Brazil – Not Candy-Coated

We are home at last. We’re both glad to be back in Spain. Not because we didn’t enjoy Brazil but because it’s truly home. Our language has changed now – and its a subtle thing. When in Sao Paolo we referred to ‘home’ and it wasn’t the US. It was El Compartemiento. And I almost ran from the tram the few blocks to our apartment. Of course, I was tired and wanted to put down my suitcase and get cleaned up after 24 hours of travel, door to door. But it was more than that. It was the familiar. The routines and being surrounded by the things that make a life all our own.

I missed hearing Spanish and being able to understand people when they spoke. Being in a Portuguese speaking country, I found out I know a lot more Spanish than I thought. And I pulled it out liberally to try to communicate. Since the rest of South America speak Spanish, many people could understand us. And some of the words are similar. Even my shy husband was speaking Spanish – something he’s always reluctant to do here since his is not perfect. But we had to go along to get along, and needs must. The people in Brazil are friendly but they don’t speak much English. A lot of smiles and some hugs from strangers, so we muddled through using what I called Pidgeon Spangluguese.

I’m the human version of a Golden Retriever. I smile when walking down any street in the world. Even in the US, I had a boss once that pointed that out to me. ‘You’re always smiling’ she told me – like it was an anomaly. I don’t know know why, but that’s just me, and it seems to mean when I travel that strangers talk to me and I meet a lot of people.

I have spent time in other areas of the world but my focus has been mostly Western Asia and Europe for my foreign travels – although I’ve been other places. But South America was never a priority. This was a big miss on my part. And this trip rounded out my perspective on many fronts.

First Impressions

Just a heads up – This will be a longer than normal post. I’m going to try to squeeze all our impressions – sights and sounds – of Sao Paolo – into one post. And there is a lot of ground to cover in a place that assaulted the senses from the moment we left the airport.

As I said a few days ago, Sao Paolo is HUGE. It’s the 11th largest city in the world. The others that are larger are mostly in China. Looking out the window of the Uber to the resort hotel where we stayed the first few nights, there were high rise apartments as far as the eye could see. But scattered amongst them were homemade cinder block buildings; some stacked or almost piled precariously on top of each other without windows or running water, or HVAC of any kind. And shanty-type buildings that would barely stand up to a strong wind.

So the visual disparity of the ‘Haves’ and Have-nots’ is front and center. We had been warned right from the start to be very, very careful when out and about. Brazil’s – and Sao Paolo’s – murder rate is through the roof as one of the top cities in the world, if there was an award for such things. We found it unsettling, but we heard it from so many locals that it made us a little paranoid, and in some sense, it kept us from fully enjoying our time there.

Note: While we saw a lot of things – some of it, I didn’t include in the photos and for this reason. I don’t feel like taking pictures of people living in poverty is the right thing to do. They’re not a tourist spectacle for my viewing, but are living their lives the best they can. They deserve respect and the dignity to do so.

I also didn’t take photos of people pulling carts (I did take a photo of a cart without it’s owner). Their work is honest work and I felt like it needed to be treated as such. Again, they’re not a tourist amusement.

More on the Haves and Have-Nots

I had been asked to speak at a gathering at the hotel where we initially stayed. We wanted to leave the hotel compound to go for a walk but the security guard at the gate at the end of the drive was having none of it. This we found curious since the area was filled with manicured lawns and homes and buildings of the wealthy. But upon further inspection, each building was surrounded by high walls – some with actual razor wire – and each of them had an armed security guard at the front gate, at a minimum. Some had guards stationed at intervals along the walls surrounding various compounds. All of them standing under umbrellas to protect them from the intense sun, looking menacing to those who might be inclined to breach the defenses.

They all had ear pieces – ala Secret Service – tipping you off that they had counter parts inside, and probably more than one. And the cameras patrolling the properties were fanned out to cover every corner. The message being ‘It may look nice here, but this is a dangerous place’. But we didn’t really understand why, in an area that sold Lamborginis, Range Rovers and MaClaren’s, and we saw them driving around the area, it seemed so unsafe. No one – and I do mean NO ONE – was walking on the street outside. So strange.

We changed hotels halfway through the trip because we wanted to be right in the city. It turned out to be a good move. Much more to see and do. We’re not ‘Lay by the pool’ kind of people when we travel. So the resort got boring pretty quickly.

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The homeless population is exploding in the city. They’re everywhere sleeping rough. Oddly, we encountered almost no pan handling, but more people willing to do the jobs no American would ever do. Selling candy to cars at stop lights, one industrious guy actually put the candy neatly bagged and signed on the side mirror – even containing a price.

But also recycling. We saw a lot of people pulling carts of card board, and one guy with coolers on his cart, stopping at each guard station to sell drinks and snacks on a route he clearly traversed every day. They knew him.

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The average wage in Brazil is under $700 US a month. But that’s not the whole story. It costs a lot to live there. Historically, the taxes in Brazil are quite high and public corruption – we heard this from everyone – has been rampant for decades. So the people of Brazil have been ripped off, essentially. Their roads, infrastructure and public services are broken. You can see it clearly.

Let’s face it, every person in the world wants the same thing. Security for their family. Education to allow the next generation to do better than the last. They want to know that the future is secure – as well as the present. They want to know that if they get sick, their family’s won’t suffer, and they want comfort in difficult times. We are not so different from the average Brazilian.

When people found out we were Americans, they always asked if we ‘Liked Donald Trump’ because in Brazil they see him as a strong leader. They feel their new president is a version of him and the average person is very happy about it. This made us curious. Why would the average person feel this way? So we spent a lot of time speaking to people to understand and this is what we found.

After years of paying taxes and having public officials embezzle the money, and rob the country of its resources, people are desperate for something new. They are so desperate that they’re willing to give up almost anything to get it. And it struck us. We in the US have problems with our country. But the wealth disparity in the US is nothing compared to what it is in Brazil – South America’s largest economy.

In the US, we have time to debate social issues and economic issues. We aren’t starving. But in Brazil, they are. It’s critical, and hope has faded as something they can’t hardly remember. So electing someone they think has a snowball’s chance in sub-tropical heat to turn things around – even though he says things and advocates for things liberal democracies find horrific – well, the average Brazilian doesn’t care about that stuff. They want to eat.

But desperate people, in desperate circumstances, will sacrifice anything and do anything to save themselves and those they love. It’s a timely reminder for me since yesterday was Armistice Day. My family always laughs at me for my obsession with history, especially the 20th century wars. But the treaty of Versailles, after WWI, is what decimated post-war Germany and punished them so harshly for starting the war. And it’s what created such inflation, and desperate poverty in Germany in the 1920’s, that it set up the perfect circumstances for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s in the 1930’s. We’d do well to remember the lessons of history, because they’re repeating themselves in places like Brazil today. Hungry people will follow even the most despicable leaders if they’re handing out bread to feed their starving children. This is where aid and good foreign policy matters. Go to Brazil and you’ll understand.

Pollution

As a general rule, the air there is not too bad. Especially compared to say, London – whose air is regularly considered well above what is safe for humans to breathe on a regular basis. So there, they have the more western (non-developing) nations beat. But there is another side entirely.

On the way to the hotel from the airport, we drove across the two main rivers of Sao Paolo. The Tiete and Pinheiros rivers flow throughout the city. They were historically a source of fresh water and fish for the people of the region, but they’ve been so polluted with sewer and industrial waste that now they are dead rivers. Driving by them, the smell was sulfuric and it almost hurt to breathe in the fumes.

The banks of the rivers are lined with trash, as were some of the major thoroughfares we traversed. But I have seen worse in other countries. And for a population that size, I frankly would have expected more.

A View of Myself

In all this, it made me take a look at myself. And I wasn’t happy with what I saw. As I said before, I was asked to speak at a gathering at a luxury hotel. So I brought clothes that were appropriate for the occasion. The same as I would have if I had been asked to speak at something in NY or LA. But I wasn’t in NY or LA, I was in Sao Paolo. And after driving through the city and seeing what we saw. And then looking up some of the statistics on the country, I didn’t feel good in the clothes and accessories I had brought.

Among so much need, it felt obscene to be wearing shoes that could pay a family’s expenses for two months. Or carrying a handbag that would pay the salary of an average Paulista for 6 months. Looking in the mirror, before I headed out to give my talk didn’t make me proud. It made me want to cry.

It might sound a little dramatic. That’s OK to think that. I get it. I came from the luxury retail business. My job was to make rich people feel like opening their wallets and shelling out big bucks for name brands that they could proudly walk down the street with and show off to their friends. I bought into it too. But the absurdity of it and the hubris (my own) was right up in my face. When I was done with my obligation, I couldn’t wait to get out of that stuff, and I never wore it again or carried that handbag, on the trip. Thinking of it makes me sad sitting here.

Street Art

I was in London’s East End several years ago with my friend, Eric Olsen. Eric is a person who always makes me think differently. He has his MFA and his sensibilities have always challenged my own perspectives on things. Eric is a truly unique individual and it was in Brick Lane that he helped me see graffiti and street art in a new light.

Some truly world-class street artist display their work on the buildings of Brick Lane and the surrounding Tower Hamlets. It’s the first time I saw a Banksy in person. And Sao Paolo is festooned with amazing street art. Sorry Valencia, but these guys put you to shame. I’ll let the photos below speak for themselves. Some are sanctioned by the Prefeitura de Sao Paolo – others are more organic. Enjoy.

Ibirapuera Park

The ‘Central Park’ of South America is Ibirapuera Park and it’s in Sao Paolo. It’s a national treasure and it’s easy to see why. Complete with a large lake and a small creek, the park is lush and is safe during the day. You can rent bikes and there are runners galore. It’s a gathering place for festivals and is the host of the Afro Brazil Museum.

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The history of modern Brazil includes slavery – just like in the US. Captives from Africa were imported into the country to work on plantations and mines. They took care of colonial children and are one of the foundational populations that make Brazil what it is today. And in the faces of people on the street you can see their legacy, everywhere.

The photos below are from the museum celebrating the contribution of Africans to the life and culture of Brazil.

Unlike in the US, being brown in Brazil isn’t an historical stigma. It’s a point of pride. When people looked at me, they knew I was not from Brazil. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever been called a ‘Gringa’. Certainly, to my face. I was warned by others that once they understood I wasn’t Brazilian, it would endanger my safety. But in the park, where I heard this, I didn’t feel unsafe. I just smiled. What else could I do? I am what I am – just like everyone else.

Cuckoo for Coconuts

Everywhere, especially the park, stands selling coconut milk drunk straight out of the shell, or blended with other tropical juices, are every 100 yards. Men deliver and replenish the coconuts to the stands on bicycles with large baskets piled with green coconuts, who looked to be owned by the same company.

The guy working there taps the coconut and, either drains it into a larger container with a funnel, or puts a straw in it and hands it out to the customer. I took a few pictures so you can see what it’s like. Its not touristic but a staple food and drink.

The photos below are more of the park and a few of the statues and artistic features on display. It’s a lush space amongst the urban sprawl.

I’ve been to big cities in Asia. The skyline from our second hotel, looking out over the vast expanse of the city-scape left me in awe. It’s not the most beautiful of skylines. It’s not easily identifiable like those of NY or Paris. But it gives you the sense of how large it is. I took some photos below so you can see what we saw when we woke up at sunrise and when we pondered what it might mean to live every day in such a large place.

Brazil is a true melting pot of cultures from around the world. SP has the largest Japanese population, second to Japan itself, in the world. Vancouver, Canada is a distant third. No one we spoke to knows why they found it such a hospitable place to resettle, but you can get amazing sushi in the city.

There is also a huge Italian segment of the cultural soup. And speaking of soup, I ate some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had at a place close to our hotel. And the building was pretty spectacular too.

Driving and Traffic

I’ll be taking my driving test here soon. But would I ever consider driving in Brazil? NEVER. Here, it’s the traffic circles that intimidate. But in general, people are polite and understand and obey the lines on the road. In Brazil, they don’t seem to be able to see lines. ‘3 lanes? No, I see 7.’ And motorcycles and food delivery services whip and weave between cars. I had to close my eyes in every taxi or Uber we took. Looking meant an upset stomach. Jeff just stopped saying ‘Did you see that?!’. Cause he never would have said anything else.

People on the Street

In Valencia – and in Europe in general, a lot of people smoke. But you don’t see it or get a sense of it in Brazil. In that way, it’s more like the US, but even more striking. You don’t smell it walking or get a whiff of it sitting in a cafe, anywhere. Not sure why but we both commented on it.

I did witness something disturbing that I’ll only briefly comment on. There was a bunch of people looking up at a building near a cafe where we were sitting. I told Jeff I wanted to go see what was going on so I walked the block and then looked up to what they were starting at. A woman was on a girder on an abandoned building. She was threatening to jump and the rescue workers were in full repelling gear trying to talk her down.

An older lady in a housekeeping uniform stood near me. I looked over at her when I realized what was going on. We both had tears in our eyes. Mothers recognize each other. It transcends culture, religion, language. She came over and hugged me. She spoke to me in Portuguese but I said I didn’t speak Portuguese – in my Spanglugues. So we just stood there for a bit. The police came over and told me in English what was going on – I guess I am an easily identifiable Gringa. I couldn’t stay there and watch what might not be a good outcome, but I sent up a silent prayer that she’d take the help they were offering. I could only imagine the despair she was feeling to get to that point, but she was someone’s daughter or mother or friend, and it broke my heart. I was happy to have the hug from the lady who offered it.

The final evening, before coming home, we were hungry for snacks. In Valencia, and in the US, grocery stores are open late. So out Jeff went at dusk to get us some water and something to munch on. He came back with nothing but a perspective on street life at 7pm.

First, the people at the front of the hotel, bellmen and concierge, asked him where he was going when he left. Jeff told them he was going to take a walk – and they didn’t look happy about it. If he had said that he was going to the store they would have told him it would be closed – as he was about to find out. But he didn’t.

He walked around the block to the store we knew was there but the woman was closing it and told him ‘no’ waving her hands. So much for snacks. But what really struck him is how the street had changed from day to almost night.

‘The trolls crawled out of their holes.’ He told me. ‘It’s scary out there right now.’ He said when he got back to the room.

All the residents were gone behind gates and there was a voo doo guy on the sidewalk who had set up his stuff complete with a skull with a fire burning in it. He was chanting something or other and Jeff didn’t stick around to find out what it was or to give him a chance to direct it his way.

He was freaked out at the guys who were coming over the wall from the green space that bordered the street. He quickly made his way back to the confines of the hotel. 7pm was the edge between safety and the things we were warned about – and it was just a block from the hotel.

Going home

When we left to come home, we both said we knew we’d be back. We haven’t scratched the surface of either the city or the country. I still feel like it eluded us while we were there, but not entirely. So much to explore and understand. Ate a proxima, Brasil.

Sometimes, getting there is Half the Battle

OK – I couldn’t resist. We took separate flights to Sao Paolo – for reasons I won’t go in to, the consequences of which I’m still paying for. But we did get here. I knew it was going to be interesting when I saw a Franciscan monk get on the plane in full robes and a 3 foot cross embroidered on his chest. When he passed by my seat praying, I didn’t take it as a good sign. Then as they were closing the doors a woman ran on waving a lamp shade. Not a small one either – a VERY large lamp shade. And it’s not like she didn’t have two pieces of hand luggage and a roller bag with her. I just shook my head.

After take off, the English guy in the seat across from mine got into a serious argument, and almost fisticuffs, with the Spanish guy sitting in front of him over some perceived slight. I just thought ‘This is what that monk was praying about’ and just a little bit of ‘Where’s the lady with the serious lamp shade when you need her? Cause I’d like to hit this British guy over the head to shut him up so they don’t turn this flight around’. But she was in the back somewhere. Finally, his co-travelers settled him down. With the help of the flight attendant, they explained that just like your Dad told you and your siblings fighting in the back seat of the car ‘Sir, we will turn around and head for home if you two can’t get along.’ No one wanted that.

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We both landed in our respective planes in Sao Paolo – different terminals, of course. My flight went straight south from the Iberian Peninsula. Jeff’s flight went over Africa most of the way and crossed over the Atlantic at the narrowest possible point between Africa and South America. But we met up and got into an Uber. I mean, how long can it take to get from the airport to our hotel? Well, in a city of 12 million people (and 32 million in the greater Sao Paolo area) it can take 2 hours. No kidding – TWO HOURS.

But we were lucky and got Denis, the most amazing Uber driver ever, who drove us in his red Chevy Celta (Never heard of that model before? Me either). Denis regaled us of tales of Sao Paolo and Brazil in general, it’s history, it’s politics, the best places to go. He told us where we might ‘or most probably would’ get killed if we walked at night, and how to hold our wallet, purse and cell phones so as not to be victims of muggings or the like. He informed us how not to get ripped off by taxis, shops or restaurants. We loved Denis –  we actually formed a bond with him. But you can’t argue with the price $27 for a two hour Uber ride for two people. Unbelievable.

Then we pulled into our hotel, with a guard at the gate of the long driveway, into one of the most beautiful hotel drives I’ve ever been to. The grounds are amazing and I would pit the service and ‘that special something’ the staff has – it’s a spark of magic – against any 5+ start hotel in the world. Truly exceptional. Sure, you see pictures on a website when you book a place, but you don’t really know what it will be like. This place lives up to the photos. Check it out if you’re ever staying in Sao Paolo. Jeff’s hotel snobbery has been fully assuaged and tomorrow should be nice so we can have breakfast on our terrace. I’m almost forgiven for his air travel experience (or lack thereof) and the class he flew today as a very tall person.

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And then my ‘Only you’ moment came as I knew it would. But it’s good I got it out of the way early. Whew! Jeff sent me to get him a Coke – I still owed him for the flight. We were jet lagged and I had already drunk all the still water in the mini bar. So down I went to the lobby. But then I got stuck in the elevator after the doors made a terrible metal grinding noise, not quite closing. I started pressing buttons.

‘Surely, it’s been hours I’ve been stuck in here’ I thought, sweat pouring from my brow as I looked at my cell phone for validation on my rising stress level. It had been less than a minute but it seemed like more than an hour. I looked at the bell on the panel, but thought I’d give the frantic-random-button-pressing one more try before pushing the actual panic button. It worked after a few minutes. The elevator made a horrific sound and then dropped a foot. I wanted to scream but it was only me in there.

Then it started going down and finally, the doors screeched open on the bottom basement a few floors down – the hotel laundry. I got off the elevator and I wasn’t getting back on. Pushing the buttons for the other elevators didn’t work because this broken devil one was just sitting on that floor, like a goalie. I crept down the hall, looking for an exit or stairs, when I heard voices. ‘Hola?’ I called out tentatively – luckily it’s the same in Spanish – cause I looked it up on Google translate on the plane.

I could see myself from the outside. This is the point in a horror movie where the guy in the hockey mask with the ax comes out of a cloud of steam. The one where the audience is thinking ‘What’s she doing? Don’t go down there!’ Finally, I saw a door and heard voices. When I walked in they looked at me like I was an animal at the zoo. A gazelle who wandered into the lion’s cage – I didn’t belong there.

‘Ingles?’ I asked. They pointed to one guy. I explained that I had a problem with the elevator and asked if he could help me get back up stairs. He took me through the parking garage, the spa and finally to another elevator. My blood pressure had finally dropped. I got to the room and Jeff had taken his shower and was looking refreshed. Clearly, I seemed out of sorts and had no beverages in my hands. I told him my tale. He shook his head.

‘So I guess I’m not getting a COKE.’ was all he said,

‘Don’t you get it? I could have been killed.’ I was aghast at his lack of empathy – no matter what seat I put him in on that flight.

But he was unmoved. ‘You’ve been gone less than 15 minutes.’

So I decided a nap was in order. Being awake for 28 hours and learning that not only could I be killed outside these gates, but by the elevator in the hotel, was just too much for me. Where’s a fully robed Franciscan monk, muttering under his breath, when you need one?

 

 

 

 

In Thru the Out Door

We are less than a week from our 6 month anniversary of moving to Valencia. In that time, we’ve learned how to navigate public transport. Which super markets and restaurants we like. How holidays are celebrated and that fireworks will be our constant companion. We have started to understand how the bureaucracy works and when we need the help of others and when we don’t. We are expert. We know it all.

And then we spent the weekend getting schooled – again. Sure, we’ve been to the movies before. We can see movies in English at the local Yelmo cines. They have the look and feel of US movie theaters – thinking Lincoln Square in Bellevue, WA. And they even have Oscar Meyer hot dogs and movie popcorn. So it’s a complete experience, sort of, from home.

On Saturday, we walked up to the Yelmo that’s about a mile and half through the park from our apartment. We purchased the tickets to the ‘VOSE’ showing, which means the movie will be in the original language (English) with Spanish subtitles. And got our refreshments and climbed the lucite backlit stairs to the correct theater and sat down. The credits were running from the previous movie but we figured we would just wait with our two hot dogs, two drinks and a large popcorn for a whole 13 euros. But it was not to be.

The cleaner came in and started shouting at us. We were mid bite and had no idea what she was talking about. I find that when I’m shouted at, even in English, I struggle to comprehend what the hell is going on. But in Spanish? I’m completely lost. She could have been shouting my name over and over and I wouldn’t have understood a word. Jeff tried to reason with her. He gave her our tickets and she studied them like the Magna Carta. Then she hand them back, pointed out the door with more shouting and shook her broom at us.

‘I think we’re not supposed to be in here when she’s cleaning.’ I said to Jeff, after reading her angry face and threatening mimery with her broom. So we got up with our arms full of food and drink and left the theater. She followed us out. More shouting ensued and more broom waving. She practically pushed us down the stairs and kept pointing to the other side of the elevators in the lobby. We toddled over there like brainless idiots. We had no idea why.

On the other side of the lobby, unseen from the place where you purchase tickets and get your refreshments, is another set of stairs where there is a person who tells you that you can go up the stairs. There are monitors that say that a movie theater is open or if you must ‘Espera’. Or wait. So we went up to the guy with our tickets and he tore them and told us we could go up the stairs. We did, walking back to the theatre we were at one minute before. The cleaner lady looked at our torn tickets and said ‘bien.’  We went in to our assigned seats and sat down again. Our eyes were rolling in our heads.

The movie started. We were seeing ‘Alpha’. It’s a movie about a prehistoric clan who leaves a member behind after a buffalo hunt. It opened with Morgan Freeman’s deep voice – in English – telling us about life and the world, 20,000 years ago in Europe. Check! Time for a handful of popcorn. I expected Morgan Freeman and other English speaking actors because it was a North American film shot in Alberta, Canada. Sure, there might be some ‘Aboots’ and other Canadian ways of pronouncing ‘Aluminium’, but I would know what they were saying. Yeah, no.

The tribe in the film spoke only in a language that I’ve never heard. And the subtitles? They were in Spanish. Only Morgan Freeman’s melodious voice in the first and last 60 seconds of the film were in my native tongue. The rest was in a language that resembled languages of the people of the many tribes of North American, but was actually a made up language by a linguist from the University of British Columbia. This was not in the course description (I mean movie description) online. While interesting, I’m struggling with Spanish most days. We had come to the movies for mindless entertainment, and we got a job.

As we left the theatre, Jeff expressed surprise at language deal.

‘Well, I guess the good news is, I’m fluent in movie Spanish now, after reading it for 2 hours straight. But I did struggle a bit with the exact translation from made-up cave man.’

We walked home in the dark discussing the film . Mostly envious of the cold Canadian weather we saw and the fact that the main character was lucky he got to wear a coat.

On Sunday, we got up bright and early and walked down to the beach. The weather was perfect and the sun was out but the breeze was cool. The traffic on the main promenade was way down from peak season crowds. We chose a cafe and sat down.

I ordered a coffee and was promptly told that I was sitting at the wrong table. ‘ Coffee only there.’ The table he was pointing at was literally 2 feet away. So I lifted myself out of my chair and took one step and plopped myself into the chair next to me. The waiter walked the two feet, wiped down the table and asked me what he could get me.

‘Remember me? Una cafe con leche.’ I said.

‘Vale’ he said, as though we hadn’t just spoken 7 seconds before, and went away to get it. Ridiculous.

We finished the coffee. Jeff suggested we stick to what we know.

‘Let’s go out to Shopping City and knock a few things off our list before we fly to the US.’

I agreed and we got a taxi. We were half way to where IKEA is located in Alfafar, and I remembered it’s Sunday. I mentioned it to the driver and he said ‘No stores are open out there on Sunday.’ He had been wondering why ‘tourists wanted to go there’. Ugh.

So we had him drop us off at the Centro Commercial at El Saler. They have a Hyper Carrefour there and I thought perhaps we might have some luck in finding what we were looking for. We walked through their doors and there, like a beacon to school kids everywhere, were all the school supplies Emile and I had been searching for in the first part of August. The rows and rows of them looked just like the displays in every Fred Meyer or Target in the US.

We browsed a bit, but my heart wasn’t in it. I felt like something has been off for weeks now but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

‘I think we need to go home and pull the covers over our heads.’ I told him. ‘Something must be in retrograde because we seem to be missing something at every turn. It’s like I’m either too early or too late. Or just plaim clueless.’

So we did that. We sat and watched some Ray Donovan on Netflix and ate ice cream. Which everyone knows is the cure for almost everything. And since Mercury IS in retrograde, I’m not responsible for any of this.

 

 

El Jefe y Keli

I couldn’t love our neighborhood more. Seriously. It reminds me of living in San Francisco in the early 90’s and in Seattle’s Belltown in the mid 90’s. In San Francisco in the Haight or in the Aves, you could catch Robin Williams working out new material in one club or another. In Seattle, you could catch Nirvana or Pearl Jam at the Crocodile for nothing when they were working on new songs.

Benimachlet has that same vibe, sans the famous people but I love it nonetheless. I sent Jeff to make hair appointments for us at our local hair salon. I figured his Spanish is good enough to work through it.  He sent me a photo of this post it. He is now officially El Jefe (‘The Boss’ in Spanish) and I am just ‘Keli’ since ‘Kelli’ would mean my double ‘L’s’ would be pronounced totally incomprehensibly. So it’s The Boss and Keli.

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Tonight, Sunday night, El Jefe and I went out in our neighborhood to have a drink and some tapas. Even on a Sunday evening there is alot going on in the square around our local church. A wedding had just finished and the revelers were in front of the church with their families.

We stopped for some wine at our favorite watering hole. We were there the day they first opened so we try to give them our custom whenever possible. But we got hungry and they don’t have a menu that was commiserate with our level of hunger. we went through the square on our way to another of our favorite tapas bars. On the way, we found a group spontaneously dancing. Not an organized thing, since when we walked home behind the folks with the speaker and the music, it was clear it was just a ‘lets turn on some music and see what happens’ type of deal. The crowd was loving it and readily joined in. Seeing dancers on the street in Valencias isn’t that unusual.

I love our tapas place. The owner is an old hippie and the food is top notch. The price of the cerveca and vino blanco are to our liking, as well. The place is cool and he totally digs us, so it’s fun to go there. The service isn’t typically hands off and it’s easy to get another drink and we feel at home.

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On the way home, we went around our summer outdoor theatre in front of the church. ‘Cinema a la Fresca’ enjoyed by all in the neighborhood on a Sunday night. We love the home grown eclectic vibe and the spectrum of folks who gather to enjoy a good film on a warm summer night. Back home, we used to go to Chateau St. Michelle and the Red Hook Brewery in Woodinville, WA with our kids in the summer to enjoy family movies outdoors. These are more arthouse films, but it’s no less enjoyable.

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Afterwards, walking back we passed by a shop front with an open door. A group of neighborhood gentlemen were beginning a game of dominos. We see this everywhere in the evenings around our apartment. Groups of older guys playing dominoes for money in cafes or parks. It serious business here. But this group was a fun and friendly bunch who was happy to share a ‘Guapa!’ as I took their photo.

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Before we moved to Valencia, I would never have believed we would live in a neighborhood like this. But every day, every time I turn a corner, I’m glad we chose to land here.

When I went to my hair appointment on Friday morning, I had a conversation with my neighborhood hairdresser, Pili, in Spanish. It wasn’t pretty, but she was so surprised at the progress I made, her enthusiasm for my particular brand of Spanish was infectious and made me feel proud of how far I’ve come. And then she threw me a curveball. Benimaclet is a very traditional Valencian neighborhood. People here DO NOT speak English so it’s easy to practice Spanish. But they also speak ‘Valenciano’ – which is another language entirely. Much like Catalan. And Pili is determined that I learn that too, so she’s coaching me. But the biggest compliment she gave me is that my pronunciation is ‘like a Valencian’, which I have been told before, so I’m on the right track.  I think we’ve found out home in Benimaclet. And, as everyone knows,  there’s no place like home.

Aprendiendo Espanol – Dia Nueve

Some of this post will be in Spanish. It might not be perfect but now that I’ve been studying Spanish for 9 whole days, I think I’m ready to try to convey my deepest thoughts in my new-found language. I must first apologize to my Mom and Mrs. Taylor, who has lived next door to her for 50 years and was my second Mom as a kid. Ladies, you’ll have to use Google translate, or the like. to decipher the paragraph below to gain all the wisdom of the universe. Yeah, I know that’s a long shot. Well, let’s see.

Ultimamente, por nueve dias he hecho estudies Espanol. Pasado semana mi professor ensenar en una bar cerca en Benimaclet. Gradualmente soy aprender. Actualmente, todos los dias soy en clase en Benicalap con Britanico expats. Hoy ser divertido y mucho informativo.

Pasado semana, he hecho el colapso. Miedo mi nunca aprender Espanol. Una dia yo estar no capaz de Espanol. Como hoy yo se hecho apriender algunos verbo conjugation y numeros desde una a mil.

Estoy en limite de Epanol. Muchas gracias por paciencias.

Whew! Ok, that took everything I had. I don’t have the correct accents and the little Spanish ‘n’ with the wavy thing over it on my laptop keyboard. And I am totally sure it was mostly crap since my present perfect and past v. future-tense is still in a state of continual flux. Not to mention that on a daily basis I forget about 90% of what I learned the day before. But, I’m really trying.

Today, after class the other students were grumbling. Even with my terrible Spanish, the consensus is that I’ll fly past the rest of the students any time now. I asked them why they thought that since mostly I just barely muddle through.

‘Because you actually want to do it. You’re focused, and you study.’

This seemed like a curious indictment. But they are right. I do study alot and I am actively engaged in the class, whether it’s being held in a bar (not as uncommon as you’d think) or in a classroom. Just FYI, the wine helped when the verb conjugation got a little harry. And the ‘arse’ verbs are exactly what they sound like. Every day, after my daily lesson I would head to the bar to pay and the bartender would ask me how my Espanol was. More than once, after a tough session, I wondered why he had to ask since there were times I saw him actively grimace. Sometimes, almost sadly he would give me an encouraging thumbs up. Out of pity.

But I will crack this Tiger Nut. I am the most annoying patron of any bar or restaurant. If the waitress asks me something in Spanish, I repeat what she just said to me and then I answer her back. At first, they seem concerned – like I suffer from some sort of brain anomaly – but then they realize I’m trying to learn the language and they help by correcting me and sometimes going out of their way to provide other opportunities to learn new words.

Mostly, I just shake off the shame of looking like a fool. Tonight, I’m transcribing my notes and building some new tables to help me better remember from one lesson to another. Later, I’m going to treat myself to a Spanish movie. I guess my fellow students are right – I will do this. No existe nada que pueda parame!

Stop Whining

OK. I had my pity party. I missed home on the 4th of July. Seems like that’s a good day to mope when you’re so far from neighborhood fireworks and bar-b-que with friends. But like one of those blow up clown dolls with the sand in the bottom, you gotta pop back up.

And some really good things happened yesterday. First off, Jeff found he had run out of his blood pressure meds and that he could put off no longer going to the Farmacia near our house for a refill. He took a deep breath and took the bottle down there and explained what he needed. His old prescription was $30 a month. The new one? 3 euros for a month supply and no prescription needed. They just handed them over. He was giddy and now no longer intimidated by going to speak to a pharmacist.

I went to my Spanish lesson yesterday and it went swimmingly. Well, maybe I felt like I was swimming because I was in the blistering heat with dripping wet humidity. But my teacher felt I’m making good progress. We’re meeting up again today to keep the momentum going.

Then I took Emilie to have her sports physical so she can be cleared to play when she returns to school in the US. I swear it’s a racket, these sports physicals, but Jeff and I had found a clinic where there was a rumor that they had a Dr. that spoke English, so we could explain why the hell he needed to fill out this form with a bunch of weird questions like ‘Do you feel safe in your home?’ and ‘Are you ever sad?’. Things he’s supposed to ask her so that he can determine if these might impact her playing basketball or hitting a tennis ball.

So we went – they require no appointment – and muddled through in my lame Spanish at reception. I was feeling more confident after my lesson so I tried out a couple of new words and phrases. More on that later. Then we went and sat in the waiting room. A Dr. came out and we heard English. Like American English. I turned to find him chatting with an American couple who had just arrived and needed some medication.

He finished with them and then called us to his office. He spoke to me in Spanish and I answered him back. We waited outside for him to finish with another patient and then he came out and ushered us in. We sat down and he asked why we were there in Spanish and I told him, in English, and he asked if I was Spanish. I told him ‘No’. He said he was so surprised because my accent was so good he thought I was Spanish. Well, can I just say I LOVE THIS DR. He could be the worst Dr. on the planet but his compliment went a long way yesterday. I sat up a little taller after that.

It turns out he was born in Valencia but grew up in Tallahassee, Florida. He went to FSU and then moved back to Valencia to be near his parents. His wife is Valencian and he has two daughters who don’t want to live in the US. So Tallahassee’s loss is our gain.

We finished up with the sports exam and then met some of our friends who moved here last week from Seattle. We had worked together at a previous employer and they had been planning to move here with their daughter before we ever made our plan. Neither of us aware of what the other was plotting. So it all dovetailed nicely. And ironically, we met at the Portland Ale House on Salamanca, which is a mecca to all things Portland Ore. in the US. I grew up in Portland, and so did Pete, so we recognized all the photos and the marque outside.

They have great burgers and beer and it was fun to be surrounded by University of Oregon flags, Timbers paraphernalia, and old street signs and license plates I recognized. The owner is from Portland and he’s done a great job in bringing a little of it to Valencia. My family should get ready because when we visit the US in September they’re all getting Portland Ale House t-shirts. Seems right.

The burgers made Jeff’s day – best burger and fries in Valencia so far. And it was fun to hear about Pete and Ryan’s adventures in getting settled. They’re off and running, and loving living here too.

So I bounced back from my whining 4th of July. And it just goes to show you that the universe is listening. It knew it needed to throw me a bone yesterday and it threw me a whole handful. It’s time to get back to work.

Sometimes

Moving to Valencia was made easier, I’m convinced, because we left Seattle two years earlier for Arizona. I had taken a new job knowing it wasn’t the end of the line. So we were out of our comfort zones for quite awhile before we packed up and moved across the world.

Arizona wasn’t politically our favorite place. We moved there in 2016, and all the guns, truck nuts and the like were not part of how we saw ourselves. Driving there was scary because you never knew who was packing and they might pull a weapon on you going 100 miles an hour on the freeway. But then everyone drove at least 80 mph on the 17 or the 101 freeway, so 100 wasn’t that much faster. It happened to Jeff while he was in the carpool lane on his motorcycle a couple of months after we got there. That incident started the clock on when we would move.

But even with all of that I still knew how to operate. How to find the Department of Motor vehicles, the paperwork I would need to get my license. Call a Dr. for my daughter and get an appointment. Nothing big but I didn’t have to think about it. I understood the bureaucracy. The System’. I’m thinking about it now.

Sometimes:

  • I wish I had a whole day where I ‘just knew’ and could easily figure it out.
  • I would like to get up in the morning knowing that going outside wasn’t going to present challenges the moment I interacted with other citizens.
  • I’d like to go to the grocery store and find my favorite foods. In the same packages I’m used to.
  • I’d like to get my mail from our US forwarder without paying for a FedEx envelope.
  • I’d like to be able to call on an old medical bill that finally reached me without the hassle of the time difference and the cost before I even get anyone on the phone.
  • I’d like to not have to pay .20 cents a minute to call my bank because they’ve denied a charge on my credit card or an ACH on my bank account because I’m still not in the US even after I’ve asked them to put notes on my account
  • I’d like to just get our stuff from that freaking boat we paid so much money to bring our things from the US – because they’re still not here!
  • I just want to go to that breakfast place we used to go to on weekends in Issaquah – where they knew us and we didn’t even have to order – they just brought it with unlimited coffee refills.
  • I’d like to not feel completely stupid trying to get small things done, being the only person in the room, store, office, that can’t express themselves like I want to.
  • I just want easy, familiar, normal, comfortable.
  • Sometimes…

And then I remember. I love living here. But sometimes it’s still hard. On those days we don’t leave the apartment and we just binge watch NetFlix. Shows filmed in LA or NY. Places we are familiar with and feel comfortable in. It’s like we’re recharging from home so we can go out again tomorrow and tackle it. We’re committed to living here – we’re not moving back. But Sometimes…

Court Jester

The saying goes ‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.’ That saying is playing out in our household every day. It seems I have been the anointed one. Sort of. With my horrible Spanish, I am put forward by Jeff and Emilie to ask for directions, make dinner reservations, speak to a pharmacist for medications and all the rest. Clearly, their lives are in my hands – Fools!

Today, I took Emilie to my hair salon. She needed a trim and I had made an appointment for her before she got here last weekend. I brought my grocery trolley so that while they were doing her hair, I could pop over to the Mercadona across the street and get groceries.

We pushed the button to be allowed across the threshold. This is something so foreign to me. Needing to be buzzed into a business so that I may begin my pieced together questions/instructions for Emilie’s beauty experience. In the US, we are always looking for ways to take any little the friction out of doing business. If we had to buzz people in to the lamp store or beauty salon, I think they would go out of business swiftly. But here? Totally normal that the sign says ‘Abierto’ yet the door is locked.

So I said my piece and looked over at Emilie who was rolling her eyes at my broken Spanish and my gesturing. Oh yeah – the light went on in my head – now I remember what it was like to have a teenager around. Since she’s been here, I’ve come out of my room on a daily basis to a look of ‘You’re going out in that?’ even though the words are left unspoken.

The first night, Jeff tried to explain to her about some of the more subtle differences that arise while living in Valencia. So she could be somewhat culturally sensitive. I know she was tired but we got a lot of ‘yeah, I know – I’ve been to Spain before.’ But she has never really lived here, Jeff pointed out, and then promptly gave up.

After growing up in a large home, ‘El Compartimiento‘ has not impressed her. I think it was as much a shock to her system as it was to Jeff’s that first night. But Emilie will adjust, just like he did. And now he likes it because we have just what we need, and no more. He feels lighter and says so. I knew he’d get there.

Sleep has helped Emilie. And a little retail therapy was a temporary balm. But today, at the salon, I got just a little scoshe of satisfaction leaving her there to fend for herself after the eye roll, while I went to forage for food. While I walked the aisles plucking baked goods and meat from the shelves, I wondered if I’d come back and her head would be shaved or her hair would be three colors of the rainbow. Neither of these scenarios would have made her very happy.

But alas, it seemed she muddled through and Pili did a great job at making her look like her. Perhaps in the future, I’ll anoint a new one-eyed king. When it comes to needing to interact, Miss Emilie can use her limited French and broken Spanish and find her way. But I’ll still keep the Pharmacy – I’m no fool.

The Business of Living

I awoke very early this morning with serious stomach pains. My whole left side was in such pain and it hurt to even touch it. Ugh. We have been so busy with other things, like living and working, that we haven’t established a relationship with a Dr. And finding one that speaks English – my preferred medical language in this situation – will prove a challenge. I already know that.

So I didn’t go. I just sat here all day. Yes, I Googled possible symptoms and learned I might have some things that would kill me very soon. Or things that will resolved themselves in a matter of days. Some things recommended no food or liquid orally. Others recommended that I do nothing but drink gallons of water. So I did the only sensible thing on a Friday and I went to sleep.

I slept for many hours today and now that I’m awake and it’s past 5 in the afternoon on a Friday, the time when 90% of the world gets sick (the most inconvenient time) I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have sought medical attention earlier. Pretending this is going to go away quickly isn’t a strategy that is panning out for me right now.

This is the first time since we’ve come here that I’ve felt truly insecure. Medical things tend to do that. When my daughter and I were walking the Camino, she had an allergic reaction on an early Sunday morning in Melide. That was very scary trying to find an urgent care or emergency room to stop the flaming rash from her neck crawling all the way to the top of her head. We got her some prednizone and the Dr. at the ER was very nice.

It’s harder when it’s your kids. If one of mine had awakened with this I would have moved heaven and earth – dialing 112  (911 in the US) or shouting for help in the street if need be – to get them medical attention. But for myself? I tend to take a more laiz-a-fare attitude. But then I thought ‘If I was in the US, would I go to a Dr.?’ and the answer is YES! I would have gone first thing this morning when the office opened. It’s a Friday and if this gets worse it’s an expensive ER visit. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $1200-$1800 for them to look at me in a hospital on a weekend back home.

But I have health insurance here. Full coverage and yet the language barrier is stopping me. I know its because I’m afraid I’ll have the same experience I had in Milan when I dislocated my shoulder and broke my wrist, and the orthopedic surgeon was the spitting image of Mussolini. I think he went the University of Mussolini where they shave the Dr’s heads and teach them to twist broken limbs and shout at patients in Italian. It was like being in the triage in the TV show MASH, only the Korean war tent hospitals in that show seemed better organized.

So, I’ll just wait a bit longer and drink more water. Maybe when I wake up tomorrow I’ll feel better. My fever will be gone, this raging headache will have cleared up, and I’ll be able to stand up straight without pain in my stomach. Between now and then, perhaps more sleep might do me good. There have only been a few, but it’s moments like these that even with as broken as some of our systems and institutions are in the US, I miss knowing how to navigate them. How to communicate what I’m feeling, ask questions and understand the response.  But for now, I’m getting off WebMD, crossing my fingers, and going to sleep.

It’s 5:00 Somewhere

Around here, we mostly notice the differences. The similarities don’t jump out at us, and there are less of those. Like obeying cross walk signs or driving on the right, the’re easy to dismiss. Some differences are subtle, like the fact that you can’t buy laundry detergent that is unscented. Everything is seriously perfumed. That’s not such a subtle difference since we seem to be allergic to every scented detergent and we’ve been itching in one form or another for quite some time now.

One of the biggest things we’ve noticed is that people drink beer at breakfast. Sometimes, on the weekend, we’ll go out to El Horno for a coffee, and a large portion of the patrons are drinking a cerveza.  We’ve taken to calling it ‘breakfast beer’ and Jeff, not one to scoff at another culture’s traditions and idiosyncrasies, has embraced it (on the weekends) to the fullest.

I liken it to the Bloody Mary or the Mimosa in the US. Brunch isn’t the same without them. Except its not like that at all. It’s just a bunch of old guys from the neighborhood smoking, and drinking beer, at 9 am on a Tuesday. It just feels strange.

Today, on our way to Day 3 Escuela de Espanol, I caught Jeff looking longingly at the guys in front of El Horno on our way to class. I sympathized. I could have used a stiff drink before entering the lion’s den. Something to smooth out the rough edges of the knives of incomprehension that were coming our way in mere minutos. But we walked on.

Two hours later and we walked out exhausted, frustrated and confused. We stopped at El Horno for a coffee and Coke on the way home. We needed a moment to review the experience and to come up with a strategy. The one we’ve been employing isn’t working for either of us.

‘Did you catch any of the lesson three?’ I asked him, while thumbing through my notebook.

‘Not a bit. But I figured I just sit that one out. I don’t get how she doesn’t teach us what things actually are. Car, Truck, our numbers, colors, days of the week, telling time. Like how they teach kids in pre-school. They don’t just shout at them. They have pictures and books and they sing songs to learn mnemonic devices. This moves so fast you get whiplash and you haven’t recovered before you’re on to the next thing. ‘

‘You’re lucky she didn’t call on you.’ I told him. ‘When I looked confused she just kept saying something else in Spanish. I don’t understand why we don’t have lists of vocabulary words or any clue what we’re trying to do. It seems like it would be a great idea if she told us the day before what the focus would be the next day, so we could prepare.’ I was whining but I didn’t care.

‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen.’ He had given up on that the first day. ‘I spend so much time flipping back and forth in my notes, I miss her mimes and when look up again, I’m lost.’ He took a drink of his Coke but was eyeing our neighbor’s pre-lunch cerveza.

‘I’m going to develop some cheat sheets. I need to have my basics at my finger tips. I’ll spend the afternoon typing up what I have and you can review it and add what I missed. Tomorrow we’ll be ready.’ I feel better with a battle plan.

So that’s what I did today. It’s 4 o’clock and we got home at noon after out El Horno bitch/strategy session. My notes are typed up. Tables for pronouns, verbs, adverbs are completed with what we’ve learned so far. I’ve got sections for ‘Compare and Contrast’ vocab, and just plain random vocabulary. Numbers from one to one thousand are also in there, and grammar rules that include a host of exceptions. ‘Measures of Time’ will now be at my finger tips so they can roll off my tongue. Days, Weeks, Months, Seasons. it’s all there.

When El Chino reopens after siesta, I’ll head down there to get some index cards and make us up some flash cards. Sure, I can’t just rattle that stuff off yet, but when she asks us to say something, I’ll be able to conjure something up. Wait! Who am I kidding? She’s goes so fast I’ll still be fumbling. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll embrace a ‘breakfast beer’. Honestly, it couldn’t hurt and maybe I wouldn’t care so much. Except I don’t love beer and I haven’t seen anyone drink wine for breakfast. Perhaps they have to draw the line somewhere.

Spin It!

Day 2 of Spanish went a little better – for Jeff – than Day 1. After yesterday, I had lectured him on ‘keeping and open mind’ and just ‘going with the flow’. So we walked down to our class again and he grumbled the entire way.

We got to the escuela and were the first to arrive. Jeff staked out his spot and the class ended up being about a third of the participants as the first day. Kind of like college. It was pretty clear that the rest of the students decided to bale. My supposition is that they got their parents to pay for a ‘Go to Spain and Learn Spanish’ trip, and after one day they were at the beach.

Day 2 started much like Day 1. The instructor came in and started speaking to us all again and we barely understood 2 words. Then she wrote some things on the white board and we, again, fumbled around. The others in the class were struggling too. Jeff was stoically silent. I didn’t think it was going well. Perhaps I would find him on the beach with the other students by Day 3.

Then, about 3/4 of the way through the class,, the instructor directed her attention to Jeff. She fired a question his way and he rattled off a full sentence in perfect Spanish about how motorcycles are much louder than bicycles. Huh? The instructor praised him loudly and explained to the rest of us why it was perfect. or I think she did. He beamed like a prize Pomeranian and looked over at me, smiling slyly, then went back to taking detailed notes – clearly trying not to laugh at my incredulous expression.

Then she asked me a question that I understood but stumbled in my answer because of the revelation that Jeff was better at learning Spanish than me. It’s not a competition, but tell that to my husband while walking on the way home. He was glowing. I was chewing glass.

‘I was just ‘keeping an open mind’ and ‘going with the flow” he said, ironically.

‘Yeah? Well, how did you spew out that lengthy sentence. None of us could have done that.’

‘Listening. I sat there an listened to what she was saying and what other people were saying and I figured it out.’

Ugh! We went home and since I have signed up for the gym, I decided to walk the mile and half down there and burn off some steam. I got to the club and they did the initial check in and took my picture and gave me my pass. Then I went up and found an open elliptical machine and got on it, firing up my usual work out playlist. I haven’t worked out at a gym since we’ve been here so it felt good to hear the music and do something I’m good at.

The personal trainer came over and after determining I couldn’t understand her, she went and got another guy who explained how it all works and told me there was a spinning class in 15 minutes. So I did the elliptical for 15 minutes and then went to the Spin class. I had no idea what it would be like but I thought I’d give it a try. It was a killer and it was in Spanish.

The guy kicked my ass, while ensuring I am clear I do not understand ‘Spinning Spanish’, and an hour later I stumbled back the mile and a half home. 2 litres of water later and I was asleep. This means I missed yoga – which I’m pretty sure is the antithesis of why I went spinning in the first place. But no matter.

I sit here tonight content. I’m drinking a glass of wine, I know Jeff will not be skipping Spanish class with the others, and I’ve been studying my notebook. He’s in for it tomorrow. I’ve got 3 sentences queued up and ready to go. But only if she asks specific questions. But I’ll worry about that tomorrow.

Lifeguard Wanted!

In the US there is a saying ‘Being thrown into the deep end of the pool’. This means that a person goes from being on solid ground, to being in over their head with whatever thing they might be confronting. This could entail being expected to do something that you’ve never done before, as though you’re an expert. Its an apt expression since it often will include panic and hyper-ventilation. Both of these things we experienced in full today in our Immersion Total experience.

We went to our first Spanish class at our local ‘Escuela de Espanol‘ and I can say that we’ve not just been thrown into the deep end of the pool, but the ocean! Holy mackerel, we are lost. I would have shouted ‘Ayuda! Me estoy ahogando en espanol!’ (Help! I’m drowning in Spanish!!) if only I’d known how to say it. And I am drowning in Spanish. And so is Jeff. No es claro. And Jeff’s innate need for understanding the ‘Why’ of anything and everything is wildly unsatisfied because the instructor will not speak to us in English – at all.

We got there early and the room was set up in a circle. We have people from Holland, UK, Ukraine, Libya, Russia, Italy and us, in this class. The instructor came in and immediately wrote a few Spanish sentences on the board, began talking rapidly, and then asked each of us to say what she had written, but modify it for ourselves. It’s was our names, home country, what we like and what we don’t like. I stumbled through it and so did Jeff.

Then she wrote some other things on the board that I recognized from +Babbel and Rosetta Stone, and it started to make a little sense. I looked over at Jeff and he had that ‘Whaaat The…??!!’ look on his face as the instructor asked him question after question and he had zero clue what she was talking about. Other people were confused too. The guy from the Ukraine had already checked out.

We did some work sheets and then we had to say our letters to each other. My vocabulary isn’t bad but my pronunciation could use some work. Jeff’s pronunciation is really good, but he has a hard time teasing out what our instructor is saying. He began to correct my recitation of the alphabet. This is good, because for about a week now I’ve repeated everything he says in the limited Spanish I have, and I think it’s been making him a little crazy. Revenge is a dish best served cold, I guess.

On Saturday, he asked me ‘Where are the bikes we’re picking up?’ referring to what bike share station we’re going to.

‘You mean ‘Donde esta Valenbisi biccecletas‘ we’re picking up?’

Sure, it’s incomplete pigeon Spanish, but it’s how I’m learning and it’s helping me to more quickly conjure up what I might need to say to someone who doesn’t speak Ingles. When I do, I usually get ‘The Look’ but oh, well.

After our 2 hour lesson today, we left the school knowing we will be back there for two more hours every morning this week. Jeff’s head was spinning. We had learned to words for thief and plumber. Kind of obscure since I am perpetually trying to avoid both of those things in my life.

‘I didn’t understand half of that.’ he grumbled.

‘Yeah, me neither, but that’s why we’re taking the class. If we understood it, we wouldn’t need it. We just have to go with the flow. It’s not a college class and we’re doing it for ourselves. Our future livelihoods won’t depend on it.’

I got a ‘Hrmpft’ as a response.

We got home and had a little lunch. We’ve signed up for 3 weeks of intensive classes and I think Jeff is counting down the hours. But in the end, we’ll be glad we did this and the school we chose is flexible if we need to continue or go back for additional instruction – which is almost guaranteed.

But first we need to get through the initial part. The part where we surrender to the fact that we don’t understand, and that the goal isn’t getting it perfect, just good enough.  ‘No comprende‘ is going my constant companion in this course and I’m OK with it. Maybe we need to drown a little, so we’ll start kicking and head for the surface so we can breath the air in Valencia. Spanish air. It will not be easy, but I know with time it won’t be as ‘Dificil‘ as it was today.

The Escape

Leaving your own country and moving to another requires adjustment. We start Spanish language classes on Monday. 3 hours every morning in intensive immersion. We need language skills and it’s becoming more and more apparent each day.

I’m looking at volunteering at a local school to help kids improve their English skills, but also to meet native speakers and use my soon-to-be-acquired Spanish. We’ve met new friends but most of them are expats from English speaking countries like Brits, Irish or South Africans. And those that aren’t want to speak English to us even though they’re from Holland or somewhere else in Scandinavia.

We’re fumbling through on a daily basis and it’s either feast of famine on our ability to communicate. Sometimes Jeff would prefer not to have to think about how we’re going to get something done. His take? ‘Easy things are hard. Just wait for the hard things. Who knows how we’ll tackle those.’ I prefer to keep some of those things in a fog just out of my reach. I’ll figure out how to get a doctor later.

So to escape, sometimes you just need to binge watch TV from home. We’ve got no cable but we do have Amazon Prime, with our paid channels, and Netflix. I get my news from NBC online when I wake up in the morning. But yesterday, after staring at some wires that came snaking out of our wall, Jeff hooked up the cable that is connected at the other end to somewhere, and we got local HD channels – out of the air.

We have no idea where they’re coming from but in flipping through the channels we’ve discovered we can pay to get our Tarot cards read on no less than 7 channels – for a small and ever growing fee.  Once we learn Spanish, we can listen to the televangelists try to save our souls. There might be a fee involved there too. We will eventually understand sports here and after Googling some of the acronyms for the teams playing, we’ve learned all the Spanish soccer/futbol teams names. And then we discovered the channels of TV from back home. And that we can change the programming to allow the ‘original language’ to come through. BINGO! We have more US shows.

Sure, back in the US I watched a ton of Spanish TV and movies. It’s how I started tuning my ear and honestly, it’s helped a ton here already. Great investment. But on days when going out and doing things is tougher than you think it ought to be, it’s nice to sit down and lose yourself in something mindless. Something you don’t even have to think about to understand.

Today, I’m heading out by myself to get spices in the Central Market. Its like a big open market but it’s undercover in a building like an old train station in the center of the city.  I’m meeting up with a new friend for a beverage who lives in that part of town. After trying to stumble through purchasing things in Spanish, it will be nice to have a chat with someone who doesn’t require me to think, over a glass of wine. And to come home and watch some Big Bang Theory with cultural references that I totally understand. Its stupid, I know. But the little things take on more significance here.

Making Friends – the Hard Way

Today, I decided to take a tour. This is not my usual deal. I’m more of a ‘go-it-alone’, ‘lets-see-where-the-road-takes-us’ kind of person. But I signed up when I heard about it and I crawled out of bed at 6am.

Nooo! I don’t get up at 6am anymore. That was the old me. The Mom-me. The working me. But the bus was gonna leave Xativa with or without me. And I wanted to be on it. Jeff saw me off, like the first day of Kindergarten. He was going to enjoy a blissful day ALONE. I think he was looking forward to it as much as I was looking forward to seeing more of the area.

Sunrise Xativa

The big red bus traveled south with me and all my expat friends – Brits, Canadians, Americans and the like. It was for English speakers and I learned a lot about how others in my position do things here, the topography of the region, and the history. The rich history. Ahhh. I was in my element. It was like being back in history class in school, where they told you stories that brought it alive. I loved history.

So our first stop, after a very, very winding (get you super car sick, don’t look down) road – was Guadalest. It’s a hilltop town with a castle at the top – duh. With a lot to see. I walked through the old part and through the manse that the family who controlled the region for 300 years built, had an earth quake and rebuilt, and then lost it in some sort of conflict. I was a bit sketchy on those details.

Guadalest

But it was so fun to walk around the old ramparts, and what did I discover that surprised me? Oh yes, the making of an Indian music video. I wanted to be irritated that they were harshing my bliss, but I kind of liked the music and the choreography.  And the lead singer was easy on the eyes.

Indian Video

Then we were off to Altea. This is closer tot he water and simply lovely. We had a bit of lunch (wine) and a brief walk around the town. Gorgeous views and great shopping. But not as good as the shopping in Gata de Gorgos. It’s a little town with a series of shops where they sell hand woven wicker goods, bags and rugs that are wonderful! So I had to buy a bag, and then a throw for the couch. And then a rug for under our dining room table.

When I walked out of the last shop with the large rug slung over my shoulder my fellow travelers laughed. The wife of our tour guide especially.

Altea

‘I knew it. In that first shop, I saw the look in your eye and I knew. She’s on a mission.’

‘Well.’ I told her. ‘I generally spot what I want right away. And these little shops seems to have many of the items on my list.’

Altea to the South

I put my finds in the hold, below the bus and we made it back to Valencia. The bus dropped us off near the Xativa Metro stop so I hoisted my rug on my shoulder, consolidated a few bags and set off for the metro, leaving my new friends to watch me shaking their heads. Now, you might think they were the last people on my trek home to stare at me and consider my schlepping of a large rug on a subway to be totally inappropriate. But there you’d be wrong.

I was nearly stopped by the man in the booth as I barely squeaked through the electronic ticket stall, and not because he didn’t try, in his sound proof glass box. But I found pretending not to notice him waving his arms at me worked well, and seeing as how he couldn’t seem to find his key in time to open his booth, I just whizzed past and down the two escalators to the platform. The train was pulling in at that very moment, and I want to say I hopped on it but I was lugging a large rug, so I ambled, while balancing it on my shoulder.

The other passengers weren’t as enamored of my home home decor choices as you would think, but like most people here, they said nothing, and I had counted on that. Just stared. I smiled and made sure it didn’t fall on anyone. Getting out of the subway and then walking the half mile home through sidewalk cafes and crowds was quite a challenge, but eventually I made it.

I want to say Jeff was surprised to see me and my rug and the rest of my purchases, but he didn’t bat and eye when he opened the door. He just took it from me and asked me where I wanted it. People in my tour group had asked me ‘what is your husband going to say?’ and I stopped for a moment before answering.

‘He expects nothing else from me.’ I told them honestly. ‘In fact, if I don’t come home with a rug or some other large thing, like an armadillo or a pony; something that requires geometry to get home, he’ll be disappointed.’

I’m a challenge shopper. It’s in my blood. I had so much fun on this tour, I’m signing us up for the next one. The Olive Oil tour. Jeff is not getting out of this one. A whole day pressing olives. And you can buy olive products and the like. Hmmm. I wonder what we’ll be lugging home on the subway that day!