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Sunday, January 11, 2009

English First? English Only?

I was saddened this Sunday in Spain upon reading the New York Times story about Eric Crafton's efforts to prohibit Nashville city government workers from using any language other than English.

I am lucky to be living in a country that welcomes its many foreign visitors and residents and makes some effort to communicate with them in languages other than Spanish only. It is not unusual for me, as a foreigner, to be replied to in English in the supermarket, the bank, restaurants, and hotels. Younger people especially tell me the cost of my groceries in Spanish and then automatically convert the sum to English to speed up the transaction. Not everyone knows English, in fact, it is not even wide-spread. English was prohibited under the Franco regime, so few people middle-aged or older understand or dare speak it.

Of course I've been studying Spanish since I first came to Spain in 2003. Within a week I was hunting for the free evening Spanish-for-foreigners course sponsored by the local government in Roquetas, where we had settled. I didn't take that one, but I started a series of private classes and have since studied with other foreigners in three different schools, usually taking two classes a week. I'm motivated to learn, and I've put a lot of time and money into it. I'm not perfect in Spanish, and I never will be. But I can make myself understood, as long as anyone cares to try to understand me, and as long as I don't get too stressed about it.

But it's pretty easy to get stressed when you are trying to do complicated or bureaucratic things in an environment that is not native to you. Right now I'm working on getting a driver's license, and though I think I'll eventually be able to pass the theoretical test in Spanish, I'm more than a little worried about what will happen if I don't understand the tester's directions or accent when I'm in the middle of the practical test. So even though I don't plan to take advantage of it, I appreciate the fact that a neighboring province offers driver's tests in English as well as Spanish.

My husband, who grew up speaking Spanish in South America, frequently accompanies English and Danish people who have chosen to make their winter or full-year home in Spain, when they need to go for medical appointments or to government offices. Even if you are working hard to learn the native language, the idiom spoken when you need to purchase a house, pay a water bill, inquire about taxes, register a car or a pet, request a no-parking notice, report a theft, ask about a local charity, or purchase a cemetery plot can easily go beyond what you as a new Spanish speaker are sure you understand.

We have now lived in two different towns, in two different provinces, in Spain. Both Roquetas (Almería) and Torrevieja (Alicante) use municipal funds to offer Spanish courses. A year ago Roquetas issued a handbook of the law in six foreign languages for its immigrant populations. In Torrevieja recently, when we stopped to assist an English couple who had been in a minor traffic accident, the police who responded were able to use a few words of English to clarify the facts and send the couple on their way for a medical check-up. Being met in this fashion in English--as tentative and infrequent as it is--is not expected by most of the foreign population in Spain, but it is appreciated.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Los Belenes - Ancient Worlds in Miniature

It's the eleventh day of Christmas. Since last Sunday in Spain we've managed a few other festivals. The Day of the Innocents is a sort of Spanish April Fool's Day. Las Moragas in Roquetas de Mar is a giant beach-front afternoon and evening picnic, where groups light bonfires and cook fish in honor of the town's past life as a fishing village. Of course, we've also observed New Year's Eve and Day. Also during the week we went downtown in Torrevieja to view the annual municipal Belén, literally, Bethlehem.

The Belenes, which appear in every town during the Christmas season, are in the tradition of nativity scenes, but much more. A Belén shows not only Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in the stable, not only the shepherds watching their flocks by night, not only the Wise Men coming from distant lands to Bethlehem. Belenes are small-scale reproductions of entire towns in ancient times. So you will see common houses with cooking facilities and laundry hanging on a clothes line, a bakery, the outdoor market, perhaps a school, carts and animals, and always something unique to the town in which the particular Belen has been constructed.

The Torrevieja Belén filled more than a third of the area of a city block in the plaza in front of the church and town hall. The landscapes and buildings, with bonsai-sized vegetation and miniature human figures, were mounted on waist-high tables in a long rectangle. Some observers proceeded in an orderly fashion through the entire story around the rectangular block. Others milled in and out to view specific scenes, which were not necessarily in historical sequence. The Torrevieja Belén showed more religious history than I have seen before in a Belen, or perhaps I recognized more because scenes were labeled: the tax decree, Mary visiting her sister Isobel, the couple asking for lodging at the inn, the announcement to the shepherds, the three kings on their travels, Jesus at the temple, the flight to Egypt.

Each town has its own Belén, and part of the tradition is to celebrate the daily life of the specific municipality itself in ancient times. Torrevieja got its industrial and commercial start from its two salt lakes--the industry continues and people tell me that Torrevieja still supplies salt for the removal of snow from New York City streets. So the Belén showed laborers hacking out salt and loading it up for transportation. Especially in the eastern areas of Spain, I learned this year, at least one scene is created to connect the spiritual with the mundane. The Torrevieja Belén showed the consternation of a driver of a horse-drawn cart, fully laden, that had just lost one of its wheels, and in another scene, someone had slipped on steps and was tumbling head over heels. A nearby town, I understand, offered a young man relieving himself behind a tree.

You can find Belenes in many places during the holiday season: department stores, hotels, restaurants, offices, senior citizen dwellings. The largest and most elaborate Belén in each community is sponsored by the local government--not the church. No concern about mixing church and state in this regard! Since the death of Franco (1975), sentiment has grown against Catholicism and the Church, which was complicit in his dictatorship. Spain has officially guaranteed its citizens religious freedom since the 1978 Constitution. But no one demonstrates against the Belenes. In fact, there are competitions and museums to highlight the best. The Belenes show history, and Spaniards acknowledge, respect, and hold in affection the common history of mankind as they see it in the Belén.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Twelve Grapes for Good Luck in the New Year

I had observed last year that the price of fresh grapes, always high in my area of Spain, seemed even higher the last week of the year. Especially seedless grapes. But the price of fresh grapes was nothing in comparison to the price of the small cans of seedless, peeled grapes that appear in mountainous displays in the grocery stores in the days leading up to New Year's Eve (Noche Vieja).

The Spanish custom of eating twelve grapes at midnight on December 31st began almost a hundred years ago. By most accounts, 1909 unexpectedly produced a bumper crop of grapes in Alicante, so the grape growers came up with the superstition that if you swallow a grape at each stroke of the clock as the old year passes into the new, you will have good luck for each of the twelve months in the new year.

I bought my supply of green, seedless grapes several days ago, because I saw them for 1,50€ for a half kilo and I thought that was a bargain. Sure enough, later in the week I saw them elsewhere for 1,75€ or even 2,25€. My first New Year in Spain I had bought a package of three small cans--three individual servings--for €3 or 5€, thinking there must be something special about them. Individual servings of 12 grapes are also now packaged, conveniently enough, in tall fluted plastic glasses that can be filled with cava, the very acceptable Spanish answer to champagne, immediately after the grapes are gone. At Eroski, a local hypermarket, the individual cava glasses with grapes were selling for 1€ each two days ago. New Year's Eve afternoon, when I stopped by at 5:30 to pick up a fresh baguette, they were already marked down to 30 euro cents apiece.

The standard timekeeper for the turn of the year in Spain is the tower clock on the Correos (post office) building in the Puerta del Sol plaza in Madrid. I'm not sure whether the twelve strokes of midnight actually toll at the rate of one every second, but I am sure that they are not spaced long enough apart for me to down twelve grapes in a row and be finished by the start of the new year--I haven't made it yet. I have learned that seedless grapes are required, and next year I am going to further prepare them by peeling the skin away.

Even though I didn't make it through my twelve grapes by the end of 2008, my glass did get filled with cava, which tastes remarkably good with green grapes. That's an auspicious start to a new year, and marking the end of the old one by listening to the clock strike twelve certainly seems more appropriate that watching a ball drop.

Happy New Year! ¡Buen año nuevo!