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Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Lay Flat to Dry"

When we lived in our dream house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, our next-door (across the street) neighbor would often hang her laundry out to dry. Even in the dead of winter, if there were a sliver of sunlight or a breeze, or (rarely) both, she would march out to the square metal laundry line structure with a heavy basket of laundry to hang the clothes out. Later she would retrieve them--at least they disappeared. Last week they emailed us that they had moved from their dream house in New Hampshire and were now living in Florida. I imagine her still hanging out clothing, but she has a lot better weather to hang it out in now.

I never hung laundry out until I moved to Spain. I didn't even hang it out when I first moved to Spain. When we lived in Roquetas we were in a second-floor (third to Americans) apartment, and although some of the apartments had laundry lines strung outside their kitchen/utility window (I did, too, now that I think of it) I never used an outdoor clothesline except for the occasional kitchen towel. I had a clothes dryer, a tumble dryer as it is usually called in English here, in my utility room, and that is what I used to dry the clothes.

When we moved to the Torrevieja area the first time, we rented a tiny house with a terrace that was larger than the house itself, and there was no utility room. I learned to hang the laundry outside. When we moved to our present house four years ago, the clothes washer was, as often is the case in Europe, in the kitchen, and there was no room for a clothes dryer.

Fortunately the washing machine gave out soon, and I quickly took the opportunity to relocate the laundry to the upstairs terrace. Now the new washing machine and a new tumble dryer happily live inside a large polystyrene structure originally designed for storing outdoor furniture or garden equipment; but a washing machine and a dryer fit in there comfortably, both the top and the front doors open to provide access, and they are out of view when not needed.

But I rarely use the tumble dryer, because I also have a four-line clothesline on the wall above the washer/dryer shed, and I can pull out the lines and hang the laundry on them to dry. I have gotten used to hanging the laundry. I like the break it gives me from my work in my office, the short exposure to the sun and fresh air, the mild exercise of stretching to pull the lines out and hang the clothing. And neither of the two European clothes dryers I have owned--nor any of their competitors that I looked at--have anything that resembles a permanent press cycle anyway.

So I hang my clothes, and over time I have come to prefer wooden clothes pins (pegs to the British) over plastic, because the plastic ones seem to snap and break easily, and I have learned to hang shirts and nightgowns and the occasional dress inside out, to minimize fading in the sun and also in case the wooden clothes pin stains the cloth. I hang pants with one leg on each of two lines--different from any of my neighbors, I realize, but I like it that way. Lest you think I am immodest by hanging pants with the crotch up and open, I assure you that I hang underwear one side up and one side down, behind shirts or other outer garments. I have myself driven down the road when the laundry was out and know that you can't see the line from the street, and the only neighbors who might see the line would have to walk way out to the corners of their terraces to do so. But I still preserve the niceties.

Recently, however,  I have realized that two or three of my favorite old sweaters and jackets have developed extra-long sleeves and are beginning to droop lower down on my hips than they used to. That must be from hanging them on the clothesline to dry, I finally figured out. I had forgotten about that admonishment in the inside label on sweaters in my youth that said "Lay flat to dry."

That's because I never had hung anything out to dry; I always used a clothes dryer. By the time in my life that I might have been paying attention to the "Lay flat to dry" instructions, I usually bought miracle fiber sweaters that dried quite nicely without shrinking in the clothes dryer. If they didn't go in the dryer, they went to the dry cleaners. And then we got home dry cleaning, with bags and a scented cloth for three or four garments at a time--in the clothes dryer, on the gentle or permanent press cycle.

I have enough room on the top of the washer and the dryer in their shed to stretch out a "Lay flat to dry" garment if ever I buy a new one. It's too late for the old ones. I have tried washing them and then putting them in the clothes dryer on hot to try to shrink them. That doesn't seem to work, but I'm not giving up yet, and will continue to dry them that way, or to lay them flat, so they don't stretch out even more. One is a nice white natural cotton pullover sweater that I wear a lot in the spring. The other is a beige and white all-natural cotton cardigan jacket that still has its Vermont Country Store label visible in the neckline. It is older than I care to admit, but I love it, and I have bought two pairs of slacks to replace those that came with it when I purchased it during the days I drove I-91 between Connecticut and New Hampshire to work each week. I can't throw that away.

"The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming"

Never in all my wildest dreams when I was growing up during the Cold War did I envision the Russians coming to save an economy in trouble.  They probably aren't going to save Spain's economy single-handedly now either, but the new prosperous younger Russians (who were not around during the Cold War) are certainly having a positive effect in tourism and immigration to Spain.

We sat this morning in one of the outdoor cafés at the Sunday market, enjoying sharing a bratwurst and a beer, listening to the voices of what sounded like a Russian couple at the next table, and reading a story in RoundTown News reporting on a group of 30 Russian travel agents that had visited Torrevieja this past week and, apparently, painted the town red. They saw more sights in their week-long junket than I have seen in the four years I have been here! Well at least I have a number of events to put on my "to-do" list--the "floating museums" in the port area being at the top.

There are now almost 5,000 Russians on the padron (the town register), which means that they stand second only to the British as the largest group of foreign residents in the area. Lots of Russians are coming here to make this their permanent home, and lots more are coming to buy second homes--there are reportedly two direct flights each week between Alicante and St. Petersburg during the summer season.

I have never studied Russian and am not really sure that I can distinguish the language from some others, but I may have an opportunity to get more familiar with it in the coming years.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The New Look

Sharp-eyed readers may notice a new look for Sundays in Spain this week. I would like to say that this redesign is the result of considerable introspection and planning, but in fact it comes after I managed to destroy the old look while trying to refresh my memory about how to create a blog. I am setting up another blog to archive some professional writing I have done over the years, and I was playing around with the different templates that Blogger offers when suddenly I realized that I couldn't get back to the original one.

Fortunately all was not lost. I have been writing Sundays since October 2008 and I can see now by my statistics that as of today I have published 245 posts. There is nothing earth-shattering in these web pages but nevertheless I would have hated to lose the content, as it constitutes the best record I have of the last four and a half years of my life. I have also begun to use my writing as a reference, so, for example, I can search it to find out when the next tapas festival can be expected to take place, or what was the name of the town where we took that interesting bus trip to the winery. So I was glad that all posts survived the mishap, and I spent enough time investigating the software, which has changed in the last few years, to see that I can download the content into a backup file on my computer, and I did that. One can also back up the template, I read, but too late.

While catching up with new features, I found two to incorporate in my impromptu redesign. The one of broadest use is the list of Labels on the right column, below the Blog Archive of dates of previous posts. Although I usually assign two or three tags, or subject terms, to each blog post, I have not been terribly rigorous about keeping the subject listing orderly. I've pruned some subjects, so it's only the top 40 or so that appear here. They correspond to my major themes and concerns (bureaucracy, celebrations, economy, and Spanish language, among others; they also list a number of places: Alicante, Barcelona, Madrid, and Montebello. Clicking on any of the labels brings up the posts where that label is assigned, thus providing another way to search my written memory in addition to the long keyword search bar at the top of the page just below the banner. I hope to re-think the labels and go back through the postings to reclassify them at some point in the future--in my old librarian days we called this a "recon project"--retrospective conversion--but no one calls it that anymore and not many do it, either.

The second feature is perhaps the most immediately noticeable. It is the Translate dropdown menu near the top of the right-hand column that says Select Language. You can pull that down and choose Danish, or Spanish, or Azerbaijani or just about anything else you care to, and almost instantaneously the blogpost will be translated by Google into that language. I've been watching Google Translate for several years now, and it's not perfect but it's getting better. I've had fun browsing the translations, though I haven't yet read anything closely enough to take them up on their offer to provide better words.

As I said in another post way back in October 2008, I started this blog for discipline and to force myself to learn something about blog and image software. I'm still learning! But the primary reason is to keep my family and friends informed about my life here, should they care to check in now and then. So I am especially delighted and flattered that the Google Translate gadget has already brought me a new regular reader from among my family in Argentina.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Overnight in Madrid

We made an overnight trip to Madrid this week, just for the purpose of picking up a new passport at the Danish embassy and then leaving it, together with my own new passport, at the Vietnamese embassy. They needed these to process our visa application for the trip we have planned in late August following the World Library and Information Conference of IFLA in Singapore. Our train left from Alicante just after noontime on Thursday and we arrived in Madrid's Atoche Renfe station at 3:15. Amazingly we managed to catch the underground metro mass transit to Serrano station and get into the Danish embassy before 4:00. It took about a half hour there and then we were back in the metro to Santiago Bernabeû station. When we came up to the surface I saw a huge structure. If I were a sports fan I would have known earlier that we were headed for the stadium where Real Madrid plays. I am not a big fan of professional soccer, but even I can recognize an important landmark like this one. There were several groups of people in the green median on one side, photographing themselves and their friends. We could have stopped and spent time there, but we had to walk a few blocks to the Vietnamese embassy, and they were staying open a little late just for us.

We found the embassy after having walked the full length of two sides of the stadium and then three or four more blocks, up a hill. The business didn't take long, and when we were finished, moving on toward 6:00, we stopped finally to catch our breath and rest with a cold drink and a small montadito sandwich at a café back toward the stadium and station. Then it was back underground for yet another metro ride to the hotel, more correctly the hostel, where we had reserved a room. As we made our way through a couple subway connections we realized with glee that we had absolutely nothing else that we had to do before our return train left at 2:00 the next afternoon.

Every time we go to Madrid we stay in a different section of the city, depending on where we need to be in this huge metropolis and what has on offer. This time we got off the metro at Sevilla station, one stop past Puerta del Sol, the Times Square of Spain. We walked south and realized soon that we were in a very old part of Madrid. Many of the buildings along the very narrow streets had intricate ceramic tile designs at their gates, and even the street signs were ceramic. We found the small hostel after passing right by it the first time, so intent were we on observing the various restaurants we passed by, wondering whether we should have an Indian or Peruvian meal later on this evening.

For that is always the issue with us when eating dinner out in Spain. Just how late would we have to wait for the restaurant to open its doors for the evening cena? Since many people work until 9:00 it is no at all uncommon for a restaurant's kitchen to be unavailable for hot meals until 8:30. On occasion we have observed that a place may open at 8:30, and in very extraordinary circumstances, 8:00. After checking in and finding our room,  I spent an hour browsing Maps on the iPad in search of what was interesting, within easy walking distance, and opened early.

When we left our room at a little after 8:00 it was still light and pleasantly warm outdoors and we stepped into a bustling evening world. I had despaired of finding a convenience mart in his old part of the city, but on the first corner we spied a cellar store and popped in to buy water and a little wine to take back to the hotel. But, revitalized now, we continued walking among throngs of people of all ages out enjoying the early spring evening--hundreds at sidewalk cafes or, like us, moving along the streets to do some end-of-day shopping or to meet someone. We sauntered through several blocks, pausing on occasion to check a menu--I had decided by now that I didn't want much to eat--not one of those voluminous three course Spanish evening meals--but I wanted something hot. Pizza would do, so would soup. Trying to decide among a huge selection of tapas would be too much trouble.

Finally we found ourselves on Calle de las Huertas, Orchard Street would be the direct translation, though I think first of a garden of vegetables (hortalizas) rather than fruit trees when I hear the word huerta. And I found vegetables. The picturesque brick-walled restaurant that we wandered into after seeing pasta on the menu posted outside the open doorway was full of people at the bar but had no one else in the dining area. It was, after all, not yet 9:00. Johannes had the pasta, but I spied a vegetable wok dish listed as one of the house specialties. In meat-heavy Spain, this may have been designed as a family side dish accompaniment to more protein-heavy entrees, but I had it alone, with just a small glass of warm soy sauce for dunking. My hortalizas on Calle de la Huerta included long thin slices of peppers in three shades, onions, mushroom, carrots and green beans, at least, all stir-fried to perfection, still crunchy. It was delicious, and I felt satisfied and virtuous--at least until the excellent bread came when I was almost finished--then the virtuous feeling disappeared, though satisfaction did not.

During our entire supper we were entertained with the sound of a street music duo just outside the open door, a young woman playing oboe and a young man playing a trombone. Their selections were eclectic and lively, some jazz, some klezmer, some haunting, some indescribable. We talked with them when we left the restaurant. He is from France, she from some country that we did not find out in Africa. They are two-thirds of a group called Conchindon (the third plays banjo).  They gave us some links, so you can listen and catch the spit, too.

They were packing up as we talked, or rather, they looked as though they were packing up, because the police had been by and I guess they didn't have a license to play street music. Indeed if everyone who plays street music in Spain had to pay money for a  license, there might not be a financial crisis going on. On the other hand, if the police really make young, struggling, but enthusiastic musicians keep quiet if they can't afford a license, the city is going to be a much more somber place.

We continued on our way after wishing them well. We meandered back to our hostel, people watching all the way. There were still people in the streets and at cafes, and now in restaurants in large groups having dinner. We had found a delightful part of the city and looked forward to exploring it more in the morning, when it would be equally interesting but not quite so magical.

The Train to Madrid

It's been a long time since we drove to Madrid. Taking the train is so much more relaxed. The train from Alicante to Atocha Renfe station in the center of Madrid takes only 3 hours and 15 minutes, and there are several to choose from throughout the day. You buy a reserved seat, and you travel in comfort, with plenty of leg room and  free auriculares (earphones) to listen to music or watch a movie. Granted, it is invariably a movie in Spanish, also with Spanish subtitulos, and the subtitles are small enough unless you are sitting in the row immediately in front of the screen that they neither help nor hinder. I was sitting halfway back in Coche 4 and together with the distance and the glare from sun pouring in through the window next to my seat, I couldn't see all that well anyway. Still, I take the opportunity to view a dubbed-in-Spanish movie for free as the opportunity to have a Spanish lesson for free, so I followed along in between looking out the window at the passing scenery at beautiful, rolling hills, sometimes revealing freshly plowed terrain.

It's always interesting to guess what the name of the movie is and where it is from. When the language of a movie changes from its original, the title changes, too, and it usually isn't just a direct translation of the original. I had missed the opening credits, too--just looked up from the book I had been reading for my real Spanish class on Monday and noticed that the screen had switched from black with a DVD logo on it to live action, so I switched the dial from the pleasant American jazz I had been listening to in the background. This movie was about baseball, so I suspected it was originally an American movie. I became more sure when I thought I heard some talk about Carolina del Sur, but I don't know of any baseball team in South Carolina. However, at one point I heard the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, so there was no doubt. I followed the story loosely about a lawyer daughter of an aging man who had been, I gathered, a baseball star earlier in his life, but now was just getting old.

This turned out to be a rather long movie, and we were soon to roll into the end station when the action concluded, without any crescendo, I must say, and the title appeared on the screen: Curvas de la Vida. Now I'm home and I've taken the trouble to use the Internet to find out what it was I saw. To begin with, I hadn't realized that the old thin man I saw in the distance was Clint Eastwood. The movie, in English, is Trouble with the Curve, surprisingly a very recent (2012) film.This review from a Charleston newspaper makes me realize that I missed what was probably the funniest scene in the picture by not seeing the very beginning.

Oh well. I enjoyed practicing my listening skills, and I excuse myself for not recognizing the aging Clint Eastwood from a distance by virtue of the fact that I didn't ever hear his voice--amazing how important the voice is to one's persona, I now think. I also enjoyed the scenery outside the gently rolling train as we made our way through the countryside going toward Madrid, and the sky really was as blue as it shows in the picture above. Next month a high-speed train is supposed to open between Alicante and Madrid--we've seen workers laying tracks and renovating the station for months. It should cut an hour off the trip, and I suppose we will take it once to see what it's like, but I doubt that I will be tempted to pay the assuredly higher price too often. Why do that if it will interfere with my language and film education?

Hotel Amenities

When we first came to Spain, almost ten years ago, we almost always stayed at three- or four-star hotels when we traveled within the country. Even though I have enjoyed many nice hotels in the United States, usually during professional conferences, I was impressed. There was often a huge hot and cold buffet breakfast included, and the amenities in the bathroom did not end with miniature bottles of  shampoo, conditioner, and hand lotion, but also included individual packages of a toothbrush and toothpaste, shaving kits, shoe horns, combs, packs of pañuelos (paper handkerchiefs) and make-up removal cloths. There was a lovely system then, whereby you went to the nearest travel agency, paid 40 or 50 euros up front, and the agency secured your night's stay at a luxury hotel and gave you a voucher to present upon check-in, which, for some reason had to be by 6:00 PM. I think now it was a development plan to help subsidize both the travel agents and the hotels. At any rate, it doesn't seem to exist any more, a casualty, no doubt, of "the crisis" and the widespread use of the Internet. Why go to a travel agent to book a hotel when you have and TripAdvisor?

So now we choose our hotel on the Internet, but that is not all that has changed. Prices have gone up considerably. The bountiful breakfast is less bountiful now, and usually it is an added charge--but that's not bad because it's better for the budget and the waistline to go to the nearest café and get a café con leche and a tostada for two or three euros. The amenities are not quite as plentiful or varied as they were in the past, either.

Our requirements now are simply to find lodging in a location that is convenient to get to, regardless of our mode of transportation (which now is often train rather than car) and convenient to where we are going (the airport, embassies, a cultural event, whatever). Location, price, and free wi-fi in the room are the three things we look for now. Lately we have been trying a type of lodging that has always been around, but we had overlooked it: the hostal. The hostal, hostel in English, has improved since the days of congregate dorm-type rooms of our youth. In most hostels one can still rent a bed in a dormitory with a shared bath down the hall, I guess, but you can also rent a private room with its own en-suite bath, a flat-screen TV, air conditioning, and, most importantly, free in-room Internet access. In Spain as in the U.S., it seems that the lower the price of the room, the higher the chance of free access, whereas the higher the price of the room, the more you will be expected to pay for this everyday utility.

This overnight in Madrid we stayed in our third hostal--we used one in Barcelona at Christmas, and another one, in a different part of the city, when we were in Madrid earlier this spring. Both had been perfectly adequate, and this one was, too, especially for 50 euros in the center of the city. It was a large room in an older building, but it had been totally and rather artistically renovated. There was a toilet in a separate room that may have formerly been a closet, a shower (no bathtub) in a different separate "closet," and a sink in the room itself. But there were two large beds with good mattresses and comforters with beautiful and perfectly ironed white covers, both overlooked by a Picasso self-portrait reproduced on the wall, a funky full-length mirror, nice and easily manipulated persiana blinds on the two wide windows, the flat-screen TV, and a view of the fire escape when the blinds were open--but it was a view of a purple-painted fire escape. Then, too, this was as green as any hotel/hostel I have been in. A sign on the wall gave ten tips for sustainability, and they weren't just "throw your towel on the floor if you want a new one; hang it up if you will use it again" in ten languages. Did it even mention saving water? It didn't need to, because the shower stayed on for only ten seconds, though you could then push the handle again and again, as many times as you wanted, but each time you could feel guilty about using water.

Amenities were few--and far between, as one would expect with separate toilet, shower, and hand-wash facilities. If fact, there were none of the usual or formerly usual amenities. Soap and shampoo were provided from a dispenser in the shower room. There wasn't even a hair dryer (waste of electricity, probably). But there was one amenity that I had never had provided in a hotel before. When I went to hide my iPad under the pillow on my bed prior to going out for dinner, I found a soft cloth bag hanging from the rung of the bed frame. Upon inspection, I discovered that it held a tiny package--one handily placed condom.

There was a bag on the other side of the bed, too.