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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Spain's Big Chill

The BBC reported yesterday that a big chill was bringing cold and misery to millions of Europeans. I didn't need the BBC to tell me. It's been cold and miserable for about two weeks on the Costa Blanca and in other parts of Spain, too. Even though we didn't experience anywhere near the problems that many others faced in central and northern Europe, we had uncharacteristically cold weather, and lots of inconvenience.

Outdoor temperatures have been in the single digits Celsius. That's in the 30s, Fahrenheit. I finally got out all my winter clothes, and I wore as many of them at one time as I could get over each other--four layers being about as many as I could fit. It may not have been as bad as it seemed, except for the fact that we had had the warmest November in 140 years. Then again, I think it was as bad as it could get, though not the outdoor part.

In a land where central heat and thermalpane windows are virtually unknown, long-term cold seeps into the houses, and it stays there, right on top of the beautiful ceramic tile flooring and marble stairways. We got out all the area rugs we could find--even the ugly ones--and we bought a large new carpet that almost covers the living room floor. We wheeled in a small portable electric radiator and turned on the electric wall air conditioner/heater in the adjoining dining room so we could sit, huddled in blankets, while watching reports from the global warming energy summit in Copenhagen. My upstairs office has the only other portable electric heater in the house, though we occasionally moved it to the bathroom during shower time. I went to bed early and read under the warm down comforter, my feet encased in down slipper boots, and moaned when I had to take one hand out from under the comforter to turn pages. I refused to get up in the morning until the wall heater had been on for a half hour. My neighbor told me that she was going to bed and not getting up until March!

In desperation, we went to the Ambifuego store and made a purchase that we had been hoping to put off until we had been in the house for a year. We ordered a propane-fueled fireplace insert that "burns" fake charcoal. In this season of miracles, they told us that they could install it in just a week--on December 24. As I write, the installation man is fitting the wires to the propane bottles, and I expect soon to be called downstairs for lessons in how to work this heater.

Of course, the weather finally broke, and yesterday was in the balmy 60s F. We take full credit. If we hadn't made this major purchase now, I am convinced, the weather would have stayed cold for months. It just goes to show, you do have to throw some money at the problem to get a better indoor climate. I'm glad to have an alternative to using so much electricity, but I'm even more glad just to get warm again.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A New Panhispanic Spanish Grammar

The Nueva Gramática de la Lengua Española, was published on December 10 by the Real Academia Española, the Royal Academy of Spain, which is the official body that determines "correct" Spanish. It is noteworthy because:
  • it's the first academic update since 1931,
  • it was eleven years in the making, and
  • it was a panhispanic cooperative effort of 20 Academies of the Spanish Language and is the first time that such a work reflects "all the varieties of Spanish."
Objectives are to describe general Spanish usage as well as to reflect variants, to offer recommendations regarding usage, and to act as a reference in the understanding and teaching of Spanish. For the first time, it pays special attention to American usage, and it takes into account usage from a variety of types of sources: literary, educational, scientific, journalistic, and oral.

The complete work comes in two volumes of 4032 pages (for 120 euros), but smaller versions are also available: a 750-page manual, and a 250-page basic grammar text.

More information is available in Spanish from the Real Academia Española website and in English in an Associated Press story.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Spanish Constitution

Last Sunday (December 6) was Constitution Day in Spain, but I didn't read the newspaper until Monday. So I didn't know until later that a whopping 84% of Spaniards believe that their constitution needs reform.

And it's only 31 years old!

To be fair, not everyone thinks the constitution needs a total overhaul. According to the poll, 65% believe that some fine-tuning would be sufficient to improve the law, while 26% want a complete reformation. But even though 69% say that the Constitution represents the ideas of all (and not any given political party or ideology), only 12% think it is good as it stands.

So what needs fine-tuning?

70% would like to regulate the use of co-official languages in the autonomous regions.
61% would like to give legal immigrants the right to vote in all elections.
51% would like to eliminate references giving special attention to the Catholic Church.
51% would like to eliminate the distinction between nationalities and regions.

Some of this is difficult for a foreigner to understand, but it is related to the fact that a recent controversial statute has used the term "nation" in regards to the autonomous region of Cataluña. A related question in the survey asked, "Do you believe that Cataluña is really a nation?" and 79% of all Spanish respondents opined that it is not. Of Catalans, 54% believe that their region is a nation, while 42% do not. And regarding the question of whether public organizations and businesses in Cataluña should use Catalan and Spanish equally, the majority say yes. But there is a marked difference in the numbers: 82% of Catalans believe that Spanish and Catalan should be used equally in public affairs, while only 58% of those living in other parts of Spain believe so.

It seems to me that most Spaniards are more than willing to share their country and its governance with the mass of foreigners now living here legally, and that they want to legitimize linguistic diversity throughout the country, while retaining a common language.

A Week of Holidays

It's been a very active week of holiday-making here at our house. Last Sunday was one of two national secular holidays in Spain, Constitution Day. Since it fell on a Sunday this year, I didn't notice much of a holiday atmosphere, although the outdoor market on Lemon Tree Road seemed busier than usual. But that was probably because people were stocking up their larders for the big religious holiday just two days later. Tuesday was La Inmaculada, the day of the Immaculate Conception. That is an important family day, demanding a big dinner and firecrackers, not necessarily in that order--the firecrackers start in the morning and can be heard sporadically throughout the day and evening.

Wednesday in our household was the birthday of the photographer of this blog, and since this was a "round birthday," i.e., one ending in zero, we had more festivities to mark the occasion than usual, and went out for a delicious Argentine dinner at the Patagonia Steak House close to us. Thursday I was a bit under the weather, but by Friday I was well enough to go into the nearby city of Torrevieja to attend the intercultural "Carols in the Square" Christmas sing-along, sponsored for the sixth year by the ayuntamiento of Torrevieja and the CoastRider, one of the English-language  newspapers serving the Costa Blanca. A small orchestra, at least five choral groups, and various dignitaries from the town welcomed hundreds--maybe thousands--of people to the town square, the Plaza de la Constitución, just in front of the church. We all sang several English-language carols and a few well-known Spanish villancicos. Afterwards we moved through the lines to view the various scenes from Torrevieja's large and impressive Belén nativity scene.

And so, the Christmas season has begun. Saturday the mercado de abastos (indoor food market) in the nearby town of Rojales was turned into a mini Christmas market, with handicrafts, decorations, gifts, and refreshments (mulled wine) made by various of the town's immigrants--German, Swedish, and English were easily identifiable. It was a relatively warm and sunny day, and many Spanish families had come to view the stalls and the many drawings that school children had done that were on display, and to sit with a glass and watch their children draw and play in the outdoor activity area. This morning, the Sunday Zoco market had more specialty food stalls than usual. The English butcher was taking orders for Christmas turkeys, the Danish baker for kransekage, and a Spanish food specialist had samples of various sausages and ham serrano, olives and olive oils, and many other good things. The English cheese shop was giving out small samples of very aged Cheddar, as usual, and today I permitted myself to buy a pound to savor later.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Oranges Turning Orange

Back in August I noted that the oranges trees that border our Montebello neighborhood had produced oranges, but that the oranges were still green. They stayed green for a very long time. Some time in October--I think it was just after the gota fría--we happened to see the farmer doing some work in the grove early one morning and asked him when the oranges would be ripe for harvest. "Mayo" (May), he said. That seemed improbable to me. After all, the oranges were already really large. But they were also still emerald green.

Now the first Sunday in December, the oranges have turned orange. It's been happening over the past couple weeks, and that prompted me to wonder how, and why, oranges turn orange. Is it similar to the way the leaves on the trees of New Hampshire turn yellow and orange and red in the fall? Do oranges also need warm, sunny days, but cool nights, to turn orange?

I've spent the better part of the afternoon searching on the Internet for information about why and how oranges turn orange, and it hasn't been as easy as I thought. Searching both in English and Spanish, I didn't find much about why they turn from green to orange. I did find a lot about how they can be made orange from green in a post-harvest process called "de-greening," or el desverdizado, so as to make the mature fruit more appealing to the consumer. It seems to be generally accepted both in Spain and in the U.S. to "de-green" oranges after they leave the tree.

But what was even more startling to learn was that oranges, if left on the tree, may actually revert to green after they have become orange. That would happen when the weather turns too warm, because it is cool temperatures that kill the green chlorophyll pigments and allow the yellow carotenoids beneath to show through. It starts getting warmer in May in Spain, so I'm thinking that perhaps the orange grove owner meant that by May his harvest of oranges would be done, because otherwise they would start turning green again. And though green oranges are mature, they are not appetizing to many consumers.

Today I feel doubly lucky. First, I'm lucky to live by an orange grove, and second, to see fruit that is actually orange, still on the tree, and not yet harvested. Now I'm watching to see when these fruits are actually harvested, and whether any turn green again before next May.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Height of Autumn

Suddenly the third day after Thanksgiving, it has turned very cold (60 degrees F. outside) and we even got a little rain this Sunday in Spain, causing my laundry to remain in the washing machine overnight until the sun presumably shines again tomorrow. But this plant, whose name I do not know, outside our living room window, is in its second blooming period since we moved in last May. The bougainvillea also continue to flower--and drop their blossoms--profusely and are starting to climb up the metal arch  over the driveway gate. This past week we bought geraniums for the upstairs terrace window boxes, and the hibiscus I planted ten days ago at the front door has produced a single blossom once more since its disruption. With the fall's cooler temperatures it becomes possible to have some herbs again--we have lavender beside the front steps, and chives and thyme (tomillo, in honor of our street name ... Avenida del Tomillo) and a sprawling mint plant (hierbabuena) is still waiting to be repotted opposite this bell or trumpet plant. On the back stoop is my real find of the season, a celery plant, from which I harvested two stalks for the Thanksgiving wild rice stuffing.

We had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner, celebrating this year on Wednesday because our neighborhood association was holding its annual meeting on Thursday. It's hard to get a turkey before Christmas in this area, but I found a willing butcher at the Sunday market a few weeks ago. He delivered a much larger than necessary bird last week--7.5 kilos--but it was delicious on Thanksgiving, and the evening after, and for turkey soup for tonight's supper, and I'm sure the three meals I have in the freezer will be equally good. And someday soon I will clean up my oven from the basting broth that spilled onto its floor because the turkey really was too large for the roasting pan.

Since the season has just started to change, it doesn't seem time yet for Christmas, but we have already missed the big Christmas fair at the Norwegian church, and this week's crop of English newspapers brings word of Santa's arrival in the neighboring town of Benihofar on the 15th of December, and Christmas caroling in downtown Torrevieja on the 11th. But Christmas lasts long in Spain, not finishing until January 6, when the Three Kings bring gifts to the children. So I am going to postpone its arrival a few more days, until the December puente holiday of the Immaculate Conception, on December 8. I need a little more time to enjoy my fall plants and my Thanksgiving tablecloth before I put away brown and change to December colors, and go out to buy one of the gorgeous poinsettias I've seen in the garden shops.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Multilingual Spain

Suddenly I found myself missing a piece of a tooth this past week, so I stopped in at the nearest dentist's office on Thursday morning. This dentist had been recommended by some Danish friends, who said she was Swedish. So we spoke Scandinavian as we made an apppointment for the following afternoon. Most Danes and Swedes can understand each other if they speak their own language and listen carefully. Since I'm not a native speaker of Danish, I listened very carefully, and we slid over to English to discuss payment and estimated price, as there was a sign (only in Spanish) saying that credit cards were not accepted.

Friday afternoon I arrived in the office five minutes early and was greeted by a Spanish-speaking hygienist/receptionist, who promptly asked me, in English, to fill out a form. I sat with one other woman for fifteen minutes, reading a British edition of Good Housekeeping. It turned out that the other woman was waiting for her husband, who eventually appeared with my dentist, and the three chatted rapidly in French about dogs and cats. When that patient was dismissed, I was asked, in Spanish, to come up to a treatment room. My dentist kept up a running conversation with the hygienist in Spanish throughout the entire filling replacement, only breaking into English to chide me about not flossing enough, and into Rumanian to talk with her daughter on the phone--it turns out that the Swedish dentist had emigrated from Rumania to Sweden at a young age.

The hygienist/receptionist showed me down to the office and accepted payment, and we made an appointment for X-rays in a couple weeks--in a mixture of Spanish and English. I still had a half hour before I would be picked up by my Danish escort, so I walked over to the notions store to look for some cava glasses, and listened to the two shopkeepers chattering in Chinese to a background of English Costa radio, and then to Lidl for a few items for supper, and overheard several Germans doing their weekend shopping.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Palms of Elche

In 2000, the city of Elche became a UNESCO World Heritage site for its palm groves. There are about 200,000 of them, according to our guide, and that is about equal to the human population, too. It's the largest palm plantation in Europe and one of the largest in the world. We had walked through some of the palm gardens before, but this time we went to the Huerto de Cura, the Priest's Garden.

It is a beautiful garden, indeed, and we saw lots of palm trees and other botanical marvels during our one-hour visit. One of the notable sites is the Imperial Palm,  which was named for the Empress Consort of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, who visited the palmera in 1894. It has multiple stems in the shape of candelabra, or perhaps a crown, and it's held upright by metal bands and wires.


The Lady of Elche

When I headed off to the city of Elche on a day bus trip with the Danish Friends Club last Thursday, I thought I was going to see some of the 200,000 palm trees in that UNESCO World Heritage city. But three kilometers before getting to Elche proper we stopped at an archeological site in L'Alcúdia to see the Dama de Elche (Lady of Elche), or at least, a reproduction. According to our two guides, the Lady of Elche was discovered by a sixteen-year-old boy in 1897 who was working on the private farm where the museum and archeological site now are situated. He thought he had encountered a very large stone while digging in a field, but carefully unearthed a polychrome stone statue of the head of a woman. Shortly after the discovery, the bust was whisked off to the Louvre in Paris, but returned to Spain in the 1940s. The statue is noted by experts as a well-preserved piece of Iberian art dating from the 5th century BC and is key in claims of Spaniards that there was an Iberian culture here before the Romans, Moors, and Christians.

The original now is displayed in Madrid in the national archeological museum, so we saw a reproduction. In fact, we saw many reproductions, because part of the hundred-year anniversary celebration in 1997 was the creation and placement on the grounds of several imaginative larger-than-lifesize artistic interpretations. I've since read about art historian John Moffitt's claim that the Lady is a forgery--a controversy that neither of our guides mentioned--but the family on whose farm it was found preserved the location and privately financed archeological excavations through the next three generations, before getting public authorities to take over the project. There are lots of artifacts in a small museum today; archeological work is continuing with the University of Alicante. A pre-Roman temple has been unearthed and we were cautioned not to take anything from the grounds, as it could be a relic.

It was an unexpectedly delightful morning adventure, even though it did delay our arrival at the palmera. The grounds are extensive and it was a beautifully crisp fall day. We walked a lot, and you can even rent bikes to get around. Perhaps next spring we'll take a picnic and go visit the Dama de Elche again and see what else has been found.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sagrada Familia

Probably the most famous attraction in Barcelona is the Sagrada Familia, the unfinished modern cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudí, the architect whose name is practically synonymous with Barcelona. Even though I had read about the site, and seen pictures, I was not prepared for the experience of walking through this building.

For me, the fact that it is still under construction is one of its most interesting aspects. Sagrada Familia was begun in 1882 and has a projected finish date of 2030. Gaudí became associated with the site in 1883 and continued work on it until his death in 1926.
We spent an entire morning at Sagrada Familia. We walked through the construction site, which covers most of the interior of the cathedral. Since it was a weekday, we observed some of the 300 workmen who are engaged in the construction going about their business. I have seen many old cathedrals in Europe--all of them "finished" or in various stages of reconstruction-- and nothing made me appreciate how large they are until I saw this one with huge building apparatus site in its interior.

We also toured a small but informative exhibit showing how plans and designs of Gaudí were influenced by nature. Finally we road an elevator up about 500 feet to the towers, heard the clock strike 11:00, and then walked down and around and down some more, observing glorious views of the building and the surrounding city area.

Credit for these and most of the photographs in Sundays in Spain goes to my constant companion, Johannes Bjørner.

All Saints Day in Barcelona

It seems as though every day is associated with a saint in Spain, but November 1 is All Saints Day, Todos los Santos. Indeed, Halloween, increasingly celebrated here on October 31 with costumes and trick-or-treating for children, started as the hallowed evening before the day of all saints. As in the U.S. for most people, now there is a disconnect between Halloween and any religious observance.

But El Día de Todos los Santos is an important holiday. One of the first signs is in the sales promotions on memorial flower arrangements in the week leading up to the festival. People do remember those in their family who have passed on. Another sign is the number of red prayer candles lit in church alcoves in honor of the dead.

I do not normally go to church on All Saints Day, but that just happened to be the day that I was able to see the Cathedral in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. The Cathedral, officially known as Cathedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulalia (after the patron saint of Barcelona) and also known as La Seu, dates from 1298. Like many churches in Spain, it replaced an earlier Roman temple and a mosque, which had both been built on the same site. Many people were streaming in to visit during the early Sunday afternoon, and so many were coming out from a mass that we didn't even venture into the cathedral proper--we just wandered through the large cloister area between the street and the cathedral.

Immediately to my right upon entering the cloister was an alcove for St.Rita; of all the alcoves with their lighted prayer candles, this one had the most. The saints' stations surrounded a large tropical courtyard entirely within the cloister, and in the middle of the courtyard was a large pond with geese swimming nonchalantly, seemingly unaware of the significance of the day. But I've done some homework since returning home, and now I've learned that there probably were thirteen geese in the cloister, each representing one year in the life of Santa Eulalia, a young martyr to Christianity during Roman times.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How to Avoid the Pickpockets in Barcelona

Photo: © 2009 Johannes Bjørner
Whenever we told people that we were going to Barcelona, the second--if not the first--thing they said was, "Be careful of the pickpockets." We even read a newspaper article (source now lost) that said that Barcelona had more pickpockets than any other place in the world. (How does one measure that?)

Sunday morning, tired of being extra careful of where we carried money, cards and papers, we found the perfect solution not far from our hotel in the plaza in front of the old cathedral. We were there at the right time, for a brass orchestra had assembled and lots of people were milling about on this sunny and warm first day of November. At some signal that I missed, the music began and several women standing in front of us suddenly dropped their bags in one pile on the pavement, formed a circle with joined raised hands, and started dancing. They were dancing the sardana, a traditional folk dance of Catalonia, more properly called Catalunya.

The dancing went on for a long time--whenever it seemed as though it was coming to a close, the music would take another turn, and dancing would recommence. The sardana is a slow dance, with deceptively simple toe steps. We watched an older woman who could barely move, feeling out the steps as she stood with her daughter, perhaps, on the outer rim of the circle. Her daughter and several other women and men joined the circle, simply by ducking under the upheld hands, depositing their bags in the center, and then clasping the upheld hand of each of their two neighbors in the circle.

Eventually a woman came with a collections tin; she explained that this was the sardana dance, we dropped a few coins in the can, and she gave us a sticker so we would not be disturbed again. But we continued watching for a long time, then went on to visit the cathedral. And when we returned an hour or so later, they were still dancing, and the old woman who had been moving hesitantly had joined the dancing. Bags were still safely piled in the center of the circle.

Other people have captured short clips of the sounds and sights of the sardana on YouTube, though it's not quite as magical as being there and seeing it begin spontaneously.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A World in Barcelona

As I rode comfortably in the Renfe EuroMed train from Alicante north toward Barcelona last Wednesday morning, I had a sudden moment of panic that I had forgotten to bring my passport. I was off to a meeting of the Mediterranean Editors and Translators (MET), which brought together about one hundred skilled language professionals from many countries around the Mediterranean Sea and further inland in Europe, so I was naturally thinking of international travel. Then, too, usually when I travel professionally, I am going abroad. This would be the first professional conference that I have attended in Spain.

And then I remembered that Barcelona was indeed in Spain and I didn't need a passport. Until I got to the meeting, that is, and started talking with the other attendees. "Ah, so you also live in Spain," I remarked to one with whom I had struck up a conversation. "No," she answered, "I live in Barcelona."

Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, one of the 17 autonomous regions that comprise modern Spain. Catalonia has special historic status within Spain's 1978 Constitution. Both Catalan and Spanish are official languages. Signs and public announcements appear most often in Catalan first, then Spanish, and then English, though the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona usually defaults to English as the first language of speaking to tourists and unknown persons--the gentleman who received us in our hotel declined to speak Spanish with us, preferring English.

We had a delightful four days mixed with sight-seeing, professional presentations, delicious food, and fascinating conversations, and returned from the big city by train late Sunday evening full of impressions. I did indeed feel as though I had traveled the world in Barcelona.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Discovery Day Redux

When I wrote about October 12 and Christopher Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón, as he is known in Spanish, I blithely recited the conventional wisdom that he sailed for Spain's Queen Isabella even though he himself was Italian. That was before the Euro Weekly News told me that "experts have confirmed that Christopher Columbus's writings prove he was neither Italian nor Portuguese but Spanish--as the Spanish themselves have always claimed."

Oh? Well, apparently so. An article in La Vanguardia explains that for decades there have been claims that Columbus originated either from the Spanish region of Catalunya or the Balearic Islands. With the exception of a sole Peruvian voice (Luis Ulloa), those claims have come from Catalans. Now a new book, El ADN de los escritos de Cristóbal Colón (The DNA of Columbus's Writings), by linguist Estelle Irizarry of Georgetown University, shows that the vocabulary and syntax, and specifically the use of the virgule (a / sign) in Columbus's written work, is typical of Catalan speakers of the fifteenth century.

Catalan remains today one of the four official languages of Spain and is spoken in the northeastern part of the Iberian peninsula (between France and Valencia), and in the Balearics. Also, according to Wikipedia, in the country of Andorra and the Italian town of Alghero on the island of Sardinia. But not in Genoa, where the conventional wisdom placed Columbus's origins for decades. A post in the Medieval News blog tells more about Irizarry's book.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

This is (Still) Spain

As I mentioned in a belated "happy birthday" greeting to a friend a week or so ago, I don't pay much attention to celebrating birthdays and the dates on which they fall. That's why it wasn't until I returned from a "This is Spain" home show and expat exposition this afternoon, and remembered that I had written about my first "This is Spain" show a year ago, that I realized that the Sundays in Spain blog has slid quietly and unceremoniously into its second year.

Looking back, I find that I first posted on October 12, 2008. I've pretty much kept to the goals and schedule I originally promised, and I have no intention of stopping soon. Thanks to all my family and friends, and the occasional stranger, who let me know from time to time that they are reading and enjoying. You probably don't know how helpful that is to me.

So, anyway, today (Saturday) was year two that I went to "This is Spain." It was held at a bigger and fancier hotel than last year, the four-star La Zenia, which is immediately south of Torrevieja in Orijuela Costa. But the financial crisis has taken its toll. Whereas my entry last year at this time says there were 150 exhibits, the showguide today lists only 59. I have come to admire those northern Europeans who move to Spain to work rather than to retire, because I know that running a business is hard work, and running one in a country new to you, with a language not your own, is very risky. I am sure that some of the businesses that exhibited last year are now gone, and others may still be alive, but find the promotional cost impossible at this time.

Another difference between last year and this: last year we were living temporarily in a rented house, knowing that we couldn't move to the Costa Blanca until we sold an apartment in Roquetas. This year we have sold the apartment and now have our own house. So all the stands with offers of various reformas were interesting to us today. We talked to several people about underfloor heating systems, magnetic insect screens, sun awnings, house and "underbuild" ventilation, and small interior construction projects to improve cosmetics and storage. In my never-ending quest to find English language satellite TV systems that offer American programs, I read the offerings from three different vendors, and found none. I picked up two 2010 calendars and a nice assortment of little guidebooks to restaurants, leisure and wellness centers, and other businesses in the region. I accepted at least three flyers about prepaid funerals and stuffed them in my bag--they are now in the wastebasket. I got another free blood pressure test: 123/69, a bit up since last year's free test. That may be because I spent more time at the XOCAI chocolate stand, where a very nice woman explained the health benefits of this particular type of dark chocolate, and I believed her. But at the cost of €30 for a one week supply--even though it tasted fabulous--I don't think that I can afford to eat those three chocolates a day, no matter how great it would make me feel! We spend far less than that each week on red wine for two people!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

¡Sí, Voy a Hablar Español!

I know my family and friends are probably tired of hearing me say that I don't speak Spanish very well, and they may even be wondering whether I ever will, after living in Spain for about five years. The truth is that I have studied the language in formal classes for most of the months that I have been here. I understand a lot of the Spanish that I read in the newspapers and magazines, brochures, signs, and even some books. I can ask questions and usually understand the answer, at least well enough to phrase a follow-up question or confirmation sentence. I have written letters and essays in Spanish about various trips and visits, the production of maple syrup in New England, Google Book Search, and Hans Christian Andersen's nineteenth-century visit to Barcelona (translating from the Danish).

When it comes to speaking, however, I am very reticent. I am naturally shy, I can't think fast enough to find the proper words and phrases, I tend to get confused and frustrated if the slightest thing goes wrong, and I am now living in such a multinational (read that as English-speaking) area that I don't need to speak Spanish very often. But I am still determined to study the language and continue classes, and as soon as September approached, I was on the lookout for classes in my new neighborhood.

I haven't been very lucky. The municipal classes that were advertised as starting in October have yet to materialize. The teacher I accosted between two beginner classes in the neighboring town promised to call me about a more advanced class, but I have yet to hear from her. The Danish club arranged for beginner and intermediate classes for its members, but the last thing I thought I needed was to learn Spanish through Danish explanations and especially grammar--which I don't know anyway.

I have been successful, though, in arranging private classes with the Danish instructor of those group classes, and we had our first meeting this week. And I think I was wrong to think that it's always better to learn a language from a native speaker of that language. All my previous teachers (seven of them since I've been in Spain) have been native Spanish, and I've "learned," or at least been taught, just about everything--through a grammar-based approach. Now this teacher has become comfortable enough to speak and teach the language after living in Spain for a decade. The most important thing, she says, is to speak it! Almost immediately she gave me "permission" to ignore the differences between the two past tenses, and to forget about using the future tense--"use 'I am going to' to indicate future action," she says. After all, Spaniards speak fast, and if you stutter around trying to figure out which past tense to use (or whether you should use subjunctive or indicative, I add to myself) they will have walked away by the time you get the perfectly correct word out of your mouth!

I think she is on to something. I will continue my classes with her, and I am going to speak Spanish!

Fall Is Here, I Think

We had another gota fría this week, on Friday. Just as we were set to march off to our usual morning pétanque game, the heavens opened and the rains came. Five minutes earlier I had remarked about what a beautiful morning sky we had. The storm was totally unexpected. It rained out the morning exercise ritual, but we were sure that we would be able to play pétanque that afternoon at the customary Danish social gathering at El Rancho. At 4:15, after a full day of on-again, off-again downpours, we acknowledged that there certainly wasn't any pétanque at El Rancho at 5:00 and probably not much social gathering, either.

Though long, the rains didn't seem to produce as much flooding as the first gota fría almost two weeks ago, but then, we were on this side of the low spot leading to our community this time, safe and dry and inside. The rains stopped Friday evening, and Saturday morning, I walked around the town of Algorfa in cool but sunny weather. I had made an excursion into the mysterious and long-forgotten depths of the top of my closet on Friday to find a pair of socks from my winter wardrobe stash, and I was glad to have them on again Saturday during my outside walk.

This Sunday morning we were finally able to play pétanque again. The rains had washed some of the sand in our playing fields into the roadway between the recreation area and the orange grove, and our pétanque lane had acquired a solidity and hardness that changed the way the jack rolled and the metal balls dropped. For the first time since we moved here, I wore full-length slacks to play, and that changed my game somewhat, too--I kept hitting the extra cloth of my pants on the backswing.

There is another sign that autumn is here and winter is coming. Even though we want to be out and exercising soon after we get up, we have to delay our game now--it is not light at 7:30 or 8:00 any more. In fact, the light is still dim at 9:00 and the pétanque lane remains in the shadow as the sun makes its appearance. It was only during the third game this morning that the sun moved to a position where it shone on the whole lane. By the fourth game, I had shed my long-sleeved cotton jacket and was enjoying the sun on my arms in a short-sleeved T-shirt. And later in the morning at the Sunday market, when I had switched to three-quarter length pants and an almost-sleeveless blouse, I was still downright hot in the direct sun.

I came home and hung clean laundry out on the line on our rooftop terrace. It will be dry in an hour, unless we get another unexpected rain.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Discovery Day

Today is a national holiday in Spain and in almost all of the Spanish-speaking world. October 12 is remembered by many U.S. citizens of my generation as the day Columbus discovered America. "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," with funding from Spain's Queen Isabella, even though he himself was Italian. Of course, we know now that Columbus was not the first European to discover the Americas: Leif Ericson had built a small colony in Newfoundland 500 years earlier, though it was short-lived. And it wasn't even really on October 12 that Christopher Columbus--or actually Rodrigo de Triana, one of his crew members--first sited land in what we now call the Bahamas. In the 15th century the Julian calendar governed; the world has since switched to the Gregorian calendar, and we should be observing the siting on October 21 instead of October 12.

In Spain, according to the Spanish-language Wikipedia, October 12 is observed as a day commemorating the beginning of contact between Europe and America, which culminated in "a meeting of two worlds" that changed visions of the world both for Europeans and for Americans. Its observance is not without controversy here any more than in the Americas--the Wikipedia entry has been edited six times since I first checked it this morning. But I continue to hold fast to the idea that encounters between the peoples of the two continents can enhance visions both in Europe and America, and at this writing, those words have not been excised from the article.

Since 1987 this day, formerly known as El Día de la Hispanidad and El Día de la Raza, has been officially called La Fiesta Nacional de España and is one of two national secular holidays (the other is Constitution Day). The day began like most fiesta days in Spain--with fireworks. Our regular 9:00 pétanque game was punctuated by sounds of firecrackers from surrounding towns and villages; rarely a minute passed without some observance of the day. Stores and businesses are closed throughout the country--our gardeners called last night to postpone their usual tidying up of our yard, saying they would be liable to heavy fines if they worked on the national holiday. And even I have given myself a day off from work to write this short post, to contemplate and celebrate connections between Spain and the Americas, and to be on the look-out for new visions.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Gota Fría

At the end of September, Monday the 28th to be exact, we experienced our first gota fría in the Alicante region, and, according to reports, the worst in this area in twelve years. A gota fría, literally translated, is a cold drop (as in drop of water). In this context it refers to a weather phenomenon in which a cold front meets the warm air rising over the Mediterranean and dumps muchas gotas of agua onto the land below.

When we get rain here, which is not often, it almost always comes very conveniently at night. This time it started on Sunday mid-morning, and continued on and off all that day and night. Monday morning during a temporary "off" period we went out to the grocery store, since the rain the day before had kept us away from the local Sunday market. We bumped into friends at Lidl, decided to go for a cup of coffee, and sat too long inside talking as the rain poured down.

When we left we drove through rain-filled streets with water up to our hubcaps. We made our way slowly towards home, which thankfully sits on higher ground than the surrounding area, but we still had to get through that lower surrounding area. At the roundabout leading from the highway toward Montebello, we encountered more water, a couple cars coming toward us very slowly, and another abandoned on the side of the road. As we rounded a curve, we saw a car up ahead stalled in water up to the windows. We turned around and headed back to Ciudad Quesada, the closest commercial area, to find a more comfortable place to wait until the water went down.

El Bancal restauante was the first dry spot we came to--though the downstairs ladies room was flooded so the mens on the upper level became unisex. We warmed up in the restaurante with a tasty goulash soup and glass of wine. After ninety minutes or so we ventured out again, but only because a man there spoke on his cell phone with a friend in Montebello, who told him that the roundabout at the highway was now cordoned off but we might be able to get in by driving north to the town of Algorfa and then back south to come in "the back way." We did, holding our breath for much of the half hour it took to follow this detour, and arrived at our Montebello entrance intact and with motor still running.

Our house and most of the develoment were weathering the torrent with no problems, though the following day we discovered that a wall surrounding the green rubbish dumping area--adjacent to the back road by which we came--had caved in with the force of the rushing water.

Subsequent newspaper reports said that the torrents brought 100 liters of water per square meter in just four hours. If you don't know exactly how much that is, you are not alone. It is a lot! Hundreds of drivers abandoned their cars, and dozens of people had to be evacuated from their homes. But amazingly after the rains stopped, the water receded rapidly. By the next morning, when we had a 9:00 appointment to have the car inspected prior to its official inpection, we were able to drive out the front road, but the appointment was postponed as garages had more business than they could handle rescuing and cleaning mud-packed vehicles.

The news reports that this was the worst gota fría in twelve years. Also that it was only the first one of the season.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Ikea Weekend

It's been an Ikea weekend again. Friday, on the drive back from a short visit in our former home town of Roquetas, we stopped at the Ikea in Murcia, in a never-ending quest to fill up just a little more wall space with books and bookcases.

Our timing was not good. We reached the highway around Murcia at 2:10 in the afternoon, just as thousands of people were headed home for Friday luncheon and siesta. Or so we thought. When we got into the Ikea parking lot, and then the store, we knew where they really went for siesta. Not sleeping in the furniture display as reportedly done in Beijing, but definitely passing the afternoon time of day.

Though we have practically memorized the downstairs warehouse location of Billys and Bennos, we still had to go upstairs into the exposition part of the store because there was one new (to us) model that we had to check out and get the stats on. A half hour later we were making our way through the warehouse, picking our packages, and then we spent several minutes in line before paying. No recession here! People were buying. Out to the parking lot gymnasium, where strange contortions are often evident as people (including us) struggle to get heavy packages into or onto the car or truck.

We managed to position four units inside our Ford Fusion and then returned to the second floor café for our traditional snack of canapé de gambas (open-faced shrimp sandwich) and cervesa sin (beer without (sin) alcohol). No siesta here! It seemed as though everyone in the store had assembled in the restaurante and were all eating, talking, and laughing with family. One more stop-off at the well-equipped tienda sueca to pick up arenque (herring) in various glass jars to take home for our Saturday smørrebrød. Arenque must not be as popular with the Spanish as the albóndigas and other hot dishes and desserts in the restaurant--they had lowered the price to a euro a jar!

Sated for now, and prepared for the next meal, we drove home single file, i.e., passenger behind the driver, as the bookcase boxes were spread on the entire right side of the car, from trunk through the front seat. On Saturday the man of the house magically turned cardboard boxes into standing bookcases, and the woman of the house prepared a smørrebrød with four kinds of herring. And today, we are emptying boxes under the bed and filling new bookcases in our offices and bedroom.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tomato Country and More

During the brief time that I lived in Indiana, my sister introduced me to Red Gold, a small but excellent canner and processor of tomatoes grown northeast of Indianapolis. We enjoyed finding and purchasing the local brand whenever we had need for tomato sauce, canned tomatoes, tomato juice, or any other tomato something from their extensive brand and product list.

Now, totally unexpectedly on a visit to a rural hardware and building supply store near our Montebello home, I have found my local Spanish equivalent to Red Gold. The huge warehouse had a good-enough supply of kitchenwares that I browsed through while the other half of the family talked wood and a building project with the lumber people. But back in the corner I found a section promoting locally grown products. And this is how I found out that it's not just lemons, oranges, mangoes, and olives that are grown in this area. They also grow tomatoes.

I came away with a 390 gram can of tomate al natural pelado (peeled whole tomatoes) and a 400 gram can of tomate al natural triturado, categoria primera (tomato sauce, first quality) for a euro each. A smaller jar (300 grams) of Dulce de Tomate Extra (tomato jam) was three euros. There was a variety of brands and labels in the store, but I noticed after I got home that all three of my purchases were labeled Conservas Almoradí. Almoradí is a town only six or eight kilometers up the road from our home in Montebello--we had previously been there to get our health cards and to buy a few familiar but hard-to-find-in-Spain items at a British EuroStretcher warehouse store.

The two cans also bore a Gómez y Lorente, S.L. mark. When I checked out the Gómez y Lorente website at home, I found that in addition to tomato products, they do alcachofas (artichokes), pimientos (peppers), cebolla sofrita (onions sauteed in olive oil), brocoli, and habas (baby lima beans, also in olive oil). I only saw cans of various tomato products and the onion sofrita, but I look forward to trying the other local products as they become available. I might even try to like artichokes.

I purchased one other local product from the hardware store: Salt. We knew that they still mine salt from one of the two inland salt lakes in Torrevieja--we can sometimes see mountains of salt as we drive by on the road from Torrevieja to Montebello--but I had been completely unsuccessful in finding local salt from any grocery store in the area. Now I have it: Chaco refined sea salt for the table and cooking, packaged by Rocamora Hnos. in Torrevieja, 40 euro cents (about 60 US cents) for a kilo. But salt is a subject for another Sunday.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Rain in Spain

Last Sunday it rained in Spain--not terribly hard where we live, but the thunder was loud enough and the lightening close enough that I didn't want to tempt fate by keeping the computer connected to an electrical outlet, no matter that it is protected. We went out to visit friends in the early evening and remembered to leave a light on because we knew it would be dark by the time we returned home. When we came back at 9:30 the light was off, though street lights were still lit. Fortunately a flip of the circuit breaker restored power to the house.

It rained on and off for the next three days, and the temperatures dipped into the low 70s F. though it seemed colder in the early morning when we went out to play pétanque. By midweek I was beginning to wonder whether it was time to bring out long-sleeved clothing and relocate my summer sleeveless next-to-nothings to my winter undershirt drawer. Procrastination pays off sometimes. I did not renovate my wardrobe, though I did start to wear 3/4 length pants for the first time in three months.

Our garden benefited greatly from the rain--everything is clean and fresh--but the local Euro Weekly News paper is telling us that the rain caused flooding in Orihuela, the largest near-by city. In the Valencia region, it was feared that extended rain could damage the rice crops, but the storms seem to have passed over by now. Grape vines were damaged in the Utiel-Requena wine district west of Valencia, however, and the grape harvest is expected to fall by 50% this year. That's not good news for the local wine industry that we are beginning to explore.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Trip to the Bodega

Last Thursday we took a bus tour inland to the village of Jumilla, in Murcia province. It was pleasant riding up high in a large tour bus; even though some of the roadway was familiar to us, we saw vegetation from a different angle than when passing through the countryside lower to the ground in a common car.

Our destination was the Finca Omblancas, a small winery just outside the town of Jumilla, which is home to at least ten wineries and bodegas. We had a spectacularly informative tour of the winery, which was purchased by its present family owners in 2002, who have made huge investments in modernizing production methods and improving quality.

Our tour started out in the vineyards, where the slightest touch of autumn coolness was making its welcome entry after a long hot summer. We moved inside to see the chute where grapes are delivered, dumped, and inspected for the second time (the first inspection is done by hand-pickers out in the vineyard). Then we went down to the huge stainless steel vats where the grapes and their juice are collected and ferment. It was here that I learned about the monastrell grape, a variety unique to Mediterranean countries, and the only grape that survived the Phylloxera epidemic that destroyed most of the vineyards of Europe in the late 19th century.

We passed on to the wine cellar and tasting room, where we tried three of the Omblancas wines--all interesting and worth a purchase--and then on to a nearby restaurant, where we enjoyed one of those lovely Spanish menú del día three-course luncheons. I had a wonderful gazpacho and finger-licking lamb chops. And this menú featured two more Omblancas wines, in generous quantities.

If I had written this post immediately after hearing about the processing and the monastrell grape, while we were still in the vat room, I would be able to tell you many more facts about wine making and Omblancas. But since we proceeded to the wine cellar and the luncheon, those facts floated out of my head with the flow of wine, so if you want to know more, you will have to follow the links highlighted here, and also, perhaps, to an interesting book called Let's Open a Bottle: My Journey through the Spanish Wine Revolution.

And did I mention how nice it was to have someone else driving the bus on the way home?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Zoco Market

On Sunday morning we usually spend an hour or two at the Zoco market, a huge open-air bazaar or mercado that is only a couple miles from our house in Montebello. It's not exactly true that you can buy anything there, but you can buy an awful lot of different things. There are hundreds of stalls in a dozen or more aisles, selling various types of clothing (outer and inner), books, DVDs, ceramics, hardware supplies, kitchen utensils and cleaning supplies, window glazing, outdoor furniture, indoor furniture, flowers and plants, personal care items, and food.

Oh, the food! Vegetables and fruits, locally grown. Two weeks ago every fruit stall suddenly had figs, and that was how I learned that figs were in season (and they were gone the next week). Frutos secos (nuts), where I usually get the whole almonds I add to my morning cereal. Olives. Beans. Spices. Cheeses and more varieties of embutidos (sausages) than I knew existed. Bread. Cakes and pastries. Roast chicken on a spit, and paella, to take home with you in case you don't feel like making Sunday dinner. And it wouldn't be a market, or Spain, if there weren't lots of places to sit down and enjoy something to drink and eat on the spot.

We usually drive, because who knows what we might have to carry home? But this morning we decided we needed some walking exercise, so for the first time, we struck out on the short walk to the entrance of our urbanization, then down the country road going parallel to the highway, around the highway exit roundabout bringing cars from north and south, and up the path to the huge parking lot. It only took us twenty minutes from our door to the spot where we usually park the car, and then another five minutes through the lot to one of the entrances to the market, where hawkers were busy as usual, offering free day trips to a blanket factory somewhere in the area--"no purchase necessary."

After walking for a half hour in the sun we were ready for our ritual visit to the Danish pølsevogn at the back of the market. In addition to the traditional Danish hot dog, with all the trimmings, this hot dog stand also offers a fresh copy of today's Extra Bladet newspaper to read while you devour the dog and sip the Carlsberg.

Thus refreshed we made quick work of our shopping. Johannes found two DVDs to watch this week, and also a loaf of pan gallego, a delicious crusty bread that we had enjoyed for the first time as the base of a tostada in Alicante a couple weeks ago. I picked up fresh green beans and apples that I need for the Mediterranean salad and American apple cake I'm planning to make for overnight visitors this week. And then we decided to treat our visitors, and us, to a Danish pastry wienerbrød stang for breakfast, and shouldn't we also reward the man who consistently offers us delicious sharp bits of cheddar cheese each week--which we gladly accept but decline to purchase huge chunks of, for cholesterol reasons? Yes, we left the market with a five euro chunk of cheddar for our English friends, and for us.

By now we had enough to carry, so we headed out, stopping only to buy the Sunday El País, a former daily staple but now, due to rising newspaper prices and the lack of a corner kiosk, an occasional treat. The trip home took twice as long as the walk to the market. By 11:30 it is really hot and sunny, and we had to stop at Monty's, our local air-conditioned bar, for an agua con gas and café con leche to help us make the last few blocks to our house on Tomillo street.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Menú del Día

On Wednesday morning this week we left the house sooner than anticipated, because we got a sudden telephone call saying that Johannes' new glasses had arrived at the optician and were ready for pick-up. And was he ready to have them! We had intended to go out to Mercadona, one of the many local supermarkets we patronize, to buy the week's supply of heavy stuff: wine, two kinds of bottled water, and kitty litter. We limit our trips there to once a week or so, because it's a little farther away than we usually need to drive, and there are at least four other branded supermarkets between here and there.

Mercadona is on a direct line between our house and the optician's, so we rushed off to the optician's and planned on stopping at Mercadona on the way home. But the optician is right next to the large Habaneras shopping mall in Torrevieja, so we stashed the car in the coolness of the underground parking garage at Habaneras. did the business at the optician's, and then, since we were there, took a trip through AKI looking for wood for new shelves in the kitchen, and through the next-door Carrefour to try to find a suitable folding kitchen stool, and then, somehow three hours had gone by just like that. And we were hungry! And you know what they say about doing grocery shopping on an empty stomach.

So we did something that we hardly ever do--we went out for lunch. Our normal Mediterranean diet lunch consists of a mixed vegetable salad, with a fruit salad for dessert. But today we wanted more than a quick stop for a late-morning tostada or early tapa, and it was now well past 1:00, so we could be sure that restaurants were serving menú del día.

Menú del día is the best way to eat a meal in Spain that offers you choice and plenty of food, and does not bring you a surprise when you get the bill. Offered only at lunchtime--the main meal of the day for most Spaniards--it customarily allows you to choose from among three or four selections for your first course, main course, and dessert. A single beverage (wine, beer, or water) is often included in the fixed-price menu, but sometimes not--check so that you don't get surprised at the end of the meal. Prices (usually somewhere between 8 and 11 euros per person) and the selections for the menú del día are normally listed on a placard outside the restaurant.

We stopped at a place called The Dining Room, which we had noticed near the Mercadona on a previous trip, and were delighted to read on the poster that their menú del día could include only two courses for 6 euros, and we could choose either a starter or dessert in addition to the main course. I quickly decided on the grilled chicken for main course, though I was tempted by the lasagna. Beverage was clearly not included in the six euro price, and we were hot, though we had a table in the shade and a breeze occasionally blew through, so we ordered tinto de verano wine coolers (with ice!) and awaited our main courses.

Not too long a time passed (but enough so we ordered a bottle of water with more ice) before our plates appeared, each with three(!) small breasts of chicken, grilled, plus the usual french fries, plus a bonus of lettuce, tomatoes, and onion that was more than a garnish--at least a one-serving vegetable. This was an English bar and restaurant, but that's not why we got the chips--I have discovered that French fries are the usual accompaniment to fish or meat courses in Spain.

It was very filling, but we concluded our tasty lunch with dessert of watermelon for me and ice cream for my companion. Much more than we usually have for lunch, but thus fortified, we proceded on to Mercadona to accomplish that weekly purchase of wine, water, kitty litter, and a few more items. And then home to put away the purchases and fall into bed for one of those Spanish siestas.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Spanish Efficiency

Since I've shared my frustration about going through trámites over the past few weeks, I thought I should let you know that some things go right, and fairly quickly.

Two weeks ago, we discovered a water leak in our underbuild, also known as the half-cellar underneath the house. Careful investigation revealed that it probably came from a leak in water pipes going underneath the floor tiling in the main floor bathroom. This sent panic into my heart, as we had already met another couple in this development who had a similar problem with their main floor bathroom. The repairman that their insurance company sent in managed to dig up and destroy every single one of the floor tiles in the bathroom before finding that the problem was at the very entrance to the room. After some time, they got their leak fixed and the floor tiles replaced--albeit not with the same type of tiles that had been installed when the house was built eight years ago--but the water had not been connected some months later. I really didn't want my entire bathroom floor dug up, and I certainly didn't want a non-functioning bathroom for months on end.

We contacted our insurance company, and last week a young repairman came to determine the cause of our problem. He announced immediately that it was probably a leak in the pipes underneath the floor at the door to the bathroom. He drilled and made a horrible racket, but he found the leak and repaired it, and only destroyed two tiles in the process. This week, another repairman showed up to replace the tiles. We had already scouted out an acceptable near-match for the sea green mist tiles on the floor, but he had found a better one. He also drilled and made a horrible racket, but when he was done, the two tiles were in place and you might not notice, as you walk into the bathroom, that they are slightly different from the rest of the floor.

There's something very nice about how the insurance system works in Spain. Something goes wrong. You call the insurance company. They send someone to fix it. You don't have to get estimates from three different service providers; you don't have to pay the repairman; you don't have to subtract the deductible. Since the repairmen are hired by the insurance company, you don't have to fight about the insurance at all, and chances are, the repair person knows the situation as well as or better than you do. Our guy diagnosed the problem as soon as he walked in the door--he had already fixed two other similar leaks in our development (not the one at our friends' house--they had a different insurance company).

All we had to do was to be home to let the workmen in, and, after the job was completed, verify by phone that we were satisfied.

The Orange Grove

When we first moved into this house in Montebello, I wrote that I had a view of orange trees from my bathroom window, but there were no oranges on the trees. That was true in June.

Now in August, as you can see on the photograph to the right, there are some oranges on the trees. True, they are not yet orange. I have no idea when they will turn orange, but I'll keep you posted.

The Greatest Sandbox

On most mornings, we head out of the house at about 8:00 to walk to the play area in our Montebello urbanization to get in three or four games of pétanque. The recreation area includes a soccer field (in the foreground to the left), a children's playground with slide and swings, two pétanque lanes, and a handball court. It's all "paved" in fine beige sand.

This morning as we went out the door and locked the gate, Goldie refused to come inside and wait for our return. Oh well, she could wander in our street for awhile, and she could even jump the fence and find a shady place to wait for us to come back an hour later.

We walked the block down the street, and then another block past the orange grove, over to the recreation area. We were just at the point of throwing out the first ball when who should appear but Goldie, who had followed at a discreet distance. She nosed around the pétanque lane, discovered that the red "pig" ball was not some of her dry cat food, occasionally chased one of the metal balls, and wandered off to inspect the other recreation facilities and the adjacent orange trees.

And then, sure enough, she reacted to the largest sandbox she had ever seen and used it just as she would her litter box at home.

The next time Goldie comes with us to pétanque, we'll bring a plastic bag.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Summer Shopping Sundays

Summer Sundays in Spain are different from winter Sundays, at least on the coast. During July and August people from the north of Spain flock to the southern and eastern costas, and people from the interior parts of the southern and eastern provinces also flood outwards to the beaches. Locals who live year-round on the coast sigh and moan about the lack of parking spaces, but they know how their bread is buttered, or more precisely, adorned with olive oil: tourism.

I have another reason to look forward to the thousands of tourists who come during these weeks. The arrival of tourists to an official tourist region means store openings on Sundays. Yes, Spain still lives most of the year with Sunday being a "day of rest" from commercialism, as long as you don't count the busy Sunday outdoor market or the hundreds of restaurants, bars, and cafeterías that do big business on the "day off." But for Sundays in December and the summer holidays, the larger grocery stores and entire shopping centers that are located in tourist areas are given special dispensation to stay open on Sunday to cater to tourists.

Everyone, I think, loves it. You do not hear just English, German, French, and Scandinavian voices comparing prices and value in Carrefours, Lidl, Consum, and Eroski on Sunday. You also hear Spanish, and you see lots of Spaniards pushing gigantic shopping carts filled with clothing, shoes, electronics, and food. The entire Gran Plaza shopping center had been open on summer Sundays when we lived in Roquetas, and we had noticed that nearly every grocery, hipermercado, and large hardware and building supply store that we have entered here on the Costa Blanca also carry signs advising that they are open on Sunday in July, August, and the first half of September.

Which is why we skipped our usual visit to the local outdoor market this morning and headed to the Ikea in Murcia. They had been out of the shelving we need for the kitchen on our last visit, and their online site now showed that stock had been replenished. We have gone so often to this Ikea that we know the shortest and easiest way, and we have it down to just about a 45 minute ride, only the last five minutes of which are heavy with traffic.

But today we noticed that there was practically no traffic during the last five minutes, and when we approached the parking lot in less than five, we realized there were no cars--none at all--in the parking lot. Sure enough, the sign on the door listed the Sundays and festivos that Ikea is open, but there was a big blank next to the month of agosto. We drove around to several other big box stores, and even parked and went into a shopping mall, to see whether there were any signs that anything might be open in the next few hours. A few other cars were doing the same thing, and the voices of disappointment we heard were Spanish.

Giving special tourism dispensation is a local prerogative. Obviously the officials who are authorized to make this decision in the province and city of Murcia have chosen not to allow Sunday opening during the summer months. Oh, the frustration! I had already been anticipating my favorite treat from Ikea's cafeteria for lunch. But that was counting my shrimp before they had nestled down on an open-faced sandwich.

Back in the car we turned again toward Alicante province and home. I remembered years ago when we lived in northern Massachusetts--still under blue laws at that time, but no more--and we would drive across the border into New Hampshire to shop on Sunday. We even bought one of our cars one Sunday in New Hampshire. Now we passed by our house in Montebello and the open-air market, which was still going strong and tying up traffic, and proceeded on to the Habaneras shopping center on the outskirts of Torrevieja. Everything was open. I noticed that even McDonald's had a sign out saying they serve breakfast from 9:00 until noon (previously they never opened until 11:00). I wonder if that is permanent, or summer-time only.

We spent an hour in the AKI home DIY center, and came out with above-bed lamps, energy-saving bulbs, and the electric cable and switches to install them. So not all was lost. At least we got something for the house, and we still had time left to do a home project on this Sunday in Spain.

Monday, August 3, 2009

If It's Tuesday...

Tuesday this past week was the day we set out to be at the office in Orihuela early to go through the trámite of getting my social security number. We didn't make it quite by the 8:30 opening time. Just as well. When we arrived at 8:40 there were already people outside the door, standing, some smoking, most talking, waiting their turn. We hurried inside and picked up our number: number 105!

The inside office was packed, but it was air conditioned. Needless to say, the few seats were already taken. We stood at a counter-top desk along the far side of the room and worked on a sudoku. After a few minutes, we checked the sign that told what number was being served. It was number ten.

At 9:30 we went outside for a little air. We walked around the corner and found a cafetería with tables in the sun. The air was still fresh, and we sat out with a cup of coffee. There was a kiosk down the street, and we added a morning newspaper to the paperwork we had with us to pass the time.

Back at the social security office, we checked the number sign again. As in offices everywhere of this nature, there were multiple desks--at least six--and as in offices everywhere, not all of them were working. I saw three in operation, and we calculated that the numbers were moving along at the rate of about 30 per hour.

More sudoku. More newspaper reading. More watching the people as they came to the intake desk to get a number. And then we noticed that no more numbers were being given out. It was only 10:30, but the "appointments" for the day were filled. The lady at the reception desk simply said that there were no more numbers: "Mañana. Come back tomorrow." This was small comfort for the multitude of people--Spanish, English, a few German--who were coming in to an office that is open from 8:30 to 1:30 and who had expected to be served that day. It's not an unusual state of affairs in Spain, and most Spaniards took it philosophically. Some English were a bit more panicked. One woman explained that she had been there before and never seen it so busy, but now she was going to England on holiday at the end of the week, and needed the European card that extended her healthcare rights out of Spain and throughout the EU. Some new EU regulation had revised procedures and required the issuing of new cards.

We went out for another coffee and a tostada, this time at a cafetería in the shade. Thus fortified, we returned for our final wait. At 11:30 we passed the 100 mark and began to inch our way toward the front of the room where the consultation desks were staged. For the first time, I saw that the room was much larger than I had noticed before, and there were many more seats toward the front. But they were still all filled. Finally, number 105 was called for desk number 6.

We explained to the young woman at the desk that we had moved our residence from Andalucía, that I had to exchange my previous health card for one valid here, that we had completed empadronamiento, and that we had been sent here by the Almoradí centro de salud. My heart sank as I heard her explain that, since I am not a European citizen, I qualify for the health card only through my husband, who is a European, and could she please see our marriage certificate. We had gone through that process before, when I originally got the card in Roquetas. It involved finding the original of our Ohio marriage certificate, going to Denmark, establishing the fact that we had indeed been legal residents there long ago, and getting an official translation (to the tune of 300€) into Spanish of the marriage certificate and the Danish residence papers.

Presumably we have that paper in our files somewhere, but it had not occurred to us to take it with us this morning, because I did have my Spain residence card and the prior health card, which I could only have gotten after showing those marriage papers. Too much logic! But in time, we convinced the young woman that she didn't need to see those papers once again. At noon time we left the office, a signed and stamped letter authorizing me to receive health benefits in hand.

Wednesday, we took that valuable piece of paper back to the centro de salud in Almoradí, where it took a relatively short time (a half hour, but that's another story) to get my health card.

We had intended to have a day out and play tourist in Orihuela after getting the paper, but by early afternoon, we had energy only to find our way to the tourist office, pick up a map and brochures, and retire to a cafetería for a bit of lunch and leafing through the literature. Seeing more of Orihuela than the 50 meters around the social security office will have to wait for another day.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Trámites of Moving

Trámites in Spanish refers to to steps to be taken, or to procedures. Inevitably, these are bureaucratic procedures, and even though the word exists in singular form, it is most often seen in plural. There are always many steps to be taken. This week we have been occupied in the trámites of moving, the procedures one follows to officially re-establish residence in a new residence.

The first step is empadronamiento, the registration of your new address at the local ayuntamiento, or town hall. Even though we moved some two months ago, we had not taken this step yet because you need to produce evidence of the fact that you really live where you say you live. Evidence can be a water or electric bill, but since most people living in Spain these days have those bills paid automatically by direct debit from a bank account, and since monthly accounting statements have dropped to bi-monthly or quarterly statements, you may have to wait some time before collecting that evidence. We took a copy of the deed to the house we had bought, which itself took a few weeks to be forwarded to us from the registro of deeds.

That evidence plus our NIE cards (an ID card showing we are foreigners, but legal residents--Spain's version of the U.S. "green card") was accepted by the man behind the Información desk at the Algorfa ayuntamiento. We moved on to another desk to receive the paper copy of our empadronamiento. In addition to this certificate, we had to fill out and sign a paper to be included in the local census. Questions included age, place of birth, level of education attained, and occupation. This is important, we have learned, because it establishes officially that there is a large foreign population in certain areas, and it helps increase services to those growing populations.

In addition to what we are required to fill out for the census, we could elect to register to vote. I am pleased that my official residence, despite the fact that I am not a Spanish citizen, allows me to vote in local elections and in EU elections for representatives to the European Parliament!

Next task was the transfer of our health care cards from Andalucía, the comunidad where we previously lived, to Alicante, our new comunidad. This involved a couple trips, because the first centro de salud (health center) in Algorfa wasn't open and then we found we had to go further up the chain to the centro de salud in Almoradí. My husband came out with his new card and a new doctor, and therefore can now make an appointment for any health matter he wants to discuss or investigate. There was a glitch in my transfer. For some reason that was not important in Andalucía but is in Alicante, I don't have a social security number--that's right, there are not enough numbers in my life.

We had to go to yet another office in yet another administrative center further up the bureaucratic chain to register for my número de seguridad social. We found the office in Orihuela--I think we only had to stop the car and ask four times for directions--but at almost noon, the office was not accepting any more clients for that day. The remainder of that trámite awaits completion this coming week, when we expect to be at the office when it opens at 8:30 on Tuesday. Then, presumably, back to the centro de salud in Almoradí for the health services card. But perhaps not before playing tourist in Orihuela for a few hours and seeing what that old city has to offer.

We also spent time at the tax office finding out what taxes are due when on the car and the house property, and we still need to change the address for the car and driver's license. That gets done at the Dirección General de Tráfico in Alicante. Another day, another trámite. And another opportunity for a day out to explore.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Summer Heat Wave / Working on a Tan

Having been away from Spain for almost a month, I thought I was prepared to return in July to really hot weather. I got it, but I was not prepared nearly enough for it.

The heat was not too bad as we drove the six or so hours from Madrid to Alicante province; after all, we were cruising along (except for three construction tie-ups) in an air-conditioned car. It only became evident when we entered the house that had been closed up for the two days prior to my arrival. Central air conditioning does not exist in Spain, at least for me and everyone else I know. I have always considered central air conditioning a derivative of central heat, and we don't have central heat, or duct work to support it--and air conditioning--either. Instead we make do with wall-mounted heating/cooling machines that do work very well and silently, and can cool larger areas than the room in which they are located if they are positioned advantageously. We have a machine in the downstairs dining room, which I have discovered does not stretch to the living room, as I had hoped. And we have one in the master bedroom upstairs, which works fine but doesn't cool off much of anything else but the bedroom.

Other rooms can often be cooled by opening windows for a cross breeze, using the overhead fans, or using portable fans and even a portable air conditioner once we figure out how to set it up to empty water to the outside. But Friday there was not a breeze within miles, and temperatures reached the high eighties inside, or maybe more--I couldn't bear to look. In the afternoon we went out to play pétanque in the blazing sun, and there was hardly a breeze there. The combined effects of jet lag and unaccustomed heat did nothing for my game--I lost two and no one felt like playing the third game we usually do.

Saturday, and today, we have been blessed with slightly cooler weather at times, and with gentle but regular winds. I can keep my kitchen door and window open and get the temperatures down to pleasantly low seventies there, but I still have decided to adopt that old practice from the 1950s of cooking in the early morning hours and serving mostly cold foods for dinner. We can open two of the sliding glass doors that form the front conservatory at noon and make the room pleasant for our lunchtime salad. I keep the rejas, the metal rolling blinds, down in my office to keep out the warmth of the morning and afternoon sun that comes in, and the overhead fan on high, and only occasionally turn on a light to check my keyboarding or read a paper. But the best is that we can open the door to the upstairs terrace, which is located just outside my office door. It brings in light from the terrace and shoots cool breezes down the open stairwell to the dining room downstairs. Climate control in this house is mostly a matter of opening and closing doors.

Another sign of how much warmer it is here now than it was in June: In June I had to hang the towels from our morning showers out to dry in the sun each day. Now they just hang in the bathroom and are dry long before their next use. You would think, too, that the freshly laundered clothing that I hang on the lines on the upstairs terrace would be dry by the time the next load of wash is ready for the line. Alas, no. Something seems to have gone kaflooey with the spin cycle on the washing machine we inherited with this house--there is no centrifuge, so the clothes come out still filled with water. Nevertheless, they do dry within a day, though they are a little bit heavy to cart up from the kitchen washing machine to the rooftop hanging area. I think a new washer-dryer combination--and a new location for it--is in the near future.

But the real proof of the strong sun is in my feet. I had to bandage up a single toe on one foot as protection against a rubbing sandal top when in Chicago at a conference last week, and I neglected to take the band-aid off until two days after I was back in Spain. Now I have one toe indubitably paler than the other nine that have been exposed to the sun just by walking around. Just what I need for a summer task: working on a tan for my fourth right toe!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Welcome to Montebello

We live in an urbanization (neighborhood development) called Montebello, which means "beautiful hill," and there is indeed a small incline on the street we walk to go up to the neighborhood recycling center. We are part of the municipality called Algorfa, though we are closer to some urbanized parts of the town of Rojales, namely Ciudad Quesada, than to the commercial center of Algorfa. Our mail comes through Ciudad Quesada, and I can see the lights on the Quesada hill from my office window at night. There is talk that our urbanization may be reassigned to Rojales in the future, though I'm not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

There are 177 houses in our urbanization; about 40 of them are holiday homes, and the rest are used as primary, or at least secondary, residences. The area started development nine years ago and was marketed heavily to the British, so we hear mostly English voices while sitting in the sun room, working in the kitchen with the back door open to catch a breeze, or when we stop in at the local bar-cafe after taking the trash and garbage out in the evening. Several houses are for sale now; this reflects the worldwide economic situation that the Spaniards call simply La Crisis, the fact that in recent months the British pound has fallen drastically in relation to the euro (the US dollar managed the same feat much earlier), and a natural generational shift that I have observed marks many retirement communities, whether European or American.

We live on the edge of the urbanization, on Avenida del Tomillo. Tomillo is a variety of thyme. The other avenida surrounding the development is Romero, rosemary. I have looked, but there is no Parsley or Sage. But we do have streets named Olivo, Mimosa, Eucalyptus, and a couple other types of vegetation that I will need to commit to memory on a later walk around the area.

We have a neighborhood swimming pool, two pétanque courts and soccer field, children's play yard, and a couple park areas on one side of the development. At the entrance is the aforementioned bar-cafetería, Monty's, a hairdressing salon, and a locale to rent--there used to be a corner grocery but the proprietor died, I am told. A big five-year project has been started to build a huge shopping center on the road leading to our development. This will be within two kilometers of our entrance and I look forward to not having to get into the car every time I need to go out to buy some little thing. The project is on hold for a time during La Crisis, but we have been assured it will resume when the economy improves.

The shopping mall will replace a cement factory. The orange grove on the opposite side of the urbanization remains, for as long as we are here, I hope.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

My Morning View

In our house in Montebello, I begin each day by swinging open the bathroom window to see whether I can see the mountains in the distance. These are not high mountains, nor are they almost within touching distance, as the mountains of New Hampshire's Kinsman Range were from our home in Easton. But I feel very lucky to be able to look out into clear, crisp air, as it has been every day since we moved in, and see mountains at all. Some days it has been hazy in the morning and the range is barely visible to my eyes--in fact, it wasn't until the second day of our life here that I knew there were mountains there at all.

The first thing I see when I look out is the nearby orange grove. There are no oranges on the trees at this time of year, but the local word is that each inhabitant of our community is entitled to one orange per day in season--two if you are pregnant, which is not likely for me or for many of our neighbors. It's wonderful to see and smell the greenery, to hear the birds chirping, and to feel clean air.

Closer in to the window are the sand-colored houses with their red-tiled roofs and white fences surrounding the second-floor sun terraces. A neighbor to the right has a large un-opened parasol on his roof, and I can gauge the wind by seeing how much it flutters in the breeze. Another neighbor on the first line behind the orange grove appears to have a covered jacuzzi taking up much of his terrace, but I've never seen anyone in it nor anywhere else on that second floor. In fact, I've never seen anyone else outside my bathroom window as I stand there each morning and take in the day. It's a wonderfully peaceful way to begin anew each morning.