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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Tons of Salt

The Torrevieja Salt Lakes

We live not far outside the city of Torrevieja, which is located at the bottom left of the map above, but stretches out into the surrounding areas. Our town, Algorfa, is located  off the map at the top right, and the yellow line going diagonally across the screen, the CV-905, is a two-lane highway connecting our urbanization, Montebello, to the city of Torrevieja. It extends for about nine kilometers. Also known as the Crevillente Road, it runs between two sizable lakes, shown on the map. The "pink lake" to the left often has a pink shade due to the crustaceans living in it. The "green lake" to the right doesn't change color. We see both these lakes often, almost daily, as we drive to our petanca, Spanish lessons, shopping, and other social events in the area. Quite often, we see huge piles of salt surrounding the pink lake, because it is still a working salt factory (the green lake no longer produces salt, for some reason that I do not know).

Ever since we have lived here, we have heard that the lake provides salt to melt the snow on the streets of New York City in the winter time. I thought this was probably an apocryphal story, possibly with as much truth as that at one time, salt had been sold from this area to New York. It certainly seems like a long way to ship salt; doesn't northern Europe offer enough of a market?

This week, the Round Town News weekly paper featured a story that confirms the rumor. It reported that, "With the USA experiencing one of their worst winters for decades, and no sign of any major improvements in sight, this week the 'Sakura Kobe' left Torrevieja heading for the U.S. East Coast carrying 30,000 tons of salt." It is the largest shipment of salt that has left Torrevieja for a number of years, and more large container ships are expected to follow.

We were there early in the season. We know you need it. We are thinking of you.

Going Back Home to Roquetas

How many homes can one person have in a lifetime? Lots, I guess. I have just recently returned to my current home in Spain from my, what? original home in the United States. This past Thursday morning when I woke up, I realized that we had no definite arrangement on the calendar for that day. And when I checked, we had nothing definite for Friday, either. And it was a beautifully sunny day outside, so I wanted to go for a ride. Only a couple hours later, we had thrown a few pieces of clothing, our toiletries, and our electronic gadgets (cachivaches) into the car, and we were off to Roquetas de Mar, the Andalusian town we called home when we first came to Spain to live, in 2003.

Roquetas lies right on the Mediterranean about a three hour drive from our current home in Algorfa. It is in the province of Almería, which is the easternmost province of the comunidad of Andalusia, which stretches over almost the southern third of Spain, from the Mediterranean Sea on the east to the Atlantic Ocean and Portugal on the west. For several months in 2008 and 2009 we drove the route in between often, as we commuted back and forth on occasion between the Roquetas condo and the tiny apartment we rented in Torrevieja, in Alicante province, to help us decide whether we really did want to pull up stakes and move to a new home in Spain. We determined that we did, and eventually sold the condo in Roquetas during the first year of the financial crisis that hit in 2008 and is still making its effects evident. Although we have talked about returning to Roquetas for a visit several times in the past five years, we had not. So this spontaneous trip was anticipated, but not planned.

Ironically we drove north to get onto the E-15. But as soon as we joined that major highway running through Europe, we went south, toward Murcia. The car knew the way, because this is how we go to Ikea, which has furnished much of our Algorfa home, and also to the Apple store, where we have gone for help and some of those cachivaches in the past two years. This time, though, we drove straight through Murcia, ignoring the two exits that we usually take. An hour after we had started, the road turned west, and we did, too, and then we really felt like we were on our way.

As it neared noontime we began looking for a restaurant that we had often stopped at during the time we were making frequent trips. The only problem was that we couldn't remember the name of it, nor the town in which it was located, nor the proper exit to take. Actually we knew that we wouldn't recognize the exit anyway, because we were not traveling on the same road that we used to use when we traveled between the two places. Then we traveled on a new toll highway,  the AP-7 (the P stands for Peaje, which means "pay, " and pay we did, to the tune of more than 11 euros, about $15 then, for a one-hour ride). We knew that the tolls had climbed even higher over the past five years, and we decided that we didn't want to support that highway robbery. So we were traveling the E-15, which in some places goes parallel with the AP-7, and we were on the lookout for an exit to the remembered restaurant in a not remembered town.

We gave up before we even got close, we discovered later, but instead we found a nice roadside restaurant on the side of an "easy off, easy on"service road. It was Mi Cortijo, which is a word I had to look up when I had a chance. My Cambridge-Klett dictionary says it means "country estate" or "country house," but an online reference I found first made it sound more like working farm and its various buildings. This establishment just looked like a large roadside restaurant. We sat at a table in front of the house and shared three tapas, some bread, a glass of wine and a gaseosa. It only took 25 minutes, start to finish. I think that perhaps the definition of tapas is changing in Spain, or at least in my  mind, to mean "fast food," because the various tapas offered by a restaurant are ready (and usually displayed in counter top trays) when you are. Most provide very good fast food. So in less than a half hour we were back on the road to Roquetas, which we reached just a little over an hour and a half latter, after an interesting stop.

Coffee to Go--in Spain!

Coffee culture in Spain is, well, cultured. You may be served your cup of coffee in a clear glass or in a ceramic cup or mug, but whichever one it is, it will rest on a ceramic saucer or plate, and you will get a small stainless steel spoon to stir your sugar in, if you take sugar. But before you add sugar, if you are having café con leche, half the cup will be filled with steaming hot milk, rapidly so that a froth develops on the top. If you are in a sit-down cafetería, the combination will probably be made at the table, with the server bringing two pitchers to pour from, one coffee, the other, milk. But even if you are at a stand-up coffee bar, like at a gas station or restaurant along the highway, the barman will likely pour the coffee and the hot milk before your eyes. It's a little ceremony, and it is lovely to drink coffee from a real cup rather than from Styrofoam or cardboard or plastic. And you will drink it where your bought it--coffee to go is just not done in Spain.

On the road to Roquetas, we had driven a half hour after our lunch of tapas and were now ready for coffee, so we pulled off the highway at the sign promising food and drink. The restaurant that we came to was filled--at least the parking lot was overflowing with fifty or more cars. It was, of course, now Spanish lunch time, and we figured that it would take a half hour or more to get served, and then no one would be very happy to give us just a cup of coffee rather than the typical full-course mediodía meal. So we left the restaurant parking lot and drove down the road to the lone gas station, because most gas stations have a coffee bar.

We were out of luck, we saw after walking in: no cafetería, no bar, not even a coffee machine was in view. When we asked the clerk about coffee, however, he apologized for no cafetería and handed us an aluminum can instead. I thought he was going to tell us to pour the contents into a plastic or Styrofoam cup and microwave it, but there wasn't any microwave. He then explained that if we pushed a pop-top on this can and shook it, we would get hot coffee.

Cafe con leche in a self-heating can
This was my first experience with self-heating cans, and I was skeptical. But it was only two euros and we really wanted coffee. It worked almost as well as he said, but fortunately explicit instructions were on the can in Spanish and in English.

1. Remove the bottom lid and press the plastic tab firmly.
2. Wait until the liquid (inside) disappears and steam becomes visible.
3. Turn, shake, and open the can.

We took the can cautiously to the car and followed directions. When we opened it, it was so hot that you could burn your mouth. It would have been nice to have even a Styrofoam a cup to pour it into, but we didn't. The café con leche tasted good, however,. The can stayed hot for almost an hour. I said it was magic, or at least ingenious. Johannes said he knew how it worked and started talking about childhood chemistry experiments. I wondered what chemicals I was drinking. Still , just the thing for camping trips, we said, or just to have on hand in the car for emergencies.

Of course the print on the can was too small for me to read anything, but now I am home and I have read the can and found the website. I am no longer worried about the chemicals and I even know that I can dispose of the can conscientiously in the envases recycle bin. Though drinking coffee "on the street" is counter to the Spanish culture, the Fast Drinks 2GO company says, apparently there is a need, because sales have been good. 2GO gives credit for the idea to an American company, WP Beverage Partners, which it says distributed it through Wolfgang Puck back in 2004. I never saw it there, but I'll check next time I find a Wolfgang Puck at the airport, because this is just the thing to take on board for one of those flights without frills, which they all seem to be these days. You can also purchase in advance from an online store, but I wonder about getting it through security.

Seeing Roquetas: The Same and Not the Same

View from our room at the Sabinal Hotel, Roquetas de Mar
The time we spent in Roquetas was delightful. It had been almost five years since we had been there, and we were prepared for some things to be the same, some to be different. That morning I had quickly reserved a room at a hotel whose name we knew, and whose main-floor public bathroom I had used before, as the hotel was between one of the Spanish language schools I had attended and the bus stop. But it was the first time we had stayed there, and it was in a different part of town--the "urba," or urbanization, or tourist area--than where we had lived before. So we really had the experience of being tourists in a town that we knew well enough that we didn't need a map but that we had some idea of where services, like the local Mercadona grocery store, were. We took advantage of the Mercadona the first night, buying cold drinks and then picking up comida para llevar, a takeaway pizza, on the way back to the hotel.

We also met up with some friends and acquaintances from the past. Mari Carmen, who cleaned for us then and was always a good friend and connection to Spanish life; now she is just a wonderful connection to Spanish life in general and a good barometer of what has changed and what has not. We were surprised at how clean and well-maintained almost everything we saw in Roquetas was. We did not see empty, half-finished buildings as relics of the financial crisis the way we do in the Torrevieja area. We did notice that many businesses had changed names, and Mari Carmen said that often a new place opened up and then closed two months later, but at least here it seems as though someone is able to invest in a new dream right away. We drifted around town to the bookstore and former art workshop, past the language school, to a new secondary school, by our old condo, down to the kiosk where we always bought the newspaper. We rekindled a lot of old memories, mostly pleasant.

And we took the local bus to Almería city the way we used to, because we didn't have a car when we lived in Roquetas, and walked up and down the Rambla, looking for the statue of John Lennon, who composed "Strawberry Fields Forever" in Almería. We ambled around the old city, where many of the old narrow streets have been converted into pedestrian areas. Almería, being a big city and the capital of the province, and not focused on tourism as Roquetas is, was not as spic-and-span clean and well maintained as Roquetas, but it still is a nice, comfortable city. Our favorite cafetería, Santa Rita's, on the Rambla, had disappeared from view, but its venue had metamorphosed into the Chester Café, a tapas bar "with an American theme." We each had a nice tapa ("shrimp in gabardine" (breaded) for me, and a mini-hamburguesa for Johannes. I spent more time than I normally would in the bathroom, reading the wallpaper that consisted of enlarged front pages of U.S. newspapers from the 1920s and '30s that all seemed to feature sea disasters of some kind. At one end of the restaurant proper were portraits of famous American musicians, all apparently black, and a facsimile placard from some unidentified music hall in some unidentified year, but you could get admission to a concert of Ray Charles for five dollars.

We returned to Roquetas and picked up our car, that we had parked at the big shopping center, the Gran Plaza, but not before we took a quick stroll through the Plaza, which had been new when we lived there. Here was where we saw the stark signs of the recession. Almost a third of the stores were boarded up, some announcing impending new tenants, many not. I guess the high rent at the fancy shopping center is enough to deter many dreams of starting a new business.

I did my part in improving the mall economy, however, when I saw the Desigual store, my newest favorite brand. "Desigual" means, literally, "unequal" or "uneven," even "changeable."  By extension, for this Barcelona designer, it has come to mean "unique."  I had bought a unique handbag for a colleague at a different Desigual outlet several months ago, and on my last trip back to the U.S. I had been unable to resist buying a blouse at the Desigual shop in the Alicante airport. Now here was a Desigual in Roquetas, once my home, and it had not been there before. Nor had I ever seen a Desigual with a 50% discount sale going on, so I got an early birthday present and now have a desigual dress.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Morning at the Mall

We usually spend Sunday morning at the outdoor mercadillo near our house, buying the week's supply of fruits and vegetables, picking up the free weekly newspapers, enjoying a café con leche in the sun, and browsing music, clothing, book, and sundry stalls. This morning dawned sunny and warm, but for various reasons we did not need any produce or frutos secos, and I had successfully said "no" to a 3 euro sweater at the market last week that I liked but didn't need, and was not sure that I could withstand temptation again this week. So we decided to give the market a miss, as our British friends say, and headed out instead to the Torrevieja shopping mall, Habaneras. This was a treat in itself, because it is only recently that Torrevieja has been declared a tourist area of sufficient importance that it has the right to allow larger commercial establishments to be open on Sundays--all for the convenience of tourists, mind you.

We parked in the large--and very busy--parking lot at Carrefour, the French superstore that has all sorts of wares in addition to food, but decided against the garden shop there. Instead we walked across the street to the Habaneras mall, where Johannes went in to AKI, the hardware store, and I took a quick trip to C&A, a popular clothing store for men and women. Ten minutes later I walked out, again having successfully said "no" to a couple items I don't need, but my "looking" genes satisfied. We met at AKI, where Johannes had found a garden hose to replace the one that came with the  house when we purchased it five years ago, but which he was sick of patching up. I reminded him that we needed a holder to hang up the hose that has rested, tangled, on the floor of the upstairs terrace since we purchased the house five years ago, and which I was sick of taking pains to avoid tripping over when moving around in my "laundry room" tending to clothing on the line. We bought two holders, upstairs/downstairs, or his and hers.

Sunday morning at 100 Montaditos. © 2014 Johannes Bjorner
Armed with our major purchase, we took the elevator upstairs to 100 Montaditos, the little sandwich place (that is little sandwiches, not necessarily a little place that serves sandwiches) and ordered two mini-sandwiches each and a small glass of wine. There is no roof on the top level of the mall, which can be a problem when it rains, as it does occasionally, but today there was no problem with water. We felt a few rays of warm sun and since we had not picked up the usual free papers, we went over to the newsstand and invested in the Sunday edition of El Mundo. Johannes kept the news of the world and gave me the magazine section. I don't usually read style magazines, but this time I did and found a beautiful leather case for your iPhone, with three-dimensional flowered cut-outs, in several spring colors, all for just 235 euros. Then I browsed through an article about the founder of Spotify, who has an interesting quote from George Bernard Shaw* in his Stockholm office, and I peaked into a story claiming that croquet is on a worldwide comeback and has become a very popular sport in Spain. I played lot of croquet as a child during summers in New Hampshire, though I am not sure that now I can remember the rules. No matter, there is a description in the paper, and reading that would be a very good lesson for my Spanish improvement project.

The sun had moved and it started to get a little chilly just sitting, so when we were finished with our sandwiches and wine but before I was finished learning how to play croquet in Spanish, we packed up the paper and the garden hose equipment, walked back over to Carrefour, bought a chicken for dinner, and made our way home by early afternoon. A pleasant way to do something a little different on Sunday.

* The quote from George Bernard Shaw is this:

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

I found it in a November 2013 article in The Guardian, which apparently carried the original version of the interview.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Back to the Land

We took a drive in the country last Friday morning, just because the sun was shining, and even though the wind was blowing strongly, but we had nothing urgent planned, and it had been a long time since we moseyed around in this part of this country. So into our German Ford Fusion we piled and tootled off through the countryside, headed away from the city and the sea, just to see what we could see.

Field in cultivation, La Finca Golf Resort. ©Johannes Bjorner 2014
It was green. As we made our way along roads we knew, we noticed a huge increase in the number of cultivated fields. Not once, not twice, but several times we came across great stretches of land that had formerly been scrappy looking, going to seed, or used as junk lots. Now there were row upon row of tiny new olive trees standing a foot above the brown earth, or furrowed rows of cultivated land just waiting for seeds or plants or irrigation hoses, or in one case, a line-up of medium-sized earth-moving equipment, just getting ready for leveling and plowing the land.

This is a positive sign. Not only does it mean that there is some substantial money from somewhere going into investment, but that the money is going into investment in agriculture rather than more housing development. The last thing that Spain needs is increased  investment in holiday homes; thousands--probably millions--of apartments, quad houses, and villas are standing empty and/or uncompleted, the ugly symptoms of over-hype, over-development, and an unending financial crisis.

New olive trees on the road to Algorfa. © Johannes Bjorner 2014
We live in, and were traveling through, a semi-rural area of Alicante province, with small villages that were agricultural and isolated long before European holiday-makers and pensioners started coming to the sun in the 1980s and changed their way of life dramatically. We speculated that some of the old village farmers, rich in land but poor in cash, who had been sitting on their land until the right offer from the housing developers came through at an opportune time, have finally gotten tired of waiting and have smartened up. After decades of development and eight years of crisis, they have gone back to the land and are using it for Spain's and their own development.

And it's green.

News of the Day

While out on a drive Friday morning, we stopped (no surprise) for a café con leche and media tostada, and I was reminded of one of the special qualities of Spanish cafe-bars: they have newspapers. They don't thread them onto sticks in a stand, as they do, or at least used to, in Vienna cafes and in the Massachusetts public library where I worked an eon ago. Rather, they leave each day's selection--two or three papers--scattered on one end of the bar. There they lie when none of the customers, or the proprietor or servers, or cafe regulars are reading them. Friday morning around noon (yes, that's still morning in Spain) when we happened in to the Toscana in Callosa de Segura near the indoor mercado de abastos, there were three newspapers at the close end of the bar. My companion picked up El País, the national paper that has an affiliation with The New York Times, but I was wanting more local news, so I picked up Información, the regional edition for Alicante. Leafing through while enjoying my coffee and toast, I focused on four articles.

A front-page teaser noted that nine immigrants had been killed as they tried to climb a wall into Ceuta, a small Spanish territory surrounded by Morocco in Northern Africa. The economy may be bad in Spain, but apparently it is worse in Morocco, and the papers and TV news frequently tell of  would-be immigrants--usually arriving by boat--getting caught trying to enter European Union jurisdictions through Spain. I had never heard of a group trying to storm a wall from Morocco, but apparently that is what happened this time, with tragic consequences. What could have gone so terribly wrong to justify the killing of nine individuals seeking better opportunities? El País apparently has a later press time than Información, because it had a more detailed story, and here is one in English.

The AVE, the high-speed train, that was inaugurated between Alicante and Madrid shortly before we left Spain last November, has apparently turned into a big success. The train takes two hours and 35 minutes, as opposed to one hour for the plane, but that doesn't account for terminal time, with security and check-in requirements, for air travel. Headlines announced that the AVE "is eating" the air competition: what had been ten daily flights between Alicante and Madrid will now shrink to just three. This concerns me, as I don't really want to have to transfer from Barrajas airport in the outskirts of Madrid to the inner-city train station at Atocha when I return to Spain from the U.S., early in the morning after an all-night, transatlantic flight--with luggage--as I did just two weeks ago. Nor do I want to sit around Barrajas airport for hours on end waiting for the next flight. What is really puzzling is that we have taken the normal train to and from Madrid several times, and it usually takes only a little over three hours.

Story three: There have been big demonstrations at the Coca-Cola plant in Alicante city, which, it was announced earlier this week, is one of four in Spain to be closed by the global beverage concern. The news on Friday was that Coke has said, once again, that there is no chance that it can reconsider and save the jobs of its workers. I read later in the day, in an English paper, that 111 families will be affected by shutting down the plant, which first started operations 50 years ago. What a sad 50th year anniversary observance!

Story four: Another confirmation of the increasing presence and financial influence of Russians on the Costa Blanca: a big meeting of Russian real estate agents in the Torrevieja area had taken place, and there are signs of them joining together to develop a commercial center in a coastal part of Torrevieja that is unfit for housing development. Yes, there are real estate agents that specialize in serving Russians, and more than a couple. I had previously written about the Russians coming to this area, and the trend is continuing and expanding. This year, for example, there are four young Russian women in my Spanish class, out of about 15 students.

That was the news of the day, Friday, February 7. All for the price of a coffee and tostada.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Back Home in Spain

After an absence of more than two months, we arrived back home in Spain this past Wednesday. Considering the 20-year record frigid temperatures (below zero Fahrenheit) in Cincinnati, my home in the United States, the warmth we encountered was shocking and very pleasant. Previously I had thought, and even written, about the strange cold in Spain during the winter, when the temperature dips inside the non-centrally heated houses, and you go outside in mid-day to catch the warmth of the sun. Your body adjusts, apparently. I had forgotten what real cold is (I had learned it in New Hampshire), but I experienced it on this trip in Ohio, and again in Philadelphia for the week prior to our leaving. Shoot, I had even experienced temperatures somewhat colder than I had expected in November in Florida, but that was nothing compared to the temperatures that rolled through the north in December and January.

So I was uncomfortably warm when we landed in Alicante, in my black winter fleece shirt and pants, which covered one under layer on my legs and two up above, plus the high winter boots that I had to have on even though I knew it would be a pain to take them off at airport security. But that was what was necessary to get through snowy and slushy Philadelphia, and there was no room in my suitcase to pack the extra layers before getting on the plane home. But I didn't complain. It felt good to feel the sun and a gentle breeze, and the nicest surprise of all as we rode away from the airport parking lot was the sight of flowering almond trees. They don't usually blossom until February, but of course it was almost February then, and now is, and I realize I have missed most of the winter season in Spain.

Yesterday I spent time packing away the summer(!) clothing that I had worn up until leaving in November, and getting out the winter clothes that have migrated here via January trips from Ohio over the years, and I wondered as I did this how many weeks it would be before I made the switch again. But this morning we took a breezy walk through the Sunday outdoor market and even decided to forgo our usual sit-down for a cup of coffee, on the grounds that we needed to move to keep warm. That little walk--in 3/4 length pants and shoes with no socks--helped me decide not to wear the short skirt that I had been thinking about for an afternoon party today, and to go with the long black one instead. The body adjusts, apparently, and rather quickly, to the heat or lack of it wherever you are.