Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving, Spanish Style

Thursday was an odd and melancholy day for several reasons. Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Spain, so it’s business as usual… Scott went to work and so did I… in the kitchen. Some good friends here in Spain are very interested in our very American custom of Thanksgiving, so we were celebrating Thanksgiving on Friday night. The entire rest of the world works as we Americans kick back and watch football. (Go Trojans!) Okay, so we all know the drill… we women spend 2+ days in the kitchen, while our men watch the game.

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

Relative Accents

It’s Thanksgiving in Spain. Which means, another working day like any other day. We’ll be having a Thanksgiving dinner with some friends on Friday evening….more about that in another blog entry.

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

Educational Politics in Spain

Even though you know it can’t be so, deep down there’s a hope that when you go to a different country, you can leave behind the little political stupidities that you deal with every day. Of course, people are people no matter where you go. I’ve been working at the Gran Capitán institute for a couple of months now, and I have a little more visibility into the political undercurrents that are going on.

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


It’s been a very good week for hikes. Last Monday, we did the Montserrat hike, which you can read about in the Barcelona entry. On Saturday, our friends Lola and Eduardo took us on a walk in the Trassierra just out of town. We didn’t bring the camera on that walk, but I wish we had. It was beautiful up there in the hills, much more forested than I would have expected in this part of Spain. On the way, we passed the ruins of an old Moorish mill. Now, the Moors were kicked out of Córdoba in 1236 A.D., so the mill is nearly 800 years old at least. However, this isn’t like the Alhambra or the Mezquita; it hasn’t been maintained and restored for tourists. It was crumbling, with vines and tree roots growing through the walls. It looked like something from an Indiana Jones movie. Further along, we saw the entrance to an old Roman copper mine. There were actually two entrances. The first was a pit which had a modern ladder going down, but it’s fenced in to keep crazy hikers like us from trying to go down. The second was a tunnel dug back into the hillside. We followed it back until it was too dark to continue. It’s probably just as well that we didn’t have flashlights; I would have liked to go on, but it was getting late, and we didn’t want to be caught out in the hills after dark.

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 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

The Quest for Pumpkin Pie

Mostly, I have moved beyond trying to create America in Córdoba. But some things, like Thanksgiving, just need to happen. Some of Scott´s colleagues are interested in having a Thanksgiving Dinner, so for the last couple of months I have been trying to locate ingredients. After weeks of searching, I finally found the necessary herb & spices for stuffing. The next challenge… to re-invent pumpkin pie.

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!

Go to:

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.)



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


The weekend excursion to Barcelona was an experiment. With my working schedule at Gran Capitán, I don’t have to go in on Mondays, so we always have at least three-day weekends. The question was whether we could maximize our three-day weekend by taking a night train Monday evening. This means that we’d arrive in Córdoba early Tuesday morning, and then I’d have to go in to work. The experiment was a success. We arrived back home in time for me to take a shower and head to the school without having to rush. We’d slept well on the train, so I wasn’t even particularly tired at school. Very nice.

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 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

Climate Control in Córdoba

When you think of Andalucía, you think of heat. This is an area where half of the population leaves in July and August, because it´s too unbearably hot. Hotels and apartments go to great pains to advertise that they have air conditioning. Heating just doesn´t come up. When we were investigating apartments, we noted that our piso in Plaza Colón has air conditioning, but no central heating. No problem, right?

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 and the Alhambra

Continuing our exploration of Spain, we rode the train last weekend to Granada. Take a look at our large number of pictures (I’m afraid that we went crazy with the camera this time, but there’s really a lot to see in Granada!).

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

The Elections from Across the Pond

Congratulations to Barack Obama on his historic presidential victory. It’s been extremely interesting to track the election through the filter of a Western European country. With the world financial crisis and the terrorism threat, people in Spain have been anxiously awaiting the results of the American elections. When we were in France, we actually saw billboards for Barack Obama! For the last week, the Spanish newspaper headlines have been dominated by the American elections. One of our friends joked that none of the first-string Spanish journalists are in Spain; they’re all in America this week. Obama is certainly popular in Europe.

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

Reflections from the Terrazza

The clothes dryer is known as sunshine in this part of the world, so I am spending a good deal of time on our terrazza. Hanging up the laundry can be quite relaxing. It isn’t so much the activity, as the ambience. I am reminded of Bert in “Mary Poppins” when he explains to the children about the wonders of rooftops, and how no one gets to enjoy them but the chimney sweeps and the birds, and in my case, the industrious housewives. The view from the top of our building, which really isn’t all that tall (7 floors) is quite lovely. You can watch the clouds as they move across the sky (and wonder if it is futile to hang out your laundry to dry – as it was today… weather can be as unpredictable in Spain as in Oregon.) Or watch a spectacular sunset. Or my favorite part… take in the symphony of the Córdoban bells.

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

The Perfect Fraud Protection System

When we started planning for this adventure, we went through a number of “What if?” scenarios in an effort to make sure we prepared for unforeseen situations. And then, we discussed our plans with family and friends to see if we could uncover anything that we might have missed. As reality of our adventure began to gather steam, our son, the soon-to-be lawyer, suggested that it would be a really good idea to prepare wills and powers of attorney before we left the country, just in case. We did these things, in part to humor the boy, but also because they sounded like a reasonable suggestions. As our departure drew near, we began to have conversations with the companies that we do regular business: phone, utilities, credit cards, the bank. We wanted to make sure that all the bases were covered. How much time did the company need, for instance, to turn off the phone? Was paperless billing available? If so, we converted to paperless billing. Did we need to order new credit cards because the ones that we have will expire? The lists of questions seemed endless at times, especially those to the banks.

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…

We’re Official!

We just went down to the police station this morning to get our Tarjetas de Identificación para Extranjeros (our foreign national identification cards). After all of the pain and suffering we went through to sign up for the cards, actually receiving them was anticlimactic. We went to the station, went directly to the waiting room (no sitting outside in the cold this time), waited about five minutes, and were handed our cards. It was that simple. Until we got the cards, I hadn’t realized how much it had been weighing on my mind. We’re now good to stay in Spain until October 31 2009 (although the money won’t last that long). We’re good to leave the country for other foreign excursions without being worried about getting back into the country. We don’t have to carry our passports around all the time (although I probably still will, at least for a while). It’s not Spanish citizenship, but it’s a much more secure status than we’ve had up to now.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Halloween in Spain

It's interesting to see how American holidays are viewed here in Spain. Halloween is not a traditional Spanish holiday (although I read an interesting article in El Mundo today, claiming that Halloween had been celebrated by the Celtic peoples in Galicia, and had later been suppressed by the Catholic church). Over the last few years, Halloween has been gaining in popularity. Still, I can't help thinking that they don't quite get it here. Mostly, the Halloween celebrations involve teenagers dressing up in costume and going to parties. Trick-or-Treating is unknown, and people look at me with a baffled expression when I talk about Jack-o'-lanterns.

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!