Forty minutes to boarding and there is a line of about fifteen people standing to be first in a game where if you win or lose, you still get the same seat number. As more people join “the cue of back-pain” I drink this overpriced squeezed orange juice that taste like pith and think about this new series of articles I’ll write for SIRP names “I ate it here” as tribute to Spider Jerusalem’s column The Word. Yet this is not about the city and politics but the city and the food in the form of simply short travel notes.
I don’t really know what to expect from the Costa Blanca nor I know anything about my hosts because they are not my friends, not even on Facebook, which is beautiful in an academic realm where informal social networks are becoming more relevant than competences. As we leave the Pyrenees a man is caught by the view, I share an Instagram of this interesting moment as the clouds are gone and the sea is on the horizon and there wi-fi on the plane. I search for a free window seat to get the same view and I instinctively smash my face on polycarbonate to absorb the energy for this new day. Surprisingly my eyes open, sun rays stings my head, a gust of air is flowing in, it feels sweaty, a brainy taste hits my tongue as bite my lips. It’s Mediterranean my dear and it’s kissing you.
Almudena and Leticia were waiting for me with their big smiles and warms hugs, the kind that makes you feel home. From the terminal to the car park we exchange more syllables than I did in seven days in Scandinavia, like only Italian with Spanish can do. Leticia is driving a cyan car with a panoramic windscreen. Even from the backseat I can explore the incredible landscape of hills, rocks, peaks, the sea, the valley, the gulf, the cape and the desert. It is incredible to experience all these elements along the short road between the airport and San Vincente del Raspeig. I’m utterly surprised. Leticia asks me if I’m hungry, I try to think when is the last time I had some fresh food, I guess from my lips came out some sort of “mhm” but I’m still searching my memories for an answer while the drylands turn greener and the palms grow higher.
We drive through the city centre on charming narrow streets where the sun cuts through the building like a blade on the pedestrian way, hitting the asphalt with star-shaped shadows as the palm trees shred the light like diamonds. Two floors buildings alternate with the +6 floors of the modern housing that seems to complete the urban landscape instead of degrade it. There is people all over the place, busy with any sort of activity as drinking beer, smoking a cigarette, having a chat, strolling or just standing by the corner store, all performed with no rush. What makes this city so vibrant are the storefronts, one next to another, street after street as cars share space with pedestrians using just a line of bollards to create protect without defining a border. All buildings can host activities for people to walk from one to another under the shadow of the threes and there is no Jan Gehl needed to fix the walkways or put new bike lanes or tram lines in this beauty that was built through stratification and not by Copenhagenisation. Indeed there is nothing to fix. The city here is not conceptualised as a problem but it’s social norms and evolving lifestyles taking forms with buildings, streets and landscaping. I see grandpas walking their nephew home from school, passing by the high street not because it’s the shortest way home but possibly because it’s a nice place to walk, something we can’t measure, the Christopher Alexander’s Quality without a name. Looking at the complexity of this 200 meters of linear space I feel how limited are my urban analysis, maps and simulation, not because my models are not accurate, because they are, but it’s rather their use statistical constructs that neglect the beauty of the “complex” by turning it into the “mean”. I will keep doing my analysis because apparently they are functional and they have customers so I can cash in, but within myself, sitting at the this table in a 18C° day in January, I am thinking if that really is the way I want to describe and study the urban landscape with its social meanings and interactions.
Dishes clash on the table and I wake from my thoughts. The bar tender runs with his tapas as if he had burning sand under his feet. The senses are awaken but this triplet of cheese, fish and cured ham are capable to resemble the landscape of the region on one table. The aged cheese brings me back to the rocky hills mastered by the goat, it’s chewy, sandy and creamy at the same time. If I stop chewing and hold my tongue up against palate I can feel the freshness of the grass the animals were fed with, in contrast with the earthy and glutinous aftertaste of the nordic industrial cheese. The Jamon from the hills is nicely aged and hand sliced thick to reveal its sweetness at the bite of the coral fat that marbles the meat and melts in the mouth. Last the marinated anchovies which thank to their osmotic skin they absorb the character of the sea together with its salt, making them tasting different from region to region. By the way, it’s easy, you clean the fish, you put it in a bowl with lemon juice, oil, garlic, petersell and wait for fiver hours and boom… it’s done!
The sun goes down and we head to the hotel cause I’ve still got to prepare my talk. It’s the first time that I don’t have that particular empty space in my chest that I usually get when I travel for work. That sensation of being extraneous to the context because just 3 hours earlier I was in another nation, with another climate, with another culture, with a different food it’s not there. I feel like I know this place. I go to my room, check the mail, open my power point but there is just no way I can find the concentration cause I want to feel this place. Whatever, I think, and I just close the laptop and walk out the hotel toward the first place that sell that great Jamon. With 6€ which is the same money this morning I used for that awful orange juice, I got hand sliced ham and 2 San Miguels. I open the first one and drink it all on spot, crashing the can with my hands. I take the rest with me, toward the campus of the Alicante University where I sit alone in the darkness of that metaphysic building by Alvaro Siza, in that cozy courtyard I could access from a slit in the wall. The night it’s warm as I explore the grid of the campus beer in hand, following the landscapes of smells that come from all the different plants and bushes near the buildings. I start to search for the building where I speak tomorrow but It’s midnight already. I crash the second beer and walk back to the hotel while getting three more San Miguels for the long night ahead.
During the morning I can see more of the faculty of architecture, an interesting building that connects the closed spaces of the classrooms with wide open air corridors used to display students works and make the reviews. After the lecture we share experiences with the research team in their beautiful office and then we go for lunch, off course. Here I’m sitting with very interesting people, the head of research and the head of building engineer and after a short business meeting the subject of conversation becomes the wonderful Paella I’ve been served. They explain me, this time with more passion and interest than when we previously discussed about work, that here Paella is different. Even though Valencia is next door here they make it different and off course, they make it better! Roger that.
We are off the campus to visit the Castle of Alicante. As we climb the castle the view of the city is breathtaking. Leticia walks the way to the pick of the hill even if she’s due to give birth “It can be any day or any hour” and she’s been driving us up and down for two days. Quickly she picks the car and drive fast to the city to make it before the sun goes down. I wonder where she gets all this energy, it’s probably the sun and the San Miguel. The streets are alive and beautiful like in San Vincente but double the scale. The palms on the streets reach the 6th floor and the walkways are paved with ceramics and mosaics that pleasure the eye and creates an exotic atmosphere. I wish I could commute along these streets as Almudena, Lucia and Pedro are doing every day or stroll with my partner on a lazy night of too many Margaritas.
We hit the maze of the old town and for the movida. A young guy screams in the street about his great tapas and when a nice girl passes by another guy pick head from the door to make some nice comments usually paid back with a smile. We sit on the bar, right in front of an army of young guys cooking at a speed of light. It’s the sushi bar reversed. There is no way to order unless you shout louder than the chefs do. We make our list and the guy at the counter transmits the order to the cashier out loud as if he was miles away and not centimetres, and the cashier is re-sending out list decomposed to each of the three guys cooking based on what part of the preparation they are responsible for. The drinks are called even louder because the guy who is in charge to only pour beer is 1,5 meters far far away from the cashier. Basically we have 6 guys working in a narrow bar to serve max 15 people at the time, shouting to each other back and forth and singing a song while hitting a church-size bell anytime they get a tip. The food here it’s pure creativity but I should write an article just about that, I’ve got 7000 characters here.
I really wonder what is it that we want to study from our cities. I wonder is the city an entity we can actually study? Because nobody can define what a city is but only create a constructed and simplified abstraction of it . We try to define it in order to measure it with our tools which they surely work because we have abstract and simplify this beautiful complexity using the same definition of the models we apply to measure or predict . I’ll think more about this and write it in my Ph.D. but I start to believe that cities cannot be studies but only experienced or at least represented in a subjective way that highlight the elements which are relevant to people’s perception and conception of the urban landscape. But here I’m, in my last night in Alicante wondering what do we live for, because at least for now all I feel is pure joy and pura vita with no compromises. Almudena, this is life! I shout after my umpteenth beer. After spending each single hour of my life to find joy in what I do, maybe I should have just looked for a place like that to feel good. Living in a beautiful city really can make the different. It made me happy, something I can’t measure or even understand. I try to absorb this positive energy for the next day when I’ll be again on a plane, travelling too fast to feel the change.
Next time you’ll see me I’ll be writing from the shady corners of the Bowery, New York’s lower east side, where the gentrification is displacing artists and making my dumpling reaching 4 dollars a dozen, and I’ll be on spot to tell you what I ate here.