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Bits and pieces from my time in Valencia, Spain

A City in Mourning

Our flight was circling Valencia, preparing to descend, when across the aisle, a guy with a red beard was filming the view with his phone, pointing it at the window to his right. After a moment, he leaned across the central aisle to show his friend the video he’d taken. It showed black smoke boiling out of a high rise. Our plane banked to the right, and I saw it too. A residential tower had been engulfed in flames, and it was sending a dense column of black death high in the air.

After we landed, we turned on the news. Already, people were drawing comparisons to the Greenfeld tragedy in the UK. Here in Valencia, a cheaply constructed apartment building with flammable cladding had gone up in less than an hour. The contractor had long since gone bankrupt, dissolving the business. That fire tore through 173 homes and cost fourteen lives, including a family with a newborn baby. A couple who’d barely escaped the war in Ukraine were rescued off a balcony by firefighters.

The start of the Fallas festival was postponed for three days of mourning, and it seemed the whole city swept their arms around the affected survivors, piling up clothes and childrens’ toys and food. Festival preparations halted, and the once-bustling streets felt lonely, save for clusters of tourists wandering around, taking photos.

Exhibition of the Ninots

We walked through Turia park, the long, ribbon-like parkland that wraps around central Valencia like a scarf. The park was built in a riverbed after the river was diverted, and as we made our way ever closer to the City of Arts and Sciences we passed outdoor cafes, museums, soccer fields, and playgrounds. The biggest playground has an enormous plastic giant, Gulliver, and his body had been transformed into slides, ladders, and other climbing toys. The children become Lilliputans, climbing over the body, laughing, running around. After Gulliver we arrived at the Arts and Sciences complex, passing the futuristic architecture and the low blue pools that reflected each building like a mirror. We’d found the Exhibition of the Ninots.

Ninot is a Valencian word (in the Valencian language) and I don’t know what it means exactly. But they are sculptures, no bigger than eight feet tall, and as diverse as anything you can imagine. Some show family scenes of traditional Valencian life. Others are political statements. One showed (in eye-blistering detail) two politicians having sex. Another showed an Israeli tree decorated with wax doll heads, and many of the heads had bullet holes in them. Some Ninots were cartoon characters. Others were based on movies or comics. The one that made us scratch our heads seemed to be nothing more than a piece of luggage. Ninots seem to be smaller versions of the large artworks (Fallas) that go into the town squares near the end of the festival to be admired, then burned.

With our admission to the exhibition, we were allowed to vote for one ninot to be “pardoned” from the fires. The artwork with the most votes is saved, and goes into a museum. The rest are burned. Fallas is a festival of fire, and there’s something unique about a city that explodes with art every year, only to burn it all down.

Kids with Explosives

March in Valencia is full of fireworks. Every day at two p.m. there’s the mascletà, a ceremonial fireworks display. The daytime fireworks give off cannon-like booms and bursts of colored smoke. And every weekend there are huge, traditional fireworks displays at night, right in the town center. As peak Fallas week approaches, it seems everyone is getting in on the fun. Explosions ring out intermittently, all day and all night.

Every time there’s a fireworks show, the streets absolutely fill with people. It’s as if everyone walks out of work, or their houses, and yacks loudly with their neighbors in the street until the party starts. It’s loud and lively! As the crowd recedes, there’s trash everywhere in the streets, an oddity for what is generally a very clean city. Yet just as quickly, a small army of municipal workers arrive, restoring things to sparkling. In the center square, after the mascletà, a dozen street sweepers zoomed in, running around like car-sized roombas, picking up all the dust and paper.

As an outsider, the thing that surprises me the most is how the children are involved. Small kids, perhaps seven or eight years old, run around town with boxes of fireworks in their hands. They’ll pull out a three-inch firecracker, light it with a lighter, and toss it into the street or plaza. BANG. They laugh like maniacs, and the adults around them pay almost no attention. The streets are full of eager demon children, lobbing explosives into busy areas. BANG. BANG. BANG.

Babies sleep in their mothers’ arms, completely indifferent to the noise and the smoke. As I heard one person say, in Valencia, children are born with polvo (gunpowder) in their veins. It’s quite the thing to see. Back home, we’d never trust little kids with fireworks. Back home, tossing a firecracker around people would get you into significant trouble with your parents. Of course, back home, you jump and duck for cover when you hear a big bang. Back home, a sudden bang is more likely to be gunfire than a firecracker.

Random Acts of Tuba

The other noisy delight this time of year are the bands marching through the streets. Randomly, several times a week, a band shows up nearby and begins playing enthusiastic music in the street. There are lots of tubas. So many tubas. I peek out the window and see dozens of people dancing, jumping, cheering.

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