Monthly Archives: September 2014

Who’s On First?

At this stage of my life, firsts are starting to become a rare thing. I’ve already checked off a lot of the boxes that equate to new experiences and breaking new ground. But the beauty of the cycle of life is that I do still get to experience plenty of firsts, only this time through the eyes of my son. And with the extra perspective of years lived, the wonder of firsts may be even richer than the first time around.

One of our motivators to live in another country was so Liam could not only experience his many firsts, but do so in a place much different from what he has known so far. It’s all about expanding his horizons and knowledge. He’s been given a goal of bringing home a new Spanish word each day from school. And I, in turn, give him a new word to think about. It’s a game, but also a treat to see the realization come across his face that he has learned something new. The wide-eyed wonder of youth is something I’ll never get tired of seeing.

Liam is a “talk big” kind of kid. Mention deep-sea diving to him and the immediate response is, “I can do that.” This is the same kid who came home from a swimming lesson with dry hair. There’s clearly work to be done in getting the yin to meet the yang. This week the goal was to move from the claim of being a great bike rider to actually generating more than minimal motion. All on the streets of Barcelona.

He’s been insisting that the training wheels can come off and he can handle a two-wheel bike. For some strange reason, he also equates his move to a two-wheel bike to my moving to a one-wheel bike. I have no idea how a unicycle entered the conversation, but then I’m not sure anyone can explain the inner workings of a five-year-old mind. I do know that circus performer isn’t on my resume. Riding a unicycle is one first that will remain off my list of accomplishments. Barcelona may be an adventure, but let’s keep grounded here.

As all parents do, we employed the carrot and stick approach to motivating successful cycling. Liam had to master independent propulsion to earn a trip to his favorite local bakery (okay, every bakery is his favorite, but you get the intent). Maybe’s that all carrot and no stick, but whatever works.

So, with the assistance of a dead-end street and tiny Euro cars all parked off to one side, he quickly attained the goal of making it up and down a small hill without assistance. His first real bike ride of significant distance was in the books. In Barcelona, no less. Now that’s a pretty good little memory that I hope he will cherish via an iPhone video for years to come.

Building on that first, yesterday was highlighted by his first encounter with a live crayfish. At least, I think it was a crayfish – that’s another Spanish word that hasn’t made it into my vocabulary yet. It was a tiny but rather fierce little critter determined to hang on to life, despite the fact that he and his brethren were piled up on a fresh fish display and likely destined for a Spanish pot. I guess that is a first for me, too. Can’t say I remember picking up a crustacean still full of wiggle in a fish store. I gotta give it to these guys for determination, but my money is still on the cook.

There will be countless more firsts to come in Spain and beyond for Liam. And many to be shared with us as proud parents. I’m not sure kids keep you young as some suggest, but I know they keep you entertained. And maybe a little confused. But that’s not a first.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Building on the circus theme, one of the most amusing regular occurrences at our local park is to see these cute mini trucks used by the city pull up. Things like vehicles are smaller here, but these trucks are hard to take serious. I honestly expect the doors to fly open and a dozen Shriners spill out. Instead, a couple of city workers will meander out to spend the next hour sweeping the sand of the park. Yes, sweeping the sand. Looks like pretty good work if you can get it… Only a 5-year-old is perfectly content wandering the streets with a giant plastic ball crammed in the pocket of loose-fitting shorts, creating the effect of an unusual growth springing up between his legs every time he sits down. I believe he amused a number of locals and tourists alike with this fashion statement.

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Mi español es muy mal

Looking back years from now, I hope I can count Sept. 15 as a fateful day in my personal history. No, not because it’s National Double Cheeseburger Day in the United States (although, come to think to it, that’s a pretty appetizing reason). Not even because some prefer to think of it as National Make-A-Hat Day (propeller beanie, anyone?). It’s because Sept. 15 marked my first day of Spanish lessons. Welcome to my Ground Zero.

Languages are definitely not a skill listed on my resume. My only real formal training amounts to a couple of years before high school, where I share the experience of most kids that virtually nothing stuck, and an intro French program in my early 20s. I actually did intend to go on to the next series of French classes, but the school closed. It appears I have that kind of effect on the language teaching trade. If nothing else, the brief training gave my friends countless hours of amusement when they repeatedly greeted me with “Bonjour J.D.” Money well spent was clearly their opinion of my adventure.

I entered Spanish class knowing this was going to be an uphill battle. I’m no spring chicken and re-wiring my brain to think in words totally foreign to my comfort zone was feeling akin to visiting Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.  Now, 10 days into the class, I can safely judge that an underestimate of the amount of surgery necessary.

As adults, most things we learn are very tangible. Whether it be a new piece of software, or an innovation in our field of expertise, or simply getting a new electronic gadget to the level of functional, all these things are reasonable chunks of information that can be mastered with some willpower and discipline (or the help of a 14-year-old). But a language is a more unwieldy beast, and it creates a roller-coaster of up and down moments worthy of a badly written romantic comedy.

There’s the high of listening to someone speak a sentence of more than three words and saying to yourself, “Holy crap, I actually understood that whole thing.” Or the rush when you fully conjugate a new verb and feel a little king of the world-ish. But then the lightbulb goes off that there are 8,397 other verbs yet to learn. And, oh yeah, that was just the present tense of the verb. Oy! I’ve got a lot to learn.

Fortunately, early on in the learning, there’s been a good number of lightbulb moments that help push the motivation envelope. And, of course, there is always humor. Struggling through so many unique pronunciations and different sounds inspires comical errors. I’m learning to roll my r’s with right emphasis to be understood, but not so much to sound like a cat hacking up a fur ball (not as easy as you might think). And I’m trying my best to untangle my tongue in a fashion to get the right word. Feedback from the teacher is welcome, but a tad embarrassing when it includes, “I think you’re trying to say ‘He is 34 years old’ not ‘He has 34 bums’.” Med school also appears not to be my forte.

So my Spanish is definitely still muy mal, or very bad, at the moment, but I’m concentrating on the baby steps that will take me forward. If every week, I can advance from knowing two things on the menu to three, then four and five, imagine how much my world, and palate, will open up in time. And how many polls will be saved once I figure out what they call a cow.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Here’s one bad translation that’s easy to get behind. I’ve joined the Let’s Beer website. Gotta wonder what info they’ll send out… The language school offered a bonus class in Spanish street language. My key takeaway: the Spanish seem to gold medalists at innovating and using swear words. And they also seem to skate a razor thin line between use of the same word as complimentary or slap-in-the-face negative. My other takeaway: I think I need to stay waaaaay wide of that line to avoid an international incident… A language class that’s a melting pot of Italian, Dutch, Ukrainian and Icelandic participants is a pretty remarkable thing. The world really is getting a little smaller all the time.

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Let Me Introduce Leon

 I admit it. I’m addicted. It’s that moment of anticipation as a trip begins. A little rush washes over me as I sit in the airplane seat, head filling with visions of what may come in the days to follow, knowing that the stress moments of getting up and getting to the airport are over and done. Take me airborne.

But if anything can put a damper on this enthusiasm, it’s the adventure of getting around in a foreign land. Some may fear untangling strange languages, but I’ve always managed to mime off starvation no matter how Greek/Russian/Pig Latin the menu. Getting caught in a sticky web of schedules, fares and circuitous routes, on the other hand, could inspire a nun to bark out a streak blue enough to make a sailor blush.

As we embarked recently on a long weekend on Sicily, transportation was on my mind. I had picked the pretty little island of Ortigia as home base thanks to its seaside appeal and grand history, but it was certainly not central to other attractions, in particular, Mt. Etna. I knew I would be looking to our soon-to-be new Italian friends for advice in ferrying from point A to point B.

Ortigia immediately lived up to its billing. It’s a maze of tight, old cobblestone streets with interesting restaurants popping up in quaint alleyways. Greek and Roman ruins dot the small island for those inclined to history. But even if your focus is more present day, basking in the charm of the Piazza del Duomo (ranked as among the most appealing squares in Italy) in the shadow of the cathedral at one of the countless cafes is about as good as a European afternoon gets. The local eateries are mainly family-run and offer unique pasta options, fish and, or course, the always comfortable fallback of pizza.

So while the island was exactly on target with expectations, I was still facing the transportation headache of how to get the 60 miles to Mt. Etna and which option we would use for the return trip to the airport. I’d read a number of postings online speaking to the ease of driving on Sicily, but did I really feel like going wheel-to-wheel with the folks who invented the Ferrari? Ah, what the hell. How much trouble could I get in even if the streets are no wider than Lego City?DSC_0145 - Version 2

I was hoping Avis could fix us up with a vehicle just big enough to squeeze in three people and friendly to the narrow confines of Ortigia. That didn’t seem like too tall an order considering the average American child has a toy car in the garage that rivals the size of the average European compact. Seriously, half the cars here look like they were built with a power outage halfway down the assembly line. I swear I could juggle a couple of Fiats and not even break a sweat.

Led by the very friendly and helpful Paolo, I was introduced to our new ride, smartly emblazoned with Leon across its rear hatch. I stopped, and stared. Leon was a station wagon. Definitely bigger than a breadbox. Despite my trepidations, in the end he does get the prize for making the whole Sicily adventure much easier.

Now the only other Leon who comes to mind is the toothy former heavyweight boxing champ, and I would hazard a guess that the automotive Leon could match the pugilist wit-for-wit in smarts. This was a pretty savvy set of wheels. Throw a little water on the windshield and Leon immediately responded with swishing wipers. Prompt for driving directions and he responds with precise details that are spot on, although I must admit that Leon surprisingly did have a voice remarkably close to Queen Elizabeth. I guess the Royal Family has some spare time on their hands for a little recording on the side.

Like a pro, Leon had us 2,000 meters upward at the base of Mt. Etna’s south slope with nary a blue streak in earshot. We stepped out to feel the change from near 90-degree beach weather to 40ish temps below the tallest active volcano in Europe. This was pretty darn cool.

As we climbed via cable car toward 2,500 meters, the air chilled even more and an ominous haze rolled in that perfectly suited a volcano visit. It was a thrill to stand on lava fields and know that countless eruptions had built this rocky moonscape over DSC_0142centuries. Years from now, when Liam looks back on the photos from these adventures, I hope he will relive how remarkable the world is with its many wonders.

After some sprinting, climbing and poking among the lava, plus a careful selection of a souvenir rock, it was time to again hop on the cable car and return down to lower Earth with another bucket list item checked. We had experienced an active volcano, and happily done so minus any orange flow chasing behind us. I was perfectly content with that. Count Leon among our favorite Italian finds.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: You ask, what fashionable Italian item did we bring back with us? Maybe stylish shoes? Or fine leather goods? Possibly a hand-crafted suit? Nope. A toaster oven. I can never pass up a decent bargain when I see one… While waiting for my significant other to complete a make-up purchase, I wandered into a men’s store to kill some time. I was attracted by a cool design on a t-shirt and decided to check it out. While the design was appealing, the large New York City screaming across the front was a little too ironic even for my tastes. In fact, virtually every t-shirt in the store referenced some U.S. geography from Chicago to Venice Beach. America worship is alive and well… Aging stonework, old wrought iron balconies, a sea backdrop, rickety tables in narrow alleyways, Ortigia truly is straight from a photo book depicting Europe’s charm.

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Lost in Transition

With homage to the great Bill Murray movie of a similar title, my lost in transition moment has arrived  (translation is a whoooole other ballgame that I’ll get to later). I’m proud to say I sailed through my Grade 11 Electric shop class with good grades, but I didn’t expect that to be preparation for jumping knee deep in circuitry and voltage. On the plus side, I have managed to avoid shocking myself as much as one eye-opening moment in high school.

How our electronic “stuff” would transition was a concern from early on in the process of moving internationally. My laptop was only a few months old and, I hate to say, I’m a little lost if my trusty Mac and iPhone are not nearby and in working order. Then there’s the myriad other things that we had normally plugged in without a second thought. What to do?

The electric current in Spain runs at 220 volts, compared to 110 volts in the U.S., so it’s pretty darn easy to fry an item without some care.  Then again, even with care, it’s touch and go, as evidenced by the speaker phone and alarm clock that have been sacrificed to the utility gods in the weeks since we arrived. The other wildcard is wiring in an old building, which appears to range from 220 volts to “holy crap” if I’m translating the frog-in-a-blender-like sound that came out of the alarm clock.

A simple plug adaptor makes it possible to plug virtually any item in, and many items such as computers are built to handle different voltage levels. That’s the easy part. But for the items not configured for different levels, a converter is needed. Sounds simple, huh? The now familiar smell of melting plastic suggests otherwise.

The biggest conundrum, not surprisingly, is the television. I’m not glued to the tube by nature, but I do want access when the next Dexter or Six Feet Under comes along. I might even admit to a small addiction to real estate programs. So, a solution to accessing U.S. TV was on the to-do list. I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy box to check off, but it has become an ongoing adventure. I’m happy to report the TV and DVD player are hooked up and not a victim of electric overload (knock on wood, knock on wood, knock on… ). And except for the patchwork quilt of extension cords stretching around the living room, since electric outlets are as rare as Cheez Whiz in Spanish rooms, the plugging in part proved to be pretty easy. The challenge has been trying to tap into U.S. programs.

If you haven’t discovered it, there’s a service called Hulu which is quite remarkable, allowing cheap access to a huge amount of programming. There are a number of other similar services, but Hulu seems the most flexible. I set up an account before we left the U.S. with the goal of tapping into it via a VPN once we were set up on this side of the Atlantic. Countless others have done the same thing, according to what I’m reading online, so how hard could it be? Good intentions, as they say.

The adventure started with trying to program a secondary router to run the VPN, including more than 90 minutes online with the company’s tech staff to try and get the settings correct. I have no doubt that the tech lady who was assisting me thinks I’m the dumbest thing on two legs. At times, I had to agree (yes, it does work better if you utilize the ON button). But in the end there was success and the VPN was up and running. For about three minutes. Then it disappeared, never to return. On the positive side, the three minutes was long enough for me to figure out that Hulu didn’t like this VPN anyway and had no intention of letting me get any further. That’s one Wednesday of my life that I’ll never get back. IMG_1267

So it was on to solution number two. Luckily, this one did not involve the separate router, which I happily stuck back in the box to hopefully never see again. In mere minutes, I had Hulu up and running on my laptop and was back to giggling nonsensically at a recent episode of the Colbert Report, just like old times. But, alas, even with my magic spaghetti combination of wires, there was no movement on the television. It was still firmly grounded in Spain and on the not available in your country list. So, the adventure continues. I’m up to 17 emails back and forth to support, which are not easy to produce when you have your fingers crossed. If anyone has the name of the genie I need to consult to make my television again sing out something worthwhile like Breaking Bad, please contact me ASAP. I don’t want to be Lost in Transition forever.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: I lost six pounds in my first six weeks here, which is really quite remarkable considering I was traversing the city with a five-year-old who has never met a bakery he didn’t adore. That’s what not having a car will do for you… I’m also happy to report that the fried alarm clock has been replaced with a local model. Despite the fact that the manual lists 10 languages – none of them English – it is now displaying the time. Check one more box.

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I Have Stuff. I Have Stuff. I Have…

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About 10 days later than expected, the truckload of our worldly goods finally pulled up in front of our new place. The long wait was finally over. At least the long wait for our stuff.

Three strapping Spanish lads piled out of the van and proceeded to survey the situation and decide how to get from point A (the street) to point B (the second floor). My initial enthusiasm started to wane slightly as a half-hour passed and progress seemed non-existent. The back doors of the van weren’t even open yet. Like most of our encounters so far, this was a Spanish-only crew and communication was pretty much impossible. They would bark at each other and we would understand little outside a liberal sprinkling of “aqui.” It was like watching a foreign movie with 90% of the voiceover blocked out.

Another 30 minutes rolled by as I finally understood that they were removing a window from one of our bedrooms and installing a ladder with an automated lift platform to get the goods up the 25 feet to our apartment. We were a tad surprised at this turn of events, but it’s not like we could voice an understandable concern. Then another 30 minutes ticked on and I was definitely starting to think that this was going to become a two-day job. Finally, the lift was assembled and it looked like the first item could be sent skywards. But no, with another burst of rapid Spanish, it became apparent that our movers had other intentions. Somewhere in the trading of hand signals we received the message – it was time for their 10 a.m. break and meal. Brunch, anyone?

Suffice to say, since nothing had actually left the van at this point with the two-hour mark fast approaching, I was rather put out. Even in Spanish time, it seemed like this move was destined for a difficult conclusion. But, with a sudden flurry, items started flying (literally!) up the elevated platform. Box after box went up. Then tables. Even an overstuffed chair that I had no idea could be rammed through a simple bedroom window. Suddenly, a mattress appeared in the bedroom out of nowhere. These guys weren’t movers. They’re magicians!

In the span of little more than a couple of hours, nearly all our stuff had been sent up the lift and transported to the various rooms. They put the loading crew from the U.S. to shame in terms of efficiency. All that was left was the one item of most concern – the headboard to our bed. We had debated even bringing this monstrosity, knowing that rooms are smaller here, but in the end had decided it was worth a shot. Two movers flipped it sideways and began the trek up the stairwell. It wasn’t even worth giving the elevator a second look, since elevators are rarely bigger than a postage stamp. There was considerable grunting, sweat and some taking the lord’s name in vain, or at least I assume so considering my limited Spanish. In the end, with about a half an inch to spare in two different places, the headboard was in the bedroom. Remarkable. DSC_0069

With another flourish, the crew suddenly shifted into assemble mode and began attacking the bed and dining table to make them whole again. In mere minutes, this task was also completed and suddenly I was signing at least 20 pages of mysterious Spanish paperwork that I hope indicated nothing more than we had received our goods. Either that, or we just bought the crew foreman a new Opel. By 3 p.m., the movers were on their way and our formerly empty apartment now looked like Hurricane Jose had just passed through. That’s what they call progress.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: All in all, damage during the move was quite limited considering the time and distance involved. One Ikea bookshelf didn’t survive, but that’s not much of a loss. A wine glass also came up broken. And, to my chagrin, a brand new, never used Brita pitcher was cracked. That’s high on the annoying scale since I can’t replace it here… I could swear our chairs were mating inside the container somewhere across the Atlantic. Where did all these chairs come from?…

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