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


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 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


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.