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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Domingo de Ramos

This Sunday in Spain is Domingo de Ramos, Palm Sunday, and it dawned bright and early. Earlier than normal, because this year it is also the day for cambio de hora, when we spring our clocks forward one hour to march from Winter time to Summer time. Actually we turned the clocks ahead last night (Saturday) before going to bed, even though the time change occurs at 2:00 AM on Sunday, as it also does in the U.S. It just occurs on a different date than in the U.S. For the past few weeks, there have been only five hours difference in time between Spain and the east coast U.S. Normally there are six hours difference, and now, thank goodness, it is again six hours. It's amazing how that one hour of difference can upset my orientation so much.

So I was feeling good this morning to get back to my regular mental time framework, and then there was the added bonus that the weather was great. I won two games of pétanque, and then we drove into the country to enjoy the day. During pétanque I had let my lower legs see the light of day for the first time in several months, and before driving out I also changed to a sleeveless blouse, exposing my upper arms to the sun for the first time in ages.

We stopped at a do-it-yourself car wash and vacuum station and gave the Ford a long-awaited spring cleaning. Then we just followed the interesting roads and before we knew it, we were in the small village of Torremendo, on the western side of a large lake. The lake turned out to be a reservoir, or a pantano, as we learned when we paused for a café con leche and media tostada while wandering on foot through the village. A man stopped to explain how great the fishing was now at the pantano--among other things, you could catch trucha americana, American trout, whatever that is. However, most establishments sported signs saying ¡Vertedero No! (No to the garbage dump) and I slowly realized that perhaps the man had been trying to tell us that the fishing would be threatened if a regional garbage dump comes to town.

There were lots of people out on the street in this tiny town on Palm Sunday morning. We heard the church clock strike three times on the quarter hour while we were there, and a few families were making their way from church carrying palm and olive branches as a traditional recuerdo of the day. We walked around a little more after our snack and then drove even further inland, to the Region of Murcia, before taking back roads again into the Valencia Region, where we stopped for a lunch of grilled lamb chops. The pharmacy temperature gauge showed 24 degrees (75 C.) as we came through Algorfa on the way home at mid-afternoon, but now at 6:30 I have a long-sleeved sweater on again as the sun is going down. It's spring, but the nights are still cool.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Health Care in Spain

This Sunday in Spain I am going to be watching the health care vote in the United States. Whether it passes--and whatever it may be that eventually squeaks through--it will still be years, or decades, before the U.S. has overall health care as good as that in Spain.

The key word, of course, is "overall." The U.S. has excellent health care for those who can pay. It's just that fewer and fewer individuals and companies can afford to pay exorbitant rates for health insurance and procedures. In Spain, if you are a legal resident, you can get pretty good health care for free, and if you want to pay, you can get health care equal to the best in the world. Spain has a public healthcare system that is administered through its 26 autonomous regions. That's why, when we moved from Roquetas de Mar in Andalucía to Alicante in the Valencia region, we had to get new health cards. Spain also has a thriving industry of private healthcare providers. I have used both public and private services during the years I have been in Spain.

This week I was approved in the public system for a cataract operation. Yes, I have to wait. There are three boxes on my authorization form: my condition is not Urgent, nor is it Preferred. It's just Ordinary. Within three months, the ophthalmologist at my regional Centro de Especialidades told me, I will get a phone call from the Vega Baja hospital. Then I will go in to talk with the specialists there, and it may take up to a month after that before the operation can take place. Well, I don't mind waiting, since with my particular eye history and my complicated schedule, I'm not quite ready to look this laser in the eye just yet. But it is amazing to me, as an American who has experienced several private insurance plans over the years, been in a few HMOs, and paid a lot for private individual insurance, to think that I might have this surgical procedure without producing money or processing paperwork. All I have to do is show my card.

All my previous eye care in Spain has been through private providers, because it occurred before I became a legal resident and obtained my health card. It was excellent, with the most up-to-date equipment and knowledgeable personnel. Because I had experienced the same procedures in the U.S., I can say that the Spanish care was equal to that in the U.S. The costs, though considerable, were significantly less--about half.

I have also used private care for a couple minor walk-in problems--a bad back spasm, a mysterious skin rash--and paid prices that I believe are comparable to what I would pay in the U.S. as a non-insured patient. When I severely twisted my ankle on a Saturday night just before getting ready to leave for Argentina on Monday, however, I went to the public clinic, because it was open on Sunday, and they sent me on to the public hospital for X-rays, binding up, and prescriptions for crutches, a painkiller, and injections to avoid complications during air travel. Since I did not at that time have my health card, I got a bill for that service a few weeks later, payable to the teller at the corner bank--a total of something like 117 euros and some cents, obviously the amount that some accountant has figured that particular event costs the system.

I do have some complaints about health care in Spain. Over-the-counter medications are expensive, so my suitcase on returning from the U.S. is always packed with the Meijer or Target equivalent of aspirin, vitamin and mineral supplements, and Ocuvite (which I can get here, but at more than twice the price). Medications prescribed by a private practice are also expensive, but the same compound prescribed through the public system is free. Dental care is not a part of the public system, so there is lots of competition among lots of dental practices.

Spaniards can buy medical insurance if they want to use the services of private practices, and judging from the number of Spaniards I have seen in the waiting rooms of the private clinics I have been in, they do. Private practices are also heavily used by foreigners who do not have access to the health card or who prefer medical staff who speak their own language, or at least English.

Public and private health care seems to work quite well in Spain, providing several options for the diverse population. I expect to continue to be a consumer of both. I wish the options were as good for people in the United States.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


We are deep into Cuaresma, Lent. You can tell by the rows upon rows of cod in the grocery stores: frozen, fresh, dried, all cut (or not) in several different shapes. You would also know it because the headlines in both the Spanish and foreign press are filled with plans for the Semana Santa (Holy Week) parades, and the advertisements are all about travel and hotel packages for four days or more during the week-long vacation period.

A few years ago I bought a small paperback cookbook at the cathedral in Seville with meatless recipes for Cuaresma. It was one of those old cookbooks that was basically a written recording of oral tradition. Directions were general and did not include measurements or detail--it served better for reading than for cooking. I don't think I ever made anything from it, and last year I managed to throw it away when it got stuck between several newspapers that went to the recycling bin.

This year I found an article with traditional recipes in Activa Orihuela, a monthly free paper I picked up at the ayuntamiento (town hall) in Algorfa, and decided to do a Spanish Cuaresma recipe for two other couples who were coming to dinner on Wednesday. I hadn't met one of the couples before, so I wasn't sure about making fish as a main course, but the other popular Lenten ingredient is garbanzo beans. There was a recipe for potaje de garbanzos that sounded good as a first course. This recipe said that it served four and yet called for a half kilo (one pound) of garbanzos (chickpeas). And it meant dried garbanzos, because it said to put them to soak overnight. I thought that was an awful lot of garbanzos for four people, but since I'm rather compulsive about following recipes carefully the first time I use them and even more compulsive about making sure I have more than enough to serve guests, and because I love garbanzos and wanted some leftovers for another evening meal or a couple lunches later in the week, I doubled the recipe.

It's now Sunday and we are still eating potaje de garbanzos. It served six people nicely on Wednesday, though I had to transfer it to a larger pot than I had originally intended  to use for the soup. It was good again on Thursday for lunch. Friday evening supper was two big bowls of potaje, accompanied by paté sandwiches. We took Saturday off, but for a quick and late lunch today after our bicycle ride, I added some chunks of lomo de cerdo ahumado (smoked pork loin) to the potaje and heated it in the microwave. Talk about recycling Cuaresma recipes! There is one more main meal, or two lunches, of the potaje de garbanzos still to go, which I am sure that one person in the household is not thrilled to learn.

But I do like garbanzos.

Potaje de Garbanzos (Chickpea Soup)
1 pound chickpeas, dried
10 oz. package of frozen chopped spinach, thawed
2 large carrots
2 onions
3 garlic cloves (or more if you like)
1 tomato, chopped
Olive oil
1 bay leaf

Put the chickpeas in a large soup pot, cover with water, add salt, and let them soak overnight. The next day bring the chickpeas to a boil and then add a dash of olive oil, the carrots in large chunks, one onion, a bay leaf, 2 cloves of garlic (minced), and a little parsley. Cook until the chickpeas are soft (1-3 hours). Remove the carrot and onion from the pot, together with about a cup of chickpeas and a cup of broth, puré the mixture in a blender, and return to the pot. Add the spinach and simmer until hot. In a frying pan, sauté the second onion, chopped finely, one clove of garlic, minced, and the tomato in olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve the potaje in individual soup bowls with a spoonful of the onion/garlic/tomato garnish on top. Serves 6-8 as an appetizer. (This is the original recipe, translated, not the doubled version).

Monday, March 1, 2010

Speaking of Spanish

Speaking of Spanish, as I was immediately prior to this post, there was an interesting article in yesterday's Babelia section of El País titled something like "The Economic Strength of a Rounded Language." The "rounded language" is Spanish; the allusion is credited to former Colombian president Belisario Betancur, who said that when the Spanish discovered America and proved that the earth was round, Spanish began to become a rounded language.

Spanish is spoken by 440 million people in the world. It is the official language of 21 countries and is accepted as a strong second language in the United States and in Brazil.

An ingenious graphic accompanying the article in print, but alas, not in the online version, shows circles representing countries in which Spanish is spoken, sized proportionally to the number of Spanish speakers. The largest circle is for Mexico, but curiously the number of Spanish speakers is missing from this one country. The next largest circle is for Colombia (41,129,000), which is larger than Argentina (36,060,000) and Spain (40,026,000). The United States shows 36,305,000, which is far closer to the number of those in Spain than I ever would have guessed.

The article is part of a special section in the cultural magazine celebrating the 5th international congress of the Spanish language (V Congreso Internacional de la Lengua Española) that was scheduled to take place in Valparaiso, Chile from March 2-5, 2010. Chile, before the earthquake, was listed at 15,015,000 Spanish speakers. Babelia is "moving the cancelled congress to the Internet" with a special publishing program during the coming week under the title "Lost Papers."