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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 ...