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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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…

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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…

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Kids, Devils and Fireworks. What Could Go Wrong?

If this were America, the lawyers would be on speed dial. Adding to our ever growing list of festival experiences here in Spain, this weekend we ventured out for the kids portion of La Merce, one of the biggest and most raucous of Barcelona’s many special celebrations.

I can’t help but laugh thinking how the EU is known for very consumer-friendly legal standards covering things like food and airline flights, yet a festival promising to light a few kids on fire also gets a green light. Plainly stated, La Merce isn’t a festival for the meek.

The kids parade is highlighted by a correfoc, which loosely translates to a fire run. Costumed “devils” run through the parade route to a booming backbeat of drums while holding blazing sticks that spin and send fiery sparks into the crowd. To make it even more interesting, most of the devils are kids in the 8-14 year-old range.

You got that right. They hand blazing fireworks that shoot out hot sparks to children and then let ‘em loose. Somewhere in middle America, a 100 shysters just sat straight up and started to plot a trip to Spain. Imagine the lawsuits to be milked from setting kids ablaze!

With little knowledge of what was to come, we picked out what seemed like a good spot before the start of the parade and settled in to await the (literal) fireworks. As usual with most festivals, the crowd was overflowing with small fry. The Spanish love a good festival and always have the kids in tow. It really is a very family-oriented and supportive culture.

A sudden boom at the other end of the street heralded the start of the parade. As I glanced down the street, I spotted twin rings of sparks flying in the air about eight or so blocks away. The display continued for an extended period of time, leaving me to wonder would they replicate such a big display all the way down the street? Oh yeah. And more.

By the time the procession reached us, the combined noise of the hammering drums and exploding fireworks was nothing short of deafening. Packs of pre-teens filled the streets, clad in heavy coats and goggles for protection, taking turns lighting their flaming rods and racing through the crowd. And these were no shy sparks, as attested by the sudden burning sensation on the top of my head. I think I sacrificed a couple of hairs to the cause – and I’m already getting a little thin to be giving any more up! No one mentioned I needed to duck from the dragon.

The substantial noise had many kids cowering away from the street, so as a recruitment tool for future “devils,” I’d say this run was not too successful. That said, the rest of the participants seemed to be having the time of their lives, even if some folks on the US side of the pond would be horrified at events.

I may not be 100% behind the whole display, but I have to give the Spanish credit. Any time you can keep the lawyers from spoiling the fun is a good time indeed. Let’s leave the speed dial to Domino’s.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: It seems like every festival here has colorful roots, with La Merce being no different. Its backstory actually includes a plague of locusts and a virgin. You can’t get much more colorful than that… Living next door to an old folks home usually makes for quiet evenings. But I have to admit not loving laundry day when a couple dozen nightgowns start swaying in the breeze right outside our kitchen window. I liked it even less when I spotted that the gowns are hospital issue with a substantial open area in the rear. I could have lived many happy years without that image…

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Lost Years, David Gilmour and a Little Fountain of Youth

My driver’s licence clearly lists my age, but I’m still rather confounded at how it could be true. I certainly don’t feel my age, but then again almost no one does. And no one seems to be able to explain where all the years went. If you could bottle an answer to that question, you’d be rich enough to hire Bill Gates as your butler.

If you think back to your formative years, there were always a couple of things that helped define you. And it’s interesting to see how many of us still have these interests even now when we’re supposedly all “grown up.” For example, I always loved music. Still do. And though my tastes have softened a little over the years, the bands I liked best then are still the bands I like best now – even if I am a little deafer from the experience.

When I was a teen and early 20-something, it was one of the driving forces of my life to go see certain artists. I was convinced that they were creating music that would be important to me for life. Well, I actually was right about the music sticking with me. The scary part is, I still feel the drive to go see these artists, but now it’s more because of the likelihood that they won’t be around much longer. Rock stars are starting to drop like flies. It’s sad to think I’ll never see the Beatles, and it’s even more confounding than my age that guys like Keith Richards are still walking around after so many years of self-abuse. Every year that “Keif” is still chain-smoking makes that rumored pact with the devil a little less far-fetched.

Aging rockers are the best example I can think of that age really is a number. Just look at how many old farts of rock are still up on stage acting like teenagers. Social security and a screaming guitar riff. None of them would have predicted that when they started out. It is an inspiration – even if they are one step from breaking a hip.

This week, I grabbed the opportunity to go see David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. He’s 69, meaning chances to see him play are few and far between. But that hint of sadness dissolves pretty fast as soon as I hear the music and a little flood of youth washes back into my mind. These are songs that stayed with me for decades, made many days better and keep doing so even now. It’s not just a concert, it really is a celebration of years lived. Didn’t you know there’s a setting for fountain of youth just above 10 on the amp. Trust me, I can feel it.

This step back in time was all the more fitting with Gilmour hosting his grey beard audience in a first century Roman amphitheater in a old French town. What a remarkable setting to see the magic of his songs come alive on stage. And what a cross-section of life was present in the crowd.

I’m sure grandfathers outnumbered teenagers. A fair number of hippies were reborn for the occasion, some adorned with Grateful Dead shirts. Ear plugs were passed to companions more often than doobies. And the guy who had to disturb the row by getting up and squeezing past just two songs into the show, well, I’m betting it was more likely about a prostate issue than grabbing another beer.

Yes, the foibles of age were in full display, but there also was plenty to enjoy. Gilmour played a raft of new music that was well received, including a couple of songs that seem promising. He detoured into a torchy, jazzy number at one point that seemed to have much of the assemblage confused, but props to him for not being afraid to experiment.

And the highlights of course, were a handful of Floyd classics that can never be played too many times. Wish You Were Here brought many to their feet in the first set. And Comfortably Numb sent them home happy to end the night. I’m so glad I got the chance to enjoy him again, and hopefully for many years yet to come.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: The video clips were taken with an iPhone from 16 rows up into the amphitheater. Rougher than I would like, but still pretty remarkable that a small tool can do this much… The fervor is building rapidly in Barcelona with elections less than 10 days away. Catalan pride is in full evidence as those wanting a separation from Spain push their agenda with force. Last week’s Catalonia Day attracted well over half a million people to its parade, with separatist leaders calling for a show of support by waving flags and wearing white. I opted for black. The next year is definitely not going to be dull around here…

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