Monthly Archives: August 2014

Robert De Niro Fixed My Toilet

Okay, maybe it was actually his lookalike Spanish cousin, but it was an easy mistake to make. Spanish Bob had the Goodfellas look down to perfection as he fiddled with the various plastic parts of our porcelain throne. I couldn’t understand a single word he was saying, but that trademark De Niro tilted head look with devious grimace was coming across loud and clear. This toidy was a puzzler and he wasn’t happy about it.

On the positive side, the toilet was saved and coaxed back into working order, entertainment value not withstanding. Not so much for a few other household items that our handy thespian-lookalike and his helper stopped in to mend. With a total lack of communication happening on both sides, the same scene kept playing out again and again. I showed them the inoperable item, such as a shower enclosure that’s no longer attached to the wall.  They spend a number of minutes poking and shaking it with considerable trading of mysterious Spanish verbiage. Then we all do a lot of shoulder-shrugging, pointing and grunting, before they move on to the next item on the repair list. The list doesn’t seem to be getting any shorter, but they’re very pleasant fellows overall.

I’ve actually said the same thing about many of the folks we’re encountered so far on our travels around the city trying to get things bought, signed, transferred and half a dozen other verbs. Spain is rather famous for its slow pace of life. They must be doing something right since they have the longest life expectancy of any country in Europe. The issue isn’t that people don’t work, it’s more about nailing down the right time. Getting the correct opening hours of offices or stores or whatever business you’re visiting is a roll of the dice. In fact, you can literally lose days (not just hours) gambling when is the right time to show up. Key details like opening house that are seldom found online (even fewer are correct if they are online). But when you finally find the magic moment, eureka! Things actually happen remarkably efficiently. Dealing with a multitude of government offices already, I’ve found that once you have the right office and right person, the rubber stamp appears within a few minutes and you’re on to the next roll. It’s light years less painful than a visit to the DMV back home.

So far, the Spanish have been beautifully accommodating and willing to help, lustfully throwing in their limited English with our extremely limited Spanish and moving the process along. It’s been the most pleasant surprise of the journey so far that people are so open to helping. Like the ride says, it’s a small world, after all. And, thankfully, a friendly one.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Barcelona is literally world-famous for pickpockets, although they tend to be only in the high-traffic tourist areas. On the positive side, I avoided an incident on the Metro the other day when we were suddenly crowded by four people who clearly trying to create a diversion. On the negative side, the reality is that these were lousy pickpockets, because you never see the good ones coming… The friendly Spanish nature I described above doesn’t always hold true for the shopkeepers in the busy tourist area who are inundated with visitors daily. The pain on the faces of these harried folks is universal… After 10 days of sleeping three on an air mattress, a break to the beach was warranted this past weekend. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good air mattress, but there’s a limit to how many times you can wake up with a 5-year-old’s foot in your ear before it’s time to splurge on some hospitality…


Just another day at the office  photo-27

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Oh, You’re Serious…

It’s official. We have entered the stop and gawk phase of our experience in Barcelona. Facing a new country, new language and different outlook, of course, many things will seem not only new, but strange, or maybe even a little incomprehensible. The words, “they really do that” have been uttered more than a few times in our short stay.

The few times I have ended up somewhere new, it’s always been the seemingly trivial things that end up stopping me cold. For example, I ventured out the other day just to buy milk. It’s one of those husbandly duties like taking out the garbage – number 23 in the handbook if I remember correctly. I came home empty-handed. How could it be, you ask? Well, the Spanish appear to have a very special place for milk, and, if the big grocery mart at the edge of town is correct, that special place is a shelf at the back of the store. There stood an entire wall of shelf-stable milk. But the chilled milk? All three available bottles are hidden down the end of the wall. I guess it’s the accepted norm here, but the concept of warm, unrefrigerated milk kind of creeps me out. Same goes for the unchilled eggs. I’m told it has something to do with vaccinating the chickens, but sticking a needle in a bird doesn’t feel like it ‘s enough to alter Mother Nature’s laws about raw eggs starting to smell really bad after a few days.

It was entertaining to wander the grocery aisles and try to spot familiar things. Not particularly successful hunting, mind you, but still entertaining. If you’re like the average person who tends to buy the same box of Tide that your mother always used, your luck has run out here. But you can opt for the intriguing box of Wash Me brand laundry detergent, if you’re so inclined. The temptation is great.

The big box stores of America are pretty rare here (although Costco has started to invade some parts of Spain). Most shopping is done at small local stores or at the many markets in the city that gather together butchers, bakers and fruit vendors. It’s refreshing to see small stores thriving, although challenging in terms of selection. There’s often only one choice of whatever item you’re seeking. Hope you like it.

Of course, even a selection of one can look like a gift from above when you really need it. There have been days here when I thought I was in a real life, urban version of Survivor where the goal was to find an open store. If it’s Sunday, forget it. If it’s Saturday, nearly forget it. If’s it’s 2 p.m. on a weekday, probably forget it. Plus, everyone goes on vacation for the month of August. Don’t believe me? Try and call and you’ll hear, “Spain isn’t in right now; please leave a message.” A sign on one newsstand detailed that the owner was gone from July 28 to August 29. Nice work if you can get it. We were looking for a more relaxed lifestyle. We found it.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: It looks like Spiderman has followed us to Spain (a very serious Spiderman, in fact). He quite enjoyed a trip up the mountain to the 100-year-old Tibidabo amusement park. In fact, he fit in well enough to drive the tram car on the way back down… In the category of surprising pricing, copying a pair of keys set me back nearly 30 dollars with exchange. On the flip side, health insurance covering three people is less then $175/month… I had pasta yesterday in a plastic bIMG_0888owl with a picture of Lightning McQueen inside. I had cereal this morning – in a plastic bowl with a picture of Lightning McQueen inside. Nothing against Lightning, but I’ll be glad when our stuff arrives.


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Hallelujah! I’m No Longer Homeless

After two weeks and two temporary places, I’m glad to report we are homeless no longer. It’s been a more challenging process than hoped, but the ink is dry on our first flat lease in Barcelona.

To say the rules are different over here is a vast understatement. Let me highlight a few gems that may leave you scratching your head. More than 90% of flat rentals in Barcelona go through a real estate agent (as opposed to direct by the owner or a leasing company). While that may not seem surprising on the surface, there’s a couple of interesting twists added to the mix. For example, a flat might be offered by multiple agents at one time, including each one posting totally different pictures, flat features and occasionally even prices. As the renter, I typically wouldn’t use an agent to assist in finding a flat, but simply ring up the listing agent and have them show me the rental. The agent is working for the owner, but if I rent the flat, their compensation comes from me (usually in the form of a month’s rent). Can you spell conflict of interest? I understand it’s not the same in all of Spain, but that is the norm here. It’s a rather painful process. Many thanks go out to Georgia, a British expat who runs a local flat-finding service and helped guide us on our way,

As for the flat, agents use some interesting tricks to boost the appeal, such as including the terrace in square footage to make it sound bigger. Or even better, measurements are from outside the walls. When flats are described as unfurnished, they mean unfurnished. Like, really unfurnished. As in, don’t expect a fridge, dishwasher or washing machine, but likely will have  a cooktop and maybe a stove. In fact, don’t be surprised if many of the light fixtures are also missing. “If it ain’t nailed down…” is a bit of an understatement when exiting an apartment here.

Even more curious is that the rental law says the tenant is responsible for maintenance of the flat. If the drain clogs or the fridge (assuming you’re lucky enough to find one!) stops working, it’s the tenant’s dime to fix or replace. Slap the duct tape on that aging boiler or face a heft tab!

So here we sit in our first Barcelona flat with a grand total of one chair to rest a cheek on and another set of adventures added to the dossier. Monday, we ordered three appliances in a store from a lady who spoke not a word of English. Rather remarkable, I must admit. Yesterday, two technicians installed high-speed internet, also without the benefit of any English. And last night, I ordered a washing machine online for delivery. At least, I’m hoping a washing machine is on its way. Otherwise, a surprised family on the Costa Brava might be getting a free Roomba – tough to tell just using Google Translate.

When I tally up the score, I’m claiming victory. The cupboards (and rooms) may be rather bare; the concierge is still working out  our names; but the keys are in hand. And what a set of keys! Walking up the stairs with this giant set of jangling steel in hand feels like I have the keys to the Tower of London. The king and queen of the castle have arrived.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Today’s question of the day, would you trust an oven called Candy? Definitely some colorful brand names here… Spotted a sandwich board sitting outside a nearby restaurant advertising a breakfast special. It comes with a glass of wine. Does this neighborhood have a hangover problem?… The Spanish love roundabouts, and I have to admit they are rather handy at times, especially when doing the second loop after missing the exit… I’ve discovered the only voice with worse Spanish pronunciation than me. The lady in Apple Maps is pretty close to coughing up a lung when trying to sound out some of these street names…

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And the Winner is…

So far, Spain feels like a remarkable dichotomy. On one hand, things feel very old school with the need to pick up the phone and talk to people to get them to respond. On the other, the technological innovations that are cited as evidence that the U.S. is falling behind are well in evidence. Electronic payments, for example, have gained a great level of comfort here, although dangle the prospect of paying cash and people are awfully responsive, too.

A love of paper seems as ingrained in the culture as great ham. I’ll never cease to be amazed how people suddenly take a statement as gospel as long as it’s stated on a random piece of paper. We have gathered, with no exaggeration, at least 30 documents attesting to just about every part of our existence with the exception of how many times I pooped last week. It’s an impressive array that took a lot of hours (even months) to gather, and a fair number of dollars. They span from the obvious (passport) to the authoritative (registering with local authorities) to the obtuse (a US consulate letter stating I didn’t live in Spain). Think about that for a moment, I have a letter from one government saying I didn’t live in the territory of another government. Bizarre.

But the fun of gathering all these documents is only round one when dealing with the many bureaucratic hurdles of getting things done here. It’s document Russian roulette every time you sit down on one side of the desk and await the next query from the person on the other side. Without question, I know 50% of the documents are unnecessary. The problem is, I have no idea which 50%. It has already felt like I must be on candid camera as the next request comes, because it inevitably is for the one document I don’t have at that particular moment. There must a wizard behind the curtain because somebody has to be pulling the strings!

Some of the stories on the expat boards are hilarious and heart-rending at the same time. The British expat who was on the way to the residency office for the 17th time to try and get his paperwork completed. Or the Spanish-driver-to-be who opted to take the English language version of the driving test, only to later discover that the translation was so bad failure was almost inevitable. What’s that old saying – it’s funny until it happens to you.

It’s made in jest, but this video is a nice little glimpse into dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in Spain.

So this is our lives at the moment. Carting around a mound of papers, desperately trying to play the right card at the right time so we can check off another box. Who wins in the end? I know it’s not the trees.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Although we had heard some negative things about the friendliness (or lack of it) in Barcelona compared to other parts of Spain, we’re not seeing it. People have actually been quite helpful as we stumble along with very limited Spanish. I know I’ve butchered at least a few Spanish words already (and probably asked for sautéed insole for dinner), but nary a grimace has been served… Try this out back home with a GPS. If you input your destination address as a Walmart, the display will show the end point with the familiar red and white circles. The red and white circles, of course, are the brand logo for Target. Okay, the GPS uses the same symbol for every destination, but I still think it’s rather hilarious. This might be the only territory the boys from Bentonville haven’t gained control over… Walking by a bakery with the smell of freshly-baked bread wafting out to the street just about makes the whole day worthwhile regardless of what else happens.

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Life in a Box

There are times when we all feel like our lives are stuck in a box, whether it be career issues or personal issues or just a momentary phase in life. I’ve certainly felt it at various points in my career. This adventure to Barcelona has taken that sensation to a literal level that really didn’t occur to me at the outset. My life, my family’s life, at least in the material sense, is literally within a big metal box somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s an interesting feeling to stuff your possessions into a big crate and wish them Bon Voyage! Call it separation anxiety to the nth degree.

We had spent months going through our years of accumulated keepsakes, knick-knacks, odd ends and sundry items, all to figure out what was worth taking and what we would live without. Hanging over this culling process was the spectre of a 20-foot box and what how much it could actually contain. Ponder that $64,000 question with your own stuff. It’s a conundrum to put it lightly. I know somIMG_0345e good choices were made (we have how many blenders?), while some others hopefully won’t come back to haunt us later. As much as I love my favorite peanut butter that’s only available in Canada, I’ll admit it’s definitely a gamble that a jar will survive a 5,000-mile journey inside a big, steel box in the middle of summer. We may flip open the giant doors and find something that looks like a beige-colored, sticky Michelin Man coming out to greet us with a vile odor. One can only hope not.

The stuffing it all in part didn’t lack drama. The container no-showed on the expected day and left us scrambling to change a dozen plans. When it finally did arrive – brought by a driver who started the day in Tennessee at 2 a.m. – our moving crew would still be somewhere in traffic on the Beltway for nearly another two hours. At final count, not only did our stuff get packed into the box, but along went 41 moving pads, five paper wraps, two rolls of cling, a whole bunch of scavenged boxes (thank you Safeway), umpteen towels wrapped around things and more rolls of tape than I could possibly count that were (bought at all hours of the day and night).

As it drove away from our home, I was left thinking, if only there was an opportunity to watch the crate and see exactly what experience this trip is delivering for our belongings. Stuff may not have hearts or souls, but that doesn’t mean the adventure is any less epic. All these items are on a thrill ride better than any amusement park. Imagine what exactly is happening inside that box during a crane ride from the truck to the dock, and then skyward once again up to the ship. Will the container be loaded on top and baked by the summer sun for the next dozen or so days, or will it be on the bottom and well-shaded? What kind of weather will it go through and how much will it be thrown around? We asked the question, “How often do containers fall off the boat and into the ocean?” It’s not as rare as you might think. Our stuff could end up sleeping with the fishes. Picture Charlie Tuna reclining on my sofa watching a 55-inch Samsung!

The next adventure begins when our stuff finally rejoins us in a few weeks. Then comes the treasure hunt to determine which box contains the item I really need at that particular moment, and the magical mystery tour of items that may never appear again. Moving into our last place, I finally found the barbecue cover that had been missing for close to a decade. How is that possible, you ask? Pack up your stuff and let karma explain it to you.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Prices in Barcelona never fail to surprise, with some things remarkably cheap and others shockingly expensive. At the grocery store, five nice-sized tomatoes were only 49 cents (about 65 cents US), but half a small papaya was nearly eight bucks. Also noteworthy, a can of beer (imported, no less) was just 34 cents but a can of coke was 56 cents. Guess whIMG_1200ich one I bought… I’m starting to see the purpose of a man-purse, How frightening is that… Housing is still our top goal and still a work in progress. The fact that no one – owners, real estate agents, etc. – will even take a phone call let alone work on the weekend slows things down immeasurably. It’s not an easy place to get things done.

One week in Barcelona. Still homeless.  Sated with ice cream

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