Monday, November 30, 2009

Royal Ties...

It's not every day you find out you have ties to Royalty...but that's just what happened to me a few weeks ago. I have several trees in my yard that have these little spikey fruits on them. They start off a pretty apricot yellow, then turn a deep ruby shade as they ripen. I asked one of my neighbors if she had any idea what it was, but being from the good ole US of A, like me, she had no clue. Everytime my landlord, Senor M, would come over, I meant to ask him, but then I would get side-tracked and forget. Shocking, I know...One day he came over to look at my broken sink, I asked him about the olives, and finally remebered to ask him about my little red berries as well.
He said that these were very famous trees in Spain. They were madrono (ma-drone-yo) trees...I have to learn how to access the Spanish keyboard...Madrono trees are symbols of the city of Madrid. You can see them depicted in the famous Bear and the "Strawberry" Tree. Only thing is, madronos are not strawberries, but maybe it was the closest thing english speakers could think of when they were trying to translate it. Senor M pulled one of the red berries off the trees and popped it in his mouth. He then pulled one off for me to eat too, right then and there. So of course, I did. To do otherwise would be rude. It was very mild and very good. I was excited to have a new source of fruit right outside my door.
This whole incident answered many questions for me...

#1. What was this fruit and was it edible? They are madronos and they are VERY edible. In fact, you have to fight the birds for the really ripe ones.

#2. Why is the Bear at the Puerta Del Sol pawing at a strawberry tree and do strawberries really grow on trees? It is NOT a strawberry tree. Just as I suspected, there is no such thing as a strawberry tree.

#3. Why is the Bear and the Strawberry Tree a symbol of Madrid anyway? The ever enlightening Rick Steves explains it this way...The Royal family brought bears to the Royal Hunting Grounds (what is now the Parque Del Retiro) and the bears ate the madrono berries, which are also used to make a special liqueur here in Spain.

#4. Why don't my madrono trees look like one in the bronze statue in the Puerta del Sol? This one was easy...Bad pruning. That's okay...doesn't affect the quality of the fruit!
So there you have it...our Royal Ties, loose though they may be...Hasta luego...

Strawberry Tree on Foodista

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Taking Stuff Back...

We were getting ready for a family trip to Paris. Weather.com was calling for rain in some shape or form during our entire four-day trip. This meant we needed some sort of wet weather protection. With highs in the 50s and lows in the 40s, one of those three-season coats would do the trick. Everyone was covered, but Seven. The zipper on his three-season jacket had busted back in Texas, which was a shame since he hadn’t gotten much wear out of it. Oh well…
When I was at Carrefour, I decided to check out their kids section. I was very impressed. They had really cute clothes at pretty reasonable prices. I spotted the coat aisle, and jackpot…three, three, three coats in one! It’s a polar fleece jacket, or a wind breaker, or put them together to make a dynamite three-season coat. Perfect…So I grabbed a loaf of fresh bread, some apples, and bananas and headed for the register. There was no line to speak of. It was around 4:30pm, one of the best times to shop at Carrefour. Everyone is waiting to pick up their kids from Spanish school, which ends at 5pm. So if I want to get in and out of there in a hurry, I shop there at that time.

So there I was at the register, ready to purchase my items, and trying to use my Spanish, just like always. The cashier started saying something to me, after I put my items on the counter. I had no idea what she was talking about, and though I said, “No entiendo,” she just kept yelling it more and more emphatically. Finally, one of the other customers told me she was talking about my pull cart. They are supposed to be left at the “store end” of the counter and not pulled through the line like the shopping carts. I forgot. So I was a little frazzled when it was my turn. I said, “Hola, buenas tardes.” I was trying to continue on from that point like everything was normal, but she kept giving me a hard time and making self-conscious about my Spanish. This rarely ever happens in Madrid, but it was happening this day. So when she said the total, in “muy rapido” fashion, I glanced quickly at the display on the register, handed over my debit card and ID for payment and got the heck out of there.

That night, when telling Husband about finding a coat for Seven, everything clicked, and I realized the 85 Euros I’d been charged at Carrefour was wrong. The cashier must have double charged me for the coat which was only 34 Euros. I ran over and got my receipt out of my wallet. Arrgh, just as I had suspected, she HAD double charged me. Of course, Husband asked why I hadn’t noticed this at the register and I told him about how she was making me feel all self-conscious about my Spanish and I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. By now it was 8pm, and I knew the best chance of getting my money back would be if I went back to Carrefour that night. I was so mad. I couldn’t believe she was acting so superior and then SHE was the one who made the mistake. I had worked so hard up until this point to never buy anything in Spain that I might have to take back. If there was any chance the purchase might not work out once I left the store, I didn’t buy it. I was hard enough taking things back in the States when you spoke the language, much less here, when you don’t. All my friends are the same way. Now here I was, without even a product TO take back. I had to go in there and explain that while I paid for two jackets, I only, in fact, purchased one. Maybe the cashier who rang me up would still be there and she would remember me. I must admit, I did not mind that I was going to get the chance to point out HER mistake.

On the way over to Carrefour, I kept thinking about the best way to frame my problem with the Spanish that I know. I settled on, “Hoy, pago para dos chaquetas, pero compro solo una chaqueta.” Basically, this means, “Today, I pay for two jackets, but I buy only one jacket.” I wasn’t sure whether “for” is supposed to be “por” or “para” in this case, but I tend to use “para” for everything and thought there was no reason to change course now. When I arrived at the store, I walked the entire line of registers. Of course, my cashier wasn’t there. So I headed over to customer service with my chaqueta in a bag and my receipt in my hand. I said my little spiel to the lady behind the counter, then I showed her the jacket and my receipt. She nodded and walked me over to the next counter where people actually get their money back. I was cautiously optimistic. Then she handed my receipt to the lady behind that counter and explained my situation. I saw the new lady looking for the cashier. “Ella es no aqui,” I said. She nodded. Then she went into a back room. I was beginning to get a little nervous now. Then she came back out and started typing numbers from off of my receipt into the cash register. Perhaps she could tell from my Carrefour customer number that I hadn’t returned anything before. I don’t know, but the next thing I knew, she was heading my way with cash. I couldn’t believe it. I had done it. I had fixed a customer service problem in Spain for the first time!!!!! My confidence restored, I decided to spout off some more broken Spanish to show my gratitude. “Muchas Gracias! Ella habla muy rapido. Cuando miro mi recibo en mi casa, digo, ‘Oh no, no es correcto.’ Mi marido dice ‘Muchas gracias’ tambien.” This means, “thank you very much! The girl talks very fast. When I look at my receipt in my house, I said, ‘oh no, it is not correct.’ My husband says, ‘thank you’ also.” She even laughed at my little joke. That was nice. I can usually get my point across, but I have GOT to learn how to conjugate verbs in the past tense. There is always more to learn. But true communication is not about getting all the words just right, it’s about being understood. And I was this day. Hasta luego…

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When Good Olives Go Bad...

I have two olive trees in my front yard. I have grown to LOVE olives since we've moved to Spain. I really wanted to do SOMETHING with my ripening olives. I mean, who has olive trees just growing in the yard??? A lot of people, actually...here, at least, anyway. My landlord Senor M offered to share a recipe with me and I jumped at the chance to prepare my olives for human consumption, rather than just leaving them for the birds to enjoy. So Senor M ran home and printed out a recipe in Spanish for "Arreglo de las Aceitunas Verdes." The best translation I could find for the name of this receipe was "Agreement Olives." Senor M found me a good mashing rock from the front yard, and once he'd given me his little demonstration, I went to work. I took my bowlful of olives, and commenced with the mashing. The key to the mashing was supposed to be mashing the olive just enough to make a break in the skin so the brine could get inside and work it's magic. Then I covered all of the smashed olives with water and sealed them in a tupperware bowl. For the next six days, I would have to change the water twice a day. This would give me time to transalte the recipe, which was completely in Spanish, and gather all the ingredients I would need. I was very dilligent about changing the water and on the seventh day, I stood in front of my soaked and softened olives, ready to add salt, an orange, garlic, vinegar, oregano, thyme, cumin, and bay leaves. Senor M had been so nice to help me with this whole process, so I wanted to make sure I did a good job with this recipe. After all, he promised to taste them when they were "done." I really wanted these olives to turn out right, especially after Senor M told me a story about olives, suffering, and Spain. To get the full impact of this story, you must know that, Senor M, a charming, white-haired gentleman in his seventies, is the kind of orator that can transport you to a different place and time. This is what he told me...
You must understand...For hundreds of years, the Spanish people have suffered many things. Many people have had to struggle for many years. They have had to learn how to make use of everything on the land. This recipe is made from things people had on their properties and were easy and inexpensive to collect. This is why this dish is popular with the Spanish people. It is very delicious. You may not like it. It is very bitter. You can eat it from the first day you add the ingredients, but if it is too strong for you, you can wait longer to eat it and it will become more mild. I thanked him for bringing me the recipe, the mashing rock, and showing me how to prepare the olives for soaking. He was very confident that I could translate the recipe for any parts I did not understand. Six days passed...
It was now time to put this dish together. I put in all the ingredients, then waited a couple of hours to taste it. Ugh! Bitter does not begin to cover it. It was so bitter that it left what can best be surprised as a metallic taste in my mouth. Okay, so I'd have to wait a bit, just like Senor M said I would. I didn't call him to taste it yet. I would wait. I didn't want him to see me squench up my face. I tried one the next day...Still awful. I tried one each day for about 5 days. Finally, I could tell that a milder flavor was developing, so I put the top back on and checked it in a few more days when I was sure that nearly all the bitterness would be gone. After a few days, I had no idea whether the bitterness was gone or not. They looked good from the outside, but under the lid...not so much. I wasn't able to taste the olives at all because of a white fuzzy layer was growing on top of them. Great...My mother-in-law asked me if I need to refrigerate it it, but I said no because the recipe never mentioned it. Sometimes it just doesn't pay to follow the rules...Oh well...I failed at my first attempt at preparing olives in a traditional Spanish way. Maybe Senor M will forget all about it. He's not senile, but he is 73. I'll just hope he'll experience a senior moment where the olives are concerned. Hasta luego...

Thursday, November 5, 2009

BYOPC--Bring Your Own "Pee-Pee" Cup

I still have lots of posts to share from my in-laws two and a half week visit. We went a lot of places and I look forward to blogging about them in the future. But today I wanted to share a little story about an experience I shared with my friend Tiff at a Spanish hospital on Tuesday. As you know from my profile, we are a military family and for the most part, I love it. It has brought us to this wonderful place called Spain and for that, I will be forever grateful. Spain is not the United States, however, and that makes for some interesting experiences when you’re trying to accomplish simple tasks when, unbeknownst to you, they don’t do it “that way” here. Case in point…

Madrid is a remote location as far as the military is concerned. That means we don’t have access to a lot of the services and facilities that we would have if we were stationed right on a regular military installation. One of the conveniences we don’t have here is the ability to go to an American hospital with English speaking doctors and nurses. I know some Spanish, but “solo un poco,” only a little. When you start having to fill out those “yes” and “no” medical history questionnaires, “solo un poco” turns into “solo un poquito,” only a little “bit.” Such was the case Tuesday afternoon, when I accompanied my friend, Tiff, to the hospital to get some lab work done and have an MRI. I went along to keep her company and to help her translate. Even though my Spanish is only a little better than hers, together we do a pretty good job of figuring out what people are saying in espanol. As my mother-in-law, Dee, noted people really don’t speak English here. Her travels in Spain have mostly been limited to the coast, where the cruise ships dock, and where people speak more English. That is not the case in Madrid. That’s okay, it good for my Spanish, but it does make it hard to communicate sometimes.

Tiff’s MRI was scheduled for 5:30pm, and she was informed by our health insurance rep that she could do her lab work beforehand, as the lab opened up at 4pm…after siesta. We walked into what we thought was the lab. “Aqui?” Tiff asked, handing the receptionist her paperwork. “Si,” was her reply. She then gave Tiff a slip of paper indicating that she was fifth in line at Door #5. So we sat down in the comfortable waiting room to wait her turn. It was really quite an efficient process. At exactly 4pm, a lab tech came out and gathered up everyone’s paperwork and numbers. Another woman entered the info into the computer, while the lab tech started drawing blood. In no time, it was Tiff turn. She went in alone, but I soon followed when I heard the one-sided Spanish conversation. They said they couldn’t do one of the tests (we didn’t know which one or why yet) and that they needed a copy of the authorization which I was able to get from the front desk while Tiff got pricked. When she’d had her blood drawn, the tech tried to explain to us why Tiff couldn’t get that one test done. He pointed to his crotch, and with a look of embarrassment, he started making a “psst” sound. Aaaah, the test he was talking about was a urinalysis. Then he showed us a cup, to “psst” in, or so we thought. Then he put the cup back on the shelf and told us that Tiff would have to go buy one at the “farmacia.” Wow, you had to bring your own cup? That would have been nice to know. Okay, point us in the direction of the pharmacy. Apparently, our assigned hospital doesn’t have one. Maybe none of the hospitals in Spain do. We don’t know. We would have to go “fuera,” outside, the hospital grounds to a pharmacy about five minutes away, to get a cup. Then she could “psst” into it in the morning and bring it in to the lab. Fine…we’d buy the cup after the MRI.
We walked over to the hospital and found our way to Radiology. This is when Tiff was handed one of those pesky medical history questionnaires all in Spanish. We did our best with it, and then the nurse handed us an English version of the first page, so we actually were able to answer almost all the questions. We were also able to see that Tiff wasn’t supposed to have her contacts in, but she did. She also wasn’t supposed to have worn make-up or hairspray, but she did that too. More things it would have been nice to know BEFORE your appointment. Oh well, she went to find a bathroom to see if she could at least wash off her make-up. She came back a few minutes later, looking something akin to a raccoon. The soap dispenser wouldn’t work and she had to use toilet paper to wash off her mascara and eyeliner. At least she got some of it off, I guess. Oh well…another nurse came in to inquire about Tiff’s question mark about her contacts and said it would be okay. So now we waited. We had a great time keeping ourselves amused comparing this whole experience to an episode of Seinfeld and talking about the full wall photo mural facing us in the waiting room. I thought it interesting that the photo looked like it was taken somewhere like the Swiss Alps or the German countryside, and in Spain. I guess everyone dreams of going somewhere seemingly more exotic than where they live. We started talking about how we want to take a trip over Christmas or New Year’s and that maybe Germany would be a good option. I said, “Hey, maybe would should take our picture in front of this mural and post it on facebook with the caption, “Look where we went today.” We died laughing and the poor Spanish man reading his newspaper did his best to ignore us. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, we were pretty tickled. We figured it might be a little over the top to take the pics with him sitting there, so we waited until he left after HIS wife’s MRI. We jumped up to take the pics before anyone else came in. We got our shot and giggled some more. Tiff got called for her MRI and our friend, Tab, popped in to keep me company while Tiff was in the tube. Don’t I have the best friends?? Once Tiff’s MRI was done, we followed Tab over to the pharmacy since she had been there before. Tiff explained as best she could to the pharmacist what she needed and she didn’t even have to make the “psst” sound to get her point across. The “pee-pee” cup, which probably cost less than 20 cents to produce, sold for 1 Euro. Tiff bought one and we almost bought some extra cups for ourselves, just in case, but it was busy and Tiff needed food. She hadn’t been allowed to eat or even drink water for the last six hours or so…off to MickyD’s, which is always empty at 7pm in Spain, so it was truly “fast food” that night!

For me, the story ends there, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t let you know what happened when Tiff tried to turn in her sample the next day. The tech told Tiff to bring it, “por la manana,” in the morning. In Spain, “morning” begins at 10am as far as most businesses are concerned. Since there were no business hours posted at the lab, Tiff thought it would be a safe bet to take in her early morning sample after 10am. It’s not a hop, skip, and a jump over to the hospital, especially with traffic, and it was a trip she certainly didn’t want to make twice. She showed up at the lab, sample in hand, a little after 10:30am, but when she asked the receptionist if she could turn it in, she said, “No.” The lab was now closed. Apparently, it had been open from 8am to 10:30am that day and it would not reopen until tomorrow. What??? Why??? No reason was given. She could come back tomorrow. Well, that wasn’t an option, as she had already attached the label they gave her to the cup. So she marched back to Door #5 and placed it on the desk. Who knows if it will get processed or if it will be fresh enough to test, at that point Tiff didn’t care and I don’t blame her. If the test doesn’t come back, the doctor will just have to order it again. At least this time, she’ll know she has to bring her own cup and to call ahead of time to see just when the lab will be open on THAT day. Welcome to Spain! Hasta luego…

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What's good for Seven is good for Eleven...

Some of you may recall that I posted a blog entry about my youngest, Seven, trying to use the bidet as a water fountain. Well, once one of Eleven's friends got wind of it, and chided him about it, he was none too pleased. In fact, he wanted me to delete it. He was worried his friends would see it and laugh at him. I assured him that second graders don't spent their time reading blogs. He still wasn't sure, but once I told him that I'd post an embarrassing story about Eleven sometime, he relented and said I could keep it up. The old adage of "What's good for the goose is good for the gander" still rings true, I guess. So without further adieu, I offer up the following story, to the slight embarrassment of Eleven, myself, and my in-laws...

As I've mentioned in previous posts, the in-laws, "Jay" & "Dee," traveled to Spain with their trusted guide, Rick Steves, in tow. Between our guide books and theirs, Jay, Dee and I planned several day trips to take while they were here, one of which was to the ancient city of Toledo. In his book, Rick Steves mentioned that the nuns in Toledo are famous for their marzipan, a confection made of sugar, almond meal and sometimes, rosewater. It has it roots in arab culture and can be found in the form of a simple cookie to elaborately shaped fruits, animals, flowers, and even sleeping Baby Jesuses. It can also be extremely sweet or more mild in flavor. We had all tasted marzipan before, but since Toledo was famous for its marzipan, we wanted to sample their version of this widely popular confection. We noticed several shops with different varieties of marzipan in their windows, but we wanted to get ours from one of the convents in town. That's what Rick Steves recommended anyway. This is what we thought we were getting when we ducked into a little nunnery along the Calle del Santo Tome. They had a sign outside the convent announcing they had mazapan, as they spell it, for sale. It was a lovely little place with beautiful tile work and a gated courtyard, and you had to walk up some steps inside to a little alcove to ring the bell for service. Some happy customers were just leaving with little bags and smiling faces as we walked in. Dee asked one of the other patrons if they liked what they got, and she smiled and she did. Great! So I stepped up and rang the bell. There was a sign that indicated we could pay 60 Euro-cents per bag, so I had my two Euros ready to buy one for each of us when the nun opened her little window. I placed my money on the lazy susan and said, "Tres, por favor." the nun gave me a strange look. "Tres?" she asked. "Si," I said and told her in my best Spanish, that two Euros should buy three sixty cent bags. That was 1.80 euros, right? "Claro (Of course)!" was her reply and she promptly replaced my Euros with 20 Euro-cents and three large bags of what looked like broken pieces of wafers. Hmmm, they didn't look like any of the marzipan we saw earlier that day in the shop windows. We knew, however, that marzipan could be molded and shaped into just about anything. We thought these might be the leftover scraps, but they were so light. They also looked a lot like broken communion wafers. We opened one of the bags...they tasted a lot like broken communion wafers. Perhaps that was because they WERE broken communion wafers, otherwise known as unconsecrated host. They were broken pieces of the the large wafers the priest use during the consecration as well as broken pieces of the outer rings from which the individual wafers are popped out. The bags of broken wafers were the only items we saw for sale. I was so emphatic about wanting these bags that there was no way I was going back in there. So sampling Toledo marzipan would have to wait for another trip.

What to do with three big bags of broken communion wafers??? Take them home and share them with friends and family, of course. Seven is going to make his First Holy Communion this spring, so we thought this might be a good opportunity for him to see what the wafers tasted like. I thought I might even send a bag in with Joseph for his whole catechism class to try. Little did we know that we wouldn't have enough...Once we got home, we shared our embarrassing little story...and our broken wafers...with Tiff and the kids. Tiff told us that when she was pregnant, she craved communion wafers like crazy. She used to call the Chaplain's wife who would take pity on her and bring over a box of wafers. We talked some more and everyone ate some more wafers. These tasteless little wafers were pretty tasty after all. We finished one bag right then and there, sent one home with Tiff, and saved one for us. After Tiff left with her kids, Eleven was looking curiously at one of the pieces that the individual wafers were popped out of and he asked, "Why would they sell pieces that poeple have taken bites out of?" Rolling my eyes, I told him that those supposed bite marks were actually the half circles left over from popping out the wafers. Of course, they weren't selling half-EATEN wafers. That would be unsanitary!! "Oh," he said with a sheepish grin. There you go, Seven...It's even Steven now! Hasta luego...

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