled some of that void with learning languages. It started with spanish and I’m excited to say my interest and pursuit of spanish is ongoing and almost as passionate as they were two years ago. I have dabbled in some other languages, but would like to be “conversational” in spanish by the end of 2018 (level B2 or beyond). This is something I will be writing about throughout the year and imagine will be part of the focus of this blog.

I have been developing a spreadsheet with important words that I think is interesting and will help me learn. The original idea was a basic concept that there are “essential words” that people should know in every language. This idea quickly got out of hand and I needed to limit some of the parameters. So far, there are six languages and about 200 words. I will be adding to this throughout my travels.

Conclusion

This is an outlet for me and my travels. I am taking in so much that I felt the need to put out at least part of that. Tune in for travel tips, overheard conversations, musical experiences with venue and band recommendations, language learning tips from a white American man that just started learning spanish at 35 (two years ago), random bird experiences, beach and mountain hike recommendations, street art observation, and food and resturant recommendations from a guy who started cooking in his late 20’s.

This is going to be fun for me, and I hope it will be informative and fun for you. My new year’s resolution is to post three times a week. I have been reflecting on how much is appropriate and I think everyday is too much, but twice a week is too little. I will be gathering things often and want to encourage myself to share those things. Let the games begin.

Advertisements

I Lost my IPad in Tbilisi (Transferring Money and Shipping Packages Over Strange Borders)

Ok, so I haven’t written in a while. I was really enjoying sitting with my ipad and keyboard typing about my adventures. When I left Tbilisi I also left my ipad behind. Technically I didn’t loose it (just left it at a friends house), but it did leave me without a convenient way to write/post and also I had a few drafts of articles I was working on and really lost motivation when I had to wait a month to get my ipad shipped.

The one good thing about leaving this expensive piece of gear behind is that I got to learn about both transferring money between countries as well as shipping from Tbilisi to Valencia. It was an expensive lesson, but now I can tell people confidently that its possible to safely ship a laptop or ipad from Georgia to Spain.

The first challenge was getting cash to my friend in Tbilisi who would then pay DHL to pack and ship the package (I also left a notebook behind). We tried to use paypal, but apparently it is not supported in Georgia. It would’ve been great because there would be no fee attached to the transfer, but after a few attempts with different accounts we decided it wasn’t going to work.

The next idea was MoneyGram. My friend Irakli had received money from his mother who lives in America using this service. After trying to set this up using the moneygram website it seemed like I was going to have to go into an actual moneygram location. I’m not sure if this is how it is everywhere, but in Valencia, the “moneygram locations” are actually just little bodegas that have a computer and printer/scanner. I was really disappointed how expensive it was to send money, but I paid the 25 euro fee and sent the cash to Tbilisi.

To ship the ipad/package from Tbilisi to Valencia it costs around 150 euro. Again, it was an expensive lesson, but aside from some files I only had stored on the ipad, I also paid close to a grand for the lovely iPad Pro. It was sadly worth it to pay close to $200 to get it back.

After only three or four days, the package arrived in Valencia. I actually had to pay another 30 euros to pick it up at the post office! (Another annoying thing to keep in mind if you want to receive packages in Spain. Again, I don’t know how it is everywhere, but even a little gift package worth $20 costs 30 or so euro to actually pick up at the post office.

Needless to say, I was kicking myself about the needless expense. I had a great lastnight in Tbilisi, but didn’t go to sleep until I got on the plane around 7am. I was definitely a candidate for forgetting something, but I didn’t care because I was so sad to be leaving Georgia. Maybe I subconsciously left it behind so I would have a reason to stay in touch.

After about a month without writing when I got the ipad back I was really out of the habit that I was only newly developing. I hoped that I would get back into it and continuing developing as a writer and post more consistently, but it wasn’t until now as I sit at a convention that I’m working at that I actually started typing. Luckily, I’m back in the states and should have plenty of these opportunities to read and write.

Languages, the Caucasian Region, and Learning to Read and Speak

The Caucasian region has the highest density of different native languages. There are three distinct language families and over two dozen languages natively spoken in this relatively small area. Soviet occupation led to Russian being a unifying language, but due to the geographic landscape and migration history, pockets of unique native languages still survive. Languages like Georgian are especially unique because of unknown origins and a lack of connection to any other language in the world.

On the train from Tbilisi to Baku I decided to start learning a little Russian. Of course, I started with the alphabet. There are a few tricky things with the Russian alphabet, but overall it’s as easy or easier than the Georgian one. The hardest part being the “hard” and “soft” indicators which are silent and only inform you how to say the consonant before.

After one day using the tiny bit of Russian I knew in Azerbaijan, I started to gather that learning some Turkish words might be more useful. Also, the Turkish alphabet is actually based on Latin with a few distinctions from English. Namely some little tales and dots attached to the familiar letters specifying slightly different pronunciations. “Azeri” or “Azerbaijan Turkish” is different than Turkish, but for simple purposes like counting and basic words they are very similar.

Clearly, I am biting off way more than I can chew. I still don’t understand most spanish speakers and I want to at least be comfortable in spanish before really diving deep into other languages. Also, I want my language learning to be functional and maybe lead to career opportunities if not simply conversations with people I would otherwise not be able to converse with. That being said, a language like Georgian would probably be very far down the list if I wasn’t devoting myself to it and planning on living there or working with Georgians in America (It is actually unknown how many Georgians live in America since the US immigration system did not differentiate between Russians and Georgia until recently). There are only around 4 million people who speak Georgian and most of them live in Georgia.

Russian on the other hand is spoke by around 270 million and Turkish is around 70 million. Making either of these languages much more global and therefor more practical. For comparison English is almost a billion at 2nd place after Mandarin at around 1.1 billion. Hindi and Spanish are 3rd and 4th around 500 million. Still, for me nothing compares to the beauty of the Georgian writing and percussive nature of the spoken language.

Ok, so Russian or Turkish? Well, I think if I had to choose, I would have to go with Russian. Aside from it being more widely spoken, I like the fact that it is a different alphabet. Also, the relationship with Russia and the US makes it more practical than Turkish. I have yet to travel to Russia, but being in the Caucasian region and former Soviet Union has been building my interest.

The history of this region is rich and deep. The gateway between the eastern and western worlds and an important hub along the Silk Road make this region a crucial part of modern and ancient history. I saw some petroglyphs in Azerbaijan that some historians believe are over 5,000 years old. Neanderthals may have invented some of the earliest writing in this part of the world.

So… my goal is that by the end of 2018 I will be comfortable speaking (and understanding) most spanish speakers. I will have another month and a half in Spain and plan to return to Central America by the end of the year. My curiosity in languages has only grown and Spanish is not only functional, but relatively easy for an english native speaker. The real test will be to function in a spanish speaking country without ever speaking english. That is my goal before the end of the year.

If I am able to accomplish this goal, then I feel better about taking on a third language with a little more seriousness. When I first came up with the idea to seriously learn multiple languages 6 months ago, the order was this: Spanish, German, Greek, and Mandarin. German, because I took two years in high school (I did this, however, because it was supposed to be easier than the French and Spanish classes because the teacher was “cool and laidback” where as the other language teachers were strict). I didn’t learn much and regret not caring about language learning as a teenager (a very common problem in the US).

Greek because my girlfriend is Greek (she’s american and doesn’t speak greek) and some of her family speak it. Also, I like the history of it and how it is the foundation for many languages and philosophies. It also has a different alphabet which is fun and I like the way it looks. I never joined a frat, but if I knew greek maybe I could know what houses to sneak in to.

Lastly, Mandarin for a few reasons. First, in 2007 my band toured in Taiwan and we got excited about the language. Seeing the writing and hearing the language got us white boys enthusiastic about Chinese. When we returned to the states we purchased the Mandarin Rosetta Stone and practiced as a band one night a week in addition to our music practice. This lasted for a few months..

Another reason Mandarin is a good choice is because it is very practical. China is a world power (arguably the strongest) and Mandarin is spoken more than any other language after english. Another reason for me is that it is not only a different alphabet, but its not really an alphabet at all. Chinese (Mandarin) uses characters and most native children learn over 10,000 characters by the time they are 18. Its also a pitch based language, meaning syllables have one of four pitches. Up, down, sweeping, and neutral. Something like that… I’ve had a hard time locking in these difference in the few dozen hours I’ve spent trying, but I know some native english speakers who have pulled it off and I think with practice it could happen. Being a musician and rapper can’t hurt.

Ok.. so that original list and concept was spawned in October while traveling through Europe and getting excited about how many languages there are. Now, only four months later, I have re-evaluated and think I need to step back. The brain (and mine specifically) can only retain so much. I need to prioritize. The fact that I am passionate and interested only goes so far (although VERy important). I have prioritized words and concepts I want to learn, and even how to learn them, but now I need to figure out how to prioritize the actual languages I want to learn.

Now, in 2018, it is almost unnecessary to learn a language with the contemporary technology available. Soon, we will all have ear pieces that translate in real time. Some of this developing technology has helped me learn the little bit that I already do. Tools like google translate and duolingo have not only sparked an interest in learning languages, but have helped millions become more fluent in their dream languages. I am not disappointed that these technologies will render my new found passion fairly useless and kind of expect technology to render most human endeavors useless. This does not hinder my passion and in fact heightens it. I’m writing this in an amazing pub (Parus pub, which means “sail” in Turkish) that I found while aimlessly strolling in Baku and was able to make a friend with the owner of the bar through google translate. We did not speak much of each others languages, but I felt welcomed and the fact that I was able to speak a few words of Turkish and Russian helped put him at ease. I am a traveler and student. I am learning and want to understand the world.

After three drinks it is probably time for me to go. I liked this exploration and writing session a lot and could probably stay for the rest of the evening. As the owner left, he told me the place was open for 24 hours and there was “no problem” (a phrase middle eastern people tend to say a lot). Perhaps it was perceived that I was about to leave because the beautiful waitress brought me a shot of vodka on the house. I was able to say “спасибо” (spacibla) which means “thank you” in Russian and made her smile, giggle, and say something to the other staff. Maybe it was “this guy’s an idiot”, but I suspect it was nicer and more generous than that. I will never know.

Overnight Train and First Day in Baku

I arrived in Baku three days ago. I took the overnight train from Tbilisi which was surprisingly fun. I went for the second class which had four bunks as opposed to first class which had only two. This ended up being a good decision since it was only me and one other person anyway. It was also nice because the other person was a 25 year old dude from Peru. His english was good, but I got to practice my spanish as well.

The train ride was scheduled to be 14 hours, but ended up taking 13. We left at 7:30pm and landed around 8:30 am the next day. About an hour and a half after leaving Tbilisi, we hit the border. We had to hand over our passports and visas both leaving Georgia and entering Azerbaijan. Entering Azerbaijan was a little more intensive. We were interviewed about our travels, why we were going to Azerbaijan and we had our pictures taken. This took a little over an hour.

After the border checks my new friend and I turned off the lights to attempt sleeping. The bunks were very small and the train was noisy and bumpy. It stopped several times, but somehow I enjoyed it. I had strange dreams and was in and out of sleep for most of the trip, but I felt comfortable and was actually disappointed when I heard a knock on the door and noticed the sun was coming up. Carlos and I woke up and chatted for the next hour and a half before getting into the Baku central station.

Carlos had an Azerbaijan SIM card and offered to help me get to my air bnb, but when we got into the main station which had wifi, I told him he didn’t have to wait. There is Uber in Azerbaijan and the trip to my air bnb would’ve been super cheep, but after Carlos left I tried to pull the trigger on the Uber and for some reason it did not except my payment methods. This would begin a three hour adventure of navigating a new city where very few people spoke english and the few that did did not do it very well.

Step one: Get local currency. Manat is the currency of Azerbaijan and its usually pretty easy to get cash from an ATM. This proved fairly true. There wasn’t an ATM in the station, so I ventured out into the city to find one. In the metro station in the next main building I found an ATM and took out 100 Manat (about $55). It gave me two fifty’s and it was time for Step 2. Figure out the transit system.

The metro station did not have wifi and I needed to communicate to my air bnb host about my arrival. I had a general idea of where the apartment was, but the address was not clear and there was no instruction as to how to buzz in or alert him of my presence. I knew bus #14 would get me very close, but I didn’t know how to pay for the bus (usually its not just cash) and wanted to touch base with my host before getting on the bus. So I walked across the street to Mall 28 and up to the food court where I found wifi and was able to communicate with my very accommodating host. We agreed I would get bus 14 and use the wifi at the park across the street from his place when I arrived.

I went back to the metro station and asked the security guard how to use the bus system. (There are metal detectors and security at the malls and the metro stations, and since I had all my stuff with me I was getting stopped at every point where they saw I had mostly cloths and was a dumb, lost tourist.) Another gentleman tried to help me get a metro card, but when he saw I only had 50’s he told me the metro machines don’t give change. I asked where to get change and he pointed to the mall I had just come from. So… back to mall 28.

Since I had already logged onto the wifi at the food court, it was no longer available. I wanted to let my host know I was running late so I ordered a coffee and waited 10 minutes until 10am when a bookstore would open and I could use their wifi and buy a Russian to English book. I went to the bookstore and was able to check in with my host who had messaged me a few times “where are you!?”. I apologized and tried to explain the silly back and forth that was happening. I told him I was on the way and headed back to the metro station for the third time.

Step 3: Actually get to the apartment. I easily purchased a metro card with 1 Manat which allows four bus rides (.20 manat each ride). I found bus #14 and sat down. I counted the six stops as we drove through the modern looking city and got off at Izmir park. I went to the park to use the wifi and quickly discovered you need to enter a phone number to receive an SMS message to activate which was not available for my spanish SIM card. At this point it was almost 11pm.

I tried to find an apartment number, but ended up going to the nearest open cafe that had wifi. I messaged my host who said his wife would come get me at the cafe. After another few minutes a nice woman who did not really speak english led me to the apartment which I would never have found without a guide. The entrance was on the backside of the building and the number did not match the numbers in the air bnb post. We walked up six flights of stairs (I knew this was the case and was part of why the flat was only $15/night), and entered a really nice apartment with a pool table, a loft with a bed, a nice kitchen and bathroom. I had the whole place to myself! I got the wifi working and messaged the host “I’m finally here!”. He said he was working until 7pm and we would meet after then.

I practiced a little Russian and failed at getting the shower to work. I climbed up the ladder and curled up in a large bed. It was noon. I woke up a few hours later and decided to see what trouble I could get into in Baku.

After waking up from my nap I gathered some things and headed out into the city. Baku seems much bigger and more modern than Tbilisi. I simply walked down random streets following whatever instincts told me. I really like this way of exploring… Should I go right or left? Often I head the direction that seems more developed and has more going on, but sometimes the seemingly more simple way grabs my attention for some reason. Today was one of those days.

I headed down a street next to a highway. There is a lot of development in Baku. Lots of construction, big buildings, and a lot of traffic and highways. Also, lots of honking. After a few blocks of boring city sidewalk I turned down what seemed to be a Main Street. Lots of shops on both sides of the street.. tons of “doner kabab” shops, pharmacies called “Aptek”, computer/phone stores, and a few cafes and restaurants.

I saw signs indicating the center/market and continued that way. After about an hour of walking I arrived in what seemed to be a pretty main part of the city. I was getting hungry and wanted a drink, so kept my eye open for something appealing.

That something came in the form of a little divey looking dinner that seemed to have a bunch of local old men smoking and drinking tea inside. I debated entering as such a foreigner and decided to give it a shot.

I definitely got some strange looks as I walked in and asked for a beer. There seemed to be only one option.. the one beer on tap and I happily sat down with my notebook and beer. I started trying to memorize the numbers 1-10 in Russian and use a photo of the alphabet to assist. At one point, the one waiter/bartender indicated he was checking in and I pointed at my notebook and asked how to pronounce a certain letter. He seemed to understand and waved to a young man sitting at a nearby table who came over and tried to help. Neither of them spoke english really, but using a pen and my few notes they were able to answer some of my questions.

The Russian alphabet has a few curve balls for english speakers. A handful of the letters are exactly the same as english. A few of them look the same as english but have different sounds. A few are totally different looking and sound like english letters and a couple are very different and indicate if a sound is hard or soft. These are the most confusing to me and similar to the pitches in Mandarin, its hard to execute the difference. I try to mimic the sounds of locals and end up getting positive and negative feedback for making what to me are pretty much the same sounds. I wonder if these subtle differences will ever reveal themselves to me, but I have faith that if I keep at it I will discover the keys.

After my beer and some good interactions with the two locals, I decide to order some food. I saw another guy eating a soup and tried to order the same. It took a while to get the point across, but in the end I received a delicious soup, a small loaf of bread, and a second beer. It was easy to finish the dark soup with mystery meat, potatoes, and cinnamon with other spices. The bill was 5 Manat and I left 6 (about $3.50). The Peruvian I met on the train told me that Azerbaijan was cheaper than Georgia… this experience seemed to verify that.

After my delicious dinner I was ready to call it a night. I waited for bus #14 at a nearby bus stop and crammed onto an incredibly packed bus. In fact, the first one that came by was too full for anyone to get on. I considered walking, but waited for the next one. I got back to the apartment and got into pajamas. Around 830pm my host said hello and asked if he could come visit. I kind of wanted to stay in bed, but put on some pants and ended up hanging with him for two hours.

Vladimir spoke english better than anyone I had met in this country and he showed me pictures and used a map to show me where some of the important places to visit where. We made a plan to use his car and visit these places in two days when he had time off. The tour he offered was much more extensive than any tourist agency and it would just be the two of us. 130 Manat for an all day venture around the country. We would visit a “mud volcano”, a fire temple, a beach on the Caspian Sea, petroglyphs, and the burning rock. There is a lot of ancient history here and it was fascinating listening to his explanations. He also recommended some food and an old restaurant with “the best kebabs” in Baku (Otdix). Sturgeon and Caviar are delicacies here and pretty expensive. He explained about the different types of sturgeon and the tricks that restaurants use to make things cheaper. After two hours of conversing we said goodnight. I walked up the ladder and curled up in bed. My first day in Azerbaijan was a success. I was looking forward to Day Two.

The Georgian Language

The first time I ever heard the Georgian language was actually the same day I learned that Georgia was a country (I know, a little embarrassing). I was in Munich at Oktoberfest and was staying at an air bnb with three Georgians. They offered me breakfast one morning and while we ate I heard them speak to eachother in Georgian. Flash forward to that night and I was learning the georgian numbers 1-10 which included the unique alphabet and strange sounds unfamiliar to english speaker’s ears.

I then shared a car with these three from Munich to Vienna and we spoke about their country and I heard them speak throughout one of the most beautiful drives through the Austrian Alps. I became fascinated with the language and the country so much that when I returned home, I pursued learning more about the language and culture. My recent obsession with languages did not hurt, and I started adding Georgian to my spreadsheet of “words to know in every language”.

Since spanish was the second language I had seriously attempted learning, I had become familiar with multiple conjugations and strange grammar, but I had not really spent much time with another alphabet. I had spent a little time with the Greek alphabet, but for some reason Georgian seemed to be more exciting for me. Perhaps it was the curvy-ness of the letters or the percussive nature of the sounds, but I was quickly becoming more interested in Georgian than Greek (I fully intend on revisiting greek).

Learning one through ten was a good first step, but for me learning the alphabet is the real first step for learning any language. I want to know the pronunciation of letters and how words are put together. Even though this doens’t really help one communicate, it is the doorway to fully understanding what’s going on. Aside from dipping my toe into other languages, I’ve been researching how to best learn a second language, and one thing that comes up is learning like a native learner. This does not really include learning the alphabet as much as it involves listening and repeating back what you’ve heard in context. Kids do not learn the alphabet until they have a least a few words and phrases under their belts. This is important, but as an adult learner, I think its also important to add some technical skill to the game. I’m trying to combine both when learning a new language and have found it quite useful… not only was it impressive to native Georgians when I could pronounce words from a sign, but when remembering words, for me its much more helpful to learn the written version instead of just one persons version of saying it.

One of the best things about the Georgian alphabet (Mkhedruli/მხედრული) is that there are only lowercase letters. Most alphabets have upper and lowercase letters and this can make it a little tricky to memorize everything (twice as hard in fact.. ex. Greek). There are 33 letters and most of them are pronounced very similar to english letters. A few of them, however, are quite different and I’m finding even when I think I’m doing them right I am being corrected by my georgian friends (even to the point where I still don’t know what I’m really doing wrong).

So… 33 letters to learn and what beautiful letters they are. There are three historical versions of the letters, but the modern version is the one to learn. While traveling the country, I do run into different versions of the letters which can be confusing, but if you get the modern 33 down it shouldn’t be that difficult to incorporate the alternatives (there are some exceptions and they are pretty different). Usually the alternatives are in churches or for logos and stylish menus. The locals seem to understand no problem, so I think once you know the modern alphabet it’s probably easy to spot the usual suspects.

Ok, now that I have the alphabet down to some extent, it’s time to learn some of these crazy words. I think the hardest part of learning georgian words is collection of consonants in many of them. When I brought this up to one of my georgian friends who was pretty good at english, he mentioned a couple words with this idea in extreme… Vprcqvni which means “i peel” and “Vbrdchvni” which means something like ripping through curtains, but I don’t think there is a real equivalent in english. I have a friend here who is Ukrainian and speaks better georgian than Ukrainian, but still cannot pronounce this word. I am going to make recordings of all of these things.

Since I have a spreadsheet of the most important words to know in any language I have a place to start. The top ten are obviously “hello”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, “good morning/evening/night etc”. If you can learn 10 words in any language you are off to a good start. Especially, when that language is hard and most English speakers don’t even try. You score some points for even trying. The phrase in georgian that I’ve been scoring the most points with is “me mesmis”, which means “I understand”, which I can obviously only say when people are speaking in english, but it really helps things move along if they are struggling with their english.

“I am learning” is also a good one since it puts you in the student place. In Georgian this is “Vtsovlob”, which is pretty hard to say correctly and also understand as an english speaker. I’m learning the “V” at the beginning means “I” and is part of the georgian conjugation. It’s hard to find rules for georgian in english and even my friend who’s trying to learn english has to use the Russian duolingo to learn english, which really means he has to learn two languages if he doesn’t know Russian (which he doesn’t that well).

Since Russia was the main develper and occupier of georgia for the majority of the 20th century, Russia is the second language of most countries in this region. Probably a good language to learn (like spanish in the United States), many of the signs are in Russian and Georgian (some have english). I have not even started to learn Russian, but I’ve been told its very different. I did watch “the wedding crashers” in Russian in my hotel room in Batumi, so thats something.

Obviously practice is the key and having native speakers to listen to and speak with is also very important. Trying to be efficient with practice time is also really important. The way that I’ve found that helps this the most is using an SRS (spaced repetition system). When researching the best way to learn a language it is rare to find an article that doesn’t mention ANKI. This is a wonderful program that you can mold to your own preferences and uses SRS to spread out what your learning in the most effective way. You can download flash card style “decks” from an online community or create your own. Since there are not a lot of Georgian decks online, I have been building my own based off of my “most important words” spreadsheet. Deciding how to structure the deck has been a little tough (do I include the english pronunciation or just the georgian writing?, do I have english or georgian on the front? If I include audio, who’s voice do I use?). These issues are not that significant since practicing any of these ways will only help. I’m just aiming for best practices : ) Which, I haven’t done today and should put in some time. მშვიდობით ახლა (mshvidobit akhla). Which means “goodbye now”.

Road Trip in Georgia. Kutaisi, Batumi, and Racha.

I’ve been in Georgia for almost two weeks. I spent my first week in the Tbilisi area and just got back from a road trip to the Black Sea and west side of the country. My friend, Irakli, arranged for a car rental and we paid in cash. He signed some paperwork, but it was the first time I’ve ever rented a car without showing my license or putting a credit card on file. The car drove ok, but it would not be without it’s quirks lending to a more adventurous roads rip.

First off, Georgia is the only country I’ve been to that has cars with both the steering wheel on the right and left side of the car. Everyone drives on the right side, but the car we rented had its steering wheel on the right. Having driven in Scotland I was not worried, and it turned out to be very natural (driving on the left side of the road was much more difficult). Also, this car was an automatic and I didn’t have to deal with the stick shift on my left which also proved a little confusing in Scotland. I always wondered what the postmen felt like in America with the wheel on the right.

So we set out west toward Kutaisi where Irakli grew up and where I had a meeting with some musicians who made panduris, a classical Georgian instrument that I was interested in. The drive to Kutaisi from Tbilisi is about 3.5 hours and pretty much one road the whole time. I had booked a cheep hotel in Batumi which was another 2-3 hours from Kutaisi. The drive was pretty cool… the first hour was mostly flat with the Caucasian mountains covered in snow in the background. There were actually Rocky Mountains both to our north and to our south and even though it was overcast, it was quite beautiful.

After an hour or so, we started to get into what I would call farm territory. Large rolling hills with scattered small villages and lots of cows wandering the street eating grass along the edge of the road (I only needed to slow down to avoid them a couple times). The beginning of this territory I would say started with a village called Surami which was the home of a famous style of bread called “Natsuki” (მაზუქი). Many venders standing outside of shacks along the side of the road waved this sweetbread around trying to get drivers to pull over and buy some. I did end up getting one, but didn’t take any pictures which I regret. The bread was sweet and reminded me a bit of fried dough.

Another two hours through these rolling hills and poor villages and we arrived in Kutaisi. My contact from Georgian Folk Music Instruments (www.hangebi.ge/eng) met us near a bus stop and hopped in the car. He led us five minutes to where they had a little underground workshop and an apartment where they taught lessons on panduri and guitar. We ducked our heads down to enter the little workshop where we saw some instruments at various stages. Levani did his best to translate and I learned how they acquired the different types of wood, how they naturally dried it, and carved every instrument by hand. These instruments are made by musicians who care a lot about the sound of the wood and less about appearance. Not to say they are not beautiful instruments, but they are not decorated to hang on a wall like most of the cheaper panduris I saw in Tbilisi.

After the workshop, we went to an upstairs apartment where I got to play three different panduris. Davit, the resident teacher and musician, showed me some chords and we played together for an hour or so. We played a few Georgian songs and a few recognizable american songs such as “Hotel California” and the theme from the Last of the Mohicans. The panduri only has three strings and is tuned as a major chord (A C# E) and was pretty easy to pick up. The tough part was the right hand strumming style (not unlike flamenco), and the use of the left thumb. They were willing to take $200 for an instrument, but since I’m traveling and trying to save, I told them I would have to order one when back in the states. I fully intend to do so.

After jamming with Davit, Irakli and I went to one of the oldest establishments in Kutaisi, “Bikentias Sakababe”,where they sell Kababe. Clearly a local spot, people stood at little counters and ate these sausage type things and drank beer. When the guy behind the counter learned I was american he became very enthusiastic. He was very interested in my thoughts on the place and offered us complimentary shots of “chacha” the clear Georgian liquor that is like a spicy vodka. The most amazing thing about this place is that it cost 7 GEl (“lari” the Georgian currency) for two kababes, a ton of bread, and a pint. 7 lari is about 3 US dollars.

We said goodbye and decided to head out of town towards Batumi. It was almost 6pm and our 2-3 hour drive would be in the dark. I didn’t get to see much of Kutaisi, but I think its a fairly simple city. We drove by a few statues, parks, and buildings that would have been nice to photograph and explore more, but I think one day would be enough to see most of Georgias second biggest city. Most buildings I saw were pretty run down, and you could tell there was not a ton of money here. Irakli explained that when he was growing up that every street had at least one mafia house and it was a pretty rough city. Batumi would turn out to be quite different.

The drive to Batumi was a bit stressful. The rental car turned out to only have one working headlight and the windshield wipers didn’t work very well. It started to rain and we ran out of wiper fluid. There were many big trucks on the road and it was hard to see. At one point we got pulled over by the police and Irakli explained it was a rental car and not our fault. They let us off with a warning and told us to turn on our emergency lights. I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have Irakli with me to translate. Even when I pulled over they said something over a loudspeaker telling me to pull up further. I would’ve been very confused and nervous without a local present. Given, I probably would have rented a car with two working headlights.

A long three hours later we arrived safe in Batumi. It was dark, but I remember the first time I saw the Black Sea off the side of the road. Large waves crashed along the shore… it felt like an ocean. We stopped at a little shop to get some snacks and water for the night and I asked the cashier if she thought it would be raining tomorrow. She said “yes” with a sureness that got me prepared for the worst. Lucky for us, she was quite wrong and we were blessed with the best day in January Batumi gets to see.

I had a nice soup for breakfast and downloaded the map of Batumi for us to navigate this great day. I had a few things I wanted to see and we ended up seeing them all. Piazza square, European square, the boulevard, and of course the Black Sea itself. We also ended up traveling out of the city 30 minutes to Jocho where the famous Adjarian Wine House sat in the mountains and hosted a large wine selection and amazing food. Overall, Batumi is a beautiful and unique city. A mix of Cadiz, Dubai, and Las Vegas, there are many things to do for people of all ages and lifestyles. We didn’t go to any of the casinos, but there were a few garish buildings inviting gamblers and clubers to enjoy the nightlife. Instead, we went to the wine house and had one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

The next day we only had one plan before leaving Batumi… I needed to try the famous Adjarian khachapuri, a breakfast of champions/artery clogging masterpiece of egg, cheese, butter, and bread. Irakli knew a classic resturant in the city to get it and we started our day off in “Laguna”, a cozy resturant in the basement of an old building. We both ordered the small khachapuri and I have no idea how someone would eat a bigger one by themselves. I didn’t even finish and I still felt like I needed to exercise to prevent a serious heart condition. The way Irakli taught me to eat it was to mix the egg and the cheese together and use the bread bowl sides to scoop up the colesterol. It was actually really good and I would eat it again, but I have been eating so much greasy meat and heavy food that I felt burdened by this dish. I really wanted some yogurt and a fruit salad.

With full stomachs and beating hearts we headed out of town towards Oni, Racha where we were going to stay in the mountain region for the night. It was nice to drive out of the city in the daylight, because I didn’t see the landscape when we entered at night. It was gorgeous. We stayed along the coast for a while with the beautiful sea to the west and mountains to the east. We continued to head north east through small villages and eventually ended up climbing virtically towards Racha. Irakli had never been to this area and was going to meet a political ally he had never met before. This friend assured us we had a place to stay and was going to host our evening.

The drive to Racha was stunning. Some of the towns we drove through were interesting and the landscape was beautiful. We started seeing snow as we climbed to 1000 meters and stopped a few times to get snacks and water. At one picturesque point we stopped for photos and fed a hungry dog our leftovers. When we arrived in Oni, we met up with Irakli’s friend who led us to our hotel where we dropped off our stuff. He then told us to drive up into the mountains to Shovi while it was still light out. It was around 430pm and I was a bit skeptical. Irakli had 4% on his phone and I had no internet access.. not to mention we were in a tiny car and the snow was starting to take over the roads. Turns out, this was a reasonable concern.

As we head out of Oni, the roads quickly becomes covered in snow and very slippery. Luckily, my Vermont driving skills are instinctual at this point and I manage to navigate the snow pretty well. At one point we are on such a steep and slippery section on the side of a mountain I share my concern with Irakli and say “maybe we should turn back”. At that point, a Jeep rounds the corner headed towards us and I’m not sure how we will get around eachother. I pull to the side as much as I can and we roll down our window to talk to them. Its a priest and a family and they tell us we need to turn around and cross the bridge we just passed to get to Shovi.

We are able to turn around somehow and cross the bridge and continue our slippery adventure. We are laughing hysterically, but there is a little bit of a concerned undertone. I know what its like to get stuck in the snow with a shitty car and although I told Irakli to turn his phone off incase of emergency I kind of figured it would be dead anyway. We swerve our way up these mountains through a few snowy villages until we reach Shovi. We made it! I turn the car around in an open space at the entrance of the Shovi Sunset hotel and we get out. Wondering if we should try to continue, we see another car coming down the road from further above. We ask the driver if we should continue and he says we can only really go another 200 meters and that we should just walk. He also says that there is a famous water spout with Shovi’s mountain mineral water up ahead. We venture up the road by foot and find the water. It tastes very weird and I wonder if the taste is minerals or something from the actual pipe.

The real excitement begins when we return to the car. The car is facing down the mountain so I try to just go… instead we are met with the familiar spinning wheels I recognize from my youth in Vermont. I remain confident we will free our little car without the need for flares and a fire. Irakli has never been in this situation. After asking him to push from behind and then in front, I try to find sticks and debris to put under the tires. We are now entrenched pretty deep in the snow and Irakli enters emergency mode. He tries to turn his phone on to discover it is dead. There is no way to charge it in the car.

Since I’ve been the driver the whole time I was asking him to push. I noticed he really only pushed a little and then gave up as I spun the wheels. Although finding sticks was difficult, I mananged to break some branches off ad nearby tree, dig out what I could from the front tires and cram a bunch of sticks under the wheels. I asked him to try driving and got behind the car to give it one last shot. As he stood outside the drivers seat pushing the gas as he pushed the car, I rocked the car back and forth feeling that encouraging back and forth. I yelled “PUSH!” as I rocked the car. He started to get the idea as the car moved and continued helping the forward motion. After a couple minutes of digging in, the car plunged forward and we were on the main road.

Although there was still a ton of snow on the road, I was confident we were through the worst of it. We slid down the mountain and passed a family sledding and some older folks trudging up the snowy road. Three hours later, we were back in Oni after sunset. We met Irakli’s friend Basho who treated us to a feast at a small dinner/restuarant in town. Another higher ranking government friend joined us and a fifth guy who played us some songs on accordion and joked about the government pouring wine added to the group. It was a really fun night.

When we woke up, we were asked to eat a little at the hotel with the mother and son who ran the place. The woman made all of the bread and jam homemade and even some pear liqueur that was amazing. I was hesitant to start my day off with a strong drink, but it was amazing how much better it made my sore throat feel. Also, I may have found one of the few Georgians who spoke Spanish. The son who helped run the place had lived in Barcelona for 2 years and spoke better spanish that I did. He couldn’t speak english, but we were able to communicate in spanish and it felt really good for both of us. He showed me how they made wine and the pear liqueur and we spoke about our travels and his time in Europe.

To round up our time in Oni, we met Bacho at the same little restaurant for a delicious soup called “kharcho”. We said our goodbyes and headed back down out of the mountains. It was only a 4.5 hour drive back to Tbilisi and it was on the same main roads. I was excited for a shower and a nap when we got back and slept quite soundly. Its hard to believe we were only gone for 4 days, but I’m getting used to life flying by. I feel incredibly lucky to have these adventures and wouldn’t trade it for anything. This country is beautiful and I will be sad to leave. Luckily, I have made lifelong friends here and am welcomed back. Maybe next time I will come in the summer.

First week in Georgia

Well, I’m in Tbilisi, Georgia. That’s something. I’ve been here a week and I’ve written the beginning of five articles. One about the food, one about the language, about the history and churches, one about the landscape, and one about the people. I don’t feel qualified and I don’t know what I’m doing. What I do know is that this country is very special and deserves attention.

Part of what I love about traveling is the insight I get into my own world. The contrast and connections that I make to my experience in America and the other countries I’ve visited. Everyone in every country and culture does the same things. We eat and drink and laugh and beg and fight and play and live and die. Maybe to different extents, but I’m seeing much more commonalities than differences.

Language is one of the biggest differences and I suppose skin color is another one. Georgia is very orthodox.. and white. I wondered if I would see a black person here and I haven’t. A few middle eastern people with brown skin (mostly tourists), but no Africans. I’m not sure why this is true, but I think it has something to do with the war torn nation and the peoples pride and defensiveness from surviving attack from other countries for centuries.

Georgia has somehow survived for thousands of years while having zero friendly neighbors. A smart young Georgian man told me today that only two countries have had such a situation. Georgia and Ethiopia. The idea that Georgia is a new country since the Soviet Union broke up is not true. The culture, language, and brotherhood is far outstanding 1990 and seems to permeate through every person and old building in Tbilisi.

I have spoke with over a dozen Georgians and they all have similar attributes of loyalty and generosity. There is sarcasm and misogynism, and intelligence and ignorance. Very reminiscent of a country I love/have to call home. I assume there are people that I would disagree with to the point of unfriending here, but I have found more of them in the states during the 2016 election. I’m not searching for fundamental disagreements with strangers, but lets be real.. I kind of am. I did just get into a heavy conversation with a Georgian Orhtodox Christian about LGBT issues and how I thought his opinion was strait up wrong. It was over dinner and he was so cool about it I ended up feeling like I was the closed minded one.

So again, people are pretty much the same minus the education and indoctrination. Something about skin deep.. and abuse is only bruise deep.. and bias is only rude peeps teaching dudes who sleep (most of my writing originated in rhyme so forgive the occasional side steps). Basically, I’m learning more about myself than about another country. I will write about Khinkali, and the mini-busses, and the mountains, and beautiful unique language, but I needed to write something and this is what came out.

I love Tbilisi and the little of Georgia that I know. I have been more welcomed here than any other country and I would feel good living here. It’s difficult as an American to say I would feel good being born here when so many people here say they wish they were born in America. I am lucky to travel here and want to explore much more. I feel very connected to this place and its people and will continue to take in its beauty.

Hispania (the school) and The Conditional Tense

I started another week of classes at Hispania, escuela de español in Valencia. In September, I studied here for a couple weeks and I really like the set up of this school. When looking for spanish schools in Valencia I checked out two other places and ended up here. I haven’t wanted to switch because its perfect for my in and out of the city schedule.

One great thing about Hispania is that there is no exact curriculum so you can start in the middle of the week. From Wednesday to Wednesday I’m doing a two hour class every week day and leaving to Georgia next Thursday. When I get back in February I can jump right into an A2 class and won’t feel lost or bored.

La Forma

Every class is two hours and has 5-10 students. There is always a grammar and lexicon idea covered, and there is always a ton of vocabulary associated with those concepts. Today, the gramatical idea was the conditional tense and the lexicon idea was la farmacia. First off… I was pronouncing Far-ma-cia incorrectly. The ‘ma’ gets the strength so it’s farMAcia. These little pronunciation things end up mattering a lot when trying to understand people and speak so they can understand you.

The teacher (la maestra), of whom I’ve had four of at this school, has consistently been an attractive woman in her 20s and brings a fun, high energy into the classroom (la aula). She will introduce the main concepts, give some examples, answer any questions, and eventually hand out a worksheet for us to work on individually or in pairs. In a two hour class, we usually go in depth on a couple different subjects like this.

El Sujeto de Hoy (today’s subject)

A few great things came out of todays class. The main one being: In the conditional tense there are only 12 irregular verbs! I want to write a seperate entry on conjugation in general, but let me just say that as an english speaker, conjugating verbs is one of the most intimidating parts of learning spanish or any other language. Not only are their hundreds of verbs to learn, but each one has dozens of conjugations that are either surprisingly different or so similar that its easy to mix them up while meaning quite different things. Anyway… the conditional tense is easy.

A pretty simple rule of adding ia, ias, iamos, iais, and ian to the end of the infinitive. Now, if you don’t understand that last sentence, then this might be a little advanced, but I was especially intimidated by the other tenses and wanted to get all the present tense conjugations down before moving on. I’m not sure that was the best idea, but it did make other tenses less intimidating once I got to them. Now, I’m just happy that with the conditional, its not only one simple rule for all three types of verbs (AR, ER, IR), but there are only 12 exceptions!!!

Another really encouraging thing I learned today is that the future tense shares the same 12 exceptions. I had seen these 12 verbs together before, but i didn’t know it was a hard and fast rule. Since its so rare to find hard and fast rules in language learning I rejoiced a little in honor of these 12 verbs and promised to learn them well.

They are: Hacer, Haber, Salir, Saber, Poner, Poder, Valer, Venir, Querer, Caber, Tener, and Decir. (They were taught to us in this order as well, because the pairs are easier to remember.) These are the only 12 verbs that don’t follow the strict conjugation rules for both future and conditional tenses. The irregularities aren’t even that weird either. They are broken into three categories, but I would just look at them and notice the patterns.

Hacer actually “changes the stem” to HAR and becomes HARÍA.

Haber “removes the last vowel of the infinitive” and turns into HABRÍA

Salir “replaces the last vowel in the infinitive with a d” and turns into SALDRÍA

(Saber becomes SABRÍA, Poner becomes PONDRÍA, Poder becomes PODRÍA, Valer becomes VALDRÍA, Venir – VENDRÍA , Querer – QUERRÍAN, Caber – CABRÍA, Tener – TENDRÍA, and decir become DIRÍA.)

All 12 do similar things and are pretty easy to remember. Practice each a few times and I bet you’ll get it. I’ve been having fun drawing and doing little animations on my ipad, so I am going to try to make more cartoons regarding spanish and my adventures. The little video above is my first.

In terms of how the conditional tense is used, there are a few, but its pretty self explanatory. Its generally when we use the word “would” in english. It gets a bit more complicated than that, but when we say “I would walk to the store, but my ankle hurts”, we would use the word “caminaría” for “I would walk”. This confused me a lot at the beginning because I really just wanted a word to replace “would”, but once I got it in my head that the “ía” at the end of these verbs was the “would” it got a lot easier.

Entonces… which means “so…” I am really excited to have a week of being a little more intense with my spanish learning. I’m also practicing a little Georgian everyday in preparation of going next week. I’m going to try to write a little each day after class to solidify the concepts that were introduced. I’m trying to figure out the best way to lay out the blog so I can keep the more academic/educational spanish stuff separate, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m just going to write and hopefully it won’t be to hard to go back and organize.

The MuVIM

I’m not really a “lets go to a museum” guy, but I’m definitely not a “I hate museums” guy. I’m probably more of a “some museums are amazing and some are pretty boring” guy. That being said, the most boring museum I’ve ever been to is a fond memory. Liz and I spent 2 euros on a marionette museum in Porto, Portugal and we were in and out in 30 minutes, which was way longer than it should’ve been. Liz watched a little movie, I read some history of marionettes, and then we concluded with our own puppet performance with the marionettes provided. It was pretty silly unless you loved the niche, but in good company one can usually find some gems in any space.

The museum that I just went to is in a similar category. Its costs 2 euros. We stayed a little longer than we should’ve and for me at least.. its already a fond memory. The museum I’m referring to is the MuVIM in Valencia, Spain. Museo Valenciano de la ilustración y la modernidad, which of course is enlightenment and modernity. The word “ilustración” through me off a little as well, because one of the exhibits was about early animators/illustrators from Valencia. I didn’t know either of those things walking into the place.

The building of the MuVIM is pretty novel. It made me think of how important the actual building is to the experience. This museum is in a pretty cool part of Valencia. There’s a small but nice little park on one side with a sleeping homeless man reminding you that your in the city. Skateboarders practice grinds and slides in a large empty fountain flanked by broken Roman pillars. I don’t think they’re actually Roman, but its possible and the whole image was a mentionable contrast between modern and ancient art. So this is where liz and I met and found our way to the entrance which lived under the silver closed bridge connecting the two sections of the building.

The entrance hall is worth going to if you live in Valencia or want a birdseye view of the old town. There is good sized model of the city showing what it was like when it was surrounded by a wall and the canal was running through the now Central Park. You can walk around to get different perspectives and there are photos with information about historical landmarks. I saw a few landmark buildings that I want to visit now that I saw them in this model.

The information desk is right there with brochures and no real map. Only one exhibit was in english we were told, but we have been embracing the lack of english for a while now. We venture off in a direction and walk down a long ramp where we end up walking by coat check to a dead end bordered by more of this ancient wall/pillar looking stuff. I’m going to figure out what its all about.

We eventually found the first exhibit.. Images of Power. It was three medium sized rooms in the basement and this particular exhibit was all portraits. The first room was the “Kings of Africa. Photographs by Alfred Weidinger” and was obviously the coolest for my aesthetic. Mostly black and white prints of badass kings from Cameroon and Nigeria. Sometimes flanked by their enforcers. The second room was all painted portraits of the presidents of the Provincial council of Valencia. Thats a ridiculous sentence, but thats what it was. Very traditional paintings of old royalty.. not my thing.

The third room was called “The Evanescence of Present-Day Power” and was mostly photography of current leaders. One highlight was a photo of Angela Merkel throwing shade at Vladimir Putin while Putin’s black lab walks around the room. A large photograph of Donald Trump meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping acted as kind of a centerpiece for the room. Overall, this was a good way to round up the three rooms and now that I’m thinking about it a pretty interesting contrast between modern and antique illustrations of power.

Animación

We exit the power rooms and get on an elevator that brings us to the third floor. When we exit the elevator, we are met with old looking cartoon characters. Reminiscent of Disney, but there is no steam boat Willy or Donald Duck in this hallway. These are the early cartoons of Valencia!

Focusing on three valenciano pioneers of animation, this small exhibit had some highlights. First off, it inspired me to break out my Apple Pencil when I got home and make some dumb animations. Secondly, liz and I sat in this tiny box theater at the end of the exhibit and watched as a dozen super short cartoons from the 1940s zipped by. Some of them were less than 10 seconds long and we loved them.

We exited the animation hallway outside to where the entrance to the museum is. We walked back in and asked the same girl behind the desk where to go. She pointed us to a little elevator and we went to the last exhibit we were going to see that day. We quickly strolled the final hall of stylistic contemporary paintings by Marta Beltrán. The style made me think Dick Tracy meets Waking life… swirly paintings of surreal gatherings with trench coats and hand guns scattered around. I liked it, but we were ready to exit this oddly confusing building.

Conclusion

I honestly didn’t think I would end up posting about this due to lack of material. There were really only two exhibits and they both felt small and not overly impressive. I have been to some spectacular museums so the bar is set pretty high, but after reflecting on the whole experience and thinking about the location, I kind of want to go back. Not to mention I have to find out more about those Roman pillar things. Maybe I’ll revisit when they change exhibits in a couple months.

Paella

Paella! First cook the meat, then cook the veggies, and then drop the bomba. Saffron.. paprika.. rice and whatever meat or vegatable you want to add. A flat pan with level heat in a nice sequence that produces arguably Spain’s most famous dish. I was thinking about taking a paella class when I arrived here, but was happy that our valenciano host offered to teach us his style. I would love to hear the nuanced additions or subtractions to paella that explicitly layout style, but I think its like a lot of cooking.. experience leads to intuition about amount of ingredients, water, heat, and time.

I will be documenting liz on her first attempt to cook Grego’s paella recipe over an electric stove instead of his gas stove with a cool thingamagigy. The thingamagigy that I’m referring to is a great device that turns your simple gas stove into a widespread evenly distributing flame dispenser. Its pretty handy.

When Grego showed me what kind of rice to get for paella he described it as “bomba” and demonstrated an explosion with his hands. Noticing the shape of the rice I giggled to myself that it looked like an ACME bomb from cartoons and realized I wouldn’t forget this type of rice. We grabbed some carrots (las zanahorias), asparagus (el espárrago ), eggplant (la berenjena), green beans (las judías verdes), and zucchini (el calabacín) at the local market so it would be more fresh than the supermarket. The more obvious ingredients like rice and oil we got from the carefour express.

To stay in line with Grego’s recipe we kept it vegetarian. Most recipes I see call for shrimp, chicken, chorizo sausage, mussels, and/or prosciutto. Basically, it’s a ton of meat and vegetables cooked in a certain way that results in a unique and delicious rice dish.

Since we’re skipping the meat, we start with the carrots to lightly cook in oil. After las zanahorias are soft we add the other chopped veggies. Cook the veggies down for 20 minutes, then add the garlic (el ajo), and the paprika (pimentón) <which also means “bell pepper”… look into this>. The way Grego did this was by making a little circle in the middle of the pan and putting the minced garlic in the circle. After the garlic cooks for less than a minute, we add the paprika and stir quickly on the bottom of the pan. Después (after) el ajo y la pimentón, we add the grated tomato and water. Grego actually used a grater to shred the tomato, but we didn’t have one so I got to smash a tomato with a mortor and pestle that we happened to have. After mixing the tomato in, we added enough water to cover everything and account for the rice.

La bomba.. The paella rice. I love the way I was taught to measure the rice and its maybe the sole reason I wanted to write about this. You pour the rice in the shape of an X across the pan! It looks cool and it surpasses measuring cups. It’s poetic and beautiful and easy to remember. I haven’t seen this technique on YouTube yet, but I’m sure its a fun local way to measure. I like this dish enough to pursue it further and maybe even take a class. I suspect we walked into a quality lesson from a local friend, but I’m still curious about the differences.

There were a few things we forgot. Number one.. peas.. This obviously isn’t crucial considering the schmorgisbord that is paella. Even though I didn’t put it in my original list, Liz and I did talk about it before and expected peas (las arvejas), to be in the dish.

Another other thing we felt was lacking was “socarrat”, the crust at the bottom that deserves a name. We are not quite sure why our dish lacks this trait, but we are destined to find out and will continue this paella thread until we find out. I’m sure it wont be hard to find leads and examples on the internet, but write in and let me know your secrets to creating “socarrat” in paella. We have our hypothesis.

The last thing we excluded was the coloring. Grego added an orange coloring to make the dish brighter and more colorful. Most paella recipes call for this. There is no nutritional value in the coloring and Liz and I decided we didn’t want eat color.

After another 20 minutes of letting the rice cook you are done. A very important step is NOT TO STIR during this step. A key part of paella is letting the rice process settle and letting the socarrat and top layer solidify. I have only had paella a few times and consider myself a novice, but I love this dish enough to eat it several times a week and explore it further.

Liz and I had two servings each and had one left for tomorrow. We discussed the lack of peas and bottom crust, but ultimately enjoyed watching the unabomber show on netflix while we scooped out wholesome veggies and rice out of a bowl. Paella is easily a defining dish of catalan families and spanish families on a whole. Filled with flavor and nutrients, paella is a staple in the spanish household. If every dish came with the same care to ingredients and process, I think families would be much healthier. Lets get some paella in our lives.

The Central Market, Valencia

“El Mercado Central” in Valencia is pretty special. A little west of center in the old town, “the meerkat”, as we like to call it, is housed in a beautiful modernist building designed over a hundred years ago (1913). I’m lucky to be living in Carmen because the walk from my apartment to the market is a fun 5 minutes through the narrow weaving streets of old town. I’ve been to the central market a half dozen times now and I don’t think I’ve taken the same way twice.

There are at least six exits/entrances around the building, but the side I consider the front faces the direction of our apartment and is “la puerta” I tend to use. Today, not only did I intentionally go around the entire building and look at all the exits, but I went to the small information room and picked up a map as well. The side I consider the front is on Plaza del Mercado which has a little outside market with booths and shops selling food and paella pans. On the map it says “Lonja”, which I learn means market or exchange.

There are 959 “stalls” throughout the meerkat and many of them sell similar things. The famous “jamón” stalls with the pig thighs hanging above the counters, fruit stalls with fresh juice in plastic cups and straws to grab and sip while you navigate the grid based lanes, local spices in heaping piles add to the layers of smells, and Liz’s favorite stall “Salazón Art” where I had the mission to get “mojo picón” olives. I learned “mojo” means garlic oil sauce. On a spanish tip.. I learned from a former Valenciano roommate that “ajo” which means garlic, is one of the first words the spanish teach their kids because the J sound in spanish is difficult to learn (it kind of sounds like clearing your throat).

After grabbing the spicy garlic olives and finishing my watermelon/strawberry juice I wander over to the seafood portion which is wisely in a separate part. Not to say the smells don’t carry over into the main market, but there is a wetter part of the market where you can gaze deeply into a fishes eye and play with a squids tentacles. You can also slip on the floor so “cuídate”/be careful.

There are a few places to sit and eat. “Central Bar” was full and had small line of people waiting. I have yet to eat there, but the chef, Ricard Camarena is famous in Valencia. I have gone to this wonderful little coffee stall called “Retrogusto”, and it is much better than coffee I get at most cafes. A few stalls sell non-perishables like pots and pans, cloths, and even toys are scattered throughout. And don’t forget to grab some dried fruit or candy to munch on while you explore the rest of the city.

Although all of the merchants I interact with are incredibly nice and welcoming I can see how it might be intimidating for someone just starting spanish. Some stalls have people waiting with no clear lines and you just need to be assertive. If you wait around long enough, someone will probably help you, but the busier booths are moving quickly and will move past you if you don’t seem ready. Also, it is not uncommon for the merchants to only speak spanish. Be prepared with the phrases “puedo tener…” and “cuanto cuesta?”, as well as knowing your numbers and you will do fine. Its also fun to learn the names of all random merchandise, but probably not in the top 1,000 words to know. I was happy to see “sabia” in the fish section having had cuddle fish for the first time the other day (I don’t regret it, but I won’t be ordering it again anytime soon).

With my bag filled and my senses stimulated I make my way out of the market. Instead of getting bread in the few stalls that sell it, I was told by my cheese guy to go to “Alphonso Martinez” for the freshies. He told me most people who sell bread at the market get it from here. They bake it in house and it is less than a fifty meters from the plaza del mercado. A black sign with “Horno Pastelería Alfonzo Martinez” written above the door welcomes you to taste the best bread in Valencia.

I walk home a familiar way thinking about how to make this post interesting. I can add some pictures and describe the smells, but nothing will compare to tasting different olives and cheezes as you peruse the stalls of the central market. A daily exchange for the locals and a tourist destination for the travelers, the central meerkat is a worthy visit.