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Showing posts with label shopping. Show all posts
Showing posts with label shopping. Show all posts

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Children at Eroski Dos Mares

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

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Seeing Roquetas: The Same and Not the Same

View from our room at the Sabinal Hotel, Roquetas de Mar
The time we spent in Roquetas was delightful. It had been almost five years since we had been there, and we were prepared for some things to be the same, some to be different. That morning I had quickly reserved a room at a hotel whose name we knew, and whose main-floor public bathroom I had used before, as the hotel was between one of the Spanish language schools I had attended and the bus stop. But it was the first time we had stayed there, and it was in a different part of town--the "urba," or urbanization, or tourist area--than where we had lived before. So we really had the experience of being tourists in a town that we knew well enough that we didn't need a map but that we had some idea of where services, like the local Mercadona grocery store, were. We took advantage of the Mercadona the first night, buying cold drinks and then picking up comida para llevar, a takeaway pizza, on the way back to the hotel.

We also met up with some friends and acquaintances from the past. Mari Carmen, who cleaned for us then and was always a good friend and connection to Spanish life; now she is just a wonderful connection to Spanish life in general and a good barometer of what has changed and what has not. We were surprised at how clean and well-maintained almost everything we saw in Roquetas was. We did not see empty, half-finished buildings as relics of the financial crisis the way we do in the Torrevieja area. We did notice that many businesses had changed names, and Mari Carmen said that often a new place opened up and then closed two months later, but at least here it seems as though someone is able to invest in a new dream right away. We drifted around town to the bookstore and former art workshop, past the language school, to a new secondary school, by our old condo, down to the kiosk where we always bought the newspaper. We rekindled a lot of old memories, mostly pleasant.

And we took the local bus to Almería city the way we used to, because we didn't have a car when we lived in Roquetas, and walked up and down the Rambla, looking for the statue of John Lennon, who composed "Strawberry Fields Forever" in Almería. We ambled around the old city, where many of the old narrow streets have been converted into pedestrian areas. Almería, being a big city and the capital of the province, and not focused on tourism as Roquetas is, was not as spic-and-span clean and well maintained as Roquetas, but it still is a nice, comfortable city. Our favorite cafetería, Santa Rita's, on the Rambla, had disappeared from view, but its venue had metamorphosed into the Chester Café, a tapas bar "with an American theme." We each had a nice tapa ("shrimp in gabardine" (breaded) for me, and a mini-hamburguesa for Johannes. I spent more time than I normally would in the bathroom, reading the wallpaper that consisted of enlarged front pages of U.S. newspapers from the 1920s and '30s that all seemed to feature sea disasters of some kind. At one end of the restaurant proper were portraits of famous American musicians, all apparently black, and a facsimile placard from some unidentified music hall in some unidentified year, but you could get admission to a concert of Ray Charles for five dollars.

We returned to Roquetas and picked up our car, that we had parked at the big shopping center, the Gran Plaza, but not before we took a quick stroll through the Plaza, which had been new when we lived there. Here was where we saw the stark signs of the recession. Almost a third of the stores were boarded up, some announcing impending new tenants, many not. I guess the high rent at the fancy shopping center is enough to deter many dreams of starting a new business.

I did my part in improving the mall economy, however, when I saw the Desigual store, my newest favorite brand. "Desigual" means, literally, "unequal" or "uneven," even "changeable."  By extension, for this Barcelona designer, it has come to mean "unique."  I had bought a unique handbag for a colleague at a different Desigual outlet several months ago, and on my last trip back to the U.S. I had been unable to resist buying a blouse at the Desigual shop in the Alicante airport. Now here was a Desigual in Roquetas, once my home, and it had not been there before. Nor had I ever seen a Desigual with a 50% discount sale going on, so I got an early birthday present and now have a desigual dress.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Morning at the Mall

We usually spend Sunday morning at the outdoor mercadillo near our house, buying the week's supply of fruits and vegetables, picking up the free weekly newspapers, enjoying a café con leche in the sun, and browsing music, clothing, book, and sundry stalls. This morning dawned sunny and warm, but for various reasons we did not need any produce or frutos secos, and I had successfully said "no" to a 3 euro sweater at the market last week that I liked but didn't need, and was not sure that I could withstand temptation again this week. So we decided to give the market a miss, as our British friends say, and headed out instead to the Torrevieja shopping mall, Habaneras. This was a treat in itself, because it is only recently that Torrevieja has been declared a tourist area of sufficient importance that it has the right to allow larger commercial establishments to be open on Sundays--all for the convenience of tourists, mind you.

We parked in the large--and very busy--parking lot at Carrefour, the French superstore that has all sorts of wares in addition to food, but decided against the garden shop there. Instead we walked across the street to the Habaneras mall, where Johannes went in to AKI, the hardware store, and I took a quick trip to C&A, a popular clothing store for men and women. Ten minutes later I walked out, again having successfully said "no" to a couple items I don't need, but my "looking" genes satisfied. We met at AKI, where Johannes had found a garden hose to replace the one that came with the  house when we purchased it five years ago, but which he was sick of patching up. I reminded him that we needed a holder to hang up the hose that has rested, tangled, on the floor of the upstairs terrace since we purchased the house five years ago, and which I was sick of taking pains to avoid tripping over when moving around in my "laundry room" tending to clothing on the line. We bought two holders, upstairs/downstairs, or his and hers.

Sunday morning at 100 Montaditos. © 2014 Johannes Bjorner
Armed with our major purchase, we took the elevator upstairs to 100 Montaditos, the little sandwich place (that is little sandwiches, not necessarily a little place that serves sandwiches) and ordered two mini-sandwiches each and a small glass of wine. There is no roof on the top level of the mall, which can be a problem when it rains, as it does occasionally, but today there was no problem with water. We felt a few rays of warm sun and since we had not picked up the usual free papers, we went over to the newsstand and invested in the Sunday edition of El Mundo. Johannes kept the news of the world and gave me the magazine section. I don't usually read style magazines, but this time I did and found a beautiful leather case for your iPhone, with three-dimensional flowered cut-outs, in several spring colors, all for just 235 euros. Then I browsed through an article about the founder of Spotify, who has an interesting quote from George Bernard Shaw* in his Stockholm office, and I peaked into a story claiming that croquet is on a worldwide comeback and has become a very popular sport in Spain. I played lot of croquet as a child during summers in New Hampshire, though I am not sure that now I can remember the rules. No matter, there is a description in the paper, and reading that would be a very good lesson for my Spanish improvement project.

The sun had moved and it started to get a little chilly just sitting, so when we were finished with our sandwiches and wine but before I was finished learning how to play croquet in Spanish, we packed up the paper and the garden hose equipment, walked back over to Carrefour, bought a chicken for dinner, and made our way home by early afternoon. A pleasant way to do something a little different on Sunday.

* The quote from George Bernard Shaw is this:

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

I found it in a November 2013 article in The Guardian, which apparently carried the original version of the interview.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


The city of Elche is home to a number of interesting attractions (think thousands of palm trees) but yesterday, its most important attraction for me was shopping. Elche is home to the closest El Corte Inglés, Spain's premier department store, and I had to buy a gift. I was looking for something of high quality, even luxurious, and "typically Spanish," though I had not defined exactly what that might be, other than perhaps it would be something in leather. This was not the sort of thing that I would look for at the Sunday market or the Chinese discount stores or even at one of the nice shopping malls with a range of Spanish and English stores nearby, because I was not looking for clothing or household furnishings.

It took awhile. I spent a long time looking at nicely bound blank books, some in leather, but as it turned out, they were made in Canada. We browsed through the decoración area, and I was not inspired for this particular purpose, although I did find several items of slight passing interest for myself. But I realized how foreign to my current life modern international department stores are, since I am no longer furnishing a new house and my closets are full to overflowing with items that I have little opportunity to wear anyway and cannot locate on the rare occasions when I do.

Eventually I stumbled across what I think is the perfect item, from a Spanish designer, with a touch of  luxury, but I'm not talking about that until after the gift is given. And then we decided we needed a cup of coffee, or perhaps more than a cup of coffee.

We got out of the city first, but decided to stop at a fairly new camping "resort" that we have been driving by for a year or so without stopping in. Camping is one of those activities that the participants in this marriage do not agree on. I had too much tent camping as a child, and while I appreciated the extensive travel that camping afforded our family, I did not like the disruption and extra mealtime chores and toiletry/sleeping discomfort that it entailed. Johannes, on the other hand, camped by himself on many trips through Europe as a student and was free to ignore any chores that he didn't feel like doing and to decide totally by himself on anything he wanted in terms of eating and sleeping. European campgrounds, I have discovered during the course of our marriage, are somewhat more luxurious than any of the ones I stayed in as a child. I daresay that U.S. campgrounds have gotten more luxurious in the decades since my youthful camping trips, too, but fortunately, I have not had to find out.

When we lived in Roquetas and biked to Aguadulce we often stopped at a campground on the beach in between the two towns and enjoyed a coffee at the full-service restaurant. We had also stumbled on a rather elegant restaurant at a campground in Guardamar when we biked there a couple times. So I had no doubt that this campground that I had seen opening to great fanfare in the past couple years would have a restaurant that would be at least adequate and perhaps much better. After all, this campground was advertised as a four-star eco camping resort.

The Marjal restaurant did not disappoint us. Actually, we did not get in to the restaurant; we only were in the bar and cafe. But there was a sign stating the Saturday special of a tapa and a drink for 2 euros, so we made our selections from the platters on the bar and carried them out to one of 50 or so tables outside. We had a pleasant time enjoying the sun and the fresh breeze and watching the other visitors: a Swedish family close by with two small children, a couple of pensioners like ourselves, seated farther away, so we couldn't hear them, some Spanish women enjoying a drink together. Then a large group of young children pranced through the open plaza carrying colored pictures, and I realized they must have been to an art class or some group activity, and we speculated that this must be fall vacation week in some countries of Europe and we hadn't even noticed.

Before going back to the car we took a little walk through the "pitches" to see how the locals lived. We saw camping "caravans" of every size and shape--all with outdoor seating and eating areas and at least one canvas awning to give shade, many with more. The only tents I saw were small auxiliaries on the same pitch as a metal caravan--apparently providing guest quarters, or perhaps just an alternative place to sleep if one didn't feel like sleeping in the RV itself. Clearly no one was undergoing much hardship in the way of bathroom and cooking facilities. I saw one person coming back from a communal shower building, but I am sure very unit had indoor plumbing, refrigerator, and cook stove, if not more. Plus there is a bar and a restaurant just a short walk away.

We cut back through a smaller area with wooden bungalows, and it was here that we happened upon a Dutch couple sitting on their veranda with two glasses of white wine and a tray of hors d'oeuvres. We only asked one question, "Does your little bungalow have a kitchen?" and they invited us in for the grand tour. Two bedrooms, each with closets and an air conditioning/heating unit, a bathroom with shower, a living room and dining area (also with a/c), and an "American kitchen." "American kitchen in Spain means open to the dining and/or living area, but this particular American kitchen met my standards, too. In addition to the fridge, freezer, range, oven, and microwave, there was a dishwasher. Luxury in camping.

This was the third winter season that this couple had spent at this campground, and they told us that this year they had asked for the same bungalow they had last year. Clearly they were satisfied. As the Dutch lady said to me, "This is not camping."

Sunday, September 29, 2013

100 Montaditos: "The True Taste of Spain"

Two or three years ago we discovered a new cafe bar at the Habaneras shopping mall that we go to only occasionally in Torrevieja. It was 100 Montaditos (a montadito is Spanish for a small sandwich). There were 100 numbered selections on the menu, ranging from sandwiches with tuna, to ham, shrimp, salmon, beef and all sorts of good things, accompanied by salad and/or a sauce. Best of all, each sandwich only cost 1 euro, or €1.50 , or €1.80. You selected from the menu, wrote down your choices, and delivered your list to the counter, where you also paid and picked up your drink--most probably a caña of beer for €0.90 or a jarra (mug) for €1.00. A little bit later--well, perhaps longer than you would have wished, but this is Spain--your name would be called and you would get up from your table to collect your little plate of montaditos, which in addition to the sandwiches had a few potato chips on it. Just the thing for a light, interesting, inexpensive and not totally diet-wrecking snack while out shopping. We made it a practice to stop there whenever we were in the area, but alas, that was not often.

About a year ago we started driving to La Condomina shopping mall in Murcia, a city about 45 minutes away. This is a much larger mall, but the main attraction was an Apple store, where I was learning how to manage my new computer and where not much time went by before Johannes bought an iPad. We were pleasantly surprised to discover a 100 Montaditos in La Condomina and it became a tradition that every time we went to the Apple store we would get a montadito.

And then we took a trip to Zenia Boulevard, the new mega-shopping center that opened last September on Orihuela Costa. This was a bittersweet expedition, because I am convinced that this grand shopping center was supposed to be "ours." When we bought our house in Algorfa, we were told that the plans were approved for a great new shopping center within walking distance, and that construction would begin soon. That was pre-economic crisis, and the space for which our shopping center was planned is now an empty eyesore. Presumably more money flowed to the developers from the other location than from our town, so there is now a fancy shopping mall just 20 minutes down the toll road from where "ours" was supposed to be. And it's just aggravating that the toll is so unreasonably high that, on the four or five times we've gone to La Zenia, we drive out of our way to go through the free countryside and avoid the tollgate. The important thing about Zenia Boulevard, though, is that it also has a 100 Montaditos.

We made a quick trip to Murcia and La Condomina a week ago. We needed a connector for a new camera bought in Singapore to replace the one that is now resting on the bottom of  Halong Bay. We got that quickly, and we stopped for a montadito. As I scanned the 100 selections, I was surprised to see a few new ones on the menu. (Presumably some of the poorer sellers had been removed to make way for the new). The new were five sweet montaditos (numbered 95-99, all involving chocolate and all on "chocolate bread.") One was with "cookies and cream" and another was with "grageas de chocolate," which looked very much like M&Ms. Well, I didn't indulge in a dessert montadito that time, but I didn't forget them, either.

On Wednesday of this week we went to La Zenia for a very specific purpose: to look at bathroom fixtures at Leroy Merlin to replace a shower and vanity in our upstairs bathroom. We got out of the house early and were at Leroy Merlin just after they opened at 10:00. We spent a fair amount of time there and when we completed our work, we were more than ready for a cup of coffee. Does 100 Montaditos even have coffee? I had become so used to having a meat or seafood montadito and a little beer that I didn't remember if they made coffee. But as we entered, Johannes spied the coffee machine and so we ordered coffee. And I thought one of those chocolate montaditos would be just the thing to accompany coffee.

So that is what I had, a chocolate montadito composed of just-baked, or at least just-warmed, chocolate bread, chocolate cream and a thin chocolate sauce, and several M&Ms. I seldom indulge in such a treat, but chocolate genes run in my family, and every once in awhile, they assert themselves. As I bit into the chocolate montadito, I almost swooned, grinned, and said, "My father would have loved this," for that is where my chocolate gene came from. Until he died, my father enjoyed a little piece of chocolate every day, he told me--just a little piece.

As I was looking for links to the 100 Montaditos site to embed in this post so you could see the menu, I found one that I did not expect to see. In addition to the Spanish menu, I found another menu, in English. It seems that 100 Montaditos has opened in the United States to offer "The True Taste of Spain." There are several outlets in the Miami area, and one has made it as far north as Orlando. In an ironic twist, the 100 Montaditos in Orlando is located less than a mile from where my parents lived for almost 20 years. My father would have loved it.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Culinary Challenges

From my pile of unpacked but not-yet-put away stuff from my summer vacation, I located this week a very slim cookbook, nearly just a pamphlet. It is Homestyle Vietnamese Cooking, by Nongkran Daks and Alexandra Greeley (Periplus, 2002) and it is an excellent little collection of about 35 recipes, with full and half-page colored photos, three pages of explanations and tips on ingredients, and international measurement conversions that speak to U.S., U.K., and Australian audiences, at least.

I had really enjoyed the food I had in Vietnam--indeed, throughout the entire trip--and so had Johannes, so I read through all the recipes and explanations, and made a shopping list of typical ingredients that I did not have on hand. I knew my selection of what to make would depend on what I was, and was not, able to find. Among other things, my shopping list included:
  • fish sauce
  • hoisin sauce
  • oyster sauce
  • tamarind
  • rice paper wrappers
  • star anise 
  • five spice powder
  • fresh lemongrass
  • fresh daikon
  • red chilies
  • fresh papaya
  • coconut cream 
  • rice vermicelli
  • rice wine
  • rice vinegar
  • Asian, lemon, and/or holy basil
I had seen few, if any, of these ingredients in the various grocery stores I frequent in Spain. Some of them, like rice paper wrappers for spring rolls, I had no recollection of seeing in my life. But I was determined to find what I could. The best candidate, I thought, was the local hypermarket Carrefour, which has multiple ethic food shelves for British, Belgian, Scandinavian, Russian, U.S. (think Betty Crocker fudge brownie mix) and many more cuisines, including Asian. Off we went to Carrefour on Thursday morning.

But first we stopped in Ciudad Quesada to go to the bank, and since the bank was just around the corner from Jumerca, a nice little German specialty shop, I decided to pop in there first. It was a great idea. I found hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, canned coconut cream, and rice vermicelli. Not bad at all, and I hadn't even set foot in Carrefour yet.

We proceeded to Carrefour and went directly (well, almost) to the Asian food section. There were lots of things for Indian food--there is a very large British population here. There were a couple things for Chinese and Japanese. A demonstration area was even giving away free samples of sushi. But I found not a thing that was still on my list! There was hoisin and oyster sauce, coconut milk (not cream) and several kinds of rice vermicelli--all at prices higher than I had found at Jumerca. Oh yes, I did find the papaya, but it cost four euros for a scrappy-looking one, and since I wasn't sure when I would be able to get the other ingredients for the recipe, I put it back in the produce section. I could have bought sake, too, at the sushi demo, which my little cookbook--that I had brought with me--said that I could substitute for rice wine. But it also said I could substitute dry sherry, and I had some excellent dry sherry at home. By this time, we were exhausted and I was discouraged, because the one ingredient that I absolutely had to find, and had not as yet, was Vietnamese fish sauce. We settled for a cup of coffee and went home for the day.

Friday I had to do regular shopping and scoured the shelves at Consum and Mercadona, my two usual groceries. Again, I saw some repetition of the jars I needed, but except for the red chilies, which I could get anywhere and any time, I thought, I found none of the fresh produce. Well, my Vietnamese dinner was getting pushed back into the weekend, because I would have to look at the Sunday open air market. But of course, if I failed to find fish sauce, which the book says is essential, the fresh ingredients were moot, anyway.

I went to the Internet to find out whether fish sauce and oyster sauce were the same thing, by chance. At least I wasn't the only one who had hoped that they were. But the answer was no, fish sauce is thin, oyster sauce is thick, and there are undoubtedly other differences. Some people said that soy sauce could substitute for fish sauce, but I didn't really believe that. We went for coffee with a friend who has lived in this area for several years, and I asked her if there was a local Asian food market. Not too many Asians live here, she said, and she is right. But she thought there might be one in the poligono industrial in Torrevieja. I knew approximately where she was talking about, and Saturday morning I looked it up on the Internet and did indeed find the name of an Asian food store, its address, and phone number.

Forget the phone number, we just set the GPS and were off to the specialty store. When Gloria, our GPS lady, told us we had passed it, I was apprehensive. We parked and got out and asked a young woman who was hosing down the chairs in an outdoor cafe. ¿Hay una tienda de comida de Asia? No, she said, there used to be one on the corner, but it's closed. It must have closed a long time ago, because there were no remnants of its name, although there was a "For Rent" sign on the window.

Well, we were in Torrevieja, so we might as well at least go to Iceland, the British frozen food specialty supermarket where I buy a couple pre-cooked items for emergency dinners, and by the way, that's where I am able to get canned condensed cream of chicken soup for the American casserole that Johannes loves. We looked all through the Sauces/Salsas section and found nothing we had not found before. But there was another aisle, and in that aisle were some Asian things, and on the top shelf there was a jar labeled Fish Sauce. No brand name that I could discern, but it said "A Splash of Nam Pla Fish Sauce," so it sounded Vietnamese. And in tiny letters, I found out after I got it home, it said Waitrose,a good British brand, I thought, but I wasn't going to discriminate anyway.

When I returned home with my prized fish sauce I read through my little cookbook again and chose a recipe for Sunday night. I am making Tangy Prawn Salad with Carrot, Cucumber and Mint Leaves. Of course, now I had to go out and buy the prawns and the spring onions, but I had the mint and coriander, lime, chili, and shallots. I would have to buy the roasted, unsalted peanuts at the Sunday market.

I did. I am all ready. This will be my first attempt at cooking authentic Vietnamese, and I do have all the ingredients. I hope we like it. It's already been a lot of work and I haven't started preparng the dish yet!

I am still on the lookout for rice paper wrappers, but that's for another dish.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Common Sense

We were shocked this week to hear that an English charity is under attack by the Spanish tax authorities.  Paul Cunningham Nurses is a registered charity in Spain; it was founded years ago by Jennifer Cunningham in honor of her son, Paul, who died of cancer at an early age. Paul Cunningham Nurses (PCN) provides free nursing and care to terminally ill patients and their families. It gets much of its funding through sales in several shops of donated clothing, DVDs, and household articles. We have taken several cast-off items to the shops to donate, and we have also made many purchases. I particularly like to stop in before I take a little vacation to northern climates, because I can usually find a couple pieces of warmer clothing in good condition there, that I can't find in regular stores here in southern Spain.

We first heard of the Paul Cunningham problem from friends who had read it in one of the free weekly newspapers. When we went out the next morning to do errands, we looked, unsuccessfully, for the newspaper, and we also stopped in one of the PCN shops to ask about the situation. The attendant gave us some information about the problem, but not in detail, and I was a little hesitant to sign a petition in support of the charity with so little knowledge, but I did. Since then I have found two written articles which generally say the same thing, so I'm taking them as a fairly accurate statement of the facts.

A year ago, one of the PCN shops was approached by a Spanish official from Social Security (Seguridad Social), who asked the two volunteer workers to show her their national identification and Social Security papers. Social Security is the system in Spain that provides national healthcare: either your employer pays your social security premium, or you as an independent contractor/freelance worker pay your own (and it starts at a minimum of 320 euros per month, I have heard from various sources).

The volunteer shopkeepers, older English women, did not understand the detailed Spanish and contacted the PCN accountant, who explained, in Spanish, to the Social Security representative that PCN was a registered charity, as indicated by a G above the door of the shop, and that the "workers" were volunteers and thus should not pay Social Security. The officer, however, levied a fine of 6,000 euros and demanded that the charity present all relevant paperwork to an authority in Alicante city--and accused PCN of violating the human rights of the volunteers by not paying salaries.

In due time the charity's official papers were taken to Alicante, the papers were accepted, and the fine was withdrawn. However, another fine was levied: 10,000 euros--for obstructing an officer in the carrying out of her duty.

PCN appealed the new fine twice, then heard nothing until recently, when a registered letter arrived saying that if the 10,000 euro fine--plus 2,000 euros in interest--is not paid within 21 days, the bank account of the charity will be embargoed and money withdrawn to pay the fine and interest until it is paid in full.

PCN is continuing its appeals, to the European Court, it says, if necessary. For the time being, as far as I know, PCN shops are still open and accepting donations, people are still buying--and signing petitions, and nurses are still attending to end-of-life needs of any resident of Spain--not just English or foreigners--who asks for help.


When I first heard about this absurdity I thought, "It's because the Spanish system does not understand volunteer activities and charities." And it is true that the extraordinary system of grassroots fundraising by charity shops, lotteries and raffles, entertainment benefits, quiz and game nights, and all sorts of activities routinely offered by the British population here has no equal of which I am aware. But I have checked, and my English-Spanish dictionaries do show Spanish words on this topic. A charity organization is an institución benéfica or an organización benéfica. A charity shop is la tienda de una organización benéfica. A charity sale is una venta benéfica. A volunteer is un voluntario or una voluntaria, as in a volunteer army or to volunteer information. But the verb for volunteer is ofrecerse, to offer oneself, which does have the aura of self-sacrifice about it. And I didn't see anything at all about volunteer workers.

All of which does reinforce my feeling that the concepts of volunteering and charity are not something that Spaniards have in common with the Anglo world as I know it. But I do hope that common sense will prevail in this case, sooner rather than later.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Summer Again in Spain

Last Sunday I was packing up a very heavy suitcase--heavy enough so I had to pay extra at the airport check-in and too heavy for the TSA to want to fuss with it, I concluded later--and headed back to Spain. I arrived in Madrid Wednesday morning early, and after waiting a few hours there, I continued to Alicante, where I was picked up and delivered by car to the house. It was good to get back "home" and to my regular routines. The weather, I discovered, was not much different from the heat and humidity that I had left in Cincinnati and Chicago, although there is a notable absence of air-conditioning here.

Since then I have been doing the things that I always do to get back into life in Spain. One of the first, and the most fun, was to meet friends in my book group for a discussion of The Angel's Game, which I had finished on the long airplane ride between O'Hare and Barajas. I also cleaned out several science experiments from the refrigerator and in the last several days have gone to three of my favorite grocery stores to replenish the refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards. That meant, of course, that we had a café con leche and half of a tostada at the outdoor café in front of the Benijófar Consum, and when we went the next day to Ciudad Quesada on an errand, we had to have another café at the Halfway House, our usual haunt close to the post office.

I've also completely emptied--in record time--the large suitcase I brought with me, and have put the books, medicines. toiletries, clothing, and paperwork in their proper places, and actually dealt with some of the paperwork (and all of the laundry). I've caught up on some work that was pending, suffering the trauma of transferring files that are supposed to be compatible but aren't always, back to my regular computer. This morning we went to the Zoco outdoor market to buy almonds, prunes and raisins for breakfast, and whatever fruits and vegetables looked good for the coming week, or at least the coming days, because the heat now means that fresh produce doesn't keep as fresh as it does during the cooler months. Strawberry season has definitely gone by, so I was glad that I had had strawberries in Cincinnati,, and though raspberries and blueberries are available here at high prices for tiny portions, they don't taste as good as the ones I enjoyed while away. We sat this morning in a bit of shade with another café con leche and listened to the various languages around us and watched the people all dressed to withstand heat in various ways, while still enjoying their holiday or daily lives.

I am moving slowly and the days seem long because, well, they are. It always takes a few nights to adjust to six hours' time difference between Eastern U.S. time and Spanish time. It's even harder this year, because it's time for the Benijófar summer festival, and that means that just as I am ready to settle down to try to sleep through the night at 11:00 PM or so, the thumping music of a fiesta in action starts up, and it continues into the wee hours--until 7:00 this morning, according to Johannes, but I had finally dropped off to sleep some time after 3:30 and slept peacefully until 9:00.

Tomorrow I will see my Spanish teacher/book discussion partner and Tuesday I will go to play petanca, and by then I hope to be back in this time zone and back into the regular routine of summer, which often involves staying inside in air-conditioned comfort (not central, but effective and quiet on a room-by-room basis) and generally taking it easy and not moving too fast. We have a few weeks before leaving again for a summer vacation together, and I intend to enjoy them in a suitably leisurely fashion.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Happy Books

Inside Happy Books, ©Johannes Bjorner 2012
One of the unexpected pleasures we had in Barcelona was stumbling upon a store called Happy Books. Given the name and the bright colors of children's books and cookbooks on display in bins out front, I thought at first that it was a bookstore for light reading only. The store was crowded (this was the Sunday before Christmas) but we made our way in to browse, and then we went farther and farther in. True, I found a good share of light reading (pizza cookbooks in a circular shape, for example) and young adult books (YA classic editions of literature from around the world, including Lazarillo de Tormes, a Spanish classic that I had read part of). As I got farther in, however, through room after room leading to the next, I found many forms of enlightenment. The clean, modern architecture gave way to older, more historic, and beautifully restored stone and brick arches--but still with excellent lighting. We browsed for a long time, and we stood in line to make a purchase. As we left I asked if the store was open tomorrow (Christmas Eve day). We were happy to hear that it was.

But we never got back to Happy Books, because later that evening we discovered Casa del Libro just a few steps down from our hostal on the Rambla. Another large bookstore, with sections for English and French and German books, in addition to Spanish. By this time it was ready to close, so we went back there the next day. Twice, as I recall--once early in the morning and then again later at night. We are obviously starved for the ambiance of large, well-equipped bookstores, and I am glad that by now in my stay in Spain I have gotten to the point where I can browse and buy comfortably in Spanish. We left eventually without all the books we wanted--size of luggage being one consideration, but also the realization that while some things look compelling when on holiday with loads of time looming, they too often lie languishing when you return to everyday life and have lots of other things to do.

Yesterday, however, we were suddenly "in need" of a travel book, or at least in need of browsing some travel books. Lo and behold, and thanks to the Web, we found that Casa del Libro has many casas, and one of them is in Alicante city. It was a beautiful, warm day for a drive, so off we went. As we approached our destination we found a parking lot with no difficulty and dived in--the rule in Alicante being to "park first, then walk."  We set off on foot for the store and found it with only a little backtracking. We browsed for an hour, and limited ourselves to one selection. "Should it be wrapped?" I was asked at the cashiers, because everyone else was buying gifts for the Reyes Magos to deliver that evening. The Three Kings bypassed our house last night, and that's just as well, because we have already had a very full holiday season, planned and unplanned. One of the unexpected pleasures of the new year is the discovery of a good multilingual bookstore within an hour's drive of our house. And close to a fine little restaurant we had seen during the walk from the garage, where we treated ourselves to the menu del dia, a larger-than-normal luncheon for us, which made the day all the more enjoyable.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

An Impulse Purchase and Its Electrifying Consequences

This past week saw the final episode in a small but long-running domestic drama that has continued over the late summer months. This particular drama has to do with electric current.

In mid-July we bought a new microwave from our favorite hardware store, a mom-amd-pop business in Ciudad Quesada just over the highway from where we live. We hadn't set out to buy a new microwave that day; I don't even remember what small item we had entered the store to purchase, but while there, I noticed a microwave on display that had a grill function. We had enjoyed a combination microwave/grill at our previous home in Roquetas de Mar, but left it behind when we sold that apartment. The microwave in our new home here in Montebello did not have a grill, but it was functional as a microwave. We figured we would replace it at some point in the future, but it wasn't a priority. What we had used the microwave grill for most was to toast baguettes, and it's hard enough as it is to say no to delicious toasted baguettes when we go out--we don't need to bring that temptation into the house to have to resist on home territory.

But here all of a sudden, and perhaps at a weak point, was a microwave with a grill, and equally important, one that looked as though it would fit the space currently allotted for it on the shelf in the corner above the kitchen counter. We bought it. We took it home. We removed the old microwave and replaced it with the new one. We plugged it in and re-heated a cup of coffee. Perfect. The next morning I used it, as usual, for cooking my oatmeal, and I continued using it as I normally use the microwave, which is mostly to re-heat leftovers, pop the occasional bag of popcorn, "poach" two eggs, and melt butter and chocolate on the seldom occasions that I get energetic enough to bake. In a rare success at prompt disposal of unnecessary items, I took the old microwave, a little bit rusty, to the weekly neighborhood auction and said that even if it didn't sell, I didn't want it back. 

We resisted toasting baguettes for a couple weeks, but in August I got a yearning. I scanned the instruction manual to make sure I knew how to use the grill properly, put in the toasting rack, placed the bread on the rack, set the dial to Grill, and turned the timer to a minute. Everything was fine for about 30 seconds. Then the power went out. Not just the microwave power. Not just the kitchen lights, but the lights, fans, air conditioners, and computers, all over the house, as well.

We skipped our planned tostadas, flipped the circuit breaker, and decided to wait until the next day to diagnose the microwave problem. It got worse. The next morning, when I turned on the microwave to make oatmeal,we lost electricity again, and this on regular High, which I had been using all along. We flipped the circuit breaker again and this time, all I did was to close the door of the microwave--without turning it on--and the electricity blew! We moved the microwave to the only available outlet in the dining room. It worked, but who wants to have a microwave sitting on the dining room floor? I didn't even dare to try the grill.

It seems that electricity is always a problem in Spanish houses--there are never enough outlets, they are not in the right places, and there is not enough power coming in to the house, either. We had been saying for some time that we wanted to get an electrician in to examine all the wiring and make a few improvements. Now was the obvious time. The electrician came and we explained the microwave problem. He examined a couple things and said that probably the fault was with the microwave, not the kitchen circuit.  We also walked through the entire house and looked at every switch plate and outlet and talked about what might be better done to suit our needs.

When we took the microwave back to the hardware store where we had bought it, we no sooner got inside when they said, "no, no, nothing can be done until September." True enough, August is vacation month. Factories and businesses are closed, deliveries are interrupted, and nothing much gets done. We left it there, though, and agreed to check again in September. And I managed to make oatmeal two mornings without a microwave before I gave in and bought the smallest and cheapest I could find--and without a grill--as a temporary replacement.

It was more than three weeks later that we got the call from the hardware store, saying that the new microwave had arrived. In the meantime, the electrician had spent two days at our house. Some of the old switch plates had become unstable--that is, they occasionally fell off their wall mounting--throughout the 13-year history of this house. He replaced them all, partly for consistency's sake, and partly because if they were not now iffy, they soon would be. Have I ever mentioned how much I like the Spanish electric switches that are larger (roughly 2 inches square) than the finger-width or even one-inch wide switches in U.S. houses? They require much less physical effort to flip from on to off and back again, making it easy to turn the light on or off effortlessly with your elbow while carrying coffee cups or a glass of wine or a load of laundry from room to room. Now I can move throughout the entire house with things in my hands without knocking a single one of the tired switch plates off its moorings to the floor, because all the tired plates have been retired.
One of the bedside plates with two plugs and a switch.
Photo © Johannes Bjørner 2012.

The electrician also repaired the burned-out wall outlet in my office that had almost incinerated when we plugged a portable heater into it. That was before we learned that some outlets will work with heavy-duty appliances, but most, especially if not in the kitchen or bathroom, are "light" outlets, which only serve for lamps, computer equipment, recharging devices, and the like--not space heaters, or even hair dryers, according to the electrician. Then he installed proper outlets for the washer and dryer on my upstairs terrace, so I no longer have to avoid the extension cord that had decorated the floor around the door frame since we moved the dryer up there a couple years ago. He added an outlet here and there, too, one to the office wall where I used to charge up the portable computer and the iPad and the Kindle, but never at the same time. And even though he looked at me a little strangely when I said I wanted double plugs on both sides of the bed to charge up my devices, he installed the outlets.

What he didn't do, though, was to revise the electric circuit in the kitchen. He didn't think that it was necessary for the microwave problem, and we weren't sure what we wanted done since we are contemplating a kitchen renovation, so we put that off. When we brought home the new/replacement microwave--a different brand from the original one, by the way--we tested it with a little trepidation. The microwave worked fine as just a microwave for a few days. Then last Sunday we bought a baguette at the market. I sliced it and prepared it for a tostada. I put it on the metal rack, set the function dial to Grill, turned the timer dial to one minute, and held my breath.

No lights went out. The grill element performed as expected, though I needed another minute for the perfect tostada. We ate toasted bread three times last week, I gained a kilo, and I did not buy another baguette this morning at the market. But I am satisfied that this new microwave/grill works, and that the electricity in the house works as well as it ever will. I have also experimented and found new home locations for the various items that need to be charged up regularly. So this little domestic drama was coming to a close, and we were better off for it.

The only remaining issue was to figure out what to do with the "temporary" microwave that we had bought for the August emergency. We considered--briefly--moving it upstairs for the easy re-heating of forgotten coffee. But would it work in the replaced "light" outlet in my office? Why tempt fate? We gave it away. If I have to run downstairs to re-heat coffee, that will just use up more calories so I can eat more toasted baguettes.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How Many Times Does it Take to Buy a Light Bulb?

The light behind my bed went out last week. I don't need this light when I wake up in the middle of the night and use the iPad, but I do need it to read a real book or a newspaper, or even to do a sudoku. I can remember the days when I could replace a light bulb by myself, and almost immediately. It was just a quick trip to the closet where we kept a supply of spares, choose the right one, take it back to the lamp, and screw it in.

That was before the days of energy-saving bulbs--more expensive and generally ugly--nothing you want to keep a supply of, because each purchase of one is an investment by itself, and, if you are lucky, the design might get a little less ugly by the following time you have to buy one. Still, we have two of these lamps in the house, so I was hoping that there might be a spare. The trouble is, I wasn't sure whether that spare would be in the indoors closet (rightly called "Goldie's closet" because the most important things that it holds are her food dish, her litter box (yep, she lives compactly) and all her supplies, plus just a few of ours) or in the outdoors attic/workshop/studio under the domain of the man of the house. So I advised the man of the house and gave him a couple days to check whether there were any light bulbs out there.

There weren't, so I took the unscrewed light bulb with me on our next shopping trip--I have long since learned that I need to take the one to be replaced or I will inevitably bring home a thick-necked one for a thin-necked lamp socket, or vice versa. We stopped at a hardware store, where the proprietor offered personal attention. While she helped Johannes find the light bulb I went off looking for a universal plug adaptor. That was another item I thought would make a great addition to my bedside table area, so I can charge up the iPad or the Kindle or the phone or the laptop and still have the light on at the same time, once I got a working light bulb again. I didn't find the plug adaptor and the proprietor apologized for the low stock--"it's August" and that meant that deliveries were not as normal.

I paid 7€ (about US $10) for the single light bulb. It's a 15-watt "mini espiral" energy-saving lamp, from Barcelona, according to the package. That corresponds to a 75-watt incandescent. On the package there are descriptions for this light bulb in four languages. The English says, and I quote verbatim:
This lamp can substitutes any kind of lamp.
Saves energy: 5 times less than normal lamp.
Long Life: 8 times more than normal lamp.
Do not use this lamp with dimmers or electronic control.
And then only in Spanish, it promises 8,000 hours of life  and affirms that it conforms to IEC norm 969.

Sounds great, and I took it home, hoping for a long and happy life together. But events being what they are, I didn't even think about it until I got into bed that night. I had to climb out again and retrieve it from my bag in my office. Got it out of the package quickly and screwed it in without any problem--that part of changing a light bulb is the easiest.

Well, I could see, but it was eerie. What was wrong? It was such a harsh, white light. Darn! But I could see. Maybe I'll get used to it, I thought. Two days later, though, I gave up, bit the bullet, and said I was going to buy another light bulb. When did buying a light bulb become such a major decision in life?

We were on our way to the Habaneras shopping center anyway, so we stopped--quickly, I thought--in the AKI home improvement store and looked at light bulbs. I had the package, though not the bulb, from my previous purchase. We looked and looked, much longer than I had thought would be necessary. There must have been 25 rows of light bulbs there and those are only the ones that looked like they would fit my lamp. All of them were Larga Duracion (long lasting) and Bajo Consumo (low energy consumption) and all of them were Espiral (spiral). That's what was in large letters. I had to squint to read any other characteristics, and so did Johannes.

It felt like a crap shoot, but finally we spied what I thought was the telling phrase: Luz Calida (warm light). That was in maybe 6-point type, whereas all the other information was in 12 or 14. But that at least addressed the issue that was wrong with the first purchase. I decided to take a chance on that, paid my 10 euros (about US $15) and took it home.

It's right. It's a nice, warm light, but strong enough for reading. 15 watts, which this brand, from Valencia, says is equivalent to 56 incandescent watts. Descriptions of the product on the back of this package appear in 10 different languages, but they are all printed so small (no more than 6 points) that I can hardly tell what the language is, let alone read any of the ones I might understand. In addition to the warm light from this bulb, there is a design advantage: it is shorter than the first bulb I bought and the original one I replaced, so it does not stick out beyond the end of the lamp. How lovely! That must be what "espiral micro" means, as opposed to "mini espiral." But it only promises to last 6,000 hours, rather than the 8,000 of the white-light bulb--six times the life expectancy of a "normal" light bulb.

And what indeed is "normal" in a light bulb anymore? This morning I read that as of September 1 (that was yesterday) it is forbidden within the European Union to manufacture incandescent light bulbs. So what are the packages going to compare their contents to in the future? CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs) are the new normal.

Maybe I will remember some of the information I have acquired when the next time comes to change a light bulb. But that should be about 6,000 light hours from now, so maybe I won't. On the other hand, I've been noticing that the overhead light in my office seems awfully dim lately ...

Friday, August 31, 2012

"Están de Vacaciones"

Quick, while it is still August, I write about August, the month of vacations.

For the past month, almost every daily action has been punctuated by the phrase "Estan de vacaciones." They are on vacation. Most of our friends here in Spain have been away in Denmark, or England, or Germany, or the U.S., on vacation. One reason is to escape the heat, which has been in the high 30 degrees C., or hovering around 100 degrees F. Another reason is simply that most families go on vacation in August, especially if the family includes children who will be going back to school in September.

Meanwhile, for those of us who have not quite achieved full mobility after knee operations,we stay at home in the cool of the air conditioning, venturing out only as a respite to cabin fever and for the necessary errands. Running errands has become even more of an adventure than it usually is. There is a curious mixture of "stores open" vs. "stores closed." Because we live in a tourist area, many establishments are allowed to stay open on Sundays during the summer season, so for a brief three months we can shop for groceries on Sunday mornings or all sorts of products at the Carrefour hypermarket until midnight every day of the week. This open commercialism is counterbalanced, however, by the tiendas, the small mom-and-pop stores and bars and restaurants, that close, at least for the last two weeks of August, for vacation.

We know, in theory, that during August anything is apt to be closed. But we forget. So when we went to the Scandinavian Center in downtown Torrevieja one Wednesday afternoon to replenish our supply of herring, we came home empty-handed, because they were closed for vacation. When we took our new microwave back to the hardware store where we bought it, after it blew out every fuse in the house, we were told as soon as we walked in the door, "The factory is on vacation. You won't get a replacement until September." I read in one of the free English newsweeklies that the city of Elche had printed a brochure listing establishments that were open in August, and I thought that a little extreme and perhaps a waste of money. That was before we drove to La Marina last Saturday morning to check out a kitchen design store with an advertisement in the same newspaper, and discovered, after we finally found it, that it was shuttered because "están de vacaciones."

If the third week of August was lonesome, the fourth became even more so. Just as I was preparing to head out to our favorite specialty wine shop last Monday to buy a bottle of South African wine for a friend, Johannes told me that an email had come through--they were on vacation for this week. The other errand we set out to do that day was to stop at a gestoria to begin the process of bringing our wills up to date, but no one answered the door or the telephone--they were "de vacaciones." Earlier this week and then again today we noticed that even the musicians who normally play and sing outside the grocery stores were nowhere to be found; they, too, are apparently on vacation.

But today is Friday, the 31st and last day of August. Officially in Europe, summer ends with August. In a rare turn of the calendar, the end of European summer occurs this year during the same weekend as that curious unofficial end of summer in the U.S., Labor Day. A few hours ago I finished my last work for the week, month, and summer, and turned my sights toward a leisurely end-of-summer weekend, and even now as I write this, my colleagues in the U.S. are finishing up their Friday before Labor Day weekend work (if they actually happened to go to work today) and preparing for the last summer hurrah. When we all return to work next Monday or Tuesday, depending on where we are, we will be starting in once again on normal life. It will not be cooler here, but at least almost everyone will be back from vacaciones.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Laundered Money

The normal rule in our household is, whoever finds the loose change in the pockets that are going in to the washing machine, or that tumbles out of the washing machine after a load is done, gets to keep it. Since the person who usually does the laundry is the person that writes this blog, that is usually me. But this week we split the laundered money.

Yesterday morning Johannes put on a clean pair of shorts, stuck his hands in his pockets and pulled out a five and a ten euro note. The blue of the five and the pink of the ten seemed a little faded, but the silvery strip on the right end was still shiny. They also were unwrinkled, and I wished that the clothing would come out as unwrinkled as the euro notes did. Since the euros had made it through the washer and the drying on the line and back into the clothes closet without my noticing them, I could hardly claim this laundered money as my own. Coincidentally, I was starting a load of laundry before we left for our morning outing; today was bedding, though, so no pockets to check.

When I went to hang the sheets out to dry upon our return, I discovered that the spin cycle had gotten stuck, the machine was still full of water, and I couldn't even open the door, since it was mid-cycle. Oh, bother. We had had an electrician at the end of this week putting in a proper outlet for the upstairs terrace laundry, and he had had to move the washer and dryer. The washer probably got unbalanced, I thought--it had happened once before. I fiddled with the switches, and started the load again. Two hours later, when I checked, I was at least able to get the door open, but the machine was still full of heavy, sloshy sheets. I hauled them out, wrung them out as best I could, and got them onto the line. Then we got the washing machine manual out to study, Johannes took a tool to unlock a filter, pulled it up, and out tumbled a bunch of coins--four euros and 50 centimos, when we counted it.

That's the money we used this morning when we went to the Sunday market. I bought almost four euros' worth of red and white grapes, a kilo of potatoes, and a chunk of fresh ginger. Then I spent a euro on a kilo of tomatoes and 55 centimos on a pound of gorgeous large mushrooms. We sat for awhile in the Norwegian cafe, reading the newspaper over a cervesa sin (beer without alcohol) and café con leche. And we walked up and down the aisles to see if we were tempted by anything else. We weren't, so I didn't have to touch the coins in my pockets--one and two-euro coins in the right pocket, centimos in tens and twenties in the left, which is the way I can come up with the small change to pay at individual stalls without going through the trouble of getting out a wallet and revealing its whereabouts to pickpockets.

Upon returning home I immediately emptied my pockets of the small change and replaced it in the ceramic bowl where it will stay safely until next market day. Then I went out on the terrace to check the laundry that I had started before we had gone out for the morning. It was fine. I was able to open the door and feel clothing with its usual pre-clothesline dampness. Seems as though we had found the cause of the washing machine's previous misbehavior. It just doesn't do well at laundering money--at least not coins.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hospital Time

I never got back to the Algorfa ayuntamiento to deposit entries into the tapas festival drawing. I got so tied up in the busyness of knee replacement surgery that it slipped my mind until--amazingly--almost the exact hour of the drawing last Friday. At that time I was in a hospital room with the official photographer of this blog, into whose knee a prosthesis had been placed on Tuesday afternoon.

I had no personal experience with knee surgery before, so I cannot offer comparisons between anyone else and the way it went for us, but it has certainly been an interesting and tiring week. When we arrived at the hospital on Tuesday noon, we were shown to a room which was to become home for the next several days. There was one of those mechanically sophisticated hospital beds with all sorts of contraptions, a sturdy chair with movable arms, a long and fairly wide couch, and a private bathroom with toilet, sink, and shower. I've stayed in less well-fitted hotel rooms. In the next two hours various persons came into the room and prepared the patient. Then at 3:00 they wheeled him out in the bed, and at 9:00 that evening they wheeled him back in. Surprisingly and disappointingly, no meal was available at this time, at least for this patient who had been fasting for over 24 hours, so I went out and bought a sandwich for him at the vending machine in the hall. Nurses came in to check various signs and one brought me sheets and a pillow for my couch bed. In the morning, they offered me towels in case I wanted to take a shower.

Time, especially mealtime, is different in Spain than it is in the U.S., but maybe hospital time is more similar across cultures than normal time. Since I have never been in a hospital more than over one night in the U.S. I don't really know. This patient was mighty glad when the breakfast service came in the next morning at a little after 8:00, even though breakfast turned out to be only coffee (decaffeinated) and a choice of bread, donuts, or sweet rolls. Not too substantial, but meriendas came at 10:30: this snack offered fruit drinks, coffee or tea, and cookies. At some time each morning a one-liter bottle of still water also appeared. Lunchtime was served at about 1:30--early according to Spanish custom, but per Spanish custom, comida consisted of a first course, a main course, bread, and dessert. Never what I would call noisy--even when we left the door to the room open, any personnel coming in to attend us would automatically close it on the way out--the hospital became very quiet after lunch. It was, after all, siesta time. Almost on the dot of 4:00 siesta was over, the shift had changed, and the merienda service came by again with its cart of beverages, cookies, and more sweets. The main event of the "afternoon," as this period of time is called in Spain, was the doctor's visit. The first day he came at 7:00 PM; we figured that was probably exactly 24 hours after the end of the surgery. Then at 8:00 (this is more like Spanish dinner time) dinner, or la cena, arrived. Here again there was a first course, main course, bread, and dessert. I left after dinner, so I do not know if meriendas were offered again as a bedtime snack; I doubt it.

When dinner came the first night, we were also presented with a menu for the next day. Three choices were offered for each course for comida and cena, including soup or salad as a first course; fish, meat, or a somewhat vegetarian main course; ice cream, pudding, yogurt, or "fruit natural" for dessert. During his stay, the patient had some excellent fish that was completely boneless, roasted chicken, a French omelet, sliced tomatoes with olive oil dressing and salt (the only time I saw a vegetable as an accompaniment, except for the salad starter), and some delicious cremas, thick "creamed" soup, and one was crema de alcochofa, artichokes, a specialty of this region. He never graduated to caffeinated coffee--I asked--but no one objected when I went down to the hospital cafeteria and ordered two cafes con leche para llevar. I usually ate the individual bread loaf that came with the meal, sans butter, and I also appropriated the "fruit natural" ordered the first day--a kiwi, unpeeled, hard as a rock (which at first I mistook for a baked potato) with only a regular dinner knife to peel it. It's sitting downstairs in my kitchen still, ripening--maybe tomorrow for our lunchtime fruit salad.

Each day was long and tedious, punctuated only with meals, exercises, a sponge bath, the room cleaning, various nursing checks, and the doctor visit--typically, everything was quiet until the patient fell into sleep and then someone knocked on the door and came in to do something. And yet, we were only there three days following the procedure. When the doctor came at 5:30 Friday afternoon he was satisfied with the progress and offered the patient the choice of going home that night or Saturday morning. You can guess what the patient chose (and perhaps what his caregiver would have preferred). "The discharge instructions will come from the doctor in 20 minutes," said the head nurse. An hour and 30 minutes later, the instructions came. The patient could go home either in our car or in an ambulance, but he might have to wait for the ambulance. Given the experience of time for dismissal so far, it was our car. They wheeled him down to the main entrance while I fetched the car, and we left the luxury of the hospital to be at home. And that began a different adventure.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Great Taste(s) from Spain

Next Sunday I will not be in Spain, but I will be thinking of it, and at least one other person at the conference I am going to should be thinking of it, too. That's because I have volunteered to bring a door prize to the meeting, and I decided to put together a basket of goodies showing the best of Spanish food products. So I have been busy, busy, busy this week, scouring all the grocery stores I know, looking for specialty shops (they seem to have disappeared with the deepening of the recession) and keeping my eyes open for local foods that are representative of the region and also appealing to those who do not live here.

The first item in my gift basket, of course, had to be olive oil. Spain is by far the largest producer of olive oil in the world, according to the Olive Oil Times. In 2010 it produced 1.4 million metric tons of olive oil; Italy, its nearest competitor, produced 460,000 metric tons. My olive oil is from Pago Baldios San Carlos, which won the Gold Medal at the Los Angeles Extra Virgin Olive Oil contest in 2011. The contents of my bottle, however, are from the first harvest (Primera Cosecha) of 2012. This is a real premium product. I have to admit that it is not the olive oil I use in my daily cooking, or even for my usual lunchtime salad dressing.

Also in the category of expensive liquids is a Tio Pepe Jerez (Sherry); Palomino Fino, Fino Muy Seco. "A classic bone-dry sherry," according to La Tienda, a U.S. importer of "the best of Spain." I became intrigued with sherry production in Spain when we passed by the city of Jerez de la Frontera on our way home from a Thanksgiving Day in Cadiz a few years ago, without taking the sherry tour. Ever since, I have been making plans to go back to this center of sherry production to learn more, tour the bodegas, and try some samples. It used to be that large Tio Pepe bottle sculptures dotted the roadsides throughout Spain, but a law banning such ostentatious advertising has eliminated most of those today. The bottle of Palomino Fino in my gift basket doesn't look much like the bottles along the roadside anyway; it looks much more refined, just like the one in the manufacturer's website ad.

Finally, there is cava, that wonderful sparkling wine that Spaniards drink instead of champagne. I have a small (375 ml) bottle of Freixenet Carta Nevada Brut. Fortunately I thought in time that I had to get my treasures through U.S. Customs, and that there is a limit on how much alcohol one can bring in without paying duty.

What would Spanish food be without saffron, or azafran, as it is called here? I put in a package of azafran hebras, saffron threads. One of the attractions of this particular package from Azafranes Sabater was that it contains instructions for use in four languages. Here's the English:
(GB) INSTRUCTIONS FOR USE: To best using the saffron threads, roast them still protected by their paper envelope, by placing them onto the hotpot. Then grind in a mortar and add the ground saffron to the food you are preparing.
This small, lightweight package the size of a deck of cards (but mostly filled with empty space) contains four envelopes. Nowhere does it say anything about how much food you should prepare for one packet, so it's a good thing I also bought a package called Paellero, from a local spice company called Carmencita. This package contains five packets, each designed to flavor enough rice for six servings (600/700 grams of rice). It also has instructions in English, though the basic instruction is "Before adding the rice, pour the contents of one sachet into the paella pan. Do not add any other spice." The ingredients list reports garlic, salt (25%), paprika, corn flour, colour, E-102, pepper, clove, and saffron (2.5%). If I had been able to read the ingredients list in the store, without glasses, I probably would not have bought it, especially since it goes on to say that E-102 may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.

If you're making paella, you need to have the right rice, so I included a 1 kg. package of Fallera D.O. Arroz de Valencia de grano grueso especial para paella. This is the large, round rice that is grown in the region of Valencia, where the conditions of heat and humidity are just right for rice, according to the package. Paella Valenciana does not have seafood in it, by the way; it has bits of chicken, duck, and rabbit.

Another main dish that requires saffron is fabada, a hearty white bean casserole from Asturias, in the northern part of Spain. A couple months ago I went to three different stores and found three different sizes of alubia fabada, or favas, the special white beans. For my basket I chose the medium-sized beans, from El Granero de Levante in Bigastro, a small town just 10 or 15 minutes away. In addition to favas and saffron, this dish needs chorizo and black sausage, and lacon, or salt pork, but none of those would pass through Customs, I'm afraid. 

Also in my basket of great tastes from Spain is a small tin of bonito del norte en aceite de oliva, an excellent tuna fish in olive oil, and mermelada de tomate, this tomato marmalade from the province of Cantabria. These, plus olive oil, are excellent toppings for a toasted bread, or tostada, that we often eat when we are out for a  late morning snack.

Last, but not least--certainly not least by weight--is the kilogram of Mediterranean sea salt I tucked in the basket at the last minute. I really didn't want to take a whole kilo, but that is how it is packaged. We live in the Torrevieja area, which is famous for its salt lakes, but the salt processed here is the type that is often found on the roads of northern Europe in the winter. You have to go a bit farther north on the coast toward Alicante to find the huge mountains that eventually turn into table salt. We see them on the way to and from the airport, and stopping at the salt museum is one of those things I mean to do some day when there is time. But there won't be time when I head up that way a couple days from now to catch my morning plane to Indianapolis. I'll be bringing some great tastes from Spain in my suitcase with me.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies I Ever Made

Long-time readers of Sundays in Spain know that I sometimes pack chocolate chips in my suitcase when returning from the U.S., since the only small bits of chocolate resembling Nestle chocolate chips that I can purchase here--and with great difficulty--are miniatures and way too small to make authentic chocolate chip cookies. I didn't pack any this year when I came back in January (and for the first time, my bags weren't inspected by the TSA--perhaps they had always been attracted by the smell of chocolate).

So when I walked into my nearby Mercadona grocery store this week and saw the sign ¡Novedad! Gotas de Chocolate I almost ran through the store to find them, hoping against hope that they had imported some real chocolate chips.

They hadn't, but it appeared that they had made their own under their Hacendado brand. Gotas de Chocolate "Para Fundir" (chocolate drops "for melting"), it said on a light tan box the size of a 4-inch high 3x5 card. Pictured on one side were all sorts of Sugerencias (suggestions): a chocolate-dripped bundt cake, chocolate sauce melting over ice cream, chocolate drops on a cupcake, chocolate-dipped strawberries, a cup of hot chocolate, and a stack of eight little cakes that looked for all the world like real American chocolate chip cookies. On the other side of the box, life-sized chips of chocolate that looked like the real thing cascaded into a pool of melted chocolate. Both ends of the box showed diagrams and described in text how to melt the novel gotas inside (baño Maria, microwave, or in a cup of hot milk) and the bottom of the box listed the ingredients and carried the essential nutritional information for the 250 grams of cacao and sugar.

I probably could have found the original Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe on the Internet, but I had recently had a gourmet discussion by email with a very good friend, which started with tapas and ended with her sending me a recipe for oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies that she had copied from a Quaker Oats booklet. I followed the recipe as near as I could. But was my azucar moreno the right brown sugar? Why did the one cup of butter and the sugar never really get "light and fluffy"? And how was I ever going to get three cups of oats blended into the already stiff dough?

Well, the cookies turned out O.K.  The chocolate chips looked just like the ones that come out of the golden yellow and brown Nestle bag, and I measured about 1 1/2 cups from the 250 grams. The cookies don't look like the traditional ones I made in my childhood--they are flatter, in spite of the fact that I used what I believe is the equivalent of cake flour instead of regular flour, and they are crispier--probably due to the very dense real butter (not margarine) I used. But they taste good, and Johannes says they are the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever made. Of course, they are also the first ones I have made in years. But not the last.

On the other hand, Quaker Oats has at least two chocolate-oatmeal recipes on its website that sound good.

Oatmeal-Chocolate Chip Cookies (credit to Quaker Oats and a long friendship)
1 cup butter or margarine
1 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 cups uncooked quick or regular oats
1 cup chocolate chips

Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy; blend in eggs and vanilla. Add combined dry ingredients except oats and chocolate; mix well. Stir in oats and chocolate. Drop onto greased cookie sheet by rounded teaspoonfuls. Bake in preheated 350 degree F oven for 10-12 minutes.
My cookies would have floated off the baking sheet if I had greased it in addition to the cup of butter in the dough. I used baking paper--something else I never did when I was making these cookies when I was a child. Baking paper makes it a lot easier to clean the pans afterwards, too.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Internet Piracy and Film in Spain

I have been seeing increasing references in Spanish newspapers to something called La Ley Sinde, and when I read that Álex de la Iglesia, president of the Spanish academy of cinema, had resigned his post in opposition to the law, I finally decided to spend some time figuring out what was going on.

I knew that the law had something to do with Internet piracy, and I assumed that it was strengthening sanctions against the practice of unauthorized (i.e., unpaid) downloading of copyrighted music and film works. What I didn't know was just how inbred in Spanish society the practice of downloading from the Internet was.

A year ago, an article in the Los Angeles Times ("In Spain, Internet Piracy is Part of the Culture") provoked heated controversy among Spanish Internet users who couldn't understand what the fuss was about. The article quoted two middle-aged individuals who routinely download a couple movies a week from the Internet. They didn't feel like pirates, and they weren't, strictly speaking, for in Spain, such downloading is not illegal as long as it is not done for profit.

I didn't know that. Apparently that means that it is not illegal to buy the DVDs of English-language films on sale by street vendors along the beach promenade or at the Sunday market--though it is illegal for the vendors to sell them. So may I rest easier about the copy of The King's Speech loaned to us by some neighbors a week ago that I have enjoyed immensely--twice--all the while feeling guilty because I suspect that it was purchased as a pirated copy for only a couple euros at most and has now provided an evening's entertainment to at least five families?

I learned more from that article and others that I researched. Reportedly there were 12,000 video stores in Spain when I first came here in 2003, but by the end of 2008, there were only 3,000. That rings true--there was just a single video rental store in Roquetas, where we first lived, and since we moved to the Torrevieja area we have yet to find one. There are also few cinema houses. There was one in Roquetas, which showed films in their original version (i.e., not dubbed into Spanish) for a time, but it soon abandoned that practice for lack of an audience--we were usually the only two customers on a Sunday afternoon. I guess most people were just downloading the original version from the Internet instead of paying 6 or 8 euros per person for the cinema version.

Even more surprising to me was that Apple's iTunes website apparently doesn't sell movies or television shows in Spain, though it does in Britain, France, and Germany--and when I read that, I finally realized why I had had so much trouble registering to use iTunes in order to download a free iPhone app several months ago. And while illegal movie downloads grew from 132 million a year to 350 million between 2006 and 2008, DVD sales and rentals fell by 30%. Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton was quoted as saying that Spain was "on the brink" of no longer being a viable home entertainment market for Sony.

We are now beyond the brink, according to a recent article in El Pais, which asserts that for the fourth year in a row, Spain is expected to be on a U.S. Department of Commerce blacklist of countries with which U.S. firms should not engage in business involving intellectual property. This article appeared in the same issue reporting on the final passage of La Ley Sinde, which is named after Spain's minister of culture, Ángeles González-Sinde, who is also a screenwriter and film director. The law is still controversial, since some see it simply as buckling under to U.S. commercial interests and to those who refuse to recognize the "new marketing model" of the Internet. I see it differently, as I come from a tradition and make my living in a profession that acknowledges some monetary value for the work of writers, performers, and other creative artists. I think the law is rather mild anyway. As near as I can figure out, it creates a panel to hear cases against Internet sites allowing downloads and empowers a judge to close such sites. No provisions against the downloaders or the sellers of copies.

I still feel guilty about watching a copy of The King's Speech that may have been illegal, even though I did not break a Spanish law. I would have been happy to go into a store and rent an authorized copy of the original version. I would have been even happier to be able to see the film in a movie theater. But the problem remains that films in Spain are dubbed into Spanish. Can you imagine watching and listening to The King's Speech in Spanish?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More Shopping News

I hate to blabber on about another store opening in our area--what a dull life she leads, you must be saying--but a new Mercadona grocery store opened last week only a few minutes' drive from where we live, and I'm happy about it. We have loved the Mercadona chain since there was one just around the corner when we lived in Roquetas. We have missed it here in Montebello, where until now we had to drive about twenty minutes to get to the closest one.

This Mercadona, on the other side of Benihójar, is within our usual driving pattern, and we had been watching signs of its arrival for months. So when they put a banner up saying that it would be Abierto on November 12, I marked the date on my calendar. Due to some other last-minute errands, we didn't arrive until mid-day, and not only the parking lot, but the streets around the large parking lot were full of cars. We found a spot, went in, and were delighted to see wide aisles that were easy to walk through with either metal push carriages or the smaller plastic pull carts, in spite of the large number of people. You could tell it was opening day, though--every checkout register was open and operating. I wonder if that practice will hold?

There has been an improvement in Mercadona of late. I had been disappointed when I first arrived in Spain to discover that fruits and vegetables were almost always sold, in supermarkets, in pre-selected quantities--almost always more than two people need--and encased in plastic. But recently the other Mercadona had installed weighing machines and opened some produce up to the you-weigh-it-yourself system. Only a few selected items were pictured on the scales, though, and much was still only available in the store-decided quantities.

Our new Mercadona lets you select and weigh almost every piece of produce you want. That's an improvement in my eyes, and enough reason as its location to patronize this one. There's another aspect I like, too. The frozen-food bins (and they are all bins, not the standing cases that I see in U.S. supermarkets) are disbursed, so they are located in the section where fresh and packaged foods of the same type are located. Thus, I found frozen vegetables and fruits right next to the fresh produce section, frozen fish in the same area as the fish counter, carne congelada and prepared meals close to the butcher and fresh meat bins, and frozen desserts (an extremely large section) next to the bakery. This layout would probably not work in a humongous American supermarket, where frozen food can thaw by the time you work your way through all the aisles, but with the layout and scale of grocery stores here--even this lovely new, big Mercadona--it works fine.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Gasolinera's Tienda

I never thought I would celebrate the arrival of a gas station in my neighborhood, but that was before I moved to Montebello more than a year ago. I love our house and it is a wonderful neighborhood of some 170 homes, but there are not any stores within walking distance. Two bars and a hairdresser--and I am grateful for them--but everything else you have to drive to. It's not a long drive, just up and over the AP-7 highway to Ciudad Quesada or the village of Benihójar--it can be done in ten minutes. But you still need to get into the car.

So the arrival of a gasolinera (or petrol station, as most of my neighbors call it) within walking distance, with its attendant convenience store (tienda), is a major event. It's been a slow-developing event over the past several months. We watched progress move along and even drove in to ask for information from the workmen a few times. The gas station has been open for a month now--it opened without notice while we were out of town for the Frankfurt Book Fair--and we have stopped by a few times for gas or washing the car. And for inspecting the tienda.

The big attraction for us was its newsstand. When we lived in Roquetas, we had a well-stocked newspaper kiosk just a half block down the street, and I regularly read the national newspaper El País, and scanned others, both Spanish and foreign languages, in the revolving display stands. Since we've been here and have to consciously drive somewhere to get a newspaper, we often don't buy it. My newspaper reading has gone down, and my Spanish reading has gone down. So the promise of a newsstand again, even though inside a gas station, was enticing.

Newspapers in Spain are distributed to stores much as newspapers in other countries I know. The store orders newspapers through a distributor; what doesn't get sold gets returned and the store doesn't have to pay for unsold copies. It took a week or ten days after our tienda opened before newspaper delivery was functional. And then only foreign papers were available: English. German, Dutch. No Spanish papers. "When?" we asked. "Soon," we were told.

Days and weeks passed, but then, last Monday--a holiday, no less--when we stopped in, the Spanish-language papers had arrived. What joy! Once again I have a stack of partially read newspapers next to my bed. Once again, I can read interviews of interesting people visiting Madrid, try to figure out Spanish politics, and generally get the Spanish point of view on what is important in the world. I am definitely from the newspaper generation--my family had delivery of two daily papers when I was growing up in Ohio--and although I get lots of news through the Internet now, I never get tired of reading good newspapers on newsprint. This paper is not delivered to my door, but it has now moved close enough (and it's a 24-hour gas station) so I will get it regularly. Eventually I might also actually walk to the gas station tienda instead of just stopping by in the car as we go out for other errands.

That may be when I also take advantage of the second main attraction in the gasolinera tienda. Fresh bread. They tell us that we can call in advance, then come in 20 minutes later (about how long it might take to walk) and the baguette will be freshly baked and piping hot. I'll need to take the walk to keep those bread calories off.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Moda La Finca

A larger-than-normal roadside sign sprouted at the roundabout between the highway and the entrance to our Montebello urbanization last Friday: Moda La Finca. An arrow pointed beyond our neighborhood toward the golf resort about three miles away through the orchards. La Finca, literally a country farmhouse, is a beautiful green area between Montebello and the town of Algorfa, to which we technically belong. In addition to the golf course, there is a luxury resort hotel, which we toured a year ago when we dropped in one day out of curiosity and encountered staff who were inclined to give us the grand tour, out of boredom.

In a rare coincidence, I had already read in the weekly RoundTown News that Moda La Finca was a new clothing shop, scheduled for a grand opening on Sunday at 10:00 AM, with free cava, the effervescent Spanish answer to champagne. The shop was reported to be German-owned and would offer only clothing made in Germany, for men and for women.

So off we headed this morning at a little past ten o'clock and sure enough, there is a delightful and unusual new clothing boutique and outlet in the commercial area at the entrance to La Finca.  The shop was full of people and I looked around and found several things I was interested in, though I did not make any purchases at the time. This is a good place to come when you have something you want to match a new accessory to, I told myself, or when you want to buy something to wear for travel. Styles are different whenever you go away from Spain, or even away from the Costa Blanca area where we live. Quality and variety were evident in the unusual selection of moda, and I will definitely be back.

The shop is indeed German, and Johannes enjoyed practicing his German. He was also more decisive than I was--he found a sweater that will be perfect for our trip to Frankfurt early next month. As we checked out, the attendant told us that her boss was married to an American, who was outside at "the beer place." It's a good thing we looked for him. We didn't find him right away, but we found the German beer they were offering, and then we found the small bratwurst in fresh baguettes, and the chips and Danische-style cookies. And then we spied the man in charge of the cava and mimosas, and that was Al, the American. We had a pleasant chat. Al was familiar with upstate New York and Pennsylvania, as we are, too, since we have driven across those two states often as we traveled from New England to Ohio and back.

It was a grand opening for a promising new business. We see far too many businesses start here and then, a few months later, fail, often for lack of market research. This one seems different. An upscale clothing boutique in a golf resort makes sense; good quality and good taste at higher, but affordable, prices, makes sense in this area that is home to thousands of northern Europeans. Advance publicity in the newspaper, and detailed road signs pointing the way...these people have done their research in planning this business venture. Maybe it's the German-American combo.