Monday, December 29, 2008

Amy Cathleen

In Spain people don’t really have two first names unless you are actually supposed to use them. Most of those compound names end up becoming one shortened name, like María Jesus becomes Mariaje and Juan Manuel becomes Juanma and José María becomes Chema (don’t ask me about that one…) Regardless, the entire name is still there, at least in spirit. The American custom of giving someone two names only for one of those names to be dropped in actual usage, and frequently a cause for embarrassment among friends as a teenager, is definitely a foreign concept here in Spain.

I suppose it’s not unlike the American inability (at least on official things like immigration documents, car insurance, and company emails) to understand that some people from foreign countries have two last names. You can only imagine the headaches we got trying to explain to the people issuing said documentation that, “Yes, Nacho has two last names, and, yes, just to make matters worse, the first one is made up of two words.” Complicated, I know.

Anyway, back to the impetus for my writing. All of my official Spanish documentation includes my entire name. And I love it. Perhaps my family is strange, but for us the use of first AND middle names was a sign of affection, not of impending punishment. So now when a receptionist calls my name or the bank people call our house and ask for “Amy Cathleen” I am tickled pink.

I’m easy to please. I know.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Random thoughts

Last night in that haze right before I fell asleep, a memory from my childhood popped into my head. I cannot recall why it popped in there (I am mildly obsessed with following trains of thought back to the beginning when someone says, “How did we start talking about THAT??”) but there it was none-the-less. At first it made me happy. It was a good memory. But then it made me kinda sad in that way that so many of a Child of the 80s’ memories make her sad as we approach 2010: “Do kids still do that nowadays? It’s probably all online or something…” What on earth am I talking about?

Let’s see if you can figure it out… This is the picture in my head: rows of bookshelves topped with yellowish cardboard pages standing upright in little stands. On the cardboard pages are rows of children’s names, to the right of which are little circular stickers. Some kids have 2. Some have 20.


If you haven’t already figured it out (which is entirely likely since I am not even sure if this was a national thing and if it was it probably wasn’t done the exact same way in every town) I’ll tell you. I’m talking about the summer reading club at the local library. You know, the reading clubs where you’d try and meet the summer-long goal of reading 100 books and along the way you’d earn prizes at each milestone. With two English teachers for parents, reading has always been a big thing in our family. And that summer reading club at the Daniel Boone branch of the St. Louis Public Library System was an institution in our house. As much a part of our summer vacations as playing ghosts in the graveyards and catching fireflies.

I can remember the details of the club like I finished my 100th book yesterday. Each year my sister and I would sign up at the start of summer vacation. As we read our books we would fill out the pertinent info on little cards with space for 5 books. The filled cards were then turned it in at the library in exchange for a little circular sicker which we’d then get to stick next to our names on the list. Like I said, there were prizes too, erasers and pencils, posters and maybe a backpack for the 100th book, but I think the best part was watching the row of stickers grow. The best times were when we’d get back from a trip away with multiple cards to turn in and the 2 or 3 new stickers would push us past our neighbors.

That’s the part that makes me sad. I wonder if the club is still run like that – in such a non-technologically advanced way. Un-alphabetized lists of names, hand written in black felt marker with little stickers marking the steps towards the finish. I imagine it somehow now being all online. Kids can sign up and record their books on the internet. Download their prizes of a gift certificate to borders or If that’s the case then I will at least praise the library for changing with the times and continuing to encourage reading among children. I hope, however, that things are still run with at least some semblance of the “olden days.” I chose to be optimistic that this is the case. After all, for the time being at least, the library, by default, is a place which must be visited to be enjoyed. So if the kids have to visit to pick up their new books, perhaps they can also still affix their stickers to the list of names.

(I realize this post has little to do with the purpose of this blog, but it’s MY blog, so I can write what I want, right? But for any purists out there I will ask the question, Does anything like this exist in Spain?)

I also realize the underlying nerdiness of this post. But I happen to love books and book clubs and all that. And I love libraries. And I loved the bookmobile days in elementary school. And I was mad at the Simpson’s episode where Bart blew one up!!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pants Down

Nacho and I typically watch the evening news as we have dinner. Last night I wasn’t paying all that much attention to the current story. Something about politics with video of the big guys arguing in the senate or the congress, or whatever it’s called. Regardless I was already bored with it. Then I heard the leader of the opposition, Mariano Rajoy, say, “Ha habido una descomunal bajada de pantalones para aprobar los Presupuestos.”

For you non-Spanish speakers, more or less what he had said was that President Zapatero had “lowered his pants” in order to get the approval of the proposed budgets. Perhaps now you see why my virginal ears, pun intended, perked up. (Yes, this expression implies exactly what you think it might be implying but at the same time are certain it couldn’t possibly be implying. After all it was shown on TV and no one was upset...) Granted, this is not necessarily an uncommon phrase in normal conversation. And with the way gruff old Spanish engineers talk, I wouldn’t be all that surprised to hear it in my daily work exchanges. Although I do think that even the gruffest old engineer would think twice before using it in a young woman’s presence at the office. But is it really appropriate lingo for such a high-ranking politician to use when addressing the Congress and the Prime Minister?

Admittedly, I might be more sensitive to these things because, although I long ago crossed into the “fluent” category with my Spanish, certain expressions still catch me off guard. Because they are not innately a part of my vocabulary, I usually end up delving a tad too deeply into their “true” meanings. A Spaniard probably hears this line and simply understands Rajoy’s message. I, on the other hand, am having an impossible time getting the image out of my head.


P.S. The politics behind all of this are more or less irrelevant to this post but if you are interested… basically the report is that ZP has agreed to certain concessions to PNV, the Basque political party, in exchange for their votes in favor of the budget proposals. Rajoy believes this goes against what is “best for the Spanish people.”

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Felices Fiestas

My office is empty. It’s been like this all week. Apparently, this year, the Christmas holidays started last weekend.

My bosses and many of my coworkers are already on vacation. It was a smart move on their parts. This year, with the way the holidays fall, to get off from December 20 to January 7, one need take just 6 work days. 6 days. To get a full 18 glorious days of vacation. Who wouldn’t take advantage of such a gift from the calendar gods? Of course, stringing together the days off would have been a natural step for people to take in any corner of the world. 18 days. Seems like a lot, right? Hardly. Here in Spain (or at least here at my company) where you get 26 paid vacation days and where the national tradition is to take a month-long vacation at least once a year… most people also took this week off (bringing their grand total of days off work in a row to 25). And so the office is empty. The cafeteria is empty. Heck, the METRO in the morning is even empty. Las fiestas have arrived.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Today I started my third job in Spain. Well, my third professional, legally-paying job.

Up to this point, both in the States and here in Spain, I have always worked in small companies – the biggest being back in the States with around 30 people. For some reason I thought that my new employer, a giant, multinational, sector-leading , 36,000-employee company would be more “American.” The idea of long coffee breaks and perpetual tardiness seemed out of place in the mental picture I had of the shirt-and-tie corporate environment, even here on the Iberian Peninsula. I was wrong.

This morning I waited about 30 minutes for my HR “greeter” to appear. And when I was shown to my desk around 10:30 the office was empty – everyone was out getting coffee. Later at lunch my coworkers complained that yesterday morning the boss had asked them not to take coffee breaks in twelvesomes. Only in Spain.

But not everyone has adopted the “when in Rome” attitude. My bosses told me this morning that they hired me in part out of a particular interest in the “Yankee” mentality of organization and discipline. I, on the other hand, am beginning to think that the corporate environment in Spain has a leg up on its American counterpart. Granted I am talking from the perspective of a lowly worker bee. Certainly the lack of productivity caused by lateness and long coffee breaks is irksome to the higher-ups. And, admittedly, I find the tardiness extremely annoying, but the coffee breaks certainly aren’t bad. And from where I sit, looking at the four new skyscrapers of the Ciudad Deportivo out the window, the 26 paid vacation days, shortened summer work schedule, and paid lunches makes me more than happy to twiddle my thumbs as I wait for a meeting to start 20 minutes late.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Taking a cab as a blond-haired, blue-eyed joven speaking with an accent-laced Spanish is not always a walk in the park. Taxistas have tried to overcharge me. They’ve tried to drop me off at a destination other than what I’ve asked for. They’ve started to drive away with my suitcase. They’ve insulted my nationality. They’ve hit on me; one even claimed that taxi drivers in Spain are like doctors and lawyers elsewhere – every girl’s dream guy. But what happened today was a first for me.

I was in a cab on my way back from an appointment this afternoon when my taxista missed his turn. I wasn’t even paying much attention. He immediately apologized, saying, “I should have turned there. I’ll turn off the meter until I get us back on track.” Huh? What? I was left speechless. I didn’t even have to complain. It came from the goodness and the decency in him. Or perhaps from the fear of getting yelled at – Spanish women tend to have a bit of a temper (and I mean that as a compliment). Regardless, he took the next exit, got us back on track and told me when he turned the meter back on.

Is it worth noting that my taxista was not Spanish? I’m not sure if that had an impact on the whole exchange or not. My accent is noticeable, for sure, but could it have gone unnoticed on the ears of another foreigner? Or was he just a decent guy? Or both?

Thanks to ADN for the foto.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Bubbly at 6am

Last night I had plans to attend a local election-watching party, but my plan to sleep in between poll closings kept me home. So when the 5am hour rolled around and CNN proclaimed Obama the winner, I cheered to myself. (Well, and I went and woke up Nacho to tell him…) I broke open the bubbly while watching John McCain’s concession speech and waiting for Obama’s victory one. Shortly after Obama wowed us all with his impressive discourse (McCain’s was note-worthily good too!) it was lights out for me for a couple hours of sleep before heading to work, palmeritas in hand.

Heading out into the world today was a new experience for me as an expat. Why? When I studied abroad in Spain 11 years ago people talked about putting Canadian flag patches on their backpacks to cover up the fact that they were American, to avoid dealing with people’s preconceived notions. It wasn’t done out of shame over their nationality, but instead as a defense mechanism against how judgmental some people can be. Today, I thought, “Let them judge us. We’ll come out with flying colors.“ Today I WANTED people to notice my accent, to know that I’m American, to know that I contributed, even if in the form of my one vote, to this historical moment. Today I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “Yes, we did!!”

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Hoping for Palmeritas

It’s Election Day in the States. I’ve never been one overly interested in politics but today is one of those days where I wish wish wish I were back in the States – in one of the two “toss-up” states (Missouri and Florida) that I have recently called home. Lacking the chance to hop a flight back there I will be watching the election results from the Democrats Abroad party in Madrid tonight – 11pm to dawn. What a poetic schedule, right? Dawn. Hopefully that means the dawn of a new political era. Cheesy, I know, but not untrue…

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about this election (who hasn’t?) and about how everyone has gotten so wrapped up in it. For the past week the US elections have been the top news story on every channel – pushed to second only by the monsoon hitting the coasts of Spain. Like I said, I am hardly a political guru and my thoughts, opinions and predictions on the matter would be about as significant and the Queen’s recent opinions on gay marriage – simply the opinion of another civilian. So, instead I thought I’d share my two memories of election night. I am certain that I have watched more than two election night results shows in my 29 years, but for some reason only two really come to mind…

1996 – Re-election of Bill Clinton over Bob Dole. I was a senior in high school during this election and I was only 17, having a “late” birthday like I do. For a few of my friends it was the first election in which they could vote. And perhaps for that reason it drew more of my interest than all previous elections. Or perhaps because my sister and I had gone with my mom to Union Station to see Clinton speak. But that might have been before the 1992 election… (Mom?) Anyway, I remember watching the results sitting on my living room floor in front of a fire in the fire place (no shock to those who know me). I turned them on for a class assignment and then couldn’t turn them off until the very end. Missouri went blue. So did lots of the other states. Go Bill!

My other election night memory shines in sharp contrast to the first.

2000 – Al Gore’s “defeat” by George Bush. Ah, the year of the hanging chad. The vote that called the entire electoral college into question. That one I voted in by absentee ballot - being away at my senior year in college. And I watched it in the basement bar of Duke’s Brian Center with about 200 other Dukies. Not a pretty moment. Not a high point for the democratic process. And definitely not the best time to be surrounded by LOTS of Republicans. There was yelling. Lots of it. And beer. Lots of that, too. Probably contributing to the yelling. Regardless, the feelings I walked away with after that election were far different from those in 1996. Why bother even voting? I wondered if the guy with the most votes didn’t even win??

I didn’t even vote in 2004. Don’t tell my mom. I got the absentee ballot and I think I even filled it out. But a mailbox must have been hard to find or something because while packing for our Thanksgiving trip home nacho found my ballot. Ah, well, I thought. Had my one vote swayed Missouri in Kerry’s favour he still wouldn’t have won.

This year, though... This year is different. This year there was no playing around. I sent in my absentee ballot weeks ago, once again filled with excitement and (dare I say it???) pride. For the first time in many years the rest of the world is looking to the States with excitement, hope, and enthusiasm. I truly hope that we do not let them down.

Oh, yeah, and I’m not just talking about the big-picture here. I’ve promised my coworkers that an Obama victory means palmeritas de chocolate for all. And Spaniards take their breakfasts very seriously…

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Two thoughts

Two recent observations on Spain:

1) Bullfighting posters haven't changed in the past hundred years. Seriously. Those posters that you see on postcards or that they sell personalized in Plaza Mayor are supposed to be old-fashioned looking. The modern ones are identical. Is this some sort of metaphor for the sport as a whole? Rooted in a bygone era, refusing the change in the face of modern Spain? (Bullfighting could probably be a whole post some time. I don't know if I'll ever write it, though, 'cause I feel like I'd need to research the sport to give it a fair chance. And I don't really feel interested enough in it to do so.) Anyway, the other day I came across some posters for a bullfight in Cuenca. I thought at first they were vintage posters for sale. Then I saw the date. July 29, 2008.

2) Going to a wedding, as a simple guest, is no small affair here. Women are expected, even encouraged, to get a new dress, go to the pelu (peluqueria = hair salon) in the morning, and get completely decked out. There are stores dedicated entirely to the purchase of a wedding ensemble - dress with matching shoes, bag, and, depending on the season, wrap. And the plaza in front of the local church where the wedding is to take place turns into quite the make-shift runway. People unconnected to the wedding gather outside to check out the fashions on display - the bride's gown is top of the list, of course, but no one, not even the Ave Maria singer, is immune to the prying eyes of the local women.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Late to bed, Early to rise

I’m at work early this morning. This project (El Proyectazo) has been doing it’s best to matarme but I am refusing to let it do so. T-1 day to vacation is today’s mantra. (Yesterday’s was T-2 to vacation, so you can see that El Proyectazo has at least succeeded in knocking out my creativity.) They say that something good comes from everything. Or that every cloud has a silver lining. Or something like that. I generally tend to buy into that theory but my faith was starting to wane in the face of work these days. This morning my faith has been restored.

There are few things more beautiful and wonderful than Madrid in the early morning (workday) hours. The streets are empty. The bus is empty. The dumpsters are even empty. The streets around my house smell of soap as the doormen scrub their entrances. Over near my office the streets smell more of coffee as the early risers (or late to-bedders from the night shifts) drink at the cafeterias. I awoke annoyed at having to get up early, rearrange my schedule to launch today’s final assault on El Proyectazo. But tranquil Madrid settled my nerves this morning.

(On a general blogging note, you’ll surely notice that I have been seriously MIA over the past few (6??) months. I intend for that to change. When I had more time on my hands (read: when I was unemployed) I would think seriously about each post, write it, proof it, edit it, reread it… you get the drift. That process made the blogging into a major time commitment. Time that I don’t have anymore. And although the blogging stopped, my reflecting on Spain has not. And that’s a shame. So I’ve decided to abandon the “planned-out” type of blogging and go for a more succinct, flow-of-thought style. We’ll see if it holds out. Bear with me. Keep in mind it’s also T-1 to vacation so I’ll be MIA again for a bit. Off to Ireland.)

Friday, March 7, 2008

ETA again

ETA, the Spanish terrorist ("armed separatist") group from the northern Basque Country, is being blamed for today's assasination of an former councilman. The victim, a socialist, had moved away from politics and had recently given up his bodyguard. ETA hasn't yet claimed responsibility but the media and the politicians leave little room for doubt. With the TV full of reporters and politicians condemning the assasination, the most impressive in my opinion was the president of the Basque Country. Not only did he directly speak to ETA ("Never again use the name of the Basque Country and its people in support of your terrorist gains"), but he also had the best one-liner. "ETA sobra." More or less translated as, "ETA is not wanted," although it definitely loses something in the translation. What is truly shocking is the fact that the city council of the town where the assasination happened, and which the man called home, has not yet condemned the attack. What are they waiting for?

In between screen shots of the bullet-ridden car and interviews with neighbors who refuse to show their faces, the talk turns to how this will affect Sunday's elections. The two main candidates, Zapatero and Rajoy, have called for a break in the campaigning out of respect. But the question remains, how will this affect these elections?

Update: Apparently the city council in the town just voted to officially condemn the killing. However, those in favor of the motion won the vote OVER the opposing vote of the mayor. Either she's connected to ETA or she's afraid of them.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Absentee Voting

Last night around 9pm the doorbell rang. The postman. (Yes, the mailman comes "late" at night here.) Nahco will be gone this Sunday to the States for a training course and he requested an absentee ballot for the elections. They come by certified mail and have to be returned the same way. Basically you vote by choosing which political party you want and putting that "slip" in the envelope (or the box at the actualy voting booth). So the absentee ballot packet came with 37 (yes 37!!) slips for the various parties. In reality, there are just two with a real hope of winning, but the others are still there for your voting pleasure.

I was floored by the sheer number of options, including these:
  • The anti-bull fighting party against the mistreatement of animals (look for the symbol of the bleeding bull...)
  • The Non-Smoking Party
  • The Carlists
  • Two Falange parties (one, apparently, is the "authentic" one)

Interestingly, the top slip on the pile was the PP. The PSOE was burried deep within the set. Any idea why?

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Elections here in Spain are right around the corner – just one week from today, in fact. Structured differently than in the States, the Spaniards get to vote just for a political party with a pre-determined presidential candidate (no primaries here). There are two major political parties here, the PP (right) and the incumbent PSOE (left). Last Monday saw a debate between the presidential candidates from these two parties – a fairly big deal since most elections apparently occur without having such a face-to-face. The general consensus was that Zapatero (PSOE) walked away with the victory, but it was also almost unanimous that little ground was gained by either party in the fight for the undecided votes. It was all simply too scripted. Tomorrow night is the second installment and one of the last chances to capture those extra votes. Hopefully both parties step it up a little.

Most experts predict a PSOE victory, but only after creating a pact with one or some of the lesser-voted left-wing parties. Election victories in Spain are frequently obtained only through these unions as a simple majority isn’t always forthcoming. Despite their apparent lead, the PSOE is pulling out all the stops when it comes to their campaigning. I’ve heard from numerous people that it appears the PSOE is putting a greater effort into winning this election than the PP – their posters are on every corner, their signs are in the metro, and their campaigners are popping up everywhere – even in our predominately right-wing neighborhood. Today, while out and about, we came across PSOE promoters handing out pamphlets and stickers outside the Corte Ingles. The pamphlet they gave us was 100 Motivos - 100 reasons to vote for the PSOE.

It is a fairly striking and well-written handout that enumerates all of the biggest campaign promises - some very general, others more specific. Despite the fact that I can’t vote, I found the pamphlet informative – not only about what we can (likely) expect in the next four years, but also what the current state of things is. Some of the highlights include:

  • 3. Lower the unemployment index to around 7%.
  • 14. Increase to 12 years old the age limit for the child for a parent to have the right to a
    reduced workweek. (Didn’t know this right existed!)
  • 15. Increase the paternity leave from 2 to 4 weeks.
  • 28. For people under 30 years old, increase the scholarships of 1,600 Euros to study English
    in a foreign country.
  • 48. Place our university system among the top 10 in the world.
  • 86. Complete an extensive reform of the Civil Registry to ensure efficient service.
    95. After recuperating our role in the EU, we will support its conversion into a true political an
    social union.

If the PSOE wins and these promises are actually carried out, the social situation in Madrid, and throughout Spain, can improve greatly in the coming years. Granted, that “if…” is a big one.

Everything but the TV

I’m back. I think. It’s been a long time since I last wrote, but I am going to try to get back into it. The start of 2008 proved chaotic (broken laptop, new job, sick hubby) and left little time for blogging. But I haven’t yet lost the blogger’s eyes completely; and I am still constantly confronted with those “only in Spain” moments. However, I am also constantly reminding myself that not everything new that I encounter is related to being in Spain. After all, having not yet arrived at my fourth decade of life, I am fully aware that my overall life experience is still limited enough that there are plenty of things (common perhaps even in the US) that I simply haven’t been exposed to yet. If I comment on something of that nature, be sure to let me know. Like this most recent encounter…

This past week gave me an inside look at one of Madrid’s private hospitals. With a sick father-in-law, (luckily not life threatening) I spent an abnormally larger portion of my time checking out the private installations. I found it strange that even after days in the hospital my suegros (in-laws) never had the TV on. When I asked why I discovered that the TV usage is not included for free. Instead you have to purchase an access card from the nurses, thereby giving you limited viewing time. Apparently years ago, and surely in some older hospitals, the TVs were actually coin operated. Perhaps I could understand it in the public hospitals where the care is “free” and any xtras might be used to gain some revenues. But in a private hospital? Where you (or your insurance) is paying for the room, the food, the care, everything? Apparently it’s everything, but the TV.