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Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

The two cities are Copenhagen and Barcelona. We visited both in December--each just for a long weekend--and both were fantastic.


I have lost track of the number of times I have been in Copenhagen, but for most of the past 45 years I have spent a few days or a week each year in Denmark. Most of those trips involved some time in its capital city. Through the years I have observed many changes but also watched with wonder that some things remain constant, or renew themselves to keep up with the times--and quite often that is done in an agreeable manner. In many ways, Copenhagen has become my barometer of change and constancy.

Lyngby Storcenter - a shopping center's Christmas village. ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Surgery and rehabilitation kept us from travel earlier this year, so we decided to do the Denmark trip in early December, to celebrate a birthday and get into the Christmas spirit. It was a very quick trip. We took an early Friday morning flight from Alicante and were in Copenhagen before lunchtime, and we were scheduled to return late Sunday evening. There was a time--and not too many years ago--when all the stores would have been closed Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. That would have left us precious little time to scour the shops for books and DVDs and Christmas decorations and pass through the department stores to catch up with the trends. Fortunately times have changed and we had no trouble finding places to spend our money every hour that we were able to be out of our hotel.

Tivoli at Christmas, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012.
It was cold, and it snowed on Sunday, but that didn't stop us. We came back with suitcases filled with 30 or more DVDs in the original English or Danish--something we cannot find in Spain, where films are routinely dubbed into Spanish in the cinemas, on TV, and on DVD. We went to at least four big bookstores and even waited in line for almost an hour for an author signing at one. We saw two current films in the theater--something we never do in Spain. We ate in our long-time favorite restaurant where we almost always  enjoy a meal--usually the same kro-platte selection of open-faced sandwiches, though the sandwiches change over the years and are as good a barometer of fiscal conditions as the McDonald's index. And of course we went to Tivoli. There it was frightfully cold, and the masses of people (we really should not have left this until Saturday evening) made us realize that we have turned into country bumpkins, unused to throngs of humanity in one place.


I don't have enough years left to get to know Barcelona the way I know Copenhagen. This--three days over Christmas--was my second trip and I recognized some of the places from my first trip to Barcelona. That had been for a professional conference, however, and this trip was purely for pleasure.

Christmas Lights at Plaza Catalunya, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Did we think that we had left Christmas decorations behind us in Copenhagen? Not on your life! There may not be as many pine trees in Spain as there are in Scandinavia, but nowhere can there be more lights. We sat in the restaurant at the top of El Cortes Inglés department store Christmas Eve as the day turned to dusk and saw the colorful street lights coming on all over Plaza Catalunya at the top of the Rambla. We also spied the fairly new Apple store on the other side of the plaza, so of course we had to walk in that direction when we moved on our way. On Christmas Eve at 8:00 PM the place was jumping. Though there were people playing at all 20 of the large tables with various devices arranged in the room, we had no trouble finding a geek to answer a few questions we had.

Looking Up at Sagrada Familia, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Earlier on Christmas Eve day we had made the pilgrimage to Sagrada Familia cathedral, which we had first seen in 2009. At that time there was scaffolding in the sanctuary and construction dust all around. Since then, the Pope has been to Barcelona to consecrate the cathedral and while it is not done--and will not be done in my lifetime, probably--the scaffolding is gone and during the Christmas season, at least, there were no signs of construction. Work on the Sagrada Familia began in 1882. There is something very nice about now having seen it twice, with construction workers, and with signs of progress. It provides a connection with the millions of people who, over the centuries, built other mammoth cathedrals in Europe. This one is extraordinarily beautiful and inspiring, regardless of your faith or lack of it.

Gaudi Tiled Bench in Park Guëll, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Christmas Day itself we had reserved for the Park Guëll, since most everything else would be closed on a public holiday, but, we reasoned, a park would not. The artist Gaudi lived in a house in the park for 20 years while he was designing the public park space; Guëll was his employer-benefactor. The weather had turned hazy and so we did not have the spectacular views of Barcelona that this high-elevation park normally provides, but we still enjoyed the walk through its winding and climbing pathways and the varied vegetation. We entered from a back entrance, we discovered (we had followed the directions of the information person at the Metro and Metro is not the best way to go, we now know) and we had to walk all the way to the front entrance before finding the famed fountains and buildings and park benches with Gaudi's colored tiles.

We enjoyed many other things in Barcelona: the gorgeous displays of food at La Boqueria market, just across from where we stayed on the Rambla, and the best steak that I have had in nine years in Spain at Restaurante Ferran, which is better known for tapas and Spanish cuisine--so we shared an appetizer of tomato bread with  jamón ibérico de bellota (which means that the contributing pigs have eaten only chestnuts). I walked to the end of the Rambla and saw the Columbus statue and some Christmas market stalls, but I didn't buy anything, because enough is enough. We had a delightful interchange with a young Danish woman of Afghan-Indian heritage and her Indian novio, who happened to be our host at the hostal in which we stayed. They are going to India once her exams are over for this season--her first time in India--and we gave them Danish Christmas decorations we had brought with us and wish them the best of luck in their future life.

©Johannes Bjorner 2012
And all this was made easier because we had a hostal in a very central position on the Rambla--just opposite the Liceu Metro exit. I had never stayed in an hostal before, wary that it was a little too basic for my mature tastes, and thinking of bunk beds in dormitories. Our hostal, however, was less than a year old and was quite modern, with comfortable beds and northern European comforters, a clean and functional toilet and shower, with the usual amenities, and the best lighting on both sides of the double bed that I have experienced in awhile. Yes, it was in an old building with a very narrow stairway that you had to go up even to get to the tiny elevator, certainly the smallest I have ever seen, and remember--I have been in Denmark. The elevator (which required a key) was limited to 150 kg., so balancing two pieces of luggage (even carry-on) and two people meant that inevitably one (or more) got left out. But most of the time, there were just two of us going up and down in the elevator, and all we had to remember to do in the tiny space was, as Johannes said, "Assume intimate position" and up (or down) we would go. All this was quite appropriate since we shared a building (but not the same entrance) with the Erotic Museum.

Hans Christian Andersen Slept Here

Photo by Johannes Bjorner ©2012
Most people don't know that fairy tales were only a small part of the literary works of the world-famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen is referred to in Danish by his initials and therefore becomes H.C. Andersen. Since the letter H is pronounced "ho" and the letter C sounds rather like "say" in Danish, oral references to H.C. Andersen sound like one is talking about José Andersen, which is rather amusing and confusing when discussing Andersen in Spain. But I digress. H.C. Andersen was first interested in the theater, and he wrote drama, poetry, journals, and travel pieces, for he was an inveterate traveler during his lifetime (1805-1875). In 1862 he came to Spain, over the Pyrenees from France; he entered Barcelona by coach on September 6 and spent several days based at the Fonda del Oriente hotel.

I took my copy of I Spanien (In Spain) with me to Barcelona on my Christmas trip, 150 years and a couple months after his adventure. One of my goals was to find the hotel where Andersen had stayed, because I had happened upon a notice some time ago that a commemorative plaque had been placed at the hotel, acknowledging Andersen's visit.

It turned out that the hotel, now named the Husa Oriente, was only a few blocks down the Rambla from where we were staying. I should have guessed that, because one of the sites Andersen mentioned was the Liceu theater (no performances during the time Andersen was in Barcelona, though he was able to see the theater stage itself during a rehearsal) and that was just across the street and down one block from our hostal. The Liceu wasn't hosting any performances on the Christmas days that we were there, either, and we didn't get beyond the lobby and guard desk. 

Photo by Johannes Bjorner ©2012
The plaque at the hotel was placed by the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) of Barcelona and roughly translated from Catalan, it reads:

Hans Christian
(Odense 1805-Copenhagen 1875)
Danish Author
Observed from this hotel
the flooding of the Rambla
of September 15, 1862 

I had read Andersen's account of the heavy storms and flooding that occurred toward the end of his stay in Barcelona. It was historic, obviously, as that was the sole site or event indicated on the plaque, though Andersen's account  mentions several other areas of the city that exist to this day: Barceloneta, Monjuic fort, and the Plaza de Toros (though I don't know how that is being used now that Barcelona has outlawed bullfighting). In addition to the Rambla itself, of course, which Andersen loved for its shops and fruit stalls and trees and cafes full of people all assembling to eat regardless of class, he noted. People still love the Rambla to this day and it is a hive of activity at all hours. We even saw a whole parade of Santa Clauses motorcycling up the street at breakneck speed on Christmas morning when we were having our breakfast.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Torrevieja Tapas

I had a very busy week at my desk last week, focused on one particular project, so by the time Friday afternoon, November 30 rolled around, it seemed like I deserved to get out of the house to do something to clear my mind. It was a sunny day, and that is not something that we have been able to take for granted this particular November, which has had record cold and record number of gray days. But Friday morning was crisp and light, and after working for a few hours, we decided to go in to Torrevieja to check out the Tapas Route.

This was not the first time we have been to Torrevieja Tapas, which has a promotional "tapas trail" twice a year, but I think we missed it last spring. Many communities in the area promote these events throughout the year. Various restaurants of a town promise to offer a drink and a special tapa at a low price--usually a euro for the drink and another for the tapa, they prepare the tapas in quantity as much as possible while holding them fresh, and wait for customers to come by, try the tapa, and then move on to the next restaurant. It's a competition, you see. Customers get a stamp from each restaurant they visit, and then at the end of their tapas run--if they accumulate 10 stamps--they can enter a vote for the best tapa of that particular competition. There may be prizes for the winner, but the big benefit is the exposure all the restaurants get.

We were a little early--it starts at noon and by now it was still only 1:00--and wandered through several narrow streets of Torrevieja without finding a single bar participating in the event. We eventually happened by the Glorieta Cafe. It looked like a tea shop, and after we were invited inside (it was on the shady side of the street) we were told by the server that it is indeed a tea shop--all of the teas in canisters on the shelves were for sale in whatever quantity you want measured, as well as specialty sugars, coffees, and various decorative implements to make or serve your beverage. Just the thing for a little gift for the new lady friend of a male friend of ours who I have not yet met but will at Christmas, I thought. But in the meantime, we had a vino tinto and non-alcoholic beer, and nibbled on two different tapas. The beauty of the Torrevieja festival is that each restaurant makes a "traditional" tapa and an "innovative" tapa. According to the brochure, we were eating sarten de solomillo y foie and pimiento verde preñado. Both were excellent, although I cannot describe them more than as "sauteed tenderloin with pate" and a delicious soft something--possibly a small green pepper--with a wonderful sauce (preñado means "full" or "pregnant.").

We went on in fairly quick succession to Cafeteria Valdes, where we tried tentaciones Valdes--but I really need to start writing down detailed descriptions while I am on the "run," because I can't remember everything. The next place was Puerto Rico, and I remember these: the pelota de "Purisima" was a single large meat ball suspended in a flavorful broth, not elegant, but delicious. Puerto Rico also offered an escalope de queso con patata rellena de sobresada, three slices of potato with cheese, covered by the Mallorcan red pork spread. We decided we needed one more to fill out "lunch" before heading for home and fortunately we found Meson La Huertica on the way back to the car. Although we had sat outside for the middle two places, we were once again on the shady side of the street, so we entered the inviting old-style pub, almost, with dark wood and small tables at various heights. By now (circa 2:30) it was full and we were lucky to get a seat. Johannes ordered one of the tapas and I the other. Then we ordered a second round and reversed who got what. These tapa descriptions are too long to fit comfortably on the allotted space in the brochure. As near as I can tell it was huevos de corral rotos con patatas, foie y jamon iberico (free-range eggs with potatoes, pate, and Iberian ham) and minihambuerguesa de angus con rulo de cabra cebolla caramelizada en cama de crep de sesamo y pasas (mini-hamburger of beef with caramelized onions in a crepe bed of sesame seed and raisins).

Then we descended into the depths of the parking garage, retrieved our car, and drove toward home. We had said that we would stop at the grocery store on the way home to pick up a few necessities. Following the common advice of never shopping on an empty stomach, we did stop, bought what we needed, and did not splurge on anything that looked tempting. After all, we had already succumbed to tentaciones.


It was while we were sitting outside at Cafeteria Valdes, on the corner of two of Torrevieja's very narrow streets, enjoying our drinks and tapas, that our eyes were drawn to the car that was parked on the sidewalk next to our table. This was only our second small drink--tapas festival drinks are smaller than normal, just like tapas are smaller than entrees--so our eyes were to believed.

It was parked kitty-corner between the main and the cross street. It was white. It was small, but it was a car. Johannes got up to inspect it, and as he approached, I saw a young man eye him warily. "¿Es coche tuyo?" I asked, and he rushed over to Johannes to answer his questions--and brag--about his car, a Toyota iQ.

Photo courtesy of Toyota
Even I, one who cares little about cars, got up to look. He had bought it second-hand a year ago, he said, and on 5 euros of gas (about $6.50) he could drive 100 kilometers (62 miles). I circled the car, which appeared to have four seats, not two, though there was something that looked like a bicycle in the back seat. There was also a trunk, though it seemed as though, if you put groceries in the back area, there would be no room whatsoever for any passengers.

Later I investigated the Toyota iQ (great name for an alternative to the more-prevalent Smart Car) and learned that it was introduced in Europe in 2009 and in the U.S. in 2011. Online Conversion tells me that, according to the young man, it gets around 62 miles per gallon, though a USA Today article reporting on Consumer Reports' bad review of the iQ says the U.S. version only gets 34 mpg. How can this be?

Regardless, my current measure of a car is: 1) Can you use it for shopping around town? 2) Can you use it to get you and your luggage to the airport?, and 3) Can you use it to pick up visitors and their luggage from the airport? Yes to number 1 and 2, I determined, without further ado, but absolutely no to number 3. A fine second car, should we ever become a two-car family again, but not a first one.

Monday, November 26, 2012

American Thanksgiving in Torrevieja

I don't usually stick an American flag at the top of the pineapple in my traditional Thanksgiving centerpiece, but this year was different, for we went on the Saturday following Thanksgiving to a British restaurant to eat a roast turkey dinner with some Americans we know and some we didn't. There are not many people from the U.S. along the Costa Blanca, but those that there are, I think, are aware of the peculiar experience of being in the minority. That, plus the power of Thanksgiving memories, is probably what brought us all together last Saturday.

This particular group of Americans all seemed to be bi-national or multinational couples. The countries of our spouses and partners included (at least) Spain, Denmark, Germany, the Philippines, Cuba, and UK. We were a fairly diverse group of Americans, too, as separately we acknowledged "home" to be Ohio, Wisconsin, California, New York, New Hampshire, and Maine, although several of us have lived in even more states.
Thanks to one family, we were three generations, with six children and teenagers and a smattering of younger adults; the rest of our group of 20 had celebrated some 40 or more Thanksgivings earlier in our lives.

Since I have lived in Spain with so many British ex-patriots I have learned that roasts of various meats and poultry are the traditional Sunday dinner, with at least four vegetables. Our British hosts at The Courtyard had put individual placemats depicting the American flag on the table, which was an unexpected welcoming gesture. The restaurant put on a fine spread, and the various side dishes that some of us brought were completely unnecessary in filling out the meal, but important for our traditions. I brought the fruit arrangement shown above (the photo was taken on Sunday, so it is a little less bounteous than it was at Thanksgiving dinner). We also had homemade sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, cranberry sorbet, and a marvelous pumpkin soup.

A Thanksgiving timeline developed by the Library of Congress tells us that the first documented thanksgiving feast in territory currently belonging to the United States was held by Spanish explorer, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1521.  Maybe so, but I still prefer the Plymouth Colony story of 1621, which was a three-day feast. As ours was this year.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thanksgiving Light

Even though we had planned a festive Thanksgiving get-together with American friends and acquaintances on the Saturday after Thanksgiving itself, I couldn't let the fourth Thursday in November pass without some celebration. Part of the reason was that I had introduced some English friends here in Spain to the holiday some years past, and it has become something of a tradition for us now to enjoy the meal together on that day. Another part is that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, bar none.

The third reason that I elected to do Thanksgiving this year was that I had found a small turkey, albeit a frozen one, in the British Iceland food store. I also had a few of the appropriate edibles in my kitchen and wanted to make sure we ate them while they were still edible. And then, through careful packing on a couple trips back to the U.S. I had finally assembled a few of my traditional decorations: the silver tray on which for many years I had arranged a bountiful harvest of fruit for a centerpiece, and the autumnal tablecloth and napkins, more recently acquired but used in Indianapolis on the last Thanksgiving I shared with my parents.

I planned a small dinner, for four people. At the Sunday market I bought good white potatoes for the mashed potatoes, and then unexpectedly encountered my favorite new red potatoes from a vendor who had not had them at all last year, so bought them to roast alongside the turkey, as well. Early in the week I ironed the tablecloth and napkins, polished the silver, made cranberry-nut bread from the cranberries that I had brought intact from my most recent trip to the U.S. (thank you, Food Lion), baked the pumpkin and scraped out the pulp. Wednesday I cooked the wild rice for the un-stuffing, threw together the cranberry sorbet and started the freezing and scraping process, and assembled the succotash--a new addition to the menu this year because it seemed appropriate to have something of the corn that came from the new world.

Thursday morning I realized that I didn't have the real whole cold milk that was necessary to thicken the prized tiny package of instant pumpkin pudding and pie filling that I had carried back in my suitcase earlier this year. The advantage of Thanksgiving not being a holiday in Spain is that all the regular stores are open, and Johannes went down and brought back a liter of milk from the refrigerated section of a convenience store, even carrying it in a cooler with ice pack for the two kilometers' drive. He went off to a morning meeting while I puttered in the kitchen, finishing the pumpkin and vanilla parfaits (I don't do pie), sauteing the celery, onions, and mushrooms for the stuffing, toasting the walnuts, mashing the boiled potatoes and adding the pumpkin, preparing the carrots, and pre-heating the oven at the appropriate time (it was only a 3 kg. turkey, after all, so wouldn't need much time).

I put the turkey in the oven at 10:45, made the roux and added enough stock to make a thick gravy (I would thin it down and flavor it up with the drippings from the turkey later). And then all of a sudden the lights went out. Not only the lights, but the oven and the stove, because we are not cooking with gas. The dishwasher also ceased its machinations and, I thought I've forgotten that I can't have so many appliances on at one time. I'll just turn off the dishwasher and a couple burners on the stove, then go and flip the circuit-breaker switch and the power will come back on.

I did, and it didn't. I saw two neighbors down the side street and went out to see whether they also were without power. They certainly were, and they were completely unsympathetic upon hearing that I had a turkey in the oven. After all, one of them had a workman installing double-glazed windows for the winter. They pointed to a man on an electric tower at the top of the hill, and we all hoped that he was going to get the power fixed soon.

He didn't. A half hour later, the guy in the electric tower came down from his heights and we did not have electricity. I had already calculated how much time I would need after the power came back to roast the turkey and give it its "rest" (three hours total) and was prepared to call my guests, who were scheduled to arrive at 2:00. But now, an hour or so after the power had gone out, I was beginning to worry about the health of the turkey, which had only had a half-hour in the hot oven before it started its premature "rest." Plus I was avoiding opening the refrigerator and freezer, because who knew how long it would keep the pumpkin parfait and cranberry sorbet cold?

At noon I called my guests and we moved the feast from 2:00 until "5:00 or 6:00," depending on when the power came on, and I would keep them informed. At 1:00 PM, just when I had previously calculated the turkey should come out, I lay down for a nap. At 1:30 I was awakened by the overhead light in my room coming into action. I went downstairs to inspect the kitchen.

I had been uncomfortable with this turkey even before this turn of events. For one thing, I don't buy frozen unless I absolutely cannot help it, and I was uncertain about the amount of time necessary to thaw it--and I had allowed too much. Secondly, I had discovered when I set the turkey in the roasting pan that it was handicapped: one leg was damaged and it rolled to one side. Now it had been slightly heated and then left to rest prematurely in a lukewarm oven for more than two hours. I did not want to risk serving this to my guests.

The good thing, again, about Thanksgiving not being a holiday in Spain is that all the regular stores are open. We made a quick trip down to the Mercadona grocery store, where we bought two already-cooked chickens and an extra bottle of wine for good measure. Our guests came at 6:00 and we broke out the cava. For years people have been saying that the best part about Thanksgiving dinner is not the turkey, but the side dishes. They have a point. All the sides survived intact and the four of us really enjoyed them. The vacuum-packed chickens microwaved up well, and there were juices to add to the gravy. The cranberry sorbet re-froze well and was a big hit. I forgot to serve the cranberry bread, but as a dear friend who I lost way too many years ago always said, It's not a party unless you find something in the refrigerator the next day that you forgot to get out.

It was a great small party and a memorable Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Working on Hope

There was a country-wide general strike in Spain on Wednesday. The pictures from Madrid, where it turned violent, were terrible. Down here on the Costa Blanca, we were hardly disturbed. School buses were not running and schools themselves were on skeleton crews, according to the two women (from different towns) in my book group who are mothers of school-aged children; they still managed to make it to book group that morning. I didn't notice any other disruption throughout the day as I drove by the usual commercial centers on the way to and from afternoon petanca. Our house cleaners came as usual and the results of their work were clearly evident upon our return.

Being a long way from industry, we have been removed from much of the economic turmoil caused by la crisis. Disruptions have stepped up recently, though. When we returned from a two-week vacation and went to fill a routine prescription, we found the pharmacy closed on a weekday morning. The pharmacists have not been paid by the regional comunidad--in our case, Valencia--for the prescription medicine they used to hand out free upon presentation of a personal health card and the doctor's RX. When you pick up a prescription, the pharmacists cut out a square of code from the package, plug some numbers into the computer, and presumably the data gets collected  and each quarter, the pharmacy is reimbursed by the comunidad. It seems those bills have not been paid now for a couple quarters, and the pharmacists have given up hope of prompt reimbursement. During the summer, new reforms went into effect that made most retirees pay 10% of the price of a prescription. That is not a problem for us, and I am glad to see that the pharmacies get at least a few timely euros. Now, a couple weeks into this particular crisis, I have learned that most pharmacies are open two days a week, and when one of our local drugstores is closed, the other is usually open. When at the regional medical center on Friday this week, I noticed a paper taped near the window of the reception area that listed six or seven pharmacies that were open. Presumably this list is changed often.

We have already had discussions with a physiotherapist, a nurse, and a doctor about the 15% cut in salary they have taken. I don't think that includes the Christmas bonus (equivalent to one month's income) that they were told in July would not be forthcoming this year. They are still working the same number of hours, just for less money. I am beginning to understand that this cut must include all public workers. Health and education, services for the handicapped--and jobless benefits, ironically--have been hard hit as Spain's conservative government makes promises to get out of its economic troubles. The European Union is apparently satisfied with the president's measures, and I hope it will be disposed to help pick up the burden of the long-term effects of such stringent budget cuts.

Budget cuts are one thing--just not paying people is another. I was shocked to hear this week about a town engineer who works as a contract employee two days a week--he has worked all year but not been paid since June. He hopes to receive the money owed him by the end of the year. And for months now there has been a light construction crew building a stone wall, landscaping, and generally creating a park at the entrance to our neighborhood, near an old train station that has been restored but never yet opened to the public. We knew it was a sort of make-work situation and speculated that the money was coming in some way from Brussels, because the area has been designated an "environmental project." Like any construction crew that I have ever seen--probably true the world over--many of the times you pass the work area, half the workers are standing around, apparently doing nothing. Now I can't say that I blame them, for now I have learned that, though they have worked for months, they have only the promise of pay at the end of the year, or the end of the job, or the end of the crisis. They have come to work for months without any paycheck.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Thistle among the Geraniums

We returned to Spain from a two-week trip to the U.S. this past Tuesday. We returned a day later than planned, after a bonus night at a hotel at Dulles and the next day at the airport in Newark, due to mechanical problems in the plane that had been scheduled to take us from Dulles to Newark on Sunday. That was the worst thing that happened to us in a seven-flight/two train ride/two rental car itinerary during the two weeks we were gone. And we successfully skirted Superstorm Sandy as we flew from Connecticut to South Carolina the last Saturday in October. So we were lucky.

However, we returned to rain in Spain. It wasn't raining when we landed in Madrid's Barrajas airport Tuesday morning. It was a short bus ride above ground--cloudy but dry--from Terminal 2 to Terminal 4, where we caught an underground train to the Atocha station in central Madrid. We didn't go outside there, boarding the train to Alicante on the lower level. The tinted glass windows on the train hid any sign of bad weather as we rode through the countryside, and we were therefore surprised four hours later when we stepped out of the train to catch a taxi to the car park. It was raining lightly in late afternoon and was dark and gloomy; the driver told us it had been raining since morning.

We went to bed Tuesday night, protected from the rain, safe and dry in our own beds at last, and we woke up the next morning to rain. No need to unpack quickly, I said to myself, since the washing machine is on the upstairs terrace and I normally hang the laundry out to dry. I had the day to get a little caught up with desk work and to get to the grocery store in the afternoon, where we racked up the largest grocery bill I can remember. The heavens were still dripping.

Thursday morning it was raining again, or still. Another desk work day. I rearranged some items from my suitcases, at least getting the various types of clothing sorted into the proper dirty clothes containers. Friday morning dawned gray and gloomy, but without any rain in the air, though the remnants of it were on horizontal surfaces. I had run out of warm clothing, so I started the first of what I thought would be three loads of wash. Then I tackled the sight that had been bothering me every time I passed the glass door to the terrace ever since we had returned home: the geraniums.

We have three rectangular planter boxes on the terrace that have been filled with the same geraniums for over a year now. That's something of a miracle in itself--geraniums are a winter flower where we live, and we usually shift them out during the hot summer months. This past summer, though, we were otherwise occupied and never got around to that. So they had gone through various stages of flowering profusely (I discovered my husband's secret recipe for fertilizing them) and then the blooms turning brown--all at once, it seemed. Then I would deadhead them--just twisting the stem seems to do the trick to take off the dead bloom. A few days later they would be full of  developing buds and blossoms. I have a regular schedule for deadheading and watering the plants. I usually twist off a few dead geraniums every time I do the laundry, every four or five days.

Just before we left for our vacation they had reached renewed life again and I was beginning to think that maybe we wouldn't have to replace them with new plants for the winter. Now, however, ever since we returned home, all that I saw was huge masses of green bushy leaves, a few spindly pink blossoms, and a lot of round brown blobs that had presumably been gorgeous flowers most of the time we were away. Every time I passed the door, I wanted to go out and break off the dark, faded spikes. But remember, it was raining.

Now that I had ventured out long enough to start the washing machine, I was determined to remove the spent blossoms from the geraniums. And I did. After filling my hands with the detritus from one box, I dumped it in the bathroom waste basket and brought the basket out with me to do the job on the remaining two boxes. It was when I stretched my hand into a profusion of green leaves in the second box that I felt the sharp spindles of a giant thistle that had nestled itself in among the geraniums. What a surprise! It hurt, and there was no way I was going to get rid of that by pulling it out at the root--the stem was at least an inch wide, the thistle was about a foot high and eight inches across! How could it have grown from nothing in the two weeks we were away?

Lots of sun and then lots of rain, I think is the answer. But we had never had such a foreign plant in the flower boxes before! So it was even more irritating when I stuck my hand into the foliage of the third flower box and found another thistle--slightly smaller, and a bit less of a surprise, but irritating nonetheless. I took the immediate step of cutting them off at the root with a pair of scissors--that's what was closest--as a temporary measure.

When it came time to hang up the laundry, by the way, it was threatening rain again. I put the synthetics on the line and stuffed the underwear into the electric dryer--an appliance that I use so rarely that I always have to read the controls rather than simply punch buttons. I did two more loads of laundry that finished up in the dryer, and late in the afternoon I brought in the clothing that had been on the line--maybe not actually wetter than when I placed it there, but no dryer--then hung it on a stand in my office and turned on the heater.

On Saturday morning the sun came up! We rejoiced at seeing the sun in Spain for the first time since we had left 18 days earlier. In fact, we were so glad that we left the house and spent the day doing little errands just to be outside. So that meant that the fourth load of laundry was left for Sunday, and this Sunday morning in Spain, once again, dawned dark, cold, and threatening sprinkles. I have just retrieved the towels from the dryer. They feel better dried mechanically anyway. The thistles await future attention, after the purchase of garden gloves.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

What We Missed While Going to Frankfurt

I knew, last week, that Spain's national celebration, La Fiesta Nacional de España, was going to be celebrated on Friday, October 12, while we were out of the country attending the Frankfurt Book Fair. What I didn't know, or perhaps at one time knew but certainly forgot, was that Tuesday, October 9, was also a holiday.

As I left my Spanish class Monday at noon, the class was reminded that the next day (that is, Tuesday) was also a holiday. We were leaving on Tuesday afternoon, and I had another Spanish class Tuesday morning, so I didn't have time to research the significance of the day. But we did discover, while trying to buy some last-minute item, that the stores were closed on Tuesday. We survived in Frankfurt without whatever it was that we thought at the last minute that we needed, and it wasn't until this Sunday morning, back in Spain, that I thought again about October 9.

I read an article in one of the local Norwegian newspapers that said that thousands had celebrated "Valencia's national day." Ah yes, that is why I didn't remember the holiday--it's a regional holiday and we have spent, what, only four Octobers in this region? Nevertheless, thanks to Spaniaposten, I now know that October 9 is the official day commemorating when Spanish King Jaime I marched triumphantly into Valencia in 1238 and liberated it from the Moors, who had ruled there and in much of the territory of present-day Spain, since the year 714.

Surprisingly according to the article, the victory was relatively peaceful, and King Jaime promised that the Moors then living in Valencia could either continue to live there under his rule, or take their possessions and leave the area. Perhaps they did live peacefully until the Spanish Inquisition was instituted more than 200 years later. At any rate, October 9 is now celebrated in Valencia with people dressed as Moors and as Christians in a single five-hour-long parade called the Entrada de Moros y Cristianos. According to the paper, more than 5000 participated this year.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Ten Reasons to Study Spanish

It is October and that means the start of the activities season again in Spain.  I cannot imagine not planning my life around Spanish courses. A language school in San Miguel--not the one I go to, but a good semi-intensive program for beginners--promoted itself and language study by giving ten good reasons to learn Spanish in a late-summer edition of one of the free English-language weeklies. I have changed the order to agree with my own priorities. Here they are (with my comments):

1. It is common courtesy to at least attempt to learn the language of the country you are living in. Would you be able to pass the Spanish equivalent of a "Life in the UK" test (yes, this is a British newspaper) about culture, laws, and language? (Does the USA have an equivalent "Life in the USA" test, I wonder?)

2. Learning Spanish helps you keep up with Spanish culture--including the latest news and current events in Spanish-speaking countries. (I have started watching Spanish TV for a half hour each morning while on the stationary bike. Good exercise for the mind and body, though both go slower than I would like.)

3. Learning Spanish is fun. You will be able to enjoy books, films, music, and even dining out more. And you will increase your social network. (Communicating with the other students in my group class--Russian, Belgian and British this year--provides at least half the value of this hour per week; and my private class with a different teacher has morphed into a book discussion group in Spanish.)

4. If you can speak Spanish, you can help yourself and others in emergency situations, like with the police, hospitals, and civil servants, and save on interpreter costs. (I am still uncomfortable at the doctor's and in bureaucratic offices, but, for better or for worse, I have a live-in interpreter.)

5. When learning a foreign language, you learn a lot about your own language as well--how it is constructed and how grammar works--as well as deepening your understanding and increasing vocabulary. (True, and can anything be better for a writer and editor?)

6. Learning Spanish increases your critical thinking skills because you train your brain to naturally interpret English words into Spanish. (My current discovery of the connections among languages is the Danish word garderobe (closet), the Spanish guardar ropa (to hang clothing) and the English wardrobe.)

7. Learning a second language reduces your chances of developing medical issues that affect the brain in later life. People who speak two languages are less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer's disease. (Since it's too late for me to invest in long-term care insurance, this is my next best bet.)

8. Over 320 million people in the world speak Spanish, and the number of Spanish speakers is growing at a faster rate than the number of English-speakers. Being bilingual in English and Spanish means that you will be able to be understood "all over the world." (Well, in many parts of it, anyway. And I am now able to send Spanish emails back and forth to my niece in Argentina.)

9. If you own a business in Spain, speaking Spanish makes administrative life easier and doubles your client base. (Fortunately I don't own a business in Spain, but it pleases me that I see more and more businesses where the proprietors and servers (Spanish and foreigners) are able to communicate at least on the surface with a mixed clientele.)

10. Being bilingual makes you more marketable when searching for a job in Spain. (I am not seeking jobs in Spain, but it pleases me that every once in awhile I am able to help others in my network when they have need of an information professional "on the ground" in Spain.)

My fall schedule has changed. The weekly Spanish class subsidized by the ayuntamiento of Algorfa is not being held on Friday morning at 9:30 this year. It has moved to Monday morning at 11:15. A much better hour, if not day. I wasn't even able to go to the organizational meeting on Monday because it conflicted with my other Spanish class, my private book reading session, at 11:00 on Monday. Fortunately I have now been able to get that class re-scheduled to later in the week, so I can still benefit from two all-Spanish sessions each week. As an English woman said to me soon after I arrived in Spain, "Learning Spanish is my new lifelong hobby."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Finally, Benidorm

Looking toward the Poniente Beach in Benidorm ©2012 Johannes Bjorner
Last Sunday provided lovely fall weather and we took a day trip by bus to Benidorm. I had never heard about Benidorm before arriving for the first time in Spain eight years ago, and it took a couple years and several off-the-cuff references to it before the word Benidorm settled in my conscious as a tourist destination. As with many tourist destinations, it seemed to be a place that was either hailed or reviled. The first time that I thought I might sometime go there was probably six years ago, when some friends in Roquetas spent Christmas on one of the gala hotel package deals in Benidorm, because, as they said somewhat apologetically, they "liked it." Other people, when I asked about Benidorm, snorted as though  they wouldn't be caught dead there. And others tried valiantly to contain their incredulity when I said, and continued to say for several years, that I had never been to Benidorm. After all, it is not just a tourist destination, and not far from where we live now in Alicante province; Benidorm is also the name of a well-known British TV program that has now been running for more than five years.

Benidorm is a city situated on the Mediterranean Costa Blanca, 20 kilometers or so north of Alicante city, and immediately north of Villajoyosa, where we had passed an interesting day a few weeks ago. It is widely acknowledged as the city that created the 1960s tourism industry in Franco's Spain. Giles Tremlett, Madrid correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, describes his first approach to Benidorm in a chapter titled "How the Bikini Saved Spain" in his book Ghosts of Spain.

"A few miles north from Alicante a thin, mysterious pole-like structure began to emerge over some distant hills....The gradually broadening shape ahead of me was Spain's tallest building, the Gran Hotel Bali. It stood like a proud, raised finger on the edge of a place whose current name is not only easily recognised, but has become a modern legend of its own--for this, finally, was Benidorm.

If anywhere in Spain symbolises the country's latest invasion, this is it. A fresh invading horde, sun-hat and sandal-wearing northern European tourists, has rampaged its way along this coast over the past forty years. The horde has made Benidorm its capital. This time there has been no resistance. The burghers of Benidorm have rolled out a welcome carpet of concrete, tarmacadam and brick. Jointly they have vandalised what was once one of the most beautiful spots on the Spanish coast.

Even those of us who are instinctively appalled by Benidorm, however, cannot help but be awe-stuck by what has happened here. For locals it is a genuine miracle....

Benidorm is to package tourism what Las Vegas is to gambling--the undisputed capital of the world."  
Faber and Faber, ©2006, pp. 97-99.

Our Sunday bus picked us up promptly at the agreed-upon hour of 9:10--we had only to avoid the bus to Benidorm from the competing tour company that left from the same spot ten minutes earlier. As with all day coach tours, there were a few additional stops to pick up additional passengers as we proceeded north, but once we were on the road, it took less than an hour and a half to arrive in Benidorm. First drop-off was Terra Mitica, a huge theme park on the inland side of the highway which, at a few minutes before 11:00 AM, had nary a car in the immense parking lot. I'm sure that is different in July and August, and we were reminded that there was a reason that we had decided in August to postpone our trip until the summer holidays and some of the vacationers had gone.

The next drop-off was center city. We drove down a long and wide avenida toward the beach, then reversed direction to go back up that street to what would also be our pick-up point six hours hence: just in front of the medical center. We stayed on the bus to the following discharge point, though, the site of the large outdoor market, which is held on Wednesdays and Sundays. The crowds were immense, but we spent little time there, as we have easy access to our own outdoor market, much closer. At our market, though, we don't have to battle the silent electric mobility carts that were all over the sidewalks, both at the market and elsewhere throughout the city all day. This sight explained an article I had read in one of the local weekly papers a couple months ago about tourists "terrorizing" the ambulatory population with their mobility scooters. Indeed these personal mobility solutions tend to creep up on unsuspecting walkers more stealthily than the communal golf carts I had experienced at Florida resorts.

Roman Relic in Benidorm?
©2012 Johannes Bjorner
We walked and walked--part of the assignment for this trip was to practice long-distance walking in preparation for our excursion to the Frankfurt Book Fair this coming week. From the market area we walked along the main street fronting the long beach area to the opposite end of the city, to the old town. Even those who profess dislike for Benidorm say that its old city center is attractive, with narrow streets  and a pretty church facing the sea from a high cliff. We think we saw the old town--we saw the church and narrow streets--but just because Benidorm has an old town, it doesn't necessarily mean they have preserved it as other Spanish cities have preserved their casco antiguo. We saw a single site that may be a relic of Benidorm's Roman era--but there was no sign or indication, so it may also have been a hoax.  Still, we found a place for lunch and watched a troupe demonstrate Argentine tango and then at about 1:00 we began to see groups of people making their return trip into the city center, beach chair in hand, on their way to the traditional Spanish dinner. Our return trip was on the wide beach promenade running along the Poniente and Levante beaches, and we found plenty of people to watch, and a place for ice cream, and we even ventured in to a few shoe and clothing shops to browse, but made no purchases.

In my view, Benidorm is like many Spanish seaside communities: lots of sun, sand, sea, beer, tapas, and chino novelty shops. So it was the first to generate tourism; it is the first of many. It is, in fact, somewhat more attractive than many others--I saw no unfinished housing blocks and I think there are wider streets and more green areas than in many other tourist towns. (I think it compares favorably with Torremolinos, another old destination on the packaged tour route, on the Costa del Sol.) Yes, there are skyscrapers, many, many hotel and apartment skyscrapers. I don't see how they could do it, but to my view from down below, they all looked as though every rental had a clear view to the sea, although it may have been very small and only from one window or balcony. Benidorm is also gambling and big entertainment shows, and Mundo Mar, another theme park, but we didn't get to any of those attractions and we won't miss them.

Will I go back to Benidorm? Maybe. There was a dress in a couple of the shops that I have not seen elsewhere... and it is easy and cheap to get to if you just want to have a day out of the house.  Or maybe not. But I'm glad I have seen it, and I am neither hailing it nor reviling it.

Returning from Benidorm at Dusk. ©2012 Johannes Bjorner

Sunday, September 23, 2012

An Impulse Purchase and Its Electrifying Consequences

This past week saw the final episode in a small but long-running domestic drama that has continued over the late summer months. This particular drama has to do with electric current.

In mid-July we bought a new microwave from our favorite hardware store, a mom-amd-pop business in Ciudad Quesada just over the highway from where we live. We hadn't set out to buy a new microwave that day; I don't even remember what small item we had entered the store to purchase, but while there, I noticed a microwave on display that had a grill function. We had enjoyed a combination microwave/grill at our previous home in Roquetas de Mar, but left it behind when we sold that apartment. The microwave in our new home here in Montebello did not have a grill, but it was functional as a microwave. We figured we would replace it at some point in the future, but it wasn't a priority. What we had used the microwave grill for most was to toast baguettes, and it's hard enough as it is to say no to delicious toasted baguettes when we go out--we don't need to bring that temptation into the house to have to resist on home territory.

But here all of a sudden, and perhaps at a weak point, was a microwave with a grill, and equally important, one that looked as though it would fit the space currently allotted for it on the shelf in the corner above the kitchen counter. We bought it. We took it home. We removed the old microwave and replaced it with the new one. We plugged it in and re-heated a cup of coffee. Perfect. The next morning I used it, as usual, for cooking my oatmeal, and I continued using it as I normally use the microwave, which is mostly to re-heat leftovers, pop the occasional bag of popcorn, "poach" two eggs, and melt butter and chocolate on the seldom occasions that I get energetic enough to bake. In a rare success at prompt disposal of unnecessary items, I took the old microwave, a little bit rusty, to the weekly neighborhood auction and said that even if it didn't sell, I didn't want it back. 

We resisted toasting baguettes for a couple weeks, but in August I got a yearning. I scanned the instruction manual to make sure I knew how to use the grill properly, put in the toasting rack, placed the bread on the rack, set the dial to Grill, and turned the timer to a minute. Everything was fine for about 30 seconds. Then the power went out. Not just the microwave power. Not just the kitchen lights, but the lights, fans, air conditioners, and computers, all over the house, as well.

We skipped our planned tostadas, flipped the circuit breaker, and decided to wait until the next day to diagnose the microwave problem. It got worse. The next morning, when I turned on the microwave to make oatmeal,we lost electricity again, and this on regular High, which I had been using all along. We flipped the circuit breaker again and this time, all I did was to close the door of the microwave--without turning it on--and the electricity blew! We moved the microwave to the only available outlet in the dining room. It worked, but who wants to have a microwave sitting on the dining room floor? I didn't even dare to try the grill.

It seems that electricity is always a problem in Spanish houses--there are never enough outlets, they are not in the right places, and there is not enough power coming in to the house, either. We had been saying for some time that we wanted to get an electrician in to examine all the wiring and make a few improvements. Now was the obvious time. The electrician came and we explained the microwave problem. He examined a couple things and said that probably the fault was with the microwave, not the kitchen circuit.  We also walked through the entire house and looked at every switch plate and outlet and talked about what might be better done to suit our needs.

When we took the microwave back to the hardware store where we had bought it, we no sooner got inside when they said, "no, no, nothing can be done until September." True enough, August is vacation month. Factories and businesses are closed, deliveries are interrupted, and nothing much gets done. We left it there, though, and agreed to check again in September. And I managed to make oatmeal two mornings without a microwave before I gave in and bought the smallest and cheapest I could find--and without a grill--as a temporary replacement.

It was more than three weeks later that we got the call from the hardware store, saying that the new microwave had arrived. In the meantime, the electrician had spent two days at our house. Some of the old switch plates had become unstable--that is, they occasionally fell off their wall mounting--throughout the 13-year history of this house. He replaced them all, partly for consistency's sake, and partly because if they were not now iffy, they soon would be. Have I ever mentioned how much I like the Spanish electric switches that are larger (roughly 2 inches square) than the finger-width or even one-inch wide switches in U.S. houses? They require much less physical effort to flip from on to off and back again, making it easy to turn the light on or off effortlessly with your elbow while carrying coffee cups or a glass of wine or a load of laundry from room to room. Now I can move throughout the entire house with things in my hands without knocking a single one of the tired switch plates off its moorings to the floor, because all the tired plates have been retired.
One of the bedside plates with two plugs and a switch.
Photo © Johannes Bjørner 2012.

The electrician also repaired the burned-out wall outlet in my office that had almost incinerated when we plugged a portable heater into it. That was before we learned that some outlets will work with heavy-duty appliances, but most, especially if not in the kitchen or bathroom, are "light" outlets, which only serve for lamps, computer equipment, recharging devices, and the like--not space heaters, or even hair dryers, according to the electrician. Then he installed proper outlets for the washer and dryer on my upstairs terrace, so I no longer have to avoid the extension cord that had decorated the floor around the door frame since we moved the dryer up there a couple years ago. He added an outlet here and there, too, one to the office wall where I used to charge up the portable computer and the iPad and the Kindle, but never at the same time. And even though he looked at me a little strangely when I said I wanted double plugs on both sides of the bed to charge up my devices, he installed the outlets.

What he didn't do, though, was to revise the electric circuit in the kitchen. He didn't think that it was necessary for the microwave problem, and we weren't sure what we wanted done since we are contemplating a kitchen renovation, so we put that off. When we brought home the new/replacement microwave--a different brand from the original one, by the way--we tested it with a little trepidation. The microwave worked fine as just a microwave for a few days. Then last Sunday we bought a baguette at the market. I sliced it and prepared it for a tostada. I put it on the metal rack, set the function dial to Grill, turned the timer dial to one minute, and held my breath.

No lights went out. The grill element performed as expected, though I needed another minute for the perfect tostada. We ate toasted bread three times last week, I gained a kilo, and I did not buy another baguette this morning at the market. But I am satisfied that this new microwave/grill works, and that the electricity in the house works as well as it ever will. I have also experimented and found new home locations for the various items that need to be charged up regularly. So this little domestic drama was coming to a close, and we were better off for it.

The only remaining issue was to figure out what to do with the "temporary" microwave that we had bought for the August emergency. We considered--briefly--moving it upstairs for the easy re-heating of forgotten coffee. But would it work in the replaced "light" outlet in my office? Why tempt fate? We gave it away. If I have to run downstairs to re-heat coffee, that will just use up more calories so I can eat more toasted baguettes.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Day Trip to Villajoyosa

Thursday evening before we went to bed we realized that for the first time in living memory, we had no appointments the following day. Having been almost housebound for six weeks earlier in the summer, and busy with therapy and routine errands ever since, we were sorely in need of a day off, out of the house, and away from the usual. So we decided that, if we still felt up to it the next morning after waking up at some point during the night to listen to the final speeches of the Democratic convention taking place on the other side of the Atlantic, we would take off and drive north along the Costa Blanca.

We were out of the house by 9:30, a bit early, especially as it was a somewhat hazy day, with no sun making its appearance by that time. We took the road eastward over toward Guardamar and then turned north on the N-332.This was familiar territory for us--it's one of our two main routes to the airport just south of Alicante city. Still, it had been awhile since we were on it, and we enjoyed seeing the flamingos in the marshes north of Torrevieja and the tall salt mountains in Santa Pola--for the first time I saw a backhoe moving around some of the salt that will no doubt be spread onto icy roads in the north of Europe later on this year.

I have often remarked that one of the reasons I don't feel as though I am living in a country with 20% unemployment is that there are no factories nearby where large numbers of workers have been laid off. Tourism and agriculture are the big industries here, and both operate on a smaller scale than the industries I grew up with. This trip, though, I was reminded that there are some factories around. We drove past the Johnson Controls plant in Guardamar and then went by Alcoa Europe on the south side of Alicante city. We also passed by the huge patent office that is built into the ledge of a seaside cliff between El Altet airport and the city of Alicante. I have wondered about this immense office in such an unlikely location since staying at the Holiday Inn Express almost ten years ago and opening our curtains the first morning to discover that our room faced away from the Mediterranean--and directly into the front of the patent building. We didn't stop here this time (but I did discover, as I prepared this blog entry, that this is the office that registers and manages European community trademarks and designs). We just continued along our way, now in the sun, and hugging the Mediterranean on our right--passing through the raw materials that the area uses as a base for its successful tourist business.

After an hour and a half we came to El Campello, which used to be a small fishing village and is now a suburb north of Alicante, complete with electric tram that runs back and forth from the city at frequent intervals. I know because we stopped for refreshment in a cafeteria with a view across the tram line toward the sea, and at least four tranvias chugged quietly by while we drank our coffee.

Colorful houses in Villajoyosa.
© Johannes Bjorner, 2012
Back in the car we continued north  toward our destination: Villajoyosa. Villajoyosa is known for its colorfully painted houses, which so far we had only heard about. Even the sound of Villajoyosa makes me feel joyous, though joyosa more properly refers to joyas--jewels--than joy. We did not see any painted houses as we drove into town from the south, but we took a right turn and soon found ourselves down on the road beside the beach, where--this being September and a weekday--there was parking available. We found a spot and turned our back on the sea to look at the jewels of the painted houses that in turn looked out onto the blue Mediterranean.

We wandered around through colorful narrow streets, up one, down another. We were, somewhat loosely, looking for El Museo de Chocolate, which had been mentioned in the Spanish tour book we brought with us. No details about where, or opening times, or anything useful like that, but having been told more than once that I was born with chocolate genes, it would have been sacrilegious not to at least make an attempt to find a chocolate museum. Johannes is not shy about asking for directions. The first time he asked, a lady resting on a park bench said, "Oh, it is lejos" (far from here). Up in the main part of town, she meant. So we continued upward. The next person we asked employed two others to get an informed opinion. We were still lejos--a twenty-minute walk (and they didn't even know we were walking slowly on a newly replaced knee). The good news was that we were headed in the right direction.

In the next little leg of the journey we worked our way up to the main street of town, exactly where we had turned right to drive down to the sea an hour before. By now we had lost most of the colorfully painted houses and were just maneuvering through the busy streets of a small city. We had been told to walk straight ahead (todo recto) toward the train tracks, so we crossed the main street, still heading up, and recto. But then we came to a fork in the road, and no train tracks. A woman in a little shop for recien nacidos (newborns) came out and pointed us to the proper road, and now we were only a fifteen-minute walk from the museum.

Reflection shown in the glass facade of the Valor Chocolate Building.
© Johannes Bjorner, 2012
Our next few minutes brought us to the train tracks and the news that we were only ten minutes away. We walked by a large car park, the mercado de abastos indoor market stall area, a MasyMas and a Consum grocery store, and several restaurants. And then we spied an odd glass building, set off from the sidewalk by a vehicle gate, that showed the distorted reflection of the building across the street in its glass panels. As Johannes ducked around the lowered and locked gate to get a closeup picture of the glass pattern, I saw the small sign that affirmed that this was the Museo de Chocolate and also the factory of the Valor chocolate company.

"Adult Pleasure" at the Chocolate Factory

When I spied the sign saying that this was El Museo de Chocolate, I read it quickly and saw only 10:00 and 13:00. Darn! It was 12:40 now. "Hurry," I said, "we only have twenty minutes!"

But I was wrong, as the guard who had given us permission to photograph the building said quickly. The last tour is at 13:00 "en punto." We should go out the auto entrance to the sidewalk, proceed to the far end of the block-long building, and wait at the gate. At 1:00 PM "on the dot" the pedestrian gate would open and the last tour of the day would begin.

Valor had kindly set up two large umbrellas and three long benches, where we could sit and rest for twenty minutes after our long walk. I read as we waited, and suddenly I realized that 25 or so people had joined us and now it was standing room only. Most were Spanish, but I heard a couple English voices. There are not a lot of events that begin "en punto" in Spain. Trains are one. The Valor chocolate factory tour is another.

Having walked the length of a city block (the front facade of the glass building) we now walked the depth of a block and were ushered in to a small, make-shift theater, where we saw a short film about the "discovery" of chocolate (thank you, Christopher Columbus) and the making of it in general, and especially by the Valor company. The screen was not large, but the images of crushing cacao beans and the addition of milk filled the space available and were tempting. We were treated to a selection of Valor's television commercials for its products, and I found it incongruous, with a large number of children in the audience, that its slogan "adult pleasure" appeared so often. Nevertheless, it's a good slogan and one of the few adult pleasures that can be maintained in vigor as the years increase.

We then went into an adjoining building that featured two stories of memorabilia from this family-run business that was started by Don Valeriano Lopez Lloret in 1881.  Images of some of the items we saw, as well as an English-language chronology, are on the web. My favorite was a print ad reproduction that showed two very skinny adults "who didn't eat Valor chocolates," two very fat adults "after eating Valor chocolates," and two modestly sized and happy adults who ate Valor chocolates "twice a day." A recipe for adult happiness?

Our group, which had been divided into Spanish and English speaking factions for the museum visit, then reunited as we went into the factory itself. Language was not an issue here, as the noise was loud enough that little could be said anyway. We wound our way up and around a narrow catwalk through first, a very hot part of the building, and then a very cold part. If our guide was at the front of our group, I lost her. There was only one way forward, though, and we followed it, observing on our own the activity below us--surprisingly few people on the factory floor, but a multitude of different work stations for mixing, conveying, quality-control, packaging. There was one long belt of chocolate bars moving the width of the factory floor, and only two women at the end, occasionally pulling a piece off. It was impossible not to recall the "I Love Lucy" episode when Lucy and Ethel got a job in the chocolate factory.

All roads lead to Rome, and all factory tours lead to the factory store. Valor was no exception, but we were greeted by three large plates of different kinds of chocolates, free for the sampling. They were good. Following the advice from the old print ad, I helped myself twice. We also made a few purchases before we left. I don't buy chocolate often, so I don't know whether the prices were better than, worse than, or the same as in retail stores. They seemed reasonable. We hadn't paid a centimo for the tour, and the guide had disappeared, so we couldn't even tip her, so the least we could do was buy some adult pleasure to take home after our day out.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How Many Times Does it Take to Buy a Light Bulb?

The light behind my bed went out last week. I don't need this light when I wake up in the middle of the night and use the iPad, but I do need it to read a real book or a newspaper, or even to do a sudoku. I can remember the days when I could replace a light bulb by myself, and almost immediately. It was just a quick trip to the closet where we kept a supply of spares, choose the right one, take it back to the lamp, and screw it in.

That was before the days of energy-saving bulbs--more expensive and generally ugly--nothing you want to keep a supply of, because each purchase of one is an investment by itself, and, if you are lucky, the design might get a little less ugly by the following time you have to buy one. Still, we have two of these lamps in the house, so I was hoping that there might be a spare. The trouble is, I wasn't sure whether that spare would be in the indoors closet (rightly called "Goldie's closet" because the most important things that it holds are her food dish, her litter box (yep, she lives compactly) and all her supplies, plus just a few of ours) or in the outdoors attic/workshop/studio under the domain of the man of the house. So I advised the man of the house and gave him a couple days to check whether there were any light bulbs out there.

There weren't, so I took the unscrewed light bulb with me on our next shopping trip--I have long since learned that I need to take the one to be replaced or I will inevitably bring home a thick-necked one for a thin-necked lamp socket, or vice versa. We stopped at a hardware store, where the proprietor offered personal attention. While she helped Johannes find the light bulb I went off looking for a universal plug adaptor. That was another item I thought would make a great addition to my bedside table area, so I can charge up the iPad or the Kindle or the phone or the laptop and still have the light on at the same time, once I got a working light bulb again. I didn't find the plug adaptor and the proprietor apologized for the low stock--"it's August" and that meant that deliveries were not as normal.

I paid 7€ (about US $10) for the single light bulb. It's a 15-watt "mini espiral" energy-saving lamp, from Barcelona, according to the package. That corresponds to a 75-watt incandescent. On the package there are descriptions for this light bulb in four languages. The English says, and I quote verbatim:
This lamp can substitutes any kind of lamp.
Saves energy: 5 times less than normal lamp.
Long Life: 8 times more than normal lamp.
Do not use this lamp with dimmers or electronic control.
And then only in Spanish, it promises 8,000 hours of life  and affirms that it conforms to IEC norm 969.

Sounds great, and I took it home, hoping for a long and happy life together. But events being what they are, I didn't even think about it until I got into bed that night. I had to climb out again and retrieve it from my bag in my office. Got it out of the package quickly and screwed it in without any problem--that part of changing a light bulb is the easiest.

Well, I could see, but it was eerie. What was wrong? It was such a harsh, white light. Darn! But I could see. Maybe I'll get used to it, I thought. Two days later, though, I gave up, bit the bullet, and said I was going to buy another light bulb. When did buying a light bulb become such a major decision in life?

We were on our way to the Habaneras shopping center anyway, so we stopped--quickly, I thought--in the AKI home improvement store and looked at light bulbs. I had the package, though not the bulb, from my previous purchase. We looked and looked, much longer than I had thought would be necessary. There must have been 25 rows of light bulbs there and those are only the ones that looked like they would fit my lamp. All of them were Larga Duracion (long lasting) and Bajo Consumo (low energy consumption) and all of them were Espiral (spiral). That's what was in large letters. I had to squint to read any other characteristics, and so did Johannes.

It felt like a crap shoot, but finally we spied what I thought was the telling phrase: Luz Calida (warm light). That was in maybe 6-point type, whereas all the other information was in 12 or 14. But that at least addressed the issue that was wrong with the first purchase. I decided to take a chance on that, paid my 10 euros (about US $15) and took it home.

It's right. It's a nice, warm light, but strong enough for reading. 15 watts, which this brand, from Valencia, says is equivalent to 56 incandescent watts. Descriptions of the product on the back of this package appear in 10 different languages, but they are all printed so small (no more than 6 points) that I can hardly tell what the language is, let alone read any of the ones I might understand. In addition to the warm light from this bulb, there is a design advantage: it is shorter than the first bulb I bought and the original one I replaced, so it does not stick out beyond the end of the lamp. How lovely! That must be what "espiral micro" means, as opposed to "mini espiral." But it only promises to last 6,000 hours, rather than the 8,000 of the white-light bulb--six times the life expectancy of a "normal" light bulb.

And what indeed is "normal" in a light bulb anymore? This morning I read that as of September 1 (that was yesterday) it is forbidden within the European Union to manufacture incandescent light bulbs. So what are the packages going to compare their contents to in the future? CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs) are the new normal.

Maybe I will remember some of the information I have acquired when the next time comes to change a light bulb. But that should be about 6,000 light hours from now, so maybe I won't. On the other hand, I've been noticing that the overhead light in my office seems awfully dim lately ...

Friday, August 31, 2012

"Están de Vacaciones"

Quick, while it is still August, I write about August, the month of vacations.

For the past month, almost every daily action has been punctuated by the phrase "Estan de vacaciones." They are on vacation. Most of our friends here in Spain have been away in Denmark, or England, or Germany, or the U.S., on vacation. One reason is to escape the heat, which has been in the high 30 degrees C., or hovering around 100 degrees F. Another reason is simply that most families go on vacation in August, especially if the family includes children who will be going back to school in September.

Meanwhile, for those of us who have not quite achieved full mobility after knee operations,we stay at home in the cool of the air conditioning, venturing out only as a respite to cabin fever and for the necessary errands. Running errands has become even more of an adventure than it usually is. There is a curious mixture of "stores open" vs. "stores closed." Because we live in a tourist area, many establishments are allowed to stay open on Sundays during the summer season, so for a brief three months we can shop for groceries on Sunday mornings or all sorts of products at the Carrefour hypermarket until midnight every day of the week. This open commercialism is counterbalanced, however, by the tiendas, the small mom-and-pop stores and bars and restaurants, that close, at least for the last two weeks of August, for vacation.

We know, in theory, that during August anything is apt to be closed. But we forget. So when we went to the Scandinavian Center in downtown Torrevieja one Wednesday afternoon to replenish our supply of herring, we came home empty-handed, because they were closed for vacation. When we took our new microwave back to the hardware store where we bought it, after it blew out every fuse in the house, we were told as soon as we walked in the door, "The factory is on vacation. You won't get a replacement until September." I read in one of the free English newsweeklies that the city of Elche had printed a brochure listing establishments that were open in August, and I thought that a little extreme and perhaps a waste of money. That was before we drove to La Marina last Saturday morning to check out a kitchen design store with an advertisement in the same newspaper, and discovered, after we finally found it, that it was shuttered because "están de vacaciones."

If the third week of August was lonesome, the fourth became even more so. Just as I was preparing to head out to our favorite specialty wine shop last Monday to buy a bottle of South African wine for a friend, Johannes told me that an email had come through--they were on vacation for this week. The other errand we set out to do that day was to stop at a gestoria to begin the process of bringing our wills up to date, but no one answered the door or the telephone--they were "de vacaciones." Earlier this week and then again today we noticed that even the musicians who normally play and sing outside the grocery stores were nowhere to be found; they, too, are apparently on vacation.

But today is Friday, the 31st and last day of August. Officially in Europe, summer ends with August. In a rare turn of the calendar, the end of European summer occurs this year during the same weekend as that curious unofficial end of summer in the U.S., Labor Day. A few hours ago I finished my last work for the week, month, and summer, and turned my sights toward a leisurely end-of-summer weekend, and even now as I write this, my colleagues in the U.S. are finishing up their Friday before Labor Day weekend work (if they actually happened to go to work today) and preparing for the last summer hurrah. When we all return to work next Monday or Tuesday, depending on where we are, we will be starting in once again on normal life. It will not be cooler here, but at least almost everyone will be back from vacaciones.