Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Soundtrack of my Morning

It's off to Edinburgh for the holidays. But as we pack this is on the TV... fingers crossed...

video

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Cold Day in Hell


They’ve set up a foodstuffs market out in the boulevard of our street. A row of white booths offering everything from Galician breads to Canarian cheese to wines from all over the place. We’ve already checked it out for some good holiday gifts… The noteworthy thing about all this is, however, that the market has a security guard. No surprise, I suppose, considering the value of the goods locked up in those booths. But here’s the kicker…

The security guard is there. All. Night. Long. And, just his luck, this week is COLD. It was down well below freezing both last night and the night before. Sunday night-Monday dawn it snowed. (it’s snowing a tad now too.) Nevertheless, all week when I’ve walked to the metro in the morning, there he is.

Considering the current economic situation, I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t counting his lucky stars to even have a job – especially with the holidays fast closing in. But it seems like a job that no one in his right mind would really want…

Friday, November 27, 2009

Boob Tube

For my generation, at least, a great portion of the “knowledge” that people have about the USA comes from TV. Holidays such as Halloween and Thanksgiving may not be observed here but at least people have heard of them thanks to their favorite series. Elements of American “culture” show up all of the time and more than once I’ve found myself saying, “have you seen the episode when…” to explain something I’m talking about. Be it boy scouts, science fairs, or the bookmobile.
Friends and the Simpsons are by far the most commonly-used “dictionaries.” Seinfeld, however, never managed to fully push into the Spanish market. Although it’s a mystery to me, the show simply didn’t gain the success here that some of the other series did. Although I find myself wanting to refer to it in normal conversation, I limit myself to the shows which I know were widely viewed here.
Perhaps TV is a universal language as long as you stick to the script.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gracias

Missing Thanksgiving this year. Last year my mom’s side of the family was all together in Mexico. Two years ago I wasn’t working and got to host a big Thanksgiving dinner with the Spanish side of my family. This year… I’m working. My closest work friends are all in a training course for the day. I had TV-dinner lentils for lunch. It’s sad. But that’s what I have to deal with for being across the pond.

All in all it would really be shortsighted of me to complain. I have lots of things to be thankful for, including:
  • Both hubby and I have good, solid jobs (no small feat these days). Knock wood.
  • My sister and brother-in-law live “close” and we got to see them a couple weeks ago and will again over the Christmas holidays.
  • The internet. It’s true. Being an immigrant must have been infinitely more difficult even just 15 years ago.
  • In true Spanish fashion I have a 4-day weekend next weekend. It’s my Thanksgiving make-up stint and may even involve a turkey…
  • Thanksgiving is a Thursday so at least the weekend is always just around the corner.
Above all, this particular Thanksgiving, I am especially thankful that we have two very good friends visiting this week. So thank goodness for air travel and adventurous spirits. And thank goodness for Thanksgiving because without it and its 2 days off work we might not have gotten to enjoy their company. Even if we don’t get turkey tonight, we’ll still have tapas, drinks, laughs, and good times. And that’s enough for me.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The State of Science

“More than half of the Canarians and almost half of the Austurians
think the Sun revolves around the Earth.”
This popped up in my inbox first thing this AM. At first I thought it was from a Spanish equivalent of The Onion, but looking around a bit more on the internet, turns out that it’s true.

The meat of the article comes from a study published by the Spanish Federation for Science and Technology in which they performed a survey of the population’s basic scientific knowledge. The questions were presented in true-false format and the results are shown below. (The original information is all Spanish, so I took the liberty of translating it to English…)

The study goes on to show that the results are “worse” among the older and immigrant populations. And why?

The issue of immigration seems an easy one to decipher. Many immigrants, particularly those arriving from Africa (many of whom arrive in the Canary Islands), come from countries with far lower standards for education and greatly increased indices of illiteracy (like the 60% illiteracy in Senegal, almost 50% in Morroco and 30% in Algeria). It should be no surprise, then, that there levels of science education are far below Western standards.

The age issue is an interesting one. There is a significant population in Spain whose education was cut short at an early age due to the economic difficulties in the post-war era and the need to make money. It’s not uncommon to find people my father-in-law’s age (65+) who left school at 13 to begin working. For that reason, is it really surprising that the percentage of right answers from people over 65 drops nearly 20 points? What is even more interesting is that the number of people who said, “Don’t know,” skyrockets. Among younger generations it might be harder to find people who will admit that they don’t know the answer to such a simple question. The older people, however, have a darn good excuse for not knowing and many of them simply aren’t ashamed of the fact. That was the way life was.

These two populations are unique to Spain (immigration of course occurs elsewhere in the world, but among the major European countries, only Germany has a higher total immigrant population). And their existence perhaps gives some indication of how Spain might compare with the rest of Europe.

Turns out someone’s already done the comparison. The European Commission requested a special Eurobarometer on Science and Technology to compare the results of the same survey in different countries.

As you can see, Spain (ES) brings up the rear, “beating out” only Greece, Lithuania, Portugal, Latvia, Romania, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Turkey (that’s a rank of 24/32). Oh, yeah, and remember that immigrant population in Spain? Two of the other biggies in the influx to Spain are Romania and Bulgaria.

But in the end, what does it matter? Is it really important if people don’t know how the solar system works or that people didn’t ever hunt dinosaurs? There are two specific reasons why it makes a difference – one affecting Spain and the other relevant worldwide.

Spain and the Spanish people suffer from a minor inferiority complex. Perhaps it’s a justified one as they seem to be the red-headed stepchild on so many occasions – getting left out of the G20, losing miserably in Eurovision, etc. So many people consider then the “last” of the five big European powers – after France, Germany, England, and Italy. They’re more backwoodsy and outdated. A poor showing on the education front does nothing to stop those stereotypes. If Spain could pull itself up 5-10 points they’d be up there with the big dogs and finally get some good international press…

The other issue that comes to mind from all of this data is applicable worldwide. Over the past few years issues of a scientific nature have become far more prevalent in the political circle. In the States evolution is a big one. Both there and here in Europe the issues of stem-cell research and genetically-engineered food are growing in importance. So on a regular basis normal citizens are asked for their opinions on major scientific advances and their legality. How are people expected to make an informed, intelligent decision about such issues when their understanding of some basic scientific facts is virtually nonexistent? Clearly dinosaurs and the solar system are not likely to show up on the ballots, but the fact of the matter is that a lack of understanding of such basic knowledge is almost certainly indicative of a far larger problem. And there’s no denying the voters make uninformed decisions all of the time. But, it’s probably safe to say that the majority of the time someone who doesn’t understand an issue is likely to vote it down. Better safe than sorry, right? If schools (and society) could bring that basic level up to a reasonable standard, giving people a greater understanding of science in general, perhaps the population would even begin to show an interest in learning more about those hot-button issues before voting.

En fin. On the surface it’s more of the same – people are more ignorant than we would like to believe. But when you delve a bit more into the problem it’s an eye-opening study on the gap that exists in Spain and many other European countries (and probably in the States – I’d love to see the results of a similar study there) in terms of science understanding. And with the current state of the world, science simply cannot be left behind.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

German is to Germany as Spanish is to?

Just got an update from my soon-to-be houseguest and this forehead-slapping encounter probably takes the cake…

It’s more surprising than that “driving” blunder.

It’s even more ridiculous that the guy we started chatting with at the hotel in Mexico last year who asked, “Oh, Spain, huh? Is that south of here?”

Here goes…

“…told the haircut lady that I'm visiting friends in Spain over Thanksgiving. She asked if Spain celebrates it and I politely said, ‘um no.’ Then she asks ‘Are u moving there?’ I said ‘No, I don't speak Spanish so that wouldn't work out.’ so she says ‘Oh. They speak Spanish in Spain? Interesting, I didn't know that.”

It is still called SPANish, right?

We're expecting... houseguests!!!

One of my best friends is coming at the end of month for a visit. We’ve been chatting back and forth about what they (she and her wonderful hubby) must see while they are here. It’s her first time to Spain and his first to Europe, so I want to be sure they have a wonderful time.

It’s been interesting to see what recommendations other friends have given them. Some have recommended avoiding places I love and others have suggested some spots I don’t think would be high on my list. But that just reminds me how personal the experience of travelling is and how minor details can greatly impact your impressions of a place. I had a horrible case of food poisoning on my one and only trip to Paris and I certainly don’t have a good impression of the city. On the other hand one plate of fried, salted strips of pumpernickel bread has me craving a return trip to Yekaterinburg, Russia – not exactly a tourist hot-spot.

So we’re currently debating the virtues of a short plane-trip down to Granada (50€!!) vs. the charm of a road-trip around Castilla-Leon (Salamanca, Avila, Segovia). It’s not an easy choice. La Alhambra and tapas vs. the aqueduct (we’re engineers) and suckling pig… I suspect the south will win out as it is, in general, the face of Spain to the outside world, but we shall see.
Regardless, I am hopeful that the native-guide aspect will ensure that their 10 days here are memorable for all the right reasons. I’m taking it as a good sign that I saw the other day that City Hall plans to turn on the already-hung holiday lights the last week of November – just in time for my friends’ visit. And sparkly lights, like fried bread, make everything better.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Love Story

This “offspring” is the cab we caught home Friday night. When we reached our street I hopped out to take a couple pictures while Nacho paid. I should have taken some shots of the inside too because it was like a time machine trip back to last weekend. The doors automatically (and loudly) lock when the car stops. There is that annoying beeping when the turn signals are on. There are two backwards facing seats. The only difference was that the driver was on the “right” side. And of course the white paint job with the tell-tale red stripe.

The black cabs of the UK are such a novelty that whenever we’ve visited the isles, we’ve enjoyed the simple experience of taking them (even if they aren’t all black anymore); and we loved seeing one in Madrid, too.

“One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong…”

What’s next? A yellow school bus??

Saturday, November 14, 2009

View out my Window

I posted a new picture over in the side bar. I'd been meaning to change it for a while now but kept forgetting. It's not the best but it more or less captures the spirit of the neighborhood and our new apartment. Lots of sun, wide-open spaces.

We're looking west. That grouping of trees at the end of the street is the Retiro. Perfect for running before work. And the building that sticks up above the park is the
Palacio de Comunicaciones. This picture is from late August. Here's a closer shot...
I'll try and take another once the Christmas lights are turned on as they are stung all down the middle of the boulevard...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Tower of Bable

...is becoming the bane of my existence. I’ve recently started working on a new project at work only to realize that it means I’ll be working in my 5th language since starting at this company.

A little background... I work in the civil engineering construction department at one of the country’s big electricity companies. Although created as a way of concentrating the company’s construction endeavors, we now do 90% of our work for 3rd parties; in other words we build power plants in other countries. One of the primary reasons I was hired was clearly for my English. The company pays more for people who have a certain (test-proven) level of either English or French (or both for those lucky trilinguals). But it appears that in this day and age bilingualism or even trilingualism (the company also pays for my French classes) only gets you so far…

So here’s the count to date:
  1. Spanish
  2. English
  3. French
  4. Russian (look for an off-topic post on my business trip there a month or so ago)
  5. Portuguese
I’m not sure if there are many languages left for me to work in. Not that there aren’t more languages in the world, but many of the other countries where we do business (Lithuania, Qatar, etc.) function with a relatively high level of English, which obviously gives me some job security, but not necessarily exposure to another linguistic challenge.

Perhaps we’ll bid on a job in China…

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Heading North

Yesterday was a holiday (La Almudena – patron saint #2 of Madrid) so Nacho and I headed up to Edinburgh to visit my sister and brother-in-law. When we were heading to the airport last night nacho commented that to him the UK is like a midway point between Spain and the States. He meant figuratively (not physically, although it is…) in terms of personality and living style. Now, our family that lives there has found more than a few causes for culture shock; even so, in many ways it’s true – life in the UK settles in nicely between life in the States and la vida de España…
  1. People eat in public. Eating on the go is a “far-west” phenomenon as best I can tell. Eating a cereal bar, piece of fruit or premade sandwich while on the metro or bus in Madrid will garner you more than a couple of stares. It’s simply not done. Food is meant to be enjoyed. And, to the Spanish at least, you can’t do that while on the go…
  2. Many stores are open on Sundays. They might have more limited hours, but they are open.
  3. They have bagels.
  4. Lots and lots of restaurants deliver. Most of them also have websites. (On a side note there is one delivery service in Madrid that is quickly gaining ground. It’s a very “far-west” concept – order online from dozens of different restaurants and the middleman handles the delivery…)
  5. People generally go about life in a bit more business-like way. They hustle along on the sidewalks and in stores. Efficient. Spain is a strollers’ paradise.
  6. There are many more elderly people out and about in Madrid than I’ve ever seen in the UK – either in Edinburgh or in London – or in the States (barring Florida). Perhaps this is because Spanish social life revolves around being out and about with friends and so it’s something that people are accustomed to when young and just keep on doing it as they age…

Some of these things are positives and others are negatives. It’s not a matter of choosing a favorite, but rather of simply observing. The truth of the matter is that arriving in the UK makes me feel “at home” to a certain degree. It could all be due to the language. But, then again… the bagels probably have something to do with it too…

Friday, November 6, 2009

A-lo-in

Last weekend we inaugurated our new apartment in proper style – with a Halloween party. It was a resounding success. Halloween is not typically celebrated here, but it’s well-known nonetheless thanks to TV and movies. When we first proposed the idea of a costume party to our closest friends they were more than excited. They jumped at the chance to get dressed up and hang out drinking. We were treated to some gorgeous Indian summer weather and were able to spend almost the entire evening (until about 4am) out on the terrace. I’d say that it was a successful fusion of America and Spain. The jell-o shots, candy corn and jack-o-laterns mixed nicely with the sangria, chorizo, and pomada.

When I was here for my first Halloween 10 years ago, the day more or less passed unnoticed. Back then Halloween parties were hard to come by, but today they are a much more common occurrence. It was easy to find decorations and pumpkins (although the candy corn had to be shipped especially from the States) and most of the news programs had at least a short blurb on the festivities. I imagine that in the coming years they will continue to grow in popularity. It is probably to Halloween’s benefit that it falls roughly 6 months from the other costume-donning holiday – Carnival – and, in fact, fits nicely into the more or less holiday-less Fall. Otherwise I think it might get lost in the shuffle. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of holidays in the autumn months (this coming Monday for one) but not quite of the drunken – debauchery sort.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why?

Why are Spanish people so dainty that they eat sandwiches with a knife and fork but then don't put their napkins on their laps?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Martes y trece…

...ni te cases ni te embarques.

In Spain today is the unlucky day and not a Friday of the same numerical persuasion. And, as the saying goes, you should neither get married nor start a trip. In order to follow that advice, it’s probably better that it is a Tuesday and not a Friday, since neither weddings nor trips are common on Tuesdays. Perhaps they were years ago.


I’ve searched online but can find no history of why it’s a Tuesday in Spain and a Friday in the States. Although I did find a few references (including Wikipedia) to it having been a Tuesday, the 13th when the whole mess at the Tower of Babel occurred… it would be fitting that in Spain the day were somehow tied to religion.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On the Lam(b)

I’m way behind on my posting. The calendar is to blame.

The summers in Spain are a demon unto themselves. Everyone goes on vacation for weeks at a time. The sun shines for weeks and months on end. The work schedules are shortened to just, in my case, 6.5 hours a day. Everything slows down, particularly in August – plumbers, painters, electricians, etc. are impossible to find, the post office closes in the afternoons, local neighborhood bars close for the month. By the end of the summer when you’ve finally acclimated to the slothy summer ways…

September arrives. Schools are back in session. The rain starts. Work schedules are back to normal and suddenly the colleagues who wouldn’t answer the phone or return an email in July are breathing down your neck for what should have been done months ago…

I can only hope that it is September, instead of March, that comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb…

Friday, August 21, 2009

Run for the Border

Yesterday was a happy happy day. And one that surely made my wonderful expat sister very jealous. I met a good friend out for lunch as I usually do once a week or so. We headed to the nearest mall as we frequently do. We wandered up to the top floor where the restaurants are as we, you guessed, usually do. And what appeared above as we climbed the escalator?

The Border.

The figurative one of course. It appears that Taco Bell has expanded into Western Europe!! This made my day. It would have made my month, if I weren’t about an hour and a half away from two weeks of vacation. The menu, the colors, the hot sauces – it’s all nearly identical to back home – and I was able to have my beloved Nachos Bell Grande right here in Madrid!

One of the workers did comment on my requesting the “Fire” sauce – spicy foods are not exactly a mainstay in Spanish gastronomy – and I am not 100% convinced that it was the same sauce as back home…

We - virtually - discovered earlier this year that a Taco Bell had opened in one of the big malls outside of Madrid but considering that I am car-less it seemed unlikely that I would get out there. This other mall, however, is here in Madrid and a direct 20-minute metro ride from my house.

Ahhhh…. Life is good.

Monday, August 17, 2009

One of the best things about Spain


Check out that ingredient list...





Friday, August 14, 2009

Dressed in black

Not too long ago I had one of those expat experiences, that we all hope to never go through – or that we hope to at least postpone as long as possible. I was a little torn over if I should even blog about the situation. But my mind was made up when I searched the internet for some information on what to expect over here and came up with almost nothing. I decided that, although it’s entirely likely that my blog never shows up on a google search, I would at least contribute my impressions to the internet world – impressions from my first Spanish funeral.

When word came early one morning that a close family member had passed away, I wondered what was next. I already knew a bit about the main steps to be taken but, obviously, had never taken them before. The immediate family of the departed handled the paperwork at the hospital - I heard from my mother-in-law that it didn’t go all that smoothly; the doctor didn’t fill out the death certificate correctly and they were forced to return later to correct things.

Midday things moved to the funeral home. The one chosen was relatively “state of the art” (outdoor gardens, chapels, and 20+ individual parlors set up with sofas and private restrooms) and walking distance from my in-laws’ house. Nacho remembers playing soccer in the park there when he was younger. Traditionally the immediate family stays at the funeral home the entire time – from the moment the deceased is brought there until the funeral. Friends and other family comes and go throughout that time – more or less like a wake in the States. Although the immediate family traditionally stays overnight (or even over two nights if the timing is really poor), my mother-in-law told me that nowadays a lot of people set a time, midnight, for example, when they close and lock the room and go home to try and get some sleep. That wasn’t the case in my experience, however.

As this is Spain after all it seems important to note that there is no smoking allowed, at least where we were, much to the consternation of many of the visitors. However, as to be expected, there was the ever-present cafeteria where smoking is permitted. I haven’t spent much time in funeral homes in the States, but I don’t recall any coffee shops there… I suppose it is intended to accommodate the lengthy stays of the families.

In Spain, funerals take place quickly compared to American standards. Burials/cremations cannot occur less than 24 hours after the death but typically they are scheduled to be as near as possible to that time. The rule is that if the death happens in the morning, the funeral will be the following morning. The same goes for a death in the afternoon. The problem arises when the death happens in the evening or at night, due to that 24 hour rule… those people are typically buried the morning of the 2nd day – perhaps the reason for why the funeral in this case was pushed to 2:30pm the following day despite being an early morning passing. Everyone seemed a bit miffed by this but I got the feeling that it was something to talk about more than actual annoyance.

Regarding this same idea – a quick anecdote. When we were living in Florida we met a number of other Spaniards. One of our good friends there missed his father’s funeral because, although he left almost immediately upon hearing the news, he missed the connecting flight down to the south of Spain.

What I was most surprised by was the clothing people wore to the funeral. I chose my most conservative, black dress and closed-toe shoes. Imagine my surprise when many of the others in attendance were dressed in bright colors, flowered shirts, shorts and Capri pants, cotton tank tops… This is, after all, the country with “strict” guidelines about the length of the dress you can wear to a wedding depending on if it’s during the day or the evening. Nacho said perhaps it’s because it’s the summer and people tend to be more casual – more so even in August than in other months.

A sign was posted outside the chapel at the cemetery stating that the flowers placed there would be donated at the end of the day. Despite that fact, many people were taking flowers from the arrangements. I understand wanting to take some of them home – particularly the ribbons and notes adorning the flowers. And this was probably the most motivating thought. However, there was also the thought, “why let the gypsies get them?” I have no idea if this is true or not but apparently a commonly-held belief is that many of the gypsies selling flowers on the street corners came by their wares by visiting the city’s cemeteries…

After the funeral was over there was no mass gathering at the family’s house. People simply went on home. The government allows you three days off work (counting the weekends) for the death of a close family member (seven if it’s the spouse – common law or otherwise); “close” meaning parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, and siblings only. I was surprised to find out that no provisions are made for the hours needed to attend a funeral of a family member beyond that relation or for a friend. I asked my boss what I could do, expecting that the funeral would be in the morning hours. Turns out my only option was to take a vacation day, so I intended to do just that. When he saw me the following morning (since the funeral ended up being in the afternoon) he made a comment that convinced me that he thinks I had an interview or the like and had given him an excuse the day before in order to get out of work. I’ll save my thoughts on that one for another post, however.

En fin, other than the logistical differences, clearly death is one of those things that unites us. Another of those equalizers. We may honor it in different ways, show our grief with different colors and customs, mourn for different lengths of time, but when it comes down to it, the feelings of loss are surely the same.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Trusting neckline

An interesting little tidbit that came to me the other day…

I was writing an email to my friend, talking about bridesmaids dresses of all things, when I mentioned a strapless dress. Sometimes my mind thinks in Spanish and writes in English. Or vice versa. This was one of those times. As I wrote “strapless” the Spanish word, or phrase in this case, popped into my head.

Palabra de honor

This translates literally to “Word of honor,” but really just means your word. As in “give me your word…” How fitting that such an expression is used to describe the strapless neckline.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Roll Call

There are a couple of people that I don’t really know, but that I still see on my daily commute to work. I commented on this to a coworker of mine who lives near me and catches the Metro at the same stop. He said that he doubted he pays enough attention, or is really awake enough, to really recognize anyone. And he has a point. The 4 people that I see on a regular basis in the mornings are identifiable not by their faces, but by some other defining characteristic… let’s run down the cast of characters.

  1. Blind Man: There is the blind man with the cane and a khaki photographer vest. (Yes, I realize the irony of this but truly that is what it looks like to me.) I can tell if I am on time or not by when I encounter this man. If he’s already up on the street I am in trouble – running late. If I see him on the escalators, I am doing okay (various degrees of okay depending on which of the 3 escalators we’re on). And if I see him get off the train then I am ahead of schedule. Sidenote: There is another blind man with a dog who I see only occasionally and typically not in the mornings. He’s easily identifiable not only by the dog but also by the endless stream of conversation he carries on with the dog. “That’s a good boy. Are you tired, boy? Maybe you can sleep a little until we get off. Then you’ll have to wake up and lead me up those stairs.”
  2. Airport Employee: Dressed daily in green pants and a striped white and green shirt with a green color, AE is clearly not a morning person. She and I first “met” when we both went for the same open seat. I was oblivious to her until I was sitting down (yes, I won) and saw her giving me the evil eye. It continued on for the rest of the trip. I don’t know if she really is an airport employee or not, but her uniform combined with her disembarking the train each morning at the stop that connects to the airport line makes me think so… although I feel sorry for any travel-weary passengers dealing with her first thing in the am.
  3. Red Dress Lady: I don’t know this woman’s story. I know only that she gets on one stop after me and wears the same outfit – a patterned red and brown dress topped with an entirely out of place open button-down white shirt – at least twice a week and frequently thrice… I think that were I to wear the same clothing that often I would at least choose something a little less llamativo.
  4. Big Head: Seriously, this guy has one of the largest heads I’ve ever seen. He lives a couple stops up from me and actually works in my office. I can’t manage to get up the courage to say anything though. I mean, what do I say? He probably doesn’t recognize me at all and I can’t exactly tell him WHY he stands out so much to me.

All of this does make me wonder if I am a constant figure on anyone else’s morning commute. Perhaps Blind Man recognizes my footfall and judges his timeliness accordingly. Or perhaps Airport Employee still gives me the evil eye when I’m not looking…

Friday, July 31, 2009

Pass/Fail

Education is one of those things that sort of defines a culture, don’t you think? It’s one of the equalizers – we all go through it, for differing length of time and with different goals – but nonetheless everyone spends a decade or so in school. On the flip side however, is the fact that between different cultures educational experiences can be a polarizing element. Despite the fact that a US graduate, be it from high school or college, has more or less learned the same things (barring local histories and languages) as a Spanish graduate the way they went about learning those things, and more specifically the way they were evaluated on the same, has much less in common.

Except among the very top tier of students in a particular school, the competition for class rankings and high grade point averages simply doesn’t exist in Spain. Instead the kids just want to get by. This is particularly noticeable at the university level where not only is it common to fail multiple subjects throughout one’s college career, but where doing so is not really something to be ashamed of. Instead, it is a part of life. The university system (and correct me if I’m wrong primary and secondary curriculums as well) is set up specifically for that eventuality. It starts out as in the States – final exams after each of two semesters – but then Spain throws in a 3rd option. Exams in September, expressly designed for the student who didn’t manage to pass the earlier exams. And it’s not much more uncommon for people to fail (or simply not show up to) that 3rd exam, leaving the subject and final exam for the following year(s).

By the way, the limit for a passing grade is a 5/10 here – not a 6 (or 60% - D) like in the States.

People here are shocked when I tell them that in the States (in my experience at least) not only do you not get multiple chances at the same exam (without retaking the course), but that at some schools a low passing grade is only accepted a limited number of times. (Duke, for example, allows just two D’s over your 4-year course. After that, a D is like an F – no course credit at all.) In other words “failing” in the States is a much bigger deal than here in Spain. Here at least you get another chance at it, and taking advantage of that opportunity is the norm, not the exception. I’ve heard that the standard length of time spent getting a technical engineering degree, a three-year curriculum, is in fact no less than five years. The five-year “superior” engineering degree typically takes around seven or eight.

All of this comes back to my wondering if setting the bar “low” leads to people being more likely to fail. One of my favorite sayings is, “Reach for the moon. Even if you fail you’ll end up among the stars.” In other words, if you aim for a C, or a 7 on the Spanish scale, if you fall short you still manage to pass. Putting an emphasis on passing “well” perhaps encourages people more than just emphasizing the pass. After all, if you study just well enough to pass and then the exam throws you a curve ball where are you left?

There was an article published recently in one of the free newspapers that I can pick up on my way into work. They recently released the results of the grade level proficiency tests for the “sophomores,” a relatively new test for that particular grade – this was just the 2nd year – designed to evaluate overall proficiency in mathematics and language arts. The average score was 4,59 out of 10. A failing score. And the test revealed that only 32,7% of the high school students received a passing score in mathematics. In language arts they fared better – 68,9% passed that one. Let’s compare that the national average in the States – for the 2007 school year, in mathematics, 70% of 8th graders (no data for higher courses) received a “basic” or better rating – the benchmark that indicates the student scored at least at the minimum level for his grade. Similarly, in reading 73% reached that mark and in writing 87% managed to do the system proud. (Also keep in mind that the Spanish averages are for all students while the US averages are strictly the public schools. The argument exists that the US averages would be higher if they included private prep schools…)

Clearly this isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Perhaps the curriculum is more rigorous in Spain. Perhaps a portion of those US “basics” fall below a “passing” score. Regardless, the US system considers that a significantly larger portion of its students meet the established minimum level than the equivalent Spanish system.

And it all goes back to the point of my post. Following incredibly simplified logic - with such disparate educational evaluation systems, primarily the acceptability of “failing” and/or just “passing” here in Spain, can you not argue that the emphasis on good grades leads to better results? People try harder because they want to do well, not just well enough. And if something goes wrong, they frequently still end up passing…

Thursday, July 30, 2009

50 years

Today ETA committed its second attack in as many days – yesterday morning’s car bomb in front of a Guardia Civil residence barracks in Burgos caused physical damage and wounded a number of people. Today’s limpet mine underneath a Guardia Civil car in Mallorca killed both agents inside.

Experts have been warning for a few months now that ETA was going to make it an “active” summer. The theory is that, in light of the recent hits they’ve taken – a chain of short-lived leaders was arrested earlier this year, the group would be looking to boost internal moral by succeeding at some high profile terrorist attacks.

It appears that the experts were right. Tomorrow is ETA’s 50th anniversary. People are on edge – wondering what, if anything, ETA will try tomorrow.

Dr. Mario

It’s no great shocker for me to admit that I am fluent in Spanish. I don’t know quite when that jump was made – from really really good to fluent. Certainly sometime in the last 2 years that I’ve been living and working in Madrid. Sure, there are still words that I don’t know or grammar tenses that trip me up. But for all intents and purposes fluency is now mine. (After all, those who can claim to know every word in their native language are few and far between… and almost certainly lying.) This can be evidenced by two most recent vocabulary acquisitions – engedro (when used for definition b), locayo, and esbirro. But although I know that I’m fluent it’s not something that I ever think about unless I’m working on my resume.

Then I was talking to my friend yesterday about a recent trip to the pharmacy. I stopped by on Monday to ask the pharmacist about a potential complication that I’d read on the prospectus of one of the medicines I’d bought last week. I just wanted to see how prevalent the complication was, what he recommended, etc. As I was relating this story to my friend she interrupted me and said, “ Did you ever think you’d have to have that kind of conversation in another language? It’s not exactly the type of vocabulary they teach you in school.” And I realized she was right. Somewhere along the way the leap was made from opening a bank account, buying groceries, heck even debating American foreign politics to discussing the finer points of illness, medicinal interactions and long-term health. If I had tried to plan that conversation, my query, ahead of time I probably would have chickened out and made Nacho do it for me. But this was just another stop in my long list of Monday afternoon errands. And it went off without a hitch.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Writing on the Wall

Si tu Dios es judío, tu coche japonés, tu pizza italiana,
tu gas argelino, tu café brasileño, tu reloj suizo,
tus cifras árabes, tus letras latinas...
¿Cómo te atreves a llamar a tu vecino extranjero?

I was out and about (unfortunately sans camera) last week when I came across this message painted on a wall in the Lavapiés neighborhood. It can be translated as the following:

If your God is Jewish, your car Japanese, your pizza Italian,
your gas Algerian, your coffee Brazilian, your watch Swiss,
your numerals Arabic, your letters Latin…
How dare you call your neighbor a foreigner?

Lavapiés is perhaps the most heavily immigrant-populated neighborhood in Madrid – Wikipedia states that around 50% of the population in non-Spanish. And I would venture to say that the bulk of people who visit the area, frequently for its authentic “ethnic” food, are of the more open mindset, so it’s not that the sentiment is falling on deaf ears, but rather on those that are already singing in the choir… perhaps it would be a better message for the residents of my neighborhood… I wonder how long the graffiti would be allowed to stay up were it painted on a wall on Calle Serrano?

On another note, translating the message got me to wondering… why do we capitalize nationalities (and languages for that matter) in English but not in Spanish?

Carrots


Don’t ask me why but the other night Nacho and I were singing the theme song to Married with Children. You know how it goes…

Love and marriage, love and marriage.
They go together like a horse and carriage.

That’s when I realized that something was off with Nacho’s singing. He was unintentionally putting a more modern spin on the song. After all, who drives carriages these days? A better fit was Nacho's song...

Love and marriage, love and marriage.
They go together like a horse and carrots.


Language is such a funny thing.


(Thanks to
google for the image, not the editing though - that was all Nacho-inspired.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thursday thoughts

If I only I had my camera with me here at work… then I’d post a picture of the current state of my office refrigerator. It’s stocked full of tantalizing bottles of Lambrusco. And a big cake. Clearly someone is celebrating. And celebrating in Spain means alchohol. Even if it’s at the office. Even if it’s at noon. I might have to join in. Even if it’s not for my department…

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Horse of a Different Color

I just got back from a Girls’ Week trip to London with my mum and sis. We’ve all been to London a half-dozen or so times so this trip was less about sight-seeing than it was about shopping, eating, and theater-going. In fact it has been almost exactly 10 years since my first trip to London – a girls’ weekend with my mum when I was studying abroad in Madrid in the fall of 1999.

This blog initially sprang out of the need for an outlet for the unceasing comparison-making habit that I picked up upon returning to Madrid to live. But one of the first realizations that I ever made about how different seemingly similar “western” countries can be was when I arrived in London that fall after 2 months in Madrid.

We were strolling into Leicester Square, hoping to score some last-minute tickets for a musical that evening, when I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the sheer number of non-white people around me. It wasn’t something that I’d ever considered before – the homogeneity of Spain. Although I went to a college which is approximately 1.5 times more “racially diverse” than the nation as a whole, my hometown in suburban St. Louis has nearly 3 times fewer ethnic minorities than the national average. So perhaps after spending my summer back home the makeup of the Spanish population simply wasn’t noteworthy to me. Certainly I had never “noticed” it prior to my arrival in London, where I was abruptly surrounded by people from every walk of life – Africans, Asians, Indians. After 5 days there such a mélange was once again the norm for me and upon my return to Madrid I began to notice what I had not before.

According to Wikipedia, London had an immigrant population of around 29% in 2001. The population of immigrants in Madrid back then? 3%. Yes, that’s right. Three percent. Reading that makes me think that I probably should have noticed something was up regardless of my hometown demographics. Heck, that 3% makes my 9%-non-white hometown look like a true melting pot.

But things have changed drastically for Spain these past 10 years. I was not struck by such a difference this time around. Certainly the cultures represented in the UK and in Spain are different. (My sister in Edinburgh complains about the lack of good Latin American cuisine. I have yet to find really good, cheap Thai food.) But the diversity is there. Or it’s getting there.

Also according to Wikipedia, over the past ten years the immigrant population in Madrid has risen to almost 18% of the total. Six times as many immigrants in just a decade. Unfortunately for me the bulk of those come from 3 major geographical regions – Africa (proximity), Eastern Europe (entry to the EU), and Latin and South America (language) – and southeast Asia is not one of them. For the time being I’ll have to save my Thai-food cravings for the trips to the UK and my sis will save her picante cravings for visits to Madrid.

(On a random side note, perhaps connected to this jumble of information, is the recent discovery by my burrito-craving sister that Taco Bell is running a trial in Europe before expanding into the market. Where did they locate their lone store? Madrid.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Roadtrip

Last week I once again travelled north to visit our construction site in Pais Vasco. I don’t really mind these days out of the office, but I admit that some times I am overly focused on getting there and getting back. This time I decided to enjoy the journey a bit more and stop at one of the sites that I pass each time I venture that way. This is like the sign that beckoned me…


A 10th century necropolis tucked away in the hills. On my previous visit I asked one of the guys at the construction site if he had been up there. He didn’t even know it existed and he’s from a town about 6 miles away! So that piqued my curiosity even more and made my stopping absolutely necessary.

I climbed up into the hills, through a little village full of stone buildings, past a shepherd with his flock until I reached a second sign pointing me along across a field – no real road in sight. But at just 200m I figured I (and my non-4 wheel drive rental car) could handle that. I got about 400m along to the top of a ridge when I stopped.

There was no necropolis in sight.

I climbed out of my car and peaked around the area. Nothing. Could I really not SEE it? Had the ridge I climbed put me on TOP of it? I still don’t know the answer. I searched the internet when I returned to Madrid and the only reference I could find has no pictures of the structure…

Disheartened I made my way back down the hill to the main road. On the way I snapped this shot of my “office” for the day.


I suppose all was not lost.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Bald and funny

Last week one of my coworkers was kind enough to give me a ride home from the office. As we made our way through Madrid’s late afternoon rush hour we somehow started chatting about stereotypes – particularly those stereotypes associated with the people of a different country. You know the kind I’m talking about… everyone from (insert country) carries a gun, goes to bull fights, is a drunk, wishes s/he were American, is rude, etc… But my friend threw me for a loop when he said,

“I know not all Americans are fat, burger-eaters. Just like not all Spaniards are bald joke-tellers.”

Huh? Am I missing something? I’ve lived in Spain off and on for going on 5 years and never once would I have thought to describe the typical Spanish in such a fashion… Am I alone on this? Is this really the image the people outside of Spain have of the Iberian men?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

No cheese today

Seems that Virginia has caught on to what the Spanish have known for years - no smiling in the official ID pictures. I first came across this phenomenon 5 years ago when Nacho and I went to get his picture taken for is green card application. I had to yell at him to get him to smile.

"They aren't going to want to give you a green card if you look mad!"

But it turns out that in Spain the norm is not trying to look cute, but rather trying to look as bored as possible. Just what Virginia is looking for, too, it turns out. However, as best I can tell smiling for the ID pictures is not yet prohibited here. I, for one, am smiling on my national ID card.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Something's in the Air

Back when Nacho and I were living in Florida we’d frequently take the non-stop Miami-Madrid flights over for a short visit with family and friends. We’d arrive around 8am after 9 hours of coach-class flying and immediately jump into 5ish days of eating, drinking, talking, walking, shopping, dancing, laughing… People would always ask how we did it – where we managed to find the energy for our whirlwind trips. And I’d tell them that I wasn’t sure what it was, but that something about Madrid energizes you and makes you want to get out and enjoy the city.

Turns out scientists have found out what that “something” is…

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Story of Giving

Today as I chatted with a coworker of mine who was recently expatriated to Algeria for a long-term construction project, she told me about one of her latest experiences. Truth be told she’s been there barely a week and already has a plethora of stories to tell – everything from the prohibition of bikinis on the public beaches to the military escort that accompanies them each day. This time, however, she told me of a simple exchange between her and the construction office’s cleaning woman. My coworker casually commented to the cleaning woman that she looked pretty with henna painted on her feet; the very next day the woman arrived with a gift of all the necessary tools and paints for my friend to decorate her own feet. This coming from a woman who perhaps earns in a month what my friend earns in a day.* Who works 18 hour days cleaning floors and quite possible lives, at least by our standards, in poverty. And yet she still manages to give a gift to an almost complete stranger. The lesson in giving and friendships and respect is an important one.



*My friend filled me in on the financial data, too…Due to the special circumstances surrounding living and working in Northern Africa, expat employees receive approximately 2,5 times their gross salary (think in the range of 5-8,000€/month). The skilled construction workers on the site earn roughly 100€ a month and the local engineers pull in about 400€. Imagine what the cleaning staff must make...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Stamp Collector

After work tonight I am heading to the post office to send in my application for a new passport. Mine expires in barely more than a month and I have clearly left this task until the last possible moment. I am actually quite sad about it. I have become incredibly attached to this stupid little blue book. It has been my constant companion over the past 8 years and rarely have more than a couple of months passed without my needing to pull it out of the drawer. But, its time has come. Not only is it on the verge of expiring, but it is also completely full. I counted this morning. 58 stamps and a big-ass visa sticker cover the 7 available pages.

Years ago (8 years ago, actually, when I was in the UK after graduating college and right before moving to Spain) I made a “Life’s To-Do List.” #46 was “Fill a passport with stamps.” Check.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Junk in the trunk

Last night I went to a costume shop to pick out a Sevillana dress for our trip down to the Feria de Abril this weekend. As I was trying on one of the dresses and chatting with the salesgirl about whether or not it looked too big, I was suddenly accosted by an abuela shopping for a Spiderman costume for her grandson. I should have known better. These kinds of conversations are an open invitation for butting in by anyone within hearing distance. The woman began pulling on the sides of the dress and then she tells me that the dress will look good if I just take it in a little bit… because, as she so kindly put it, “Your waist is small, but you’ve got a lot back here.” The gall of the abuelas never ceases to amaze me.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Missing Piece

Although I am typically inspired to write by something I’ve seen. this time, I’ve instead been motivated by the lack of something. And not just anything… that commonplace European house fixture that seems so strange and foreign to most Americans… the bidet.

Nacho and I recently moved apartments. Our new apartment has two full bathrooms, both completely redone, and both lacking a bidet. Truth be told, in this day and age a bidet “sobra” (isn’t necessary) in most apartments, but even so most new construction and remodels still feature them. Our current landlord, an architect, clearly felt that it was a waste of space. And I, thankfully, agree. I’d rather have the open space.

But all of this got me thinking… is the missing bidet not somehow symbolic of the blending of cultures that we witness nowadays… the same phenomenon that sees Starbucks and McDonalds in every major city the world over? So I started looking around my apartment for some sign, some indication that what I have is indeed an apartment in Madrid. And I couldn’t find a single thing. It’s almost a kind of “evolution” of homes. Those fixtures which make life more efficient, simpler, more comfortable, are beginning to appear throughout the world and those which are no longer needed are disappearing. The bidet is the vestigial wisdom tooth that no longer serves its purpose while the Crockpot-like cookers popping up in the stores and the automatic coffee makers replacing the moka pot in many homes are those organs which helps us lead a leaner, meaner, faster, "better" life. Slowly but surely, the daily life, from the food we consume to where we live, both on this side of the ocean and on the other side is losing its cultural definition.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bull Sighting


Occasionally, as I go about my daily life, I am suddenly struck by the thought of all the twists and turns my life has taken to get me to that moment in time, that specific spot, this life. Yesterday morning was one such moment.

There I was, heading north through Castilla y Leon en route to a construction site awaiting my watchful presence, when over the horizon rose a giant set of black horns. Then came the head and the hulking body of an enormous black bull. Anyone who has spent much time on the Spanish highways will not be surprised by such an occurrence, but this was my first bull. Not the first I’d seen, but the first I, myself, had driven towards. And for some reason it spoke to me like no other such bull had.

In the few seconds it took for the bull to fully appear on the hillside, the events in the past few years that conspired to bring me to that place – to Spain, to Madrid, to the A-1 freeway north of Madrid, to a solo business trip to a construction site hidden away in the folds of southern Pais Vasco – flashed through my mind. And it overwhelmed me.


The wonderful part is that it thrilled me. I was not struck by a bout of homesickness, nor was I not flooded with nostalgia for Alligator Alley. I was instead exhilarated by the sight of something so Spanish and the thought of how perfectly it fits into the life that I can call mine.

Monday, April 20, 2009

With a Little L

As promised, what follows is a no-holds-barred rundown of this morning’s practical driving exam.

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Are you ready?

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Sure??

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Ok, here goes. It wasn’t that bad. Seriously. It was amazingly similar to the driving test I took 13 ½ years ago on my 16th birthday. Change the diesel-powered, stick shift Seat Ibiza from this morning to the gasoline-chugging, automatic Buick LeSabre from 1995, add in a couple of roundabouts, and the test was literally the same. And, when you come to think about it, why should it even be any different? Barring, perhaps the idiosyncrasies of driving in the UK, in general, driving is driving, isn’t it? Turn signals, yielding to oncoming traffic, and parallel parking are the same the world over. The language is not even really an impediment.

Why then, the night-and-day difference between DMV of the States and the DGT of Spain?
Why was I, an experienced driver, shaking like a leaf as I climbed into the driver’s seat this morning??

It all comes down to perception. The Spanish DGT has set the price – both financial and mental - of getting your driver’s license at an exorbitantly high level. All in all I’ve probably spent 400€ getting my license. And that was doing everything the first time around, in the shortest period of time possible, and with 13 years of driving experience. One of the girls who also took the exam today told me she’s spent nearly 3,000€ getting to the same point. 3,000€. Mind you, that’s roughly 3 times the average monthly salary in Madrid. In setting such a high price for the license, people’s nerves get the best of them. They expect something infinitely more difficult than the reality, and in doing so, subject themselves to dozens of driving classes at 30€ a pop. When they finally get up the nerves to take the exam, they think of the hundreds of Euros already invested in that moment and the horror stories they’ve heard up until then and how on earth they are going to ask their boss for aNOTHer day off work. So many people take the exam expecting to fail. So they do. And then repeat the whole cycle again.

The drivers in the States are no less prepared. They are, in general, simply less freaked out. It’s $15 after all. You fail? You go back the next day and retest for another $15. And in most cases, you have learned the great bulk of your driving skills either through the Drivers’ Ed classes in high school or from your parents by way of a learner’s permit, not by pumping hundreds of dollars into private classes. Simply put, the Spanish DGT and its spawn, the driving schools, are a money-making machine that simply does not have an equal in the States. Their mere existence and the sheer way they go about carrying out their business is what makes their way-of-life possible. It is, indeed, a cycle that is not likely to change ever. Like so many things in Spain, it is done this way because it is done this way. A fresh crop of drivers comes through. They complain about the mafia-like mentality of the test-givers and the unfair, subjective, ranking scale used to pass the exams. But when they finally pass they are so happy to be through with it all that they push it out of their heads and move on instead of continuing to protest against such a system.

And mind you, it’s one thing if the perpetual test-taker is saying such things. I, however, passed.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Food for thought

People here in Spain often ask about typical American food. Is it really the hamburger? I usually answer that the best “American” food is regional, not national. I was “home” a few weeks ago and had a long list of must-eat foods. Among the everyday eats such as bagels, Mike-n-Ikes and goldfish crackers, were Chicago-style pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs as well as St. Louis’ traditional toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake.

In light of that trip, and the resulting 5 pounds I am trying to lose, I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately.

Spain in general is an utter treasure-trove of delicious eats, but I’ve come to the realization that when it comes to typical local cuisine, Madrid got the short end of the stick. Granted it’s a matter of opinion – which regional dish is the tastiest – but I’m willing to bet that one of Madrid’s oldest and most famous, callos a la madrileña, is not a fan favorite. After all, how can stewed cow guts and noses compare with Valencia’s paella or Andalucía’s gazpacho? They can’t, which is probably why said dish hasn’t triumphed all that much outside of Spain. You’d be hard pressed to find it on the menu of any Spanish restaurant back in the States, and I have yet to have a friend or family member visit us who is willing to try it.

That being said, there are obviously plenty of Spaniards more than willing to slurp up the stew, and it is commonly included in the offerings of the menu del día during the winter months. Although, I have noticed that the closer you get to the Plaza Mayor the less likely you are to find it. Tourists, after all, frequently rely on the pictures to chose what to eat, and let’s admit it, callos are simply not that photogenic.

Friday, April 10, 2009

There's no place like home.

This flyer for a neighborhood Walmart-like store recently appeared in our mailbox. I was flipping through the pages checking out the new spring plants when my attention was distracted by the pages offering products to “make you feel at home.” Stores everywhere are pulling out the stops to get customers in the door and buying: 3x2 sales, free financing, free add-ons, etc. But this is the first marketing I’ve seen directed specifically at the immigrant population. “Come buy at our store. We sell all of the products straight from your home country.” Oh, and we’ll throw your flags into the ad, too, to pull at the heart strings a little. So, what’s being offered?


Plantain chips and canned mackeral in tomato sauce from Ecuador, pickled vegetables from Romania, black and green tea and canned tuna with peas and tomatoes from Morroco, sugarloaf and pony beer from Colombia, sauerkraut and pickles from Poland, and chimichurri and yerba mate from Argentina.

Quite the diverse offering and also quite representative of the specific imnmigrant communities in the area. It got me to thinking, though. What would make ME feel at home? It’s safe to say that the first store in Madrid to offer bagels, Boca burgers, Diet Mountain Dew, and sour cream would get all of my business.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The F Word

The news of the day (well, yesterday) was the Spanish president’s slip-up at a press conference with the Russian president. ZP accidently used the F-word (which happens to also be an F-word in Spanish) instead of a similarly pronounced word meaning “to support.” It was clearly a slip of the tongue and no real controversy has arisen. But the video/audio clip is all over the place – on the news, on the satire shows, on the radio. And it cracks me up every time I see/hear it. But what really surprises me is that ZP doesn’t even crack a smile. I think I would have lost my cool had I let such a thing slip…

Friday, February 27, 2009

Jeans on Friday like Fish on Friday?

From a strictly-controlled, highly-scientific, government-sponsored survey this morning…

Approximately 80% of pre-7am subway riders wear jeans.

Is this because it’s Friday? Because a lot of trade workers work early hours? Because it’s Lent and being such good Catholics they’ve given up dress pants? A fluke?

Okay, so this wasn’t really a valid study, just an observation of mine. Surprised? But the 80% is true. I counted. And I’m going to do another random sampling next week some time. To rule out the 1st one anyway…

I have on jeans today, too. So do most of my coworkers. Not trade workers. Good Catholics??

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Crash course

I just had a crash course (no pun intended) on Spanish culture.

Yesterday I took the written portion of the driver’s license exam. And I passed. My American friends are unimpressed. My Spanish husband is taking me to dinner to celebrate.

In Spain there is an entire industry built around the driver’s licenses. Driving schools are expensive and obligatory. Written tests are ridiculously difficult, almost ensuring that the average person will take at least two trips to the exam room. There are official policies about what to do if you surpass the 3 allowed attempts. In short, it’s the perfect picture of Spanish bureaucracy – expensive? Check. Time consuming? Check. Maddeningly complicated? Check.

I had some idea that the exam itself would be tough. I was prepared for that. I was not prepared for the literally hundreds of people taking all manner of tests – written, practical, cars, motorcycles, trucks. A madhouse. As we pulled in I was instantly blown away by the sea of orange. Why do all of the driving schools use orange as their color? And the building? Ah, the building… There is an adjective in Spanish - tercermundista or third-worldish - that most adequately describes the building. Nacho told me that he also went there for his driving exams. 15 years ago. Clearly the building has not been remodeled since then. And it’s not for the lack of funds. With three monitors and 150 test-takers, the government is most certainly making the licensing a lucrative business.

Perhaps for that very reason, and in all fairness, compared to other Spanish paperwork procedures, this one was well-organized. Albeit way behind schedule. The test was supposed to start at 12:30. At about 12:35 they started calling each of the 150 or so test-takers one by one. We started the exam around 1. It’s literally a check-the-box test. Surely corrected by hand. Results were out this morning around noon. And they were available online. A major step for Spanish bureaucracy.

I’ve heard that the actual driving portion of the exam is even more overwhelming. And that even non-smokers will have the urge to puff a couple while waiting hours for their turn to be called. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Thanks to eleconomista for the picture. No cameras allowed in the high-tech testing area.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Lists in progress


Ways in which I will probably never be Spanish (although there is always the possibility… check back in 20 years):
  1. I go through butter-substitute faster than olive oil.
  2. I cannot drink alcohol at lunch and go back to work.
  3. I wear sneakers to work and then change into heels. I cannot suffer for beauty.
  4. If I cook a protein and a vegetable, they go on the same plate. Not on two different ones to be eaten as a 1st and 2nd course.
  5. I tip.
  6. I do not understand the obsession with non-soccer-playing Spanish athletes on the international stage.
  7. I don’t care about Paquirrín.
  8. I don’t wrap my luggage in industrial-strength plastic wrap.

Ways in which I am already Spanish:

  1. I push. On the sidewalk, in the metro, on the stairs. (Apparently I am also 80.)
  2. I have 5 kinds of dried beans in my kitchen.
  3. I eat fruit for dessert.
  4. My 2nd favorite dish in the entire world is fabada.
  5. I say hello and goodbye to perfect strangers - in stores, on the elevator, in the doctor’s office waiting room.