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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.