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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.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

El doctor Seuss en español

A chance quip in a Skype conversation last Monday started it: my colleague quoted something from Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat (I can't remember what), and we laughed. I mentioned that the day preceding had been the birthday of Dr. Seuss, a fact I knew because I had passed my eyes over the Half Price Books calendar that I had acquired when book shopping in the U.S. in late January--it has at least one entry of a famous writer's birthday for almost every day of the year.

In the background was my current reading of a book called Haunting Jasmine for my Spanish conversation class. The Spanish version is titled La libreria de nuevas oportunidades (The Bookstore of New Opportunities) and several children's books are mentioned. I recognize most, but not all, of their Spanish names. Dr. Seuss is there.

Then a call went out, from an organization I have been a member of for more than 25 years, to contribute children's books to a project for the children of Baltimore, Maryland (USA). I'm not going to make the transatlantic trek to the conference in April, so I didn't think too much of it until one of the British members said that she wasn't going to bring British books so as not to inflict cruelty regarding the difference in spelling of American and British English, and another wrote back and said that he was going to bring British children's books, and the American kids could probably handle it. And the organizer of our conference's contribution to the book donation drive wrote back and said, "Bring British English books, U.S. English books — bring it on!"

So that is why I spent time this week reading about Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and the publishing history of The Cat in the Hat, which was first released in 1957 in trade and school editions. The school edition was written as an antidote to the simplistic and boring "Dick and Jane" reading primers that I learned to read from--or at least, that I read in my early years in school. By the time The Cat in the Hat was published, I already knew how to read, which I think accounts for the fact that I do not have the close relationship with that title that many of my near-contemporaries have, and why I, in fact, have yet to read this book.

As a follow-on, I spent a large part of today on, searching, reading reviews, evaluating, and ordering a few books in Spanish to send to the children of Baltimore as part of my organization's donation. Huevos verdes con jamón (Green Eggs and Ham) is in my package. It received rave reviews about the Spanish translation, which captures the rhythm and rhymes of the English original. The Cat in the Hat received horrible reviews about the translation, which does not rhyme, but The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (El gato con sombrero viene de nuevo) has a different translator, who passed the grade.

Too bad I'm having these books delivered straight to the conference. I'll have to find them in a library the next time I come to the U.S., because now I think it is time for me to read Dr. Seuss. In the original. But I'll check my local library here in Spain for the Spanish or bilingual versions first.

Children at Eroski Dos Mares

© 2014 Johannes Bjorner
We have no idea why these "seven little Indians" came suddenly parading through the Eroski supermarket at Dos Mares shopping center in San Javier, Murcia, yesterday. But they were happy and pleased to have their picture taken. We were glad to do it, and they made us happy too.

El Tiempo de Alcachofas

Estamos en Semana Santa y ya sabes que es tiempo de Alcachofas, habas y guisantes.

"We are in Holy Week and you know that this is the time of artichokes, beans, and peas."

Well, no, I have never thought of artichokes as especially a dish for the most important holiday in Spain, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, though of course I realize that eating artichokes would be appropriate for the meatless meals of Lent, or Cuaresma, as the period is called here in Spain. But yesterday morning, the first Saturday in Lent, we drove south through the countryside just to be out to enjoy the sun and crisp spring weather. We saw field upon field of large green bushy plants that certainly looked ripe for harvesting, and I suspected they may be alcachofas, or artichokes. We stopped the car for a closer inspection, and sure enough, now I am certain what an artichoke plant looks like. The leaves are quite raggedy and have prickles, sort of a combination of giant dandelions  and thistles, with, of course, a large round layered bulb, or head, growing out at angles, which is actually the flower of the plant.

Artichokes ready for harvesting. © 2014 Johannes Bjorner

Given the plenitude of artichokes, I thought I should look for some artichoke recipes to try, and given that we have just entered Lent, I figured I have five weeks in which to investigate this dish if I intend to follow local custom and serve alcachofas during Semana Santa. Truth be told, I have never found an artichoke that I really enjoyed eating. I remember the first one very well. It was in Argentina, and my mother-in-law served artichokes as a special first course. I did not even know how to eat the plant that was placed before me, but fortunately this was a very long time ago, I was young, and I was a foreigner who had not grown up on a farm, so no reason I should have known how to eat an artichoke. It didn't have to be fancy, I was relieved to see. Patiently I watched as others tore the green leaves from the bulb and dipped them in melted butter, then sucked the inside of the leaves into their mouths. Eventually I tried it myself, and they didn't taste bad as long as I soaked up enough butter. But I would just as soon have dipped anything else into the butter and then into my mouth.

Years later another neighbor made a nice bubbling hot artichoke dip, also as an appetizer, and served it informally as a spread on crackers. These artichokes were mashed, as far as I could tell, for they bore no resemblance to a solid vegetable at all. That dish was OK, too. It was pleasantly warm and had added cheese. Edible, but I didn't ask for the recipe, even though she told me that it was perfect for spontaneous get-togethers, as I was likely to have all the ingredients on hand, once I bought the canned artichoke hearts.

If I have eaten other artichokes through the years, they have been disguised and/or innocuous.

Foods from Spain tells us that Spain produces 300,000 tons of artichokes annually, making it the second largest producer in the world (I believe it follows Italy) and the largest exporter.  Moreover, our drive from San Miguel de Salinas south to Murcia province took us smack dab through the largest artichoke growing area in Spain. The Foods from Spain website also gave me some ideas about contemporary uses for artichokes, but I needed to begin on a more elementary level. I found "Twelve Recipes with Artichokes" and then "Rapid and Very Simple Recipes for Artichokes" with a Google search on alcachofa recetas. I also found directions for peeling artichokes, and this, I realize, may be one of the biggest hurdles in preparing them. Nevertheless, I will be investigating and evaluating these recipes in the coming weeks. I'll let you know if I come across something that I like. And if I don't write about alcachofas again, you'll know that I didn't find anything that seemed worth the effort. Or, perhaps that I became sated with "Ode to the Artichoke," by Nobel literature prize winner Pablo Neruda. Really.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Callosa de Segura

Friday morning was a glorious day. When we looked outside the bathroom window, we could see bright-colored oranges in the grove that starts near our house and stretches out towards an unusual craggy mountain in the distance. The mountain was crystal clear. In a half hour we had loaded and started the washing machine and the dishwasher, so that some productive work could get done while we were out, and off we went to the town of Callosa de Segura.

Callosa de Segura lies inland and is a town with history, and well kept. We walked up and down several streets (Callosa is built right next to a mountain) enjoying the varied architecture of the houses, some old, some new, some ornate and elaborate, but all, it seemed, well-maintained. There is a beautiful central plaza, with plantings, walkways, and a fountain, and since the sun had disappeared by the time we reached there, we looked for a café where we could sit inside and have a café con leche and tostada. We found Cafetería Las Rocas. In a little nook there was a tiny booth with an old square wooden table and two wooden benches facing each other, just enough for two people, or three if you pulled a chair up to the third side of the table. Which you would do, because on the fourth side of the table was an artistic cut glass window, with several layers of glass framing, a treasure in itself, but it also opened onto one of the most charming views I have ever seen.

We had left hurriedly, without camera or iPad. I have two pictures of that view, but they are locked inside my cell phone. I do not have a smartphone, or rather, I guess I do, but in addition to being smart, it is secretive, and it has not divulged to me, within the limits of my patience, the technique of siphoning images from its tiny window to a computer screen. So I will have to compose a word picture of the window and the view.

The window itself is rectangular, with the shorter sides at top and bottom. It measures, perhaps, 18 inches by 36. The surface is a mixture of clear and frosted glass, the frosted portions gracefully arranged in a large floral pattern, so that light refracts through the various irregular panes in interesting ways. By the time we got our coffee, the sun had reappeared and we were treated to lovely sunlight coming through the window, and a clear view outside of the plaza, a very tall palm tree, and another mature and tall tree the name of which I always forget, but we call it the upside-down Christmas tree, because the needles grow upwards on wide-spread branches, ideal as a base for Christmas tree decorations. Perfectly in the center of the horizontal pane of the window, but high up in the vertical, we could see the craggy rock of Callosa mountain, rivaling the rock of Gibraltar in its majesty, but in a sandy color rather than dark.

There was life in the plaza. Las Rocas had a large tent with many tables and chairs outside for the benefit of smokers and hardy souls who had not looked for the warmth of indoors. A few people were seated at the tables, and I watched the server take drinks and snacks out to them. A feeble older woman walked slowly by, escorted by a younger woman, her daughter, perhaps, or a neighbor. Several women walked by with child strollers, and in the distance on the other side of the plaza you could hear and just barely see some elementary school students engaged in a game of football. Occasionally a man or two would walk past, dressed in business attire, on the way to or from an appointment. It was still early, around noon, and there were all the signs of life in a busy village in late morning.

We paid our bill and walked out, and I turned to look into the window that I had spent such a pleasurable time looking out. I could not see in. The outer surface was a mirror, and I found myself looking at myself, with the green trees, the café tent, and the tall rocky mountain peak reflected in the background in a blue sky.

Extra Rinse Cycle

This morning I read in one of the free newspapers that this has been the driest winter in the Torrevieja area in years. In fact, it is said that we only got one-third of the rainfall that we normally get in February.

What rain we did get all seemed to fall on my clean laundry.

Three times in the past two weeks I hung laundry outside to dry in good weather: clear, dry, no sign of rain to come. Three times it received an unscheduled extra rinse cycle from nature before it got dry the first time.

Wet laundry with rainwater collected on the laundry machines container cover
My "laundry room" is the upstairs terrace of our house, which lies between the master bedroom (convenient for collecting the laundry) and my office (convenient for taking quick breaks from desk work to load the machine, hang things on the line, and bring them in again). The washing machine and tumble dryer are housed on the roofless terrace in a large green and tan plastic storage box with two doors: dryer on the left, washer on the right. It was designed and sold to conceal garden equipment, but it works fine for the two electric appliances. My transformation from a died-in-the-wool electric dryer dependent to a steadfast clothesline addict happened five years ago when we moved to a place where it was easy to hang things out and get a little sun at the same time. I almost always run a load of wash in the morning, planning it to make sure that the lengthy 1 1/2 to 2 hour cycle finishes before the changeover from discounted to expensive "regular rate" electricity: noontime in the winter, 1:00 PM in the summer. I rarely use the tumble dryer. For one thing, I would have to start earlier to make sure I was done before cheap electric time finished; for another, the technique of no-wrinkle drying does not seem to have made it to Spain. Then, too, I have grown to enjoy the mild exercise of hanging the laundry and the convenience of getting into the sun and fresh air for a short period of time.

It has happened before that rain has come down on my hanging laundry during an afternoon, but it is rare, since rain showers in Spain usually come during nighttime hours. What I generally do when I leave my desk at the end of the afternoon to collect the laundry before going downstairs to start dinner, and discover that it has rained, is just wait. Let it stay up all night, and by the time that I am out of bed the next morning (which can be quite late, depending on my in-bed reading and iPadding) the sun has returned to the sky and the laundry is dry.

This past Thursday, though, when I glanced at the laundry at 5:30, I was shocked and dismayed. I hadn't heard any sign of rain, and I had been "right next door" the entire time. What's more, I had sheets and comforter covers on the line, and two nightgowns recovering from coffee stains (that happens when you lie in bed of a morning, reading and iPadding) and I had planned to put the linens right back on the same bed for that night.

Looking out at dry laundry the next morning
I briefly thought about firing up the tumble dryer, but I resisted and simply dug out the reserve bed linens instead. And considered myself lucky, as I always do when the extra rinse cycle surprises me, that the rain that day was not one of the ones that comes carrying Sahara sand, which drops dusty particles over everything, usually just after a car has been washed.

But that's another story.