Commentary

Ehrlich diary: Las Fallas, Part 1

Updated: March 24, 2010, 9:40 AM ET
By Carl Ehrlich | Special to ESPNBoston.com

Editor's note: Carl Ehrlich, who was the captain of the 2009 Harvard football team, is in Spain to play football for the Valencia Firebats. He's chronicling his experiences on and off the field for ESPNBoston.com. This week it's all about Las Fallas, an annual festival in Valencia.

In the American Football vocabulary, there are three words never used together -- practice is canceled.

So long as the sun rises in the east, Harvard Football's workouts are operating on schedule. If the streets are frozen solid, the Crimson will be Apolo Ohno-ing their way down to the field house. And if the End Of The World As We Know It was tomorrow at noon, it will give the team just enough time to lift, shower and get a good meal in before the apocalypse.

Coming from this type of "practice-absolutism," you can imagine my surprise to have an entire week off from training. Firebat practice, I was told on Monday, was cancelled for the annual Valencian festival of Las Fallas.

Actually, there are two lies in that last sentence.

[+] Enlargeparty
Carl Ehrlich/ESPNBoston.comNinots (a valencian word for puppets) are a big part of the festival of Las Fallas.

The first lie is that practice wasn't cancelled; it just didn't happen. Since the Firebats were formed, there has never been practice during Fallas. To say that the practice was "cancelled," would imply that the team intended to have one in the first place. They didn't.

The second lie is that Las Fallas isn't an annual festival as much as a yearly torrent of fireworks, explosions, cervezas, fried food, all-nighters, crowded streets and millions of people. Really, I'm not sure a Ken Burns' documentary could do Fallas justice, but I'll take a stab at it in a series of blogs this week.

Despite warnings of Fallas' magnitude, my first reaction to the cancelled practice was "come on." I've never been one to shy away from a good time or a late night, but a week off from practice? There's no party in the world that could possibly rationalize seven days off from training. Or so I thought.

As it turns out, Fallas and a regular training/practice schedule coexist as well as my diet and the Churros stands on every corner of the city.

To begin its destruction of my training regimen, Fallas started by ruining any chance at a good night's sleep. Because the celebration revolves around fireworks and explosives, Fallas turned the Valencian streets into a battleground of gunpowder. With knee-buckling explosions going off just below my window, you can't blame me for staying up so late. At one point I turned on Saving Private Ryan for some easy listening.

And when I did get to bed (normally around 5 or 6 AM), it wasn't for long. Bands marching to the "Mascleta," daily explosions in the town center, gave me a Spaniard-ized bugle wake up as they passed under my window about 11:30.

This means that, despite my six-hour head start, I'm still waking up at the same time as the Harvard Football team. I choose to ignore this fact, as it makes it much harder to feel bad for myself.

Located inside the town square each day at 2 PM (the only thing in Spain that runs on time), the Mascleta is a fireworks/explosion display staged by different teams of pyrotechnics. To beat the locust-like swarms of people to the town square, I have to leave my house by 12:30, which excludes the possibility of a morning workout. The possibility of an afternoon workout is just as quickly crushed as I spot the cerveza vendors walking around the crowd.

But I don't want to give the impression I'm getting no exercise; just very, very little. My afternoons are spent walking the streets of Valencia and admiring the different Fallas, so not all is lost.

I've now used "Fallas" in two different contexts (and about to use it in a third), so bear with me.

For starters, Las Fallas (meaning "the fires") is the name of the week-long celebration in Valencia. Fallas are also what they call the roughly 400 community groups located around the city. These Fallas, during Fallas, each build a massive sculpture that they put on display in the streets. These sculptures are called (you guessed it) "fallas," but are also called "ninots," a Valencian word for puppets, which I'll start using to keep your head from bursting.

And when I say the ninots are massive, I mean they're massive. The eight foot tall ninot of (Spain's own) Pau Gasol paled in comparison to some of the others, which were at least five stories high. What's even more impressive is that, despite their size, their quality never suffers. Each one looks like a three-dimensional Pixar character.

Thank God they were so impressive, because the exercise I got touring them is the only thing keeping my arteries clear of deep-fried pastries right now.

After the ninot-tour came the only relic of my previous life as a self-respecting athlete -- the afternoon nap. This started within seconds of flopping down on the bed and lasted until someone lit another "petardo" (firework), under my window.

After my nap, while I would be starting practice, it was coffee and tapas and I'm back on the streets for the midnight fireworks. Because my size gives me an especially hard time walking through crowds, I was forced to get creative as I jockied for position. After testing a few different strategies, I found that pretending to be a beer salesmen parted the crowd just enough for myself and the rest of my friends to pass through.

No practice and I'm still blocking for other people.

After captaining the 2009 Harvard Football team, Carl Ehrlich played professional football for the Valencia Firebats of Spain. Since hanging up his cleats, he has been filling up his passport doing humanitarian work in Southeast Asia. In addition to his travel notebooks, he has previously written for ESPNBoston.com and the New York Times.

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