Search "Sundays in Spain"

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.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Less Than 36 Hours in Madrid

A certain major U.S. newspaper is known for its travel stories with advice for passing a quick but action-packed weekend in world cities. Sad to say, my trips to Madrid are usually less than the 36 hours in length described by the New York Times in this series. I have been to Spain's capital probably ten times since moving to the country, but with one exception--a four-night meeting and reunion with three of Johannes' Danish engineering college classmates and their wives in 2009--all my trips to Madrid have been connected in one way or another with an airport. There have been few opportunities for sight-seeing.

In the early days, when I traveled twice a year back to the U.S., it was not possible to make the trip without spending a night in Madrid or in London. That's why I found myself one January 5 in the center of Madrid on the last shopping night before Three Kings' Day, when Spanish children get their Christmas presents. The main department store, El Corte Ingles, was open until midnight, and we watched the parade and fireworks on TV after we made our way through the crowded streets to our center-city hotel. The midnight shopping trip and parade were the memorable events from that Madrid trip.

Since then. most Madrid airport trips have been to fetch visitors from the airport or take them back for their trips across the Atlantic. Since transatlantic flights almost invariably land here in the early hours of the morning, we usually book a hotel room close to Barajas airport so we can be at the door letting passengers out from the baggage area at 6:00 or so in the morning. My longest airport trip occurred when we made the six-hour drive from Roquetas to Madrid to pick up my mother one winter day and were awakened from our fitful sleep a few hours before her scheduled arrival with the news that her flight had been cancelled due to bad weather, she was somewhere around Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and she would "probably" arrive on the next day's early morning flight. That flight delay gave us an unexpected 24 hours in Madrid, and I saw the Prado.

Last year I took the train from Alicante to Madrid to spend an overnight with an American friend who had a 24-hour layover on her way from Morocco to Washington, DC. Together we had a very enjoyable respite and saw several attractions, though not those recommended by the 36 Hours article.

But over the years, most Madrid airport trips have not leant themselves to exploring Madrid or even the environs of Barajas, the suburb that is home to its four airport terminals. We generally drive instead of taking the train, because who wants to lose money on return train tickets if the plane one is meeting is delayed? We start out the day before, find our way through the exasperating Madrid traffic, check into a hotel, and try to find something to eat nearby at a shopping center, because real restaurants are not open for dinner early enough for us to get enough sleep before we need to be up at 4:30 or 5:00 AM.

When we picked up our latest visitor last month, our trip was improved, even though we still did not do any sight-seeing. Gloria Pèrez Sànchez, the lady who lives inside the GPS, got us to our new hotel in record time, with no wrong turns and no frustration. A large shopping center was a short walk away, and we found what we wanted to eat and browsed a bit before returning to an early night in the sack. Breakfast was, of course, not available next morning prior to our 6:00 AM free shuttle ride to the airport, and Spanish hotels do not have coffee service in the rooms. But there was a coffee machine in the lobby! The plane came in on time, and our passenger and her luggage were on it. We took the free transportation back to the airport, rested, and were soon on our way for the four-hour drive home.

Taking this guest back for her midnight flight to Buenos Aires last Thursday, we booked the same hotel so that we could climb into bed after she was swallowed up by the security gates at 10:00 PM, and we took the train from Alicante to Madrid to provide a little variation in scenery. It is relatively easy to use the metro in Madrid to go from Atocha station, where the train comes in, to the Barajas terminals, though it does take two transfers and it was a good thing that we had three people to manage the six pieces of luggage (only one of which would be returning to Alicante). Our plan was to go to the airport by metro and take the hotel transportation back to the hotel, where we would find something to eat at that convenient shopping center, and then return to the airport for the flight check-in. Unfortunately when we walked into the terminal at 5:00 PM, we learned that there was a 95% chance that the midnight flight would be cancelled: the ash cloud from the Puyehue Chilean volcano was settling over Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires.

Yes, we had read the reports and had monitored the situation as best we could, and when we had left our house at 10:00 AM, there was no reason to expect that the flight would not go off. But something had happened during Thursday our time, and now there was nothing to do but hope. We were tired and did not want to wait for the hotel shuttle. So we piled into a taxi and headed for the hotel. A longer-than-expected ride later, we pulled up in front of the AC Feria, which was not the hotel that we asked for: the Axor Feria. An understandable error, but the driver was not happy. Nor were we. The driver muttered, and I heard Spanish words that I had only read in books, and not very good books at that.

We did get to the Axor and explained that we may turn out to be three people instead of the intended two in the reservation. They were most accommodating. We used the free wireless connection to get as much information as we could, and to send messages to those waiting in Argentina. We walked to the shopping center. We had dinner. We walked back to the hotel, collected the luggage, and went to the airport. The flight was indeed cancelled. Although the European Union has established strict rules about compensation and emergency arrangements for travelers when flights are cancelled, those rules do not apply in cases of unforeseen and uncontrollable meteorological problems, or "acts of God," as I translate the clause on which Air Europa was basing its actions.

We received a tentative reservation for Monday evening, four days hence, with a phone number to call on Sunday to confirm that the flight would go through--if it did not leave as scheduled after that confirmation, the cancellation arrangements would be enforced, and a hotel would be supplied. We returned to our hotel and phoned Renfe to add another ticket to the two return fares for Friday noon. No way, Jose. While the Thursday afternoon train to Madrid had been half empty, there were virtually no places available on the train from Madrid to the coast on a summer Friday afternoon. So we were up before dawn--at 5:30, I believe--to get a cab to the Renfe station, and by 7:00 we had gotten a credit on our two afternoon tickets and bought three for the morning train, which left at 7:20.

By noontime--26 hours after leaving the day before--we had retrieved our car at the Alicante train station and were back home in our Montebello house, adjusting to the four-day vacation extension and hoping for strong winds in the southern hemisphere to move the volcanic ash out of Buenos Aires.

We have just made the phone call and been told that the Monday midnight departure is scheduled sin problemas. We have reserved our now favorite hotel for Monday night, for two persons. We are driving instead of taking the train, trusting Gloria to get us to the hotel, and the hotel to get us to the airport. And we are hoping for an uneventful trip and less than 36 hours in Madrid.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Agurketid and the Media

Agurketid is a Danish word that denotes the boring and inconsequential television programming that often sprouts in midsummer, when everyone is on vacation, but the airwaves still need to be filled with something. Literally, agurketid means "cucumber time." So it is fitting that we were in Denmark when we first heard reports that killer cucumbers from Spain had infected several people in northern Germany with E.coli bacteria.

I have to admit that initially I was glad to be out of Spain and in a place where I could still comfortably indulge in cucumber salad such as the one I had enjoyed just one or two days previously with friends from Tåsinge, an island in the south of Denmark. But then I remembered that we were not very far from northern Germany and that Denmark, like Germany, gets a lot of fresh produce from Spain. And the reports got worse. Soon cucumbers from Holland were also suspect, and then it wasn't just cucumbers, but tomatoes, and lettuce, and--according to some reports--any fresh vegetable.

By this time we had moved on to Warsaw and the only news reports we could understand were from CNN. Perhaps the Polish news was not reporting on the cucumber story, or not taking the danger seriously, or not being as alarmist as some media outlets, because at our first evening dinner in Warsaw, while we waited for some elegant entrees, we were offered complimentary appetizers, one of which was a spread of white cheese on huge slabs of raw cucumber. (I declined, but my friends and family know that it was the cheese, not the cucumbers, that turned me off.) A couple days later, I enjoyed a lunchtime green salad of mixed vegtables, and I continued to eat raw vegetables in moderation.

The agurk problem kept on spreading, affecting people in other countries (though almost all were reported to have visited northern Germany recently) and the story escalated. We were, of course, aware of the economic impact on farmers in Spain, where people are already suffering severely from the financial crisis. Soon reports began saying that Spanish cucumbers were not to blame. Now Germany is promising financial compensation to Spain for its premature and erroneous accusations, but how much money will trickle down to the individual farmers? And the cultural cracks between countries in the European Union are surfacing again.

I'm back in Spain. One of the first things I had to do was to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for our lunchtime salads. I filled my shopping cart with iceberg lettuce, spinach, multi-colored peppers, carrots, mushrooms, and a pepino holandés, as the long, thin cucumbers are called here. We are once again enjoying a little agurketid.

But the TV pictures of European farmers sweeping unsellable cucumbers into dumps are still disturbing. The Perishable Pundit has a good report on the serious consequences and causes of this agurketid, which has been anything but boring and inconsequential.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


After two weeks away on vacation in Denmark and Poland, I am once again spending Sunday in Spain. The day started early. I woke up at 3:15 AM in Copenhagen to check in at 4:30 for a 6:30 AM flight from Copenhagen to Alicante. Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed how many people are up and about, moving through an airport on a Sunday morning in the wee hours. Of course we were out of our hotel before the complimentary breakfast buffet started, but we did snatch a cup of coffee in the lobby as we waited for our taxi to the airport. Once at CPH, we used the automatic self-check-in machines and then, after some difficulty, found the right station in which to drop our luggage. There were long lines at both the baggage drop and the security control. Once inside security we stopped again for a fresh fruit salad and made it to our gate just in time to walk directly onto the plane, with no waiting.

The three-hour flight went by quickly. The Norwegian Air Shuttle managed to fill the time with the sale of a Breakfast Box  (coffee, orange juice, cheese sandwich, and two chewable Omega-3 tablets) and a movie that ran in complete silence, with Danish subtitles. Fortunately I had already seen The King's Speech, and wondered at the time what it would have been like to hear it with the Spanish dubbing that is the rule in Spain. This version had no sound at all, very effectively rendering the king speechless. The subtitles showed almost no indication of the stuttering heard in the real film. The only time that the text indicated a stutter was when Edward taunted his brother as B-B-B-Bertie. For those who had not previously seen and heard The King's Speech, this speechless version must have been confusing indeed.

We landed right on time at 9:40 AM, and had a pleasant drive home through sunny citrus orchards and surprisingly cool air. I have spent the very long day reading email, unpacking, and creating something edible from the contents of my freezer and pantry. It is delightful to get settled again after two weeks of travel. I'm off now to finish reading the last chapter of the novel for my Spanish lesson tomotrow, and then I will be back into a welcome daily routine.