Monthly Archives: December 2014

More Than a Feeling

We’re only a day away from our first return trip to the U.S. after the beginning of our Barcelona adventure and it’s an interesting feeling.

When I think back that it’s been nearly 15 years since I made the move from Canada to the U.S., it stays with me that I have never lost a certain sensation every time I go back and step again on Canadian soil. Saying it’s the warmth of being home again is probably an overstatement, since I don’t think I’ve ever been so homesick for Canadian shores to spur that feeling, but there is a certain level of comfort that comes with being back there. I expect it will be no different this time around when we head north.

More interesting may be how it will feel to step foot back into the U.S. again, even after just a few short months. No doubt there are things I have missed, although many of them surround the conveniences and comforts that had become the norm of everyday life in the US. What will the feeling be beyond that? Well, I really don’t know yet. I’m curious, to say the least.

At a minimum, it will be a relief not to be frantically searching for the right Spanish verb conjugation every time I need to have a conversation. That continues to be toughest part of the transition to Spain and I’m sure will be for months to come. I highly recommend learning a second language – just do it when you’re five!

And as odd as it sounds, there will also be some relief in knowing I can find a meal no matter the time or place. I would have never guessed that the unusual eating hours of the Spanish would prove to be as much of a challenge as it has turned out to be, but I’ve yet to fully adjust to the total lack of dining options before 8:30 at night and likely not even then on a Sunday. No wonder I’m down a few pounds. If it wasn’t for the great (and widely available) fresh bread, I might even be a good weight by now!

It will also be a comfort to climb back behind the wheel of a car on a regular basis again, knowing that wherever I need to park, the space will actually be equal in size to the dimensions of the car, and more! I could get used to that.

I don’t want this to sound like a complaint about Barcelona, since it definitely is not. It truly is a remarkable city and is proving to be a great choice for our big move. If I started from scratch to build a big city to live in (and be livable), there are few things I would dream up that would differ greatly from the reality that is Barcelona. The locals here are getting a lot of things right. Time will tell if it’s our long-term destination, but it has been a great choice in the near term.

Once we land back in the US, no doubt we will hit up a few local favorites to restock some items that have proven challenging in our new locale. It’s not that teabags are tough to find, but I do like my usual brand more than most. Some restocking of Liam’s wardrobe is in order as he continues to sprout upward. And, of course, he has made it clear that a trip to Outback has to be on the schedule. It’s not my first choice for dining, but the peace of mind he gains from a bowl of bacon and potato soup is worth the price of admission all day long. That’s one feeling that I know is coming.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: We ventured out yesterday to one of Barcelona’s oldest shops, Dulcinea, that serve churros and chocolate. It’s a very common treat in Madrid, but less popular here. Regardless, you can still find some storefronts that look frozen in time from decades ago that still specialize in a warm, doughy churro and a cup of hot chocolate for dipping that is thick enough to make the spoon stand straight up (and that’s no exaggeration!). Not surprisingly, the treat received a strong passing grade from Liam, as evidenced by the chocolate mustache on his face… Barcelona has come remarkably alive for the Christmas season. Down in the main square at Plaza Catalunya, there are enough lights to be spotted from the International Space Station, running up buildings and illuminating the fountains. There’s even an ice rink operating in the middle of the square, which is no small feat whDSC_0397en the temperature has snuck over 60 degrees the last couple of days… Speaking of weather, we wandered the beachfront yesterday and saw a group taking a surfing lesson. Even with wetsuits, it was pretty impressive for three days before Christmas… I’ve always been firmly in the camp that could care less about celebrities’ opinions. I fail to see how acting or singing or even being the Oscar winner makes one person’s opinion on world issues suddenly more valid than anyone else’s. That said, it’s refreshing to read the sensible and collaborative words attributed to actress Emma Watson. Especially for someone barely into her 20s, it’s encouraging to see such a strongly positive message not aimed at tearing someone else down or focusing solely on a single group. I wish some of her fellow thespians and musicians could take the hint…


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So What’s the Big Deal?

Christmas is a big deal in these parts. Of course, one of the key lessons I’ve learned so far is that the Spanish have never met a holiday they didn’t like. If I knew the Spanish word for jello, I’m sure I could find a day devoted to it on the calendar.

The US has Thanksgiving to use as a marker for the start of the holiday season. But even though there is no Thanksgiving in Spain, the holiday cheer definitely starts to flow by mid-November. Virtually every major street in Barcelona has been adorned with lights and wreaths. Christmas (or Navidad) goodies are spilling out of retailers of every ilk from department stores to the Spanish version of dollar stores (which feature very little as cheap as a buck, by the way). And we’ve already had a couple of holidays that are in some way tied to the season.

It’s common for Spanish families to build miniature nativity scenes for display. I’ve already talked about the famous caganer (or pooper) that is frequently a part of displays here in Catalunya where Barcelona is located, but nativity scenes with all the other usual players are widely common. It’s typical for these displays to grow and evolve over time as families find new pieces to add to them. Christmas markets have sprung and concentrate heavily on pieces for the nativity. The market near the cathedral in Barcelona has operated annually for more than 200 years.

I do have to point out that at least some of the locals here are a little embarrassed at the idea of the caganer. It’s not a tradition that everyone gets behind (forgive the pun). That makes sense when you think about it being one of the more unique holiday customs found anywhere. When I was growing up in Canada, it’s tough to imagine gaining support for the local church nativity scene to include a figure of a Mountie dropping a deuce in a snowbank. It’s just not the image you want the kids to take home.

And as I’ve been surprised at how easy it normally is to get around Barcelona for a city with more than a million occupants, I’ve been equally surprised that those occupants are suddenly making themselves visible in December. Around the tourist zone, the gridlock of cars the past two Saturdays could rival Times Square. The foot traffic is no different, with an abundance of tourists ad locals alike filling the prime zones. This isn’t the time of year I would imagine drawing many visitors, since it’s certainly not beach weather, but I guess I underestimate the uniqueness of Barcelona as a draw all year long.

Virtually overwhelming every store are individually wrapped cookies (polvorones) and these huge bars called turrons. The cookies are a tad dry and come in plenty of different flavors. The most common turron are large, sticky white nougat ones that havturrone to be the best  business-builder of dentists anywhere, but it’s the chocolate variety that have caught my eye. If I can find one smaller than a battleship, I’m going to give it a try.

Children are a major focus of life in Spain every month of the year, but never more so than at Christmas. The Spanish love large, boisterous family events and the holidays are rich with times when as much family as possible comes together and eats. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 is the first of many big dinners. Christmas eve is a huge event, followed by Christmas day and the associated meals and church visits.

For a North American, one of the big differences is a lack of turkey on the big days. Turkey (or pavo) is not a common choice here, with seafood, stews and the ever-present ham more likely on the menu. I discovered an American store here selling an odd assortment of goods, some from the US and others quasi-American items from the UK or elsewhere. I didn’t bite on the bird in a box offered at Thanksgiving, but I did opt to shell out nearly five euros for a can of cranberry sauce that made the transatlantic trip.

In school, just as in many parts of the world, kids learn carols and about traditions that span different religions. Liam took the stage for his first concert this week and made us proud. It’s heart-warming to see some things are nearly the same everywhere. The school break here is lengthy, nearly three weeks, and stretches past the Epiphany celebration around January 5, which for some families is the biggest gift-giving day of the season.

It’s been interesting to balance our needs for Christmas with what happens locally, especially since we’ll be away for part of it. The larger markets here often offer some turkey parts, so it’s possible to Frankenstein together at least part of a bird. A small Christmas tree was easy; keeping a five-year-old from raiding anything put under it was not (okay, that one is the same the world over). And the most interesting problem is managing expectations when Liam could potentially be receiving/opening gifts on four different occasions. His chocolate addiction is already barely below the threshold of needing treatment, so I don’t want gift withdrawal to be the next event to require medical intervention. When you’re five, Christmas is indeed a big deal all over.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: I tried to explain egg nog to a Spaniard. Talk about foreign territory. I’m guessing the last time he had a look like that on his face he’d just stepped in something… During the holidays, you also can’t forget about El Gordo (the fat one), the national lottery that is much like a religion here. Tickets are everywhere and the anticipation is large… Spanish HVAC is a total mystery to me. We have a unit that looks like a huge car radiator sitting on our back balcony. The thermostat features some English, but the manual is only available in German. It has automatic settings (yeah!), but you can’t get to them (booo!). It swings back and forth from running continuously for a couple of days to not running at all for a week. Oh, and it sometimes blows cold air, and even when set on high it doesn’t blow enough air to whisk away a decent fart. Good thing it doesn’t snow here… Weather-stripping appears to be another item where there’s a huge gulf in availability here. You can buy some at the (kind-of) dollar store for one euro that is about as good as stuffing a newspaper in the windowsill. Or you can buy a version in the regular stores that costs about 20 euros and is slightly more effective. Like many things here, the middle ground feels like a real business opportunity…

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Grandma 1. Reindeer 0.

Getting used to a different definition of space is among the biggest adjustments in moving to Europe. And I’m not just talking about the lack of rolling hills or plains that are so common and accessible in North America, but space in all forms.

Here in the city, lack of space means few people live in single-family houses and most are in apartments. It means (as I’ve said many times), cars look more like matchbox toys than automobiles, and the spaces designed for them to park in seem better suited to bicycles. And, maybe the biggest adjustment, “personal space” is a whole new ballgame.

By personal space I mean that buffer that we all seek between ourselves and whoever we are interacting with, whether they be friend or foe. There’s a great old Seinfeld episode about the “close talker” that I’m sure we can all relate to. When someone is a little too much in our natural space, it’s uncomfortable and unnerving. There’s a somewhat well-known former hockey player that I interviewed a handful of times back in my sports days who was guilty of being a close talker. It was almost comical how I would be inching backward as I jotted down notes, only to have him continue to press forward towards me. I was tempted to extend the interview to see if he’d back me all way out of the dressing room and walk me back to my car. Never hurts to have an escort in the wee hours.

Personal space is an interesting animal, and I think rather unique to North Americans. Certainly nowhere else in the world seems to be quite as in tune with this concept. In the highly-crowded big cities of Asia, the concept feels pretty much non-existent. Beijing seems to operate on the rule that if you can get into the space, you own it, regardless of who you had to cut off, step on or walk over to get there.

Europe doesn’t take it quite to the same extreme, but people do allow you a much smaller comfort zone than in the US or Canada. Although I grasped that before we arrived, it hasn’t eased the adjustment entirely.

Just imagine this scene, for example. I’m standing at a counter waiting for a coffee when I’m suddenly subjected to a full-on body check. Okay, I’m not going to claim it was seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals worthy, but it was at least playoff caliber. I’m suggesting a bodycheck that would lead to a fight in half the delis in America, possibly a gun battle in Detroit and likely a dog being kicked in Dallas. In other words, an impressive press of the flesh.

I quickly swung around to confront the burly offender face-to-face and ascertain the reason for the assault, only to discover that face-t0-face was clearly an overestimation. I was face-to-chest-hair with somebody’s grandmother, standing an imposing five-foot-two and maybe 100 pounds. My bully de jour was starring up at me quizzically. Maybe her nickname wasn’t Hammer, but I’m betting no one is singing Grandma got run over by a reindeer during the holidays here!

The norm in these parts is that no offence had been committed. A good jostle is just the price of admission if you want to be close to the counter. I’m not sure I’m getting used to it, but I’m definitely experiencing this change in personal space on a regular basis.

It’s actually an interesting dynamic to watch. Walking down a sidewalk, people moving in the opposite direction are not inclined to share the space until absolutely necessary. I’ve literally stopped to avoid walking into someone, only to have them walk into me anyway.

Ride a bus or the metro, shop a store or try and make it though the airport and it’s pretty much guaranteed you will get roughed up at least a little. Walking through a Christmas market today with a bag hanging from my shoulder was like hopping in the dryer for a spin cycle as I was thrust one way or another and the bag was yanked to and fro, all with no one ever giving it a second thought.

Even more interesting is to see how people react to a bicyclist. I’ve never been a fan of riding a bike on the sidewalk, but it’s a bit of necessity at times here because the streets can be so narrow and the drivers not shy about using every inch of room right up to your leg. I think most people’s reaction to a cyclist (at least back home) is to give them at least half the sidewalk and avoid a collision. Call it polite if you wish, but I’ve always thought about it as simple self-preservation more than anything. Not here. There’s been a few locals that I think actually stepped more into my path when they see me coming, not as much in an aggressive way, but simply this conditioning that if you see space, use it.

This new definition of space is an adjustment, and almost ironic when you consider Spain is one of the countries where life is supposed to be slower, the people more relaxed and the stress levels reduced. Body-checking grandmas don’t really have that effect on me. I think I need a little space to count to 10.

IMG_1354RANDOM THOUGHTS: In follow-up to my post on the tradition of the caganer, we stumbled on one of the city’s nativity displays today and, sure enough, there was the little pooper hiding among the castle walls. A few years back, the city neglected to include him, resulting in noisy protests. With the Spanish government already causing an uproar here by ignoring calls for independence, I guess the local officials wanted to be sure no additional reason for unrest occurred during the holidays. Can you think of a better reason to install the little pants-dropper?.. In the same vein, I believe I have sired an inconvenient pooper. It’s a mystery to me how one little person could always need to go mid-dinner or at the exact moment when we step out the front door on the way to school. I can only hope that his impeccable sense of timing will one day be put to use for some higher calling than nature…

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