“In ca5e I haven't mentioned, I am having to u5e the number 5 in place of the letter that come5 between R and T in the alphabet,” a friend emailed me this morning. “Alway5 something.... the letter i5 not working for some rea5on ... *but clearly sometimes it works..... Weird.”
Yes, as you’ve probably noticed, computers are running amok in fresh, creative ways these days. I assume it’s our new AI overlords, warming up with a few frisky pranks before taking over the world. It’s the only way to account for my friend’s malfunctioning “S” key and for my epic battle this week with a nefarious online form.
It all started with good news: the US Navy base at Rota, 78 miles south of Seville, had finally received a shipment of the newest Covid vaccine booster and would be happy to inoculate us. Just a quick update of my account with Tricare (military health insurance we have thanks to Rich’s Navy service) and then I could make an appointment.
At once I ran into an impenetrable thicket of unfamiliar acronyms: MHS, DHA, DEERS, ADFM. I was assigned passwords, access codes, and PIN numbers. My personal and medical details were exhaustively examined. I had to formulate answers to a slew of security questions like where I’d gone to high school, my dog’s maiden name, and how I would set the ignition timing on a 1955 Bel Aire Chevrolet with a 327 cubic inch engine and a four barrel carburetor.
And what did I get for my efforts? An Error Code 11 saying my form couldn’t be processed. Why not? A typo? A PIN pasted where the password should go? I kept trying. After four Error Code 11s, three Error Code 10s, and once, rather excitingly, an Error Code 5, I admitted defeat and called the help line operator.
The operator made suggestions for half an hour before asking, “How are you inputting the information?”
What did she think I was using, telekinesis? “Typing,” I said. “And pasting in the longer codes…”
“You can’t do that. No pasting, no auto-fill. Keystrokes only.”
I was flabbergasted. Why? No really, why?
“Was there a reason,” I asked through gritted teeth, “this was never mentioned anywhere in the instructions?” I could almost hear her shrug coming down the line.
So I re-entered every word and code by hand and finally got into the system. Only to learn I couldn't book an appointment because they were currently shifting to a new portal called Genesis. Until I’d had an appointment with Genesis, the bot explained, I couldn’t make an appointment with Genesis.
“It’s Catch 22!” I exclaimed to Rich. “The military never disappoints. I guess we’ll just go down there and see what happens.”
A few days later we rented a little Fiat and drove to the Navy base, where we were directed to Admin. To my delight, I walked into that administration office and saw something I never in a million years expected to find flying over a desk on a US military base: a rainbow flag.
I’d have snapped a photo, but Rich explained taking pictures on a military base will get you arrested, possibly shot, so I refrained. But take it from me, the military isn’t what it used to be, and thank heavens for that.
The young sailors in Admin sorted out our Genesis paperwork, and minutes later the medic was giving us our Covid shots. Whew!
Now to enjoy part two of our outing: the small, beachfront town of Rota, a charming fishing village turned tourist mecca. I only hoped it wouldn’t be so overrun with holiday makers that we’d have trouble getting into one of the restaurants famed for seafood so fresh it winked at you on its way to the table.
Leaving the Fiat in a vast seafront parking lot between a couple of large, drab cafeterias, we headed uphill for a recombobulation coffee. Settling at a café table across from the castle and the church, we listened to the gentle splash of a fountain and the desultory conversation of men taking their late-morning ease over glasses of sherry and beer. A balmy breeze carried the welcome news that, after weeks of near-freezing temperatures, the thermometer had suddenly shot up to 70 degrees.
Rich and I lingered long over our coffee but eventually bestirred ourselves, knowing most places would close by 2:00 so everyone could to go home for lunch.
Our first port of call was the 1571 Church of Santa Maria de la O, where we naturally expected to see “La O,” one of the ancient statues of a heavily pregnant Virgin Mary once popular in Spain. The name came from a ritual on her feast day, December 18, when “clerics in the choir after Vespers used to utter a loud and protracted ‘O,’ to express the longing of the universe for the coming of the Redeemer.”
Nowadays images of a heavily pregnant Virgin are often considered unseemly, if not outright pagan. Her feast day has been expunged from the church calendar and most of her statues have been discreetly retired. Today, a conventional Our Lady of the Rosary presides over La O’s altar in Rota.
Although disappointed La O was no longer in residence, we thoroughly enjoyed Rota's cozy atmosphere. We admired the castle (built in 1295, now the town hall), the sweeping white sand beach, quaint side streets, and roomy parks.
By 1:30 everything was deserted. Clearly it was time to think seriously about lunch. I’d done my homework and earmarked various promising places, all listed as “open” online.
When will I learn?
I could almost hear Google chuckling as it sent us all over town in search of these glorious eateries, all closed.
This was the off-season; nobody expected tourists or updated web listings. Only a few cafés remained open, and apologetic staff members explained they only had frozen, deep-fat fried fish balls and unheated, canned clams. A handful of tourists sat at the tables, drinking heavily, and who could blame them?
Eventually Rich and I trudged back to the parking lot, where we’d noticed the two large cafeterias. One was the Fisherman’s Cooperative; surely they …? Nope. All frozen or canned stuff.
With very, very low hopes we made our way to the Cantina Marinera. To our astonishment and joy, they were able to serve us fresh corvina (sea bass), hot, crisp, and perfectly cooked. We counted our blessings.
And I am still counting my blessings.
OK, this wasn’t the richest culinary experience in recent memory. There were head-banging frustrations. I’m more convinced than ever that robots are playing tricks on me.
But I received the booster, which I believe ups my chances of survival. And I learned all over again that while cities like Seville have adopted international habits, there are still plenty of towns where people live by older rhythms. Winter is for slowing down. Warm mornings are for lingering in the sun. Midday is for family lunch. Every life offers us moments of comfort like these, if only we remember to embrace them.
OUT TO LUNCH
This story is part of my ongoing series "Out to Lunch." Mostly I write about visiting offbeat places in the city and province of Seville, often by train, seeking cultural curiosities and great eats. (Learn more.) This week I ventured a little further south to the province of Cádiz.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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