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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Car Culture

I don't pay too much attention to car models and features, but I was really impressed last Sunday evening when our friends lifted the hatchback on whatever car they have, which they had backed into the diagonal parking space adjacent to the seaside promenade in the town of Santa Pola. The back seat of their car had been removed or folded down to form a long expanse level with the floor of the trunk, and on this "table" were a single lit candle, a vase holding a fresh red rosebud, a bottle of cava and four glasses, and an assortment of tidbits that I learned later were roast duck breast on homemade croutons. It was the pre-dinner anniversary surprise that our 45-years-married friends had planned not just for themselves, but for us.

The bottle of cava was uncorked in a jiffy; music suddenly sounded--from the car CD-player, probably--and the anniversary couple obliged us with a dance on the promenade in front of the Mediterranean. Spanish passers-by stopped to watch the festivities, and upon being told the story, wished them enhorrabuena. It was a touching and very festive little celebration. This was the ultimate of tailgating, I declared, and I tried to explain to this not-American couple the U.S. custom of tailgating for sports events. I failed, and I know I will never again think of tailgate parties without remembering this one.

It has been a week of thinking about cars. Ours stopped, or rather, failed to start, right out in front of our house early in the week. The starter turned and choked, but it just couldn't start. Well, it could have happened in a worse place; we just went back inside, waited for 15 minutes, came back out, and our Ford Fusion started fine. No more problems for a couple days, but then one morning we stopped to drop off papers, bottles, and containers at the recycling bins on the other side of our urbanization, and by the time we had emptied the bags and climbed back into the car, it refused once more to start. Well, at least we were home in our own development, so this time we pushed the car to the curb, locked it, and walked the four short blocks home.

We had been meaning to get it to service anyway--we knew we needed new refrigerant for the air conditioning--so it suddenly seemed as though making the appointment sooner rather than later would be a good idea. When we went up to the bins after an hour's rest, and once again it started up easily, we drove straight to the repair garage, not wanting to strain our luck for a third time. Alas, no loaner car was available for another week, the following Thursday, and we are, here in Spain, a one-car family. Well, maybe our luck would hold out, we thought. But we have a couple important appointments this week that depend on our getting somewhere at a certain time.
Friday morning we both woke up with the same thought. First we drove to our planned coffee date with the small American group we know here, and then we drove in to Torrevieja to the rental agency where we had been such good customers before buying this car four years ago. I stayed in our car with the motor running while Johannes went in to sign the papers for a rental. What a disappointment, though--there were no rentals available! Fortunately we did not drive very far toward home before we found another rental agency. This one had a car to rent. Again, I stayed in our car with the motor running while Johannes went in to do the paper work. Forty-five minutes later (!) we were on our way again, this time straight to the garage, which was happy to get this job ahead of schedule and has tentatively estimated that we should get ours back on Tuesday.

That will be nice, and in addition to diagnosing and fixing the starter situation, they are going to fix the a/c and mount four new tires. We are reminded, especially as we see news of the driving and parking problems in the snow-covered northeast U.S., how little time we spend worrying about our car here--and how little money is spent on maintenance and repairs (not true, though, of the initial cost and gasoline). We never have to think about antifreeze or the effects of salt on the roadways, and even the occasional dusting of Sahara sand that floats over with the rain can be washed off at the one-euro car wash down the street.

For now, though, we don't have to think about washing a rental car, and while we wait for the six-year-old Ford to look and act like new again, we can enjoy the experience of trying out a make that is brand new for me. I would have been happy if we could have rented a smart car, as none of the appointments we have this week involve trips to the airport of carrying friends around, but we didn't have that choice. What was available on no notice was a Tata Vista. That is serving us well, and contrary to what I expected from what I had heard was a "basic" Indian car, this one is at least as large inside as our Ford Fusion. But I am not planning any tailgating party.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Happy Anniversary!

Later today we are going to the seaside town of Santa Pola, to have dinner with Danish friends in an Argentine restaurant run by an Argentine of Danish parentage. It is our friends' 45th wedding anniversary, something that we find hard to believe because they don't seem old enough to have been married for 45 years, but since this year we will also celebrate our own 45th wedding anniversary, if all goes well, I suppose it is possible.

Thursday of this week, which was also Valentine's Day, dawned as a perfect day: sunny, the warmest we have had, and none of the strong winds that have blown through lately. I did a little work and then needed a break from the computer. So did Johannes, so we set out for a drive, and since we knew we would be going to this restaurant later this week but were not sure exactly where it was, we headed the car north to scout out the area.

It's a good thing we did, because Gloria Pérez Sanchez, our GPS lady, seems to have lost her good will and doesn't want to work for us any more. After a couple starts and stops, we found ourselves in the town of Santa Pola, but without any idea of how to find the restaurant. We stopped a couple times to ask directions, and since we were hungry but were nowhere near any restaurant except McDonald's, we ended up having chicken sandwiches at McDonald's for Valentine's lunch. Ironic, since I had not made it to a McDonald's during the three weeks I was in the U.S., and had even held myself back from the one in the Madrid airport, where I am often tempted to have breakfast when I come in from an overnight transatlantic flight and have to wait hours for my flight to Alicante. Here in the Santa Pola McDonald's, we were not alone, and a young couple who knew something of the area directed us to Calle de Mar, taking into account the one-way streets that had always forced us into detours from which we could never escape. We eventually found the restaurant and also the way out of town again, and look forward to meeting our friends there this evening.

It did not occur to me then, but it has since, that this blog, Sundays in Spain, was born in Santa Pola several years ago. I've done some homework during the week and re-discovered my first post, "Al mal tiempo buena cara." That was on October 12, 2008 and spoke of our experience in a small Santa Pola restaurant watching the other diners, one group of whom turned out to be a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, their boda de oro. Fifty years is just five years beyond 45, of course, and I realize now that I have been writing this blog for nearly five years--225 posts--and it doesn't seem all that long. We just might make it to 50.

In the meantime, happy anniversary to all who have any number of years and any occasion to celebrate.

Settling In Again

It has now been just a little over a week that I have been back in Spain, and during that time I have been doing slowly the things I customarily do when I return from my jaunts to the U.S. It wasn't until today that I could get up and say that I had had a normal night's rest--I went to sleep at 11:00 and woke up naturally at 7:00. Every other night in the week I had been awake long into the night, and often took a sleep-inducing PM medication at 2:00 or 3:00 AM, before sleeping until 9:00 AM--unheard of for me normally.

I unpacked two suitcases and received the usual greetings from the TSA, who I have now figured out are not particularly interested in the vitamins, Triscuits, and other curiosities I bring back from home, but do take account of the computer that I pack in the middle of a suitcase so as not to have to display it at various security checkpoints. I managed to get things out of my luggage and move the suitcases to storage a lot earlier than I usually do, though not everything got put away in its proper place until today, and there are still some papers to go through.

I washed clothing. I did not come home with a lot of dirty laundry but a bunch had certainly accumulated in my absence. Fortunately we have been blessed with mostly sunny and surprisingly warm days this week, so hanging clothes out to dry has been a pleasure.

I visited the Sunday outdoor market and my two favorite grocery stores and replenished the refrigerator and freezer with fruits and vegetables for our lunches, and the few frozen dinner items I keep on hand for the evenings when I do not feel like cooking. And I used two of those dinner items (San Jacobos and bollas de patata) last night.

I went to my group Spanish class on Monday and to petanca with the Danes on Tuesday, and our book group held its regular monthly meeting on Wednesday, so in a single week I saw almost all the people in my face-to-face social network. Still remaining is my Danish Spanish teacher, who was under the weather with a recurring cold, but I will see her tomorrow. The small American group also awaits the "Fourth Friday" coffee, but that will be this coming Friday.

I also saw my hairdresser and the optician, to cut off the hair that had grown in the last six weeks and partially replace the eyeglasses I had inadvertently left at my sister's in Cincinnati. I had had it on my agenda to replace those glasses, so this "emergency" made me do it a little quicker than I would have otherwise, and now I am trying to get used to new distance glasses--I gave up on the dream of "three-in-one" distance/reading/sun glasses, which after a year did not do any function really well.

Somehow I also managed to get some professional work done, putting in several hours on the web and with editing, and writing and sending an overdue article that my ever-patient editor greeted with the words "Worth the wait"!

And then I spent all day yesterday reading travel books, chasing down websites, and then making airline reservations for a combined business-vacation trip in August this year! I would have liked to delay this activity and not even think about going off again until I was more settled, but half the world has vacation in August, so it was imperative to get the reservations nailed down while they were still available. But now I can put those notations away and not be concerned with them for another few months, except when I may begin to sense that it has been too long since I had a little adventure outside the routine.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Last night much of the world celebrated Chinese New Year, but in Cádiz, Spain, they celebrated Carnaval. It is a vibrant, colorful, noisy celebration that lasts days (and nights), just as Mardi Gras does in New Orleans, and Carnival does in Rio de Janeiro.

Easter, and therefore Carnaval, comes early this year. I was reminded of it by my seatmate-once-removed (blessings abound whenever there is an empty seat between you and the next person on a plane) between New York and Madrid. She was on her way to Cádiz to celebrate and, I believe, speak at one of the events of the carnaval. Her father, an anthropologist, had passed a sabbatical in a town near Cádiz back in the 1950s; he and his family returned several times over the years, and lived there for long periods of time, so this was a homecoming for my fellow traveler.  Jerome Mintz wrote two books about this part of Spain. The Anarchists of Casas Viejas, originally published in 1983, is a classic oral history and analysis of an incident in the small town of Casas Viejas that happened in Civil War-era Spain and the subsequent Franco dictatorship; it was reissued by Indiana University Press in 2004. Carnival Song and Society: Gossip, Sexuality and Creativity in Andalusia, published in 1997, describes, primarily the songs of carnival and how they evolved from the mid-1960s (still under Franco) through to 1990. Both these books are now on my reading list.

You can get a flavor of the 2013 Carnaval in Cádiz and the importance of the satirical songs here in several clips from El Huffington Post.

A Taste of Tucson

Saguaro cactus,by Gentry George, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
 For three weeks I have been criss-crossing the United States: first in Cincinnati after a layover in JFK airport, then in Seattle via Chicago, then in Tucson after landing in the Phoenix airport, then back to Cincinnati by way of Dallas, and finally back to Madrid and Alicante, through JFK, skirting the snowstorm that battered the northeast and reminded me of the 1978 blizzard. I often find Spanish influences as I pass through my home country, but this time I found even more.

I was enchanted with Tucson, where it seems that half the streets have Spanish names--but not like those on the Spanish streets here, which are often named after cultural and political personages. These names focus more on geographical and topological features. Paseo del Arenal was my headquarters, though the official mailing address is N. Paseo del Arenal, I was told, and I wondered whether that would be Paseo del Arenal Norte or North Paseo del Arenal. In either case, when we ventured out by foot from that nominally sandy area, we encountered other street names that I was happy to be able to recognize: Paseo del Suelo (ground), Paseo de la Cumbre (summit), Paseo del Cenador (arbor, though my first recognition was dining room--probably not the meaning on this street sign), Paseo de la Pereza (laziness, or slowness--perhaps this street was on the way to the cumbre) and Paseo Sereno (not only calm, but also clear or with night dew, I found out when checking my dictionary, but we did not walk there at night, so I don't know).

As we drove I also spied caminos, which seemed to be substantial roads in Tucson, not like the little unnamed service roads, often dead-end, that I see here in Spain. We found mesas and parques and palos verdes and sahuaro, which seems to be a phonetic re-spelling of the characteristic saguaro cactus. I saw lots of cacti at Sabino Canyon, a part of Coronado National Forest, and at Saguaro National Park, as well as a stunning nature video. The Sonoran Desert in Arizona is very different from the Tabernas Desert in Almeria, Spain and provides much more pleasant and varied vistas, and better interpretation.

The Sonoran Desert stretches from Mexico into Arizona--Tucson is only about an hour's drive from the Mexican border--and of course the Spanish influence in Tucson is Mexican, not Spanish-from-Spain. (All the better for the wonderful "modern Mexican" food we sampled at Blanco at La Encantada mall.) There is also a notable American Indian influence, as the area is inhabited by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the Tohono O'Odham Nation. There is much more to see on a subsequent visit.