Take My Money, Please

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.

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Trailing to a Finish

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.

Anchors Aweigh

Billionaires, royals, actors and models, both the real and the nearly there, started flitting in and out of Valencia over the long holiday weekend here to celebrate this start (well, once the wind picks up) of racing to choose the challenger to the 32nd America’s Cup, the top-of-the-line yachting event that will continue on into July…. The port area might be modified, the next Cup go somewhere else, the beautiful people move on. But, besides the Cup, Valencia has Formula 1 racing, some new fancy-schmancy hotels and the new City of Arts and Sciences with attention-getting architecture and the largest aquarium in Europe and a performing arts center whose director is determined to make it a “world-class” site.

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Fitting In

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?

Breaking Away

If you’re a vacation lover, at some point you’ve probably fixated on the fact that Europeans get six months of vacation a year while Americans get 15 minutes. And you’ve probably been jealous, and a little bit whiny, saying, “Why not me? I could be European, I look good in a beret. Give me more vacation, please.”
But really, you don’t want all that vacation time. What do Europeans do with it? They empty out of their sweaty cities en masse and go sit in their tiny cars all together in sweaty traffic jams and head to the shore to flock together in a sweaty, sandy mass of sunburned-and-then-tanned flesh.
Oh no, you do not want to vacation as a European in August. Really. It’s like the restaurants that are so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.
Stay home in August if you live here. It’s cooler in August than in July. Your noisy neighbors are gone. You can get chores done faster in any office that’s open – shorter lines. Spain’s summer sales are still going on so you can get back-to-school shopping done.
In Spain in the summer (well, September too) you also run the risk of running into a town’s fiesta. Some people would probably be charmed by these sometimes raucous outdoor celebrations – usually with some element of loud music, amplified carnival barkers or noisy revelers going late into the night – that towns hold to honor their patron saints.
But some are more family friendly than others. We were stopped at a tourist office near one city this summer that was in the middle of its fiestas. I asked about visiting the city, and the tourist office guy took a look at our family crowd, doubtless took into account my foreign accent (suggesting less tolerance to typical Spanish noise) and said, “I’m not going to tell you to visit, what can I say, you’d get a bad impression.” Now if even the tourism official steers you away… The implication was that there was too much outdoor drinking and confusion for my gang that weekend.
Look at one how one local village is concluding its more than two-week fiesta, which opened with a couple of days of events involving bulls in the streets. Highlights from the schedule for the closing two days: 8 a.m. fireworks barrage, 2:30 p.m. fireworks barrage, 10:30 p.m. parade, 12:30 a.m. outdoor party with bar service, 1 a.m. fireworks barrage, 1:30 a.m. outdoor performance, 6 a.m. processional in honor of the town’s patron saint, 7:30 a.m. outdoor mass, 9 a.m. fireworks barrage, 12 p.m. musical parade, 2 p.m. fireworks barrage, 8 p.m. processional with bands, 1 a.m. fireworks.
Now imagine if you had gone there for a little peaceful break. Imagine if you had a baby you were trying to get to sleep. Yeah, you’d need a saint’s help on that one. Of course, people from the Valencia region are especially fond of fireworks, bless their hearts.
So stay home in August. September, now, that’s a really good time for a break. Most of the other tourists are out of your way. There’s just one small catch. I wonder if my kids’ teachers would mind.

Changes In Attitude

Learning about the foiled terrorist plot last week was a sharp reminder of how scary flying can be. Since then flying has been even more of a hideous mess than before.
That’s two reasons why one word keeps going through my mind: boat. Ship, I mean. Six days to cross the ocean, then another three by train across the continent. Nine days total from Europe to go over the river and through the woods to see the folks on the West Coast. Doesn’t sound so bad to me.
Of course, Wikipedia reminds me that flying is a safer means of transportation than other methods, like cars. I heard someone from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or some such agency, on the radio a couple of years ago, noting that the numbers killed on U.S. highways are the equivalent of an airplane falling out of the sky every day. I’m not wild about driving either.
The only fear of flying I used to be concerned with is the Erica Jong title – and yes, she does have a new book out (and the reviews are tending toward recommending a reread of “Fear of Flying” instead). But now with children – they do make one a bit more fearful of accidents and such. Or, let’s flip that around to the positive side – more life embracing. So what’s wrong with a little embracing of life for a week sailing across the Atlantic? Because I’d like to still be in the stage of denial where I pretend I won’t be flying again. But living away from my native country, just like anyone with people spread out or with a job that keeps you moving, I know I’ll be getting on a plane sometime.
Which brings me back to the mess of flying. One doesn’t like to be cranky while someone claims to be trying to save one’s life. But one has to wonder if the TSA and other agencies really know what they’re doing. One wonders, and one knows what one would answer.
But of course, how does ocean liner safety stack up? And flying wasn’t such a picnic before, and you do manage to schlep through. After plugging a son or two into the portable DVD player.
Without electronic help, I’d have to turn to the best advice I’ve heard this summer (pre-current alarms) on flying with kids. It’s from an Australian mother of two. Australians are apparently required by law to take five years of vacation and circle the globe at least three times before they’re allowed back home. They have to hop on a plane just to get breakfast. If you ever meet Australians outside their home country, you know they’ve got a few miles on the old frequent flyer card.
So her simple advice is – change your attitude. Do not expect to eat a meal, have a glass of wine, read a magazine, relax or do anything you might hope to do when alone to while away the time on a plane. Instead, think of flying as a chance for quality time with your kids. Long, enforced quality time in places with bad air and seats designed for a different species, but, hey, the little buggers do grow up fast.

In Which the Heat Reduces Us To Juvenile Interests

When I was mentioning foods that help Spaniards make it through the hot summer (and it has been a bit cooler here in the past few days, and I hope near you too), I forgot to include a drink that’s a Valencian specialty – horchata.
It’s a sweet, milky-looking, oddly addictive drink (it looks like the Mexican horchata you can find in parts of the U.S. but is made and tastes differently). Served nice and cold, it is a treat in the summer, but one of the best parts is explaining it to visitors. I almost always mention the drink to people who are passing through town, in case they’re interested in trying a local specialty. And then if they do try it, the conversation usually goes something like this:
“Mmm, pretty good. What’d you say it’s made of?”
“Chufa.”
“What’s that?”
“Tiger nuts.”
“?”
I was able to have this amusing (to me) conversation twice with my mother, as she apparently didn’t quite take it in the first time, so you can see how I have a lot of reasons to enjoy horchata. And I did the search thing and tiger nut apparently is the proper translation for chufa, and not just some small joke at the foreigners’ expense.
I had to wonder, because the typical accompaniment to a glass of horchata is a farton (pronounced far-tone) to dip in it. Fartones are, as my brother described them, like breadsticks made out of sweet hot dog bun bread. They don’t have the same addictiveness as horchata, but the name is a very juvenile giggle for English speakers.
There’s also a local fish called the fartet (endangered, unfortunately). You can see it at the big, new aquarium here.
So, OK, I am being juvenile. But there’s a parental responsibility side to this too – really. The other day I was cutting cheese with my kids, and we were talking about cutting the cheese, and I wondered if I should explain the cruder meaning of the cutting the cheese phrase. Because living here they’ll miss out on some of the common currency of a U.S. childhood. (If children do indeed still use that phrase.)
Is English-language bathroom humor one area my kids will be less learned about? Does it matter? Will they feel confused and left out one day when some pre-adolescent gang is laughing at who cut the cheese? Is there some TV show all their American peers are watching now, with a theme song they’ll all be singing drunkenly one day in a boozy cementing of friendship, while my sons shrug their shoulders and go get some more dip?
So maybe it’s not so bad. And in any case, any childhood lore I could pass on is sadly out of date. But while we’re on the subject, any other Saturday morning TV hounds out there want to sing the preamble to the Constitution?

Time Changes

How can you not love a country where people apologize for calling you before noon?
That was just on the weekends, but still. When I lived in Madrid in the nineties, and compared those calls with the perky voice I might get from a friend in the States at 10 a.m. on a Saturday saying, “You mean you’re still not up yet?”, I knew I had found a place that matched my personal time clock. Or more importantly, respected personal differences.
Spain is a country for night owls. Madrid has traffic jams at 2 a.m. But it’s not just urban life that is set later. You might have heard a traveler complaining about Spain’s famously late meals: lunch at 2 p.m., dinner out hard to find before 10 p.m. (I know, it makes your tummy rumble just to read it, but it’s not that bad. You’ve got morning snackies and afternoon snackies, and tapas are from Spain of course, so there’s really no need to go hungry.)
There’s a geographical factor contributing to the late hours: Spain is misplaced in its time zone. Poor thing. Look at a map of Europe. See how Spain falls under the U.K.? And some of Spain’s on the same longitude as Portugal. But both the U.K. and Portugal are an hour earlier. While Spain’s on the same time zone as Poland, for example, all the way over there to the East. Which means the sun comes up late and sets late here. (I know, these things confuse me too, but think about it.)
The newspapers here occasionally run stories with statistics on how much Europeans sleep; Spaniards are always among those who get the least amount of shut-eye.
And then there are articles about how Americans need to get more sleep, and especially how kids do. Which is probably true, even though it’s another guilt-inducing campaign.
So what about the kids here? Well, they seem to sleep less too.
Dinner at home doesn’t necessarily wait until 10 p.m., and kids can be fed even earlier, but a 9 p.m. bedtime for the littlest ones sounds very responsible here, the way 8 p.m. sounded reasonable back in California. And the reality is naturally often later. You certainly wouldn’t get the “what a bad parent” stares you might get in the U.S. if you had a kid in a (child-friendly) restaurant at 11 p.m. here.
And in summer, forget it. Kids are running around playing outside near my home these days easily until 9 or 10 or even later, and you can certainly catch them later at outdoor cafes with their parents. And no one thinks twice about it.
The English-speaking moms I know are mostly trying to stick to their guns on bedtimes. It complicates dinner somewhat – school and work hours are later; and if you want to eat out, finding restaurants open is tougher. My household leans toward Spanish hours, so there’s even a twist to after-school play dates with English speakers: are we having a snack or supper?
The flip side to early bedtimes and evening peace is…early wakeups. Keep your kids up, you do get to sleep in a bit more. I don’t think anyone believes I’m sleeping until noon these days though.

Friendly Skies?

If there’s anything I can’t resist it’s an airline complaints pile-on.
Unless maybe it’s an insurance company we’re complaining about. Or maybe a bank. I’ll pile on there too. Or any of the other “service” companies you might deal with that can send you screaming into the woods with frustration.
Problems with banks are sort of understandable. I think it’s just too tempting for them: they’ve got access to your money, you’re not touching it, so they figure, why not just pull out a little bit for a “service charge” here and there? And can you blame them? It’s like leaving an open box of chocolates around an overeaters gathering, a toy chest around three-year-olds, a military in the hands of a thoughtless president. And then banks are full of numbers people, so you can’t really expect to find someone who’s into communication when you call to try to correct the problem.
Or there’s my only claim ever with an insurance company, which was only resolved about a year into the process after I wrote a letter invoking Kafka and wondering if the company was acting criminally or simply being completely incompetent. They voted to aim for looking incompetent.
What is it about dealing with the public? Is it so horrible that it creates a crabby, passive-aggressive misanthrope out of an ordinary mild-mannered service worker? Like the Delta flight attendant who kept slamming a drinks cart into the husband’s foot without giving him a chance to move it. Not that all, or most, or probably even many, airline workers are that rude, but whenever I’ve got a problem there’s some degree of possibility that I’ll run across one who’s been trained in the Frank Sinatra school of customer service (my way or the highway, baby). And with all this customer abuse, the airlines still can’t turn a profit. Hmm, maybe there’s a connection? Anyway, it can’t be me, can it? I know I’m always charming.
These customer service problems are made even more annoying because they violate a basic tenet that Americans are brought up to believe in: the customer’s always right. We can let some of the other civics lessons we were brought up with slip away with a wink and a drink–the right to a fair trial, the separation of church and state, the balance of powers, the right to privacy–but darn it, our consumer rights are unassailable. And in defending them, we’re supposed to spend how much time asking to speak to the manager, waiting on hold, writing letters?
We love our customer service, our no-questions-asked returns policies, our 800 numbers. As citizens we might be lost in the wilderness, but as consumers, hey, we know our rights. You gotta believe in something.

What I’m Doing On My Summer Vacation

This is a salute to the pleasures of the second-rate.
Or not the second-rate exactly, but perhaps the second-tier; in tourist attractions, the places that you don’t hit the first time you visit a new country or area. The lesser-known, not-so-popular, fewer-things-to-do places.
And why this suggestion of self-relegation to number two, we try harder? Oh yeah, you guessed it–the kids.
If you were visiting Spain for the first time, where would you go? You’d start with Madrid and its daytrips like Toledo, and Barcelona; and then maybe Seville, Granada and Cordoba; you could also hit Bilbao or San Sebastian or Santiago de Compostela. Maybe even third-largest city Valencia, if it were on the way and you wanted to round out the trip.
But you’d be very unlikely to go to Albarracin. Not on a first trip at least. It’s a small town tucked in the mountains, and not terribly well known as a tourist spot, especially to foreigners. I hadn’t heard of it during several years of living in Madrid. And there’s not a lot to do.
But there are remains of a castle, and you can take a tour and climb around on it. And there are very nice, reasonably priced restaurants, where children can discover they like lamb chops and adults can drink wine that hasn’t traveled too far. There’s at least one hotel with board games in the lounge. And there’s a cathedral and a very small museum or two, and maybe an art exhibit, and some pottery shops.
And although lesser known, we did get very lucky with Albarracin–the spot is a beautiful medieval village, very well preserved and with wonderful views. In some circumstances it might be considered romantic (Spain’s Prince Felipe and bride dropped in during their 2004 honeymoon), but in any circumstances there’s nothing wrong with exposing the whole family to a dose of architectural and natural beauty. Nearby are some caves with Neolithic art. And best of all, right at the bottom of the town, there’s a playground.
We visited the village recently in the best frame of mind for a second-tier destination – no expectations. We had family in town and were just looking for a nearby weekend getaway. We also got lucky with the hotel, which is key–it was one of the few with last-minute reservations available, but turned out to be clean and attractive. And so everyone had something to enjoy, and there wasn’t so much to do that we couldn’t fit in time for the playground and the board games, which the kids always like and which the adults got to share in in different surroundings, and in general it was a very good weekend.
This is a variation on the “don’t plan to do too much when vacationing with kids” idea. But sometimes it’s nicer to go to a child-scaled place from the beginning, rather than feeling just a tad bit resentful because you skipped seeing the Louvre during a visit to Paris. Or not feeling you justified the huge airfare or travel time.
We’ve been to a couple of the smaller museums in Valencia. They do not rival the Smithsonian. But, they are good places to learn about the region’s art, or dinosaurs, and they’re manageable and uncrowded, and no one’s feet hurt when you’re done. These are not small considerations.
Still, smaller can be better, when you have small people in tow: A small village, a small trip, a smallish bottle of wine.