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.”


At 12:09 AM, Blogger Expat Traveler said...

funny - love the first pic. I really don't know about flat stanley but I've heard of him... Now I know more...

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Cynthia Rae said...

I just found your blog today and I am looking forward to reading through it.

I LOVE this Flat Stanley stuff! How is it that I never heard of him? I am just too old?

Happy to hear that Stanley is on his way to Italy for some rigatoni. I will keep an eye out for him, but I don't think he will find his way to this little Italian town.

Ciao for now!

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Mike B said...

Haven't received a Flat Stanley yet (only a couple requests for post-cards), but when I do I'll make sure he also gets a chance to visit the seemier side of town ;)
Might even get a photo of him smoking at a local cafe ... no, wait, that would get me jailed on my next visit to the US.

Nice piece (of writing).

At 4:45 PM, Blogger christina said...

The only other time I've even heard of Flat Stanley is on an 'expat in Sweden' blog and I was a bit confused. Now I finally understand the concept and I like it. I wonder if Canadian kids do this too?

Boy, when Flat Stanley visits you he really gets a tour of the city! Great travelogue.

At 5:00 PM, Blogger traveller one said...

Sal, Couldn't we do something like this with all the wonderful people on our blogrolls??? Let's organise it!

At 8:18 PM, Blogger christina said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8:19 PM, Blogger christina said...

(sorry, big typo)

Traveller One's a genius! That would be so fun.

At 3:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sal's little sister in Chicago has a third grade class of 25 students who will be sending out their "Flat Bodies" in two weeks.

Any volunteers to receive one???

At 12:05 PM, Blogger christina said...

Absolutely! Count me in to receive a Flat Body.

At 12:15 PM, Blogger CanadianSwiss said...

That sounds like fun. Didn't know Flat Stanley until now. Taveller one's idea is great! We really should do something like that.

At 8:41 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Hey everyone:

Sorry, but I seem to be falling behind in my responses. It's a combination of child care, plus home-improvement projects (cementing decorative stones to outdoor walls is a LOT of work...and don't let anyone tell you otherwise), plus run-of-the-mill domestic duties, plus scraping the side of my car on my nanotechnology-constructed, life can be relentless. So let me take the easy approach just this once, and do a generic, broadcast response (other than to welcome Cyn and Mike to our VTB Happy Hour).

If anyone wants to be the adopted tourguide for a Flat Stanley or a Flat Body (which, unlike Stan da man, is a full body tracing and cut-out of the student), just let me know. My sister--who teaches third grade (I think) near Chicago--has graciously offered to flood your mailboxes with all the Flat Bodies you can handle.

Christina has already volunteered.

Traveller One, did you have an idea for how to organize? If not, then anyone who wants a Flat [fill in the blank] from my sister's students should send me their mailing address to and I'll forward it (privately) to my sister. She will assign to you one of her students. Hmm...I should make this a separate post. Think I'll do that right now.


At 12:31 AM, Blogger GC PHILO said...

I've been an American for about 27 years now and have never even met Flat Stanley! Can you believe it? I really hope he makes it around my way soon and wants to be my friend... I was never really that popular in school you know (Hard to believe, isn't it?) so I need all the help I can get!

At 9:35 PM, Blogger Alison said...

My mom is an elementary school teacher in Canada and I can assure you that they do flat stanley projects too. I was host to four stans last year and while photographing one at Keukenhof gardens I ran into another Stanley host doing the same thing. Mom brought three more Stan's with her when she came to visit last month!

At 4:39 PM, Blogger gwadzilla said...

Flat Stanley is cool...

did you stuff him in a dancer's G-String at the Strip Club?

his visit to Washington DC was a tad more tame

I enjoyed the experience

until he arrived in the mail last week I had never heard of him
now he is part of my daily vocabulary


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