Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Translating "Sick" into Spanish

To the citizens of Europe's most beautiful cities, an American vomiting into the gutter is nothing new. They see it all the time. America practically specializes in exporting binge-drinking college students to Europe. So I shouldn't have been so worried about whether or not I could make it to the corner store and back without hurling. They would have just stepped around me and continued on their cultured, sophisticated ways. As it happened, it was no problem. What was a problem was my desperate craving for the sick-foods of my home country.

In general, I'm an adventurous eater and I like trying new foods in foreign countries. That all ended when I was flattened by food poisoning. I wanted 7-up and only 7-up, dammit. And when I wanted something more solid, I wanted saltines and I wanted applesauce. And what I really wanted was for my mother to bring them to me, but I knew that was probably an unreasonable expectation, with her being 3000 miles away and recovering from surgery. And I don't think the TSA is letting you take big bottles of 7-up on flights any more anyway, so that was out. I had to handle getting my own sustenance, at least until my domestic-support-staff/ home-health-aid got back from the office.

So I made it all the way down the block, and stood there in the market, trying to will the familiar packages into materializing on the shelf in front of me. It didn't seem to be working. So I took a deep breath, forced my brain to concentrate on problem-solving and not on nausea, and did my best. I gathered the blandest, softest, plainest foods I could, managed to pay for them, and scuttled back out into the street. I made it all the way back home without incident, kicked off my shoes, dropped my grocery bags, and whimpered my way back to bed clutching a bottle of lemon soda.

It must have worked, because I did not die (despite my midnight resignation to a life tragically cut short by my own cooking). My heart still beats, my stomach still does its gurgly work, and my brain still hosts an overactive imagination. An aside to my family: apparently I really do love you an awful lot, because it was very sad to picture you all at my funeral. But, on the bright side, you do look good in black. Such a handsome bunch.

So, for future reference, and in hopes that someone might benefit from this hard-won information, here's how some traditional American home remedies translate into broken Spanish:

Saltines = Grissini (those plain, crisp breadsticks the diameter of pencils)
Applesauce = Purée de Patatas (Instant Mashed Potatoes) (as close as I could get)
7-up = Fanta Limón
Bananas = Bananas
Love of a Good Man = Amor de un Hombre Bueno (not available in supermarkets)

And a note about the grissini: they might actually be a better sick-food than saltines. They're made of the same basic stuff, of course, but their long, thin shape really lends itself to being eaten while lying in bed. All the crumb-producing chomping action takes place inside the mouth, thus preventing cracker crumbs from ending up in the sheets or stuck to the neck or in the hair. Cracker crumbs in the hair=bad morale.

Now that I'm feeling better, I've learned something else: a country known for its fantastic food is a great place to be newly-recovered from food poisoning. Think you liked the food before you got sick? Try it now, when it's the first food with actual flavor you've eaten in days. "This is the best bread I've ever eaten!" "This fish is astonishing!" "Oooh, can I have some more rice? I love it!"

It's kind of fun. I wouldn't say it's worth it necessarily, but it is a nice bonus in the whole nasty affair.

-I don't want to eat anything.
-I'd like a little broth to drink.
-I want some noodle soup.
-I'd like some chicken soup.
-I want a small cheese sandwich.
-I want a beer, some salad, fish, potatoes, and a coffee, please!

Monday, February 26, 2007


We took a weekend trip to Girona, a small city in Catalunya that's surrounded by Roman walls and bisected by a river. I had heard it was beautiful, but I had no idea. It was like a hilly, green, misty Venice. And while it's clearly over-run with tourists in the summer (there are multi-lingual menus featuring color photos of french fries in the windows of most bars), we seemed to be the only foreigners in town last weekend.

We arrived in mid-morning, and walked to our hotel from the train station. We left our bags there and walked across the river and into the old town. We climbed up the narrow deserted streets to the cathedral, and climbed further up through the cathedral gardens, and then further up to the Roman tower. When we looked over the railing, we could see down into the leafy green ravine that runs behind the cathedral. We hadn't seen another person in maybe half an hour, so it was a bit spooky to peer down, catch a flash of orange light amongst the green, and see an old woman, dressed in a black European Old Woman get-up, tending a small bonfire. We were up at the level of the damp green forest canopy, and she stood on the open forest floor, clearly getting the wool of bat and tongue of dog ready. We tiptoed silently back from the railing, and carried on with our touring.

As we were idly looking out for a nice place to have dinner, we walked by a restaurant whose posted menu was only in Catalan and showed an aggressive lack of french fry photos. We took these as the twin signs of a good bet, decided to forgive them for their contrived logo, and planned to come back for dinner.

As far as we could understand the menu and the waiter, we ordered: Baby Vegetable Salad, Paella with Small Lobsterthings, Salt Cod Carpaccio, and Veal with Foie Gras (first prize for Tastiest Ethically Questionable Dish). The meal began with three amuse bouche*: a shot glass of carrot soup, a bite of eggplant topped with caviar, and tuna tartare on melba toast. I would never have thought to combine eggplant and caviar, but it was fantastic. And the paella, veal, and carpaccio were also impeccable, but the dish that sent me around the bend was the baby vegetable salad. Whole baby vegetables, each flawless and perfectly cooked: two little grilled leeks, a blanched baby corncob, two blanched carrots, a deep-fried zucchini with the flower still attached, three mini grilled eggplant, and a few heirloomy-looking tomatoes. They were casually arranged in a lovely little heap, and simply dressed with olive oil and sea salt. It was the best thing I've ever eaten. No, wait:

It was the best thing I've ever eaten.

That's more like it. Each vegetable was so exquisite, I imagined the chef sleeping in his garden so he could pick each one at exactly the right moment. And I will never get over my three-year-old-self's utter amusement and fascination with Things That Are Small Versions of Big Things. You'll never go wrong showing me a mini anything. I try not to squeal, but I'm not always successful.

We shared a ginger gelato for dessert, and with our coffees they brought a little stone tray with an assortment of tiny chocolate/peanut concoctions. Perfect. The chef popped up in my imagination again, giggling to himself as he glued one peanut to another with a bit of melted chocolate.

When we left, the whole waitstaff (three nice fellows) and the chef saw us off from the door very kindly. I admit it was a rainy night in winter, and they were hardly busy, but I was still touched.

The next morning, I discovered another Girona superlative to get excited about. Our hotel was clearly energy-conscious, with compact fluorescents, low-flow toilets, hallway lights on motion-detectors, and one of those gizmos where you have to stick your room key into a slot to turn on the lights. I'm in favor of all these energy-saving strategies, but it didn't make me look forward to the shower. Also, we're in Europe, which is not known for robust water pressure. So when I turned on the water and saw the deluge, I was pleasantly surprised. When I stepped into it and felt like I was getting power-washed (but nicely), I was in awe. I've never experienced so much water when I haven't been swimming. I tried to tear myself away before I drained the river, and my only regret about our trip to Girona is that I only took that one shower. We'll simply have to go back.

*I feel like enough of a pretentious twerp typing out "amuse bouche" (which is practically asking for a slap), but plural amuse bouche? Amuses bouches? Amuse bouches? Amuses bouche? Yummy li'l free thangs? That's the one.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Hostia! Que bueno plato de quesos!

Choppily scanned from my sketchbook, a slice of market life. According to Babelfish, which tends to give a realistically crappy translation of what I was trying to say, the conversation above goes something like this:

-Hello! I want to do--um--ah--a plate of cheeses for--um--three people. (That good I am!)
-It is worth. I have wmwmwmwmw and mwmwm. That you want mwmw wmwm? Mwmw or mwmw? And wmmwmww. Mwm mwm three wmwmwm.
-Um... what? (consecrated wafer!)

Hostia, or "consecrated wafer," is something like the Spanish equivalent of "damn," in that you wouldn't say it in church or to your grandmother, and it's a handy all-purpose exclamation or intensifier (Damn, that's good! Damn, that hurts! Damn!), with the added bonus of a funny English translation. Anyone looking for a new exclamation? May I suggest "consecrated wafer?" It's not completely inoffensive and twee, like "fiddlesticks!" or jiminy crickets!" but it has the potential to be an acceptable stand-in for the really crude, multi-syllabic exclamations that can get you kicked out of the PTA.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Good News/Bad News

Good news: Since I brought my laptop to Spain, I can work here, just like at home.

Bad news: Since I brought my laptop to Spain, I can do a lot of farting around on the internet here, just like at home.

Good news: The internet has good some stuff on it! I can keep farting away! It's good for the planet (see below)!

Lichen Threads: Two women have pledged to only buy sustainable/organic clothing for a year, and document their struggle. Sounds good to me. I don't think I'm ready to take the pledge, but just reading about their project will probably guilt me into being a little more mindful about my own choices. I know green is more important than cheap, but sometimes I need a reminder.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Pigeon Defense and High-Stakes Laundry

It's not just here in Spain. Many places have problems with pigeons. There's even a world-wide pigeon-defense industry, with netting, spikes, and electric contraptions used to deter pigeons in various places. Cairo has solved the problem in the most practical way: they eat their pigeons. But Spanish cities are still in the trenches with the rest of the urban world. And there's even an additional level of nuisance here (probably shared by many other warm-weather cities). Almost all Spanish apartment buildings have balconies. This is a nice thing. It makes it easier for the residents to enjoy the temperate weather, grow sun-loving plants many stories above ground level, and hang their laundry in the fresh air for pigeons to crap all over.

I couldn't believe there was no ingenious European solution for this problem, but after our friend warned us about his laundry lines, I started looking around at other people's, and saw that while some people had flung ragged sheets of plastic over their laundry, and some had pulled their long balcony-blinds over the clothes, most people just seemed to be hoping that the neighborhood pigeons would choose another balcony to poop off of than the one right above theirs. And while I'm all for positive and hopeful thinking as a way of life, that really seems to be taking it a bit far.

So I have made Pigeon Poop Defense Shield 1.0 out of some dowels, a woven-plastic tarp and some plastic clips. It folds nasty-side-in to hang up and store, and if the Poop Alert Level gets raised (pigeons are fickle creatures), it's exactly the right length to be covered by three opened (clipped-on) sheets of the local daily newspaper (a sort of the-world-is-your-birdcage kind of strategy).

Don't hold your breath for the unveiling of version 2.0, or even 1.1, since it only has to work for the month that we're here, seeing as how I'm pretty sure our friend thinks I'm crazy. The thing'll be in a Spanish landfill before we board the plane home. But if I were here for longer, I bet I could refine it enough that these nutty European clothes-washers would see the light, and pigeons everywhere would see their laundry-defiling plots foiled.

But while the pigeon issue (can't resist. not sorry.) has been dealt with, laundry-hanging here is still more challenging than laundry-hanging at home. Our friend's apartment is three stories up (on what is confusingly called something like the Piso Primer). The laundry lines hang off the balcony railing, so the laundry dangles three stories above what might be called "the backyard," but really looks more like an alley where Bad People hang out. I think the scruffiness of the yard might be intentional, to increase the chances of the first-floor (or whatever they call it) resident's being able to keep all the manna that falls into it in the form of other people's clean, damp underwear and towels. Everything about it seems to say, "Forget it. If you ever want to see your dropped pillowcase again, knock three times on the door and leave 60 euros in a bag under the fourth bench from the bus stop. Otherwise, finders keepers." I'd love the catch a glimpse of the guy, so I can see if his socks match.

So, three floors up, something I wouldn't think twice about at ground-level becomes a bit of a feat, and I'm a lot more attentive to my laundry-clipping technique. I feel like a construction worker sitting on an I-beam eating my sandwich 30 flights up. Can you tell I'm not a big rock-climber? Hanging out laundry in Spain really does produce enough adrenaline to keep me for a while. As far as I'm concerned, I'm lucky to be so easily amused. Extreme sports are expensive. Laundry? Practically free.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Letter From Spain

Through a unpredictable combination of friendship, luck, scheduling, good fortune, flexible bosses, and luck, I'm in Spain for a month. A month! I can't get over it. It's practically balmy here, between 40 and 50 degrees, but all the Spaniards can't get over how cold it is. They've been lamenting "el frio polar" and we've been laughing at them. We're staying in our friend's place, and he's here too, when he's not at his girlfriend's. So we have a fully-equipped kitchen, a wee Spanish washing machine, and a guy to answer our questions about, "how do you say..." and "where's a good..." and "what the heck is...." In return, we feed him when he's here and make him laugh with our Colorful Foreign Ways. We stay up late and drink wine and eat cheese and listen to obscure American soul records (records!), and then the guys get up in the morning and stagger to work at the ungodly hour of 9:30. I'm left to crack the whip over myself and get some projects done. My eyes are generally open by 10. Almost always.

I have some work to do while we're here, but I'm also in charge of feeding us, and doing food-procurement. I speak just enough Spanish to confuse people, which complicates my mission a bit. The first few days I was kind of intimidated about going out and speaking Spanish, but I realized that in order to get good food, there was just no way around it. There are fast-food type places and supermarkets here where you just have to pick and pay, but to get the good stuff in the market, I have to speak at least a little Spanish.

handy phrases:
me gustaria
por favor
es todo
poco mas
lo siento

I can't think of a better way to force myself out of my comfort zone than to reward myself with sausage and cheese.

So I go to the neighborhood market almost every morning, and try to not buy more than three people can eat in a day.

The neighborhood market is a covered space that takes up a whole city block. There must be at least 250 stalls of various sizes, each with their own specialty. There are vegetable and fruit sellers, cheese and ham booths, stalls that only sell salt cod, or olives, or eggs, grocery stalls where you can buy dry goods, "cooked legume" stalls, seafood sellers, meat sellers, chicken sellers, and the whole center of the market is filled with seafood sellers.

Each fish stall has display counters heaped with crushed ice, and there are burbling open gutters in the cement floor that carry away the melting water. Most of the fish are whole, laid out on the ice with their eyes and teeth and gills and everything. I haven't been brave enough to ask for a whole fish yet, but I think they'll filet them for you if asked. At the end of the day, when the fish is all sold and the ice is all melted, you can see them hosing down the whole area, and then scrubbing every surface with bleach, and then hosing it all down again. The market smells more like lettuce than it does like fish.

The egg sellers have clear plastic bins of eggs for sale, of various sizes, different colors, different prices, and all seemingly tossed into the appropriate bin as though they were apples or walnuts or some other un-fragile bulk commodity. When you ask for some, then they'll whip out the egg-shaped box and pack them up, but not until then. I suppose it saves checking every egg for cracks and holes. Any flaw would be immediately obvious in those piles of eggs. The egg stalls are aggressively clean-looking—the eggs are the the least-white thing visible, with the white-aproned women wearing white hats, the white tile, and the bright lights. Compared to the other stalls, they look like surgical suites. I suppose the vegetable stalls don't have to make up for their products coming out of an animal's hind end.

The vegetable seller I go to is one of the smallest vegetable stalls (most are at least twice the size), but every vegetable is treated like and looks like jewelry. Large, usually green, edible jewelry. The zuchinni looks like it must have been picked by dreamy, reverent farmers who bite their nails to the quick. The romaine lettuce is so clean and translucent it looks like it's lit from within. And the spinach, usually Dirtiest Of All The Leafy Vegetables, looks like it was washed in clear running water at least 40 times, but without actually ever being touched. The people that work in the stall clearly take their work very seriously, with never a wasted breath or a wasted movement. I found them intimidating at first, but by my fourth or fifth daily visit, they couldn't pretend not to remember my broken Spanish and my makeshift vocabulary of eyebrow- and hand-gestures, and they asked where I was from, and even smiled a bit, and gave me free parsley. And now I love them, and also their vegetables.

The first week, our friend took us around the market, showing us where he and his mother like to shop (he grew up in this neighborhood, and his father has a shop selling sewing notions in the non-food part of the market). I dutifully wrote down the names of the best stalls, but it took me three or four trips back before I could find them all again. Every day I think, "I should make a map of the market" and then I get there and it's all I can do to navigate around the old ladies and dogs and strollers and crates and find something for dinner that I know both how to say in Spanish and how to cook.

I Will Not Make A Feet-Pun-Title. I Will Not. It Is So Difficult To Resist.

For me, the worst parts of winter are the feet-related parts. After thirteen winters in the frozen north, I have solved most of the other problems of winter (solutions include: down, silk, fleece, shearling, bag balm, and fossil fuels). But feet are a special challenge. Feet are where the body meets the outside world, and winter makes the outside world cold and slippery.

The cold is just a six-month-long annoyance, but the slipperiness really cramps my style. I spend winter grouchily mincing around outside like I'm wearing a hobble skirt, instead of my preferred activity, marching around like I own the place.

But this year, instead of just mincing and grumbling and shooting dark looks at the houses of the Non-Shovellers, I took matters into my own hands, seized control of my destiny, and did some internet shopping. I bought some really mean-looking steel spiked contraptions that wrap onto your shoes, and give you Total Dominion Over The Ice. And they make me about a quarter inch taller, too, so I feel all competent and powerful (hey, it doesn't take much for some of us shorties).

Once I strap them onto my waterproof boots, I can march over ice, slush, water, snow, and half-thawed roadkill (the normal mix around here a few days after a snowstorm). The only bad things about them are that they're a bit of a pain to get on over your shoes, and you certainly don't want to wear them inside unless you need to aerate your wood floors or de-thatch your carpet. The other drawback is that I have lost my fear of icy sidewalks, and if I go out without my spikes, I'm a bit like a toddler who's swimming without waterwings for the first time, "Hey no problem, I can tota-aaaaAAH!!" But with a little common sense, I feel like I've finally conquered the slippery.

So now that the slippery part of Winter Feet is solved, the cold part needs solving. My feet, once chilled (49 seconds sockless exposure to a 65-degree home? chilled), will not re-warm without strenuous exercise, a hot bath, or six hours in bed. The other night, with freezing feet and warm everything else, I rigged up an emergency Feet Heater (Sedentary Model). I do not recommend this, and I'm sure there are countless ways to injure yourself or others with one of these, but here it is, as a cautionary illustration only, I'm sure:

You will need two hand towels, a plastic zipper bag, and a microwave. Fold one of the towels so it will fit flat in the plastic bag. Once it's folded, get it thoroughly wet, and wring it out (still folded). Put it in the microwave for some small length of time. One minute, perhaps (remember, this is not advice or instructions or a good idea). Once it's steamy, remove it from the microwave with tongs or a hot pad. It will be very hot! Very very hot! That's the point! Slide it into the plastic bag, squeeze the air out, and seal the bag. Wrap the hot, dangerous thing in the other (dry) hand towel, and put it on your feet. Now you will be immobilized by comfy warmth. Rally the troops to bring you beverages and entertain you and make dinner.

Winter! Do your worst! We have spikes and dangerous home-made contraptions!


Ha ha!