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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.