Basque Winter

Well winter is officially here in the Basque Country. We knew that this day was coming so this time we thought that we would get ready. You see when we first moved to Bilbao in January we really didn’t know what we were in store for. Our friends from the south told us many things to expect. They said that it’s expensive, people don’t smile and that it rains a lot. But one of the main things that they said is that it gets cold, really cold. ‘Well, thanks for the advice’ we said as we arrived in Bilbao with short sleeve shirts and no real winter coats. ‘I’m sure it won’t be that bad’ we thought to ourselves. ‘They’re probably just exaggerating anyways’. ‘I mean people have to smile sometimes’ we said. Well after having lived almost a year in Bilbao we can attest to the fact that many things that we were warned about are true. Well pretty much everything, to some degree. This winter we said to ourselves ‘we will be ready for the cold and the rain’. While its true that there are parts of Spain that rain more than here for example, Galicia which is to our west nearer to Portugal, it still rains a lot here. But ask any local here what they think about the weather and you may find an interesting answer. They’ll tell you that, ‘yes it does rain a lot but the good thing is that there are no real extremes in weather’. In other words, it doesn’t get extremely hot or extremely cold like some other parts of Spain, like Madrid for example. This means that even though there is a lot of rain the temperatures are fairly moderate. There is another reason why the rain is a good thing. This part of Spain is called Green Spain  because of the abundance of green vegetation in the landscape. This was especially apparent to us after spending sometime in Murcia in the south which is very dry and has little greenery. They have quite the opposite climate in fact and it is refreshing to be surrounded by green, lush plant life.

So what have we done to prepare for the Basque winter. Well we’ve had on our to-do list for some time now to get a better heater for our apartment. We actually have three heaters which came with the apartment. One is an oil heater and the others are wall mounted heaters which are designed to consume sparingly. Well these heaters are ok, but our apartment is a big space to heat and we just weren’t happy with the heaters for our space. We were really missing our old oil heater that our parents got us back in Oakland. So we started asking around to find out what the friends use. Many of them use traditional electric heaters and some use gas heaters. We were a little nervous about possibly blowing up the buidling (which does happen here) by using the gas heater so we continued looking. We had seen a heater last winter at the store that was a reasonable price and didn’t rely on electricy but instead uses kerosene. So we finally made it back to the store to see if it was still there. Well it was but it was twice the price so we were a little bummed. We really thought that heater would be the one for us. A few days later I was browsing at a second-hand shop in our neighborhood and they had basically the same exact heater for a fraction of the price as the new one. Well we decided to get it and long story short we now have the best heater we’ve ever had and it cost us a lot less than what we were expecting!

Well that covers the house, but what about when we have to go outside. We didn’t have any real winter coats so we needed to come up with a solution fast because we know that we will be out in service and we don’t want to get sick. One problem that we’ve encountered while here in Spain is a lack of quality clothing. You can easily find cheap clothing here and I think the tendency is to just buy what you need and if it wears out, you just buy new ones. In fact in the summer during one of the popular sales, we went on a little shopping spree. Well the clothes looked nice, but literally three washes later almost all of the items had holes or were unraveling. So that was the last time we were going to waste our money. So for the winter we wanted to find some quality coats and boots that would last. Neither of us really are big shoppers so the goal: quality that would last. The other challenge was to find clothing we liked. Here in Spain it’s really difficult to find clothing that is either unique or just more of a classic style. People like to follow trends and follow the crowd. In fact it’s sometimes amusing to see parents who dress their children exactly the same or to see groups of teenagers with the exact same outfits on. You really would not see that in the US where everyone is trying so hard to be different. However, after much searching over a few weeks we finally found warm coats and I found warm, waterproof boots; and just in time because the winter rains have finally come and thankfully we feel ready!

One of the things that we really enjoyed back home was all of the amazing food that was available to us. When we first arrived in Spain we were greeted with all sorts of delicious meats, cheeses, olives and other things that we couldn’t pronounce. We instantly saw that this was a culture that really enjoys eating and cooking. I think it is said that Spain has more restaurants per capita than any other country in Europe and they also spend the most on food. This is not hard to believe because as you walk the streets of almost any city in Spain you can’t take more than a few steps without stumbling across another restaurant or bar or some sort of place where you can eat. Another thing that is really cool here is that each area or province has their own style of dishes and they are all incredibly different. They take their influence from many different areas and cultures. Part of the fun of living here is being able to explore all of these differences.

When we moved to Murcia we were able to see how the food reflected the people. Many times the food was simple but good. There was an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit around us. That part of Spain is known for growing much of the food for the rest of the country. This was evident in the “farmers markets” throughout the various neighborhoods. It was a pleasure to visit our neighborhood market every Tuesday to get fresh, inexpensive and high-quality fruits and vegetables. We also looked forward to getting our bread or other pastries. These little treats made life in Murcia that much more enjoyable. We started to become skilled in knowing where to get our bread and at what time as well as other things. We could see which vendors took pride in their products and this was reflected in their food. Even though our meals were uncomplicated they were tasty and very healthy. The variety and quality of food in this country influenced us in part to come here. Afterall, if you can enjoy your assignment then you will likely stay longer and be happier. Upon first seeing dozens of pig legs hanging from the ceiling of the local butcher shop we were a little surprised. But in time you get used to it and now we’re surprised if there isn’t a pig leg hanging from the ceiling. Even though the ingredients are modest we were able to see how integral eating and cooking were to people in Spain. Yes, it is truly a country that loves to eat!

Upon researching Bilbao and the Basque country we became really excited to see all that the area had to offer in the way of food. Well when we arrived we saw glimples of the Basque food culture but the reality is that between work and spiritual things we really didn’t have the time to explore as much as we wanted. Until recently that is. Now that our work schedule, of workng two or three days a week, and our preaching schedule have become more routine we are realizing that we have some time to dedicate to exploring something that we really enjoy – food. The food culture in the Basque country is very interesting. The people here tend to be quite serious and correspondingly they take their food very seriously too. For example, from 1:30 – 4:30 you can count on everyone being home having lunch. This affects the entire city because many of the shops are closed and there is a mass exodus of all of the downtown workers to take the metro and bus to get home and eat. Many of the parents come and pick up their children from school and go home and have a meal together. At first we had to adjust to this way of doing things. This even affects the friends while preaching. At around 2:00 basically all of the friends will stop and go home and eat. Then they may return for the afternoon service meeting at 4:30. Well, I’m sorry to say but their is no Chipotle or someother place where we can pop in and grab a quick bite. It’s true that we could pack a lunch but isn’t it more fun to be like the locals. So we just went with the flow. Well, in order to do this you need to know how to cook. Thanfully Kanicia knows how to cook quite well! Whew!  Well, I think this has led to a pivotal, turning point in our marriage after five years together. Let me explain.

Since January we’ve had this really lousy pan that was on its last leg. We’ve been meaning to replace it but we hadn’t done so until last month. We invested in a really nice 28′ pan with a top that can also be placed in the oven. Well this may have been among one of the best purchases in our time in Spain so far. When we first used the pan to cook an egg we could see the difference right away. I don’t think that I’ve ever been so excited to see an egg cook! After that it seems that all of the pent-up enthousiasm, years of eating out and watching the Food Network was all released! After a year of being around a culture that adores their food and cooking it, I had had enough. This pan would be the catalyst that would transform our kitchen and ignite my desire to actually cook! Yes me! It’s not that I’ve never cooked in the past. I’ve made crepes a few times and Kanicia taught me to make empanadas, but this time it was different. I could tell.

Mussels cooked in white wine with fries and a spinach salad.
Mussels cooked in white wine with fries and a spinach salad.

Well a few nights later I surprised Kanicia by making a Spanish potato tart and a salad. I wish I could’ve taken a picture of her reaction. Since then we’ve been accumulating different cooking items to be able to replicate much of what we see around us. We’ve been cooking together almost everyday now and its a lot of fun. We’ve even made pintxos or tapas. We’ve been happy to be able to have some friends over and to cook for them. Doing this has allowed us to explore more of the local cusine and styles of cooking. Another thing that we enjoy, is cooking something familiar from back home. Many times if we find food that is supposed to be “American” it is just not quite the what we are used to back home. So what better way than to make it yourself. We’ve even been able to make delicious hamburgers and fries that transported us back to the bay area even if only for a few bites!

Olives stuffed with anchovy and white anchovy and jamon serrano.
Olives stuffed with anchovy and white anchovy and jamon serrano.

We’ve been trying to shop more and more exclusivley at the smaller fruiterias and carnicerias because the quality tends to be better and we feel better about supporting the small local businesses. By trying to do this we’ve discovered some really interesting places in our neighborhood with great products. They have some great cooking shows here as well including 30 minute meals with Jaimie Oliver that give us great ideas for meals. We’ve even imitated many of the cooking shows that we watch and bought fresh rosemary, parsley, cilantro and thyme plants to put on our counter to use for cooking. So now every Saturday is our special meal night where we cook a different Spanish meal together. We look forward to continuing to cook together and explore the gastronomy of Spain.

Spanish "omelette" with jamon and parsley.
Spanish “omelette” with jamon and parsley.

Our ministry has been quite productive and interesting as usual this past month. As for my studies, Peter from Ghana is still attending the meetings regularly every Sunday. I couldn’t be happier about this. It seems as if the meetings are having a good effect on him as well. When he first came to the meeting he wanted to sit in the back by the door. It was almost like if he needed to he could bolt out the door at a moments notice. I had been steadily encouraging him to get to know different ones and introducing him to others whenever possible. As time has gone on he now feels comfortable sitting in the center of the congregation with Kanicia and I. At first he would leave right after the meeting finished but now he lingers for 10 – 15 minutes afterwards. He also takes the initiative to approach and greet different ones. I really can see that the brotherly affection that is present at our Christian gatherings is having a positive effect on his attitude and actions. There has been something else that has happened. It seems that each meeting he is dressed better and better. What I mean is that he went from wearing jeans and a sweater to now wearing a nice button up shirt and slacks. His demeanor is changing as well along with his clothing. This is impressive and it shows his appreciation for spiritual things is growing. I was talking to him about the memorial and the assembly next year and he seems really excited about both. The other day we were talking about the history of Jehovah’s modern day people and he was impressed with how much we have suffered because of not getting involved in politics or war efforts. He asked to learn more about this so I am planning on showing him the video Jehovah’s Witnesses – Faith in Action. As I was browsing the website to download the video I noticed that they have it available in his language, Twi. I was really happy to see this and I am planning on downloading so that he can watch it on our television. I really think that the information will touch him and help him to understand Jehovah’s people better.

One thing that we really treasure about our congregation is that it is very field service oriented. This was very much like our last hall in Mill Valley, CA. The brothers recently announced from the stage that we have a total of around 86 Bible studies in the congregation. This is great for us since we barley have 50 publishers. You can see this reflected at the meetings on Sundays by the attendance of new ones and Bible students along with their children. Speaking of children we have a new baby in our hall. Her name is Goodness. It’s nice to be in a hall with so many kids. Lately in the territory I’ve been gettig a lot of referrals and phone numbers of interested ones. This is good but one needs to be organized in order to keep track of all of the interest and progress made. The timing is also good because now that the weather has gotten colder we can take the opportunity to step inside a coffee shop and call referrals. Our hall has a new ministerial servant that was announced last month. It is a Spanish brother who had moved into our hall with his wife. That now brings the total to six servants. This is remarkable considering that there was only one servant in January!

Among need greaters, sometimes there can be some really creative ideas that allow ones to stay in their assignments. One reason that many have to leave their assignment, even if only temporarily, is because of financial reasons. Last month we stumbled upon a project that is designed to help need greaters find work so that they can stay in their assignments longer. There are also other things, such as sharing tips about where one is currently serving and also letting others know about a specific need in a certain territory. It seems to be new but there are currently over 700 signed up. There are various job postings from brothers and sisters that allow need greaters to work remotely. Only time will tell if it catches on but so far it looks promising. Here is the website.

www.needgr8r.org

 As we look forward to all we have planned in December we hope that you are all well and staying busy in Jehovah’s service. And where ever you are we hope that you are staying warm! 🙂