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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Twelve Days of Christmas

In Spain, the real Christmas holiday begins on Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) and doesn't end until the Epiphany on January 6th, also known as Three Kings Day, and the morning on which children may open the gifts brought to them the previous night by the three wise men. That's why, when I stopped by Carrefour yesterday, the place was still bustling, and not with returns. There were big signs indicating 20% descuentos on toy purchases, and kids were there in force, trying out video games, Wii, and other amusements that I don't need to know about.

Adults were around, too, still buying heavily in the gustatory entertainment sections, whether for gifts for others or for themselves. There were plenty of magnums of whisky and other liquors available, as well as huge Iberian hams, often sold together with their hanging apparatus. The line--well, it wasn't a line, but a large crowd--at the fresh fish counter was noisy and cheerful, despite considerable waits.

I rather like the distribution of the holidays over several days. For years all the planning and preparation for the season was a weight: Buying gifts, wrapping and mailing them, writing the holiday letter, sending it, feeling guilty that it arrived late. Planning food, shopping, baking, cooking, hoping that everything turns out OK. Calling far-flung family members on the holiday itself. I felt that I always missed Christmas in some ways, being so busy getting things done that it was here and gone by the time I got the spirit. Now my Christmas spirit generally makes an appearance at several points during the twelve days of Christmas.

Our Christmas began this year on Christmas Eve, as it usually does, but this time we had dinner at the local Danish restaurant, where Anita prepared the traditional roast pork and duck, with red cabbage, white and caramelized potatoes, and delicious gravy. Shrimp cocktail Danish style for the starter, rice pudding for dessert. We had music, Secret Santa gifts, good conversation, and even a magic show--I came away with both arms intact even after one was "sawed off."

Christmas Day itself (first Christmas day) brought very warm and sunny weather again, and we sat outside with no coat or jacket for drinks and snacks with new friends before another traditional Danish Christmas dinner. Time just flew and before we knew it, it was too late to take that walk around the neighborhood.

Second Christmas day we played pétanque and enjoyed more perfect weather. The third day of Christmas was still dry (I'm speaking of the weather) but slightly less sunny. It was time to catch up on sending Christmas greetings by email to friends at a distance, and to telephone some family. I've also been enjoying the fruits of my limited Christmas cooking this year--my family's favorite chocolate cookies and Johannes' favorite American casserole, both of which become luxury foods due to their reliance on specific American ingredients.

Today is a little cloudy, but still a healthy 60 degrees F. outside. My goal today is to get downtown to see the traditional Spanish Belén scene at the plaza in Torrevieja. Or if not today, maybe tomorrow. By my count, we still have eight days.

Happy fourth day of Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

El Gordo

El Gordo is, literally, "the fat one." Specifically, it is the Spanish Christmas lottery, one of the oldest and largest in the world. Sponsored by ONCE, the Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles (Spanish National Organization for the Blind), El Gordo began in 1812. This year it will pay out over 3 billion euros to over 1,202,490 winners in Spain and 140 other countries around the world.

It costs about 200€ to buy a whole ticket in El Gordo, but each ticket is printed ten times and sold in tenths, so you can buy a tenth of a ticket, a decimo, for 20€. The other nine-tenths of your ticket are sold to others, so if your number is drawn, you will share the prize with others. Often, colleagues from the same workplace or club, or a family, will join together to buy a whole ticket. Imagine the joy in a company or family if their ticket is one of the big winners!

One in every three tickets wins a prize, and 70% of all monies invested in El Gordo are returned to players in cash prizes. That still leaves a hefty sum for ONCE's philanthropic work of supporting the blind.

The big drawing for El Gordo takes place every year on December 22. They'll start pulling numbers soon, and it will take three hours before they are done. This is the real start of the Christmas holidays in Spain. Especially if you win.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Sunday Before Christmas in Spain

The Sunday immediately before Christmas is different from other Sundays in Spain. Someone has written, and I don't disagree, that Sundays in Spain are typically for family, eating, and laundry. Stores are not open, and this alters the lifestyle considerably. But in December, stores are permitted to be open on Sunday, and there is a flurry of commercial activity as families flock to the hipermercado to buy gifts and food instead of taking their usual stroll along the sea or in a park.

I got to the hipermercado early this morning (mine is Carrefour). I wasn't looking for gifts, though we did take a detour to look for a webcam, got frustrated with the choices, and put that off to another day. It was one of those days when it was necessary to go up and down every aisle of the food sections, looking for Danish delicacies for a special smørrebrød Christmas Day, as well as staples of fruit, salad, and breakfast things for the next few days. We dragged a heavier-than-usual basket through the checkout counter, forgoing the new self-check units at the far end, for which there has never yet been a line, because we saw a staffed lane right in front of us that had just opened.

We packed the goods into the trunk, where we figured they would stay cool enough for a couple hours even though the outside temperature was a pleasing 60 degrees F. Then we stopped at the huge outdoor Sunday market just to see how everyone else was preparing for yule. We shared a beer while sitting in the sun and watched the world go by. The bar was Norwegian, we sat with Danes, and listened to German and English and Spanish.

At home I had to take in the laundry that I had hung on the clothesline three hours earlier before we could drive onto the terrace to park the car. It was mostly dry, but the replacement load that I hung out is going to have to stay there all night and wait for sun early tomorrow morning. Nothing shows the change in seasons like the drying of clothes on the line. During the summer I was able to get three loads dry in a day--by the time the second load was finished washing, the first was dry. Now for several weeks, I've been lucky to get one load dried, and the second load waits until Monday for hanging, or at least for final drying.

But today is the solstice, and now a bit more sunlight will creep into each day, though it will take several weeks before my laundry gauge will register it. And more sun, at this time of year, is welcome even on the Costa Blanca in Spain.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Don't Steal This Book!

Photo: Johannes Bjørner
"Excommunication, by the will of His Holiness, the Pope, is promised to any person who removes, steals, or causes the displacement of any book, parchment, or paper from this library, without any possibility of absolution, until such a time as the item has been completely restored to its place."

A sign on the wall of the library at the monastery in Valldemossa, Mallorca, Spain.

We were nevertheless allowed to browse freely through this room, unsupervised, with the ancient books in their cases, unprotected--and to photograph them. But we were, of course, warned.

A Winter in Mallorca - George Sand and Chopin

The French writer and feminist George Sand came to Mallorca with her two children and her lover, Frederic Chopin, in December 1838. At first they lived in Palma, but the two houses they had were unsuitable to the winter-cold climate and they found refuge in a former monastery in Valldemossa, a village only about a dozen miles northwest of Palma, though in the 1830s it was a much longer 12 miles than it was on the rainy December day we drove there.

Wandering through the monastery's many cells was surreal. We were outside the regular tourist season and usually succeeded in avoiding the one busload of tourists simply by removing ourselves to a different room: the chemist's cell (apothecary), the two library rooms, or the several cells that may have been the homes of the couple, her children, and their servants. There are two pianos reportedly used by Chopin during his visit, the one that was transported from his home to the island (though delayed for a long time in customs) and the one he borrowed in Palma in the meantime.

Sand wrote in A Winter in Mallorca of the lovely natural scenery in Mallorca--and of the unpleasant people! No doubt the native Mallorquins were afraid of catching Chopin's tuberculosis and also were disgruntled that the couple never appeared at church, even on Sundays.

On a misty day and with free range to wander through the rooms and gardens at the monastery, and away from the hustle and bustle of other tourists, it was easy to imagine the couple in this place, and how nature and relative isolation could apparently give Chopin some peace to compose so much lovely music in the barely three months he spent here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mar de Lenguas - The Sea of Languages

The language most commonly spoken in Mallorca is Mallorquin, a version of Catalan, which is itself one of Spain's four official languages. While in Palma one rainy morning, we went to see a traveling exhibition called (in English) The Sea of Languages: Speaking in the Mediterranean.

I was astonished at how many languages are spoken in the large area that surrounds the Mediterranean Sea--24, according to the official brochure, and that includes several that you have probably never heard of. Those spoken by more than ten million inhabitants of the Mediterranean area are Tamazighi/Berber (20 million), Arabic (152 million), Spanish (31 million), French (70 million), Greek (11 million), Italian (55 million), Romanian (23 million), Serbo-Croatian (17 million), and Turkish (56 million).

Catalan has only 9 million speakers and is the official language of Andorra and a co-official language in the Spanish regions of Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. Catalan has been spoken in Catalonia since the 8th century and spread to outlying areas through the conquests of King Jaume I in the 13th century. It began to lose dominance to Spanish in the 16th century but began a resurgence in the late 19th century. The use of Catalan is a political issue (also evidenced recently when the Frankfurt Book Fair honored Catalan in 2007), but politics was light and culture predominated in this exhibition.

It was fortunate for me that the numerous interactive exhibit posts were available in Spanish and English in addition to Catalan, though it is amazing how much can be understood from the written Catalan if you also know a couple other Romance languages. In addition to the political and linguistic map of the Mediterranean (seen above), the other highlight was a large three-screen video of young people talking in and about their multiple languages. The assumption of these youths was that they would speak several languages in various situations throughout their lives.

If a language is spoken by children, went the theme, it will survive. Also necessary for survival: radio, TV, the Internet. Not a word about books. But I do think they were talking about spoken languages, not necessarily written languages. Of course, some might argue that a language is not a language without some form of written expression.

The exhibit was prepared by Linguamón--House of Languages, a body of the government of Catalonia that aims to promote the world's languages (plural) as a
  • vehicle for communication, civilisation and dialogue
  • source of personal development, human creativity and heritage of mankind
  • right of individuals and of linguistic communities.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Holiday Season

Official holidays in Spain are of two types: National holidays and local holidays. Here in Torrevieja we are in the midst of both.

The first week in December is a big holiday season all over the country; it's the puente of December. Literally "bridges," puentes are not unlike "long weekends" in the U.S. If a holiday falls on a Friday or a Monday, it's generally a three-day holiday, and that's long enough for the travel industry to start advertising short puente holidays to other regions of Spain, especially the Balearic or Canary Islands, or to European capital cities. Of course, if a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, it's much better--a longer holiday, perhaps a longer trip. And if it falls on Wednesday, you've hit the jackpot: Your bridge to the weekend is even longer.

There are lots of puentes; if there isn't one this month, there will be one next month. The December puente is special because it is anchored by two national holidays, one political, one religious. Constitution Day is December 6 and the Day of the Immaculate Conception is December 8). That means two days, separated by a single one, in which stores and businesses are closed, airports and highways are busy, and people are generally unavailable. Of course, many people take both days plus the bridge day between as their holiday. This year is unusual and perhaps somewhat disappointing; the puente between these two holidays consists only of Sunday. But think of the possibilities when either of the holidays falls next to the weekend, or, better yet, when they fall on Tuesday and Thursday! You may be able to stretch your puente to the entire week and two weekends.

Both Constitution Day and Immaculate Conception are national holidays, and because I've been in Spain for a few years, I was aware of them in advance. But since we've been in the Torrevieja area for less than a year, I didn't know a thing about the local holiday that has caused banks to close at noon every day this week. Judging by the people gathered outside the banks between noon and 2:00 (the usual closing time), a lot of locals didn't know, either. I found out about Torrevieja's local festivities honoring the city's patron saint the way I get most of my local news--from one of the free English-language weekly newspapers, after the fact. That's the difference between national and local holidays: national holidays are noted on standard calendars all over the country; local holidays are noted in passing, and I write them in my diary and try to remember to look in advance next year, so I know they are coming.

In our family, we have another holiday on December 9, a birthday. So this year our puente is taking us to the island of Mallorca, not far off the Alicante coast in the Mediterranean. More on that next Sunday in Spain.

And you probably thought I was going to write about Christmas!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Spanish Tortilla

We've been traveling by car, and that means that I have been eating tortilla. A Spanish tortilla is nothing like a Mexican one. It's often translated as "omelet," but that's not right, either. True, tortilla española does need four or five eggs, and it's cooked in a round skillet on top of the stove. But an omelet is light; a tortilla is solid. That's because, in addition to four or five eggs, it also has four or five potatoes. The basic recipe is to sauté the potatoes (raw, unless you have leftovers) in olive oil, but don't let them brown, maybe add a little onion, then add the beaten eggs, and cook very, very slowly until solid. Flip over to brown the top, which then becomes the bottom. Cool, cut in pieces as you would a pie, and serve.

Every cafetería and bar along a highway--probably every cafetería and bar in Spain--has tortilla in its glass case displaying various tapas and snacks. If you don't see it, ask. And if they don't have it, it's probably because you got there too late. It's the ideal thing to eat with the café or agua con gas or even a small glass of wine (if you are not the driver) on a short stop during a long trip.

There are as many recipes for tortilla in Spain as there are for meatloaf in the U.S., and almost as many ways of serving it. You may get a wedge measuring anywhere between an inch or three at the circumference. Last week I got two one-inch wedges, laid tip-to-tip on the small tapas plate. The height of these two pieces was shallow--only about an inch--but on the same trip, different restaurant, I got a gigantic piece that was two inches or more in height, and rather difficult to eat with the accompanying cocktail fork. You almost always get two or three slices of baguette to accompany your little plate, and once I even got a lovely little garnish of tomato.

Janet Mendel, an American who has written the book (in fact, more than one) on Cooking in Spain, makes it sound difficult to cook this humble but delicious treat, and it is true that it can be tricky. I've done it a few times at home, but I much prefer to take tortilla as a staple almost every time I'm traveling, and often when I just go out for tapas. It's always a little bit different. But it's almost always excellent.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Spanish for Intermediates

I spent the afternoon looking through my shelf of Spanish books. That's because tomorrow I begin Spanish classes again after a sabbatical of six months. I don't think my language ability has decreased in the past half year, but it hasn't improved, either.

I'm not a beginner. I don't have trouble making myself understood in simple daily situations, like shopping, ordering in a cafetería, even making bank deposits. I can read recipes and tourist brochures, most newspaper articles, and lots of computer instructions and Web pages in Spanish. But half the time I open my mouth to speak Spanish, Danish comes out--that's the only language other than English that I can speak. My long-term goal is to speak Spanish as well as I speak Danish, which isn't perfect by any means, but which is fluent. It does flow out, without inhibition and sufficiently recognizable so Danes respond to me in Danish, not English.

I'm hoping that four hours a week in two separate sessions will make a difference, pushing me to fluency. My short-term goal is to be able to carry on a spontaneous conversation on fairly mundane topics. Spontaneity is the key. With advance planning, I can usually get out a credit-worthy first sentence. It's understanding the reply and formulating a comeback of my own that I haven't yet mastered. Particularly on the telephone. When telemarketers hang up on you before you hang up on them, you know you are not yet worth talking to.

Lots of hard work and headaches in front of me for the next few months, I think.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Celebrating Shellfish

The unexpected little pleasure in Alicante city last week was the Jornadas Gastronómicas del Marisco. We stumbled upon it--after climbing the stairs to exit level from the underground car park at a midpoint along the harbor in city center, we were unable to exit. A huge white tent was being erected over the stairway and a great deal more--or was it being torn down?

We asked the workmen, and with luck, we found out that the Jornadas were just beginning that day. They would be opening around mid day, which, of course, could be anywhere from 12:00 noon to 2:00 PM. I was skeptical that this makeshift meeting hall could be transformed in only a couple hours. Nor was I certain what to expect. The word jornada means roughly " a day," and can refer to a working day (jornada continua or jornada partida), a distance (as in dos jornadas for a journey of two days), and a conference or symposium. Would there be small stalls of exhibits? a conference room, with speakers? Would it be open to the public, or reserved for trade visitors? Whatever, would there be free samples?

Returning in early afternoon to the huge tent, we found a lively group of at least 100 people at one continuous table finishing a repast of what was obviously the fruits of their trade. We had apparently missed the speeches, but the kitchen was still serving. We ordered arroz con mariscos for two and got a huge platter of rice generously dosed with olive oil and flavored with saffron, with four or five different kinds of seafood in the casserole. Fortunately we found a table outside facing the sea and away from other people. The only eating utensils provided were flimsy plastic forks and knives--totally inadequate for removing mussels from their shells or cutting squid. I don't know how those 100 business people managed to eat their selections politely at the big, long banquet table, but I was glad that I didn't have to keep civil company while eating Tom Jones style!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Driving Me Crazy

It's past time for me to become a legal driver in Spain. I had been told that my U.S. driver's license is not valid here after six months of residence. But how to do it? None of my English or Danish friends could tell me what to do to get a carnet de conducir. Being citizens of another European Union country, they can just use their native license.

My Spanish teacher said I probably had to go to Alicante, the capital of the province, 30 miles away. I couldn't believe that a city the size of Torrevieja (about 100,000) didn't have a drivers registration office--after all, there are motor vehicle inspection stations in every little berg--there's even one on our street! Surely if they make it so easy to regulate the cars, they wouldn't make it so hard to regulate the drivers, I thought.

I haven't found anything like a Yellow Pages in Spain, so, of course, we tried Google, And we found the website of the Dirección General de Tráfico (DGT). But understanding and responding to information needs is not the best thing that Spaniards do. I saw dots on a map showing where provincial offices were located. Apparently the nearest one was indeed somewhere in Alicante city. No address, no telephone number, no email address.

We dropped in at the police station around the corner. These would be the people who would stop me and demand to see my license if I ever dared drive without one, I reasoned, so they should be able to tell me where to get one. Well, not exactly. They gave me two phone numbers in Alicante city, but no address. One number didn't answer. The other one was busy.

So I headed out to Alicante on a sunny Thursday with the legitimate driver in the family. We planned to ask for the address at the tourist office or the Alicante police, whichever we came to first. We found the tourist office first, though that also was not without asking three times--there's something wrong when you have to ask where the tourist office is when you've seen it on a map and also have observed the traffic sign telling you to turn left! The office staffer only looked a little puzzled when we told him that the tourist attraction that we were most interested in finding in Alicante was the DGT.

But we got the address and traipsed to the office in the city center. It is commonly understood that in Spain, if you need to do government paperwork, you allow a full day (that would be the whole day the government office is open--until 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon.) There were seemingly endless lines with at least a hundred people. But I spied the small sign that let us skip picking up a number and pushed us toward the Información counter. Only two people before us, and then a young lady listened to me telling her that I have a valid license from the U.S: but that I have residencia in Spain now. She scanned the list of countries with which Spain has agreements, did not find EE.UU., and gave me a one-page flyer telling me I would have to apply for a carnet as though I were just learning to drive: take a theoretical test and then a practical one. Oh my! Within the past five years I have taken the theoretical test in Indiana and then again in Ohio. They were hard enough, and they were in English.

The usual way to learn to drive in Spain is to take a course at one of the numerous driving schools, but you can also take the tests at the DGT, we learned. Of course, I'm not really learning to drive all over again; I'm learning to drive in Spanish. Or more accurately, I'm learning how to pass a multiple choice test about driving rules, in Spanish. After I get beyond that hurdle, I'll worry about actually driving in the Spanish roundabouts, I mean, rotondas.

I had to go to another office upstairs to inquire about the test preparation book. No, you can't get it here, they said, with more than a little surprise. You have to buy it, but you can get it "in any bookstore." And by the way, it also comes in English. You can't take the tests in Alicante in English, but you can if you go to Murcia or Valencia, the provinces to the immediate north and south of Alicante province.

I haven't found "any bookstore" with the test prep book yet, in Spanish or in English, but I've seen sample tests online. Passing the driver's tests has become my winter project and the new focus of a specialized language course. I have every intention of at least studying the book in Spanish. Whether I actually take the test in Spanish or in English depends on how much weird stuff they pack into those questions. I'll never forget having to know all the rules about driving farm machinery in Indiana, though I do admit I've forgotten the rules themselves. But I haven't driven any farm machinery and have no intention of doing so. I do, however, intend to drive on Spanish roads.

Mexican in Spain

Finding ourselves a little hungry at 1:00 PM while out on a stroll in the autumn sun, we looked for a cafetería. There were four in the entertainment area between the bowling alley and cinema, all with numerous tables and chairs set in the sun, all with empty chairs. The American Pizza place was not open at such an early hour. Neither was the next one. We headed a bit reluctantly to KFC but stopped short of it, drawn to the Cantina Mariachi.

I've always loved what I call "third-party" eating experiences. I know what pizza is like in the U.S., and what Chinese, Indian, Mexican, German, Italian, or Scandinavian food is like in the U.S. Each of these foreign cuisines takes on a little of the culture and habits of its host country, wherever that is. So I have enjoyed trying a "foreign" cuisine in a non-U.S. country: pizza in Brazil, Chinese in Denmark, Italian in Argentina, Indian in Spain, even McDonald's coffee in Vienna (delicious and different!).

So today was Mexican food in Spain, and make no mistake, Mexican is a foreign cuisine--and a popular one--in Spain. I aimed for a quesadilla but couldn't find it on the menu. Instead we enjoyed a hot casserole of melted cheese with chorizo sausage, which we spooned onto Mexican flour tortillas and rolled into burritos. It was fun and tasty, but the real treat of the meal was the non-stop recorded mariachi music booming from the loud speaker.

One thing was the distinctive music itself, with wonderful rhythm and different instrumental tones. All the selections were accompanied by singers, who I could understand! Whether it is because of mariachi style or Mexican Spanish, I could decipher the words and phrases, and even noted the use of the subjuntive! Having missed my formal Spanish lesson this week, listening to mariachi was a wonderful way to practice.

Was this typical Mexican food in Spain? Who knows? Our server was from Uruguay and has been in Spain for eight years. He goes back to Uruguay for a visit each year--he can afford that, he said, while living here. I hope with the current financial crisis he can continue that way of blending his three cultures.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Los refugios de Almería

Literally translated, the refugios are refuges. What the refugios are to the city of Almeria are a permanent reminder not to forget the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Deep (about 30 feet) below the surface of the main streets of this provincial capital city is a huge bomb shelter, tunnels stretching out in a continuous complex network linking the undersides of noteworthy landmarks up above. Constructed with pick and shovel, meter by meter, between February 1937 and the spring of 1938, the shelters eventually extended to four and a half kilometers (three miles). They were planned to protect 34,144 people at a time. The remainder of Almería's 50,000 inhabitants had to find shelter in the iron mines and caves surrounding the city.

Although Almería was not directly involved in fighting, it endured 52 bombings against military, strategic, and civil objectives during the three-year period of the war. How much time did people spend in these subterranean shelters? I did not hear an answer to that during our 1 1/2 hour tour walking through the tunnels, but we saw a kitchen, several branch tunnels with dirt floors for use as toilets, and an emergency room for women who went into labor prematurely due to the fright and stress of bombing. The tunnels themselves are wide enough to walk through two-abreast, with a rudimentary bench lining one or both sides of the walkway. People could enter the tunnels from sixty-seven access points at various points of the city--most newspaper kiosks had access, as did the hospital and the Cervantes theater.

Half a million people (500,000) died in Spain during its three-year civil war. Personally I feel the impact of the Vietnam War, which stretched over many more years and resulted in an appalling 50,000 deaths to Americans only. We are in the process of watching Ken Burns' epic Civil War drama on Danish TV and recently saw the Battle of Gettysburg: 50,000 dead in three days. I have also visited the small but powerful Resistance Museum in Copenhagen, which records the lives of people living for five years with oppressors. Each of these, as all wars, has its own horrors. But I am just beginning to understand the impact of what it must have been like to be in Spain in the late 1930s, in a civil war fought country-wide in villages and cities more than in the open country, with people having hard-to-know allegiances to Republicans or Nationalists, a war that attracted international attention, volunteers (especially from real socialists), and bombings from Franco allies.

The Return, by Victoria Hislop, portrays one episode of the Civil War in Almería, and more about the war in other parts of the country.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Isaac Peral and the First U-boat

Since I know next to nothing about submarines--though I do remember being in one for a few minutes a long time ago--it's not surprising that I had never heard of Isaac Peral. Those who do know something about marine history, and specifically the history of submarines, may be interested to know that Isaac Peral was from Cartagena and the submarine that he built is in the harbor there.

Peral was born in Cartagena in 1851 and in 1884 he started to build what came to be known as Peral's submarine; a prototype was launched in 1888. Wikipedia says that this submarine "pioneered new designs in the hull, control systems and air systems...[and] its ability to fire torpedoes under water while maintaining full propulsive power and control has led some to call it the first U-boat." Though Peral was supported by the monarchy, the minister of the Navy didn't believe in the potential of the U-boat and refused to put it into production. Peral retired from active naval duty in 1891 and died of meningitis in Germany in 1895.

Peral's U-boat was scrapped in 1913 but salvaged and sent to Cartagena. It was pointed out as our bus drove along the harbor, but I didn't spot it among the, well, more attractive vessels along the shore. Maybe another trip.

With appreciation, Señor

I wasn't feeling particularly nostalgic this morning. I was just contemplating what I was trying to do with this blog, and telling myself I ought to work to make each post short enough so it would fit on a single piece of paper, should one occasionally be printed out to share with those of my circle who do not use the Internet (there are some!). Then, click!

I flashed back to high school, and to a special teacher who, one summer, taught an enrichment course in writing skills. The goal was not too advanced for sixteen-year-olds, but we worked and worked to reach it. We wrote paragraphs. Just one for each assignment. But each paragraph was read and critiqued, and then we wrote it again. And sometimes again.

There were all kinds of paragraphs. Some expressed feelings. Some presented facts. Some described processes. I remember especially writing about the technical procedure for making ice cream, which I did daily in my first summer job at the local dairy and ice cream bar. I've written a lot of technical paragraphs since then, often about procedures for finding information, an activity that whets an appetite different than that tempted by the ice cream paragraphs. Writing has become both a vocation and an avocation.

That same teacher who taught me to write a good English paragraph was also the first to give me some words and grammar of the Spanish language. It was a good foundation, on which I continue to build.

Thank you, Señor. Muchas gracias.

Cartagena's Roman Theater

Thanks to the expert research and commentary of Jørn Frending, this week I learned a lot about Cartagena's history, and I enjoyed it.

Cartagena--Carthage in English--was founded in 227 BCE and has survived many high and low points in its history. The most impressive site for me was the Roman Theater, built in just four years, from 5 BCE to 1 BCE, a fact that is known with certainty because of a plaque at the west entrance referring to authorities in Cairo. This Roman theater was the westernmost in the Roman Empire and today is the second largest in Spain. Discovered in 1988, it is astoundingly well preserved and restored. Indeed, much restoration of ancient ruins is being undertaken now in Carthage, thanks to a mayor--she has been elected four times now--who understands the value (including tourist value) of restoration.

This theater was meant for the presentation of plays and oratory, as opposed to Roman amphiteaters, which were used by gladiators for their sport. It has numerous steep rows of stone seats, arranged in a semi-circle, surrounded by high stone walls to improve acoustics. A well-developed stage area provided place for entrances and exits on both sides, as well as a backstage where actors could follow the play in preparation for their own parts.

Later we also saw a well-preserved Roman street from the 1st C. CE and another site where archaeological students were hard at work. It takes about an hour to get to Cartagena from Torrevieja, and I look forward to going back and seeing how far they have come.

Changing to Winter Time

Europe changes time the last Saturday in October. For some reason that I cannot fathom, it's a week before the U.S. switches back to Standard from Daylight Savings Time, which they did just last night. I cannot keep track of this and each year I go through a week of disorientation when I have to think twice about what time it is where.

On Thursday morning we had coffee with a couple of people from Denmark who were here on a ten-day vacation. They had arrived the preceding weekend and we were all meeting up with the Danish Friends Club at 9:00 to embark on a day visit to Cartagena. We were a little early, but they were a lot early. Spring forward, fall back here, too--though the expression is not so nuanced. They had arrived before 8:00, because they had managed to live in Spain for five days and nights without becoming aware that Spain, as Denmark, had shifted time. Exact time is not important here, we agreed, when you are on vacation, or retired. Or working flextime, I added to myself.

Here we are now in what is called Winter Time, and winter has indeed arrived, more-or-less congruent with its set schedule and just as suddenly.

On Wednesday we woke up to 13 degrees Celsius. That's cold--about 55 Fahrenheit--especially when you are used to almost constant 80 degree F. temperatures, and especially when the wind is blowing, as it does frequently in a coastal climate. It was still pleasant in the sun, but the sun doesn't extend everywhere, and especially not to the coldest place in Spain. That would be inside the house.

In our part of Spain, at least, central heating in homes is rare. Neither in the house we are currently renting nor in any of the houses we have looked at for purchase have we yet seen central heating. Until recent times, I imagine people simply did without added heat in the winter time. Now, however, nearly everyone has one or more of the marvelous aire acondicionadoros mounted high on the wall of their living area and/or bedrooms. In the summer they cool with freon and in the winter they warm with electricity, all regulated with the same remote control device. They are not at all like the noisy window air conditioners I knew in the U.S. in the old days. They are wonderfully efficient in the small rooms and small houses of Spain, and quieter than a whisper.

But as always when the weather first turns cool, and whenever that may be, it is deemed "too early" to turn on the heat. So on Wednesday morning early, out came the early signs of winter:

First, slippers to cushion my feet against the cold marble and tile floors ubiquitous throughout the house. Nothing holds the cold like tile and marble!

Then, socks for the first time in months, and I put away my open-toed sandals and unearthed real shoes that cover my toes. Full-length slacks instead of the 3/4 length that I normally live in, and a long-sleeved shirt instead of one of my countless sleeveless tops. And then a neck scarf, because all my turtle necks are still packed away someplace else.

This is for inside the house. When I go out, I may grab a light jacket, but more than likely it will end up in my carry-all. I'll probably even have to push up my sleeves and stuff my scarf in my bag when I am out in mid-day. Especially if I'm walking on the sunny side of the street.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"This is Spain"

We've just come back from the commercial exhibition, "This is Spain," featuring about 150 booths with articles or services of interest to the foreign community in Spain. There was precious little Spanish spoken here--the exceptions were the guys directing maneuvers in the parking lot and the servers in the cafetería, where we had a café con leche and shared a tostada mid-way through our trek around the indoor and outdoor display areas.

I talked with a lot of people (all in English) and picked up a lot of stuff. Most of the offerings had to do with homes and various products needed to run them, business and education opportunities, health services, financial management, and burial plans. Here's a sampling of the info and gimmicks from my bag:
  • One-day pass to the Sophia Wellness Centre with machines for guaranteed inch-loss (women only).
  • One week "siesta" membership (go between 12:30 and 5:00 PM) at Howard's Health & Fitness--they also started me out with a free blood pressure test--99/65 !
  • Brochures from Medcare private total healthcare clinic, total English-speaking, and from San Luis Clinic, treating psychological conditions including "retirement problems."
  • Free samples and a quality demonstration of the Juicing Jack--fast, quiet, and easy-to-clean apparatus for smashing five fruits and vegetables into a daily tasty health drink. Good thing I don't have room on my kitchen counter for this 200€ device!
  • A nutrition analysis shows that I need more potassium and a little more calcium...let's see...a banana milkshake daily?
  • Brochures from IberTech computer repairs and The Post Room mailbox and wi-fi hot spot in Benijófar--always good to have technical back-ups!
  • Intriguing news of a UK proxy server service, enabling me to surf the web virtually from the UK instead of Spain, and incidentally, get UK TV on my computer.
  • A magnetic 2009 calendar from Euro Staff Solutions temporary agency.
  • News from the San Miguel International College of Further Education, offering continuing education in various vocational fields, according to the British system.
  • Best Wishes Spain, a quality stationery shop and English bookstore, with locations of existing stores and the opportunity to buy a franchise--my next career?
  • Gorgeous pictures of Fireside's stylish, closed-system, remote-controlled, gas fireplaces--reading the brochure tells me now that they are made by the American company Heat & Glo.
  • A free window sun shield for our new car, plus news about where to get oil changes and such, now that we no longer just take a car back to the rental agency when it needs service.
  • Notice of Dramatic Licence's next presentation "Key for Two - A Farce," a chance to enjoy theatre in English and support The Alzheimer's Association.
  • News of the next expo: a Christmas Fayre for all my Christmas shopping under one roof...
And the bag...most of my readers know that I have an astounding collection of canvas bags from various trade shows. Now I have one from Spain. Thanks, Costa Blanca News!

Oktoberfest in San Fulgencio

You don't have to read the statistics to know that many regions of Spain, from the Costa Blanca White Coast) in the north, to the Costa del Sol (Sun Coast) in the southwest, are filled with foreigners. You only have to go to the local hipermarket (ours is Carrefour, itself a French company) to hear a babel of languages: Spanish, yes, and English, but also German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, French, and others I cannot distinguish.

Many of the speakers are permanent residents, a large number of them pensioners or early retirees, who came originally for the sun and perhaps a less expensive standard of living. An increasing number are men and women in their thirties and forties who have left the northern climate to live and work in an area that is warmer in degrees Celsius but also, they say, in spirit. Almost universally people in this group say they are here for the lifestyle: they work hard during work hours, but here, as opposed to where they came from, there is time in the day for themselves, their children, and a social life outside the home.

Last Sunday we ventured out to the First Annual Oktoberfest in San Fulgencio, a small town close by that was recently reported to have more than 70% non-Spanish population in residence. We remembered an Octoberfest that we had been to years ago at Lake Quassy in Middlebury, Connecticut, and looked forward to German music, dancing, beer, and bratwurst with anticipation. Presumably the festival was being organized by the Germans of San Fulgencio. But not much of civic culture in Spain gets organized without the support of the ayuntamiento, or local government. So how Spanish would this be? How German?

The German-Spanish coalition got it "spot on," as our British friends say. The tent, with a capacity of more than 800, was not completely full on Sunday afternoon, but there were enough people there to keep the two entertainers very busy playing música típica of Bavaria, singing in German, and generally stirring up the enthusiasm of the crowd in Spanish and German. We seated ourselves at one of the wall-to-wall picnic tables, scanned the German-Spanish-English menu, selected our salchichas/sausages, and made a slight dent in the 50,000 liters of typical German beer that had been promised for the week-long festival.

At the table behind us were two German-speaking older couples. I bumped butts with one of the gentlemen (dressed very unlike my idea of a German, in cream-colored dress pants and a salmon-colored shirt) as we swayed to the music with our glasses lifted high. The table in front of us was occupied by two young Spanish couples, each with a young daughter. A stroller sat at the end of the table, but neither girl was in it--they were crawling all around the table and benches, dancing and clapping to the music. We exchanged lots of smiles but no words. I don't think a soul at the Spanish table understood a word of the German, and I'm pretty sure the Spanish phrases just flew by the Germans at their table, but both parties were having fun.

So did we. I don't understand much German, either, but I recognized the music and I can lock arms, sing la-la-la-la, and sway with the best of them.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Mediterranean Motion

I'm up early this morning because I played six games of pétanque yesterday. 

Usually we play on Friday afternoon, with a large group of members of the Danske Venners Klub, the Danish Friends Club. But this week the Danish friends held their Fall Fest on Friday evening, and pitching pétanque balls in the afternoon would have cut too deeply into the time required to don dress-up clothing for the "do."(I did, after all, have to put on stockings for the first time in months). 

After a full evening of gustatory indulgence on Friday, it seemed like a good idea to get out in the fresh air for a little motion (the very apt Danish word for exercise). Pétanque offers the perfect opportunity for some moderate bending and stretching. You bend slightly and stretch to toss the "pig" or "jack" onto the playing field, and then to throw out your three metal balls--each weighing more than a pound and less than two--trying to land them strategically and as close as possible to the pig, or at least closer than your opponent. (Wikipedia, I discovered this morning, has a good entry on the history, rules, and strategy of pétanque.) Then you get more exercise when you bend down to pick up your balls prior to continuing with the next play, and if you are lucky, or skilled, you may bend down to collect stones to line up in a row to record your points. There are, of course, some who make it too easy for themselves, by using a magnet on a string to pick their balls up so they don't have to bend down...but I think this defeats the charm of the leisurely, measured motion that sneaks a little bit of exercise into an afternoon in the sun.

Usually we play doubles with the Danes, and they have developed an ingenious way to match up teams and lanes so that you take your lumps on different fields each week and play with and against different people. Since only Johannes and I showed up for motion Saturday morning, we played singles against each other. Singles games go quicker--it takes less time to throw six balls than twelve--so we played six games instead of our usual three.

So we got double the exercise that we usually get. But we paused after three games for a little refreshment and a delightful conversation with another couple who had dropped by El Rancho in Los Montecinos to check out the playing fields. So who knows which way the scale tipped on the exercise-eating continuum? No matter. I think pétanque is a perfect complement to the Mediterranean diet, and a perfect antidote, as well.

And after all that exercise and fresh air, I went to bed early last night and therefore woke up early this Sunday in Spain.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Good intentions / Buenas intenciones

...or, why does this blog exist?

This is the third and last blogpost today. Don't think that there will be three blogposts every day! There won't even be one post every day. I've called this blog Sundays in Spain for a reason. I intend to write once a week, probably on Sunday.

What I write may have to do with what I do on Sunday. My husband, Johannes, and I are having a lot of fun exploring the diverse area that we live in, and we now have a car to get out and about. (Living for five years without owning a car is a topic for another blog.)

Or it may have to do with other things that have happened throughout the week, and that I take some time to muse about, and then write down on Sunday.

Writing is a large part of what I do professionally. But this blog, as a weekend project, exists mostly to tell my family and friends what's going on with my life. Anyone else who wants to read along and follow the thoughts of an American woman living on the Mediterranean coast in Spain is welcome. I'll focus on where I am and tell what I'm learning about Spain and Spaniards and all the other Europeans who have chosen to make the costas of Spain their home.

One of the reasons for doing this, of course, is discipline. I am of the opinion that the simple discipline of reflecting and writing is beneficial to the writer. I look forward to writing something outside of my professional interests. A lifelong researcher (I practiced as a librarian for many years) I will feel the demand to check my facts before clicking the Publish Post button. And I'm compulsive enough to make sure that I check and double-check the Spanish phrases that have to creep in to these pieces. And, oh yes, to keep it looking good and interesting for you, it will also force me to learn a few things about blog software and formatting and images, and so on...

So, I have the best intentions. Con la mejor intención. Check back next week.

Hasta la próxima.

Roman Villa in Santa Pola

Aside from our experience in the cafetería/cervecería Azahar (Orange Blossoms), the highlight of our short trip to Santa Pola was seeing the ruins of a Roman house right next to a lovely park lined with palm trees, "El Palmeral."

The historic marker was in at least four languages and told us that the villa was owned by wealthy people in the 4th century AD. It was quite large--you see only a couple of its seven or so rooms in this picture. There were beautiful ceramic tile floors. Both the tile work and stone walls were in good condition--well preserved or restored? I don't know, and though I thought I could go home and look this site up on the Internet to find a reproduction of the historic plaque or more detail, I haven't been able to find out much more about the villa.

There is more to investigate on another day.

Al mal tiempo buena cara

"Al mal tiempo buena cara" was the hand-printed sign on the blackboard in the small cervecería just off the town square in Santa Pola this afternoon, where we enjoyed 6 assorted montaditos (small sandwiches of chicken, sausages, and cheese mounted on pieces of delicious baguette).

"You have to look on the bright side of things," my Cambridge Klett dictionary says in translation. But I like my own better. In bad times, (put on) a good face. Or stronger: Face up to the bad times.

Not bad advice as we ended the worst week in Wall Street history, a week in which all world banks were straining and people everywhere are nervous. Where the parting wish Friday afternoon from a business colleague was, "Have a nice weekend and don't think about your retirement investments."

Not a bad thought either given the weather we have endured for the last six days in not-so-sunny Spain. I had delayed laundry all week because it was overcast and it's no fun to hang clothes out to dry if you can't do it in the sun. When I finally washed and put them on the line yesterday, I had to run out for rescue after a half hour--the strong wind had whipped the tendedero over on its side and rain drops were threatening.

But Sunday morning dawned and the sun was occasionally successful in peeking through the clouds, or was it fog? We drove north from Torrevieja for 40 kilometers, up the coast road through Santa Pola and some very isolated coastline area to Gran Alacant, and then back again to stop in Santa Pola. That's where we found the small Azahar cafe and had our snack. It was noisy and cheerful, with several men at the bar, five or six other small tables of Spanish couples devouring their substantial midday dinner, two waiters bustling around, and the usual two television sets dueling for attention.

But the unexpected pleasure was the larger table of a dozen or so people of all ages over on the far side of the restaurant. It was obviously a multigenerational family celebration of some sort. Must be a wedding, I thought at first, as I saw one of the waiters place a large flower arrangement next to a cake with what looked like figures of a bride and groom on top. But no, that young teenage girl at the far end of the table--a little too young to be getting married, and she had on a pink dress. Maybe a confirmation or first communion? No, too late in the year, and she was too old for those occasions. We finally gave up and asked the waiter when he brought our check.

It was a wedding celebration, he assured us. A golden wedding anniversary. Bodas de oro. Ah yes, that would be the handsome older man who I had seen (but couldn't hear) making a toast a few minutes earlier. And his bride of 50 years, she was right beside him, but hidden from my view behind a post. But her eyes shone as I smiled and caught her eye in congratulations as we rose to depart.

They both had probably lived through some mal tiempo in the past 50 years, I thought, but they both showed buena cara today.