Monthly Archives: October 2014

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

With the three-month mark now moving into the rear view window, it’s time for a little reflection on this odyssey to Barcelona.

I knew from the beginning that relocating to Spain would be an adventure in every sense of the word. It incorporates all the typical pain of moving but dials it up a few extra notches when you add in the distance and a new language and culture. We invested plenty of hours upfront to plan for the myriad details and to minimize problems. And the net of these plans? Well, much like any big undertaking, things happen. Some anticipated, others not.

Really, very little has gone exactly as planned. Not that I’m unpacking the tiny violin and strumming a tale of woe. It really hasn’t been negative, but any big move is a package deal that comes with a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. None of the surprises so far have been things that can’t be solved or were totally unexpected. Dealing with the movers turned out to be horrible, but that’s less than shocking considering movers have a reputation even worse than used car salesmen. Tossing in a few extra dollars made the issues go away (along a good release of swearing for personal benefit). And when living arrangements didn’t fall into place as quickly as hoped, it was aggravating but still light years better than actually being homeless. It’s all relative when you think about it.

Not surprisingly, at this stage in the process, the “if” question has been asked: If you could do it all over again… That’s never an easy one to answer.

I like to frame that answer in the words of others. In the weeks before we moved, it was fascinating to listen to people’s reaction to news of our impending departure. The phrase heard time and again was, “I could never do that.” That really stuck with me, probably because I had uttered the same words at one time. The reasons behind these words were valid and hard to argue with, but the real bottom line in most cases was more about willingness to take a leap than anything else. A body in inertia will stay in inertia, so to speak.

An international move certainly isn’t for everyone. Is it hard? Absolutely. Will it be unsettling? No question. Will there be days when a tiny, minimally important thing like finding a bottle of cold milk becomes the last straw that makes you want to beat your head against the wall? Oh yeah. (My kingdom for a cow!)

It really comes down to risk. I’m as nervous about taking risks as the next person and I can’t think of a single risk I’ve taken in the past that wasn’t tough. Changing careers was hard. Starting my own company was hard. Leaving friends and family behind to move to the US was hard. But not one of these risks turned out to be a bad decision. As much as we all hate the change that is inherent in taking a risk, it’s actually the engine that drives us forward.

I’m not trying to make myself out as hero here. Far, far from it. I’m not one of the pioneers or brave souls who are truly changing the world and impacting lives. I can name a dozen people around me who are far more willing to take risks than I, and they enjoyed some remarkable successes because of it. Some have also come crashing back to Earth painfully, which is the real reason why risk is so terrifying.

That potentially life-changing failure makes a compelling case to skip the potential for a life-changing success that comes with risk. For every reason to take the leap, there’s an equally valid reason to not. I tallied up with those reasons at every step in this process. The little voice in the back of my head kept asking why I wanted to volunteer for such a change and leave a comfortable existence behind. It’s awfully easy to listen to the voice, especially when you know taking that leap is not just about you, but also a little guy who puts all his faith and trust in you. I feel the weight of his world.

Kids are maybe the easiest reason not to take the risk, based on how it might affect them. But I’d argue they are also the biggest reason to take the leap because of what they might gain and the message it sends to them. If they really are destined to be a mini me of us, then living a life less ordinary is a pretty big gift to give. That’s the reflection I want to see coming back at me from those big, brown eyes.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: In the it’s funny what pop culture references stick with you category, the bellhop from the old British comedy Fawlty Towers keeps popping into my head. One of the famous lines from the show is, “Don’t mind him. He’s from Barcelona.” I may adopt that as a motto. It gives me free reign to wander around saying “que” and understanding very little. Actually, I think I’ve mastered that already… One experience this week I didn’t anticipate having: buying an entire tuna and then carting it home on the bus. This is not a moment you tend to envision for the coming years while climbing the corporate ladder. At least he was pretty tasty…

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Settling the Stereotypes

Let me pass on some general observations concerning the Spanish. And by general I mean broad generalizations that pretty much boil down to pathetic stereotypes written for your enjoyment, or a cheap laugh if I’m lucky.

– The Spanish believe any meal is reason enough for a celebration, as evidenced by the sudden raucous lunch hosted by my ground floor neighbor this week. The motivation appeared to be that it was Thursday, which is as good a reason as any when you’re looking for one. Eight to 10 gents started to break bread around lunch hour, which is about 2:30 in these parts, and continued to spew conversation like Niagara Falls spews water until around 6:30. Just another Spanish lunch. Residing here means getting used to things taking a while to finish up.

– Consider these twin challenges to car ownership: you can literally buy a liter of wine for half the price of a liter of gas, even if it’s not exactly the king’s vintage; and the average parking space is about equal in size to a 1920s outhouse. It’s no surprise that most people favor small cars. That said, being surrounded by micro autos still takes some getting used to. I’ve literally seen an entire family disembark from a car I could swear was once a window display at Toys ‘r’ Us. But maybe the undersized nature of the cars has the added benefit of strongly encouraging a lack of oversized people. It’s pretty tough to grab a lift to work if you can’t even fit in the car.

– I’m guessing the tiny cars also contribute to the dearth of accidents here. I’ve yet to see a collision, even though Spanish drivers have a tendency to leave zero margin of error when passing other cars or pedestrians. Only the unwise fail to keep an eye on turning cars while crossing the road. If you want to shave a half-inch off your tail section, just dawdle a little in the crosswalk and a Fiat will take care of it.

– The Spanish do have a seemingly unending affection for pigs, and not just because of the cured Iberico ham that is tasty enough to bring a grown man to his knees. Even with my limited Spanish, I’ve already heard four different names for pig. That’s quite the love affair with the porker, and it shows in meat that is tender and among the best I’ve ever tasted. I’ll raise a curly tail to that.

– I had the misconception that Spaniards are loud and tend to gesticulate wildly with their hands, but there is little evidence here. Oh, the occasional din arises, and meal time sometimes is rather lively, but generally the locals seem awfully even tempered. The worst case of losing one’s mind I’ve seen so far came at a coffee counter in the airport, but I quickly realized the colorful soul behind the loud string of complaints was actually French. So much for stereotypes.

– I may be treading on the wrong side of the politically correct line here, but it’s remarkable that many of the convenience stores and the Spanish equivalent of dollar stores are run by immigrants, much like the same stores in the US, Canada and elsewhere. I’m sure there must be some economic logic that helps drives Asian and Indian immigrants into these businesses, although I’m not quite sure what it is. And, by the way, the term dollar stores is definitely a misnomer here. Even a simple extension cord is pushing five euros in these parts.

DSC_0152– Barcelonians also don’t appear to surprise easily, even when Batman made a recent appearance and proceeded to enjoy the midway at a local fair. Barely an eyebrow was raised. I guess costumed crimefighters are passé.

– What’s my new favorite brand recently spotted in a supermarket? Although it’s tough to top a Smeg washer or a Candy microwave, I’ve got to go with Wash Me laundry soap. There’s lots to be said for simplicity.

– The porter is our building is a very nice guy, but completely Spanish with nary a lick of English. He has been trying to pick up a few words, just as I’ve been doing the same with Spanish. Our morning routine has evolved into him greeting us with “Good Morning,” me responding with “Qué tal?” and Liam just looking a little confused at which side the fence he’s supposed to be on. It’s a work in progress.

– If anything here truly fits the Spanish stereotype it’s the post office. They work few hours, love to pull out forms for any task (even if you have a pre-printed label) and offer a service that is kind of like playing the lottery. Who will win a completed delivery today? We have at least two pieces of mail from America that are still missing in action after a couple of months. I hope Juan Carlos in Granada is enjoying his Spiderman stickers. If you added a jug of sangria on the counter and a bullfighter unfurling his cape in the corner, the post office would have every Spanish stereotype covered.

More to come on this little slice of espanol. It’s also a work in progress.

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Coffee. Pastry. Deep Breath

In some ways, I think Spain is getting a bad rap for its bureaucracy and laid-back lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, if you catch a bureaucrat on a morning when the family dog had the runs and he forgot the poop bags, your life will take a decided turn for the worse in a hurry. It may be the wrong historical reference, but these guys are the definition of little Napoleans as they rule over whatever regulation is in their domain. Little Francos may be more apt comparison.

But I continue to be surprised at how smoothly and efficiently many things work here. We’ve had two appliance repair service calls already, and in both cases the repair guys were prompt, friendly and got the job done in one trip. Maybe it was a little unique that the first guy actually showed up two days early, but hey, half the time back home they don’t show up at all. The last oven repair I needed in Maryland required five visits, four long discussions with various repair people and a stack of mysterious parts on my doorstep that measured five inches high. And no service with a smile.

Once you get past the initial challenge of finding the right person (which is compounded by my crappy excuse for Spanish, of course), the process tends to go remarkably well. Like most things in life, I think it comes down to the math.

The US population is about seven times that of Spain. That’s a lot of extra people. Plus, society here is far less consumption driven, meaning Spaniards are less about buying and owning “things” and more inclined to concentrate on the experience of life. This adds up to less stress on the system from top to bottom.

Think about it. Even taking scalability into mind, if there are far fewer widgets sold, there will be far fewer widget service needs. For that matter, even delivering a government service (knowing that stepping down the rabbit hole with a cranky bureaucrat is always possible) is less complex because the volume of people demanding that service is so much less. I could even make the argument that this plays out with technical systems. I’ve experienced a couple of examples where completing documentation with one part of the Spanish government causes the info to trickle down to another department, rendering the need to fill out another mound of paperwork with the second group unnecessary. The various systems do talk to each other, which anyone working in IT today knows is pretty much equivalent to scaling Everest in large organizations.

This might also have something to do with the size of the Spanish bureaucracy. The Spanish government offices I’ve seen always seem to have four people working, surrounded by 37 empty desks. The desks must get filled at some point, since it’s estimated about 2.6 million people are government employees here, or about 11% of the workforce. Compare that to estimates of the US that are somewhere between 1-3% of the workforce (and likely less than 2.6 million total). There are actually more civil service workers in Spain than people working in tourism. As Bart would say, Ay Carumba.

To say I’m surprised at the reality of relative efficiency here is a vast understatement. I expected everything to be slow, as in slow and no other speed available. But it’s simply not the case. Okay, there are so many extra desks in government offices that I’m thinking of getting into the office supply business, and the four desks being occupied only take four appointments an hour, but they do manage to get what you need done on the spot – as long as you bring along the correct stack of paper. Keep the Spanish mantra in mind. Have a cup of café con leche and a pastry, take a deep breath and it’ll get done in the end. There’s nothing wrong with laid-back.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Speaking of café con leche (coffee with milk), a certain five-year-old has learned another great trick. After OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbeing told that he could no longer ask for a treat every time he spotted a bakery, he has shifted tactics. When a pastry sign appears, he now queries, “Anyone want a café con leche?” I am convinced that young minds literally have an unlimited potential when it comes to schemes… Some people are asking how I fill the days. It’s a bit of a mystery actually. I have dozens of unread books on my iPad and an unopened DVD set of the Wire on the shelf. The hours go by crazy fast regardless. At least part of it can be attributed to the fact that people here often start work late, take most of the afternoon off and vacation about six weeks a year, meaning finding them in office to get something done is a bit of a pickle… Liam continues to settle in well. New friends at school are being made. The bike is getting ridden. And the playgrounds in Barcelona are just as much fun to explore as those back home. The carefree life of a five-year-old is to be envied… Also remarkable is how perceptions change. I have spotted men in pink pants, or sporting a fashionable man-purse, or with a scarf tied jauntily around their neck – yet none of it seems particularly out of place. Try that in DC and get a giggle. Try it in the midwest and get chased… Whoever determined that all the grocery stores should be located at the bottom of a hill should be shot. At least, that’s my feeling every time I’m lugging 5 litre water jugs up as if I’m Rocky going back into training. Do they need extras for Rocky 14?

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Out of the Mouths of Babes, As the Saying Goes

As the father of a five-year-old, my cup doth runneth over with tales of colorful expressions and questions that come in the least appropriate public settings. Ah, the fond memory of Liam asking the male waiter with a ponytail why he looked like a girl. Or his pronouncement to a full airplane that mommy just passed gas. In fact, his five years seem liberally sprinkled with statements involving rear emissions.

On the positive side, we have avoided some of the doozies experienced by other families, like a three-year-old dropping an F-bomb in the middle of a crowded restaurant, or a toddler proudly announcing he’s gone potty all by himself – right in the oh-so-convenient aisle five toilet at the Home Depot.

But regardless of embarrassment or cleaning bills, all these incidents are just moments. Our lives are simply collections of these moments, some that stick with us while others disappear into the fog of our subconscious. As I get older, I’m amazed at how certain moments continually reappear in my thoughts. It’s not just that they have helped shape me, but that they continue to influence my actions even today. Like Gilligan’s Island reruns, some images just seem destined to reappear again and again.

As I go through the life changes of an international move and adapting to a new country, some moments offer comfort through familiarity, no matter if they carry sorrow or joy. And as I watch Liam change a little each day, I know he is slowly creating his own bank of memories. The dozens of precious moments of him as a baby and toddler live on with me even if they are already lost on him, but I know that he’s at a tipping point where his rapidly expanding mind is starting to hold onto things more permanently. That first memory, maybe a moment that could comfort him for a lifetime, may already be imprinted.

If you think back to your first memory, it probably is nicely colored with joy, like a surprise toy, meeting a friend who is still dear today, the whirl of the carousel, the warm furry neck of a favorite pet, or even the sparkling streamers hanging off the handle grips of your first bicycle at your fifth birthday party. That last one is mine. I have no recollection if I even rode that bike, but those handle grips remain vivid. A few cents worth of plastic still delivers a little slice of happiness even after all these years.

I’m hoping Liam’s first memory is one of joy, and I’m thankful that a moment this week that is sticking with me will surely fade for him. It was just another morning as I roused Liam before school and hustled him down the hall. As I was about to duck into the kitchen to get his milk, he turned to me and said, “Daddy, will I die as a child, because I know some kids do die.” It was one of those deer-in-the-headlight moments that sneak up on you as a parent.

As I quickly offered reassurances and sought to relieve any worries he had, I could see the thought already fading from his eyes. He still resides in that blissful place where daddy knows all the answers and can settle any question. I do wish this innocence lasts a few years more, before it sinks in that daddy is just a guy, trying his best to offer a little sage advice and not create a moment that turns into a scar. The shrinks of this chaotic world already have enough work.

The blank slate of a child, totaling lacking in experience and pre-conceived notions, lets them drop a bombshell like this without batting an eyelash, all while mom or dad blanches at the “teachable moment.” But just as remarkable for me is that a bombshell question isn’t the moment to be recycled for years to come, but instead it will be a few captured seconds that others likely don’t even recall. I read an interesting article that suggested all the positive encouragement and rah-rah that parents do with their children’s every activity can actually have an opposite effect. More impactful are the basic words, “I like to watch you…” This simple sentiment tells a child you are there for them regardless. That’s a moment that they end up cherishing for years to come.

It’s funny how the moments that stick with you are on opposite ends of the spectrum. It could be an instant with a parent that always cheers your heart, or the hole left by the loss of that parent. Maybe it’s a first kiss, or the one that got away. Maybe it’s the moment you knew your partner would always be there for you, or the moment when they were not.

It’s said that a man’s success is judged more by the family left behind than by achievements in business or other things. After all, so very few of us can be a Lincoln, Einstein or Darwin who makes the world a better place for many. For most of us, the best reflection of ourselves is a legacy of children and the indelible moments we have written on their hungry minds. I guess we all get to change the world just a little bit if we pay the right moments forward. Out of the mouths of adults, you might say.

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Hola, Bonjour, Hello, Kaboom!

One of the best things about Barcelona is how central it is to so many other parts of Europe. It has one of the best city beaches found anywhere, but its location on the northern Spanish coastline leaves it only a short distance from the French border. We decided to make the hop across this weekend and visit a little piece of Provence, namely Aix-en-Provence and Marseille. I left my jaunty little beret at home, but Liam definitely got his French on by wildly throwing around “merci, boucoup” at anyone within earshot. I’m not sure he knows what it means, but it is just about the cutest thing this side of a box of kittens regardless.

Aix-en-Provence is less than 20 miles inland from the coastal airport city of Marseille. Its history dates back before 100 BC and a Roman general by the name of Sextius. My curiosity was peaked when the word Sextius started appearing on restaurants, spas and other buildings, so I had to look it up to be sure exactly what this town was selling. In the many intervening centuries since the general’s visit, Aix was overrun by hordes with colorful names like Visigoths until finally settling in as a pretty French town that now welcomes far more than its 143,000 residents each year. In fact, we must have seen a dozen groups of white-haired cruise passengers being paraded through the brick streets over the course of a couple of days. This is Provence in a nutshell for the seafarers, it appears.

Centered around Cours Mirabeau, the oldest part of the city teems with historic buildings. More than 200 old mansions long held by the same families reside to one side of this main drag, and sites such as a cathedral that dates back to the 5th century occupy the neighborhood to the other side. It’s very old Europe with narrow streets, wrought-iron balconies, welcoming squares and historic fountains.

Of course, much of the appeal of these old cities is in taking time to wander and get lost among the claustrophobic streets, stopping for a meal at a cafe or coffee at a rickety table on the cobblestones.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover a fairly good Vietnamese presence in Aix that translates into a half dozen restaurant options, immediately buoying the spirits of my better half. I’d love to discover the backstory to this, but one narrow street features a string of Vietnamese restaurants on one side and a smattering of Irish pubs on the other. I certainly didn’t mind rounding off an Asian meal with a good pint, but it is one of the more interesting combinations we’ve stumbled across in our travels.

The major port city of Marseille is only a short bus ride away, although it traditionally hasn’t been a big tourist draw as more of an industrial town. In recent years, the old port section of the city has transformed into a much more appealing hamlet, boosting an interesting fruit and vegetable market with an Arabic flavor and plenty of cafes lining the boat docks. Discovering freshly dried figs and apricots were a nice treat to start our visit, but the biggest hit was definitely a fresh baguette still warm from the oven. Maybe not the healthiest breakfast, but holy crap did that taste good.

Our time in Marseille ended up being cut short. We were surveying possible dinner destinations when I started to notice an increasing police presence. Then I noticed a few were carrying riot helmets. When I picked up on the riot shields leaning against the street lamps, my motivation to move on was enhanced tenfold. On our way, we discovered a large demonstration of Kurd supporters massing in front of the harbor. You never know who you’re going to run into while on the road!

Provence is on my list of places to spend a little more time, preferably by exploring the smaller towns in the region and overindulging in the local cuisine. As with so many places, the food seems to get better and the people more open the further from big civilization you go. The infamous Paris attitude that France is known for was largely lacking in our visit, but I still imagine that deeper in the countryside is truly welcoming.

One of the most challenging and colorful parts of our adventure was suddenly being faced with French. As I (veryIMG_1314) slowly try to wrap my head around Spanish, this immersion in French just about blew my frontal lobe out my left ear. At least a dozen times, I attempted to throw in one of my few French words and instead inserted Spanish, leading to lengthy replies in Spanish that went in one ear and out the other (following my frontal lobe, I believe). I remain astounded at how common it is for average, everyday Europeans to know three, four or even five languages. It’s humbling, to say the least.

But as I butchered the local languages, I took solace in knowing I’m not alone. I feel confident that the owner of a women’s store in Aix really meant there’s a sale on Pullovers, not Pull Lovers (what do the mannequins look like?). And locals in need of a date may need assistance, but I’m not sure they fall back on the offer to Take a Beer Out, as the sign on an Irish pub suggests. For that matter, I’ll also maintain that the makers of the snack food pictured are not fully up to speed on the mental picture created from a Ball in Box label. You might say, it’s not just about being understood, but also being understanding.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Les deux Garcons restaurant on Cours Mirabeau has 200 years of interesting tales, including being a favorite of locally borne Paul Cezanne. I’m still staggered at that kind of living history… It’s not a stereotype. The French do put sauce on everything. If I walked into the kitchen, I swear there would be a third faucet just for sauce…

 

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