Queue Up

Jeff and I do most things together. This doesn’t mean we don’t have other people we do things with, but the majority of our time we hang out with one other. And we do most of our bureaucratic, medical stuff, etc. together. My Spanish is better than his so even if the topic has nothing do do with me I’m there for support.

There are times I’m busy and can’t go with him. Or I’m just tired and don’t want to venture out. So he has to go it alone. This is where his frustration can start. He’ll come home shaking his head.

‘I just don’t get it. I got there and there was this mass of people. No line, just people sort of standing around and sitting on chairs. Then the door opened and they lined up. Even the people who got there after me cut in front of me. I was like ‘What the Hell!?’.

Spanish queuing is a marvel to me. Every government office or medical building has a great system with numbers and letters that ensure orderly service and provide privacy to all. In the US, when you go to the doctor they have people stand 4 feet behind you ‘for privacy’ while they loudly ask you to spell your exact name, date of birth and then ask you why you want to see the doctor. I used to just say ‘I have a rash.’ This meant the receptionist wouldn’t ask any more questions – even if I was there for a broken arm. Then the piece de resistance – shouting out your name for all to hear when it’s your turn. This would never happen in Spain. Because they’re serious about privacy – not just playing at it.

So I didn’t really understand why he would be having a difficult time on his forays out into the world of Valencia alone. And then today happened.We needed to get some blood work done. Our regular doctor doesn’t take appointments. I know his work schedule – its not complicated – and when we need to see him we turn up and Espera (wait). It never takes too long. But getting labs done can take forever. They open at 8:30 so I had us there at 8 am sharp. There were already two people waiting before us outside on the pavement. I smiled and said ‘Buenos dias’ and they smiled back. Luckily there were only two others. Great! This would take no time at all.

Slowly, more and more people came and then I remembered what I had forgotten since the last time I went to the bank and there was a line. This is la vez. Each person stopped and asked those already there ‘Ultimo?‘ (it mean’s ‘Last’) and the last person who arrived before them raises their hand. Today, this went on and on until there are about 30 people standing around on the sidewalk waiting for the clinic doors to open. Not an actual line – just a collection of people leaning on cars, sitting on the one bench or the stairs of a building. All waiting. When you ask ‘Ultimo?’ you are attaching yourself to the person who raises their hand. Then, when the next person arrives and asks the same question, you raise your hand and they attach themselves to you.

This is the Spanish form of lining up, often without the line. And it is sacrosanct. There will be no cutting in line, for the line that doesn’t exist. But it does. It’s virtual and just as real as if we were all between stanchions to board a plane. Everyone has a place and it will be enforced by all who are also queuing. Break the rule and there will be words and the group will turn on you. I’ve seen it in a bank.

What la vez also does is it allows those who need to take a seat – the elderly, those with children, the infirm – or those needing a bathroom – to do so without losing their place in the either real or virtual line. If someone arrives and the last person has gone to the restroom or is sitting far away so they can’t hear, the others in the line will point out who they are so that this person understands who is in front of them. It’s kind of genius, actually. It provides order from potential chaos. I explained this all to Jeff as he was confused as to what was going on and how this would all pan out.

‘See? I’m glad we’re by the door because when they pull up the shutter there will be a crush to get in and we’ll end up last.’ He cautioned me.

‘No we won’t. I raised my hand when the next person came. That guy is before me and the lady is after me.’

He was confused, so I went through the simple rules. He was flabbergasted.

‘We’ve lived here nearly two years and you’re just now telling me this?!’

‘I forgot. And anyway, we’re usually at places that have electronic queuing so then it’s a moot point. But now that you know how it works it’s easy.’

‘If I’d known this I could have saved hours of frustration. I’ve had people ask me ‘Ultimo’ before but I didn’t know why they were saying ‘Last’ to me and I didn’t answer cause I didn’t know how to respond. They probably all thought I was rude or trying to cut in line.’

Jeff doesn’t do line-cutting. In any culture. I felt him having visceral line -shaming flashbacks from the last 2 years.

‘Well, now you know. When you walk up you say it, and then respond by raising your hand when the next person comes.’

Jeff looked thoughtful. Its like the clouds cleared out. As we were walking back to the apartment he smiled. ‘It all makes sense now.’ Which made me feel a little guilty for not filling him in since this method of queuing is so integral to getting what you need. And it just goes to show that you can learn (or remember) something new every day.

Trick or Treat

Yesterday, Halloween arrived in Valencia. And this year, it seemed to look more like back home than last year. Not only was there more Halloween candy in the stores, but the streets of Benimachlet were teeming last night. Full up with zombies, ghosts, devils and kitty cats. And this year our local bars and cafes went all out with decorations.

Trick or treating was happening in the building – either unlike last year or people were afraid to let the kids knock on their crazy American’s neighbor’s door. But this year we were in.

Do I love Halloween? Yes I do. As a kid this was a huge holiday in our house. My Dad would come home from work early and decorate our front porch with some scary scheme he had been cooking up and building in the garage. Our doorbell would be hooked up to scary music and random loud sounds that ensured there would be tears by some of the younger ghosts and goblins on our block. My Dad was already dubbed a scary dude on a Tuesday in April by all of my friends. At Halloween? He became terrifying. Kids would dare each other to ring our door bell. But my parents handed out good candy so they’d take the risk.

Jeff was out and came home at 8pm.

‘You gotta go out there. It’s packed with kids trick or treating.’

So we did and what fun to see. It made me miss my kids, and had us recounting Halloweens past and some of their costumes and antics. The best costumes were always homemade and took weeks to put together. And the best Halloweens were rainy, lending a spooky air to the festivities as the kids went door to door.

In Snoqualmie, adults would have cauldrons, complete with dry ice smoke, of something ‘brewing’ in their driveways. And parents were given cups of it to fortify themselves from the cold and the screaming, sugar amped kids running around. There we hay rides for those who didn’t want to walk. Generally, a festive vibe permeated the entire village.

I had always thought Halloween was a holiday that started in the UK during a plague, then made its way to the US on some Pilgrim’s ship. We do have our legend of Icabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. But it seems that Halloween’s genesis goes back further and it’s origins are a big broader than my Anglo-Saxon bias.

Halloween dates back to pagan times. The Gaels celebrated it. And for the Celts of Galicia it was their New Years Eve. It’s when the the veil between the living and the dead is lifted and the two can interact. Hence all the scary costumes and the like. Not much place for the ‘sexy nurse’ thing back then.

Somewhere in the last 1000 years, as per usual, the Catholic church decided that they needed to temper down this frivolity and evil doings, so they moved ‘All Saints Day’ from May to the day after Halloween. And All Saints Day in Spain is a national holiday. No stores open today.

In Latin America, All Saints Day is celebrated as The Day of the Dead. But it’s essentially the same things as here. It’s the day when people return to their villages, or the villages from whence their family came, and they tend the graves of those who have passed. It’s a solemn day and this morning when we woke up to complete silence we could audibly tell. No dog barking, not a person on the street. Cars were few and far between. Our building hasn’t been this quiet since August.

Last week I made reservations for us at a local Mexican restaurant for their Dia de los Muertos celebration. Adding one more thing to our cultural repertoire.

Little Britain

I was invited by some English people I know to accompany them on ‘The British expat shopping trip’ to Benidorm. Apparently this happens 3-4 times per year for British expats from the area around Valencia to travel down to the Mecca of British food stores on the southern coast. I’m not much of a ‘Motor coach’ type person. I’ve been on a few excursions that involved motor coaches since we’ve been here. But the locations need to be something I’m genuinely interested in – like cheese making or olive oil. So I usually avoid that kind of thing. I like a train. Why would I need a coach?

The prospect of this British shopping trip reminded me of when Jeff ‘surprised aka shocked’ me with an Alaska cruise. The only exotic part of this was that instead of leaving on a boat from Seattle, where we lived at the time, we flew up to Vancouver Canada – a 45 minute flight. All to embark on what they called the ‘Newly Weds and Nearly Deads Adults only’ cruise. After telling me that we were taking this trip (sadly, it was already paid for) I wondered if the ‘nearly dead’ part wasn’t foreshadowing of things to come after I killed him for taking me on this little excursion.

We were, by decades, the youngest people on the boat. At dinner I was the only one who hadn’t brought my fox stole. I was not happy until one of our shore excursions included going salmon fishing with two old Mexican guys, with whom we went pub crawling afterwards in Juneau. But that’s a story for another time.

So when I was invited on this Benidorm thing I told Jeff about it – sure I would not be attending.

‘You should go. It might be like the Alaska cruise. You might surprise yourself.’

I wondered if perhaps he was thinking he’d be buying himself a day alone. So I said I was in. Getting on the bus, it was clear that the average age was elderly school teacher. I was the only person with all their original teeth and the only person not born in the British Isles. I was like an exotic animal in a zoo. Everyone wanted to know who I was.

It took about 2 hours to get down the coast, with two stops for the bathroom at lay-bys on the highway. These weren’t at rest areas. The bus emptied out and everyone piled off for a bathroom break and food. Seriously, two stops where food and drink needed to be consumed by the 60+ people on the coach. I wondered if perhaps they should enlist a physician next time to test the participant’s blood sugar.

We finally crested a hill and Benidorm came into view. My first impression? Holy Crap! That’s the ugliest horror show of a city I’ve ever seen! Las Vegas is prettier than Benidorm and Vegas is a nightmare.

Benidorm is a city on the Costa Blanca – White Coast – on Spain’s southern Mediterranean coast. From there it heads south to the Costa del Sol, and it doesn’t get much better. Benidorm is a city for holiday makers – that’s what it was designed for and the buildings are like what our future settlements on Mars will look like. Out of place, garish monstrosities that the Martians will hate us for. An uglier collection of massive high rise monoliths in one town, I have never witnessed.

They drove us past the initial urban area to head to the British store. This is in a warehouse and is chock full of everything the English miss about living in Spain. Brown sauce (gravy in Americanese) of every stripe. Curry this, and curry that. Chutney. Steak and kidney pie. And Yorkshire pudding by the mile. Did I purchase things? Yes, I did. I could get some drain cleaner in a brand I knew would work (we’d been having issues). And I bought some other stuff like spices I couldn’t get easily in Valencia.

I spent enough money that they gave me a free coupon for a full English breakfast on a future visit, to be used within the next 2 weeks. Since that wasn’t going to happen I approached a couple in the cafe outside. They were dressed in clothes I didn’t know you could purchase in this century. Were it me, I probably would have put on a bit more clothes to go to the grocery store. But whatever. I asked them, in Spanish, if they would like my free card. They looked dumbfounded.

‘No Espanol’ the wife said. Then she turned to her husband. ‘She’s trying to sell me something on that card but I don’t know what it is.’ All in a thick Northern English accent.

That stopped me in my tracks. ‘I’m not trying to sell this to you.’ I told her. ‘I can’t use the free breakfast so I wondered if you’d like to have it.’

She took it from me without a word and whispered to her husband, like I couldn’t hear her. ‘American.’

We piled back into the coach with our walkers and the like, and headed to lunch in the center of Benidorm. The place is Little Britain. All the signs are in English. And the people are an appropriate color of persimmon. They’re either red from the sun or bright orange from the spray tan they sprang for before boarding their EasyJet flight from Manchester. We had been booked into a local restaurant for the menu del dia. But we had to get out own drinks at the bar. I took The drinks order for everyone at my tables and went to collect them.

I spoke to the bar owner in Spanish – a large, red faced man in a rugby shirt. He looked confused so I repeated our order.

‘Say whot? Lo sieno, mate. I don’t speak Spanish.’

The bar owner in a Spanish city – I repeat – THE BAR OWNER doesn’t speak Spanish. So I turned to one of the two clearly Spanish guys working next to him and placed the order in Spanish. They both smiled at me. Is my Spanish total shite? Yes, it is. But, even today I gave it a go at Jeff’s Dr. appointment. We try, and then we try some more. How else will we get better?

We finished our meal and loaded back up in the motor coach for our final stop at an Iceland on the way back. This was in an urbanizacione nearby, filled with Brits. Iceland is a store – I think owned by the British Whole Foods-ish store, Waitrose, since all the stuff is festooned with their brand. I bought some things for baking, like flavorings for cookies. Some cards for Anniversaries and Birthdays. And they had an English book section so I loaded up on books. I could have outfitted myself with everything I would have needed for a full English country Christmas – Christmas crackers, the works, but I declined.

Getting back in the coach, I couldn’t wait to get back to Valencia. Where real people live. I’ve encountered boorish Brits in Spain and written about it here. But it stretched even my sense of credulity that someone would move to another country, buy a business in that country as public as a restaurant, and then not learn the language. I raised this issue with my friends.

‘He doesn’t have to learn Spanish. He lives in Benidorm.’ They told me. As though I was an idiot for not understanding that.

‘But he lives in Spain.’ I reminded them.

‘Benidorm isn’t really Spain. It’s like Blackpool with better weather.’

And there you have it. The height of entitlement and colonialism wrapped up in one simple sentence. I’ve been invited to go back on the next shopping trip. Sadly – not really – we’ll be safely back in the US for the entire month of December so I’ll miss the enticement of ‘real Christmas pudding after lunch’. Galica is looking better and better.

Thoughts for the Last Tuesday in October

When I was in college all of my friends were from somewhere else, and I don’t mean somewhere in the US. Most of my circle were from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Those of us few Americans were but bit players in the group – our experience of life being so vanilla. Mostly Brady Bunch sprinkled with Gilligan’s Island – uninteresting. Even to me.

But it wasn’t just that we were a melting pot of people from different cultures. It was a group of people, sometimes, from multiple sides of the same, often active, on-going war at the time. Some of them had been fighters against each other in that war.

I had very close friends who were Palestinian, but were essentially refugees who were born or grew up in Lebanon and Syria. And I had friends who were Maronite Christians – part of the Falange (far-right) – who were responsible for making war upon them. I also had friends who grew up in Israel or Jordan or Libya, and others who were from either Shiite or Sunni religious groups. And we would have coffee every day around the same table for hours.

‘How could this happen?’ You may well ask. Well, it’s no mystery to me. Being so far from home they all spoke the same language. And culture trumps all. They understood the rules of engagement from the subtleties of that culture. And the FOOOD! Oh, the best food. I learned to cook like a native and we ate like kings in an eastern Mediterranean fortress. But there was more.

The US is a country formed on the idea of individualism. Even now, that is different than nearly the entirety of the rest of the world. Community and pulling together has meant survival since the beginning of human history. Us against the sabor-tooth tiger. All of us against the tribe next door who is picking all the nuts from the trees or harvesting all the fish from the river. Tribalism. It might ensure survival in the short term but it’s always bad for the long term.

Individualism rose in the US with the perfect convergence. When millions of people left the homes they knew in countries across an ocean, converged on a country where they didn’t speak the language or understand the customs. They landed in urban ghettos filled with others from the general countries they were from. Then many of them – the most adventurous – kept going and moved across the continent, even further from those rough collections of their countrymen. Severing ties even further.

This quest for more required different skills, like self reliance rather than depending on the group for survival. It was the genesis of the nuclear family. And then new technology continued to help this new way of viewing the world – individuals driving cars to work, living in suburbs, staying in your singular house and watching TV. All of these are more solitary pursuits. Tribes are not required.

So when my friends showed up from around the world, they could leave the groups back home – where their tribes, prejudices and old grievances could stay, maybe waiting for them. In the US, they could just be themselves. And they found it liberating! People who would have been looking at each other through a rifle sight, had they stayed back home, were suddenly laughing over a shared joke and a coffee. Over the course of their college careers they often debated politics. But mostly, they found they ended up agreeing with each other.

By my senior year, I went to weddings of Christians Palestinians marrying Sunni Jordanian Muslims. Since most religions preach love, I naively believed love could conquer all.

So this little group of us – ragtag participants from across the world – spent nearly 4 years together. And here is what I learned:

  • Baba Ganooj is the best food ever invented. Drink it. Eat it. Doesn’t matter.
  • Coffee cures a host of ills. If people could just sit down over a pot of Turkish coffee, so much of the world’s issues could be worked through.
  • People are people and they all want the same thing – Peace and prosperity for themselves and their families.
  • It’s not generally people who create conflict – it’s the power hungry. Those with an insatiable appetite for mo’ money, usually.
  • Tribalism is a dangerous thing – Us v. Them is insidious when we dehumanize ‘the other’.
  • Individualism has a BIG down side. While it promotes independent thought, it can inhibit our ability to work together on crucial, collective problems. An ‘I’ve got mine, so screw everyone else’ mentality, that pure capitalism is so very good at.

‘What the HELL, Kelli? Why are you even thinking about this on a Tuesday morning at the end of October?! What triggered this?! Go get another coffee and just calm down!!’

Well, I started reading a new book this morning, Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett. Just reading the introduction got me flashing back to my college days and all the parallels with conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa . It’s the story of Spain since the 19th century and beyond. Filled with war, political conflicts, massive cultural shifts and terrorism.

I’m an hour in and already so much of it seems like a movie I’ve seen before. But Spain is a different egg altogether, so I’m looking forward to learning all about it in greater detail. And it also got me thinking about spawning a new project – so stay tuned for that. Don’t worry, I won’t be trying to solve all the worlds problems with this new idea. But hopefully I can help myself, and maybe a few others, gain a little more understanding. We shall see as I let it ruminate. Not bad for 11am on the last Tuesday in October.

Say It Ain’t So

Do not get me started! I didn’t move 9 time zones away from the west coast of the US to deal with this nonsense. No, No, No. <deep breath> OK. I’ll start at the beginning.

Whether you get on sailing ship to discover unknown worlds, or you get on a spaceship and move to Mars you expect things will be different. Completely different. As a matter of fact, you count on it. If it was the same as where you came from you’d just stay there.

Ever since we moved to Valencia – and travel throughout Spain – we meet locals, and when they find out we moved here from the US they always look confused.

‘Why would you want to do that?’ they ask. ‘It’s my dream to live in the US. New York. I always wanted to go there.’

I don’t go into all the reasons why, but generally answer ‘We love living here and we’re never moving back.’ And you know why? Cause it’s not the same as living in the US.

We’ve generally adjusted to the cultural differences. The food times can still throw us. When Jeff craves lunch at 11:30 am, and we can’t find a full meal in a restaurant at that time, he just says ‘Lets go home and have Ameribrunch.’

The holidays are different, of course. There is no 4th of July. Here’s it’s the Nueve de Octubre – the Day King James the first defeated the Moors from the Torres de Serrano. And it doesn’t last one day but is a 4 day celebration with, you guessed it, fireworks! Lots of fireworks!

Last year, I was so excited that every holiday seemed to be celebrated individually. One holiday didn’t get a jump start on the back of another. And Halloween was pretty small. More of a prelude to All Saints Day on November 1st. Holidays were celebrated at the right pace and the right time. What a difference a year makes.

We were at El Corte Ingles (the largest Department store chain in Spain) at their largest location at Colon last week. And then at the one in Nuevo Centro. It’s not even Halloween and the Christmas decorations were going up. They’re putting up the Christmas tent with the Christmas wonderland! Noooo!

And then today we went to Centro Commercial at Arena and the stores have both Halloween decor and Christmas trees covered in ornaments. The furniture stores have holiday table settings.

The final straw for me was heading to the SuperCor two blocks from our apartment. SuperCor is a little more upscale grocery run by El Corte Ingles so the products are more gourmet and some international specialty items are readily available – like honey baked ham. But walking in, I was appalled at the spectacle. Tables and tables of Christmas candies and Pantatoni bread. There are displays of advent calendars and ornaments. What the actual HELL?!

Now I know there isn’t a Thanksgiving holiday in November here. That used to be the demarcation line between Halloween and the kick off of the Christmas season in the US. Here that would be artificial. But Three Kings on January 6th is the big Christmas holiday here (the 12th day of Christmas), not Santa coming down the chimney on December 24th. So that’s even further out.

The display of the Starbucks pods on the end cap of one aisle nearly sent me over the edge. Spanish coffee kicks Starbucks’ ass. I pray the folks here don’t fall for that $5 big corporate coffee nonsense from our hometown. It’s like Americanism is bleeding into the cultural fabric of Valencian life and I want to scream ‘It’s a slippery slope, people! Don’t go there!’

These people don’t know how bad it can be when you can buy your Christmas tree along side your kid’s new school supplies in August. Or when the term Christmas in July takes on real meaning when Christmas stores start to pop up that promote the holiday 365 days a year.

We marched through SuperCor and I lamented out loud at how the world was going to hell in a hand basket with Christmas in October. Yes, I sounded like an 80 year old grandma. Jeff nodded and followed me through the store as I got all the things on my list. When we got to the counter he suggested I go pay while he loaded the items on the belt and then bagged them. Hmm. How considerate.

Then we got home and I was unloading the bags. What did I find? Panatoni bread had made it into our cart. I held up this sacrilegious premature holiday contraband.

‘What is this? Seriously?! Panatoni bread? We don’t eat that in October. It’s Christmas bread, for God’s sake.’

Jeff looked a little sheepish. ‘But I like Panatoni bread. It’s just one.’

Except it wasn’t just the Panatoni bread. There was fudge too. Our kitchen is small. He couldn’t hide it. So now I know how all this erosion of the Spanish standards of discreet holiday celebrating started. Jeff moved to the country last year and ate Panatoni bread before Halloween. Spain, are you listening to me? This is how it starts! And it’s a slippery slope.