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Sunday, December 25, 2011

In the Middle of Christmas

Merry Christmas. Glaedelig Jul. Feliz Navidad. It is Christmas Day, and if you think Christmas will be over and done with tomorrow, you have not spent Christmas in Spain. It is a slow and relaxed holiday here, spanning a couple weeks, at least.

We did start Christmas celebrations a little early this year, last Sunday, the 18th, when we were invited to an early Christmas dinner at the home of English friends. They needed to do dinner early because they were going to Benidorm for the holiday itself. As it turns out, they were one of three sets of friends who chose to relocate to Benidorm for Christmas this year. We had thought of that ourselves, but too much travel in November made us change our plans. Perhaps next year will be the year we go to Benidorm.

The real, though unofficial, start of Christmas in Spain is on the 22nd, the day that the national lottery, the Sorteo de Navidad, is drawn. This is the biggest lottery in the world, giving out more money and drawing more participants than any other. It takes four hours just to pick the winning numbers and amounts of earnings; it takes place in Madrid every year on the morning of the 22nd and is televised live throughout the country. The 22nd was Thursday this year, which was also the day that we took a small overnight trip to Alicante city. Our excuse for the overnight was an evening Christmas concert at the Auditorio de la Diputación de Alicante (ADDA), the new theater that opened this year and which we have enjoyed before. We were off to Alicante first thing in the morning, and that gave us time to walk through the unusually fine mercado central building that was just across the street from our hotel, and then sit in the Plaza Nuevo in the sunshine, having a glass of wine and light lunch. There happened to be an office of the lotería just next to our cafe, so we could listen to a young member of the chorus sing each number, and then hear a second member respond by singing the amount that ticket had won. For the first time, I had bought a ticket this year--actually only a décimo, one tenth of a 200 euro ticket--and I was hoping to hear one of the children of San Ildefonso sing "ochenta y nueve, cuatrocientos, noventa y siete" and follow that with a mil (thousand) or so euros, but no one did.

Since I didn't have to claim a winning, I had time to pass through the gift and kitchen departments of El Corte Inglés looking for small gifts and enjoying the other shoppers (a surprising number of whom spoke Danish, as we had also curiously heard in our hotel). Then after a brief siesta back at the hotel (more Danish in the elevator) it was time to walk four blocks or so (400 meters--we don't talk about "blocks" in Spain) to the ADDA. Since the concert began at 8:00 we were not going to have a chance for a proper dinner before the music, but we were counting on finding a bar and tapas to tide us over, or more likely, substitute for dinner itself. We didn't find that, but that's another story. We did make it, pleasantly full, to the concert early enough to stand in line for a few minutes before the doors opened at 7:30--although the seats are numbered, the tickets never seem to be, so it is first come, first seated (and it helps if you know the layout of the venue, which we do now, because you seat yourself). The auditorium was festive, the musicians and director in good form, the musical selections enchanting, and it was a lovely evening. The next morning we enjoyed the typical Spanish breakfast buffet in our hotel, and finally asked one of our fellow guests what the occasion was. Turns out that there was a bridge club of some 34 members from Denmark, who were off on an annual year-end excursion, which explained a little bit why we had heard nothing but Danish spoken by other guests during our stay.

When we returned home the tiles for our new terrace--our Christmas gift to ourselves--had been laid and the workmen were doing the grouting and cleaning up very well as they went. They finished the job and on Saturday morning, the 24th, came around for the final payment. Over the years we have been in Spain we have had a number of house improvements made in December--new windows, a gas fireplace, and now a terrace--and they never fail to get done, and paid in cash, on Christmas Eve Day. We had just enough time on the 24th to get ready for another Christmas celebration--this time Christmas Eve dinner Scandinavian style, at a Swedish restaurant with Danish friends. The company was wonderful and the food equally so, with the typical cold table buffet of herring, salmon, shrimp, and fish, plus all the traditional hot dishes, including more salmon, and finishing with at least three desserts.

So this morning when Christmas Day, the 25th dawned, it could have been a little anticlimactic, and indeed we took off on our traditional Sunday activity, wandering through the Sunday outdoor Zoco market. I had seen signs the previous week at several stalls that had said they would be there on the 25th. Well, there were a few stalls open--maybe 20 percent. We commented that it was now easy to see who the Morrocan and other Muslim vendors were--they were the ones who were there on Christmas day. Spaniards have their big Christmas celebration on Nochebuena, Christmas Eve, and it consists of a big and long dinner, which starts at 9:00 and lasts at least until midnight, and then there may be extensive sobremesa (after dinner) into the wee hours. The only Spanish voices we heard this morning were talking about the wonderful fiesta they had had the night before.

There were very few English voices at the market--most English here celebrate on the 25th with a big roast dinner at 2:00--but we found two Scandinavian cafes open, and had coffee first at the Danish one, and then the Norwegian one, though the Norwegian cafe seemed to be staffed only with Russians today. Then we took a nice long drive along the Lemon Tree Road to Guardamar and walked the beach, and then continued south to Torrevieja, inspecting road improvements along the way that were finally done, only two years late, but are now quite impressive.

In a few minutes I will go downstairs to prepare our simple Christmas dinner: specially cut inch-thick steaks of Argentine beef (such a thick cut must be specially ordered in Spain), fresh asparagus and mushrooms, Spanish potato bollitos, and a Spanish custard dessert that is a gift from our cleaning ladies. After partaking of cold and hot salmon yesterday, I decided to put aside the salmon first course I had planned. Tomorrow is another day, and even though life gets sort of back to normal before New Year's, Spain doesn't finish Christmas until January 6, when the Three Kings bring gifts to the children. That means, yes, that the stores are still busy and festive. There are indeed twelve days of Christmas, and still a lot of celebrating to do.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Renewing Residencia, Part 3

We are still married. That's what we had to prove to the Spanish immigration authorities to move paperwork on my residencia renewal forward. (See part 2) Although we did not have any idea how to prove this, we had been told to go to the Danish consulate, since my application rests on the fact that my husband is a European Union citizen. We were hoping that one bureaucracy (the Danish consulate) would be able to communicate to another (the Spanish immigration office) and know how to verify this status.

On Tuesday we called the Danish consulate in Alicante. I was hopeful after the conversation. Sure, come around tomorrow morning at 10:30, a very Spanish man said. So Wednesday we piled in the car with Gloria GPS again, and after braving city one-way streets and parking shortages, we arrived at the consulate, which turned out to be a tiny office in a multi-story building that also housed the German and British consulates. We got there shortly before 11:00--we are becoming adept at living according to Spanish time--and explained the situation: We were renewing my residencia; we have our marriage certificate from the U.S., plus a Spanish translation, and we have proof of my earlier residence in Denmark, another European Union country, and a Spanish translation. What we are asked for now is a statement showing that we are still married.

The consul hemmed and hawed a bit. I told him that we had copies of our separate empadronamientos, each showing our legal address, which was the same. Wouldn't that be indicative? No, that was not important; he didn't even look at them. What he needed, he said apologetically as he pointed to a list of fees for various consular services, was 109 euros. That, plus about 45 minutes to type up the statement.

Without much choice, we agreed to pay the fee and to disappear for a cup of coffee while he took up the task of producing the paperwork. He would call us if he finished early, because that might give us enough time to get to the immigration office this same day and complete the whole process.

Off we went for coffee. Not much gets accomplished in Spain without stopping for coffee in the middle of whatever is underway, and fortunately the coffee is good. After coffee we went next door to El Corte Ingles, a nice department store, where we intended to buy tickets to an upcoming Christmas concert. But after standing in line for ten minutes, the phone rang. As good as his word, our papers were ready, so off we scooted to pick them up.

I laboriously read through the bureaucratic language of a short (16-line) document. It repeated already known facts--when and where we had gotten married--but contained the important phrase siguiende actualmente casados (continuing married through the present). Wonderful! We paid the fee, got the original, two copies, and a receipt, and rushed off to the immigration office.

By now we knew the procedure: In through the security check, stand in the triage line, get a number, then proceed to the waiting room. We were pushing the end of the day--it was almost 1:00 by the time we got there and we knew they closed at 2:00. But the triage director assured us that if we took the number and waited, we would be seen that day. What was there to lose? Once again I became number M-002, and we waited, more than an hour. We used the time to sort through all our documents and place the originals and a copy of each document together, in order, in a notebook.

At 1:55 there were only three other parties in the waiting room. Finally M-002 was called, at a little after 2:00. The gentleman who attended to us was efficient and pleasant, but it was good that we were prepared. He asked and we were able to supply the right paper almost instantaneously. For most, he examined the original, glanced at the copy, kept the copy and returned the original to us. He took the six photographs that I had in one set and cut out three of them, then returned the other three to me. He kept two and affixed one to a copy of my application form, which he then stamped several times and gave to me. Approved! Within two months I should get a letter telling me where to go to be fingerprinted; then I can expect to get a laminated card that looks very much like the one I have in my possession now, which officially runs out today. It will have one of those pictures, my name and other identification details, address, and a fingerprint on the back. I suspect that it will also expire five years from the date of my application, which means I should have the opportunity to revisit bureaucratic hell yet one more time. But in the meantime, I am legal.

We went back to El Corte Ingles to buy our concert tickets and enjoy a celebratory luncheon on a sunny pre-Christmas weekday. Life is good. And we are still married.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Renewing Residencia, Part 2

Filling out the application forms for the renewal of my residencia permit was tedious (see part 1), but I completed them this past Monday morning. As it turned out, my Spanish class was cancelled, so no sooner was Johannes' piano teacher out the door after his lesson than we were out the door and on the way to the ayuntamiento to pick up the promised certificate of empadronamiento. It was ready--not at desk no. 3, where I had ordered it, but at the Informacion desk immediately inside the town hall door. Then we walked across the plaza to the bank to pay the 10 euro and 20 centimo fee required. The bank turned out to be very busy--with Tuesday a holiday, everyone was trying to get their business done on Monday. We continued on with errands and found a bank that was slightly less busy--at least they had time to try to sell me a private health insurance policy while we processed the payment...but I paid the fee, the multipart form got stamped four times, and two copies were returned to me to take with me that afternoon.

Monday afternoon at 3:30 we left for the 4:00 appointment, and arrived comfortably on time at 4:30, having come into Orihuela and to the policia nacional via yet another route and scrambling for a parking place. The room which we had originally approached the week before was the examination room, and every chair along its periphery was taken. We nosed around, trying to find out whether they were calling names. Someone said they were, but I had not heard a single name in more than ten minutes. We asked a woman seated in the periphery what number she was--she was no. 5. I was no. 21. We went across the street for a coffee and a tapa.

Only fifteen minutes later we returned, and somehow they had gotten to no. 31 in the interim! No problem. Johannes went to the front of one line and started translating the official's Spanish to the Irish couple that were petitioning there. For this courtesy, I was promised the next session. And it came quickly, but no sooner had I sat down and presented my papers, my current residencia card, and my passport, than the official said, "No, no! Alicante!"

But my town official told me to come here to Orihuela, I told the official. No, he was wrong. Orihuela is for petitions from people who are European Union (EU) citizens. I am from the United States--estados unidos (EEUU) in Spanish, but not EU. Those who are not EU comunitarias must go to Alicante. Jose, my town official, had made the simple mistake of assuming that I was English, or perhaps Danish, as my husband. Or maybe he just didn't know that there is a separate office for non-EU citizens, since we are in such a small minority.

What with two legal holidays during the week, plus a couple days with a bad cold, it was Friday before we had the strength and the time to enter "bureaucratic hell" again, which is what one American friend terms this type of typical Spanish paperwork. After my Spanish class we jumped in the car with every important piece of paper we have in our files. We were going to be prepared--even if we expected to do nothing more than to find the correct office in Alicante and get an appointment time for a later date.

Luck was with us. Our GPS buddy Gloria Perez Sanchez got us to the right building straightaway and we found parking easily. A guard at the door instructed me to put my papers and purse on the security belt and walk through a metal detector. I passed to a short line and waited for five minutes or so before being greeted by a woman who looked at my papers, performed some unknown triage, and gave me a coded number: M002. Then we got to pass through to the "plaza" courtyard of the building, where I first discovered that there were 50 or so people waiting. By this time it was noontime, and I was grateful that they were still assuming I could be seen before the office closed at 2:00.

An electric sign periodically flashed numbers and what desks the people holding those numbers should go to. There was a series of I numbers, C numbers, and R numbers. There was also a line showing what numbers had been "recently called." One of those was M-001. It continued showing M-001 as recently called for over a half hour. Finally I saw, and heard, M-002.

A young woman greeted us pleasantly when we got to the private desk, but immediately glanced at the papers and told us we didn't have the petition. Well, we had the wrong petition--we were still carrying  two copies of the petition for EU citizens. She gave me the proper paper, the one for non-EU citizens, and I wondered whether I would be able to fill it out at her desk or whether I would have to go back to the "plaza" and wait for another attendant later today or on another day.

That was the least of my problems, it turned out. Since I am not an EU citizen, it seems, there is absolutely no reason for Spain to grant me permanent residence on my own merit. The "condition" that has given me legal status as a resident so far is that I am married to an EU citizen. I become eligible through my husband. Though this is not welcome to hear, it's not a surprise, either, and we are prepared for it. We have copies of our marriage certificate (from the United States) and of the legal notice showing the change in my name from the one that was used on the marriage certificate to the one I use now (also from the U.S.). We have copies of official records proving that, for a brief time, I lived in Denmark and thus have a Danish "person number." And we have official (costly) translations of these documents from English and Danish to Spanish--we used them all the first time I applied for legal residencia status five years ago and was finally granted it after a couple years. But what we don't have is any official statement showing that we are still married.

We are still married.

But where does one get such proof, I wondered? And why do they think we would be sitting here together in bureaucratic hell if we were not still married, I asked myself rhetorically. The official tells us to go to the Danish consulate in Alicante--apparently there is one--for a statement verifying our marriage status. This seems illogical to me, but I am hoping that it will make sense to another bureaucracy. Regardless, it is too late in the day to start to find the Danish consulate. Besides, as we discover later in the afternoon when we look it up online from home, they are only open until 1:00 PM. So now we have another goal for our next week in bureaucratic hell. I wonder what we need to do to prove that we are still married?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Renewing Residencia

Don't let anyone say that you never get anything free from Ryanair, the budget airline that we took between Alicante and Denmark two weeks ago. A helpful check-in counter clerk in Denmark remarked off-handedly, when she examined my residence card for Spain, that it was due to expire this month. What! Sure enough, my official residence permit runs out on the 18th of December 2011, so off to the ayuntamiento (town hall) I went on Tuesday morning this week. Bureaucratic paper work--trámites--is not something you put off until the last minute in Spain.

I got my first residence permit while we were living in Roquetas, and we had a gestoría--one of those wonderful Spanish legal/management agencies that have the knowledge and patience to work their way through bureaucracy--help us at that time. So I wasn't quite sure what I had to do this time, in a new town and different comunidad, and by the way, the process has changed and I did know that now they no longer give cards, but an A4-sized paper certificate, or letter, instead. So we started at the town hall.

José, the helpful man at the Información desk immediately inside the door of the ayuntamiento in Algorfa, told me that I had to go to the policia nacional in Orihuela to get the renewal. It's a two-step procedure, he said, and even grimaced apologetically: first you go to Orihuela to make an appointment, and then later you go back for the appointment. But, he volunteered, you also need to take your empadronamiento, the certificate that shows your official residence address in Spain. And where do you get the empadronamiento certificate? Just across the aisle at desk number three. That seemed easy enough.

The woman behind desk number there understood my request, but she said I needed to show a copy of the deed to the house. Oh dear, we were unprepared for that. It seemed as though we had every other official paper that pertained to our individual person, but not the house escritura. I didn't even ask what would happen if my name were not on the house deed, or if we didn't own our own home. We do and it is, we just didn't have the paper with us.

Oh well, we did have the address of the policia nacional in Orihuela, and it was a beautiful day for a drive, and we didn't need to be back home for another few hours, so we decided to drive to Orihuela and make the appointment with the policia. Might as well kill at least one more small bird with this stone. We set Gloria Perez Sanchez (our GPS persona) to work, because Orihuela is a big city and an old city, with lots of one-way, winding streets.

It took only 20 minutes or so to get to Orihuela. It took probably twice as long to walk into the building in Orihuela where the police offices are--Gloria is not up to date on the one-way streets, and of course she knows nothing at all about parking places and the lack of them. Two or three desks were open in the large room we entered into, and only a couple people were waiting, so I thought that this might proceed rather quickly. But someone pointed us to the Información desk--it is the one farthest away from the entrance door--and that person told us that we should go through another hall and into a waiting room. There were two other people there, clients before us, and two closed doors. No other signs. No official.

The other occupants spoke a language that I could not identify. We waited. Eventually one of the closed doors opened and two of the clients in front of us went in. A Spanish-speaking client appeared and we let him know that we thought this was the right place, but we would see, and by the way, he was after us. Then, another quarter of an hour later, the second closed door opened. No invitation to come in, but we didn't let that stop us. We just barged in and asked for an appointment. Yes, I could have an appointment the following week. Not Tuesday or Thursday--those are holidays. Is Monday OK? Yes, Monday at 4:00. That means, we discovered, that they open the office at 4:00, after siesta. The officer showed us the list of appointments scheduled for 4:00 on Monday--at least 20 names preceded mine. I made a mental note to not show up before 5:00. How late are they open? At least until 7:00 PM. What else would I need? Fill out two copies of this form, and bring a photo in the standard size that is used for a passport, driving license, library card, or any other official paper work in Spain.

That all seemed successful. I found one of those unused photos in my wallet and I read through the forms and saw that it would be a pain to fill them out, but I could. Then on Wednesday we remembered that I still needed to get the empadronamiento. No problem, I said. We had found the escritura, and I would pick up the empadronamiento on Friday before or after my Spanish class, which is just down the street. And then Thursday morning I woke up and it hit me--perhaps getting the certificate of empadronamiento was not an immediate, on-the-spot event.

Off again on Thursday to the ayuntamiento, this time with the escritura. Desk 3: No problem; I showed the escritura and my passport, and signed my name. The woman stamped the paper and said nicely "El lunes" (Monday). It takes two business days to get the certificate. Good thing we had made the special trip on Thursday!

Now I am just hoping that tomorrow morning when I go to the ayuntamiento at 9:30, the certificate is ready. If not, I may have to go back again some time later in the morning before they close for the day at 2:00. And then I can plan on a long afternoon at the policia nacional in Orihuela. And right now, I had better start filling out those papers that are required. All this for a renewal!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Spain goes blue

Original graphic from El Pais                
Since I've been out of Spain, I didn't pay much attention to the political debates leading up to the general election in Spain last Sunday, November 20. Still, I was aware that polls predicted a big win for the Partido Popular (PP), the opposition party to the current socialist government under President Zapatero of the PSOE, which has ruled since 2004. Nor was I able to read much analysis immediately after the election, which, as predicted, gave a "crushing victory" to the PP.

According to the article in the CoastRider, which I am beginning to recognize as the best of the bunch of free, English-language weekly newspapers in our area, the PP will have an absolute majority in Congress, having won 186 seats, with the PSOE ending with 110. There are several other minority parties in Spain, and an article in News from Spain reproduces the above graphic from El País that shows how many there are and how little influence they will have. In a widespread move to the right, the PP will rule in 11 of Spain's 17 comunidades autónomas," regions comparable to U.S. states, and when a nation calls its states "autonomous" you can be sure they have power.

Reportedly Zapatero went down to widespread discontent with his failure to handle the economic crisis. Not a surprise: Denmark recently went red, booting out its conservative government for failure to handle the crisis better. Unfortunately it is easy to vote against the status quo and hope that the opposition will have a better plan. Hope is about all that the Spanish have, though, since the new president, Mariano Rajoy, didn't really talk during the campaign about the direction or extent of the cuts to be made to improve the economy of Spain.

Meanwhile it should take only another three weeks to form the new government, or maybe a little less, since Zapatero has pledged to speed up his release of power as much as possible. I noticed that less than three weeks passed after the Danish election in September before its new government legitimately took charge. This sure beats the almost three months it takes for the USA to inaugurate a president after November elections. So what do you think the chances of getting Republicans and Democrats to agree to a constitutional amendment to change the date of U.S. inaugurations might be?

Home Again in Spain

Given the fact that I had just returned from a trip home to the U.S., it doesn't make sense that I have now spent the past week in Denmark. But this trip was planned some time ago as just a quick visit to Danish-American friends of long standing. We left on Monday and returned on Friday very shortly before midnight, which was fortunate because, we were told, the new airport in Alicante closes at midnight and if your plane hasn't landed by that time, it will be diverted to Valencia and you get a free bus ride lasting a couple hours back to the outside, presumably, of the Alicante airport. Even though the Ryanair flight was late in leaving Billund, we made it in to Alicante under the wire, and I have never had checked baggage delivered as quickly as I did Friday night.

Denmark was lovely with Christmas decorations and leisurely shopping--not the rat race of Black Friday sales, as there are few sales in Denmark and no Thanksgiving to mark the beginning of the shopping frenzy. We did not have bad weather. This is the most positive statement that one can hope to make about weather when one travels to Denmark from Spain in the month of November. Gray days, but mostly dry, and cold enough for two layers on your legs and three up above when you are out and about. What Denmark lacks in sun at this time of year it makes up for with that lovely notion of central heat, and the luxury of underfloor heating in the bathroom. I am still wondering whether I will succumb to the temptation of having the tiles I love in our bathroom dug up to install heating fixtures below.

It didn't rain until Friday, and then it was indeed cold and dark and damp. Even though we had left Spain on Monday after an unusual rainy weekend--but we seldom complain because we always need the rain here--we looked forward to arriving back to warmer temperatures and sunnier skies. There are many good reasons for visiting Denmark, but one of them is that it will probably make you appreciate the weather in Spain more.

Warmer temperatures and sunnier skies did appear on Saturday morning when I finally woke up at almost 10:00. I've been unpacking, and doing laundry and grocery shopping ever since, and just generally getting back to normal after my two trips. Since I have had the privilege of enjoying Christmas decorations in the stores of two countries in the last month, I am inspired to get started with my Christmas preparations now. I'll be able to pull out the decorations from storage pretty soon--but first I need to pack away the cotton summer clothes that were perfectly appropriate when I left a month ago, and which I could still wear most days now in the sunny afternoons.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Seasons of Life

It has been a long time since I wrote, and that usually means that I have been out of Spain. This time was an unscheduled trip, because I have been home in the U.S. with my birth family as my mother, Mary, passed from this life, and for two weeks afterwards. Those several days that we (four sisters) spent together reliving our earlier lives growing up and renewing our commitment to each other as a family were precious.

Part of the reason I first started this blog was to share my experiences here in Spain with my mother. She was nearing 80 when she "got onto the computer" in order to keep in touch by email with her wide-spread family and good friends from across several decades of her life. She learned to use many functions, even though she never distinguished between the hardware, software, email, and the Web--it was all "the computer." Later as her eyesight diminished she had to stop using the computer herself, but in the early days of Sundays in Spain, I tried to keep posts short enough so they could be printed out on a single page by one of my sisters and read to her. I have gotten rather lax, I am afraid.

In 2005 when I had to tell my mother that I was selling my house, which I had recently bought in Indianapolis in order to be within a couple hours' drive of my parents, and moving to Spain full-time, I was distressed and scared. My mother at that time was facing the daily challenges of living with the increasing effects of the Alzheimer's with which my father had been diagnosed a few years earlier. I felt guilty leaving them to be so far away "just" because my husband was ready to return to Europe during his retirement years.

My mother fully supported my move. I was near tears as I struggled to tell her that we would no longer be coming home to the U.S. for half the year, but she immediately said, "Oh! It's just like when your father and I went to Florida!" Indeed, they had left Ohio and moved to Florida for their retirement years at a time when she was just about the same age as I was moving to Spain. They spent 20 years there before returning to Cincinnati for the last years of their lives. Never in all those last years did she ever express displeasure or encourage guilt that I had moved to Spain. She even made a trip alone to our home in Roquetas de Mar in 2006 at Christmas time to see how we lived.

In some ways my life here in one of the "Floridas of Europe" is like my mother's life during the happy time my parents spent in a retirement village in Orlando. In many ways it is different. I try to write about the similarities and the differences, and I try to live each day happily.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Foreign Community Sometimes Speaks Spanish

Ever since I wrote about the foreign community speaking English here in Spain--regardless of where they were originally from--I have been on the lookout for incidents in which foreigners did not speak English, and particularly, for when they spoke Spanish.

The first time was a success for me, though I did not originally realize that the person to whom I was speaking Spanish was not Spanish. I went to the dentist for a routine check-up and spoke English with the dentist, which might be expected when one goes to an establishment called British Dental Service. But I was also introduced to the hygienist, who had been out on maternity leave when I was there six months earlier; she greeted me in English, but with an accent. So I decided that when I returned later for my cleaning (no, I do not know why these had to be separate appointments) I would speak to her in Spanish. After all, conversation is going to be limited in duration anyway when one of the parties is having her teeth cleaned. When I returned the next day, I greeted her with "Hola, que bien dia hoy," or something like that.

She visibly expressed relief. "¡Ah, tu hablas español!" "Si, un poquito, y intento hablarlo si no te preocupes," I responded. And we continued chatting for a few minutes before she got down to business with the bib and the scraping and the spraying and then polishing, and I never had to levantar la mano (raise my hand) at any time as a signal to get her to stop. She only slipped into English a couple times, with routine admonishments which I am sure, in her practice, come easier to her in English than in Spanish.

It was before we started the cleaning that she told me that she is not Spanish--she is German but has lived in Spain for about ten years. Since I knew she had been out on maternity leave, I could ask about her baby (a girl) and who took care of her while she and her husband (partner, she corrected me) were working. Well, the good news is that her partner was able to do that; the bad news is that he has been out of work for eight months, a casualty of the construction crisis. I neglected to ask her what language she and her partner, an immigrant from another European country I do not recall, spoke together, and what language(s) they are using with the baby. But I should have a chance again in another five months or so.

We have also had some minor renovations done to the house in the past month. These were undertaken by a fine workman who knows the houses in our development very well and who everyone calls Christo. He drove up in a truck labeled Hristo. Hristo is originally from Bulgaria and has been in Spain for eight years or so and has established a good business, though it, too, is having challenges with the economic crisis. Nevertheless he has a compatriot who works with him; during the week that these two Bulgarians spent in the house building a closet, installing a kitchen fan, and moving the "boiler," they spoke in Bulgarian but we spoke primarily in Spanish. Hristo's helper knows only Spanish (in addition to Bulgarian, of course) and he and I were able to communicate very well indeed. There is something about foreigners speaking a common foreign language that makes it easier to understand, I think. With Hristo himself, I could speak Spanish, and we generally started out that way, but we often drifted over into English. One reason is that Hristo wanted to be very certain I understood what he was doing, and another, I think, is that he wanted to practice his English. After all, probably most of his clients are native English or English-as-a-common-language speakers. Part of the job involved moving the hot water heater--or boiler, as Hristo called it--and I felt much more comfortable talking about the calentador in Spanish, because to me a boiler is somewhat larger and has to do with a central heating system, which I did not think we were having installed and certainly had not budgeted for.

Perhaps the most satisfying experience I have had speaking Spanish with other foreigners, though, has been in my new Spanish class. Sponsored by the town of Algorfa, this class runs once a week for an hour and a half from October through May--for only 70 euros. I am enrolled in the advanced conversation class, with nine other immigrants from England, Scotland, and Vietnam. We have had three classes so far, and it is Spanish only in class. The instructor is a wonderful young Spanish woman, born and brought up in Algorfa, who is very adept at explaining--in Spanish--any word or concept that comes up in the reading or conversation. When the sense of the unknown word just does not sink in, you may occasionally hear a whispered English equivalent from one of the other students who "got it" before you did, but this does not happen very often. We are even doing jokes in Spanish now, though I can't translate the slightly scurrilous one about the stingy Catalan throwing out or letting fall ... because it just doesn't translate.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fiesta Nacional de España

Yesterday, October 12, was a national holiday, one of only two per year in Spain--the other numerous holidays are either religious-based or local/regional holidays. Looking back, I see that I first wrote about this holiday two years ago and at that time cited the Wikipedia page from Spain in explanation. This year I have discovered the page in English, which speaks briefly of the history of this day in Spain and the many roles it plays.

The day began as most holidays do, with firecrackers the night before, but also with the annoyance of cancellations of two appointments--hair and house-cleaning--because heavy fines are threatened if workers go to work on a holiday. For people in the leisure and hospitality industry it's a different story, however. The bars and restaurants are open all day, and, I discovered on another holiday recently, the fitness center I go to is allowed to be open "in the morning." That means from opening time (7:00 AM on weekdays) until 2:00 PM.

I got on my warm-up bicycle just before 10:00 and plugged my earbuds into the TV sound outlet. We have a choice of English and Spanish, and the fitness center has become my primary place for watching Spanish TV and a free Spanish lesson. I caught the morning news program, where I noticed among other events that Spain plans to bring home four of the military planes it had deployed in Libya on Saturday. The regular newspaper round-up, where news headlines from various newspapers are presented and then discussed by a panel of commentators whom I partially understand, was cancelled this hour in lieu of the festivities that were to be brought live from Madrid celebrating the day.

I had to unplug from my individual TV screen and the sound as I passed through most other parts of my routine, but I could see the beginning of a parade on one of the larger screens at one end of the gym (the screen at the other end was showing, for the umpteenth day, "highlights" of the trial of Michael Jackson's doctor). I had been told that there would be long military parades, but this one had no tanks or vehicles or even soldiers marching with guns. Instead there were men with large plumed hats from an earlier era, riding horses. As minutes passed they arrived at, or the camera shifted to, the Plaza de Neptuno in Madrid and then I recognized King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia moving down a very long reception line of dignitaries. The king was dressed in a military uniform but Queen Sofia was in a regular street dress and handbag--I wonder why queens always carry handbags with short handles and never are allowed to have a shoulder bag. Women in the line curtsied before the royalty but also shook hands. Men shook hands with the queen and king and in addition gave a military salute to the king if they were in uniform, but no other sign of deference comparable to a curtsy--even the quick little dip that it was--did I see.

By the time I was on the treadmill and could plug in again, the official program was starting. First off was a salute to the fallen, heroes who had not returned from any number of wars or military actions for an unspecified number of years. People sang a very moving song of remembrance--"La Muerte no es el final" (Death is not the end). Lyrics were printed on the screen, and I have found this and other versions at YouTube. Then there was an impressive flyover of jet planes. I was trying to pay attention to the commentary about guardia real and guardia civil, but I don't have much recollection this morning of the rest of the spoken ceremonies. As I left the treadmill a larger desfile was commencing; presumably this was where the military aspects were paraded.

That was the end of the holiday for me. I stopped and bought cereal and cat food at one of the small grocery stores allowed to be open until 2:00 and went home to laundry, lunch, and computer work--but all in a quiet house newly released from the labor of contractors making adjustments to the kitchen and a new water heater closet. Quiet, that is, until bedtime, when the fireworks started again in celebration of the Fiesta Nacional de España.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Continued Sunny Skies

This Sunday in Spain dawned clear and cool and I drove Johannes up to the cave art exhibit at 9:00 and then returned home for a shower, an hour and a half of work, and some little maintenance jobs pertaining to the house and my person. Then I headed over to the Sunday morning outdoor market close to our house. One of the wonderful features about this and most outdoor markets here in Spain is the offering of rotisserie-grilled chickens. They give a captivating aroma to the market grounds throughout the morning, and people line up to purchase one or two before leaving the market. I think that most people in Spain must have grilled chicken for Sunday dinner--you can even buy thin French fried potatoes to go with the chicken.

View from the Rojales Cave
I stocked up on raisins and almonds for our breakfast cereal, and tomatoes and bananas for our lunchtime salads, and then on my way out I bought one of those chickens. I had previously packed some cherry tomatoes, sliced carrots, and cucumbers into a cooler, and I drove straight to the caves for a little picnic. It was a peaceful fall morning. Four Norwegians were looking at paintings as I arrived, and two Spaniards arrived before the Norwegians left, and we had interesting conversations with both groups. So it was after 2:00 before we were able to enjoy our little repast, and we sat in peaceful solitude broken only by the strains of Chopin from the CD player and cock-a-doodle-do from a neighboring rooster. Later we packed up and made our way down through Benihofar--and the Wheel of Tapas was still going on, so we stopped at an English bar and had a tapa of Spanish tortilla (my favorite) and a tidbit of serrano ham and tomato.  This particular bar was in a part of the village which we had not explored before, and right down the strip from Route 66, allegedly an American restaurant. Unfortunately they were not open until later, so we will have to return some time in the future to see whether there really is an American connection there.

We wanted to make a reservation for dinner later on in the week at a restaurant in town, and when we stopped  we were greeted by an English friend who had brought a Spanish lady friend out to see "how the English live." For those of us who have been married to the same person for eons, it is amusing and inspiring to see others of our age (or almost) who have never been married but who have not given up trying to meet someone, and particularly when they are living in a foreign country. We had a lively two-language conversation with this chap and his new compañera and hope to see her again. She spoke good English, but I was able to communicate with her mostly in Spanish, and that is gratifying indeed.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What a Week!

This was not an easy week for me in Spain. On Monday evening the email account that has supported me with no  problems for more than ten years was compromised; I spent most of Tuesday reassuring friends and associates that I had not become a Viagra salesperson in my spare time, and making sure that my system was clean (it was). Wednesday I used more than six hours trying to access my banking account in the U.S., only to discover that the credit card had been stopped and access to the online banking account had been halted because the renewal card which had been sent to my Spanish address had been returned as undeliverable--and the bank is in California, so I couldn't even talk to them before 4:00 P.M. my time. Thursday a home renovation team arrived to do a "little job"--knocking a small wall from the living room into an empty space, so they could move the hot water heater from the kitchen to the new space, thereby freeing up an area large enough to install a new, decent-sized refrigerator and freezer in the kitchen. I was home alone during this time, so not only did I have to answer their questions, I also had to talk to the door-to-door advanced funeral arrangements salesperson who stopped by mid-day to pressure me into dealing with this "subject that we don't want to talk about." I really didn't want to talk about it then. And then mid-afternoon, the electricity was cut off with no advanced warning, just as I was in the middle of initiating a new alternative email account. I guess I was lucky--I could have been in my secure banking area.

So Friday morning, after I attended a brand-new Spanish class and came home to see that the renovators still had their stuff spread all over the first floor of the house, it seemed like a really nice idea to meet good friends and neighbors on the first day of a Wheel of Tapas in the neighboring town of Benijofar. I've written about these tapas festivals before. Generally the idea is that most of a town's bars, cafes, and restaurants agree on a particular weekend to offer a special tapa and drink for two euros--each restaurant has its own specialty, and the municipality produces a glossy brochure with a map to the establishments and a menu of their offerings, and if you visit enough establishments you can vote on the best and be entered in the drawing to win a fabulous prize. Only once before have we ever been able to stomach enough tapas and wine to qualify to vote and enter, but we always enjoy sitting in the sun on a weekend afternoon with a drink, a tapa, and some friends, and then moving on to the next place--once or twice.

That's what we did Friday afternoon this week. And it wasn't even a disaster when we discovered that we were too early for the festival--showing up at 2:00 PM when it didn't start until 7:00 PM. We just went to a familiar restaurant and offered to be the beta tasters for that evening's tapa, and it worked. We had a nice time and by the time we got home, the renovators had gone for the weekend, leaving a semi-clean house until their scheduled return on Monday. This noontime when I picked up Johannes after his morning at his cave art exhibition, we stopped at a place listing a tapa of milanesa a la napolitana, an Argentine specialty and one of his favorites. That plus the sausages from the Dutch bar next door made a very nice lunch, and we enjoyed sitting out, the two of us, in sun and watching the other foreigners and the Spanish taking advantage of the Wheel of Tapas and delightfully warm and sunny autumn weather.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Las Cuevas del Rodeo Art Exhibition

Painting by Johannes Bjørner
This Sunday in Spain, the first in October, was a perfect day for the inauguration of an art exhibition at Las Cuevas del Rodeo in Rojales, a rustic area in the hills behind the center of town where the municipal authorities have seen fit to provide studio and exhibition space to artists at no--or very low--cost. Some of the caves are used full-time by various artesans, but no. 4 is loaned out to any artist, on application, for a month.

It would be comfortable to say that I happened on to this exhibit casually and by accident, as I happened by the first day of school in the colegio next door a couple weeks ago. But that would not be truthful, since for the last month I have been living with the artist while he assembled more than 50 paintings in the living and dining rooms of our house, together with myriad paraphernalia for hanging them, piping in music, and providing light refreshments on opening day. Friday this week he took the paintings out to the caves and the walls throughout the entire house are now bare--and Saturday we went out to hang them and set up for the opening from 11:00--2:00 PM Sunday morning.

And then this morning dawned and we were out the door at a little past 9:00 to do final preparations for the inauguration: buy some ice, move the white wine to the cooler, cut the cheese, and set up the snacks and drinks kindly provided by the municipality. Two good English friends arrived and took over the duties behind the bar, leaving both the artist and me free to mingle with guests who spilled in suddenly at 11:05 and kept us busy until 12:30. The crowd thinned out a bit then, but new people continued coming even past the 2:00 official close. Should I be surprised that the first group were mostly Scandinavians, then we had Germans and English, but the Spanish made their appearance during the last half "official" hour? I was happy for my husband's sake that so many people showed up and enjoyed the viewing and made several purchases, but I was surprised and especially touched myself to meet a woman who reads this blog. Since I write mainly for my friends and family at a distance, it was a real treat to meet a reader face-to-face, on this Sunday in Spain.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mathematical Puzzles and IVA, Spain's VAT

Spain has a VAT (Value Added Tax) of 18 percent, called IVA. That sounds high until you consider that Denmark's VAT is 25 percent. These make 7 percent or even 11 percent sales tax rates sound almost silly. But there are two differences in sales tax in the U.S. and the IVA I pay in Spain. The first difference is that IVA is charged by only one jurisdiction in Spain--the national government. In the U.S., on the other hand, sales tax can be charged by the state, the county, the city, or all of them--or some other government entity that you don't know about. Then, too, the sales taxes and various usage taxes can easily add up to 18 or maybe even 25 percent--as I am reminded every time I check out of a hotel at a conference.

The second difference in taxes is that in the U.S. consumer prices are listed without the tax, so that you generally get a receipt that shows the price of the item and the amount of the tax imposed on it, which adds up to a price that is probably higher than you thought and certainly higher than you wanted. In Spain, and everywhere that I know that uses the VAT, the displayed price of the item includes the tax. From the price you pay, the merchant presumably computes and sends the appropriate amount to the tax authorities. You don't have to think about it and you may not even know what it is. It makes it much more tolerable to pay a higher tax if the amount you are paying is not constantly thrown in your face.

Still, I noticed awhile ago that some grocery stores that I frequent include information on the receipt showing how much tax was charged. So I have been saving my receipts and trying to figure out the Spanish IVA taxation. Underneath the cumulated purchase total (the total), the amount you tender (the efectivo) and the change you get (the cambio) is a little chart like the one below.

2,76        8         0,23           2,99
2,53        18       0,45           2,98
3,25        4         0,14           3,39

Looking at charts like this were probably what first made me aware that not everything was charged at the 18 percent rate. Some items were apparently charged at 8 percent; others at 4 percent. Of course I wondered which items belonged in which group.

It is not as easy to find out as one would think. Remember, the displayed price includes the IVA, and the real item price (the base, as I learned) is never shown--except on this receipt. When I had accumulated enough of these little receipts and finally remembered to examine them at home--and got out my calculator and magnifying glass--I confirmed that the cuota is the amount of the tax on its corresponding base, charged at the appropriate IVA rate. The importe is the sum of the base and cuota and would be the amount shown as the price of the item, if I had only bought one item in this category. Of course that seldom happens, so the game on the way home from the grocery store has become figuring out which items purchased add up to the amount of each importe, because if that can be determined I will know which items are taxed at which rates.

One day this week we went out just to buy water, and we came out of the store with only 11 items. That's a workable number, especially since there were five bottles of gaseosa (1,5 liter bottles of flavored water) at 26 centimos each and two cartons of milk at 1,22 euros each. Add to that a bottle of white wine at 1 euro exactly and one of red at 1,98. Then the fresh mushrooms at 95 centimos and the luxury purchase of Caesar salad dressing at 1,69. So I was able to figure out which items added up to the importe in the three categories above. 

This is the point where, if you are so inclined, you should do the math before scrolling down for the answer.

Here is a review and a clue:

18 percent. The normal or default amount, applied to every consumer purchase unless specifically exempted.
8 percent. Applied to alimentary and sanitary products, for animals as well as humans. Specifically excluded from this category are alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, tobacco, cosmetics, and products of personal hygiene.
4 percent. For items of "basic necessity," specifically
    - Bread and "cereals" for making it.
    - Milk, cheese and eggs. 
    - Fruits, vegetables, legumes and natural root vegetables.

The answer:
  • The wine was charged at the default rate of 18 percent. Not a surprise.
  • The gaseosa was charged at 8 percent. This is where I learned that gaseosa is apparently considered  water (even though carbonated and with some flavoring) rather than a soft drink (refresco), which would have been charged at 18%. Also charged at 8% was the bottled ready-made salad dressing, which surprised me, because I consider this a luxury rather than a regular food item (you can probably tell that this is not my salad dressing).
  • Both milk and mushrooms were charged at 4 percent, as basic necessities.

I had accumulated lots of other receipts, so I took this opportunity to look through them to see if I could learn any more about the differences between basic necessity 4 percent items and the normal food rate items at 8 percent. The "cereals" for making bread do not include oatmeal or corn flakes--I guess they mean that "flour" is 4 percent. But cat food is charged at the same rate as general people food--I'm sure that Goldie approves. And fresh fruits and vegetables--of which I buy many--are 4 percent, though canned corn is 8 percent. The store where I buy most of my frozen vegetables doesn't provide this nice little accounting, so I don't yet know whether frozen is better (taxwise) than canned. On the other hand, that store tells me how much I would have spent in the old currency of pesetas! I hope that is information I never need to use.

The good news is that some eye drops I bought at the pharmacy also are just 4 percent and that food and drink consumed at a cafe, bar, or restaurant seem to be just 8 percent, regardless of whether alcohol is involved or not, though it may take a little more research to verify that. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my 4 percent purchases were a substantial part of my grocery basket, and now I can create a little game to try to keep those high, because they obviously are applied to foodstuffs that are not only basic but nutritious. By the time I went through most of my receipts, however, I had a headache and had consumed most of the afternoon. It's now almost dinner time, and I'm going downstairs for an 18 percent beverage.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Signs of Autumn

Someone mentioned that the British use "autumn" while Americans use "fall" to denote the season that comes after summer. I haven't really observed that yet in my verbal encounters with the Brits here in Spain, though my Diccionario Cambridge Klett Compact confirms that the translation of the Spanish otoño is "autumn, fall (Am)." I have always preferred "autumn" because "fall" seems so, well, happenstance. Autumn is a destination--you don't just fall into it when summer gets tired. One thing is sure: we are all tired of summer now, at least those of us who have been here for the past several months. Those who escaped to northern European climes for July and August and are now returning to the Costa appreciate the still-high temperatures, since they have been experiencing cold and rainy weather for much of the summer. But I'm not here to talk about climate change.

 Nearly all with whom I email have spoken to me with pleasure of cooler days and that wonderful crisp feeling in the air that autumn brings. It's cooler in the morning and later in the evenings here too, now, and it's dark in the mornings until 8:00 and gets dark again less than twelve hours later. But temperatures still register in the 90s F. at lunch time on the thermometer in the shade outside the sun room. My office air conditioner is broken, sending out hot air instead of cool, and I waited several days last week for the repairman to fit us into his busy schedule, and then he didn't come on Thursday afternoon between 5:00 and 6:00 as promised--or on Friday, either. So I do not yet feel like fall, but I am definitely looking forward to autumn.

There are signs. The returning northern Europeans, for a start. Our petanca games are filling up with people again compared with the sparse participation in the summer. Other social activities are starting up and the calendar is getting lots of notations. And I wondered this morning whether the grocery store would be open today (it's allowed to be open on Sunday during the summer only) but then remembered that I can count on today and next Sunday, through the month of September.

The surest sign of autumn for those of us who live on the northern side of the equator is the beginning of school, and school has started. First come the vuelta al cole ads in the circulars and large placards in the stores, announcing special prices on supplies, clothing and whatnot for the return to colegio, which is primary or elementary school--not college--in Spain. And then comes the start of school itself, September 8 according to one friend with two youngsters who attend, but it must vary a little bit from town to town.

Last Monday I happened on to a small colegio in Rojales at 12:25 PM. About 20 people were standing around the gated entrance. A few men, many women, some young and fashionable, a couple older, in Spanish grandmotherly style. Two women in light-colored abaya street-length cloaks and hijab headscarves. They were all waiting for their children to be released from school for the day, and within a couple minutes of my walking back to stand on the other side of the street after we parked the car, here they came. Tiny, happy children, with big smiles on their faces, walking out two by two through the school courtyard and each one greeted by a parent or grandparent or other caregiver. I asked and was told that yes, indeed, this was their very first day at school. They couldn't have been more than four years old. They soon walked off with their escorts--there were only a couple waiting cars--and that was the end of this first school day. They had had an exciting time, and there was still a long afternoon to enjoy in the sun.

Every day this week I have heard the reverberations of the big school bus that transports a few children from our neighborhood to and from their colegio in the center of Algorfa, a few miles away. It comes at precisely 1:25, on its return-from-school trip. I have not heard it yet on its regular afternoon run. Afternoon school sessions only start when cooler weather comes, presumably in October.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Foreign Community Speaks English

I always have a stack of newspapers beside the bed for night time reading, and last night just before I dropped off I was reading the latest Spaniaposten, a Norwegian bi-weekly. The article that caught my eye was a short one reporting on another article from the regional (Valenciano) newspaper Información. The subject was the large foreign (non-Spanish) population on the coast immediately south of Torrevieja and the fact that English is the predominant language. It was an interesting article and I will offer my translation from the Norwegian:

The large number of foreigners who live here and their lack of interest in learning Spanish have changed many areas in Vega Baja, especially Orihuela Costa, to more of an English colony than a Spanish area.

So begins an article in the regional newspaper Información. Almost 30,000 foreigners are registered as resident in this area a little south of Torrevieja.

The largest group is the British, followed by Irish and Germans. Scandinavians also make up a large part of the immigrants and vacationers on this part of the coast.

The Spanish paper writes that immigrants integrate themselves here only to a small degree. The majority of foreigners create their own colonies, shopping in stores managed by their own countrymen where they can speak their own language, and they have little interest in learning Spanish as long as the foreign community can communicate among themselves in English.

Local businesses use English to attract vacationers and residents from many of the large developments found in the area. Información writes that the area is full of "supermarkets," "grocery shops," "restaurants," and "irish pubs." [sic] Few establishments use Spanish to advertise their specials. The lack of use of Spanish in the area has made it almost obligatory to be able to speak English in order to get a job in the area, the paper goes on to say.
That is (my translation of) the article in Norwegian describing the Spanish article for its own readers (there are thousands of Norwegians along the entire Costa Blanca, plus many Swedes and Danes, and the odd non-Scandinavian person who can understand one of those languages). My reading suggests that the Norwegian article was offered without judgment or comment.

This morning I decided to find the original Spanish article and see whether it was equally non-judgmental.
Spaniaposten did a good reporting job, I think, but the original article was longer and had a few other tidbits.

To begin with, I like the Spanish title and lead:

With an English Accent
Tourists and residents along the coast of Orihuela hardly know what Spanish is.

The article goes on to say that Orihuela Costa is a small piece of Europe, but more international than many European capitals. In addition to what was reported in Spaniaposten, the original focuses on the need for Spaniards to learn other languages--English at the least--in order to get any job dealing with the public and mentions that a media explosion of periodicals, websites, and radio in several languages is burgeoning. Finally--and one wonders why Spaniaposten does not mention it--several lines were devoted to describing free Spanish courses starting in mid-September in the town of Pilar de la Horadada, on a basic and intermediate level, to promote "faster integration."

Well, integration may be beyond the range of possibilities, but it's obvious that many municipalities are stretching themselves to offer language courses to expose foreigners to even a little Spanish. We don't live on Orihuela Costa, but we live within a half hour of it, and there are probably nearly as many foreigners in our inland area. I'm still waiting to hear from my town about when this fall's language classes will start, even though they are not free. It is true that one has to work to expose oneself to native Spanish-speakers in this part of Spain. A "peculiar situation,"indeed, as Información calls it.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hot Enough to Fry an Egg on the Sidewalk?

The first time I heard someone say that it was "hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk," I'm sure was in my hometown in Ohio, and probably in the house we moved to when I was five years old. The expression  immediately took root in my imagination. It did seem hot back in those summer days in the 1950s. I don't think anyone we knew had air conditioning in their house or their car then. We sure didn't. But that didn't matter anyway, because we didn't spend much time in the house or the car on those hot summer days when we were very young.

We played outside. Our house was in a new neighborhood without many shade trees, and without many kids, either. So I played with my sisters in the back yard or the driveway or the edge of the cornfield behind the house, or in the vacant lot two plots down the street. Sometimes we were joined by the girl across the street and sometimes by the boy from the big house down the street on the corner, neither of whom had any siblings near our ages.

I'll bet it was Brian who first told us one day that it was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. He was two or three years older than I was, so he would know expressions like that. Maybe he even knew how hot it had to be to fry an egg. He may have led us to believe that he had carried out this experiment already with some of his more grown-up friends. He was more daring than we ever were, because, after all, he was a boy and he was older. Still, I don't believe that he really had fried an egg on the sidewalk. I know he didn''t try it with us.

This week it was hot enough in Spain so that the plastic clothes pins I sometimes use to hang laundry on the line on my upstairs terrace were popping left and right from the heat. Snap, crackle and pop--no sooner did I pinch one open than a portion of it split off and fell onto the tile terrace. It happened not once, not twice, but several times. That's when I wondered whether it was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, or at least on the terrace tiles.

I didn't spend a lot of time designing this experiment. I just went downstairs to the kitchen and grabbed an egg out of the refrigerator and the egg timer from the refrigerator door. I came back upstairs, cracked the egg and dropped it carefully on a terrace tile as far away from my clean laundry as I could get. I set the timer for five minutes and escaped back inside to my air-conditioned office.

When the egg timer went off five minutes later, I dashed out to see the egg. No difference. I set the timer again for five minutes. This time I noticed a couple bubbles in the egg white on one side of the egg. Five minutes later the bubbles were still there but had not changed. No change after the next 15 minutes, either.

I set the timer for 30 minutes and went downstairs to prepare lunch. When I checked on my egg just before taking the salads to the downstairs sun room, there were a few bubbles in the yolk of the egg. Back downstairs for a half-hour lunch in the sun room--where the temperature gauge outside said 100 degrees F. in the shade. My post-lunch egg check (this was after an hour and a half of "frying") revealed that the yellow had broken enough for three small spurts to bleed out of the yolk. It was really not appetizing. I was glad that I had already had lunch and that I had not eaten eggs.

Not quite hot enough to fry an egg on the terrace tile
Three hours later, after an afternoon petanca game and shopping, we took this photo to the right. Some of the white of the egg had dried up, leaving only a thin shiny film on the tile; the other side of the white did live up to its name. Except for the three spots of yolk that had escaped and turned red, the yolk still looked fresh and shiny.

I didn't clean up the mess from this experiment until the next morning, and that was a mistake, because by that time two ants were on their way into the feast. But I shooed them away and scooped up the egg with a wad of paper towel. Underneath the outer curvature of the yolk it was still a little bit runny, just the way some people like their fried or poached eggs. But they wouldn't have wanted this one.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Requiem for a Palm

We lost a palm tree this week. It's the one in the center of this picture, just outside the sunroom where we eat lunch each day. It looks like what may be called a pineapple palm in the U.S, due to its rough, triangular-shaped pieces of bark and trunk that look like a pineapple. Like thousands of other palms of its type here in Spain, this has been attacked by a red beetle, or weevil. It had been on the danger list for over a year, with regular observation by a palm specialist from Elche, the nearby city of palms. This Tuesday when he came at noontime, he told us he would be back after siesta to take it out.

The beetle eats the trunk from the inside, but it takes months before outward signs of the disease appear. Yesterday our palm specialist encircled the trunk in his arms and shook it--and was able to move the trunk from side to side as much as if it were shaking in an earthquake. It was obvious it had to go.

We went out to do some shopping in the afternoon, planning to be back by the 6:00 hour that he had promised to return. When we drove into the street at 5:30, however, a huge truck and crane were in front of the house, and they were just lifting the tree off its shaky mooring, over the balustrade, and loading it, roots and all, into the disposal truck. The truck had a logo on it: Esperanza (hope).

We have been doing a lot of pruning and thinning out of the vegetation around our house since we bought it. It had been landscaped from bare nothing by a wonderful English gardener when first built 13 years ago. But that's one piece that we didn't want to thin out. There is a hole there now, and though the space is not large and can be replaced with something else, it can't be replaced with that particular type of palm, and I will miss it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Another Spanish Holiday

Today is a national holiday in Spain. It is the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, celebrating Mary's bodily ascension into heaven upon her death.

It's hard to keep track of all the Spanish holidays, especially those of religious origin. Often they arrive before I am aware of them, and I am left at the door of a supermarket that is closed due to the holiday. Last month I noticed a sign on a store door saying the store had been closed due to the holiday (the day before) and I still don't know what the holiday was.

But this time I knew five days in advance there was going to be a holiday--there was a sign at the health club that it would be open only in the morning of August 15, "due to the bank holiday." No one at the club was able to tell me what the holiday was, but they did explain that, since they were in "the leisure business," they were permitted to be open--though only until 2:00 PM.  I knew the post office and the banks would be closed, of course, and factories, and probably the large commercial establishments. Even our gardeners had told us once that they couldn't come on their normal day because it was a holiday and they would be fined severely if they worked that day. My big question is always whether the food stores will be open.

So as we drove out this morning to my Spanish class (a private class, in my teacher's home, and therefore not regulated) we kept our eyes peeled for signs of life on the streets and byways. There was a lot of traffic, and sure enough, there were cars in the parking lot at Lidl, and at Consum, and then we saw them even at Mercadona, notorious for always being closed on holidays. After my class we made it to the fitness center for a workout session before their closing time at 2:00. Back home for lunch and then I was content to lock myself in my air-conditioned office for several hours of work--no day off for me.

So I never saw many signs of a holiday. Sure, there had been the usual fireworks on Saturday and Sunday evenings, but that's a common occurrence, especially in the summer, and not limited to weekends. And I remember now that Sunday and Monday were the two performance days for the city of Elche's annual Mystery plays, dating back to medieval times, which I hope I will see some year. If I had driven out after 2:00 I probably would have noticed that commercial life had closed up shop, though I suspect that many more people passed the remaining hours of the holiday at the beach than at church.

So it seems quite fitting to have spent some time today reading an article from the newspaper, in preparation for my next Spanish lesson, about the upcoming visit of the Pope to Madrid this week. Given the volume of demonstrations in the world, I hope it goes without too much open controversy. The gauntlet has already been thrown, however. On a previous visit to Spain last November, the Pope chastised Spain for its "anti-clericalism and a strong and aggressive secularism like that which was seen in the 1930s" [in the years immediately prior to the Spanish Civil War and the Franco era]. Indeed, the only question seems to be whether the Pope will continue his condemnations in his six scheduled open speeches or in smaller groups with journalists, as he carried it out in November.

We will know in a couple more days, but in the meantime, we can only speculate, and read of how the papal visit will deprive hundreds of workers their traditional August vacation, cost many euros, create traffic havoc, and has already seen the erection of more than a hundred portable confessionals.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


It's gazpacho time.  As much as I hate Google constantly shoving Spanish ads at me on the Internet, and even though I was deeply involved in some real work when it happened the other day, I was glad when it served up several helpings of YouTube videos on making gazpacho. I got distracted long enough so I can't even remember what I am supposed to get back to.

Not that I went immediately to the kitchen to make gazpacho. I had already taken care of that, the easy way. The local Consum supermarket had a special on ready-made gazpacho when I was there earlier in the week. They had "traditional" and "suave," or soft. I picked up a liter of traditional and was keeping it in my refrigerator for a day when I had to make lunch in a hurry.

That came on Wednesday, after we went to the medical center in the morning and had to leave the house early in the afternoon for the cleaners to take over. It often takes me a half hour or more to make our usual lunchtime vegetable and fruit salads, but this day I did it in record time. In the space of ten minutes,  I diced a yellow and a red pepper, a cucumber, and a red onion, retrieved the gazpacho from the refrigerator, and poured the seasoned tomato-pepper liquid into two bowls. Luncheon was served.

Janet Mendel, the American-living-in-Spain cookbook author who I have mentioned before in connection with tortilla, calls gazpacho "Andalusian Liquid Salad." She includes several recipes in her book Cooking in Spain, and doubtless more in her subsequent books, but I think this recipe sums up the spirit of gazpacho best:
"Take a hot August afternoon at a little finca deep in the countryside. Pick the reddest, ripest tomatoes, sweet-smelling off the vine, a few green peppers, a cucumber, and dip them all in the cool water of a spring to rinse off the sun's heat. In the deep shade of a carob tree, start mashing all these ingredients in a big wooden bowl, adding a bit of garlic and onion stored under the straw in the shed. Pick a lemon from a nearby tree and add its tang to the gazpacho. Oil, bread and salt--brought from home in a cloth bag--complete the gazpacho. From the earthenware jug add cold water. Serve immediately and follow with a siesta!"
Janet Mendel, Cooking in Spain, 1996, c1987

"Does she work outside the house?"

A perfectly normal question about women in the developed world these days, especially those in a partnership (frequently known as marriage) and especially when the couple is raising children. Many people have made the decision to form their world in ways so that two incomes are not needed, at least not during the time when children are young. But often, when the kids reach school age, the issue is reconsidered, for financial or personal reasons, and "she," or rarely "he," returns to paid work outside the house.

Not in Spain, I think, or at least not easily. There is the not-so-slight problem of the Spanish daily schedule. That long siesta period in the middle of the day affects more than the poor Madrid businessman who must partake of a leisurely if lonely midday meal at a restaurant close to work, because the traffic and distances are too great to drive home for dinner and return to work. The midday meal and siesta also define the school day, separating it into two sections: morning and "afternoon." And that daily schedule shapes the work day for the ama de casa, or housewife, or stay-at-home mom.

Granted, I don't know a lot of Spanish families with children, but I know what I see outside my window. The school bus drives by at 8:30 each morning on its way to the single pick-up point in our urbanization. We live in a safe area, but I notice that the mother down the street still walks her elementary-school aged boy to the bus stop on the other side of the development.

At 1:15, sometimes while we are having an early lunch in the front sunroom, the school bus races around the periphery street again, bringing the kids back to the neighborhood drop-off point for comida at home, the main meal of the day

At 3:15 we hear the school bus again, coming to pick the children up to take them back to school for their second session of the day. I've often said that, if I were working this schedule, I would find it almost impossible to get up and make myself ready for work twice in one day--once is enough! I would find it even harder to get someone else up and ready for work twice a day.

We don't usually hear the school bus on its fourth trip of the day, but I do know the kids get returned home. I suppose the timing depends somewhat on their age and extra-curricular activities and the season, but I know that the "afternoon" can extend until 7:00 or 8:00 PM.

So when exactly does a mother have time for working outside the house, especially if she is the one responsible for preparing that main meal of the day at "midday" (and we won't even discuss the evening meal at 9:00 PM or so)?

There are women who work outside, of course--I see them in the shops and grocery stores, and the banks, the public offices, and health facilities--and certainly many appear to be mothers of school-aged children. Many families have help in the form of grandparents, or sisters, or cousins, but the ones I know have immigrated to Spain and have left at least part of this extended family behind. It cannot be easy to even think about working outside the house when daily life is punctuated so frequently with family life.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Como en Casa

I've been back in Spain for almost two weeks now, and I am coming to feel very much at home. Me siento como en casa. The jet lag is finally gone and I am sleeping through the night without a sleeping pill. Good sleep is always hard to come by after the transatlantic journey, and especially in summer, when the weather is hot and we alternate between the bedroom air conditioner, which eventually becomes too cold no matter how many degrees we set it for, and the overhead fan, which eventually allows the temperature to creep up to where we need the a/c again. And isn't it a pleasure to be back in the land of good and silent room air conditioners, instead of those noisy things that are still grinding away in too many hotels in the U.S.

This week has been a succession of small rituals that make up our pleasant everyday life in Spain. Tuesday and Friday we had petanca games with the Danes. We were only three players on Tuesday, and I lost both games, but it was still a bit of exercise in the sun, and I enjoyed it. Friday there were 20 people at least, way fewer than normal because many go back to Denmark to visit in the summer, but some Danes also come to Spain to visit, and I played against two visitors--and my team won both games.

Wednesday we went to Almoradí to the health clinic, in the first of several health visits that we hope will find a solution to Johannes' difficulties in walking. Health care could be a near full-time occupation in Spain, or maybe it's only because of our age? We had been to the regular doctor the week before--I hesitate to call him the primary care physician because the only care I've ever seen him provide is to enter data into a computer and dispense appointment papers and prescriptions. Next week's appointment will be the clinic that does blood tests, and then the week after that all the data will be assembled back at the regular doctor's. This is the way the system works when it's not an emergency, and that's all right, because after each appointment we enjoy a cup of café con leche with a media tostada at a local bar. Then I am reminded again of how civilized the coffee ritual is here, where you never see a paper cup unless you go to McDonald's--and you wouldn't do that normally because there you can't see a tostada.

One activity that I am not back to is my weekly Spanish lesson, because my teacher has houseguests and will until the middle of August. That's typical here--we break for visitors, who arrive frequently from the north, or when we ourselves travel, of course. So in spite of the fact that I have a private class and my lessons don't have to follow the usual Spanish pattern of pausing for the summer from June until September, they will, this year at least. There is a reason these patterns develop.

Thursday evening we visited the home of a Spanish-American couple we have come to know,  and enjoyed dinner and conversation with them on their beautiful terrace overlooking the pool and the lights in Torrevieja on the other side of the salt lake. By this time of day there were cool breezes and no flies or mosquitoes. We chatted over a drink and hors d'oeuvres from 7:30 until twilight fell, and then sat down to a simple dinner of pork roasted with vegetables, and grilled zucchini and tomatoes. Spanish recipes, my friend assured me, and we were definitely eating at Spanish time, which the two of us cannot normally manage. Suddenly we noticed that the clock stood at almost midnight, and we had no idea of how it had gotten that late.

Yesterday we skipped our usual Sunday Zoco market--the one close enough to us that we could walk to it but never do because we don't know how much we might buy and have to carry home--and went instead to the "lemon market," which involves a drive down Lemon Tree Road toward the town of Guardamar. It is much larger and some say "more Spanish" than the Zoco. Maybe so, and we certainly noticed that the prices of produce were far cheaper than at the Zoco. But that may be because we are in the midst of the plenitude of summer, and they were almost giving away tomatoes and plums, and even the grapes were less costly than usual. I was amused by a man demonstrating a wonderful fruit and vegetable slicer with three different blades--and could understand the "as seen on TV" promotion in Spanish even though I didn't catch every single word.  The utensil would have been perfect for our lunchtime salads and would not even have taken up very much storage space, but the price, which of course only comes out at the end, after tons of vegetable slices and curls have piled up in front of him, was "only" 25 euros.

After such a demonstration we just needed to sit down for a cup of café con leche, but we weren't able to find a place for a tostada at this "more Spanish" market. Instead we settled at one of the many "English breakfast" establishments, where we indulged in English bacon, sausage, an egg, toast, tomato, and an enormous cup of tea. Coffee would have been extra, so why not do as the "natives" do?

And that is multicultural Spain as I know it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday in Spanish New Orleans

This is the first Sunday I've spent in Spain in over a month; I've been back in the U.S. for one of my twice-yearly visits, this one anchored by the annual meeting of the American Library Association (ALA) in New Orleans. As usual, the ALA convention was busy and productive, and as usual, New Orleans was fun and interesting. It was my second visit to New Orleans since I have been living in Spain, and I remembered previously stumbling onto the Spanish Plaza there, a beautiful gathering place with a typical Spanish fountain, surrounded by gorgeous tiles depicting the official seals of each of Spain's autonomous regions. The plaza was dedicated by Spain to the city of New Orleans in 1976 in recognition of their shared past and with a pledge of fraternity in the future.

This time as I wandered in the French Quarter (well, as I headed out for beignets and shopping in Jackson Square) I took more note of the ceramic tiles on many streets announcing that "When New Orleans was the Capital of the Spanish Province of Luisiana  1762-1803 This street bore the name" ... Calle Real, for example. I knew that New Orleans had been first French, then Spanish, and then French again before it came into the United States as a part of the Louisiana Purchase. What I didn't realize was just how short a period of time the second French period had been. 

Thanks to a lovely reception sponsored by Oxford University Press in The Cabildo, a key site of the Louisiana State Museum, I had the opportunity to spend a Sunday evening perusing historical artifacts in various museum rooms. The Cabildo served as the town hall and its Sala Capitular was the site for the formalization of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. I was struck by historical descriptions that said that in this room the colony was transferred from Spain to France on November 30, 1803 and then from France to the United States on December 20, 1803. Just twenty days later!

Why the hurry? Did Spain know that France was going to turn around and re-sell the territory immediately, and to the U.S.? Did France know at the time of purchase that it would divest itself of this land so soon? What had happened to cause this dual transfer? And where was I back in my U.S. history classes many years ago to miss out on what sounds now like a scandal or a coup?

Explanations within the Cabildo were nonexistent, but now I've had the time to do some research, and Wikipedia and the Cabildo websites offer more explanation. It seems that the November 1803 transfer was just a formality and that the territory had really been in French hands, though secretly, since the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso three years earlier. It's a tale of intrigue, power, and negotiation, with Napoleon, a kingship in the Italian peninsula, the fall of Haiti, and the creation of a counter-power to England.

To find out more, read Wikipedia on the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. Yale Law School's Avalon Project has Hunter Miller's Notes on the Louisiana Purchase, together with English translations of the original documents

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Helping Lorca, and Lessons in Philanthropy

The two earthquakes that hit Lorca on May 11 have passed from the headlines, but we still think about what is happening in this city and how it is rebuilding itself. We were reminded of Lorca in a very clever way this past week when we did our customary monthly banking. So far Spain seems to have escaped the frenetic bank mergers that the U.S. and other countries have experienced over the past decade, and for reasons that I will not detail, we have accounts in three or four different banks. It is not at all difficult to pass six or seven or even more banks while walking a single block in the commercial areas close to us.

So last Monday, according to our monthly ritual, we went first to the bank up the hill to pull money out of "his"account, and then we stopped at one half-way down the hill to press the buttons and collect a little more cash from "her" cajero. Then we proceeded quickly to the bank that assisted us with our house purchase and where we maintain a joint account for regular monthly expenses. Spain is still a cash economy in some ways, so we placed our accumulated euros and the bank book on the counter and waited while the teller performed the usual paperwork. Part of that paperwork involves bringing the bank book up to date with the previous month's automatic deductions, which is done by sliding the open book all the way into a machine; the machine pulls the figures and notations from its wide-ranging memory and puts it all down in neat rows in the book, even automatically turning the page of the book inside the machine when necessary.

It was while we were waiting that we noticed the strategically placed poster, asking us to donate money to the Cruz Roja, Spain's Red Cross, for the recuperation of Lorca. This was not a small round container with a slit on the top in which we could slip a few coins--it was a paper form with the bank account number to which we could easily--now that we were in the bank and knew exactly how much money we had--make a transfer from our account to theirs. It took no time at all for us to decide to give and for the bank teller to process that paperwork, and we gave much nore than we would have if someone had come to the door.

Now we have read in several sources that Lorca is taking another step toward its own recovery. Its office of tourism has opened a "tourist route" in town for visitors to see its historical spots from many centuries, many of which suffered severe damage, and also to see the progress toward restoration. Lorca's second annual Medieval Market took place as usual the second week of June, and a previously scheduled professional trade show for rural tourism will still use its planned Lorca venue this coming week. So a little later this summer, after I am finished with travels farther afield, I intend to visit Lorca and follow the tourist trail to see its historical sites, but even more to see the effects of the earthquakes and what is being done to recover. As the head of the tourist office says, it is a unique opportunity to see how the forces of nature can touch the lives of the people and the history of a city, and to continue helping by coming to visit, spending money, and securing jobs.