Saturday, April 29, 2006


[Note: This is an essay that was recently published in Expatica Spain.]An expat living in a foreign land faces many challenges. Strange languages. Frustrating bureaucracy. Mind-boggling tax codes. And...Flat Stanley.

What? You’ve never heard of Flat Stanley?! You, my friend, must not be American.

Flat Stanley is the main character from the book of the same name written by Jeff Brown. According to the story, Stanley is a normal kid until he is flattened by a falling bulletin board. Rather than spiraling into an alcoholic depression over his two-dimensional existence in a three-dimensional world, Flat Stanley sees opportunities. Most notably, that he can fold himself into an envelope and mail himself anywhere in the world.

Think of him as a cross between Michael Palin and Kate Moss.

Many, MANY six and seven year old American kids read Flat Stanley in school. They then embark on an ingenious class project. Each kid gets a xeroxed image of Flat Stanley and mails it to someone they—or, more likely, their parents—know in another part of the US or the world.

The recipient then takes Flat Stanley out on the town, photographs him in front of local tourist sites, drafts a brief write-up of his adventures and mails it all back. The lucky student brings the booty to school, and the entire class learns about the interesting place that Flat Stanley “visited.”

Cool idea, eh? And to only memories of first grade are, “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!”

At least once per year since I moved to Spain in 1999, Flat Stanley has leaped out of my mailbox. The last one arrived two weeks ago from a pip-squeak in Indiana named Reed.

And believe it or not, I actually like getting Flat Stanleys (in moderation, that is!). I’ve taken past Flat Stanleys to bullrings, bars, Gaudi buildings and sheep farms. I’ve photographed him in front of strip joints (you know...just for laughs). I’ve even pinned him to my backpack and taken him on an eight kilometer run with the Madrid Hash.

That’s the fun part of life with Flat Stanley. The not-so-fun part is preparing the write-up. But I solved this inconvenience several years ago by drafting a series of Flat Stanley letter templates.

Reproduced below is the Madrid version of my template. I post the Barcelona version at a later date.

Those of you prone to plagiarism may find my templates useful at some point in the future. Why? Because if you’re living in Spain and have friends or family in the US with small kids, then mark my WILL be visited by Flat Stanley sooner or later.

Dear [Insert kid’s name]:
The envelope containing Flat Stanley arrived at my house in Madrid a few days ago. He jumped out of the envelope at 2:00 in the afternoon, when I was just about to eat lunch.  People in Spain eat a big lunch late in the afternoon, then  eat a small dinner at 9:00 or 10:00 in the evening. 

Flat Stanley told me that it took almost one week for his envelope to travel from the US to Madrid in the mail...and he was hungry!  He asked what was for lunch.  I told him that we would be eating paella (pronounced “pie-AY-ya”).  Paella is a typical dish in Spain, and consists of a special type of very fat rice cooked with clams, shrimp, squid, rabbit, chorizo (“cho-REE-tho”) sausage, beans, tomatoes and sometimes…snails! 

Flat Stanley told me that he preferred rigatoni, but the paella smelled good enough.  He ate half of the pan.   What did he drink with his lunch?  Coca-cola, of course.  Even in Spain, we drink the stuff.
After one week in an envelope and a huge lunch, Flat Stanley wanted to see Madrid.  So we first walked to the Plaza Mayor (“PLA-tha mai-OR”).  The Plaza Mayor is a huge square surrounded on all four sides by colorful old buildings.  It was completed in the year 1620. There is a statue of King Felipe III in the center of Plaza Mayor.  The statue was carved in the 17th century.
Flat Stanley started feeling dizzy after looking up at the statue for too long.  We therefore decided to take the subway (which is called the “Metro”) to a different part of the city. 

We were lucky enough to find two seats in the Metro car and sat down.  Flat Stanley passed the time away by reading a copy of Madrid’s newspaper, El Pais (“el pie-EES”).   Even though El Pais is written in Spanish, Flat Stanley was able to understand some of the articles because English and Spanish have many words that are similar. 

The Metro stopped and we ran up to the street.  We were now at the Prado (“PRAH-doe”) Museum.  The Prado is Spain’s finest museum...and one of the best in Europe. It contains more than 3,000 paintings. The Prado Museum has a great collection of Italian masterpieces.  But the best part of the museum is its sections devoted to the great Spanish painters (like Velazquez, Goya and El Greco).
The Prado Museum is huge and Flat Stanley was getting a bit hungry walking around it.  So he went outside and bought a cup of hot chocolate and a plate of churros (CHOO-rohs) from the bar next door.  Churros are long sticks of fried dough sprinkled with sugar. People in Spain often eat them for breakfast or as a morning snack. They are not as good as snails, but they are still pretty darn good. 
Flat Stanley then walked over to the  Puerta del Sol (“PWAIR-tuh del SOLE”).  Puerta del Sol means “Sun Gate” and is one of the city’s busiest squares. In this square, there is a statue of a bear picking oranges from a tree.  This hungry bear is the symbol of Madrid. 

Puerta del Sol also has the “Kilometer Zero Marker,” which is the spot where all Spanish roads and highways start.  Spain uses the metric system, so distances are measured by kilometers instead of miles. 

The Puerta del Sol is also famous because on New Year's Eve, Spanish people meet there to eat twelve grapes during the first twelve seconds of the new year.  The Puerta del Sol’s clock rings twelve times at midnight and you must eat one grape each time it rings.  If you are able to finish the twelve grapes before the last ring, then you will have good luck during the next year.
In the middle of the Puerta del Sol, Flat Stanley noticed a group of people doing a strange dance.  The dance is called Flamenco (“fla-MEN-ko”).  Flamenco is a traditional dance of Spain (especially southern Spain), and is often performed by Gypsies. 

Women Flamenco dancers wear long skirts and high heels.  Men dancers wear tight pants, white long-sleeve shirts and  black vests.  Flamenco music is played on the guitar, and accompanied by a singer who claps his hands and howls like a crazed dog.  To dance the Flamenco, you need to snap your fingers, stomp your heels on the floor, clap your hands and shout. 
While Flat Stanley was clapping his hands, he noticed that one of the Flamenco dancers was smiling at him.  Her name was “Flat Rosalita.”   Flat Stanley and Flat Rosalita started talking...then they started holding hands.  After a few minutes, Flat Stanley and Flat Rosalita walked over and told me that they would be leaving Madrid.  They were going to jump into a new envelope and mail themselves to some other place.
“Where will you go,” I asked them.  “Will you go north to France?  Will you go south to Africa?  Will you go west to Portugal? Or will you go east to Italy?” 
“We are going to Italy,” Flat Stanley said.  “They have rigatoni in Italy.”


Just in case you thought that I was the only person in Europe who has been smokin' something funny, read this post by a blogger that we all know and love.

Friday, April 28, 2006


Wednesday, April 26, 2006


My scholarly dissertation on Dyc—Spain’s most pitiful excuse for a Scotch whiskey—is now published in The Spirit World.

Check it out by clicking here.

For those astute readers who've noticed that this essay includes "recycled" material, just remember...One man’s laziness is another man’s synergy.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Ever since reading this post by our good friends Canadian-Swiss and Orange-X, I’ve been suffering from an acute case of in-home sauna envy.

I’d LOVE to have one of those in my basement, but I don’t think it’s going to happen during this fiscal quarter. I did, however, have a near-sauna expeience this afternoon.

It was a sunny day and my car had been sitting outside for a few hours with the windows up. I needed to go to the supermarket at 3pm, and when I sat down in the driver’s seat...I had a “moment.”

The car was about 100 degrees. 100 dry degrees. Kinda know...a Finnish sauna.

My body got all tingly and I just sat there for awhile...very happily.

Then I had a vision. A vision of an Internet video that somebody needs to make. I had a vision of...


Scene #1: Camera pans across a typical US suburban neighborhood. A man is mowing his lawn. The sun is blazing and he is sweating profusely. It’s obviously a very hot summer day.

Scene #2: The front door of the house next door opens. Out walks the homeowner. He is wearing nothing but a pair of sandals and a small towel around his waist. He begns walking down his front walkway.

Scene #3: The man mowing his lawn freezes in his tracks. He stares in disbelief; mouth agape.

Scene #4: The man in the towel reaches the end of the walkway. There is a Ford Focus station wagon parked at the edge of his yard. He opens the driver's side door, removes his towel (exposing his bare ass to the entire neighboor), lays the towel on the seat, sits down and closes the car door.

Scene #5: Man with lawn mower still staring with mouth agape.

Scene #6: Man in the car begins whipping himself with a eucalyptus branch.

Cool, eh? As I said, some budding young Internet video director really, really needs to make this film. And if he does, then I predict that it will soon find its way into the email Inbox of every corporate lackey in the northern hemisphere.

So...who’s gonna make it?

How about you, Walt? You have a flare for this sort of thing. And besides, you’ve already dropped your pants for the Internet once before.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Look HERE and find out for yourself.

Monday, April 17, 2006


[Note: This is an essay that was recently published in Expatica Spain.]

I’ve been watching Spanish teenagers a lot since I moved here in 1999. And it’s not just because they refuse to talk with me. They are, in fact, fascinating creatures to observe—and, contrary to some of their US counterparts, are unlikely to be concealing weapons.

Whether it’s due to curiosity or age, I’ve amassed a number of conclusions about their behavior that I’d like to share. So let’s begin this discussion on a scientific note. Evolution!

Within the next one hundred years, evolutionary forces will render the average Spanish teenager’s legs non-existent. This will happen because those legs are, in fact, redundant appendages—having been replaced long ago with the two-wheels of a Vespa® motorbike.

Spanish teens ride motorbikes everywhere. They ride them to the supermarket. They ride them to the park. They ride them to the toilet at 3am. But do they ride them responsibly? The answer is...“kind of.”

Spain has a mandatory helmet law, which teens strictly observe in spirit—if not in letter. The problem, you see, is not whether they wear their helmets. It’s where.

Half of all teenage motorbike drivers wear an unstrapped helmet balanced gingerly atop the crown of the head. This has the dual advantage of allowing the sun’s nourishing rays to penetrate the driver’s scalp, while freeing his face to smoke a cigarette at eighty kilometers per hour.

The other half wear their helmets on the elbow.

Arguably, however, Spanish teens don’t *need* to wear helmets because they’ve devised other, ingenious ways of making the motorbike experience a safer one. Foremost amongst these is to remove the muffler from the motorbike’s exhaust pipe and replace it with an empty beer can. This modification effectively notifies other motorists on the road—and in fact, across the entire province—that a teenager is in the vicinity and all lane changes should therefore be made with extra care.

They then take safety-consciousness one step further by driving these modified screamers between the hours of midnight and 3am—a time during which they’re likely to have the roads all to themselves, because the rest of the populace has long-since gone to bed and is trying to sleep.

But enough about science. Let’s move on to fashion.

A few years ago, my then-thirteen year old cousin from Nashville, Tennessee visited me in Barcelona. It was his first trip abroad. After twenty-four hours in town, he looked up to me and said, “Gosh!” [Apparently, they still say “Gosh!” in Nashville.] “The kids in Spain sure wear tight jeans.”

“What do they wear in Nashville?” I asked.

“The same thing, but six sizes bigger.”

And he was right, as I learned upon returning home the following Christmas. US teenagers wear ass-crack-to-floor length blue jeans so baggy and tattered that even Charlie Chaplin would be reluctant to don them; whereas their Spanish counterparts prefer jeans that appear to have been fashioned from Lycra and pulled from the wardrobe of a Barbie Dream House®.

I’m not sure why teens on each side of the Atlantic choose to dress so differently. Aren’t teenagers supposed to be the same the world over? I do, however, see logic in each side’s position. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense for teenage girls to flaunt their newly-budding bodies by wearing form-fitting jeans. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense for teenage boys to conceal their delight at such flaunting by wearing enormous, loose-fitting jeans.

And speaking of newly-budding bodies, let’s move on to our next topic...PDA.

Spanish teens are great aficionados of PDA. By “PDA,” I don’t mean Personal Digital Assistants. No teen would be interested in one of those, unless its screen displayed images of muscular bald men hacking each other to pieces with samurai swords. Rather, the PDA that I’m talking about is Public Display of Affection.

And when it comes to THAT type of PDA, Spanish teens are performance artists without out equal. Indeed, they’ll seize any opportunity to launch into a well-rehearsed pantomime of two carp pursuing the same piece of bread...and they’ll do it anywhere. They’ll do it in a commuter train. They’ll do it on a park bench. Or—as happens all too frequently—they’ll do it in a the table in front of me...while I’m trying to eat dinner.

Which brings us to our final topic for today—the botellón.

When the weekend rolls around, Spanish teens take to the supermarket. And what do they buy? They buy two-liter jugs of Coca-Cola, Tetrabrik boxes of low-grade red wine, bottles of the cheapest simulated Scotch whiskey on the shelf...and potato chips. Lots of potato chips. Then they congregate at a pre-arranged location for a “botellón.”

Botellones are informal, open-air parties at which several to hundreds of teenagers compete to see who can achieve the most skull-crushing hangover for the least amount of money. Botellones used to be a widespread occurrence throughout Spain—usually taking place in public parks of major cities. But alas, Spanish authorities began clamping down on these parties because—amongst other reasons—the kids failed to remember what their parents had taught them: Always pick-up after yourself.

Botellones still happen, of course. But they’ve moved on to more discrete venues. Here in Sanchoville, the weekly botellón takes place in the cornfields up the street from my house.

I was tempted to join these Children of the Corn during last Friday’s festivities. You know...for journalistic reasons. In the end, however, I decided against it—as being caught drinking Calimochos (i.e., red wine and Coca-cola cocktails) with peers who were wearing diapers when I was wearing university robes might not bode well for me when it comes time to renew my residency visa.

And anyway...they probably would’ve refused to talk with me.


"Sometimes when I reflect back on all the wine I drink I feel ashamed. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the vineyards and all of their hopes and dreams. If I didn't drink this wine, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. Then I say to myself, "It is better that I drink this wine and let their dreams come true than be selfish and worry about my liver."
~ Jack Handy

"I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day. "
~Frank Sinatra

"I read about the evils of drinking, so I decided to stop reading. "
~Henny Youngman

" Wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
~ Benjamin Franklin

"To some, it's a case of wine. To me, it's a Support Group. Salvation in a bottle!"
~ Dave Howell

Explains a lot, don't you think?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


...Slim Whitman?

That’s right, Slim Whitman! You’ll never believe it, but he helped me fix a flat tire on the highway this afternoon. shouldn’t believe it, because it’s not true. What IS true, however, is that I was sitting here thinking that I really needed to post something new on the VTB...but had no ideas and even less motivation. So I assumed the lotus position and dropped a hook into the deepest recesses of that surreal part of my brain. You know...the one with the Latin name.

I felt a nibble on the hook, gave it a sharp tug, reeled it in and found Slim wiggling on the end of the line.

So...who is Slim Whitman? He’s a country singer that yodels.

And why, you may be wondering, has a yodelling country singer been honored with a star on my Subconscious Walk of Fame? It’s because the commercial for Slim’s greatest hits album aired on late night TV every seven minutes during the two years that I was in Junior High School.

If you’ve seen the commercial, it’s impossible to forget. Slim stands in front a barn dressed as a matador...or something. The barn isn’t real. It’s obviously just a low-budget prop on TV studio sound stage. He begins yodelling, and a voiceover begins.

“This country superstar has sold more records than Elvis or The Beatles.”

That claim always struck me as a bit suspect, since I couldn’t find a single person who had heard of Slim before those TV commercials began airing.

Anyway...Slim continued yodelling through a medley of his hits as the commercial proceeded. And at one point, Slim’s face appeared in a box at the lower corner of the screen...and the man himself spoke!

“All the songs on this album have touched my heart. I hope they touch your heart, too.”

Viewers were then informed that a check or money order would be required. Sorry, but no C.O.D.’s.

Slim quickly became a hot topic amongst my classmates and I. Not because we wanted to buy his album. Heavens no! But simply because his commercial was so damn kitchilicious.

“Slim rocks!” Began appearing on chalkboards and bathroom walls.

Thirteen year old boys began asking thirteen year old girls if they could, “Touch your heart, too.”

If our pre-prubescent bodies could muster the testosterone, I’m sure we all would’ve grown pencil-moustaches.

Think I’m nuts? Well then...go find yourself an American guy who is more or less my age (39) and say the words, “Slim Whitman.” Then step back and gauge his reaction.

Whatever it is, I’ll betcha it involves a yodel.

Friday, April 07, 2006


[Note: This is an essay that was recently published in Expatica Spain.]

As I type these words, my laptop and I are sitting on the strikingly uncomfortable seat of a Cercanias train en route from Guadalajara to Madrid.  This is the standard mode of transport for those of us who are too far from the city to walk, yet too smart to drive. 

But liberation from the tyranny of traffic and parking isn’t the only reason that I like taking this train. There’s another. Each train ride reminds me of how much Spain’s face—and faces—have changed since I moved here six years ago. Let me explain.

One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Spain in 1999 was the homogeneity of its people.  Street after street, block after block, bar after bar...everybody looked the same. Short, thin people with dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin. In other words, everybody looked like ME—but with much nicer shoes.

Perhaps I would’ve taken such homogeneity in stride if I were an expat from—say—Japan or Iceland. But I moved here from the US—a country that prides itself on being a melting pot (or perhaps more accurately...a mosaic) of cultures.  Worse still, I came from Chicago—a city that is diverse even by the US’s lofty standards. In Chicago, it’s rare to walk past three consecutive people that have the same color of skin, hair or eyes.

This was, in fact, one of the things that I liked best about Chicago.  I could throw a dart at a world map and whichever country it hit, I could find that type of restaurant, store or neighborhood somewhere in the city.  In a single day, I could eat kielbasa sausage at a Polish buffet...then drink ouzo at a Greektown bar...then fill my shopping cart with kimchee, dried cuttlefish and barley tea at a Korean strip mall...and then watch belly-dancers until 3am at a Lebanese cabaret while smoking a hookah pipe stuffed with apple-flavored tobacco.  A night on the town in Chicago was like a vacation with Michael Palin.

Which brings me back to the train. The homogeneity in Spain that so shocked me in 1999 seems to have long-since evaporated—and I’m reminded of it every time that I ride this commuter train. During the one hour journey, my ears are bombarded with Slavic languages and Spanish spoken with South American accents. I see Africans and Asians and Hispanics. Lamentably, I’ve yet to find myself seated next to a belly-dancer...but I remain hopeful.

These observations are not, of course, limited to the train. I’ve noticed plenty of evidence of the demographic shift elsewhere. I was shopping recently at the Alcampo hypermarket in Alcala de Henares—a distant suburb of my standards, at least. The store had a huge “Welcome” sign over its entrance.  The sign was written in three languages. One of them was Polish.

One of the Guadalajara-area newspapers includes a regular supplement written in...Romanian!

And I was a resident of Barcelona during some of the heaviest waves of immigration from sub-Saharan Africa—including the period when the mass-squatting of black Africans in Plaza Catalunya was making national headlines. Rarely has a walk across a Spanish square seemed so exotic.

From my perspective, this is a good development.  I say that not just because I’m an expat here myself.  Rather, I truly believe that Spain’s expanding cultural mosaic makes it a much more interesting country. 

Many—if not most—of these new immigrants are working low-skill, menial jobs like construction, agriculture or house cleaning. But I’m REALLY looking forward to the day when these Poles and Russians and Nigerians lay down their hammers and feather-dusters, and start opening...restaurants!

And then—for the first time since Chicago—my days will be filled with kielbasa and kimchee and hookah pipes stuffed with apple-flavored tobacco.

But until that day arrives, I guess I’ll have to be content with fantasizing about belly-dancers on the train.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


This is Nicky-baby. He’s my eleven year old nephew from the US. And he has a blog, which you can find HERE.

I started this blog for Nicky-baby a year ago and have written a bunch of posts for it. Slowly but surely, however, he has been picking up the pen himself—which, of course, was my intention from day one.

But alas, blogging has met with stiff competition for Nicky-baby’s heart. His main passions—soccer and eleven year old girls—have been jealous mistresses. So I thought I’d do a little PR today, in the hope that some extra traffic (and comments!) to his blog might inspire Nicky-baby to resume his blogging with renewed vigor. And, in the process, allow Uncle Sal to retire from his ghostwriting duties (not that I mind ghostwriting).

A few of you—like Kim, Thomas and their son Pickles—have already found their way to Nicky-baby’s blog. And I hope you do, too. Why? Because the future of blogging lies with today’s youth.

And I’m sorry, but with the exception of Pickles...none of us qualify as “today’s youth.”

Saturday, April 01, 2006


Since today is April Fool’s Day, I’d like to take a moment and pay tribute to a great Dane—Mr. Samuel Soren Sorenson.

Sorenson didn’t invent April Fool’s Day, but he did found S.S. Adams Co.

While other corporations were wasting stockholder capital by peddling crap like iron lungs and antibiotics, S.S. Adams Co. invented and marketed such world-changing, life-altering products as Sneezing Powder, the Exploding Cigarette Box, the Snake Nut Can, Itching Powder, the Dribble Glass, the Joy Buzzer, the Bar Bug Ice Cube and the Squirting Nickle.

Sorenson died in 1965, but his memory lives on each time the buttocks of an 85 year old woman touch a Whoopee Cushion.