Monthly Archives: November 2014

Not Exactly a White Christmas

As Thanksgiving week peaks back in the US and the annual pilgrimage out of town hits high stride, I’ve started to explore the holiday traditions in my new part of the world. Buckle up, I’ve got quite a tale to tell.

Thanksgiving, of course, is an American invention and not observed here in Spain, although goodies such as canned cranberries and stuffing mix can be found in the American store here. But even if Thanksgiving is not on the radar, the onset of the holiday season is getting underway at the same time. Lights are appearing above major streets and the stores are filling with red and green decorations. This is a major holiday season for Spain with a full calendar of observances in December.

The most colorful, not to mention the most bizarre, tradition is the “caganer,” which roughly translates to the “crapper” or the “pooper.” If the addition of a defecator to the holidays immediately stops you in your tracks, you’re not alone. This one is definitely a head-scratcher.

The Spanish do love nativity displays, similar to the US, but they add a little color, so to speak, by putting in a squatting figure, pants down and deeply engrossed in a number two. He may be off to the side, or even partially hidden in a corner for the kids to try and find, but he is there in all his glory as part of the nativity.

The exact origins of this tradition are a little cloudy beyond knowing that it dates back more than 200 years. There are a number of theories as to why the figure exists, including it harking back to simpler times of agriculture when fertilizing the soil and bonding with Mother Nature was so important, or that it shows all people are equal in the things they do, literally.

Regardless of exactly why he has attained this place of honor (minus a throne), you have to give the Spanish credit for having fun with it. What kid wouldn’t enjoy a spirited game of hide the caganer on Christmas Eve? And while the traditional design of a caganer is a peasant wearing an iconic red hat, Catalonians also reinvent him every year, buoying their spirits in the process, by depicting celebrities, politicians and even royals as the squatting figure. Pretty much any famous name imaginable, plus nuns, devils and Santa Claus gets the treatment. From Elvis to the Pope, Barack Obama to Spongebob, are depicted. If America ever adopts the tradition, a whole new licensing income stream may open up for Justin Bieber, John Boehner or whatever other butt the populace wants to lampoon. You can see quite the colorful assortment of caganer’s here.

And while this may seem humorous, it’s serious business here. Nativity scenes without a caganer draw protests and boycotts. You will tempt the wrath of the Catalonians if a phantom pooper isn’t somewhere on the grounds.

But the bathroom references do not stop there. The locals build on this tradition with the Tio de Nadal (roughly, a Christmas log). The blanket-clad stump often has a face painted on it, is adorned with a red hat and is “fed” goodies such as crackers, fruit and even wine in the days leading up to Christmas. The intention, once the big day arrives, is to beat on the log with sticks until it defecates candy for the kids. A log pooping out generous handfuls of candy is a sign of a healthy and prosperous Christmas. Can you imagine a ceremony involving beating something with sticks being recreated in a politically correct US classroom?

On a cleaner note, Christmas day here does feature a big family meal, just not involving the usual American turkey. And the next day (St. Stephen’s Day), it’s customary to take the leftovers to relatives. I’m not sure what that says about your relatives.

The Spanish version of April Fool’s actually comes on December 28, where gags include sticking paper figures on unsuspecting backs. New Year’s is rung in by eating a fresh grape with each of the 12 rings as the clock strikes toward midnight, often chased by a drink. No doubt the Spanish also have trouble remembering New Year’s after 12 quick drinks.

The holiday season is capped off by celebrating the Epiphany, or Three King’s Day (El Dia de Los Reyes Magos), around January 6. In Barcelona, there is a huge parade and abundant distribution of candy to the kids. A traditional, donut-shaped king’s cake is served, with one lucky person finding a figure of a king inside signifying good fortune to come and one finding a dried bean that might mean they get stuck with the dinner bill. In honor of the biblical tale of the three wise men, presents are given to the kids in plentiful numbers that often outnumber the haul of Christmas Day. And just to make it all a little more unique, children also clean their shoes and leave them on windowsills, with good children receiving gifts and the more naughty only getting candy shaped as, wait for it, a poop. Christmas here is sounding more like a Jim Carrey movie all the time.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Heavy sweets seem to be the favorite at Christmas here, including large pieces of nougat (turron) and individually wrapped, crumbly cookies. Add in the abundance of bakeries and there’s no shortage of sugar in these parts… There were some very nice tributes to Pat Quinn, the former NHL player and executive who had a long and successful career before passing away this week. Many were quite touching, but it spurred me to thinking, why do these tributes almost always come after death? Wouldn’t it have been terrific for a retired 71-year-old to hear how people thought about him before kicking the bucket? Just my two cents..

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Entering a Marketing Dry Spell

Not to get too philosophical (again), but I’ve always considered myself not just an avid marketer, but also a student of the discipline of marketing. I guess that sounds a little lofty, so taken in more literal terms, this nets out at my mailbox being stuffed with an avalanche of paper and assorted crap over the years and receiving enough e-mail missives to keep the analysts at the Pentagon busy until Luxembourg becomes a super power.

Along with plenty of reading, this overload of offer-oramas was the core method I used to stay on top of what was happening in the marketplace. Monitoring and experiencing how other marketers were interacting with consumers was a learning experience in how I may interact with the consumers of the brands I helped steward.

So after this wealth of mail and email, how odd it felt to land in Spain and receive almost nothing. Even now, we barely see one piece of mail a week (even counting the Spanish post office’s limited rate of success with delivery). It’s an adjustment being less in the loop, as well as seeing a marketplace that is so different also.

So much of the marketing 101 I’m used to simply doesn’t exist here.. Financial services, for example, is a vastly different vertical than back in the US or Canada. American banks continue to throw gobs of money at customers in the form of miles, points, cash and other goodies to acquire new credit card holders. Here in Spain, those bonuses are almost non-existent. In fact, it’s not unusual for a consumer to have to pay an annual fee to have any credit card at all, even without rewards. I can feel a tremor coming on just at the thought of my rewards disappearing. Oh, the inhumanity!

Grocery is another territory where discounts are rampant back home, but much more selective here, not to mention more complex. Instead of straight up discounts, it’s more likely here that savings come on multiple units, such as 70% off the second one, or third one free. I earned a discount off a toy purchase last week, but it turns out the saving is loaded onto the store membership card. Nice to see the number there, but to be honest, I don’t have a clue how to get at it. My next Spanish lesson may involve a conversation on how to unleash a loyalty point. I’m not sure I’ll succeed at miming that one out.

I’m just starting to wrap my head around Spanish advertising, but at first glance it doesn’t seem dramatically different at its core from the US. I’ve also started to get some email offers, but it’s clear that the Spanish are a little wary of online and not that dedicated to making it work as yet. It’s quite frustrating to look up basic things like a store address or opening hours and either find nada or information that is wrong. In fact, I’d guess it’s less than 50% of what I’ve have read online locally that’s correct. After becoming so accustomed to self-servicing half my life in the US, the errors on simple information here are enough to drive you a little crazy.

I’m still being exposed to some things from the US, so I’ll throw on my marketing hat for a minute and hit on a few things I find surprising or interesting.

The airline industry has some positive history in effective advertising, even if it’s been rather dry the last few years. So, I was surprised to receive a series of emails from United regarding an experiental sweepstakes they were running with the Washington Redskins. In fact, on United’s site, there were also ads for another experiental sweeps with the Cleveland Indians. No doubt, these offers are driven by United trying to build interest in their hub cities, but both link the brand to sports franchises criticized for racial insensitivity because of their names. Maybe less so in Cleveland, but with the ongoing storm surrounding the Redskins, it’s beyond me why another brand would want to forge a link and wade into that cesspool. It reeks of poor judgment in the handling of the company’s most important asset, its brand.

I just saw a couple of holiday-themed video ads from Target. They align perfectly with Target’s ongoing brand positioning campaigns of the last few years, which are upbeat, colorful and quirky. In today’s chaotic world, it says a lot about a brand when it can commit to a campaign and execute it long enough to get full value from a smart positioning. Target’s ads give the brand a voice that stands out. Even though it’s hard to think of Target as an aspirational shopping destination, the uniqueness of the ads creates exactly this type of halo. I’m a huge fan of what they continue to accomplish.

The new GE spots en titled Ideas Are Scary are aptly named. They are certainly a little disturbing at first with the hairy, oddball “idea” coming to life, but also tend to grow on you after seeing them a couple of times. If advertising is about being memorable, then they score well on that front and should be considered a success.

It’s astoundingly hard for an ad or campaign to stand out with so much noise bombarding us every day, but smart brands can still flash that magic. Hey, these got my attention from 4,000 miles away, so sounds like high praise is indeed in order for a couple of brands

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Shout out to my fellow Canuck Ethan who has re-started his blog on imbibing well at imbibehour.blogspot.com. He brings a little extra color to an already inviting topic… Maybe I can consider myself a little more Spanish now that I’m playing El Gordo, which translates roughly to the Fat One. Top prize is 400,000 Euros, so it pales in comparison to virtually every American roll of the balls, but it still draws lines of people looking to play. And much like the bureaucracy here, the design and distribution of prizes is so complex, it must create enough paperwork to strip a forest. Read about it here if you dare.. In the spirit of throwing gas on the fire, the Spanish government in Madrid is affirming it has no intention of talking to the region of Catalonia (where Barcelona is located) about its concerns. Catalonia “unofficially” voted in favor of separation recently, only to have the federal government respond by filing paperwork to have the Catalonia president and other key officials charged for misuse of power and public funds. It’s a remarkably ugly turf war for two governments to wage within the same country. A reasonable outcome seems highly unlikely. I might end up in another country soon without even moving…

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Straight Off a Postcard

This past weekend, we set off on a short driving adventure north of Barcelona to a town called Figueres. It’s close to the French border, but still very much in the heart of Catalonia.

Only a week has passed since the “unofficial” vote in favor of independence for Catalonia, so the striped state flags and yellow signs proclaiming 9-N (as in the November 9 date of the vote) are still widely evident flying from balconies, polls, statues and just about anywhere else they can be tied down. With the Spanish government’s refusal to allow an official referendum or even discuss Catalonia’s concerns, it’s no surprise that the vote came up 80% in favor of independence and that the fervor is continuing to build. The push is bound to come to a head at some point.

Ninety miles from Barcelona, Figueres is a town of about 40,000 inhabitants, but it’s famous for one particular local son, the artist Salvador Dali. I’ve been trying to make it to the museum that he founded ever since we began considering a move to Spain. The timing was never right during any of our visits, but the stars finally aligned this past weekend in the form of a family adventure.

Although there is train service to Figueres, we decided to combine the trip with some local needs and rent a car for six days. It made perfect sense, especially since I found a car for just 20 Euros. I still have no idea how you can rent a car for six days for only 20 Euros, but then I haven’t returned it yet. My next blog entry may detail the laundry list of extra charges that quickly erases the bargain!
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So off we went in a micro-Toyota called an Aygo. Yes, an Aygo. Could it be a play on words from I Go? Or maybe it’s actually a pirate car – an Ayyyyyyy-Go, Captain. Either way, it’s about half the length of any real car and still barely fits in a European parking spot. In other words, perfect for the task.

Figueres is a quaint town with a historic square surrounded by lots of narrow streets that really are no more than alleys. Driving down any of these, I am again thankful for the diminutive nature of our ride.

Just up from the square is the colorful Dali museum. It originally was the town’s municipal theater until being burned late in the Spanish civil war. When the local mayor made a suggestion to Dali that exhibiting some art on the site would be a good idea, Dali ran with it and decided to revitalize the remains of the building into a museum that is a living piece of art. Not only was this fitting because Figueres is Dali’s hometown, but also because it is situated directly across from the church where he was baptized and is also the location where he held his first art exhibit decades before. Since its opening in 1974, the maroon building has stood as the most novel landmark in Figueres.

Although many of Dali’s most famous works were sold by him long ago and now reside in other museums, there are a number of interesting pieces here. A couple of large installations reflect his surrealist passions, including the Mae West Room and the Rainy Cadillac, which features a full-sized Caddy as its centerpiece. Despite the lack of key works, the museum is still well worth the visit to see works that span his lifetime and reflect his vision. Interestingly, Dali is also here, entombed in a wall in the lower level since his death in 1989.

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We topped off this pleasant visit to Figueres with a drive east to the coastal town of Cadaques. Adjacent to Cadaques is Portllagat, where Dali’s vacation home has been maintained as it was when he was alive. When visiting, there’s no question on why he picked Portllagat. The house is set on a beautiful inlet with calm, crystal clear water and dotted with little fishing boats. Even with two small hotels now sitting over it, it’s a breathtaking spot.

We ventured down into Cadaques to discover a Spanish coastal town straight off a postcard with angular whitewashed houses stretching up the hillside from the harbor. Halfway through a fresh lunch in a waterside restaurant, I was pretty much ready to put my feet up, order another bottle of wine and not leave for a week. This could definitely be the life. I have a feeling we will be back.

The list of places we want to explore in Spain probably won’t get any shorter for some time to come. Every time we check one off the list, we learn of another from talking to the locals. It’s tough work, but somebody’s got to do it.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: We were suitably proud of ourselves for managing to order four appliances and have them delivered and installed despite speaking virtually no Spanish. To make it more interesting, I now have also arranged servicing on the dishwasher twice. Finally, today we went back to the original store and managed to get them to order a replacement dishwasher (as advised by the service company) since the repairs are not solving the issue. All this, still with almost no Spanish. It’s remarkable what can be accomplished… From his first few weeks of school when he didn’t pick up any Spanish, Liam has suddenly turned into a Spanish explosion the last couple of weeks. Of course, there seems to be a fair number of invented words mixed in (at least, I think invented), but it’s still amazing to watch. The sponge is at work…

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Rules are for Slackers

I have heard many times from those who have moved to the U.S. from afar about how hard it is to learn English, with most complaints focusing on the language having as many exceptions as it has rules. The Romance languages such as Spanish are said to be easier to master. Well, I’m calling crock on that claim.

While it’s still very much early days in my quest to pick up some Spanish (okay, maybe infantile days if you hear me talk), I’m not experiencing that straight linear line of simplicity these folks are suggesting. In fact, I’ll stake my claim that the logic backing up Spanish looks about as straight as a roundabout.

Let me be clear, this isn’t a specific criticism of Spanish, but more a comment on the reality that simple and logical are not terms I’d use when describing the self-imposed torture of expanding one’s language horizons. There are moments of tremendous pride as a concept is grasped, but also days when the experience is about as pleasant as sticking 14 feral tomcats in your shorts.

The first big hurdle, which I struggle with virtually daily, is the almost endless conjugation of verbs. For an English-speaker, the notion of altering a verb so that it also indicates whom you are speaking about is, to put it mildly, foreign. It really takes a while to wrap your head around this concept.

The challenge comes with the notion that there’s a different conjugation for each pronoun (I, he, she, us, etc.). They are lumped into six groups to simplify things a bit, but the six groups apply to every tense, meaning not only are there six conjugations for the present tense, but six for the past tense, six for the present perfect tense, six for the future tense, etc., etc. I’ve already counted 16 different tenses. For those math challenged, that works out to 96 conjugations. And that’s just for one verb! Think about how many verbs you use every day. If that doesn’t make you say “pass the wine,” nothing will.

To further complicate the picture, Spanish throws in a host of irregular verbs that conjugate in unusual fashion. The sudden appearance of an unexpected “g” or “i” does keep you guessing, no doubt about that. But it’s like alphabet Russian roulette.

Then there’s the fun concept that virtually every object should be masculine or feminine. I’m sure there’s an inherent logic that I haven’t learned as yet, but I would really like to glimpse inside the mind of the creative soul who determined a fridge is masculine and a mountain is feminine. On the seventh day did he come up with Chicken Fried Steak?

Usually, figuring out if an object is masculine or feminine is pretty straightforward based on it ending in an “o” or an “a,” but thanks to the Spanish sense of humor, there are also a bunch of words that toss this guideline out the window. Ah, rules are for slackers, right?

Making it even more fun are the words that can mean two different things. Comer is not only the verb for “to eat” but also a noun for lunch. At least that’s in the same general neighborhood for meaning, but take a word like metro, which carries the obvious meaning of subway, but also is the Spanish word for meter. Sounds more like a mile apart to me.

Then there’s nada, which means nothing as you might think, but can also be the verb for he/she swims. Hmm, clear as mud. Or how about coger, which can mean to take, but also to catch, to knock over, to pick up or, in the extreme, to have sex. Suddenly, taking a taxi home comes with a nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Here are a few more of my favorite examples. Esposas can mean wives, but also handcuffs. Do I even need to elaborate on that one? Camello can be a camel, but also a drug dealer. Chorizo is a type of sausage, but also a pickpocket (maybe that’s the same depending on what he’s picking). Mono can be cute or monkey, so be careful what you say about the baby. Tiempo is the time or the weather (who has time for the weather, anyway). Cuarto is fourth, but can also be a room. And banco can be a bank, a bench or a fish tank.

In the spirit of learning new languages, I think the appropriate word at this point would be Oy!

Okay, to be fair, English is no walk in the park with the crazy “ph” making an “f” sound, the “i” before “e” except when we don’t feel like it rule, the fact there’s five vowels until we decide to throw in a “y” just for kicks and fun words like fish that are singular and plural all at the same time. I’m not going to argue that some guy on a day pass may very well be the mastermind behind English, but ease off on the lectures about the inherent logic found elsewhere. If you ask me, the scholars behind most languages seem to be having an awfully big giggle on all of us.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: I may have to look into my wife’s family lineage for signs of vampires, on the basis of her giving birth to a creature that never eats beyond sucking all the chocolate out of the middle of a croissant. The kid barely touches breakfast, skips lunch half the time and has dinner only under scowling protest. How can he never be hungry? If I tried that diet for three days, I’d end up chewing the leg off the first person who walked by me… One unfortunate Dominey family legacy is possessing smiles that could crack a camera lens. The curse re-appeared this week as my brother made the wise decision to marry a lovely lady named Sue. A beautiful wedding photo featured bride in white, family pooch handsome in a special occasion scarf and the usual oddball grin on my brother’s face. Fortunately, I know the legacy will have no effect on the years of happiness that surely are awaiting them…

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Check One For Barcelona

Barcelona may seem like a straight outta left field pick as a city to live in, but it’s really not. When you start adding up checkmarks on the positive side of the ledger, Barcelona ends up scoring highly. It’s a bit of a secret gem with plenty to offer.

As Spain’s second largest city, it makes sense to assume there’s a big city pace of life, which was not high among my prerequisites for a destination. Really, I was leaning more toward a house on the beach than being in the middle of the city. But it has proven to be surprisingly livable for a metro. In fact, I’m often curious as to where its 1.6 million inhabitants are hiding, because the streets are rarely crowded. Finding another live body on a Sunday afternoon or in the peak of the August holiday season is about as likely as finding a liberal at a tea party rally.

Barcelona is also not only located on the Mediterranean, but is in fact the largest city on the sea and possessor of a thriving beach area. National Geographic and Discovery Channel named its waterfront as the best city beach in the world a few years back. That’s no small praise. There’s even a tiny slice of the beach reserved for nudists, although the first rule of nude beaches does apply; the last people you want to see naked are always the first ones to show up at a nude beach. The pricey rooms at the soaring W hotel overlooking the beach must come with a tad more panoramic of a view than one might desire.

Barcelona always appears on lists of unique cities. I’d vote it the most unusual large city I’ve ever been to in terms of architecture and design. It’s a city that prides itself on looking different than any other major metropolis. In fact, when you look at how diverse one building is from the next, it’s kind of like the lunatics broke out and got to run the asylum. But it all still holds together with a unique charm.

The cornerstone of Barcelona’s architecture is local son Antoni Gaudi, who designed a number of key buildings and attractions in the city. The most famous, and the most visited site in all of Spain, is Sagrada Familia. As remarkable as it sounds, Gaudi took over building this soaring Roman Catholic basilica in 1883 and it still isn’t complete. After weathering slowdowns including a lack of funding during his lifetime and the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the anticipated completion date for the church is now 2026 on the centenary of Gaudi’s death.
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Gaudi is lumped into a movement called modernism, but the mix of styles he uses runs a gamut. He broke from the norm during his lifetime, constructing from whatever material appealed to him, including waste ceramics. He was recycling long before the term became fashionable.

Parc Guell is another of his innovations. The novel attraction, set into a hillside in Barcelona’s historic Gracia district, is an eclectic mix of mosaic tile creatures, unusual geometric shapes and political and religious symbolism. Kids flock to it for a chance to touch the giant tile salamander drooling water on the park’s grand staircase. Above this is the main terrace, which is surrounded by a mosaic bench that curves and undulates around the open area like a sea serpent.

The views from the terrace across the city of Barcelona, including the spires of Sagrada Familia, are outstanding. It’s no wonder that many visitors find a nook in the curving sea serpent bench and relax for an extended rest on a sunny Barcelona afternoon. It’s a microcosm of how comfortable Barcelona can be as a home.

DSC_0266Of course, visiting with a five-year-old doesn’t always lend itself to deep introspection of the historical significance of Gaudi’s creations. Instead it features a rambunctious round of terrorizing unsuspecting pigeons while wearing a cape and plastic vampire teeth. Only the five-year-old mind knows for sure the reasoning, but there’s no arguing the logic when a breathless smile is the end result. There’s never a dull moment in a child’s life.

As we explore the city, there seems to be an endless number of squares brimming with that Old Europe ambiance that makes the continent so appealing. Each week we discover another park or museum designed with kids in mind, because family life is such a driving force in the Spanish culture.

Then toss in a few more reasons for Barcelona’s appeal, such as it’s central location that makes access to much of Europe so simple and weather that includes sun and temperatures pushing towards 70 even as November arrives, and you start to get the idea.

It’s not perfect, of course. Despite a great bus and metro system, there are days when I would like to just jump in the car. And I miss being able to load up on simple goods and fresh fruit on the cheap with a trip to Costco, although who knows what chemical concoction allows them to sell the same perfect peach nearly all 12 months of the year. It’s an adjustment to go back to buying fruits and veggies in season again.

As I said when we embarked on this, it’s an experiment. A chance to compare the known with the unknown and see which wins. Checkmarks are being added to both sides of the ledger, and it’s going to be quite the journey adding them up.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Rule #47 of parenting. Incenting your child to motivate the right behavior is good. Telling him that good behavior on Saturday will mean he gets the toy he wants on Sunday is bad, as evidenced by the wakeup call that arrived in the dark at 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning… Sitting on the couch the other night, Liam suddenly formed his first sentence in Spanish out of the blue. He was a little lacking in a verb, but it was still an impressive effort. The sponge has started to work, and it’s remarkable to see.

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