Monthly Archives: March 2015

No Training Required

I think I’m safe in saying we’re all had that moment. The moment of waking up one day, opening your eyes, stretching and for whatever reason it suddenly hitting you, “Holy crap, I’m somebody’s parent.” Beyond the obvious, it feels like a bit of a mystery how that happened. Did our parents go through this?

When you think about it, what a daunting task it is to hold the shaping of another human being in your hands. If we all thought about it too often, I’m sure we’d half crippled at the idea of how easy we could mess this job up. Calculus was a piece of cake compared to the equation of molding this giggling little pink person into a fully functioning adult. It’s not like the training program for this role is particularly robust.

Let’s add up just what preparation was provided. How do we get ready to be parents? Hmmm. As a young boy, I was consumed by toy cars and trying to figure out if should I be in the Girls Are Stinky or the Who Cares About Girls camps. The early teenage years arrived and suddenly girls didn’t smell that bad, but figuring out how they were different was damn confusing. This was soon to be followed in the later teen years with an intense interest in knowing a little more about those differences, but not having much of a clue on how to go about it. Look up the word clumsy in the dictionary and there’s a picture of every teenage boy ever born (It’s a thick book).

So far, the training program looks like it could use some polishing.

Then came the 20s, which was like one of those blazingly fast, scare the pants off you Driver’s Education movies as life became a collision of changing cities, changing jobs, new friends, old friends, good roommates, bad roommates, the weird guy with the thing on his neck, the purple hair chick, don’t tell your parents about that time with the cops, getting drunk in Prague, being broke but happy and maybe meeting the love of your life (or maybe not). Did we learn anything about parenting yet? It’s all a blur.

And even as life started to stabilize as our 30s dawned, the parenting training still didn’t appear anywhere on our busy schedules. Google parenting manual and it comes up with a one-page book and just contains the words, Wing It! Okay, maybe the words are Do Your Best, but you get the idea. It’s a learn by doing kind of career. Dive in with both feet and hope there’s a bottom.

So after all this helpful preparation, it’s no wonder there’s the occasional day when you wake to a slight panic. This is the greatest responsibility we have in our entire lives, so where does the ability to get through it come from? To be blunt, I have no idea. Please tell me if you figure it out.

At an event for my son’s school the other night, they played a very moving video. It was bursting with great images that every parent loves; kids jumping, bouncing and playing with abandon as only kids do. A popular song set an upbeat tone for the fun (and I have to embarrassingly admit it took me a few minutes to name that tune. That never happened before I was a parent!). The message was dead-on and relevant, be self-confident and don’t let the misguided negativity of others stop you from being yourself. Not a single parent in the room didn’t feel at least a little tug of the heart at the images.

The thought of our kids happy and well-adjusted makes even the gruffest parent smile. We all share that soft spot. We strive to teach them how to be happy and well-adjusted, which makes it even more ironic that my little guy has taught me as many lessons since his arrival as I’ve taught him. A child’s ability to see things in the most basic, and most literal terms, is one of the things that makes them so special.

While dealing with some paperwork online recently, I made the offhand comment that I didn’t understand why the government insisted on having us fill out so many forms that nobody reads. I should have known that one would be stored in the memory banks. A week later, Liam prompts me with, “Daddy, would you rather fill out government forms that no one reads or help me build Lego now.” If there’s a parent out there who knows how to sidestep that trap, you’re a better man than I. In case you’re wondering, my new Lego airplane is a mix of red, green and blue.

Kids excel at living in the moment, or maybe it’s better said that they live the moment. Sometimes, that’s painful as we watch a little scrape on the knee turn into a catastrophe equal to a four-alarm blaze. But other times it’s a great lesson in stopping, watching and enjoying. There was a day, a long time ago, when we were also awestruck by a rainbow, or couldn’t stop giggling while jumping in a puddle. Okay, I might have been involved in a giggling over a puddle incident at 3 a.m. once, but that’s a different story.

So I’m still rather unsure how in a blink of an eye I went from being the cocky 20-year-old intent on owning the world to being the wide-eyed parent of a wide-eyed 5-year-old, but this is the path that life takes us on. And oh, what a journey it has been. No training required.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: There are few corporations I have as much respect for as Starbucks. The respect has zero to do with the product, which certainly isn’t saving the world, but has everything to do with the praise they deserve for innovating programs such as college courses for staff. The Race Together campaign launched recently obviously did not go exactly as hoped, and probably did suffer from being positioned a little awkwardly. That said, I still give them high praise for having the guts to try and start the dialogue. How much better the end result could have been had critics focused on the many corporations doing jack squat to improve their communities, instead of the one attempting to be on the forefront…

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A Little Taste of Portugal

I’ve long had a fondness for Portugal. I include it in that ring of southern Europe countries like Spain and Greece that offer laidback lifestyles and budget-friendly travel. In Portugal’s case, I’d add that it’s also easy to love the diet, which is rich in simple comfort foods and my favorite wine.

When my wife’s sister mentioned she would be in Portugal, we jumped at the chance for a little family time and opportunity to cross over to our nearest neighbor to the west. Cheap flights didn’t hurt the case either.DSC_0942

Today, Porto is the country’s second largest city and still a big draw for visitors. The historic heart of the city includes structures such as the Se cathedral that dates all the way back to 1110. The Roman history harks back to the 4th century, and thanks to a simple twist of conflicting languages, it’s believed that the country’s name was given birth during this time. The years to follow would be marked by a Moorish invasion, rampaging Frenchmen and the creation of a military alliance with England in the late 13oos that is said to be the oldest accord in history. Prince Henry the Navigator sailed from here as Portugal began its golden age of the sea exploration. The English influence that drove growth in the Port wine industry was soon to follow.

All these centuries later, the key Port producers still maintain their cellars directly across the river from Porto’s historic center, storing wines that can date back more than 100 years and carefully mixing vintages to create an outstanding product. The original British names of many of the firms still remain today, and some are still owned by the same family lineage.

During our time here, we had a chance to visit two of the famous cellars, Taylor’s and Graham’s. Port tastings have become rather pricey, but I highDSC_0920ly recommend the experience of getting down into the cellars, drinking in the warm, musty smell of the aging wine and seeing the endless stacks of oak barrels. In our age of high technology and industrialization, proven old world methods still dominate these underground vaults.

And yes, the trip did mean checking luggage on the way home as a couple of prized new bottles made the journey with us.

Porto is sometimes called the city of bridges and has a colorful history in this area as well. The first bridge opened in 1806, only to collapse in the city’s greatest tragedy just three years later when locals surged across it to escape invading French forces. The city’s first railway bridge was designed by Gustave Eiffel, famous for the tower that bears his name in Paris. Today, there are six bridges connecting Porto to the neighboring Vila Nova de Gaia. It’s a nice float down the river to sail under each of them.

Although it isn’t suffering Greece’s troubled fate, Portugal has still been hit hard by the economic meltdown. In Porto, this is reflected in the deteriorating condition of some of the older buildings in the historic district. It’s sad to see. That said, the Portuguese remain upbeat and welcoming to visitors. There’s no evidence of the stoic attitude that sometimes permeates places popular with tourists. The Portuguese are a warm people who genuinely seem glad to see you.DSC_0967

We didn’t get a chance to venture beyond the city in this short trip, but some of the towns around Porto sound well worthy of time spent. The history is deep and the cuisine is simple, hearty and tasty. The most famous local dish is the francesinha, a weighty concoction of ham, sausage, bread, a mound of cheese and gravy that could otherwise be used to hold down a tarp in a severe windstorm. Finishing it is not for the feint of heart.

For us, as always, keeping a five-year-old engaged is half the challenge of any day away. Liam’s verdict on Porto was a positive one, greased a little by a couple of good desserts and menus that make it easy for him to find something to his liking. Like his parents, he never seems to tire of seeing the markets teeming with fresh fish and colorful fruits. And a tuk-tuk tour around town has proven to be one of his favorite diversions. Porto is not overly laden with kid activities, but it still keeps them occupied. Knowing that a new Lego set was waiting for him from his favorite aunt probably had a lot to do with it, also.

With my craving for a good grilled sardine and nice glass of Port sated, this was another fine venture to the land of Portugal. It’s tough to go wrong here.DSC_0854

RANDOM THOUGHTS: I’m curious what the reason may be, but an onslaught of scam emails from Africa have been arriving lately. According to these, I’m the lucky recipient of so many millions of dollars in free money that I could balance the books of half a dozen countries. Seriously, does anyone really still fall for these?… Adding to the long list of holidays here, yesterday was Father’s Day (Dia del Padre). In some southern parts of the country, it’s official enough for work to stop. That sounded like a good idea, so I skipped work. Not much of a stretch, but why not…

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Could a Life in Spain Be for You? Here’s 10 Things to Expect

Is a move to another country such as Spain for you? When faced with such a weighty question, an equally weighty and in-depth answer seems appropriate. But in this era of sound bites and instant gratification, such real analysis is saved for the truly important events, like March Madness. After all, this is a society that welcomed a service limiting a video to a mere six seconds. Beyond “I Love You” and, well, the profane exact opposite of I love you, what words or images can truly make an impact in six seconds? Giggling babies and crotch shots end up the order of the day.

So while I hate to pander to the masses, I’m going to succumb partially and boil down the experience of moving to Spain into a top 10 list of things to expect, for good or for bad, depending on the day. This is just a glimpse into what we have experienced as part of our sabbatical to Spain, but it may help in your decision-making if you contemplate packing up the house, kids and schnauzer and getting on a plane. Are you built for life in Spain? Well, read on and see.

  1. As we embarked on gathering the necessary paperwork for the move, my favorite instruction from a Spanish immigration official was, “Just show up.” With a knowing shrug, immigration people will promise this simplicity. This is a lie. A pinocchio growing a redwood for a nose kind of lie. A lie the size of I didn’t have sexual relations with that women, we know there are weapons of mass destruction and the check’s in the mail all rolled into one. In other words, a lulu. There’s a reason why wine is so cheap here, and it has a direct correlation to dealing with the Spanish immigration department.
  2. After an evening featuring a three-hour dinner, drinks and music, you will finally get to drag yourself home to bed at 2 a.m., only to be stopped by your Spanish host with apologies that the night ended so early. I haven’t found the right dictionary yet, but I think Spaniard actually translates to vampire. Sleep is definitely not a priority.airplane
  3. If you imagine surrounding yourself with glamorous and chic Europeans and a jetset lifestyle, well think again. True, it will soon seem normal when a guy in pink slacks walks by, but beyond that the expat life centers on gravitating towards other expats. Simply put, being able to re-hash the weather, traffic and sports in English is comforting. Of course, you can take the leap and liberally pastel up your wardrobe with no worry of being accepted, if you wish.
  4. When meeting new people, be prepared for them to often get a wistful look in their eyes upon learning you’re from America. Many things American are idolized, meaning clothing stores overflow with shirts boasting of Brooklyn and locals open up “authentic” burger joints that look straight off the set of Happy Days. Some days, I need to get out an atlas and double-check where I am.
  5. Balancing out these locals who want to visit or even move to America are an equal number of Spanish bureaucrats who want nothing to do with Americans and seem intent on finding a place for a big red NO stamp somewhere on your paperwork. The look in their eyes is more reminiscent of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. How do you say “are you feeling lucky” in Spanish?
  6. Your new Spanish skills will make the locals laugh, but don’t be thin-skinned. You will get words wrong on a regular basis, often with comical consequences. Emphasize the wrong syllable when saying year and you will end up talking about someone’s bum. Just hope you didn’t use the word widespread in the same sentence and move on. It happens.
  7. Accept that the main purpose of the Spanish bureaucracy is to generate appointments. Somewhere, a Spaniard is very rich from manufacturing those little take a number machines. When dealing with bureaucrats, bring every possible paper with you. When it strikes you that they couldn’t possibly want a copy of “that,” bring “that” along, too. Then keep your schedule open the following week for an appointment to present “that, the sequel.”
  8. Moving to Spain is a way to live out your midlife crisis via paella and travel. This solution is a lot less embarrassing than a Porsche and a tummy tuck. Just saying.
  9. When you pull up a website for a Spanish business, take the information with a grain of salt. It’s 50/50 if they have posted the right items, prices, hours or even address. In fact, things will go much smoother if you assume a second trip will be necessary every time you leave home. These slightly lower expectations are the key to the reduced stress of the Mediterranean lifestyle. Embrace it.
  10. In August, Spain hangs out a sign that says, we’re not home. Deal with it.

Our experiences aside, moving to a new country isn’t an issue to take lightly. Is it hard? Absolutely. Will it be unsettling? No question. There will be days when literally banging your head against a wall will seem like a reasonable solution. (Tip: Resist the temptation. They use a lot of tile on the walls here.)

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 countries was hard. But not one of these risks turned out to be a bad decision. As much as we are all resistant to the change that is inherent in taking a risk, it’s actually the engine that drives us forward.

Risk really does add up to reward. I have some friends who are far more comfortable jumping off that cliff than I am (some literally), and it’s led to some remarkable successes. Plus, some epic failures. What it hasn’t led to is regret.

The potential for a life-changing failure is a compelling reason to avoid a risk that could lead to a life-changing success. For every reason to take the leap, there’s an equally valid reason to not. I tallied up those reasons at every step in our process of moving to Spain. The little voice in the back of my head kept asking why I was volunteering to leave a comfortable life behind. The voice starts to get awfully loud when you realize the leap is not just about you, but also your family, especially that little guy who puts all his faith and trust in you.

Put money and career and comfort aside and kids are the most compelling reason not to take the risk. But I’d argue they are also the biggest reason to go forward because of what they may gain and the message it sends to them. If they really are destined to be a mini me of us, then teaching them to live a life less ordinary is a pretty big gift to give. That’s the reflection I want to see coming back at me in those big, brown eyes.

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With the Little Things, Size Does Matter

The old cliché suggests that little things mean a lot. When moving to a new country, I’d amend that to suggest that little victories mean a lot.

The thought of packing up one’s life, uprooting and re-establishing in a completely foreign place with no network is pretty daunting. Chopping the process down to smaller chunks makes it a lot easier to digest with less heartburn. Take care of all the little things, chalk up small victories, and the big things start to fall into place rather nicely.

Last week turned into one of those periods where the little victories started to add up, pushing the scales into the positive for the week. You can never predict when one of these nice streaks will occur. It just ends up being a pleasant surprise on life’s journey.

Not many parents would look forward to hauling their offspring down to the police station, but it was with great anticipation that I packed Liam up and set off last week to collect his official residency card. It was the biggest victory of the week, because it marked the end of the long process of getting all our paperwork in place. Gaining residency here was supposed to be fairly simple, but we had read enough horror stories online to know it can go south very easily. I didn’t want to be like one Brit and end up visiting the same office 17 times before finally attaining the rubber stamp.

The fact it took us more than six months to wrap up the process is half on us and half on the process. Despite a recommendation, we picked the wrong firm to assist in the process. If I translated their name into English, I’m pretty sure it would come out as Keystone Kops immigration. They literally made a poor decision at every step in the process, eventually forcing us to get someone more qualified involved to finish things up.

The other half of the slowdown is just the nature of the Spanish bureaucracy. There are rules on what is needed and how the process works, but they are a tad loose. The net result is ending up at the whim, or more likely the mood, of whatever bureaucrat you encounter at each step of the process. The first time we tried to collect Liam’s identity card, we got within four feet of it, only to be told it wouldn’t be handed over without him in attendance, which was the exact opposite of what the previous immigration official told us. The first rule of the process is, whatever you could possibly imagine needing in your wildest dreams, bring it. In triplicate. And a note from your mother.

So Liam has an official identity card adorned with his name and devilish grin. He thinks it’s kind of cool now, but I think it will turn into one of his favorite keepsakes years from now because it is the first official document with his signature. At the previous step in the process, we talked the immigration official into letting him put his big letter scrawl in the signature box and, lo and behold, the name now appears across the bottom of his card. If I sound proud, I am.

Reaching the end of that long road was a great way to start the week, but there were more good surprises in store. Next up, I decided to try my luck at a local pharmacy that promised English-speaking help, marching out an aging US prescription and promptly had it filled with no problem – all at a fraction of the cost in the US. I was more than a little surprised at the ease, but definitely happy with the trend that was developing.

I followed this up by tracking down a local barber recommended by some fellow expats. It was just a hole-in-the-wall shop, but, seriously, does my steadily-depleting head fur really need a salon? Thirty minutes and one hell of a vigorous head massage later, I was out the door with the best haircut €5 can buy. I was checking off the to-do list like a madman!

I didn’t want the streak to end, but I knew it was in serious danger thanks to the next entry on my list. Nothing can bring a good week to a crashing halt better than the DMV, no matter the country. I had managed to ascertain after our road trip last month that I did get nailed by a traffic camera somewhere along the way, but the rental car company wasn’t playing nice and providing any details.

As I entered the Spanish license bureau, known as Trafico, I was struck by an immediate sense of deju vu. Does every DMV across the globe buy paint from the same supplier, or is it just a coincidence that Blah Gray #157 appears on the wall of every location?

Like most official offices here, there’s no entry without the consent of the security guard. I mustered up my limited Spanish and started to pose my question, only to be immediately cut off with a series of questions. I think he was speaking Catalan, but I can’t swear to it since I literally didn’t catch a single word. My Spanish sucks, but, this was definitely a bad sign. He then shrugged and led me over to stand as the sole occupant of a line, right beside another line of nearly 30 people. This was an interesting development. Was I taking a great leap forward or been deposited in the hopeless line? Time would tell.

After another robust round of rampant confusion at the counter, I was rewarded with a number. In some ways, a little slip of paper with a number on it is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow here. It may mean you are close to talking to the right person, or maybe just that a very long wait has begun. Regardless, I was taking it as progress.

When my number was called, I again verbally assaulted the Spanish language trying to convey that I needed to obtain a copy of a traffic fine. Remarkably, the slightly-amused clerk understood me and immediately responded, “Donde,” as in where did the offence occur. I had but a moment to bask in the glory of getting my question across, before it dawned on me that I now had to figure out how to explain that I had no idea where the offence occurred. It was a case of I think I did it, but I have no clue where I did it. This was like living a Seinfeld episode. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In the end, I’m happy to report that I walked out with a copy of the fine and the ability to settle this small debt to Spanish society. I had done battle with the Spanish DMV and emerged victorious. Maybe I should have run out and tried my luck on the Spanish lottery, because this was one for the books.

All these moments were only small victories, but they added up to so much more. With each little win, our comfort level with Spain raises a tad higher. All the little things really do make a difference.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: The phone jacks in our apartment are a bit of a mystery. We do have a landline, but so far have only succeeded in making it work by plugging the phone directly into the router. The jacks, on the other hand, seem to be quasi-live but to a different phone line. There’s also a mysterious box on the wall that has rung a couple of times, but isn’t connected to any handset. Liam already dreams of being a superhero, I might have to tell him we have a hidden bat phone. Who knows what will happen next…

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