Monthly Archives: January 2015

Walk at Your Own Peril

During our short time here, it’s been interesting to get a first brief taste of the differences between the US and Spanish legal systems. If I had to judge (forgive the pun), I’d say they seem even more than 4,000 miles apart.

Being part of the EU, Spain faces the extra challenge of having to align its laws and standards with all the member countries. That’s no small feat. Imagine if Washington, as it was contemplating a new law, suddenly received notice that no such law could be passed because it ran counter to standards in Canada, Mexico and Latin America. I could see rioting in the streets at that kind of imposition. Half of Texas would probably grab the shotgun off the pickup gun rack and start screaming 1776.

Maybe that’s too simplistic of a view, but it’s not totally opposite to the reality here. On the plus side, it has led to very consumer-friendly standards, such as strict privacy laws and enacting the EU-wide rule that products are to be offered with a two-year warranty. The flip side is that these far-reaching laws are great fodder for feeding the extreme nationalistic parties that exist in almost every country here. As they keep proving, the fastest path to political success is by appealing to people’s hearts via whatever bogeyman can be exploited, and the EU is a pretty easy target.

But even as they legally align across broad areas, the individual countries can still pass laws that stand alone, especially if they are more under the radar. There’s been a couple in the news lately in Spain that caught my attention. But then, who wouldn’t read an article with the headline: “Spaniards face sanctions if found to be drunk in charge of a pair of legs.”

The headline writer is taking a little extra liberty with this one, but it does outline that Spanish officials are considering beefing up rules to put more responsibility on pedestrians for safety. The intent is to treat walkers the same as drivers in cases of accidents or incidents, even if the result has rapidly become comical. It gets tough to defend a proposed law when it includes a clause suggesting the establishment of a speed limit for pedestrians.

Critics of the law have been focusing on how they believe it would infringe on Spaniards rights, in particular how some people could shy away from attending festivals and weddings out of fear of being breathalysed on the way home. After all, it’s all about quality of life and fiestas are a big part of that. The more health-inclined in the crowd are also lining up against, suggesting it could create a ban on jogging if nothing more than a brisk trot is allowed. I can just imagine the debate. I’d watch if I understood more of the words.

And if you are thinking this is laughable and could never happen, well, there’s a report this week of a Spanish man being fined 100 Euros for running too quickly down the street, plus being charged four points on his driving licence. Yes, that fine was for running. I have a feeling there is more to the story since it suggests he ignored police, but still, makes you think that crazy laws can end up a reality in certain hands.

Beyond such oddities, the legal system here seems pretty balanced. It seems lacking in silly lawsuits, and I haven’t seen a loud billboard advertising ambulance chasers. There is an interesting concept here called a “gestor,” which is someone who can help navigate not only legal issues but anything requiring paperwork (which pretty much means everything here). A gestor is a fairly inexpensive way to navigate bureaucratic challenges. I like the concept and I’m sure many people in the US would also find it useful to tap into someone with specific knowledge and a price tag below that of a full lawyer, although I suppose it’s less likely to catch on simply because of the abundance of lawyers in the US. Gestors do tend to be quite Spanish, so their usefulness for the expat community is limited.

The one area where a lot of legal activity happens here is real estate. From what I’ve read so far, it’s a bit of a minefield with transactions being both costly and complicated. The proper paperwork is at the heart of the issue, driven by the fact that many properties here have been in the same family for decades. When it comes time to sell, it’s apparent that no true registration of the property exists, and a buyer can end up inheriting the mess if they are not cautious.

The problem isn’t confined only to older properties. In southern Spain, there are somewhere in the area of 200,000 homes that were built during the boom and never registered, leaving owners in a particularly sticky situation. There is a move afoot to grandfather these in and relieve some of the pain. Saying it’s wise to shop carefully when it comes to real estate is an understatement here.

I guess the moral of the story is, check the paperwork no matter the name of the country. If you can read it, of course.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: The Spanish are really not big fans of the internet. Even routine information is often not posted online, or is simply wrong. More than once, we have looked at a restaurant’s own website for something basic like opening hours and gotten the wrong info. Kind of tough to be successful when you tell your customers you’re open when you’re not… The love of forms and paperwork in Spain is a legacy of the Franco dictatorship, I’m told. It may be almost 40 years since he left the building, but having people record everything is still the way of the land. There’s a form for everything, they all have lots and lots of boxes and ID is mandatory. I literally had to hand over an identification number for a sample. You better want that freebie!..

 

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A Little Weird But Mostly Wonderful

Keeping up the theme of the odd, interesting, superstitious and wonderful things about Spain, let me share a few more observations from our lives here so far:

  • Festivals and holidays almost seem like the center of the culture here. There literally is a celebration almost every week. For the kids, there is not one, but two school breaks after Christmas. First up is Semana Blanca in February, which is a week off with loose ties to Carnival or snow (hence “blanca” or white), depending on whom you ask. After that comes Semana Santa at the end of March. As opposed to celebrating the pudgy guy in the red suit, this loosely translates to Holy Week or Saints Week, which explains it’s positioning right before Easter. It all adds up to a lot of days off and a lot of eating.
  • Learning Spanish continues to astound me. At this point, I am fully convinced that learning another language later in life is just about the hardest thing you can do, mainly because of all the ingrained bad habits developed over years. I think I’m like many people who like to progress based on milestones – e.g. I know I can get to the goal of point A by accomplishing B and C. The challenge with language is the size. Learning a language is so wide that Point A never seems to make it to the near horizon. The good days when something seems to stick are rewarding, but looking at the whole picture is daunting to say the least. And Spanish has a structure and rules that really are light years from English norms.
  • Like most big cities, there is a wide range of flats to rent here in Barcelona. You can get a reasonably-sized place right in the heart of the city for as little as 700 or 800 Euros, or spends thousands on a more modern place with extra size. In the US, price is often all about size, but that’s not necessarily true here. There are a lot of older apartments that are quite large but not that expensive, mainly because they have not been updated. Plus, size can be deceiving based on how it’s used. I saw a listing for an apartment that was more than 2000 square feet, so quite large, but it had seven bedrooms, so clearly the rooms were about the size of a closet. Any child older than five probably couldn’t fit in half of them. Finding a place that has been modernized is a challenge and usually comes with a price tag. It adds up to lots of balancing of the wants and needs.
  • The biggest soccer (futbol) club in Barcelona is the world famous FC Barcelona. Fans of the team are nicknamed culés, which is the Catalan word for “asses.” The name harks back to the days of the team’s old stadium, which was so small and low that some fans would sit on the edge of it, allowing people walking by to see a row of behinds hanging over during games. Funny what sticks with people. As one of the most famous and successful clubs in the world, FC Barcelona brings in annual revenue in excess of $600 million, but it has actually been badly saddled with debt until new management got a handle on things starting about five years ago. Huge player salaries and transfer fees in the millions were definitely taking a toll. Recent profits have helped drop the debt below $300 million.
  • It seems ironic that Barcelona has lots of yellow-vested police wandering the sidestreets writing parking tickets, yet the locals think nothing of parking wherever need be. You gotta pay attention walking down the sidewalk or ending up on somebody’s front bumper or astride a passing motorcycle is completely possible. They take sharing the sidewalk to a new high.
  • In many restaurants here, the menu of the day (menu del dia) is quite a value, even though it tends to be more than I typically would want at lunch. It usually consists of a starter, main course, bread, drink and dessert or coffee for around 10 to 12 Euros. There’s no difference in price whether you want water or wine as the drink. Alternatively, opting for the famous Spanish tapas can turn into a pricey option. Two people ordering four or five tapas and a drink can easily be 40 Euros, and not even be that filling. It’s kind of a mismatch that I don’t quite understand.
  • Historically, tapas were small dishes that bars would hand out free to those drinking. The norm was a small plate for each drink ordered. That’s quite a neighborly tradition. It’s not very common at this point in Barcelona, but I hear it is still in place in some southern parts of Spain.
  • Coming from the US where liquor is the key profit driver in most restaurants, it’s strange to see the opposite here. Beer or wine is the same price as water and might even be less than a Coke. The other day in a supermarket, I spotted a four-pack of wine for 4 Euros (and no, I didn’t buy it). More remarkable is the reality that a 3 Euro bottle of wine is actually pretty good and not the headache-inducing swill that you might expect from the price. I’m at a loss how there’s any profit built into a 4-pack of wine for 4 Euros. And considering a glass of wine or beer at lunch is also the norm here, also at a loss how more of the locals are not lushes.
  • I have a new entry into the brand name hall of fame. It’s crowded territory here with honors already going to SMEG for an oven, Candy for a microwave and WASH ME for laundry soap, but I can’t resist adding this entry from Peugeot. I just spotted a Bipper on the street. Who wouldn’t want to own a car called a Bipper?
  • Not sure if it’s just an old building legacy thing or not, but I noticed that the toilets here use remarkably large waste pipes, far bigger than North American standards. Maybe not the nicest image as we near dinner time, but I’m pretty sure I could flush a rotisserie chicken down that thing without plugging it up. Put that in the good to know file.
  • If anyone asks the core reason why we moved to Spain, the logic that always springs to mind is not solely about Spain. There are few things I enjoy more than being outside, in the city, surrounded by history and interesting sights, and knowing that a different food or cultural experience is just steps away. Really, that’s the center point of all travel for me and the reason I have gone to so many places. Now, I get to have that sensation almost anytime I step out the front door. It makes me feel very fortunate.

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One Great Leap for Mankind

Technology really is the best thing since sliced bread. It’s a huge part of our daily existence. Can you imagine how different life would be without cellphones and the internet and wireless communications? If you screamed yes, you might want to look into buying that cabin 12 miles into the woods and packing up. For the rest of us, the answer is no, because when these technologies work, they connect us and open doors to making life easier.

But there is a flipside. When the technology we rely on suddenly stops working, or doesn’t do what we’re expecting, it’s crippling. The fix is rarely easy, because the problem is probably embedded within circuits or software that few of us comprehend. Even the people who service the technology usually have no idea why something isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing – but they will go through 27 steps with you that likely won’t solve the issue but will ratchet up your frustration to an 11. Have I piqued a memory yet? Thought so.

With our move to Spain, technology has been one of the biggest saving graces, but also the creator of a few moments where tossing the nearest electronic item out the window could be viewed as reasonable. I related previously the story of trying to get a second router up and running to access Netflix. It was the closest thing to a battle to the death that we are likely to face in our urban world, and I only won in the end by abandoning the second router and opting for another solution. Sometimes, that’s the best answer for technology – put it back in the box.

With a solution now in place, it’s easy to take for granted that we can not only access relatively recent movies via Netflix while residing on another continent, but that we can pick and choose what we want to watch, when we want to watch it. Just controlling the timing of our viewing was a pipe dream only a few years ago. Now, the youngest generation has trouble understanding how it was possible to not have such control.

But it’s not just about entertainment. Small innovations like being able to access accounts such as utilities and banks online make managing things from afar simple. We don’t need to be there in person very often, and that’s a huge win since dealing with front line staff can often end up more likely to end in an error than self service.

Our phone service is another thing that is remarkable. We established a Vonage account before we left, first moving one cell number over and then the second. By plugging the Vonage box into our router in Spain and connecting a phone, we now have a line that essentially believes it’s still in the US. Even more remarkable, by forwarding calls on my old cell line, I now receive calls on my mobile in Spain. Callers have no idea that I’m actually 4,000 miles away. The one downside is the occasional call that comes at two in the morning thanks to the time difference, but I can live with that.

If this all sounds pretty slick, it is. The technology does exactly what it’s supposed to do. My one complaint, similar to the experiences I had with Verizon, is not about the technology that works so well, but about the people behind it. Vonage is proving to be a company with great technology and nightmarish billing.

After moving the second line over, I discovered some extra charges on the bill. When I queried them on this, they said it would be corrected via a credit. Great, I thought. But when I looked at later bills, the credit didn’t seem to be applying. After two more contacts, they finally admitted that to give the credit, they changed my plan, resulting in a change of rate that caused half the credit to disappear. This was done without any mention. I was astounded. It was one of the most unethical things I’d seen a company do in some time. And exactly like the billing games that make Verizon so disliked.

These are the type of practices that result in people shying away from adopting technology. Customer service is weaker in the U.S. than in many other western countries, and the U.S. lags in technology adoption compared to these nations. The correlation is rather obvious. It’s a shame that companies choose to do business in a less than above board fashion. Maybe even a greater shame that consumers take it, don’t push for better standards or vote with their wallets more actively. The airline industry’s atrocious service standards are the best example. They prove every day that you can abuse people repeatedly and they will still keep coming back for more.

If tech firms spent a few dollars on the people-side of the equation, I’d venture a guess that both sides would win. And while they’re making an investment, can we also get one helpful tweak to the technology. If they really want to make it better, it should come with a warning signal, such as a display that says, “This unit will randomly stop working on Tuesday at 1:47 p.m. for no apparent reason, at the exact moment when you need to use it most.” It’d be safer for all of us if I can plan when I’m going to toss it out the window.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Adding to the earlier lists of unusual festivals here, there are also countless odd superstitions. For example, the Spanish have no issue with Friday the 13th, but if the 13th falls on a Tuesday, look out. And if you spill wine on the table, you’re supposed to dip a finger in it and touch it to your forehead. Maybe that’s not a big ask, but it seems like the bar will look like a measles outbreak by about 3 a.m…

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Living Life to the Fullest. Coat and Scarf Required

As another week comes to a close, let me relate a few random thoughts that have been rattling around in my head about the locals and Spain.

One of the stereotypes of Spain is that the residents know how to live life to the fullest, but it is true in a lot of ways. For example, they definitely aim to maximize the day, often rising around seven in the morning and still going strong when they sit down for dinner at 10 in the evening. To give you a sense of the mentality, my former Spanish teacher expressed surprise and asked me why I was going to bed so early at midnight. Sleep is not high on the agenda here.

This zest for life is even more apparent now that the weather is cooling off. Although we have had a number of days where it reaches 60 degrees in the afternoon, it’s quite chilly early in the morning and when the sun starts to sink. Most restaurants ignore the weather and still fill the sidewalks with patio chairs every day, soon followed by the locals rolling in to enjoy a beer, coffee or a meal outside despite the temperature dipping below 50. Weather is no reason not to enjoy the outdoors!

What makes all this time spent in restaurants even more remarkable is the income stats here. Meals and drinks are not cheap, but the minimum wage is just 654 Euros a month (with the recent shift in exchange rates, that’s only about $750 per month), and the average salary is just 1,324 Euros a month. The 23% unemployment rate definitely drags the average down, but it’s still true that about 45% of the workforce is making less than 1,000 Euros per month.

It truly is a mystery to me how Spain is such a happy and tranquil country when so many people have to be struggling. Some of the locals talk about the thriving underground economy and the fact that many “unemployed” are really working under the table or in family businesses, but even considering this, it wouldn’t be shocking to see rioting in the streets or rampant crime. But instead of greater desperation, like most western countries, crime continues to decrease here. For the year 2013, there were barely 300 murders in all of Spain. That’s less than just the individual cities of Chicago, New York or Detroit.

Not to bore you, but let me quote a couple of other stats that got my attention. The average age of a first-time mother here is 32, the highest in Europe, and automobile sales climbed 18% in 2013, but were still only half of the pre-crisis total from 2007. This is clearly a country still going through a lot of economic change.

Not to harp on it, but food remains the runaway number one biggest challenge here, at least for me. And I’m not talking about it being a different menu. In fact, the quality of the food has been great. Meat and fish are fresh and largely not industrial farmed. The pork is tender and light years better than the grayish version typically found off a U.S. farm. Fruit and veggies are a bit of a mixed bag based on the season, but the quality is good. There’s a real lack of some things like berries and corn on the cob because they are not a common part of the Spanish diet, but that’s not a deal-breaker.

No, the real challenge remains timing. Getting lunch at noon or dinner before 8:30 is almost impossible, and that doesn’t always jive with a five-year-old’s schedule. I’ve come to realize that the first rule of living here is never leave the house hungry. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a recipe for disaster.

We tried a new trick to thwart the odd hours yesterday, having a late breakfast, then hitting a restaurant as part of the main lunch crowd. By lunch, I mean around 3:30. We made this the big meal of the day and it worked out not too bad. I can see us repeating that routine to stave off starvation.

Restaurants are a great example of the relaxed pace of work here. It’s almost comical sometimes to stand back and observe the flow. I’m not saying the Spanish don’t work hard, cause many of them do put in long hours, but some basic practices of efficiency that are second nature in North America are not in evidence here. In a coffee shop or restaurant, for example, if you order two items (sometimes even two of the same item), it’s almost inevitable that servers will make two trips and bring them separately. If I plotted the most efficient path to get a few things done behind the counter and then stood back and observed the Spanish, I’d likely view the extra opposite. I tried this experiment and it’s true. It’s almost instinctual. Maybe it’s one of those cultural things that will become much clearer to us in time.

But let me counter any thought that everything here moves in slow motion. Oh no. When it comes to buses and the metro, I think they import Germans to take the wheel. As soon as the last person steps through the door of a bus, the driver is goosing the gas pedal as if the winning ticket for El Gordo is waiting for him at the end of the line. It doesn’t matter who has or hasn’t found a seat, or how many seniors are toddling in the aisle, the bus is full speed to the next stop with no delay. The upside is the buses are very reliable and come by often. The downside is pinballing off the metal posts inside the bus at some point seems inevitable. I have to hand it to the local seniors. Some seem barely stable enough to stand upright, cane in hand, but they still have mastered a feet-spread stance to stay planted on the bus.

Speaking of banging into poles, the tearful reaction of a certain five-year-old has me strictly forbidden to speak of it aloud, but our recent road trip was punctuated with quite a colorful moment. We were walking down the street after visiting a Roman ruin when I suddenly heard a loud and unexpected “bong” sound behind me. Turning, it became apparent that a certain young man had chosen to ignore the advice that pulling his hood down over his face while walking was not a good idea. As it turns out, Spanish light poles emit quite a musical sound when you run into them – not that I’m suggesting trying it. Liam would definitely advise against it.

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Pack Up the Puddle-Jumper

We started off the new year with a road trip taking us almost four hours south down the coast, through the historic city of Tarragona to the port of Valencia. In case that doesn’t ring a bell, Valencia is famous for oranges. In fact, orange trees litter the landscape in these parts, literally.

Getting around in Spain by road, at least in our experiences so far, is remarkably easy. The main highways are modern, wide and direct. If not for one key downside, I would call them ideal. To traverse about 225 miles to Valencia, the tolls mounted up to about $50. Double that to cover the return trip and it equals a cheap airline ticket. No wonder the roads are in such good shape.

Although they are a rather stoic bunch, my new best friends at Firefly rent-a-car again fixed us up with cheap wheels for our trip, and we again maximized the use of our little puddle-jumper over six days with travel, errands and stocking up on enough jugs of water to re-hydrate a herd of camels. The 62 Euros for the car was a bargain, even when adding in the 60-Euro cost of gas. I still don’t get how the math works on this, but I’ll take a deal when I can get it.

The first leg of our trip took us an hour south to the town of Tarragona. Some believe Tarragona was first established nearly 4,500 years ago, but it’s most known for Roman ruins dating back around 2,000 years. The central old town is dotted with ruiDSC_0483ns including an amphitheater and a circus. But just a couple of miles outside Tarragona is the most impressive site, a Roman aqueduct in a remarkable state of preservation. It spans a valley more than 800 feet wide and is over 85 feet high. It’s a little surreal to be able to walk across something built more than two millennia ago.

Tarragona is a charming town of about 135,000 residents. It has a beachfront, but the old town sits above this on a hill. It has a particular feel, mixing the same old world appeal of Barcelona with a smaller town comfort. We had a surprisingly good meal here in a restaurant that looked more like a tourist trap. It was even a pleasant surprise to find a space in the parking garage wide enough for an actual car (not to harp on parking, but it really is more of a challenge than the driving part!). All in all, Tarragona is tempting to consider as a nice place to live.

From Tarragona, we headed south to Valencia. Although it shares Barcelona’s designation as a major port, that’s where the similarities end. Valencia has a more modern feel with wider streets and taller buildings. It’s much more car centric with a limited metro, meaning traffic is challenging. I could see some of the typical stresses of city life being more prevalent here.

First on the agenda was the City of Arts & Sciences, which is an impressive complex with an aquarium, museum and other attractions. The museDSC_0507um is very hands-on with interactive displays. Liam sat in on a science workshop and came out proudly displaying the transformation of simple ingredients into a cup of yellow goop. We were thankful at the short memory of a five-year-old that allowed the oozing goop to quietly disappear into a waste can shortly after the workshop.

Liam and I also went on a space mission, including being strapped into rocket seats and feeling the effect of being shot into space. For a simulator, it was pretty well done. This was followed by a stop to see the dolphins, whales and sea lions at the aquarium.

We moved into the heart of the old town for our last night in Valencia, just in time for a major Spanish celebration, El Día de los Reyes, or three kings day. For many Spaniards, this holiday is bigger than Christmas for gift-giving, especially for the kids.

One key focus of the festivities is a parade where candy is tossed out to all the small fry. We approached the parade route about 45 minutes before the scheduled start to already find it three people deep. Fortunately, kids are short so the view was still pretty good. By the time the first floats showed up, the route was lined nearly 10 people deep. The Valencians were out in force.

Every kid in sight immediately started losing his/her mind as the first floats approached and the first candy was tossed. I quickly realized that most of the cars, trucks and floats in the parade were filled with more kids tossing out the goods. This wouldn’t be worth mentioning until you consider how young children throw. Instead of the adult version of gentle tosses into the crowd, this instead was full-on, straight-ahead, I’m-going-to-bounce-the-hard-mint-off-your-forehead kind-of chucking. I lost count of how many times I got beaned somewhere around a dozen. If my Spanish was good enough to read the next day’s paper, I’m sure it was filled with enough accidental woundings to make the local insurance agents look for a new career.DSC_0577

The parade went on for about two hours with an unreal menagerie moving past us, from huge floats tossing plastic futbols to elaborate thrones for the kings to belly-dancers to just about every animal found on local farms – even a loose flock of ducks waddling past. It was quite the spectacle. The Spanish truly have the market cornered on fiestas.

The three DSC_0522kings experience was pretty tough to top, but we did take time to see a few more of the city’s sites, including the cathedral, plaza of the virgin, the central market and the main square with its impressive fountains and architecture. We sampled a local specialty drink called Horchata made of tigernuts and tasting like almond milk. And the final highlight was stumbling upon a truly local Spanish restaurant for dinner that was both great and a bargain – the perfect combination.

Just four hours and 42 Euros later the next day and we were back in Barcelona with another adventure in the books. Spain is proving to be a terrific place for road trips. That’s one American import I didn’t foresee when we headed across the pond, but certainly has been a great surprise.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: It’s starting to occur to me that Spain may be the world capital of odd festivals. The running of the bulls in Pamplona is well known, and also pretty famous is the crazy La Tomatina festival near Valencia that has to be the world’s biggest food fight. Now I can add to the list El Calocho, a nearly 400-year-old annual event where men in devil costumes jump over babies in the street. The act is supposed to give the babies a happy and safe life by cleansing their spirits. Need I say more…

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