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Sunday, March 29, 2009

It's 8:03 A.M. Do you know what time it is?

For the last several months at 8:03 A.M. every morning, a clock has sounded with the words, "It's eight oh three A.M.; it's eight oh three A.M.; it's eight oh three A.M.," and on and on for an entire minute, unless I get to the Off switch to shut out the mechanical voice.

The clock is the one on my pedometer, a freebie trinket from the National Library of Medicine booth at a trade show many years ago, which has proved very useful in measuring my steps while walking and even biking. But several months ago, I managed to set the alarm, unintentionally, and even though I (finally) located the printed instructions, I have not been able to undo it.

This Sunday morning in Spain I was not disturbed until 9:03 A.M. That's because this morning, Spain--and all of Europe--finally switched clocks to Daylight Saving Time, or Summer Time, as it is known here. Spring forward, fall back. What had been 8:03 now is called 9:03--except by my pedometer clock.

The last three weeks have wreaked havoc on my sensibilities. I am used to the U.S. east coast being six hours later than we are here in Spain. It's an easy switch. Around the time of my lunch at 2:00 P.M. here, people are going to work at home. When I settle down for the evening news, they are beginning to think about their lunch. And if I am still sitting at my computer at 10:30 P.M., they are just closing up work for the day.

But since the U.S. changed its clocks on March 8, and we didn't change until last night, we were, temporarily, only five hours ahead of U.S. time. I was late for my usual telephone call to my mother on Saturday afternoon. I failed to check my email at a computer in Connecticut before the office opened at 8:30 A.M.--though I only had to wait up until 9:30 P.M. my time (instead of 10:30) to check the end-of-day messages at that office. And my New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Jim Lehrer Newshour, and Katie Couric emails have been coming in at hours that I did not expect. In short, I have been totally disoriented.

Since they both do shift time twice each year, spring and fall, I have never been able to understand why the U.S. and Europe don't change on the same date. Now, after an afternoon of research--made even shorter by that hour I lost this morning--I still don't know why. But I do know that the changes are embedded in their respective laws. Before 1996, countries in Europe changed to summer or winter time, as the case was, at different times. The European Union standardized the time switch, and since 1996 European Summer Time has been observed from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October. The United States, which first adopted DST during WWI, then abandoned it until WWII, started regular observances with the Uniform Time Act of 1966. There have been periodic revisions since then, and starting in 2007, Daylight Saving Time begins the second Sunday morning in March, and extends until the first Sunday morning in November.

I figure I have seven months before my time is out of synch again. And I hope that by that time I will have figured out how to change the talking mechanical voice on my pedometer.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lost in Translation?

We've joined a weekly walking group of mostly Brits, and have spent the past few Wednesdays hiking for an hour or so at interesting locations in the Roquetas environs and then having a lunch of a tapa or two at a bar near our excursion site. Last Wednesday's walk took us to the Cabo de Gata nature park east of Almería. Although la gata means "cat" in Spanish, Cabo de Gata has nothing to do with cats; it seems in this case to be a variation of the word "agate," which was once found among the stones in the beach area.

The car trip to Cabo de Gata took most of an hour, and the walk down a sandy path along the marsh to the flamingo look-out and abandoned country church took two hours, so we were quite hungry when we found our way to a seaside bar and restaurant. I overheard part of a conversation at the next table. As waiters are wont to do in southern Spain, especially when descended upon by a group of 22 English speakers, this one tried valiantly to respond to one walker's question about the preparation of the fish he was ordering.

"Is it done in batter?" was the question.

"Oh, no! No butter!" responded the waiter, horrified. "Olive oil."

"Yes, but is it covered in batter?" came the question again.

"No, no butter," repeated the waiter patiently.

Was this a misunderstanding in the making?

I have no idea whether this hiker wanted his fish in batter or not, nor whether he got it in batter or not. We can be sure he didn't get it in butter.

My own boquerones (anchovies) were covered with a delicious light batter and fried lightly in olive oil.

Some Favorite Tapas

A friend's birthday party this week was a celebration not only of his 75 years, but of the leisurely way of eating in Spain. Tapas--small portions of food served with drinks--are well-known throughout the world now. There are hundreds of varieties of tapas, in which small portions of fish, meat, vegetables, and potatoes are combined in interesting and tasteful ways, and served in distinctive individual tapas dishes along with an alcoholic beverage. The days of a no-charge tapa accompanying your order of wine or beer are mostly gone, but all bars still display a tray of eight or ten, or more, different tapas selections throughout the day. You specify your choice and they ladle it into a distinctive individual tapas dish, pop it in the microwave, and then serve it to you with just a fork and a slice or two of a good baguette--all for a single euro. If you are still hungry after a tapa, you simply have a second one. Foreigners, especially, often eat lunch this way.

Our birthday party followed the tapas tradition but served raciones, which are larger platters of the same types of food that make tapas. A group of Spaniards might order a racion for the table and each just dip into that plate with their own fork. Our group of 20 were seated at regular dining tables, each with a formal place setting of knife, fork, and dinner plate, and the plates of raciones were passed along the table so all could help themselves.

Our progressive tapas dinner began with ensalada mixta, mixed green salad, with lettuce, tomatoes, onion, peppers, and olives. An ensalada mixta often serves as a first course to a normal Spanish dinner; you dress it yourself from the olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper condiment set that invariably accompanies it. This was slightly different in that pieces of Spanish tortilla were served along side. I've previously written about my love affair with Spanish tortillas, and I enjoyed this little extra touch.

Just as I expected the main course to be served, the next racion appeared. And then another and another, in successive installments. As soon as we had passed and finished one plate, and washed it down with copious copas (glasses) of vino tinto (red wine) and agua (water), out would come another dish. In addition to salad and tortilla, we ate boquerones fritos, delicious fried anchovies, with papas fritas (French fries); patatas pobres, thinly sliced potatoes, slow fried with garlic; habas (lima beans) with bits of jamón serrano; a montadito, literally, something mounted on bread--this was a miniature sandwich of pork tenderloin), and pieces of pollo, chicken, marinated in something wonderful. I am sure there were a couple other courses, but this was several days ago and there were those copious copas. After three hours at the table with good food, good wine, and good conversation, there was a delicious birthday cake.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spring Flowers

A few weeks ago I passed by an open garden gate and was surprised to see a courtyard full of blooming daffodils. Spring flowers that were traditional in my North American growing up years--primarily daffodils and tulips--are rare here, as the winters along the southern costas of Spain do not get cold enough to properly "set" the bulbs. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to see flower bulbs on sale at all the first year I was in Spain. So the sight of a mass of 50 or more daffodils that must have been carefully and individually planted was an unexpected early spring pleasure.

There are spring flowers in Spain, just as there are distinct seasons. The flowers are just different from the ones I was used to while growing up in Ohio or living in New England. First we have the almond blossoms, which I almost missed this year, being away in the States until mid-February. But drives across country and walks along hilly trails in the past few weeks have always presented gorgeous profusions of yellow wildflowers. There are several different kinds, all of which are unknown to me, including one which looks almost like a dandelion, and another like a buttercup, but they aren't either of those. Today, while biking through Roquetas on yet another new bike path along the Mediterranean, I stopped in my tracks when I saw this display of naturalized yellow miniature blooms popping their heads up over the blades of grass in a small park--grass itself being a rather unusual form of greenery in this area.

My favorite spring plants, though, are the low borders of green succulents along the sea promenade, that suddenly spring forth with round magenta flowers each March. We watched one of the promenades being built, and the green succulent leaves served as a ground cover during the winter. Only a few flowers blossomed the first year, but each spring since, there have been more and more, so now it sometimes appears as a magenta carpet over the entire area. Danish friends told me these are middagsblomster, and a German friend verified that in Germany they are mittagsblume. But I've never been able to find either the Spanish or the English name. Now, after leafing unsuccessfully through two Spanish flower books with pictures, I found a lovely multilingual site on the Internet, Biopix. Clicking the Spanish flag produces two imaginative names for this plant: diente de dragón (dragon's tooth) and flor de cuchillo (knife plant). The individual succulent leaves could certainly be regarded as the long teeth of a dragon. But the British flag reveals two surprising and unjust names, I think: giant pigface, and Hottentot fig. The Latin name is neutral: Carpobrotus acinaciformis. I think I would prefer to remember dientes de dragón.

The Windmills of Spain

Don Quixote has made the old windmills of Spain famous for the past four hundred years, but new Spanish windmills are now achieving a prominence of their own. Spain's national newspaper, El País, reported this week that on March 5 windmills generated enough energy to meet 29% of the demand for electricity at 11:10 in the morning, and more than 40% of the demand during several of the early morning hours.

Windmill farms with a hundred or more mills are a common site when driving across the plains, though usually only a small portion of the mills are operating. Indeed, the country's windmill network was only functioning at 74.5% capacity when the March 5 record was established.

The bigger news that El País reported, however, was that in the months of January and February, Spain exceeded the goal of generating 30% of its electricity with the renewable sources of wind and water. In 2001 the European Union established a target for its member countries to satisfy 29.4% of their electrical needs with renewable sources by 2010. Though Spain experienced favorable conditions of wind and rain in the first two months of this year--as well as diminished electricity demand due to the economic crisis--it appears to be well on its way to maintaining its place as one of the leaders of renewable energy production and management. According to El País, only 10% of electricity in the U.S. is generated by renewable sources, and in the UK, it's less than 5%.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

First Bike Ride of the Season

This second March Sunday morning in Spain was perfect for bike riding, and I have a new bicycle. Petty theft happens here, especially when you get careless. Someone climbed over the four-foot wall surrounding our terrace in December, picked up two bicycles that we had forgotten to lock that night, and somehow passed them over to the other side. Since then I have been without a bike.

This time I bought a folding bike. We are no longer living in the house with the terrace and four-foot wall, but now on the second floor of an apartment building with a small four-person elevator. The collapsible bike, when folded up, can be carried into the elevator for trips down from and up to the always-locked apartment. With some difficulty.

Even before we reached the tile-paved promenade at the foot of the half-mile paseo that connects the main street on which we live to the Mediterranean, I knew I was going to be too warm in my turtle-neck and long jeans. I was, but there was too much life going on to turn back and change, or even to run back and pick up the camera we forgot. At 11:00 AM, the promenade was full of people of all ages enjoying the sun and fresh air of a spring Sunday. A bike path runs along the people promenade, and theoretically all bikes follow the bike path and all people on foot are on the wider pavement closer to the Sea. But there are many sorts of wheeled vehicles to contend with. At any point in time, regardless of where you are walking or riding, you may meet:
  • tricycles
  • roller skates
  • children's bikes with training wheels
  • wheelchairs, pushed not by the occupant
  • motorized scooters, driven by the occupant
  • baby strollers, pushed by parent or grandparent
  • double-wide baby strollers holding the large number of sets of twins in Spain
  • sedately moving two-wheeled bikes, ridden by pensioners or those approaching that age
  • racing bikes, usually controlled by young Spanish men passing you by at breathtaking speeds
  • the occasional motorcycle
  • a few cars and camping vans, making their way to the wide beach front between the promenade and the Sea
There were hundreds of people moving along, and when we got to the end of the tiled promenade, we and they continued on new bike and walking paths that had been built within the past year. We passed on wooden bridges over shallow marshes and through a natural park with a nice selection of grasses, shrubs, and palm trees. We stopped at one point for the most surprising pedestrians of all--at least 60 sheep making their way across the marsh, with a little help from a herdsman. All wore a small metal bell around the neck, each emitting a single soft tone that together produced an enchanting musical interlude.

We were headed to Aguadulce, a small village immediately to the north, perhaps seven or eight miles away. We stopped on the southern perimeter for our traditional snack of café con leche and tostada and a rest in the sun. Normally we would have continued all the way through Aguadulce, but I'm still getting used to the straight-across handlebars and the hand brakes on this bike, and I could also tell that I was feeling the effects of even this short ride in my legs, so we'll leave that for another day.

By the time we made our way back, the sheep were long gone.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Burying the Sardine

The first street parade I saw in Spain appeared without warning just below our living room balcony on a Sunday afternoon in spring five years ago. We sprang from the dinner table to watch colorful floats, marching bands, and young people in vibrant costumes parade down the main street of town. At the time we didn't have the slightest idea of why the procession included a large papier-mâché fish borne on the shoulders of four young men, but we came to believe it was a custom unique to Roquetas, which until 25 or 30 years ago was a small fishing village.

Since then, we have learned that this particular parade, Entierro de la Sardina, happens annually, on Sunday or Ash Wednesday, as the culmination of Carnaval, just before the beginning of Lent. There are parades like this in towns and cities all over Spain, and the fish is not unique to Roquetas. In fact, they carry a large fish--a sardine--in all the Entierro de la Sardina parades. This year I have done some research and discovered that they do, in fact, burn and bury the sardine each year at the conclusion of the parade. That would explain why it always looks a little different each year.

The funeral procession for the sardine has a spiritual significance. The sardine itself seems to represent sins and vices, the sense of abandon expressed in the festival--and it is true that the noise, dance, and some costumes rival those I have seen in Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. The cremation of the fish represents cleansing and liberation. The interment of the sardine, then, is a symbol of the burial of the past and subsequent rebirth of spirit--renewed, transformed and more forceful and powerful.