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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.