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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Getting Our Kicks

One of the most satisfying feelings that comes from living in the British community here in Spain is that they often prove that it's not just Americans who display certain less attractive qualities abroad. Chief among those is the seeming inability or unwillingness to learn foreign languages--It's not just those from the U.S. who have trouble with learning--or have given up trying to learn--Spanish. It's not only Americans who can be exuberant--or loud and boisterous--in public. And, I learned after our dinner at Route 66 in Benimar last night, it's not just Americans who value large helpings of food.

I didn't expect gourmet from a place that has a full-sized statue of Elvis out front. And I wasn't expecting that the restaurant owners and staff would have U.S. connections, either--and they didn't. But I was thrown into a pleasant aura of nostalgia immediately upon coming in and seeing the 1950s era diner decor, the obligatory photos of Marilyn and Elvis and other icons on the walls, the jukebox at the side, and the red, white and blue over all, including the overhead lamps. The menu was truly U.S. At least nine different burgers--I believe named for each of the states that Route 66 passes (or passed) through. Ribs by the whole or half rack. Buffalo wings. Dixie fried chicken breast. Chili. Two at our table selected chicken, another chose an order of ribs and wings, and I spent far too long trying to decide among the burgers--I finally settled for the Missouri burger, with cheese and mushrooms.

It's American in style, but it's not fast food, so we had plenty of time to start our bottle of wine while we waited. It became apparent pretty early on that one of us was unexpectedly celebrating an early birthday--that's what happens when a wrapped gift suddenly appears at your plate. And that occasioned  a complimentary bottle of chilled cava and four glasses, so as it turned out, we didn't get too far into that bottle of red wine right away.

In due course our food came, in the stereotypically huge portions that others in the world have obviously experienced and remember from their trips to the U.S. The "jacket potatoes" as the British call baked potatoes, were as large as my two fists. My American french fries filled half my plate, and my plate was larger than the laptop I am writing this on now. In addition to the potatoes and the entrees, we each had a serving of cole slaw and a red leaf lettuce salad, both of which were surprisingly fresh, attractive, and good tasting. The others had a piece of corn on the cob but I guess the mushrooms on my burger constituted my additional veg, and they were indeed huge. We all enjoyed the food, and we talked about doggie bags but did not actually ask for them. I managed to get through my hamburger, but left at least half the bun on the plate, together with 90% of the french fries that had arrived. And we all decided that the next time we come, we'll order one dinner for two people.

What was truly surprising, though, was how busy this restaurant was. My back was to most of the dining area, but judging by the noise level, there were lots of people there, and I saw servers carrying food upstairs. Our dining companions had made an advanced booking, which we thought was unnecessary but it seems it was advisable. When we left I could see that indeed, every table and every chair was taken. I cannot remember the last time I saw a completely full restaurant in Spain. Perhaps I never have.

This afternoon I've looked for a link, but Route 66, the restaurant, doesn't seem to have a web site of its own. There are lots of pictures on its Facebook page, and an incredible number of recommendations on Trip Advisor (that's where I really learned that the Brits liked the large servings). But it was on the Facebook page that I read that Route 66 is already completely booked for November 28. Thanksgiving Day.

The Brits in Spain

Some days I have to pinch myself to believe I am living in Spain. That's because it is all too easy to think I am living in England. Our neighborhood is 90% British, I would guess: mostly English, but with a few Irish, Scots, Welsh, and then Belgian, German, Scandinavian.  Most of the other urbanizations around us in the Torrevieja area have a similar configuration of nationalities, though the proportions change. I spoke with a Dane this week who told me that he was on the board of the neighborhood association, together with an English man, a Norwegian, a Swede, and, I think, a Finn. Most places, though, the Brits predominate.

This week I read some statistics about just how many Brits there are in Spain. The occasion was an interview with the new British ambassador in Madrid. He said there are some 800,000 British people who spend "all or part of the year" in Spain. There are 13 or 14 million who spend holidays here each year (and in a separate report, the Spanish government says that British tourists spent 1.46 billion euros in Spain on holiday in 2012). The ties between the two countries are well developed. Ambassador Simon Manley reported that some 400 Spanish companies are registered in the UK, "making Spain the sixth largest investor in Britain--worth some 40 billion" pounds sterling [2011 figures]. "British companies exported 9.7 billion euros of goods and services to Spain, the UK's eight largest export market." More and more Spaniards are working in the UK, too. I have a neighbor who works in England while his family lives, works, and attends school here--it's a three-hour commute when he comes home. Commuting is not all one-way: elsewhere I read of an English chap who has figured out that he can live in Barcelona and commute to England four days a week at less expense than maintaining a flat in London.

With all this good will and economic interdependence between the two nations, it was still quite a surprise to read the results of a recent poll on the status of Gibraltar, sponsored by the UK Daily Telegraph. The online poll was taken this past August, at a time when tensions between the UK and Spain were at one of the higher levels in the 300-year history of the controversial question of where Gibraltar belongs. The results showed 89.96% saying that Gibraltar should become part of Spain, with only 10.04% saying that it should remain a British Overseas Territory!

Since the results were announced, however, some investigative work by the Daily Telegraph's social media team has determined that 5,000 of the online votes in the poll originated from the Spanish Ministry of Defense…. When the team looked at the results by origin of voting, the numbers supported the more expected outcome: 71.02% of the British-origin votes favored keeping Gibraltar British, and 98.89% of Spanish-origin votes favored returning it to "the mainland." Voters from Gibraltar voted 99.79% in favor of remaining British. I don't think we should plan on consensus any time soon, but I expect that co-existence will continue.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

All Saints and Souls

Officially Halloween is not celebrated in Spain, and there is no trick or treating that I am aware of. But the commercialism of what is called an American holiday has made it here as well as throughout other countries of Europe, so I have seen pumpkins and costumes galore these past two weeks.

The real holiday in Spain is November 1. All Saints' Day, or Todos los Santos, as it is stated on my calendar, is a big holiday, also commercially. More flowers are sold here during the week preceding Todos los Santos, and taken to cemeteries, than in any other week of the year. The city of Torrevieja, I read, operated free and frequent bus service from various places in town to the municipal cemetery all week, so that everyone could get out to eat and drink at the location where their dear departed were buried. Johannes drove with friends through some of the smaller towns in the Vega Baja region on Thursday and reported bunches of people walking to the cemeteries. Those stores that have permission to be open on holidays were open Friday morning, but when we went out to the ATM in the afternoon, the grocery store near the bank had closed at 2:00. It was very quiet in town.

I was surprised, when a friend gave me The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady to read this week, to see that Edith Holden, in her year's calendar, showed November 1 as All Saints' Day and November 2 as All Souls' Day. I had thought they were different words for the same day. The verses, notes, and drawings that Holden recorded in her diary in 1906, though delightful, gave no more information about the two days, so I had to go to the Internet to research my misconception. Wikipedia has informative entries for both All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, and the latter includes a sentence that may explain the cause of my confusion:
In the Methodist Church, "saints" refer to all Christians and therefore, on All Saints' Day, the Church Universal, as well as the deceased members of a local congregation are honoured and remembered.
I was raised as a Methodist, so with this theological distinction, it makes perfect sense that I would think that "all saints" and "all souls" are synonymous. What I find less understandable is how the Roman Catholic tradition in Spain has managed to combine the family visitation, which I would consider an observance of All Souls (Nov. 2), with the day of All Saints on Nov. 1.

The Birmingham (Alabama) News, an unexpected source, offers some descriptions of the similarities and differences of All Saints, All Souls, and Halloween. But a blog post at the National Catholic Reporter provides the words of Pope Francis, as well as an explanation for the sequence of the two celebrations. The second celebration, I now see, is on my Spanish calendar as Conmemoración Fieles Difuntos (Commemoration of the Deceased Faithful, or All Souls' Day).

The Cold Creeps In

Hardly before the proverbial ink was dry on last week's Sundays in Spain post the weather changed. Actually it was Tuesday. We played petanca as usual on Tuesday afternoon, and stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few items on the way home. As we came out of the store and headed west to home at 6:00, there were heavy clouds on the horizon that looked and felt as though they would open and release water at any minute. We made it home before they did, but the evening was wet.

The temperature dropped with the rain. Wednesday morning when I awoke, I was chilly under my summer comforter and in the bathroom. But the outside was warm again when we went out in the afternoon on errands while the cleaners cleaned. That night, however, I switched from my light summer nightgown to one with long sleeves. I wondered whether I would turn on the infrared heat in the bathroom when it was time for my shower the next morning.

I didn't turn on the heat in the bathroom, but I did put on longer pants (3/4 length--still not full length), and I sat in my office most of the day with a cotton jacket on, and a bufanda (bouffant scarf) around my neck. I did laundry on both Thursday and Friday and relished the opportunity to go outside to hang it up, take it down, and check on it periodically in between--enjoying the warmth of the sun and saving me from turning on my office heat, just on the general principle that artificial heat should not be necessary so quickly in the change of seasons. But when I went downstairs for the evening news Friday evening, I found the living room delightfully toasty. Johannes had removed the silk flowers that fill the fireplace hole during the summer and started the gas fire for the first time this season. Part of the laundry I did this week was to air out both the winter and summer dyner on the clothesline, and I really snuggled in with the heavier comforter (which fits the cover better) last night.

I woke up warmer this morning, and the air outside was warmer, too. It was warmer downstairs than it had been, though whether that was due to a change in the outside temperature or to the fact that we had kept the gas fire on until late the previous evening, I don't know. We sat in the sun for coffee at the Sunday market and again, I was almost too hot with short sleeves. But that was at noontime, and now at 2:00 in my office I have my long-sleeved cotton jacket on again.

We laughed with several friends this week about having to bundle up to go inside the house, but that's the way it is here. The cold creeps in because of poor house insulation--fiber glass and double glazing are unheard of, or at least not readily purchasable. The cold stays in because the floors are tile, with no carpets. We always put away our room-sized (not wall-to-wall) carpets at some point in the spring, and we realized belatedly that we had missed the chance this week to have the cleaners help us get them out and lay them in the dining and living rooms again. If I ever can accept the idea of blasting out and replacing the tiles on our floors (all of which are acceptable and some of which I really like) I'll have electric heating installed under the flooring of some or all the rooms--but especially the bathrooms and bedrooms. It's quite common in Britain and Scandinavia and apparently is not even extravagant after the cost of the initial installation. But I'm not ready for another house improvement project quite yet.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fall is on the Way

Europe changed from summer to winter time last night at 2:00 AM. It's fall, so the clocks fell back an hour. I could say that I spent the extra hour researching old Sundays in Spain entries, but really I spent the extra hour asleep. It was only this afternoon about an hour ago that I started paging through the October and November posts of the past five years (!) of this blog. I was looking to see what I had written about the progression of autumn over the years, because everyone agrees this year that October has been warmer than usual and that autumn is especially slow in approaching.

What I found out is that I have frequently been out of Spain for parts of the months of October and November. That travel, of course, would color my perception of the time passing. I don't know what the meteorologists will say about the average or median temperature this month, but what I have determined from my reading is that probably it only feels as though fall is coming slower this year. I suspect it is approaching in exactly the same way, and at a similar rate, as past years.

That means that it is not unusual that I am still hanging shorts and sleeveless tops on my clothesline, rather than the 3/4 length pants and short-sleeved tops that I would have sworn I should be wearing these days. We have, this past week, gotten to the point where the wash loads will be increasing in size, because we are at that point where it is necessary to change clothing two or three times a day. It is now cool in the mornings, so if I am headed out early in the day, I wear longer pants. But capris are way too warm for our afternoon petanca games from 3:00-5:00, as I have found out regretfully twice so far. I haven't had the air conditioning on in my office for weeks, though we have occasionally turned it on--like just last night--in the dining room, where it would have been a bit stuffy for our Saturday smørrebrød otherwise. The overhead fans have become the main instrument of temperature regulation, and they require frequent adjustment. I'm still wearing my sleeveless summer nightgown to bed and pulling my very light summer comforter over me--or maybe sticking my legs out--but at some point in the night or early morning I find that the comforter is covering me completely and I wonder whether I should turn the fan off, because the movement of the air is causing a chill. Fortunately there is a power switch right by the night table, but unfortunately the fan only has three power levels, and it is already at the lowest level. If I turn it off, I invariably switch it back on within a half hour.

If I have successfully stayed in shorts all day, I generally find myself a little chilly when I settle down in front of the television in the evening. So far I haven't succumbed to using the blanket that hangs on the back of the chair and protects it from hitting the wall, but I have left a long-sleeved cotton sweater hang over the chair, that I have used only one evening but know I will again. We have gotten lax about automatically turning the overhead fan on and the light off to keep this room cool, and sometimes I don't notice.

The most telling indication that I don't feel fall yet is that I haven't made a single pot roast or cocido or other autumn meal yet. I''m not even preparing soup for lunch--the revolving "soup pot" that I kept in my refrigerator, where I usually put leftover vegetables and cooking liquids to puree with an immersion mixer, turned sour for the first time recently and I realized that I had neglected my routine. My only fall cooking so far has been to roast a pumpkin and make five small loaves of pumpkin bread. It was a success, from an old family recipe that calls for "a can of pumpkin"--something which you can't find here--and baking three loaves in round coffee cans. I only had one coffee can, which I had carefully brought back with me from my most recent trip to the U.S. (you don't buy coffee in a can here, either) so I had to guess on the substitute baking containers, and especially on how long to bake them. I guessed right, and the Friday petanca players and some American friends from our Fourth Friday Coffee get-together enjoyed a moist pumpkin bread this week.

It wasn't until after I came back from the market this morning and prepared lunch that I hung out the morning's wash load. That was only three hours ago, but I just went out to check and the clothing is dry. It is 76 degrees F. both inside and out. But I just realized that it is after 5:00, the  birds are squawking, and the sun is going down. I'm going to bring in the laundry (I won't have to put on sunglasses) and go downstairs to put a pork tenderloin and vegetables into the oven, and then settle down to watch the evening news.  For the last two weeks now we have remarked that we gaze at the pitch dark streets of Copenhagen outside the glass-walled studio of the evening magazine program that airs on Danish TV at 7:00 PM, while if we turn our heads slightly to the right, we can see sun outside our windows here in Spain. No more. Tonight I am preparing myself to see dusk, and it won't be more than a couple weeks before it will be even darker than dusk here at 7:00, or even earlier. Fall is on the way.


The city of Elche is home to a number of interesting attractions (think thousands of palm trees) but yesterday, its most important attraction for me was shopping. Elche is home to the closest El Corte Inglés, Spain's premier department store, and I had to buy a gift. I was looking for something of high quality, even luxurious, and "typically Spanish," though I had not defined exactly what that might be, other than perhaps it would be something in leather. This was not the sort of thing that I would look for at the Sunday market or the Chinese discount stores or even at one of the nice shopping malls with a range of Spanish and English stores nearby, because I was not looking for clothing or household furnishings.

It took awhile. I spent a long time looking at nicely bound blank books, some in leather, but as it turned out, they were made in Canada. We browsed through the decoración area, and I was not inspired for this particular purpose, although I did find several items of slight passing interest for myself. But I realized how foreign to my current life modern international department stores are, since I am no longer furnishing a new house and my closets are full to overflowing with items that I have little opportunity to wear anyway and cannot locate on the rare occasions when I do.

Eventually I stumbled across what I think is the perfect item, from a Spanish designer, with a touch of  luxury, but I'm not talking about that until after the gift is given. And then we decided we needed a cup of coffee, or perhaps more than a cup of coffee.

We got out of the city first, but decided to stop at a fairly new camping "resort" that we have been driving by for a year or so without stopping in. Camping is one of those activities that the participants in this marriage do not agree on. I had too much tent camping as a child, and while I appreciated the extensive travel that camping afforded our family, I did not like the disruption and extra mealtime chores and toiletry/sleeping discomfort that it entailed. Johannes, on the other hand, camped by himself on many trips through Europe as a student and was free to ignore any chores that he didn't feel like doing and to decide totally by himself on anything he wanted in terms of eating and sleeping. European campgrounds, I have discovered during the course of our marriage, are somewhat more luxurious than any of the ones I stayed in as a child. I daresay that U.S. campgrounds have gotten more luxurious in the decades since my youthful camping trips, too, but fortunately, I have not had to find out.

When we lived in Roquetas and biked to Aguadulce we often stopped at a campground on the beach in between the two towns and enjoyed a coffee at the full-service restaurant. We had also stumbled on a rather elegant restaurant at a campground in Guardamar when we biked there a couple times. So I had no doubt that this campground that I had seen opening to great fanfare in the past couple years would have a restaurant that would be at least adequate and perhaps much better. After all, this campground was advertised as a four-star eco camping resort.

The Marjal restaurant did not disappoint us. Actually, we did not get in to the restaurant; we only were in the bar and cafe. But there was a sign stating the Saturday special of a tapa and a drink for 2 euros, so we made our selections from the platters on the bar and carried them out to one of 50 or so tables outside. We had a pleasant time enjoying the sun and the fresh breeze and watching the other visitors: a Swedish family close by with two small children, a couple of pensioners like ourselves, seated farther away, so we couldn't hear them, some Spanish women enjoying a drink together. Then a large group of young children pranced through the open plaza carrying colored pictures, and I realized they must have been to an art class or some group activity, and we speculated that this must be fall vacation week in some countries of Europe and we hadn't even noticed.

Before going back to the car we took a little walk through the "pitches" to see how the locals lived. We saw camping "caravans" of every size and shape--all with outdoor seating and eating areas and at least one canvas awning to give shade, many with more. The only tents I saw were small auxiliaries on the same pitch as a metal caravan--apparently providing guest quarters, or perhaps just an alternative place to sleep if one didn't feel like sleeping in the RV itself. Clearly no one was undergoing much hardship in the way of bathroom and cooking facilities. I saw one person coming back from a communal shower building, but I am sure very unit had indoor plumbing, refrigerator, and cook stove, if not more. Plus there is a bar and a restaurant just a short walk away.

We cut back through a smaller area with wooden bungalows, and it was here that we happened upon a Dutch couple sitting on their veranda with two glasses of white wine and a tray of hors d'oeuvres. We only asked one question, "Does your little bungalow have a kitchen?" and they invited us in for the grand tour. Two bedrooms, each with closets and an air conditioning/heating unit, a bathroom with shower, a living room and dining area (also with a/c), and an "American kitchen." "American kitchen in Spain means open to the dining and/or living area, but this particular American kitchen met my standards, too. In addition to the fridge, freezer, range, oven, and microwave, there was a dishwasher. Luxury in camping.

This was the third winter season that this couple had spent at this campground, and they told us that this year they had asked for the same bungalow they had last year. Clearly they were satisfied. As the Dutch lady said to me, "This is not camping."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Cultural Interchanges

Any of the thousands of European immigrants on Spain's Costa Blanca adjusts to the Spanish culture in greater or lesser degrees, but they all retain their own culture, as well; in spite of local community "offices for integration" I see very little true integration into Spanish life. I see co-existence, and that seems to be OK for both sides. The Spaniards are, on the whole, welcoming hosts, appreciative of the economic rewards of accepting tons of retirees and occasional young working families into their commercial life. But I do wonder how it must feel for the first and now second generations born after the closed Franco years to see so many neighborhoods and whole towns turned into advantaged ghettos where residents greet each other in the street and shops in all the European languages except Spanish, or if they manage to get a Buenos días out at the right time, they can't go much beyond that for a real conversation. There must be some resentment, or sorrow, about the invasion, I feel, though it stays well submerged and unexplored. I am aware of no anti-immigration political rhetoric, street demonstrations, or vandalism against the immigrants in Spain, as I see and hear in my own country and in other European countries.

Many of us immigrants love to take part in the Spanish café bar scene, tapas runs, fiestas, and espectáculos during the day or on special occasions, while we retreat at night to our English, German or Scandinavian TV. But the Spaniards also partake of the cultural life and changes that come with the foreign influx. Friday evening this week we joined a large group at the Gran China restaurant for a birthday banquet. We don't eat out often at night, and I was surprised at how large the restaurant was, and how packed it was with both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking guests. What amused me, though, was how the Chinese menu had adapted to the Spanish style of menu del día, offering a choice of first courses (primer plato), main courses (segundo plato), a third course (unusual, but how else are they going to get in the rice or noodles?) and dessert (postre), together with a half bottle of wine or a pint of beer, for a set price--and a very reasonable one, too. The Chinese, of course, are adept at tailoring restaurant menus to the country in which they are located, and it is always a fun thing to take in a Chinese restaurant in any foreign country you happen to be in, just to see the little things that are different from the Chinese restaurants in the country where you usually eat Chinese (assuming that is not in China). The conclusion of our meal, by the way, brought souvenir bracelets for the women, but nary a fortune cookie.

The next morning we found ourselves doing something that we had promised we would never do again: going to Ikea on a Saturday. Way too many people, and we should be able to arrange our trips during the week, we had said the last time we had the misfortune of attempting business there on a weekend. But we had been looking all week for new towel racks for a renovated bathroom; we had exhausted all the stores in our immediate area and even as far away as the big shopping mall at La Zenia Boulevard, and we hadn't found anything that we really liked or that seemed to offer decent quality at a reasonable price. So off we went to Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings store that does a pretty good job of adapting its wares and its restaurants to whatever country in the world it finds itself in, too. We had timed our trip to arrive at 10:00, when the store opened, and we knew we had to gear ourselves up with a cup of coffee and perhaps a second breakfast in Ikea's incredibly inexpensive cafeteria. So we proceeded down the line, and I had to smile when the Spanish couple in front of us scanned the offerings and ordered dos ingleses (two English breakfasts). The cafeteria server passed them their plates and then turned to me and asked, in English because we don't look Spanish, what we would like. Dos ibéricos, I said, without skipping a beat.

We enjoyed our typical Spanish breakfast of toasted baguettes with tomato marmalade, olive oil, and jamón serrano. I hope the Spanish couple enjoyed their typical English breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, and toast. Both are good value here, and it was an amusing cultural interchange.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Red-letter Days

When discussing holidays in Spain, one often refers to them as red-letter days, because they are marked on all calendars in red ink, as opposed to the normal black ink. If your hairdresser calls to reschedule your appointment, as mine did once, it means that it was inadvertently set for a red-letter day, and his legal advisor has said he should not work that day.  If your dental office calls two days ahead of time to remind you of an upcoming appointment when they usually call just the day ahead, as happened to me recently, it means that the intervening day is a red-letter day and they can't be open then to give you a reminder call. Spain has lots of red-letter days, but this past week they outdid themselves with three in one week.

I first realized this triple-header was taking place when we went on October 5 to the pharmacy in Ciudad Quesada, a wonderful drugstore that caters to a large, multinational clientele. At any time there are three or maybe four assistants behind various counters helping the public, and it could be that a different language is being spoken with each transaction. At the beginning of October there were handwritten signs outside the door to the pharmacy, and inside, too. The signs took up a lot of space, because they were in Spanish, in French, and in English, and they were announcing the opening and closing hours on the coming Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. I grew light-headed trying to read through them all and keep track of what was coming up.

Monday, October 7 was a local holiday for the city of Rojales. In addition to Rojales proper, Rojales comprises the huge development of Ciudad Quesada and the village of Benijófar. Strictly speaking, October 7 is not a red-letter day on the calendar, because calendars are not printed for just one community. But within the municipality, red-letter rules apply. Stores would be closed in all those villages so everyone could celebrate the patron saint, Nuestra Señora de Rosario. But in spite of the fact that this meant that all my usual shopping areas would be closed, the closings would be limited to that one community. I, for example, still could plan on attending the first Spanish class of the season sponsored by my own town hall in Algorfa, because that is a different municipality and Algorfa has its local holiday earlier in the year. And when I went in the afternoon to my second Spanish lesson, in San Luis, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city of Torrevieja, I could stop at the Mercadona grocery store across the street, because they were allowed to be open, since they were a part of Torrevieja.

The Wednesday holiday was more far-reaching. This was the Día Comunidad Valenciana, the holiday celebrated throughout the entire comunidad (autonomous region) of Valencia, which in addition to the province of Valencia to our north, includes the provinces of Castellón, and the one we live in, Alicante. Wednesday was a quiet day. I didn't even bother to leave the house. I had a good work day at the computer and I had prepared well ahead of time for the guests we had invited for drinks and snacks, a slide show of our vacation pictures, and good conversation in the evening.

Yesterday, Saturday, October 12, was a national holiday, and one of only two secular holidays celebrated nation-wide throughout Spain, El Día de la Hispanidad, and known in the United States as Columbus Day (but of course, my American calendar shows it this year on October 14, because almost all holidays there float to Monday). The day passed without any celebration on my part. It is interesting that some businesses are allowed to be open for half a day (that would be up until 2:00 PM) on red-letter days; these fall into the "leisure" and "food" categories. So I wasn't terribly surprised to see that the Mercadona grocery store was open when I was out in late morning to go to the ATM, which never celebrates, and of course, restaurants and bars were open, so we stopped for a café con leche at the Halfway House close to the ATM. But we came home again and worked around the house for the rest of the day and were not even very disturbed by the fireworks later on in the evening.

This Sunday morning we went, as usual, to the Zoco (outdoor) market for our regular produce and dried fruits shopping. Instead of having a cup of coffee there, I insisted on driving in to Torrevieja to "check out" the Habaneras shopping center. I had read in a couple local papers that the city of Torrevieja, as well as Orihuela (location of the super-duper shopping mall) had been designated "area of tourism" status. That means, legally, that stores can decide if they want to be open on Sundays, which are also red-letter days in Spain. Orihuela had gained that status earlier and made that decision and was now drawing business away from the older Habaneras center. I surmised that since Torrevieja had now achieved that status, Habaneras would now be open on Sundays.

It was, and several other people had guessed the same, but not so many that it was too crowded to browse around the shops comfortably. We spent a pleasant hour checking out new fall styles and looking for bathroom towel bars, but refraining from buying anything, except for a couple montaditos at our favorite 100 Montaditos. And I came away satisfied that perhaps my red-letter day horror (no stores open!) may be a nightmare of the past.

Afternoon of Tapas

Last weekend the annual Rueda de Tapas in Benijófar took place. We made arrangements with friends to take it in--or at least as much of it as we could hold--on Sunday afternoon. Actually some of us started a little early, at 11:30 Sunday morning, where we were lucky enough to get a café con leche (or for me, an agua con gas) with the featured tapa at the featured price, 1€ for the drink and .80€ for the tapa. That's what we started with, to the left: Pastel de pollo tailandés, con salsa chili dulce (Thai chicken patty with sweet chili sauce). Yes, a Thai tapa. This was at the Plaza Diferente, a Dutch restaurant. It was different from traditional Spanish tapas, but it was light and refreshing, the chicken patty served on alfalfa sprouts and the salsa on some pretty greens, and all on a stylish slate plate.

Furthering the international flavor, we moved on to the bar El Mundo (The World). We opened the place and had our choice of seats on the upstairs deck with a view over the recently created municipal park. El Mundo, run by a Belgian, served Pan con atún claro encebollado y boquerrones (tuna with anchovy). One of us didn't care for quite so much fish, so he was served chicken wings instead, still at the special price. By now it was after 12:00, so I switched to a glass of chilled white wine.

At 1:00 the second couple phoned to tell us they were arriving, so we moved quickly across the street to Restaurante Cambalache, an Argentine restaurant well known to us, and arranged a table for six. One of the newcomers is vegetarian, and we weren't so lucky with a no-meat substitute for the sausages that were the featured tapa here. On to what we thought would be a more vegetarian-friendly choice, but we were out of luck again in terms of the tapa, though the white wine and conversation , both Spanish and English, were flowing nicely. A leisurely walk from Benimar across to the Benijófar plaza brought us to Bar Lucas, a family establishment that was offering sports-themed tapas--at least the Friday night tapa had been named Nadal. Sunday's was Alonso. Here we sat inside for the first time during the afternoon and enjoyed the typical Spanish bar atmosphere.

Next stop was Restaurante El Gusto, which won last year for the best tapa of the festival. We were away and didn't attend that one, so I don't know what they served then, but this year was also good: another elegant tapa of cangrejo con manzana, cebollino y pan con ajo (crab with apple, chives and garlic bread).

And then we agreed that somehow we could manage just one more, so the ladies continued their energizing stroll up the main street of the village, while the men went back to fetch the cars and move them to the opposite end of the town. When we re-assembled at El Granaino we sat outside again to enjoy the sun and the cool breezes that have finally made their way here during this warmer-than-usual autumn. By this time it was getting to the end of the afternoon and the end of the tapas route. I switched to a red wine for the last drink of the day and gave a silent thanks that the restaurantes have seen fit to include non-alcoholic drinks in the regular price of the tapa+drink, because I would have had to stop far earlier if the tapa came only with alcohol, as was the case in the old days. We sat for a long time, We chatted. We laughed. The music wafted out from inside the restaurant, and the chef came out to greet us. I remember dancing with him for a moment, but fortunately no good pictures developed from this once-in-a-lifetime event. We filled out our cards, having carefully gathered a stamp at every establishment we visited, to vote for our favorite tapa, and deposited them in one of the voting boxes.

I am sorry to say that now, a week later, I can't remember the details of all I ate, but I do remember thinking that the quality of the tapas this year in Benijófar was the best of any tapas route that I have been on: more variety, excellent presentation, and a good quantity per serving--more than a morsel, but still light. And the day was a perfect one, with sun, pleasant temperatures, interesting conversation, and comfortable friends.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

100 Montaditos: "The True Taste of Spain"

Two or three years ago we discovered a new cafe bar at the Habaneras shopping mall that we go to only occasionally in Torrevieja. It was 100 Montaditos (a montadito is Spanish for a small sandwich). There were 100 numbered selections on the menu, ranging from sandwiches with tuna, to ham, shrimp, salmon, beef and all sorts of good things, accompanied by salad and/or a sauce. Best of all, each sandwich only cost 1 euro, or €1.50 , or €1.80. You selected from the menu, wrote down your choices, and delivered your list to the counter, where you also paid and picked up your drink--most probably a caña of beer for €0.90 or a jarra (mug) for €1.00. A little bit later--well, perhaps longer than you would have wished, but this is Spain--your name would be called and you would get up from your table to collect your little plate of montaditos, which in addition to the sandwiches had a few potato chips on it. Just the thing for a light, interesting, inexpensive and not totally diet-wrecking snack while out shopping. We made it a practice to stop there whenever we were in the area, but alas, that was not often.

About a year ago we started driving to La Condomina shopping mall in Murcia, a city about 45 minutes away. This is a much larger mall, but the main attraction was an Apple store, where I was learning how to manage my new computer and where not much time went by before Johannes bought an iPad. We were pleasantly surprised to discover a 100 Montaditos in La Condomina and it became a tradition that every time we went to the Apple store we would get a montadito.

And then we took a trip to Zenia Boulevard, the new mega-shopping center that opened last September on Orihuela Costa. This was a bittersweet expedition, because I am convinced that this grand shopping center was supposed to be "ours." When we bought our house in Algorfa, we were told that the plans were approved for a great new shopping center within walking distance, and that construction would begin soon. That was pre-economic crisis, and the space for which our shopping center was planned is now an empty eyesore. Presumably more money flowed to the developers from the other location than from our town, so there is now a fancy shopping mall just 20 minutes down the toll road from where "ours" was supposed to be. And it's just aggravating that the toll is so unreasonably high that, on the four or five times we've gone to La Zenia, we drive out of our way to go through the free countryside and avoid the tollgate. The important thing about Zenia Boulevard, though, is that it also has a 100 Montaditos.

We made a quick trip to Murcia and La Condomina a week ago. We needed a connector for a new camera bought in Singapore to replace the one that is now resting on the bottom of  Halong Bay. We got that quickly, and we stopped for a montadito. As I scanned the 100 selections, I was surprised to see a few new ones on the menu. (Presumably some of the poorer sellers had been removed to make way for the new). The new were five sweet montaditos (numbered 95-99, all involving chocolate and all on "chocolate bread.") One was with "cookies and cream" and another was with "grageas de chocolate," which looked very much like M&Ms. Well, I didn't indulge in a dessert montadito that time, but I didn't forget them, either.

On Wednesday of this week we went to La Zenia for a very specific purpose: to look at bathroom fixtures at Leroy Merlin to replace a shower and vanity in our upstairs bathroom. We got out of the house early and were at Leroy Merlin just after they opened at 10:00. We spent a fair amount of time there and when we completed our work, we were more than ready for a cup of coffee. Does 100 Montaditos even have coffee? I had become so used to having a meat or seafood montadito and a little beer that I didn't remember if they made coffee. But as we entered, Johannes spied the coffee machine and so we ordered coffee. And I thought one of those chocolate montaditos would be just the thing to accompany coffee.

So that is what I had, a chocolate montadito composed of just-baked, or at least just-warmed, chocolate bread, chocolate cream and a thin chocolate sauce, and several M&Ms. I seldom indulge in such a treat, but chocolate genes run in my family, and every once in awhile, they assert themselves. As I bit into the chocolate montadito, I almost swooned, grinned, and said, "My father would have loved this," for that is where my chocolate gene came from. Until he died, my father enjoyed a little piece of chocolate every day, he told me--just a little piece.

As I was looking for links to the 100 Montaditos site to embed in this post so you could see the menu, I found one that I did not expect to see. In addition to the Spanish menu, I found another menu, in English. It seems that 100 Montaditos has opened in the United States to offer "The True Taste of Spain." There are several outlets in the Miami area, and one has made it as far north as Orlando. In an ironic twist, the 100 Montaditos in Orlando is located less than a mile from where my parents lived for almost 20 years. My father would have loved it.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Culinary Challenges

From my pile of unpacked but not-yet-put away stuff from my summer vacation, I located this week a very slim cookbook, nearly just a pamphlet. It is Homestyle Vietnamese Cooking, by Nongkran Daks and Alexandra Greeley (Periplus, 2002) and it is an excellent little collection of about 35 recipes, with full and half-page colored photos, three pages of explanations and tips on ingredients, and international measurement conversions that speak to U.S., U.K., and Australian audiences, at least.

I had really enjoyed the food I had in Vietnam--indeed, throughout the entire trip--and so had Johannes, so I read through all the recipes and explanations, and made a shopping list of typical ingredients that I did not have on hand. I knew my selection of what to make would depend on what I was, and was not, able to find. Among other things, my shopping list included:
  • fish sauce
  • hoisin sauce
  • oyster sauce
  • tamarind
  • rice paper wrappers
  • star anise 
  • five spice powder
  • fresh lemongrass
  • fresh daikon
  • red chilies
  • fresh papaya
  • coconut cream 
  • rice vermicelli
  • rice wine
  • rice vinegar
  • Asian, lemon, and/or holy basil
I had seen few, if any, of these ingredients in the various grocery stores I frequent in Spain. Some of them, like rice paper wrappers for spring rolls, I had no recollection of seeing in my life. But I was determined to find what I could. The best candidate, I thought, was the local hypermarket Carrefour, which has multiple ethic food shelves for British, Belgian, Scandinavian, Russian, U.S. (think Betty Crocker fudge brownie mix) and many more cuisines, including Asian. Off we went to Carrefour on Thursday morning.

But first we stopped in Ciudad Quesada to go to the bank, and since the bank was just around the corner from Jumerca, a nice little German specialty shop, I decided to pop in there first. It was a great idea. I found hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, canned coconut cream, and rice vermicelli. Not bad at all, and I hadn't even set foot in Carrefour yet.

We proceeded to Carrefour and went directly (well, almost) to the Asian food section. There were lots of things for Indian food--there is a very large British population here. There were a couple things for Chinese and Japanese. A demonstration area was even giving away free samples of sushi. But I found not a thing that was still on my list! There was hoisin and oyster sauce, coconut milk (not cream) and several kinds of rice vermicelli--all at prices higher than I had found at Jumerca. Oh yes, I did find the papaya, but it cost four euros for a scrappy-looking one, and since I wasn't sure when I would be able to get the other ingredients for the recipe, I put it back in the produce section. I could have bought sake, too, at the sushi demo, which my little cookbook--that I had brought with me--said that I could substitute for rice wine. But it also said I could substitute dry sherry, and I had some excellent dry sherry at home. By this time, we were exhausted and I was discouraged, because the one ingredient that I absolutely had to find, and had not as yet, was Vietnamese fish sauce. We settled for a cup of coffee and went home for the day.

Friday I had to do regular shopping and scoured the shelves at Consum and Mercadona, my two usual groceries. Again, I saw some repetition of the jars I needed, but except for the red chilies, which I could get anywhere and any time, I thought, I found none of the fresh produce. Well, my Vietnamese dinner was getting pushed back into the weekend, because I would have to look at the Sunday open air market. But of course, if I failed to find fish sauce, which the book says is essential, the fresh ingredients were moot, anyway.

I went to the Internet to find out whether fish sauce and oyster sauce were the same thing, by chance. At least I wasn't the only one who had hoped that they were. But the answer was no, fish sauce is thin, oyster sauce is thick, and there are undoubtedly other differences. Some people said that soy sauce could substitute for fish sauce, but I didn't really believe that. We went for coffee with a friend who has lived in this area for several years, and I asked her if there was a local Asian food market. Not too many Asians live here, she said, and she is right. But she thought there might be one in the poligono industrial in Torrevieja. I knew approximately where she was talking about, and Saturday morning I looked it up on the Internet and did indeed find the name of an Asian food store, its address, and phone number.

Forget the phone number, we just set the GPS and were off to the specialty store. When Gloria, our GPS lady, told us we had passed it, I was apprehensive. We parked and got out and asked a young woman who was hosing down the chairs in an outdoor cafe. ¿Hay una tienda de comida de Asia? No, she said, there used to be one on the corner, but it's closed. It must have closed a long time ago, because there were no remnants of its name, although there was a "For Rent" sign on the window.

Well, we were in Torrevieja, so we might as well at least go to Iceland, the British frozen food specialty supermarket where I buy a couple pre-cooked items for emergency dinners, and by the way, that's where I am able to get canned condensed cream of chicken soup for the American casserole that Johannes loves. We looked all through the Sauces/Salsas section and found nothing we had not found before. But there was another aisle, and in that aisle were some Asian things, and on the top shelf there was a jar labeled Fish Sauce. No brand name that I could discern, but it said "A Splash of Nam Pla Fish Sauce," so it sounded Vietnamese. And in tiny letters, I found out after I got it home, it said Waitrose,a good British brand, I thought, but I wasn't going to discriminate anyway.

When I returned home with my prized fish sauce I read through my little cookbook again and chose a recipe for Sunday night. I am making Tangy Prawn Salad with Carrot, Cucumber and Mint Leaves. Of course, now I had to go out and buy the prawns and the spring onions, but I had the mint and coriander, lime, chili, and shallots. I would have to buy the roasted, unsalted peanuts at the Sunday market.

I did. I am all ready. This will be my first attempt at cooking authentic Vietnamese, and I do have all the ingredients. I hope we like it. It's already been a lot of work and I haven't started preparng the dish yet!

I am still on the lookout for rice paper wrappers, but that's for another dish.

Pomegranate Pearls

Last year at about this time, a neighbor came over with a small dish containing a mass of red, jellied pearls. She had harvested several pieces of fruit from her pomegranate tree, she said, and this bowl represented the fruits of her labor peeling one of them. I believe this was the first time in my life that I had seen pomegranate fruit in the raw.  It was a very small bowl. I sensed that it had taken more than a little time to retrieve the pomegranate seeds, and I thanked her. After dinner that evening we devoured the unaccustomed dessert with about two bites apiece. It was a strange but pleasant combination of sweet and tart tastes, with an unusual texture. Nice, and I wondered whether the tree in our backyard that we had recently discovered was a pomegranate tree would ever bear fruit.

A year and a severe pruning later, there are no signs of pomegranates on the tree in the back yard. So I was pleasantly surprised this week when another neighbor, while walking home from book club, asked me if I liked pomegranates. She had been given a whole bag of them and there was no way she could use them all. Just the thing for our lunchtime fruit salad, I thought. A few minutes after I returned, there she was again, with three pomegranates for me. She just peeled them in strips, from top to bottom, she said by way of advice, and then scooped the seeds out. She agreed that they would be a nice addition to fruit salad.

I was already late for lunch that day, so it wasn't until the next noontime that I tackled peeling the first pomegranate. And it was only after I did so that I truly appreciated the gift from my other neighbor the prior year. Even I, who normally slices peaches, nectarines, apples and more into fruit salad, skin and all, knew that I didn't want to eat the skin of the pomegranate. I tried to make a slice to enable removal of the skin, but I found it hard to penetrate. So I ignored the advice to peel the skin and simply cut the round globe in half vertically, crown to foot.  In each half, it seemed as though the skin was holding about a thousand barley-sized seeds, all nestled tightly in a red gel in three or four compartments separated by white pith. I assumed that the pith was inedible, and set to digging out the seeds with a little, tiny coffee spoon. It was time-consuming to scoop out the seeds, separate them over the fruit bowls, and pull out the white pith. The pomegranate was only the crowning fruit in the salad that already had chunks of banana, pineapple, red apple, golden plum, and red and green grapes,  so I put away half for the next day and gave us each a quarter of the seeds.

We enjoyed the salad, but the pomegranate's sweetness was distinctive, and the next day I only used half of the remaining half. That provided a nice garnish to the salad, and left the last quarter for Saturday's salad. This Sunday morning, as I contemplated starting to tackle the second pomegranate, I thought, there must be a better way. There is, supposedly. A 2006 NPR story advises slicing the whole fruit into quarters under water, then scooping out the seeds with your hands, still under water. The seeds will sink to the bottom and the peel will rise to the top. You pour off the water and peel, and there you have the pearls of pomegranate, presumably with a little extra diluted pomegranate juice.

That NPR story also mentioned a chicken-walnut-pomegranate main course, Khoreshteh Fesenjan, that is also one of the recipes from the Pomegranate Council, provider of the pictures here. That recipe sounds adventurous, and just maybe I'll use one of my remaining pomegranates to try that. Pomegranates provide three different antioxidants and are one of those superfoods, according to the Pomegranate Council. And after my experience with harvesting the seeds, I can fully understand why pomegranate juice is so expensive in the market.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reading in Translation

It has been a week of getting back into the groove of regular activities after being away for three weeks. The two important social engagements I had on my mind (after an appointment at the hairdresser) were my Spanish class and my English-language book group, which meets this coming Wednesday.

I had a lot of preparation for book group because it is my turn to write the questions and lead the discussion--and I still had a few chapters to read in the book that I had lugged half a world away to read. It is The Time in Between, also called The Seamstress, by Maria Dueñas. Reading it while on vacation kept me thinking at selected times about Spain during its Civil War and the early Franco era, the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco, and Portugal. It did not keep me thinking in Spanish, as I am reading it in English.

I have felt a little guilty about reading a novel originally published in Spanish, and written by an academic at a university less than an hour from where I live, in English. However, this book is 600 pages long, and given the time I had and the other activities I was devoting attention to, I'm lucky to have made it through in English in a month. And the native language of all the book group members is English (of varying sorts) and the discussion was to be in English. And I had previously read one of the book club books, originally in English, in a Spanish translation and had an opinion about the book that was markedly different from those of my colleagues--the Spanish was better. So I stuck with an American English edition of The Time in Between, though I intend to find a Spanish copy and look up some passages to compare, because some of the dialogue I read in English just did not ring true. I've asked my fellow members their opinion of their translations, and I'm looking forward to hearing what they say.

I don't need to feel guilty about reading a Spanish book in English, I decided, when I realized, as I got ready for my Spanish class, that I was reading an English book in Spanish translation. Muerte en el Seminario (literally Death in the Seminary but the published title is Death in Holy Orders) is the first book by P.D. James that I have ever read. I have heard about James, of course, with her renowned writing style and riveting mystery novels. It's really sort of crazy to approach her through a translation, but it's an excellent and entertaining way to learn Spanish. My Spanish teacher and I have wonderful talks--though halting as I search for words--discussing Dalgliesh and the various characters in and around St. Anselm's in East Anglia. It's going to take us a long time to get through this one though. We can only do about 25 pages each week, and my copy runs to 494 pages. We are approaching page 200 for class tomorrow.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Home Again

We arrived home from our Southeast Asia trip last Thursday evening at about 7:00, very tired after traveling for 40 hours without seeing a bed (that included a 10 hour layover in  Singapore's Changi airport, which does offer beds, but we opted instead for shopping, garden tours, movie theater, dinner, and a short rest on one of the free lounges). The first thing we noticed was that the front porch wall light that we had left on was off. Oops, bulb burned out, we said. Then we noticed that the small accent light in the dining room with the 7-watt bulb was also out. Odd that they both went, but we had been gone three weeks. Then we went to put the air conditioning on and we realized that all the power was off, so we went to the master switch and flipped the switch, and there was light. And air.

Then I opened the freezer door to pull out the ready-made frozen Spanish salteada, which we call Spanish biksemad (diced potatoes, onion, tortilla, bacon, and peas and red pepper--throw it in some olive oil in a saute pan and it's ready in 7 minutes). I had carefully made sure I had a bag of this emergency staple, because I knew I would be tired and hungry when we returned. But as soon as I opened the door, it dawned on me: the power to the refrigerator/freezer had also been off, of course, and for how long? While on vacation we had read about severe storms in Spain, and our taxi driver from the train station in Alicante had said that there were tormentas and lluvia "last week." Depending on when the winds and rain came last week, the refrigerator had been off for anywhere between four and eleven days.

I shut the freezer and didn't even open the refrigerator.

Back in the last century when we were first married and my culinary standards were lower than they are now, I used to buy boxed macaroni and cheese at the Stop & Shop in Arlington, Massachusetts, for 20 cents a box, or maybe it was 25 cents. Even adding milk and frozen peas to the mix brought the dish to about 50 cents, which was a real cheap meal--necessary on a student's budget. That's sort of what we had the night that we arrived back from Vietnam. I found a Spanish equivalent of dried macaroni and cheese in my larder--actually a German version, since I vaguely remembered buying it at Lidl--and cooked it up, using dried milk, water from the tap (at least we could drink tap water again!), and a strong dose of Penzey's Southwest seasoning. It was edible, but I don't need to repeat that experience.

I waited until the next morning to approach the refrigerator again. We had decided to go out for breakfast and buy replacement groceries on the way home, but of course I needed to get the old crud out first. When we flipped the master electric switch the night before it had turned on the power to the fridge and freezer, and we had left it on. That may have been a mistake, but who knows for sure?

I tackled the freezer first. I have a three-drawer freezer, with vegetables at the top, meats and fish in the middle, and anything else at the bottom. Out it all went. The pork tenderloin and a turkey tenderloin had refrozen overnight. The vegetables had also refrozen, as a solid block in each package. None of this was irreplaceable or even terribly expensive (I was glad that I had used the frozen duck breast recently), but it hurt me to throw out the whole cranberries that I had brought from the U.S. and keep stored in the freezer for cranberry bread. However, there was a layer of them that was no longer whole cranberries, but something resembling a frozen cranberry jelly. It must have gotten very warm in the freezer over the course of several days.

The freezer was a breeze in comparison with the refrigerator itself. No need to go into detail here, but I have deduced that mold does not grow--or at least become visible--in frozen temperatures, whereas refrigerator temperatures are another matter.

Everyone, I am sure, has lots of little partially filled jars of condiments in their refrigerator door and maybe even on the interior shelves. I remembered distinctly that I had two open jars of Dijon mustard, one obviously purchased by accident, and I had diligently been working to empty one of them. I won that battle--now they both went out. Also tossed were a jar of peanut butter also imported from home, and a small jar of maple cream from Polly's Pancake Parlor in  Sugar Hill, New Hampshire. And a few fruits and vegetables that I had never expected to use again, but that I had run out of time to clean out before I left on vacation and chose to keep them in the fridge so they wouldn't rot and stink up the kitchen. And the eggs that I had left to fry for the top of the welcome home night biksemad.

I did not take the food from its container, nor did I separate the cans and the plastics and the glass, as we normally do for recycling. I took three kitchen garbage bags to the dumpster and heaved them in.

There wasn't much I kept. Two bottles of white wine that had never been opened, and three small splits of cava. An unopened can of salmon bought for our Saturday night smorrebrod that, when I got to the checkout counter at Lidl had cost 5 euros instead of the 1.29 that I had seen on the shelf, so I was saving it for a special occasion. A small can of fruit cocktail that Johannes bought while I was in the U.S. last time and that I had still not opened. A tube of tomato paste and an unopened jar of spicy hot preserved peppers, though I intend to look at them closely when I do open them to see if they are still preserved. Three bottles of water and an opened bottle of white vermouth that we use for fruit salad. And an envelope of Penzey's Sunny Spain seasoning.

That's what I put back into the refrigerator when I finally finished reassembling it. (Washing and disinfecting is one thing--figuring out how to get the shelves together again is another!) I didn't put anything into the freezer except a small ice cube tray filled with water, and that only after the tray had gone through the dishwasher.

It all took a lot longer than I thought it would, so we went out for brunch instead of breakfast, and we only stopped at one grocery store on the way home, to get the necessities for breakfast, lunches, and dinner for one night only. Saturday we went out grocery shopping again, this time to Mercadona, which is where I buy most of my frozen vegetables and prepared dishes like the Spanish biksemad and the rice and vegetable mixes, for those nights when we need to eat in a hurry and I don't feel like cooking. I am still at that stage when I can see everything that I have in the fridge and freezer without moving things around, and I hope to keep from buying too many of those little jars of condiments that seem to collect and multiply.

I have yet to buy any Dijon mustard.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Cartagena and Mar Menor

One of the fun aspects to living on the Costa Blanca is that there are several low-cost day bus trips to various sites in the area. We were ready for a day out one Thursday recently, so we signed up to go to Cartagena and Mar Menor. We had been before to Cartagena, an old port city about an hour south of us; but for some reason we had never been to the inland lake, Mar Menor, that stretches near the coast between us and Cartagena.

We hopped on the bus at 9:30. Of course we made a number of stops on the way south to pick up other tourists out for the day, so it was almost 11:00 by the time we rolled into the port area of Cartagena. That didn't matter to us, as we were most interested in the train ride to Mar Menor, and for that, we were told, we did not have to appear again until 2:45. A nice amount of time for strolling through the old part of the city, having a special lunch, and relaxing, we thought.

One of the first things we saw was the huge ceramic plaque pictured above, which depicts the two thousand year history of Cartagena, or Carthage as it was called in the Roman times. In fact, the first date is 227 a.C. (ante Cristo, or before Christ, as we might say). At various times we walked by and around the Roman theater, which is in the process of being restored, but we didn't go in, as we had visited that before. We just looked through a few holes in the walls surrounding the area. It hadn't changed any that we could tell.

We did, however, find a few stores, and since this was the first day of August, the August sales were on. I bought a pair of black leggings, definitely out of season, and I hope I remember them next fall. We also found a delightful corner cafe bar and went inside to take advantage of the light air conditioning. We each chose a tapa, and in addition they brought bread, and we called that and a tinto de verano to drink, lunch. The president of Spain was on television; they were beaming live pictures of his questioning by the Congress in the messy financial scandal that is filling the front pages of the newspapers now. I was reading one of the newspapers that are always hanging around the cafe bars and saw that the black box recovered from the Renfe train that had derailed at high speed a few days earlier showed that the engineer (el maquinista) was talking on the phone immediately before the accident with the interventor. What is an interventor? I wondered, and since my companion didn't know, when we went to the bar to pay the bill, I asked the man behind the bar, "Quien es el interventor?" "Rajoy!" he spat out, obviously more  absorbed by the current political scandal than the train tragedy, and none too pleased with the president, either. I tried to explain that I wasn't talking about politics, but the train derailment, but something got lost in the translation, because he assumed I was asking him who his interventor was. "¡Yo!" I am, he said indignantly. I was unenlightened; we left still mystified.

Testing the water in Mar Menor.
The train trip to Mar Menor was on a local carrier, not on a Renfe train, and we did not go at high speed. Nor did we start on time--we were delayed by at least half an hour. I had brought a paper map of the area with me, so I was able to find our location and the end station on the map and follow along as we stopped at, I think, nine or more isolated stations. We were driving through rural areas, old mining towns--the bus tour operator had told us that this was a tin and silver mining area in former decades. Because of the delay (never explained) we had less time to enjoy the lakeside at the end of the run--only 45 minutes, but we all dutifully trooped out, walked to the only cafe bar in town, and sat with another tinto de verano, watching swimmers in the water and enjoying distant views of buildings on a narrow strip of land that turned upward like Cape Cod in Massachusetts, although this is called La Manga (the sleeve). There were cooling breezes, and it seemed like a perfect, lazy summer day, and I can understand why people go to La Manga. Maybe we will go again some time, but in our car.

The train ride back was made in a half hour after the train finally got there...and then we climbed on our bus and were back in Torrevieja in a little more than a half hour. Of course, there are always a lot of drop-offs after a day out, so we had missed the regular news on TV by the time we got home. I checked my regular dictionary for interventor and found that it can mean auditor, or supervisor. Or ticket collector on a train or metro, as I have found our from other dictionaries since.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


Last Sunday morning we knew that it was time to take Goldie for her last trip to the vet. She had been lethargic for a couple weeks and not eating as much as she used to, especially of the hard dry food, "crunchies," she had during our lunchtime salads and her happy hour at 6:00. We thought she was just under the weather, which was very hot. Then she started missing her sandbox and she didn't even come back to the house for lunch when I opened the can of tuna for our salads--the smell of which, or a sixth sense, had always attracted her from as far away as the other side of the street. And then Saturday we saw that her face was swollen and puffed out on one side, and we made plans to take her on her final journey on Monday morning, because events like this always become clear on the weekend, don't they?

She was worse on Sunday. She would not go outside at all, and wandered slowly around the house, looking at her old favorite spots--the middle of her dad's bed, under the desk in my office, the rug in front of the window on my side of the bed, the rug in the upstairs bathroom--but not finding any of them satisfactory for a place to rest. And occasionally she cried a short, pathetic, little peep. By chance the vet was in his office Sunday afternoon, so we packed her up in a comfortable old towel and her carrier, and drove to Guardamar to a different office that we had never been to, and we drove home two hours later without the towel and carrier, and without Goldie.

She was sixteen years old and had come to us when we lived in New Hampshire. Johannes went to the shelter and brought home Goldie, one of six kittens of a litter, then just six weeks old. He looked at several, all lined up in little cages on a shelf. But the shelf was full and there was no more room; one lone cage stood on the floor with a tiny creature in it, and that was Goldie. And there was no contest after seeing her.

Goldie loved the freedom of her house in New Hampshire and quickly learned to conquer, frighten, tolerate, or run faster than all the various types of wild life on our mountainside. She was truly queen of the mountain and she reigned there for six years. Though she loved New Hampshire, she also went on vacation every summer, to Denmark--her first overseas trip she was allowed to ride in the cabin and, since it was her first plane ride, she got the window seat. She survived getting "forgotten" by the airline once in New York and arrived by taxi 24 hours later at her destination, a tiny summer cottage outside Copenhagen. Goldie also roamed freely in the kolonihave garden community in Skovlunde. But she didn't know what was ahead of her.

For one year she commuted weekly between New Hampshire and Connecticut, being driven down and then up I-91 for four hours and bearing the frustration of actually being locked indoors on the Connecticut end of the commute. Then we sold the house in New Hampshire and moved to Indianapolis and Roquetas de Mar, Spain, moving back and forth across the Atlantic seasonally. Goldie moved with us each time, earning her frequent flyer miles and something her mom never got--a European Union passport. Sadly at both ends of these trips she had to stay indoors, because who could expect her to acclimate herself to a neighborhood so quickly for such a short time at each stretch?

Four years ago we moved to Montebello, and here she was finally able to get outside again practically whenever she wanted, as long as she stayed svelte enough to glide gracefully through the slats in the front grate. She loved it here, and while we only own one house, she owned three properties--one on the corner and one across the street that were both empty until recently. She also regularly visited the house next door, because it was only used from time to time as a vacation place by its owners, so why shouldn't she? She jumped the balustrade from our property and then sidled through their grates and would sometimes stay for hours. She was never bothered by the many dogs around her, and she learned to coexist with one neighborhood cat as long as it didn't come too close.

She woke us every morning at 6:00, she entertained us at lunchtime with her "catch the crunchie" game, and she came in most nights at 6:00 and enjoyed her happy hour crunchies as we sat through the evening news, and then at some point in the evening she would disappear to a bed or a rug and sleep until early the next morning.

She gave us many hours of enjoyment, and she made this house in Spain her home, and our home, and we will miss her for a very long time to come.

Thanks to our many friends who have sent understanding and comforting words to us in our sorrow.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Foreign Aid

When I had to roll my very heavy Spain-bound suitcase from house to car in Cincinnati earlier this month, I was lucky that two of my sisters were there to help. They insisted that they do the deed, perhaps because they didn't want me to damage the threshold, which I had done under similar circumstances on a previous trip. And after they got the suitcase out, and closed the door so the cat would not escape, they were lucky that a maintenance man was within steps on the other side of the door--a very polite maintenance man, who offered to help and had the suitcase in the car in a jiffy.

"He spent a year in Spain when he was in the service," they reported to me after scooting back in and closing the door so the cat would not escape. "A year! It must have been at that U.S. military base I've heard of over in the western part of Spain," I said, though that pretty much summed up my total knowledge on the subject, and not wishing to expose my ignorance, we didn't even stop on our way out to chat with him. Anyway, it was hot.

So when I got back on Spanish soil and opened up one of the newspapers that had come in my absence, I was rather surprised that the first article that caught my eye on the inside cover was "Spain paid to host missile shield." It started out by saying that Spain and the U.S. are expected to formalize  a 200 million euro agreement allowing the U.S. to station four destroyers at the naval base in Rota, Cádiz. I've been to Cádiz, way over to the west on the relatively short Atlantic coast of Spain. I did not know about the base then, but according to one of those "needs improvement" articles in Wikipedia, this is the largest U.S. military community in Spain, with Navy and Marine Corps personnel, along with small Army and Air Force contingents.

Those who share my sentiments about the U.S. single-handedly erecting defenses outside its own borders will be glad to know this is a NATO effort. The destroyers will be equipped with "Aegis combat systems capable of intercepting ballistic missiles." Two ships, the Ross and the Donald Cook, are scheduled to arrive in 2014, to be joined by the Porter and the Carney in 2015. The 1,100 military personnel and their families who will arrive with the ships will be greeted warmly as long as they provide the expected boost to the local economy.

Common Sense

We were shocked this week to hear that an English charity is under attack by the Spanish tax authorities.  Paul Cunningham Nurses is a registered charity in Spain; it was founded years ago by Jennifer Cunningham in honor of her son, Paul, who died of cancer at an early age. Paul Cunningham Nurses (PCN) provides free nursing and care to terminally ill patients and their families. It gets much of its funding through sales in several shops of donated clothing, DVDs, and household articles. We have taken several cast-off items to the shops to donate, and we have also made many purchases. I particularly like to stop in before I take a little vacation to northern climates, because I can usually find a couple pieces of warmer clothing in good condition there, that I can't find in regular stores here in southern Spain.

We first heard of the Paul Cunningham problem from friends who had read it in one of the free weekly newspapers. When we went out the next morning to do errands, we looked, unsuccessfully, for the newspaper, and we also stopped in one of the PCN shops to ask about the situation. The attendant gave us some information about the problem, but not in detail, and I was a little hesitant to sign a petition in support of the charity with so little knowledge, but I did. Since then I have found two written articles which generally say the same thing, so I'm taking them as a fairly accurate statement of the facts.

A year ago, one of the PCN shops was approached by a Spanish official from Social Security (Seguridad Social), who asked the two volunteer workers to show her their national identification and Social Security papers. Social Security is the system in Spain that provides national healthcare: either your employer pays your social security premium, or you as an independent contractor/freelance worker pay your own (and it starts at a minimum of 320 euros per month, I have heard from various sources).

The volunteer shopkeepers, older English women, did not understand the detailed Spanish and contacted the PCN accountant, who explained, in Spanish, to the Social Security representative that PCN was a registered charity, as indicated by a G above the door of the shop, and that the "workers" were volunteers and thus should not pay Social Security. The officer, however, levied a fine of 6,000 euros and demanded that the charity present all relevant paperwork to an authority in Alicante city--and accused PCN of violating the human rights of the volunteers by not paying salaries.

In due time the charity's official papers were taken to Alicante, the papers were accepted, and the fine was withdrawn. However, another fine was levied: 10,000 euros--for obstructing an officer in the carrying out of her duty.

PCN appealed the new fine twice, then heard nothing until recently, when a registered letter arrived saying that if the 10,000 euro fine--plus 2,000 euros in interest--is not paid within 21 days, the bank account of the charity will be embargoed and money withdrawn to pay the fine and interest until it is paid in full.

PCN is continuing its appeals, to the European Court, it says, if necessary. For the time being, as far as I know, PCN shops are still open and accepting donations, people are still buying--and signing petitions, and nurses are still attending to end-of-life needs of any resident of Spain--not just English or foreigners--who asks for help.


When I first heard about this absurdity I thought, "It's because the Spanish system does not understand volunteer activities and charities." And it is true that the extraordinary system of grassroots fundraising by charity shops, lotteries and raffles, entertainment benefits, quiz and game nights, and all sorts of activities routinely offered by the British population here has no equal of which I am aware. But I have checked, and my English-Spanish dictionaries do show Spanish words on this topic. A charity organization is an institución benéfica or an organización benéfica. A charity shop is la tienda de una organización benéfica. A charity sale is una venta benéfica. A volunteer is un voluntario or una voluntaria, as in a volunteer army or to volunteer information. But the verb for volunteer is ofrecerse, to offer oneself, which does have the aura of self-sacrifice about it. And I didn't see anything at all about volunteer workers.

All of which does reinforce my feeling that the concepts of volunteering and charity are not something that Spaniards have in common with the Anglo world as I know it. But I do hope that common sense will prevail in this case, sooner rather than later.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Summer Again in Spain

Last Sunday I was packing up a very heavy suitcase--heavy enough so I had to pay extra at the airport check-in and too heavy for the TSA to want to fuss with it, I concluded later--and headed back to Spain. I arrived in Madrid Wednesday morning early, and after waiting a few hours there, I continued to Alicante, where I was picked up and delivered by car to the house. It was good to get back "home" and to my regular routines. The weather, I discovered, was not much different from the heat and humidity that I had left in Cincinnati and Chicago, although there is a notable absence of air-conditioning here.

Since then I have been doing the things that I always do to get back into life in Spain. One of the first, and the most fun, was to meet friends in my book group for a discussion of The Angel's Game, which I had finished on the long airplane ride between O'Hare and Barajas. I also cleaned out several science experiments from the refrigerator and in the last several days have gone to three of my favorite grocery stores to replenish the refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards. That meant, of course, that we had a café con leche and half of a tostada at the outdoor café in front of the Benijófar Consum, and when we went the next day to Ciudad Quesada on an errand, we had to have another café at the Halfway House, our usual haunt close to the post office.

I've also completely emptied--in record time--the large suitcase I brought with me, and have put the books, medicines. toiletries, clothing, and paperwork in their proper places, and actually dealt with some of the paperwork (and all of the laundry). I've caught up on some work that was pending, suffering the trauma of transferring files that are supposed to be compatible but aren't always, back to my regular computer. This morning we went to the Zoco outdoor market to buy almonds, prunes and raisins for breakfast, and whatever fruits and vegetables looked good for the coming week, or at least the coming days, because the heat now means that fresh produce doesn't keep as fresh as it does during the cooler months. Strawberry season has definitely gone by, so I was glad that I had had strawberries in Cincinnati,, and though raspberries and blueberries are available here at high prices for tiny portions, they don't taste as good as the ones I enjoyed while away. We sat this morning in a bit of shade with another café con leche and listened to the various languages around us and watched the people all dressed to withstand heat in various ways, while still enjoying their holiday or daily lives.

I am moving slowly and the days seem long because, well, they are. It always takes a few nights to adjust to six hours' time difference between Eastern U.S. time and Spanish time. It's even harder this year, because it's time for the Benijófar summer festival, and that means that just as I am ready to settle down to try to sleep through the night at 11:00 PM or so, the thumping music of a fiesta in action starts up, and it continues into the wee hours--until 7:00 this morning, according to Johannes, but I had finally dropped off to sleep some time after 3:30 and slept peacefully until 9:00.

Tomorrow I will see my Spanish teacher/book discussion partner and Tuesday I will go to play petanca, and by then I hope to be back in this time zone and back into the regular routine of summer, which often involves staying inside in air-conditioned comfort (not central, but effective and quiet on a room-by-room basis) and generally taking it easy and not moving too fast. We have a few weeks before leaving again for a summer vacation together, and I intend to enjoy them in a suitably leisurely fashion.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Angel's Game

This Sunday my body is not in Spain, but my mind is. I am catching up on reading The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, the July title for my book club. I started it more than a week ago, on the plane from Madrid to Chicago, and I figured then that if I read 25 pages per day I would be able to finish it before the discussion day. It's a long book--500 pages--and that fact, plus the fact that we are discussing it in English, means that I am reading it in English. I beat my goal on the flight over, reading three days' worth. But then I laid it aside and didn't pick it up again until yesterday. As of Sunday mid-day I have made it to page 204.

Like Zafón's previous Shadow of the Wind, which I have also read, this book takes place in Barcelona. There is lots of description of the city, with so many street names named that I feel I should be reading it with a city map open next to the book.  Thanks to our mini-vacation in Barcelona last Christmas, I am familiar with more of the city landmarks than I was when I read Shadow of the Wind. The Angel's Game starts in December of 1917, and it was particularly interesting to read of David Martín's excursion to the building site of Sagrada Familia cathedral, then apparently a deserted building site, before more recent construction, which had been on-going in fits and starts since 1882, was begun anew and continued more regularly. He also spends time near the architect Antonio Gaudi's Park Güell,  which I visited for the first time last December, and I understand perfectly what the cab driver meant when he dropped David off late one night and asked if he was sure he wanted to be dropped off there.

I am not now making notes of all the addresses in The Angel's Game, but I am making a note to keep the book. I think on my next trip to Barcelona I'd like to take one of those historic tours that point out sites from Shadow of the Wind, and presumably now also, The Angel's Game. Or at least find the tower house in which our protagonist lives in the Borne district near the Rambla. To say nothing of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

On the Road to Albir

We started out to Albir on Friday this week. It had been a long time since we took a day trip to see something new in this part of the world, and Friday petanca had been cancelled, and I was ready to get out after sending a lot of time at the computer through the week.

Albir is on the Mediterranean coast, north of Alicante and north of Benidorm. We were curious because we knew a lot of Norwegians live there--it seems that every time we read either of the two free Norwegian newspapers, they are always mentioning attractions and services in Albir. We also knew some people who had lived there once, and we wanted to see what it was like.

There is a choice of roads leading north of Alicante, though whether you end up on the free coastal N-332 or the inland toll road, AP-7 (or 70 as it inexplicably is sometimes called on road signs but not on our map), can be a matter of chance rather than choice, at least for us. So it was on Friday, when we suddenly found ourselves at a wide string of toll booths strung across the highway. No matter, we knew we would be driving for another half hour or more, so we didn't mind taking the toll road. Of course, choosing the right lane to go through is always a challenge, because the icons that indicate electronic payment or credit card acceptance or cash or a human attendant are never very clear, especially when they flash in the strong sun. We picked one that looked as though it would have a human attendant, but when we got to the little cabin where we expected to see a human, there was nobody in sight. It took a couple minutes, but then we realized that all we had to do was push a button and take a ticket, just like you do when you enter a parking garage.

And then, 45 minutes later, when we were ready to exit the toll road--at the exit closest to Albir but beyond it, at Altea--we had to once again play the "which lane do we go through? game. We wanted to pay with cash, or if necessary, by credit card, as we don't have an electronic automatic deduction account. We were poised for the lane on the far right--that would be where a human would be, wouldn't it?--but then we saw a car go sailing through, obviously with some sort of sticker being sensed automatically. I looked and didn't see any human--anywhere, in any of the lanes. Oh, well, there was another lane with two cars ahead of us: we would just get in line and watch them closely to see what the procedure was.

The car in front of the car in front of us was having problems. I could see that the driver slipped the ticket into a slot on the left. Then she opened her car door, because apparently she wasn't close enough to reach the money slots, and put a bill in a basket for money on the right side of the toll booth. The basket didn't move. Neither did the lane barrier. Neither did the car. But we did. We backed out...and tried the next lane. I could still see the driver that was stopped. And I thought I could hear a disembodied voice giving her instructions on what to do.

But now we were at the business part of our toll booth. We put the ticket in the slot on the left. Either something flashed or we heard another disembodied voice--I can't remember--tell us that we owed 5 euros and change. Ah, that was the problem, we could see immediately. The other driver had put the 5 euro note into the change basket, which was, of course, unable to sense its value.With the benefit of quite a few minutes of observation by now, we slid the 5 euro note into the slot for bills, which sucked it up immediately. Then we fished around until we found some coins for the centimos that we owed, and threw those into the small basket on the right of the machine. They made a lovely rattle as they went down a chute.

Bingo! The barricade went up, and we never got the disembodied voice giving us instructions, although we did wonder where the voice had come from, whether there was actually a person in one of the ten or twelve lane cabins or whether the voice was completely manufactures. Hopefully we will never have to find out!

Another technological challenge met! We proceeded on our way. But we can't help but think that one way to help the Spanish unemployment situation would be to employ a couple humans at the toll booths.