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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.