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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.