Monthly Archives: April 2015

Going for a Putt-Putt in a Tuk-Tuk

Our time in Barcelona has been marked by doing things that we would do rarely or not at all in the US. The very urban environment has meant walking and hopping on local transit, not climbing in a car everyday for an errand big or small. It’s an adjustment definitely, but at times kind of exhilarating. And a different world from the left side of the Atlantic.

We chalked up one more entry on that list recently with an all-day excursion via tuk-tuk. For those not initiated into the cult of tuk-tuk, they are a small, usually three-wheeled vehicle with a rather comical look, but are a highly-efficient mode of transport. They are common (and famous) in a big chunk of Asia, but have also started to catch on as a tourist diversion in places such as Barcelona. I spotted a rental special in Barcelona and thought, why not. No doubt, this makes the list of things we wouldn’t do in the US, but hell, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

Climbing into my new ride in the morning, the first thing that struck me was that small is an apt term for the tuk-tuk. Although theseIMG_1426 particular electric tuk-tuks are built in Sweden, they obviously still have the typical Asian frame in mind. Folding my North American-styled bulk into the cockpit felt about as comfortable as the middle seat in row 47 on just about any airplane today – with the added bonus of my noggin rubbing up against the ceiling.

The second thought to immediately strike me as we set off in our shiny new wheels (all three of them!) was that we seemed to be garnering a great deal of attention. Pedestrians, other drivers, office workers, tourists, delivery guys – these was a lot of gawking going on. As it turns out, the tuk-tuk is still a point of fascination on the roadways. In fact, late in the day, we drove by one youngster who let out an explosion of excitement running down the sidewalk that I’m sure his mother took him home for some fresh laundry afterward. From the reaction, you would have thought Emmit from The Lego Movie had appeared, was singing Everything is Awesome and passing out free toys in the middle of the street.

We had our day with the tuk-tuk all plotted out with a balance of touring around and errands. But just where do you go first with a Swedish-built tuk-tuk? Why, Ikea, of course. Meatballs and undersized electric cars aren’t the only things the Swedes know how to build!

There’s a bit of a learning curve to driving a tuk-tuk, starting with the fact that the controls are all on the handlebars instead of having pedals. In short order, my feet were dying of boredom while my hands were wondering what this was all about. I’d crank the throttle all the way open and the tuk-tuk accelerated fairly quickly up to about 40 kilometers per hour, but from there it doesn’t really have the meatballs to get too much higher.

Thanks to the common lack of clear signs in Barcelona (and all of Spain, for that matter), I suddenly found myself on the ramp to one of the main four-lane thoroughfares in the city, which is not exactly an ideal road for a “car” not much wider than a pudgy horse. I was cranking the throttle for all it was worth and watching the speedo barely sneak past 45, a steady stream of real cars sailing past in the left lane. I don’t think the tuk-tuk was too happy a camper at this moment, and it wouldn’t be the last time today.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were hard on our little tuk-tuk, but we definitely maxed out its skills on a couple of occasions. The afternoon errand to stock up on bottled water comes to mind. With the back seat topped up with 80 liters of water, our little go-getter literally crawled up the ramp from parking area with an audible electric gasp and wheeze, if that’s possible. In just the remaining seven blocks (albeit slightly uphill) back to our flat, I watched the charge gauge decline by a full 7%. Safe to say, tuk-tuks much prefer being smiling, happy small people movers than the bearers of dead weight. Maybe that’s why they haven’t caught on in the US.

The water adventure put us in the danger zone of running out of power before the end of our day. Although the range of the tuk-tuk is said to be about 50 kilometers, it was looking like we would be lucky to get 30. As we picked Liam up after his Friday swim, I mentioned we might need to get out and push this thing the last mile. The look of horror on his face pretty much sealed the fate of the tuk-tuk. If they do start selling these things here, it doesn’t look like I’ll be a buyer. My cramped toes and sore behind from the plastic seat were not too upset about it.

IMG_1419We headed back towards downtown to return the tuk-tuk and end the day’s adventure with the gauge showing the power rapidly descending into single digits. Fortunately, the many hills of Barcelona were sloping in our favor this time and I took advantage to coast and get us a little closer to the finish line. We arrived with a generous 3% charge to spare. No pushing required.

The final reviews of the tuk-tuk were mixed. Once I got used to the funky throttle and brake, it actually was a hoot to drive. The lack of doors meant it’s not so great for chilly days, and on a grocery run, you have to be careful not to send a salmon airborne by taking a turn too sharply. The biggest drawback is the reality that it is seriously overshadowed by every other car, meaning there’s always the thought in the back of your mind that you’re about to get nailed by a less attentive driver.

I’m not a full convert to the cult of the tuk-tuk just yet, but I’d recommend taking one for a spin. It’s not a bad way to waste a sunny day. And we ticked one more off the list of things we never would have done back home.

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Life is Random, and so am I

I’ve been accused of falling down lately on my blogging duties. I can’t argue too loudly against that one, but take it that it’s a positive sign of no momentously challenging events or frustrations occurring of late. Of course, there always are lots of random things floating around my head, so let me touch on a few of those this time around.

I think I discovered one interesting little cultural quirk between Spain and North America. When you order something in a store or restaurant in the US, the conversation usually ends with being asked if that’s all (or something words). This means it’s easy to get in the habit of saying yes to indicate you don’t want anything else. In Spain, the question is usually do you want anything more, meaning the typical answer is no (so opposite from the US). It’s a small difference, but one you have to wrap your head around or end up confusing the hell out of shopkeepers by also answering yes, I don’t want anything else. I think my old English teacher’s head just exploded.

The latest in the many, many holidays we have experienced here in Barcelona is Sant Jordi day (April 23), which essentially is the Catalonian version of St. Valentine’s Day. They put an interesting spin on it, with men typically presenting a rose to their wives or girlfriends and women normally giving their guys a book. I’m not sure if that’s some subtle hint for men to turn off the TV and read something or not.

There are a number of stories about the day’s origins. In fact, Sant Jordi is a patron saint across a fair chunk of Europe, but the most common tale of origin here in Catalunya is one that describes how Jordi slayed a dragon to save a princess who was being sacrificed for the good of a village. It’s believed the inclusion of giving books  honors Shakespeare (among others) who diDSC_0217ed on this day. In fact, World Book Day is celebrated at the same time in many places.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect as Sant Jordi rolled around, but it turned out to be one of the busiest celebrations of the year for the city. The main tourist thoroughfare of La Rambla was lined with stands selling flowers and books, plus tables with flowers suddenly appear in every neighborhood of the city. We went downtown to see crowds rolling in to create a jam equal to high season in July. It’s really quite remarkable.

At Liam’s school, every grade participated in an afternoon celebration with fun costumes and a little dancing. Not sure Liam quite knew what to make of holding a girl’s hand, spinning around and dancing, but it was fun nonetheless.

Liam was also front and center this week with his first speaking part in a kindergarten assembly. I figured two full sentences would be a tough thing for a youngster to remember in front of all his classmates and parents, but he breezed through it no trouble at all. It’s testament to how quickly kids learn and can assert themselves as just a few months of growing up pass. He ended the affair rightly proud of his efforts, topped only by the pride of his parents.

I know we really shouldn’t judge, and I try not to, but I have to admit that every time I see someone pull out a long selfie stick and slap on a big fake smile, the first word that comes to mind is narcissist. Just saying.

Anytime I see a story like this one (link) I have to wonder how the politicians involved even sleep at night. Really, it’s no wonder that people lack trust in politicians. To be so ethically challenged and still be able to stand up and claim you are serving your constituents, well, it’s not something I could ever do.

Of late, there’s been a couple of safety blitzes staged by the traffic police here in Spain. If the description on the ex-pat forums are to be believed, the cops will randomly pick out cars and then poke around until they can find something to ticket. The road rules are complex enough (including a laundry list of safety items that every car is supposed to have) that it’s pretty much a given they will figure out something to ticket. That’s one way to help balance the budget, I guess.


We had an expanded playdate for Liam last weekend, inviting over five of his classmates. One might say that having six kids in one apartment is also inviting trouble, but I won’t go there. It was definitely busy, and sometimes chaotic and the downstairs neighbors very well may have  developed a troubling twitch from the thump of running feet, but all-in-all it went quite well. Shirts were decorated, pictures were drawn, ice cream was eaten and nobody went home with any broken bones. If that isn’t the definition of success, I don’t know what is.

If this isn’t already an adage, I’m making it one. Life with a comfortable pair of shoes is 10 times better! That’s about my max of random for today.

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Building a Birthday Brick by Precious Brick

At least for me, the experience of parenting has always been a tug of war between the little monsters residing on each of my shoulders. The more saintly one consistently preaches the discipline and structure that kids need, while on the other shoulder the guilt monster regularly reminds me in a smug voice that I really do want to give my kid everything. Of course, the guilt monster is in the wrong, but when it comes to birthday parties for small kids, all bets are off.

With Liam rapidly hurtling toward his sixth birthday this year, and it being our first spring in Spain, we felt like something a little special was in order. The bouncy castle he so loved during past birthdays obviously was not going to fit in our apartment (and I could just imagine the conversation as I tried in my limited Spanish to describe a bouncy castle to a bewildered Spaniard), so the guilt monster already had a leg up for this round. We knew another solution was in order.

I had pondered a trip to Legoland, since Liam’s Lego addiction is the only thing that supersedes his chocolate addiction (speaking of little green monsters). The thought of driving up to Legoland and seeing the look of surprise on his face that such as place even existed sounded like the stuff of childhood dreams. Hearing him declare us the greatest parents ever would be well worth a day surrounded by a couple of thousand manic, sugar-loaded youngsters on a Lego high, right?

But like so many good plans, this one quickly went awry. Liam’s Lego addiction had also led him to watching YouTube videos of kids and adults opening and building Lego sets. For the uninitiated, this is not only a thing, but a thing that is making some people a remarkable amount of money. Watching people opening toys sounded a lot like watching paint dry in my opinion, but to each his own. Of course, in the thirst to create more episodes, one of these videoDSC_0071graphers made a field trip to Legoland. So much for a surprise. In Lego speak, I just got bricked by a six-year-old, budding video star.

So despite losing the element of surprise, we decided to go ahead with the plan and set out to Legoland via an early morning flight north to London. Twenty minutes after landing, we were pulling up in front of the aptly-named Legoland hotel. I knew an ample dose of color was in the offing, but clearly I had no idea how much. Even the cab driver seemed at a loss for words at a visual overflowing with a dozen colors, a steaming dragon, mysterious roaring sounds, a bevy of giant boxy Lego humanoids and even spinning plates. This was knobby plastic bits taken to a whole new level. Welcome to Legoland.

I do have to give the resort credit for knowing their market. Loose bricks spill across the lobby to keep the kids busy. Animated Lego models circle above your head. And the rooms are done up in themes designed to make this a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Our pirate room featured skulls and crossbones pillows and engravings on the bunkbed, piratey Lego characters on the walls and even a locked “treasure” chest which opened once you solved a quiz to unveil a small Lego gift.

The hotel’s indoor play space is multilevel and also used for skits and shows in the evening, leading to Liam’s first official moment on stage, complete with oversized jester’s cap. Next door, the Bricks restaurant is crammed with giant figures and food items made of Lego of every description. Looking for a four-foot piece of plastic cheese. Gotcha covered! If it sounds like stimulation overload for a kid, it is, although mainly of the good variety. That said, it’s also wallet overload for parents, with a night here running nearly as mucDSC_0036h as a luxury hotel in the middle of London. It seems plastic knobby bits aren’t cheap.

We took the advice of Legoland and split our visit over one afternoon and the following morning, allowing us a little evening sanity break in between. The hotel does have a bar and I was theorizing that it might be one of the most successful for miles around, if the relieved looks on the faces of most parents was any indication. After all, a little liquid courage isn’t a bad idea when another day at Legoland looms.

The park is a collection of pretty standard carnival-style rides with a lot of Lego posters and oversized knobby plastic bits slapped on the front. There actually is limited opportunity to interact with Lego, which was a bit of a disappointment, although none of this was registering on Liam’s face. For a soon-to-be 6-year-old, anything Lego was simply heaven on Earth.

The one really remarkable area was Miniland, where cities, attractions and landmarks have been constructed in miniature using Lego bricks. Some of these are truly amazing, and testament to the fact that nearly 55 million bricks were used to construct the park. In fact, there’s nearly a half million bricks in the Star Wars Death Star model alone.

As we wandered around the park, I knew this would be one of those childhood memories that we would share with Liam for a long time. It’s heart-warming when simple things bring such happiness to him. I watched joy dancing in his eyes, drinking in a moment destined to stick with me for a long time. I could have watched this all day, but, of course, we are talking about kids here, so joy is inevitably broken by a small thing that seems life-changing for a child. About every 10 minutes I would spy a parent dealing with a youngster who was on the verge of stage 10 nuclear. I obeyed rule number one and veered wide of the incident, ensuring no shrapnel would hit our small fry. Then I’d give the parent that look. The “I’ve been there and I want to crawl in a hole right now” look, acknowledged by their ”please let this be over” grimace. It’s the silent language of parents.

Although many of the attractions are simply rides, some are interactive. The mini fire station requires you to propel the fire truck down the lane, then pump up the water to douse the flaming building. Unfortunately, this activity unearthed a family weakness. We were quickly left ridiculously far behind by a couple of Brit families and ended up being hustled off after barely dousing our imaginary flames. You may want to steer clear of the neighborhood if we’re ever talked into joining the volunteer fire department.

So as we wrapped up our Legoland adventure, bidding adieu to the countless boxy Lego figures surrounding us, I was struck by how ironic it is that Legoland is just three miles from the Queen’s residence at Windsor Castle. Although, I think I do remember Prince Charles once being compared to a plastic knobby bit. Maybe that’s the connection.

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