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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.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

International Living

This Sunday marks a week that we have been back in Spain since returning last Sunday from a short week's trip to Copenhagen. We had an even better time in Denmark than we usually do, for the weather was glorious--sunny every day, from before 6:00 AM or earlier, and it was light to well after 9:30 PM. We had to remember to close the curtain in our top-floor hotel room so as not to be awakened too early when the sun made its appearance. All in all the weather was as good as, and maybe even better than, what we had left behind in Spain that week.

There wasn't a lot to write about Spain while in Denmark. We heard a few Spanish voices as we came into town from the airport (the plane, after all, had brought us--and others--directly from Alicante) and as we walked through the city for the next four days. Once we happened upon two couples in animated Spanish discussion about which direction they should go in, and without much conversation we gave them one of our maps and left them to come to some sort of agreement among themselves.

Every year when we go to Denmark we try to do something a little different, and this year it was a canal tour. Amazingly I had never been on one, although I have walked by the canal tour boats in Copenhagen's Nyhavn (the New Harbor) countless times. This one was a guided tour of an hour and a half, and the brochure said it would be narrated in three languages: Danish, English, and "another" language. I wondered how they would choose the third language and what it would be--German, perhaps, or French, or maybe Russian or Polish or another east European language, for there has been much immigration from eastern Europe all over western Europe, including to Denmark. Maybe even one of the Middle Eastern languages, though the immigrants from that part of the world have done a wonderful job of learning Danish, it seems to me. It was none of those languages, though, for as the narration started we were welcomed first with Velkommen, then Welcome, and then Bienvenidos! The first, and maybe the only time in my life when an official tour is conducted in the three languages that I understand. I felt right at home.

The evening before we left on our trip we were in Torrellano at our favorite hotel there, where we often stay when we have a flight leaving or arriving at some ungodly hour (this one left at 6:30 the next morning). A couple that we have gotten to know in Spain came out to join us for a light and early supper, so we could get back to the hotel for a little sleep before getting up at 4:00. It turned out to be a farewell dinner of sorts. We were, of course, off on our annual or (lately) semi-annual one-week trip to Denmark; they were scheduled to leave the following day for two months of touring in the cities and along the rivers of Europe, something they have done every summer that we have known them. But they also noted that this year, they would not be returning to Spain at the end of the summer to live.

Our friends' marriage, somewhat like ours, involves two nations, but they have lived in Spain more years than we have, in three different parts of the country. They are not the only people we know who have made a decision to move on because of new financial reporting requirements that have gone into effect in Spain, but they are the closest to us. The new "declaration of foreign assets" requirements put in place by Spain, or the European Union, or just by the fact of modern international living in a post 9/11, post-Economic Crisis of 2008 world, have been making life difficult and uncomfortable for almost everyone in the various expat communities, but especially for those who are living off investment income earned and/or maintained outside of Spain. Which would be most retired people, of course.

 I won't tell you exactly what the financial declaration requirements are, because I don't have a prayer of stating them correctly. Every newspaper and advice column, every financial adviser, and  every government official gives you a different interpretation, and that is a large part of what makes this new reality difficult and uncomfortable.

So the four of us sat together for a couple hours and enjoyed dinner (I had a wonderful salmorejo with jamón serrano) and talked about life and change and travel, and speculated about what country we might be in when next we saw each other.

This morning the two of us made our usual Sunday morning trip to the outdoor market to get fruit and vegetables and frutos secos (almonds, raisins, and prunes) for the coming week. We had missed the market last Sunday, since our plane had not brought us back to Spain until the afternoon.  As usual, we stopped for a café con leche, this time at a different little coffee shop, where we were delighted to discover that we could still get a good cup of coffee--and a big one, though it came in a glass instead of a cup--for just one euro. So we sat in a shaded area with a front-row view of all the shoppers strolling by, and enjoyed watching the different people, residents and visitors--you can often tell the difference by their clothing. We listened to the Spanish bread stall owner next door calling out pan del pueblo, pan de leña, and just buenos días, quieres pan? and to the stream of other voices in many languages. We felt at home.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Earth Moved

The earth moved at 5:15 this morning. I was awake. I had already been up and downstairs, as I had heard Goldie getting sick on a piece of grass and went downstairs to comfort her and clean up the floor that had just been mopped clean twelve hours earlier. Johannes was also awake and made coffee. I showed him the Newseum app for his iPad and then took a cup of coffee back to bed with me, upstairs.

I was reading when suddenly I heard a terrible roar and simultaneously felt the house shake. I don't know exactly how long the sound and the shaking  went on. It was long enough for me to feel startled, look up from my book, and then to think with a great deal of certainty, "This is an earthquake." The tremor and the roar stopped, however, before I had a chance to wonder whether I should get out of bed and go downstairs. I looked at the clock; it said 5:15.

The earthquake did not cause us to lose power or our Internet connection, so we started immediately to try to find information about what had happened. A second rumble and tremor came, more distant, at 6:00. It took another 15 minutes before our searches for terremoto España hoy (earthquake Spain today) began to show results from today. The Instituto Geográfico Nacional was reporting an earthquake at 3:18 GMT.  Well, the minute seemed right, but the hour was off. Was what we had felt the first time just an aftershock? Had I slept through the real earthquake?

No, we felt the real earthquake, at around a quarter after 5:00. As the IGN helpfully reminded us on its page, Spain is at GMT+1 hour during the winter, but at GMT+2 when Spain and the Continent move to summer time, because Greenwich Mean Time never changes.

This was not a big earthquake in the realm of possibilities. It measured only 2.7 in magnitude. But 2.7 is definitely noticeable when the epicenter is only a couple miles away from where you are. On the map above, the epicenter is marked with the red star in the town of Rojales, which is where we go to the post office and the banks and the travel agency and frequently for morning coffee. Our house sits on the left side of the yellow highway to the left of Rojales. a little below where the r in Benejúzar is printed.

Fortunately we never heard any emergency sirens after the terremoto this morningBut we'll go out later today and check the house for cracks, just in case. And we'll probably drive over to the hilly area of Rojales and see if there was any damage there.


Postscript on Saturday, June 15: We did drive over to Rojales on Thursday after the earthquake to see if there was damage. We didn't find any, but we talked with some of the artists who lived in Las Cuevas, the caves in the hilly part of the city above the river. Carmen reminded us that caves are one of the safest places to be in an earthquake, and also that it is better to have several small earthquakes occasionally to relieve the underground pressures rather than one big one.

And then we had another one Thursday afternoon at 3:24. Again, I was upstairs, this time in my office at the computer. The rumble was just as loud and the house shook just as it had before. This time I started wondering whether I should go downstairs. But it stopped. This one was centered in Guardamar del Segura, further away to the east of us. Actually it was a little outside Guardamar, in the Mediterranean Sea. At 3.4, it was stronger than the morning one, though I see now that the first one has been upgraded to 2.9 on the Richter scale.

It's been quiet since then.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Playing Cards

Spanish deck printed in Valencia in 1778. Credit: Wikipedia.
Now I can say it is summer: Last Monday was the last Spanish class of the year and we will not meet again until classes start anew in October. My class in conversation celebrated by learning to play the popular Spanish card game Chinchón. It is a variant of gin rummy that can be played with any number of players; here each player is dealt seven cards, and in turn each player takes and then returns one card from the deck (either picking up the last card discarded by the previous player or drawing a new hidden  card from the deck) until one player successfully has turned all the cards in his hand into a set of three of the same number (or more) and/or a run of the same suit (four or more).

I am not much of a card player and it had not occurred to me that this card game would be played with a deck of cards different from the standard deck that I know: four suits (hearts, diamonds, spades, clubs), numbered from 2 through 10 plus the face cards of jack, queen, and king, and plus the ace--52 cards in all. Of course I know that not all card games are played with the standard deck: Old Maid and pinochle come to mind, only one of which I have played in my lifetime, and not recently. But all my myriad solitaire games use the same deck, and I thought it was universal.

It's not universal. The standard Spanish card deck comes with 48 cards: 4 suits numbered 1 through 12, though the 10, 11, and 12 are also face cards. But you don't play chinchón with 48 cards: you play it with 80. It requires two decks, but you take out the 8s and the 9s. Lest you think that means that you can't make a run of 5-6-7-8 or 7-8-9-10 or the like ... technically you can't, but you can make a run that jumps over the missing cards: 5-6-7-10 is a legitimate run, as is 6-7-10-11, and 7-10-11-12. As if it weren't difficult enough to remember the rules without remembering which cards are missing and which come in "sequence"! I was still trying to remember how to say "deck" in Spanish (baraja) and the names of the four suits: oros (gold coins), bastos (clubs), espadas (swords), and copas (goblets). They are said to stem from the Middle Ages.

We were five class members playing, and we went through five or six hands before the first person was knocked out. The object of this game is to get the smallest score. At the end of each hand, when someone successfully gets complete sets, that person gets minus 10 points. The other players count up the number of points in their hand minus the cards that make a set, and that's the number of points each gets. It only takes losing once with face cards in your hand to make you realize how chancy it is to collect those. The first person to get over 100 points is dropped from the game. As each person gets 100, they are dropped, and the winner is the person who still has under 100 points. Betting occurs, though we didn't progress that far in two classes. I did manage to win one hand, with low cards, but that doesn't matter because you still have ten points subtracted from your total score, and I had some to subtract from. I did not win the complete match.

But I did go out and buy a baraja. The cards are quite colorful, to the point of distracting, not at all as easy to manage as two red suits and two black. Then I read the explanation of the Spanish cards in Wikipedia, and I decided to try to enlist some others in playing chinchón and get used to the different system. My teacher says that chinchón is played at most family gatherings and goes on for hours amid talking, drinking, snacking, and gambling. That, undoubtedly, is why two decks are required, though it certainly doesn't explain why you would take out the 8s and 9s. With only one other player, I think we can manage with a single deck for learning.