We just returned from our seventh vacation in Spain. Some of them, like Erik and Marga’s wedding, or Nora’s baptism, were centered on events. One of them – Extremadura in August – was centered on learning the Spanish vacation lifestyle. Sometimes Betsy and I spent a few days in Madrid or Barcelona along the way, working on our Spanish, and on our ability to enjoy Spain without a guide. This time, however, we traveled directly to Colindres to visit our son and his family on May 11 and 12, and directly home on May 21. More than any other trip, this was purely a vacation. Well, there was the occasion of my birthday on May 19, but I’ll get to that later.
Germans are efficient. There, I’ve said it, short and sweet, the first of many broad characterizations of the people of an entire nation based upon my extremely limited experience. At least this first one appears to be complimentary. In any case, flying into (from Charlotte) and out of (to Bilbao) the Frankfurt airport always seems to go smoothly. My only complaint is that the machine selling cold Coke for 2.50€ at our departing gate did not work, and the identical machine selling identical cold Coke for 3.25€ on the other side of the room did work.
As I sat wearily in the Bilbao airport baggage claim area, 15 hours after taking off from Charlotte, I noticed Erik looking at me through the glass of an upstairs viewing area. He pantomimed instructions to me to get up and go over to a different luggage claim room, where the international baggage was arriving. Soon our bags were in his trunk and he was driving us the 30 miles to his home in Colindres. The last part of the drive is along the coast of the Bay of Biscay, where the mountains touch the sea, and are beautiful. Other parts of that drive travel by the less beautiful sides of mountains left naked by unreclaimed strip mining for iron and other metals.
It has always been fun to visit with Erik and Marga. It is fun to be around them, both because they tend to do fun things, and because they obviously love one another and it is enjoyable watching them interact. The addition of baby Nora fourteen months ago was a bonus, and what a bonus! The all-the-fun-with-none-of-the-responsibility role of the grandparent is indeed all that it is made out to be. Betsy and I enjoyed Nora morning, afternoon, and evening, and at night we slept in Nora’s room with my iPhone blasting the sound of rain on the roof at us while Nora slept – and sometimes cried – in her parents’ bedroom. Each morning I was polite enough to ask if Nora had spent a quiet night or not. That’s me; selfish, but polite about it.
On our first full day there, Marga arranged for us to take a tour of the anchovy factory where she works. We put on white plastic coats, hats and booties, and Marga showed us how anchovies are bought from the local fishermen or trucked in from elsewhere, stored, tested, cleaned, scaled, had their heads and tails clipped off and spines removed, put into cans, sealed, stacked, boxed and shipped. It was a fascinating tour, full of Rube Goldberg-esque conveyor belts and rows of workers. Marga’s role is Quality Control. She tests the products in order to certify levels of trace elements, and generally tries to make sure the workers are following sanitation and quality rules. Our tour was delayed for 20 minutes because some customers had shown up with a complaint about bones in their anchovies, and Marga had to deal with them. Unfortunately for them, Marga’s dissection in front of them of the contents of the cans they had brought with them revealed no bones. When I asked Marga if they were “big” customers, she replied that they were not big customers, but that they did owe her company a considerable amount of money.
Our tour ended shortly before 1:00 pm, which is when, on normal days, the factory closes for lunch, re-opening at 3:00. The workers, practically all of whom are women, typically prepare lunch for their family during this time. Younger women often must pick up their child at school, walk them home, fix them lunch, and walk them back to school, which is why middle-of-the-day factory and store closings are minimally two hours long. The hardware store on the ground floor of the building where Erik and Marga have their home is open from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm, and 5:00 pm until 8:00 pm.
Workers in Spain get more vacation time than workers in America. It is not unusual for factories to close for the entire month of August, and holidays which fall on a Tuesday or a Thursday typically include a Monday or Friday “bridge day” addition. Erik, however, does not work in Spain, and cannot take off on Spanish holidays. He lives in Spain, and he does his work in Spain, but he works for a firm based in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is paid in dollars, sent to his North Carolina bank. He works normal United States work hours, 8:00 to 5:00, but for him, these hours occur between 2:00 pm and 11:00 pm. My son is a web architect, and a full-time international telecommuter. Ah, the internet. What an invention.
I’ve always wanted him to work at McDonald’s, or any other job where he had to stand and obey for low wages. I had it in my head that living poor and working hard were good for the soul, and provided a necessary counterpoint to later successes. Alas, he basically bypassed these phases, and started making good money in his chosen field before he even matriculated from NC State with his degree in computer engineering. Now my only worry about him is that that he doesn’t appreciate how wonderful a life he is living.
He gets up at 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning, dresses his one year old daughter, and plays with her until late morning. He puts her in her stroller, and heads out for a walk, usually down to the harbor and along the waterfront. Whether low tide or high tide, the views are always wonderful. They walk through the entire town on the homeward journey, typically stopping once or twice for a small glass of wine or a short beer, and some olives or whatever small treat the bar is providing for free that day. With upwards of forty bars in the small town, there is both familiarity and variety.
Around 12:30, only a block from home, he stops at his neighborhood grocery to pick up whatever he needs in order to make lunch that day. The store is run by five siblings, one of whom – Bruno the butcher – lives on the same floor of the same building as Erik and Marga. Perhaps because the neighborhood grocery is also his neighbor’s grocery, Erik is well-liked there, and Nora is absolutely adored. Erik typically parks Nora’s stroller by Tona, the woman serving customers in the fruit and vegetable area. Tona usually stops whatever she is doing, finds a treat for Nora, and interacts with her for a few minutes. I was nervous the first few times I saw Tona do this, since there was usually one or two people waiting to have their fruit and vegetable needs met by Tona, but I never saw any display of impatience by any of the store’s customers. Andrés, although the youngest sibling, is the store manager. He loves to hold Nora, and thinks nothing of handling customer’s questions and concerns while toting her about the store. It sometimes takes Erik and Nora 20 minutes to buy little more than a loaf of bread. Not too surprisingly, Betsy and I are now well-known there, and apparently well-liked. It seems their whole family is now looking forward to our return in October.
The lunches Erik prepares are simple but nutritious, perhaps a Spanish tortilla (potato and egg omelet) or some thin cuts of pork or beef cooked with red peppers, along with a green salad, olives, fresh bread, cheese and wine. Lunch happens when Marga gets home from work, which is about an 8 minute walk from home. After lunch Marga plays with Nora until about 2:30, at which time she takes Nora to the Day Care program, a short four minute walk from home, and then continues on back to work.
At 2:00 (although frequently considerably before 2:00) Erik puts on his headset and works in his office. With several computers and monitors in front of him, he enters Cyberia, concentrating solely on creating and improving code which controls customer web sites. When he tells me specifics about things he is doing it always impresses me with how close to the cutting edge he seems to be operating without apparently ever getting nicked by it. Frankly, most of what he says goes over my head. Being the IT Manager for a 1000 employee agency for 25 years allows me to at least nod my head at the right times though. I think.
Monday through Thursday, Marga gets off work at 6:00. She picks up Nora at Day Care, and usually takes her for another walk around town. When she returns home, she spends some private time with Nora, feeds her, bathes her, dresses her in pajamas, and puts her in bed a little before 9:00. Marga prepares a simple dinner (usually a smaller meal than lunch), and Erik comes out of his office long enough to eat before returning to work.
It was fun watching their normal workday routine, and being a part of it. Betsy and I occasionally took Nora to Day Care, or picked her up after Day Care. We often took a short walk to the bakery at 9:00 to get some pastry for breakfast and bread for the day, and I made several solo trips to Andrés’ store to pick up something we had forgotten – cheese for our lunch pizza one time, and corn for the salad another time. I timed my last trip to the store. It took me 6 minutes to travel there, buy what I needed, and return home, and one minute of that was spent waiting for the elevator.
We “babysat” with Nora on Thursday night so Erik and Marga could go out to eat and dancing with their regular Thursday night dancing friends. Actually we just looked after ourselves, since they put Nora to bed before they left, and she never made a sound until after their 1:30 am return. Still, looking after ourselves meant going to the store to choose something to cook and preparing it ourselves. We chose some goat cheese and some pork sausage Bruno had made the day before to go with our bread and wine. It was very good.
When we had last spent time with Nora, six weeks earlier, on their annual visit to the States, Nora had been initially reluctant, although later willing, to spend time alone with Betsy, playing with this and that. She was less inclined to allow me to play with her when her parents were nearby, although she did warm up to me eventually. On this trip, however, we were able to pick up where we had left off, and both Betsy and I were very pleased with how well Nora (who does not like strangers to get too close to her) interacted with us. I enjoyed spending time just watching Betsy and Nora playing on the floor, putting blocks in boxes and turning gizmos that generate tunes.
On Sunday we all piled into Erik and Marga’s car, and Erik drove us the 90 minutes to Mondragon, Marga’s home town. We walked up the four flights of stairs to Marga’s parentsâ€™ home, with me bringing up the rear (so I could help if there were any stragglers). We had brought Juan and Marce a framed picture of Erik, Marga and Nora that had been taken by a professional photographer friend of ours in March when they were visiting us in North Carolina. They were pleased to get it, and Marce decided on the place on her wall where it would be hung.
Before long, Juan, Erik, Betsy and I walked back to the street and drove into town, where we parked the car and went bar-hopping. We fairly quickly ran into Marga’s Uncles Antonio and Ramón, and, a few bars later, we were joined by the head of the family, Margaâ€™s almost-90 year-old Grandfather Ramón, and Marga’s sister, Belén. A few bars later, we all drove back to Juan and Marce’s home for lunch. Marce had made one of my favorite dishes, a fine seafood paella, and Juan broke open a 1989 bottle of red wine. Opening an old bottle of wine is always a bit of a gamble, but this one was excellent.
As is the custom in Spain, we all sat around the table long after the meal was over. Somewhere along the way a couple bottles of liquor were brought out. To my surprise and delight, one of them turned into a gift to me, which I brought back to North Carolina, along with a couple of decorative and risqué shot glasses. Sometime later we all hugged and kissed, and the five of us returned to Colindres, with Marga driving.
It had been raining off and on since our arrival on Wednesday, but Monday morning broke bright and clear, so we took this opportunity to take the Upper Colindres walk. This area, known as Colindres de Arriba, is only slightly above the town, but offers views of the countryside which are quite enjoyable. The road passes beautiful flower gardens and well-cared for homes, horses, sheep, goats, dogs, cats and burros, and ends at the old medieval church. After a short rest there, we headed back down, and to the bar where they always serve free olives, and where they always provide something (a piece of bread this time) for Nora. Then we continued on to the grocery store before going home to make lunch.
On Tuesday morning, we walked to one of the many playgrounds scattered around Colindres. Very few people have yards, so a great deal of playing takes place at municipal playgrounds. Most often the children are escorted by a grandparent, but a mother or father can usually be spotted as well. The parents and grandparents of the older children sit around on benches outside of the playground, while those responsible for younger children hover over them protecting them from bangs and falls. Nora enjoys swinging very much, and seemed to enjoy her time walking up and sliding down the slide as well.
On Tuesday evening, some friends of Erik and Marga, Juan Carlos and Carmen, who go dancing with them many Thursday nights, came over for dinner. Marga had made two different kinds of stuffed peppers, both delicious. The one with cream cheese stuffing was especially tasty. After dinner we sat around, drank wine, and talked some more. Juan Carlos is a businessman. He runs a barber shop, and has a dozen employees. His viewpoints on government employment rules and unemployment compensation were very interesting. His English is very good, but Carmen’s is limited, so the table was multi-lingual all night.
Wednesday was my birthday. We had also been in Spain the previous May, in 2009. On my birthday that year Erik took us out to the restaurant of a friend of his – Jose Luis – where we ate a marvelous seafood dinner. I had hinted about a possible return birthday party, and Erik had said he would see what he could do. When he checked with Jose Luis, he found out that several of his workers had requested Wednesday off, and he was planning on closing that day. He told Erik he would check on it though, and get back to him. When he did, he told Erik that he was giving them Tuesday off instead, and opening on Wednesday, and they would be ready to serve a birthday Mariscada to our party at 9:00 pm. Well, I can tell you, it was good. It was very, very good. Right from the crabmeat salad, to the clams in olive oil and garlic sauce, to the grilled mushroom with melted cheese and a shrimp on top, to the small crabs and the large crabs, to the jumbo grilled shrimp and lobster tails, and right down to the final shrimp course, obligatory birthday dessert, and honey liqueur – it was very, very good. We spent more than three hours eating dinner, drinking wine, and talking together. I’m pretty sure at one point Marga and Erik agreed to my suggestion that Nora spend a year living with Betsy and me in the States. I hope we didn’t agree to take her full-time this summer.
Nora stayed up too late on Wednesday night, and didn’t sleep much after we returned from the restaurant, I am told. It seems that Erik and Marga didn’t sleep much either, although Betsy and I slept like rocks until 8:30 Thursday morning. Our morning walk once again was down to the harbor, along the shoreline to the far side of town, then back through town. Bruno cut us some strips from his finest hunk of beef, and Erik pan-fried those to perfection. Betsy and I both napped while Nora was at Day Care Wednesday, and I am sure Marga was wishing that she could be napping as well, but she was instead doing her job. Betsy picked up Nora after Day Care, and took her for a walk around town, but Nora hadn’t been feeling well all day, and cried much of the way, except when Betsy picked her up and held her. Marga fixed us fresh anchovies for dinner, and they were very good, not at all salty. We were all tired, and we all went to bed early that night. Before turning in myself, I took a picture of Erik reading to Nora in their bedtime ritual.
Did I foreshadow some cultural generalizations? Forgive me my biases. I think the Spanish people enjoy themselves more than American people do. The Spanish people spend more time with their extended family, and less time alone. They laugh more, and they talk to their family members by phone and in person more. I think they sleep-in more often, dance more often, and worry about the future less often. I think they go out socially more, and save for the future less. I think the average Spaniard walks ten times more each day than the average American does. I think Spaniards have a glass of wine with friends in a bar 100 times more often than Americans do, and Americans go to fast food restaurants 100 times more often than Spaniards do. I think that some Spaniards tend to use their healthcare facilities when they stub their toe, and some Americans tend to avoid going to the Doctor even when they have major symptoms because they don’t want to pay their insurance deductible. I think if I lived in Spain, I would drink more wine, eat healthier food, get more exercise, and lose some weight. I think that living in America, I will watch more TV, play more golf, and drink more martinis.
Our trip home was remarkable only for its lack of problems. Perhaps it was because when we last flew home from Colindres we were stuck in Paris overnight due to snow, and barely made it home to Morganton the next day in a driving snow storm. This time, however, all planes flew on time, no volcanic ash disturbed us, and the bus for Long Term Parking #3 pulled up to the curb outside the Charlotte airport at the same time we did.
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