Monthly Archives: June 2015

Time to Throw the Cap and Hit the Road for France

It is a cliché, but it’s also true that the years when your kids are young go rushing past in the blink of an eye. I could swear we were just celebrating Liam’s first words and first steps and suddenly there he is under a paper cap celebrating his kindergarten “graduation.”

If you looked up chaos in the dictionary, I’m guessing there’s a picture of the graduation of 18 kindergarteners – all crammed in a small, square room with about 25 oohing parents. At any given moment, a half dozen are looking at the ceiling, a few are checking out their feet, one is on the edge of tears with that wild-eyed look of terror that only a parent understands, one has a finger up their nose, one has a look that may indicate a potty issue, one has just discovered they have pants and, miraculously, one is paying attention to the program. Of course, that last one is because his/her name was just called. In other words, it’s better entertainment value than any epic that Hollywood has released in yearsDSC_0408

The hour-long graduation, bursting at the seams with as much parental pride as childhood enthusiasm, gave every one of our youngsters a chance to celebrate their accomplishments. Each beamed with pride as their name appeared on screen and they received a graduation certificate, but their joy was even greater as they showed off the planets they had cut out and painted by hand and sang about the solar system. These six-year-olds could already put mom and dad to shame with their knowledge of the planets above.

It’s astounding how much they have accomplished in the last few months. In the span of a few months, their workbooks advance from a few halting, awkward letters to nicely written sentences. Stories go from a few stick figures to grand tales. And confidence levels have climbed from nervous statements to the ability to pretty much do anything. Just ask any of them and the answer will be, “I know how to do that.” The boundless confidence of youth has been borne!

So, enough though it feels like we barely just arrived, suddenly kindergarten is passed and our first full summer in Barcelona has begun. And what does summer mean? Why, road trip, of course!

We are part way through our first official summer road trip in Spain, starting with a quick loop through a little bit of southern France, a stop in the tiny burg of Andorra and then back to Barcelona for a quick rest before heading south. Let me throw in a few observations of our travel so far.

  • The center of the ancient French town of Carcasonne is a hilltop that has been occupied for nearly 6,000 years. Now, it is one of the last fortified cities in the world with the town totally surrounded by the centuries-old walls. The narrow streets of the old town are still lined with restaurants and shops as it has been for nearly a millennium, making for a really great backdrop to pick a spot and dine. This was one of the most interesting spots we have visited
  • Pretty much every place we have traveled to Spain or France is marked by Roman ruins, such as leftover bits of walls, an aqueduct or some other such remain. Along with the fact that it’s hard to believe the Roman empire reached so far, I can’t fathom how much building these guys did. I swear the life of a Roman soldier must have been march a long way, stop, build something and then march a whole lot further. These were one industrial people
  • DSC_0007Our little amble through southern France to Carcasonne and Toulouse before reaching Andorra was most noteworthy for beautiful, rolling countryside occasionally marked by little hamlets. France is a really stirring country
  • France has a lot of nice and helpful people. That said, it’s also not that tough to find someone who lives up to the French stereotype. They have built an enviable society, but not always as the most accepting
  • All I’d heard about Andorra was concentrated on skiing and sales tax free shopping. After a day there, that pretty much seems accurate. I’ll add that the Pyrenees driving into Andorra are breathtaking – but I wouldn’t want to do that drive in snowy conditions.
  • The driving part of road trips often is not that interesting, but it can be  improved greatly when a six-year-old gets on a good roll. Maybe the most interesting moment over the last few days was Liam telling us he and his wife will have 10 kids, but he intended to leave home to go off and work for the first eight years after getting married. Can’t wait to see the look on his face the day we explain that those two equations don’t quite add up
  • Liam also has a remarkable knack of knowing how to dress for the occasion. For example, he determined a t-shirt and a tie are the perfect ensemble for the Egypt museum. And he insisted on donning a jaunty fedora the exact day that we ran into a display of old cars. My little mobster.

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How Hard Could it be to Pass a Driving Test in Spain?

Although the old cliché says you never forget how to ride a bike, I’m assuming the same can be said about driving a car. But I’m not so sure that adage goes far enough to cover actually passing a driving test.

For my next big adventure here in Spain – or maybe just because I am actually as dumb as some have suggested  – I have begun the process of studying for the test to obtain a Spanish driving licence. The good news is that the theoretical part of the test can be taken in English. The bad news is, it’s basically the Spanish test run through a lousy translator and presented as being English. It’s still week one and this already is looking rather interesting.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember a single moment of my original written test to get a licence. We’re talking a long time ago – like when phones still came with cords and the only web we had at home was a sticky thing in the corner that inspired my mother to say words I wasn’t supposed to hear.

I do remember the actual driving part of the test, mainly because my dad was taking me to the testing facility and he showed up with a brand new car that I hadn’t even seen before, let alone practiced on. I should also mention it was the most expensive car for sale on his lot. Nothing like adding a little pressure to an already nervous 16-year-old. Dad’s famous words, “what’s the difference. A car’s a car” were not exactly an antidote to my hyperventilating.

So now, these many years later, I’m faced with that whole process again, this time in a foreign land. According to local standards, I’m nothing but a rookie and have to go through it all from A to Z, even a medical. So I’m embarking on the process to learn the ropes all over again, even if I look nothing like I did at 16. More gut, less hair and no weekly allowance!

The actual driving part doesn’t worry me too much. The real challenge is being able to nail the written questions. Honestly, if someone from the DMV quizzed you now, could you come up with enough correct answers to get through a written test? How many feet do you need to leave between cars? What’s the correct speed limit on a secondary road when no sign is posted? It’s horseshoes and hand grenades – getting close to the right answer doesn’t cut it on this test. So even if I function perfectly well in the real world of driving, that doesn’t much matter in the world of tests. And these worlds are crashing together.

I settled in to my first class, surrounded by a melting pot of nationalities who all looked as much as a deersign in the headlights as I. The next two hours would be confusing, odd, sometimes comical and capped by the realization that I needed a bunch more of these classes before taking my first shot at passing the test. Much of it is memory work, but the wrinkle of colorful translations certainly stops it from being mundane. Not that we should feel alone. Badly translating signs are everywhere, but getting a giggle from an awkward sign when walking down the street isn’t the equal of trying to untangle bad syntax on a test.

For example, a serious of warnings about “the impaired people” caught my attention as we started to go through the first chapter of the manual. The book was stressing that impaired people almost always have the right of way, which seemed rather off until I realized impaired was an interesting translation for handicapped people. Then again, this course may leave me impaired one way or the other.

Then there was a whole series of very precise regulations on how and when to put out a traffic triangle if you break down on the road. Plus, 25  different scenarios related to parking properly. And guidelines on the necessity to have a yellow traffic vest within reach at all times in the car. I’m not sure if I should invest in the yellow vest or just wait for the guys in the white coats.

As we dug deeper into the book, I counted seven different types of stop signs covering odd days, even days, stopping without parking, early month stopping, late month stopping and, I think, an alien landing. (They have the right of way, incidentally) And this was only chapter one! I could only imagine the road ahead.

As class ended and with my head still spinning, the instructor decided to offer up one last nugget of interesting info. Even though the Spanish version of the DMV is nice enough to let you take the written test in any of more than a dozen different languages, they still revert back to Spanish when it comes to the road test. It looks like all gloves are off at this point with everything fair game. They might even ask you to explain how to change the oil. I actually have done that a few times despite being light years from the mechanically-inclined one in the family, but I certainly never explained it in Spanish. Unfortunately, I’m also not the priestly one in the family, which may be an issue about this time, since I think I may need divine intervention.

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Kitchen Sink? Check.

Crowbarring the final items into Liam’s backpack this past Tuesday, I could have sworn that he was off on a round-the-world trip. But no, this was his just first overnight camping adventure from school.

The list of items to pack stretched onto a second page, despite the fact that it was just a single night away. I think most of our ancestors moved to America with fewer items to their names than these six-year-olds hauled off for the short drive to overnight cabins. Nearly half the parents resorted to rolling bags, as opposed to backpacks, to fit it all in. Is there a fee for having to check a bag!

The whole thing did feel like overkill, but, then again, there does seem to be a direct correlation between the amount of stuff packed and the lessened anxiety level of the parents. Tension relief by the pound.

Even though it was only a night, it’s remarkable how different home feels when the regular thump-thump of little feet is removed. It’s quieter on many levels, but definitely emptier, too. And while we sit around and ponder what he’s up to about every 47 seconds, Liam breezes through the affair with barely a thought of home, with the possible exception of missing his stuffed dog. Such is the mind of a six-year-old.

As day one wore on, photos started to trickle in on the school’s blog as his adventures began to unfold. There were popsicles and pirate faces. Rope bridges and bug discoveries. Purple tongues and green mustaches. There were so many firsts that he’s already forgotten some. Just as we remembered a few of our own firsts from a long time ago, sharing some of these same discoveries.

I have to stop and remind myself sometimes that virtually everything he experiences is a first. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t proudly start a sentence with “Daddy, did you know…” The revelations are almost always directly from left field and usually made up of weighty facts such as whales are mainly gray in color or Venus is the hottest planet. The messages are simple, but still laden with the pride he feels at another fact learned.

Our own first this week was seeing his swimming lesson. Until now, Liam’s aquatic adventures were off-limits to parents. It was a thrill to see how far he has come over the last few months. With him not being one of the more physical kids, we didn’t think a budding Michael Phelps was in the offing, but just seeing him dog paddle for dear life was close enough to earning a gold medal for us. Not fearing the water is a huge leap forward. See a little of it in the clip here

So even though I’m thinking I might have to borrow a wheelbarrow to pack if next year’s school trip includes a second night, it’s all worth it in the end. Each extra item of stuff adds up to a little more weight of knowledge. After all, packing his little brain with as much information as possible is the first entry in my job description as parent.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Burgers simply taste different here; more gamey for lack of a better term. I haven’t quite figured out if they add something to make it this way, or it’s just the reality that they don’t add the things that make some beef closer to cardboard than cow. Regardless, it takes some getting used to… the growing season here is definitely a lot longer. It’s barely June and already the shelves are starting to fill with fresh peaches and melons. I could get used to this, even if nowhere in the world can match the taste of a Niagara peach…

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