Search "Sundays in Spain"

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Smell of Winter Sunshine

It's probably only a matter of time before we have scratch'n'sniff technology through the Internet, and when we do, I'm going to send scratch'n'sniff e-cards to all my friends and even to myself as a tonic during hectic times. My e-card scratch'n'sniffs will release that delectable odor that bursts out and floats up to your nostrils when you first dig your thumb into the skin of a ripe mandarin orange. Can you smell it now?

Mandarin oranges, and especially the variety known as clementines (supposedly after graftings originating from St. Clement) are widely available in Spain at this time of year. I've just bought my third big net bag of the season, each bag weighing at least three kilos, and I think at least one of the prior bags was five kilos. Mandarinas are about the only fruit that I peel and eat as a snack. I routinely keep a couple at my work desk, as well as a bowl on the coffee table in front of the television. Fresh mandarinas adorned our Christmas brunch table and are a staple in our almost-daily fruit salads. They are so easy and not-messy to eat on the spur of the moment--unlike oranges, which I never peel myself and rarely eat. They taste sweet, but not too sweet, and they smell like sunshine. I am not the only one in our household who eats mandarinas as a snack, as occasionally I find the peel of one or two lying exposed on a table several hours after it encased the small half-moons of fruit. It's one of the few food leftovers I love to sweep into the garbage under the sink (garbage disposals being unknown here, at least to anyone I know), as I imagine that its odor masks those from the more prosaic leftovers.

A Wikipedia article says that clementines began to be popular in the United States when the harsh winter of 1997 temporarily devastated Florida orange production, and that may indeed be the time when I first started noticing them in U.S. grocery stores. I have bought small crates of Spanish  mandarinas (or were they labeled clementinas?) in the Stop and Shop in Middletown, Connecticut, in Butson's Supermarket in Littleton, New Hampshire, at Marsh in Indianapolis, and at Meijer in Cincinnati, Ohio, usually for $5.99 or $6.99 for five pounds. I pay a little less than that--€2.69 for the last three kilos here. Maybe next year I won't even have to do that--we have a mandarin tree in our front yard. It only yielded two mandarins this year, but we are hoping that a forceful pruning will improve production next winter.

Photo by Trevor Parker [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Decorating for Christmas

It's hard to decorate for Christmas when you have two masons with all their equipment building an arch in the main downstairs area of your house. Before the arch came there was an incongruous plywood board at the top of the wall in the ten-inch deep passageway between the dining room and living room. Painted a brownish orange color, the board extended about a foot in each direction beyond the five-foot wide passage and was about ten inches in height. The same construction appeared on the "other" side of the passage; that is, you could see it from both the living room and the dining room. It was boxed in at the bottom. Maybe it was meant to look like a rough natural timber in a timbered ceiling. It didn't. Nor did it serve any functional purpose, we were convinced, as it sounded hollow when we knocked on wood.

We investigated other houses in our neighborhood and they all had such a structure. The aesthetics didn't seem to bother anyone we talked with. Some houses had a wallpaper border at the top of the wall, just below the ceiling, leading to and from this construction, and that made it look less out of place. Probably our living and dining rooms had had the same trim when first constructed, but any remnants of a border were long gone, and our walls were a clean, cream-colored "drop" paint finish from floor to ceiling.

In late fall our holiday-only neighbors had some construction work done on their basement, and they asked us to observe the process and report by email, as the builder could only do the work while the owners were scheduled to be at home in England. That was how we found our master builder, an immigrant from Bulgaria. It turns out that he has worked on an awful lot of the houses in our neighborhood in the ten years since they were first built and since he has been in Spain.

Christo assured us that the passageway box was empty, not load-bearing, and he liked the design that Johannes had planned for replacement: a curved archway built of and supported by brick. He could do the work any time, but we had house guests in November and early December. So that is how it came to be that only ten days before Christmas, instead of arranging Christmas decorations, we were draping plastic over the chairs and television in the living room, removing bookcases, tables, and lamps, and generally making a mess. The displaced furniture had to go somewhere, and the men had to have space in which to work, so that pretty much rendered the dining room useless. They came at 9:00 Thursday morning, removed the old structure, and placed the brickwork on either side of the doorway. Friday they built the temporary white support for the top arch, and put in the arch itself. The whole thing needs to dry over the weekend, and Friday evening we carefully uncovered two chairs and two small tables so we can sit in the living room and enjoy some weekend television, a glass of wine, and the gas fire, which we need for warmth.

Tomorrow they are supposed to show up to do the final mortar work between the bricks, "drop" paint the wall area above the archway, remove the three steel rods and white plywood that currently are holding up the top bricks, and clean up. I think it's more than a one-day job. I figure that by Wednesday, the 22d, I'll be able to get my Christmas decorations in order in those two rooms. I'm scouting around for an archangel.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Day Trip to Calasparra and Caravaca

On Wednesday this week we took a coach tour to two interesting towns in Murcia, the province to the south of Alicante. Calasparra lies in the mountains in the northwest part of the province, and it was a pleasant one-hour drive through lots of lush green farmland after we finished our pick-ups along the coast just south of Torrevieja. We saw fields of melons, lettuce, and cucumbers, we were told, though I would have been hard pressed to point out which was which. It was easier to identify the orange and lemon trees--oranges are turning from green to orange now. Peaches and apricots are also grown in the area and preserved by one of the largest fruit processing companies in Spain. The other important crop of Calasparra is Calasparra rice, a short-grained rice prized for its super-absorbent properties--the better to soak up delicious broth in a paella.

Photo: Johannes Bjórner
PhotoBut we were not in Calasparra for the rice. Instead our goal was the Sanctuary of the Virgen de la Esperanza (Virgin of Hope). I wasn't sure just what the "sanctuary" (santuario) referred to. The small church itself was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, with stone walls adorned with a relatively modest amount of gold paint and stained glass windows. This sanctuary was built into a stone canyon by the banks of the Segura River. The entire walkway from the bus and car park area to the church and its accompanying restaurant (there is always a good restaurant and bar next to a church in Spain) was a beautiful natural area of stone, green shrubs and trees, flowers, and the bubbling river waters. We were visiting, coincidentally, on a big Spanish holiday, the Fiesta de la Inmaculada Concepcion, and even though there were lots of people, the surrounding natural area was still as much of a peaceful sanctuary as the sanctified one.

Our afternoon visit went just twenty minutes away to the town of Caravaca de la Cruz, surprisingly one of the top five holy cities of the world, according to the Catholic Church. This has to do with the vera cruz (true cross), which reportedly is the same wood as the cross on which Jesus was crucified, and which later was part of a miracle that continues to be celebrated here each year on May 3. Caravaca de la Cruz celebrates a prilgrimage year every seven years, and 2010 is one of the pilgrimage years. But we were not in Caravaca to see the vera cruz or as pilgrims, either. Rather, our aim was the medieval market, a huge outdoor market with stalls of handmade crafts and local foods for purchase, as well as musicians, camel rides for the children, and much more entertainment. We spent three and a half hours there and were sorry that we had eaten so much in Calasparra, for there was little room for the delicacies we encountered in the market. By the time we had to board our bus for the return journey, the glorious sun of the day had disappeared and twinkling lights had come on, lighting the small stalls and illuminating the castle of Caravaca in the distance, but not quite strong enough to reveal the camel droppings in the cobble-stoned roads.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Torrevieja Tapas Trail 2010

We seldom go in to the city of Torrevieja, which is the largest seaside city in our area, for anything other than shopping. The western part of town is the commercial area, where we find Carrefour, the largest hipermercado, which supplies us with everything from computer paper and cartridges to canned atún en aceite de oliva for our lunchtime salads. Right next door is the Habaneras shopping mall with most of the small specialty shops and department stores popular in Spain, and nearby is the favorite bricolage (hardware store) of the project master of the house, and Iceland, the British Overseas Market supermarket that I use to fill my food freezer on occasion. But we rarely venture beyond this shopping area into the old part of the city, with its narrow streets, tall buildings, and wide open seaside promenade.

So last Wednesday morning, when we and our Danish guests had been holed up in the house for two days straight competing in a coughing and sneezing marathon, and the sun came out briefly for the first time since Sunday, we drove in and parked along the promenade and took a cautious walk along the harbor. That lasted less than a half hour before we decided we needed to replenish the supply of cold medicine, an item not available from any of the small white tents along the waterfront offering crafts, copies (probably illegal) of music and videos, and other merchandise. A postal carrier pointed out the closest farmacia, and that's what made us walk through a side street just two blocks in from the water. We also found a delightful hole-in-the-wall Taberna Tipica where we warmed up with a cup of café con leche at the bar. It was just after noontime, and we watched the bar staff preparing huge casseroles of delicacies for the tapas and lunchtime trade that would commence in a couple of hours.

I thought of that bar yesterday when once again, finally, the sun came out blazing and I remembered that this was the last chance for the special tapas marathon in Torrevieja, running this year from Thursdays through Sundays only for three weekends. Our house guests had gone home, fortunately making it out just prior to the wildcat strike by Spanish air traffic controllers and after piles of snow had been cleared in Denmark. But we picked up English friends, once again a little after noontime, headed into town, where we were lucky enough to find a legal street parking place just across from the café bar where we had drunk coffee earlier in the week. The interior was still dark with rich wood furnishings and hams hanging from the ceiling. But we ate outside, because today there was an empty table in the sun among one of the four or five in the street, which is where Torrevieja establishments customarily place them on good days, which is most days.

The idea of a special tapa trail, or marathon, or festival, is that various establishments, usually within walking distance, offer a tapa and a drink (wine, beer, soft drink, or water) for the bargain price of 2 euros. You go from bar to bar, sampling, and getting your tapas card stamped to show that you were there. If you get nine stamps, you can vote for your favorites, and the establishment and you might win a prize.

At the Taberna Tipica, we had poached white fish and boiled potato in sauce, served in the typical round clay tapas dishes, all carried out on a single plate, with the traditional chunks of a baguette. Perhaps we should have stuck around for a second one, which I realized later would have been the innovative tapa, as opposed to the traditional one. Instead we walked a half block to another place on the corner. By this time it was cool enough to go inside, and we clustered in a large wooden booth after the server explained that we could have either of two tapas for today, or we could try the specials featured last week, too. Our first, a meat tapa, came on individual small, square, white plates, with knife and fork. Serious eating, and it was good enough that we ordered a second. This one, also a knife-and-fork tapa, was one beautiful large shrimp, resting on its side on soft bread, spiced and sauced nicely, with a few gulas as a garnish. I had to look up gulas in the dictionary, and it wasn't there, which was just as well, since I was able to enjoy the baby eels (they looked like spaghetti) without thinking about baby eels.

Our server told us that the restaurant that had won last year's contest was just around the corner, so off we went. By now business was picking up, the bar was crowded, and we had to stand next to the wall counter that so many Spanish bars have--just wide enough for a glass and a small tapa plate. My friend and I looked at each other and agreed that the vino tinto that we had been drinking was just a little taste in a very large glass, so we could continue, though our driver by this time had switched to Sprite. I'm not sure what I ate here--I pointed to something round that had a fried quail egg on top, but when the tapa came it had morphed into what appeared to be a mini Scotch egg covered in another delicious warm sauce.

Around the corner once more to an ultra-modern, glass-surrounded bar, with high tables and high stools. Two of us ate the traditional tapa here, a substantial one with a bite of rabbit, pork, chicken, and duck, and the other two had the innovative one, which turned out to be a mini apple dumpling in milojas (puff) pastry. The bartender told us that cava was available in addition to the wine, beer, etc., so I finished off my tapas trail yesterday appropriately with dessert and Spanish champagne.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Rain in Spain

When I woke up this Sunday morning and swung my feet out to the small fluffy rug that lies between my side of the bed and the sliding glass door to the French balcony, they hit an unpleasantly wet surface! After two straight days of cold and damp air, Saturday at noon the occasional small raindrops had started to descend steadily, and even though it was gentle, it had rained persistently from Saturday noon long into the night. I listened carefully but did not hear any pitter-patter on the roof or outside on the pavement. The rain must have stopped.

It was still too early to expect any daylight to be seeping into the room, so I turned on the overhead light. How much of a leak did we have, and where was it coming from? Only the rug was wet, but it was really wet, almost sopping. The simple white muslin almost floor-length curtains were not moist at the bottom, however. My terry-cloth slippers, safely tucked under the nightstand at the head of the bed, seemed to be dry. The socks I had worn to bed and shed some time in the night--apparently onto the rug that was gathering rainwater--were a bit damp. The stack of newspapers I had been perusing before falling asleep were moist on the bottom. The tile floor around the rug was cold to the touch, but not wet.

The reja--the metal window grille that is raised and lowered throughout the day to let in heat and light or keep them (and the winter cold) out, depending on the season and siesta schedule--was down, and presumably had been down the entire night. The two sections of the sliding glass door were locked with their round disk in the center of the structure, so presumably they had been closed properly throughout the night.

My breakfast appeared, prepared and brought up by my favorite butler, who also investigated the leak and promptly promised to re-caulk the area under the door. 

Two hours later and the sun is shining gloriously for the first time since Wednesday. The reja is up; all traces of water have disappeared from the French balcony floor and the upstairs terrace, where I have moved the bedside rug to air-dry (and rearranged the two sweaters I had washed yesterday and left in the outside laundry shed to dry flat--they were no worse for the rain, but no better). No one is presently looking at the caulking to be done. From my bathroom window I can clearly see the mountains in the distance and and oranges on the trees in our neighboring grove. We are off to the outdoor market to enjoy a sunny Sunday in Spain.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More Shopping News

I hate to blabber on about another store opening in our area--what a dull life she leads, you must be saying--but a new Mercadona grocery store opened last week only a few minutes' drive from where we live, and I'm happy about it. We have loved the Mercadona chain since there was one just around the corner when we lived in Roquetas. We have missed it here in Montebello, where until now we had to drive about twenty minutes to get to the closest one.

This Mercadona, on the other side of Benihójar, is within our usual driving pattern, and we had been watching signs of its arrival for months. So when they put a banner up saying that it would be Abierto on November 12, I marked the date on my calendar. Due to some other last-minute errands, we didn't arrive until mid-day, and not only the parking lot, but the streets around the large parking lot were full of cars. We found a spot, went in, and were delighted to see wide aisles that were easy to walk through with either metal push carriages or the smaller plastic pull carts, in spite of the large number of people. You could tell it was opening day, though--every checkout register was open and operating. I wonder if that practice will hold?

There has been an improvement in Mercadona of late. I had been disappointed when I first arrived in Spain to discover that fruits and vegetables were almost always sold, in supermarkets, in pre-selected quantities--almost always more than two people need--and encased in plastic. But recently the other Mercadona had installed weighing machines and opened some produce up to the you-weigh-it-yourself system. Only a few selected items were pictured on the scales, though, and much was still only available in the store-decided quantities.

Our new Mercadona lets you select and weigh almost every piece of produce you want. That's an improvement in my eyes, and enough reason as its location to patronize this one. There's another aspect I like, too. The frozen-food bins (and they are all bins, not the standing cases that I see in U.S. supermarkets) are disbursed, so they are located in the section where fresh and packaged foods of the same type are located. Thus, I found frozen vegetables and fruits right next to the fresh produce section, frozen fish in the same area as the fish counter, carne congelada and prepared meals close to the butcher and fresh meat bins, and frozen desserts (an extremely large section) next to the bakery. This layout would probably not work in a humongous American supermarket, where frozen food can thaw by the time you work your way through all the aisles, but with the layout and scale of grocery stores here--even this lovely new, big Mercadona--it works fine.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Gasolinera's Tienda

I never thought I would celebrate the arrival of a gas station in my neighborhood, but that was before I moved to Montebello more than a year ago. I love our house and it is a wonderful neighborhood of some 170 homes, but there are not any stores within walking distance. Two bars and a hairdresser--and I am grateful for them--but everything else you have to drive to. It's not a long drive, just up and over the AP-7 highway to Ciudad Quesada or the village of Benihójar--it can be done in ten minutes. But you still need to get into the car.

So the arrival of a gasolinera (or petrol station, as most of my neighbors call it) within walking distance, with its attendant convenience store (tienda), is a major event. It's been a slow-developing event over the past several months. We watched progress move along and even drove in to ask for information from the workmen a few times. The gas station has been open for a month now--it opened without notice while we were out of town for the Frankfurt Book Fair--and we have stopped by a few times for gas or washing the car. And for inspecting the tienda.

The big attraction for us was its newsstand. When we lived in Roquetas, we had a well-stocked newspaper kiosk just a half block down the street, and I regularly read the national newspaper El País, and scanned others, both Spanish and foreign languages, in the revolving display stands. Since we've been here and have to consciously drive somewhere to get a newspaper, we often don't buy it. My newspaper reading has gone down, and my Spanish reading has gone down. So the promise of a newsstand again, even though inside a gas station, was enticing.

Newspapers in Spain are distributed to stores much as newspapers in other countries I know. The store orders newspapers through a distributor; what doesn't get sold gets returned and the store doesn't have to pay for unsold copies. It took a week or ten days after our tienda opened before newspaper delivery was functional. And then only foreign papers were available: English. German, Dutch. No Spanish papers. "When?" we asked. "Soon," we were told.

Days and weeks passed, but then, last Monday--a holiday, no less--when we stopped in, the Spanish-language papers had arrived. What joy! Once again I have a stack of partially read newspapers next to my bed. Once again, I can read interviews of interesting people visiting Madrid, try to figure out Spanish politics, and generally get the Spanish point of view on what is important in the world. I am definitely from the newspaper generation--my family had delivery of two daily papers when I was growing up in Ohio--and although I get lots of news through the Internet now, I never get tired of reading good newspapers on newsprint. This paper is not delivered to my door, but it has now moved close enough (and it's a 24-hour gas station) so I will get it regularly. Eventually I might also actually walk to the gas station tienda instead of just stopping by in the car as we go out for other errands.

That may be when I also take advantage of the second main attraction in the gasolinera tienda. Fresh bread. They tell us that we can call in advance, then come in 20 minutes later (about how long it might take to walk) and the baguette will be freshly baked and piping hot. I'll need to take the walk to keep those bread calories off.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"Si la cosa funciona"

We took the train from Alicante north towards Tarragona, on the way to the Mediterranean Editors and Translators meeting last week. As we settled ourselves comfortably in our coach (gosh, the leg room in comparison with an airplane is astounding!) an announcement came forth on the loud speaker: "We will now be passing out headphones. During the trip we will be showing a documentary and a feature film, 'Si la cosa funciona.'"

"Si la cosa funciona." Literally, that's "If the thing functions." I was clueless, of course. I don't pay much attention to film titles in Spain. All films in theaters and on TV are dubbed, not subtitled, and even the titles are rendered into a Spanish which is not necessarily a direct translation of the English (or French or German or other original) title. Si la cosa funciona. I didn't have any idea what the film might be about.

No matter. The film did not begin. After the next stop, the announcement came again: "During the trip we will be showing a documentary and a feature film, 'Si la cosa funciona.'"

Or maybe that was: "During the trip we will be showing a documentary and a feature film si la cosa funciona." "We'll be showing a film if we can get the machine to work." I had been on trains and buses before when the video or DVD machine didn't work, and the complimentary earphones went for naught.

One more announcement, and then the machine worked. By this time we were well into the four-hour ride, and there was no chance that the film would be able to be played in full before we got off in Tarragona. But I watched and listened long enough to follow the story, and suddenly--it just soaks in--I realized this was a Woody Allen film.

Still, we had to leave the train before the film was finished, and I made a mental note to look up "Si la cosa funciona" on when I returned home.

But I was in luck. On the return trip on Sunday, there was no announcement about a film, but there was a film--the thing worked--and I watched a strange story that I can't even recall the details of now. And then, after those credits crawled across the small screen, the Woody Allen character reappeared, kvetching about his wife and his life. The thing worked, and we were on a local train, stopping at almost every town between Tarragona and Alicante. There was plenty of time to watch the film, listen to the Spanish voices (Woody Allen characters sound good in Spanish!), and read the Spanish subtitles. I've never been a strong Woody Allen fan, but this was an enjoyable Spanish lesson.

Si la cosa funciona is the Spanish version of Whatever Works. If you've seen it, you may agree with me that "If the thing works" is a better title, given all the various things that did or did not work in the movie.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Your Tax Dollars on Vacation

We were off this Sunday morning to the Moncayo outdoor market, which I've mentioned before as one of the three Sunday markets in our area. It had been a few months since I was there last, and then I had purchased two interesting summer house dresses for three euros apiece. (You can't go wrong with a 3€ dress, I say--you can always use it as a nightgown, chuck it in the clothing recycle bin, or cut it up for rags if it doesn't work out, or if it falls apart after the first washing.)

The Moncayo is just off the N-332 road, a national highway running along the Mediterranean coast, adjacent to the immense Procomobel furniture store that is situated in Guardamar at the intersection of the N-332 and a local byway known as the Lemon Tree Road. One of the reasons that we had not been to the Moncayo recently is because the area was under obras--highway work. We had read that the road was to be completed by the summer ... of 2009. Then we read that it would be done by the summer of 2010. When we were last there, lanes were still in disarray and you took your life in your hands getting just driving through or turning. When we were there this morning, it was still not done.

Nor was there a market. It was "closed for renovation," a sign said. It had been open for less than six months! But the Moncayo market was only part of our destination this morning. We also wanted to go into the Procomobel furniture store, because it was host to one of its many changing art exhibitions, we had spoken with the artist last Friday, and we were interested in seeing her work.

We turned south on the N-332 and prepared to take an immediate right turn into the Procomobel parking lot--made difficult due to the interminable road work. We knew the routine because we had been to Procomobel several times while the road was under construction. But this time that right turn had disappeared! We almost missed the new entrance, which was identified after we passed the store by a sign to Urbanizaciones and underneath a smaller sign to Procomobel.

The furniture store was open, the art exhibit was still there, and a new café was doing business inside the store. We enjoyed a café con leche and media tostada con atún y tomáte while we browsed through furniture magazines and chatted with the proprietor of the café. We asked if she knew when the obras were going to be completed--we had remarked time and again that they must be damaging to the businesses in the area, and by now there had been detours in front of the stores for over a year.

That question hit a chord. She immediately ran and retrieved the newspaper from this past Wednesday. We had missed a great sight. The owner of Procomobel, frustrated with the length of time that it was taking to get this work done--and with the lack of any explanation from the authorities--had taken matters into his own hands, so to speak. At least he had tried to get the show on the road.

He had driven a van bearing a huge billboard to the opposite side of the road from his store and parked it. Pictured on the billboard were the President of the Government, José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, and the Minister of Development, José Blanco, together with the words: "These are the only two who know how to get to Procomobel."

It was funny, and it worked. The reason that there had been any sign at all as we came by this morning was that newspapers and TV stations had publicized the situation and finally a directional sign had been erected and allowed to remain.

This small and humorous act of defiance, uncharacteristic of Spanish life as I know it, got media attention. I hope the media attention gets the roadwork done. The Información story says that people were told in August that the reason for the stall was that the workers were entitled to vacation. Vacation has now been over for almost two months, and the work is still not done. But it's been less than a week since the billboard and the media coverage. Maybe that will change things. I think I won't wait too many more weeks to check on the N-332 obras again.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Rebate Surprise

Last Saturday afternoon we headed off toward a place called Rebate Restaurant. No, that doesn`t mean that you get your money back if you don't like your main course. Rebate, pronounced the Spanish way, is in three syllables, with the accent on the second, which has a short "a," by the way: re ba' tay.

There was to be an arts and crafts show, and since I had not been to anything billed as an arts and crafts show in Spain, though I have been to many in the USA, it seemed like an interesting way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the fall.

The road to Rebate was worth the half hour or so it took to get there. We drove first to a castle in San Miguel, where we had been to a pétanque tournament and also had lunch by a duck pond once. If we hadn't heard of the crafts show, we may have stopped there at the castle, as everyone, it seemed--at least two hundred cars--had stopped to see a flea market. We'll have to remember that for some other Saturday. We turned right, however, and followed the sign to Rebate, said to be 10.6 kilometers down the narrow road.

Narrow but well-maintained it was, thank goodness, because it twisted and turned and went up and down through the remote countryside for all 10-plus kilometers. And what beautiful countryside! We rode through lemon and orange groves, both old trees and younger, newly planted ones, rows and rows of them laid out in angles on varying axes, depending on the slant of the hillsides and the rays of the sun, I suppose. At this time of year it was all green, and in addition to the citrus trees there were palms here and there. Three times we came upon the outer stone gates of magnificent country estates, fincas, the likes of which I had never seen in Spain. Of course, I hardly saw them now, for the houses were well hidden down the hillside and behind the foliage from the already isolated road--what marvelous views they must have.

Each kilometer was marked with a well-painted stone, but when we passed 10 we almost missed the discreet entrance to the Restaurante on our right as we rounded a corner. Making our way through the narrow driveway (we had to wait for a car to come out from the other direction) we parked and first came to a charming country chapel. The door was open and recorded music was playing--no service going on today, but there was a sign inviting interested parties to make their wedding plans here. Farther up the path we found a large building and a note saying that coffee and drinks were being served on the terrace. Around the back on an upper terrace we quickly placed an order and were served cafe con leche, and then we realized that people at other tables were enjoying cava and tapas.

The cava was inside, said our waiter, and indeed, that is where the crafts were laid out. How nice of the restaurant to offer a glass of bubbly as people browsed the stalls! The show was small by my standards--only a dozen or so tables were set out, but most every one held a different ware, and each area was staffed by the person who did the craft. Some lovely silk flower arrangements were selling like hotcakes. There were also drawings, watercolor paintings, some very interesting three-dimensional "framed" works displaying large flower shapes, candles, plush teddy-bears, even clothing. But I spent much of my time at the woodworking table, which had a lovely selection of ceiling lamp and fan pulls, pens, bowls, and other small objects in various woods, most of which the proprietor brought from England--all the artisans were English, I believe. I also spent time, and made purchases, at the handmade greeting card table--making your own greeting cards is a popular craft among the English, I have learned here in Spain, and I love the colorful, multi-layered, and one-of-a-kind cards that can be found.

My friend bought a pair of the three-dimensional framed flower works for her spare bedroom, and then we moved back out to the terrace, with a second glass of cava and some snacks provided by the restaurant. But as we moved around the side of the restaurant toward the parking lot, we were blocked by two flamenco dancers who were entertaining the diners seated on another large outside patio. We paused, of course, and enjoyed three or four songs, and the male dancer even got several of us bystanders to come out and clap to the distinctive music and heel-stomping.

We picked up a menu brochure when we were finally able to make our way beyond the music and dancing and waiters crossing the roadway with delicious-looking entrees. Rebate would be a lovely place to come back to for a leisurely and elegant dinner in any season, I suspect.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Signs of Fall

Autumn has always been my favorite season. I was one of those children who liked school, and while I remember with fondness long afternoons at the community swimming pool during the summer, an almost-annual car trip to New Hampshire for vacation, and a formative final summer week at Tar Hollow church camp in southern Ohio, I was still glad when September rolled around. The day after Labor Day always brought a return to the freshness of a new school year and lots of extracurricular activities. It may have also helped that September brought the new television season (we had distinct TV seasons back then, with 39 weeks of new programs each year, followed in the summer by only 13 weeks of re-runs--now that ratio seems to be reversed).

Later, during the many years I was living in New England and working year-round, without the summer off, I still appreciated fall. Certain professional and social activities started up again after their summer respite to accommodate various vacation schedules, and the air took on a crispness and clarity that had been missing in the summer. And then there was the glorious foliage and the perennial joy of visual splendor, always for an undetermined but brief time, depending on whether or not the wind and rains came to wash the red and orange and yellow leaves from the trees before they dropped naturally and shriveled.

Here on the Mediterranean coast of Spain the autumn starts later, but now we are in October, and the signs are evident. The first thing I noticed was a few weeks ago, when I woke up early to let Goldie out onto the upstairs terrace, and the air was actually cold! Soon I began to realize that occasionally I would awaken in the night feeling chilly from the draft of the overhead fan. (So did Johannes, apparently, because sometimes I would awaken stifled to find out that the fan had been turned off.) It has now been three weeks or so since I turned on the air conditioning in my office, or the bedroom, or the downstairs living-dining area, but I find myself jumping up and down frequently to adjust the fans.

It is still warm, even hot, during the day. We eat our lunchtime salads in the downstairs sun room, and if the awnings are not pulled out and two glass panels open to catch a cross-breeze, it is too warm. While I am comfortable in capri-length pants inside the house, they get a little too hot even in the short period of time it takes me to hang out one load of laundry on the outside line. Going out for shopping and definitely for petanque, I still need shorts and a skimpier top than I ever would have worn inside or out in New Hampshire. It will still be some time before I need to remove the white silk flowers that earlier this summer I arranged in the living room fireplace insert to brighten up its black hole, so we can start the gas fire.

Fall activities are also beginning. Summer holiday-makers with children have gone back to England and Denmark or wherever they need to go to get the kids in school, and have been replaced by pensioners who have enjoyed the cool weather in their native lands and now return to Spain, at least until Christmas. Our Tuesday petanque group has burgeoned from two or three to 16 or more, and the Friday group has swelled from its low of 8 to almost 80. The Danish club has announced plans for its fall excursion and dinners for the fall holidays, I saw Christmas cards on display at the English card shop this week, and in what I now, in my second year here, recognize as a tradition, our homeowner association has scheduled its annual meeting on the fourth Thursday of November.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Biking to Guardamar

I think I have finally recovered from our bike trip a week ago to Guardamar. Saturday morning was a crisp fall day, and it just seemed perfect to go out biking on the path that follows alongside the Rio Segura to Guardamar and the Mediterranean. I had a semi-new bike, which I had bought several months ago and tried out quickly on a street near the cycle shop in Ciudad Quesada. I soon discovered,though, that a graded pavement in a town is not quite the same as a packed and rutted river bed. Smooth this trip was not.

Nevertheless, the 20-kilometer ride to Guardamar was enjoyable.  We found a wonderful Mas y Mas supermarket, with cafetería, for a cup of café con leche on the outskirts of the city. After tanking up with caffeine and cooling off with the air conditioning, we continued biking through the almost deserted streets of the city (at 11:00 AM Saturday morning) and came to the fishing pier and the pleasure boat marina. I wandered down to a small swimming cove for my annual dipping of the toe into the Mediterranean. It was delightfully warm, but the uneasy sensation of sand breaking away from beneath my feet as the tide swept out reminded me without a doubt that I learned to swim in a pool, not in the ocean.

We watched dozens of people fishing on the dock that juts out toward the lighthouse, and then, as we came back to the mainland, the clock struck 12:00 and we needed a little something to eat. We shared a Mediterranean tuna cazuela with delicious just-heated baguette--if I had known how good the bread would be I never would have said "no" to the offer of extra.

Then we headed back, but not without a detour through a brand new park project that had just been created from January through April of 2010. Actually, the new project is an elevated wooden walkway through the Alfonso XIII park on one side of Guardamar, shown here with a view of the usual photographer of Sundays in Spain.

After that green respite, we were back on the bikes for some serious pedaling. Twenty kilometers to Guardamar also means twenty kilometers back from Guardamar. We stopped once for another agua con gas--the weather had turned hot in the early afternoon. Not counting the stop, it took an hour to get back to our car in Rojales, but then it was only a ten minutes' drive home. My backside was really sore. Neither one of us did much of anything for the rest of the day. I'm not sure when my next bike ride will be, but I didn't suggest anything this weekend.

Moda La Finca

A larger-than-normal roadside sign sprouted at the roundabout between the highway and the entrance to our Montebello urbanization last Friday: Moda La Finca. An arrow pointed beyond our neighborhood toward the golf resort about three miles away through the orchards. La Finca, literally a country farmhouse, is a beautiful green area between Montebello and the town of Algorfa, to which we technically belong. In addition to the golf course, there is a luxury resort hotel, which we toured a year ago when we dropped in one day out of curiosity and encountered staff who were inclined to give us the grand tour, out of boredom.

In a rare coincidence, I had already read in the weekly RoundTown News that Moda La Finca was a new clothing shop, scheduled for a grand opening on Sunday at 10:00 AM, with free cava, the effervescent Spanish answer to champagne. The shop was reported to be German-owned and would offer only clothing made in Germany, for men and for women.

So off we headed this morning at a little past ten o'clock and sure enough, there is a delightful and unusual new clothing boutique and outlet in the commercial area at the entrance to La Finca.  The shop was full of people and I looked around and found several things I was interested in, though I did not make any purchases at the time. This is a good place to come when you have something you want to match a new accessory to, I told myself, or when you want to buy something to wear for travel. Styles are different whenever you go away from Spain, or even away from the Costa Blanca area where we live. Quality and variety were evident in the unusual selection of moda, and I will definitely be back.

The shop is indeed German, and Johannes enjoyed practicing his German. He was also more decisive than I was--he found a sweater that will be perfect for our trip to Frankfurt early next month. As we checked out, the attendant told us that her boss was married to an American, who was outside at "the beer place." It's a good thing we looked for him. We didn't find him right away, but we found the German beer they were offering, and then we found the small bratwurst in fresh baguettes, and the chips and Danische-style cookies. And then we spied the man in charge of the cava and mimosas, and that was Al, the American. We had a pleasant chat. Al was familiar with upstate New York and Pennsylvania, as we are, too, since we have driven across those two states often as we traveled from New England to Ohio and back.

It was a grand opening for a promising new business. We see far too many businesses start here and then, a few months later, fail, often for lack of market research. This one seems different. An upscale clothing boutique in a golf resort makes sense; good quality and good taste at higher, but affordable, prices, makes sense in this area that is home to thousands of northern Europeans. Advance publicity in the newspaper, and detailed road signs pointing the way...these people have done their research in planning this business venture. Maybe it's the German-American combo.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Como Agua para Chocolate

Last night I finished reading Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), or at least, I finished reading it for the first time. It's an assignment for my Spanish class, so I will have to go back and review a few sections to refresh my memory and make sure I understand it correctly, before the discussions with my teacher in the next couple weeks. 

Surprisingly, I looked long and hard--and  without success--to find a copy of this book in Spain, in Spanish. Ultimately I had to resort to Amazon, which advertised several editions, new and used, and also a DVD of the movie. How could I resist? True to form, the DVD arrived first, but I promised myself not to see it until I had finished the book--and I kept that promise. The book, when it came, was a real disappointment. Arriving from in the UK, the text was Spanish, but the notes were in German! After carefully working my way through Amazon's return procedures, I packaged it up in the same box in which it arrived to send it back, but the Spanish postal system refused to accept it as long as there was publicidad (advertising) on the package. That publicidad would be the name "Amazon." Fortunately my Spanish teacher, who also knows German, took my book, and I borrowed hers, so we could get on with the project.

I was hoping to find several authentic recipes that I could use, but I don't think I'll be following those recipes any time soon. They are more like the directions found in an early Fanny Farmer. Measurements are practically non-existent, the Mexican food terms are different from what is used in present-day Spain, and I don't intend ever again to cook in the quantities that Tita does (for Chiles en nogada she had to multiply the recipe by ten, meaning she had to clean 250 chiles and crack 1000 walnuts). But I do love Tita's love of cookery as an essential life force. She starts with the most basic of ingredients, and works through hours and hours to produce surreal food experiences, sending her guests--and herself--into ecstasy. Usually.

Tonight, after resisting for two and a half weeks, I will finally allow myself to see the DVD of the movie Like Water for Chocolate. We'll probably watch it while eating dinner in front of the TV. We seldom eat beef in Spain, but I've made a beef stew. I started it yesterday, browning the meat with lots of onion and two large garlic cloves, then allowing it to barely simmer for three hours. Now I've parboiled small onions that I found at the market this morning; I'll add the onions and mushrooms after I make a thick gravy with red wine and the bouillon from the stew. Then carrots and potatoes, and finally some green, tonight in the form of broccoli. And I think I can find a bit of chocolate for dessert.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Salad Days

Photograph printed by permission of Tony Jurich.
You may be thinking, "ah, the salad days of summer," but truth be told, nearly every day is a salad day for us in Spain. That's because our standard lunchtime meal is a vegetable salad, followed by a fruit salad for dessert. It doesn't get boring.

I start with a crunchy lettuce (iceberg or romaine or the small, firm cogollos), mixed with fresh spinach, though spinach doesn't last long in the heat of the summer, so I've omitted that for a few weeks now. Onto this base goes carrot, either shaved with a vegetable peeler or sliced thinly. Then thinly sliced mushrooms and a handful of corn kernels. Protein comes usually in the form of tuna, out of a small can of tuna packed in olive oil (I use the oil for my dressing, and Goldie cleans the can before it goes to the recycling station). Protein may also be garbanzo beans, hard cooked eggs, or the occasional leftover chicken from dinner earlier in the week. A diced tomato forms the outer circle on our salad plates; tomatoes are especially delicious at this time of the year, though they are often good even in winter, even though they may cost a little more. Frozen peas, rinsed under the water tap to thaw, for color and potassium.

Those are the staples, but there is almost always some more: diced red, green, and/or yellow pepper, red radish, cucumber, onion. Green beans, judias verdes, Brussels sprouts, or whatever vegetable is left from dinner the night before. And herbs--I haven't had much luck in keeping herbs alive for very long, but at present I have some thin chives, parsley, thyme, and a red sage--and sometimes I resort to dried hierbas de provence or treat myself to a good sprinkle of Penzey's Sunny Spain seasoning.

This month I have been adding chunks of alpicoz, the funny-looking light-green vegetable pictured at the forefront above. A friend of a friend, a high-school student, took this picture at a market when he was visiting Valencia earlier this year. My friend sent me the photo and asked if I knew what the strange snake-like vegetable was called. I had never seen it, but I went to the Benijofar Tuesday morning market and found a vendor, who consulted with his whole family and told me they thought it was alpicoz, a type of cucumber. Back home to do some research on the Internet and then the following Sunday I found one at my Sunday market. It is indeed a "fine" cucumber, more delicate than a regular English cucumber, and without the dark green skin. It tastes refreshing cut up in small chunks for the lunchtime salad, and also was a wonderful addition to the chicken-grape-almond main dish salad I made last week from a traditional family recipe. I have yet to try it in the Gazpacho Extremeño recipe I found on the Internet.

Or were you thinking of the traditional meaning of "salad days" when you started reading this post? In addition to enjoying summer salads, I also have been thinking back to the "carefree innocence" of my youth. My high school reunion was held this past weekend, and even though my body spent this Sunday in Spain, my thoughts were in Sidney, Ohio, with the friends who had gathered there, and those who had not, who I knew from way back in my "salad days."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Flamenco My Way

Friday evening we went to La Herradura, an old farmhouse restaurant in the neighboring town of Los Montesinos, for a celebratory dinner with friends. We had been there for a lunch before, as well as a tapa during the Montesinos de Tapas, so we knew the food would be good. We had booked the last table available, and were pleased that it would be under the stars--or at least outside in the cool of the evening, starting at 8:30.

The special draw, however, was the intimate flamenco show, done only on weekends, and due to start at 9:00. What we didn't know was that the show would not be traditional flamenco, but "contemporary flamenco," or flamenco contemporaneo. The announcer told us this as he introduced the two dancers. They were proud of the flamenco tradition, he said, but young Spaniards preferred it a little bit different, and that's what we were going to hear and see tonight.

Flamenco originated in the Andalusian part of Spain, with heavy gypsy influence, and is traditionally characterized by three elements: guitar music, emotional songs (often mournful), and the very colorful and heavily stylized dance.The first difference this evening was that there was no live guitar player. The dancing couple were accompanied throughout by recorded music. And it was not the blaring, wailing songs on which so many gypsy flamencos are based. First up, and quite appropriately,was Frank Sinatra's My Way. True, it was not Frank singing--the words were in Spanish, though I didn't recognize any phrases as direct translations of the words I knew. But the music is powerful, and so was the dancing, All the body whirling and twirling of the skirt was still there, as well as the stomping and posturing, but with just a little less attitude than one might expect from flamenco or even this particular song.

The evening continued with flamenco their way, or a su manera. There were touches of ballet and reflections of Irish Riverdance, as well as Strauss waltzes--a stupendous number with the female dancer showing incredible command of the traditional castanets.

It was over too quickly, but the evening star had come out, the moon was moving toward full, and the clock was approaching midnight. I've checked Google and found lots of information under flamenco contemporaneo and even some under "contemporary flamenco." If the performance we saw was a true indication, the contemporary movement is preserving and reinterpreting many of the best elements of flamenco, but opening it up to many more dance traditions and making it much more international, as Spain itself is becoming.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Spanish Eyes

                                                        "Blue Spanish eyes...
                                      Teardrops are falling from your Spanish eyes ..."

Well, it's only one Spanish eye, and it's not teardrops that are falling, but eyedrops.

I had a cataract operation this past Wednesday, and now I have a new left eye lens, courtesy of the excellent Spanish health care system. The operation went well and was over before I knew it: "Finito" said the surgeon, while I was still waiting to be told to open my eye wider.

It was physically painless, and after I had spent four hours waiting in three separate waiting rooms, I was beyond any anxiety about the procedure--I just wanted it to be done! Between the time I was finally(!) wheeled out of the third waiting room to a gurney near an operating room down the hall, approached by the anesthesiologist who gave me dos pinchitos (two pinprick injections) and connected an IV, was wheeled into the operating room, greeted the doctor, felt a little scrape-scrape and heard "finito," I don't think that more than twenty minutes passed. Back to the prep room, which I now realized was also the recovery room, an orange juice (first sustenance of the day) and a precautionary pain pill, and soon I was dressed and walking out with a smile.

My right eye vision is poor, so with a patch over the left, I endured 24 hours of near blindness. I listened to more local radio (Spanish and English) than I ever had before, as well as a downloaded book (Liberty, by Garrison Keillor) through my library and OverDrive, and All Things Considered and Morning Edition--thank you, NPR, Thank goodness for the Internet!

Now, with the patch removed, we are into aftercare, a tedious regimen of three different kinds of eyedrops, one of them every eight hours, two every two hours. Eyedrops will be regulating my life at least for a week. It takes two to three weeks for vision to stabilize after this procedure, I understand, and right now I have periods when I can see well, but progress is not consistent. Just when I think I'm getting the hang of coordinating my eyes well, the two-hour timer goes off and it's time to drop the left one full of liquid medication so it looks as though I'm peering out of a rainy windshield for the next 15 minutes.

But they are eyedrops, not teardrops. I am grateful for my new Spanish eye, and I give thanks to the Spanish health care system, San Jaime hospital, Dr. Fernandez, and the anesthesiologist who gave me the pinchitos. I don't remember her name, which means she did her job well.

Thanks also to my aftercare provider, who is calling me now for the next set of drops.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Updike in Spain

I've been reading John Updike's posthumous collection, My Father's Tears and other stories. I met Updike a few years ago when he spoke at a meeting of the Connecticut Library Association. I had never been a particular fan of his Rabbit series, but I found his Gertrude and Claudius (2000) very imaginative, and I summoned the courage to ask him a question, which he answered graciously. I forget the substance of the question and the answer, but I remember the feeling of the experience, and after living with the characters in My Father's Tears for the past week, I know Updike would understand that.

He writes about old people who are living their past and their present lives simultaneously in their minds. Several of the stories take place at class reunions or other returns to hometowns and people known earlier in life. Since I am going to miss an important high school reunion of my own later this month, I felt the nostalgia all the more.

Surprising to me, two of the stories, which were all written in the 21st century, have a Spanish connection. "The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe" takes place in Sevilla, where the rather travel-weary Fairchilds walk back to their hotel through a narrow street and become the target of a purse-snatching perpetrated by a youth on a motorcycle. "Spanish Prelude to a Second Marriage" introduces Brad Quigley with his longtime companion Leonora Katz, "experimenting to see if a vacation together might nudge their long relationship into marriage or a break-up." The story starts in Granada, where he wants to visit the cathedral and the graves of Ferdinand and Isabella, but she doesn't, because it is raining; and then it goes on to Madrid and Toledo. Quigley, of course, is experiencing two travels at once--the one with Leonora and another earlier one, with his mother, who had brought him to Spain on his only prior trip there.

Coincidentally I read the "Spanish Prelude" on the same day this week that Michelle Obama and  daughter Sasha went to Granada from their short vacation at a luxury hotel in Marbella on the Costa del Sol. Like Brad Quigley, they went to see the graves of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in the cathedral. Then, I understand, on to the Albaicin and a special tour of the Alhambra between 8:30 and 10:30 at night. The Alhambra is supposed to be especially beautiful at sundown and with night lighting.

Who knows, a lifetime from now, Sasha may also return to Spain for a second trip, and to relive the  first one with her mother.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Torrevieja Summer

You would have to be crazy to drive to downtown Torrevieja on a Saturday in the summer. The streets are narrow, forming a grid between tall buildings that block out the light. Almost all are designated one-way, with no pattern that I can discern except that invariably the designated way is opposite to where you want to go. Cars are parked on both sides of each street, not necessarily facing the lawful direction, and the interminable line of parked cars does not stop at the intersections--it must take a special skill to parallel park around a corner. It certainly takes a special skill to see around the obstacles when driving and trying to sense whether you will meet oncoming traffic at the intersection.

But we were out of our favorite Jubilaeums Akvavit for Saturday evening's smorrebrod, and the only place--or at least the only place we knew--to get it was at the Scandinavian Shopping Center grocery in downtown Torrevieja. So we ventured forth, worked our way through the criss-cross of streets, and miraculously found a parking place in the middle of the block on one of the streets surrounding  the Center, only to discover that the Swedish grocery Scandigo had moved out of the Scandinavian Center.

Fortunately it had only moved across the facing street, to larger quarters. It had relocated recently, because some of the shelves were still bare. But we made our purchase and had a cup of coffee at the adjoining bar/cafe, all decked out in modern Spanish/Scandinavian design. A new Norwegian grocery is coming in to fill the space formerly occupied in the Scandinavian Center, we found out. I'm hoping the competition will lower prices a bit.

Johannes suggested that we drive along the Torrevieja waterfront, as close as we could get to the promenade, as long as we were here. It had been months (last Christmas, I believe), since we had done any touring in Torrevieja. I agreed, as long as we could stay in the air-conditioned car. The sun was bright and glaring, and it was around 100 degrees F. even before noontime.

We had to double-back through the maze of one-way streets a few times, but eventually we got down to the street that heads north closest to the center city beaches, or playas. There was still one city block between the car and the beachfront. As we approached each intersection, we slowed down to look east out from the dark city shaded by tall buildings to the sun and the blue of the Mediterranean. It was pretty enough to make you feel as though you should stop the car and walk out. But there was no place to park and you would have melted in the sun.

Suddenly we escaped the city buildings and were driving along the northern stretch of Torrevieja without anything between us and the sunbathers lolling on the playas. Thousands of them, all grouped under brightly-colored sunbrellas that were packed tightly in endless row upon endless row, only enough space between them to walk single-file to the water. It looked exactly like a picture postcard from the middle of the last century, which was when Torrevieja grew from a sleepy fishing village to a metropolis for tourists, both Spanish and foreign.

It was Saturday, July 31. Summer vacation time had arrived.

Another View of Immigration

I spied a poster announcing the Dance of the Nations (El Baile de las Naciones) in the window of the Scandigo grocery store, and for once, a poster was not advertising something that had already passed. Indeed, the festival at the Plaza of the Nations was happening that very day. So we stopped at the pleasant urban Parque de las Naciones on our way home from our shopping trip and tourist jaunt along the playas of Torrevieja.

Noontime is early for a fiesta to get under way in Spain, and it was not in full swing yet. But we watched young Bulgarian women, most of them dressed in national costumes, doing traditional dances while we shared a cervesa and empanada from an Argentine refreshment stand. Johannes spoke with argentinos who knew people that he knew years ago in Argentina. Then we walked around and enjoyed an art stall, watched swans in the pond, and admired some very good petanca playing in the 1st Open Internacional de Petanca de Torrevieja. I found some shade and watched seven young people dancing hip hop; one young man danced as well on his hands as on his feet, and they were all energetic (in such heat!). A flyer told me the hip hop dancers were from the School of Tae Kung, and maybe they were only practicing, because they were not really due on until 6:30 PM.

We hung around for an hour or so, and somehow I knew we wouldn't come out again in the cooler weather of the evening even to see all the entertainment that was promised. But we spent some time talking to the people at the ASILA stand. I was attracted by a sign stating simply "El compromiso de integracion" (the compromise of integration). ASILA started out as the association for Latin American immigration in Torrevieja. They were sponsors of the event, which was a bicentennial celebration of the independence of Latin America--from Spain, of course.

ASILA has now dropped its original "Latin American" designation from its name and serves all immigrants. Its primary aim is to fight against unemployment, and it provides courses to enable immigrants to integrate fully into work, and thus the life, of their adopted land. Not everyone comes to Torrevieja to retire or enjoy the sun.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Blanket Trip to Guadalest

This past Thursday I took the day off for a "blanket trip" to Guadalest. These blanket trips are not like the fabled blanket parties of my youth. They are free bus trips, sponsored by a blanket manufacturer, to various tourist attractions. All you have to do is promise to sit through a half-hour demonstration of the company's premium merino wool bedding products. The company provides coffee and a muffin as an inducement. Since the demo runs a little over the half hour, they add a mild liqueur at the close of the demo.

We were picked up at a nearby bus stop at 9:15 and had very comfortable seats in an air-conditioned coach for the one-hour trip north to Benidorm and then inland to our destinations. Informative English commentary along the way pointed out sites and gave us history of the area that was new to us. We got the blanket excursion out of the way in the morning and then had two and a half hours in the beautiful mountain village of Guadalest in the afternoon.

Our first stop in the village was at a Spanish bar for tapas of albondigas (meatballs) and tortilla, washed down with a small glass of vino tinto. Fortified, we wandered on the stone-paved walkways toward the castle perched at the top of a granite mountain. On the way, we passed by an incredible number of museums, shops, and more restaurants, but we couldn't resist a tiny open-air museum. It was the Magic Garden of the Museum of Ribera Girona, outdoor home to sculptures of over 150 animals and insects, all hidden among the lush vegetation. I could have spent the entire afternoon there and still not found all 150 species.

On we went again up the stone walkway toward the Peñon de la Alcalá tower, and then we found a beautiful surprise--the lake of Guadalest. I knew there had to be some water. I learned a long time ago that guad means "water" in Arabic, and al is the definite article "the." Este is "east" in Spanish. Guadalest has existed since Moorish times, so I believe the name of the town means "water to the east." This is not what our guide told us, but I think she was wrong. This is my fantasy and I'm sticking to it.

And it will be a long time before I forget the luminescent turquoise blue-green of the clear water far below the ancient town wall of Guadalest. It could be the most beautiful lake I have ever seen, but it's not really a lake--it's a reservoir. Formed when the Guadalest River was dammed from 1953-1964, the reservoir  provides water to several surrounding towns, including the huge tourist center of Benidorm. I now realize that one can drive or even hike around the reservoir, so I have Guadalest on my agenda for another trip in the future, this one not dependent on the good graces of the blanket company.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

An Eventful Trip Home

I've been out of Spain for several weeks, off to Washington, DC to participate in the annual conference of the American Library Association, and then on to Cincinnati for family visits and taking care of the many little things necessary to maintaining a bit of my life in the U.S. while I live in Spain: banking, driver's license, IRS, retirement funds, and renewing my acquaintance with American television, culture, politics, and shopping.

Since I had flown directly to DC for the conference (directly, that is, from Alicante to Madrid to JFK to National/Reagan airport), I was going to reverse that itinerary going back. We drove from Cincinnati to Washington in ten hours on Wednesday, through some beautiful countryside over the top of Maryland, and spent the night pleasantly visiting with more family in Silver Spring. Thursday noon we set off for Reagan National Airport to drop me off, while the others continued on for an excursion to the Spy Museum.

I was glad that I had observed the "three hours in advance" arrival time for international flights, even though the first leg of my journey was only a short hop to JFK in New York. When I entered the terminal, there were lines snaking around the entire floor at American Airlines. Not a square foot was vacant, and I couldn't even see where I was supposed to check in. But the person in front of me assured me that I was in the line to check in for American. Although I had confirmed all three flights the previous day and had seat assignments, I had been unable to print boarding passes due to the complications of my itinerary, with its cooperating airlines but non-cooperating websites.

Terminals B and C at Reagan were experiencing a power outage--the third such outage this year, I learned much later after I was home. What happens when an air terminal doesn't have power? Not much of anything except the accumulation of long lines of people and baggage. The automatic boarding pass kiosks don't work; desk attendants cannot check you in; baggage tickets cannot be printed; baggage can´t be scanned; you can't go through security machines; and even many shops and restaurants are closed. The public address system did seem to work and so, thank goodness, did some air conditioning. Numerous times the PA system carried an announcement about the temporary nature of this disruption and "thanks for your continued cooperation." Numerous times human attendants came through the line and called the few flights that were getting out--I don't know how. They also advised people that they could check in on their cell phones--not laptops, but cell phones. Several people around me took advantage of this ability, but clearly they were not the ones who were embarking on transcontinental journeys  and who had baggage to check.

Surprisingly it took only an hour and a half for me to reach the front of my lines and get checked in. I left my two bags with a prayer in a tremendously backed-up pile in front of the baggage scanning station, and proceeded downstairs to the security gate. I held out my hand when an official asked if anyone was willing to carry a piece of paper to the beginning of the line--the paper was time-stamped and they were checking to see how long it would take to get through security.

Forty-five minutes later I had made it through the security scan and handed the paper to the TSA official. He was shocked at the time required to get through, but I wasn't. And even though I had just begun to realize that it was getting uncomfortably close to my boarding time, I didn't need to worry or hurry. Several flights were backed up, and mine was delayed an hour. But even with the delay I still had two hours in JFK to find my way between terminals and buy books at the Hudson Booksellers that seem to have sprung up in many airports with their buy-three-books-and-get-a-carryall-bag to tempt my carry-on limits.

The flight from New York to Madrid, now on Iberia, was accompanied by a very unhappy crying baby and no audio in the row in which I was seated. These problems did not seem serious, however,  after the call for a doctor on board, which came just a few minutes before we were ready to land in Madrid. Though sympathetic, I was relieved that the aid was rushed to the back of the plane rather than the cockpit. Again, our departure from the plane was delayed while the ill person was ushered out, but I still had plenty of time to find my way through the immense Barrajas terminal 4--especially since my flight to Alicante was delayed due to "intense air traffic."

It was only delayed an hour, and in less than 45 minutes we were ready to land in Alicante. But Alicante was not ready for us, it appeared. The pilot came on the PA system to tell us that "intense air traffic" required that we fly another 15 minutes before landing. Then he courteously informed us that we had enough fuel to fly for 25 minutes.

Twenty-five minutes later, or maybe it was a half hour, we were down, thank goodness, and I had finished my last plane trip for awhile. Miraculously, when I got to the customs-controlled baggage return, so had both my suitcases. When I opened them later at home, the usual greetings from the TSA were nowhere in evidence. What with the limited electricity and all the disruption at Reagan the day before, I guess they had been too busy to inspect the contents. Somehow I was sad that no one had had the chance to sift through my eclectic collection of new clothing, over-the-counter drugs, books, clever conference freebies, and USA-only food items that I had carefully assembled until the next time.


I hadn't been back in Spain for 24 hours before I was off to a fiesta--Gastronomic Day in Benijofar. Our friends in this neighboring town had advised us that this annual festival was a tribute to the international character of their community. Cooks of all nationalities were invited to contribute a dish special to their national cuisine.

The first specialty I heard about was that someone had baked 500 pieces of shortbread. Then I saw hundreds of gorgeous English trifles, cleverly served in clear plastic shot glasses with tiny spoons. There were also quiches, Indian chicken, spicy tomato relish, Spanish meatballs (albondigas), bread slices with the terrific serrano ham (pan con jamon serrano), various tartlets, pasties, and crepes laced with chocolate. Each of the volunteer cooks, adorned in made-for-the-occasion Jornadas Gastronomicas aprons, stood behind their creation, which was identified by name, and served. It was hard to say "no, gracias." There were more selections, but I only got through half of the line before my plate was full.

As if all this were not enough, the real star of the fiesta was the gigantic paella made by the Riquelme family, who have been making paellas for public celebrations since 1986. I saw the start of this open-air cooking feat before we went to quench our thirst with a beer, listen to the Torrevieja Pipe and Drum Band, and stand in line for the opening of the buffet. Men were pushing chicken pieces around the giant paella pan, which was swimming in olive oil. The pan must have been at least a yard and a half in diameter. No sooner was I wondering how much rice would be needed to fill that pan than the men had lined up the bags on a table: sixteen bags, each weighing five kilos. That equals 80 kilos, or about 175 pounds of rice! As Riquelme paellas go, however, this was a relatively small one--their website says they make paellas for from 300 to 5,000 people.

It was all good. The sun was shining and there was a breeze. Both English and Spanish were heard in abundance. A Spanish woman immediately in front of us in line told us to go and save a table in advance. Clearly the trick is to station some people at the table, while others go through the food line. We saw some carrying eight plates of paella at once back to their table--on a collapsed wooden folding chair! We ate and drank, and some went back in line a second time. Then we watched children playing around the long tables that had been set up in the municipal soccer stadium (some future world champions in practice) and finally, helping to clear the tables. Three hours later we returned home, more than full, and I did not have to make dinner that night after all.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

American, not English

I can count the number of Americans I know on the Costa Blanca on the fingers of one hand and still have enough digits left to pick up a tapa. Nevertheless I know a lot of people from England, Scotland, and Ireland and even a few other countries where the native language is English, and I speak English often. Frequently people who are not native English speakers--especially Spaniards--think I am from England, but most English pick up right away on my accent and guess that I am American, or sometimes Canadian or Australian. For the most part I don't mind that my nationality is sometimes mistaken; I am comfortable living as a "global" citizen.

Until I discovered a few days ago that it was England vs. USA in the second day of the World Cup soccer games last night. I don't get too involved in big-time sports, don't follow particular teams, and rarely watch a match. But I thought it would be fun to see how the U.S. team did in this game that hardly existed in the U.S. that I grew up in, but which is finally approaching the status and interest level that it has long had in the rest of the world.

Even though I don't follow soccer, or football as it is known here, I could hardly have escaped the fact that the competition was coming. Every bar and cafe I know is advertising food and drink specials to lure people in to watch the matches on a big screen. Some have even installed new digital TVs on their outside terraces, the easier to accommodate the crowd in the hot summer days. There are now two local watering holes within walking distance of our house; one is a smaller bistro and the other, older one, is much larger and has a sports bar atmosphere, but both offer a minimum of two TV screens. Friday I noticed that bunting and flags of all the nations had begun to adorn the outside of each establishment. By Saturday morning one of them was sporting a huge two-meter by three-meter flag proclaiming ENGLAND at its front entrance.

And suddenly I realized that I might just not want to watch the England vs. USA game starting at 8:30 on Saturday evening in a crowded bar surrounded by Englishmen.

So began a confusing trip through TV and Internet listings, trying to find who might be televising the game live. Danish TV is carrying all the World Cup games live, but they sent word weeks ago that they were unable to get rights to send it to receivers outside Denmark, so even though we pay the same license fee as viewers in Denmark do, we are not able to get one of the most popular series of programs this year. We checked the Spanish newspapers--no indication that this game was being telecast, and despite two satellite dishes on the top of our house, we don't get many Spanish stations anyway. So commenced my second trip through all the stations on the remote control... I had done this just once before, when we first installed the system.  This time it took the better part of an hour to click through from 001 to something over 300 stations. Early on (019) I found a German station that was doing a lot of pre-game analysis and showed a lot of apparently real-time activity--perhaps they would continue and not cut it off just when the game started? Maybe, but I don't understand much German, so I kept clicking away. And clicking, and clicking... We have an awful lot of German stations, and some Italian, and French, and more German, and lots of erotic stations in all languages, and several showing old American series, dubbed in Spanish and German.

I never came up with a better station than 019, the German one. They did carry the game live. It was an interesting game, even though I lost most of the play-by-play (in German). At half-time I found the Soccernet site on ESPN, which was texting a running commentary (in English), and it's still there now with a "gamecast."

I read today that it had been 60 years since the U.S. and England played in a World Cup soccer match (and we won then), so I don't think I have to worry that we will be playing against England again this year. That means that it should be safe to go to one of the local bars to watch the remaining matches in which USA participates, and Denmark, and Spain. And even England.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Markets and Pashminas

The last thing we need in this area is another Sunday outdoor market. We already have two.We can walk to the Zoco market (a redundancy, since "zoco" means outdoor market in Arabic, I am told) but we rarely do so, because if we went by foot, we would be too tired to walk around all the stalls to do our shopping and looking. We can also drive on Sunday mornings to the "Lemon-tree" market, so-called because it's down the road to Guardamar known locally as the "lemon tree road," due to all the lemon orchards along the way. But last night while reading the Euro Weekly News before bed, I found out that there is indeed a new open-air market in the area--just a little farther down the "lemon tree road" behind the huge Procomobel home furnishings store on the N-332 running north of Torrevieja.

So off we went this morning to explore the new market, because, well, because it is there. We were on the lookout for pashmina scarves to buy as small gifts for our upcoming trip to Denmark. We didn't find them at this new Moncayo Mercadillo. But we did enjoy a walk in the sun, running into a friend from the kitchen store, buying some grapes and carrots, and then a leisurely caña and tortilla while being serenaded by a Mexican mariachi band.

We left in time to catch the tail end of the Zoco market. It's really late in the season to find pashminas, I thought. There's much more interest in selling bathing suits now than in soft neckscarves. But I had seen a lady wearing one just last week; it still can be quite cool in the evening and a pashmina is the exact right thing to have with you if you are out after dark. We each started at opposite ends of the rows of stalls, promising to buy pashminas if we saw any--you can never have too many pashminas.

We met 45 minutes later at the English book store. One of us arrived with four pashminas, purchased as remnants at two different stalls, plus some salted almonds, plus bananas and plums for our weekday lunches. The other arrived with a new caulking gun and a used DVD for evening entertainment.

I'm sure you can guess which of us found the pashminas.

Austerity Measures

I've been hearing from U.S. colleagues about various measures taken by their employers to cope with the economic crisis. Everyone seems to have more work to do and less time to do it. Sometimes that is because colleagues have been laid off, or vacancies not filled. But more than one I know has chosen across-the-board furloughs of limited duration--designating previously paid holidays as unpaid holidays this year, or mandating five or more days of unpaid time to be taken during the current fiscal year. Such decisions have the effect of spreading the financial hardship around so that it hits everyone, and generally equally, or at least proportionally to their salary.

In an effort to avoid becoming "the next Greece," Spain announced austerity measures last week that sound drastic by any standard. Beginning in June, all civil service workers will take a salary cut, the total amount to be 5% of current expenditures. The plan is being implemented on a progressive scale, however. Lower-salaried workers (those earning up to 1200 euros per month) will take a 2.6 percent cut; higher-salaried workers will lose up to 8 percent. Non-civil service government workers stand to be cut by 15 percent. Even president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who gets 5,000 euros a month (a bit less than $100,000 per year, by the way), will now only get 4,200.

Reportedly the reduced salaries will hit 2.8 million Spaniards, but those are not the only people affected by the measures. Pensioners payments, here-to-fore adjusted annually for inflation, have been frozen (though the lower value of the euro has been having a favorable effect on some us who bring money in from outside the euro zone). And unemployment in Spain continues at the astonishing rate of 20.5 percent.

An early snap poll on a news site showed positive results for the government economic measures: 100% approval. Results coming in later weakened support, and I've watched the figures slip to 86% in favor and now to 83%. It will be interesting to see what happens on June 2, also, when a general strike has been called by two trade unions for the public sector.

But in spite of how cost-cutting measures are affecting you, to me it still seems good to have a job.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday in Madrid

This Sunday in Spain I am still enjoying the memory of last Sunday in Madrid. I took the Renfe (national) train to Madrid last Sunday noon to meet a friend who was arriving from Morocco and had to spend a night before continuing on to the US. Riding the train was a treat for someone who is more used to air travel--twice as much room for my feet as on an airplane, free earphones and audio-visual entertainment, and a cafe/bar car that you can walk to and actually congregate in for as long as you want--the food is not great, but the coffee is fine. No paying for the toilet yet, either.

I did have a little trouble getting on to the Metro in Madrid once I arrived. I couldn't get the ticket machine to accept my coins, and eventually I found out that it was because I was trying to buy a Metro (city subway) ticket at the Renfe Cercanías (regional transport) machine. Of course, on Sunday afternoon, there was no human being working anywhere in sight in an official capacity. Thank goodness a young Spanish woman pointed out the reason for my problem, and after that, I had no trouble buying tickets and finding my way to the hotel, and then out to Barrajas airport, Terminal 4, to meet the plane. With luggage, we took a taxi back to the hotel, and then, past 8:30 PM and still sun shining, we set out on foot to explore the area around us on Gran Via, one of the main streets through Madrid, which incidentally is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

I must confess. In several posts I have reported that stores are generally not open on Sunday in Spain--exceptions are made in the summer in tourist areas and in December for Christmas. Well, Madrid is the big time, and stores all along the Gran Via were open--all the Spanish department stores and specialty shops, everything--and our concierge assured me that yes, they were open every Sunday, but only until 9:00 PM. So we did not take advantage of this opportunity, but instead followed the music we heard down a narrow street on the side of the hotel, back toward a church, where we found a medieval market in process. It was enchanting to walk through the open-air stalls, sampling cheese and sausages, examining the handicrafts, and even buying a couple paper star-shaped lanterns. All the stall tenders were dressed in middle-ages costume, and we saw the period band playing at one point.

But we got hungry, so for one of the few times in my life, I followed the Spanish tradition of eating late in the evening. We were directed by our sweet English-speaking concierge to a restaurant down the street, where we climbed up to the first floor and got a window table so we could observe the life on the street--vibrant at that hour, even though it had gotten a little cold when the sun went down. We ordered a bottle of wine (well, we ordered two glasses, but they brought a bottle) and a Valencian paella, and settled in for a long chat. Soon, at about 10:30 PM, activity commenced nearby as several tables were pushed together to accommodate a crowd of 10 Spaniards, men and women, who were having some sort of celebration or get-together. They ordered first and second courses, but we finished our dinner while they were still eating their main course, so we have no idea how long they sat there or how much they ate. We left at 11:30, pleasantly full, and went back to our hotel for a good night's sleep.

Monday morning started later than I am accustomed to: we got up at 8:30 and had the hotel breakfast buffet, sitting there with a hot breakfast, cold cuts, and fruit for almost two hours. Strangely, somehow we managed to sit in between a Danish-speaking table and a Hebrew-speaking table--each of us could understand one of those languages. Then we walked out in the city again, down a pedestrian street to the regional government building, where we saw a memorial to the victims and helpers in the March 2004 subway bombings. More walking and window shopping, and then back to the hotel, where my friend got a bus to the airport, and I hiked off to the Metro and then to the Renfe station for my four-hour train trip to Alicante. Home again on Monday evening in time to check email and begin the work week just a trifle late on Tuesday.