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Archives for Ex-Pat Expriences

Take My Money, Please

Jun
14
2008

Now that U.S. President George Bush’s term is almost over, he’s getting a decent welcome here in Europe, at least from leaders, if not from the public. Finally, one extra annoyance he’s caused for us common-man American travelers will soon fade away. No more need for that standard bit in political conversations: “No, really, we didn’t all vote for him.”

In Europe, Democratic candidate Barack Obama is currently cool and the average person doesn’t really know anything about Republican candidate John McCain, so Europeans who like to pick on American politics and society will have to return to fallback topics.

There’s another bright spot – from our lousy dollar no less – for Americans who manage to scrape together the exorbitant airfare and take themselves and their drooping currency to Europe this summer: no way can anyone stereotype the average American tourist as arrogant these days.

As Americans blanch at the price of a cup of coffee and a croissant they are, well, pathetic.

The stereotype has been around for a while. For most of us, getting to Europe is a big-deal trip. So we head across the Atlantic with a decent currency from decent U.S. salaries, superb background training in shopping, a vague idea that we were real sports about the Marshall Plan (check out Bush’s schedule) along with the standard international tourist cluelessness, to spend some money on our big treat. And somehow the stereotype of free-spenders with a sense of entitlement developed.

Even cutting back because of a weak currency, some Americans will continue to travel and be more free-spending than European Old World visitors. But since everybody knows we’re not backed by the almighty dollar these days, even people who buy into the stereotype will find it hard to resent visitors who took out a loan to pay for breakfast.

Well, maybe not, but the dollar has been sliding for the past couple of years against the euro, hovering more or less (mostly less) around $1.50 to the euro since the end of last year. Prices in euros feel right with a one-to-one parity; in other words, you see a sandwich for five euros, and it sounds right – if it were dollars. But, very roughly, you need to add half again to prices in euros to see what they are in dollars, and that feels very wrong. A $5 sandwich is now $7.50. Standard hotels become luxury class, pizza for the family is a special dinner out and you don’t even want to know what you’re paying for water in tourist spots.

So we Americans wander around just look humbler these days. With a new president in place, maybe eventually they’ll even like us, you know, really like us. Or more importantly, maybe breakfast will go back to a reasonable price.

If you’re around this summer, we can discuss it over a coffee. But let’s split the bill.

Posted by Deborah Klosky at 11:13 AM | Permalink

A Mature Driver

May
16
2008

It’s official – at my young middle-aged years, I now drive like an old lady. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And not that we’re stereotyping.
The thing is, you probably do too – drive like old folks that is. At least in the eyes of Spanish drivers. You see, I’m now working on getting a Spanish driver’s license. I was dreading it because I thought all the tests had to be done on cars with manual gearshifts, which are much more common than automatics here. I do not drive stick shifts. I have no interest in driving stick shifts. Stick shifts can take their sticks and…you get the idea.
But, the right driving school teacher finally shared the secret: There’s another license available, where you’re tested on a car with an automatic gearshift (i.e., normal). Your license restricts you to just driving automatics, but as you can probably tell, that doesn’t bother me. A few years ago, the law was changed so anyone could get this special license, not just people with a medical need. Great, says I, you don’t need to be disabled? Oh no, says the instructor, a lot of older people get it – not young people, they get a regular license – but the elderly who might have trouble with gears.
So, quite happy to aim for a senior citizen license (not its official name), or as I like to think of it, the American special, I plunged into reading that dense work of fiction (oh sure, double parking is illegal) that you might also have read in another form: the driver’s manual. A couple of moms at school noticed I was toting it around, and one was surprised that my U.S. license can’t be simply validated and exchanged directly for a Spanish one, as most European and some other countries’ licenses can be here.
Sure, laughed the other, it’s because you don’t need to do anything for a U.S. license. Compared with the hoops you have to go through for a license here, the written and driving tests of U.S. states are seen as…er…cinchy. Personally, I think they’re just differently focused. From the Spanish manual, what are the rules for the number, color and location of every single light on a truck, versus the important fact of knowing you´re driving a “two-ton death machine,” my favorite line leftover from high school driver’s ed.
Careful, the second mom said about the Spanish written test, they give you trick questions. Don’t worry, everybody has to take it more than once, said another mom, meaning the written and driving portions.
So now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t go to the driving test dressed up with a kind of babushka granny head scarf and some artful stage makeup (it wouldn’t take that much), and try to snag some extra points out of sympathy for the elderly.

Posted by Deborah Klosky at 4:06 PM | Permalink

Minivans Were Us

Feb
22
2008

It looks as if I’ve moved out of the U.S. just in time. That statement has nothing to do with politics. No, it’s much more serious – what shocks me is the declining popularity of minivans.
What does this mean? That my fellow tribesmen, the mommies, I mean Mommies (always capitalized, please), are giving up their identities? What’s next – no more Mom jeans? Letting the kids work it out for themselves at the playground? Blowing off PTA meetings?
I shake my head in sorrow, although not as much sorrow as I felt at giving up my own Mom machine, aka my beloved minivan, when we moved to Spain. But now, oh yes, I am trying to create my own piece of rolling American Momdom in our minivan here. This is despite that fact that we replaced the American (sort of) minivan that we had in California with a Spanish (sort of) minivan here. Which means, naturally, one big change – a lot fewer cupholders.
I can live with the cupholder lack (breathe deeply and repeat: just don’t think about it, just don’t think about it) but somehow the whole tribal identify thing doesn’t seem to work here. I just don’t get the same sense of fellow Momness among us minivan drivers.
Somehow, and maybe I’m being a bit too sensitive, but somehow I feel that when Spaniards see a minivan their first thought isn’t “Mom,” but rather “not a Mercedes.” Maybe I’m wrong.
But OK, if American Moms are deserting me, I can try to seek out my tribe here in Europe. So I keep an eye out for that Mom identity American Moms pull on like a stained t-shirt and elastic waist pants – half reluctantly, half relievedly, maybe another half with a sort of pride, and how about another half because it’s the first model at hand. (A Mom identify, besides increasing minivan sales, can also on the positive side be tapped for political efforts.) But somehow, I don’t see any other Moms with “sensible” haircuts who might want to commiserate about how they never have time to shower. I mean, I bring up the shower thing with other moms here and they sort of take a step back. I don’t know why.
So maybe Moms in hospitals here get a bagful of their own cute clothes back instead of a coupon for a free “Baby Can Be a Genius If Mom Works Hard Enough” class. (I’m betting this is true in France too.) But I know there’s gotta be some other connection among us Schooner of the Road skippers. Still, looking around, I do sometimes see driving Moms, or dads, or maybe even Dads…smoking. Or with kids…in the front seat.
The Mom code of conduct requires strapping those kids in the back seat until they’re 20. (The side benefit of this practice is that you can implicitly criticize lots of grandparents, who raised their kids (you and your partner) pre-car seats and just let them rattle around in the car. Safety and a family dig – who doesn’t love it?) And no smoking is allowed, but periodically bags of fast food picked up at a drive-in window should be tossed back at the little creatures, especially when they start to struggle at their restraints. That doesn’t work here so much; see above re: fewer cupholders, not to mention fewer drive-throughs.
California, for example, just enacted a law banning smoking in cars when there are kids in them. Spanish parents certainly worry about their kids’ safety, but they’re not quite as…um…militant, let’s say. There’s lots of safe driving practices campaigns from the government, but even with something like drinking and driving, you still have a certain percentage of Spaniards – including possibly a former prime minister who said he should be able to drink as he sees fit – who think it’s their right to drive back and forth from a big Sunday lunch washed downed with an appropriate amount of wine. Especially if Mom’s cooking.
My minivan here is fine, maybe not so beloved, but fine. But the Metro system – now that’s something to catch the eye.

Posted by Deborah Klosky at 2:06 AM | Permalink

Fire and Rain

Oct
25
2007

There’s an idea held by some intellectuals, word mavens and Brits that Americans don’t know the meaning of irony, that we overuse it to describe situations that are instead surprising, unfortunate, ridiculous, or something, but not ironic. Unfortunately, not falling into any of the expert categories, I can’t provide guidance on the proper use of the word.
So, I don’t know but I’m guessing that cosmic irony is not the right concept to apply when I say that this week I’ve been watching the wildfires burn in San Diego, wondering how our old neighbors and friends were doing, while a couple of weeks ago I was pulling up pictures of flooding in the Valencia area, reading about the deaths here from too much water. The flooding from the mid-October rains hit much of the region but was worst in the southern Alicante area. That it’s too wet here, too dry in California, is not irony; maybe it’s paradox I mean, or most likely just one of the plain old, unfair tricks that happen.
Way back when I applied to colleges, one of the schools asked a question on the application that said, more or less, if you had to leave your home in an emergency (maybe they even mentioned because of a fire), what would you take? The school: California’s own Stanford. My answer was whatever a teenager would come up with, because I thought the question was meant to learn more about potential students, but really the question was simply preparatory. I didn’t know it was something you really should think about if you’re moving to California. I could probably answer the question better now; just Tuesday, I was talking to my parents about what they had packed in their car in case they had to evacuate (luckily they didn’t).
Thanks to the amazing human invention of the Internet, I was watching the same local newscast with the annoying anchor and the charming weatherman as I could have seen in San Diego, and a continent and an ocean away I was as powerless to do anything as the people in Qualcomm Stadium watching homes burn nearby. That people have such incredible power from knowledge in some areas, and that yet we still haven’t figured out how to protect ourselves fully from forces of nature (with whatever degree of responsibility humans bear for triggering or exacerbating disasters), is somewhat surprising each time, and a shame. (And that renewed surprise each time disaster strikes is one reason we aren’t better prepared.)
That I was very glad not to be back in San Diego with two kids worried about evacuating our home, is natural. During the 2003 San Diego fires, we sat through a few days at home until the air cleared outside, so I can imagine somewhat what it would be like, but for us these fires would have been scarier as they came closer to where we lived. But that I was also very worried about people there and despite the fact that it was a useless gesture, kept checking for fire details is also natural.
The Disney ride might be somewhat musty these days, but it is a smaller world (at least until ecological guilt keeps everyone from flying – unless they have a private jet, of course); you might call people neighbors if they live next door or 6000 miles away. But you can’t necessarily help them, and you can’t send them any spare rain you have. That’s certainly not ironic; it is a challenge.

Posted by Deborah Klosky at 11:23 PM | Permalink

Birthday Wishes

Jul
5
2007

So, another year older, and happy birthday to you, America. We may have lost our way on some original ideals, but the country still stands throughout the world for certain principles, and foreigners are showing they believe in us too – by staying the hell away.
Overall foreign visitor numbers and spending are back up to where they were before international travel dropped after 9-11, but the tourism industry points out that’s due to greater numbers coming from Mexico and Canada. Other markets, including parts of Europe, still haven’t recovered, and the U.S. is missing out on growth, losing market share to other sites, the industry says.
Why? And particularly why aren’t Europeans coming, whose mighty euro could make handmade cowboy boots and Disney hotels a positive bargain? Well, getting a visa is an inconvenient, annoying process, although it’s not necessary for most short-term Western European visitors. But the actual arrival process is seen as a vaguely scary, inconvenient, unpleasant hassle.
The last time I traveled to the U.S., in April, I got to be an undercover American. The husband’s not a U.S. citizen, and this time the official in the arrivals area told us to go to the non-citizen line if we wanted to stick together. (The time before I got to elevate the husband to the citizens’ line. That’s just one more small way air traveler policy is inconsistent.) So, in the airport at 1:30 in the morning, with two small children in tow, we got to wait about an hour just to get through immigration. My compatriots in the other line were of course out much sooner, although not as soon as they’d like, I’m sure.
These travel issues are related to the more serious issue of how the Bush administration, while cavalier about citizen’s rights, has presented a complete disregard for rights of non-citizens. Sitting abroad considering a trip, you like to hear a country emphasizing its respect for universal human rights, not carving away what a non-citizen is considered entitled to.
So tourists are staying away because they’re afraid of being tortured and slapped in Guantanamo without a trial? No, of course not. Well, not really. But continuing coverage of the U.S.’s view of the downgrading of legal rights for anyone from outside its own borders combines with an impression of the U.S. officials that visitors do have contact with – in airports and to a lesser extent in embassies – as brusque and omnipotent to make some travelers say, “Hey, how about Rome this year?”
At times, though, the U.S. has been seen as a human rights supporter. And Americans have also been known for a few lighter virtues – among them, competence and friendliness, not to mention a good service culture. We get stuff done, and we do it with a smile; maybe a superficial smile, but it’s cheery while it lasts.
But this arrivals hall mess is not the America Europeans knew and loved (to spend money in). We can’t even manage the lines efficiently. You visit a poor country, you get a long, hot wait in line when you first arrive, you sort of expect that. Although many poor countries, which know they need tourism revenue, doubtless have a more streamlined entry process. But America? Home of the assembly line, fast food and the Disney line pass? You expect better. (And it seems officials have recently consulted with groups including amusement parks to get tips on line management.)
And how else are we trying to attract visitors? Well, tourism industry lobbying got a bill through a Senate committee that would increase marketing of the U.S. – paying for that in part by a 10 bucks per visitor charge. That’s sure to improve visitors’ impressions of traveling here. And at the same time, we’re coming up on the expiration date for regulations about data that must be collected from European travelers to the U.S. – that collection raised privacy concerns in Europe before and a new proposal to have European travelers register 48 hours before flying to the U.S. has raised further concerns.
Driving away tourists with incompetent treatment isn’t a terrorism deterrent, it’s simply mismanagement. Americans themselves are getting a taste of how this works with the current passport fiasco. If you pass a law requiring Americans to show passports on their return from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean, then you have to expect people will, uh, obey the law and so need to…apply for passports. But no one planned properly for that, so passports waits are now several months long and extra State Department personnel are being dragged in from wherever possible to try to reduce the backlog of millions.
Americans have some resources of last resort to try, including contacting their congressperson, if they’re having trouble with a U.S. government agency. Foreigners, as the U.S. makes abundantly clear, have much fewer options. Decisions to live in the U.S. are usually backed by more compelling reasons than a decision to just visit, so while immigrants might put up with lousy treatment, tourists can just go elsewhere.
But those visitors staying away is a backhanded compliment. They know what they’d like to see in America, they know what they should see. One day they’ll be back.

Posted by Deborah Klosky at 1:35 AM | Permalink

Trailing to a Finish

Jun
21
2007

It’s been four years since the last America’s Cup, the premier yachting race, was sailed; now, finally, the 32nd edition begins Saturday, so you can imagine the big question on many people’s minds in Valencia these days: Does anyone want to buy a used TV?
Obviously the two teams racing in the Cup, Swiss defender Alinghi and challenger Emirates Team New Zealand, have other things on their minds. But they’re the only two teams left from a field of 12. The hundreds of team members, many with their families, have been in Valencia training and racing on and off for a couple of years, but for most of them it’s all over, and in any case it will be soon.
Since the American winning streak was broken in Newport, R.I., in 1983, the Cup has been sailed in different sites every three to five years, and the sailing crowd, as I’ve learned, operates somewhat like the military, or employees of a big multinational, or the circus: they set up camp in one spot for a few years, train, bond, find good sushi, etc., then move on to the next assignment. For many, it’s now time to get the move arranged, and head back to their home base while they sort out their next gig. (Choosing the location of the next Cup is the winner’s privilege, so that’s still uncertain.)
And like the military, or the academic field, or the diplomatic corps or international business – or any of the other fields where moving around is a part of the job – you’ve got the unpleasant-sounding phenomenon of the trailing spouse (almost exclusively wives in this case).
That’s the spouse whose employment isn’t the trigger for the move, or in other words the spouse who’s often seen by the organization responsible for the move as both a handy person to take care of the move, the kids, the kids’ schools, etc., and as a potential trouble spot in the employee’s productivity. (Trailing spouse as a term shows up a lot related to academia because of how academic careers develop: a job change usually means a geographic change; and in two-academic families, universities will sometimes offer some kind of position to the trailing spouse to entice the star spouse.)
There’s lots of negative baggage attached to the term, just like “homemaker,” and there’s no need really to use it. But the concept behind it is there, implying leaders (good) versus followers (bad), career-focused (good) versus accommodating (bad), and all this rather than teamwork (supposedly ideal, but unrewarded directly). The simple fact of relocating geographically because of a spouse’s job though, doesn’t define what the untargeted spouse does in the new location, of course. It’s not all just worrying about the kids’ schools and finding a reliable mechanic – or if it is, well why not, households don’t run on their own. (Every First Lady’s been a trailing spouse, and think about all the different approaches they’ve had. Or there’s Scarlett Johansson’s budding writer learning about herself and Japan in the movie “Lost in Translation.”)
Valencia’s the first non-English speaking Cup site, so that was an extra challenge for non-Spanish speakers. Among the things partners did here, some were mainly home caretakers, others used their time to get online degrees, or build a business or work in other ways or volunteer.
One American woman took an impressively active approach. Libby Johnson McKee, a former Amazon executive, has taken care of family matters while her former Olympic sailor husband has competed in this and the last Cup. By which I mean, living temporarily in a foreign country and with a new baby on hand, she set up a consulting business during the last Cup in New Zealand.
This time around, she’s created what seems such an obvious accompaniment to the America’s Cup goings-on that it’s surprising it hasn’t been done for every Cup. Basically Libby created what has functioned as the America’s Cup semi-official charity, simultaneously helping the Cup crowd give something back to the local community, and doing so by channeling the time, energy and money of America’s Cup family members, at loose ends or not. The non-profit, Agua Limpia (clean water), aims to educate local kids and the community about how and why to have clean oceans. And she’s brought on board everyone from major corporate sponsors to me, a committed non-joiner who almost without realizing it was persuaded to ante up 20 euros for a membership (t-shirt and wristband included! OK!).
Meanwhile, a British actor and mom, who moved to Valencia for her husband’s business which has America’s Cup as well as other clients, wasn’t put off by the difficulties of finding work in a language she’s just learning. Instead, Samantha Holland turned to directing, mounting a show that’s doing well in Valencia and could go on to festivals and other venues.
Both women, and others in town, remind me that there might be other things to do than sit around debating whether a dubbed version of “Boston Legal” will be worth watching. And I’m pretty sure they’d both be unimpressed by the trailing spouse label. So it’s also good to remember, as someone’s grandma must have said, or maybe I’ll say it if I’m ever a grandma, that labels are for jelly jars.

Posted by Deborah Klosky at 11:21 PM | Permalink

The Bagel Rolls On

Jun
15
2007

While I’ve been adjusting to life in Spain, Spain has kindly been adjusting to me. I refer of course to the bagel.
I’m not addicted but it’s nice to know if a bagel craving ever hits, there’s a way to vaguely satisfy it – because they’re here, they’re really here. There have been individual bagel restaurants in at least Madrid and Barcelona for several years, but the bagel’s now gone mainstream (ish) here since a Spanish fast-food sandwich chain recently added bagel sandwiches to its menu. That’s like McDonalds offering gazpacho (which it does here, by the way). OK, maybe it doesn’t make bagels mainstream yet, but it’s quite a step for a bread item that has to be explained on the chain’s website. The sandwiches have things like pesto sauce and pork loin, and the hot ones get a little soggy from the heating, but hey, bagels have taken odder paths in the States.
Bagels of course started out in Jewish communities in Europe (Poland? Vienna? Pick your story. I lean toward Poland just because variations on the Vienna origin story pop up for croissants and coffee, and can one town really be such a founding site of the coffee break?). In the U.S. they still have some of their Jewish background attached but they’re getting less and less ethnic all the time. And here at least, they’re very much just an American food, although bagels strike me as a small part of interrupted Jewish culture making its way back in parts of Europe. Several years ago on a brief visit to Bialystok, Poland – the namesake town of the bagel’s cousin, the bialy, and home to a once-thriving Jewish community – the first place we saw with the breads for sale was called something like New York Bagel.
The round, holey rolls are a better marker of menu globalization than hamburgers. It’s one of those token foods Americans look for when they live abroad. Sure, worldwide people will cite the hamburger when they think of American food, but to heck with that. What they mean is McDonalds, and burgers from McDonalds and its cohorts have become their own category of international food item. They’re not representative of U.S. cuisine, they’re supranational, like pizza.
No, if I’m claiming a burger as my national heritage, then I’m going to try to put my best foot forward. As an American here, people think I know something about hamburgers; I do, but only the one or two bits of knowledge I’ve vaguely managed to remember from newspaper food section “how to make a great hamburger” articles. So for our national culinary representative, I’ll get behind a hamburger that’s one of those home-made, outdoor grilled, handcrafted things. With or without fancy additions to the meat. It should come with a few condescending remarks about how to grill it, and then be served with the disclaimer that the ground beef you can buy abroad is different but will have to do.
But the bagel’s a lot simpler to send out as a standard bearer. Not to mention it’s the centerpiece of brunch, which is a contribution to food culture that ranks right up there with tapas or afternoon tea. Bagels are apparently big in Britain too, because a British friend here turned me on to a bagel source – a grocery story that caters to British expats and carries frozen bagels. So now I can try to do a proper brunch, a concept that needs to be clearly introduced when you spring it on guests in Spain, because it throws off a Spaniards’ whole Sunday meal schedule. It’s a commitment. It takes flexibility. But hey, that’s what adapting is about.

Posted by Deborah Klosky at 2:22 PM | Permalink

Tinkering, Again, With Tinky Winky

Jun
1
2007

Fear not, ye of much faith. The late evangelist Jerry Falwell may be gone, but his influence lives on. In Poland, no less.
As reported, Poland’s children’s rights ombudsman Ewa Sowinska told a weekly Polish magazine that she planned to looked into whether the character Tinky Winky on the preschoolers’ TV show Teletubbies is gay, and, presumably, promoting homosexuality. Which presumably would be bad. The government official said she hadn’t at first thought of the possibility, but had heard the idea had been stated in the U.S. and that it was worth looking into.
So here we go again with this obessing over poor Tinky. What’s next? Mel Gibson getting drunk and saying the Teletubby runs Hollywood?
As you might remember, Falwell raised the Tinky issue back in 1999, writing that Tinky Winky was indeed gay and a bad role model for kids. Falwell based his analyis on a few telltale signs. The rounded, plush costumed character is purple and his antenna is shaped like a triangle, symbols related to gay pride; he also carries a bag, even though he’s a he. (At least nominally he’s a he, because the four squealy characters all have the same smooth outline, differing only by size, color and antenna shape. And don’t tell the Europeans, and other manbag carriers, that only women carry purses.)
Then the Polish story broke internationally, and the official quickly backed off. Embarrassment? Maybe. Poland’s a recent E.U. member – maybe they don’t want to seem like a total laughingstock, picking up these silly ideas from the States. And Poland certainly doesn’t need to import homophobic idiocies, when it easily comes up with its own means of discriminating.
The country’s governing coalition, which includes a “family-oriented” anti-gay and anti-abortion party, has several times been chastised by the E.U. for homophobic (not to mention racist and xenophobic and anti-semitic) actions and statements in themselves, that also promote a homophobic environment. Not that Poland is alone in Europe, unfortunately, in seeing overt prejudice on the rise. Other parts of Eastern Europe, including Russia, are also showing an increase in anti-gay acts, while racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism, more of those great unifying philosophies people have come up with, are also reported on the increase in parts of the continent.
How nice though that a U.S. figure was able to provide some inspiration for homophobes in Poland. For an American living abroad, every so often someone will ask you to explain the more extreme aspects of your culture, like Jerry Falwell, or hot dog eating contests. There’s often an implicit, or explicit, criticism in those questions. And I know, I know, let them give back that Marshall Plan money – with interest – if they’re so critical. Nevertheless, it’s awkward.
But now, the U.S.-European ideological overlap is clear. We’ve got homophobes, you’ve got homophobes. We’ve got racists and xenophobes (popping up, for example, among the anti-immigration crowd) and so on, so do you. It’s a small world after all.
Editor’s note: For a U.S. evangelical’s opinion of Jerry Falwell, see this post by Mike Spinney.

Posted by Deborah Klosky at 9:08 AM | Permalink

Fitting In

Mar
21
2007

Congratulate me – I double-parked the other day. I don’t mean that it’s good that I broke the law; well, not exactly broke, more like bent it, well, not even bent, really. (And should this get to a court, this is all a joke of course.)
I had to run into a store for, I swear, not more than two minutes. And I could see the car the whole time. And Spanish cities’ rates of car ownership exceed the availability of parking spaces by a factor of 10 to the millionth power. So I did it, I double-parked.
Why is this good? Because only a foreigner like me would have even thought twice about double parking. Here it’s a reasonable solution to that skewed car-numbers to parking-spaces ratio. If you weren’t meant to double-park, why is there so much extra room on the street, right? So my double-parking means I’ve taken one more step to acclimatizing.
It’s nice to have those moments because we’ve just finished up the Fallas festival here, an almost month-long noisy nightmare that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to. The highlight is when these huge, papier-mâché statues costing hundreds of thousands of dollars get burned in the streets on the last night, but what really drives me nuts are the random firecrackers kids and the kid-like shoot off whenever they feel like it throughout the month.
During the main Fallas week, 20 cars and more than 100 big trash containers were set on fire. One truck full of fireworks exploded while parked in the middle of the city, injuring some 17 people and damaging several buildings. A bullfighter was gored in the ring. And I assume the standard dozens of minor and a few major injuries of burns and blown-off body parts were chalked up in the hospitals.
To me it seems simpler to just have someone in every neighborhood set his fingers on fire and be done with it, but then we Americans are always sacrificing traditional practices to the gods of efficiency, aren’t we?
Actually, what we Americans do worship is the god of safety, particularly when it comes to kid stuff. We like helmets and fences and warning labels and rules, and the more the better, and this, as you might gather, is not a universal position outside the U.S., nor inside for that matter. Personally, I think waterproof helmets for protection in the bathtub might be a bit much. And sizing a toddler tether that you use not to lose kids in the mall to teenager size probably is going too far too. (In fact, there’s a debate over at Brain, Child magazine about whether Americans do go too far with child safety obsessions.)
On kids and firecrackers though, some Valencians are way off the average safety opinion scale. But moderating some of these local extremes is what the European Union does, and recently, to meet E.U. regulations, Spain had passed a law limiting the kinds of firecrackers kids under 12 could handle. But Valencia’s city hall, not to mention Fallas traditionalists and the small-newsstand owners who make a nice little bundle every year selling this exploding junk, complained so much that they got the law put on hold until Europe really insists.
Naturally the first question Son the Elder got when he was back in school this morning after the Fallas break was whether he shot off any firecrackers. As the other kid asked about a long list of types of firecrackers, my deprived child could only offer a story about the truly gargantuan thing some idiot exploded right next to him and his brother and father when the kids went downtown this weekend with the husband.
In theory I lean more toward the relaxed side of safety ruling. In theory. So during the recent school carnival here, when a bunch of kids were playing in a playground with an open gate and without adult supervision, I didn’t go running to lock them in while screaming about bogeymen. I mean, not out loud. Maybe I should have? Anyway, that worked out okay. See, I can adapt to different mores. But next year, when I know I’m going to get asked by one or both of my kids whether they can shoot off a firecracker, do I keep making them the odd-men-out? Do I try to find noiseless, flameless, safety style sparklers? Or do I do the only thing a loving, self-sacrificing, American mom living abroad can do – and set my own fingers on fire?

Posted by Deborah Klosky at 5:19 PM | Permalink

Zee Accent

Sep
20
2006

Do you zink dat zee very French accent in English, she is amusing? Well, yes, I did too, until I became zee Inspector Clouseau of Spain.
Peter Sellers played Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies with heavily French-accented English as part of his humor. That French-ee akzent is a pretty standard amusing shtick, funny and even charming to native English-speakers´ ears.
And likewise in Spanish, in Spain at least, English-accented Spanish is a good joke. Which I knew before, but I´m more sensitive to it these days. Because I’ll be talking about something pretty darn dull like, say, mortgages, and I’ll see a smile creep across someone´s face. Sometimes they’ll try to suppress it, but it’s still clear to me. And I have nothing against spreading a little humor in people’s lives, but there are times it would be nice to be surer of a chance at being taken seriously.
Perhaps I´m a little sensitive, but every so often it’s obvious that I’ve got the stock joke accent. Like when a store clerk asked me to repeat the word ”newspaper” – ”periodico” – because she thought my pronunciation was so hilarious. So OK, the letter r is not my strong point; sometimes it has to be rolled, and forget it, but even the shorter ‘r’ is different from the English pronunciation and beyond my tongue’s abilities. And my vowels could be a little cleaner. And, you know, the rhythm´s off. But can I help it if I was born in an English-speaking household?
When I first learned Spanish, after I had been trying to mimic proper pronunciation for a while and saw it was not coming, I tried a speech therapist. But after a few sessions it was clear I was never going to sound like a native, and I preferred to spend the money elsewhere, like a café.
Because look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Henry Kissinger. They did OK, accents and all. Of course, I can’t think of any notable public figures in Spain with major non-native accents like mine. And there are differences between the U.S. and European common perception of what traits a citizen has, including accent, but we are all amused by a good one.
It’s just, does it have to be mine?

Posted by Deborah Klosky at 2:25 AM | Permalink

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