Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Although Málaga doesn´t have a conventional old-town area, it´s actually an older city than Córdoba or Sevilla. It was founded by Phoenician traders in the 8th century B.C., with the original name of Malaka. It was taken by the Carthaginians in the 6th century B.C. The Carthaginians lost it to the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. in the Second Punic War (this was the war in which Hannibal marched his elephants over the Pyrenees). The Visigoths moved in during the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. They were in turn defeated by the Moors in 8th century A.D. The Moors held it until Fernando and Isabel, Los Reyes Católicos, conquered it in 1487 and made it part of the kingdom of Spain. This is a city with a lot of history. Beneath the Picasso Museum, there were the preserved foundations of an old Phoenician residence and a section of the Phoenician city wall (6th century B.C.), an old Roman fish-processing factory (3rd to 5th centuries A.D.), and a ducal palace (16th century A.D.). The ruins were much more interesting than the Picasso museum itself; unfortunately, no cameras were allowed.
We´ve gotten pretty good at navigating Spanish cities. From the train station, we went directly to the Alcazaba, the Moorish castle / fortress on a hill overlooking the city. One of the informational signs advanced the theory that the hill was the reason that Málaga had been continuously occupied for so many years; other Phoenician cities in less defensible locations simply disappeared. We took the coward´s route of catching a bus up the hill to the Castillo Gibralfaro, but we did enjoy the walk back down the hill afterward. At the castillo was a remarkably good and economical outdoor restaurant. We enjoyed our afternoon comida sipping Moscatel (a sweet wine which is a specialty of Málaga) and enjoying the view of the Mediterranean. Ah, Spain!
Probably the most enjoyable part of the day was a stroll along the beach. It´s been a long time since we´ve been able to walk on the sand and hear the crash of the waves. The temperatures were in the 60´s; comfortable, but not exactly swimming weather. We may have to spend a weekend here when it warms up a bit. We picked up a couple of seashells from the sand. They definitely look different than the shells you´ll find on an Oregon or California beach.
¡Feliz Navidad a todos!
Monday, December 22, 2008
Lobatejo is in the Subbética, a natural park (not to be confused with a national park). We left from the pueblo of Zuheros, only about an hour´s bus ride from Córdoba. Zuheros has a neat-looking castle which I´d have liked to explore, but that wasn´t in the agenda.
Despite the fact that we´re near the end of December, the weather was spectacular. I´d brought my heavy jacket, and I really needed it for about the first forty-five minutes of the hike. After that, I was just carrying it around. I´d also brought my poncho, which is undoubtedly the reason that we didn´t have any rain.
There were a lot of sheep grazing the meadows of Lobatejo. Spanish-speaking sheep, of course, who say “be-e-e” instead of “baa.” It´s very interesting hearing the local animal dialects. For instance, cats say “miau” instead of “meow,” dogs say “huau-huau”, and roosters say “qui-qui-qui-qui-ri.” I never thought “cock-a-doodle-doo” made much sense anyway.
The walk was a very enjoyable mixture of trails, cross-country walking, rock clambering, and beating through undergrowth. The official distance was 23 kilometers. Even so, it took a good eight hours. The cross-country parts really slow you down. It also underscored the downside of charting a route using GPS. GPS will tell you that if you go down the slope in this direction and follow that little valley, you´ll hook up with the dirt road. It won´t tell you if the slope is covered with loose shifting rock, or if the valley is choked with spiny bushes, or if there´s no opening in the farmers´ wire fence. But nothing stopped our intrepid group.
There were some rather nasty stretches of slippery mud. At least once, my walking stick saved me from taking a fall; I´m becoming a real believer. One of my friends wasn´t so lucky. He slipped in the mud and landed hard on his left arm. He may have broken his wrist. This was the first time I´d seen the Llega Como Puedas rapid-response team in action. I hadn´t realized it, but the group had a designated nurse. She efficiently examined the wrist, cleaned it up, wrapped it in an Ace bandage, and put the arm in a sling. I hope to never have to make use of the service.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Link to the card:
The year started out in the regular way,
At a regular job, earning regular pay.
But we wanted adventure, to escape the rat race,
And Scott yearned to teach in a Spanish-speaking place.
Soon he won an Assistanceship in the south of Spain,
Though our son said that now we were truly insane!
Some friends applauded, while others said “Odd!”
And my Dad exclaimed: “Tell me he’s not quitting his job!”
Throughout the whole summer arrangements were made,
What to do with the house and the bills to be paid.
We learned how “just stuff” can tie you to earth,
What could we give up? What was it all worth?
How to pack life in a 50 pound box?
What’s most important? Books, computer or socks?
What will we need? What can be bought there?
We researched Córdoba, with excitement and prayer.
Finally our visas arrived amid cheers,
An adventure in Spain for almost a year.
We stopped first in Amsterdam, and then on to Paris.
Explored the French countryside…driving didn’t scare us!
Back in Paris, we hopped on a night train to Spain
In Córdoba we landed, till June we´ll remain.
We found a small piso near Plaza Colón,
And I set to the task of making a home.
Scott’s loving the teaching, with the students he’s tops,
While I work on Spanish, and learn where to shop.
We’ve learned of braseros, for warming our toes,
And we’re losing weight walking where ever we go.
Córdoba’s a blend of the old and the new,
And we’re living more simply as Córdobans do.
We’re making new friends and sharing traditions,
Thanksgiving on Friday, the Spanish rendition.
It’s a much different world here, surprisingly so,
It changes perspectives, and in some ways we grow.
For the next great adventure, it’s Italy and Rome,
For we need to see Europe before we come home.
Our adventure’s exciting, this side of the pond,
Still our thoughts stray to friends and to those we hold fond.
We hope that this poem finds you all in good cheer,
To you, Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
These Nacimientos and Beléns began appearing a couple of weeks ago, and more are showing up each day as Christmas approaches. Crowds fill the plazas in the evenings to “ohh and ahh” over the latest Belén. Some of these are life size, others are miniature, and it is interesting to see the each interpretation. I understand that the Belén has origins in Italy, but the Beléns that we have seen have a distinctly Spanish feel to them. The newspaper published a listing of where the coolest displays could be found (although they did not promise that all their information was correct, so sometimes we find ourselves on a “wild Belén chase.”) You can see pictures at:
This afternoon we attended a children’s program of Villancicos, which are Spanish Christmas Songs traditionally sung by children, telling the story of Jesus. The songs are mostly about walking to Bethlehem, or about the Wise Men´s journey, or about the shepherds coming to see the Baby Jesus. There is nothing of the seriousness and reverence that you hear in most of our traditional Christmas carols; these are songs meant to entertain children. The program was precious and eagerly attended by the children. Not entirely different than what you might see in a Christmas pageant at your church. But quite unusual to the American perspective as this was at the local Botanical Garden. For parts of the program, the children were up on the stage acting out Nativity stories or marching about the room on their way to Bethlehem. The funniest part was when they had the wise men coming to visit. Three of the children, two of whom were little girls, were outfitted with bushy black beards. (We´d post one or two of the songs on this blog, but don´t want to run afoul of any copyright laws. If you´re interested in hearing a song, contact us by e-mail.)
We had both thought that Christmas would be anti-climatic without the cookie party, and all the trimmings of Christmas. But rather, the enthusiasm in the streets spreads into the homes, and we are not feeling any lack. In Spain, this is Christmas, everyone is invited to the party. It is entirely wonderful.
Friday, December 12, 2008
“Spain” therefore includes a number of different ancient kingdoms and cultural groups, many with their own customs and even languages. The last 500 years has been a history of trying to bring all of these groups together into one national identity, with mixed success. To call the language “Spanish” is a bit of a misnomer; it is actually Castellano, the language of Castilla. Other languages, such as Catalán (from Cataluña), Gallego (from Galicia), or Vasco (from the Basque country) have as much claim, but they weren´t the rulers. At least Catalán and Gallego are romance languages, closely related to Spanish, French, and Italian; Vasco is a pre-Indo-European language which has no relation whatever with Spanish. During the mid- 20th century, the dictator Franco tried hard to suppress all of these regional cultures and turn everyone into good Spaniards. This had the predictable effect of causing a resurgence of regional pride in the local cultures. After Franco died, the constitution of 1978 created “autonomous regions” to allow some self-rule by the local cultures.
Unfortunately, this local pride sometimes goes to ridiculous extremes. This is illustrated by news stories in the Spanish newspapers, stories which generally don´t get much attention in the USA.
The first example comes from the Basque country. Spain has an annual bicycling event, the Vuelta Ciclista, something like the Tour de France. For years, the route has not gone through Euskadi (the Basque region) because of threats from the ETA, their home-grown terrorist organization. (Recall that in the Madrid bombings of 2004, the government originally tried to blame the Basque separatists.) The ETA has been greatly diminished in recent years, due to a number of high-profile arrests and a decided lack of popular support even in Euskadi. Therefore, the Vuelta Ciclista proposed that the route end in Euskadi. The response from the “nacionalista” Basque government was no. They said, “Euskadi no es España (Euskadi is not Spain).” Now, try applying this to the United States; can you picture someone saying, “Minnesota is not the United States”? It just doesn´t compute.
Another example occurred in Galicia, where a father pulled his daughter from a music school because the school would not teach her in Spanish. The school only taught in Gallego. The father took the position (reasonable, I think) that Spanish instruction should be available in Spain. That one is still being fought out in the courts.
The third example is from Cataluña, probably the richest area of Spain, which has historically not been pleased with being ruled from Madrid. In Barcelona, the city government is forcing businesses in the downtown area to post signs in Catalán rather than Spanish. Several businesses have said that they would close before doing so. Face it; there are hundreds of millions of Spanish-speaking people in dozens of countries all over the world. How many people speak Catalán? I can see where the businessmen would want to appeal to the larger market.
The “nacionalista” movements are not universally supported, even in the areas with the most cultural pride. When Tonya and I travelled to Barcelona last month, I asked a cab driver if we´d have any trouble since I spoke Spanish and not Catalán. I liked his reply: “Bah! If you go into a shop and they insist on speaking Catalán, go to another shop.”
Sunday, December 7, 2008
We´ve become a little more travel-savvy after a few months here. Therefore, rather than paying a taxi driver to take us into town, we took a bus. With hindsight, that may not have been the best way to enjoy Sevilla. The bus route took us through drab neighborhoods, and the overcast skies didn´t help. It started us off with a negative impression of the city that took a little time to eliminate even after we´d made it into the pretty part of town. (Although Tonya still says it´s an ugly town.)
And the pretty part of town really is nice. One day wasn´t enough to see all of the things we wanted to see, and we´d have liked to spend some more time in the places we did see. We started off with the Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija, then went on to the cathedral and the Alcázar. At this point, we decided that we deserved to relax and enjoy some tapas and drinks. That pretty effectively filled the day. (Note regarding tea: in Sevilla, Tonya was served hot tea made with milk, rather than water. She declared it the best hot tea she´d ever had.)
The Palacio was built in the 1500´s and extensively remodeled in the 1800´s. The Condesa used it mostly to house beautiful artwork that she´d collected during her world travels. There are magnificent Roman mosaics, Italian sculptures, and Moroccan furniture. She was quite a modern woman for the late 1800´s, the first to graduate from the Academy of Fine Arts in Sevilla.
The cathedral is the third-largest in Europe, behind only St. Peter´s at the Vatican and St. Paul´s in London. We ascended the Giralda bell tower, along with a gazillion other tourists, to enjoy the views of the city. Interestingly, the Giralda has ramps to the top, rather than stairs. This dates back to the Muslim days, when the faithful could ride their horses to the top of the tower for their five-times-a-day prayers. Sadly, people are not on their best behavior in crowded tourist locations. We were jostled and pushed and elbowed by fellow human beings from all over the world.
The Alcázar (castle) is magnificent. The original structure was built by the Moors in the 10th century, and expanded by King Pedro I in the 1300´s. I almost wish we´d seen it before we went to Granada, because it just doesn’t get to the same level as the Alhambra. (One can´t help making comparisons.) The gardens are prettier, though, and I wish we´d had more time to stroll about. There´s something for another visit.
The downtown Christmas lights were ceremoniously lit this weekend in Córdoba, and we´ve been enjoying them in the evenings. We got back to the train station last night around 9:30, and took the long way home. See the pictures at
Spain doesn´t seem to have the Christmas excesses of the United States, but the local merchants are trying hard to get everyone to spend lots of money.
Hopefully we didn´t overdo it, because Tonya´s feeling pretty run-down again today. Monday is a holiday, so we´ll take it very easy.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
We've also included a small group of pictures from the Palacio Viana:
I go past the Palacio Viana every morning on my way to the school, but it took us a while to get around to going in for a visit. I expect there are still a number of hidden delights in Córdoba. This one is really not a palace at all; it´s the house of the noble Viana family, which occupied it from the 1500´s until the 20th century, when they donated it to the city. It´s a lovely series of patios and gardens, completely shut out from the rest of the city by high walls (other than one tantalizing view through an iron-barred window from the street). There´s also an interesting museum inside, although they didn´t allow pictures. The only way to visit the museum was with a guide, and the only guide was Spanish-speaking, and she got rather "tetchy" when I tried to translate for the English-speaking members of the group. (I suppose I was interfering with her delivery.) The most fun part of the Palacio was in the Patio of the Gardeners. It has ivy hedges along the walls, which were unremarkable during the day. We returned in the evening, when all of the other visitors were gone, and discovered that the hedges were filled with hundreds of birds´nests. The birds had come back to enjoy the peaceful nearly-tourist-free evening, flying about in huge flocks and making the most lovely music imaginable. What a very pleasant experience!
Saturday, November 29, 2008
It was odd not having the celebration on Thursday. Both our kids Skyped. Kestryl to send her greetings for the day. John to relay the melancholy news that our kitty of 15 years had passed away. It was expected. Her health had been failing for some time and the vets had been unable to diagnose her illness. We were very grateful when John agreed to take her. She quickly bonded to him, and he and Allene made sure that she was happy and well-cared for during her final days. We will forever be grateful to John and Allene for their help with Chris.
So Thursday was marred by sadness, but was also filled with the not quite frantic activity that Thanksgiving brings. I was cooking for 19 people, between 2 houses, and improvising equipment. Living in Spain is a real exercise in “thinking outside the box”. Lourdes told me that she would pick me up Friday at 3:30 pm and that dinner would be served about 7:00 pm. I spent Thursday doing prep-work for Friday. Without the smell of turkey wafting through the piso, it felt just like any other day. That was really odd!
Friday came and I had a plan. A 13 pound bird takes between 3 ½ and 4 ½ hours to cook. So incredible pumpkin pies (Okay… Butternut squash pies, see entry from earlier in the week) were baked in the morning and the bird went into the oven at 1:30 pm, for what I figured would be about 1 ½ hours. The oven is unpredictable, sometimes cooking faster, sometimes slower. (I think that this may have something to do with the electrical service.) Anyway, Lourdes was later than expected. This is Spain! So the turkey got about 2 hours at my piso. I wrapped the bird up tight in towels and put it into a cardboard box. About 5:00 pm, it went into Lourdes’ oven. A quick note about cooking equipment: before I put the turkey in Lourdes’ oven, I pulled out my new meat thermometer and baster. (Purchased in Barcelona… they were expensive compared to what I would pay for the same in America!) I inserted the thermometer into the bird, and basted it to the amazement of Lourdes who had never seen such tools. At 5:30 pm, the turkey was done! I cooked the bird another ½ hour on general principle, it could not be done after 2 ½ hours of cooking! So at 6:00 pm, the turkey is done, and Lourdes tells me that the dinner guests will not arrive until 8:00 or 8:30 pm, and that we should plan to serve the dinner at about 9:00 or 9:30 pm… And I am thinking… But… But… The BIRD is done now! This is Spain in all its wonderful and frustrating glory!
The rest of the dinner was prepared at a leisurely pace. Scott was thrilled to have an opportunity to play piano (well, an electronic keyboard) at Lourdes and Jose’s house. He taught the children some American folk songs…they seemed to like “This Old Man” best, although I suppose that’s an English song. Lourdes and I shared broken conversation, and as the evening wore on, the guests arrived in twos and threes. Everyone marveled at the Thanksgiving dinner, just like they’ve seen in the movies; they crowded into the kitchen, taking pictures of the turkey. The dinner was served in the same leisurely manner, and the conversation (or what I could follow of it) was typical, of political, economic and family issues.
We have gone out to Tavernas with friends here, but this is the first time that we have been dinner guests in someone’s home, so let me explain what “leisurely dinner” means in Spain. First, dinner is served, followed in time, by dessert and a quince wine (made by Lourdes). To my surprise after dessert, the dinner and my efforts received a round of applause. Then we adjourned to the sala. In actuality, we folded up the tables, (as we were eating in the sala) so that people could be more comfortable on the couches. After more conversation and a game, champagne is served. Then after more conversation (and speech is beginning to slur, even Scott is having trouble understanding), chocolates are brought out and Scott is asked to play the piano. What few inhibitions he has about performing in public disappear completely in a party environment, and he sings a few songs as well. After more conversation, whiskey is served. As the whiskey is enjoyed, the conversation slows, and guests begin to talk about leaving. Lourdes offers coffee, tea, more pumpkin pie… But it is 2:30 am. Okay, so now we feel like we have had a Thanksgiving! And to prove it, I even have the dirty oven to clean.
Pictures will follow in a few days… Stay tuned.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
For today, let’s “talk” about an interesting conversation I had with another of the hikers at Despeñaperros last Sunday. We were talking about Spanish actors in American movies, and vice versa. When American movies are shown in Spain, they have Spanish dubbing, rather than subtitles. Now, many movie aficionados seem to think this is blasphemy. After all, you´re not hearing the original speech. (Of course, I expect it´s appreciated by the majority of moviegoers!) There are Spanish actors who make a career of doing voice-overs for specific American actors. Apparently, the actor who does the voice-overs for Clint Eastwood is the same one who does them for Arnold Schwarzenegger. So when Arnie appears in Spain, instead of speaking with a heavy German accent, he speaks in impeccable, accent-free Castellano. Go figure. Clint Eastwood has a deep, rumbling basso voice in Spanish movies. Spanish audiences just can´t identify with higher-pitched voices from their leading men.
There are a number of Spanish actors who have appeared in both Spanish and American movies: Paz Vega (Spanglish), Penelope Cruz (Vanilla Sky), Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro), and others. I´ve found it interesting to hear them speaking accented English in American movies, but accent-free Castellano in Spanish movies. It really changes the character.
It also turns out that there are American actors who have appeared in Spanish movies, speaking Spanish. For instance, I´m told that Viggo Mortensen and Gwyneth Paltrow speak very good Spanish. (My friend´s comment was that Viggo has less of an American accent than I do. Hmm.) John Wayne apparently spoke Spanish…all three of his wives were Hispanic women…but he never spoke Spanish in a movie.
The real value of a stay in a foreign country is learning to see familiar things from a different point of view.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The current government of Andalucía is known as the Junta de Andalucía. They were elected a few years ago on a strong educational platform. My teaching position is part of a bilingual program that was started as a part of the junta coming into office. Most of the bilingual education goes on at the primary and secondary school levels. Gran Capitán is a post-secondary vocational school, sort of like a community college. It is also the only vocational school in Córdoba that has a bilingual program, because of their unusually strong English-speaking faculty (now including yours truly!). The Junta has rewarded them with lots of recognition and grants. Naturally, the other vocational schools want to get in on this, but they don´t have as many English-speaking teachers. Therefore, they´ve been hiring more English-speaking teachers over the last few years. Under the seniority program used by the teachers´ union, teachers get extra points for bilingual skills. This means that some of the new teachers are coming in at higher seniority levels than teachers who had been at their schools for years. Naturally, this doesn´t sit well with these senior teachers. It has been causing so much discontent and strife that the Junta is considering scrapping the bilingual program in the vocational schools in the next school year. A few weeks ago, Raquel, the Gran Capitán representative at the Junta meetings, reported that the program renewal process was paralyzed. And it´s getting worse; yesterday, she reported that the paralysis was paralyzed. Apparently my position for this school year isn´t in danger, but nobody knows what will happen with the program next year. Of course a bilingual education is a great thing for the students, but that´s not generally the foremost consideration in the political maneuverings.
Huelgas, or strikes, are a regular thing. The students strike (about tuitions and scholarships), and the teachers strike (about pay and working conditions). I mentioned “the teachers´ union”, but that simplifies the situation considerably. There are a number of unions, often with overlapping memberships. One union may go on strike one week, so we´re short a few teachers. Yesterday, I was scheduled to support a class for one of my colleagues. When it came time to start, he wasn´t there. I had prepared materials to teach about Thanksgiving (which is pretty much unknown here….count on a separate blog entry about that), so I went ahead with it. The students seemed to enjoy the class, and a good time was had by all. Afterward, I received an e-mail from the teacher: “I hope you receive this before you come to the school…I´m on strike today, so we won´t have a class.” Hmm. I couldn´t have known, but I was sort of undermining his position by teaching when he was on strike. I suppose it was his responsibility to let me know if there wasn´t supposed to be a class; I´m not sure what I could have done differently.
I’m teaching in a public school, although the students have to pay tuition. There are a large number of Catholic schools which receive public money, a situation which would cause a great deal of controversy in the USA. Even here, there are a number of people who don’t like feeling as if their tax money is going to support the Church. Spanish people have a love-hate relationship with the Church. They’ll claim to be agnostic, but they still take their children in to be baptized and receive First Communion and so on. Even after seventy years, feelings are a bit raw about the Church’s role in the Spanish Civil War. In the private schools, whether they are Catholic or not, there are a lot of “optional” fees which are really not optional. We know people who have homes out of town, but rent an apartment in town so that their kids can go to schools in the right district. (I’ve heard of that in the USA as well.)
So education is as political here as it is in the States. It shouldn’t be a surprise. To quote Uncle Remus, “You can’t run away from trouble…there ain’t no place that far!”
Monday, November 24, 2008
On Sunday, I joined my buddies in Llega Como Pueda (remember that the name means, roughly, “Get there any way you can”) on a hiking excursion to Despeñaperros. See the pictures at http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/DespeAperros#. This is a natural park which includes the site of the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212 A.D.), a critical battle between the Christians and the Moors during the Spanish Reconquista. Ángel, the rutero (leader) of this particular hike is a history teacher, so we got some fascinating stories about the battle as we saw the sites. King Alfonso VIII of Castilla prevailed upon Pope Innocent III to declare a crusade in Spain. (Ángel´s description was that the Pope got onto his medieval television, and broadcast a call to battle to all the Christian soldiers.) The soldiers obligingly gathered in Toledo, and moved south to the critical mountain passes La Losa and Despeñaperros through the Sierra Morena. The Muslim armies held the strategic passes, and there was no way to bring them to battle. In this sort of situation, there is a serious danger that the soldiers will just desert and go back home. When the need was sorest, a local shepherd came to the Christian army and told them that he knew of an unguarded pass. The army successfully got through the mountains and attacked the Muslims on the Mesa del Rey. The Christians won a decisive victory, opening the way to the southern part of Spain. From that point, the progress wasn´t quick, but it was inevitable. Córdoba fell in 1236 A.D., and Jaén in 1246 A.D. By 1250 A.D., Granada was the only remaining Moorish kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula, although it held on for almost another 250 years.
On this walk, we also saw another old, unmaintained, unrestored ruin: the Castillo de Castro Ferral. Seeing these amazing relics from the ancient world, I found myself looking more closely at every rock formation as we passed. Was it natural, or man-made? You just don´t see things like that in Oregon.
On this walk, the rutero had recommended that we bring walking sticks for the steep descents. I grumbled a bit…I´ve never used walking sticks, although I know they´re quite popular with other hikers. Still, I didn´t want to be known as the stupid American who hadn´t come prepared for the hike. I paid 20 euros for a set of sticks. Much as I hate to admit it, they turned out to be quite useful when we came down the barranco, on a steep slope covered with loose rock. One stick allows you to create a tripod, and even when you´re taking a step, you have at least two contacts with the ground. It´s sort of like having a rock or a branch that you can grab to stabilize yourself, but at a location of your choice. I still don´t think they´re much use on a level trail or a mild slope, but I´m a believer for the steep downhills.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
One would think that this would not be too hard, even though in my idea of fresh pumpkin is open the Libby’s can. However, prepackaged and canned goods do not exist in large quantities here in Spain. Canned pumpkin is non-existent. Mostly, the people eat fresh fruits and veges, whatever is in season. So I found a recipe for making pumpkin pie from fresh pumpkin online. Then a week before Halloween (which is really not celebrated with the same enthusiasm here.) I talked with two different Fruterias about the availability of pumpkins after Halloween and was assured that they would have them through the end of November. (Scott was with me the second time, so I know that this wasn’t a case of miscommunication.) By Halloween, we had been living in Spain for about 6 weeks, and I had seen how quickly the produce could disappear at the markets. So I did some more research online, and determined that the pumpkin puree will freeze without destroying the flavor. I went back to the Fruterias a couple of days after Halloween to get the pumpkins, only to find that there are no more pumpkins to be had… in the entire country of Spain… or so it would seem. Back to the internet… Where I determined that a butternut squash is a good substitution. The can of Libby’s that you open every year is actually butternut squash. I figure that our grandmothers probably couldn’t get people to eat the “squash” pie, so they re-named it “pumpkin”.
The search for a specific type of squash in Spain is complicated by the fact that the different varieties do not have different names. (And perhaps, this is the source of the miscommunication with the Fruterias.) A squash is called a “calabaza,” and as I have learned, a calabaza can be anything from a zucchini to a pumpkin. If you ask for a “calabaza naranja” (orange squash), the vendor may show you a pumpkin, or whatever orange squash he has on hand that has orange flesh. Please understand that I am not a squash expert. So after figuring out what a butternut squash looks like, I bought one, and tried it in the recipe. I must say, it made the absolute best pumpkin pie that I have ever had! So I went back to the Fruteria that afternoon, and asked if they could get me 5 more. I was again assured that it would be no problem, they would have them the next day. But the next day, there were no butternut squash, and I could not seem to find any... anywhere. Several days later, out of desperation, I purchased a third roundish squash. It was the same color as the butternut, but small and round, instead of bulbous shaped like a butternut. (I am not sure what this one is called, as I cannot find a picture of it online.) The guy at the Fruteria told me that it was similar to the butternut, but a little sweeter. I steamed it and determined that it can substitute for the butternut squash, substituting for the pumpkin. Scott and I keep saying to each other… We are not in Kansas (or Oregon) any longer. The seasons for fruits and veges appear to be very short, and when they are gone, they’re really gone. There won’t be any more coming from Mexico, Peru or China.
As luck would have it, a few days later, a couple of butternut squash, and several of the third variety, showed up at the local Fruteria. I bought them all, steamed, pureed and froze them. Pumpkin pie is assured for Thanksgiving.
So if any of you are interested in trying the absolute best pumpkin pie that you will ever eat… in your entire life… and I am not exaggerating… I will never open a can of Libby’s again. This pie is that good!
It is a wonderful website, complete with pictures. Make the following substitutions... (Necessary because I live in Spain, and many ingredients are just not available.)
· Use butternut squash
· Substitute 18 oz. of whipping cream for the canned milk
· I made my own allspice… equal parts of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves (But put in a tad more cinnamon than nutmeg and cloves.)
HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO ALL!
A wee footnote: This week there were butternut squash… in large quantities… in all the markets. Apparently butternut squash season is later than other winter squash. Of course, the vendors in the Fruiterias cannot tell you this because all squash are called calabaza, and there are many types of orange squash. Go figure…
Friday, November 21, 2008
Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain. It’s magnificent, and I expect we’ll be going there again sometime. See the pictures at http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/Barcelona#. We strolled through a very interesting maritime museum (I think I enjoyed this more than Tonya did), and the Picasso museum. We joined in the mass at the Barcelona Cathedral and listened to the cathedral’s organ, choir and priests chanting the liturgy. (This is truly the only way to really experience a cathedral!) We wandered through some of the small streets and enjoyed the street musicians. We joined in the slow swaying Sardana Dance with the native Catalonians, who applauded our attempts as we tripped over our own left feet. We took the aerial car up to the castle at Park Montjuic, an old naval fortress with a great view of the harbor and enjoyed a lovely sunset and local dance competition. We saw the strange buildings of Antonio Gaudi (the famous Catalan architect), including his unique cathedral, La Sagrada Familia. The cathedral is still under construction, and needs about fifty years more before it will be complete. The cathedral is interesting, and the view from the top was breathtaking. That was my first official view of the Mediterranean. (Tonya had seen it briefly from the train Saturday morning, but I didn’t get out of the sleeping compartment quickly enough.)
Our hotel was along the Ramblas, which is the heart of old Barcelona. It’s also the area of highest pickpocket activity in all of Europe. I was a victim, although we ended up having the last laugh. As we were walking down the Ramblas on Saturday evening, a young man dropped a set of keys on the ground in front of me. Now, we’ve heard of this ploy before; they’re trying to get you to bend over, so that their buddy can easily pick your back pocket. I didn’t bent over, and my hand was on my wallet, safely in my front pocket. He then bent over to get the keys, and pinched the front of my pants legs. I asked him what he was doing, and he just walked quickly away. A few minutes later, I realized that I had lost my little spiral notebook and a tourist map that I’d been carrying in my back pocket. I guess that from the outside, it looked as if I were carrying a wallet there. I’d never even felt it when the buddy picked my back pocket. Those sons of b…. er…loving and grieving mothers! I hope they enjoyed the (free) tourist map and the filled-up notebook that I’d already bought a replacement for.
Being semi-devout followers of Rick Steve’s, we decided to set out on a quest to find and consume the ultimate churros and chocolate. The travel book recommended that the best churros and chocolate could be found at La Pallaresa Granja-Xocolateria on Carrer Petrixol. When we arrived at the restaurant, we found that La Pallaresa was a quite popular (with locals, as well as tourists), and the line for a table stretched way down the street. It was late, and we had had a long day of museums, sightseeing, and dancing, so we continued on our way. We stopped at Granja Dulcinea (which seemed to be strictly a local hang out) a little further down Carrer Petrixol and easily found a table. The waiter brought our churros and chocolate, apologizing that their chocolate was not pudding thick. There was nothing lacking in their pudding, er… chocolate. It was an enormously enjoyable chocolate experience. However in order to be fair, we decided that we really did need to try La Pallaresa the next evening. The next night, the line at La Pallaresa was acceptable and the chocolate was worth the short wait. The La Pallaresa chocolate is a wee bit thicker, but the thing that gives their chocolate the edge is that their chocolate is not as sweet and just a tad richer. However, just to be sure, we returned the next night, to sample it with whipped cream. As a self-proclaimed chocolate expert, my preference (only if the wait is not long) is La Pallaresa. However, if you are going to have to wait over 10 minutes, walk a little ways down the street and enjoy Granja Dulcinea. And skip the whipped cream, it detracts from the chocolate experience.
Our last day there was possibly the most enjoyable. We took a train to Montserrat, a monastery perched high up on a mountain near (but not in) the Pyrenees. The views are some of the best we’ve seen yet…enjoy the pictures! As we disembarked the aerial from the train station, we were greeted by the bells of the basilica. Their beautiful tones echoed off the surrounding mountains creating a symphony in stereophonic sound. We hiked to Sant Jeroni, the highest peak in the area. From there, we had an uninterrupted view of the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean to the Basque country. We could also see Andorra, a small mountain nation which has somehow managed to stay independent from Spain and France for all these centuries. We may have to visit there sometime.
Lessons learned in Barcelona:
- Don’t carry ANYTHING in your pockets that you’re not willing to lose.
- Don’t try to do two museums in one day. By the end of the day, you may never want to even think about Picasso or ships again.
- The Metro system is so good that you really don’t have to stay on the Ramblas to enjoy all of the cool tourist sites.
- Be open to joining in the dance… whatever it may be. The locals will embrace your enthusiasm.
- Night trains are a great way to do long rail trips without blowing a whole day.
- Churros with chocolate….yum! But, skip the whipped cream.
- Sample the sangria everywhere that you go!
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Well….maybe a little bit.
After we returned from Santiago de Compostela, the temperature dropped abruptly. We bought a heavier bedspread, and shivered for a few days before deciding that we´d need to invest in some kind of heating. We went to the Corte Inglés and bought a wheeled radiator unit. (About 50€…not too bad.) That seems to be doing the trick.
Now, the funny part. When we first moved into the piso, we found this big, strange, round metal thing underneath the dining table. Furthermore, the table had this thick, heavy tablecloth which hung nearly to the floor on all sides. We had no idea what the round thing was, so we stowed it underneath the bed. After all, you want you legroom under the table, right? We also put the heavy tablecloth at the back of an upper shelf in the closet.
While visiting Lola and Eduardo, we saw that they had one of the same big, strange, round metal things under the table as well. Interesting! It turns out to be a brasero (from “brasa”, which means “ember”). You just plug it in, and it provides wonderful heating under the table. And the heavy tablecloth? You just pull it up over your lap like a blanket. It´s amazing how warm you feel even when you´re just heating the lower half of your body. In the old days, the braseros were pans filled with embers from the fireplace, but nowadays they're electrical.
The temperature has come back up from the cold, rainy week after the Santiago de Compostela trip. Nevertheless, the nights are pretty cold. The radiator is still useful, because the brasero doesn´t help in the other rooms. Drying the clothes is another matter. When you have a sunny day, everybody rushes to get their clothes washed and up on the line to take advantage of God´s clothes drier. Just to be safe, Tonya bought another heater which seems to effectively dry clothes in the back bedroom even when it´s cold and rainy outside.
The lesson we´ve learned here is that just because we don´t recognize something doesn´t mean that it´s not useful. In Spain, people don´t seem to fill their homes with extraneous stuff just for the heck of it.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Granada is a historical city on a number of levels. It was the last Moorish city in Spain, conquered in 1492 by Los Reyes Católicos Fernando and Ysabel (generally known in America as Ferdinand and Isabella), completing the Reconquista after 700 years of Muslim presence in Spain. It was also the city where Columbus made his pitch for a westbound sea route to China. Sadly, there were as-yet-unknown lands in between, and Columbus never did make it to China.
Granada has a magnificent cathedral, but the big draw is the Alhambra. It was the stronghold of the Muslim Nazaríes kings. Its strategic location on a mountaintop allowed it to remain in Muslim hands for over 200 years after most of the rest of Spain had fallen to the Christians. Happily, the Christian conquerors suppressed the urge to tear down all of the heathen buildings, limiting themselves to building a church on top of the old mosque. They left this jewel of a palace, owing much more to Arabian influences than European, on the mountaintop for future generations to admire.
Tonya and I reasoned that we could enjoy the walk between our hotel and the mountaintop palaces just as well going downhill as going uphill. Therefore, we took a taxi up there in the morning, and walked back down in the afternoon. Good choice. All of the tour books recommend getting there early to make sure that you can get tickets. We already had reservations, but went early anyway. That was also a good choice; we got to do a lot of our wandering about before the big crowds were there.
The Alhambra is actually a complex of buildings. The showpiece is the Palacio Nazaríes, the old Muslim palace. In addition, there´s the Palacio de Carlos V (built by the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella), the Alcazaba (the military fortress), and the Palacio Generalife (a sort of a country retreat within easy distance of the main complex). By the time we began our leisurely walk back into town, we were surprised to realize that we´d been there for five hours. There´s a lot to see.
The Cathedral in Granada is the second largest in Spain. It´s almost a shame that it shares a city with the Alhambra, because it would be quite a draw on its own. It contains the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella. In American history books, Ferdinand and Isabella get a footnote at best. In Spain, however, they are revered as the greatest monarchs in Spanish history. They unified Spain (which until then had been a patchwork of warring kingdoms), kicked out the Muslims, and began the conquest of the New World. They set Spain on a path which would make it the greatest empire in the world for hundreds of years. (They also kicked out the Jews, but we don´t hear as much about that nowadays.)
Thursday, November 6, 2008
All of this brings up some interesting questions about America’s role. Like it or not, America’s actions have huge ramifications all over the world. Obama raised controversy some months back with his comments about being a “citizen of the world.” The American president, according to his oath of office, must act in the best interests of the American people. In some ways, however, the American president has the effective power of a world president. I’m getting into deep waters here, I realize. I just have to wonder: how much should any head of state, especially one as powerful as America, consider the effects of his actions on other countries? And not just in the sense that these effects can boomerang and affect the interests of the American people. Something to think about.
We’ve had some interesting talks. The other teachers have been sensitive about not starting controversial discussions. The students, on the other hand…I’ve had to explain several times what is meant by a “secret ballot.” You just don’t ask somebody who they voted for!
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
A lot, if not all the churches have bells, as well as many of the buildings. The bells mark the passing of the day. From the terrazza, if you stop and listen, and the wind is blowing right, you can hear three or four sets of bells chiming out the hour, and half hour, each with their own distinct tones and melodies. I haven’t figured out which bells come from which churches, yet. But I don’t suppose that really matters. Plaza Colón is surrounded by churches, really old churches, at least one monastery, and three convents. There is a clock in Tendillas Square that plays music that sounds like it is something out of Phantom of the Opera, it is probably Bach. The bell symphonies are really quite something to listen to. Sometimes two sets of bells ring at the same time, but more often they echo each other. After all, if you have two clocks, are you ever really sure what time it is?
Sundays take on an entirely different feel, the bells seem more joyful and euphoric (at least to me) as they call the town to mass. A couple of weeks ago, there was a wedding in the church behind our piso, and the concert from the bells when the ceremony was over was one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. The bells began to peal into truly heavenly melody that went on for a good 10 minutes. This was followed by the guests singing in the courtyard. It was truly wonderful! Since that first wedding concert, I have noticed that wedding bells are a weekend staple. Again, sometimes you may hear more than set of bells, as different couples musically announce their happiness to Córdoba. I just can´t help stopping and listening, if only for a moment, to such joy set to the music of bells.
Monday, November 3, 2008
All banks have very efficient fraud departments these days, for which we should be very grateful… And most of the time, we are. A lot of the fraud protection is automated, so we needed to know how to work with their systems. Credit and debit cards are great for international travel because you will generally get a more favorable foreign currency exchange rate on your purchases. But there is a dark side that we had learned about the hard way… Scott went to Costa Rica a couple of years ago, planning on using the credit card for his larger purchases. Unfortunately, we were unaware that we needed to let the credit card company know that he was going to be out of the country. So when he used his card the first time, the company’s fraud detection system automatically shut the card down. It took us three days and a number of conversations with the fraud department to get the card reactivated. Meanwhile, Scott was in Costa Rica with only a few dollars in his pocket. Although we do understand the need for these systems, we were very unhappy with the company and their procedures, as it made life really inconvenient for several days. So armed with this knowledge, many of our questions were about how to do business with them while living in Spain. We did not want our cards shut down when we would be depending on the credit lines for cash and living expenses until we could get things set up in Spain. What sort of notice did the banks need? What papers did we need to sign? And the open ended… Is there anything else we should know? Other questions we should address? And the big one… What have we forgotten?
I went into our bank, in person, sat down and asked my questions about international money transfers? How is it done? Do I need to sign any forms to enable an international bank to pull money from my American bank account? By this time, one of the bank representatives, Holly, knew me personally, and was familiar with the Wild & Crazy Adventure. My bank does not have the capability to exchange currencies so it did not dawn on either Holly or me to address the question of what was necessary in order to initiate an international money transfer from my American bank account. Well… as it turns out, our Spanish bank cannot initiate an international money transfer that pulls money from an international account. The Spanish bank can exchange currencies when it receives a transfer, and it can initiate a transfer that sends money to other accounts, but international money transfers must be initiated at the bank that sends the money. Whoops!
Luckily, I had had the foresight to get Holly’s contact information. (When leaving the country… Always, Always, Always get personal contact information for all important financial entities!) So I sent Holly and email… and we waited… and the days passed without a response (which is very unusual) and the exchange rate began to grow more favorable, and we waited… and so I sent off another email without response, and the day s passed and the dollar gained more... and we began to wonder if perhaps Holly was on vacation. So, after about two weeks, I signed onto the bank website and sent an email to the online bank requesting assistance. They forwarded my email to Holly. Spam filters are a wonderful thing, except when they are not. Apparently, since my Spanish email is on Yahoo, my messages were being blocked by the bank’s extremely efficient spam filters. Anyway, Holly responded promptly, sending us the proper forms to sign. We do not have a printer, so we went to the library and printed the documents. A side note: Europe does not embrace Microsoft products as America does. So it can be difficult to print Word documents. Fonts and formatting do not always translate properly. So our documents printed with a different font and some creative word spacing. But they were legible, so we signed them and put them in the mail back to Holly.
A week and a half passes… the dollar gains more ground, and we begin to get nervous. The world economy is in the toilet, but as the dollar gains ground, we are making money in terms of buying power. That is if we can convert our dollars to euros before the dollar drops again. Then an email arrives… Holly has received the forms, but the bank’s fraud department will not accept them because the font and word spacing is wrong! (Augrrrhhhh!!) Holly is a dear, and sends us the documents in a picture file. By now, Scott has access to the school’s computer system, so we take the bus out to Fatima to print the documents. The picture file doesn’t print well. But luckily we still have the original file, and the school’s computer can work with Word documents. So we print the documents, sign them again, a mail them off to Holly. At the same time I shoot Holly an email, explaining our concerns about the exchange rate and asking if Scott’s mom (armed with powers of attorney) can just sign for us, so we can get the transfer started. Mind you, we aren’t without money. We have the credit cards and we can withdrawal about 600€ a day on our debit card and then walk over to our Spanish bank and deposit the money into our account. It is workable, but seriously inconvenient. (Especially when we had to accumulate the deposit, first month’s rent, and the realtor’s commission in cash.)
A little over a week goes by without an answer from Holly, and we begin to suspect that my email has been blocked again. I hate to be a nag… but then again the dollar is beginning to lose ground and the election is now only days away. We have some concern that the pending election is part of the reason for the still favorable exchange rate, so I sign on to the online bank and ask them to ask Holly to contact me. At the same time, we shoot an email to mom alerting her that we may need some help. Holly responds very promptly. (She is truly going above and beyond the call of duty. I truly appreciate this woman’s diligence and assistance.) No, the forms have not arrived. She suggests that we wait a day or so before we send in mom and the powers of attorney, but suggests that mom can initiate a test transfer. When mom arrives the next morning to initiate the transfer, Holly has our forms in hand. So mom sends the test transfer. With any luck, the test will clear in the next few days, and then we will be able to access our funds in America.
Wow! Who would have believed it would take over 5 weeks (and still counting) to get a wire set up. I am truly grateful for Holly’s diligence and patience through this situation. I am grateful (I think…) for the fraud department’s efficiency that is so effective at blocking me from getting to my money. I am sure that we will laugh over this in the years to come. But I will reserve that judgment until after we actually successfully complete an international transfer.
Our bank may have the perfect fraud protection system, so tight that not even we can get to our money!
Cross your fingers that the exchange rates hold…
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Talking with the other teachers at my school, we realized that we had a teachable moment here. I put together a simple set of slides explaining Halloween (at least as it's celebrated in America), with some fun pictures. I also found a few campfire-quality ghost stories online to share with the classes. They were a big hit; there doesn't seem to be much of a tradition of ghost stories here. This is all fine, as long as I don't have any irate parents berating me for scaring their children.
Another funny incident was that one of the teachers put together an exercise about business opportunities related to Halloween. In one of the articles we found online, there was a sentence (paraphrased), "The Great Pumpkin isn't just threatening a few small pumpkin patches anymore." Now, picture trying to explain that to people who haven't grown up with Charlie Brown and Snoopy! So much of what you read is very culture-specific.
The next challenge will be Thanksgiving!
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
We took the day train out... not sure I will opt for that again. A 9 hour train ride is long no matter how you cut it. But the town is really quite lovely. We toured the cathedral (of course), sat for a few moments in the tomb beside Saint James and spent 2 lovely days just walking through the old city. We had a good time in the fish and vegetable market, buying such local delicacies as plums known as “cojones de fraile” (look it up!), and a cheese known as Tetillas. (According to legend, a local bishop decided that one of the female statues was a little too voluptuous. He ordered the sculptor to take out his hammer and chisel for some breast reduction surgery. The local cheesemakers were indignant at this, and in protest, they began making their cheese in the shape of the appropriate part of the female anatomy. I don’t know if this story is true or not…but so what? It’s a great story!)
The cathedral has a different feel from the others we have visited, and I am not sure I can put my finger on why it felt different. Maybe it is because the others were mainly built as monuments, sometimes inspired by the vanity of the local church officials, Bishops, Cardinals, etc. The cathedral in Santiago was built to mark the site where Saint James was found after centuries of war with the Moors, and mainly as a tribute to Heavenly Father. In many ways it is much more modest than some of the other cathedrals, but then there is the alter which is an amazing display. We attended Vespers Saturday evening at a monastery near the cathedral, where the service was sang by the nuns. That was truly heavenly. One can tour all these old cathedrals and churches, and admire their beauty, but to me, they seem to really come alive when you can hear them with music, even if you cannot understand the language.
Santiago de Compostela is at the end of the Medieval Pilgrimage Trail, The Way of Saint James, which leads to the tomb of Saint James. The trail has several starting places in France, crosses the Pyrenees, and the entire northern coast of Spain. This trail has been followed by spiritual pilgrims since 900 A.D. It is reputed to be one of the loveliest hikes in Europe and has become popular in recent years. I understand that it takes at least 4 to 6 weeks to complete the walk. Sunday morning we took a taxi about 6 miles out of town and walked the last part of the pilgrimage trail to the cathedral. The countryside is beautiful, with a Northwestern feel to it (green and rainy, although we were blessed with two rare sunny days for our visit). The trail is clearly marked with the symbolic scallop shells and yellow arrows. (Those scallop shells show up again and again. During the medieval pilgrimages, scallop shells were used as “poor men’s cups” to scoop water from the wells. Pilgrims would bring scallop shells back home as proof they’d finished the pilgrimage.) There’s a statue at the top of Monte do Gozo (Hill of Joy), the hill from which the pilgrims could first see the towers of the cathedral. Unfortunately, during the last thousand years, there has been enough construction that you can no longer see the towers.
We didn’t make it to the cathedral in time for the Pilgrim Mass at noon, so we went to Vespers at the cathedral. The cathedral has an enormous pipe organ that I had hoped they would play, but unfortunately we were not that lucky. Beyond the cathedral, and some really beautiful vistas, Santiago is just a dumb, quiet little town. But quite lovely.
Santiago is in the Spanish province of Galicia. Galicia has its own language, Gallego, which is supposed to be a sort of cross between Spanish and Portuguese. Just between us…shhh!...written Gallego looks to me like mis-spelled Spanish. Spoken Gallego has a sort of Italian lilt which is rather pretty to listen to.
On the way home, we took the night train… a much better idea…and spent Monday in Madrid. See the Madrid pictures at:
Madrid is okay, but it’s a big city, not unlike any other big cities. The old town was not especially interesting. I was not impressed. But Madrid does have more commerce, so I was able to find a couple of things that I was looking for. As the Prado, Madrid’s world renowned art museum was closed, we toured the Palacio Real. The Palacio is very pretty, though not as impressive as the French palace at Versailles. On the other hand, the Spanish people never beheaded any of their kings, so maybe the Spanish royals had the right idea. Sadly, people are not allowed to take pictures inside the palace. The most interesting part was an armory with many fine examples of weapons and armor from the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Still, it's good that things are slowing down. I think the human body (and the human mind!) wouldn't be able to maintain such a frenetic pace indefinitely. The other night, I was rather surprised to find myself at loose ends. Here, I can do the same things I'd do back in the USA: read a book, write in my journal, or play on the computer. I just found it a bit surprising.
One thing I'm finding a bit frustrating...I'm having trouble scheduling things with my colleagues at the school. Everyone seems happy to have me there, and they like having me in their classes. I have certain regular classes, and certain unscheduled hours during which teachers can request my support. When they do so, I set up a time with them to go over lesson plans and prepare for the class. Very frequently, when I show up for the meeting, I get stood up. It usually comes down to some kind of misunderstanding. After one occurrence, I figure it's a fluke. After two, I begin to get insecure about my language abilities (although I'm certainly not having any other difficulties with communication!). After five or six, I'm beginning to think that I'm dealing with a different attitude toward scheduling in general. Part of it is the "mañana" attitude, which is by no means limited to Mexico. Another part is that the teachers are very much regimented by their class schedules, and don't do very well with things that fall outside of their normal routine. The final, and most humbling part, is that I'm very low on the totem pole around here. Actually, I'm not on the totem pole at all; I'm buried in the mud down underneath the totem pole. The worms crawl higher than me. People are all very friendly, but I don't think they worry too much about missing meetings with me.
Monday, October 20, 2008
The hiking group is called “Llega Como Pueda” (which translates best as “Get There However You Can”). Lola´s husband Eduardo is a member, and he´s the one who told me about it. We set out in a charter bus in the pre-dawn darkness. (That´s not as early as it seems, because the sun doesn´t rise until nearly 8:00.) It was about a 1 ½ hour drive to Valle de Abdalajís. We began with breakfast at a local inn (it´s inconceivable that we would start such a walk without proper nutrition).
I´d call it a fairly tough hike. The distance wasn´t that much (10.5km, or just under 7 miles), and the ascent was respectable but not terrible (800m, or about 2500 feet). What made it difficult was the trail conditions and the weather. The trail varied from “poorly-marked” to “imaginary,” often deteriorating to “non-existent.” We slogged up rocky slopes or through spiny bushes. My poor jeans may never be the same. There were some magnificent views of the valley as we continued up the trail.
The weather was cool and relatively clear when we set out, but the peak was up in the clouds. At the point where we were to begin the final ascent to the peak, it was so foggy that the head guide (Fernando…there were three guides for a group of about 20 hikers) couldn´t find the access point. You know, it´s not much fun to be on a foggy mountainside listening to the guides arguing about which way was the right route. We sat and munched on our trail food while Fernando smoked a cigarette and waited for the mist to clear a little bit so that he could get his bearings. There was finally enough of a break in the fog to figure out where we were, and we got to the access point. It was so socked in that Fernando recommended against trying to get to the peak. A number of the hikers had GPS locators, and argued strongly that we should give it a go. (I must confess that I was not one of those arguing to start scaling the rocks in the dense fog!). I wasn´t inclined to turn back on my own at this point, but even if I had been, I´m not sure that I could have found my way back down to the pueblo. So on we went. By this point, jackets were necessary ( we haven´t needed jackets up to now in Córdoba, but I figured I´d be wise to have one for this hike and for next week´s trip to Santiago de Compostela). I was happy for the jacket, because the wind got pretty fierce as we approached the peak. For the last haul, it got so steep and constricted that I had to leave my daypack. I didn´t take any pictures at the top, because we couldn´t see anything but fog. It´s a shame; I´m told that in clear weather, you can see the Mediterranean from the peak.
We started down filled with that euphoria you get after finishing a tough walk. The descent was both easier and more difficult. Easier because we weren´t climbing, but more difficult because going downhill is harder on the knees. (For me, at any rate.) As we went, it began to rain, so I put on my poncho. (I had thought that I was being over-conservative by bringing a jacket and a poncho. Hah!) I think every member of the party managed at least one fall in the mud. We descended by a different route, a very steep road which went down to the village in switchbacks. It was so steep and rocky that I think it would be difficult for a mule, let alone a truck!
When we got back to the inn, we all ate our brown-bag dinners. I hadn´t expected to be on the trail as long as we were, so I hadn´t come prepared to eat dinner; all I had was my gorp (normally raisins and peanuts and M&M´s, but mine had cashews and macadamia nuts). Everyone else was pulling out loaves of bread and wedges of cheese and egg tortillas and salamis and cans of olives. These people know how to eat, even on the trail! Everyone shared with everyone.
Despite the difficulties of the trail, I had a wonderful time. We´ll see what other hikes there are in the future.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Ahhh, the joys of learning a foreign language… Sometimes, all you can do is laugh.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Anyway, click here to enjoy our pictures! The first link is all the pictures we took in Holland and France.
This second link is to all of the photos we've taken since coming to Córdoba.
Stay tuned for more! This adventure has just begun.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
We've been busy with grocery shopping and other domestic tasks today, so we haven't started on the task of uploading pictures to the blog. That will be a job for Sunday, when everything is closed and we can't do any business. Stay tuned!
I've begun my English teaching, and I'm having a marvellous time. I have several different types of students. First are the actual students at the institute (they're around 18-20 years old). Second are the teachers at the institute, who are taking advantage of my presence to improve their English. Third is a group of adults who are paying me and Tonya for English conversational time (although we may do that as an exchange: English conversation for them in exchange for Spanish conversation for Tonya). Fourth is a high school student whose father is paying me to tutor him. Each type of teaching has its own joys and its own challenges.
The students are like teenagers anywhere. They chatter among themselves a lot, and part of the challenge is keeping order in the classroom. That's not too difficult; in general, the students are more respectful toward teachers than they would be in America. We're doing a lot of speak-and-repeat exercises with simple phrases, working on their pronunciation. Some are doing better than others...as expected!
The teachers are more serious about their English; it's key to their jobs. Some are more interested in working on pronunciation to minimize their accents, some want to learn more of the vernacular, and some want to work on vocabulary. The institute where I'm teaching is a vocational school, and my section is training students to work in the tourism industry. One of the teachers, David (dah-VEED), is teaching a class on the business structure of tourism-related companies (hotels, travel agencies, tour agencies, etc.). This sort of translation becomes extraordinarily difficult, for two reasons. First, I don't have a formal business background. What do I know about corporations, partnerships, limited companies, and so on? Second, some things just don't translate directly. For instance, an "acción" in Spanish corresponds to a share (of stock) in English. However, there are legal ramifications in terms of the rights and responsibilities of shareholders that are simply different between Spain and America and England. They are different countries with different laws. I'm not a corporate lawyer, and I don't understand all of those complexities. I can help with the English, with the understanding that there's not an exact correspondence. Once we'd agreed on that, David and I are working together just fine.
We're just getting started with the conversation sessions. These people are more interested in being able to function in travel settings when they go on vacation to England or (less frequently) to America. This involves role-playing, which is kind of fun. We did a role-play conversation the other day in which I was the checker at a supermarket, and one of the students was a customer trying to make a purchase with a credit card. You can really get into your role! I was trying to explain to the "customer" what she needed to do, while apologizing to the other (imaginary) customers waiting in line behind her.
The one-on-one tutoring is the first job which has actually earned me some money. (They call it "dinero negro", or black money. No checks, no tax withholdings, no fuss.) Rafael, the student, actually understands more English than he realizes. This will largely be a process of building his confidence. We're using his classroom lessons as a base, and working on his pronunciation and comprehension. I'm seeing noticeable improvement after only two sessions. Was I able to learn that quickly when I was fifteen years old?
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
So we were in the phone store on Monday, playing our translation game and we had the following conversation:
Scott: “Otra vez” (“Otra vez” in Spanish translates to “again” in English.)
Tonya: “Which means, again?” (I said in English, as I could not remember the translation.)
Scott: “Si, Otra vez” (Not comprehending that I was asking for a translation.)
Tonya: “Which means, again?”
Scott: “Si, Otra vez” (Still not comprehending that I was asking for a translation.)
We went through several iterations of this statement/question loop before we both realized that we had originated a new Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine.
Outfitting 21st century kitchen continues to be a challenge. Some of it is diet related, and expected. However, as I do a lot of cooking from scratch, I thought that most of the raw ingredients (especially for baking) would be available. Other things I was just unprepared for. I had hoped to bring my measuring cups – a staple in any American kitchen, but given our space and weight constraints, I left them behind. Every cook uses measuring cups… Right? Well, I guess not in Spain. We looked for 2 days before we found a measuring cup. I found the same problem regarding other basic kitchen gadgets, spatulas, spoons, baking sheets, even a potato masher (which I have yet to find).
The adjustment to life here has been frustrating for me largely because I did not learn to speak Spanish before we left. So I needed some comfort food… Chocolate chip cookies. So Scott and I went to the store. Flour, eggs, butter, white sugar all easy enough to find. But then things get more complicated. Brown sugar… They have a product called brown sugar, but when I opened the package, I found that it was closer to the raw sugar in the natural food stores in the US. Baking soda… simple bicarbonate of soda, right? Well almost, the form that I have found so far is granulated. Salt… What can be so difficult about salt? Except, I have not been able to find salt in anything other than a coarse grind. So, I did my best to turn the coarse baking soda and salt granules into a powder. But as I have not managed to find many kitchen items, a mortar and pestle among them, my efforts were pretty ineffectual. Still, I broke a dark chocolate bar up into small pieces by beating on it with a rolling pin. (I can be very resourceful, especially when chocolate is involved.) So I threw it altogether in a bowl and mixed it all up… (Yes, I forgot the vanilla… but such is life.) And put it in the oven to bake… Which leads to another discussion.
I never realized that what a Spaniard considers a 21st century stove is not even remotely equivalent to what an American expects from the appliance. I really need to readjust my thinking. First off, a stove does not necessarily mean that an oven is included. Next, although gas appliances do exist, electric is more prevalent. But, as the electric current is different in Europe, the appliance does not seem to work as efficiently. I am finding that the stove is rather like using a camping stove, and that I can expect it to take 2 to 3 time longer to cook different dishes. So I will need to readjust my meal planning. Secondly, because of the electric current issue (and this is only my supposition) the oven temperatures do not equate to their Fahrenheit equivalents. So it takes much, much longer to bake anything. For instance, the cookies took about 25 minutes to bake.
So how did they turn out? Well, they are actually quite interesting… and they taste okay, but they are not Tonya’s chocolate chip cookies. The texture is all wrong, obviously a result from the soda. Some bites are unexpectedly salty, resulting from both the course grind of the salt and soda, but what can you do? Laugh, cry or both… and perhaps continue to look for substitute ingredients. The obvious answer is to make simpler meals, and learn to cook Spanish style, and I intend to do both. But for now language is the real barrier. Basic grocery shopping looks like it will be a lot of fun once I am conversant in Spanish. To really get the good deals, one does not just go to the supermarket. One goes to the Fruteria for fruits and veges, the Panaderia for bread and pastries, the Carniceria for meats, the Pescaderia for fish, and if you need anything else, then to the Supermercado. Prepackaged products are not as prevalent as they are in the US. Thank goodness my mother taught me to cook.
Scott and I are looking into Spanish classes for me. And, we hope to trade English for Spanish lessons with a group associated with his school. Hopefully, I will be speaking like a native soon. And so the adventure continues…
(NOTE FROM SCOTT: Tonya's cookies tasted great. She is rising above all of the cooking challenges and producing her normal wonderful food.)
Monday, October 6, 2008
It’s been an extraordinarily busy couple of days, but we are finally in our own place. It’s a lovely apartment by Plaza Colón, right in the middle of downtown Córdoba. The location is perfect; we’re within walking distance of everything worth visiting. We’re right on the edge of La Judería, the location of all the favorite tourist spots. Pretty much every bus line has a stop at Plaza Colón, so it’s easy to get to any part of the city. We’ve spent the last few days outfitting the place in a manner that we’ll be able to live comfortably for the next nine months.
With luck we’ll have a real Internet connection soon (we’ve been taking advantage of the free access from the public library), so we can begin posting more pictures. We not only have lots of pictures from the Netherlands and France and Córdoba, but we’ll need to post pictures of the apartment and the beautiful park just across the way.
Late-breaking news: I was asking one of my fellow teachers what I should charge for English tutoring, and she not only made a recommendation (20-25€ per hour seems to be the going rate), and she made another offer for conversation time with her husband and some friends! The institute is only paying me 700€ per month, but with a few tutoring engagements like this, I could find myself making a living wage.
Observations about finding, outfitting, and living in an apartment in Córdoba:
1. We got our apartment through a rental agent (un servicio inmobiliario). We could have probably saved some money by pounding the pavement and talking directly to property owners, but I don’t begrudge the rather high fee (one month’s rent). They showed us some apartments, made the contact with the owner, set up the meeting, and wrote up the rental contract. With all of the demands on our time, it seemed like a good deal to us. We’re paying 570 euros per month (say $850) for a two-bedroom apartment. This is quite a bit less than Tonya had budgeted. When researching rental properties from Oregon, we must have been seeing the vacation properties, which were much more expensive.
2. Things are more expensive than you think. I’m sure that part of this is due to the poor performance of the dollar against the euro, but there are relative differences there are more difficult to explain. For instance, electrical domestic appliance prices are very high, while food prices are merely moderately high. Anything we buy here will be left here at the end of our nine months, so there’s no particular motivation to get top-of-the-line on anything. Furthermore, if we can get along without it, we’re better off. Some things are unavoidable, however. When your clothes are dried on the clothesline, you can’t get along without an iron. The cheapest steam iron we were able to find was around 25 euros (say $38, depending on the exchange rate you use). Tonya decided she could live without a curling iron after not being able to find one for less than 45 euros. Ouch.
3. Watch those brand names! It’s comforting to see the occasional familiar brand on the supermarket shelf, but you’ll pay for it. In Spain, Hunt’s brand products are an exotic foreign import, and you pay accordingly.
4. We’re going to be leading a simpler life here, but frequently that will mean more labor-intensive. Hanging up clothes to dry, and then ironing them so they don’t look as if you’ve slept in them. Washing dishes by hand. Fewer pre-prepared foods, so more cooking from scratch. Lots of walking. Lots of bus rides. There are compensations, of course. Not having to maintain a car. Getting lots of exercise (I’ve already dropped a belt notch). Living in a beautiful city. Already being able to recognize and sneer at the tourists. Being welcomed into a culture that is so warm and friendly that I literally wouldn’t have believed it before I came here. (Of course it helps tremendously to speak the language. Tonya has had some not-so-positive experiences as she continues to develop her Spanish.)