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Showing posts with label weather. Show all posts
Showing posts with label weather. Show all posts

Sunday, June 15, 2014

What I'll Miss (Lo que voy a echar de menos)

Lo que voy a echar de menos (literally, I believe, "that which I would least throw out") was a Spanish expression that took me years to grasp, but I understand it now, and I am thinking about several things that I will miss during the months that I will be away from Spain.

Friends, of course, first of all. We have been in Spain for ten years and in the Torrevieja area of the Costa Blanca for five, and we have benefited from close association with several people with whom we have shared daily experiences and the adventure of living in a foreign country. In different ways, they have broadened our lives and helped us learn. We are grateful, and we will miss them.

Café con leche, both its rich taste and the ceremony of having a single cup of coffee, served in a china cup, almost anywhere and anytime. I remember once coming through Madrid's Barajas airport early in the morning from the U.S., and having to wait hours for a connecting flight to Alicante. As I sat in the semi-conscious stupor that follows an all-night transatlantic journey I heard a racket that I could not identify until all of a sudden I remembered: it was the sound of coffee cups being prepared and served. Café con leche in Spain is a far nicer experience than Starbucks anywhere.

The Sunday outdoor market, which we have just come from and where we usually go each Sunday morning to buy fruits, vegetables and nuts; to pick up copies of the free weekly foreign newspapers; to look at books and clothing and gadgets of ever-evolving description (this is where I first found a stylus for my iPad for just two euros; today I was tempted by a three-euro cava stopper that preserves the bubbles after opening and is liquid-tight to prevent spillage should the opened bottle land on its side); and, of course, to have a café con leche.

Hanging the laundry. I am aware that in many--perhaps most--parts of the U.S. it is forbidden by ordinance or custom to hang laundry outside to dry; the idea, I guess, is that it is unsightly--though it certainly is energy-efficient. I didn't hang laundry out when i was in the U.S. previously and I didn't hang it out when we lived in a second-floor apartment in Roquetas de Mar. In the two houses that we have lived in on the Costa Blanca, however, I have used the terrace for one of its primary purposes in Spain. I have learned the advantages and disadvantages of wooden and plastic clothespins, the value of hanging garments inside out and changing their orientation from time to time. More importantly, perhaps, I have adjusted to the light exercise of bending and stretching and the joy of using the hanging out and taking in of laundry as a welcome break in computer work or reading. Where we are moving to I will use a tumble dryer, as it is called here, much more often than the once-in-a-blue-moon that I use the one that sits gathering dust beside my washing machine here.

The six-hour time difference.  Before we moved to Spain we lived in the Eastern time zone of the U.S. We are going back to the Eastern time zone, although to its western extreme. It can be inconvenient to make phone calls to the U.S. when there are six hours of time difference between you and the person or office you are calling. We have also had to get used to watching the PBS Newshour broadcast the evening before in the following morning, and the like. But there are some advantages to the time difference, the major one for me being that I could be at my computer in the morning hours and have accomplished almost a full day's work by the time my Connecticut colleagues got to their desks. That gave me a "home court advantage" as well as the freedom to be even more flexible in my scheduling. Life is going to be different when I return to "real time."

Petanca. It is the Danish community in the Costa Blanca that introduced us to the game of petanca, and almost without exception we have played petanca once or twice a week during the time we have been here, if not with the Danes, on our own. There is a petanca association in the U.S. but so far we have not found much promise of a club close to where we will be. We are, however, thinking about places where we can draw a petanca field of our own. And we have determined that we can buy petanca balls--far too heavy to transport--at Brookstone.

The sun. The sun, and the light it brings, is one of the factors that brought us to Spain. We have never been "beach people" who sat in the sun for hours in the summertime, but we did live in New Hampshire and in Denmark, two places where there is far less sunshine than in Spain. We knew what long hours of darkness for days on end do to you psychologically, and we suspected--and have now experienced--what days of light do to you psychologically: they make you much happier, or at least more cheerful and content. What I didn't know was the damage that strong sun can do to your body; now that I have had a long bout with an inconvenient skin cancer and some eyesight damage, I am more cautious about walking outside during the daytime, and a bit of the fun of being in this climate is gone. Still, I can't blame Spain for any of my health problems, as genetics and long years of accumulated carelessness certainly played their part--though I do like to imagine that perhaps I wouldn't have wrinkles in some of the places that I do if I hadn't been here.

Spanish classes. I sorted through many of my Spanish class books and papers recently, which I have accumulated from attendance at five different formal language schools. I am taking a couple books to the U.S. and fully intend to continue studying the language--but I acknowledge that I have said that before. It's a poor language teacher who lets you study language in a vacuum, and I am pleased to say that only one of my schools--and I wasn't there long--failed to enhance language lessons with tons of information about the culture of this country and generous sharing of personal viewpoints. I will miss my teachers, as well as many of the other students.

The international community. In Roquetas we lived in the center of a Spanish town and had a piso in an all-Spanish apartment building. There was an urbanization on the outskirts of town--quite a large one with several hotels and vacation houses. This is where Spaniards from Madrid and the interior would come for holiday, as well as a fairly large number of British people. Here on the Costa Blanca, in contrast, I live in Europe primarily and only incidentally in Spain. Many of the towns and villages number more non-Spaniards than Spaniards in their official residence figures, and often the non-Spanish fail to register. A large majority of the international community are retirees--I call this the "Florida of Europe"--but with (officially) easy mobility from country to country within the European Union, a number of young and middle-aged people come to set up business and raise their children. Though the financial crisis has had a demoralizing effect, the international community remains vibrant, strong, and large. I expected to learn about Spain when I came to Spain, but I didn't expect to learn about England, Scotland, Ireland Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Norway, South Africa, and more. I have.

Finally, food. In addition to café con leche (the beverage and the ritual), there are a certain number of foods, that I will miss. As I think about these, I realize that most of them fall under the category of "convenience foods." Though I love to cook, I do not love to cook every day, and I am a great believer in having something appetizing and nutritious in the freezer for a quick dinner. Here's what I am going to have to find substitutes for:
  • Chicken Kiev: two frozen Kiev bundles; they take just 30 minutes in the oven; from Iceland, the British Overseas grocery.
  • Salmon: two frozen individual servings; even less time in the microwave; from Lidl and Consum, but cheaper in Aldi.
  • Little, round, frozen potato balls; 15-20 minutes in the oven; formerly from Mercadona but discontinued; I finally found a substitute at Iceland. I have also had these pommes noisettes in Denmark, but I have never seen them in the U.S.
  • Creamed spinach, frozen; four minutes in the microwave, and both the spinach and the "cream" tablets come in small individual balls so you can shake out just the number you need from the freezer bag; Mercadona.
  • Frozen chopped spinach without the cream; available anywhere  in small blocks or balls the size of dishwasher soap tablets so you can use just what you need instead of opening a 10-ounce box. I shake out a few to add to rice, soup, omelets, pasta sauces, or just about anything, including adding more spinach to the creamed spinach above.
  • Salteado de patata, or "Spanish biksemad" as we call it in our house. A bag of frozen diced potatoes, Spanish tortilla, ham bits, peas, and red pepper, that you sauté in olive oil for seven minutes, adding mushrooms or other vegetables if you feel like it, and poach an egg for the top. Mercadona.
  • Canned tuna in olive oil. I add this to our lunchtime green salad: no salad dressing necessary. Available in any grocery store in Spain. You can also get canned tuna in water or sunflower oil, but why?
  • Gazpacho. The classic cold red pepper-tomato soup from Andalusia, available only in the summer time, when you can buy it ready-made in the refrigerated section at most grocery stores. I'll have to use my recipes the rest of this season.
  • Snacks for when I wake up in the middle of the night. Dried garbanzo beans are my favorite savory; inexpensive and nutritious. The slightly sweet "biscuits," packaged singly, that are given out as an accompaniment in many coffee shops when ordering just a café con leche, are my favorite sweet. They are tiny and just enough to satisfy my craving.
And though I promised not to take food back with me on this trip, I admit that in my suitcase I have stashed sachets of saffron, a couple envelopes of dried asparagus and cream of nine vegetables soup, two small packages of vegetable and pumpkin bouillon cubes, some of the dried white fava beans for fabada, and a couple spice blends. 

People, atmosphere, activities, food. Although I will miss all these, with luck we will return early in 2015 and encounter them again.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Spanish Idioms

I've been sorting through books and papers and clothing in preparation for a longer stay in the U.S. It is astonishing how much stuff I have accumulated in the five years that we have lived on the Costa Blanca and the ten altogether that we have lived in Spain.

In scanning my Spanish language books, I came across one I had purchased a few years ago, Collins Spanish Idioms, which presents nearly 250 colloquial expressions in Spanish, translates them literally to English, then offers an equivalent English idiom, provides some cultural background or explanation, if necessary, and uses them in a sentence. I have browsed this book off and on through the years, and even had several paper bookmarks sticking out from its pages. I probably meant to write about some of these and forgot, or maybe I have written about them and forgotten (but nothing came up on my search of this blog). So here is what I had bookmarked:

No estar muy católico
(not to be feeling very Catholic)
"To be a bit under the weather."

Más se perdió en Cuba
(More was lost in Cuba)--Cuba was the last Spanish colony and its loss in the War of 1898 was catastrophic.
"It's not the end of the world."

Temblar como un flan
(To shake like a crème caramel)--the most common Spanish dessert.
"To shake like a leaf."

Entre col y col, lechuga
(Between cabbage and cabbage, lettuce.)--It is said that a Spanish king usually ate cabbage to control his weight, but every once in awhile he would treat himself to lettuce to add variety.
"Variety is the spice of life."

A otra cosa, mariposa
(To something else, butterfly)--the charm of this expression is partly that it rhymes.
"Let's move on to something else."

It is not a surprise that religion, history, food, and weather play heavily in idiomatic expressions, both in Spanish and in English. Here's one more expression I found this morning that seems particularly appropriate today:

Esperar algo como agua de mayo
(To hope for something like rain in May)
"To eagerly await something."

This expression plays on the double meaning of esperar. Esperar can mean "to hope," but it also means "to wait." Many parts of Spain are very dry, and farmers hope and wait for rain in May to help their crops grow. We had an especially dry April this year, and no rains came in May, either. But here we are on the first day of June, and the aguas de mayo are coming down, seriously enough so that we cancelled our traditional trip to the outdoor market this Sunday morning in Spain. We are glad for the needed rain, but we decided to esperar for better weather before venturing out beyond the cafe/bar down the street, where we met friends for coffee and a light lunch.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

More Salt

Salt mountains in Santa Pola  © 2014 Johannes Bjorner

We drove along the N-332 seaside road north to Alicante city on Thursday this week and passed the huge mountains of salt that are collected there and shipped out all over the world to alleviate wintry road conditions. This salt is not taken from the lake in Torrevieja that I wrote about previously, but from the salt flats bordering the Mediterranean immediately south of Alicante city.

I felt like Phil, the groundhog who emerges from hibernation each year on February 2 and, upon seeing his shadow, wreaks revenge, bringing six more weeks of winter to estadounidenses not just in the region of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. When we returned from our sun-filled morning, we saw news programs showing that they had received more snow in the middle and eastern U.S.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Extra Rinse Cycle

This morning I read in one of the free newspapers that this has been the driest winter in the Torrevieja area in years. In fact, it is said that we only got one-third of the rainfall that we normally get in February.

What rain we did get all seemed to fall on my clean laundry.

Three times in the past two weeks I hung laundry outside to dry in good weather: clear, dry, no sign of rain to come. Three times it received an unscheduled extra rinse cycle from nature before it got dry the first time.

Wet laundry with rainwater collected on the laundry machines container cover
My "laundry room" is the upstairs terrace of our house, which lies between the master bedroom (convenient for collecting the laundry) and my office (convenient for taking quick breaks from desk work to load the machine, hang things on the line, and bring them in again). The washing machine and tumble dryer are housed on the roofless terrace in a large green and tan plastic storage box with two doors: dryer on the left, washer on the right. It was designed and sold to conceal garden equipment, but it works fine for the two electric appliances. My transformation from a died-in-the-wool electric dryer dependent to a steadfast clothesline addict happened five years ago when we moved to a place where it was easy to hang things out and get a little sun at the same time. I almost always run a load of wash in the morning, planning it to make sure that the lengthy 1 1/2 to 2 hour cycle finishes before the changeover from discounted to expensive "regular rate" electricity: noontime in the winter, 1:00 PM in the summer. I rarely use the tumble dryer. For one thing, I would have to start earlier to make sure I was done before cheap electric time finished; for another, the technique of no-wrinkle drying does not seem to have made it to Spain. Then, too, I have grown to enjoy the mild exercise of hanging the laundry and the convenience of getting into the sun and fresh air for a short period of time.

It has happened before that rain has come down on my hanging laundry during an afternoon, but it is rare, since rain showers in Spain usually come during nighttime hours. What I generally do when I leave my desk at the end of the afternoon to collect the laundry before going downstairs to start dinner, and discover that it has rained, is just wait. Let it stay up all night, and by the time that I am out of bed the next morning (which can be quite late, depending on my in-bed reading and iPadding) the sun has returned to the sky and the laundry is dry.

This past Thursday, though, when I glanced at the laundry at 5:30, I was shocked and dismayed. I hadn't heard any sign of rain, and I had been "right next door" the entire time. What's more, I had sheets and comforter covers on the line, and two nightgowns recovering from coffee stains (that happens when you lie in bed of a morning, reading and iPadding) and I had planned to put the linens right back on the same bed for that night.

Looking out at dry laundry the next morning
I briefly thought about firing up the tumble dryer, but I resisted and simply dug out the reserve bed linens instead. And considered myself lucky, as I always do when the extra rinse cycle surprises me, that the rain that day was not one of the ones that comes carrying Sahara sand, which drops dusty particles over everything, usually just after a car has been washed.

But that's another story.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Tons of Salt

The Torrevieja Salt Lakes

We live not far outside the city of Torrevieja, which is located at the bottom left of the map above, but stretches out into the surrounding areas. Our town, Algorfa, is located  off the map at the top right, and the yellow line going diagonally across the screen, the CV-905, is a two-lane highway connecting our urbanization, Montebello, to the city of Torrevieja. It extends for about nine kilometers. Also known as the Crevillente Road, it runs between two sizable lakes, shown on the map. The "pink lake" to the left often has a pink shade due to the crustaceans living in it. The "green lake" to the right doesn't change color. We see both these lakes often, almost daily, as we drive to our petanca, Spanish lessons, shopping, and other social events in the area. Quite often, we see huge piles of salt surrounding the pink lake, because it is still a working salt factory (the green lake no longer produces salt, for some reason that I do not know).

Ever since we have lived here, we have heard that the lake provides salt to melt the snow on the streets of New York City in the winter time. I thought this was probably an apocryphal story, possibly with as much truth as that at one time, salt had been sold from this area to New York. It certainly seems like a long way to ship salt; doesn't northern Europe offer enough of a market?

This week, the Round Town News weekly paper featured a story that confirms the rumor. It reported that, "With the USA experiencing one of their worst winters for decades, and no sign of any major improvements in sight, this week the 'Sakura Kobe' left Torrevieja heading for the U.S. East Coast carrying 30,000 tons of salt." It is the largest shipment of salt that has left Torrevieja for a number of years, and more large container ships are expected to follow.

We were there early in the season. We know you need it. We are thinking of you.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Back Home in Spain

After an absence of more than two months, we arrived back home in Spain this past Wednesday. Considering the 20-year record frigid temperatures (below zero Fahrenheit) in Cincinnati, my home in the United States, the warmth we encountered was shocking and very pleasant. Previously I had thought, and even written, about the strange cold in Spain during the winter, when the temperature dips inside the non-centrally heated houses, and you go outside in mid-day to catch the warmth of the sun. Your body adjusts, apparently. I had forgotten what real cold is (I had learned it in New Hampshire), but I experienced it on this trip in Ohio, and again in Philadelphia for the week prior to our leaving. Shoot, I had even experienced temperatures somewhat colder than I had expected in November in Florida, but that was nothing compared to the temperatures that rolled through the north in December and January.

So I was uncomfortably warm when we landed in Alicante, in my black winter fleece shirt and pants, which covered one under layer on my legs and two up above, plus the high winter boots that I had to have on even though I knew it would be a pain to take them off at airport security. But that was what was necessary to get through snowy and slushy Philadelphia, and there was no room in my suitcase to pack the extra layers before getting on the plane home. But I didn't complain. It felt good to feel the sun and a gentle breeze, and the nicest surprise of all as we rode away from the airport parking lot was the sight of flowering almond trees. They don't usually blossom until February, but of course it was almost February then, and now is, and I realize I have missed most of the winter season in Spain.

Yesterday I spent time packing away the summer(!) clothing that I had worn up until leaving in November, and getting out the winter clothes that have migrated here via January trips from Ohio over the years, and I wondered as I did this how many weeks it would be before I made the switch again. But this morning we took a breezy walk through the Sunday outdoor market and even decided to forgo our usual sit-down for a cup of coffee, on the grounds that we needed to move to keep warm. That little walk--in 3/4 length pants and shoes with no socks--helped me decide not to wear the short skirt that I had been thinking about for an afternoon party today, and to go with the long black one instead. The body adjusts, apparently, and rather quickly, to the heat or lack of it wherever you are.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Cold Creeps In

Hardly before the proverbial ink was dry on last week's Sundays in Spain post the weather changed. Actually it was Tuesday. We played petanca as usual on Tuesday afternoon, and stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few items on the way home. As we came out of the store and headed west to home at 6:00, there were heavy clouds on the horizon that looked and felt as though they would open and release water at any minute. We made it home before they did, but the evening was wet.

The temperature dropped with the rain. Wednesday morning when I awoke, I was chilly under my summer comforter and in the bathroom. But the outside was warm again when we went out in the afternoon on errands while the cleaners cleaned. That night, however, I switched from my light summer nightgown to one with long sleeves. I wondered whether I would turn on the infrared heat in the bathroom when it was time for my shower the next morning.

I didn't turn on the heat in the bathroom, but I did put on longer pants (3/4 length--still not full length), and I sat in my office most of the day with a cotton jacket on, and a bufanda (bouffant scarf) around my neck. I did laundry on both Thursday and Friday and relished the opportunity to go outside to hang it up, take it down, and check on it periodically in between--enjoying the warmth of the sun and saving me from turning on my office heat, just on the general principle that artificial heat should not be necessary so quickly in the change of seasons. But when I went downstairs for the evening news Friday evening, I found the living room delightfully toasty. Johannes had removed the silk flowers that fill the fireplace hole during the summer and started the gas fire for the first time this season. Part of the laundry I did this week was to air out both the winter and summer dyner on the clothesline, and I really snuggled in with the heavier comforter (which fits the cover better) last night.

I woke up warmer this morning, and the air outside was warmer, too. It was warmer downstairs than it had been, though whether that was due to a change in the outside temperature or to the fact that we had kept the gas fire on until late the previous evening, I don't know. We sat in the sun for coffee at the Sunday market and again, I was almost too hot with short sleeves. But that was at noontime, and now at 2:00 in my office I have my long-sleeved cotton jacket on again.

We laughed with several friends this week about having to bundle up to go inside the house, but that's the way it is here. The cold creeps in because of poor house insulation--fiber glass and double glazing are unheard of, or at least not readily purchasable. The cold stays in because the floors are tile, with no carpets. We always put away our room-sized (not wall-to-wall) carpets at some point in the spring, and we realized belatedly that we had missed the chance this week to have the cleaners help us get them out and lay them in the dining and living rooms again. If I ever can accept the idea of blasting out and replacing the tiles on our floors (all of which are acceptable and some of which I really like) I'll have electric heating installed under the flooring of some or all the rooms--but especially the bathrooms and bedrooms. It's quite common in Britain and Scandinavia and apparently is not even extravagant after the cost of the initial installation. But I'm not ready for another house improvement project quite yet.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fall is on the Way

Europe changed from summer to winter time last night at 2:00 AM. It's fall, so the clocks fell back an hour. I could say that I spent the extra hour researching old Sundays in Spain entries, but really I spent the extra hour asleep. It was only this afternoon about an hour ago that I started paging through the October and November posts of the past five years (!) of this blog. I was looking to see what I had written about the progression of autumn over the years, because everyone agrees this year that October has been warmer than usual and that autumn is especially slow in approaching.

What I found out is that I have frequently been out of Spain for parts of the months of October and November. That travel, of course, would color my perception of the time passing. I don't know what the meteorologists will say about the average or median temperature this month, but what I have determined from my reading is that probably it only feels as though fall is coming slower this year. I suspect it is approaching in exactly the same way, and at a similar rate, as past years.

That means that it is not unusual that I am still hanging shorts and sleeveless tops on my clothesline, rather than the 3/4 length pants and short-sleeved tops that I would have sworn I should be wearing these days. We have, this past week, gotten to the point where the wash loads will be increasing in size, because we are at that point where it is necessary to change clothing two or three times a day. It is now cool in the mornings, so if I am headed out early in the day, I wear longer pants. But capris are way too warm for our afternoon petanca games from 3:00-5:00, as I have found out regretfully twice so far. I haven't had the air conditioning on in my office for weeks, though we have occasionally turned it on--like just last night--in the dining room, where it would have been a bit stuffy for our Saturday smørrebrød otherwise. The overhead fans have become the main instrument of temperature regulation, and they require frequent adjustment. I'm still wearing my sleeveless summer nightgown to bed and pulling my very light summer comforter over me--or maybe sticking my legs out--but at some point in the night or early morning I find that the comforter is covering me completely and I wonder whether I should turn the fan off, because the movement of the air is causing a chill. Fortunately there is a power switch right by the night table, but unfortunately the fan only has three power levels, and it is already at the lowest level. If I turn it off, I invariably switch it back on within a half hour.

If I have successfully stayed in shorts all day, I generally find myself a little chilly when I settle down in front of the television in the evening. So far I haven't succumbed to using the blanket that hangs on the back of the chair and protects it from hitting the wall, but I have left a long-sleeved cotton sweater hang over the chair, that I have used only one evening but know I will again. We have gotten lax about automatically turning the overhead fan on and the light off to keep this room cool, and sometimes I don't notice.

The most telling indication that I don't feel fall yet is that I haven't made a single pot roast or cocido or other autumn meal yet. I''m not even preparing soup for lunch--the revolving "soup pot" that I kept in my refrigerator, where I usually put leftover vegetables and cooking liquids to puree with an immersion mixer, turned sour for the first time recently and I realized that I had neglected my routine. My only fall cooking so far has been to roast a pumpkin and make five small loaves of pumpkin bread. It was a success, from an old family recipe that calls for "a can of pumpkin"--something which you can't find here--and baking three loaves in round coffee cans. I only had one coffee can, which I had carefully brought back with me from my most recent trip to the U.S. (you don't buy coffee in a can here, either) so I had to guess on the substitute baking containers, and especially on how long to bake them. I guessed right, and the Friday petanca players and some American friends from our Fourth Friday Coffee get-together enjoyed a moist pumpkin bread this week.

It wasn't until after I came back from the market this morning and prepared lunch that I hung out the morning's wash load. That was only three hours ago, but I just went out to check and the clothing is dry. It is 76 degrees F. both inside and out. But I just realized that it is after 5:00, the  birds are squawking, and the sun is going down. I'm going to bring in the laundry (I won't have to put on sunglasses) and go downstairs to put a pork tenderloin and vegetables into the oven, and then settle down to watch the evening news.  For the last two weeks now we have remarked that we gaze at the pitch dark streets of Copenhagen outside the glass-walled studio of the evening magazine program that airs on Danish TV at 7:00 PM, while if we turn our heads slightly to the right, we can see sun outside our windows here in Spain. No more. Tonight I am preparing myself to see dusk, and it won't be more than a couple weeks before it will be even darker than dusk here at 7:00, or even earlier. Fall is on the way.

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, 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, April 28, 2013

April Showers

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Walk on the Beach

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Petanca Tournament

This past Sunday in Spain I did not write here, as I was otherwise occupied--for much longer than I had planned--in the Danish Friends Club's annual mixed doubles petanca tournament. It had been ages since we had played with the full club, as the day for social petanca has changed to one for which we have another arrangement. So we were glad to go out on a Sunday morning and see people who we have not seen for awhile, and play a game or two of petanca.

Wearing the Bronze
Photo courtesy of Danske Venners Klub Torrevieja 2013

It was much more festive than I had anticipated. When we arrived at the early hour of 9:00 AM I was put to work by the crew that had clearly been there for an hour already. My task was to spread the liver paté that someone else had made onto tiny melba toasts. So much for that contribution. By the time I was finished the others had arrived and we were having coffee and liver paté before the schedules for the first round of games between 38 teams were posted. Three teams were to play two games each in that first round. Then there was to be a second round of playoffs before the quarterfinals and the semifinals. But I wasn't really concerned with those. I was just wondering whether there would be time after we were knocked out of competition to sample a hot dog before we scooted off to the Sunday market that closes at about 2:00 PM.

There wasn't. We played and played and played again. And again. And one more time, I think, though I have lost track by now. We made it through to the quarterfinals and the semifinals, ending with a big surprise--the Bronze Medal for third place.

But the best part of it all was that it was a gorgeous sunny spring day. My neck is also bronze from the sun.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spring Signs and Rituals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 3, 2013

First of March

March came in like a lamb where I was in Spain last Friday. It was a big change from the day prior, when I had been sitting calmly in the morning writing a lengthy stream-of-consciousness email at my desk while downloading thousands of emails onto a new laptop at my side and hardly noticing that the pitter-patter of light rain had intensified to a heavy downpour. And then I heard a clap of thunder so sudden and so loud and so near that I looked around to see if we were having an earthquake! We were not, but more earth-shattering thunder followed and then I heard the sound of hail on the roof and the terrace floor outside. This was just at the time that Johannes' piano lesson was finishing, but it would have been inhospitable to send anyone out with ice balls falling and water gushing down the street and overflowing the drains, so I went downstairs and joined Johannes and his teacher for a hot cup of coffee while we waited for the rain to stop, or at least let up enough so she could step out the door to her car.

We sat in the living room with coffee, warming ourselves inside and out with the sight and flames of the gas fire when all of a sudden another clap of thunder came and squeezed out the lights. And as the lights died, so, of course, did all electricity and my heart sank as I felt the email that had been on my desktop screen upstairs flow out into the world of no return, because I had been writing on the hard-wired computer instead of the battery-operated laptop. The gas fire stayed on, but my world was a little dimmer than it had been before. I still have not been able to resurrect the consciousness that had been streaming so prodigiously as I wrote while downloading all those email messages from the past three weeks that I didn't really want, but didn't know how to stop the flow.

The piano teacher did go home within the hour, and Thursday afternoon the weather cleared and waters receded enough so we dared drive out to inspect our surroundings (that low spot in the pavement on our access road that we always forget about until it rains must have been overflowing with water when she tried to drive through it). And on Friday morning the sun rose, and the sky was blue, there were no clouds, and no wind.

At 4:30 Friday afternoon it was a glorious day and I drove out alone to meet an American girl friend for a coffee and a long-overdue chat. We had our choice of cafe bars in the plaza of Los Montesinos but we decided to sit inside at Carl's, because the outside tables were in the shade and we wanted to be in this location so that my friend could easily catch her son when he came down that lane from his music lesson. But we sat at a table just inside the open door and next to a window, so we could watch the afternoon fade and the activity in the plaza while we talked. We had a lot to catch up on, and the conversation didn't stop until 6:30, when I needed to leave to drive home to assemble the dinner menu that I had left at the latest possible stage of pre-preparation. My friend is American, but she keeps a Spanish household, so she could have gone on for another hour and a half before going home to start her dinner preparations.

As it turned out, I left at a very good time. At 6:30 or so I made my way out of town with parking lights on, but as I drove the secondary roads toward home, I flicked on the regular driving lights. The sky changed from cerulean blue to shades of orange and red as sunlight found its way around enormous white clouds and then the sun itself slipped behind a cloud and I turned in another direction, and when I drove into Montebello and parked in front of my house, the beautiful early evening sky was replaced by two-story houses, though the view probably extended for several more minutes out in the countryside.

It was a lovely conversation and a lovely drive home.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Thistle among the Geraniums

We returned to Spain from a two-week trip to the U.S. this past Tuesday. We returned a day later than planned, after a bonus night at a hotel at Dulles and the next day at the airport in Newark, due to mechanical problems in the plane that had been scheduled to take us from Dulles to Newark on Sunday. That was the worst thing that happened to us in a seven-flight/two train ride/two rental car itinerary during the two weeks we were gone. And we successfully skirted Superstorm Sandy as we flew from Connecticut to South Carolina the last Saturday in October. So we were lucky.

However, we returned to rain in Spain. It wasn't raining when we landed in Madrid's Barrajas airport Tuesday morning. It was a short bus ride above ground--cloudy but dry--from Terminal 2 to Terminal 4, where we caught an underground train to the Atocha station in central Madrid. We didn't go outside there, boarding the train to Alicante on the lower level. The tinted glass windows on the train hid any sign of bad weather as we rode through the countryside, and we were therefore surprised four hours later when we stepped out of the train to catch a taxi to the car park. It was raining lightly in late afternoon and was dark and gloomy; the driver told us it had been raining since morning.

We went to bed Tuesday night, protected from the rain, safe and dry in our own beds at last, and we woke up the next morning to rain. No need to unpack quickly, I said to myself, since the washing machine is on the upstairs terrace and I normally hang the laundry out to dry. I had the day to get a little caught up with desk work and to get to the grocery store in the afternoon, where we racked up the largest grocery bill I can remember. The heavens were still dripping.

Thursday morning it was raining again, or still. Another desk work day. I rearranged some items from my suitcases, at least getting the various types of clothing sorted into the proper dirty clothes containers. Friday morning dawned gray and gloomy, but without any rain in the air, though the remnants of it were on horizontal surfaces. I had run out of warm clothing, so I started the first of what I thought would be three loads of wash. Then I tackled the sight that had been bothering me every time I passed the glass door to the terrace ever since we had returned home: the geraniums.

We have three rectangular planter boxes on the terrace that have been filled with the same geraniums for over a year now. That's something of a miracle in itself--geraniums are a winter flower where we live, and we usually shift them out during the hot summer months. This past summer, though, we were otherwise occupied and never got around to that. So they had gone through various stages of flowering profusely (I discovered my husband's secret recipe for fertilizing them) and then the blooms turning brown--all at once, it seemed. Then I would deadhead them--just twisting the stem seems to do the trick to take off the dead bloom. A few days later they would be full of  developing buds and blossoms. I have a regular schedule for deadheading and watering the plants. I usually twist off a few dead geraniums every time I do the laundry, every four or five days.

Just before we left for our vacation they had reached renewed life again and I was beginning to think that maybe we wouldn't have to replace them with new plants for the winter. Now, however, ever since we returned home, all that I saw was huge masses of green bushy leaves, a few spindly pink blossoms, and a lot of round brown blobs that had presumably been gorgeous flowers most of the time we were away. Every time I passed the door, I wanted to go out and break off the dark, faded spikes. But remember, it was raining.

Now that I had ventured out long enough to start the washing machine, I was determined to remove the spent blossoms from the geraniums. And I did. After filling my hands with the detritus from one box, I dumped it in the bathroom waste basket and brought the basket out with me to do the job on the remaining two boxes. It was when I stretched my hand into a profusion of green leaves in the second box that I felt the sharp spindles of a giant thistle that had nestled itself in among the geraniums. What a surprise! It hurt, and there was no way I was going to get rid of that by pulling it out at the root--the stem was at least an inch wide, the thistle was about a foot high and eight inches across! How could it have grown from nothing in the two weeks we were away?

Lots of sun and then lots of rain, I think is the answer. But we had never had such a foreign plant in the flower boxes before! So it was even more irritating when I stuck my hand into the foliage of the third flower box and found another thistle--slightly smaller, and a bit less of a surprise, but irritating nonetheless. I took the immediate step of cutting them off at the root with a pair of scissors--that's what was closest--as a temporary measure.

When it came time to hang up the laundry, by the way, it was threatening rain again. I put the synthetics on the line and stuffed the underwear into the electric dryer--an appliance that I use so rarely that I always have to read the controls rather than simply punch buttons. I did two more loads of laundry that finished up in the dryer, and late in the afternoon I brought in the clothing that had been on the line--maybe not actually wetter than when I placed it there, but no dryer--then hung it on a stand in my office and turned on the heater.

On Saturday morning the sun came up! We rejoiced at seeing the sun in Spain for the first time since we had left 18 days earlier. In fact, we were so glad that we left the house and spent the day doing little errands just to be outside. So that meant that the fourth load of laundry was left for Sunday, and this Sunday morning in Spain, once again, dawned dark, cold, and threatening sprinkles. I have just retrieved the towels from the dryer. They feel better dried mechanically anyway. The thistles await future attention, after the purchase of garden gloves.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Signs of Spring

Perhaps the most definite sign of spring is the fact that the U.S. switched to Daylight Savings Time this past weekend, upsetting my rule of thumb that to know what time it was in the U.S. I only had to look at the opposite end of the pointy hand on an analog clock: It is 2:00 PM here (after lunch) when it is 8:00 AM (starting-work time) in the eastern time zone of the U.S.; I am beginning to think about supper here when it is noontime for most of my family and associates; and by the end of the work day there, we have reached the end of my day here and I am usually fast asleep, or reading in bed. One hour's change should not make that much of a difference after I figure out which way the clock moved (forward, so now only five hours separate us) but it is a huge psychological difference because it upsets my easy calculation. Besides that, it makes me wonder why it is spring in the U.S. but we don't change to "summer time" here in Spain until next weekend.  I still have another week of unsettled time sense.

But there are some other wonderful signs that spring is upon us, namely, heat and light. It is no longer dark outside at 8:00 AM when I stir from my bed, nor is it dark at 7:00 PM as we sit in the living room and watch the evening news. Last Sunday at the outdoor market all winter clothes were on sale, and I bought two pieces--a pale orange knitted cardigan sweater and a rust-colored microfiber shirt, both to have available to pop over any lighter top I happened to be wearing--for just three euros (not each). I've used both this week, as over the last two weeks I have moved from wearing heavy winter sweaters and/or turtlenecks, with heavy slacks and heavy socks, and more significantly, from three layers to two layers and sometimes, in the middle of the day, to one layer. This morning I separated out warmer socks, underwear and night clothes and moved them to the less accessible part of my closet space.

I didn't put them away completely for the summer yet. It still is cold at night, and it still is colder in the house than outside. We had the gas fire on in the fireplace last night and we probably will again tonight, even though Johannes has gotten into his usual end-of-season mode of saying "This should be the last time" whenever he replenishes the gas bottle. We haven't put away the winter comforters yet, and we still turn on the halogen heater in the bathroom in the morning. And, in an effort to improve the comfort of our house next winter, we spent quite some time this week investigating and finally ordering infrared panels for the bedroom and bath. I sort of hope it stays a little bit chilly so we have a chance to try them out before next winter.

I miss crocuses, daffodils, tulips, and forsythia, but we have already had the almond blossoms and the little yellow flowers that spring from nowhere along the side of the road, and though there are not as many magenta succulents here as where we used to live in Almeria, there is a small patch here in Montebello. Some new thing is blossoming, somewhere, because Goldie has taken to sneezing four or five times several times a day, usually when she wanders back inside--or maybe she just finally caught the family cold that went round and round last month.

Perhaps the best sign of spring: it has been strawberry season for three weeks now, so we are enjoying lots of strawberries in our lunchtime fruit salads, or just by themselves, with cream.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Febrero Frío y Resfriados

At the outdoor Sunday Zoco market this morning, there was a stand selling off the last of its winter sweaters for one euro apiece. I couldn't even get close enough to see whether it was worth trying to get closer. It was a gorgeous sunny day. The breeze was gentle and even though I still had one of my warm winter sweaters on with my long knit slacks over "tights," as the English call panty hose, I had removed the neck scarf that I had donned as a precautionary measure, even though my sweater had a high collar.

Earlier this season I promised myself that I was not going to write this year about the winter temperatures in Spain, where there are uncomfortably cold house interiors, caused by no insulation, no central heating, and the use of tile and marble flooring throughout, instead of wall-to-wall carpet. That promise was easier to keep back in the unusually warm December and early January we had. But that was before an arctic freeze descended over Europe, even down to Spain, in the first week of February. Reportedly this gave us the coldest winter in sixty years, which certainly makes it the coldest I have experienced in Spain. In fact, it seems as cold as many I previously spent in New England, where we had super insulation, central heating plus a wood stove, and wall-to-wall carpet in most parts of the house--but it still felt cold, by my standards then.

So I am not writing about the cold (frío) this year in Spain, but I will note that my husband and I are just now moving toward what we hope are the last stages of the third cold (resfriado) that we each have suffered in less than a single month. Just as we thought we were out of the woods with each of the first two, another came on. This third resfriado has been the worst, with a hacking dry cough and debilitation to the point requiring multiple-day bed rest.

Today dawned dangerously warm and sunny, and after buying local potatoes, tomatoes, raisins, a few very expensive grapes, and a whole kilo of ripe, red strawberries at the market this morning, we sat in the sun with a cafe con leche and caught up on what was happening in the world outside our sick house by browsing a week's worth of free English and Norwegian newspapers. Then we considered whether we should go on to the "This is Spain" home show and expat exhibition that was being held this weekend, I have written previously about these annual or semi-annual shows, and we knew that there we could explore the latest in gas, electric, halogen, etc. space heaters and other gadgets to pump a little heat into the frío of Spanish houses. But we said  "no," since we knew we were at the dangerous point of our resfriados, when it was all too tempting to stay out and enjoy the weather, but that we would probably get over-tired and pay dearly for the false notion that we were cold-free.

Besides, we had already done one big project this year to beat the cold (installing heavy insulated curtains and carpeting in the bedroom) and experimented with one of the halogen heaters to toast up the bathroom (it works but will require rewiring to be really efficient). But speaking of the bathroom, the best thing we did to improve daily warmth was a simple and inexpensive purchase that we had first learned about in New England. We replaced the regular toilet seats with real wood seats. There is not much as uncomfortable as lowering yourself onto a cold toilet seat in a cold room. (Stepping on to a metal bathroom scale gets close, but no one has to do that more than once a day, and not even that often if you don't want to.) The real wood is noticeably warmer, and it's one of those cheap improvements that you remember and appreciate every time you use it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Home Again in Spain

Given the fact that I had just returned from a trip home to the U.S., it doesn't make sense that I have now spent the past week in Denmark. But this trip was planned some time ago as just a quick visit to Danish-American friends of long standing. We left on Monday and returned on Friday very shortly before midnight, which was fortunate because, we were told, the new airport in Alicante closes at midnight and if your plane hasn't landed by that time, it will be diverted to Valencia and you get a free bus ride lasting a couple hours back to the outside, presumably, of the Alicante airport. Even though the Ryanair flight was late in leaving Billund, we made it in to Alicante under the wire, and I have never had checked baggage delivered as quickly as I did Friday night.

Denmark was lovely with Christmas decorations and leisurely shopping--not the rat race of Black Friday sales, as there are few sales in Denmark and no Thanksgiving to mark the beginning of the shopping frenzy. We did not have bad weather. This is the most positive statement that one can hope to make about weather when one travels to Denmark from Spain in the month of November. Gray days, but mostly dry, and cold enough for two layers on your legs and three up above when you are out and about. What Denmark lacks in sun at this time of year it makes up for with that lovely notion of central heat, and the luxury of underfloor heating in the bathroom. I am still wondering whether I will succumb to the temptation of having the tiles I love in our bathroom dug up to install heating fixtures below.

It didn't rain until Friday, and then it was indeed cold and dark and damp. Even though we had left Spain on Monday after an unusual rainy weekend--but we seldom complain because we always need the rain here--we looked forward to arriving back to warmer temperatures and sunnier skies. There are many good reasons for visiting Denmark, but one of them is that it will probably make you appreciate the weather in Spain more.

Warmer temperatures and sunnier skies did appear on Saturday morning when I finally woke up at almost 10:00. I've been unpacking, and doing laundry and grocery shopping ever since, and just generally getting back to normal after my two trips. Since I have had the privilege of enjoying Christmas decorations in the stores of two countries in the last month, I am inspired to get started with my Christmas preparations now. I'll be able to pull out the decorations from storage pretty soon--but first I need to pack away the cotton summer clothes that were perfectly appropriate when I left a month ago, and which I could still wear most days now in the sunny afternoons.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Signs of Autumn

Someone mentioned that the British use "autumn" while Americans use "fall" to denote the season that comes after summer. I haven't really observed that yet in my verbal encounters with the Brits here in Spain, though my Diccionario Cambridge Klett Compact confirms that the translation of the Spanish otoño is "autumn, fall (Am)." I have always preferred "autumn" because "fall" seems so, well, happenstance. Autumn is a destination--you don't just fall into it when summer gets tired. One thing is sure: we are all tired of summer now, at least those of us who have been here for the past several months. Those who escaped to northern European climes for July and August and are now returning to the Costa appreciate the still-high temperatures, since they have been experiencing cold and rainy weather for much of the summer. But I'm not here to talk about climate change.

 Nearly all with whom I email have spoken to me with pleasure of cooler days and that wonderful crisp feeling in the air that autumn brings. It's cooler in the morning and later in the evenings here too, now, and it's dark in the mornings until 8:00 and gets dark again less than twelve hours later. But temperatures still register in the 90s F. at lunch time on the thermometer in the shade outside the sun room. My office air conditioner is broken, sending out hot air instead of cool, and I waited several days last week for the repairman to fit us into his busy schedule, and then he didn't come on Thursday afternoon between 5:00 and 6:00 as promised--or on Friday, either. So I do not yet feel like fall, but I am definitely looking forward to autumn.

There are signs. The returning northern Europeans, for a start. Our petanca games are filling up with people again compared with the sparse participation in the summer. Other social activities are starting up and the calendar is getting lots of notations. And I wondered this morning whether the grocery store would be open today (it's allowed to be open on Sunday during the summer only) but then remembered that I can count on today and next Sunday, through the month of September.

The surest sign of autumn for those of us who live on the northern side of the equator is the beginning of school, and school has started. First come the vuelta al cole ads in the circulars and large placards in the stores, announcing special prices on supplies, clothing and whatnot for the return to colegio, which is primary or elementary school--not college--in Spain. And then comes the start of school itself, September 8 according to one friend with two youngsters who attend, but it must vary a little bit from town to town.

Last Monday I happened on to a small colegio in Rojales at 12:25 PM. About 20 people were standing around the gated entrance. A few men, many women, some young and fashionable, a couple older, in Spanish grandmotherly style. Two women in light-colored abaya street-length cloaks and hijab headscarves. They were all waiting for their children to be released from school for the day, and within a couple minutes of my walking back to stand on the other side of the street after we parked the car, here they came. Tiny, happy children, with big smiles on their faces, walking out two by two through the school courtyard and each one greeted by a parent or grandparent or other caregiver. I asked and was told that yes, indeed, this was their very first day at school. They couldn't have been more than four years old. They soon walked off with their escorts--there were only a couple waiting cars--and that was the end of this first school day. They had had an exciting time, and there was still a long afternoon to enjoy in the sun.

Every day this week I have heard the reverberations of the big school bus that transports a few children from our neighborhood to and from their colegio in the center of Algorfa, a few miles away. It comes at precisely 1:25, on its return-from-school trip. I have not heard it yet on its regular afternoon run. Afternoon school sessions only start when cooler weather comes, presumably in October.