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  • Thursday, August 03, 2006

    Back in the USA

    The families returned back from Spain and we are getting settled again. I've really missed a lot of topics that I wanted to write about, so I'll have to get back to it at some time. Here is a list that I hope to gradually get through.

    1) Getting Visas to Spain - (Terrible and not even required)
    2) Getting our dog to Spain (Lots of paperwork that nobody ever checked)
    3) Spanish Values - Seemed like a lot looser definition of honesty in cateluna. Lot's of cheating on the tennis court.
    4) Travel - Sweden and the artic circle, Monaco, Marakesh, Italy, Egypt.
    5) Kids last few days of school - very nice goodbyes from other kids
    6) Visiting friends and family - 11 families came to visit. Funny stories but I'm not sure it is worth the trouble I'll get into.
    7) Reflections on the year.

    Just wanted a little reminder about good additional topics. Hopefully they will be coming soon.

    Friday, June 16, 2006

    Spanish Radio

    Now that I’m starting to understand a little more Spanish, I’m finding some of the Spanish radio ads very funny. The one I like the most is a series of ads for learning English. One of the series starts out with a couple talking in English. The conversation goes something like:

    Women: Oh dear, isn’t everything wonderful. It is so nice being able to spend all day together.
    Man: I just love being together. I don’t think things could get any more perfect.
    Women: Yes, this is just the way it should always be.
    Man: We are so lucky that we can live this way.

    Then the announcer cuts in and says in Spanish: You too can understand what couples like this are saying. In only 20 weeks you can learn English. Just call 93 739 3434 and you can be on your way to learning English.

    Another ad in the series is a man reading the results of the Academy Awards. Followed by the same announcer, same message. A third ad in the series is someone reading Shakespeare’s To Be, or Not To Be passage in English (but with a heavy Spanish accent).

    I’m not sure what this says about how Spaniards think about English. Especially the first commercial with the “loving” couple seems completely random to me. I’m not sure whether it is saying that with English your relationships will be better, or just that you will be able to enjoy the joys of American soap operas.

    Another funny thing with the Spanish radio is what they do to the songs. When they play “Crazy in Love” they have edited out the man’s part. They also only play about 8 songs over and over. When we arrived we would hear Bon Jovi’s have a nice day about 3 times every hour. This lasted for approximately 4 months. Bon Jovi is on the slow rotation now. The new favorite is black eyed peas.

    Monday, March 13, 2006

    Spanish 10 Year Olds

    Kids in Spain seem to grow up a bit faster than they do in the states. For example, my son told me his classmates have been playing a very strange game in the school’s courtyard during their playground time. The kids sit in a circle and take turns spinning a bottle of Coke. When it stops you have to kiss the girl it points to (yuck). He also said a girl in his class told him that every Spanish 10 year old gets a girlfriend and a cell phone. All this had me thinking, “Why didn’t my parents take me to Spain for a year”. Unfortunately my son doesn’t appreciate the opportunity. He has no interest in the girlfriend (but he would like his cell phone).

    Not only are the Spanish kids precocious, but they are also use to getting a lot more independence. Many of the kid’s classmates walk from their homes to and from school. In the parks parents don’t hover around their kids the way Americans do. You often see groups of parents talking with the kids over a hill and out of site. The school also encourages this independence. Starting in first grade the school program includes a week long ski trip to the Pyrenees. The parent’s are not suppose to visit. You aren’t even allowed to call. While my children were a little nervous about this, my wife was a complete wreck. I don’t think she got more than 2 hours of sleep on any of the nights that the kids were away.

    My wife’s anxiety was exacerbated by an incident we had several weeks earlier with my son. My son had run into a problem with bullying in his class. Apparently this is a common problem with Spanish kids. We’ve known several American families that transferred their kids to the British school or even started home schooling just because of this problem. In our case, one particular student was making life miserable for our son. You might be able to guess how my wife reacted once she found out. Just imagine a grizzly bear watching some hikers poking the bear’s cub with a stick. I think the grizzly would have a more restrained response than my wife. In a two week period, we had six meetings with officials at the school to address the problem. This culminated in a meeting that included his teacher, the school psychologist, the head of the lower school, the school’s program director and the head of the school. Personally I would have given some of the earlier meetings more than a day to have an effect before returning to the school, but each day, when something new happened, we went right back in. To be fair to the school, my son wasn’t telling anyone at the school when he was getting pushed around, but mostly I have to give my wife credit. Since having our big meeting things got much better. Not only have there not been any more incidents, but they have also worked with my son so he will be better able to deal with bullies in the future. As an aside, you might think that kids would make a special effort when a classmate has to learn their native language, but in many cases you would be wrong. Some kids just suck.

    Now you might want to skip this paragraph because I was going to devote it to bragging about my son. I think he’s done great to put this behind him. He is not only doing well socially, but he is also topping his class in many of his subjects. In the fifth grade math contest (given in Spanish) he came in second. He actually tied for first, but ended up losing a coin toss to decide the winner. He still thinks that school is lousy compared to schooling in the states that he can cruise through, but he seems much happier to be in the “lousy” school now.

    Wednesday, February 15, 2006

    European Cars

    Cars are expensive. In Europe they are WAY more expensive than back in the states. After pricing out many options and gradually acclimating myself to this new reality, I finally found a really good deal on a Peugeot. The French government runs a special program for tourists and diplomats that lets them lease a car without paying taxes. This practically cuts the cost of the car in half, meaning that the car is only 20-30% more than it would be in the US. The only problem with this program is that a tourist can get a car for a maximum of 6 months. With 6 months rapidly approaching, this means that I have to find a new car. My original plan was to have my wife get the car for the second 6 months. Unfortunately, the French government frowned on my new plan, and I was assured that any such attempt by my wife would end up with the car being rejected at the Spanish border. This has me back to pricing out the expensive alternatives.

    Another problem with European cars is that lots of them are diesel. Now diesel is less expensive and gets better gas mileage than unleaded gasoline (all good) but it can lead to confusion. How bad can that be? Unfortunately I know the answer.

    In Scotland I rented a large 8 person van. We were meeting my parents and I wanted to be able to zip around the countryside together. This worked great until the last day when we headed to the airport to catch a late night flight to Dublin. We had some extra time so I thought that we would save a few bucks by stopping and filling up the tank. My first problem was that I couldn’t find the gas tank. After walking around the car a few times, I even asked the attendant if she could help us. I’m not sure if I wanted her to find it, or not to be able to find it, thereby proving that I wasn’t completely inept. I guess the best would have been if she found it with difficulty, but that was not to be. No, she didn’t find it right away. She couldn’t find it either. (I know what many of you were thinking). My father finally solved the mystery by going to the owner’s manual where we found out that, between the driver’s door and the passenger’s door, the thin upper panel could be swung to the side to reveal that gas tank. This gas stop was already not going well, but it was going to get worse.

    At this point I picked up the unleaded nozzle and headed for the car. I then hesitated and asked my dad, “It would say something on the gas cap if this was diesel, right?” To which he answered, “It couldn’t be diesel without them telling you.” Dads are not always right.

    I now know the answer to what happens when you put half a tank of unleaded gasoline in a diesel car. You can go for about a mile and a half and then the battery light comes on and the car will no longer move. This happened to us in the fast lane of the highway about two miles short of the airport. Luckily we were heading into a roundabout so cars tended to be slowing down, but it was still an awful place to leave the car. We also lucked out in being able to flag down an empty cab that could ferry us to the airport. With two cab rides and my wife getting dropped off by a tow truck, we were able to just make our flight to Dublin. The only thing left to do was to pay off my inflated credit card bill.

    As a final note, while waiting for the tow truck my wife noticed that the Hertz van rental required you to prebuy a full tank of gas. Stopping at the gas station was completely unnecessary. To her credit my wife has only ever mentioned this to me once. (Thanks sweetheart)

    Thursday, February 02, 2006

    Spanish Level II

    After successfully completing Spanish Level I, I am now enrolled in Spanish Level II (intensive). The intensive part means that instead of being 2 hours a day, 4 days a week, it is now 4 hours a day 5 days a week. This is a lot of Spanish.

    Once again we have an interesting mix of people. There are only 3 others from my original class (one being my wife) and 13 new people. We now have people from Sweden, Finland, Georgia (nothing like Russia), Poland, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Korea, and Palestine. Almost everyone speaks perfect English which is a little surprising since it’s definitely not true for most of the Spaniards. Not that I’m complaining. Talking with the other students in English is my favorite part of the whole class.

    One thing we learned was that the Spanish big numbers go from “millones” to “billones”, but while “millones” corresponds to the English word millions, “billones” corresponds to the English word trillions. The word for billions in Spanish is just mil millones (one thousand million). I guess this wouldn’t bother me so much except that “billones” is so close to billions. The German guy told me that billions in German is also 12 zeros. My theory is that America wanted to be the only country that had billionaires. Of course Italy followed suit and made it so you could have 1,000 lira and not be able to buy a cup of coffee. But when everyone is a billionaire, it’s just not as much fun, so they ended up scrapping the whole thing and going to Euros.

    We also had two interesting exercises about food. When we were learning the ordinal numbers (first, second, etc.), we had an exercise where we had to order the steps required for making the special Catalan garlic bread (Described in my post Can Borrel). There was the step to squish the tomato, the step to rub the garlic, and the step to add olive oil. I found this funny because you can really do this in any order, but whoever put together our book figured everyone would know the correct Catalan way for preparing such an important food.

    The second exercise required you to guess different Spanish foods based on a Spanish description. If you got the entire foods right, they spelled a hidden word down the middle. If you’ve been reading this blog, you should be able to guess the word. It’s the Spanish food we found everywhere. It has 5 letters. It is … I’ll put it at the end just in case you want to guess.

    Our homework assignment was also interesting. We each drew an outline of our home country on a piece of paper that was passed around the class. When a person got a sheet of paper, they added a word they associated with the country. When you finally got your sheet of paper back it was filled with Spanish words. You then had to write a composition about your country that included every word on your sheet. My sheet included Buffalo, Uncle Sam, The Death Penalty, Hot Dogs, Opportunity, NFL, War, Hamburgers, Hockey, Bush, Baseball, NBA, Ben Laddin, Great, and McDonald’s. My composition included wonderful sentences like, “The idea of America is that a person can get everything they work for and nothing more, from lots of money to the death penalty.” I’ll find out tomorrow what grade I get on this jewel of Spanish literature. By the way, if you couldn’t already guess, the mystery food was jamon.

    Views From Our House

    I think we have an interesting town house. The first picture is from the loft where I sleep. I know that it is hard to see in the picture, but the train to Barcelona is going by right in front of the houses in the distance. Getting to the train station is only about a 5 minute walk. There are also mountains that are hard to make out because it is a little hazy. In front of the train is the golf course. This is also hard to make out, so I thought I would go down two floors to our kitchen and take another photo.

    This is the resulting shot from our kitchen window. I have yet to play on this golf course which is very sad. To play golf, you are supposed to get an official card that requires taking a golf test. I think foreigners can also play if they have a good enough handicap. I am fairly certain that there is a way around this because I've seen people playing in our backyard. These people do not have the required handicap.

    Now you might be wondering what a picture of my dog is doing here. This is her doing her favorite activity. She is sitting out on the deck and watching people play golf. She is actually appreciative of the people with the high handcaps because her second favorite activity is retrieving golf balls that land in our yard.

    And finally, this is a picture that has absolutely nothing to do with golf. This is from our loft looking out the front. I added it because it shows the STOP sign at the end of our street. What is a stop sign doing at the end of the street? There is a perfectly good Spanish word that means stop, para. It's the same number of letters and everything. Believe me, most people don't know English. All the other signs are in Catalan, or both Catalan and Spanish. Did the Spanish government get an especially good deal on surplus from the United States. I have no idea. If you know, please add an explanation into the comments.

    Monday, January 23, 2006

    The Robbery

    My wife and I were robbed on the way to our Spanish class. We were driving down the autopista (highway) when a car drove beside us. The passenger started yelling something at us and making motions with her hands that we should slow down and pull over. I was a little hesitant, because our car seemed to be driving fine, but the people in the other car looked very upset. We were close to our exit so I was thinking we could take a look after we parked, but my wife started getting upset and telling me to stop. The other people were driving a nice BMW which made me feel better (so much for telling a book by its cover), so I pulled over a little way down the exit ramp for the school. The BMW pulled over just after the exit and the driver jumped out and hurried back to us waving his arms and saying lots of stuff in an urgent voice, none of which I understood. My wife thought he was saying something about the back tires and a fire and it was clear he wanted to show us something so my wife got out of the car to take a look. He wanted my wife to look under the car in the back, but when she hesitated he started to get angry. He came to the front and showed me a burnt piece of paper and then went to the passenger’s side of the car, opened the door and pointed near the top of the car. He then closed the door, said a couple of more words to my wife, headed back to his car and drove off. My wife wanted me to drive a little ways with her watching the back of the car, but I already sensed that the car was just fine. This was confirmed when my wife noticed that her pocketbook was no longer in the car.

    After talking with the police of Sant Cugat, we found out we were lucky on a couple of accounts. Actually, after the second time we talked with the police we found out we were lucky on a couple of accounts. The first time we talked with the police, the only thing we found out was that mastering level uno of Spanish is completely inadequate for filing a crime report. We may or may not have continued to pursue matters, but that night my wife received a call from someone saying that they had found her purse. My wife was thrilled and she told the person we lived in Sant Cugat and would like to pick it up. But, once again, level uno Spanish was insufficient to really understand what the person was saying. She left it that we would get a friend to call and make arrangements. I was less thrilled to hear about the call because I worried that these might be the same people who took the purse. They were in possession of my car keys ($220 to replace), and I worried that this was a scam to get our car (more than $220 to replace). We decided that it would be best to turn the matter over to the authorities. Luckily we have a very good friend who offered to come with us and serve as an interpreter.

    We arrived at the police station the next morning after getting very little sleep. Every bump, clang, or creak had my wife sending me through the house to check things out. I would canvas the house with my cell phone out, already dialed to 092 (the Spanish 911 equivalent). We were fairly certain that the thieves didn’t have our exact address, but something about having my personal space violated made me feel less secure. This was especially true at night. About 3 in the morning, we finally gave up on sleep and watched Tom Hanks in the Terminal. I find good movies to be totally relaxing. As I worried about poor Tom being stuck in the airport for 9 months, I totally forgot about the army of gang members casing out our premises.

    At the police station the first thing we found out was that this was not done by Spaniards. They told us this before they heard any of the details of the robbery. This has also been the reaction of every Spanish person who we have told. It is always the South Americans and probably a Peruvian. One friend even followed up by saying, “It’s like in America. It’s never the Americans committing the crimes.” I don’t know where that came from, but I just thought, “What America are you talking about?” It might be my political correctness indoctrination, but I think it is simply wrong to prejudge huge groups of people. On the other hand, I have to admit that the person didn’t look Spanish and, if I had to guess, they looked South American (Peruvian?) to me.

    We also learned some more things at the station. When we told them that we had pulled over on the interstate because another car was indicating we had a problem, they looked at us like we had told them we had stuck our tongues to the frozen flag pole so that we could see what it was like. (It’s the why in the world would anyone do that look). The police went on to tell us that we were targeted because of our French license plate, once again emphasizing that no Spanish person would ever stop. We also learned that looking under the car is even worse. This is when they knock you unconscious and grab your wedding ring, watch, and wallet. Taking the whole car is not that uncommon either. All told it could have been much worse. My wife even had her credit card and driver’s license in her coat at the time.

    I’ve included a picture of the police report below. I’m not sure it adds much, but I couldn’t think of any other picture to add for this entry.

    Friday, January 20, 2006

    Rascon de Reyes

    This is me standing in front of the Museo del Jamon (Museum of the Ham) in Madrid. Seeing this picture reminded me of another Spanish custom. There is a dessert, Rascon de Reyes, which is traditionally eaten as part of the “Los Tres Reyes Magos” celebrations. The dessert is a ring of sweet bread that has two prizes baked into it. It is traditional to cut up the ring so a piece can be distributed to each person around the table. Receiving one of the prizes is suppose to impart good luck for the coming year. Receiving the other prize means that you are obligated to buy the Rascon de Reyes for the next year. While strolling through the streets of Madrid we passed a pasteleria (pastry shop), and we decided to partake in the tradition. Being that there were only four of us, we purchased a small Rascon de Reyes. We were warned that the mini size only had the good luck prize and that this one prize would also carry the obligation for next years purchase. Willing to accept the terms, we left with our mini Rascon de Reyes. As it turns out, I was the lucky recipient. As I munched into my slice of Rascon de Reyes, I bit into a little plastic pig. It seems that nothing could represent more good luck to a Spaniard than finding an extra pig when you weren’t expecting one.

    Things Remembered

    You can sometimes be surprised at what you remember most from a trip. After traveling to London, Edinburgh, and Dublin I’ve had time to reflect on all that we did. We saw lots of interesting places. We saw the new Harry Potter film in a great theater in Piccadilly Circus. We went to the stage production of Mary Poppins. We went to a lot of good restaurants. We saw lots of natural wonders like the cliffs of Moher. We took tours of famous buildings and saw many wondrous works of art. But none of those things are what I remember most.

    What I remember most was an incident in Luton. We had flown into Luton because Ryan Air flew there for 1.99 pounds per person. We could also find a reasonable hotel that had good train accesses into London. We went into London to see the show “The Lion King”. We thought we could just pick up tickets for the show that night (perhaps a bit over optimistic since I was later told there was a 4 month wait). We were able to find a discount ticket seller, and eventually settled on seeing the evening show of Mary Poppins which was my daughter’s first choice anyway. The tickets were 80 pounds each and, when my wife asked how much they were with the discount, we were informed that 80 pounds was already discounted. Nobody ever said that London was cheap.

    The show was great, but that wasn’t what I remember most. After the show we had to take two subway rides and a train to get back to our hotel. About 5 minutes into the second subway ride, my son announced that he really, really has to go to the bathroom. We still had about 5 minutes to go to get to the “King’s Cross” station, and then another 30 minutes on the train back to Luton. He was sure he couldn’t wait for the hotel, but he was OK with getting to King’s Cross (barely). Of course, when we get to King’s Cross we can’t find a bathroom anywhere. With my son getting gradually more and more upset, we decide to try to find a restaurant on the street. By this time it is about 12 O’clock and a lot people seem to be stumbling out of bars. The first two restaurants we try have just locked up, but finally we are successful at a Middle Eastern kabob place (to the great relief of my son). On the way back toward the station there are even more people out on the street and my son (10) and daughter (9) started to get nervous. “Daddy, those people look like they’re drunk…They scare me.”

    This actually surprised me. We had been in the London area for a few days and seen a lot of drinking already. In fact, there was a pretty rowdy bar in our hotel. When we arrived late on a Saturday night, the entrance to the hotel was blocked off with a line of people waiting to get in. I had to push my way to the front of the line to talk to one of the bouncers at the door. He sent two other bouncers back to help with our bags and move people out of the way. As we pushed our way through many loud dancing people with full pints, I thought our hotel choice might have been a big mistake. To be honest, my thoughts were more along the lines of, “Thank god my wife picked this hotel so I’m not going to be blamed for this.” It turned out the rooms were down a long corridor away from the bar and fairly nice, so the hotel worked out well. But the point was that the kids weren’t nervous at all, which is why it surprised me that they got nervous later, outside King’s Cross.

    Anyway…, with both kids starting to get upset, we hustled through King’s Cross and were able to get onto the last train back to Luton. With the excitement of the show, the adrenalin from being nervous and the fact that it was after midnight, the kid’s lasted approximately 30 seconds in our comfortable train seats before they were fast asleep. The train had us back to Luton at approximately 12:45 at night. Luckily, my son popped right up when we reached the station, but my daughter was out cold. I just had to pick her up and carry her the three long blocks back to the hotel. About two thirds of the way back, I was startled to feel a kiss on my neck. I looked down and saw my daughter staring up at me. She looked completely content. She had been scared and tired and she didn’t know where she was, but when she woke to find herself in my arms she had no cares and just felt herself overcome with affection. About 3 seconds later she was back to sleep. I’m not sure why such a little thing would make me feel so good, but it did, and I still remember that kiss. In fact, that kiss was the best part of the whole trip, and that kiss is what I will remember the most.