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Showing posts with label customs and culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label customs and culture. Show all posts

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 9, 2014

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, June 2, 2013

Playing Cards

Spanish deck printed in Valencia in 1778. Credit: Wikipedia.
Now I can say it is summer: Last Monday was the last Spanish class of the year and we will not meet again until classes start anew in October. My class in conversation celebrated by learning to play the popular Spanish card game Chinchón. It is a variant of gin rummy that can be played with any number of players; here each player is dealt seven cards, and in turn each player takes and then returns one card from the deck (either picking up the last card discarded by the previous player or drawing a new hidden  card from the deck) until one player successfully has turned all the cards in his hand into a set of three of the same number (or more) and/or a run of the same suit (four or more).

I am not much of a card player and it had not occurred to me that this card game would be played with a deck of cards different from the standard deck that I know: four suits (hearts, diamonds, spades, clubs), numbered from 2 through 10 plus the face cards of jack, queen, and king, and plus the ace--52 cards in all. Of course I know that not all card games are played with the standard deck: Old Maid and pinochle come to mind, only one of which I have played in my lifetime, and not recently. But all my myriad solitaire games use the same deck, and I thought it was universal.

It's not universal. The standard Spanish card deck comes with 48 cards: 4 suits numbered 1 through 12, though the 10, 11, and 12 are also face cards. But you don't play chinchón with 48 cards: you play it with 80. It requires two decks, but you take out the 8s and the 9s. Lest you think that means that you can't make a run of 5-6-7-8 or 7-8-9-10 or the like ... technically you can't, but you can make a run that jumps over the missing cards: 5-6-7-10 is a legitimate run, as is 6-7-10-11, and 7-10-11-12. As if it weren't difficult enough to remember the rules without remembering which cards are missing and which come in "sequence"! I was still trying to remember how to say "deck" in Spanish (baraja) and the names of the four suits: oros (gold coins), bastos (clubs), espadas (swords), and copas (goblets). They are said to stem from the Middle Ages.

We were five class members playing, and we went through five or six hands before the first person was knocked out. The object of this game is to get the smallest score. At the end of each hand, when someone successfully gets complete sets, that person gets minus 10 points. The other players count up the number of points in their hand minus the cards that make a set, and that's the number of points each gets. It only takes losing once with face cards in your hand to make you realize how chancy it is to collect those. The first person to get over 100 points is dropped from the game. As each person gets 100, they are dropped, and the winner is the person who still has under 100 points. Betting occurs, though we didn't progress that far in two classes. I did manage to win one hand, with low cards, but that doesn't matter because you still have ten points subtracted from your total score, and I had some to subtract from. I did not win the complete match.

But I did go out and buy a baraja. The cards are quite colorful, to the point of distracting, not at all as easy to manage as two red suits and two black. Then I read the explanation of the Spanish cards in Wikipedia, and I decided to try to enlist some others in playing chinchón and get used to the different system. My teacher says that chinchón is played at most family gatherings and goes on for hours amid talking, drinking, snacking, and gambling. That, undoubtedly, is why two decks are required, though it certainly doesn't explain why you would take out the 8s and 9s. With only one other player, I think we can manage with a single deck for learning.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

April Showers

The trumpet flower plant, a week ago, before the rains.
© Johannes Bjorner 2013
I woke this Sunday in Spain to the pitter-patter of rain on the rooftop. It was the fourth consecutive day of rain. I don't remember any other time here in which it has rained so long.

Not that it has rained continuously throughout the four days, but it has rained every single one of them, and the feeling and experience of rain has permeated the days. It started late Wednesday, as we were in the midst of our third and final game of petanca, nearing 7:00 in the  evening. The wind was strong and the clouds were darkening. It rained that night, but nevertheless I got up the next morning and put in a load of laundry, because I had managed to stain both my white pirate pants and my favorite white pullover (100% cotton, made in Denmark but purchased years ago at Garnet Hill in Franconia, New Hampshire) with tomato sauce the night before when I was making dinner. By the time the washing machine was done, the clouds were spewing forth with water again.

Friday morning promptly at 5:00 I was awakened with a horrendous clap of thunder, pouring rain, and noisy winds, but it cleared enough by 10:30 that we were able to sit outdoors comfortably in Los Montesinos for the Fourth Friday coffee hour of the tiny American community that we go to each month. By afternoon we had had more rain, more sun, and then more rain, so that Friday afternoon petanca was cancelled. Saturday morning was also gray and wet. By now I had rescued the whitened laundry that I had hung on the outside line and which had experienced at least two extra rinses, and brought it inside to dry. Then, of course, it cleared again and we took advantage of the day to run out to Quesada to buy some birthday cards, wrapping paper, and have a cup of coffee at the Halfway House. It rained much of the afternoon, but I didn't feel bad about that, because I have a big writing project that I wanted to work on, and if you have to be inside on a weekend day, it might as well be raining. This morning I still had words to write, so I didn't object too much when I heard the rain on the rooftop, though it did mean that I wouldn't go to the outdoor market and purchase the week's supply of fruits, vegetables, and frutos secos. Very often, when the weather is gray in the morning, it clears up by 4:00 in the afternoon, so I just planned to work until the sun came out and then we could go out and enjoy what probably would be a brief respite from our cabin fever.

Sure enough, at 3:51 I noticed that the sun was pouring in my office window. It didn't take much longer before we were out the door--but where to? Stores and shopping malls are not open on Sundays, the outdoor market had long since closed, we did not want a late Sunday dinner in a restaurant. So we drove to Los Montesinos, ten minutes or so away, and found that the metal tables and chairs were sitting out front of El Tambalache bar just as you enter town. I thought it was still too cold to sit at a sidewalk table, so we went inside and enjoyed the ambiance of a neighborhood bar on Sunday afternoon. Five or six men were talking noisily at the bar among themselves and the two men who were standing outside at the pass-through window. A soccer game was on the TV, playing silently because separate audio was playing first English, then Spanish pop music. We ordered a vino tinto and tinto de verano (pushing the summer season a little, I thought) and also picked up a small bag of Lay's Artesanas potato chips, fried in 100% olive oil. Today's regional newspaper was lying on the bar, and as we drank we read the news, a nice savings because, although we often buy a newspaper, we never do on Sunday because it costs so much more that day. A front page story told us that 40 liters of hail had fallen per meter during a 15-minute period the day before in Alicante. Also we read that the waiting time for operations from the  public health system has doubled in the last year, due to reductions in staff of medical personnel. The  day's cartoon showed a man asking his doctor whether he would come out [alive, presumably] from his operation. The doctor responded tartly: You´ll be lucky to come into the operation!

We were back home in no more than an hour and it still hasn't started raining again yet, but the newspaper said that the "unsettled" weather would continue in the area until Tuesday. Not a good sign for us, as we leave at 7:00 in the morning to take some friends to the train station in Alicante on their way to embark on a cruise. They, at least, will manage to get out of the rain for awhile. Cruise ships have big indoors.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Walk on the Beach

Finally it's spring. Really spring. That delightful season in Spain when it's not too cold and it's not too hot.

Of course, to preserve that delicate balance, you need to change clothing at least three times a day. Today I am putting away my winter clothes and getting out my summer garb. I'm hoping this doesn't put the jinx on the weather, as it usually does when we say "This is the last time we'll need the fire" while we watch TV at night. We haven't had a fire for several evenings now, and I am just about ready to plant the white silk flowers that I bought for that purpose in the black square of the fireplace grate for the summer, but I haven't done it yet, because we may just need that fire again some time.

How many times I need to change clothes each day depends on when I get up. I need long pants and long sleeves for the morning and evening,and even during the day if I am inside the house at my desk or in the kitchen, but after wearing long pants to play petanca in the afternoon a couple times this week, and being too hot, I decided that I really needed to retrieve my 3/4 length pants. Yesterday I cut down on the number of wardrobe changes by staying in bed reading until 11:00 AM. That meant I could put on the one pair of pirate pants that I had kept out of storage for the transition season for the afternoon. I also donned a sleeveless laced tank top, one I had purchased years ago at an arts and craft fair somewhere in New England, which has a matching long-sleeved men's shirt with lacy cut-outs and applique--perfect if there are breezes or too much sun. I was a little cold as I sat at the computer in my office in early afternoon, but I was perfectly dressed when we ventured out mid-afternoon for a drive to the Mediterranean, only ten or fifteen minutes away by car.

Photo credit Johannes Bjorner
We parked at La Mata, a neighborhood in the north of Torrevieja, and got out to walk to the beach. There is a boardwalk that stretches along the Mediterranean for several kilometers, and we walked south toward the city. We had been on a stretch of the boardwalk before, but it was a couple years ago. We passed small cafés and chiringuitos as we followed the boardwalk around sand dunes and beach greenery with the magenta middagsblomster and another blue wildflower that I had not seen elsewhere. It was a perfect spring Saturday afternoon. There were several people sunning themselves in swimsuits or just reading in a beach chair. We saw a sailboat. Other people were walking or biking along the boardwalk. We heard lots of Spanish voices, some German, and a very few English. We stopped for a cup of café con leche, and then walked on, and then we turned back and stopped for a caña and tapa, and we watched some real experts playing petanca before we got back to the car at 5:30 or so.

There had been a breeze along the coast, but I was fine in my sleeveless top as long as we stayed in the sun, which was not difficult. When I got home, however, I disappeared upstairs immediately and changed into the slacks and long-sleeved cotton-knit shirt that were still hanging on the side of the dirty clothes basket from the previous evening. After our traditional Saturday evening smørrebrød we settled down for an unusually good Saturday evening of television. Once in awhile I glanced at the empty black hole under the mantel, but we did not light a fire. I did pull a wool blanket over me as we moved into the second hour of the evening's program, however.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spring Signs and Rituals

There was a gentle rain this Sunday in Spain on Easter morning. I didn't even realize it until I went outside to put towels in the washing machine, but then I saw that the pavement tile was wet and, when I raised the lid on the large plastic garden container that hides the laundry, there was a small spill-off of water. I put the laundry in the washing machine anyway, because I have faith that the sun will come out sometime before the day is over.

If a little rain isn't a sign of spring, I don't know what is. This week has been full of signs, and that seems appropriate, especially as we were approaching Easter, although it was a little early this year.

Early in the week as I was hanging clothing out to dry, I realized that I had a line full of warm socks although I didn't have any on myself that day at all. I haven't switched to sandals yet, but I have started wearing my hole-y "air-conditioned" plastic garden clogs (I have three pairs) that I can wear with or without socks and let my feet air out while still keeping them off cold tile floors.

Forgive me for talking about matters of personal hygiene, but I also shaved my legs for the first time in awhile, since I was putting on what we used to refer to as nylon stockings but what are now (still, I hope) referred to as pantyhose, or tights. The occasion was that concert last weekend, and I wore a skirt with natural-colored stockings and let my legs breathe after their winter hibernation.

I had carefully saved a few spring clothes at the back of my closet when putting away summer things last fall, and I was glad because I have been in to them several times now. A friend told me yesterday that they had spent the previous day doing the summer/winter clothing exchange, so all their winter things were now packed away, seasonal donations had been made, and she had a list of clothing accessories they needed to buy in preparation for their upcoming May cruise, but I haven't taken that big a step yet and I don't have a cruise to prepare for.

Spring travel has started. There have been an unusual number of young children at the cafes and restaurants, and the grocery stores, that we have frequented in the past few days. They are here on spring break, with their parents or without, to visit the grandparents. Or the grandparents have gone home to Scandinavia or the UK to participate in the communions and confirmations, and Easter and other festivities of the spring season, even though both those areas of the world are experiencing anything but spring weather.

Our house has warmed up sufficiently so that we have gone several days without turning on the infrared heating panels that were a major investment last year for the upstairs bedroom and bath. They worked well, and we may add them to a couple other rooms later on this year when we begin to think about colder weather again.We have also gone a couple evenings without using the gas-fired fireplace while watching the news and night-time television. Each time we plunk down the euros for a propane bottle--and the number was just increased again this week so we are now paying almost double what it started out to be when we got the gas heater four years ago, but it is still worth it--one of us says "This is probably the last bottle we will need to buy before the summer." Then I say, "Don't bank on it."

When the cleaners were here last week they vacuumed and rolled the two carpets from the dining room and living room that we use in the winter but which we take up in the summer because they would be way too warm. They were able to get one rug into a giant plastic bag for storage, but the other was too large, and it waits, in the guest bath, for a custom-designed plastic bag arrangement before it can go out for storage.

Speaking of storage, I sat with a friend in our downstairs sun room--the one we pass through whenever we enter or leave the house, and the one in which we eat lunch almost every day, early one evening this week, having a glass of wine. All of a sudden I raised my eyes to the ceiling and there was the last one of the Christmas decorations, dangling from a hook in the ceiling that used to hold a hanging plant that died--obviously because we had failed to raise our eyes and a watering can often enough. There is a Danish song that says "Christmas lasts until Easter," and we certainly held up that tradition this year.

Of course it is just coincidence that in 2013 we changed from "summer time" to "winter time" the night before Easter. That timing didn't make it easy to get to Easter sunrise services, if there were any. Europe always changes to summer time the last weekend in March, and I find it disorienting and mildly annoying that Europe and the U.S. don't participate in this annual spring ritual on the same day, or night.

We participated in my favorite spring tradition yesterday afternoon--we went to Los Montesinos de Tapas in a neighboring town. This is the third or maybe the fourth time we have been to this tapas festival, which is always held on the weekend of Semana Santa, leading up to Easter. This year I remembered it in advance, without even seeing any notice in the newspapers or on posters. As opposed to today, yesterday was warm and sunny and about 90 degrees F. in the sun, and we sat in the sun on the central plaza of Los Montesinos at two different bars, enjoying albondigas (meatballs) at the first and something called La Campesina, a delicious slice of warm ham and red pepper on bread, at the second, with our beers. We thought one more tapa would round out our lunch nicely and were ready to move on when some friends happened by. So we did move on, with them, to another place, where we sat inside because it was too hot in the sun, and talked over a tapa of morcilla (black sausage) on a thin layer of cooked apple, with a hard-boiled quail egg. Delicious!

It's moving on toward 3:30 summer time now. The sky is lightening by the minute but there is still no sun. The clean towels are languishing in the washing machine, and soon I will have to decide whether to move them over to the tumble dryer or hang them on the line. On rainy days in this part of Spain it almost always gets sunny by 4:00 in the afternoon. But does the sun know that we changed the clocks last night? Will it also spring forward so I can make my decision at summer 4:00?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Día del Padre

This coming Tuesday, March 19, is Father's Day in Spain. It is a public holiday. Banks and all the stores will be closed. Father's Day has been celebrated nationally in Spain on this date since 1951. March 19 was chosen because, in the Catholic calendar, it is also the feast day of San José. There is something very fitting about celebrating fatherhood in connection with the person who was the husband of the Virgin Mary and the earthly father of Jesus, who the world knows as a simple carpenter but who must have been a humble and very accepting father.

El Día del Padre is a little different this year. Since it falls on a Tuesday, the Spanish temptation is to hacer un puente, to make a bridge, from the weekend to the holiday; in other words, to have a long weekend without having to go to work. And the calendar cooperated, for this year January 6, which is Los Reyes, Three Kings Day, or Epiphany, happened to fall on a Sunday, a day that is not normally a work day at all. So workers were "cheated" out of a day off, except that they voted, or decided somehow, to move Reyes to Monday, March 18, the day between the weekend and Día del Padre. Not the actual celebration of Reyes, of course, but the official day off from work. This provides the perfect bridge to a long, long weekend.

That's why I am not having my municipally sponsored Spanish lesson tomorrow morning, because it is the public holiday that workers did not have in January. Signs have been up in the grocery stores saying that they will be open for part of the day on this substitute holiday on Monday, and we are hoping that some professional offices will be open--accountants are what we are after now--but I am betting we will be disappointed. That means we will most likely have to wait until Wednesday to touch base with the accountant, because Tuesday, is definitely a holiday for all, and nothing will be open. Stores and shops will be fined if they are open to conduct business on this day--unless they are in the leisure or hospitality business, that is.

Mothering Sunday

Last Sunday, March 10, was Mothering Sunday in Spain. Or, no, it was Mothering Sunday in the U.K., but given the number of Brits who live in this part of Spain, it may as well have been a Spanish holiday. This year I saw it coming. It seemed like every one of the free weekly newspapers carried big ads, or adverts, as we say here, for special Sunday dinner  menus on Mothering Sunday. No sooner was Valentine's Day out of the way than the adverts started up reminding anyone who cared to think about it that here was another good reason to go out for a sumptuous dinner.

Nevertheless I forgot on the day itself. Last Sunday morning was beautifully sunny and warmer than it had been for several days. Instead of going to our usual outdoor Sunday market, the Zoco, we headed off toward Guardamar and the market on the Lemon Tree Road for a change. It is bigger, and many say the prices are cheaper, and they have a whole different set of small outdoor cafe bars where you can have coffee, wine or beer, English breakfast, German wursts, or all sorts of other food and drink.

We parked at the edge of El Raso urbanization next door and started walking across the first of two or three dirt parking lots toward the market. I was enjoying the sunlight but looking directly into it, so I saw the solitary man coming toward me but I wasn't focused on him any more than that he was walking straight toward us, carrying his market purchases. He called out to me first, "No, they are not for you!" he said jokingly. I must have been smiling more than I thought.

As we approached each other I could see that he had not one but two huge bouquets of flowers in his arms. One was all day lilies, and the other was mixed stems. I don't think he was carrying anything else, though it had seemed, when I first saw him, that his arms were full. And so they were. "These aren't for you," he repeated. "They are for my wife. It's Mothering Sunday today, in Britain, and I'm taking these home to my wife." He obviously was cheerful and anticipating the pleasure his gift would bring. We acknowledged that they were beautiful, exchanged a few more pleasant words, reveled in the beautiful day and loving sentiments, and then moved on in opposite directions.

Later in the day I kept thinking of his enthusiasm, and silently complimented the Brits on making this a day honoring "mothering" rather than "mothers," presumably paying note to all women, and people, who are nourishers of life, rather than only those who may have given it biologically. And then I thought how appropriate it was that the British day to honor mothering was so close to International Women's Day, which had also been celebrated with many special events in Spain that same week, on March 8.

And then I did a little research and discovered how wrong my assumptions had been. This year  Mothering Day was March 10--the closest Sunday to March 8--but it's one of those floating holidays that depend on the natural  calendar, like Easter. In fact, Mothering Sunday is always celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent, and it is because Easter falls so early this year that it happened to coincide with International Women's Day. And that's not all. Mothering Day did not originate to honor mothers or mothering. "Mothering" refers to the "mother church," and the tradition was that on this fourth Sunday in Lent, people who had moved away from the village where they had been born and baptized would go "a-mothering" to their mother church and then enjoy a family visit. The holiday became very important during the years when young people moved from their homes "into service" in mansions at some distance from their homes, and they were given one special day to go home to their families, for they were never given the time to go home on holidays like Christmas or Easter itself. The move from emphasis on Mothering Sunday as a day to go to the home church to a day to honor mothers came about after Mother's Day became a fixture of life in the United States. During World War II, when many U.S. soldiers were stationed in Great Britain, they spread the idea of celebrating their mothers with flowers and cards and remembrance.

Both the BBC and Wikipedia have articles about the origins and current celebrations of Mothering Sunday, but one should also check out the trademarked Mothering-Sunday UK site.

Monday, November 26, 2012

American Thanksgiving in Torrevieja

I don't usually stick an American flag at the top of the pineapple in my traditional Thanksgiving centerpiece, but this year was different, for we went on the Saturday following Thanksgiving to a British restaurant to eat a roast turkey dinner with some Americans we know and some we didn't. There are not many people from the U.S. along the Costa Blanca, but those that there are, I think, are aware of the peculiar experience of being in the minority. That, plus the power of Thanksgiving memories, is probably what brought us all together last Saturday.

This particular group of Americans all seemed to be bi-national or multinational couples. The countries of our spouses and partners included (at least) Spain, Denmark, Germany, the Philippines, Cuba, and UK. We were a fairly diverse group of Americans, too, as separately we acknowledged "home" to be Ohio, Wisconsin, California, New York, New Hampshire, and Maine, although several of us have lived in even more states.
Thanks to one family, we were three generations, with six children and teenagers and a smattering of younger adults; the rest of our group of 20 had celebrated some 40 or more Thanksgivings earlier in our lives.

Since I have lived in Spain with so many British ex-patriots I have learned that roasts of various meats and poultry are the traditional Sunday dinner, with at least four vegetables. Our British hosts at The Courtyard had put individual placemats depicting the American flag on the table, which was an unexpected welcoming gesture. The restaurant put on a fine spread, and the various side dishes that some of us brought were completely unnecessary in filling out the meal, but important for our traditions. I brought the fruit arrangement shown above (the photo was taken on Sunday, so it is a little less bounteous than it was at Thanksgiving dinner). We also had homemade sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, cranberry sorbet, and a marvelous pumpkin soup.

A Thanksgiving timeline developed by the Library of Congress tells us that the first documented thanksgiving feast in territory currently belonging to the United States was held by Spanish explorer, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1521.  Maybe so, but I still prefer the Plymouth Colony story of 1621, which was a three-day feast. As ours was this year.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Virgen del Carmen

Tomorrow is the festival of the Virgen del Carmen. It's a holiday that is celebrated in many communities along the Costa Blanca, and we were made aware of that last night, or rather early this morning.

There were no signs of celebrating when I went to bed early last night, at 9:30, to read in peace. But just as I was thinking of turning the light off and getting some sleep a little before midnight, the fireworks started. And then the music started. At first I thought the music was from one or both the bars in Montebello, just a regular Saturday night party, though we don't usually hear signs of nightlife in our house five short blocks from the commercial area. 

But the noise went on longer than those bars are open. It was still going on at 2:00, and at 3:00 and even at 3:30. That's the last time I looked at my clock before I thankfully finally fell asleep. When I woke up this Sunday morning at 8:00, it was to blessed sounds of silence.

We still didn't know exactly which town the loud music had come from, but we were pretty sure it had come from a municipal fiesta rather than a private party. Every town has a fiesta during the summer, and we had seen signs in Benijofar this past week that its fiesta was coming up. But this morning after we made our usual Sunday purchases of frutos secos and vegetables from the Zoco market, we drove along the roads of La Finca golf resort to our small town of Algorfa, thinking to enjoy a cup of coffee in the refreshing coolness of the morning breeze.

Assembling for the Virgen del Carmen Parade in Algorfa. ©2012 Johannes Bjorner.
Our timing could not have been better. As I made my way through the narrow streets of the town, I suddenly came across signs of a procession. People--old and young--garbed in traditional costumes and carrying flowers, were assembling in the streets. We parked quickly, got out of the car, and followed the parade.

Flowers from all. ©2012 Johannes Bjorner.
We didn't have long to wait. It was a small parade, but festive. First came the musicians (two of them) and then townspeople, some--especially the children--decked out in red, black and white, and bouquets of flowers everywhere. I had read this week that IVA, the value-added tax, is going up on flowers, but that didn't stop the florists this morning from doing a bang-up business.

Algorfa, like other communities, was celebrating the Virgen del Carmen festival. But the Virgen del Carmen happens to be the patron saint of Algorfa, so the celebration here is especially festive. First the parade this morning, with musicians and children carrying flowers to the church. We followed the parade down two blocks, then it turned toward the plaza, and crossed the plaza to the church.

These musicians led the parade.
The musicians stopped outside the church and people proceeded inside to lay the bouquets in front of the statue of the Virgin, I imagine. Another parade, with carriages and a local queen and princess, will take place this evening, and tomorrow at 9:00 PM the statue of the Virgin del Carmen will be brought out of the church and carried through the streets of Algorfa in a solemn procession.

Perhaps her first Virgen del Carmen festival.
We did not go into the church, but we joined lots of other people refreshing themselves at a cafe bar in weather that by now had begun to turn hot. There were lots of townspeople on the church steps, and we heard the sounds of the organ playing various hymns. It wasn't just foreigners who skipped out of the mass, though. Lots of children who had laid their flowers and shown off their finery were now playing in the plaza while their parents chatted with friends and family. We sat for awhile and enjoyed their enjoyment, and then walked and wheeled back through the streets to find where we had parked the car in haste when we first saw the signs of this celebration parade.
Playing hide-and-seek in the plaza outside the church. ©2012 Johannes Bjorner.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Spain 4 - Italy 0

Well, that was decisive. The firecrackers started toward the end of the first half, when Spain made its second goal, and they are still going on. And will continue all night, probably. But we are going to bed.

I thought Italy had the ball for a lot of the game, but fortunately for Spain, Spain had a very good goalie. It was exciting.  We watched the match on Spanish television, which makes sense. Danish TV (our main station, the one we pay 300+€ for per year) was also showing it, but they don't have rights to show it outside of Denmark, so even though we pay what they pay in Denmark, we don't get it. My understanding of spoken Spanish is improving, but it's still no match for the excited voices of two male Spanish commentators and one female one, all telling me what's going on. Thank goodness our screen is large enough so I could see it myself.

¡Viva España!

Football Fever

Spain meets Italy in the final match of the European Football (soccer) championship at 8:45 this evening. This is disappointingly late--I would have preferred to watch the match during dinner time--but nevertheless I have now planned dinner and my evening activities around it.

Until a few days ago we thought that it would be Spain against Germany. That would have been an interesting match, since Spain has been sparring with Germany over economic matters in the European Union for weeks now. I was rather hoping that an outcome to that game might be some sort of a talisman to tell what really is the correct answer for how to resolve the euro crisis and solve Spain's economic problems. But Italy beat Germany in the semifinals, so now it's just us two Mediterranean countries, both accused of faltering economies, to battle it out between ourselves.

We've done what we can for the Spanish economy and the EM championship--we bought a Spanish flag for 3€ yesterday that would have cost only 1€ last week and maybe less than that in the coming days, and it's mounted outside the sunroom in a flower pot. We'll stay awake until the final minute this evening, but we won't be moving to the streets to celebrate.

There will be a gigantic celebration tomorrow in Madrid, I read earlier. Spaniards love a fiesta. If Spain wins, they'll be celebrating that they won the championship. If Italy wins, Spain will be celebrating that they got to the finals. That's a pretty good way of looking at it, I think.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Great Perks

I am not in Spain on this second Sunday in 2012. I am on my regular January trip to the U.S. to visit family and attend the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association. Last Friday morning I left Alicante for Madrid, and then four hours later (only two hours after the scheduled departure) I boarded the long flight to Dallas. My  trip continued to Cincinnati, but in order to avoid arriving there at 15 minutes before midnight, I chose to spend a night at a hotel in Dallas. It seems like a good opportunity to reflect on the features of U.S. hotels that are particularly welcoming after such a long flight and such a long time outside the U.S.

Given the length of flights and complexity of connections, I have become a veteran of airport hotels in the U.S. and Madrid over the past several years. Free transportation to and from the airport is not unique to the U.S., but finding the right place for the pick-up is not always easy. When I came out of the baggage area and customs control in Dallas, I didn't know where to go to get the courtesy van. I walked by an information desk--it was unstaffed--and out to the curb. How many lanes should I cross over to find the courtesy van? Or should I turn left, or right and follow the same lane? I was a bit angry that no one had responded to my request on to inform me of how to get to the free transport, and that I myself had not followed up with a second request before leaving home.

But I did have an advantage in Dallas over Madrid--I speak the language "like a native." I returned inside, and now there was someone at the Information desk. I could tell as I approached, however, that the woman sitting there was just resting, waiting for someone to come out from behind the doors separating the arrival area from the baggage and customs area. No matter! Texas hospitality came to the fore. She borrowed a cell phone and called my hotel to find out where I should go to catch the limo, then directed me out to the appropriate place. I left, feeling confident that my driver, Jaime, would pick me up within fifteen minutes, and he did. Such proactive helpfulness would be unheard of in Spain. What a welcome home! Only in America, I thought.

Soon I was checking in at my hotel, the Fairfield Inn in Irving. I was unprepared for the first question: Would I like a bottle of water? Well, sure, but I never expect to get that question when checking in at a Spanish hotel. The front desk clerk efficiently took care of me: I got the location of the fitness center and the fact that it was open all night, I set up a wake-up call and reserved the van to the the airport the following morning for my continued flight, I found out that I would have time for  breakfast at 7:00, and she passed me a paper with the login information for the Internet. Although most of the hotels I stay in in Spain now have Internet, they never offer this aging but frequent user the login information at check-in, and I always forget to ask until I get to the room, thus necessitating a phone call or extra trip down to the front desk.

I found my way to my room. U.S. hotel rooms are larger than Spanish, and most European, hotel rooms. There was an extra queen bed where I could spread out my few clothes, many papers, and several electronic devices. After sending an email, I went to the fitness center, which was conveniently located down the hall from my room. One of my goals in this trip is to compare fitness equipment with that which I usually use at my exercise center in Spain. I was surprised to find out that the treadmills in this center were the exact same brand that I use there. A few differences: I did not have to select a preferred language for programming my session, I entered my weight in pounds, not kilos, and when I entered my usual 5.5 level for velocity, I almost fell off the treadmill, since that was, of course, measured in miles, not kilometers.

After a short work-out, I was ready for a shower. I had forgotten how delighted I would be with a facecloth. Facecloths are not provided in Spanish, and most European hotels. When I forget to bring one with me, I often use the small hand towel that hangs next to the bidet. Not all bidets have a hand towel, but almost all hotel rooms have a bidet. No, I don't use the bidet itself, and I have not used the one in the guest bath in my own house. A better piece of bathroom equipment, in my opinion, is the grab-bar, a nice feature when you are jet-lagged and finding your way around a bathroom that is unknown to you, especially if you are dependent on eyeglasses. Grab-bars are non-existent in European bathrooms.

I didn't need the iron and ironing board that was a standard part of my room in Dallas, but which I would never find in a Spanish hotel room. It was now that I spied another unique offering: a package of microwave popcorn! Just the thing at 9:00 PM after having already partaken of four meals this day already. Unfortunately there was no microwave oven in my room--perhaps it was supposed to be on top of the tiny refrigerator? I knew that I would be welcome to use the microwave in the breakfast area off the hotel lobby, but i didn't want to leave my room now, not even for popcorn. I realized also that of course there was an ice bucket, and an ice machine outside my room. But I guess I have become enough of a European that I don't need ice, at least with the tetra-pack of red wine that I had brought with me from Spain.

So I settled down with the TV remote--and is every TV remote throughout the world on its last dregs of the battery so that it is tedious and almost impossible to change channels and operate the controls? Was it the remote or my ineptitude that prevented me from getting the digital selections to work, even though I was able to see the hundreds of possible programs? Fortunately Jay Leno was available on an analog channel, which I could get, and fortunately I was in the Central time zone, so I could stay awake for most of the program.

The next morning I was out for the complimentary breakfast a few minutes before the hour of 7:00, when it was scheduled to be open. It would have been 6:00 on weekdays, and it probably would have been 8:00 or later in Spain. Breakfast is more of a DIY affair in the U.S. than it is in Spain, where hot items are in steam trays and don't always stay hot. Here I was able to heat up a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich in the microwave myself, or, if I had been so inclined, make my own waffle.

But even before I went out for breakfast and told the front desk that my 7:00 wake-up call would not be necessary, I had partaken of the best of U.S. hotel perks. Jet-lagged, of course, I had been up for three hours already. And I blessed the institution of in-room coffee.  I don't ever expect that there will be coffee machines in hotel rooms in Spain. Coffee is not a DIY affair there. It is a ritual and ceremony, and I promise to write about it sometime.

There are those, of course, who say that the tiny percolators and pre-packaged coffee found in hotel rooms make a dismal swill. But when I happen to be in a hotel room, jet-lagged from time zone differences, and wake up far earlier than I need to, I consider in-room coffee one of the greatest of hotel amenities.

A great perk.