Help Ukraine, Valencia: Stories

Peace March…

A refugee’s story doesn’t always get laid out on the table. Sometimes they are revealed one piece at a time. Letting them out more quickly threatens to break a dam of closely held feelings. The tasks at hand are getting oriented, adapting, and surviving in unfamiliar territory. The pull of home is strong. A life has been left behind and with it people, places, and comfort.

Sometimes a story bursts forth. It’s been held like breath in a tunnel. The first shaft of light lets it go.

Trapped:

At the end of a shift at the Help Ukraine, Valencia shop a middle aged woman arrived. She had a lot to say. The woman came to Valencia at the urging of her daughter. Her house in Ukraine was still standing. Everything surrounding her house had been reduced to rubble. The bombs had stopped. Her house was empty.

“Someone will move into my house and take it! That leaves me with nothing. I don’t want to be stuck in Spain relying on others!

My daughter tells me to stay, but I will go home! I want to sit in my kitchen and drink tea.”

Back of the Sign...

The Sheriff of Mariupol:

The Sheriff tried to teach me the proper way to fold a plastic bag. I laughed and said, “Nunca!” He smiled. Then he got busy. The Sheriff never sits still. There is always something that needs to be done, done again, and redone.

One day I looked over his shoulder as he shared a video from Mariupol. Somewhere in the translation I missed that it was a video of his home. All I could see were fallen doorways and brutal piles of rocks.

The Sheriff saw memories…the door that wasn’t there, a warm greeting, steam from a pot on the stove. He wiped his eyes and went for a walk.

Far From Home…

A Soldier’s Family:

A handsome and very busy 4 year old found a plastic sword on the shop’s toy shelf. His swordplay was carefully choreographed. I’ve seen the same moves outside of our window in Seattle, Washington. I don’t know what young boys are watching, but they all make the same moves and sound effects when they imitate it.

This 4 year old stopped slaying imaginary dragons every few minutes to check on the baby in the carriage. He’d wave and smile sweetly at his sibling.

Busy 4 year olds are exhausting. You never know what they are going to get into. I let this kid’s grandmother know I thought he was delightful, and very intelligent. She smiled in agreement. Then she turned on her phone to share her small family’s experience.

She played a video showing her beautiful cottage home. The soundtrack was a constant barrage of artillery fire. The small group of volunteers who watched that video swallowed hard.

Then with great pride the woman showed us a photo of a young man in full battle gear. He was standing in a Ukrainian field cradling his rifle. It was her son. We looked around the room to his wife, infant, his 4 year old son, his mother…

There were no words. There were tears in our eyes, and a clear understanding of the cost of war.

Help Ukraine, Valencia! New refugees arrive in Valencia every week. More are finding their way to Help Ukraine, Valencia. The mission is to provide food, clothing, basic necessities, and welcome. If you can help, please message Donna. She’s accepting donations from the U.S. through Zelle. Thanks!

Help Ukraine, Valencia

At last count there were 80,000 displaced Ukrainians in Spain, and 20,000 in Valencia. More Ukrainians are arriving every day. They arrive with all their worldly possessions stuffed into a backpack, or a suitcase. Some of these refugees will find their way to the Help Ukraine, Valencia shop.

Donna and I volunteer at the shop on Wednesdays. It’s right around the corner from our apartment. We sort clothing, keep the food shelves stocked, and make “runs to the garage” (usually to store donated winter clothing). We are meeting people and making connections we never expected to make. Ukrainian volunteers, fellow expats, and Ukrainians both young and old make Wednesdays a lively part of our week.

With our own eyes we see our donations, the donations of friends and community members come into the shop and leave in the arms of Ukrainians who have sought safety in Valencia. We share smiles and laughter. A quiet thank you is always the last thing we hear as people head out the door.

A mother and three children came into the shop last week. The sisters were older, very polite, and self-sufficient. The three year old boy was being cautious. I brought him a toy car to play with. He played with it for awhile and then handed it back to me. I set it down on a chair. He came back to it again and again. Then his sisters discovered a box with brightly colored plastic dinosaurs and farm animals in it. They called him over and he practically dove in.

When the family was gathering together to leave Donna gave the three year old a blister pack full of dinosaurs. Everyone got coloring books. Sets of colored pens were offered, but only one set was taken. Sharing was expected.

As the family was leaving I noticed the car still sitting on the chair. I grabbed it and handed it to the three year old. He handed it back as if I was making a mistake. I handed it to him again. He looked at his mother for assurance, then back at me. I gave him a thumbs up. His mother nodded. A smile spread across his face. He held the toy car in the air and said, ”Vroom! Vroom!”

The Garage…

Despite spontaneous shopping trips to the stores across the street, and community members delivering bags of groceries all the volunteers knew we were running out of food. We knew that before we opened the doors in the morning.

As this humanitarian crisis and insane war continue the needs will grow. At the end of the day with equal measures of hope and sadness we locked up the shop knowing the food shelves and cupboards were bare.

My thinking about giving continues to evolve. At the core I believe giving, making sure everyone is fed, and lending a helping hand are essential in a society that values its peoples’ success. I thank my own parents and the Tulalip tribal community for these teachings. In my heart I call the names of the elders who held fast to these values.

My message here is simple. Give what you can, when you can, and where you can. May we all prosper!

Help Ukraine, Valencia donation information below.

Dumpster Diving With Donna

Hydraulic Tiles…

When I say dumpster diving with Donna I don’t mean I actually climbed into a dumpster. I stood next to a dumpster and tried to maintain quality control. Donna found the hydraulic tiles she’d been dreaming about. Any tile worth saving was going to be saved!

Hydraulic tiles were first created in Spain during the mid-1800s. They are produced by hand using cement-based raw materials. It is a decorative tile made by compressing these materials in a hydraulic tiling press. They are durable and colorful. Spanish building contractors think the old stuff is junk. Newer modern versions are popular. That’s why our tiles were in a dumpster.

My initial thinking was to fill up our little rolling grocery cart with one load of the ’best’ tiles we could find. Good tiles were put in the cart. Cracked, chipped, filthy, solid color, and questionable tiles were set aside. That process lasted until the first cart made it up to the terrace of our tiny Valencia apartment.

When we took the first load of tiles up we set off the overweight signal in the elevator. It’s a two person elevator. The tiles weren’t going to take the stairs. One of us had to get off the lift.

As the process progressed we got faster and less discerning. Tiles were unceremoniously stuffed into our cart and some heavy duty shopping bags. On the terrace we placed tiles in rows of six, swept them off, and hosed them down. Eventually there were ninety-nine tiles lined up. Donna said, “We just need three more.” She paused for a second and added, ”Or…nine!” At this point in the process my answer was, ”Three! Only three! Three!”

Below the Apartment

We had started attracting some polite notice. There was one wry grin and several averted eyes. A kid driving his Vespa nearly crashed when Donna popped up from the depths of the dumpster. Dropping your jaw and doing a double take at the same time is a tough maneuver on a scooter that’s going too fast on wet pavement.

Of course we brought back nine tiles! As we lay in bed figuring out which muscles were going to ache in the morning the last thing I remember saying was, ”If you decide to make another dumpster run at 6 AM, I’m not going.”

Simple Pleasures

If you expected 2022 to bring anything back to normal, I expect you have been disappointed. It’s been a strange year to write about. From our privileged perch in Spain the humorous complaints we have compiled seem petty. Sharing wonderful experiences while bombs fall in Ukraine feels like crowing. Writing about good deeds large or small feels like joining the virtue signaling competition. My typing finger has been idle.

We met with some fellow expats in Valencia to rearrange a garage that will become a makeshift distribution stop for Ukrainian refugees. Lots of hands made quick work of it. Afterwards the organizer, Graham, shared a few stories. One of them stuck with me.

Graham was visited by a woman who came to Spain as a refugee from Kazakhstan. When she met with Graham she brought a wad of cash, military grade night vision binoculars, and two pounds of rolling tobacco. It wasn’t a combination he expected.

The woman was a voice of experience. She found when a person has been displaced, is cold, hungry, and somewhat disoriented, rolling and lighting a smoke is a greatly appreciated pleasure. Graham added that kicking a tobacco habit during an armed invasion of your country probably doesn’t make much sense.

Thinking about those two pounds of tobacco reminded me that simple pleasures are often the best. El Cafe de l’abad is right around the corner from our bolt hole apartment in Valencia. They serve the best cortado I’ve ever had. In Central Market we bought clams that reminded us of the ones we gathered in Washington State. They made an incredible Bucatini Alle Vongole. That was washed down with a bottle of Merseguera wine.

The Merseguera was an unexpected pleasure. Plantings of this grape are few, and centered in the vineyards of Alicante, Valencia, and Jumilla. It was a grape we’d never heard of. One sip had Donna exclaiming Merseguera could turn her into a white wine fan. Two bottles are chilling in the fridge. Luxuries of course, even at 5 euros a bottle. The memory of that first sip will linger. Lingering memories are the point here.

The woman from Kazakhstan’s story reminded me that so many are denied simple pleasures. Necessities are denied as well. It seems that when a person is displaced, cold, hungry, and somewhat disoriented a simple pleasure would be a sweet reminder of better days. Not hope, but perhaps it would provide a moment of respite.

Simple pleasures…coffee, tobacco, chocolate, familiar foodstuffs. When the bus leaves El Carmen and heads to Poland with supplies for Ukrainians we’re going to ensure a few simple pleasures make the ride.

Bok Choy Slaw

Sunday dinner at Seattle’s Corson Building inspired this salad. Their salad was endive based and included a dressing. I used bok choy and plain rice vinegar instead. I sliced everything fairly thin and ditched the oil. It’s a light, refreshing, palate cleansing salad that pairs well with meat dishes and oysters.

Ingredients:

Two cups thinly sliced baby bok choy, five radishes sliced thin, 1/4 cup English cucumber sliced thin, 1/8 cup shredded Murasaki sweet potato, 1/2 unpeeled apple cut into thin triangles, 1/4 cup dried cranberries, 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 1/2 tsp coconut sugar

Slice bok choy, radishes, cucumber, and apples and put them in a serving bowl. Peel and then shred the Murasaki sweet potato (discard the skin). Add dried cranberries, rice vinegar, and coconut sugar. Gently stir ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour. Gently toss ingredients before serving.

Quotes for New Beginnings

I am not usually a big fan of quotes taken out of context. Context matters. It is something that has been dispensed with though. We have entered an age of context and content free news cycles.

In journalism classes they used to claim 15 minutes of reading the newspaper provided more information than a hour of television news. That was back when television was providing a nightly headline service. Television news is less than that now, and social media serves as its Pong-like echo chamber.

We grasp at nouns as they bounce past. “Guns, abortion, Supreme Court, beer, vaccines, masks, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Biden, windmills, sports, and weather…” The audience fills in the blanks with whatever it is they think they already know. There is no consensus. There is no news. We are fed static designed to fan the flames of outrage and stoke divisions.

A new year requires a little sand thrown into the gears. There have been sign posts on our journey. I have selected 10 of them to reflect upon.

#1. ”In the beginning was the Word, and the word was, “Yes!” What else could it have possibly been?” ~ Antonia

#2. ”There may not be one Truth – There may be several Truths – but saying that is not to say reality doesn’t exist.” ~ Margaret Atwood

#3. ”There can be no doubt that the average man blames much more than he praises. His instinct is to blame. If he is satisfied he says nothing, if he is not, he most illogically kicks up a row.” ~ Golda Meir

#5. ”A life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.” ~ Anais Nin

#6. ”Our age not only doesn’t have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which proceed and follow them.” ~ Flannery O’Conner

#7. ”You can’t take it with you, and even if you did, it would probably melt.” ~ Dorthy Parker

#8. “If the future is to be open and free, we need people who can tolerate the unknown, who will not need the support of completely worked out systems or traditional blueprints of the past.” ~ Margaret Mead

#9. ”You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding.” ~ Marilynne Robinson

#10. “It doesn’t matter how strong your opinions are. If you don’t use your power for positive change, you are, indeed, part of the problem.” ~ Coretta Scott King

Gathering

After two years of far-flung adventures and Covid interrupted lives the elder Hale siblings and their spouses gathered in Astoria, Oregon at the Bowline Hotel. It was an overdue celebration of Christmas and family.

The siblings have been celebrating Christmas together in some form or another since Martha arrived in 1952. In 2020 there was a chaotic Facetime Nose Flute Gathering. It was suitably, or unsuitably, ridiculous depending upon a person’s ability to tolerate whatever noises were being produced. We gathered.

Hale Family Christmas Nose Flute Extravaganza, 2020…

When I look back Christmas gatherings are what I remember most vividly. Pre-Christmas evenings with our borrowed cousins, the Kinney’s, where conversation and noses buried in books come to mind. Christmas at Uncle George and Aunt Bobbie’s were colorful explosions of food and light. The tree was flocked. The lights were whatever was flashy and new. The food was gourmet before any of us knew what that meant. Uncle George Farr told quiet tales of growing up in Liverpoole, WWI, and PNW logging camps. Aunt Dee giggled when I did impressions of Lawrence Welk’s tap dancers. Peanut brittle would be folded into whipped cream. Oysters might be added to the stuffing. The apricot brandy Aunt Bobbie put in her mincemeat pies was breathtaking.

There were never any turned up noses from the Hale kids. Every time our mother cooked it was an adventure. At Uncle George and Aunt Bobbie’s we knew the adventure would be delicious. Those Christmas dinners have given us all a lot to live up to.

Mark, Leland, Martha, 1952…

I really don’t remember much about Christmas presents. A family game that involved being the first one to say ”Christmas Gift” was more exciting than watching wrapping paper pile up. Of course there was the orange short sleeved shirt from Aunt Dee. It had brown windmills and clipper ships on it. I got out of wearing it to church by pairing it with a plaid sports coat, striped tie, and fuzzy electric blue mohair socks. An early version of a self-winding watch from Uncle George lasted a week before it wound itself to death. It probably wasn’t designed to be worn by teenaged boys.

In 2021 a spur of the moment idea had Hale siblings and spouses checking in to Astoria’s Bowline Hotel. We met in the lobby and ordered craft beers and cocktails from The Knot. The bar menu featured items that could have easily graced Uncle George and Aunt Bobbie’s table. Donna is still talking about the roasted mushroom tart with soft cheese and pickled shallots. Their roasted mussels will be attempted at home. As family caught up sea lions barked and a rainbow arched across the Columbia River. Time and distance melted away.

We walked to one of Astoria’s celebrated fish and chips joints for dinner. Then it was back to our Bowline suite for presents and room service delivered cocktails. We could have been young, or old. Not meeting the dawn together was the only thing that proved we are a tad past our prime. We would gather again in the morning and sample The Knot’s tasty breakfast offerings.

Christmas memories are made out of shared laughter, recollections, conversations, and just being together. After our far flung adventures and covid protocols gathering with siblings and their spouses felt like a precious luxury. No matter what is being celebrated it is the gathering that brings it home!

Thanks to Bowline’s staff for their gracious hospitality! (bowlinehotel.com)

Notes From Spain: Things I Miss

The first item on Uncle Brewer’s list of collected wisdom was to avoid making top ten lists. He proceeded anyway. There is family tradition to uphold here.

Some things are difficult or impossible to get in Spain. Our friend Ron misses chunky canned soups. Everyone who travels to the U.S. brings back a stash of goodies. Before stepping on the plane they know which restaurants they are going to visit. Their order has been visualized. Their list is prepared. They are ready to go!

Things I Miss…

#1. Burgers: Pork and breakfast sausage spices don’t belong in burgers. Flaccid disks of meat don’t cut it. Ian swears by the horse meat burger at the local burger bar. That’s never going to happen. I want a charbroiled Angus burger with all the trimmings. The one I want is at the steakhouse five minutes from our West Seattle house.

#2. PNW Salmon: You can get salmon in Spain. It’s usually farm raised Atlantic salmon. It’s pink and mushy. We are spoiled. We have experienced Pacific Northwest salmon. I find myself dreaming about salmon smoked by Tulalip Reservation’s finest artisans. When Dean Pablo posts photos of his smoked fish I know exactly how good it is!

Uncle George and Aunt Dee…

#3. Vegetarian Pizza: We make a monthly run to Beacon Hill’s Bar del Corso for pizza. Their vegetarian pizza might include fiddlehead ferns and chanterelle mushrooms. In Spain they throw frozen corn on their veggie pizzas. It’s downhill from there. We know what we like, and we are picky.

#4. Zyrtec: I thought Spain would cure my hay fever. My itchy eyes and runny nose say otherwise. Zrytec is the only allergy medicine I tolerate. It’s probably available if you ask for cetirizine, but who can remember that? I’m going to stock up on the name brand stuff.

#5. Absorbant Bath Towels: Spanish towels squeegee the water off your body. They aren’t soft. They do the job…sort of. Sandpaper would do just as well.

#6. High Thread Count Sheets: We found bamboo fiber sheets that Donna almost approves of. We bring sheets back from the U.S. every time we come to Spain.

#7. Liquid Smoke: A bottle of liquid smoke lasts forever. Adding a couple of drops to your baked beans, stew, or chili recipes is sufficient. Half a drop in your Bloody Mary is probably too much. You have to mix up a batch. I haven’t found liquid smoke in Spain. I’ve looked!

#8. BBQ Sauce: We are used to having a couple dozen brands of BBQ sauce on the grocery store shelves. In Oliva there’s a store brand that tastes like a store brand. I’d make my own if I could find liquid smoke.

#9. Canned Green Chiles and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup: These are my lazy cook staples. They don’t make anything that’s actually good. They turn leftovers into some sort of twisted comfort food.

#10. Pants/Trousers: I’ve got thick stumpy legs, no butt, and a variable waist size. The immediate challenge in Spain is finding pants I can get my feet through. If I can pull the pants up, it looks like I’m wearing tights. Even then the butt is saggy, and the waist is too loose. I wind up looking like I’m made out of spare parts. (Brits call their underwear “pants”. They wear trousers on the outside…most of the time.”)

Of course when we are back in the U.S.A. we’ll miss things about Spain. The beach, 2 euro bottles of wine, and sitting in the sun enjoying a 4 euro breakfast for two will top that list.

Granada: A Little Piece of Home

Plaza Larga: 2021, 2018, 2016…

We spent a month in Granada in 2016, and again in 2018. If Paris is where we fell in love with France, Granada is where we fell in love with Spain. Fairytale views from Calle San Luis #12 had a lot to do with that. So did finding our favorite produce stand, butcher shop, and bakery. The Albaicin’s spider web streets surprised and delighted. A cafe, bar, plaza, tienda, or spectacular view might appear around any corner. It took about a week for Granada to feel like another piece of home.

Other adventures led us to happily put down roots in Oliva. Twists and turns in our storyline don’t bother us. Like our friend Marina says, “Problem? Solution!” The twists and turns always take us somewhere interesting. It’s a matter of not allowing problems to create more problems. So, here we are again in the Albaicin. Our produce lady’s pears are beautiful!

We had barely checked into our room at Montes Claros when Donna asked, “Does Granada still feel like home to you?” I was standing on the balcony looking at a very familiar view. In truth it felt like we’d never left. It was like meeting an old friend. Getting reacquainted wasn’t necessary. It was just a matter of catching up.

A tapas crawl with fellow expats, Scott and Patty, jogged our memories. A purchase of a beer, wine, agua con gas, or a latte with ice brings meatballs, bread with cheese and onion jam, or eggplant with honey to your table.

Our evening’s final destination was the frequently closed La Polleria. Spain’s new dessert craze is genitalia shaped waffles dipped in a shiny glaze of chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry. The girl behind the counter smiles sweetly and asks, “Dick, or pussy?” It seems as if the former is more popular than the latter. Donna stood outside on the sidewalk shaking her head and muttering, “That’s just nasty.” La Polleria makes an indecent waffle.

The Botanical Garden…

What does a person do in Granada? We wander around. There was breakfast on the Plaza de la Romanilla. While we were eating lunch on the Paseo De Los Tristes a bass player knocked out a killer version of Take Five.

The next morning we had coffee at a cafe with a spectacular view of the Alhambra. Then there was stronger coffee and cookies in the Arab Quarter. Of course we shopped. We also looked for a hole in the wall falafel shop. In 2018 we spent an hour discussing world politics with the shop’s owner. His falafels were better than those claiming to be the world’s best. Falafels and politics are always open to debate though. We never turned the corner that brought us back to that falafel shop.

The corner we turned took us to the University of Granada Botanical Gardens. What we would call a gentle drizzle had locals pulling out umbrellas and wrapping coats around their heads. It seemed like perfect September weather. We peered at kaffir limes, Chinese oranges, hops, mugwort, and prickly pears.

Then we found the Botanico Cafe across the street. The food coming out of the kitchen looked good. The pasta pockets filled with Gorgonzola and pear were even better than expected. The puttanesca with buffalo mozzarella was excellent. That the kitchen baked us a fresh batch of the apple crumble they had just run out of? Perfect!

The old saying is true. “Home is where the heart is!” It’s always a case of following your heart through the twists and turns. Your heart usually knows where you are going better than you do.

Fallas, Valencia 2021

Valencia’s Fallas is said to be the biggest celebration in Spain. It has art, music, pageantry, politics, religion, fireworks, and fires. From an expat’s point of view there are also contradictions. That’s what makes it a human endeavor.

To wrap my head around Fallas I have to look back to the grand community celebrations of my youth. In Seattle the biggest celebration was Seafair. It was an all stops pulled out citywide party!

Seattle’s neighborhoods built floats, crowned royalty, participated in parades, had backyard feasts, and watched the hydroplane races. At night after the races were over we walked down to Lake Washington’s Andrew’s Bay and watched fireworks.

Fallas is a little like that. Neighborhoods build impressive monuments instead of floats. Instead of watching boat races people watch polystyrene monuments go up in flames. The neighborhood parties feel familiar. Fireworks are a constant instead of a grand finale. That’s where the similarities end.

We have been told Fallas was started in the Middle Ages. Artisans and carpenters burned items that were no longer useful to prepare for a new season. At some point that evolved into building monuments to express the outrage politicians inspired. Setting the monuments on fire was a way of saying, “We’d rather burn something big, beautiful, and expensive than pay you another cent in taxes.” That’s a sentiment I can get behind.

Getting this outrage past censors during the Franco era meant being slyly creative and using common archetypes. Politicians who fit neatly into stereotypes are still fair game. It’s a celebrity roast made out of polystyrene. The burns aren’t punchlines. They are incendiary torches and kerosene.

There is a religious component to Fallas as well. It’s where unity is built. In addition to building monuments to burn, a Flower Virgin is created. Thousands of celebrants in traditional regalia make their way to Valencia’s Plaza de la Virgen. They are accompanied by hundreds of marching bands. In the plaza the Flower Virgin is built one bouquet at a time. She is several stories high and magnificent. The Virgin doesn’t get burned.

The contradictions? This year’s Fallas featured monuments addressing the environmental crisis. Seeing them go up in big plumes of black smoke was jarring. Donna hit the internet while they were still burning. Torching polystyrene is not environmentally friendly. Thinking about 2021’s close to 800 burning Fallas monuments had us contemplating environmental impacts very seriously.

Of course Seattle’s hydroplanes and the beloved Blue Angels’ airborne maneuvers are hardly environmentally friendly either. We gasp and point with glee. Then we write it off as a once in a year event…a drop in the bucket. High horses are only great if we see things more clearly from our perch. Environmental concerns require all of us to rethink our habits and rituals.

Fallas 2022?

Fallas is usually held in March to celebrate the coming of Spring. Covid pushed it to September this year. Valencia deserves a lot of credit for demonstrating how a massive citywide celebration can observe covid protocols. Streets were closed to automobile traffic. Barricades and close monitoring kept plazas from being overwhelmed by celebrants. Masks were worn and the Civil Guard was quick to remind those whose masks had slipped. None of this felt forced. It was a point of civic pride.

The question remains, “Will we return in March 2022 to experience Fallas again?” My thinking is to see if there is a way to experience Fallas in a smaller way. I enjoyed the Seafair celebrations of my youth. Hydroplane fever was a given, but watching family members and friends participate in Seafair events developed civic pride. Backyard BBQ’s, potlucks, and beach parties were where community bonds were formed. Part of me is saying, “Go small, or stay home.”