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Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Yard of Bread

I can remember an elementary school teacher in my youth explaining about standard measurements and how they came to be, in comparison to body parts, back before the days of rulers and yardsticks.  An inch measured about the same space as the width of two fingers, she said. And a yard could be estimated by the space between the tip of an outstretched arm at shoulder height and your nose.

I thought of that measurement again one evening a year ago when trying to describe the loaf of freshly baked bread that we brought back to our hotel room to munch on after a light dinner with friends. We were in a hotel close to the airport in Alicante, due to take an early morning flight the next day to Copenhagen to celebrate our anniversary. They were living temporarily in Alicante, preparing to take a Wednesday flight to Berlin. They took a bus to the airport, we picked them up, and we spent a comfortable three hours in animated conversation around two pitchers of tinto de verano and soups and salads. After we dropped them off at the bus stop for their return trip, I realized that I needed to eat a little more before falling asleep so I could get up at 3:30 AM. But I didn't want to go into a restaurant, which now, at 9:30, was in the midst of dinner service. Grocery stores seem to uniformly close at 9:15 or 9:30, and we were in a small town. Then I remembered there was a 24-hour store down the street from the hotel. Off we went, and as I was trying to resist a bag of Lay's potato chips fried in olive oil, I saw a young woman come from the back of the store, laden with piping hot loaves of bread.

 We bought a bastón, which resembles a long baguette that has been smashed to flatten it all along its length. The crust was hard and the interior chewy. It was hot within its paper as I carried it the block and a half to the hotel, and it stayed warm until my last bite. But I ate too much. I didn' t think about how long the bread was until I had finished it. So I took the paper wrapper that it had come in and held it between my thumb and forefinger, and held it out at arm's length. It didn't come to my nose. It only came to the upper part of my arm, to that line that marks the end of a short-sleeved top and full sun exposure. So it wasn't a full yard of bread that we ate, but it was close to it. And it was too much, but it did make getting up at 3:30 the next morning a whole lot more palatable.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

News of the Day

While out on a drive Friday morning, we stopped (no surprise) for a café con leche and media tostada, and I was reminded of one of the special qualities of Spanish cafe-bars: they have newspapers. They don't thread them onto sticks in a stand, as they do, or at least used to, in Vienna cafes and in the Massachusetts public library where I worked an eon ago. Rather, they leave each day's selection--two or three papers--scattered on one end of the bar. There they lie when none of the customers, or the proprietor or servers, or cafe regulars are reading them. Friday morning around noon (yes, that's still morning in Spain) when we happened in to the Toscana in Callosa de Segura near the indoor mercado de abastos, there were three newspapers at the close end of the bar. My companion picked up El País, the national paper that has an affiliation with The New York Times, but I was wanting more local news, so I picked up Información, the regional edition for Alicante. Leafing through while enjoying my coffee and toast, I focused on four articles.

A front-page teaser noted that nine immigrants had been killed as they tried to climb a wall into Ceuta, a small Spanish territory surrounded by Morocco in Northern Africa. The economy may be bad in Spain, but apparently it is worse in Morocco, and the papers and TV news frequently tell of  would-be immigrants--usually arriving by boat--getting caught trying to enter European Union jurisdictions through Spain. I had never heard of a group trying to storm a wall from Morocco, but apparently that is what happened this time, with tragic consequences. What could have gone so terribly wrong to justify the killing of nine individuals seeking better opportunities? El País apparently has a later press time than Información, because it had a more detailed story, and here is one in English.

The AVE, the high-speed train, that was inaugurated between Alicante and Madrid shortly before we left Spain last November, has apparently turned into a big success. The train takes two hours and 35 minutes, as opposed to one hour for the plane, but that doesn't account for terminal time, with security and check-in requirements, for air travel. Headlines announced that the AVE "is eating" the air competition: what had been ten daily flights between Alicante and Madrid will now shrink to just three. This concerns me, as I don't really want to have to transfer from Barrajas airport in the outskirts of Madrid to the inner-city train station at Atocha when I return to Spain from the U.S., early in the morning after an all-night, transatlantic flight--with luggage--as I did just two weeks ago. Nor do I want to sit around Barrajas airport for hours on end waiting for the next flight. What is really puzzling is that we have taken the normal train to and from Madrid several times, and it usually takes only a little over three hours.

Story three: There have been big demonstrations at the Coca-Cola plant in Alicante city, which, it was announced earlier this week, is one of four in Spain to be closed by the global beverage concern. The news on Friday was that Coke has said, once again, that there is no chance that it can reconsider and save the jobs of its workers. I read later in the day, in an English paper, that 111 families will be affected by shutting down the plant, which first started operations 50 years ago. What a sad 50th year anniversary observance!

Story four: Another confirmation of the increasing presence and financial influence of Russians on the Costa Blanca: a big meeting of Russian real estate agents in the Torrevieja area had taken place, and there are signs of them joining together to develop a commercial center in a coastal part of Torrevieja that is unfit for housing development. Yes, there are real estate agents that specialize in serving Russians, and more than a couple. I had previously written about the Russians coming to this area, and the trend is continuing and expanding. This year, for example, there are four young Russian women in my Spanish class, out of about 15 students.

That was the news of the day, Friday, February 7. All for the price of a coffee and tostada.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Home Again

We arrived home from our Southeast Asia trip last Thursday evening at about 7:00, very tired after traveling for 40 hours without seeing a bed (that included a 10 hour layover in  Singapore's Changi airport, which does offer beds, but we opted instead for shopping, garden tours, movie theater, dinner, and a short rest on one of the free lounges). The first thing we noticed was that the front porch wall light that we had left on was off. Oops, bulb burned out, we said. Then we noticed that the small accent light in the dining room with the 7-watt bulb was also out. Odd that they both went, but we had been gone three weeks. Then we went to put the air conditioning on and we realized that all the power was off, so we went to the master switch and flipped the switch, and there was light. And air.

Then I opened the freezer door to pull out the ready-made frozen Spanish salteada, which we call Spanish biksemad (diced potatoes, onion, tortilla, bacon, and peas and red pepper--throw it in some olive oil in a saute pan and it's ready in 7 minutes). I had carefully made sure I had a bag of this emergency staple, because I knew I would be tired and hungry when we returned. But as soon as I opened the door, it dawned on me: the power to the refrigerator/freezer had also been off, of course, and for how long? While on vacation we had read about severe storms in Spain, and our taxi driver from the train station in Alicante had said that there were tormentas and lluvia "last week." Depending on when the winds and rain came last week, the refrigerator had been off for anywhere between four and eleven days.

I shut the freezer and didn't even open the refrigerator.

Back in the last century when we were first married and my culinary standards were lower than they are now, I used to buy boxed macaroni and cheese at the Stop & Shop in Arlington, Massachusetts, for 20 cents a box, or maybe it was 25 cents. Even adding milk and frozen peas to the mix brought the dish to about 50 cents, which was a real cheap meal--necessary on a student's budget. That's sort of what we had the night that we arrived back from Vietnam. I found a Spanish equivalent of dried macaroni and cheese in my larder--actually a German version, since I vaguely remembered buying it at Lidl--and cooked it up, using dried milk, water from the tap (at least we could drink tap water again!), and a strong dose of Penzey's Southwest seasoning. It was edible, but I don't need to repeat that experience.

I waited until the next morning to approach the refrigerator again. We had decided to go out for breakfast and buy replacement groceries on the way home, but of course I needed to get the old crud out first. When we flipped the master electric switch the night before it had turned on the power to the fridge and freezer, and we had left it on. That may have been a mistake, but who knows for sure?

I tackled the freezer first. I have a three-drawer freezer, with vegetables at the top, meats and fish in the middle, and anything else at the bottom. Out it all went. The pork tenderloin and a turkey tenderloin had refrozen overnight. The vegetables had also refrozen, as a solid block in each package. None of this was irreplaceable or even terribly expensive (I was glad that I had used the frozen duck breast recently), but it hurt me to throw out the whole cranberries that I had brought from the U.S. and keep stored in the freezer for cranberry bread. However, there was a layer of them that was no longer whole cranberries, but something resembling a frozen cranberry jelly. It must have gotten very warm in the freezer over the course of several days.

The freezer was a breeze in comparison with the refrigerator itself. No need to go into detail here, but I have deduced that mold does not grow--or at least become visible--in frozen temperatures, whereas refrigerator temperatures are another matter.

Everyone, I am sure, has lots of little partially filled jars of condiments in their refrigerator door and maybe even on the interior shelves. I remembered distinctly that I had two open jars of Dijon mustard, one obviously purchased by accident, and I had diligently been working to empty one of them. I won that battle--now they both went out. Also tossed were a jar of peanut butter also imported from home, and a small jar of maple cream from Polly's Pancake Parlor in  Sugar Hill, New Hampshire. And a few fruits and vegetables that I had never expected to use again, but that I had run out of time to clean out before I left on vacation and chose to keep them in the fridge so they wouldn't rot and stink up the kitchen. And the eggs that I had left to fry for the top of the welcome home night biksemad.

I did not take the food from its container, nor did I separate the cans and the plastics and the glass, as we normally do for recycling. I took three kitchen garbage bags to the dumpster and heaved them in.

There wasn't much I kept. Two bottles of white wine that had never been opened, and three small splits of cava. An unopened can of salmon bought for our Saturday night smorrebrod that, when I got to the checkout counter at Lidl had cost 5 euros instead of the 1.29 that I had seen on the shelf, so I was saving it for a special occasion. A small can of fruit cocktail that Johannes bought while I was in the U.S. last time and that I had still not opened. A tube of tomato paste and an unopened jar of spicy hot preserved peppers, though I intend to look at them closely when I do open them to see if they are still preserved. Three bottles of water and an opened bottle of white vermouth that we use for fruit salad. And an envelope of Penzey's Sunny Spain seasoning.

That's what I put back into the refrigerator when I finally finished reassembling it. (Washing and disinfecting is one thing--figuring out how to get the shelves together again is another!) I didn't put anything into the freezer except a small ice cube tray filled with water, and that only after the tray had gone through the dishwasher.

It all took a lot longer than I thought it would, so we went out for brunch instead of breakfast, and we only stopped at one grocery store on the way home, to get the necessities for breakfast, lunches, and dinner for one night only. Saturday we went out grocery shopping again, this time to Mercadona, which is where I buy most of my frozen vegetables and prepared dishes like the Spanish biksemad and the rice and vegetable mixes, for those nights when we need to eat in a hurry and I don't feel like cooking. I am still at that stage when I can see everything that I have in the fridge and freezer without moving things around, and I hope to keep from buying too many of those little jars of condiments that seem to collect and multiply.

I have yet to buy any Dijon mustard.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Overnight in Madrid

We made an overnight trip to Madrid this week, just for the purpose of picking up a new passport at the Danish embassy and then leaving it, together with my own new passport, at the Vietnamese embassy. They needed these to process our visa application for the trip we have planned in late August following the World Library and Information Conference of IFLA in Singapore. Our train left from Alicante just after noontime on Thursday and we arrived in Madrid's Atoche Renfe station at 3:15. Amazingly we managed to catch the underground metro mass transit to Serrano station and get into the Danish embassy before 4:00. It took about a half hour there and then we were back in the metro to Santiago Bernabeû station. When we came up to the surface I saw a huge structure. If I were a sports fan I would have known earlier that we were headed for the stadium where Real Madrid plays. I am not a big fan of professional soccer, but even I can recognize an important landmark like this one. There were several groups of people in the green median on one side, photographing themselves and their friends. We could have stopped and spent time there, but we had to walk a few blocks to the Vietnamese embassy, and they were staying open a little late just for us.

We found the embassy after having walked the full length of two sides of the stadium and then three or four more blocks, up a hill. The business didn't take long, and when we were finished, moving on toward 6:00, we stopped finally to catch our breath and rest with a cold drink and a small montadito sandwich at a café back toward the stadium and station. Then it was back underground for yet another metro ride to the hotel, more correctly the hostel, where we had reserved a room. As we made our way through a couple subway connections we realized with glee that we had absolutely nothing else that we had to do before our return train left at 2:00 the next afternoon.

Every time we go to Madrid we stay in a different section of the city, depending on where we need to be in this huge metropolis and what has on offer. This time we got off the metro at Sevilla station, one stop past Puerta del Sol, the Times Square of Spain. We walked south and realized soon that we were in a very old part of Madrid. Many of the buildings along the very narrow streets had intricate ceramic tile designs at their gates, and even the street signs were ceramic. We found the small hostel after passing right by it the first time, so intent were we on observing the various restaurants we passed by, wondering whether we should have an Indian or Peruvian meal later on this evening.

For that is always the issue with us when eating dinner out in Spain. Just how late would we have to wait for the restaurant to open its doors for the evening cena? Since many people work until 9:00 it is no at all uncommon for a restaurant's kitchen to be unavailable for hot meals until 8:30. On occasion we have observed that a place may open at 8:30, and in very extraordinary circumstances, 8:00. After checking in and finding our room,  I spent an hour browsing Maps on the iPad in search of what was interesting, within easy walking distance, and opened early.

When we left our room at a little after 8:00 it was still light and pleasantly warm outdoors and we stepped into a bustling evening world. I had despaired of finding a convenience mart in his old part of the city, but on the first corner we spied a cellar store and popped in to buy water and a little wine to take back to the hotel. But, revitalized now, we continued walking among throngs of people of all ages out enjoying the early spring evening--hundreds at sidewalk cafes or, like us, moving along the streets to do some end-of-day shopping or to meet someone. We sauntered through several blocks, pausing on occasion to check a menu--I had decided by now that I didn't want much to eat--not one of those voluminous three course Spanish evening meals--but I wanted something hot. Pizza would do, so would soup. Trying to decide among a huge selection of tapas would be too much trouble.

Finally we found ourselves on Calle de las Huertas, Orchard Street would be the direct translation, though I think first of a garden of vegetables (hortalizas) rather than fruit trees when I hear the word huerta. And I found vegetables. The picturesque brick-walled restaurant that we wandered into after seeing pasta on the menu posted outside the open doorway was full of people at the bar but had no one else in the dining area. It was, after all, not yet 9:00. Johannes had the pasta, but I spied a vegetable wok dish listed as one of the house specialties. In meat-heavy Spain, this may have been designed as a family side dish accompaniment to more protein-heavy entrees, but I had it alone, with just a small glass of warm soy sauce for dunking. My hortalizas on Calle de la Huerta included long thin slices of peppers in three shades, onions, mushroom, carrots and green beans, at least, all stir-fried to perfection, still crunchy. It was delicious, and I felt satisfied and virtuous--at least until the excellent bread came when I was almost finished--then the virtuous feeling disappeared, though satisfaction did not.

During our entire supper we were entertained with the sound of a street music duo just outside the open door, a young woman playing oboe and a young man playing a trombone. Their selections were eclectic and lively, some jazz, some klezmer, some haunting, some indescribable. We talked with them when we left the restaurant. He is from France, she from some country that we did not find out in Africa. They are two-thirds of a group called Conchindon (the third plays banjo).  They gave us some links, so you can listen and catch the spit, too.

They were packing up as we talked, or rather, they looked as though they were packing up, because the police had been by and I guess they didn't have a license to play street music. Indeed if everyone who plays street music in Spain had to pay money for a  license, there might not be a financial crisis going on. On the other hand, if the police really make young, struggling, but enthusiastic musicians keep quiet if they can't afford a license, the city is going to be a much more somber place.

We continued on our way after wishing them well. We meandered back to our hostel, people watching all the way. There were still people in the streets and at cafes, and now in restaurants in large groups having dinner. We had found a delightful part of the city and looked forward to exploring it more in the morning, when it would be equally interesting but not quite so magical.

The Train to Madrid

It's been a long time since we drove to Madrid. Taking the train is so much more relaxed. The train from Alicante to Atocha Renfe station in the center of Madrid takes only 3 hours and 15 minutes, and there are several to choose from throughout the day. You buy a reserved seat, and you travel in comfort, with plenty of leg room and  free auriculares (earphones) to listen to music or watch a movie. Granted, it is invariably a movie in Spanish, also with Spanish subtitulos, and the subtitles are small enough unless you are sitting in the row immediately in front of the screen that they neither help nor hinder. I was sitting halfway back in Coche 4 and together with the distance and the glare from sun pouring in through the window next to my seat, I couldn't see all that well anyway. Still, I take the opportunity to view a dubbed-in-Spanish movie for free as the opportunity to have a Spanish lesson for free, so I followed along in between looking out the window at the passing scenery at beautiful, rolling hills, sometimes revealing freshly plowed terrain.

It's always interesting to guess what the name of the movie is and where it is from. When the language of a movie changes from its original, the title changes, too, and it usually isn't just a direct translation of the original. I had missed the opening credits, too--just looked up from the book I had been reading for my real Spanish class on Monday and noticed that the screen had switched from black with a DVD logo on it to live action, so I switched the dial from the pleasant American jazz I had been listening to in the background. This movie was about baseball, so I suspected it was originally an American movie. I became more sure when I thought I heard some talk about Carolina del Sur, but I don't know of any baseball team in South Carolina. However, at one point I heard the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, so there was no doubt. I followed the story loosely about a lawyer daughter of an aging man who had been, I gathered, a baseball star earlier in his life, but now was just getting old.

This turned out to be a rather long movie, and we were soon to roll into the end station when the action concluded, without any crescendo, I must say, and the title appeared on the screen: Curvas de la Vida. Now I'm home and I've taken the trouble to use the Internet to find out what it was I saw. To begin with, I hadn't realized that the old thin man I saw in the distance was Clint Eastwood. The movie, in English, is Trouble with the Curve, surprisingly a very recent (2012) film.This review from a Charleston newspaper makes me realize that I missed what was probably the funniest scene in the picture by not seeing the very beginning.

Oh well. I enjoyed practicing my listening skills, and I excuse myself for not recognizing the aging Clint Eastwood from a distance by virtue of the fact that I didn't ever hear his voice--amazing how important the voice is to one's persona, I now think. I also enjoyed the scenery outside the gently rolling train as we made our way through the countryside going toward Madrid, and the sky really was as blue as it shows in the picture above. Next month a high-speed train is supposed to open between Alicante and Madrid--we've seen workers laying tracks and renovating the station for months. It should cut an hour off the trip, and I suppose we will take it once to see what it's like, but I doubt that I will be tempted to pay the assuredly higher price too often. Why do that if it will interfere with my language and film education?

Hotel Amenities

When we first came to Spain, almost ten years ago, we almost always stayed at three- or four-star hotels when we traveled within the country. Even though I have enjoyed many nice hotels in the United States, usually during professional conferences, I was impressed. There was often a huge hot and cold buffet breakfast included, and the amenities in the bathroom did not end with miniature bottles of  shampoo, conditioner, and hand lotion, but also included individual packages of a toothbrush and toothpaste, shaving kits, shoe horns, combs, packs of pañuelos (paper handkerchiefs) and make-up removal cloths. There was a lovely system then, whereby you went to the nearest travel agency, paid 40 or 50 euros up front, and the agency secured your night's stay at a luxury hotel and gave you a voucher to present upon check-in, which, for some reason had to be by 6:00 PM. I think now it was a development plan to help subsidize both the travel agents and the hotels. At any rate, it doesn't seem to exist any more, a casualty, no doubt, of "the crisis" and the widespread use of the Internet. Why go to a travel agent to book a hotel when you have and TripAdvisor?

So now we choose our hotel on the Internet, but that is not all that has changed. Prices have gone up considerably. The bountiful breakfast is less bountiful now, and usually it is an added charge--but that's not bad because it's better for the budget and the waistline to go to the nearest café and get a café con leche and a tostada for two or three euros. The amenities are not quite as plentiful or varied as they were in the past, either.

Our requirements now are simply to find lodging in a location that is convenient to get to, regardless of our mode of transportation (which now is often train rather than car) and convenient to where we are going (the airport, embassies, a cultural event, whatever). Location, price, and free wi-fi in the room are the three things we look for now. Lately we have been trying a type of lodging that has always been around, but we had overlooked it: the hostal. The hostal, hostel in English, has improved since the days of congregate dorm-type rooms of our youth. In most hostels one can still rent a bed in a dormitory with a shared bath down the hall, I guess, but you can also rent a private room with its own en-suite bath, a flat-screen TV, air conditioning, and, most importantly, free in-room Internet access. In Spain as in the U.S., it seems that the lower the price of the room, the higher the chance of free access, whereas the higher the price of the room, the more you will be expected to pay for this everyday utility.

This overnight in Madrid we stayed in our third hostal--we used one in Barcelona at Christmas, and another one, in a different part of the city, when we were in Madrid earlier this spring. Both had been perfectly adequate, and this one was, too, especially for 50 euros in the center of the city. It was a large room in an older building, but it had been totally and rather artistically renovated. There was a toilet in a separate room that may have formerly been a closet, a shower (no bathtub) in a different separate "closet," and a sink in the room itself. But there were two large beds with good mattresses and comforters with beautiful and perfectly ironed white covers, both overlooked by a Picasso self-portrait reproduced on the wall, a funky full-length mirror, nice and easily manipulated persiana blinds on the two wide windows, the flat-screen TV, and a view of the fire escape when the blinds were open--but it was a view of a purple-painted fire escape. Then, too, this was as green as any hotel/hostel I have been in. A sign on the wall gave ten tips for sustainability, and they weren't just "throw your towel on the floor if you want a new one; hang it up if you will use it again" in ten languages. Did it even mention saving water? It didn't need to, because the shower stayed on for only ten seconds, though you could then push the handle again and again, as many times as you wanted, but each time you could feel guilty about using water.

Amenities were few--and far between, as one would expect with separate toilet, shower, and hand-wash facilities. If fact, there were none of the usual or formerly usual amenities. Soap and shampoo were provided from a dispenser in the shower room. There wasn't even a hair dryer (waste of electricity, probably). But there was one amenity that I had never had provided in a hotel before. When I went to hide my iPad under the pillow on my bed prior to going out for dinner, I found a soft cloth bag hanging from the rung of the bed frame. Upon inspection, I discovered that it held a tiny package--one handily placed condom.

There was a bag on the other side of the bed, too.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Great Perks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A great perk.