Thursday, June 30, 2005


I love Spain. There are millions of wonderful things about living here. But customer service isn’t one of them.

Take restaurants, for example. In the US, going out to dinner is like visiting an exclusive spa. A smiling waitperson arrives at your table and asks if the chair is to the liking of your buttocks. He then takes your order with one hand, while giving a soothing scalp massage with the other. He leaves and—within 35 seconds—returns with your food. He asks if everything was alright during those 35 seconds. As you eat, he returns to the table eighteen times to (a) confirm that your food is OK, (b) refill your water glass, (c) smooth any unsightly wrinkles from your lapels, (d) buff your shoes to a glass-like sheen, (e) confirm that the food is *still* OK, and then (f) remove all empty plates within two nanoseconds after your fork is laid down. The bill is promptly tendered, payment is made, and then…the waitperson lofts you onto his shoulders and carries you to your home.

In Spain, however, things are a bit different. The 100-table restaurant has one waiter—typically the owner’s ill-tempered, blanket-sweating brother-in-law. Twenty minutes after seating, he appears at your table and grunts. Taking the cue, you place your order and the waiter disappears. Twenty minutes later, the food arrives. You finish your food, then spend another twenty minutes trying to seize the waiter’s attention by impersonating an albatross giving flight. Grunt! You request the bill and he stalks-off. Twenty minutes and another albatross flight later, you gently ask if—perhaps—it’s possible that he might’ve forgotten about your bill? GRUNT, GRUNT, GRUNT! With the flash of a Bic® pen, he slaps a plain-white slip of paper onto the table. It contains illegible handwritten scrawl, followed by the number “35.75€.” If you’re lucky, you’ll have exact change. Otherwise…another twenty minutes.

Don’t think that this trend is limited to restaurants. No…during my five and a half years here, I’ve seen displays of service across the board that range from comical to maddening to plain ol’ bizarre.

For instance, we once hired a bricklayer to cement decorative stones onto our living room fireplace. We told him that we wanted yellow stones. We showed him the yellow stones. His quote specified yellow stones. But what did he deliver? Pink stones. Pink stones!!!—followed by 45 minutes of arguing that (a) they’re not pink…they’re yellow; then (b) well…there’s a bit of pink, but they’re mostly yellow; then (c) OK…they’re 100% pink, but they’ll still look good.

He and his pink stones were asked to leave.

Then there’s the story about the heating-oil guy. Our house has a huge heating-oil tank in the basement and—three weeks ago—the oil company truck came to refill it. And while 1,000 liters of highly-flammable heating-oil were being pumped into this de facto nuclear bomb in our basement, what do you think the oil company guy did? You guessed it! He leaned against the wall and…LIT A CIGAR!!!

Strange? Indeed. True? I swear it! It should therefore surprise nobody that my greatest fear is that I might someday need an organ transplant while living in Spain.

“Doctor, is it—perhaps—possible that you might’ve forgotten about my kidney?”

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I’ve just returned from a business trip to London, where I attended a meeting of my employer’s western Europe sales team. One of our post-meeting, extracurricular events was a trip to the greyhound racing track in Reading.

And while I have nothing but respect for this noble canine breed, I did notice something unsettling during the course of that evening: The people milling about greyhound race tracks appear to be the same people milling about Greyhound bus terminals.
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Saturday, June 25, 2005


Remember when you were ten years old and learned that you could mimic the sound of flatulence by cupping your left hand, placing it under your right arm pit, and pumping your right arm up and down wildly? Pffffft, pffffft, pfffft, pfffft, pfffft…

And remember how, a few months later during summer, you learned that you could do the same thing by placing your hand behind your knee? Pffffft, pffffft, pffffft, pfffft, pfffft...

Keep this hunk of childhood nostalgia in mind while I tell you a story.

Today I enrolled in a yoga school and attended my first class. Yes, they have yoga in Spain—and it’s a blast.

I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Midway through class, we did an exercise that was intended (I presume) to stretch and relax the spine. We were sitting on the floor with our knees drawn up to our chins. The instructor told us to put our hands behind our knees and fall backward so that we would rock back and forth on our backs like a cradle.

Well…as I rocked back the first time, suction was created between the palm of my left hand and the back of my left knee. And yes, you guessed it…PFFFFFT!

Panic-stricken, my first reaction was to leap to my feet and say, “Hey folks! I know what you’re thinking, but I swear to God…it wasn’t what you’re thinking!!!” But the room was so silent and the students so serious in their yoga practice, that such a discourse would’ve been inappropriate. Besides, my classmates would’ve likely found this explanation no more believable than if I’d blamed it on the family dog.

Suffice it to say, I’ll be wearing sweatpants to all future classes.
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Friday, June 24, 2005


...I encourage you to turn up the volume on your PC and check out THIS link.

It just goes to show ya...all men are NOT created equal.

PS: Thanks to Christophe for providing the link, which I've shamelessly stolen and used for my own purposes.

Monday, June 20, 2005


The four horsemen of the apocalypse: Dani, Pablo, Rafa and a beardless Sal.

The four graying, balding, elderly men pictured above are a running team known as Fiel al Tao. This team competed in the half-marathon relay race that took place in Miraflores, Spain last weekend. Needless to say, they struck terror in few hearts on the other teams.

The race was structured as a relay. Each team member ran a five kilometer course, then passed the baton—which, in this case, was a polyester sash worn Miss America-style across the chest—to the next team member. Sounds easy, but there was an unexpected surprise—the first 2.5 kilometers were all uphill.

Given the steepness of the terrain, my time might have improved had I been wearing crampons. But alas, all I had were cramps.

Despite many years of library-lounging and alcohol abuse, team Fiel al Tao finished a respectable 39th out of 68 teams.

And to those 67 other teams, I’d like to issue the following plea: If anyone stumbled across my pancreas on or around the course’s 2.5 kilometer mark, would you kindly return it?
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Sunday, June 19, 2005


Photo of the Carretera de la Patata connecting Cabanillas del Campo with Alovera: This jogger's timeshare in Dante's inferno.

I recently made the decision to begin jogging and—having survived the first two tortuous weeks—it’s now part of my daily routine. But being a jogger in Spain is a lonely life.

Contrary to the US (a nation in which 99.98% of the population practices some form of aerobic exercise—yet, curiously, drive their cars two blocks to buy a loaf of bread), jogging hasn’t gained a foothold in mainstream Spanish culture.

Sure, you’re apt to find some joggers amidst the yuppified hordes in Madrid’s Retiro Park—but things are much different in the pueblos. I can assure you, for example, that the only other joggers to be found here in Sanchoville aren’t those who wear Lycra® shorts and Nike® trainers—but rather, those who wear woolen coats and swaying, milk-engorged udders.

Given this cultural bias, I often feel self-conscious when jogging through Sanchoville. Granted, nobody has ever taunted me. Such ill-mannered behavior simply doesn’t happen in pueblos. But I can, nonetheless, feel the confused or incredulous stares upon me as I wheeze my way past the town square.

Old men gathered on benches in front of the Casa de Jubilados look at me with faces that say, “I’m too old to do that now. But even if I were his age…I still wouldn’t do it.”

Construction workers exiting Bar Alcázar seem to be thinking, “I spend my days hauling buckets of cement up scaffolding because I’m paid to do it. Is someone paying this lunatic?”

Then there are the teenagers. They completely ignore me—which, in retrospect, probably means that they view me as a father figure. But even if these fresh-faced, soft-bellied kids wanted pass judgment on my jogging activities, they’d have no right to do so. How could they? The muscles in their own legs haven’t been used since the day they received their first Vespa® at age four.

Having established that jogging isn’t a popular pastime in Spain, the question that dogged me was…why? Why aren’t there more joggers here?

My initial hypothesis was simple—Spaniards don’t jog because it’s difficult to do while smoking a cigarette. Lighting a fresh one could cost you an eyebrow. But I was forced to retract this theory after recalling the dozens of Spaniards that I’ve seen smoking cigarettes WHILE driving motorcycles AND wearing helmets.

I then decided to consult my friend Fernando—a Madrileño whose analytical dial hasn’t seen the “off” position since ABBA won Eurovision. His explanation—on behalf of himself and his country—was enlightening: “Except for the Greeks, I’m aware of no decent civilization that has praised more physical exercise than is strictly necessary. What in hell led a man who was not being chased to stand up and run purposelessly?! You MUST admit that this goes against any animal instinct.”

Then again…Fernando explained this theory to me via his car phone while driving home with a loaf of bread.
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Sunday, June 12, 2005


I was jogging through Cabanillas yesterday—decked out in running shorts, running shoes, a Sony Walkman® and little else—when a man walking down the street signaled me to stop.

I removed the headphones from my ears and he asked, “Can you lend me a cigarette?”

Now, just think about that for a minute.
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Wednesday, June 08, 2005


The bars and beauty salons of Cabanillas are abuzz with excitement. Why? Because Prince Felipe—Spain’s heir to the throne—and his wife, Letizia, recently announced the conception of their first child.

Yet for all the interest that this news has generated in Spain, none of my friends or family from the US have written to offer their congratulations. Or acknowledgement! I suspect, in fact, that 85% of them aren’t aware that Spain has a royal family. The other 15% believe that Fernando and Isabel are still on the throne.

But why? Why are my countrymen so well-versed in the exploits of Windsors and Grimaldis, while the Borbóns fly under the radar of US popular culture?

The answer is simple: Spain—through sheer stroke of dubious luck—has the world’s most well-behaved royal family!

Just think about it. Other countries have royals that would rather cut loose than cut ribbons. They punch photographers in the nose. They make cheesy music videos. They run away with traveling circuses. And on really, really good days—they are photographed having a toe inhaled while sunbathing poolside.

But what images come to mind when one thinks of our royal family? Let’s compile a short list:

* King Juan Carlos is a jolly old man. The phrase, “It’s good to be the king!” was clearly written with him in mind. He couldn’t be more gregarious—or more cuddly.

* Queen Sofía is noteworthy for having picture-perfect hair. Never a strand is out of place. She makes George Hamilton look like Eraserhead.

* Princess Elena (the eldest daughter) is a bit of an enigma. As far as I can tell, she only appears in public during equestrian events. And even then, I suspect that the figure riding the horse is a computer-generated image.

* Princess Cristina (the youngest daughter) and her sportsman husband, Iñaki, are notable for their startling fertility. They've just given birth to their 57th child.

As you might imagine, none of the above are likely to capture the world’s attention—at least, not until a reputable scientist proves a link between the ozone-layer’s depleted state and the Queen’s hairspray consumption.

In an effort to inject a little spice into royal matters, some media outlets tried to fabricate a scandal a few years ago when Prince Felipe dated the beautiful Norwegian, Eva Sannum. What was the scandal? Well…it seems that Ms. Sannum’s professional endeavors included prior work as an underwear model. But few people viewed this as scandalous—presumably because a woman walking around in her underwear still wears 50-70% more clothing than the average sunbather on a Spanish beach. Besides, underwear models perform a valuable public service.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that a member of Spain’s royal family should appear at a costume ball dressed as a Nazi…or drink such enormous quantities of alcohol that he/she nearly dies of pancreatitis. But just once, I’d like to see Prince Felipe drive a Harley-Davidson® through a crowded market? Or overturn a table full of drinks at a Kuala Lumpur disco?

Or—if he’d prefer to start slowly—just wear his shirt untucked?

Just once? For the folk back home?

Unlikely, indeed. I suppose, therefore, that I should—on behalf of my American friends and family—extend my congratulations to Felipe and Letizia on their impending childbirth here and now. Why? Because when the blessed event happens six months from now, it’s unlikely that anyone in the US will hear about it.

Unless, of course, the baby bears an uncanny resemblance to Cristina’s husband, Iñaki.
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