Monthly Archives: October 2015

Fall Starts with Sparkly Salt, Hockey and $7 Starbucks

With the time changing and the leaves starting to pile up on the sidewalks, fall is clearly here in Barcelona. I swear I barely had a chance to assault the world with views of my pasty legs before summer sprinted off into the sunset. A few eyeballs saved, at least.

The past couple of months seem like a whirlwind as we did a little more exploring and then settled back into the normal routine of the school year. There’s a few things I want to touch on that have been rattling around in my brain, covering a mix of sights we’ve seen and things we’ve experienced. It’s a hodgepodge, but hopefully still a little entertaining.

We spent a recent Sunday in the Spanish town of Cardona, which is famous for having a rock salt mine that was the largest in Europe for decades. The town’s history dates back centuries, largely driven by salt being such a valuable commodity for so long. It’s not gold, but it seems like nearly as many battles have been fought over it. A tour of the Muntanya de Sal (Mountain of Salt) IMG_0242_2includes a wander down into the former mine where salt drips to form remarkable stalactites and stalagmites. Seeing Liam in hard hat being the little miner for the day was clearly the highlight, but the salt formations were pretty spectacular at times also, depending on the lighting. It’s a good day out from Barcelona.

I have theorized in the past that Starbucks produces just a single board listing their prices and then uses it in stores everywhere. Only the currency changes. A large latte is four Canadian dollars in Toronto, four US dollars in Washington, four euros in Barcelona and four pounds in London. Well, a quick trip to Geneva has dispelled this belief. The Swiss city felt more like Tokyo as I realized the board listed the price as 7 Swiss francs (not 4), which is about $7 US. That’s one dear cup of joe.

Along with coffee, I got a quick fix of hockey in Geneva by seeing a Swiss league game. The team is actually part-owned and coached by Chris McSorley, a name that may be familiar from his brother Marty’s long stint as an NHL tough guy. The fans were quite into it and it was a decent level of hockey with a few borderline NHL guys on the ice. But I was horrified to see that they installed a small cheerleaders stage instead of seats in one corner of the arena. Everybody likes a cheerleader, but no Canadian worth their salt would give up prime seats against the glass for some pom-poms.

I have to wonder how people manage in Geneva considering the prices I spied. The city is famous for being home to the United Nations and the Red Cross, but bureaucrats and non-profit workers are not typically among the higher paid employees in most cities. Maybe that rule doesn’t hold true here and they can make a $20 hamburger meal work.

IMG_0162Seeing the cost of things in Geneva, it was even more surprising to stumble on a pub that specializes in large. Not satisfied with just a pint, they sell beers by liters – all the way up to one tub that would be about a gallon. Take my word for it, a liter glass of Guinness is a pretty impressive sight. What one would do with a gallon, I have no idea.

It’s still odd, but it’s become commonplace to spot little flocks of parrots loose in the city of Barcelona. I did a little homework and it turns out these birds, which are about the size of a pigeon, are actually a type of parakeet that is not native to the area. A small number were let loose by people years ago and have now turned into a thriving colony. They look just like a small parrot and have the same high-pitched screech that seems particularly appropriate so close to Halloween. There were around 40 of them perched in a tree I walked by the other day and their calls were nearly deafening.

As I delve deeper into driving in Spain, I’m becoming more of a fan of roundabouts. They are pretty efficient at keeping traffic flowing, although it does become wearisome when there’s one every half-mile on a long, straight road and the GPS drones on with the same keep turn right to go straight instruction. I did find some hysterical pictures of roundabout fails. In a couple of towns down south, the planners and constructors of roundabouts appear to have had a lack of communication during the construction process, leading to roundabouts being built tightly around a church in one place and the town pool in another. You definitely have to keep your head up after prayers or a dip if you want to make it home safely.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Very cute story in the news the other day from a reporter that was there for new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first ever comment to the press. The new leader had just turned two years old on December 25, being carried by his father into the hospital to meet his new brother, when he told reporters, “Merry Christmas. Happy birthday.” The Trudeau family charisma carries on…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Barcelona, Recent Posts, Relocation, Travel

Driving in Spain Isn’t Hard, But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy

The thought of driving in another country scares the crap out of many people, usually with good reason. It’s not just about driving a strange car, but also all the other complications that are thrown into the mix. Who wants to tackle roundabouts, narrow roads, weird signs, manual transmissions and, in places like Britain and Australia, suddenly being on the wrong side of the road?

Climbing behind the wheel in a foreign land does sound about as sensible as jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. That said, it’s kinda the only way to get from point A to point B in some places. So, when it comes to driving in Spain, ole!

The more I delve into the intricacies of Spanish road laws, the more I see the Spanish are awfully precise when it comes to driving, although maybe a tad obsessive on occasion. They definitely love signs. There must be a dozen covering specific times you can stop or park, including ones covering the first or second fortnight of the month. Another one has a car flipped on its side that warns of slippery conditions. And a third shows a car in flames, warning that vehicles may be carrying flammable liquids. I sense that they really like to hammer home the point.

Like most countries, they have a sign with a picture of an animal to warn that critters may cross here, but interestingly if the same sign also has the old Spanish word “Cañada” across the bottom, it means the animal actually has the rigroadsignht of way.

My favorite rule with ample precision covers right turn lanes. If you are stopped at a light in a lane marked with arrows pointing straight ahead or turn right with the intention of driving straight and another driver comes up behind you indicating a right turn, you are obligated to also make a right turn, whether you want to or not.

Taking an extra right might not sound like a big thing, but I’ve quickly learned while driving in Spain that a wrong turn is no simple matter. The American concept of just going around the block never made it across the Atlantic. When you miss a turn here, it’s likely going to turn into a long exercise covering a few miles to get back to point A. This is largely due to the fact that the Spanish feel about left turns pretty much the same way that I feel about people who toot in elevators. There’s a real foul aura around them. You can drive all the way to the next town before finding a road that allows a left turn. Toss in a succession of one-way streets that prevent right turns and you get a sense about just how challenging it can be.

That said, driving in Spain really isn’t that bad. The highways are wide, modern and uncrowded. Back in the city, the traffic volume is higher, but still nowhere near the level of  large American cities. I heard a city official mention that, at night, 70% of Barcelona’s cars are underground, so that helps explains the lack of apparent crowding. Of course, these cars are parked in underground spaces seemingly designed for Tonka toys. In our garage, there’s one space consisting of nothing but a curve around a post. Not only is it a space here, but it’s used by a van the size of an Econoline. My time in underground garages is regularly interrupted by me stopping and saying ‘wow” as I spot another parking miracle.

The other remarkable thing about driving here is renting a car. I’ve had people tell they found car rentals for as little as $2.50 a day. My best is $25 for six days. It is a bargain, but the number of games the low end rental car companies here play is a minefield. That rental rate is like a loss leader, followed by a bevy of smaller charges where the money is actually made.

They push a fuel service which not only has an inflated price for the gas but also extra fees for pumping it. There’s always a fee for using a credit card, which is interesting since you need one to complete the rental. They drive the hoop like Michael Jordan when it comes to pushing the extra insurance. On my last rental, the agent pretty much trotted out every horrible scenario except locusts in an effort to get me to add the insurance. And, of course, if something does actually happen to the car, then a whole new flood of fees will pop up with the repair such as transferring the vehicle to the shop, loss of use, loss of value, etc., etc.

So far I’ve been lucky and avoided most of this quagmire of fees, but it’s a pit that really easy to fall into, especially for the smiling tourist thinking about nothing but the vacation days ahead as they land in a strange place. I can only imagine how much is collected from these folks each year. Driving in Spain isn’t for everyone, but sometimes you just have to take the leap. But don’t forget to give the cow the right of way.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: The saving grace of never being able to turn left are the roundabouts. They love them here. They are not too tough to navigate at one or two lanes wide, but occasionally in the city you hit one that’s 4-5 lanes across. It’s literally a free-for-all, anything goes roller coaster ride in these. I have no idea how you escape from the lane all the way to the inside. There’s probably a Skoda down there that’s been circling since the turn of the century…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Barcelona, Recent Posts, Relocation, Travel

Oh Sorry, I’m Just Being Canadian

I invested a couple of hours in watching the documentary Being Canadian the other night and it got me thinking more about, well, being Canadian.

As the film stressed, the world doesn’t have a clear image on what is uniquely Canadian. Most countries have a couple of things that seem to define them. America is a land of opportunity, or for the glass half-empty types, the place where everyone has a gun. Germans are highly efficient. Brits like warm beer. And the Japanese are really picky about cleanliness.

All these things are just stereotypes, but there’s a grain of truth embedded somewhere in the middle. So what’s the stereotype that defines Canadians? It’s comical that we are famous for being polite, but then every one of us does have a tale of walking into a door and then reflexively apologizing to it for our clumsiness. Or is it the old reliable stereotype that Canada really is just hockey and healthcare.

At least each of these is fairly positive, even if not exactly overwhelming in depth. I think many Canadians took pride in the country’s reputation as a peacekeeper with our leaders always willing to step into a troubled situation and keep the fighting factions apart, but clearly that reputation has slide in the last decade. That’s a sore spot for many of us.

We are good at laughing at ourselves and happily play along when prompted to add a few “ehs” to our sentences as if it’s the first time. But we’re also quick to play the “he’s Canadian” game every time a familiar name pops up. I never tire of surprising people with another under the radar Canadian like Ryan Reynolds, Morley Safer, Seth Rogen, Will Arnett, architect Frank Gehry, William Shatner, Ryan Gosling, Jason Priestly, Warner Bros. co-founder Jack Warner, or even “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford.

And don’t forget some of the things that were invented in Canada, such as the telephone, insulin, egg cartons, basketball, standard time, garbage bags, peanut butter (high on my list), the jockstrap (thank you) the Wonderbra (you’re welcome), paint rollers and the zipper.

So maybe Canada’s famous national inferiority complex isn’t quite deserved, but it still doesn’t get us any closer to defining what it is to be Canadian. As I watched the filmmaker meander across Canada and experience a little more of the country, I certainly felt the urge to do the same, seeing Canada not only through my eyes but those of my young son who has never lived on Canadian shores. If I could awaken in him a sense of pride at his roots and a little clearer identity, well, that would make my year.

As I have become less rooted while moving not only cities, but countries, I’m left wondering how he will define himself as an adult under the worldly but complicated umbrella of being a Canadian/American/Vietnamese kid who lives in Spain. There’s a lot of messages in there. If nothing else, hopefully it will mean more open doors.

But even taking that expansive cross-country trip isn’t likely to provide more clarity about what is a Canadian, since there really isn’t a simple answer. I guess it’s hard to define because Canada has always been about welcoming such a diverse set of ideas and thoughts, instead of pigeonholing people into just one box. Canadians no more think all alike than they look all alike. Maybe that polite thing isn’t such a bad stereotype after all. We could do a lot worse.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: The most poignant line in the film came from Mike Myers when he said “No description of me is complete without mentioning I’m Canadian.” Amen to that… It seems like it’s election season everywhere, including Canada. I wasn’t a fan of Stephen Harper when he became Prime Minister, but I have to admit now that he probably was the best one for the job at that time. Now it’s a new time and the same policies are feeling rather unCanadian… People laugh at me bringing back something as heavy as peanut butter when I visit Canada. Trust me, it’s worth the effort. But the bottom of the jar is now in sight. Withdrawals should commence by end of October…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Parenting, Recent Posts

When Lost in Spain, I Guess Spelling Doesn’t Count Anyway

When hopping from one language to another, it’s not surprising that discrepancies in spelling pop up. The alphabet differs from language to language, which means differing letter sounds and a multitude of ways to spell words as they move back and forth.

That said, spelling definitely feels more like art than science when it comes to Spanish. Case in point, within four blocks of our apartment in Barcelona, I can spot three different spellings of our street name on the front of other buildings. No doubt some of this is driven by the fact that Catalan is more important than Spanish here, but I think you get my point. Names are a tad relative.

As we’ve traveled around the country, these interesting spellings have sometimes made locating an address about as easy as finding a pickup truck without a gun rack in Texas. We spend this past long weekend on the small island of Menorca, but when I put our hotel address into Google Maps, it gave me directions to drive five hours back to Barcelona. Did I mention we were on an island? As far as I know, the rental car didn’t come with flippers and a snorkel.

For that matter, even the name of the island is in question. It’s about 50/50 whether it gets listed as Menorca or Minorca wherever you happen to be looking. I kind of thought things like the name of an entire island would lend itself to broad agreement. My bad.

The other common X factor in addresses here is the lack of a house or building number. Many times the address is simply a street or plaza. That’s not so much of an issue in a small plaza, but I’m still trying to figure out how that works for lengthy streets. The mailmen must be psychic. Or maybe those little yellow carts they all pull around are actually holding homing pigeons.

Street adventures aside, our long weekend in Menorca was a nice break from the city (this was the third long weekend in September on the school calendar for those keeping score). Like so many places in Spain, Menorca has been overrun by invaders from other lands countless times. Romans, Moors, the very appropriately named Vandals, even the British sailed on over and took charge for a while. It’s popularity certainly is not waning.

Menorca is not well known for a lot of things, although it is said that the simple slingback sandal popular in Mediterranean countries came from here. The shoe stores and souvenir huts certainly play that up. There are a couple of famous festivals in summer, including one where a man parades a well-groomed sheep around on his shoulders for an evening. I’m not quite sure the history on that one, and I really don’t want to see the google results for man-sheep interactions to find out.

With a couple of fair-sized towns and a plethora of beaches, Menorca displays a lot of that same Spanish appeal we have seen many times. Tourism definitely drives the island, so the locals are a little more affected than a typical mainlander, but still friendly. It stands up as well worth the visit. That is, as long as you can find the hotel.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: It’s not really my bailiwick since I’m not Catholic, but I was firmly in the camp that this new pope was a nice breath of fresh air as he stood up for policy changes more aligned with the times and humanistic ideals. I can’t believe he is naïve enough to not see that meeting with an evangelical loon would carry a ton of weight. Feels like there’s more to this story… Regardless of your politics, if you don’t find Carly Fiorina one of the scariest human beings on the planet, you’re just not paying attention… In this week’s driving class, I had an hour’s lesson on the many different lights on a car and their uses. The most notable part was the section on fog lights (back mandatory, front optional in Spain btw). I don’t think I will soon forget the deep-voiced, heavily-accented female instructor’s emphasis on the word fog, which sailed across the room sounding exactly as a far less appropriate F word. If a question on fog lights comes up on the actual test, I’m going to get thrown out of the room for giggling…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recent Posts, Travel