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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Spain in the Past Tense

Today is Sunday, December 7, and my life in Spain is now in the past. We left at 8:00 this morning, on a plane flying out of Alicante to Copenhagen. It felt strange to realize that I can no longer be considered a resident of España; even though I still have a residencia card, I know that I am now, once again, a resident of the U.S.--after all, I voted in person at the election in November, we have a year's lease on an apartment, and we have been actively looking for a home to buy. On Friday we put a Se Vende (For Sale) sign on the iron gate to our property in Spain. We have spent hours and hours sorting, throwing out, and packing up possessions to send back, and then recreating a pleasant environment to greet potential buyers. If I can't live here any longer, I want someone else to come along and have a great adventure in this house, as I did.

Right now, though, we both feel sort of brain dead, as we are tired of physical labor, and tired of decision-making, and tired of the knowledge that we are saying goodbye. We will come back to Spain again, we know, but it will probably not be until the house sells, or until it becomes clear that we need to find another sales strategy.

This afternoon we have been walking around Copenhagen in a cold, light drizzle. Copenhagen is a city that we both know and feel comfortable in, and Copenhagen in the rain is not a new experience at all, nor Copenhagen in the cold. If the people we have spoken with here today knew that we have just emigrated from Spain, they would probably think we were crazy. Even if we told them the truth, which is that we just stopped off here for a few days before proceeding on to our new home in the U.S., they would assume that we were on our way to Florida or California or the Southwest, because they can't conceive of anyone voluntarily giving up daily sun for the type of weather we have experienced today and that we can expect to experience in Ohio.

Pop singer Tini's "You Can't Have it Both Ways (this time)"
We had a memorable evening last night in Torrellano, the town near the Alicante/Elche airport.where w have spent many a night preceding an early plane trip. We drove north at 5:00 in the afternoon; it was still light but by the time w had checked into the Doña Isabel hotel, it was beginning to get dark and cold, so at 7:00 we walked out and found a restaurant close by, a new one for us, where we could enjoy a hot meal. It was a Turkish restaurant, and we enjoyed chicken kebabs with rice  and roasted vegetables and a glass of wine--the red wine was undoubtedly more Spanish than Turkish, we agreed. Then we walked back to the hotel and fell asleep early, and woke up a couple times before our 4:30 wake-up call sounded. We had a final breakfast of ham and cheese tostadas and cafe con leche at the Valor chocolate shop after going through security, and a quick run through the Desigual store--it was a good thing that I had absolutely no more room in my carry-on and no more interest in purchasing clothing after the recent purges. Then we went to the gate and were soon on the plane. The Norwegian airline welcome music played "You Can't Have It Both Ways" as we waited for take-off.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Final Days

We have just two more days in our house. Today we took 23 boxes of stuff to the Mailboxes Etc. Office in Torrevieja to send home. 300 kilos, I think they said, though I would have to check the papers to be sure. Some 1200 euros, and I have already checked my bank statement to verify the $1500 deduction.

Then we came home and did a mad sweep through the house to clean up for the cleaners, sweeping bubble wrap, plastic bags, duct tape (cinta americana here), a few remaining shoe boxes and miscellaneous bags behind the closed doors of the bedroom wardrobes, to reside there until we could sort out that mess. While the cleaners were here working their magic (and getting my oven cleaner than it was when I moved in--I should have asked them to do that before!)we took bags of accumulated treasures to two friends and said our last goodbyes.

It's amazing how clean and orderly and peaceful the house looks with 23 fewer boxes of stuff in it. It's not empty by any means. I still need to sort through my jewelry and some old financial papers, as well as throw out a bunch of papers and magazines and old toiletries, and dispose of pantry items. And then on Saturday I get to clean out the refrigerator...  We had our last evening meal here tonight, I just realized, for tomorrow we have been invited to friends and Saturday we will be at a hotel near the airport.

Tomorrow we endeavor once again to get good directions for accessing our bank account here online--we have tried that with this bank before but never succeeded before the temporary access code ran out--but this time we are super-motivated. Then we do the final sorting and disposing to make the house look attractive to potential buyers, and pack up what we will need for three days in Copenhagen. A couple more final visits and passing of mementoes. It is hard to believe we will be back in our U.S. home a week from tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Packing Up

I sit in a mess of packing boxes, piles of stuff, things on and off shelves, and notes. We are in the second week of packing the most important things from this home of almost twelve years that we want to take back with us to Cincinnati. Monday morning--was that only yesterday?--we took ten boxes down to the Mailboxes, Etc. store to have them sent back to us via FedEx, which we have determined costs no more per box than an equivalent piece of luggage as extra baggage on a transatlantic flight. At the time, we thought we were almost done. Not so. I have since packed four boxes of kitchen and dining articles, winter and dressy clothing, and cookbooks and Spanish books, and I still have three big boxes of summer clothes and bed linens, professional books and papers, and "miscellaneous," I estimate, to pack tomorrow.

I have moved several times in my life, not always by choice, and I always dread it. But I thought that the decision-making about what to pack, what to throw away, and what to give away would not be too difficult this time. After all, we had decided to sell the house furnished, and not just furnished, but "move-in ready." So we planned on leaving not only furniture but dinnerware, cutlery, linens, pictures on the wall, even books and office articles--sorted, of course, so that only the functional remained and not the sentimental or worthless junk that tends to accumulate through time and neglect. And we had lived in our new home in the U.S. for more than four months, established ourselves and created an attractive and functional home, and bought the practical things we needed, so we certainly would not be tempted to pack the immersion blender, or the plates and dishes, or the sheets and pillows and table linens, or any of many other things, particularly since many of the things in this house are from Ikea and we only live 15 minutes from Ikea in Cincinnati. We would only have to transport back, we thought, those few items that had sentimental value, or that we might not be able to replace easily in Cincinnati...Danish language books and DVDs come to mind.

Well, I underestimated the amount of clothing that I value. Perhaps I underestimated the number of things that I have purchased in a dozen years here, but the greater problem, I think, is that I underestimated the number of items from the US that I have laboriously packed in my checked baggage or carry-on luggage and transported to Spain during my twice-yearly visits back home. I have now packed up a box of 15 pairs of shoes. I have saved  three pair of boots and shoes and slippers out to wear during the homeward journey (via a side trip of a few days in Copenhagen, which presents its special wardrobe challenges) and I am leaving several pairs here. I haven't sorted my handbags yet, nor my jewelry. And it was only today that I approached my Spanish language books and my cookbooks. I awoke this morning and realized that there were ten or more small items of family mementoes that I keep on the shelves at the foot of my bed: art treasures I made for my grandmothers in elementary school, opera glasses of an old family friend, now deceased, the wooden pipe stand my father-in-law made for my father, a box that a friend here brought me from her trip to  Cuba. We want to finalize the shipment boxes tomorrow or Thursday, and the Mailboxes Etc. store has run out of boxes! We have only three boxes left and I am now at the point where they all are planned and I am slipping small items into each as I find space--the normal accounting and valuation for customs has become somewhat lax.

One of the hardest things has been to sort the remaining items. They can stay and be sold with the house, or they can be given away to charity--we don't really have time to sell them via auction or advertisements, except for the car. I find myself confused because I come across an item that so-and-so would love, or that is perfect as a gift for another so-and-so. So I now have several bags  with name labels on them, which I am filling up with steak knives, Christmas decorations, books, small clothing items, or other household decorations that seem right for a specific person, and I just hope that we have the opportunity to see them and deliver the items before we leave on Saturday. If not, I guess, they will go back into an appropriate place in the house, or possibly in a tiny vacant space in our luggage, though those spaces are few and far between. I hope that doesn't happen, as it gives me pleasure to think of our friends using things that they have enjoyed in our home after we are gone, as it gives me pleasure to think that the buyers of our house--whenever they materialize--may enjoy some of the things that made our life pleasurable while we were here.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving in Spain

We have just finished an extra-large lunch of the leftovers from yesterday's traditional Thanksgiving dinner with three American (or American-connected) friends. It's hard to celebrate the fourth Thursday of November when you are the odd people out.  Spaniards, and Europeans in general, know that Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and eat turkey, but they don't know exactly when, they don't know anything about the real tradition of it, and they certainly don't stop life on a weekday in the fall for a huge foreign celebration. So since one of our American friends in Spain is a mother with kids in school (from approximately 9:00 to 1:00 and again from 4:00 to 7:00 each day), we have often celebrated our national holiday on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We have been to restaurants before, but this year I brought the "fixings" in my suitcase from the U.S.: pecans, canned pumpkin puree, and well-wrapped fresh cranberries. I do wonder whether the TSA ever inspected my cardboard canisters labeled dried plums and raisins well enough to know that substitutions had been made.

Turkey roaster filling the oven in my Spanish kitchen.
Finding a fresh turkey is not always easy. I remember one year that I did manage to order one ahead of time, sight unseen; when I picked it up at the market early in the week, it turned out to be almost 40 pounds(!) and I had a hard time storing it in my refrigerator for a few days and an even harder time getting it into my small oven to roast. This year I had to fall back on a frozen turkey crown from Iceland, where the turkeys for the Brits' traditional Christmas dinner are already selling like hotcakes. I was able to gauge the size somewhat better for our small gathering of five, and I was even more pleased when I got it home that it fit in the cast aluminum Wagner Ware turkey roaster that I had been storing on the top shelf of my kitchen cabinets for years, used seldom but with affection, though never before in my ownership for turkey. I had previously ascertained that the turkey roaster itself would fit in the oven. It did, barely, with no room for anything else to either side, front or back, above or below. When Thursday morning came and I started the food preparations, I was disappointed to discover that the two turkey legs (jamoncitos) that I had purchased to add a dark meat selection to the white meat of the turkey crown would not fit in the roster with the crown, so I did them first and then set the crown in a couple hours before my guests came.

We had a leisurely dinner, from spinach square appetizers contributed by one guest to a fantastic pumpkin pie with lattice crust from another guest, and then sat at the table for hours afterwards talking and doing our darnedest to finish the last inch or two out of some of the various liquor bottles that had accumulated on the bottom shelf of the liquor cart over the years. This was a farewell occasion to some of our best friends. We also had another farewell dinner at our house, on Thursday, with other long-time friends, English, who had humored me several times in the past few years by celebrating Thanksgiving with us. This year we agreed to bypass the traditions of Thanksgiving and have roasted pork tenderloin and seasonal vegetables. That was excellent and easy, but I did give in to purchasing a small turkey tenderloin when I spied it in the grocery store, and throwing it into the oven thirty minutes before the rest of dinner was done, and I offered a cranberry compote with custard for dessert, so there was some tradition on Thursday itself.

We played petanca with our usual group this past Tuesday afternoon, and then on Wednesday evening joined 40 or so other members of the Danish Friends Club of Torrevieja for a club dinner at a restaurant in the La Siesta area--a restaurant where we had eaten for our first meal out when we came to explore Torrevieja six years ago, now re-opened under new management. Most of the Danes had heard that we were here to ready our house for selling, and they stopped by to say goodbye and wish us well. Then on Friday I had a lovely visit with my Danish Spanish teacher, that is, the Danish woman who started out teaching me Spanish conversation by discussing books, but who has long since turned from formal teacher into a close friend and fellow reader.

It has been a week of celebratory dinners, and we have been giving thanks throughout for good friends with whom we have shared the joyful, trying, and rewarding experience of living several years in a foreign country.

Tomorrow I pack the turkey roaster to bring it back home to Ohio. As is the custom here, we are selling our house furnished, and in our case that includes cookware and basic dining service, because, frankly, it doesn't pay to ship it home. But not this piece, even though my 15-inch Wagner Ware Magnalite 4265 turkey roaster can be had on eBay for about $80 plus shipping (estimated at $20). My shipping will probably cost that--maybe a little less if you factor in all the small treasures I can fit inside the roaster when I pack it. But even if I were to buy another one, it wouldn't be the same. This roaster is from the town I grew up in, and the company where my father worked during my growing-up years. It is nearly as old as I am--maybe older. And it has cooked some wonderful meals for special friends in various locations throughout the years.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

It Feels Like Home

We have been away from our home in Spain for almost five months, but we arrived back in Madrid this past Monday, took the cercanias train from Barajas airport to Atocha station, got on the long-distance train southeast out of Madrid, and arrived in an expanded and refurbished Alicante main train station mid-afternoon to weather that was warmer and sunnier than Madrid, and much warmer and sunnier than the Cincinnati we had left on Sunday. From the Alicante terminal we wheeled our suitcases across the street to the car rental place, and soon we were driving the familiar route back to our house in Algorfa.

It has been a busy week of reacclimating ourselves to the time zone--six hours earlier than east coast United States time--and there have been many sleepless nights. But the days have been filled with the little rituals of our life here, as well as preparations for the bittersweet task at hand: readying the house to put it on the market.

This morning we took our traditional Sunday morning tour of the Zoco outdoor market, buying raisins, almonds, and prunes at the frutos secos stand for our breakfast, carefully selecting several small but really red and hopefully fresh tomatoes, scooping up the recent Norwegian free newspapers (we had already rounded up most of the free English papers during the week), and having a cafe con leche and people watching at our favorite outdoor cafe bar. We also saw three of our favorite couple friends from the Danish club and promised to talk more the coming week at Tuesday and Wednesday petanca, which we had not felt energetic enough to go to in the first two days after the transatlantic trip.

Speaking of transatlantic, I enjoyed discussing the book TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann, with my book group buddies on Wednesday morning. We had a longer and deeper discussion than many we had had in the past. I will really miss these women, individually and as the group they have become and will remain even though I won´t be present. On Friday we met other friends for coffee in Algorfa center at Badulake restaurant after their weekly Spanish class, the one I used to also attend, and where one of my classmates had happened to mention casually a couple years ago that her husband was American...and we have enjoyed each other ever since. On Monday evening we had a meal with good friends and neighbors in our Montebello community, taking pleasure in their company and the fact that Monty´s is again open under new management, with an excellent chef--and working Internet, which we also took advantage of. Our own Internet connection, we discovered, was dangling by a thread (of microwave antenna) after a severe storm last month, but it got repaired on Wednesday within 24 hours of reporting it and we were once again able to send email and load web pages--and live normally.

We did much more during the week, and we had the interesting experience of feeling that there had not been many changes, and that it seemed like just yesterday or last week that we had also been here. It still feels like home, or it again feels like home. We will really enjoy seeing more of our friends and remembering the wonderful experiences we have had living in this area for more than five years. And now, off to lunch with some friends who we also knew in our first home in Spain, in Roquetas de Mar, ten years ago. We have a lot to talk about.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hasta la próxima!

Sundays in Spain will be taking a siesta for the next several months, as our life in Spain is also taking a rest. We have moved on to a new residence in the city of Cincinnati, state of Ohio, country of the United States of America. We will return to Spain for the winter, si diós quiere, and I will post here again at that time.

In the meantime I have started a successor blog, Sundays in Cincinnati, where I will continue to write weekly, usually on Sunday, but this time about my life in Cincinnati. Please join me there.

Hasta la próxima!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Changes in the neighborhood

We've experienced a number of life-changing events in our neighborhood here in Montebello over the past several weeks.

A lady who lived just a few doors down from us died. It was not unexpected: she had been battling brain cancer for over a year, and by the time the end came, it was probably a blessing for her, for her elderly husband, and for the daughter who had come from England--several times and for long periods--to care for them both. During the last trip the daughter stayed for a few days after the funeral, taking care of details and managing the house for some relatives who had come from abroad for the services and stayed a bit. Then at the end of the visit, she and her father drove a couple of the aunts to the airport so the aunts could return to their lives. And in one of those tragic but perhaps right life-changing events, her father dropped dead of a heart attack just minutes after the aunts had disappeared through the security gate. The poor daughter, certainly shocked, organized and went through the funeral of her father just days after the funeral of her mother.

A happier occasion in our little corner of Montebello was marked at the end of May. On an unusually dreary Monday (Memorial Day in the U.S, but not here, of course) we returned very early from a quick morning run to the post office to find a young man applying jumper cables to his car. Not a happy site except for the fact that the man in question was the husband of a neighbor, a young woman with two teenage sons. Because of the economic crisis,  the husband had been working and living in England for the past two years and visiting only occasionally.

In spite of a dead battery, the man was cheerful, albeit in a hurry. "Not surprising to have a dead battery after many months of not using this car," he said, "but wouldn't you know--I start a new job this morning!" "Here?" I asked in surprise, and he answered, "Yes."  He got the car started, and when I saw his wife a few days later, she confirmed that he had just gotten a new permanent job in Spain, and that the four of them were, once again, a family living under the same roof. I walked around for days feeling joy for them.

A different life change happened at the beginning of June, but it was a positive one, too. This was the start of a new business, or perhaps it is better to say a revitalized  business. When we moved into our neighborhood five years ago, there was an on-site bar and restaurant, Monty's. Then a second bar and restaurant opened. Two establishments were at least one more than the community of 160-some houses could support. The second one closed, and then, with the deepening and apparently never-ending financial crisis, the first one closed. For a couple months Montebello was without any on-site bar and restaurant at all.

Then we got word that new owners had purchased Monty's. They took a couple weeks to gut the kitchen and replace everything, paint the interior dining room, and do some much-needed cosmetic work on the exterior building. Then they opened the bar. Nice, but we are not the type of customer that can provide sufficient support to keep a bar in business. But then, two weeks later, they announced the opening of the kitchen.

We had a pleasant evening dinner at Monty's at the beginning of June, celebrating our not-so-recent triumph in the neighborhood petanca tournament with friends, who happened to also be observing their 44th wedding anniversary. As it turned out, we realized, they had gotten married just two days earlier and two years later than we had. So we had a nice, relaxed dinner luxuriating in our neighborhood, supporting its revitalization and hoping for stability, and being able to walk to and from without getting into a car.

And now we are ourselves engaged in a major life change.  We are planning to reestablish our residence in the U.S. this summer. I will leave shortly and travel to Cincinnati to take possession of an apartment--and attend my customary summer conference of the American Library Association. Johannes will join me later, after his visa papers are in order. Once we are together in the U.S. again, we will stay there for six months.

We are not leaving Spain forever. For now we are keeping our car and our house here, and we know that we will be very glad to get back to the Costa Blanca when it turns cold and dark in the Midwest next winter. But we are going to be gone for a long time, and that means we have been having some sad good-byes. Or some hasta la proxima's, because (the good lord willing and the creek don't rise) we will return in February.

What I'll Miss (Lo que voy a echar de menos)

Lo que voy a echar de menos (literally, I believe, "that which I would least throw out") was a Spanish expression that took me years to grasp, but I understand it now, and I am thinking about several things that I will miss during the months that I will be away from Spain.

Friends, of course, first of all. We have been in Spain for ten years and in the Torrevieja area of the Costa Blanca for five, and we have benefited from close association with several people with whom we have shared daily experiences and the adventure of living in a foreign country. In different ways, they have broadened our lives and helped us learn. We are grateful, and we will miss them.

Café con leche, both its rich taste and the ceremony of having a single cup of coffee, served in a china cup, almost anywhere and anytime. I remember once coming through Madrid's Barajas airport early in the morning from the U.S., and having to wait hours for a connecting flight to Alicante. As I sat in the semi-conscious stupor that follows an all-night transatlantic journey I heard a racket that I could not identify until all of a sudden I remembered: it was the sound of coffee cups being prepared and served. Café con leche in Spain is a far nicer experience than Starbucks anywhere.

The Sunday outdoor market, which we have just come from and where we usually go each Sunday morning to buy fruits, vegetables and nuts; to pick up copies of the free weekly foreign newspapers; to look at books and clothing and gadgets of ever-evolving description (this is where I first found a stylus for my iPad for just two euros; today I was tempted by a three-euro cava stopper that preserves the bubbles after opening and is liquid-tight to prevent spillage should the opened bottle land on its side); and, of course, to have a café con leche.

Hanging the laundry. I am aware that in many--perhaps most--parts of the U.S. it is forbidden by ordinance or custom to hang laundry outside to dry; the idea, I guess, is that it is unsightly--though it certainly is energy-efficient. I didn't hang laundry out when i was in the U.S. previously and I didn't hang it out when we lived in a second-floor apartment in Roquetas de Mar. In the two houses that we have lived in on the Costa Blanca, however, I have used the terrace for one of its primary purposes in Spain. I have learned the advantages and disadvantages of wooden and plastic clothespins, the value of hanging garments inside out and changing their orientation from time to time. More importantly, perhaps, I have adjusted to the light exercise of bending and stretching and the joy of using the hanging out and taking in of laundry as a welcome break in computer work or reading. Where we are moving to I will use a tumble dryer, as it is called here, much more often than the once-in-a-blue-moon that I use the one that sits gathering dust beside my washing machine here.

The six-hour time difference.  Before we moved to Spain we lived in the Eastern time zone of the U.S. We are going back to the Eastern time zone, although to its western extreme. It can be inconvenient to make phone calls to the U.S. when there are six hours of time difference between you and the person or office you are calling. We have also had to get used to watching the PBS Newshour broadcast the evening before in the following morning, and the like. But there are some advantages to the time difference, the major one for me being that I could be at my computer in the morning hours and have accomplished almost a full day's work by the time my Connecticut colleagues got to their desks. That gave me a "home court advantage" as well as the freedom to be even more flexible in my scheduling. Life is going to be different when I return to "real time."

Petanca. It is the Danish community in the Costa Blanca that introduced us to the game of petanca, and almost without exception we have played petanca once or twice a week during the time we have been here, if not with the Danes, on our own. There is a petanca association in the U.S. but so far we have not found much promise of a club close to where we will be. We are, however, thinking about places where we can draw a petanca field of our own. And we have determined that we can buy petanca balls--far too heavy to transport--at Brookstone.

The sun. The sun, and the light it brings, is one of the factors that brought us to Spain. We have never been "beach people" who sat in the sun for hours in the summertime, but we did live in New Hampshire and in Denmark, two places where there is far less sunshine than in Spain. We knew what long hours of darkness for days on end do to you psychologically, and we suspected--and have now experienced--what days of light do to you psychologically: they make you much happier, or at least more cheerful and content. What I didn't know was the damage that strong sun can do to your body; now that I have had a long bout with an inconvenient skin cancer and some eyesight damage, I am more cautious about walking outside during the daytime, and a bit of the fun of being in this climate is gone. Still, I can't blame Spain for any of my health problems, as genetics and long years of accumulated carelessness certainly played their part--though I do like to imagine that perhaps I wouldn't have wrinkles in some of the places that I do if I hadn't been here.

Spanish classes. I sorted through many of my Spanish class books and papers recently, which I have accumulated from attendance at five different formal language schools. I am taking a couple books to the U.S. and fully intend to continue studying the language--but I acknowledge that I have said that before. It's a poor language teacher who lets you study language in a vacuum, and I am pleased to say that only one of my schools--and I wasn't there long--failed to enhance language lessons with tons of information about the culture of this country and generous sharing of personal viewpoints. I will miss my teachers, as well as many of the other students.

The international community. In Roquetas we lived in the center of a Spanish town and had a piso in an all-Spanish apartment building. There was an urbanization on the outskirts of town--quite a large one with several hotels and vacation houses. This is where Spaniards from Madrid and the interior would come for holiday, as well as a fairly large number of British people. Here on the Costa Blanca, in contrast, I live in Europe primarily and only incidentally in Spain. Many of the towns and villages number more non-Spaniards than Spaniards in their official residence figures, and often the non-Spanish fail to register. A large majority of the international community are retirees--I call this the "Florida of Europe"--but with (officially) easy mobility from country to country within the European Union, a number of young and middle-aged people come to set up business and raise their children. Though the financial crisis has had a demoralizing effect, the international community remains vibrant, strong, and large. I expected to learn about Spain when I came to Spain, but I didn't expect to learn about England, Scotland, Ireland Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Norway, South Africa, and more. I have.

Finally, food. In addition to café con leche (the beverage and the ritual), there are a certain number of foods, that I will miss. As I think about these, I realize that most of them fall under the category of "convenience foods." Though I love to cook, I do not love to cook every day, and I am a great believer in having something appetizing and nutritious in the freezer for a quick dinner. Here's what I am going to have to find substitutes for:
  • Chicken Kiev: two frozen Kiev bundles; they take just 30 minutes in the oven; from Iceland, the British Overseas grocery.
  • Salmon: two frozen individual servings; even less time in the microwave; from Lidl and Consum, but cheaper in Aldi.
  • Little, round, frozen potato balls; 15-20 minutes in the oven; formerly from Mercadona but discontinued; I finally found a substitute at Iceland. I have also had these pommes noisettes in Denmark, but I have never seen them in the U.S.
  • Creamed spinach, frozen; four minutes in the microwave, and both the spinach and the "cream" tablets come in small individual balls so you can shake out just the number you need from the freezer bag; Mercadona.
  • Frozen chopped spinach without the cream; available anywhere  in small blocks or balls the size of dishwasher soap tablets so you can use just what you need instead of opening a 10-ounce box. I shake out a few to add to rice, soup, omelets, pasta sauces, or just about anything, including adding more spinach to the creamed spinach above.
  • Salteado de patata, or "Spanish biksemad" as we call it in our house. A bag of frozen diced potatoes, Spanish tortilla, ham bits, peas, and red pepper, that you sauté in olive oil for seven minutes, adding mushrooms or other vegetables if you feel like it, and poach an egg for the top. Mercadona.
  • Canned tuna in olive oil. I add this to our lunchtime green salad: no salad dressing necessary. Available in any grocery store in Spain. You can also get canned tuna in water or sunflower oil, but why?
  • Gazpacho. The classic cold red pepper-tomato soup from Andalusia, available only in the summer time, when you can buy it ready-made in the refrigerated section at most grocery stores. I'll have to use my recipes the rest of this season.
  • Snacks for when I wake up in the middle of the night. Dried garbanzo beans are my favorite savory; inexpensive and nutritious. The slightly sweet "biscuits," packaged singly, that are given out as an accompaniment in many coffee shops when ordering just a café con leche, are my favorite sweet. They are tiny and just enough to satisfy my craving.
And though I promised not to take food back with me on this trip, I admit that in my suitcase I have stashed sachets of saffron, a couple envelopes of dried asparagus and cream of nine vegetables soup, two small packages of vegetable and pumpkin bouillon cubes, some of the dried white fava beans for fabada, and a couple spice blends. 

People, atmosphere, activities, food. Although I will miss all these, with luck we will return early in 2015 and encounter them again.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Modern King's Legacy

You might think that news of the intended abdication of the king of Spain--announced on national television at 10:30 last Monday morning--would have reached us within a couple hours. But despite the fact that we were out and about to various offices and shops throughout the day, we saw no signs that any unusual event was taking place. It wasn't until 5:00 PM, when I switched off the computer on which I had been doing some work (obviously not online) that the news reached my eyes. For then I turned on my iPad and a slew of automatic notifications popped up stating that King Juan Carlos of Spain was abdicating.

News reports say that it was surprising but not shocking. Well, I was shocked. Yes, I knew that the popularity of the king had slipped in the past few years--especially since he got bad publicity when he was injured while on a hunting trip to Africa to shoot elephants. Then there is the embarrassment of a son-in-law who has been caught in long-lasting and serious business scandals. I knew that Juan Carlos has had several medical problems. And a few other European monarchs have abdicated in the last couple years, handing over the throne in an orderly transition to their younger but mature royal offspring. But not all of them! Queen Margrete of Denmark, about the same age as Juan Carlos, is still going strong, and she has a capable young crown prince couple gearing up to take over, too.

Monarchies are not what they used to be, or at least they are not what they seemed like before I came to understand constitutional monarchies. I've been watching the Danish and the Spanish royal families over the years, and I've heard quite a bit about the British royal family as well--another one where the queen wears her responsibility heavily and is not likely to abdicate. I noted, as I read about the morning's events, that the announcement of the abdication was actually made by the leader of the majority political party, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is president of the government. Only after the president announced the impending resignation did the king come on television to give his recorded speech.

The abdication was not immediate, because there is no provision in the Spanish constitution for abdication, only for the succession of a prince upon the death of the king. (In spite of the fact that the constitution was approved as recently as 1978, Spain's royal succession is currently limited to males only.)  So a new law on abdication has to be written, and that occasioned some guesses that the process would take until next year. This is, after all, Spain, and some things take a long time even if there is not strong disagreement among the members of congress. But this is also a time when many people question the value of a monarchy--even constitutional--at all; there were large demonstrations in Madrid and other cities throughout Spain on Monday night calling for a return to a republic (last seen in Spain prior to the Civil War and dictatorship of Francisco Franco).

This coming Wednesday, June 11, members of Congress will vote--by voice instead of electronically--on the abdication law. The coronation of the new king, Felipe VI, is scheduled for June 19, in a simple ceremony without the presence of other European royals and heads of state.

But a Saturday poll reported in El Pais (Spanish only) says that a majority of Spaniards "at some point" would like a referendum on Spain's form of government, i.e., whether it should remove the monarchy and return to a republic. This in spite of the fact that Prince Felipe's popularity (7.3 on a scale of 10) surpasses that of Juan Carlos (6.9). And in spite of the extraordinary role that King Juan Carlos, as Franco's hand-picked heir, is widely reported to have had in returning democracy to Spain upon the death of the dictator in 1975 and maintaining the constitutional monarchy through the attempted February 23, 1981 coup.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Yard of Bread

I can remember an elementary school teacher in my youth explaining about standard measurements and how they came to be, in comparison to body parts, back before the days of rulers and yardsticks.  An inch measured about the same space as the width of two fingers, she said. And a yard could be estimated by the space between the tip of an outstretched arm at shoulder height and your nose.

I thought of that measurement again one evening a year ago when trying to describe the loaf of freshly baked bread that we brought back to our hotel room to munch on after a light dinner with friends. We were in a hotel close to the airport in Alicante, due to take an early morning flight the next day to Copenhagen to celebrate our anniversary. They were living temporarily in Alicante, preparing to take a Wednesday flight to Berlin. They took a bus to the airport, we picked them up, and we spent a comfortable three hours in animated conversation around two pitchers of tinto de verano and soups and salads. After we dropped them off at the bus stop for their return trip, I realized that I needed to eat a little more before falling asleep so I could get up at 3:30 AM. But I didn't want to go into a restaurant, which now, at 9:30, was in the midst of dinner service. Grocery stores seem to uniformly close at 9:15 or 9:30, and we were in a small town. Then I remembered there was a 24-hour store down the street from the hotel. Off we went, and as I was trying to resist a bag of Lay's potato chips fried in olive oil, I saw a young woman come from the back of the store, laden with piping hot loaves of bread.

 We bought a bastón, which resembles a long baguette that has been smashed to flatten it all along its length. The crust was hard and the interior chewy. It was hot within its paper as I carried it the block and a half to the hotel, and it stayed warm until my last bite. But I ate too much. I didn' t think about how long the bread was until I had finished it. So I took the paper wrapper that it had come in and held it between my thumb and forefinger, and held it out at arm's length. It didn't come to my nose. It only came to the upper part of my arm, to that line that marks the end of a short-sleeved top and full sun exposure. So it wasn't a full yard of bread that we ate, but it was close to it. And it was too much, but it did make getting up at 3:30 the next morning a whole lot more palatable.

Spanish Idioms

I've been sorting through books and papers and clothing in preparation for a longer stay in the U.S. It is astonishing how much stuff I have accumulated in the five years that we have lived on the Costa Blanca and the ten altogether that we have lived in Spain.

In scanning my Spanish language books, I came across one I had purchased a few years ago, Collins Spanish Idioms, which presents nearly 250 colloquial expressions in Spanish, translates them literally to English, then offers an equivalent English idiom, provides some cultural background or explanation, if necessary, and uses them in a sentence. I have browsed this book off and on through the years, and even had several paper bookmarks sticking out from its pages. I probably meant to write about some of these and forgot, or maybe I have written about them and forgotten (but nothing came up on my search of this blog). So here is what I had bookmarked:

No estar muy católico
(not to be feeling very Catholic)
"To be a bit under the weather."

Más se perdió en Cuba
(More was lost in Cuba)--Cuba was the last Spanish colony and its loss in the War of 1898 was catastrophic.
"It's not the end of the world."

Temblar como un flan
(To shake like a crème caramel)--the most common Spanish dessert.
"To shake like a leaf."

Entre col y col, lechuga
(Between cabbage and cabbage, lettuce.)--It is said that a Spanish king usually ate cabbage to control his weight, but every once in awhile he would treat himself to lettuce to add variety.
"Variety is the spice of life."

A otra cosa, mariposa
(To something else, butterfly)--the charm of this expression is partly that it rhymes.
"Let's move on to something else."

It is not a surprise that religion, history, food, and weather play heavily in idiomatic expressions, both in Spanish and in English. Here's one more expression I found this morning that seems particularly appropriate today:

Esperar algo como agua de mayo
(To hope for something like rain in May)
"To eagerly await something."

This expression plays on the double meaning of esperar. Esperar can mean "to hope," but it also means "to wait." Many parts of Spain are very dry, and farmers hope and wait for rain in May to help their crops grow. We had an especially dry April this year, and no rains came in May, either. But here we are on the first day of June, and the aguas de mayo are coming down, seriously enough so that we cancelled our traditional trip to the outdoor market this Sunday morning in Spain. We are glad for the needed rain, but we decided to esperar for better weather before venturing out beyond the cafe/bar down the street, where we met friends for coffee and a light lunch.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Meaty Morsels from fhe Local Fishwraps

Just when I had decided that I was no longer interested in picking up and reading the local free weekly English newspapers, this week comes and I find three articles of interest and --even more surprising--of some importance. Each one of these articles provides enough material for a Sundays in Spain blog post on its own, but I am going to cover them all in this one post. I don't have time to write about each, and besides, the authors of the articles have already written their stories quite well indeed. And now, after about an hour of investigation, I have found direct links to all three of the stories, so, if you are interested, you can click them and read the stories yourselves.

The first article is "Orwell's bitter-sweet Spanish experiences had a great effect," by Bruce Walbran, in a series called Historically Speaking in the EuroWeeklyNews. I know George Orwell as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. I did not know, or perhaps I did not remember, that there was a Spanish connection. But in 1936 Orwell came, at the age of 33, to Barcelona five months after the start of the Spanish Civil War. He had intended to write newspaper articles, but instead joined the Republican Army. His book Homage to Catalonia, published two years later, details those experiences and the effect they had on him. It sounds like interesting reading, and I also need to put Animal Farm and 1984 back on my reading list for a second look.

In the same issue of EuroWeeklyNews comes a full-page Opinion & Comment piece by Jack Gaioni, who, it says in his byline, is a "US citizen...spending the first years of his retirement in Almeria." I wish I had known about him when I was living in Almeria! He writes of "Colorado's enduring links to mother-ship Spain." Specifically he is talking about the San Luis Valley in his home state of Colorado, location of the headwaters of the Rio Grande River. He tells us that prior to 1821 what is now Mexico was "New Spain," stretching northward as far as Colorado, and serving as a land of opportunity for immigration from the Iberian peninsula. He finds similarities in the geography, language, history, and genetics of the San Luis Valley and areas of Spain.

Finally, though I promised not to write about my own professional matters in this blog, I must mention the Reflections column by editor Paul Mutter of the CoastRider. I have previously been aware of Paul Mutter's thoughtful comments about all manner of subjects, as well as some of the best reporting on issues in this area, and not to mention some interesting recipes. This week he was commenting on the recent ruling by the European Court of Justice that Google must remove links to personal information if the company is asked to do so by the person concerned. This is a controversial and problematic ruling, of course. Mutter does an unusually fine job in "I want to be forgotten" of outlining the issues and implications of the ruling (that affects only Europe, not the USA). While he mentions most of the issues I would expect to see in an information professional's summary of the action, he describes them in language that makes it possible for anyone to understand. And who in this world is not affected by what Google can link to, or not?

Friday Morning in Guardamar

I have never been a person who likes to lie on the beach for hours, and fortunately, my husband does not like it any more than I do. So we have only been to Guardamar del Segura a few times in the five years that we have lived within 15 minutes (according to real estate agent promises) of its "glorious beaches" on the Mediterranean. Our full-year neighbors on one side of us go frequently, especially at this time of year when the weather is sunny and warm, but breezy enough so it is not too hot--and when the beaches are not overcrowded. Off they go in the car in the morning at 10:00 or so, with beach chairs, a parasol, books, and of course sunglasses, hats, and sunscreen. Back they come a few hours later, often while we are having our salad lunch in our front sun room. Sometimes they return later, having partaken of a light lunch at one of the chiringuitos or restaurantes in the town of Guardamar, on the beach front or one block up from it.

This past Friday morning we had no previous arrangements that we had made, nor any particular errands that we needed to undertake at that time, and the weather was beautiful, so off we went at about 10:00 with the goal of walking along the beach. Not lying, not sitting and reading, but walking. We thought we had dressed for the occasion, I with clogs and Johannes with sandals, and short pants and shirts, I with a large scarf and Johannes with a jacket in case it got too windy near the water.

We found our way into the city of Guardamar and headed to las playas. Even before we could see water at the end of the street, mindful of our neighbors on the other side who had gotten a 100 euro parking ticket for parking in the wrong spot near the beaches last year, we turned off onto a parallel avenue and parked on Avenida Cervantes. We headed on foot down toward where we figured the water was, following a man who was carrying an aluminum beach chair and sun umbrella, so it seemed like a safe bet. In only one block we came to a parking lot  (paid parking, with mysterious colors of lines separating the parking stalls, so I was glad we didn't have to figure that out) and then to a wide expanse of sand. Stopping for a moment to look to our right and to our left, and seeing nothing but sand, water, sky, and a few groups of people lounging in various spots to either side, we chose the left and started walking in that direction.

Guardamar del Segura finds its roots in the sea. Since the 8th century B.C.,  Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, and Arabian sailors have arrived, men employed in the most ancient traditions of the Mediterranean--fishermen, businessmen, and pirates--whatever the occasion required.
We soon realized that it was hard to walk in the deep sand with the footwear that we had--hard on his knee, said he of the two-year-old titanium replacement--and we headed farther out toward the water and got to more solid ground. But we were dodging groups of sun-bathers and even though one of us enjoyed a view of one bare-breasted lady, we soon headed back inward and found a boardwalk. And there, before long, we found a nice little restaurant where we enjoyed a cool drink and a tostada con atun, and listened to quiet music--not the usual blaring pop songs that one often finds on the beach.

Since time immemorial, fish has been a food of the greatest importance to the people of Guardamar, whether it came from the river, lagoons, or sea.  
After our light refreshment we continued walking to the left and came to the end of the built-up beach restaurants and bathing area, and wandered one street back, passing the polideportivo with its municipal swimming pool and assorted sports fields. Across the street was an "infant school" and since it was now a little after noontime, we were treated to the site of parents arriving to escort their very young children--some as young as three years old--home from their morning classes. And we also found three large tiled walls along an old canal (photographed above and below), which told the history of Guardamar back through the ages.

Beginning in the Middle Ages fishing products were carried by canal to the interior towns. Nevertheless, this fishing village also sold fish in a small harborside fish market, as well as
directly through the streets with live fish jumping in the nets.
And then we made our way back along Avenida Cervantes to our car and headed toward home. The real estate agents are right--the beaches of Guardamar are beautiful and they are only 15 minutes away. We were home by 1:30, in time for me to hang the laundry that had been in the washing machine while we were away, and then to make salads for lunch in our delightful sun room.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Submerged in Words

I have been submerged in words for the past two weeks. For one of my Spanish classes I am reading Claire se queda sola, by Marian Keyes, a Spanish translation of a light novel with the original title Watermelon. It is 551 pages long. For my English readers' book group, I have been immersed in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. It is 576 pages long, and it is not a light novel in any sense. And then I have been compiling and editing words about e-books and other literature and reference matter in digital form, from 62 different sources. Though that compilation numbers only about 55 pages, it is 22,500 words according to Microsoft Word's Word Count tool, and those words required more care than just reading in either English or Spanish.

All of these projects have deadlines. The deadline that I have already missed is the Doris Lessing deadline. I was slated to lead the discussion on The Golden Notebook last Wednesday. I did lead it, and it was a lively and interesting discussion, but it is the first time (and I hope the last) that I have ever lead a discussion about a book I had not yet completed. I have pledged to continue reading the last third of the book and will finish it, under less pressure.

The second deadline--for the treatise on e-books and digital products--I met reasonably well--if not exactly at the preferred time, at least without complaints. That is done for now, and almost out of my mind, until it comes back for proofreading after layout in a month's time or a little longer.

The third deadline is self-imposed, but important. I need to finish Claire se queda sola by Tuesday morning at 11:00, because that is the last time this Spanish class meets for several weeks, and it does not work to extend a discussion over months--I can't remember very much that long. I still have 140 pages to read, so that is why there are few words today on Sundays in Spain.

Celebration Times Two

I emerged from my book binge for a few hours last Sunday in Spain to attend a delightful midday dinner with a couple of our very good friends. It's not every day that one celebrates a 65th birthday, though there have been a few over the last several years. And we have also celebrated a few "round" wedding anniversaries among our friends in recent years, too. Last Sunday we celebrated both: the couple was observing their 30th wedding anniversary, and the bride was celebrating her 65th birthday. Yes, they had gotten married on her birthday 30 years ago (and I dare say that the groom has never forgotten the day any one of those years).

It was a very festive time. The food at the Portico Mar restaurant in Guardamar was certainly some of the best I have had in Spain outside of the major cities--all three courses. The atmosphere was exquisite, and the restaurant--clearly a place where celebrations are the norm--made it a very special occasion. Our table was serenaded twice, favored with celebratory cava, and the bride received written proclamations of best wishes--in a scroll from a white rabbit--in observance of the birthday and the anniversary.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Yundi in Girona

Yundi in Girona.            © 2014 Johannes Bjorner

We had perfect seats, in the first row of the lower balcony, and overlooking right center stage, so we could see the hands moving back and forth, commanding the black and white keys, throughout the entire concert. Until he stood up to acknowledge applause, we never saw his face. World-famous Chinese pianist Yundi Li played in Girona last Sunday evening at an unusually early hour for Spain (7:00 PM--early even for us, but really early for the Spanish, as the lady at the Girona tourist office had told us with ojos en blanco (wide-open eyes) the day before). A 7:00 start meant that people would be out of the concert hall again at 9:00, just in time for the Spanish to go to dinner.

But at 9:00, no one wanted to leave. It was a magical evening, with a graceful and skillful performance of a demanding program.

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)

Nocturne no. 1,  in B flat minor, op. 9 (1830-1831)

Nocturne no. 2, in E flat major, op. 9 (1930-1831)

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Fantasia in C major, op. 17 (1836-1838)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) 

Sonata no. 23, in F minor, op. 57, "Appassionata" (1804)

Sonata no. 14, in C minor, op. 27 no. 2, "Clair de Lune" (1800-1801)

(I hope these works are in correct notation; even with Google Translate and a knowledgeable music student, it is hard to translate the program notes from Catalan to English.)

At the end of the Beethoven sonatas, there were three solemn but touching curtain calls and then Yundi came out a fourth time and played an encore. He announced the piece, but I heard only "Chinese." It was indeed some Chinese music, but I know not what. He obviously was moved in introducing this Western audience to some Chinese music. He finished, stood, and saluted the audience for a final time, slowly surveying the public, thanking us with a bow, and then touching his heart. And then he left. And finally, we did, too.
A week later  and I can still feel the magic. It was an exquisite evening.
Yundi (formerly known as Yundi Li) won first prize at the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2000 at the age of 18 years. He was the youngest gold medal winner in the history of the prestigious competition (which is held only every four years), and also the first pianist to be awarded the first prize for 15 years. 

Last night we watched a DVD of The Young Romantic: A Portrait of Yundi, a film by Barbara Willis Sweete (2008). The film showed a lot about Yundi's early interest in music and his training, and followed practice sessions as he prepared to make his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic and conductor Seiji Ozawa. It's a good documentary and it brings the personality of this young musician to life, as he last week brought the music of the nineteenth century to life for me.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Morning in Girona

We left our hotel this morning at 8:30 and walked to the other end of the block to Viena, a coffee and fast food shop we had checked with yesterday and which we had determined was the best alternative to the expensive (25 euros per couple) and all-too-plentiful breakfast buffet at our hotel. At Viena we each enjoyed a hot breakfast sandwich and cafe con leche for less than half that cost. Plus we listened to beautiful recorded classical music and browsed El Pais, the only Spanish newspaper offered (the rest were in Catalan, as was the framed article from the New York Times on the wall reviewing  the chain of Viena cafés throughout Catalan and Andorra. Then off we went across the river via the bridge near the Plaza de Independencia to the old town, and up to the Jewish quarter.

Actually we discovered that we had been in the Jewish quarter last night on a stroll, but we missed the Jewish Museum because it is only open in the morning. This morning we were too early and it wasn't open yet. We continued walking along up the cobblestoned narrow streets, thinking we would return in a half hour or so, but by the time the first church bells struck 10:00 AM, we were far enough  above the old quarter to be engrossed in the trek around the old city walls, which is the second highest rated attraction in Girona, after the Jewish quarter and museum.

We passed by various historical markers noting that walls and structures had been in operation in the first century before Christ, in the VI century, and in the XVth.  We walked through a lovely garden with three different blossoming flowers, and made our way through an old fortification identified as German military barracks, though the era was not identified. We climbed up a winding steel staircase inside a tower and from the top viewed the whole of the city of Girona, in front of and behind us, and fields beyond and then mountains, presumably the Pyrenees. Then we descended and walked for a  kilometer or so along the ancient city walls, these from Roman times, before they ended and delivered us down to ground level again and a monument recalling the underground bunkers created during the Spanish Civil War when Catalonians went beneath the earth to avoid bombing raids, the first time in war history, according to the historic marker, that nations at war developed the tactic of deliberately bombing civilians.

We revived ourselves with a cup of coffee near Ponte Pedra and then stumbled onto a Sunday morning flea market featuring books, stamps, old money, bottle caps, and assorted other bric-a-brac, and we each fell victim to parting with some money, though not much. I couldn't say "no" to a copy of Tales of the Alhambra, by Washington Irving, in Spanish. I have already purchased one copy of Tales, and this one is missing its spine, but this one also has print large enough that I might actually read it.

We finished our morning out with a stop at the tourist office to pick up a city map in English (our hotel had only been able to provide French and Catalan versions), a stroll back through the lower part of the old town, and lunch in the sun in the Plaza de la Independencia (salad and roasted vegetables), and then made our way back to the hotel for a long siesta before an evening concert.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Weekend

It's Easter Sunday, and the holiday weekend started early with a traditional tapas run on Friday afternoon. I have written before about  tapas in the town of Los Montesinos and how odd I thought it was that they always have their tapas festival start on Good Friday. It seems somehow sinful to loll around in the sun all Good Friday afternoon, drinking and eating delicious morsels, and not something I would have expected in a Catholic country. But this is modern Spain, and somehow, in what I believe is the fourth time I have participated in this ritual, the sun always seems to be out on Good Friday afternoon in Los Montesinos.

This year we went with another couple and visited seven bars, acquiring six stamps from the establishments (the first bar was the one where we forgot to ask for a stamp, but we soon got in our stride), which qualifies us to vote on our favorite tapa. My favorite was a vegetable-seafood kebab, with three pieces of seafood, including a delicious shrimp, and three or four slices of vegetables, including a button mushroom. The kebab had been grilled with olive oil and came balanced on a nice slice of fresh French bread to absorb the excess oil. It seemed like none of the tapas were as gourmet as they had been in the past, but they were tasty enough and plentiful enough to supply lunch in the four hours that we spent moving from place to place down the central and one side street of town, to the plaza, and then back up another side street. Along the way we discussed the history and politics of southern Africa with our friends (who had lived in three countries in Africa), immigration and emigration, racial relations in several countries, past and current insurrections, resistance, and unrest, and various other problems. We didn't solve any of the world's problems, but we enjoyed sharing viewpoints and our experiences. At the sixth bar our friends met other friends of theirs, and we all moved on to Dos Hermanos, where several animated conversations continued, now with seven people, and we may have achieved the decibel level of the typical Spanish conversational group.

I slept well Friday night, which was good, because we had to get up early to appear on the petanca playing fields for our urbanization's annual petanca tournament. We have participated before and sometimes this can turn into not just an all-day affair, but one going into the night. This year we adapted the rules and played the games of the early levels of the tournament to only 7 points instead of the traditional 13. You had to win two out of three games to advance to the next level. We did, three times, and fortunately we were able to win all those in two games without having to play the third.

By the time we got to the semifinals, however, we were playing to 13 points, and the competition got tougher. The sun was also getting hotter as the hands of the clock rounded 12:00 and then 1:00, without a break for anything more than coffee, water, and chips. We cleared the semifinals and I did take a break to walk home and fetch a different hat--one that would not blow off in the breeze--before we started the final match at a little after 2:00 PM. This round took us all three games, to 13 points. We lost the first game, but we won the next two. Johannes and I are the 2014 champions of the Montebello Petanca Open! Hooray!

Now we permitted ourselves the luxury of celebrating with a beer and more chips while the officials prepared to make the announcements and award presentations. We finally made it home at 4:00, and we were too tired to do much else for the rest of the day. I had hoped to go back to Los Montesinos for another shot at the tapas, but even I couldn't muster the energy.

It was nice to win, and it was even nicer to know that we had gotten some good exercise during the day. And we look forward to using our prize money to purchase a dinner out at Monty's, the local restaurant that had recently closed but is now getting ready to re-open under new ownership and management. Reinvesting the money where it came from;  it will be a pleasure to support our local community.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Pusol Museum and School

El Museo Escolar de Pusol. Photo from its website.
A group of some 50 adult students--mostly northern European and of retirement age--from the Centro de Estudios Hispania in Algorfa came to the Museo Escolar de Pusol one morning in April and were met by a somewhat smaller and much younger group of Spanish students. The students, you see, are the docents at this rural teaching museum, which also houses a small colegio (elementary school) for the children of residents in the surrounding area.

Before arriving, I had envisioned the museum as a sort of mini Old Sturbridge Village, a Massachusetts open-air museum that reproduces and reinterprets life in 1830s New England. It is similar, though on a much smaller scale, and on the day we were there all activities took place indoors.

We divided into two groups; mine went first on a tour of a dozen or so galleries that showed implements used in farming, carriage-making, shoe-making, wine-making, and other occupations formerly important to the area, as well as typical rooms from the farm and village houses. Before each tableau stood two or three very young students--usually age 7 or 8--who, at the signal of their teacher, gave us an introduction to what we were seeing and what life was like in their home area in "the old days." The exact era of the old days in question never became clear to me--they seemed to stretch anywhere from 19th century to the 1950s--but they were definitely in the past, and in the long-ago past for these children. The students spoke Spanish, of course, and very quickly--they obviously wanted to get through their memorized speeches before they forgot them--so there is a limit to how much information was taken in by us old people, but we all recognized many of the artifacts shown and described, and the youngsters were earnest and adorable.

After a mid-morning rest break and light "pic-nic" we proceeded to a classroom and were instructed in the art of making braided white palm (palma blanca) decorations for the upcoming Palm Sunday celebrations. Though seasonal, this braiding of palm leaves is a long-established tradition in the greater Elche area, usually done by regular inhabitants in their homes, with the products sold in florist shops all around Spain and exported even farther afield.  We had good teachers, but I decided right away that I was not going to wear my little palm flower for Palm Sunday.

Then we switched guides, and my group went through the exhibits showing a large variety of commercial establishments typical of the geographic area in days gone by, including a shop, drugstore,toy store, and an office. This museum and its incorporated school were established in 1969 by the idea of a young teacher in the school who wanted to introduce new teaching methods while maintaining memory of the early life and culture of the area. The idea was successful, and the museum and school were recognized by UNESCO in 2009. Rather than slipping into being a backwater country school in a forgotten rural pueblo, the school now attracts students from far outside its geographic catchment area, becoming a sort of magnet school in Spain.

Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, and news reports all over the world show Pope Francis clutching braided palms that, we are told in Spain, were hand made in Elche, a city just 45 minutes north of here. Ten days ago I went on an excursion with other students in my Algorfa municipally supported Spanish class to Elche, and we saw one of the studios where people were making the braided staffs out of white palm leaves (bleached intentionally through preventing sun from reaching the leaves by covering them in plastic for a whole year). Some of the palm decorations are more than a yard long. They can be extremely elaborate and difficult to make--I know because we were each invited to make just a tiny one-inch flower out of a bleached palm and mine was a miserable failure.

The article here tells about the Elche tradition of making braided white palms for Palm Sunday. The photo above, from, shows some of the more elaborate palm decorations.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Time and Time Again

This week has been a little easier because one of the annoying bugaboos of spring has sprung into place: Europe switched to "summer time" last Sunday morning at 2:00 AM winter time, or 3:00 summer. This places me once again in a feeling of normalcy, because now I can figure six hours time difference between here and the east coast of the United States, as I do effortlessly most of the year, except for the few weeks in the spring and fall when our time shifting times are not in sync.

I was not in Spain when the time changed. We were in Denmark for a reunion of old school friends, and Saturday afternoon brought us back to Copenhagen to a hotel right next to the main train station, a short stop before we took a local train the next day to the airport for a morning flight to Alicante. Planning air travel for the morning of time change days can lead to some unexpected schedule glitches, and I was rather surprised that no hotel personnel, when we checked in and said that we would be skipping breakfast to go to the airport, reminded us that we should be sure to set our watches ahead an hour before going to bed. But we did set them ahead and, as often happens when anticipating a morning flight, we still woke up sooner than we needed to in order to close up the suitcases and get to the airport on time. I was even awake early enough so I could grab my iPad at 1:59 AM winter time and watch the time jump forward an hour on the World Clock app a minute later.

It wasn't until later in the week that I was offered an answer to a question that has been bugging me ever since we moved to Spain: Why is Spain, which lies as far west as Britain when viewed on a map with mercator projections, in the Central European time zone rather than in the Western European time zone with the United Kingdom? There is a one-hour's time difference between Spain and the UK, which is quite noticeable when watching ads for upcoming programs on TV, and it always strikes me as odd that Britain alone is different, whereas every other European country that I have an association with is on the same time zone. For example, I flew southwest from Denmark to Spain for three hours and arrived three hours later by the clock, whereas if I had flown one hour due west from Denmark to England I would have arrived at the time I left.

The story I heard was that during the regime of General Francisco Franco (1939-1975), both the general and the country were allied with Germany in every matter, and that included being on the same time. Franco disappeared from the Spanish scene in 1975, and his legacy is controversial. Streets that had been named for him are now being re-named, many monuments have been neglected or destroyed. One legacy apparently that has so far not been touched is the time alliance. I am glad that we are in the Central European time zone (the main one) and only six hours ahead of eastern U.S. time.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Seeing Miró

Since we no longer have our subscription to Danish television by satellite here in Spain, we have been enjoying watching whatever we can get by finding individual programs on the Internet and then projecting them onto the TV screen via Apple TV. We can still watch our favorite cooking, real estate, and antiques shopping programs from Denmark; we just see them a day after they are broadcast. But we can usually get the half-hour evening news, broadcast at 6:30, if we wait to start it until 7:30. That matches my evening cooking schedule a lot better than the 6:30 hour used tom anywy.

Lately we have started to watch the PBS Newshour from the U.S. Due to time differences, we don't watch the evening news program until the following morning, but it makes for a good thing to do while we pedal along on the exercise bicycle. This week I pedaled extra long while I watched a segment on Joan Miró, the Spanish artist, who was born in Barcelona in 1893 and who died on the island of Mallorca in 1983.

Miró is currently the subject of a spectacular exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum that features abstract painting and sculpture that he completed while in his 70s and 80s. He used vibrant colors and metamorphosed found objects to create works that show a very unique way of looking at the world.

I had heard of Miró before this program but somehow I had escaped the irony, or poetic justice, of his name. Mirar is the Spanish verb for "to look" and miró is the past tense (pretérito, to be precise) meaning that "he looked." He certainly did, and he continued looking and observing and creating until he was 90, leaving a legacy of interesting and fantastic works of art.

The works in Seattle are on loan from the Reina Sofía museum in Madrid and have never been seen in the U.S. before. They are going on to North Carolina, to the Nasher Museum at Duke University, from September through next February, where the exhibit is entitled, appropriately, The Experience of Seeing.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

More Salt

Salt mountains in Santa Pola  © 2014 Johannes Bjorner

We drove along the N-332 seaside road north to Alicante city on Thursday this week and passed the huge mountains of salt that are collected there and shipped out all over the world to alleviate wintry road conditions. This salt is not taken from the lake in Torrevieja that I wrote about previously, but from the salt flats bordering the Mediterranean immediately south of Alicante city.

I felt like Phil, the groundhog who emerges from hibernation each year on February 2 and, upon seeing his shadow, wreaks revenge, bringing six more weeks of winter to estadounidenses not just in the region of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. When we returned from our sun-filled morning, we saw news programs showing that they had received more snow in the middle and eastern U.S.

Saving Time

I have survived the first week of Daylight Savings Time this year. To my annoyance, the United States tinkers with its clocks each year a full three weeks before Europe also tinkers with its clocks, changing to "summer time." I hate this period because I have to disrupt my regular routine of automatically picturing the hands of the (analog) clock simply in polar opposite: Most of my contacts in the USA live in Eastern time, the time difference between there and here is an even six hours, so when the little hand points to 2:00 PM here I know easily that it is pointing to 8:00 AM there, and when it is 6:00 PM here and I am preparing for dinner, it is just noontime there and they are partaking of lunch.

Except during the three-week period when they have switched to Daylight Savings Time and we have yet to switch to summer time. Or the equivalent period in the fall, when we switch to winter time and they give up on saving, but I'm not ready to discuss that yet.

All things being equal, I think the phrases "summer time" and "winter time" are better to describe this odd worldwide custom of tinkering with time. After all, what exactly is "saved" with Daylight Savings Time? You spring sprightly ahead one hour in March at 2:00 AM Sunday morning, and that hour disappears until a Sunday in October some seven months hence, when it falls down on you, probably while you are sleeping between 2:00 and 3:00 AM. It is not daylight when you get this extra hour, and of course, you don't really get an extra hour--you simply recoup the hour that you lost in March. You don't get more time, not even a minute more. You get nothing, nada. That is a miserable rate of return on savings, even by today's abysmal bank interest rates.

While I was thinking about saving time, I took the opportunity this week to experiment with the time-saving features of my washing machine. Appliances are, after all, supposed to be time-saving devices. Ever since I have had this Daewoo machine, I had noticed  a button that said Ahorra Tiempo (save time) on the far right of its control panel. When I got the washer I probably didn't know that ahorrar meant "to save" and not "now," which is what ahora means. Pero ahora sí, I know. So I got out the washer instructions from the box of house and appliance manuals I keep on the top shelf of a bookcase in my office and re-read the manual.

It told me that I could save a whopping ten minutes from the routine. Not much on an event that takes an hour and a half or more, but more than you save when you switch to or from Daylight Savings Time. It did not tell me where I was going to save that time, but I experimented with a load of laundry this week by pressing the Ahorra Tiempo button. The washing and rinsing and centrifuging went on almost as usual, apparently (I did not waste time sitting by the machine waiting and watching), but not quite as long as usual. I was able to convince myself that even though I had started the load late in the morning, it finished before the hour when cheap electricity changes to expensive electricity (noontime in the winter, 1:00 PM in the summer). It wasn't until I started the next load, a day later, and went to put the detergent and softener into the little compartments that I discovered that apparently a rinse cycle is what is "saved," as the softener liquid was still sitting in its little compartment. And the socks were stiff as boards.

There is another button on the washer that I had not yet used: Retraso Tiempo. I looked that up in the manual de lavadora, too. Apparently I had looked it up before, because beside the all-too-brief explanation (Se puede utilizar para aplazar el lavado) I had written "delay." Now it dawned on me that perhaps this functioned like the delay on the dishwasher I had loved and left about a dozen years ago: that you could program the machine to start 2, 4 or 6 hours later, after guests had left and you had gone to bed, for example. Or after you had gone to bed and the cheap electricity was available, for another example.

I tried the Retraso Tiempo button last night, after putting in a load of wash, the detergente, and suavizante. When I pressed it, 1:00 showed. I pressed it again, and 2:00 showed. I pressed it several more times and it increased an hour each time, up to 12:00. It took me a few minutes last night at 7:00 PM to figure out exactly when I wanted to start this machine in the morning, but finally I set it for 10 hours so the wash would start at 5:00 AM and be finished by the time I was awake and ready to hang it out.

I did not hear the washing machine start at 5:00 but Johannes did, he told me later, when I got out of bed to fetch coffee at 7:00. By that time whatever noises it made had stopped, and I have to admit that I went back to bed and read a chapter before getting up again to go out to the terrace to hang the washer contents out to dry. I was the first within sight from my terrace to have laundry up drying on the line this Sunday, Spain's traditional wash day. I did it even before I showered and went to the outdoor market. That meant that it was ready to bring in again as soon as we returned from the market, even before lunch, when often I don't bring in the laundry until late in the afternoon.

At least it seems as though I saved time.