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?

 

 

 

 

The Lion’s Den

We are off to Sao Paolo, Brazil. Our friends and family are of two camps about this trip of ours, due to the election there this past Sunday. Brazil has a new president that they’re calling ‘The Donald Trump of Brazil’, even in Brazil. There has been a lot of energy around this election – much like in the US, and half of the people we know are A) very worried about us going. Or B) they had no idea there even was an election in Brazil and/or where to find the country on a map. Let’s face it, most American’s believe that our country is the center of the known world, and the world we don’t know doesn’t really matter. This is sad but true.

I’ve had calls, WhatsApp messages, and texts from friends questioning if this is a good idea. There are news reports of rioting and civil unrest. But I’m not too worried. I’ve been to Lebanon during a civil war. We were in Athens during the economic crisis with the protests there; with tear gas and clashes with police in riot gear, near the Parliment in the shadow of the Acropolis. Even in Seattle, when the WTO protest went on for days, my office was right in the thick of it. So I think we’ll be just fine if anything happens. We just need to be smart about it.

One thing I’ve learned about these things is that usually the stories on the news are an exaggerated view of what’s actually going on. Images recorded in such a way to make the crowds seem larger or they show the video of just those that are not peacefully protesting, Because peaceful protesters don’t help ratings. It’s not inaccurate reporting, just a thin slice of the reality on the ground. I’m hoping that’s all it is.

But we are looking forward to spending some time South American and learning something new. We speak Portuguese, not at all, but we’ve gotten used to misunderstanding, and being misunderstood, for the last 8 months so we’re in the perfect frame of mind for yet another foray into the unknown. The country looks to be stunning and the Brazilian’s we know here are wonderful people. Although I’ve been asked by them ‘Why do you want to go to Brazil?’. Seems they like living in Spain a bit better.

And I’m taking my trusty Trafico bible with me, so I’ll be on track to take my theory test when I get back. It’s my constant companion now and I’m sure Jeff appreciates me randomly peppering him with obscure facts on things like traffic circles, the phrase ‘As a General Rule’ and so much more. His eyes only glaze over every so often now, and lucky him, he can continue to enjoy learning in the Southern Hemisphere. And I met someone the other night at a tapas party. He offered to teach me to drive a stick shift in their family car. And his wife offered to teach me all the basics in Spanish of ‘Right, left, straight and Dear God! – Stop this car immediately!’. I figure that’s pretty much all I’ll need for my practical exam.

I haven’t decided completely, but I don’t think I’ll be blogging while we’re there. There will be a lot to see and do, and I’d like to be present for all of it. Jeff is looking forward to confirming that toilets flush water in the opposite direction. But I’ll be back with pictures and non-toilet related stories when we return. The world will keep turning while we’re gone, so we’ll see you on the other side. Cheers!

Teaching the Test

I’m all over this driving test thing. Every day I’m taking the actual Dirección General de Tráfico (DGT) tests online. In the beginning, I was getting discouraged. I was successful somewhere in the 70% range and it was a morale killer. But I have persevered and now I’m either passing the actual tests or coming very close with only 4 mistakes.

I have learned a lot and not just about Spanish traffic laws. I’ve learned that ‘should’ and ‘must’ aren’t the same as ‘mandatory;. And ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ isn’t the same as ‘prohibited’. In English, these mean the same things. In Spanish (or the translation) there’s a bit of trickery that will fool you every time until you start to spot these words and realize you’re about to be duped for the 400th time. Damn you, DGT test! You’ll not get me again. Fool me 400 times, shame on you. Fool me for the 401st – shame on me.

And if there are two answers that look, and actually mean the same thing, the one that says ‘but can be modified at any time at the discretion or authority of the police or other authorized persons’, that’s the answer – no matter what other thing you think it might be. Because if the police or authorized persons tells you to stand on your head in the middle of the tracks, with the engine running and a train coming, and livestock on all sides of the road – even though there is no ‘Canada’ sign and other signs expressly prohibiting it – you will do it. It’s ‘compulsory’. No can’s, no should’s. You will follow the authorities.

I’ve also learned a lot about how the pictures in the test have nothing, whatsoever to do with the question. When they show wild horses running all over the road, on both sides, and then ask you if you can encounter livestock on:

a) the right side of the road.

b) the left side of the road.

c) the entire road.

The answer is a). And here’s why. The picture is meant to be a fun bit of misdirection. And you’ll notice the word ‘can‘ in the question. This seems to the layman that, based on the photo and experience, of course you CAN experience livestock on all sides of the road. But you’d be wrong. Legally, you can only experience it on the right side with the flow of traffic. But remember, when you encounter livestock arbitrarily in the road you must yield to them. I plan on shouting at them ‘You’re prohibited from being here legally! The law says so!’ But of course I’d be screaming it in English so they wouldn’t understand me. Anyway – in my experience you yield to things bigger than you.

I’ve learned a bunch of other stuff too. The Spanish driving test cares a lot about depression, fatigue and both prescription and non-prescription drug use. It cares about smoking in the car and GPS use. As I sit here taking tests, Jeff has been looking over my shoulder. Sometimes he’s been helpful, at other times he’s emphatically suggested something that I know is incorrect, because I’ve encountered it before. I just chuckle – how naive he is that he thinks he understands whether you ‘can’ use your fog lights in a light drizzle – silly man. So he’s learning too. But this one particular question threw us both for a loop. Take a look at this picture. Notice there is no D) NONE!!

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Now, I can learn all the facts and figures around when I need to have my car or motorcycle inspected by the MOT/ITV. I can learn right of ways for one lane roads and urban vs. interurban areas. But HOLY MOLY! Driving a school bus after a few drinks? When was that decided it might be a) an OK idea, and after that one bad decision, b) how much they should be able to drink?! This just seems wrong. We both shook our head and then remembered that none of our kids will ever ride a Spanish school bus so that’s one more reason to sleep at night. But then I thought about the driver of our Metro train and took a gulp.

Last week, I found the street in front front of the Jefatura Provincial de Trafico, and it was festooned with places to get my medical/psychological exam to obtain my certificate. I was waiting for Jeff in a cafe and asked the woman next to me about all the clinics that were lining the street. I asked her if it was cosmetic surgery or botox or something. She laughed and explained it was for the certificate to drive in Spain. So now I know where to go. They stand outside in lab coats like hucksters so I’m thinking I can negotiate the cost. And next week I’m getting my new town hall certificate and passport sized photos for my learners permit.

I’m starting to be more sure of myself, but not cocky. There’s no room in this process for over confidence. After a little more practice and gathering my documents, I’ll make the appointment to take the test for after we’re back from Brazil in mid-November. I’m hoping I pass on the first two tries so I don’t have to take an actual course and can spend the rest of my time learning in the car. I’d like to start the new year with my new license and a new car – ready to explore more of the country. Seems like a good way to start the year!

Nou d’Octubre – The Day of Valencia

Every October 9th, since King James the I of Aragon sent the Moors packing south, Valencian’s have celebrated their freedom. OK, well as much freedom as people who still lived under a feudal system for 100’s of years following this conquest could. But the Spanish population, who were mostly Christians (Catholics) went from being the low men on the totem pole to those in power.

There is no debate here about the role of Charlemagne or Roland in freeing Spain from the Moors, like there is in Navarra. The Valencia’s are pretty sure it was this one guy and his lucky bat, who showed up right as his victory was clinched, that did the trick. You can see the Valencian bat festooned on manhole covers and futbol jersey’s. The Bat is the thing here.

Nearly 800 years later they’re still pretty happy about it. And like most celebrations we’ve encountered in Spain, if one day of partying is good, six days is just that much better. Nou d’Octubre is the biggest celebration of Valencian pride, and that is saying something since they have a month-long Fallas celebration in March, too.  But Fallas is an internationally renowned party celebrating the art of satirical street sculpture that attracts visitors (and pyromaniacs) from far and wide. This celebration is for the people of the region.

We had some friends in town this weekend – who brought more friends with them – so our group pf 10 dove in and we got a bit of the flavor of the festivities that actually started on Thursday the 4th. Like all fiestas, there will be people dressed in traditional dress. Women dressed like they were as Fallera, and men in both traditional peasant and in Moorish inspired costumes performing or just walking the streets.

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There was a Medieval Market on the Serranos bridge leading to the towers of the same name, selling traditional locally made foods, jewelry, soaps and oils and hand made candies. October 9th is also St. Denis’ Day in Spain. It’s the equivalent of St. Valentines Day. Here men give their lady loves a kerchief full of marzipan sweets to signify their affection. Knowing Jeff would forget his clear obligations to me on St. Denis’ Day, I bought myself a beautiful kimono in the old city. When I showed it to him I explained how I’d helped him dodge a bullet on this most important of holidays. He appeared unmoved at my generosity.

During these celebrations, old palaces that are mostly government buildings now, are opened to the public for just 2 days. Valencian’s like their bureaucracy so they need a lot of places to house them and the old palaces are the perfect spots. Large, open and with big rooms that once might have been used to house men-at-arms, but now hold large conference tables or councils. A gentleman working in one of them explained the hierarchy to us.

In Spain, there are 17 autonomous regions (like states in the US). Ours is the Valencia Communidad (Community) – a collection of essentially 3 counties (Valencia, Alicante and Castello) – who have their congress in one palace here in the old city. This is like a state legislature. Then there is the Valencia county (I’m not using the right words but that’s what it is) – that has it’s own council. Kind of like a county council back home. Then there is Valencia, the city (Ayuntamiento) – which has it’s own city council and mayor.

It’s a little confusing since the name ‘Valencia’ is a loaded one, but you get used to it. In terms of Palaces, each one of these government bodies is housed in palaces that are usually closed to the public, unless you have official business before that particular body. But one time per year, they open them up so that the average person can enjoy the architecture and the stunning art that is housed in them. Sculpture, centuries old paintings and architecture is on full display. It’s easy to see how the aristocracy showed off their wealth and power using their homes as canvasses.

There was music in the square and, of course, fireworks – both during the day and at night. I swear, if someone invaded this country the inhabitants would think any gun shots they heard were associated to a wedding, baptism or a fiesta they forgot about. You think I’m kidding but you almost don’t even hear them anymore when they go off.

My favorite place we visited, although it’s open nearly every day so it’s not part of this celebration, was the Church of St. Nicholas. I had seen it before but never ventured in. Yesterday, we were walking by it between Palace tours and decided to pop in. For 6 euros (kids are free), we got to see something that was truly amazing. It’s called ‘The Sistine Chapel of Valencia’. And ironically, the restorer of the Sistine Chapel restored it recently so it was visible in all it’s glory.  Pictures don’t do it justice and it’s worth the visit.

Parishioners, or anyone in Valencia who needs help with a problem, will leave their home on 3 consecutive Mondays, walking in silence to the church to pray to the effigy of St. Nicholas for assistance. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of charity. The legend has it that he used to anonymously give assistance to many in his community during his lifetime. The precursor to Santa Claus. Promoting the ‘charity is its own reward’ type of approach. This appeals to me on so  many levels and the church is clearly a masterwork in celebrating his life.

Finally, last evening we were just enjoying a quiet time at home when we heard a procession go by. We barely get up and go to the window anymore when we hear a marching band in the neighborhood but it went on for awhile. So random. And the fireworks went off shortly there after.

So we’re not actually to the real holiday yet and we’ve fully celebrated it. Now we’ll enjoy a few days of no grocery stores being open until we get a brief reprieve before Spain Day on Friday. It will be interesting to see what that is like here in Valencia. Will the inhabitants be fiesta’d out after a week of celebrating Nou d’Octubre? Something tells me there’s a fat chance of that! More music, fireworks and processions coming up!