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Sunday, February 28, 2010

¡Vive en España!

"¡Vive en España!" That's what the Spanish man in the waiting room at the local health clinic said incredulously to the woman with whom he was chatting across the aisle, as an English man disappeared through the door into the doctor's office. And he sighed. And the meaning was clear: "This man lives in Spain. Why can't he speak Spanish?"

The English man had asked us, as he rose to take his turn when Johannes and I came out of the doctor's office, "How do you say "It's getting better" in Spanish?" And Johannes, ever helpful and a near-native speaker of Spanish, volunteered to go into the office with him and help him say to the doctor that it--whatever it was--was getting better, and perhaps to facilitate the conversation a little more. After all, we had just come out of that same doctor's office, and we knew he spoke no English, that he spoke Spanish very quickly and not clearly, and that he was difficult to understand even if you were a near-native speaker.

I sighed when I heard "¡Vive en España!" because it was said in exactly the same tone and with the same disapproval that I have heard too many Americans express when talking about Hispanics and other immigrants in the U.S. "But they live in the U.S....!" and presumably should be able to speak English on demand.

I sighed because I always suspected, and because I now know from experience, that it is one thing to be able to speak Spanish, or any foreign language, and another thing entirely to be able to speak it well enough to feel competent when the subject matter is technical or the situation is stressful.

I sighed because I know that I, despite many years of studying and practicing Spanish in the past, and many more scheduled for the future, know in my bones that there will most likely be times ahead when I will not feel comfortable or competent--in the medical emergencies, legal proceedings, and other dependent situations that must be faced as we get older.

And I sighed because I wanted to be able to explain to the Spanish man and his conversation partner that most of us foreigners know that we should try harder in Spanish, and some of us do try harder than others, but that proficiency and fluidity in a foreign language do not necessarily come with a certain degree of effort or after a certain number of years--and definitely not when one moves to a new country at the age of 60 or more--and that speaking to a doctor can be one of those emotional circumstances that just seem to make you forget whatever it is that you have learned....and that all of this is no excuse.

But this matter of hearing, for the first time, two local Spanish residents give vent to some impatience and frustration with the large number of European immigrants that Spain by and large has welcomed to its Mediterranean coast for decades, made me a little surprised and emotional. And I did not trust myself to be able to embark on a complicated conversation about language in a language in which I am not fluent. So I did not take upon my shoulders the burden of defending immigrants with insufficient language skills. I buried my head in my book and continued reading in Spanish until the man and his translator emerged from the doctor's office.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Microsoft Research Center in Torrevieja

For two weeks, the free foreign newspapers in the southern part of Valencia Community have been buzzing with the news that Microsoft was considering establishing a health research center in Torrevieja. Details in most of these papers are usually sorely lacking, and this time has been no exception. Since most of these newspapers are weeklies, it's been hard getting a straight and up-to-date story. Not only was Torrevieja in the running for the Microsoft center, but also the larger cities of Alicante itself (the provincial capital) and Valencia (the Community capital). But the latest round of the free press seems to be saying that the new and very modern Torrevieja hospital has won out over the the capital cities.

Now the national paper, El País, is lending credence to Torrevieja's win. Yesterday's newspaper carried a story saying that Bill Gates had received Community president Francisco Camps at Microsoft headquarters "in the American state of Washington" (which was more likely than some of the reports that said the meeting had occurred in Washington, DC). But El País still reports that Camps had gone to lobby for the Valencian Community--specifically one of the capital cities. Apparently it is Microsoft that prefers Torrevieja, based on a successful installation of Microsoft's "Florence" medical system software that has helped reduce the average waiting time for emergency intakes by 50%--from an hour to a half hour--over the past year.

It's not clear to me that the Microsoft research center is going to do anything more than research even further improvements in software development. The 300 square meter facility is supposed to employ ten people and cost the Community, Telefónica, and CAM bank 800,000 euros over two years. But the story is getting a lot of play locally, as just the latest in the accolades accorded to the very modern and efficient Torrevieja hospital since its establishment in 2006. So far I've only driven past the huge campus less than half an hour from my home, but I suspect that at some point in the future I'll have need of its services. So it's nice to know that the computer systems will be up to date.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

新年快乐 The Year of the Tiger

 Tired and very hungry after putting the finishing touches on Johannes' upcoming art exhibition at Procomobel, and then shopping for glasses and paper goods for the opening reception, we just had to have some lunch at 2:00 yesterday afternoon. So we fell into the Chinese restaurant next to our closest shopping center for a quick meal. It was only the second time that we have eaten Chinese in Spain. The first time was about a year ago, when our rental house suddenly lost power late one winter afternoon, and it was freezing and dark both inside and out. We walked across the street to the only restaurant that had lights, where we were surprised to be able to order Peking duck, a dish that normally requires 24 hours notice in the U.S. It was excellent, and we took enough home with us for a second--or was it a third--meal later on in the week.

Yesterday we found that the specialty was a buffet, but we didn't want to gorge ourselves, so we ordered from the menu. No Peking duck this time. Chinese-Spanish food is different from Chinese-American. We had a choice of spring rolls (five small ones) and sweet-sour soup for starters, and then a choice of curried chicken or spicy chicken with white rice, fried rice, or French fries. Yes, French fries are a standard accompaniment to a main dish in Spain, or, as chips, for the numerous English living here. Beverage was included in the price of the meal. No tea. Again we had the typical Spanish option: a glass of red wine or bottled water, in our case, one of each. My chicken was delightfully spicy, but the rice was simply white rice pilaf--no frying evident. In fact, there was a marked  absence of soy sauce--nothing noticeable in the sauces of either dish, and nothing on the table. Dessert was another typically Spanish choice: ice cream or flan. When my tiny portion of ice cream came, it was in a little individual plastic container just as I might have bought it at a seaside refreshment stand or in quantity at the supermarket. When it was time to pay the 11 euros for our two lunches, we did not get any tidbits of pineapple or fortune cookies, as one often gets in Chinese-American restaurants. Instead we were urged to try the complimentary fruit liqueur, a non-alcoholic variety that is often offered after a filling meal in Spain. The peach was lovely and the apple was also.

It seemed like a fitting way to celebrate Chinese New Year's, and our English and Chinese speaking server obligingly told us how to say Happy New Year in Chinese before we left: xīn nián kuài lè. And I did remember how to say it until I got home. But I had to look up how to spell it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Settling In

I was home again to our house in Montebello by Tuesday noon this week. The clear and sunny sky that greeted me at the Alicante airport disappeared soon, and we had two gloomy and cold days, and I missed the central heat of houses in the U.S. But on Friday morning the sun came out and warmed the rooftop terrace to above 70 degrees, so I did some laundry and hung it out to dry. When I came home from our pétanque game and a wine-tasting preview that evening, I started another load of clothes in the washer so I could be the first person within view of my rooftop to hang clothes out on Saturday morning. It proved worthwhile--Saturday was as beautiful and warm as Friday had been, and I did two more loads of laundry.

This Sunday morning I opened the bathroom window to enjoy the view and listen to the birds as I prepared for the day. We walked by the orange grove--oranges still on the trees, and brighter orange than a month ago--to our own pétanque playing field in Montebello, and I won two games out of two. Then we went to the outdoor Sunday market (Zoco), which was very crowded today with people out enjoying the sunny weather. Strawberries are coming into season and every produce stall had them, but I'll wait for a week or two until the price comes down and they look a little more ripe, and in the meantime be content with the sweet and juicy mandarins that smell like spring as soon as I thumb one open for our fruit salad at lunchtime. I was comfortable in sandals without socks and just a thin undershirt and linen open-necked blouse--maybe I can put away the turtlenecks and heavy socks I brought back from Ohio with me.

We sat in our sunroom for soup, fruit salad, and two big rundstykker rolls from the Danish baker at the market. Goldie rolled around on the tile floor catching sun rays, and we enjoyed the view of our trumpet plant that is once again blooming, now for the third time since last May. And tried to fathom that people are digging out from 28 inches of snow or more on the mid-Atlantic coast.

Monday, February 1, 2010

"And sorry I could not travel both..."

This Sunday, and indeed most of the Sundays in January, I am not in Spain. Instead, today I am traveling west from Cincinnati to Chicago, where I will overnight in a hotel near O'Hare and slowly accustom myself to a long flight back to Madrid and then to Alicante.

The sun shone brightly, but it was cold as we gathered at the MegaBus stop in downtown Cincinnati Sunday morning. and even though I hate to end what has been a comfortable and happy visit with my family, I began to look forward to the 65 degree weather that my husband assures me is waiting in Spain. The bus was not full and though only a single piece of luggage is permitted, the attendant kindly accommodated the second suitcase that I had carefully packed with valuables retrieved from the depths of boxes in one sister's walk-in closet, which help me to integrate my past lives with my current life in Spain.

I gazed out the window as we headed west on Interstate 74 toward Indianapolis, where I had lived for a short time, and enjoyed the view. The sun continued shining onto idle brown farmland, and hundreds of tall, straight deciduous trees spidered feathered branches over the clear blue sky. I shot fleeting glances at the Middle Eastern-looking man seated in front of me, who had jumped on board five minutes late, after the luggage door was sealed, and even after the front door was closed, carrying only a white plastic shopping bag, jolting me into realizing that there had been no security check at all in purchasing my ticket and boarding the bus. He had immediately taken out his cell phone upon seating and spoken so softly and briefly into it that I could not tell what language was spoken. Inter-city train rides that I have taken in Spain require a baggage and person check now, and I am sorry that regardless of where in the world I live, the wariness that I felt is normal now.

As we neared Indianapolis I saw street names and places that I remember from the six or seven years ago that I was there, but we came through a different route to central downtown than I, then living on the west side, knew. I understood where I was and where I was going, but I didn't really recognize the journey. Beyond the Indianapolis pick-up we turned north onto Interstate 65 to continue our diagonal trip across this narrow state, and I sent silent mental messages to friends I remembered  in Eagle Creek, Zionsville, and later, Lafayette, and even later, Munster, Indiana.

I-65 beyond Lafayette has got to be one of the most boring interstates in the U.S. Not ugly, but the road stretches on forever through long stretches of flat farmland that now have only tiny groves of trees near a farm house or to delineate borders of fields. A large windmill farm appeared near a town called Fowler, the individual mills spaced much farther apart from each other here than those I have seen in Spain and Denmark (we have so much space in the U.S.) and all today turning slowly. What keeps you awake on this boring road, though, are the hundreds of 18-wheeler trucks zipping by on their way to and from the central states distribution hub of Chicago.

Finally, after five hours,  one time zone change, and slightly ahead of schedule, we arrived near Union Station, Chicago, where I retrieved my two suitcases and found a taxi to take me out to my O'Hare hotel. This is proving to be an excellent place to harbor myself as I slowly take leave of the U.S. and move myself, my things, and my mind back to my home now in Spain.