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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.