Category Archives: Relocation

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…

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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…

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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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Back to the Future/Past

As we walked down the ramp to board our flight back to the U.S. this month, it struck me how quickly your status in life can change. It seems like we barely left America, yet it’s almost 10 months since that day and this was now our second trip back. In no time, we won’t even be “locals” anymore. The world spins at a crazy pace.

Liam was excited from the beginning to go back because he had a chance to see one of his first school friends, Julian, and also spend a day back at his old school with other friends. And I knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, he also had a feeling that heading back to the U.S. would add up to presents. It’s probably a habit we need to break, but it clearly has a hold of him already. Sure enough, four DSC_0326days into the trip and surrounded by a stack of surprises from friends and relatives, the fateful words came out of his mouth: “I want to live in America again.”

While some of the world still believes America’s streets are paved with gold, I had to break it to him that it’s not quite as simple as that in the real world. Take the goodies with a smile while you can, kiddo, because presents on a daily basis simply are not how the world operates normally. For us grown-ups, the presents come with a Visa bill at the end of the month.

Coming back to the U.S. is this weird dichotomy of busy and idle. There’s always a list of things that we simply have to get done; some paperwork, a stack of mail, checking off a few things for our tenants and sussing out key food items that have been missing from our diets the last few months. But once we get through this initial rush, it’s a quasi-vacation, albeit spent on family turf instead of hotels.

It’s an odd feeling to be back to a place that was so familiar for so many years and now is already becoming a little foreign. New buildings have already appeared. The best route from point A to point B is not always top of mind anymore. And some familiar people just are not in the familiar places anymore. It’s a slow creep towards a loss of connection.

It’s funny to think that many of us are becoming more “worldly” because we travel to more places and even live in other places, but as we become more global we seem to also lose a little of our “local” identity by being less rooted to one place. Our parents or grandparents often were born, lived and died all in one town. Today, not so much.

I wonder what it teaches our kids. He’s only six and already Liam is an American/Canadian/Vietnamese kid who lives in Spain and is starting to pick up the language. So what does that make him? A citizen of everywhere, or a citizen of nowhere? I’m fascinated to think how he may identify himself as he reaches the teen years, or his 20s and even beyond. Certainly his image of himself will be 180 degrees from how I pictured myself at those ages.

For now, his image is of a big boy of six and constant seeker of goodies. At times, he’s a little put off that the Spanish lifestyle doesn’t include regular trips to the mall and constant opportunities to hit up his parents for whatever catches his eye. Occasionally begging for a chocolate at the bodega checkout just doesn’t stack up with the opportunity to gaze at aisles and aisles of toys to be manhandled at Target. But does less stuff add up to less enjoyment or development? To that, I confident can say a resounding no. The stuff really doesn’t get you any closer to happiness.

So after a whirlwind week of busy and idle, we chalked up a successful trip back to the U.S. for all this time around. We spent some time with old friends that we miss. Papers were signed, mail was sent, maintenance was done, family was enjoyed and some surprises were unpacked. What more can you want from a quasi-vacation?

RANDOM THOUGHTS: We flew to the US on USAirways, now officially absorbed into American Airlines. The effect of American is already clearly apparent, since we did receive some semblance of food and staff was reasonably pleasant. Flying the old USAirways was about as close to paid torture as one could get (with the possible exception of Spirit)… Living in a place, you do tend to stop noticing some things around you. That is, until you move away and come back. And what did I notice coming back to the U.S.? Well, for one, there’s a staggering number of tattoos wandering the streets. People do have the right to decorate up as much as they want, but I have to think that a few decades from now there’s going to be one hell of a lot of saggy ink filling the old folks homes. Not a pretty picture…

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