Friday, March 26, 2010

The Great Cabbage Robbery

Wednesday’s news had a local story of a great and notable robbery in Riudecols. Riudecols is not a particularly auspicious location; in Catalan, the name means river of cabbages, and it is a small town that most Catalans have probably never heard of. I know of it because it is not far from here, and I’ve driven past (never into) it. As a nou vingut (newcomer) still learning the language and always paying attention, the name has always intrigued me. Who would name their town that?

Riudecols has a population of 1,026, but small as it is, it has a long history, being founded back before 1162 when its earliest written record occurs. This is one of the things that I love about living here. Our American historic buildings pale in comparison to what exists here – what you see all around you -- and the history people here can look back to as their own. When we lived in Tarragona, the view from our dining room was of the sea and the Roman wall. When I was reading Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar and got to the part where Hadrian was visiting Tarragona, I only had to look out the window to see where he would have stood. But I digress.

Recently, two Romanian brothers who live in a nearby town were hired to do some cleanup work by the owner of a somewhat shabby house in the middle of town. Rather than clean up, they cleaned it out, stealing from it what was reported to be 300 million euros worth of antiques and jewels. The owner, it seems, was a collector.

But I was suspicious of what was reported on the news. Three hundred million euros worth is a huge amount of very nice antiques and jewels. What were they doing stashed in this unknown town among the cabbages? So the next day, having business at a certain antique store (the best) in Tarragona (I want to sell the Norblin portrait of Frederick Chopin that I inherited and brought with me from California, only to keep it stored because I don’t know what to do with it), I took the opportunity to ask Pere, the antique dealer, if he knew the man who had been robbed.

And of course, he did. He had also visited his house, nicer, he said, on the inside than you would guess from the nondescript façade, with a pretty interior courtyard, and, leading out from the attic, a lovely garden that backed into the mountain behind the house.

I asked about the huge estimated value of the things that had been stolen. Pere shook his head and said the man was very nice, a Spanish nobleman, and a Knight of Malta. He has entertained royalty. He exaggerates. Pere told me that the Malta knight had once shown him a figurine whose value he said was incalculable. But Pere had a similar figurine in his shop window and its price was 100 euros. We agreed that perhaps the Knight wasn’t good at numbers.

Or perhaps, our knight was thinking in pesetes, the now defunct currency that was supplanted by the euro in 2001. Either because no one has yet changed their computer and cash register systems, or because they are afraid that the public still can’t cope, bank statements and cash register receipts still show amounts in pesetes as well as in euros. If you walk into a real estate office, they will most likely talk about prices in pesetes even though everyone has been earning and spending euros for nine years now.

In any case, the knight had a good-sized collection and it was stolen. Soon after the robbery, the two thieves, for some unknown reason, filed a complaint with the police, saying that they had been attacked at home. Although it seems that they were merely crying “wolf,” this brought on the entry into their home of the said police, and the subsequent discovery of the booty (botí in Catalan). So in addition to wondering what folks were thinking when they named their village back in the 12th century, I also wonder what the two thieves were thinking this week when they called the police.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Long Lost Friend

Calling my home a villa sounds pretentious to me, but that is the standard term here. When I think of a villa, I think of a romantic, or maybe an elegant, or even a rustic house with a lush garden. A villa sits on a winding, tree-lined, preferably country road, not on a suburban grid like here. Grids may be practical but they are not romantic whereas villas are. I looked up “villa” in the dictionary and found various degrees of approximation to the truth: “(1) a country residence or estate, (2) an imposing country or suburban home of a wealthy person,” or bingo, “(3) Brit. a detached or semidetached house.”

So, Manuel owns one villa and I own another (both with swimming pools) and we rent out both during the summer to holidaymakers, mostly Brits, but also sometimes to Russians, Czechs, Poles, and Norwegians. Manuel has a small in-law apartment tucked in behind his villa, and during the summer, while the visitors are holidaymaking at my villa, I go and stay with him in that tiny apartment.

I manage the business (and reap the profits) and my advertising consists of year-round ads I place with two online companies where vacationers can rent holiday homes directly from owners. I don’t know if you can imagine my surprise when, on 30 May 2009, I received an inquiry through one of them from an Irene L, the L being the first of a long string of letters of a distinctive last name.

Irene was my best friend growing up. We met in the first grade and were best friends through grammar school and junior high, drifting apart in high school until I drifted across town with my parents and ended up graduating from LA High. After that we didn’t really stay in touch, although we did meet once, about fifteen years ago, at a reunion at Dalya’s in Santa Monica.

A while back I started thinking about Irene and tried to find her on the internet. I found someone with that name who had written for the LA Times, but didn’t get any further. I’ve never mastered internet or any other kind of research, and in a little while I gave up.

Then, that Saturday in May, I read this inquiry for the villa: “are you the Dvora formerly known as Dorothy B. that I grew up with in LA, CA?”

I was stunned and wrote her back immediately. “Yes, this is me. Where are you? What are you doing? How did you find me? Are you coming to Spain?” What a strange coincidence that Irene should want to rent my villa.

But Irene wasn’t looking for a villa to rent in Spain. She had the same idea I had had, to find her old friend, but she went about it with more ingenuity and more determination than I had.

She wrote me back. “I'm so glad that I found you! I'm plotzing!” Ah, familiar words that you never hear in Spain from where the Jews were expelled in 1492 and where only a handful have returned. Thus, here people do not plotz or shlep, and there are no klutzes, shlemazels, nor nudniks, although there is the occasional ganef.

There is something very lonely about being the only one of your kind for miles around. I feel almost like Ishi, although he had it worse being the last of his while I only suffer from being alone.

It turned out that I had inadvertently made her search much more difficult that it might have been if I had just left things alone. “I actually started looking for you a few years ago. It took me that long to figure out your current name. Every once in a while I would try again but usually came up with nothing. I didn't realize that you changed your name from Dorothy to Dvora.”

Irene looked for combinations of both with my maiden name. Then she wanted to pair both with my second husband’s name, but all she could remember was Joe. She went on with Dorothy and my first married name which led to someone, but not to me. Who would have thought that I was using a new first name and, although married three times, the family name of my first husband (who is like a brother to me). No, I hadn’t made it easy.

Having several names during the course of my life has caused me many problems recently, what with the bureaucracies of foreign governments whose citizens do not change their names, not even for marriage, and who don’t seem capable of understanding that I am who I say I am. And in fact, I don’t really want to be Dvora any more. For one thing, the Spanish can’t say De VOH ra because that means to devour and sounds ugly to them. So they say DE voh ra, which I don’t like and which isn’t me. Dorothy might be nice. There are a handful of people, Jerry foremost among them, who still call me Dorothy. I kind of like that -- makes me feel young again.

“Finally, I Googled Dvora Treisman & the pieces started falling together. I found your ‘Notes From Barcelona’ in a 2003 OWA newsletter. Could this possibly be you? Then I found the name Manuel L. linked with yours. It looked like you might have been married in Reno. Is that correct? It's amazing what you can find online.” Yes it is. It’s actually a bit disconcerting.

Irene went on, “I had no idea that you moved to Spain! I found some other items that you wrote, and thought it might be you when I read about the Polish mother in L.A. Then, I found your home rental ads and thought I'd take a chance.”

Irene always was both forthcoming and shy, so it took a little bit longer for her to actually DO something. Apparently as with many of us, wine helped. “Last Friday night, fueled by some wine and egged on by a friend, I sent the e-mail. I'm so happy that I did!”

Irene and I have been in regular contact ever since. I tried to get her to come with me to the Vaughan English program at Gredos last fall, (see the blog post of October 2009) but she couldn’t. Eventually we agreed that, if I could manage (afford!) a vacation this year, we would meet up in France. Last year’s bookings (i.e., my income) were a disaster and I didn’t think I would have enough to even get me through the year. But so far I’ve managed and this year promises to be better, as I’ve already had some bookings (and deposits) for this summer. Those deposits are helping to carry me through (not that the E-store on this blog is getting me anywhere). If I have enough total bookings, I will be able to buy groceries and cat food and go on vacation in the fall. If you live in northern Spain, going to southern France is pretty easy and not too expensive.

So that is our current, tentative plan. Irene and her husband Marty will travel to Europe, and after a couple of weeks either she or both of them will meet me in Avignon where we will spend some time together after which Irene may come and visit with me here for a while (unless, God help me, I’ve sold my villa by then). All these details have yet to be worked out.

We’ve already exchanged a few bits about our youth, but Irene suggested that we wait until we’re together and then compare notes on what we remember. This will be a real treat for me because, having no brothers or sisters, and no old friends close by, I have no one to do that kind of sharing with. So, better than a booking, my ad has given me a long lost friend.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bulls & Donkeys, Dogs & Cats

Brigitte Bardot has joined the protest against the Spanish torture of bulls immortalized by Hemingway and called the corrida. Catalunya, being more progressive than the rest of Spain, is in the midst of a big internal fight to make traditional Spanish bullfighting illegal. In fact, there are only two bullrings where the traditional spectacle takes place: one in Barcelona (the second Barcelona ring is being converted to a shopping mall) and one in Tarragona – a city I find much more Spanish than Catalan.

Being more refined isn’t the only reason for the move to ban bullfights. Bullfights symbolize Spain, and many Catalans want their symbols to represent their own unique culture – things like the human towers, the sardana (the very staid Catalan national dance, about as opposite from flamenco as you can get), and the Catalan donkey that replaces the Osborne bull in Catalan iconography.

But bulls aren’t the only animals mistreated in Spain. Dogs and cats don’t fare well here either. I was appalled, when I lived in Barcelona, at the number of stray dogs and cats on the streets. Here, in the middle of nowhere, it’s the same. There are huge colonies of abandoned or feral cats in towns and countless stray dogs wandering the roads and highways. As a matter of fact, these dogs running free has made my walking alone stressful rather than enjoyable.

Statistics from 2006 say that in Catalunya, every day 47 dogs and 20 cats are abandoned. That’s 16,732 dogs and 7120 cats a year and that’s only in Catalunya, not counting the rest of Spain. People get pets – mostly puppies -- for Christmas and then abandon them when (1) they get too big (there are those who don’t know how big a full grown German Shepherd is), (2) they figure out that pet food costs money, (3) they go on their month-long vacation and suddenly realize they don’t know what to do with the animal (and don’t want to pay for boarding). I’ve seen those dogs on the side of the roads. I guess people just put them there as they drive off for vacation. I remember one dog in Tarragona whose owner had simply left him out on the street for the month of August. It was a small dog, and he was frantically running around looking for food, and probably for his owner. I saw the owner with the dog later in September. At that point the dog was limping; the owner didn’t seem concerned. There is also the end of the hunting season which accounts for almost 12% of the dogs that are abandoned.

The people here where I live who take care of the stray animals are predominantly foreigners. Johanna, who is Dutch, is the local cat lady. She feeds a colony of cats near me, captures them and takes them to the vet to get them sterilized, and generally takes care of them, paying for it all out of her own pocket. Over a year ago, when Minnie turned up on my front step, it was Johanna who I called to help me figure out what to do. She’s the one who went with me to introduce me to her vet in Miami Beach. (Yes, Miami Platja is about ten minutes down the highway!).

I didn’t plan to adopt Minnie. She was hungry and wounded and I couldn’t ignore her. But I thought I would take her to the vet, get her fixed up, take care of her for a while until I could find her a home or place her at a shelter. Well forget the shelters, they are overflowing. And forget finding a home. Most people here don’t want cats. One German woman collects some and then takes them to Germany for adoption. But at the time, her facilities were full. I’m sure some people must have cats, but I don’t personally know one who does.

Minnie, whose proper name is Minina, got better and ended up staying. She’s a sweet cat, even if she does scratch and bite me sometimes. I know she isn’t being mean; she just doesn’t know any better and I don’t know how to teach her. She used to sleep in the spare bedroom,. But eventually she found her way on to my bed where the inevitable happened and she now keeps me warm at night and company during the day.

Common wisdom is that cats are solitary, independent creatures who don’t look much for company. But like all the cats I’ve ever had, Minnie is happiest when she is near me. Generally when I leave one room to be in another, within five or ten minutes, Minnie is there too. And for all that she isn’t a lap cat, she will sit on my chest in the morning, stare directly into my face and meow when she thinks it is time for me to get up and feed her.

When Johanna the cat lady went to the Netherlands in early December, she asked me if I would take care of the cat colony while she was gone. I didn’t really want to – I find them so pitiful and the whole thing so depressing, that I would rather just not have to face it. But of course I couldn’t say no. These cats present a problem that I don’t know the solution to, and if what I have to do is feed them for a while, I will.

There are about 18 of them – sometimes more, sometimes less. Sometimes I feed them on the sidewalk and other times in the empty lot where Johanna put some ceramic roof tiles to hold the food. In either case, the idea is to make lots of portions so the cats don’t have to fight with each other in order to eat and the weakest can also get fed. The roof tiles lend a feeling of calçotada to the enterprise, although I’m sure I’m the only one who notices that. Johanna’s 20-kilo food supply ran out a long time ago and I’ve been buying it ever since. I talk to them a little when I feed them, but in general I don’t pet or interact with the cats even though a couple of them are pretty friendly. I don’t want too strong a bond to develop between us.

When I came last Monday, I found that the black and white, the one with the black spot on his chin, the one who is the most outgoing and friendly of them all, who always rubs against my legs and who runs to be the first at each new pile that I put down (and I put down at least 20), and who generally is under my feet and really annoying came late, walking very slowly and limping badly. He is the one I always talk to, telling him to go away! He’s a nuisance.

I was very distressed to see him in this state. Next day I talked to another cat woman, this one in the village, who suggested that I wait a while to see if he doesn’t heal himself. They often do, she said. But when I went back on Wednesday he was the last to arrive, walking even more slowly and clearly not getting any better. His injury didn’t seem to affect his appetite, but when he hunched down to eat, the foot on his injured leg twisted under his body and seemed broken.

I went home but couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t just leave him like that. I decided I would go the next day, get hold of the cat and take him to the vet. If he needed to be kept indoors, I would set up the extra bedroom and he could stay there while he recuperated.

I always go in the late afternoon to feed the cats, but I was in a hurry and went the next morning instead. He wasn’t among the cats that showed up for this special breakfast, making me even more distressed, worrying that I had waited too long and the cat had died. Guilt struck.

And yet, maybe that was just as well. After all, he is a homeless cat, taking him to the vet might turn out to be expensive, and not knowing what was wrong, I didn’t know if the vet would even be able to help him. But deep down I didn’t really believe that. This little cat has too much spirit to give it up so quickly. He was more likely napping than dead. After all, regular feeding time was around 5:30 pm. So I went back again before 6 and he turned up. I got him into the cat carrier, and took him to the vet in Miami. While waiting my turn I spoke with a German woman who had brought in a small puppy, one of four that had been dumped alive in a garbage container. One died the other two were at her house, and this one needed some medical attention. We discussed the sad situation around us, where many Spaniards feel it is “unnatural” to sterilize domestic animals, but then throw the litters out onto the street or worse, into the garbage. I left my wounded cat to spend the night and get X-rayed in the morning.

I was so relieved, I cried driving home. The vet had looked him over and appeared positive about his overall state, so it seemed hopeful, and I was glad I had brought him in. No more guilt.

The next day, Friday, I went back to the vet and they asked me if the cat had a name. A name? He’s a stray. No, he doesn’t have a name. They confirmed that the little guy has a broken leg. They could do surgery, but they suggested that the break might heal without it, so we will hope for that. They are keeping him there a few days so he can stay in a small enclosure – the less he moves around the better until there is some degree of ossification. I will probably keep him here in the extra bedroom afterwards for a while, depending on how long they suggest, so that he doesn’t have to go right back out into the street in this incredibly cold weather and can have additional safe time for recuperation.

The vet knew the cat. They recognized him because he has a little piece cut in his ear to indicate he had been sterilized. That means that Johanna has already invested time, money, and effort with the cat. I am glad I followed up.

This last Tuesday I called the vet, thinking I would be picking up my stray and bringing him here to continue his recuperation. But they seemed to think that he should stay there longer. They had either done a second X-ray or taken a closer look at the first. I believe they were telling me that the bone had been splintered. However, I did clearly understand that his injury was the result of being shot. Shot!

I may live out in the middle of nowhere, but my nowhere is in the middle of an urbanization – a kind of suburb. That cat (who I think should be called Felix) lives in the center of it, just two blocks from my house. Are people here shooting cats? What kind of person would do that? The same kind that throws live puppies in the garbage and enjoys watching bulls being tortured to death.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Classic Cars and Memories

I can see my mom and dad driving around the Côte d’Azur in 1946 in a Peugeot like this. They lived in Nice for a short time after the War, while they were waiting for their visas to go to the U.S. My dad had a job in a marmalade factory, and on weekends they would dress up, rent a car, and drive around like the rich people. I’ve been to Nice and frankly, I don’t understand why they left.

I like stuff but cars aren’t stuff. When you think of stuff, you think of things to decorate the house, or things for the kitchen, of clothes and SHOES. I used to be wild for shoes, but now that my left foot bothers me and I wear sensible shoes, it isn’t the same. Shopping for shoes is almost embarrassing and amassing heaps of them has lost its appeal.

In my house, stuff does not mean electronic gadgets. I have a basic TV that does not have a flat screen, a DVD player that does not record. I bought the cheapest, smallest boom box I could find when I opened my shop, intending to use it there for background music, mainly to showcase the Catalan folk music CDs that were for sale. And it did do that (together with playing Frank Sinatra, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and Beau Soleil), although I never could get stations I liked on its radio. (The woman who sold it to me said it was because of the thick medieval stone walls.) One tourist bought one CD once. Now the boom box is my stereo at home, it only plays at very low or high volume, and I still can’t get anything I like on its radio.

No, cars are not stuff. They are too big and expensive to be stuff. They are somewhere between stuff and investment or even works of art, and are not something I can collect. But I can look at and admire them, and I do. I always have. I have lots of photos of the cars that take my fancy when I walk down the street. Mostly they are photos of Citroen 2 CVs. I love those cars. I even use an image of one as a bookmark. Actually it is a postcard, and fittingly, I found it in a secondhand copy of a Maigret mystery that I bought at Black Oak Books in Berkeley fifteen or more years ago. The photo was taken in 1957 by Sabine Weiss and since it’s a shot taken in the rain, it was never meant to be sharp and clear, but a kind of misty, romantic image. Now that it’s been marking places in my books for over fifteen years, it is even murkier. But for me, it still inspires the same romantic feeling of things Parisian.

The first car I remember was the Dodge that my dad bought in 1951 to take us from New York to Los Angeles, a couple of years after we arrived in the U.S.A. Actually I’m not sure of the year, but who is there is ask? I do remember that the car was olive green, had a ram’s horn that sat like a trophy on the front of the hood, and my dad had bought it new for the big cross-country trip. Come to think of it, it looked something like that black Peugeot that could have taken my parents around Nice. When he started working as a gardener, he drove a Dodge truck. Later, in the 60s, he bought a Dodge Dart. My mom drove that Dart until she couldn’t drive any more. I don’t know why my father was so devoted to Dodge except that they were relatively inexpensive and probably good value for the money. Although Dodge has made some muscle cars, none of ours ever qualified as such and they certainly weren’t sexy.

My hot car days, so to speak, are long gone. They started in around 1965 with the beautiful cream colored 1960 Mercedes Benz 220 SE that my father bought used. That my father would choose such a car at a second hand dealer is a testament to his good taste. At the time it was not a classic, just a manual shift, second hand car. And yet it had the curved lines similar to the old Dodge, classic car lines, in my opinion. And it was gorgeous, with its elegant shape, wooden dashboard, and red leather upholstery. I managed to kill that car on a cross-country drive back from New York a few years later. I don’t know how my father ever forgave me, but actually he took it well in stride and never seemed to hold it against me.

From the Mercedes I moved on to Volvos. Uri and I were together then, in the 1970s, and he got into fixing cars, learning the skills from Jerry who had, and I believe still does, a very special fondness for Volvos and Saabs. He fixed, I drove. We had one Volvo 122S after another until Uri finally fixed us a real cutie: a P1800, just like Simon Templar drove.

That’s pretty much it for the interesting part of my car history. When I got to the point where I felt I needed a crane to help me in and out of the low-to-the-ground P1800, I went on to a newer (but still second hand) Volvo 144 sedan, then a new Toyota. Here in Spain we had a Seat (a Spanish car) and now a Citroen, not the 2 CV of my dreams, but a Xsarra that burns a lot of oil.

Not being a car collector, however, is no reason not to go to a classic car show. I went to one the other day not only because I like old cars, but also because it is so deadly boring where I live that I look for any diversion that isn’t too far away and is not too expensive. Four euros is cheap enough and frankly, there is nothing for sale inside at a classic car show that I would be tempted to buy, except maybe the cars themselves, but I can’t afford any of them – not even the old beat up Citroens -- so it was safe from a shopping point of view.

The classic car show was in Reus, in the same convention center as the antique show we went to a few weeks before when Manuel bought me that lovely German clock (that still wakes me up during the night when it bongs). Although Manuel hates cars, he says he likes the old ones, so we went together on a Saturday morning. I was expecting to see the same sparsely populated rooms, but no. This time it was packed. Clearly old cars are far more popular with the people here than old stuff.

First we viewed all the Minis on display out front. There must have been fifty or more, a bunch of VW bugs, some Seats 500 and 600, and a few odds and ends (including, of course a 2 CV and a 2 CV truck). Cute, but not worth the price of admission. But then we hadn’t paid to get in yet.

Inside was a treasure trove of antique cars. Well worth the four euros. I didn’t take notes – just photos, so I cannot document the make and model of any of them. There was a Model A and Model T Ford, Bentley, Mercedes, Citroen, Renault (no Volvos), even a 60s Buick with fins, and makes I never heard of. But data wasn’t important to me. It was the aesthetic experience that I was after and it was very satisfying.

Not only were there cars, but motorcycles and scooters too. The only ones I noted were the Bultacos because Rocky owned one before I knew him and had a Bultaco sticker on the back of his Karmann Ghia when I did know him, and the Vespa because I thought that was what Jerry used to ride when he traveled around town with his dog Sparky, but he tells me that his scooter was a Zundap Bella, the Rolls Royce of Scooters that my father selected and his father paid for. I realize now that my father didn’t particularly like to shop, and he wasn’t flashy or showy, but he did appreciate quality.

I’m sorry my Dad couldn’t have come to the show, just like I’m sorry, from time to time, that he isn’t here to taste some of the wonderful food, or to see the excellent Spanish athletes play soccer, tennis, or riding bicycles. I wonder which car in the show he would have liked best.  Maybe this Citroen?  Simple and classic.