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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.