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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.