Ilivetolearn's Blog

May 22, 2007

the euro, five years after its takeover

Filed under: Spain — ilivetolearn @ 11:20 am

Not only is Spain still very much a cash economy, it’s still very much a peseta economy, notwithstanding the swift official transition to the euro (Jan. 1 to Feb. 28, 2002). Pesetas ruled for 130 years and many Spaniards, especially older people, have had trouble letting them go. Receipts still show the peseta equivalent of the purchase along with the euro total. And when people discuss large, infrequent expenditures like houses, cars, and college tuitions, they almost always quote prices in pesetas first.

Checks apparently exist, but I’ve never seen one. (Maybe they should be called Bin Ladens.) Stores don’t accept them, utility and phone companies expect direct bank transfers, and even the myriad school fundraisers (not as myriad as in the US by any means) require cash. It’s awkward to say the least to fill out a book club order form and then have to scrounge €13.78 in exact change and find an envelope strong enough to keep it from depositing itself in the bottom of Margo’s backpack. It doesn’t help that there’s no bill smaller than a €5.

One day last year I was obliged to pay for Evan’s trip to London with the basketball team, and also for his SAT review course. I felt very strange carrying hundreds of euros to the school, and even stranger when both the athletics director and the upper-school secretary took the stacks of fifties and dumped them unceremoniously into desk drawers. I think the newness of euros makes people see them as play money, whereas if I had handed over millions of pesetas, they might have treated them with more respect.

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May 20, 2007

more things I have put through the wash

Filed under: laundry,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 3:16 pm

As in the US, my most frequently-washed non-clothing item is currency. €20 notes survive the spin cycle with their holograms and other anti-counterfeit devices intact. I’ve never washed a €50, and I’ve never even had a €100 or €500. The first time I saw a €500 was in a supermarket, where the customer ahead of me used one. The cashier had to put it in a canister, leave the register, and walk to a pneumatic tube, which sucked it to upper echelons where it was presumably authenticated and exchanged for fifties. When the man left and I attempted to express awe at how big the bill was (and I mean dimensionally; each larger denomination gets bigger and this bill is over 20 square inches), the employee grumbled, “él paga siempre con ésos” (he always pays with those).

Thirteen countries use euros now, but fully one-quarter of all existing €500 notes in circulation are here. They constitute about 60% of the value of all notes in Spain, and are nicknamed Bin Ladens, because they are something everyone talks about but no one sees, and also because of their shady character. Real estate deals are done with one price on the factura (the invoice for transactions involving taxable items and services), and the rest in cash. Drug deals involve a lot of the big bills. It makes me wonder what business my fellow supermarket shopper was in.

If only laundering those ill-gotten gains were as easy as leaving them in the pockets of your slacks.

May 18, 2007

things I have put through the wash

Filed under: laundry,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 12:42 pm

Having el lavadero (laundry room) coterminous with la cocina (kitchen) is convenient in some ways and a pain in others. Often in my rush to get piles of dirty clothes out of the work triangle before meal prep, I fail to check pockets (admittedly I wasn’t too good at it even when I had a whole room devoted to laundry). Bill’s watch is a casualty of this system, and the other day Elliot and I heard a clunking in the canister and extracted drenched jeans with my dripping cell phone in the pocket. He immediately dismantled it, removing the undamaged memory card and putting it into a new instrument while its previous home dried out. Presto! A working phone, with the same number, the same people programmed in. When the original had recovered, he reinserted the card. It worked for a few days, but then started emitting strange blue flashes and refusing to take a charge.

But other than getting used to a slightly different keypad configuration (and having to tell Bill what time it is more often), I haven’t suffered. The cell phone system here in Spain, and in Europe as a whole, is so far superior and consumer-oriented than in the US I am really dreading going back and being at the mercy of the demented descendants of Ma Bell. Here you buy a phone (for a reasonable price) and then blithely make calls (for a reasonable price) or send text messages (half the price of calls) until your account balance is low, at which point you “recharge” with however many euros you wish. This can be done at any bank machine, your home computer, many store cash registers. No two-year contracts. No minimums, maximums, hidden charges, packages of features you don’t want, smarmy salespeople calling you with offers. I love it.

Spaniards know a good thing when they see it. In a country of just over 42 million people, there are 46 million cell phones (some of them freshly laundered). The only way companies in the US could achieve this degree of market penetration would be to actually pay attention to what customers want.

May 17, 2007

moving violations

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 11:54 am

Our car misadventures have been mercifully few. After I got broadsided by our “friendly neighborhood car-basher” (Nicky’s self-reference each time she called to ask whether we yet had an estimate for the damage), I did exactly the same thing at the intersection nearest our house. The couple in the car I hit was about my age—la mujer was driving (very unusual) but she stayed in the car as her husband got out to do all the talking and exchange of insurance information. He was extremely calm, courtly in the manner of many 50-plus Spanish men, understanding about my limited command of the language, and in my opinion the best of all possible victims of a crash that was entirely my fault.

No police were involved; they don’t usually show up at fender-benders, though they did come quickly when the guys drove through the wall around the corner. The Guardia Civil has a very visible presence on the highways during puentes, and I think it succeeds in getting people to slow down.  But the two officers who stopped us on the way home from Galicia after the Camino were in an unmarked vehicle—and a puny Opel Corsa at that. Suddenly this car in front of us had a pop-up LED message board in its back window, with little red lights saying “¡Alta!” My first thought was, “Yes, Bill is tall…is that a crime?” And then I realized the word also means Halt!

It’s a novel way to get pulled over, for those of us more accustomed to the police car in the rear-view mirror with headlights flashing alternately. After asking for the Spanish equivalent of license and registration (carnet de conducir y permiso de circulación), neither of which we could actually produce, the officer patiently explained to us that the bikes and their rack obscured our matricula (license plate) and several crucial lights. We got off easy with a 90€ fine, to be reduced by one-third if paid promptly.

Bill thinks he escaped citation on the license offense (he showed his Pennsylvania license; you are theoretically required to get the local one if here more than 6 months) and the lack of registration (which we found later was in the car, among the hundreds of papers we carry around) because he jokingly proffered his Pilgrims Passport from the Camino, thus proving he’s an upright citizen and spiritual person. It’s the modern equivalent of a medieval practice–judges often sentenced criminals to walk the Camino in lieu of serving jail time.

May 15, 2007

how to drive through a wall

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 4:17 pm

One morning early in April as we got ready to deliver one set of relatives to the airport and retrieve another (conveniently they flew in and out on the very same plane) we heard the unmistakable sounds of a major collision close by. We ran around the corner to its source to find two bewildered-looking young men getting out of their car, which had missed a turn and literally gone through a brick wall into a neighbor’s back yard, narrowly avoiding the postage-stamp swimming pool, but making impact with the glassed-in porch. The homeowner came sleepily out in his robe (it was 8 AM) and let out a mild “¡Joder!”

It was a cartoonish scene; the little red car, about the same width as the pool (they’re lucky they didn’t land in it because they would not have been able to open the doors), resting on the tiny lawn and nosing gently into the sun room after knocking over the outdoor shower. Because of the car’s low profile, the bars above the brick wall, which extend the privacy screen to about 7′ by supporting shrubbery and vines, were bent but still intact, so there was literally a car-shaped hole through which we peered, stooping with our cameras.

How could this happen with so little injury or property damage? The bricks are hollow; they have square holes shot through them the long way. I’ve never seen a solid brick in Spain, despite walking or driving past approximately 1,000 construction sites in the last two years.

After a crane came to airlift the car out of the yard, and some temporary barriers were put up (permanent repairs still unfinished six weeks later), someone spray-painted “The Death Corner” on the sidewalk across the street—in English. But these two incompetent Spaniards (probably going home after a night out) came out of the garden smelling like roses—dumb luck kept them out of the swimming pool, and airbags and hollow bricks kept them from taking themselves out of the gene pool.

May 11, 2007

why is this woman smiling?

Filed under: books/authors,Margo's life rules,on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 11:13 am

Much as I might be complaining about Galician weather and the woeful state of my knees and toes, I loved doing the Camino. I loved having everything I needed on my back. I loved thinking of Evan on cold mornings when I wore his fleece (which is on this side of the ocean awaiting pocket patching and zipper repair), thinking of Margo on hot afternoons when her pink bandanna kept the sweat out of my eyes, thinking of Elliot (who coached me in book-downloading) when I listened to Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert after lights-out in an albergue, thinking of Phoebe when I used one of the hair ties she made sure I packed, thinking of Cherie whenever I reached for my trail map in the waist pack she left here after their visit, thinking of Rich whenever I took shelter under his poncho, and in general having time to step out of the maelstrom of daily life and feel gratitude for simple things and essential people.

Two little incidents at the very start of my 115 km, as I walked up a set of stairs in Sarria, set the cheerful tone for the whole journey. First, Margo walked along with me explaining the system of having your Pilgrim’s Passport stamped at least twice a day as proof for the pilgrim’s office in Santiago that you did the requisite distance; she said, “Say-yo.” So I responded “Yo.” She said, “No…say-yo.” I said “Yo.” Then I realized she was telling me the word for stamp—sello.  I was laughing so hard I didn’t have the presence of mind to dig out my camera and document the very Spanish sign at the top of the stairs: Desvio provisional—Camino de Santiago. A temporary detour—even the Camino is not immune to las obras (construction).

May 10, 2007

tormentas (storms)

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 9:43 am

Bill and Margo had one day on the Camino when it was raining more than not. I had rain every day. But in Pacific-Northwest fashion, I minimized by renaming. Usually it started slowly and I would console myself with, “It’s only spitting.” Then more drops. “Hmm. Some dewfall from the trees.” Then so much that I had to stop for poncho arrangement, thinking “Well, at least it’s just drizzle.” This would progress though sprinkles, gentle rain, and steady rain to what the Times would call “Rain, heavy at times.” But still, in the spirit of the Successive Misery Index, I would think, “At least it’s not driving rain.”

After our return to Pozuelo, the downpours began in earnest. We had daily hailstorms around dusk: icy marbles piled up on the patio, the lights flickered, I watched TV footage of cars marooned in 3’ of water–and I thanked the pagan deities that I was not still on the pilgrimage.

May 7, 2007

but will the toenails fall off?

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 11:24 am

Some of my ruminations while hiking ran towards the whiny end of the spectrum. Bill had described what I dubbed the cyclists’ Successive Misery Index—at first, riding through rivers of mud mixed with excrement, he would think, “I’m fine as long as I don’t get crap on my fenders.” Then it would escalate to “It’s OK…there’s no crap on the panniers.” Then “Well, at least my legs are still crap-free.” And so on. I think the final frontier was his face, which did miraculously remain clean(ish).

My version of the SMI was, “OK, my big toes hurt, but maybe I won’t lose the nail.” The next day: “Well, I have some blisters, but at least the joints are fine.” Then: “Hmm. The right knee is killing me on the downhills. But so far—no ankle pain.” I ended up in Santiago, like many other pilgrims, photographing my battered dedos (toes) and then taking part in a tradition as time-honored as attending Pilgrims’ Mass: the baring of the feet to the pharmacist.

In charmingly accented English, she told me that I had some “pooce” (sounds so much less alarming than pus) around the nails, and gave me antibiotic ointment and bandages. After a week of assiduous application of Terramycin (which conveniently resembled “pooce”) I decided there was no lingering infection, and all I had to do to resume a semblance of pedal normality was paint my toenails a bruise-concealing blue or blood-red.

May 4, 2007

the many ways to do the Way

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 10:40 am

To get the official certificate that says you have “done” the Camino you must walk at least 100 km or bike at least 200. Horseback pilgrimages (also a 100-km requirement) used to be popular, but few do them nowadays. Bill and Margo encountered one group riding, and got to saddle up briefly for photos, while the riders competed to see how much wine they could squirt into each other’s mouths from their botas (wineskins).

But in general people on the Way are not there to party. They are there to challenge themselves physically and mentally, to have spiritual time alone or with family and friends, and to remind themselves that the journey is what matters, not the destination. I doubt if anyone still does it to shorten his or her time in Purgatory, which was the common 9th-century reason.

The albergues (shelters) along the route are meant for foot traffic; they give empty beds to bikers after 7 PM, but if more walkers arrive those with wheels may get kicked out or asked to sleep on the floor in the overflow space. Not that the real accommodations are deluxe—most have dozens of bunkbeds in one huge room, so unless you have a good pair of earplugs you are plagued by snorers. Everyone gets very quiet around 9 and lights-out is often at 10; diehard 40-km/day hikers begin to stir and leave at around 5 AM.

Those on organized tours usually stay in hotels and have their luggage transported magically while they carry only small daypacks. (That option looked pretty good to me by day 5.) One group of young people I ran into repeatedly were bused from place to place and did their walking in gaggles, shoving and teasing and lamenting bad cell phone reception.

The Camino itself is a great equalizer—regardless of whether a pilgrim is walking, biking, riding, doing 100 km in a few days or 1000 km over the course of a month, carrying 25 kg or just a camera—everyone has aches and pains somewhere, and all greet each other with a cheery “¡Buen Camino!” on the road.

May 3, 2007

sounds of the Camino

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 2:12 pm

In Pozuelo we hear muffled construction noises from the other end of the block (the ballyhooed light-rail system, supposed to be opening later this month), the occasional crash of a car driving through a brick wall (to be described later), and the ubiquitous dogs barking. On the Camino I heard actual cuckoos (mistaking them for clocks the first few times), crowing roosters (the last cock-a-doodle-doo in my experience issued from the pocket cell phone of Pablo the car rental agent), lowing cattle, and the mellow tolling of sheep bells. The dogs were uniformly quiet and non-threatening—in fact, so bored by the passage of countless pilgrims that they often continued their twitchy canine napping as we trudged by.

While it was entertaining to have a twenty-something Spanish guy sing along (badly) to his iPod as he passed me, or to hear conversations in French, German, and Italian if I happened to be walking near pilgrims of those nationalities, I wanted to tell these fellow-travelers what they were missing: the wind rustling in eucalyptus groves; birdsong; chimes from ancient belfries; and the music of ice-cold streams summoning us to soak our aching feet.

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