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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Febrero Frío y Resfriados

At the outdoor Sunday Zoco market this morning, there was a stand selling off the last of its winter sweaters for one euro apiece. I couldn't even get close enough to see whether it was worth trying to get closer. It was a gorgeous sunny day. The breeze was gentle and even though I still had one of my warm winter sweaters on with my long knit slacks over "tights," as the English call panty hose, I had removed the neck scarf that I had donned as a precautionary measure, even though my sweater had a high collar.

Earlier this season I promised myself that I was not going to write this year about the winter temperatures in Spain, where there are uncomfortably cold house interiors, caused by no insulation, no central heating, and the use of tile and marble flooring throughout, instead of wall-to-wall carpet. That promise was easier to keep back in the unusually warm December and early January we had. But that was before an arctic freeze descended over Europe, even down to Spain, in the first week of February. Reportedly this gave us the coldest winter in sixty years, which certainly makes it the coldest I have experienced in Spain. In fact, it seems as cold as many I previously spent in New England, where we had super insulation, central heating plus a wood stove, and wall-to-wall carpet in most parts of the house--but it still felt cold, by my standards then.

So I am not writing about the cold (frío) this year in Spain, but I will note that my husband and I are just now moving toward what we hope are the last stages of the third cold (resfriado) that we each have suffered in less than a single month. Just as we thought we were out of the woods with each of the first two, another came on. This third resfriado has been the worst, with a hacking dry cough and debilitation to the point requiring multiple-day bed rest.

Today dawned dangerously warm and sunny, and after buying local potatoes, tomatoes, raisins, a few very expensive grapes, and a whole kilo of ripe, red strawberries at the market this morning, we sat in the sun with a cafe con leche and caught up on what was happening in the world outside our sick house by browsing a week's worth of free English and Norwegian newspapers. Then we considered whether we should go on to the "This is Spain" home show and expat exhibition that was being held this weekend, I have written previously about these annual or semi-annual shows, and we knew that there we could explore the latest in gas, electric, halogen, etc. space heaters and other gadgets to pump a little heat into the frío of Spanish houses. But we said  "no," since we knew we were at the dangerous point of our resfriados, when it was all too tempting to stay out and enjoy the weather, but that we would probably get over-tired and pay dearly for the false notion that we were cold-free.

Besides, we had already done one big project this year to beat the cold (installing heavy insulated curtains and carpeting in the bedroom) and experimented with one of the halogen heaters to toast up the bathroom (it works but will require rewiring to be really efficient). But speaking of the bathroom, the best thing we did to improve daily warmth was a simple and inexpensive purchase that we had first learned about in New England. We replaced the regular toilet seats with real wood seats. There is not much as uncomfortable as lowering yourself onto a cold toilet seat in a cold room. (Stepping on to a metal bathroom scale gets close, but no one has to do that more than once a day, and not even that often if you don't want to.) The real wood is noticeably warmer, and it's one of those cheap improvements that you remember and appreciate every time you use it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Expat Love

I've never really considered myself an expat. I don't like the word, as to me it implies a rejection of one's native country, sort of like one who used to be patriotic but is no longer. I have never rejected my country, though politically speaking, I do get the opportunity to reconsider that stance from time to time. My condition of living outside the United States is simply that--a condition. I happen to be living outside the U.S. because my European husband, after living in the U.S. for 35 years, wanted to move back to Europe.

He had always said that he wanted to move back when he got old. Of course, when he first mentioned this some thirty or forty years ago, I knew that we would never get old. So it was a considerable surprise to me when, about ten years ago, he informed me that the time had come. We started investigating places to move, and settled on Spain, which, we acknowledged, was a "neutral country" for us both.

We had moved through our multinational marriage (he from Denmark, but having grown up in Argentina, and me from Ohio) trying not to fall into the "my country--your country" trap. That would be the trap of  accepting one as better than the other, and blaming each other for the sins of our countries, or if not sins, the policies, customs, or less agreeable aspects. We have learned that neither of us is responsible for, nor can influence very much, what our respective country is or does, but we can create a life that is comfortable and meaningful for us with the background and wider world of both countries.

So about eight years ago we added a third country, Spain. Many Americans who have lived much of their lives in the north (and we lived for most of our years together in New England) move to sunnier climates when they retire, and many Danes (and Norwegians and Swedes, and Germans, and Brits, we have discovered) also move to sunnier climates when they retire. Think of the Costa Blanca as the new Florida, from a northeast U.S. point of view.

Earlier today I checked the term "expat" in OneLook Dictionary Search. "Primarily British," it says, which is curious, and an abbreviation for "expatriate." Now, "expatriate" can be an adjective, or a verb, or a noun. "To expatriate" is particularly negative, with synonyms of to expel, banish, renounce, quit, and the like. The noun form from Macmillan is more benign: "someone who lives in a country that is not their own country." Well, that is innocuous and certainly describes me. 

But there is also "someone who is voluntarily absent from one's native home or country." Uh-oh. Bringing the question of "voluntary," or choice, or free will into the issue certainly complicates it. When was it that I chose to live outside my own country? As a Valentine's Day special, a UK newspaper with a strong expat column featured three expats who had left their native countries and moved abroad, apparently voluntarily, "for love." All three stories had to do with young love, where the individuals involved made the move soon after they met each other and became a couple. Good stories, but they did not speak to my situation of "voluntarily" moving abroad after several decades.

The truth is that I would not have voluntarily chosen to move to a country brand new to me as I approached retirement years. I did it--and many of the women I meet here have done the same--because my husband wanted to do it. Is my life richer for this decision? How can one tell? One cannot compare the reality of a life with what might have been. I do know my life is rich. I cannot say that I chose voluntarily to leave my country, but I do choose every day to live here in Spain, strengthening my love, as an expat.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Moroccan Lamb and Couscous

Moroccan Lamb and couscous, and vegetables.
When a friend stopped over last week to invite us to a special dinner to celebrate his 75th birthday, he told us we were welcome to choose off the menu Friday evening, but that there were a few special dishes that we would have to order in advance if we wanted to eat those. "Special, like what?" I asked, having already been told that the chef was French. "Well, they do a Moroccan couscous, and I would really like that," he said, but his wife doesn't care for couscous and you have to be two to order the couscous, in addition to ordering it two days ahead. There's got to be more to it than that, I thought, having prepared couscous myself in just five or ten minutes a few times in my life.

Well, there is couscous, and then there is couscous with Moroccan lamb. And then there is couscous with Moroccan lamb and a whole lot more, both my friend and I found out on Friday evening.

We were the only two having the Royal Couscous, as it was named on the menu, and it was immediately clear where we should sit: at one end of the dining table were two auxiliary serving tables, with a warming apparatus and placeholders for hot dishes. The other guests ordered more traditional fare, all with starters, two with French onion soup. My friend and I looked at each other and the size of our serving table and decided that we probably would not need a starter. Shortly afterwards, their soup came, and immediately after that a procession of three, or was it four? people came from the kitchen and filled our serving area. And then the owner filled our plates, first with couscous, then with stewed lamb, then with meat balls (which I realize now were probably not meat), and then the beautiful vegetables you see in the picture above, and finally the whole chickpeas. I had made my way through about a quarter of this when the French onion soup dishes were removed from the table and replaced with main courses, but I was totally unaware of what the others were eating. The lamb, not often on a restaurant menu in Spain, and expensive when it is, was delicious. I tried it without and with the spicy hot thin sauce in the bowl in front of my plate. The sauce wasn't too spicy when I first tried a tiny bit, but it sure got hot when I added more. Still, I had plenty of couscous on my plate. And if I didn't, I could just help myself to more, as the owner/waiter had said when he first placed my plate in front of me.
Serving Moroccan Lamb from tagines© Johannes Bjørner

The colorful and unique serving dishes on the right are called tagines, and they also serve as cooking dishes. I'm not even sure what was in each one, though I do know that the vegetables and garbanzos arrived together in the one on the back left, and the one that my friend is just removing the cover of contained chicken, which I had declined in my first, "starter" course, but went on to when I had cleared some of my plate. I also tried one of the thin sausages from the uncovered platter between the flat warmer and wine glass, and it was different--perhaps also lamb.

Neither my friend nor I needed dessert, though we did pour wine and water rather liberally throughout the evening. I've checked out various recipes for Moroccan lamb and for couscous over the weekend, and I intend to try my hand at Moroccan cuisine, but not immediately. I'll want to start with something a little simpler than the Royal Couscous we had the other night. And just possibly I'll need to go to Morocco to find a tagine or two, and to try some other samples.