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Showing posts with label holidays. Show all posts
Showing posts with label holidays. Show all posts

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving in Spain

We have just finished an extra-large lunch of the leftovers from yesterday's traditional Thanksgiving dinner with three American (or American-connected) friends. It's hard to celebrate the fourth Thursday of November when you are the odd people out.  Spaniards, and Europeans in general, know that Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and eat turkey, but they don't know exactly when, they don't know anything about the real tradition of it, and they certainly don't stop life on a weekday in the fall for a huge foreign celebration. So since one of our American friends in Spain is a mother with kids in school (from approximately 9:00 to 1:00 and again from 4:00 to 7:00 each day), we have often celebrated our national holiday on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We have been to restaurants before, but this year I brought the "fixings" in my suitcase from the U.S.: pecans, canned pumpkin puree, and well-wrapped fresh cranberries. I do wonder whether the TSA ever inspected my cardboard canisters labeled dried plums and raisins well enough to know that substitutions had been made.

Turkey roaster filling the oven in my Spanish kitchen.
Finding a fresh turkey is not always easy. I remember one year that I did manage to order one ahead of time, sight unseen; when I picked it up at the market early in the week, it turned out to be almost 40 pounds(!) and I had a hard time storing it in my refrigerator for a few days and an even harder time getting it into my small oven to roast. This year I had to fall back on a frozen turkey crown from Iceland, where the turkeys for the Brits' traditional Christmas dinner are already selling like hotcakes. I was able to gauge the size somewhat better for our small gathering of five, and I was even more pleased when I got it home that it fit in the cast aluminum Wagner Ware turkey roaster that I had been storing on the top shelf of my kitchen cabinets for years, used seldom but with affection, though never before in my ownership for turkey. I had previously ascertained that the turkey roaster itself would fit in the oven. It did, barely, with no room for anything else to either side, front or back, above or below. When Thursday morning came and I started the food preparations, I was disappointed to discover that the two turkey legs (jamoncitos) that I had purchased to add a dark meat selection to the white meat of the turkey crown would not fit in the roster with the crown, so I did them first and then set the crown in a couple hours before my guests came.

We had a leisurely dinner, from spinach square appetizers contributed by one guest to a fantastic pumpkin pie with lattice crust from another guest, and then sat at the table for hours afterwards talking and doing our darnedest to finish the last inch or two out of some of the various liquor bottles that had accumulated on the bottom shelf of the liquor cart over the years. This was a farewell occasion to some of our best friends. We also had another farewell dinner at our house, on Thursday, with other long-time friends, English, who had humored me several times in the past few years by celebrating Thanksgiving with us. This year we agreed to bypass the traditions of Thanksgiving and have roasted pork tenderloin and seasonal vegetables. That was excellent and easy, but I did give in to purchasing a small turkey tenderloin when I spied it in the grocery store, and throwing it into the oven thirty minutes before the rest of dinner was done, and I offered a cranberry compote with custard for dessert, so there was some tradition on Thursday itself.

We played petanca with our usual group this past Tuesday afternoon, and then on Wednesday evening joined 40 or so other members of the Danish Friends Club of Torrevieja for a club dinner at a restaurant in the La Siesta area--a restaurant where we had eaten for our first meal out when we came to explore Torrevieja six years ago, now re-opened under new management. Most of the Danes had heard that we were here to ready our house for selling, and they stopped by to say goodbye and wish us well. Then on Friday I had a lovely visit with my Danish Spanish teacher, that is, the Danish woman who started out teaching me Spanish conversation by discussing books, but who has long since turned from formal teacher into a close friend and fellow reader.

It has been a week of celebratory dinners, and we have been giving thanks throughout for good friends with whom we have shared the joyful, trying, and rewarding experience of living several years in a foreign country.

Tomorrow I pack the turkey roaster to bring it back home to Ohio. As is the custom here, we are selling our house furnished, and in our case that includes cookware and basic dining service, because, frankly, it doesn't pay to ship it home. But not this piece, even though my 15-inch Wagner Ware Magnalite 4265 turkey roaster can be had on eBay for about $80 plus shipping (estimated at $20). My shipping will probably cost that--maybe a little less if you factor in all the small treasures I can fit inside the roaster when I pack it. But even if I were to buy another one, it wouldn't be the same. This roaster is from the town I grew up in, and the company where my father worked during my growing-up years. It is nearly as old as I am--maybe older. And it has cooked some wonderful meals for special friends in various locations throughout the years.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

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, November 3, 2013

All Saints and Souls

Officially Halloween is not celebrated in Spain, and there is no trick or treating that I am aware of. But the commercialism of what is called an American holiday has made it here as well as throughout other countries of Europe, so I have seen pumpkins and costumes galore these past two weeks.

The real holiday in Spain is November 1. All Saints' Day, or Todos los Santos, as it is stated on my calendar, is a big holiday, also commercially. More flowers are sold here during the week preceding Todos los Santos, and taken to cemeteries, than in any other week of the year. The city of Torrevieja, I read, operated free and frequent bus service from various places in town to the municipal cemetery all week, so that everyone could get out to eat and drink at the location where their dear departed were buried. Johannes drove with friends through some of the smaller towns in the Vega Baja region on Thursday and reported bunches of people walking to the cemeteries. Those stores that have permission to be open on holidays were open Friday morning, but when we went out to the ATM in the afternoon, the grocery store near the bank had closed at 2:00. It was very quiet in town.

I was surprised, when a friend gave me The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady to read this week, to see that Edith Holden, in her year's calendar, showed November 1 as All Saints' Day and November 2 as All Souls' Day. I had thought they were different words for the same day. The verses, notes, and drawings that Holden recorded in her diary in 1906, though delightful, gave no more information about the two days, so I had to go to the Internet to research my misconception. Wikipedia has informative entries for both All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, and the latter includes a sentence that may explain the cause of my confusion:
In the Methodist Church, "saints" refer to all Christians and therefore, on All Saints' Day, the Church Universal, as well as the deceased members of a local congregation are honoured and remembered.
I was raised as a Methodist, so with this theological distinction, it makes perfect sense that I would think that "all saints" and "all souls" are synonymous. What I find less understandable is how the Roman Catholic tradition in Spain has managed to combine the family visitation, which I would consider an observance of All Souls (Nov. 2), with the day of All Saints on Nov. 1.

The Birmingham (Alabama) News, an unexpected source, offers some descriptions of the similarities and differences of All Saints, All Souls, and Halloween. But a blog post at the National Catholic Reporter provides the words of Pope Francis, as well as an explanation for the sequence of the two celebrations. The second celebration, I now see, is on my Spanish calendar as Conmemoración Fieles Difuntos (Commemoration of the Deceased Faithful, or All Souls' Day).

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Red-letter Days

When discussing holidays in Spain, one often refers to them as red-letter days, because they are marked on all calendars in red ink, as opposed to the normal black ink. If your hairdresser calls to reschedule your appointment, as mine did once, it means that it was inadvertently set for a red-letter day, and his legal advisor has said he should not work that day.  If your dental office calls two days ahead of time to remind you of an upcoming appointment when they usually call just the day ahead, as happened to me recently, it means that the intervening day is a red-letter day and they can't be open then to give you a reminder call. Spain has lots of red-letter days, but this past week they outdid themselves with three in one week.

I first realized this triple-header was taking place when we went on October 5 to the pharmacy in Ciudad Quesada, a wonderful drugstore that caters to a large, multinational clientele. At any time there are three or maybe four assistants behind various counters helping the public, and it could be that a different language is being spoken with each transaction. At the beginning of October there were handwritten signs outside the door to the pharmacy, and inside, too. The signs took up a lot of space, because they were in Spanish, in French, and in English, and they were announcing the opening and closing hours on the coming Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. I grew light-headed trying to read through them all and keep track of what was coming up.

Monday, October 7 was a local holiday for the city of Rojales. In addition to Rojales proper, Rojales comprises the huge development of Ciudad Quesada and the village of Benijófar. Strictly speaking, October 7 is not a red-letter day on the calendar, because calendars are not printed for just one community. But within the municipality, red-letter rules apply. Stores would be closed in all those villages so everyone could celebrate the patron saint, Nuestra Señora de Rosario. But in spite of the fact that this meant that all my usual shopping areas would be closed, the closings would be limited to that one community. I, for example, still could plan on attending the first Spanish class of the season sponsored by my own town hall in Algorfa, because that is a different municipality and Algorfa has its local holiday earlier in the year. And when I went in the afternoon to my second Spanish lesson, in San Luis, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city of Torrevieja, I could stop at the Mercadona grocery store across the street, because they were allowed to be open, since they were a part of Torrevieja.

The Wednesday holiday was more far-reaching. This was the Día Comunidad Valenciana, the holiday celebrated throughout the entire comunidad (autonomous region) of Valencia, which in addition to the province of Valencia to our north, includes the provinces of Castellón, and the one we live in, Alicante. Wednesday was a quiet day. I didn't even bother to leave the house. I had a good work day at the computer and I had prepared well ahead of time for the guests we had invited for drinks and snacks, a slide show of our vacation pictures, and good conversation in the evening.

Yesterday, Saturday, October 12, was a national holiday, and one of only two secular holidays celebrated nation-wide throughout Spain, El Día de la Hispanidad, and known in the United States as Columbus Day (but of course, my American calendar shows it this year on October 14, because almost all holidays there float to Monday). The day passed without any celebration on my part. It is interesting that some businesses are allowed to be open for half a day (that would be up until 2:00 PM) on red-letter days; these fall into the "leisure" and "food" categories. So I wasn't terribly surprised to see that the Mercadona grocery store was open when I was out in late morning to go to the ATM, which never celebrates, and of course, restaurants and bars were open, so we stopped for a café con leche at the Halfway House close to the ATM. But we came home again and worked around the house for the rest of the day and were not even very disturbed by the fireworks later on in the evening.

This Sunday morning we went, as usual, to the Zoco (outdoor) market for our regular produce and dried fruits shopping. Instead of having a cup of coffee there, I insisted on driving in to Torrevieja to "check out" the Habaneras shopping center. I had read in a couple local papers that the city of Torrevieja, as well as Orihuela (location of the super-duper shopping mall) had been designated "area of tourism" status. That means, legally, that stores can decide if they want to be open on Sundays, which are also red-letter days in Spain. Orihuela had gained that status earlier and made that decision and was now drawing business away from the older Habaneras center. I surmised that since Torrevieja had now achieved that status, Habaneras would now be open on Sundays.

It was, and several other people had guessed the same, but not so many that it was too crowded to browse around the shops comfortably. We spent a pleasant hour checking out new fall styles and looking for bathroom towel bars, but refraining from buying anything, except for a couple montaditos at our favorite 100 Montaditos. And I came away satisfied that perhaps my red-letter day horror (no stores open!) may be a nightmare of the past.

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.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Happy New Year - Feliz Reyes

Santa's Job is Finished, ©Johannes Bjorner 2009
Today in Spain is not just Sunday. It is the Twelfth Day of Christmas and the Reyes Magos, the Three Kings, have finally arrived in Spain from the Orient to give children their holiday gifts. True, in today's multicultural Spain, many children get gifts from Papa Noël on the 25th of December as well as from the Three Kings on January 6. Since we don't have children, we don't make a fuss over Reyes but I usually aim for this day as the day to finish removal of the Christmas decorations. One of the joys of living in a country that celebrates Reyes is that you don't have to take down holiday decorations on New Year's Day. That's especially good, since I am usually later than normal in getting them up.

I have been collecting the different items from various rooms for the past two or three days, washing the linens in preparation for packing them away until next year, making the decision to throw out a couple that no longer amuse me or that have gotten torn or broken, and generally assembling them in one place, ready to put in boxes. Later today I will put them in boxes, but I won't put the boxes away just yet. I still need to wait a couple days, looking high and low, literally, to find those that have escaped my glance even though I tried to be systematic about collecting them--and seeing what comes up in the laundry over the next day or two.

We are celebrating the day this year, however, by going to a concert, a Concierto Extraordianario de Reyes, performed by the Ars Aetheria orchestra in the auditorium of the new Conservatorio Internacional de Música of Torrevieja. We will hear Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms, according to the announcement that we saw this morning in one of the Norwegian free newspapers. If all goes well, we will also hear a Danish classic, The Champagne Galop, by Hans Christian Lumbye, which begins with the sound of a champagne cork being released from a bottle. That must be why the foreign press is announcing this concert as a New Year's concert. The tickets, however, say it is a Reyes concert. The Spaniards won't fight a battle over this, because any day is a fine day for  hearing the pop of a cork from a bottle of good Spanish cava.

Here through YouTube is Champagnegaloppen played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Feliz Reyes and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

The two cities are Copenhagen and Barcelona. We visited both in December--each just for a long weekend--and both were fantastic.


I have lost track of the number of times I have been in Copenhagen, but for most of the past 45 years I have spent a few days or a week each year in Denmark. Most of those trips involved some time in its capital city. Through the years I have observed many changes but also watched with wonder that some things remain constant, or renew themselves to keep up with the times--and quite often that is done in an agreeable manner. In many ways, Copenhagen has become my barometer of change and constancy.

Lyngby Storcenter - a shopping center's Christmas village. ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Surgery and rehabilitation kept us from travel earlier this year, so we decided to do the Denmark trip in early December, to celebrate a birthday and get into the Christmas spirit. It was a very quick trip. We took an early Friday morning flight from Alicante and were in Copenhagen before lunchtime, and we were scheduled to return late Sunday evening. There was a time--and not too many years ago--when all the stores would have been closed Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. That would have left us precious little time to scour the shops for books and DVDs and Christmas decorations and pass through the department stores to catch up with the trends. Fortunately times have changed and we had no trouble finding places to spend our money every hour that we were able to be out of our hotel.

Tivoli at Christmas, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012.
It was cold, and it snowed on Sunday, but that didn't stop us. We came back with suitcases filled with 30 or more DVDs in the original English or Danish--something we cannot find in Spain, where films are routinely dubbed into Spanish in the cinemas, on TV, and on DVD. We went to at least four big bookstores and even waited in line for almost an hour for an author signing at one. We saw two current films in the theater--something we never do in Spain. We ate in our long-time favorite restaurant where we almost always  enjoy a meal--usually the same kro-platte selection of open-faced sandwiches, though the sandwiches change over the years and are as good a barometer of fiscal conditions as the McDonald's index. And of course we went to Tivoli. There it was frightfully cold, and the masses of people (we really should not have left this until Saturday evening) made us realize that we have turned into country bumpkins, unused to throngs of humanity in one place.


I don't have enough years left to get to know Barcelona the way I know Copenhagen. This--three days over Christmas--was my second trip and I recognized some of the places from my first trip to Barcelona. That had been for a professional conference, however, and this trip was purely for pleasure.

Christmas Lights at Plaza Catalunya, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Did we think that we had left Christmas decorations behind us in Copenhagen? Not on your life! There may not be as many pine trees in Spain as there are in Scandinavia, but nowhere can there be more lights. We sat in the restaurant at the top of El Cortes Inglés department store Christmas Eve as the day turned to dusk and saw the colorful street lights coming on all over Plaza Catalunya at the top of the Rambla. We also spied the fairly new Apple store on the other side of the plaza, so of course we had to walk in that direction when we moved on our way. On Christmas Eve at 8:00 PM the place was jumping. Though there were people playing at all 20 of the large tables with various devices arranged in the room, we had no trouble finding a geek to answer a few questions we had.

Looking Up at Sagrada Familia, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Earlier on Christmas Eve day we had made the pilgrimage to Sagrada Familia cathedral, which we had first seen in 2009. At that time there was scaffolding in the sanctuary and construction dust all around. Since then, the Pope has been to Barcelona to consecrate the cathedral and while it is not done--and will not be done in my lifetime, probably--the scaffolding is gone and during the Christmas season, at least, there were no signs of construction. Work on the Sagrada Familia began in 1882. There is something very nice about now having seen it twice, with construction workers, and with signs of progress. It provides a connection with the millions of people who, over the centuries, built other mammoth cathedrals in Europe. This one is extraordinarily beautiful and inspiring, regardless of your faith or lack of it.

Gaudi Tiled Bench in Park Guëll, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
Christmas Day itself we had reserved for the Park Guëll, since most everything else would be closed on a public holiday, but, we reasoned, a park would not. The artist Gaudi lived in a house in the park for 20 years while he was designing the public park space; Guëll was his employer-benefactor. The weather had turned hazy and so we did not have the spectacular views of Barcelona that this high-elevation park normally provides, but we still enjoyed the walk through its winding and climbing pathways and the varied vegetation. We entered from a back entrance, we discovered (we had followed the directions of the information person at the Metro and Metro is not the best way to go, we now know) and we had to walk all the way to the front entrance before finding the famed fountains and buildings and park benches with Gaudi's colored tiles.

We enjoyed many other things in Barcelona: the gorgeous displays of food at La Boqueria market, just across from where we stayed on the Rambla, and the best steak that I have had in nine years in Spain at Restaurante Ferran, which is better known for tapas and Spanish cuisine--so we shared an appetizer of tomato bread with  jamón ibérico de bellota (which means that the contributing pigs have eaten only chestnuts). I walked to the end of the Rambla and saw the Columbus statue and some Christmas market stalls, but I didn't buy anything, because enough is enough. We had a delightful interchange with a young Danish woman of Afghan-Indian heritage and her Indian novio, who happened to be our host at the hostal in which we stayed. They are going to India once her exams are over for this season--her first time in India--and we gave them Danish Christmas decorations we had brought with us and wish them the best of luck in their future life.

©Johannes Bjorner 2012
And all this was made easier because we had a hostal in a very central position on the Rambla--just opposite the Liceu Metro exit. I had never stayed in an hostal before, wary that it was a little too basic for my mature tastes, and thinking of bunk beds in dormitories. Our hostal, however, was less than a year old and was quite modern, with comfortable beds and northern European comforters, a clean and functional toilet and shower, with the usual amenities, and the best lighting on both sides of the double bed that I have experienced in awhile. Yes, it was in an old building with a very narrow stairway that you had to go up even to get to the tiny elevator, certainly the smallest I have ever seen, and remember--I have been in Denmark. The elevator (which required a key) was limited to 150 kg., so balancing two pieces of luggage (even carry-on) and two people meant that inevitably one (or more) got left out. But most of the time, there were just two of us going up and down in the elevator, and all we had to remember to do in the tiny space was, as Johannes said, "Assume intimate position" and up (or down) we would go. All this was quite appropriate since we shared a building (but not the same entrance) with the Erotic Museum.

Hans Christian Andersen Slept Here

Photo by Johannes Bjorner ©2012
Most people don't know that fairy tales were only a small part of the literary works of the world-famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen is referred to in Danish by his initials and therefore becomes H.C. Andersen. Since the letter H is pronounced "ho" and the letter C sounds rather like "say" in Danish, oral references to H.C. Andersen sound like one is talking about José Andersen, which is rather amusing and confusing when discussing Andersen in Spain. But I digress. H.C. Andersen was first interested in the theater, and he wrote drama, poetry, journals, and travel pieces, for he was an inveterate traveler during his lifetime (1805-1875). In 1862 he came to Spain, over the Pyrenees from France; he entered Barcelona by coach on September 6 and spent several days based at the Fonda del Oriente hotel.

I took my copy of I Spanien (In Spain) with me to Barcelona on my Christmas trip, 150 years and a couple months after his adventure. One of my goals was to find the hotel where Andersen had stayed, because I had happened upon a notice some time ago that a commemorative plaque had been placed at the hotel, acknowledging Andersen's visit.

It turned out that the hotel, now named the Husa Oriente, was only a few blocks down the Rambla from where we were staying. I should have guessed that, because one of the sites Andersen mentioned was the Liceu theater (no performances during the time Andersen was in Barcelona, though he was able to see the theater stage itself during a rehearsal) and that was just across the street and down one block from our hostal. The Liceu wasn't hosting any performances on the Christmas days that we were there, either, and we didn't get beyond the lobby and guard desk. 

Photo by Johannes Bjorner ©2012
The plaque at the hotel was placed by the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) of Barcelona and roughly translated from Catalan, it reads:

Hans Christian
(Odense 1805-Copenhagen 1875)
Danish Author
Observed from this hotel
the flooding of the Rambla
of September 15, 1862 

I had read Andersen's account of the heavy storms and flooding that occurred toward the end of his stay in Barcelona. It was historic, obviously, as that was the sole site or event indicated on the plaque, though Andersen's account  mentions several other areas of the city that exist to this day: Barceloneta, Monjuic fort, and the Plaza de Toros (though I don't know how that is being used now that Barcelona has outlawed bullfighting). In addition to the Rambla itself, of course, which Andersen loved for its shops and fruit stalls and trees and cafes full of people all assembling to eat regardless of class, he noted. People still love the Rambla to this day and it is a hive of activity at all hours. We even saw a whole parade of Santa Clauses motorcycling up the street at breakneck speed on Christmas morning when we were having our breakfast.

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, November 25, 2012

Thanksgiving Light

Even though we had planned a festive Thanksgiving get-together with American friends and acquaintances on the Saturday after Thanksgiving itself, I couldn't let the fourth Thursday in November pass without some celebration. Part of the reason was that I had introduced some English friends here in Spain to the holiday some years past, and it has become something of a tradition for us now to enjoy the meal together on that day. Another part is that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, bar none.

The third reason that I elected to do Thanksgiving this year was that I had found a small turkey, albeit a frozen one, in the British Iceland food store. I also had a few of the appropriate edibles in my kitchen and wanted to make sure we ate them while they were still edible. And then, through careful packing on a couple trips back to the U.S. I had finally assembled a few of my traditional decorations: the silver tray on which for many years I had arranged a bountiful harvest of fruit for a centerpiece, and the autumnal tablecloth and napkins, more recently acquired but used in Indianapolis on the last Thanksgiving I shared with my parents.

I planned a small dinner, for four people. At the Sunday market I bought good white potatoes for the mashed potatoes, and then unexpectedly encountered my favorite new red potatoes from a vendor who had not had them at all last year, so bought them to roast alongside the turkey, as well. Early in the week I ironed the tablecloth and napkins, polished the silver, made cranberry-nut bread from the cranberries that I had brought intact from my most recent trip to the U.S. (thank you, Food Lion), baked the pumpkin and scraped out the pulp. Wednesday I cooked the wild rice for the un-stuffing, threw together the cranberry sorbet and started the freezing and scraping process, and assembled the succotash--a new addition to the menu this year because it seemed appropriate to have something of the corn that came from the new world.

Thursday morning I realized that I didn't have the real whole cold milk that was necessary to thicken the prized tiny package of instant pumpkin pudding and pie filling that I had carried back in my suitcase earlier this year. The advantage of Thanksgiving not being a holiday in Spain is that all the regular stores are open, and Johannes went down and brought back a liter of milk from the refrigerated section of a convenience store, even carrying it in a cooler with ice pack for the two kilometers' drive. He went off to a morning meeting while I puttered in the kitchen, finishing the pumpkin and vanilla parfaits (I don't do pie), sauteing the celery, onions, and mushrooms for the stuffing, toasting the walnuts, mashing the boiled potatoes and adding the pumpkin, preparing the carrots, and pre-heating the oven at the appropriate time (it was only a 3 kg. turkey, after all, so wouldn't need much time).

I put the turkey in the oven at 10:45, made the roux and added enough stock to make a thick gravy (I would thin it down and flavor it up with the drippings from the turkey later). And then all of a sudden the lights went out. Not only the lights, but the oven and the stove, because we are not cooking with gas. The dishwasher also ceased its machinations and, I thought I've forgotten that I can't have so many appliances on at one time. I'll just turn off the dishwasher and a couple burners on the stove, then go and flip the circuit-breaker switch and the power will come back on.

I did, and it didn't. I saw two neighbors down the side street and went out to see whether they also were without power. They certainly were, and they were completely unsympathetic upon hearing that I had a turkey in the oven. After all, one of them had a workman installing double-glazed windows for the winter. They pointed to a man on an electric tower at the top of the hill, and we all hoped that he was going to get the power fixed soon.

He didn't. A half hour later, the guy in the electric tower came down from his heights and we did not have electricity. I had already calculated how much time I would need after the power came back to roast the turkey and give it its "rest" (three hours total) and was prepared to call my guests, who were scheduled to arrive at 2:00. But now, an hour or so after the power had gone out, I was beginning to worry about the health of the turkey, which had only had a half-hour in the hot oven before it started its premature "rest." Plus I was avoiding opening the refrigerator and freezer, because who knew how long it would keep the pumpkin parfait and cranberry sorbet cold?

At noon I called my guests and we moved the feast from 2:00 until "5:00 or 6:00," depending on when the power came on, and I would keep them informed. At 1:00 PM, just when I had previously calculated the turkey should come out, I lay down for a nap. At 1:30 I was awakened by the overhead light in my room coming into action. I went downstairs to inspect the kitchen.

I had been uncomfortable with this turkey even before this turn of events. For one thing, I don't buy frozen unless I absolutely cannot help it, and I was uncertain about the amount of time necessary to thaw it--and I had allowed too much. Secondly, I had discovered when I set the turkey in the roasting pan that it was handicapped: one leg was damaged and it rolled to one side. Now it had been slightly heated and then left to rest prematurely in a lukewarm oven for more than two hours. I did not want to risk serving this to my guests.

The good thing, again, about Thanksgiving not being a holiday in Spain is that all the regular stores are open. We made a quick trip down to the Mercadona grocery store, where we bought two already-cooked chickens and an extra bottle of wine for good measure. Our guests came at 6:00 and we broke out the cava. For years people have been saying that the best part about Thanksgiving dinner is not the turkey, but the side dishes. They have a point. All the sides survived intact and the four of us really enjoyed them. The vacuum-packed chickens microwaved up well, and there were juices to add to the gravy. The cranberry sorbet re-froze well and was a big hit. I forgot to serve the cranberry bread, but as a dear friend who I lost way too many years ago always said, It's not a party unless you find something in the refrigerator the next day that you forgot to get out.

It was a great small party and a memorable Thanksgiving.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

What We Missed While Going to Frankfurt

I knew, last week, that Spain's national celebration, La Fiesta Nacional de España, was going to be celebrated on Friday, October 12, while we were out of the country attending the Frankfurt Book Fair. What I didn't know, or perhaps at one time knew but certainly forgot, was that Tuesday, October 9, was also a holiday.

As I left my Spanish class Monday at noon, the class was reminded that the next day (that is, Tuesday) was also a holiday. We were leaving on Tuesday afternoon, and I had another Spanish class Tuesday morning, so I didn't have time to research the significance of the day. But we did discover, while trying to buy some last-minute item, that the stores were closed on Tuesday. We survived in Frankfurt without whatever it was that we thought at the last minute that we needed, and it wasn't until this Sunday morning, back in Spain, that I thought again about October 9.

I read an article in one of the local Norwegian newspapers that said that thousands had celebrated "Valencia's national day." Ah yes, that is why I didn't remember the holiday--it's a regional holiday and we have spent, what, only four Octobers in this region? Nevertheless, thanks to Spaniaposten, I now know that October 9 is the official day commemorating when Spanish King Jaime I marched triumphantly into Valencia in 1238 and liberated it from the Moors, who had ruled there and in much of the territory of present-day Spain, since the year 714.

Surprisingly according to the article, the victory was relatively peaceful, and King Jaime promised that the Moors then living in Valencia could either continue to live there under his rule, or take their possessions and leave the area. Perhaps they did live peacefully until the Spanish Inquisition was instituted more than 200 years later. At any rate, October 9 is now celebrated in Valencia with people dressed as Moors and as Christians in a single five-hour-long parade called the Entrada de Moros y Cristianos. According to the paper, more than 5000 participated this year.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Exploring San Miguel

Today is not Sunday in Spain, but it is a holiday--the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This is one of those rare occasions when we knew ahead of time that there was going to be a holiday and that the stores would be closed on Wednesday. There had been articles in the free newspapers to warn us, and I had read the articles in time. We were a little discombobulated, however, when we saw a sign in the Consum grocery store last Saturday stating that not only would it be open all day on Wednesday, the 15th, it would be open until 10:00 PM, which is 45 minutes later than its normal closing time of 9:15. I think perhaps that means that there will be festivities in the evening and that we should be prepared for loud music and fireworks starting shortly after 10:00.

Anyway we drove out at about 11:00 this morning, following Johannes' piano class, because, well, just because it is good to get out of the house and do something during the day. We did not need groceries, so we headed away from our usual route and drove inland, between orange groves, to San Miguel de Salinas, a town that we had driven through several times, but in which we had rarely stopped. It seemed like a nice day to explore the main street and old town on foot.

Indeed it was, and made even easier because, due to the holiday, we were able to find a parking place right on the main street. We got out and walked slowly up the street, past several cafes. My half-serious goal was to locate an establishment called Bargain Books, where a couple of the women in my book group had purchased English language editions of three of the titles we have read. We did get there--it was right where they said it was, close by the plaza, across from the church. And conveniently, across from two cafe bars where lots of people were sitting out and enjoying coffee or cold drinks and a talk.

We found an empty table and sat and enjoyed our usual: cafe con leche and a media tostada con atun y tomate. And it was then that I realized that I was in witness of a rare sight in Spain. We were seated in between two tables of groups of women enjoying leisure time out. Women only--there were no men. That doesn't happen too often, as women in Spain have a rigid schedule, even if they don't work outside the home. But it can happen on a holiday, and it was lovely to watch ten middle-aged women enjoying each others' company, the good weather, and freedom from the daily schedule.

One group disappeared, though, as the town clock struck 12:00, probably to make their way home to prepare the afternoon dinner. The other stayed around awhile longer, and just before we began to make our way back toward the car, I noticed a funny thing about the cafe. The proprietor had begun setting out more tables, presumably for the dinner or afternoon crowd, whereas there had been only five for the early morning coffee customers. Each of those five tables was shaded from the sun by a large umbrella. Four of the umbrellas had bright red backgrounds with small Coca-Cola bottles in white splashed across them. The one odd umbrella had a white background. But when I looked closely I saw that it had a single Coca-Cola bottle marking it. That was a bottle of Coca-Cola Light.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Beat Goes On...

Did I say last Sunday that, even though we have all-night fiestas with loud music that goes on until 6:30 in the morning, that at least the music only comes on the weekends and never during the week? Yes, I did, and I was wrong.

I found out I was wrong on Wednesday morning. When I woke at a little after 6:00 AM I heard the music again. I had not heard it start and I was not awakened by the music, but it was clearly there after I awoke. Where was it coming from? This time I got dressed, unlocked the front door system, and went out to explore.

I walked along the east side of our development, up toward Monty's Bar. It was closed up tight. When I turned toward the west and passed slightly up the hill toward Bistro Alex, also closed, the music got dimmer. So it wasn't coming from the motorcycle hangout way past the Zoco market in this direction, I figured. I turned north and came down the hill toward our house and by then I could hear faint strains again. But soon after this, the music stopped.

Later on that morning we stopped for a cafe con leche and tostada at La Cata in Benijófar. I asked casually whether anyone there lived in town and had heard the music. "¡Si!" said the bartender; and it turned out he lived in the street right next to the source of the music, which he assured me was in the park next to the colegio [elementary school] in Benijófar. He said the music that morning had continued until 8:00, which was probably about the time that he had to get up to go to work. But he had not been out celebrating, and he told us that the festivities would still be going on for a couple days, and he was moving to his girlfriend's for the duration.

Wednesday, according to my Spanish-Norwegian calendar supplied by the Norwegian newspaper Spaniaposten, was the festival of Santiago Apóstol, the Apostle St. James, who happens to be the patron saint of Benijófar. That had been the reason for the festivities on the night of Tuesday going to Wednesday. As we left La Cata and drove through the plaza toward our home, we heard the church bells ring and saw that the church door was open, a rare occurrence. Apparently by noontime the celebration had shifted toward the more solemn spectrum. We should have stopped to see the inside of the church, which has never been open when we were near it on foot. Alas, we were no longer on foot, and there is no parking place near by, so once more we missed seeing the inside of the church. But we did learn that Benijófar is protected by its patron saint, St. James.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fiesta Season

It's fiesta season. We don't have loud music and partying every night of the week--only on weekends. Last week the Virgen del Carmen fiesta kept me awake Saturday night. This weekend, the party started Friday night. I didn't really notice it until I woke up at 3:30 Saturday morning. Even with windows shut, I could hear the throb, throb, throbbing of the drums through the loudspeaker of the fiesta that was going on across the highway in Benijofar. I knew it was Benijofar, because we had been there Friday afternoon for a nice luncheon at La Cata, a new restaurant run by the proprietors of Magica Gourmet, and verified that this town's local fiesta began this weekend. We thought it started with a parade Saturday evening, but obviously we were wrong.

By yesterday morning at 3:30 I had already slept several hours, so it was really hard for me to get back to sleep with all that racket going on. At one point I seriously thought about getting up and joining the party, only ten minutes away. However, I just read, and after an hour and a half I felt myself drifting off again at 5:00. The next time I woke up was at 7:00 and all was quiet. Not so this Sunday morning, when I came to consciousness at 6:00. The sound was faint, but I could hear the throb, throb, throbbing of that drum again. I had left the windows open Saturday night in order to catch some cool breezes. There had been no noise when I went to bed, but who knows when it started? The miracle, I guess, was that I had not awakened earlier. At any rate, the sound of the fiesta was much dampened Sunday morning. Had someone pulled the plug on the loudspeaker, or just cut the decibel level in half, or a quarter? Or was this only an echo from the previous night? Or was I just reliving the Friday night party in a dream?

No, the sound was definitely there, though quieter. And it stopped shortly after 6:00 AM, which must be curfew time for all-night fiestas. No wonder Sunday mornings are always ethereally quiet where we live. People have just then gone home and toppled into bed.

There are some who wonder how a country that is in such economic crisis can afford municipally sponsored all-night festivities in every village and hamlet throughout the summer season. And there are those who answer that it is precisely because the country is in economic crisis that the townspeople need to hang on to their traditions by throwing a grand fiesta to honor the local patron saint one weekend each 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.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Long Weekend

It's rare when there is an American holiday that falls on a regular Spanish work day, but yesterday, a regular work day in Spain, was observed as Memorial Day in the U.S. In addition to its historic significance as a day to honor soldiers who have given their lives for their country, it has always, in my lifetime, at least, signified the unofficial beginning of the summer season. When I was a child we had usually finished school for the year just before the weekend, and as I recall, the municipal swimming pool opened on Memorial Day. But I also remember marching in the Memorial Day parade--all the Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops marched and participated in the solemn memorial at the town cemetery, where graves of soldiers had been decorated. One year I got to carry the flag. I'm not sure whether parades still exist as a major focus of the day or not. Perhaps they expired when the date was moved to always fall on a Monday instead of on May 30.

I got into the "summer-start" spirit of the long weekend this year, helped by email reminders on Friday from people at work that Monday was a holiday and also by virtue of the fact that Algorfa, the town we live in, was holding its third annual Ruta de Tapas starting on Saturday. I don't know whatever happened to the first and second tapas routes--we never heard about them until they were over, but this year, I got an email notice because somehow (probably by signing up for a Spanish class) I have gotten on to the mailing list for cultural events in town. Saturday turned out to be a beautiful early summer day, and we headed off at 12:30 with friends we had not seen in awhile to explore Algorfa and the ten or eleven restaurants that were listed on the brochure produced by the town hall. This number of participants is "manageable," the four of us agreed, and because the village is an authentic Spanish village and the restaurants are not all located in one strip, we had to walk through the sun for a few blocks as we followed our "route." I shielded myself from too much sun with the Venetian parasol I had won at a silent auction at St. Johns Unitarian-Universalist Church in Cincinnati last November.

We went first to Bar Algorfa, which turns out to be a delightful British-run Mexican restaurant, where we could choose between chicken or beef fajitas and chili with Mexican tortilla chips, and most of us enjoyed a beer. Then on to a real Spanish bar, where it was so crowded we could hardly make our way through to order from a selection of eight or so different small dishes. I can't remember what I had there, but I enjoyed it with a small glass of white wine. Then on to Badulake, our favorite place in Algorfa, because it is right by the ayuntamiento, so whenever we have official business (and often even when we don't) we stop by for a cafe con leche. This time we enjoyed an open-faced sandwich (montadito) of quail egg with shrimp on small pieces of salmon and ham, with cold agua con gas. Then we moved across the town plaza to the Centro Social and finished off with a mini hamburguesa and glass of red wine. We took our time, talked a lot about what had happened in the past month and what was upcoming, and enjoyed the social life of Spain, which is almost always outdoors with family members of all ages, especially on such a beautiful day.

Back at home after the tapas. Photo c2012 Johannes Bjorner.
The weekend continued on Sunday with our traditional trip to the Zoco market to get fresh fruit and vegetables, and the free Norwegian newspapers, and there we read about a new Danish restaurant opening in Torrevieja. It was still early in the day, so we decided to drive into the city to locate it for future reference. With the excellent location information in the Norwegian newspaper announcement and the detailed map of Torrevieja that resides in our car, we found Restaurant Danmark easily enough, even though it was on the beach in a part of town that we do not know at all. We greeted the proprietor, who previously had run a Danish polser stand at the other Sunday market on Lemon Tree Road, and discovered that he had only been open for 16 days. We settled down for a beer and ended up by enjoying the menu del dia, which today was a delicious shrimp cocktail, a gently sauteed whitefish filet with more shrimp and remoulade sauce, and aeblekage (apple cake) and ice cream for dessert. All for ten euros apiece, which makes it a very good deal. Our outside table provided a leisurely view of all the beach activity on a Sunday early afternoon, and cool breezes.

By this point in the weekend I thought I would use the Monday holiday to write my traditional Sunday blog, but that turned out to be a busier day than I had envisioned--it was, after all, not a holiday in Spain. But more on that later. This was a very pleasant beginning-of-summer weekend.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday / Viernes Santo

Like many people in the modern world, we live within earshot of a highway. The noise doesn't bother us much--the quiet buzz from passing cars is only noticeable outside the house or, perhaps, occasionally when windows or doors stay open and all electronic devices (computers, television, and even piano) are turned off. Only once do I recall hearing a real smashup on the highway, and everyone in our neighborhood rushed to their rooftop terrace to see the damage, but both the angle and the distance prevented me from a view.

This morning I woke up, as usual, to stillness, punctuated only by the comforting tick-tock of the bedroom wall clock and the chirping of birds. We sleep with the customary Spanish rejas (metal awnings) down to prevent thieves (who have never bothered us), cold wind (which has), and light from entering. I'm not sure whether the chirping of birds comes through because the walls of the house are thin or because the kitchen door has been opened downstairs to permit mistress Goldie out for her pre-breakfast inspection tour of her extensive domain.

This morning I lay in bed longer than usual--I can do that with breakfast brought up to me--and it was only after my butler and Goldie had returned to the bed and were breathing peacefully by my side and at my feet that I realized that it was unusually quiet. No one was snoring, but I could still hear the tick-tock and the birds. I lay iPadding in the darkness and contemplating an article I am writing, and the clock moved closer to 9:00. I think that I sensed an absence of automobile traffic on the highway a kilometer or so (as the crow flies) away. I know I did not hear the school bus roaring through and turning the corner in front of our house.

It is Viernes Santo, Good Friday, and a major holiday in Spain. Last night at 11:00 in Torrevieja the Solemne Procesión de Silencio walked through the streets at 11:00 PM, and at midnight the Solemne Procesión del Descendimiento del Calvario started from the Plaza del Calvario. All cities and town in Spain have these impressive processions during the evenings of Semana Santa, or Holy Week--some more ornate and elaborate than others. But we do not customarily drive out this late at night and we were no more aware of the nearest-by festivo than we are of highway traffic. The silence has continued throughout the night and into the morning. Though most festivos are marked with fireworks and we often awaken to the sound of firecrackers in the campo around us, Viernes Santo is not, and that makes it unique.

The silence will disappear as the day goes on. I remember previous Easter weekends when nearby towns sponsored tapas festivals, and we have read that a medieval fair is scheduled in Quesada, just across the highway, today and through the weekend. But Good Friday morning is still quiet.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

In the Middle of Christmas

Merry Christmas. Glaedelig Jul. Feliz Navidad. It is Christmas Day, and if you think Christmas will be over and done with tomorrow, you have not spent Christmas in Spain. It is a slow and relaxed holiday here, spanning a couple weeks, at least.

We did start Christmas celebrations a little early this year, last Sunday, the 18th, when we were invited to an early Christmas dinner at the home of English friends. They needed to do dinner early because they were going to Benidorm for the holiday itself. As it turns out, they were one of three sets of friends who chose to relocate to Benidorm for Christmas this year. We had thought of that ourselves, but too much travel in November made us change our plans. Perhaps next year will be the year we go to Benidorm.

The real, though unofficial, start of Christmas in Spain is on the 22nd, the day that the national lottery, the Sorteo de Navidad, is drawn. This is the biggest lottery in the world, giving out more money and drawing more participants than any other. It takes four hours just to pick the winning numbers and amounts of earnings; it takes place in Madrid every year on the morning of the 22nd and is televised live throughout the country. The 22nd was Thursday this year, which was also the day that we took a small overnight trip to Alicante city. Our excuse for the overnight was an evening Christmas concert at the Auditorio de la Diputación de Alicante (ADDA), the new theater that opened this year and which we have enjoyed before. We were off to Alicante first thing in the morning, and that gave us time to walk through the unusually fine mercado central building that was just across the street from our hotel, and then sit in the Plaza Nuevo in the sunshine, having a glass of wine and light lunch. There happened to be an office of the lotería just next to our cafe, so we could listen to a young member of the chorus sing each number, and then hear a second member respond by singing the amount that ticket had won. For the first time, I had bought a ticket this year--actually only a décimo, one tenth of a 200 euro ticket--and I was hoping to hear one of the children of San Ildefonso sing "ochenta y nueve, cuatrocientos, noventa y siete" and follow that with a mil (thousand) or so euros, but no one did.

Since I didn't have to claim a winning, I had time to pass through the gift and kitchen departments of El Corte Inglés looking for small gifts and enjoying the other shoppers (a surprising number of whom spoke Danish, as we had also curiously heard in our hotel). Then after a brief siesta back at the hotel (more Danish in the elevator) it was time to walk four blocks or so (400 meters--we don't talk about "blocks" in Spain) to the ADDA. Since the concert began at 8:00 we were not going to have a chance for a proper dinner before the music, but we were counting on finding a bar and tapas to tide us over, or more likely, substitute for dinner itself. We didn't find that, but that's another story. We did make it, pleasantly full, to the concert early enough to stand in line for a few minutes before the doors opened at 7:30--although the seats are numbered, the tickets never seem to be, so it is first come, first seated (and it helps if you know the layout of the venue, which we do now, because you seat yourself). The auditorium was festive, the musicians and director in good form, the musical selections enchanting, and it was a lovely evening. The next morning we enjoyed the typical Spanish breakfast buffet in our hotel, and finally asked one of our fellow guests what the occasion was. Turns out that there was a bridge club of some 34 members from Denmark, who were off on an annual year-end excursion, which explained a little bit why we had heard nothing but Danish spoken by other guests during our stay.

When we returned home the tiles for our new terrace--our Christmas gift to ourselves--had been laid and the workmen were doing the grouting and cleaning up very well as they went. They finished the job and on Saturday morning, the 24th, came around for the final payment. Over the years we have been in Spain we have had a number of house improvements made in December--new windows, a gas fireplace, and now a terrace--and they never fail to get done, and paid in cash, on Christmas Eve Day. We had just enough time on the 24th to get ready for another Christmas celebration--this time Christmas Eve dinner Scandinavian style, at a Swedish restaurant with Danish friends. The company was wonderful and the food equally so, with the typical cold table buffet of herring, salmon, shrimp, and fish, plus all the traditional hot dishes, including more salmon, and finishing with at least three desserts.

So this morning when Christmas Day, the 25th dawned, it could have been a little anticlimactic, and indeed we took off on our traditional Sunday activity, wandering through the Sunday outdoor Zoco market. I had seen signs the previous week at several stalls that had said they would be there on the 25th. Well, there were a few stalls open--maybe 20 percent. We commented that it was now easy to see who the Morrocan and other Muslim vendors were--they were the ones who were there on Christmas day. Spaniards have their big Christmas celebration on Nochebuena, Christmas Eve, and it consists of a big and long dinner, which starts at 9:00 and lasts at least until midnight, and then there may be extensive sobremesa (after dinner) into the wee hours. The only Spanish voices we heard this morning were talking about the wonderful fiesta they had had the night before.

There were very few English voices at the market--most English here celebrate on the 25th with a big roast dinner at 2:00--but we found two Scandinavian cafes open, and had coffee first at the Danish one, and then the Norwegian one, though the Norwegian cafe seemed to be staffed only with Russians today. Then we took a nice long drive along the Lemon Tree Road to Guardamar and walked the beach, and then continued south to Torrevieja, inspecting road improvements along the way that were finally done, only two years late, but are now quite impressive.

In a few minutes I will go downstairs to prepare our simple Christmas dinner: specially cut inch-thick steaks of Argentine beef (such a thick cut must be specially ordered in Spain), fresh asparagus and mushrooms, Spanish potato bollitos, and a Spanish custard dessert that is a gift from our cleaning ladies. After partaking of cold and hot salmon yesterday, I decided to put aside the salmon first course I had planned. Tomorrow is another day, and even though life gets sort of back to normal before New Year's, Spain doesn't finish Christmas until January 6, when the Three Kings bring gifts to the children. That means, yes, that the stores are still busy and festive. There are indeed twelve days of Christmas, and still a lot of celebrating to do.