Archive | Daily Life

City dogs

Posted on 17 February 2014 by American expat!

It’s 9PM and I’m in the pijo part of the city center, waiting for friends. Because I am actually on time–which in Barcelona is early–I am the only one to have yet arrived for dinner. It is a nice night, so I  wait outside and watch a group of dog owners gathered for some evening canine playtime. This is the center of the city where there are parks, though they are small and not numerous. So local residents, who live on this foot traffic only street, meet in the evenings with their pups to let them socialize and play. It is a street of stamped cement and some kind of lighter colored paving stones, with trees poking through holes cut out in the cement that the dogs sniff around. Most importantly, there are no cars, and because of this there multiple benches lining the walking thoroughfare.

I sit at one of the benches and watch the group of owners and their pets. The people chat with each other about their dogs, as most dog owners will: the breeds,  ages, behavior. I note that every one of the dogs is some kind of pure bred sporting dog. There is nary a mutt among them. You see some mutts in my neighborhood–along with clowders of feral cats that locals supply food and makeshift shelters for–but I’m sure each of these lovely dogs in this neighborhood was purchased for large sums. I note that not one of them is neutered, and am not surprised, as that would be a rare sight anywhere in this city.

The dogs are delightful of course. A four month old yellow lab tumbles around with a feisty little Jack Russell puppy. A gentle, smiling Golden Retriever visits with some children. An adult yellow lab with a ball entices a glossy black Cocker Spaniel to chase her. She calmly trots in a wide circle, tail waving to and fro, toenails clicking on the cement, ball in her mouth. The Cocker gallumps clumsily after her. Eventually the lab flops on her side, head on the ground, to chew her ball Labrador-style.  The dumb Cocker proceeds to hump her head.

The group fractions. One woman moves away to talk on her phone. Another calls after his wayward Golden, who is off to politely solicit the nearby restaurant patrons seated in this plaza. Eventually leashes are attached, toys gathered, and playtime is over. My friends arrive and I enter the restaurant, where I find all varieties of fowl on the menu- the very kind these sporting dogs are supposed to, but will never, retrieve.

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No tacos here

Posted on 11 February 2014 by American expat!

Due to the fact that a third of Americans and even Canadians I encounter through work don’t even know that Spain is in Europe (link is to a personal blog but I ranted about this very subject one day), I have taken to stating that I live in Barcelona, Spain and add that it is about an hour from the border of France. The response has been markedly different than I when merely say “Spain”.  (Though if I don’t want to bother with the long phrase, I will just say Europe.) That always gets a big “lucky you!” much like when I lived in Italy or Hawaii, and not the typical blank stare when I don’t elaborate on where it actually is on the map.

I’m pretty sure this is because in North America, everything coming from and existing below Texas is referred to as “Spanish”, even though the only thing remotely Spanish would be the language (and that doesn’t even apply to the largest country in South America). So people get all confused. They freely mix the terms Latin and Spanish and this gets crossed over to people as well. I have heard plenty of individuals from Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, etc referred to as Spanish.

If North Americans do know that Spain is in Europe, then it is still rather common for them to expect it to be full of Mariachi bands and tacos. I have actually listened to American students arriving from the airport excitedly describing what they think Plaza Catalunya will be like, and that description included Mariachi bands playing giant guitars. And I just had to explain to my mother (who actually is well traveled) that a tortilla in Spain is not the same as a tortilla in Mexico. She kept asking if a Spanish tortilla was made of bread, or corn, or flour and had trouble understanding that it is not something you wrap around other foods. Tortilla is its own dish, made of eggs and potatoes and usually onions and is like a chunky frittata that you eat with a fork. It wasn’t until we actually served it to her than she understood that the word tortilla isn’t ubiquitous for “round, flat starchy thing you fill with beans and rice”. And of course, it goes without saying that Spaniards don’t eat the tacos or burritos that Mexican tortillas would be an integral part of.

None of this would be remotely interesting if it weren’t for the fact that the neighbor to the north-east, France, never suffers this misappropriation. You don’t tell someone you live in France and have them think you live in Niger. They know immediately that you are eating crepes and paté and not Bánh mì while you lounge topless in Biarritz. And neither does the next neighbor to the East, Italy. Most people can not only identify the national dish but can even point it out on a map, thanks to the unique footwear shape of the jutting land mass. Neither of which anyone who hasn’t been here can do for Spain. People will refer to it as a city in Brazil, a Central American continent or “one of those countries down there”, but it is a rare occasion when someone utters “I’ve always wanted to go there…” while looking wistfully off into the distance when I merely name the country wherein I now reside.

Which is fine by me. It means there aren’t hordes of Americans migrating seasonally to this country looking for glamor. That’s a job for our neighbors France and Italy.

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European wardrobe vs.California wardrobe

Posted on 09 December 2013 by American expat!

Living in this general area of Europe–Northern Spain, Southern and central France, Northern and central Italy–requires modifications to one’s wardrobe. Not to try to fit in, mind you, but simply to deal with the climate, the terrain and the lifestyle.

I’ve tried to make my CA wardrobe work here, I really have. I’ve brought countless stored items of clothing over to Europe, only to have them sit sadly in my closet, unworn and forgotten. Oh, I’ll take them out every now and then to look at, remembering how I could throw them on, feel good and never have to think twice about the temperature. Then I put them away for another year and eventually carry them back to California storage, sell them on eBay or just sadly give them away.

Dressing for the Climate

While the climate here is proclaimed to be similar to Southern California’s, humidity obscures all that. Humidity is like adding salt to your food: it intensifies what is already there. So throughout the year I’m either boiling or freezing, with very little time spent in between the two extremes.

Spring lasts about a week here, the seasons change from summer to winter and back again nearly instantaneously. Unlike in California, which has kind of a perpetual Spring, with a month or so of summer and even less of winter. Here, even a day with a mild 73F degrees, you will burn in the sun and freeze in the shade thanks to the humidity, which is why everyone, including me, wears scarves all year long. Scarves with everything, even summer outfits of shorts and tank tops. Because the second that sun dips behind the mountain, or you cool down before your sweat dries, your neck will be the first thing to feel exposed and vulnerable. Better cover it up and look like an idiot before you feel that chill you know is coming.

The humidity is also why I find things like my favorite lightweight trench coat I brought from the US hanging in the hall closet, unworn. It’s been two years since I brought it over, just about time for it’s visit to the Spanish closet to be over. I’ll go put it in my “take to the US” pile now. Sigh.

Dressing for Daily Life

In the US, I tend to wear jeans and high heels. I’ve basically had to forget that high heels exist here. I’ve carried so many pairs of heels in my luggage from the states, hopeful that they will see the light of day, only to be carried back over the Atlantic a year later having collected dust under the bed or in the closet. In a place where you walk, bike, navigate cobblestones and countless stairs daily, heels are an impossibility. The closest I can get is a moderate heel (2.5 inches) on a sturdy boot. And I still trip.

The upside to treacherous terrain is the spectating entertainment it brings. Any visit to the center and you’ll find gaggles of British girls clomping from bar to bar in their highest platforms, usually paired with their shortest dresses, holding each other up awkwardly or walking like cowboys to keep their balance. Head to the beaches where the discotheques are, and you’ll spot smaller clusters of American girls teetering along in stilettos in search of nightlife. Of course, this will be around 9PM when you spot them roaming in their slow packs, three hours before the clubs actually open and five hours before anyone even shows up.

Hair

What leaves my hair smooth and shiny in California leaves my coif a greasy mess here. Anything other than the lightest conditioner gives my hair an unintended “wet look”- fine for summer, when you spend the majority of your day either sweating or swimming, but not so practical for the rest of the year. Winter brings the added bonus of static (how can air be dry and humid?), so I get to choose between electrified dry hair that clings to my face or electrified greasy hair that clings to my face. What the hell.

Shopping

I hate shopping so I generally buy clothes online, or wait until I am in the US because anything of decent quality is far cheaper than in Europe. This is because we have sales tax, not a hidden Value Added Tax. VAT in Barcelona is now 22 or 24 percent (someone said it just went up to 24 percent but I don’t know if that is true and the government websites can’t seem to agree either), while sales tax in California is around 10 percent, and in places like Oregon or New jersey is zero. Additional government imposed taxes on businesses drive prices up here, the end result being a much higher priced product, even for items made locally.

But there are pretty good sales here, and what’s more you know exactly when they will be because they all happen at the same time every year. Like in France, the government controls when things go on sale in Spain. The winter shopping sale in Spain begins on January the 7th and continues until February. The summer shopping sale begins in early July and lasts for about a month. These are the two times during the year shops can clear out old stock, and there are three rounds of each sale with ever decreasing prices with each round. By the third and final round, things are pretty cheap, so I might venture out in winter to see what is left in the form of warm clothing, since that is all I can think about after freezing for two months.

The Change

For the first time in my life, I actually put seasonal clothing away for the season it is not. It makes sense to store things away when you won’t use them for six months and are limited on closet space, but I wouldn’t bother except that I don’t want my summer dresses staring me in the face everyday while I stand shivering in knee high wool socks and a hooded fleece sweatshirt (hood on) deciding what to wear. That’s just depressing. So away they go in plastic stackable containers, along with the sandals, shorts and tank tops, their places taken up by wool dresses, sweaters, boots and knit tights.

Only the in-between clothes stay in their place: hanging unworn in the closet, until I take them back to California.

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Three accomplishments in five years

Posted on 10 November 2013 by American expat!

Having just passed my five year anniversary here, I thought I’d sum up what I might call accomplishments. There aren’t many, three to be exact. But their impact is big!

1. I can finally converse on the phone in Spanish without complete bewilderment.

The lack of body language and facial expression combined with the softening of articulatory consonants that speaking into and listening through a device induces had me avoiding phone calls at all costs for the longest time. A Pavlovian panic response still clutches me when an unfamiliar number rings my phone, or when I realize I will have to initiate a phone call that will be entirely in Spanish myself, but recently I have been able to quell the panic and go ahead and take or make the call, because thankfully, after five years,  I am not at a 100% loss as to what the other person is saying over the cellular waves. It might be only a 25% loss of comprehension, but that is manageable. Unless the person speaks quickly or mumbles, then I’m screwed.

2. I no longer give up when a security guard tells me something is “closed”.

You would think that walking into a shop or office 30 minutes or even 15 minutes before a posted closing time would be a non event. But here it is an entirely different story. Despite the posted closing hours, any shop, supermarket or office will try to pull the “nope, we are closed” business on you in their frantic rush to be out the door by the time the clock strikes the closing hour. The best and most common example of this are supermarket that close at 9:15pm (yes, this is a real posted closing time). You saunter in at 20:55, and the harried checkers immediately will yell at you that they are closed, trying to wave you back out the door with one arm as the other scans merchandise. In the case of larger supermarkets or shopping centers however, it isn’t as easy as pointing at your wrist, scowling and saying  “20 minutes!” as you stride right past the the fuming checkers. This is because there is alway a security guard or portero (basically a doorman) blocking you, telling you to beat it, the place is closed.

I used to feebly protest, pointing to the clock while the guard looked at me cooly and shook his head and squared his shoulders. But I have come to learn that there is a certain amount of banter that is just might get yourself through the door. It is a mixture of groveling that you only need that one thing, that you left work early and this is the third time you are trying to get into this store on time but it is always closing early, along with debating logically that they have to let you in because they aren’t really allowed to be closing this early, that they are obligated to stay open until at least ten minutes before they close, come on, 30 minutes is ridiculous and they aren’t even busy…not that the guard will ever let you in, but occasionally someone else in the office or shop will witness the encounter and, having nothing else to do for 20 minutes, will tell the guard to allow you through. When this happens, it feels like my birthday. If my birthday made me younger, not older. OK bad analogy.

3. I know never to ask an employee to do anything right before lunch or closing time

Getting anyone to do anything besides the easiest of their regular tasks is nothing short of a struggle.  The best comparison I have is the DMV. You know how getting your registration fees adjusted, waiving fees, passing tests and even having the “correct paperwork” is all dependent upon the person who happens to be helping you? Just imaging that, but in every possible customer service outlet: banks, restaurants, shops, phone companies (especially phone companies!) utilities, electricians–you name it (remember this video?). This is especially true if it happens to be right before lunchtime or closing time. I have been told to return with additional paperwork that proved to be unneeded, directed to offices that when I showed up, had no idea why I was told to go there, been hung up on and been flat out told “No” on more occasions that I want to remember. Strategically scheduling visits to not occur before lunch or closing time doesn’t eliminate the problem, but it has reduced the number of times I get lied to, turned away, redirected or hung up on. And I’ll take any small victory I can get.

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Barcelona – is not in Spain?

Posted on 12 October 2013 by American expat!

For those unfamiliar, here is what is happening:  The region of Catalonia (Catalunya) is generally considered to be fighting for independence from Spain, though not everyone would say that it is fighting for independence, because not everyone supports it. I won’t get into the reasons why – suffice it to say it has to do with money.

The culture in Catalunya is quite different from Central and Southern Spain, though one could say the same about most European countries that are larger than the size of, say, the state of Rhode Island. In Germany, the Bavarian culture is worlds away from northern regions like Saxony and Brandenburg, with Bavaria generally considered “old world”, with more farming and less industrialized business as sources of livelihood. Italy is similar – there are distinct two cultures, one of the North and one of the South , dividing the boot right in half. (Side note: We Americans are familiar with Italy’s Southern culture, almost exclusively, as the mass emigration out of Italy after WWII occurred in the South). So it isn’t surprising that the northernmost regions of Spain feel they are very different from the Southern and even Central areas.

There are a few more points that distinguish the Northern regions from the Southern : Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque regions have their own officially recognized languages that are spoken along with the first official language, Spanish. So do the Balearic Islands, though Catalonia claimed them for itself in the recent past and the official language is Catalan. (Though that gets messy, because if you ask any Mallorquin if he speaks Catalan and he will tell you absolutely not–he speaks Mallorquín. Ask any Menorcan- and he’ll reply he speaks Menorquí, and ask an Ibizan or Formenteran and he will tell you he speaks Eivissenc. Their debate is not so much as to whether Catalonia should secede, but whether they are Catalan or not!)

Get the picture? Its a political topic that parties use to their advantage, as political parties are wont to do. And it is a local topic that people feel passionately about, both for and against –  assuming you are not asking an Okupante, who will always be for seceding. You know, anarchy and all. (Or communism. They can’t seem to agree on that point.) There are many Catalans here who are so passionate about it that they refuse to speak Spanish. These are usually the younger, post-Franco, generation. The first to have grown up with Catalan in schools and are really the embodiment of the immediate backlash against the dictator after his death. They also tend to learn English very well, and will prefer to speak it over Spanish with you. (Or Italian, or French – anything but Spanish.)

Any which way, people will let each other know where their loyalties lie. For example: There is an old apartment complex near me that is bisected by the barrio’s main street. At the bottom of the street, standing in the main pedestrian area that goes right through the middle, there is a building on the right, and another on the left. As it happens, the right side flies the Spanish flag and the left the Catalan flag, both facing each other. One could, if one did not know, surmise that the complex flies both flags, because this place is both Spanish and Catalan. But one would be wrong. Because these are flags flown by the residents themselves, not the apartment complex.

Spanish_flag

Spanish flag in the battle of the neighbors.

cat_flag

And in this corner, Catalunya!

It’s easy to imagine how this might have played out: One side stuck a flag out, let’s just say it was the independence supporters began. Some neighbors across the street don’t really agree with that political agenda, so they stuck their Spanish flag on the roof in defiance, but primarily to watch for a reaction and with hope in their hearts, piss off their neighbors. Then they glower at each other’s flags all day long. Perhaps someone in the regional flag building sneaks up and takes the national flag down one day. This pisses the person off who put the national flag up, so they sneak over and steal the Catalan flag. And on it goes.

Flags are everywhere: hanging out windows, on shirts, stickers on cars and scooters, flying at events. You’ll generally see far more Catalan flags and Catalan independence flags (Catalan stripes with a blue triangle with a single star on the left side). Probably because independence supporters are underdogs in that their wish is not what is. Nationalists don’t really have anything change to push for because, well, what they agree with is already in place.

Edit: Two hours after I posted this, I went on a bike ride and passed this: 

spanish and catalan flags  Both flags being flown! First time I have seen this.

In addition to the flags, there are events and marches and demonstrations in support of seceding. (And graffiti – God, graffiti is everywhere. Sometimes with Anarchy symbols and sometimes with Communism symbols-What a dichotomy to be confused about.) It’s all around, and if you live here, early on you’ll be asked how you, as an expat, feel about Catalonia’s independence – usually by the separatists.  If you support it, you’ll be embraced by the separatists; if you oppose it, they happily engage in debates with you about it. I’ve never been asked by a nationalist what I thought, but it will still get brought up in conversation eventually, and then you hear all the reasons why it shouldn’t happen. It can be hard to be indifferent – the Spanish do love a good debate. 

As for me, I’ve heard all the reasons for and against – some are sound, some seem misinformed. But…I live in an expat world:  I don’t vote here, I’m not a citizen, my circle of close friends are from all over the world and other parts of Spain (some of whom are from regions that also want to secede from Spain). Yes I have Catalan friends, but most of them have been expat themselves and can relate.

The expat culture tends to be its own thing, with a view of the rest of the world that is rather neutral. We are all uprooted and don’t have ties or history with the places we live. We also won’t gain anything if it happens –or if it doesn’t. We have things going on back home that we are more tied to, (i.e. my own country’s government just shut down). So even though we live here, it isn’t our place to support or oppose something as personal as this topic. 

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