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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.