USA in the Rear View

“But why did you leave the United States?”

Madrileños must ask me that question at least once a week. Some sound mystified. Isn’t the United States richer than Spain? Don’t Americans get to walk the streets they know from all the big American movies, TV shows? Of course, they’ve heard of how terrible Trump is, but isn’t he a product of the “Fox News” America they’ve read about? California isn’t “Fox News” America, is it?

“It’s a long story,” I usually answer, and now often change the subject. I feel self-conscious. I didn’t really “leave,” not while retaining U.S. citizenship. Spain let me live in-country long term. I arrived less than two years ago. Not that big a deal.

But, with that said: I haven’t visited the U.S. since my Iberia one-way touched down at Madrid Barajas in 2016, and don’t plan to return. I deflect questions because I don’t know how to explain that perspective to Spaniards. I’ll try now.

* * * * *

America portrays itself. So does Spain. So must other countries. In news feeds, headlines, video clips, talk shows, advertising, comedy skits, movie trailers, in its tireless onslaught of mainstream print and broadcast media, America paints its own fluid portrait. It tells its people what it is.

Since the Dubya presidency, 9/11, the Iraq War and the Snowden revelations, I have found America’s self-portrait to be freakishly at odds with the America I see with my own lyin’ eyes. The explanation of the U.S. military’s cost and role seems especially surreal, hallucinatory.

Consider:

() America’s self-portrait now includes the admission that the Iraq War was a “mistake.” “Ill-advised,” a politician or a pundit might say. “If we’d known then what we know now, of course, we would have done things differently.” The admission inspires no public soul-searching; rather, it is usually granted quickly, uncomfortably, like a wager in a lost bet. A few may dare to speak of their past war support with self-deprecating humor, as one might rue payment of full list price for a washing machine the day before the half-off sale. Whoopsy Doodle! Guess we goofed. These things happen.

Consider the dimensions of the “mistake”:

The war cost a quarter to nearly a half million American and Iraqi lives — the approximate populations of Reno and Buffalo on the low side, or of Atlanta, Miami or Long Beach on the high side. I chaperoned grade schoolers on field trips to Long Beach, struggle to imagine a city peopled by only the dead: hundreds of thousands of bloody, lifeless corpses from Belmont Shore to Compton College, draped from the rails of the Queen Mary, rotting next to Shark Lagoon. Some Iraq body counts are higher still, reach into seven figures. Hundreds of thousand more suffered permanent injury, lost limbs, eyes, ears, senses.

The war also cost over three trillion dollars: an incomprehensibly vast sum, more than one and a half times the value of all farmland in the continental United States, nearly six times the value of taxable real estate in New York City and Washington D.C. combined. What if U.S. leaders had instead invested funds on behalf of their constituents, as did Norway with its surplus oil revenue? Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is today worth more than a trillion, or almost two hundred thousand dollars of saved wealth for every Norse citizen.

The absence of public responsibility for the “mistake” seems phantasmagoric, dreamlike. The national self-portrait included endless imagery of the horrors of ISIL, but little about the obvious, fundamental role of the war in ISIL’s growth. Politicians who portrayed themselves as centurions of the balance sheet in debt ceiling debates had little to say about their cheerleading for the pointless three trillion dollar invasion.

() Americans consuming the national self-portrait may believe their nation to be defended by a shamefully feeble military. Oft-quoted voices suggest as much. Many Americans believe the military to be under-funded. Ted Cruz has referred to it as debilitated, tragically anemic; Marco Rubio said the military has been weakened, eviscerated. John McCain threatened to shut down the government to get more military spending. A voter may picture troops toting rusty Springfields in tattered battledress, dumpster diving for food, grimly readying rocks and spears to hurl at the freedom-hating hordes poised to invade American beaches.

How does this debilitated, anemic, weakened, eviscerated military compare with others?

Visit armedforces.eu or globalfirepower.com, run some numbers.

The U.S. military is the largest and most powerful on the planet. By far. The U.S. military budget is three times bigger than China’s, more than thirteen times bigger than Russia’s. The U.S. military budget in a single year could pay for four TransAtlantic tunnels, or four international space stations, or four hundred Burj Khalifas. In a single year.

I’m old enough to remember the justification for this colossal tumor on the balance sheet: the Cold War. Sputnik. “We will bury you.” The Cuban Missile Crisis. But the Cold War ended more than a quarter century ago. Putin has said that the U.S. is “probably the world’s sole superpower.”

It’s hard to explain to Europeans how freakish and suffocating it felt to take in this media self-portrait while living on American soil: in the planet’s fourth biggest country, flanked by two great oceans, where only thirty percent of the citizens hold passports. 2 + 2 didn’t equal 4 anymore, couldn’t, wasn’t allowed to.

I also wasn’t supposed to feel personal shame. Collateral Murder, drone strikes on wedding parties, secret prisons, Guantanamo Bay, torture. All mistakes! Whoopsy Doodle! Just mistakes, like Iraq.

In 2016, as a sick dog will eat grass to induce nausea, America sent a deity to the White House: Shiva, Hindu god of destruction. Shiva has worked 24/7 ever since: battering institutions and alliances, debasing the presidency, firing the competent, promoting stooges. Part of the mainstream media’s self-portrait has evolved since: Everything is Shiva’s fault! If only America had elected Dubya’s brother Jeb, or Marco Rubio! All might be well again. Look! Here’s Dubya on the Ellen show! He must be a cool guy, if Ellen would interview him.

My history books tell me that the hallucinatory distortions I see in the U.S. self-portrait aren’t new, aren’t unprecedented. The Chinese press still doesn’t look honestly at the legacy of past leader Mao Zedong, who killed tens of millions in the Great Leap Forward. Beijing media also didn’t shut down in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre; post-massacre reporters must have found something safe to write and talk about, some way to look edgy and bold without stepping on the wrong toes. Stalin imprisoned biologists who opposed pseudo-scientific Lysenkoism; Nazis burned Einstein’s books, championed a nonsensical Aryan Physics alternative. Same old same old; same pattern. 2 + 2 = 4 when the evening news announces permission for the public to count on its fingers. Not before.

I left a country with important virtues. Americans — the people, not the government — are often friendly, egalitarian, self-reliant. I miss the brave optimism of many families I met as a teacher in Los Angeles’ inner city, feel only gratitude and respect for the volunteers, teachers and supporters I knew through TransitPeople and before. A too-common U.S. it’s-good-if-it-makes-money mindset may threaten the whole planet, but many American businesses also won global leadership fair and square, on their own merits. My volunteer stints in Madrid schools show strengths in the U.S. educational system. Look at world university rankings.

With that said:

I am a retired school teacher with no role or voice in American affairs. I may recognize Trump as a symptom of a sick country, but can’t heal that sickness. I feel sympathy for old friends, colleagues and students, but haven’t looked back.

My last straw may have been the 2015 U.S. airstrike against the Kunduz Doctors Without Borders hospital. If in Spain: you may complain about political corruption, bullfighting, the monarchy. Fine; you’re a voter, are entitled to your opinions.

A few questions, though: Does Madrid bomb hospitals? Does Madrid run secret prisons, kill innocents with drones at wedding parties? Does the Spanish press give ink and airtime to politicians and pundits who claim that militarism thousands of miles from the Iberian Peninsula is necessary to “protect Spanish freedoms?” Is your country globally regarded as the greatest threat to world peace? And was I really so odd for judging the U.S.’ self-portrait as frighteningly surreal, for wanting to again live in a 2 + 2 = 4 world?

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EEUU en el Espejo Retrovisor

(¡Mi primera traducción sin ayuda! Espere errores y no se decepcionará. Todos los enlaces son para páginas en inglés.)

“¿Pero porque te fuiste de Estados Unidos?”

Los madrileños deben hacerme esa pregunta al menos una vez a la semana. Algunos parecen mistificados. ¿No es Estados Unidos más rico de España? ¿Los estadounidenses no pueden caminar por las calles que conocen de todas las grandes peliculas? Por supuesto, han oido de los horrores de Trump, ¿pero no es Trump un producto de “Fox News America?” California no es “Fox News America,” ¿verdad?

“Es una historia larga,” a menudo contesto, y ahora frecuentemente cambio de tema. Me siento cohibido. Realmente no “me fui,” no mientras conservaba la ciudadania EEUU. España me permitió vivir en el país a largo plazo. No es un gran cosa.

Pero, con eso dijo: no he visitado Estados Unidos desde la llegada de mi vuelto en Madrid en 2016, y no tengo planes de regresar. Evito las preguntas porque no sé como explicar esa perspectiva a los españoles. Lo intentaré ahora.

* * * * *

Estados Unidos se retrata a sí mismo. España también, al igual que otros países. En noticias, titulares, videos, programas de entrevista y debate, anuncios, comedias, tráilers de películas, en su diluvio incansable de medios convencionales, Estados Unidos pinta su propio retrato fluido. Le dice a su gente lo que es.

Desde la presidencia de G.W. Bush, 9/11, la guerra en Irak y las revelaciones Snowden, he pensado que este autorretrato está extrañamente en desacuerdo con el país que puedo ver con mis propios ojos. Las explicaciónes de los gastos y el papel de las fuerzas militares parecen especialmente surrealista, alucinante.

Considere:

() El autorretrato de Estados Unidos ahora incluye la admisión de que la guerra de Irak fue un “error.” “Mal aconsejado,” un politico o una analista podría decir. “Si hubiéramos sabido en aquel tiempo lo que sabemos ahora, por supuesto, nos habríamos comportado diferentemente.” La admisión no inspira un examen de conciencia público; no, generalmente está otorgado rapidamente, incómodamente, como dinero en una apuesta perdida. Algunos podrían atreverse a hablar de su apoyo pasado con humor autodespreciativo, ya que uno podría lamentar el pago del precio de lista completo de una lavadora el día antes de la venta a mitad de precio. ¡Oh oh! ¡Mala mía! Estas cosas pasan.

Considere las dimensiones del “error:”

Entre un cuarto y medio millón estadounidenses y iraquíes murieron en la guerra — cifras aproximadamente igual con la poblacion de Granada o Gijón por la estimación baja y con la poblacion de Murcia o Málaga (o Long Beach en Estados Unidos) por la estimación alta. Dirigí excursiones para niños en Long Beach, y lucho por imaginar una ciudad poblada sólo por muertos: cientos de miles de cadáveres sangrientos y sin vida desde Belmont Shore a Compton College, cubiertos por los rieles del barco Queen Mary, pudriéndose al lado del tanque de tiburones en el aquario. Algunos recuentos de cadáveres son aún más altos, alcanzan a las siete cifras. Cientos de miles más sufrieron lesiones permanente: extremidades perdidas, la pérdida de ojos, oídos, sentidos.

La guerra tambíen costó más de tres trillones de dólares: una suma incomprensiblemente vasta, más de 1.5 veces el valor de las tierra agrícolas en Estados Unidos continental, casi seis veces el valor de las propiedades gravables en las ciudades de Nueva York y Washington D.C. conjunto. ¿Que habría pasado si los lideres hubieran invertido estos fondos por cuenta de sus ciudadanos, como Noruega con su excedente de rentas petrolera? Hoy el fondo soberano de inversión de Noruega tiene un valor de más de un trillon de dólares, o casi doscientos mil dólares de riqueza ahorrado por cada ciudadano nórdico.

La ausencia de responsibilidad pública por el “error” parece fantasmagórica, onírica. El autorretrato nacional incluía imágenes interminables de los horrores del EIIL, pero poco sobre el papel obvio y fundamental de la guerra en el crecimiento del EIIL. Los politicos que se presentaron a sí mismos como centuriones del balance financiero en debates sobre la deuda pública tuvieron poco que decir sobre su animo por la guerra sin punta de tres trillones.

() Los estadounidenses que consumen el autorretrato nacional podría creer que su nación esta defendida por una fuerza militar verzonzosamente débil. Las voces citados sugieren eso. Muchas estadounidenses creen que su fuerza militar está subfinanciado. El político Ted Cruz se ha referido a ella como debilitada, trágicamente anémica; otro, Marco Rubio, ha dicho que ella ha sido atenuada, eviscerada. El senador John McCain amenazó cerrar el gobierno para obtener más gasto militar. Un votante podría imaginar tropas cargando viejos rifles oxidados en vestidos de batalla andrajosos, buscando comida en basureros, preparando sombríamente rocas y lanzas para lanzar contra las hordas a punto de invadir las playas estadounidenses.

¿Cómo se compara esta fuerza debilitada, anémica, atenuada y eviscerada con otras?

Visita armedforces.eu o globalfirepower.com, haz algunas comparaciones.

La fuerza militar de Estados Unidos es la más grande y poderoso del planeta. Por mucho. El presupuesto militar de EEUU es tres veces mayor que el de China, más de trece veces mayor que el de Rusia. El presupesto militar de EEUU en un solo año podría pagar cuatro túneles transatlánticos, o cuatro estaciones espaciales internacionales, o cuatrocientos Burj Khalifas. En un solo año.

Tengo edad suficiente para recordar la justificación de este tumor colosal en el balance financiero: la Guerra Fría. Sputnik. “Te enterraremos.” La crisis de los misiles cubanos. Pero la Guerra Fría terminó hace más de un cuarto de siglo. Putin ha dicho que EEUU es “probablemente la única superpotencia del mundo.”

Es dificil explicar a los europeos lo raro y sofocante que se sentía absorbar este autorretrato mientras vivía en el suelo estadounidense: en el cuarto país más grande del planeta, flanqueado por dos grandes océanos, donde solo el treinta por ciento de los ciudadanos tienen pasaportes. 2 + 2 ya no eran 4, no se podían, no se les permitía.

Tampoco tenía permiso para sentir vergüenza. Collateral Murder, ataques drones en fiestas de bodas, prisiones ocultados, Guantanamo Bay, tortura. ¡Solo errores! ¡Mala mía! Solo errores, como Irak.

En 2016, como un perro enfermo comerá hierba para inducir náuseas, Estados Unidos envió a un deidad a la Casa Blanca: Shiva, dios hindu de destrucción. Shiva ha sido trabajando 24/7 desde entonces: golpeando instituciones y alianzas, degradando la presidencia, despidiendo a los competentes, promoviendo a los paniaguados. Parte del autorretrato nacional ha evolucionado: ¡todo es la culpa de Shiva! ¡Ojala que los votantes hubieran elegido Jeb Bush (el hermano de Dubya), o Marco Rubio! ¡Todo sería bien otra vez! Mira: Dubya apareció en la programa de televisión de Ellen! Él debe ser un tío súper, no?

Mis libros de historia me dicen que las distorsiones alucinatorias que veo en el autorretrato estadounidense no son nuevas, no faltan precedentes. La prensa china aún no mira honestamente al legado del pasado líder Mao Zedong, quien mató a decenas de millones en el Gran Salto Adelante. La prensa de Beijing también no cerró después la masacre en la Plaza de Tiananmen; los reporteros deben haber encontrado maneras en que podrían parecer audaz y independiente sin cruzando líneas rojas ocultas. Stalin encarceló a biólogos que se oponían al Lysenkoism pseudoscientifico; los Nazis quemaron los libros de Einstein, abogaron una “Fisica Aria” absurda. La misma pauta. 2 + 2 = 4 cuando las noticias de la tarde anuncian permiso para que el público cuente consus dedos. No antes.

Dejé un país con virtudes importantes. Los estadounidenses — la gente, no el gobierno — a menudo son amistosos, igualitarios, aufosuficientes. Extraño el valiente optimismo de muchas familias que conocí como maestro en el casco urbano de Los Angeles, siento solo gratitud y respeto por los voluntarios, maestros y partidarios que conocí a través de TransitPeople y antes. Un mentalidad demasiado común que ‘es bueno si hace dinero‘ puede amenazar al planeta entero, pero muchas empresas estadounidenses ganaron el liderazgo de manera justa, por sus propios méritos. Mis estancias de voluntariado en las escuelas de Madrid muestran fortalezas en el sistema educativo en California. Mira las clasificaciones universitarias mundiales.

Con esto dijo:

Soy un maestro jubilado, sin voz ni papel en los asuntos estadounidenses. Puedo reconocer a Trump como un síntoma de un país enfermo, pero no puedo curar esta enfermidad. Siento simpatía por los viejos amigos, colegas y estudiantes, pero no he mirado hacia atrás.

Mi gota que colmó el vaso podría haber sido el ataque aéreo EEUU en 2015 contra el hospital Médecins Sans Frontiéres en Kunduz. Si esta en España: puede quejarse de corrupción politica, los toros, la monarquía, otros asuntos. Bien; eres un votante, tienes derecho a tu opinión.

Pero unas preguntas: ¿Madrid bombardea hospitales? ¿Madrid maneja prisiones secretas, mata inocentes con drones en fiestas de boda? ¿La prensa en España da tinta y tiempo de transmisión a politicos y eruditos que reclaman que militarismo a miles de kilómetros afuera de la Península Ibérica es necesario para “proteger las libertades españoles?” ¿El mundo vea su país como la mayor amenaza para la paz mundial? ¿Y era realmente tan extraño por juzgar este autorretrato come espantosamente surrealista, por querer vivir otra vez en un mundo de 2 + 2 = 4?

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Madrid Impressions: Round Five

The latest installment:

VENEZUELAN DIASPORA

I meet Ecuadorans and Colombians in Madrid — and should, according to immigration-to-Spain stats — but not as often as I meet Venezuelans: two waiters and a manager in one restaurant; the part-owner of another; students, job seekers, new arrivals. Ties between the two countries are old, run deep. Some Venezuelan expats have leaned on extended family networks to seek residency.

How bad are things back in Caracas? As grim as I’ve heard, say they. Or worse.

CC BY 2.0 photo by Andreas Lehner

2008 election posters | CC BY 2.0 photo by Andreas Lehner

‘Your child is sick, you go out to buy ibuprofen,’ said one last summer, to offer a slice-of-Venezuelan-life, inexactly quoted here. ‘The first pharmacy doesn’t have any. The second one doesn’t. Twenty pharmacies don’t. Maybe you can get it from the black market, for ten times the regular price.’

(We met again a few weeks ago. His slice-of-life doesn’t hold anymore, he said; things are worse now, far worse. Inflation has gutted wages; families scavenge to survive. He shows me a smartphone video of Venezuelan soldiers, points to sunken cheeks, baggy uniforms.)

A few express nuanced views for late leader-of-the-Venezuelan-revolution (he-got-us-into-this-mess) Hugo Chávez. No one has a good word for current Venezuela strongman Nicolás Maduro. I judge the contempt as quiet and apolitical; Maduro’s crew is loathed not for leaning left, but for plundering, stealing, ruining.

Why doesn’t such a universally reviled figure step down?

San Cristóbal food line | CC BY-NC 2.0 photo by DerMikelele

San Cristóbal food line | CC BY-NC 2.0 photo by DerMikelele

‘Because he’d get life in prison, if he were lucky,’ answers another Venezuelan (again quoted inexactly.) ‘Very lucky.’

A third downplays Maduro’s importance; he is only the public face of the Venezuelan kleptocracy, says she, could be sleekly replaced by a trusted crony. She introduces a new-to-me name, Diosdado Cabello, opines that Cabello may wield greater behind-the-scenes power. (Spanish speakers: Mr. Cabello is a youtube star.)

BRITISH DIASPORA

European Union freedom-of-movement laws meant a pensioned Brit could ditch London fog, chase the rays in retirement to a beachfront retirement pad on Spain’s Costa del Sol. Locals assure me that I’ll hear English and German more often than Spanish on some blocks of Málaga.

Or can now, at least, before Brexit. The UK’s EU check-out date is April, 2019. Hundreds of thousands of UK expats are in limbo. Should they seek Spanish citizenship? Will they need visas for visits home to mum?

CENTER TO SIGHTSEE, OUTSKIRTS TO LIVE

Picture a tourist in San Francisco. Where does she go? To Fisherman’s Wharf, via the Embarcadero; to Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies. To Coit Tower, Russian Hill, Chinatown. Great sites, one and all. Oft-visited by locals.

But do the locals live on Russian Hill, or near Alamo Square? A few do, sure, but not most. They join the walking tour, listen as the guide points out Alice Walker’s old house or reads the poem on the Hotaling Whiskey plaque, then return to dullsville digs in Daly City, San Leandro, Hayward, Vallejo.

Next to Las Retamas Cercanías station in Alcorcón

Next to Las Retamas Cercanías station in Alcorcón

Expect roughly the same deal in Madrid, although the “‘burbs” are generally apartment complexes rather than single-family homes, and are linked to the city center by a vastly — and I do mean vastly — better transit grid. I meet Madrid born-and-raiseds in tours of Plaza Mayor, Retiro Park, Sol, Tribunal. The locals nod appreciatively at the Muslim Walls or Cervantes’ house, then ride the metro home to quiet, affordable Vinateros, Las Tablas, Alcorcón.

My travels suggest that this state of affairs may exist worldwide, and offers a paradox: If there is anything worth seeing by a tourist, you probably are not in the most authentic part of the metropolis in question, the acres where natives settle, raise families, live their lives. And if you are in one of those authentic places as a tourist, you shouldn’t be. Tourist guides who shepherd honeymooners to sightsee in fabulous Hayward! Palomas! Downey! Leganés! are soon unemployed.

(I am an exception to my own rule, live near Madrid’s city center.)

THE MADRID CAVE

Many Californians would eagerly back moving vans to pads in Alamo Square or Russian Hill, if said pads didn’t command seven figure price tags. The Madrid sticking point may be a bit different. One may afford an apartment in historically significant Malasaña or Lavapiés, but may live there less agreeably than in bread-and-butter Moratalaz.

“Madrid cave” was my term for many central Madrid apartments visited in 2016 hunts for housing. Consider this not-untypical side street in Malasaña. Charming, isn’t it? Pictureseque! Blocks from the metro, from Gran Vía! Have you ever seen such architecture in the States? How Old World, how European!

Street in Malasaña district of Madrid, Spain

Street in Malasaña district of Madrid, Spain

How’d you like to actually live in one of those apartments one floor up?

You wouldn’t get a lot of light, would you, on that narrow street, with two stories looming above you? And the natural light might come only from the windows facing the street. Some interior rooms may offer only single, inky-dinky windows overlooking clothes line and gloom in a center-of-the-building court yard.

And, hey! how ’bout that occasional party of inebriated tourists, chug-a-lugging brewskies and yodeling songs on the sidewalk? How’d you like to try to bag forty winks while they haggle drunkenly over the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven scant meters from your pillow? Ear plugs? White noise? Or maybe an unannounced midnight trek to your friend’s pad in sleepy Daly City Moratalaz, for a snooze on his carpet?

MANTEROS

The new African immigrant may be to Madrid what the new Central American immigrant is to Los Angeles. The Guatemalteco or Salvadoran waits for a construction gig at Home Depot, toils over an overlock stitcher at a South Central sweatshop. The African passes out fliers at metro entrances, or roams Madrid tourist blocks as a mantero, with wares — handbags, hand fans, undergarments — bundled in white sheets. He can unbundle and set up shop in seconds (amidst tourist swarms on Gran Via, at Puerta del Sol, or in a corner of his own in the metro labyrinth), re-bundle and make himself scarce as quickly, if told to leave. In 2016, I saw a half dozen flee from a shopkeeper wielding an expandable baton.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 photo by MB Neave

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 photo by MB Neave

(My one paragraph description of a state-of-affairs here should not imply any opinion on how said state-of-affairs should be addressed. El País offers over a dozen Spanish-language news stories tagged ‘mantero.’ I’m still wrestling with pronominal verbs. Ask them first.)

THIS KING BUSINESS

Spain has one, King Felipe VI, only son of King Juan Carlos I. Spaniards assure me that the twenty-first century gig is ceremonial. Fine, but then why does the press work itself into a lather over kingly pronouncements in time of crisis? “Eight out of ten Catalans saw the King’s speech!” hollered El Mundo, after Felipe VI weighed in on the secession crisis. Yankee Tim admits bewilderment.

I suspect a complex relationship between public and throne, rooted in tradition, perhaps incomprehensible to outsiders.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 photo by office of Mariano Rajoy

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 photo by office of Mariano Rajoy

“I want the king to be above politics,” one Spanish retiree told me. (Again quoted inexactly. I don’t sneak around Madrid with a hidden voice recorder.) “He’s not Podemos. He’s not the Popular Party. He’s impartial. Detached.”

‘But it’s a ceremonial office,’ thought I. ‘The man waves sceptres over Andalusian trotters in parades. What gives here?!’

Felipe VI attended Georgetown, speaks excellent English. I can’t help regarding him with sympathy. He never asked for the rigors of public life, as much as emerged from the womb with responsibility for the national psyche chained to his shoulders.

ODDS N’ ENDS

() Spaniards celebrate Epiphany on January 6 — aka Día de los Reyes Magos — as enthusiastically as they celebrate Christmas. They also now “celebrate” Black Friday, although Black Friday arrives without Thanksgiving coattails, out of the middle of nowhere. Advertise enough, get people to do almost anything.

() Q: “Tim, what do you like least about Madrid?”

A: Fur coats. Not seen for eons in California, but not yet entirely out of style here. Wearers are almost always north of fifty.

() Eager to flee all reminders of Hollywood? Plan on fleeing a lot farther than Spain. El País was jammed with Oscars coverage. Left-leaning Podemos political leader Pablo Iglesias gave the king a boxed gift set of the Game of Thrones TV series.

Kazakhstan, maybe? Mongolia?

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Polyglot Tips N’ Tricks

¡Buenos días! Adiós. Señora. I recognized those Spanish words at age thirty-five, not many more. I could point to a familiar menu item in a Mexican restaurant — for a quesadilla, chile relleno — regard a server with hopefully arched eyebrows.

Today I live in Spain, relied on my Spanish to rent an apartment, arrange banking and utility services, settle in. I’m bilingual! Maybe not gracefully or elegantly, but successfully.

Language Exchange in Madrid, Spain

Language Exchange in Madrid, Spain

I have thoughts on how I became that way, requisition space on my personal soapbox to share them.

DETERMINATION MATTERED MOST

If “location, location, location” count most for the real estate investor, then “determination, determination, determination” mattered most in my middle-aged acquisition of español. I write confidently of a fait accompli; no other factor came close. If a class, teacher, text, lesson, web page or video series didn’t allow access to the language, I palmed figurative doorknobs until I found one that opened.

Interest helped, too. I’d rather tackle some endeavors with high interest and average ability than the other way around. It ain’t a chore if you want to do it.

FLUENCY IS A MATTER OF DEGREE

Publishers flim-flammed titles like Master Spanish in a Month! when I was a kid, sell them still. A crock, of course, but I dreamed half-seriously of a similar holy grail while slugging my way through 1A classes. Some day, I imagined — with enough study, enough work — the magic keys to the Fluency Kingdom would materialize suddenly between my fingers. I would communicate as effortlessly thereafter as a native speaker.

To those harboring similar hopes, I offer news good and bad.

The good: it did get easier. The gates into the new language opened wider, allowed easier access. By B1, I could make out phrases and sentences in once-incomprehensible news broadcasts. Today, I can listen to MP3’d entrevistas from RTVE while I cook and clean. Newspapers, magazines, books: same story. The toughest sledding is behind me.

But, the bad: no Fluency Kingdom, no magic keys. What I don’t know still has to be learned. If a B1 student knows 2,500 words and a C1-er knows 4,000*, then 1,500 syllable combinations of the L2 will remain incomprehensible until looked up, digested. And if a native speaker knows 20,000+ words, well …

I have met some UK expats in Madrid with 10 years + on Spanish soil. Their Spanish romps rings around mine, but I have yet to hear one praise her own fluency. To live as a second language learner in the second language country may mean an ever-present awareness of how one’s own understanding of that language doesn’t quite measure up.

* If.  Debatable.

RADIO, VIDEO, TV

If the sought-after tongue is spoken in more than country, try to hear it as spoken in the country that concerns you most.

I need to understand what natives say to me; speak Spanish in return; read the language and write it. Computer resources can help me read and write. Oral skills are different, take priority. I need to listen and speak the Old School way, on my own, real time, computer un-assisted.

(“I’ll just talk to strangers through Google Translate!” think some. That means: you talk into the smartphone; the smartphone squawks at the native; the native talks into your smartphone; your smartphone squawks back at you. Rather a lot to ask of the native! In a pinch, maybe, but please ask yourself: how often do you see people conducting heart-to-hearts this way in coffee shops?)

I get better at Oral by listening to lots and lots of spoken Spanish. After landing in Madrid, I regularly watched youtube’d news clips from U.S. broadcasters Noticias Telemundo and Univision.

A mistake. Talking heads José Díaz Balart and Jorge Ramos hail from Florida and Mexico City, respectively. I don’t now need to understand Spanish as spoken on that side of the world. I noticed a significant improvement when I switched to made-in-Spain news broadcasts, or radio interviews downloaded from rtve.es.

LANGUAGE EXCHANGES

AKA intercambios: social gatherings between the native speakers of two or more tongues, in which participants take turns yakking in languages. (e.g.: fifteen minutes Spanish, fifteen minutes English.) Meetup alone lists a half-dozen here, including one I started and others I haunt. Most in Madrid are English-Spanish, but no law says they have to be. I met Russians-on-the-street by dropping in on a Russian-English intercambio in Saint Petersburg.

Europe is predictably ripe turf for intercambios. I am a fan, partly to practice my yak and partly to learn cultural mores, and quickly cite intercambios as a perk to bilingualism. Expect easier sledding if already navigating the second language north of A2.

Students also recruit one-on-one partners through Conversation Exchange.

POTPOURRI

() I reached low intermediate fluency through conventional language classes. Computer tools have revolutionized language instruction, but I’d still like a teacher’s help to baby step through my first sentences in a new tongue.

That said, I’d ditch the class rápidamente if it shaped up as a waste of time. Some have. In the computer era, a class is just another tool.

() Planning to go expat? Consider clawing your way to the outskirts of B1 fluency before moving abroad for keeps.  Just my two cents.

() Expats often fear talk on telephone. I do, felt less embarrassed after meeting other expats who feel the same way. We avoid calling the bank or the cell phone provider; we visit.

() Every new word on your vocabulary list represents an effort of memory. Choose the words that rate the work at your current fluency level. You’ll use acabar a lot more often than séquito.

() Get used to your accent.

() Politicians left, right and center speak slowly and clearly. English students who scratch bewildered heads during U.S. movies can understand speeches by Obama and Trump.

() Diction, rate of speech and audibility matter tremendously. My lifetime of L1 English allow me to compensate for slurred, mumbled, accented speech obscured by background noise. In Spanish, I have to listen with both ears, and still expect to miss some or much of what’s said.

Example: at my current fluency level, much of this clip might as well have been in Mandarin, for all I got out of it. In contrast, I understood 80+% of a second clip from the same show.

() Some errors seem to grate on L1 speakers’ ears more than others. One may manejar a car west of the Atlantic; in Spain, said vehicle is conducir‘d, and natives consistently point out the difference. I reckon it grates. In contrast, no intercambio partner has flagged me on improper use of prepositions.

() In real life, essential vocabulary often trumps grammar. “Water not go drain” may be rotten English, but your knowledge of the word “drain” tells the plumber why he’s there.

I TACK RIGHT ON MULTILINGUALISM

Most reading-between-the-lines of this post will infer that the author is gung-ho about multilingualism. Not so.

In 2018, I think that a long-term expat in Spain wisely invests time by studying the national language, especially given that said national language is one of the most widely spoken on terra firma. Multilingualism topples national boundaries; I can exchange meaning face-to-face with strangers from distant lands in the above-described intercambios, can read Spanish press reports, understand untranslated recorded words spoken by historical figures: Franco, Guevara, Pinochet, Allende. The racers I interviewed for my great American novel may wish they could understand the words of the legendary Fangio, but can’t. The expat Spain straphanger can. I have read of cognitive benefits of language study, especially for old-croaker-aged students like me. Bilingualism has broadened my horizons, made me wiser.

But, with all that said: fat chance of convincing me of the intrinsic value of memorizing thousands of new syllable combinations for prosaic objects and actions like tables, can openers, metro stations, toilets, for waiting, laughing, sleeping, brushing teeth. I emphatically do not think that claimed cognitive benefits justify the years of study needed to chase fluency.

Further: all but the most advanced second language speakers make do with skeleton editions of their rich native vocabularies. In English, I can readily describe a walk, shuffle, skip, stroll, goose-step, swagger, stalk. In Spanish, I comfortably use only caminar.

I am multilingual to accommodate global human life as it has evolved in 2018. Past idealists promoted sensible constructed languages like Esperanto. Nice try! Hats off to you! Didn’t take, unfortunately; a few million worldwide speak Esperanto today. Nearly a billion speak English, the de facto lingua franca, and deal with its related miseries as an L2: homophones, spelling horrors, phrasal verbs.

I am old enough to pay more heed to outcomes likely than to outcomes ideal. My guess is that some type of computer-aided translation will become nimble enough for real-time chats, and that language study may thereafter become extinct.

Eventually. In the future. ¿Quién sabe cuándo? The author of one esoteric article on brain wave technology isn’t ready to give up Chinese lessons for his four year old. In 2018, I won’t close my Spanish textbooks anytime soon.

SOME RESOURCES FOR INTERMEDIATE SPANISH STUDENTS

Video, Educational and News:  The SOL School of Language offers dozens of videos.  I can watch yesterday’s news at Spain’s Cuatro Noticias and Telecinco Informativos without registration. Expect a mix of serious news and tabloid fare.

Radio: Las mañanas de RNE hosts hundreds of downloadable MP3’d interviews and news broadcasts.

Books:  Intermediate students may enjoy, (a) Edelsa’s student version of Don Quijote de la Mancha, volumes I and II, and (b), SGEL’s student version of Quevedo’s El Buscón.  I’m grateful that I brought my Reference Grammar from the U.S.

Some Web Sites:

Diccionario de la lengua española. If the DLE offers one definition and an English-language translation service says something else, side with the DLE. Look for the conjugar button when entering verbs.

Linguee lets users choose between existing translations of problematic phrases.

* Former about.com contributor Laura Lawless offers a great verbs with prepositions page.

* Retired professor Fred Jehle posted acres of excellent past course material.

Spanishdict­ and StudySpanish­ offer online quizzes.

* I also have used ProfeDeELE, Hispanoteca, Gerald Erichsen’s posts at ThoughtCo and — of course! — the ever-improving Google Translate.

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Catalonia Cautiously Contemplated

“So what’s going on in Catalonia?” ask U.S. of A. conocidos. The region declared independence from Spain last month. Friends are curious.

I offered my two cents in a July post, will today pitch in another penny. Cautiously. I live in Madrid, hear mostly Madrid’s side of the conflict.

()  Separatist front lines are in Barcelona, almost four hundred miles northeast of my home in Spain’s capital. Barcelonans contend with strikes, mass protests, business flight. Not me. I stumbled across the large pro-unity protest shown below in late September, now expect to frequently see window-draped Spanish flags while strolling sidewalks. Day-to-day life is otherwise unaffected.

Pro-Unity demonstration at Ayuntamiento de Madrid

Pro-Unity demonstration at Ayuntamiento de Madrid

() No one has sounded surprised by the conflict. Exasperated, yes. Irritated, occasionally. Surprised? No. Spain weathered ten months without a government in 2016, the aftermath of the Great Recession, crises a-plenty before. Natives do not expect smooth sailing of the Spanish ship of state.

() In five separate conversations this summer, Madrileños claimed that the Catalan school system propagandizes the young to be pro-independence. (A gripe echoed in recent articles in El País and El Mundo.) One local pointed to language laws promoting Catalan fluency in Catalan government employees, and said that such legislation helps stack the civil service deck with rah-rah separatists.

(If I want to hear the separatist counter-argument, I’ll have to ride an AVE to Barcelona to get it. I ain’t gonna get it here now, at least not easily.)

() I occasionally still query new acquaintances for their views on Catalonia, but carefully take their measure first, and tread on tip toes. Not a safe subject for elevator chit-chat, at least not in the autumn of 2017.

() Lucky you get a quick, incomplete primer on Spanish flags in the news:

Flags in the News

Center, above: the national flag, now often displayed to champion pro-Spanish-unity, anti-Catalan-independence sentiments. Center, right: L’Estelada, a de facto symbol of Catalan independence. Center, left: the innocuous Senyera, official flag of the Catalonia community.

A rally with many national flags + Senyeras = a pro-unity rally, probably in Catalonia. Rally with many L’Esteladas = pro Catalan independence. Rally with national flags + L’Esteladas = potential street fight.

() I don’t know what’s going on here. I can remember names, dates, events, but don’t feel the involved issues in my bones as I would had I grown up on Spanish soil. I sense that the conflict and the deliberate display of the country’s flag have awakened a defiant nationalist pride among some Madrileños, but do not see the big picture, can’t understand this pride in the larger context of things. I see Spain as an American expat, from the outside looking in.

In the states, the national anthem protests are the latest chapter in centuries-old racial conflict. I grew up with that conflict, believe I see it as other born-and-raised Americans do, from the inside looking out. It comes with the U.S. territory, won’t go away anytime soon. Americans unhappy to live alongside the conflict should consider trips in time machines for heart-to-heart talks with America’s forebears: it might have helped a whole hey of a lot if they hadn’t jammed millions of Africans into slave ships and held their descendants under thumb for centuries afterward.

The big flags were out of stock.

The big flags were out of stock.

A few Spaniards have sounded incredulous while recounting glimpses of that racial conflict during tourist forays to the U.S. They didn’t get it, just as I don’t get unrelated but similarly entrenched problems in Catalonia.

A language exchange intercambio partner offers to explain the independence movement, bewilders me by beginning not with Lluís Companys or even the Siege of Barcelona, but — my God! — with the Battle of Guadalete, Covadonga, Barcelona counts. I read about the Spanish Civil War, stumble across a quote from Francoist José Millán Astray: Catalonia and the Basque Country are two cancers in the body of the nation! I don’t get it. I know he was as partisan as they come, but I don’t understand the Zeitgeist that produced him, why anyone would ever have wanted to say such a thing.

Politicians want to put out fires. In their shoes, I suppose I would, too. They always have too much to worry about. (Like a drought.) Make the problem go away. Get it off the front page.

The December 21 elections may kick the Catalan conflict off the front pages in 2018. But, one way or the other: more than forty percent of Catalans don’t want to be Spanish citizens. Un lío, for the long term.

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How I Renewed my Spain Visa

Please note cagey blog title wording. A title like Spain Visa Renewal Steps or How to Renew Your Spain Visa would suggest an offering of authoritative advice on how to renew your Spain student visa, or au pair visa, or entrepreneur visa, or whatever the hey other type of visa you bagged to permit life-over-the-long-haul on the Iberian Peninsula.

Authoritative visa advice, in this blog?! Ha ha ha ha!

I can confidently tell you what I did to renew my non-lucrative residence visa. (Live in Spain = yes. Work permit = no.) I have no idea if my saga will help you renew your visa, or get you goose-stepped in leg irons to the Pyrenees frontier. Caveat emptor.

The rest of this entry will aspire to matter-of-fact tedium, and shall be mercifully Vaudeville hooked to a quiet .pdf of its own, linked below.

Two cautionary notes first:

()  With one to-be-described exception, I completed all visa renewal steps in Spanish: plugged Spanish search terms into Google, read Spanish instructions on Spanish government web sites, conversed in Spanish at Spanish bureaucracies. ¿No lo hablas bien? Plan on renewing your visa with professional help. I retain fond memories of Spainwide, which helped me in 2016.

() Visa-related chores are tough, tedious, devourers of time and patience.

Treat yourself to a Google StreetView look at the Avenida de los Poblados and Calle Manuel Luna centers. (Inexplicably absent from TripAdvisor’s Madrid Travel Guide.) An expat can while away hours in these places, in lines in front and in thumb-twiddling waits inside.

I am living a near life of Riley in Spain. Visa renewal is the price tag.  (On the bright side: my freshly renewed visa is now good for two years, rather than the single year of the visa issued to me in San Francisco. I won’t need to deal with renewal chores again until 2019.)

On to the bolts and nuts:

http://transitophile.com/chango/files/visa/how_I_renewed_non_lucrative_spain_visa_2017.pdf

* * * * *

Revised 8/27/17 to add information on visa term.

Posted in Expat, Madrid, Uncategorized | 1 Response

Madrid Impressions: Round Four

… or ‘Spain Impressions’ this time around, and you just might see a “Round Twenty-Five” post in the years to come.

So much here is new to me. I grew up and grew gray in California, feel entitled to judge U.S. life from the inside out. In Spain, I grasp at threads of a plot that mostly unfolded before I reached the theatre.

BULLFIGHTING

()  Publicity for the yearly San Fermín festival suggests a single-minded national love for tauromaquia. Not so. Most Spaniards oppose it. The young, especially. I stumbled into a large anti-bullfighting protest in Puerta del Sol last year, have read of others. Catalonia tried to ban bullfighting.

()  Opinions vary. Expect one POV in Barcelona, another in Andalucia.

Bullfight in a Divided Ring, attributed to Goya, 1746-1828

Bullfight in a Divided Ring, attributed to Goya (1746-1828)

()  Spain has an investment in bullfighting. Specialty breeders supply brawny, aggressive fighting bulls to over 1,700 bullrings nationwide. The Visigoths fought bulls here; so did the Moors. San Fermín and some other events are world famous. Idealists can’t easily wish away entrenched big industries with a wave of the wand. Look at the U.S. tobacco industry.

()  I can’t prove it, but see bullfighting as a rusty boat anchor around the shins of the national rep. The world ain’t going that way. Rotten PR. Well-behaved, animal-loving tourists need only see a few pix of bleeding bulls to steer their TripAdvisor searches to other countries. (Although bullfight-loving tourists may be prized by booze and cigar sellers.)

()  No one asked me, but I wonder why Spain doesn’t encourage a transition to bloodless recortador. The rings and breeders stay in business, the bulls endure only a dull bovine frustration while chasing silly humans, and the hulkiest, most homicidal animal stars live to build fan bases and attract future spectators. (“Come see the great Toro, the biggest, meanest bull in Andalucia! Toro hates everybody!”)

()  Bullfighting beats Collateral Murder and bombing a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz by a wide, wide, wide margin. An American who tries to pull ethical rank on Spain has not been paying attention.

CATALAN SEPARATION

Catalonia is a Maryland-sized region in Spain’s northeast corner; its capital, Barcelona, is Spain’s second biggest city. Catalans have their own language, flags, traditions, history; many think they ought to have their own country, too. “Think of Texas or California secession movements,” I might tell a Yankee observer, “but much, much further along.”

I feel unready to offer an opinion on Catalan independence, although a retired expat like me is unquestionably better off in a united, stable, Spain-as-it-is. Please revisit the ‘grasping plot threads’ metaphor offered earlier. I ask questions here, listen.

Catalan flag at Montjuïc Castle in Barcelona

Catalan flag at Montjuïc Castle in Barcelona

()  Separation movement roots run deep. Catalans conduct commerce and teach their kids in the Catalan tongue. One daughter of a Spanish dad and Catalan mom told me that she felt ostracized during her girlhood in the region, thanks to her mixed family lineage.

Consider the crowd size in this 2016 march. Could secessionists round up anything similar in Oakland or Houston? Even remotely similar?

()  In decades past, Spain-as-it-is survived a bloody separatist movement of the now-dormant ETA in the Basque country. Political leaders may hope that the riding out of one secessionist movement may augur well for the riding out of a second.

()  In four separate conversations, Madrileños have used nearly identical phrases to sum up their take on the Catalan independence movement: “It’s a matter of money.” Many bucks-up Catalans believe that Spain picks their pockets to subsidize bucks-down Andalucia. The Basques are bucks-up, too, but get to keep most of their tax receipts. Catalans don’t, or think that they don’t.

()  Two Madrileños opined that independence won’t happen, that opposition would mushroom as independence prospects grew more serious. Think borders, laws, share of national debt, status in the European Union, Brexit as negative example.

()  “You should talk to Jordi, he’s from Barcelona,” says an Andalucian to me in an intercambio, in response to my Catalan independence questions.

I turn to the affable Catalan Jordi, smiling in anticipation nearby.

So goes the agreeable give-and-take between Catalans and other Spaniards in day-to-day interactions here, at least as observed by yours truly. Government leaders may battle. A Madrileño may grumble that some bilingual Catalan signage is in English and Catalá, but not Spanish. Friction doesn’t seem to crimp social interactions, doesn’t reach to cafés and street corners.

(I may observe inadequately, and should note that nearly all Catalans met by me have hailed from global-as-all-get-out Barcelona, and not the Catalan hinterlands.)

DIM VIEW OF GOVERNMENT

In a year in Madrid, I have heard a single native stump for the integrity of a single Spanish politician: Manuela Carmena, city mayor. Locals seem to write off all others as hopelessly compromised. The press brims with updates of corruption-related accusations, trials, sentences: Ignacio González, Inaki Urdangarin, Rodrigo Rato. The in-power PP seems to get the most negative attention, but the folk I’ve met show little faith in alternatives, appear to believe that an entrenched political order ultimately devours the integrity of all.

“Ah HA!” many Madrileños seemed to sneer — with a wise nod, cynically curled lip — at the news that deputy Ramón Espinar of left-wing Podemos had pocketed €20,000 on the sale of a subsidized house. “See? See? That’s a Spanish progressive for you!”

In contrast, many venerate democracies farther north. I had seen Scandinavian countries’ top-of-the-charts scores for government integrity before going expat, but had expected that Spaniards would pooh-pooh such generalizations. They haven’t; if anything, some seem to put Europe’s north on a pedestal. “There you will find real civismo,” says one, and scoffs at the potential for reform. The Spanish system is too entrenched, says she, and suggests I research ex-banker Mario Conde as a negative national example.

Electorate cynicism notwithstanding, Spain’s democratic give-and-take still strikes me as far healthier and more open than what I left in the States.

LEADER OF THE SPANISH-SPEAKING WORLD?

With a question mark, because I’m not sure.

More than a billion of your fellow earthlings grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese. That nabs planetary first place among mother tongues. English takes third, with 370+ million native speakers.

In between: Spanish. 437 million native L1 speakers worldwide. Hundreds of millions in Central and South America, 120+ million in Mexico alone.

Spanish arrived in the New World with the conquistadors. The New World may resent that heritage, but many regard Spain as the madre patria still. Major Spanish banking, telecommunication and energy companies operate in Latin America. Spain is only twenty percent larger than California, but the country’s foreign direct investment in the Latin American world is second only to the United States.

Label this influence as colonialism, if so inclined, but acknowledge it as important. I sat up straight and paid attention when a South American entrepreneur told me that he moved to Madrid only and specifically to start a business. He sees Spain as the trend-setter in the Spanish-speaking world, thought a Spain zip code worthy of a move across the Atlantic.

“So could Spain become an economic powerhouse? Why isn’t it an economic powerhouse now?”

That’s what I wonder.

ODDS AND ENDS

()  Spain offers beaches, islands, heat and sun, and thus attracts many Spring Break-types eager to carouse away an intoxicated holiday. Magaluf. Platja d’en Bossa. Part of Spain’s national identity abroad is as a hedonist’s European playground, whether Spaniards wish it to be or not. “Fight drunk Brit Spain” or “drunk UK Spain” in a search engine pulls up far too many results.

()  Tourists know Barcelona too well and like it too much. Spain may regard this client base with two minds; Barcelona rubbernecker armies are griped about in the press, even as national flag carrier Iberia launches bargain-basement nonstops from L.A. and S.F. to the Barcelona airport. Go figure.

Until my next installment …

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Bucharest: First Impressions

Traffic. Fifth worst urban traffic on Planet Earth, according to the TomTom global traffic index. Visit and you’ll learn why.

Picture Venice Boulevard in L.A., or maybe Wilshire. Grant yourself godlike powers. Add a couple of lanes, dirty it up, kill most of the median landscaping. Plug in guaranteed-to-gridlock traffic circles, antiquated signaling.

Traffic on Bulevardul Magheru in Bucharest, Romania

Traffic on Bulevardul Magheru in Bucharest, Romania

Hoist this monstrosity into the troposphere, swing it across the Atlantic, slam it like a cattle brand or drunken prison tattoo through the heart of a European metropolis. Jam it curb-to-curb with smoking, rumbling, honking, squealing battalions of cars, cars, cars. Regiments of cars. Car brigades. Car armies.

Thoroughfares worthy of this gruesome imagery await your discretionary tourist funds in Bucharest. City traffic so depressed me that I twice abandoned evening sightseeing plans, instead holed up disgustedly in my hotel.

Late communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s systematization schemes deserve some of the blame for current Bucharest traffic woes, but only some. The man’s been dead for awhile: a Romanian firing squad gunned him down on Christmas Day, 1989.

* * * * *

Ceausescu ruled the Romanian roost from 1965 until death. He visited fellow commie fiefdom North Korea in 1971, nodded approvingly at Kim Il-sung’s personality cult, decided to encourage a personality cult of his own.

1978 rally. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 45286X66X71

1978 rally. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 45286X66X71

Mass propaganda rallies packed Romania’s stadiums; a half-million informers tattled on free-thinkers. Bucharest U flipped a quickie chemistry PhD to the first lady, a former night school drop-out, once expelled for cheating.

Ceausescu’s systematization razed more than three square miles of central Bucharest’s old town — demolished churches, synagogues, monasteries, a hospital; evicted 40,000 with a single day’s notice — to clear space for his Centrul Civic, anchored by the People’s House: the surrealistically huge Palace of the Parliament, today the world’s second largest administration building after the Pentagon.

Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Lonely Planet lists said palace as Bucharest’s top sight. Their Top Sight #2 is the Spring Palace, the Ceausescus’ personal lakeside villa. (Which includes an indoor pool, gold-tiled bathroom, private theater; Ceausescu watched U.S. shoot-’em-ups here, especially enjoyed Kojak.)

Lonely Planet chose well, but consider the bitter irony for Romania. Both palaces are testimony to Ceausescu’s rape of his sovereignty. Neither should exist.

* * * * *

Romania is poor, thirty-first of forty-five listed European states for GDP per capita. It shows. Some blocks could star in a behind-the-Iron-Curtain Red Scare documentary.

City block in Bucharest, Romania

City block in Bucharest, Romania

Tourists should not expect to speed between airport and central city aboard a plush express train, as in bucks-up Oslo or Stockholm. Prepare to ride among suffering Romanians in an old, slow bus sans air conditioning.

Metro stations show age, although many trains look new. Tram interiors are utilitarian, workmanlike.

Piața Romană metro station in Bucharest, Romania

Piața Romană metro station in Bucharest, Romania

I don’t mind that Romania is poor. I can ride a reasonably tidy old bus or tram. I mind that Romania doesn’t get the loathsome hordes of cars, cars, cars out of the way, so a bus or tram can go somewhere.

Herastrau Park is green, gorgeous, lushly-forested, well worth a stroll. TripAdvisor ranks it Bucharest “thing to do” #1. I’m a little amazed that car-crazed Bucharest hasn’t yet slammed a superhighway through the middle of it. (Maybe next year?)

Ceausescu didn’t leave future tourist entrepreneurs much Old Town to work with, but the remaining blocks are pleasant, visit-worthy, chock-full of nice restaurants. Bucharest churches deserve a long look, too, but you’ll have to deal with traffic to get to them.

Old Town in Bucharest, Romania

Old Town in Bucharest, Romania

Education First ranks Romania high for English fluency. The star test takers must have been stuck in traffic while I was there; I communicated often with gestures and facial expressions.

Three fellow tourists offered rich praise for landmarks visited in Romania’s hinterlands. The Bran Castle, perhaps. The Râșnov Citadel. These tourists visited Bucharest, too, but only for a single day. I visited for three.

Smart tourists! I suggest following their lead, and not mine.

Practical Information

()  Nope, you won’t use € here. Romanians buy stuff with lei, aka RON. Current exchange rates are about 4.6 RON to 1 EUR.

Henri Coandă airport in Bucharest, Romania

Henri Coandă airport in Bucharest, Romania

()  Only one ATM at the airport sported the Plus/Cirrus symbol I look for when withdrawing funds in a local currency. It worked, though.

()  My Spanish mobile phone plan lets me roam easily in Europe. I didn’t experiment with a prepaid SIM.

()  Two express-in-name-only buses serve central Bucharest from the airport: the 783 to the Piata Unirii city heart, and the less-frequent-running 780 to the Gara de Nord (train station). The  Multiplu transit card sold at a ticket window by the airport bus stop will cover your travel toward Piata Unirii or Gara de Nord, and back again. The price? I’ve forgotten. Sorry. It’s inexpensive.

Ceausescus in 1986. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 44348X171X226

Ceausescus in 1986. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 44348X171X226

How ’bout if you want to ride a tram or trolley bus in Bucharest proper? You’ll need another Multiplu card, you poor luckless traveler, you, and it will look exactly like the Multiplu card you bought for the 780 or 783, so you’ll be sure to mix them up. (Unless you scribble something on the front of one, as you’re free to do.) I bought my second Multiplu at a ticket window by the Piata Sf. Gheorge tram stop.

And if you wish to ride the metro as well? Another card! Yes! A third, separate, non-interchangeable transit card! At least it looks different. I paid the equivalent of four euros for a ten trip card, also sold at a staffed ticket window.

Traffic in Bucharest, 2009. User Babu, commons.wikimedia.org

Traffic in Bucharest, 2009. User Babu, commons.wikimedia.org

()  The Palace of the Parliament wants you to book tours by phone by calling +40 733 558 102 or +40 733 558 103 the day before your visit.  “I’ll listen to Your call is very important to us. Please continue to hold. for ten minutes, and then the line will go dead,” thought pessimistic moi. Wrong-o! A live human picked up after three rings, tops, booked me for the 9:00 a.m. English tour the following day.

(“The tour sounds like too much trouble,” you think. “I’ll visit without one.” If they’d let you, sure! But they won’t.)

Interior of Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Interior of Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Bring your passport on tour day, and be ready to hand it over to a security staffer before your tour begins. You’ll get it back when you leave. I did, or I might still be in Romania.

* * * * *

Photos!  Bucharest photos galore:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/36217981@N02/sets/72157683099064191

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Rail Day Trips from Madrid

You’re coming to Spain! You want to stroll among the beautiful people on Calle Arenal, ponder Madrazo at the Prado, chug-a-lug calimochos in Latina, black out in a Malasaña patrol car. But, before or after your well-deserved arrest, you’d like to sample the Spanish rail system, too, and book a day trip. Maybe you’ll find an unlocked restroom window in that three star Michelin restaurant, and can dine and ditch as you do back in the States.

You’re a high value tourist. This post is for you. A guide it’s not. Seat61 wrote a guide. This is a post. Casual. Incomplete. A sharing of thoughts.

Renfe Ave Class 102 ('Pato') train in Málaga, Spain

Renfe Ave Class 102 (‘Pato’) train in Málaga, Spain

Wish-est thou to travel near Madrid?

The local Cercanías commuter rail system can get you to El Escorial (the monastery), Alcalá de Henares (Cervantes’ birthplace), Aranjuez (summer palace), and other visit-worthy destinations on the city outskirts. If that’s all the local travel you seek, abandon this URL now and read my Cercanías post instead.

Cercanías is cheap and runs allatime. No advance ticket needed. Show up and go.

Or wishest-thou to travel (relatively) far?

Eager to ride the rails farther afield than Cercanías? You’re in the right place, or at least will be after digesting the Seat61 manifesto, linked twice for a reason.

Spain’s rail network is …

… far superior to USA’s East Coast Amtrak and utterly beyond the ken of anything now operational out west. I have lived in Spain almost a year, still struggle to bend aging brain cells around the hop-skip-and-a-jump mobility available between cities. My sense of time and space feel skewed; I can’t believe I can travel so quickly to distant Sevilla, Córdoba and Málaga without a plane ticket, and so picture these cities as closer to me than they actually are.

Train station in Málaga, Spain

Train station in Málaga, Spain

Consider: Barcelona is about as far from my Madrid home as Los Angeles is from San Francisco. In the states, the S.F.-to-L.A. shlep meant a six hour drive or a trip to the airport. Only a leisure traveler would book the only currently-available rail alternative: a once-a-day, eleven hour ride on the Coast Starlight. In Spain, in contrast: hourly to half-hourly departures for a 2.5 – 3 hour, central-Madrid-to-central-Barcelona ride on a high speed Ave train. A different world.

I haven’t read up on Spain’s economy, can’t judge if el contribuyente’s tax euros were invested shrewdly or flushed recklessly on the nation’s mighty rail infrastructure. I only marvel wide-eyed at what I can do aboard a system approved and built before I arrived. A visiting Californian should prepare for an unfamiliar reference frame: if you wish, you can maintain the same Madrid hotel room/tourist travel base while booking day trips to distant cities.

(To some distant cities: not to Santiago de Compostela, say, or Gijon, five hours away by rail. But to many. Visit renfe.com, plug in some destinations; experiment.)

Buying rail tickets

I bought mine direct from renfe.com with U.S.-issued credit cards. Seat61 warns that many others haven’t been so fortunate, and offers alternatives.

Renfe wants credit cards to be 3-D Secure: Verified by Visa, SecureCode for MasterCard, or SafeKey for American Express. Mine are. Call your card issuer, ask questions. I suspect that the extra 3-D Secure layer explains the high bounce rate for Seat61 users.

'Turista' seating on Renfe train in Spain

‘Turista’ seating on Renfe train in Spain

Renfe offers a related, all-Spanish FAQ page. Scroll down to: Con que tarjetas de crédito puedo comprar billetes en Internet?

You can buy some tix from Renfe by phone, too: +34 902 320 320. An English-speaking operator should be available, although you’ll hear Spanish, first.

I registered a user account at renfe.com. Maybe that helped.

If all else fails: consider buying tix in person at a Renfe punto de venta.

If your online ticket sale goes through, you’ll get a link to a downloadable .pdf ticket, and also should receive the same .pdf by e-mail. Print it and bring it on trip day. Coche = the car you’re riding in. Plaza = your seat.

How far to book in advance?

“At least a couple of days” is my knee-jerk answer, but I’ll again suggest plugging in experimental destinations at renfe.com and drawing your own conclusions. (And researching major holidays that may swamp the trains. You’re unlikely to be the only tourist who wants to visit Sevilla during the Feria de Abril.)

‘Tren completo’ means you didn’t book early enough: the train is full.

'Preferente' seating on Renfe train in Spain

‘Preferente’ seating on Renfe train in Spain

Tourist or First Class (Preferente)?

This post includes pix of seats in both. Not much of a difference; both are plenty nice. I believe a crew member passed out free copies of El País, El Mundo and other Spanish-language newspapers on a preferente ride, and not when riding tourist.

Some long-haul preferente tix include a meal, and the easily-missed option to specify vegetarian or other special order eats.

Where do I get the train?

Expect to depart Madrid from either the Puerta de Atocha station in the city center or the Chamartin station to the north (abbreviated on my .pdf tickets as ‘Madrid-P.A.’ and ‘Madrid-CH,’ respectively). The subway serves both, although Madrid strives to bewilder tourists by hanging the ‘Atocha’ moniker on two separate stations on the metro 1 line. You want “Atocha Renfe,” not “Atocha.”

Metro-to-Renfe transfer signage is reasonably clear in both stations. If unfluent and confused, adopt an endearingly helpless expression while showing your .pdf ticket print-out to a station employee. Said employee’s sign language should put you back on the right track.

Segovia-Guiomar station in Segovia, Spain

Segovia-Guiomar station in Segovia, Spain

You do not want local Cercanías commuter rail for this trip, represented by a big white-on-red ‘C,’ although Renfe operates Cercanías, too.

I have seen Spaniards board trains with minutes to spare. You’re new in town, don’t know the metro-to-rail-platform route by heart, should arrive much earlier. Expect on-the-dot departures and travel times.

300+ km/h?!?!

An LCD screen in my Madrid-to-Sevilla Ave frequently reported 270 km/h speeds (168 mph), although the train more often loafed along at 230 (143 mph). Even at 270, I could have waddled comfortably to the club car for an adipose-enhancing chocolate muffin. Fast, but not uncomfortably so.

Where do I go on this Madrid day trip?

Caveat emptor: I can compare only the Spanish cities I’ve visited to date: Toledo, Segovia, Ávila, Sevilla, Málaga, Córdoba and Barcelona.

Barcelona is the country’s second biggest city, and deserves more than a day trip.

Toledo is easiest. Hourly departures, 13€ one way, thirty minutes on the train, and the physically fit can walk comfortably from the train station to the historic Toledo of centuries past. That said …

Aqueduct Bridge in Segovia, Spain

Aqueduct Bridge in Segovia, Spain

… I might recommend that some Madrid tourists book Segovia first, although they’ll have to take the local 11 bus or taxi into town from the way-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Segovia-Guiomar station. Similar frequency and ride time, some 13€ tix available, and Segovia offers more to stare at: the spectacular aqueduct, Alcázar, and Cathedral.

The other cities are well worth the travel time, but I’d give Córdoba and Sevilla a wide berth in the summer, unless visiting from Singapore or the UAE. Hot.

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Explaining the American Accent

Europeans often recognize Yankee tourists for a trait that we Yanks often don’t know we possess: our American accents. I have one. Nearly everyone I knew in the U.S. — in high school, kollidge, beyond — had one.

But, many Americans don’t know they’ve got ’em. Regional accents exist, sure: Southern, New England, New York City. But mainstream U.S.? Come on! Readers in much of the U.S. already may regard this post with skepticism, like a literary IPO for shares in the Brooklyn Bridge.

If so, I’m sympathetic. I spent most of my life in the isolated U.S.: the world’s third largest country by area, bordered by the second largest. Seventy percent of my fellow citizens are passport-less; for many of my adult years, so was I.

I get it. I’ve been there. I’m on your side.

For lifelong Americans with similar backgrounds, please permit the following sideways sidle into an explanation:

* * * * *

Like you, I understand the sentiment that English is only properly spoken in the United States.

English may have evolved in Britain in millennia past, but has become corrupted and debased there since, perhaps owing to the notorious perversity of the isle’s menfolk. Shakespeare would roll despairing eyes at the tortured syllabification of a Richard Quest, would nod with relief while listening to an A-list American celeb like Dustin Diamond, Aubrey O’Day, Omarosa Manigault. This is English, the Bard would think, and book a one-way flight.

Hold that thought.

Some of you have long secretly believed something like this, although you’re now understandably wary of me for stating the notion in such bold terms. Fine. No argument. I stand with pacifistically outstretched arms, a peaceful emissary.

Now:

Imagine yourself in the hub of a faraway European city with many international visitors. Most passersby speak in the native tongue, but you hear much English, too: in tones that mark the speaker as German, Australian, Indian, British. And in this global crossroads of a place, you also occasionally hear English spoken as God intended it to be spoken: purely, correctly, without discernible accent. Perhaps by a visiting American.

With me so far? We’re almost there.

The English spoken ‘purely, correctly, without discernible accent’ is recognized worldwide as an American accent.

Really! I mean it!

Continue your stroll about this global crossroads. Pass other English-speaking pedestrians. When you next hear the mother tongue spoken ‘purely, correctly,’ consider interrupting the speaker with a sociable question:

“What brings you here from the States?”

Expect to be answered, not corrected. I have erred only once, when posing similar questions in Madrid; the misidentified accent belonged to a Montreal-raised Canadian.

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