Monday, September 29, 2008

Moors and Christians Festival, Altea

We have come to learn that the Spanish have a festival for just about everything, and Moors vs. Christians is one of the bigger fiestas held in each town. In short, this festival commemorates the takeover of Spain by the Moors and their subsequent decline at the hands of the Christians, some 800 hundred years later. At the festival in Altea (a picturesque whitewashed village perched on a seafront hillside about ½ hours south of us) we witnessed the first enactment of the drama - the Moors overthrowing the Christians. This was held in the town square at the base of the church plaza, where they had constructed a small stage/castle where the Christians were holed up. The Moors came parading into town with their brightly colored tunics and headdresses – some as villagers, some as soldiers and some as royalty. We had arrived just as the procession was winding its way to the town plaza and joined in right in the middle of the always present marching band. As we worked our way to the front, started to get pretty loud. The soldiers were leading the way, firing large muskets filled to the brim with gunpowder into the air. As the procession entered the square, their muskets really started going off, with echoes bouncing off the walls of the plaza like ping pong balls. There was soot in the air and all of us had our fingers jammed into our ears so as not to go deaf. At some point they called off the fire and what ensued was a dialog between the Moorish King and his Christian counterpart. My ears were still ringing and I can’t say I understood much of what they were saying. I was secretly hoping they were speaking in Arabic, but it is more likely that my Spanish is not yet up to snuff to follow such quick dialog. Whatever it was, the Moors did not appear appeased and the guns started going off again. We figured at this point to concede victory to the Moors and make our way to a quieter locale and get some food – not an easy task given that virtually every shop was closed during festival week. Suzanne shook her head and said to me with a laugh; “You and your festivals! They may be interesting, but there is always something odd about them.” I guess we’ll skip the Christians wrestling back control on Monday…

Nobody told us about the Monsoons!

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain…and in Javea. In just about every place we’ve ever been, September is the nicest time of year – not too hot, not too cold, changing light patterns, etc. – but we have experienced something quite new while we are here. We are now on day 7 of rains, some of which have at times been torrential. Lots of cool thunder and lightning storms as well. People have mentioned in passing that rains can be heavy at times here, but we figured they wouldn’t start until much later. As it turns out, the rainy season kicks off in mid-September and we have no idea how long it lasts. For a region that boasts over 300 days of sunshine a year, they sure don’t mess around with the other 65! Last October, they had one of the worst rains on record. Cars were submerged under water, rivers turned to muddy rapids and overflowed their banks and the sea surged into town leaving boats and debris in its wake. Given that we still have no television signal, (for Steve a blessing from heaven), we went into town yesterday to buy a bunch of “rainy day” games and toys for the family. As far as we’re concerned, Christmas came on September 27th!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hiking along the Cap Prim - Portixol

Just a five minute walk from the boy's school exists a wonderful hiking area along the coast at the base of the Creu (Cross) de Portixol. Christian, Casey and I headed out on Sunday to explore this area further. The walk took us past some lovely villas on the hilltop and descended through a low-lying pine forest to the cliffs. We walked out to the point, which offered some lovely views of Portixol island as well as the bay of Javea behind us. The kids had a great time as it was an easy walk - which for Christian was part of his training regimen to climb Montgo. They enjoyed chewing on the pine needles, which I told them were a great snack, loaded with Vitamin C. It was great that they kept up the whole time and didn't once ask me to carry them. I am encouraged that we can start doing bigger hikes soon!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Out with the Old (Villa), in with the New..

As we wrote about earlier, we had been having many issues with our initial villa, so we finally decided to make a change. After contacting almost every realtor in town, we came across a place we could call home for the next 9 months. The property is called Villa del Sol and is not far from our old villa. However, it is in a newer area and was only recently rented out as of this summer. Everything is brand new and it is huge (5 bedrooms!), bright & airy with a large open kitchen. This is very unusual by Spanish/EU standards. The villa has an amazing deck looking across the entire area towards Mt. Montgo and the Old Town across a small agricultural valley. The kids are fascinated by Montgo and love to watch the clouds roll in and sit on top. Christian is set on climbing it someday. We are in the process of supplying the final touches on linens, supplies, etc. as it was originally built for sale and until the market crashed (yes, they are feeling the heat big time in Javea), was not intended to be rented out. Our big purchase yesterday was a small espresso maker - this is one material thing we will quite enjoy while we are here! Now we just need to navigate the phone line/internet installation process (aargh, more bureacracy!), and we'll be pretty darned comfortable.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Lesson in Patience - Navigating the Spanish Bureaucracy

We get asked all the time about whether we are planning to work while we are out here. Our residence permits do not allow us to do so, but even if they did, I’m not sure how we would be able to handle the logistics if we were working. I guess that’s where relo companies come in! In a masochistic way, I guess this is part of the adventure, but everything has proven to be quite challenging. Our first test of this came when we went to register for an N.I.E. card, which would formally establish us as residents of the area. We were told that we had to go to Denia, a neighboring town. It took us most of the first day just to find the correct police station (the national one, not the local one and not the Guardia civil). Upon arrival they were closing for the day (at about 1:40 pm!) and they told us to return tomorrow. The next day we showed up around 11:00 am to a huge line, which we were told had hardly moved since 6 in the morning. People had been waiting for days and were still getting turned away at closing time. We met a nice British couple, Caren and Steve who were trying to do the same thing and they suggested an option of paying one of the local advice experts to help manage the process and expedite the waiting in line. Rather than wasting further time, we all left and decided to explore other routes. As it turned out, the process was quite muddled and nobody was clear on what to do. The local advice expert only handled EU residents and was not familiar with the process for US citizens, which was apparently different. We came to learn that the paperwork we had received from the Spanish consulate in LA the last day before our departure turned out to be the golden ticket. Upon consultation with Spanish lawyers, advice consultants and local businesses, we came to learn that we already had our NIE numbers and did not need to pick up an additional card. In fact, we would have likely been turned away had we waited 6-8 hours in Denia, or worse, told to go from there to Alicante only to wait there and be turned away again. Yikes. With our NIE paperwork in hand, we could begin the process of getting cell phones, signing rental contracts, buying a car, and enrolling in schools…well not quite yet. We still had to register with the local Javea municipal government to get a certificate called “empadronamiento” – which was required for public school enrollment (Casey only)and car purchases. For that we had to prove we were living here long term and needed a rental contract in hand. After several tries in line with improper paperwork, we finally got a temporary certificate so I could get Casey into school. From there it was off the Casa de Cultura, where we then discovered that we needed to procure Casey’s birth certificate. Wait a minute…I thought we needed that for visas and passports only. As it turned out, this was one of the items that did not make it into our travel folder and even worse, was now packed into the bowels of a Bekins storage unit facility in the US. AAArrrrggghhh! This resulted in several days scrambling with the Ventura County Recorder and ultimately the Spanish Consulate who were kind enough to fax over a copy for us. So with papers in hand, it was back to the Casa de Cultura to finish off the details. I then received a certificate to bring to Casey’s school, where I learned of yet ANOTHER detail which I did not have – an SIP card from the Public Health Center (Centro de Salud). So another several hours of confusion – apparently a SIP card is a bit more complicated for US vs. EU citizens – I was able to procure the necessary paperwork and went back to the school. Note that the office is open only from 9-10 (I’d like to have that job!), so there were big lines and lots of translational challenges, but suffice it to say that Casey will be starting school tomorrow. Whew…I’m exhausted just writing about this!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Back in the Saddle - Cycling in the Valle de Pop and Col de Rates

Eric and I - both avid road cyclists and both not having been on a bike in a long time (Eric not since last November!) - rented some pretty decent road bikes and headed inland. The owner of the Javea Bike shop told us about a nice little route through the inland mountain region and we headed out at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning. The road out of Javea is a bit industrial, loud and not terribly scenic so we drove to Gata de Gorgos to begin our ride. Both of us felt good to be back in the saddle after a long hiatus. Once we headed under the AP-7 motorway, we traveled on a small country road (~1 ½ lanes), passing through orange groves and grape vines, which appeared to be for raisins. The road began to rise and wind through scented pine forests as we worked our way towards the inland mountains, passing quaint Spanish towns of Liber and Xalo/(Jalon) on the way. We entered the Valle del Pop, which is a beautiful agricultural region at the base of the Sierra de Carrascal de Parcent, known for its “mistela” – a sweet white muscatel wine, as well as several varietials of roses and full-bodied red wines. As we passed the town of Alcalali, the locals were setting up for a huge open-air market, something we will definitely have to come back for with the kids. Another highlight of Alcalali we’ll have to return to is it’s raisin museum, paying homage to what once was a primary economic resource of the region from the time of the Moors until the mid 1900s. We started to see more and more riders – an encouraging sign - it reminded me of Sunday mornings in the Santa Monicas. Two riders blew past us and our competitive fire kicked in as we tried for a while to keep pace. However, they had the advantage of training and knowing what was ahead, so we dropped our egos and backed off. We arrived in Parcent and looked up towards the Coll de Rates , some 780 meters above sea level. The road ahead looked like it was cut into the mountain and we hunkered down for some serious climbing. Now Eric is an experienced road rider, but he was handicapped by not having proper bike shoes (hard to find size 13+ shoes outside of the States!) so he had to rely on toe clips and sandals for the climb. I was quite content to maintain a slower pace, as my “gas tank” was near empty. Passing over the Coll, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Sierra de Xorta and Sierra de Bernia, as well as back to the Montgo and Mediterranean far below to the North and West. For a moment we briefly contemplated making the descent to Taberna, known for its numerous homemade sausages as well as a Moorish castle. However, common sense dictated that we might not be fit enough to make the grueling climb back up, so we decided to head back the way we came. It was an exhilarating descent as we made our way back down the rocky mountain and into the sweetly scented pine forests. We looped through Parcent and headed over to Orba, where we stopped in the old town and had a much needed breakfast of eggs, bacon, pan y tomate, cafĂ© con leche and orange juice at a peaceful little main plaza under the church bell tower. Now this was the life! There were several cyclists enjoying coffees in the plaza and we met a guy from Australia who was visiting Spain with his wife. He would head out on his bike from each town they stopped in while his wife did the touristy things. Sounded like a good way to vacation! With our bellies full, Eric and I slowly made our way back to our car, quite satisfied and tired from a very encouraging first outing on the saddle in the Marina Alta.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Close of the Festes - The Deafening Firecrackers

The remainder of the festival days 3 through 7 basically consisted of 2-3 times daily Bulls by the Sea (once was enough for us!), several parades with people dressed in traditional Spanish garb walking through town carrying flowers, candles and quite often followed by a religious icon and a band. After a while, the cast of characters became familiar and the parades all started to blend together. Every night would host some sort of theater or orchestra performance followed by disco at the port, usually starting around 1 am. Okay, that used to be halfway through our night, so needless to say, we did not quite make it to the disco. Besides, we were still in the process of building our babysitter network! We tried to get a babysitter for the last night Eric and Susan were in town, but “it was not possible” during festes week! One of the final events worth noting was the Mascletada, or firecracker show. Based on my limited translational skills, this was described in the event guide as “Ensordecedora Mascletada”. I looked up ensordecedora in my dictionary – deafening. Uh oh… given what we’ve seen so far with the Spanish, to actually include the word deafening in the guide made us a bit nervous, especially since we had no earplugs. We headed over to the street intersection and came upon a huge area fenced off around what looked like 5 long rows of colored candles hanging on clotheslines. The crowd was at least 25-50 yards behind the fence, so we decided to stay back even further by some shade trees. At first a few fireworks were shot into the air making very loud bangs, but they were manageable, albeit a bit hard to see, as it was the middle of the day. The kids enjoyed watching the colored smoke puffs in the sky as the explosions began to intensify. After a while the whole area filled with billowing smoke and I headed up towards the fence to take some pictures. At that point, they lit the “clothesline” for the finale. I can’t say for sure exactly what these firecrackers were, but they felt and sounded like M80s, if not stronger. All I know is that they started going off in multiples as they moved rapidly down the clothesline. I’m talking hundreds of these things – at one point it got so intense that I had to put the camera down because of the strength of the explosions. I could literally feel the shock waves and blasts of heat as they went off. I’ve never experienced anything even close to a military combat situation, but I wondered if it would be something like this. I just can’t imagine how frightening it would be to be on the other side of that fence. I returned to Suzanne and the kids in a bit of a dazed, giddy wonder. The kids ran up and asked, “Daddy, were you scared?” I told them; “You know what? It was really cool but really, really scary and I’m glad you stayed back by the tree”. I think they were as well. Well, the festival closed Monday at midnight with a traditional fireworks show. After a very busy week, we opted to put the kids down to bed by nine. None of us had any energy to head back out that evening, but we did manage to catch a glimpse on our rooftop deck. From what I could hear, the finale was pretty intense and quite longbut we were ready for bed and ready for the end of the festes. A nice quiet week ahead of us actually sounded appealing!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

First Day of School, Xabia International College

Today marked a big day for Kellen and Christian - their first day at Xabia International College (XIC). Casey has not yet started as we are still working through the paperwork required to enroll her in a local all-Spanish school. XIC is a great little British school which is located high up on a wooded cliff above the sea in a restored building which used to house a restaurant. There is a strong sense of community within the school and the parents and teachers seem very friendly and involved. The kids are a mix from all over Europe and from Spain. The boys were quite excited to put on their new uniforms and meet their classmates. School runs from about 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, with a break for lunch (school lunches provided) and various activities in the afternoon. They get about an hour of Spanish per day, but the rest is taught in English. Interestingly, they do not siesta here, so the boys will need to get plenty of rest at night. Overall, they seemed to enjoy their first day and it was cute to see them come out of class in their surprisingly clean uniforms!. We figure it will take a few days for them to get comfortable with the curriculum and their new classmates - many of whom have been together in previous classes - but overall their first impression was promising. Christian struggled with the Spanish portion of the day. We explained to him that one hour was far easier than having a full day in Spanish! Suzanne and I are very much looking forward to having all the kids in school, so we can settle into things and perhaps relax a bit more!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Festes Day 2, Bous a la Mer (Bulls by the Sea)

Today we headed back to the port to partake in one of the craziest aspects of Spanish festival culture – the interaction of humans versus bulls. Most people are familiar with the running of the bulls in Pamplona, but what we did not appreciate is that every town has it’s own version. In Javea, they host an event like nothing we have ever seen. Basically, they built a large grandstand right on the dock with a large rectangular center area below surrounded by three sides with jail-like bars big enough for people to pass through, but not bulls! The edge of the dock acted as the fourth “wall”, with a 6 foot drop into the water below. People (mostly teen-agers) began to gather in the center area and then suddenly a pen opened and a very large, angry bull with huge horns rushed out into the center. This bull clearly did not like humans and began to lower its horns, paw at the dirt and charge at the people at random. People would either duck back through the cage, hide behind one of the center barriers or jump off the dock into the water as the bull charged past. The braver kids would wait as long as possible, some holding brightly colored shirts or towels to taunt the bull to go after them. They would see if they could touch the bull as it passed by, avoiding the horns. Now why I decided to go out and join these kids is probably worth a psychological workup at some point, but ultimately the excitement of this event got hold of me. I feel it important to point out that I did this of my own choosing and surprisingly with Suzanne’s blessing. As I walked into the center, it occurred to me that 1) I was much too old for this, and 2) the specter of daddy being gored by a giant bull in a foreign country would certainly cause irreparable emotional harm to my children - but it seemed like there were enough safety measures in place to avoid problems provided I stayed alert. Besides, there was always the option of jumping off the dock! Thankfully, I was joined by Eric and we worked our way to the edge of the dock. It was like a game of “chicken” where you had to decide whether the bull would come all the way at you or would just pass by. These bulls were incredibly agile and quick in spite of their size. The adrenaline started to kick in as the bull made its pass. I had to quickly gauge how close the horns were and the first time I did not jump, while others did. The subsequent times, the bull charged directly at me and I opted to jump to safety off the dock along with everyone else. There would be no grabbing of the horns today! It was actually quite fun, but we were reminded of the imminent danger when one of the bulls caught an unsuspecting bystander (aka drunken 20-something who had stopped paying attention in the ring), lifted him up into the air, dropped him to the ground and started to pile-drive him. There was a gasp from the crowd and the safety crew ran in to distract the bull so that the kid could get away. Turned out he was okay. On a lighter note, a few times the bull would chase someone right of the dock and then plunge right into the water. These bulls are surprisingly good swimmers! They had safety boats in the marina that would herd the bull back to the steps leading out of the water and everything would stop for about 10 minutes while they got the bull back into the pen. Then it would start again. There was one particular bull that jumped off 4-5 times after people. As I jumped into the water, I had an image of a giant black shadow falling out of the sky on top of me, but fortunately nothing of the sort happened. After a while, Eric and I pushed our luck enough and decided to call it a day. We walked off, both in disbelief that we actually chose to do this. Yet another thing you just don’t see in the States! For anyone who has a burning desire to become a rodeo clown, I strongly recommend spending time at the fiestas in Spain first. There is nothing quite like being in front of an angry bull charging at high speed directly at you!