Friday, May 28, 2010

The Key

My first few years in Spain I didn’t have a car. I never would have thought that I could live without one, much less be happy. But in fact, I didn’t miss it. Living in a city, I could take public transportation to all the places I couldn’t walk to, and on a rare occasion it was easy to get a taxi. However, when you live out in the middle of nowhere you need a car to get somewhere, and so we bought one, a Seat Ibiza.

The Seat served us well. It was a cheap small car that ran on diesel (most vehicles here do) and was economical to run and to maintain. Seat is a Spanish company and the Ibiza, bottom of their line, is probably the most popular car here. Its styling doesn’t noticeably change from year to year (like the old Volvo 122S) and its only drawback is that unlike the Volvo, you don’t get the feeling that it offers much protection on the road.

In January 2009 we bought our present car, an 11-year-old Citroen Xsara that replaced the 11-year-old Seat that Manuel killed one rainy day when he plowed through a deep puddle. The Citroen is a larger car that also runs on diesel. Unfortunately, the Xsara does not have the charm or character of my favorite 2CV, and ours is a bit of a heap. It’s a heap because it burns oil although our mechanic tells me that it doesn’t. Thing is, as many times as I’ve asked him, I still don’t understand his explanation of what is happening to the oil.

The car blows black smoke out the back when I accelerate and it constantly sends burning fumes into the passenger compartment. I have it parked in front of my house a lot of the time (Manuel and I share the car, so it is also parked in front of his house a lot of the time), but it leaves no oil spots on the concrete. And yet, we use up about two liters of oil every four weeks. If it isn’t burning oil and it isn’t leaking, where does the oil go? The mechanic says it loses oil because I don’t drive fast enough.

The other problem with the car is that we only have one key for it. When we first bought it, a year and a half ago, we asked Jeroni, our mechanic, to get us a duplicate. He said he would order one from Citroen, but during the first year of our car ownership he didn’t. Eventually we nagged enough for him to take the car serial number and get us a key – a blank that had to be taken to a Citroen dealer in order to be made to work. It wasn’t simply a matter of having it cut, something electronic was also involved. He told us there was a dealer in L’Amposta, but L’Amposta is about half an hour away and not on any of our usual routes.

Then, two months ago, Manuel lost our one and only key. He had been pulling a few weeds in his garden, throwing them over the wall onto the abandoned lot next door, and in one of his throws, he let go of the key that for some unfathomable reason he had in his weed-pulling hand. Because I have the useful aptitude for finding things, he called me. Usually it is just a matter of applying logic: when and where was the last time you saw or used it? Where would you be likely to have put it? Other times it is simply my ability to see what is sitting right in front of me.

Manuel knew where he was when he made the fateful throw, so there was only a relatively small area where the key could have landed. But that area was full of tall bushes, huge weeds, and little mountains of building debris piled onto debris. We looked and looked, but it was hopeless. Even I, the great lost objects sleuth, couldn’t find it, and I walked back home with the unhappy feeling that, because our key was not so straightforward to copy, we were in for a big problem.

Manuel said he would ask his neighbors, who have two teenage children, to help him look the next morning. Maybe all that boundless energy and youthful eyesight would yield better results. Next morning I was waiting for him to call when he suddenly showed up…. smiling. Success! And he did it all on his own. He applied logic and calculation, narrowed down the area, and took a good look in the spot where it had to be, and there it was!

This was the incident that convinced me that procrastination was no longer an acceptable policy, and that Monday we went in with our blank to ask Jeroni where the Citroen dealer was that we had to go to. But now he told us that if we waited until the next time we had the car serviced and left the key with him for the day, he would get it done. So a couple of weeks later that is what we did. Only it turned out that he couldn’t get it done, and we had to go to the dealer after all. Did we still have the code on the little piece of paper that he had given us when he gave us the blank? What the heck. Manuel said he was never given any little piece of paper, only the key. Jeroni insisted that yes, and we persisted that no, and finally we went to the Citroen dealer, the one in Tortosa, a place we are familiar with, taking along our blank with no little piece of coded paper.

At the Citroen service department we were attended by the service manager and then taken to the waiting lounge. After about twenty minutes, they came to get us. They couldn’t use the blank we had; it was the wrong one for that car. But our mechanic got it for us from Citroen. He had given them the car’s serial number. That could be, but he probably bought it from a parts supplier and not from the company and in any case, while it was the right key for the physical lock, it was the wrong key for the electronic control. “See this little blue spot? It should be black.” Surely they jest.

The service manager told us they would order the correct blank (one with a little black spot) and we could return the key we had to our mechanic and ask for our money back. They would have the new blank in two days and we should call before coming back for an appointment.

I called last Tuesday and went in on Wednesday. I didn’t even get the chance to sit down in that nice, clean waiting lounge. Their mechanic took the blank that they had ordered for us and my original key, gave them a good look, and declared that they could not make a copy with that blank. It might be the right key for the electronics, but it was the wrong shape for the mechanical and couldn’t be copied from my original, I think because the stem is too short. Did I have that other blank that didn’t work? They could copy the mechanical from that.

You have to be kidding. The service manager told us that we could send the other key back. In fact we hadn’t done anything with it (that’s not surprising, is it), but I hadn’t brought it with me either, seeing that it was useless. The manager was there, looking a bit sheepish. The whole thing seemed so ridiculous to me that I didn’t even get angry. How absurd. I’ve never had a car before that was so complicated. I’ve only ever had keys that open mechanical locks and then turned on the engine. They told me that this newfangled system was designed in order to protect me. Well hey, protect me from progress. Sometimes newer isn’t better. Basically, when you drive an old heap, you don’t spend much time worrying about your car being stolen. And what if we hadn’t found our key? Would we have had to buy a whole new engine?

I will go back next week, taking the useless blank with me, and maybe, after a year and a half, I will drive out with a spare key that works.

Friday, May 21, 2010


On Tuesday 27 April, I put on shorts for the first time this year, intending to go out, enjoy the sun, and start on my summer tan. Giving myself a look over in the full length mirror, I noticed a good-size lump on the back of my right leg, at the back of my knee joint. When I turned a little to get a better look, I saw an even bigger one on the back of my left knee. I felt them and they were hard -- hard and ugly. You might ask, how could something grow that big without my knowing about it. All I can say is, God only knows. I never noticed the lumps all winter, maybe because I only look in the mirror after I’m dressed. The lumps don’t hurt, and the slight stiffness that I feel in my left knee I figured was just part of aging. It’s not nearly as stiff as what I feel in my lower back most mornings.

But lumps don’t count as part of aging, so I called for a doctor’s appointment and got one for the Friday of that same week. My doctor told me they were not bone cancer (my original worry), only cysts. I have had small cysts on my head several times in the last twenty years – the one I have now is the fourth. The first three I had removed; but for this fourth one, the dermatologist here prescribed two creams to apply each day and after a while it became smaller and has stayed the same now for over two years, so I just leave it alone. When it comes to my body, if it ain’t truly broke, I don’t mess with it.

However, the doctor said the ones on my knees would probably just continue to grow indefinitely so she authorized for me to go see a specialist – a surgeon – in Tortosa. I was given an appointment for the following Tuesday.

I am a great chicken when it comes to illness, pain, and almost any kind of medical procedure, with surgery being at the top of the list for what to avoid at all costs. But I did a good job of not worrying too much. Since Doctor Nadal had assured me that they weren’t bone cancer, I figured this wouldn’t be much worse than the surgeries I’ve had on the small cysts. Grow up Dvora; it isn’t enough to lose sleep over

In my village the health service has a small building where the regular GPs and pediatricians work, where you can go in case of an emergency 24 hours a day, and where the ambulance is stationed. But specialists are housed in larger clinics and the nearest one to us is in Tortosa.

Tortosa is our closest city and the capital of the comarca (like a county) of the Baix Ebre (lower Ebre). It is a small city of about 31,000 people, and sits on the Ebre River. Originally Roman, it was conquered by the Muslims in the 8th century and remained under Muslim rule for over 400 years. The castle overlooking the city (now a government-run Parador) was built by the Muslims in the 10th century on the site of an old Roman acropolis. Tortosa was later conquered by Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona, in 1148 as part of the Second Crusade.

The cathedral was started in 1347 and took 250 years to build. They say it was completed in 1597, but in fact, I have never seen it without scaffolding and construction netting. The church of Sant Domènec, built in the 16th century, has sculptures on the facade that were all beheaded by gunshot during the Spanish Civil War. One of the most colorful buildings is the old Escorxador (slaughter house), designed in 1905 in the modernist style. It is made of brickwork and ceramics and is reminiscent of the Mudejar architectural style. The biggest battle of the Civil War – the Battle of the Ebro – took place in this area and Tortosa still shows many scars from that time. Although a comarcal capital, Tortosa has many ruins and derelict buildings in its old town, gives the overall impression of being shabby, and seems to be a somewhat forgotten and abandoned part of Catalunya.

But this wasn’t a sightseeing trip. The Tortosa surgeon said that I had Baker’s cysts, but because there were two of them – twins -- he thought I should be seen by a traumatòleg (an injury surgeon) who would probably do an eco- or sonogram, to check on any underlying problem with the joint. This was not good news as far as I was concerned, and I went down to the window to get the appointment with the traumatòleg. They gave me one for the following Monday.

Now I did start to worry about having surgery, not just on one knee, but on both and not just because of a little fat-filled cyst but something more complicated. Would they do both at the same time? How would I get around? My bathroom is on a half landing, how would I get to it? My bedroom is upstairs. Would I be able to bend over to feed the cats and clean kitty poop from their boxes? Would I be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life? I really should not be turned loose with my own thoughts when an illness or health issue looms.

That Monday, the wait for the traumatòleg was over an hour. These doctors are public health service employees and don’t have a say in how many people get scheduled in. Some people went in and out quickly and others took longer. Frankly, I was happy that she (as it turned out) was giving everyone who came the time and attention they needed. Keep in mind that none of these doctor and specialist appointments were costing me a penny. When my turn came, I explained my problem briefly (in Catalan – all my conversations with medical personnel are in Catalan), she had my record already on her computer screen, and she proceeded to examine me.

The traumatòleg confirmed that these were Baker’s cysts, and that they were probably the result of sitting a lot. She would authorize an ecogram to take a better look but she didn’t think surgery would be necessary. I was so relieved I kissed her. No surgery, no drugs, no creams. I could treat them myself. But I couldn’t quite understand what she was telling me to do twice a day for twenty minutes. Put something against the cysts? Had I heard right? I didn’t even need to go to a pharmacy. I just needed to go to a grocery store and buy two bags of frozen peas!

Friday, May 14, 2010


In the village of Rasquera, between here and Miravet, on the first weekend of May every year they hold their annual Fira Ramadera, which is a livestock fair. Marking the time when the flocks head for the Cardó and Tivissa mountains, and locally known as the goat fair, it captured my attention because where there is goat, they may also be goat cheese.

Ramat means livestock, and although Catalunya has dairy and beef industries, they are located in the north (Girona), and west (Lleida). Here, in the more arid south, you find pigs, goats, and sheep. In Catalunya (and maybe all of Spain) most of the livestock industry is relatively small scale and family run. I recently read in Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human that Europe does much better in providing decent living and slaughter conditions for its commercial animals (with the exception of chickens) than the U.S. does. And in fact, that fits with my own general impression. Although they may exist, in all the nine years that I’ve lived here I have never seen huge stockyards here like the ones in Coalinga in central California, and when there is a news story having to do with livestock, you always see a relatively small, family-run business.

Herding goats or sheep is not a big money-maker and even though there are many people who are not driven to get rich, as time goes by, fewer people are doing it, especially fewer young people. To give the vocation a boost, the Generalitat has recently instituted programs to train young people so that those herders who do not have children to take over, might find a stranger to do it when the time comes and thus the landscape will remain dotted with sheep and goats and the food supply will continue to be locally produced.

One of the more charming things about Catalunya is that there are shepherds and goatherds with small flocks, sometimes going this way and that along the roads. You might see them when you drive outside the cities, and I could even see them out the window from our apartment in Tarragona, being situated as we were near the edge of town. There are also a few small herds on the outer fringe of Barcelona, sometimes taken by their shepherds to graze in the large open space park of Collserola that borders the back of the city, as Tilden Park does in Berkeley. Pigs are a different story. They are always located outside of town, but I have felt the odor in town when the wind was blowing the wrong way.

The oldest signs of human life at Rasquera are the 6,500 – 10,000-year-old cave paintings. It was an Iberian settlement before the Romans came, and its first civic document dates from 1153 when Ramon Berenguer IV gave Rasquera to the Templars, whose castle was in Miravet. Increasing from its first recorded population of 14 souls in 1497, it rose to its height of 1542 people in 1910 and has eased back down to 955 at the latest count. It’s primary economic activity is agriculture: vineyards, olive trees, some fruit trees (it is typical of the houses in the village to have open attics for the drying of figs), and breeding and raising of goats and sheep, most notably the Cabra Blanca (white goat), a breed native to Rasquera.

In Rasquera, before leaving for their summer pasture, the animals are herded into pens at the edge of the village, and people come from all around to admire them. In addition to the gathering of the flocks and display of a few prime examples in individual pens, there was also a section at the fair for artisan products, both food and handcrafts. Of course I was mostly interested in the stands with artisan-made goat cheeses. Spain has a lot of wonderful food, but it does not produce nor offer a wide selection of cheeses. Spanish varieties are few -- usually hard cheeses -- and they import almost none. So, while I love spotting the sheep and goats when I’m out and about in Catalunya, and I love the feeling they give me of an earlier time and a more simple life, I do miss the countless wonderful cheeses from the Cheeseboard in Berkeley.

Friday, May 7, 2010

80 Years Young

It’s not every day one turns 80 and not everyone has the luck to do so in good health. But Manel did both last week.

Besides having good health, Manel also has the good fortune to have kind and generous friends who had offered to put on a party for his birthday. But the party would follow on the weekend, and I will talk about that in a minute. The first question was what to do on the actual day. I decided to invite him for a day trip to Horta de Sant Joan, one of our favorite villages in the Terra Alta, land of good strong wine and wonderful landscapes with strange rock formations, where Picasso visited and worked for some time and where they say he found inspiration for his venture into cubism.

All of that notwithstanding, what I wanted to do in Horta was to go and see Lo Parot, the 2000-year-old olive tree. If Manel thought that at 80 he was old, this tree could help him put age into perspective.

In July 2009 at the outskirts of Horta, there was a huge forest fire fueled by high winds where 1200 hectares were burned and five firefighters died when the wind changed and they became trapped. This was very big and very grave news within Catalunya, a relatively small community, and everyone grieved, including me. They had originally announced that the fire had been started inadvertently by a lightning strike, but later it was discovered that it had been intentionally set, leading to the recent arrest of two young men who had worked in fire prevention, making the whole tragedy even more grievous.

So as lovely as it is, Horta now also holds some sad associations. Nevertheless we drove up, passing some of the charred land along the way. Once an Iberic settlement, Horta fell to the Moslem invaders in the 8th century, later being taken by conquering Christians in the 12th. In 1174 it came under the jurisdiction of the Templars. I find Horta a pretty little village, relatively speaking. When you travel around Spain, you have to take into account that Spain was a very poor country for most of the 20th century, having suffered its own Civil War after which there was no rebuilding money from other countries, and having suffered over 30 years under Franco’s not very progressive thumb. Especially in small towns and villages, you are likely to see buldings in ruins or various states of disrepair, with many of the ones from the 1960s and 70scheaply built. Unfortunately, adding to the poor physical condition, you also find a lot of garbage on the ground and very few flower pots on balconies. But Horta rises above the average. So many of the old stone buildings are in good condition that you don’t notice the others, many people tend flowers on their balconies, and when you add the views that are had from many vantage points, you end up with a picturesque village.

We had two items on the agenda: the Centre Picasso D’Orta and Lo Parot. We’ve been to Horta many times but never to the Picasso center because they have no original Picasso paintings, so why go? However, recently it dawned on me that it might be a good learning experience any way, you don’t need originals for that, and you’re never too old to learn.

Picasso spent two periods in Horta: the first as a young man when he stayed with his friend Manuel Pallarès from summer 1898 to February 1899, and the second when he came with his lover Fernande Olivier and stayed from May to August of 1909. Although Horta has no original paintings, they have many facsimiles and together with text, they explain a lot about what Picasso did and what he saw in Horta. I personally enjoyed the paintings from his first stay, when his style was natural and flowing and the pictures beautiful, before he started in with geometry. All around they plaster the quote: “Tot el que sé ho he après a Horta” (All I know I have learned in Horta). But I’m suspicious. In what context did he say that? Surely it is an exaggeration, unless it refers to his learning Catalan. Nevertheless, the center was well worth the two-euro price of admission.

From Horta we drove 500 meters out of town and turned right at the sign pointing to Lo Parot, parking near a shed with a small enclosure containing a lone dog, then walking along a path, through an olive grove, until we came to the fenced off 2000-year-old tree. It is a little the worse for wear; I think Manel is in much better shape for his age. Still, it was impressive to see such an old survivor. And it isn’t the only one, there are several 2000-year-old olive trees in southern Catalunya. The California redwoods are much bigger (just about everything in California is bigger), but few are as old, and in any case, they were never cultivated, as these trees were 2000 years ago, and they don’t produce olives, do they.

Lunch was in a nearby restored masia, a rural farmhouse now turned into lodging and restaurant that was a little disappointing both for the food and the fact that out in the countryside, we had no view. But the ride back was unforgettable. We took a different road back and drove for about half an hour in second gear on the narrowest winding road I have ever driven. Luckily we only met one car and that was on a straight stretch, otherwise I have no idea how we could have passed by each other. Many of the sharp curves had mirrors up so you could see if someone was coming, although God only knows what you were supposed to do if there was.

The high point of the ride was when we were leaving the mountains. We passed a wildlife warning road sign illustrated with a deer, and Manel wondered if there really were any deer in the area. We have never seen one in Spain. And while he was saying it, I interrupted him shouting, “There’s one! Look! Look there,” pointing to the left. Just a few feet up the hill and quite close to the road was a grazing deer. Then, two minutes later, I spotted, also to the left, what looked like a wild dog coming down the hill towards the road. Manel saw it too and thought it might be a fox. But it was too big, and when I looked it up later on the internet, I found that it was clearly a jackal. What a day for wildlife. Having seen none (other than birds and rabbits and lots of abandoned dogs and cats) in the nine years that I’ve been here, I saw two wild creatures in one day.

The pièce de résistance of Manel’s 80th birthday was undoubtedly the birthday party that Carol and Lino put on for him. They had told Manel he could invite whoever he liked, and he chose to invite his family – those who live locally, which are his two sisters and their families from Barcelona. Three couldn’t come, but his two older sisters Carmen and Pepita came, Carmen’s daughter Marta came as did Pepita’s son Jose Luis, his wife Susanna, and their two children, bringing the family total to eleven. With our two hosts and two other friends, we were thirteen, but don’t tell anyone. Carol had the table set for fourteen so as to fool the forces that be. To me it felt like a Pesach seder with the extra place set for Eliahu.

Carol and Lino live in the hills (they are called mountains here) outside of El Perelló in a casa rustica (sometimes a euphemism for a ruin) overlooking the sea. They did indeed buy the ruin of a former 375-square-meter farmhouse sitting on 6 ½ hectares of land, but after two years of work, they turned it into the dream casa rustica of style and living magazines… literally. It is an exceptionally beautiful eco-friendly house that uses solar panels and wind generator, they recycle their water whose source is the rain (and a nearby Roman well when rain isn’t enough), and they use no fertilizers or pesticides on their olive or fruit trees.

Besides being imaginative, industrious, talented, and extremely generous, Carol is also a brilliant cook while Lino can also hold his own wielding the cooking knife and spoon, thus lunch was fabulous. And let me make it clear, this wasn’t a birthday party with some fingerfood, birthday cake, and cava, which also would have been great (and is what I did when I turned 60). It was a full sit-down, three course meal, served by a hired helper, preceded by appetizers and followed by the most incredible chocolate trifle I (or anyone else there) have ever seen.

We sipped our cava while nibbling on olives (of course), pickled garlic (which at least one of the Catalans was afraid to try, having never seen such a thing before), and canapés of little toasts with blended melted cheeses plus another that I didn’t try because I became instantly hooked on the cheeses and only stopped munching those when we were called to the table. We sat down to yummy steamed mussels with spicy tomatoes prepared by Lino, followed by pasta with fresh pesto, green beans, and potatoes. It wasn’t MY birthday, but pesto is my favorite and it’s been a while since I’ve had such a good one. The main dish was a lovely lamb stew, the perfect dish for what should have been a beautiful spring day, but served just as well for the cold winter one it turned out to be. The Terra Alta red wine helped keep us warm. For the grand finale, cava accompanied a magnificent chocolate trifle with cherries, brandy, and whipped cream topped off with an “80” and lit with candles, lest anyone should forget why we were all there together enjoying that incredible feast and each other’s company.

Carol and Lino plan to move to Italy where Lino is from and where they will set out on a new adventure, this one possibly involving vineyards and the making of wine. Although the market is slow at the moment, their wonderful house is up for sale, and sooner or later they will sell. When they do, we will sorely miss them. And that is one of the problems inherent in being an expat. You don’t have your old friends nearby, and then the new ones you make up and leave! Unlike olive trees, expats don’t put down roots.