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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.