¡Va de bo! Pilota speaks valencian
In Valencia the pilota is more than a game, is a ritual
The women drink beer and laugh openly. They speak quickly, basking in the sun with back-combed hair and contented faces.
The ladies of Valencia are ageless because they have always lived this way: together, in the sunlight. Valencian friendliness, the very same that urges you to bring your chair and table to the Malvarrosa seafront so you can eat with friends.
It’s not sloppy or slipshod, just the wish to share food and chitchat. Valencia means the scent of spices at the Mercado Central, the colors of fruit, the flavor of horchata, the sounds of Las Fallas, the feel of sand through your fingers. A sensory experience that swells and satisfies, generating dependence, addiction.
Valencia is its centuries-old traditions. Paella is the stuff of tourists if you eat it any day other than Sunday. You’re truly a native if you take part in a falla, waiting for March like an epiphany, yearning to be part of the most explosive (in the real sense of the word …) party in the world. Valencia gets under your skin with its warm, drowsy rhythms, smooth and persuasive. Hours spent at the bar drinking cañas and eating cacaos and olivas. Each moment dedicated to living, never to surviving. A place of the soul where there is always enough money, and money can’t buy status because nobody needs it.
A gypsy city in the crumbling Cabanyal district, a night-life city in Ruzafa. And an unknown city in the trinquets, those small, secular cathedrals where the local game par excellence is worshipped: the Valencian pilota. The game was confined to covered enclosures after the city council forbade it from being played on the streets, accused of en- couraging profanity. It was June 14th 1391, and the situation had spiraled out of control, with blasphemers betting and cursing wildly on a game of handball.
Play focuses on the vaqueta, the small, precious object up for grabs. It’s made from a strip of leather broken into dozens of thick, solid triangles. Entirely by hand, those triangles are punched and bound together with nylon rope and stretched tight to form a ball, which is not entirely spherical; the tangle of laces and leather is then soaked and, once dried, filled with wool, the excess thread burnt away; everything is put into a mold to give the right shape and then left there for a month. The object that comes out is caught and sent to the other side of the court over a sort of net.
Everything, as mentioned, is played by hand. And what hands! Perfectly wrapped with manic precision in adhesive tape and metal plates, which takes upwards to an hour. Each fingertip is topped with a leather cap, and the palms are hardened by shaped metal, allowing the player to strike the center of the vaqueta, sending it towards the opponent’s court. The ball can bounce only once before being hit, but it can touch any part of the stands and bounce back to the court to then be returned to sender. Spectators can sit anywhere, even in the middle of the court, so they are forced to shield themselves with every strike. Tennis for the brave, in short.
The ritual begins at the trinquet bar, where pre-game socializing is at its best. Worship continues into the stands where people place bets, doing their best to avoid the age-old tradition of swearing. Sportsmanship among rivals is one of the defining features of this ritual.
The pilota speaks Valencian, and even under Franco’s dictatorship it carried on speaking this language. Indeed, it made the expression va de bo emblematic, which marks the end of warm-up and beginning of the game.
Va de bo to say ‘okay’ but, above all, to announce that things are about to get serious. Method is needed, even when you’re having fun, and Valencians demonstrate this every day by being champions of good living in a city on the sea far from the sea.
Only the Copa America brought them closer to that frightening element that pulls you away from small-town identity.
Here the Huerta has always been farmed, the land crowning the town grows rice. And Valencians have always worked that land, feet firmly planted. In the original recipe for paella there is no seafood, only meat and farmed vegetables: chicken, beans, rabbit, and string beans.
It’s the legacy of a history that returns to the every day, to the everywhere. A matter of tradition, a matter of identity that defines this community, so bound to being itself. But inclusively. Maybe by getting to know the pilota.
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