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Monday, February 28, 2011

Almond Trees in Bloom

Photo by Johannes Bjorner 2009
In Spain the almond trees trees usually blossom in the month of February, and I couldn't let February go by without a photo of this beautiful sight. The picture to the left is from Almeria and is two years old, but earlier this month we took a day trip to the Jalon Valley and viewed beautiful fields of almonds there. Then last week we took the back road up to our village of Algorfa and discovered a whole field of blossoming almonds almost on our doorstep.

One of the prettiest pictures I have seen this year is this one that appeared in Spaniaposten, a free Norwegian newspaper that provides current news and geographic, historical, and cultural stories about life on the Costa Blanca. In addition to several other nice images available on page 22 in the PDF of the printed newspaper, Spaniaposten also had a nice informative story about almonds.

Nuts are called frutos secos in Spanish, dried fruits, and the almond is indeed dry, but botanically speaking, it is not a nut. It is the seed of the almond tree, which grows inside a hard and inedible shell. Spain exports lots of almonds but keeps enough in the country so that they are a frequent aperitif or snack in natural, toasted, salted, and/or fried forms. as well as being used in cooking. We buy toasted almonds almost every week at the Sunday market to add to my breakfast oatmeal--4 euros for a quarter kilo. Almonds are high in protein and fiber and are low in fat and carbohydrates. They also contain vitamin E, which supports the immune system, and magnesium, which is good for the heart and blood pressure. The almond tree came to Spain with the Moors from North Africa and is also native to Iran, northwest Saudi Arabia, and western Jordan, Lebanon, west Syria and southern Turkey. The Norwegian paper also pointed out that almonds are an essential ingredient in marzipan and kransekake, a festive confection throughout Scandinavia.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Internet Piracy and Film in Spain

I have been seeing increasing references in Spanish newspapers to something called La Ley Sinde, and when I read that Álex de la Iglesia, president of the Spanish academy of cinema, had resigned his post in opposition to the law, I finally decided to spend some time figuring out what was going on.

I knew that the law had something to do with Internet piracy, and I assumed that it was strengthening sanctions against the practice of unauthorized (i.e., unpaid) downloading of copyrighted music and film works. What I didn't know was just how inbred in Spanish society the practice of downloading from the Internet was.

A year ago, an article in the Los Angeles Times ("In Spain, Internet Piracy is Part of the Culture") provoked heated controversy among Spanish Internet users who couldn't understand what the fuss was about. The article quoted two middle-aged individuals who routinely download a couple movies a week from the Internet. They didn't feel like pirates, and they weren't, strictly speaking, for in Spain, such downloading is not illegal as long as it is not done for profit.

I didn't know that. Apparently that means that it is not illegal to buy the DVDs of English-language films on sale by street vendors along the beach promenade or at the Sunday market--though it is illegal for the vendors to sell them. So may I rest easier about the copy of The King's Speech loaned to us by some neighbors a week ago that I have enjoyed immensely--twice--all the while feeling guilty because I suspect that it was purchased as a pirated copy for only a couple euros at most and has now provided an evening's entertainment to at least five families?

I learned more from that article and others that I researched. Reportedly there were 12,000 video stores in Spain when I first came here in 2003, but by the end of 2008, there were only 3,000. That rings true--there was just a single video rental store in Roquetas, where we first lived, and since we moved to the Torrevieja area we have yet to find one. There are also few cinema houses. There was one in Roquetas, which showed films in their original version (i.e., not dubbed into Spanish) for a time, but it soon abandoned that practice for lack of an audience--we were usually the only two customers on a Sunday afternoon. I guess most people were just downloading the original version from the Internet instead of paying 6 or 8 euros per person for the cinema version.

Even more surprising to me was that Apple's iTunes website apparently doesn't sell movies or television shows in Spain, though it does in Britain, France, and Germany--and when I read that, I finally realized why I had had so much trouble registering to use iTunes in order to download a free iPhone app several months ago. And while illegal movie downloads grew from 132 million a year to 350 million between 2006 and 2008, DVD sales and rentals fell by 30%. Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton was quoted as saying that Spain was "on the brink" of no longer being a viable home entertainment market for Sony.

We are now beyond the brink, according to a recent article in El Pais, which asserts that for the fourth year in a row, Spain is expected to be on a U.S. Department of Commerce blacklist of countries with which U.S. firms should not engage in business involving intellectual property. This article appeared in the same issue reporting on the final passage of La Ley Sinde, which is named after Spain's minister of culture, Ángeles González-Sinde, who is also a screenwriter and film director. The law is still controversial, since some see it simply as buckling under to U.S. commercial interests and to those who refuse to recognize the "new marketing model" of the Internet. I see it differently, as I come from a tradition and make my living in a profession that acknowledges some monetary value for the work of writers, performers, and other creative artists. I think the law is rather mild anyway. As near as I can figure out, it creates a panel to hear cases against Internet sites allowing downloads and empowers a judge to close such sites. No provisions against the downloaders or the sellers of copies.

I still feel guilty about watching a copy of The King's Speech that may have been illegal, even though I did not break a Spanish law. I would have been happy to go into a store and rent an authorized copy of the original version. I would have been even happier to be able to see the film in a movie theater. But the problem remains that films in Spain are dubbed into Spanish. Can you imagine watching and listening to The King's Speech in Spanish?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A New Traveling Companion

We've had house guests for a week, good friends who we have known and loved for more years than we could imagine when we first met them the year after we got married more than four decades ago. That means we have taken them to some of the traditional sites in this part of the Costa Blanca: the palmeral of Elche and the Huerta del Cura, the discount shoe factory, and an all-day bus trip to the Jalón Valley to see the almond trees in blossom.

But they have returned to Denmark and now when we drive out for a morning or afternoon trip, it's just the two of us and our new traveling companion, the Spanish lady that lives inside the GPS system that we acquired at Christmas. Yes, we were probably the last people on our block to feel the need for an electronic gadget to tell us which way to drive, but we were exposed to this new toy when other visitors with us earlier last year brought theirs, and we saw the conveniences. Truth be told, I saw the value of shifting back-seat driver observations to an objective, anonymous, and infinitely patient persona that sits on the dashboard instead of the front-seat passenger side.

The first decision to make was, how big was our world? We could buy a GPS that covers the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal), all of western Europe, all of Europe, north Africa, and parts of the Middle East. I didn't see any in the stores that promised coverage of North America, so we decided to limit our sights to where we may drive without a major trip across the Atlantic. I believe the one we bought covers all of Europe.

The second decision, however, was what language to use for directions. We first selected English, since we most often speak English in the car, but neither the primary driver nor I could understand what the woman was saying! Of course, she spoke British rather than American English--but we have come to understand many dialects of English English pretty well. But when she pronounced the names of the streets and roads, she gave them a British intonation, which all too frequently places the stress on the wrong syllable, and pronounces some consonants very differently from the Spanish name. Fine for communicating with other English people about the Spanish environment, but not for our non-English household.

So we switched her over to Spanish, and this has become an excellent opportunity for me to learn certain Spanish phrases that I may never otherwise have the opportunity to hear, as describing entering rotaries and taking an exit are not the sort of conversations that make compelling Spanish lessons. It provides especially good practice for imperative mood verbs (commands, or requests), which are formed by adding the "opposite" vowel to the root word instead of the normal indicative mood vowel. Entra (from the infinitive entrar, for example. means "he enters" the rotary, but entre tells you to enter it. In 20 meters, for example, entre en la rotonda y tome (not toma) la segunda a la derecha. And then, 19 meters farther down the road, entre en la rotonda, and gire a la derecha.

We marvel that the methodical and patient GPS lady always tells us to turn right out of the rotonda. Perhaps that's a holdover from the English version, where users may need to be reminded that one comes out of a roundabout on the right in Spain, not the left.