Conversations with Techies

I joined many public hikes in San Francisco, and while thus wholesomely engaged often found myself talking shop with techies: querying a coder about the merits of Java, C, Python while we panted our way up Bernal hill, or absorbing security tips from a sysadmin under the Lands’ End cypress boughs.

Two reasons why: IT pros are about as scarce as parking meters in the tech-centric Bay Area, and I was a receptive audience, almost a fan boy. I’ve never forgotten my numb-lobed wandering through the pages of a Javascript manual. Coding is hard. Expertise impresses me.

Only after moving 5,800 miles east did I realize that these chats with insiders in a tech hub were unusual. I learned a few things, think I ought to share:

Without exception, techs regarded potential privacy intrusions as real, serious, worthy of attention.

The Snowden revelations. Spyware, Big Data. Yes, it’s a problem. Yes, it deserves attention, plenty of it. No question.

I was usually the one to bring the subject up. In a few chats, I inferred from my partner’s tone and body language that he had been a professional part of the problem. (Boy, you should have seen that script we whipped up at StartUp XYZ, he might have thought, while yakking with ol’ Tim. If the majors ever start pulling stuff like that, we’re all dead.)

So goes the often disillusioning path of the careerist, and the familiar temptation to the dark side. You want to code profitably. So do others. You’re good. Others may be better. Your activist kid brother with the ‘Occupy’ t-shirt will flush with pride if you gig for EFF or Wikipedia, but maybe they’re not hiring, or don’t pay anything, and your landlord doesn’t smile at ‘late rent’ jokes.  But that startup with the borderline malware script for the Big Tobacco “affiliate” or “partner” site, well …

Only one tech appeared to take special precautions to safeguard privacy in his own computing.

The Mark Zuckerberg ‘dadada’ example will serve. I once knew a former professional mechanic who would let the oil level drop to inexcusably precarious levels in a personal car. Same psychology, perhaps.

The tech who did take precautions noted that PGP and other privacy protectors have been freely available for years, but that Joe Q. User doesn’t know why or how to use them.

Endless Job Interviews

In my Salaryman years, I took a long job interview as a sign of a likely hire. Not in this field, or at least not among the folk I talked to. Tech giants will unabashedly pass over applicants who submit to seven, eight, ten hours of interviews, multiple meetings, questions up the yin yang.

“But of course you’re going to get the job,” said innocent moi to a mapping software specialist, before I figured this out. He’d just described a full day interview at Apple.

“I hope so.”

Hope so?! They kept you there all day!”

I met him again on another hike some weeks later. Still no job, and certainly no job with Apple.

A senior manager self-consciously defended marathon interviews, noted that would-be hires had to be grilled by staff in many departments. Only one tech rebelled, and cheerfully told Google that they could review notes collected in past interviews if they wanted to consider him for a new position.

Ageism Concerns

Techs over thirty often cast worried, occasionally dismayed eyes at potential competition from juniors.

I inferred (perhaps incorrectly) that tech-employed grey-hairs are hobbled less by lack of skill than by inability to manufacture fresh interest for new technology. Maybe the synapses don’t fire as quickly as they did in your undergrad years, but you’ve learned a lot, recognize traps that would trip up a greenhorn.

Alas, you’ve also sweated your way up too many learning curves. First it was HTML. Okay, great: you learned HTML. <HEAD>, <P>, <UL>, you got ’em down cold. Then Javascript, CSS; you learned those, too.

But it didn’t stop! Flash. Dreamweaver. HTML5. ENOUGH! Not another start from scratch. You’re done.

But, too bad for you: the kids are all hot and bothered for HTML5, and it does clear hurdles once uneasily leapt (you reluctantly admit), and your inability to paste up a sincerely enthusiastic grin for HTML5 Boot Camp is tantamount to a career death sentence. Off to the programmers’ pastures you go!

In a few chats, I sensed an unstated (and unreasonable) expectation that techies would bag some sort of windfall to make late years employment unnecessary. I met one fifty something who cashed out of a start-up in the 1990s with funds to buy a house, but, as he straightforwardly put it, had to return to work after squandering ten years ‘watching youtube videos.’

Benevolence toward the Uninformed

Without exception, every tech showed commendable modesty while listening to my own primitive forays into geekery.

“Boy, you installed Linux, all by yourself! Wow! Way to go, Tim!”

This is a bit like being clapped on the back by a Marc Adamus for posting a smartphone selfie on Instagram.

Boiling Frog anecdote

“You know how to boil a frog?” said the tech, as we hiked. “You can’t heat up the water too quickly. The frog will jump out. You turn up the heat a little bit at a time.”

A worrisome anecdote in the EFF/NSA era! One might fear a tapped home phone when The Conversation came out in ’74. Now we all carry tracking devices that make phone calls.

The employer of the tech who offered this anecdote?

A household word megacorporation, strongly associated with global privacy issues.

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Spanish as Spoken in Spain

Madrid is 4,975 miles from Bogotá, 5,600 miles from Mexico City, 6,200 miles from Buenos Aires. The lingo may have originated in España, but regional differences have evolved among the 400+ million speakers worldwide.

I have encountered some in Spain, post this New Year’s Day to tell the tale. Expect little of interest if your Castellano ends at the bottom of the Taco Bell menu, aside from my discussion of hombre at post end.

GREETINGS

Hola, buenas will serve morning, noon and night here.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” you object. “‘Hello, good.’ What kind of a greeting is that?!”

A common one. You’re free to say Buenos días, buenas tardes, buenas noches, and many do, but I live here, regularly receive and offer Hola, buenas.

Hasta luego seems to be the standard goodbye. I infrequently hear adios.

VALE

Vale = okay. That’s all. No more, no less. Pronounced vah-lay.

I will know I have settled in when I catch myself saying vale without forethought. So far, I haven’t. Spaniards say vale as often and effortlessly as Americans say ‘okay.’

USE OF VOSOTROS FORM

Vosotros = informal you, plural. Non-existent in the Americas. Maestros had warned darkly of vosotros-izing in Spain, but I let myself imagine that uses would be rare, saved for special occasions, like eggnog punch recipes.

Wrong! Spaniards ‘os’ each other, tack -áis and -éis onto verb roots with abandon. Get ready.

CABALLERO

Like señor, but more formal and (perhaps) flattering. Expect to be caballero‘d half to death if shopping for anything in a gift box while male and gray-haired at Corte Inglés.

I don’t remember hearing caballero in Mexico. I liked the mouth feel of the word, but also thought it sounded a bit fruity, akin to calling a cabbie ‘your kind sir’ while offering a tip. I have used it gingerly when addressing other males, and the occasional blinks received in response suggest that I still don’t quite get conventions of use.

TRANQUILO

What you’ll say to magnanimously accept the apology of the red-faced stranger who just stepped on your spats on the metro.

¡DÍGAME!

Said in lieu of Hello when answering a phone, or How can I help you? when addressing customers at a store counter.

¡ESO ES!

That’s right.  You’ve got it.   Spoken as an Anglophile would pronounce the distress signal SOS, but with a pause and a speed bump after the first ‘S.’  (e.g., ESS-oh-ess.)

And now, the most interesting, at least to me:

HOMBRE

Hombre = man. That’s what I learned in Spanish 1A, and I remember no speech, text, or lesson in the Americas suggesting that I regard hombre as anything more.

Not in Spain.  Both sexes can expect to be addressed as hombre, sometimes almost meaninglessly — à la the interjectional use of Look! or Listen! — but sometimes (and pause with me, please, as I choose my words with care) to request a candid facing-of-facts while implying listener sympathy.

A few invented Spanglish examples:

“Of course you can go at 9:00 on the dot, but hombre, you know they won’t be ready by then.”

“Hombre, you know he won’t be faithful. Why kid yourself?”

“He promised that during the campaign, and you believed him?! Hombre …”

* * * * *

Revised: July 3, 2017

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For Expats: an International Move

Behold, the innards of my 10′ x 15′ locker at Storage Pro in flat, uncelebrated Lathrop, California.

Storage locker

Locker #5090

I paid CrownWMS about eight and a half grand to cart this gear 5,700 miles east to Spain. Expats-to-be will contemplate similar transactions, may thank me for sharing what I learned.

OVERVIEW

Imagine hiring a crew for a local move in California: from Hollywood to Culver City, say, or from San Leandro to Hayward. The truck pulls up; the crew loads your stuff in the trailer, drives to your new address, unloads. One day. Easy.

Please hold this image in mind while eyeballing the Dodger Blue container below.

If you’re moving from Hollywood to Paris, Melbourne, Singapore, your stuff goes in one of these guys instead of a trailer. The container is towed to port, loaded (securely!) onto a container ship, and sent on a weeks’ long transoceanic journey to your new expat stomping grounds. Once in port, a destination agent arranges delivery to your new address.

That simple?

No, of course not. You’re crossing national boundaries, are both exporter and importer, whether you want to be or not. Laws. Customs. Thick rule books. The international mover will want to handle packing, as they must vouch for container contents, will pack more carefully than a local shlepping your gear into a different zip code. I furnished docs and jumped through hoops never encountered in U.S. moves past. Others will, too.

Shipping container (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 photo by Brunurb)

Shipping container (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 photo by Brunurb)

But, with that said: your stuff goes in a container, crosses an ocean on a container ship, is opened at your new home overseas. (You can go halvsies on a container with someone else, if so inclined, but don’t need to. I didn’t.) I think better informed writers may scare off potential clients by dog-paddling unnecessarily through some details. It wasn’t that bad. I’d do it again.

But will cite one disadvantage:

A LEAP OF FAITH

I realized early in my research that I’d have to trust an unfamiliar partner more than I like to trust strangers on four figure transactions involving precious personal items. I either took a calculated risk or never saw my stuff again in Europe.

Two reasons why:

(♦)  International movers aren’t widely reviewed. Netizens will yelp up a storm about the lychee tea in the new boba bar, but infrequently ship Hoosier cabinets to Europe, and thus have little counsel to offer about obscure global movers. I could check a moving company’s membership in FIDI or OMNI, but don’t trust trade organizations to police dues-paying members, and thus felt little comforted.

(♦)  The fundamentals may be as simple as into-container-in-USA, out-of-container-abroad, but the behind-the-scenes regs and red tape are too complex to be kibbitzed by a backseat-driving client. I saw a just-do-it-the-pros-way process, with little room for oversight or stage management.

Container ship (CC BY-NC 2.0 photo by LiteMeterPix)

Container ship (CC BY-NC 2.0 photo by LiteMeterPix)

My online Sherlocking convinced me that Graebel, Stevens and CrownWMS were reputable companies. “You’re gonna have to work with someone, Tim,” I told myself, and picked up the phone, likely with a fatalistic swallow.

HOW’D IT GO?

Well, overall. Not perfectly, but well. On time. Nothing missing. No damage. A score in the ‘success’ column.

International movers generally want to visit your home for a free survey. They have to vouch for what’s in the container, expect to do the packing.

Alas, I didn’t get serious about the hire until my stuff was in the Lathrop locker shown. Adios Graebel; distant exurb Lathrop was out of their service area. CrownWMS sent a friendly rep to check out my locker. (Maybe he was just looking for an excuse to visit Lathrop, or to brag that he’d been there.) Stevens thought my photos were adequate.

I chatted with Janet Bowen of CrownWMS on the phone, judged her as honest and knowledgeable, chose CrownWMS as my mover. Pre-move quotes from Stevens and CrownWMS were similar.

I flew to Spain, waited until my Permiso de Residencia was official, called CrownWMS, told them I was ready to wave the wand on my first-ever international move. They charged my credit card 25% up front. I sent locker access instructions and a rough inventory.

CrownWMS provided contact information for SpainSIT, the Madrid agent that would take over my shipment after it reached port. I called, was instructed to register my NIE number with the Agencia Tributaria tax agency, and to furnish documents proving that I’d lived in the U.S. (and thus wasn’t trying to sneak intended-for-resale items past customs).

Container at port (CC BY 2.0 photo by Command Webmaster)

Container at port (CC BY 2.0 photo by Command Webmaster)

My inadequate Spanish made my trip to the Agencia Tributaria more of an adventure than intended, but the number got registered, and my residency docs passed muster. I communicated with SpainSIT in Spanish, but didn’t have to; they employ bilingual staff.

Back in California, CrownWMS set a date for the move. The first of two problems arose. A friendly but forgetful CrownWMS staffer had neglected to inform ol’ Tim that someone would have to sign off on the contents of my locker. I had left behind no bosom buddies in Lathrop, and thus had to sign, scan and email a blank inventory form.

(“There goes my 14-24 lens,” thought I, darkly. I imagined a crew of recidivist kleptomaniacs cackling at my blank inventory form, stuffing personal pockets with everything that looked like an easy pawn. The $1,900 Nikon lens was a prime candidate. I decided it would be my Van Halens’ brown M&Ms test: if I found the lens when I opened boxes in Spain, I could be confident that I’d wronged the crew with unjust suspicions, and that they hadn’t taken anything else, either.)

The move date came. I wasn’t there, but presume that CrownWMS trailered my container into the Lathrop storage facility, transferred the contents of my locker into it, re-boxed and wrapped as they thought appropriate, trailered the container back to Route 5.

Problem #2 arose just before my ship was due to leave Oakland. I needed an EIN number. At the last minute. The same well-intended staffer had neglected to apprise me of said necessity. I scrambled, got one in time.

MY GEAR REACHES SPAIN

SpainSIT informed me that my container was aboard the SeaSpan Dalian, and showed me how to monitor the ship’s progress as it slogged south to Panama, cleared the canal, headed east across the Atlantic. Date-of-arrival at port in Valencia: October 28. Add a 200+ mile trip to Madrid and processing through customs, and I might see my stuff in early November.

Container on truck (CC BY-NC 2.0 photo by JAXPORT)

Container on truck (CC BY-NC 2.0 photo by JAXPORT)

My contract included delivery to a Madrid home, but I didn’t have one yet, so rented another storage locker. Storage price-per-meter usually tracks proximity to city centers, so I looked as far into the Madrid hinterlands as I dared without sacrificing transit access, and chose a Trasteros y Almacenes locker in Leganes, a fifteen minute walk from the next-to-last station on the southbound 10 metro. (I also considered a trastero with BlueSpace, which operates nine facilities in Madrid.)

The big day came. A SpainSIT crew met me at my Leganes locker with a container-toting truck like the one above, asked me to watch while they exposed the interior to its first whiff of European air, and unloaded the contents into my storage locker. When I finally found the apartment of my dreams, I booked Madrid’s Procoex for the move, judge myself a happy customer.

(And fret that this post is beginning to sound like a press release. Folks, I’m sorry. I’m reporting a successful move, don’t want to invent complaints.)

I had a lot of unpacking to do, but eventually reached the box with my Van Halen brown M&Ms test. Son of a gun: there was that pricey 14-24 lens! Everything else had made it, too. Unknown-to-me CrownWMS crew: please accept my apologies for having harbored unjust suspicions.

120V USA ELECTRICAL GEAR

Amazon.es and other retailers sell ‘step down transformers’ to permit operation of 120V U.S. appliances on 230V Spain power. I didn’t like the tenor of some online reviews of these transformers, but felt persuaded by the testimony of an AcuPwr marketing director in an Expat Exchange article.

AcuPwr AD-1500

AcuPwr AD-1500

I lack an electrician’s understanding of how transformers work and do not know that the article was accurate. Marketing prof Robert Cialdini might leer at me for associating high price with quality. He might leer with reason; I don’t know’ I thought the article smelled straight, still do, felt impressed by AcuPwr’s online presentation, drank the Kool-Aid, bought the 1500 watt model.

My problem: getting my hands on one in Spain.

Amazon.es didn’t have it. Amazon.com did, but wanted a mere $610 to ship to Madrid. I could buy directly from AcuPwr, but their shopping cart choked on an international zip. I called, several times, and occasionally felt as if I were yakking with a Mom n’ Pop hardware store. Don’t expect anything like Fortune 100 caliber service from these guys on international orders, at least not yet. When the transformer shipped, it didn’t include the import duty; I had to fork over an unexpected 109 € to the Madrid UPS driver. Ouch.

I’m still glad I got it. The transformer weighs twenty pounds, looks ready for a prepper’s bunker, emits no noise and seems to function perfectly. (Albeit after limited testing.) Maybe the cheaper units would have served as well. My bottom line: if it holds up, I’ll be able to use my pricey U.S. equipment to blend, grind, print and shred in Madrid.

SOME RECOMMENDATIONS

(♦)  Regard paper documents as an enemy. It’s almost 2017. You don’t want to send bankers’ boxes full of old letters halfway around the globe.

Buy or borrow a sheet-fed document scanner and crosscut paper shredder. Scan those stacks of docs to .pdf, back up the .pdfs and shred after you scan. If you don’t know how to scan and deal with .pdfs, get someone to teach you.

(♦)  I bought two big check-in suitcases (as noted in an earlier post) and flew to Madrid with what I couldn’t live without. I’m glad I took that approach, would recommend it to others. CrownWMS did me right, but I would have survived if my container had tumbled in the drink off Venezuela.

(♦)  Consider voltage requirements in future machinery buys. Some gizmos can be had only in 120V or 230V versions, but many modern appliances are available in dual voltage versions.

(Please don’t confuse voltage requirements with electric plug type. If the gizmo can handle U.S. and European voltages, I need only fit a $5 adapter to the Type B USA or Type F Spanish plug to make it work in either country. If it’s 120V only or 230V only, I need a transformer.)

(♦)  Cull mercilessly before you leave the U.S. Mercilessly. If necessary, ask a friend or family member to help browbeat you to leave stuff behind. I’m not a hoarder, but still packed stuff that made me groan while opening boxes in Madrid. (“You brought that?! That old thing?! A quarter of the way around the planet?!”)

(♦)  Number boxes and write an inventory of the important stuff that goes in each one.

I’m immensely grateful that I moved my gear, but can offer one strong argument to leave everything behind, at least if moving to Madrid: in this city, many of the best apartments are available only as furnished rentals. Landlords stuff the units with a few thousand € of furniture, tack hundreds onto the monthly price tag, rent for a price premium (often for the short-term, without the aval bancario and other hoops described in my last post).

I looked wistfully at many shots of these furnished-only apartments while shopping Idealista for an unfurnished flat. Eventually I found a great place, but the search took awhile. I could have rented quickly — for much more money per square meter, true — by choosing ‘furnished only.’

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For Expats: Renting a Madrid Apartment

I did it, rented a great place, gained knowledge not seen elsewhere online, think I ought to share it.

WHERE TO LOOK

Idealista.com or fotocasa.es, and I spent nearly all my time on Idealista. Some will recommend the protections afforded through a search with ‘empresa municipal de la vivienda y suelo.’ They may be right, but I smelled a potential red tape nightmare, and went pure private sector.

Apartments near Parque Enrique Herreros in the Chamberi district

Apartments near Parque Enrique Herreros in the Chamberi district

Be sure to select the Sólo cocina equipada tab under Equipamiento in the Idealista search tools dialogue, if planning to outfit your Madrid dream home with furniture from the states. Many of the snazziest Idealista listings are available at a ‘fully furnished only’ price premium.

WHAT TO EXPECT

Apartment owners are free to post on Idealista, but rental agencies placed the vast majority of the ads I saw in 2016. These inmobiliarios show apartments, field questions, vet applicants, explain contracts, and are generally paid for their trouble with a flat fee equivalent to one month’s rent.

(Who pays the flat fee? Please look in the mirror, renter-to-be! Lo siento.)

Aparthotel Centro Colón and Torres de Colón

Aparthotel Centro Colón and Torres de Colón

Share my horror in learning that some landlords book their apartments with multiple inmobiliarios. Idealista visitors may see several identically-illustrated listings for that 1,200 € two bedroom in Cuatro Caminos, differing only in the inmobiliario’s logo and contact number. It’s the same apartment. The inmobiliario who introduces the apartment to the eventual tenant gets dibs on the fee.

Libertarian readers may applaud this laissez-faire approach. I don’t. I saw too many unready apartments in late stages of incomplete remodels. The inmobiliario who first guided me past the construction gear and hanging cables could claim squatters’ rights on that inmobiliario fee, at least if I signed a form stating that he’d shown the property first. Yech.

Idealista lets you click on the inmobiliario’s link to see how long they’ve been in business.

You might thank me for a link to the ley de arrendamientos urbanos.

HOW MUCH UP FRONT?

A lot:

(♦)  One month rent for the inmobiliario’s finders’ fee, as noted above, unless you manage a rental sans inmobiliario. (As I did.)

(♦)  One month fianza, aka ‘security deposit.’

(♦)  The first month’s rent.

(♦)  (Usually) An aval bancario.

Aval bancario = bank guarantee. The renter provides the landlord with a bank-certified letter guaranteeing payment for the aval bancario term. Three and six month terms are typical.

On Calle Gobernador in the Centro district

On Calle Gobernador in the Centro district

Madrileños with credit-worthy relatives and employment histories may be able to land aval bancarios without pushing big piles of chips into the pot. I couldn’t. My Spanish bank set aside three months of rent in a special account that I own but can’t touch. I also paid a set-up fee, a management fee and navigated a week’s worth of red tape to make the aval bancario official, even though I worked with a great bank staffer and ponied up all necessary funds up front.

(Sidebar: I’ll betcha a finance industry pro could profitably market streamlined aval bancarios to expats here.)

Payments are often made through online bank transfers.

NEIGHBORHOODS

Madrid nabes are well-described by others online. Don’t rule out rentals in some relatively distant ‘burbs served by Madrid’s commuter rail system. Cercanías trains run much more often than CalTrain and Metrolink equivalents in California. I seriously considered a snazzy apartment in Aravaca, wouldn’t have been much cut off from central Madrid doings if I’d rented it.

Have a look at the schedule. Six minute travel time from Aravaca to the metro at the Principe Pio transit hub, with quarter hour headways in the middle of the weekday. A subject for another post, that I may or may not get around to writing.

* * * * *

Edit, 12/10/16: Corrected subheading.

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USA to Spain: Going Expat

I completed paperwork for a Spain long-term visa, moved to Madrid, live there now, intend to stay.   This morning I feel oddly motivated to sum up what I’ve learned about the process for transitophile readers.  I wonder why!  Who knows where these weird whims originate? Maybe something happened.

The U.S.-to-Spain expat wanna-be must:

  • qualify for the visa in the states,
  • register the paperwork in Spain,
  • settle into Spanish life.

In order:

QUALIFYING FOR THE VISA IN THE U.S.

Your United States passport qualifies you to spend three months in Spain visa-free, without additional paperwork. Buy tix, bring your passport to the airport, fly. Don’t forget to leave in three months or fewer.

Teleférico cars cross Casa de Campo in Madrid, Spain

Teleférico cars cross Casa de Campo in Madrid

If you want to stay longer, you need a visa. These can be applied for at Spanish consulates. Find the web site of the closest, click on the visas section, pick an appropriate visa category — e.g., Non-Lucrative Residence, Work and Residence — load the .pdf’d requirements, groan while contemplating the to-be-jumped-through hoops.

Consulates in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami work with private sector VFS Global to field questions and book appointments. Expect courtesy and short hold times. Other Spanish consulates may do just as well; I haven’t worked with them, don’t know.

I successfully applied for a Non-Lucrative Residence Visa. The getting-through-the-hoops information that follows may or may not be useful to seekers of other visa types.

Certified Translation: Some paperwork may need to be submitted with a “certified translation into Spanish.” I paid several hundred to get this chore done by Idesli, one of the translators listed.

Think you can translate docs yourself? Call VFS Global or the consulate, see what they think. I erred on the side of safety, didn’t want to see my app gutter-balled for rotten español.

Cover letter: My app required a Notarized document explaining why you are requesting this visa, the purpose, the place and length of your stay in Spain and any other reasons you need to explain, with a certified translation into Spanish.

I kept this short and sweet, and explained that I would seek permanent accommodations once in country.

Background check: My app wanted: Police Criminal Record clearance must be verified by fingerprints. It cannot be older than 3 months from the application date with a certified translation into Spanish. The certificate must be issued from either:

(a) State Department of Justice. Original clearance letter form signed (from the States where you have lived during the past 5 years). It must be legalized with the Apostille of the Hague Convention from the corresponding Secretary of the State.

(b) FBI Records, issued by the US Department of Justice – F.B.I. It must be legalized with the Apostille of the Hague Convention from the US Department of State in Washington DC.

I took path (a), above, found a handy visa/immigration page at the California Department of Justice web site, completed the downloadable form, took this form and my dry fingertips to a Livescan center.

A California Secretary of State web page tells how to get the ‘Apostille of the Hague Convention’ — e.g., a fancy-schmancy piece o’ paper with a stamp. I traveled to Sacramento to get mine over the counter, waited less than a half hour.

International medical insurance: I suggest that you try to verify requirements before your consulate appointment. I didn’t, found out the hard way that the consulate wants a policy with a zero deductible.

I got mine through Cigna Global. Cigna has adroitly fielded phone questions, but I can’t yet praise or pan them as an insurer: I’m a healthy guy, haven’t yet visited a doc here.

At the consulate: I strongly suggest an advance look at the ‘appointments’ section of the web site, to see how long you’ll have to wait for date. I had expected a two week wait, found that the lag had more than doubled by the time I was ready to sign up.

The San Francisco consulate lives in an unpretentiously furnished Victorian.  The sometimes crowded waiting room collects Spaniards, future expats and anyone interested in long stints on Spanish soil. Staff speak fluent English, and are prompt, cordial and reserved. Remember: you are there to ask for something that they might not want to give you. They don’t want to give an impecunious Charles Manson a bye for that year long Barcelona vacay. They’re ready to say ‘no.’ Señor Manson can go right ahead and Yelp a one star.

The consulate notified me by email that my app had been granted. Be forewarned: the email arrived with an unexpectedly simple subject line: “Positive Answer.” I didn’t recognize the sender’s name, saw nothing in the email’s header to indicate communication from a consulate, came perilously close to banishing the unopened missive to the binary circular file. Please learn from my near-blunder, and keep careful tabs on your inbox while awaiting word.

AFTER ARRIVAL IN SPAIN

The S.F. consulate told me I had to register my visa after I reached Spanish soil. Alas, they didn’t tell me much more than that. I learned the hard way that requirements are tougher than anticipated, and wound up seeking professional help once in Madrid.

Spainwide helps entrepreneurs start businesses and deal with tax issues. They don’t generally hold the hands of newcomers eager to register visa paperwork, but agreed to assist me. Color me grateful. I’d run out of patience.

If you’re bound for Madrid, and decide to jump through the hoops on your own: the Madrid extranjeria to be visited for visa registration is on Avenida de los Poblados, a fifteen minute hike from the Aluche station.  Feel free to take a look in Google Street View.  Not touristy, but — in my experiences , anyway — better run than many equivalent offices in the U.S.

After you’ve jumped through all necessary hoops, you’ll get a date to return to this extranjeria to pick up your wallet ready, drivers license-sized Permiso de Residencia card.

My visa is for one year, so I’ll have to deal with the extranjeria again in 2017. Several have assured me that visa renewal should be (relatively) quick and easy.

SETTLING IN SPAIN: DRAWBACKS

Language struggles have been the one big drawback to expat life here, at least thus far.

I anticipated problems with technical vocabulary, but had let myself forget how often I dealt with tasks presuming knowledge of such vocabulary in the U.S. of A. Who wants to wax sentimental about reading a rental contract, or filling out paperwork at the bank, or coaxing the cable company telephone robot to transfer your call to a live human? Those are chores; tedious, dull, endured with the big package of earthly life; glossed over, mercifully forgotten.

But I have to deal with such chores in Spain, too. I’m not a tourist; I live here. Further, I had to deal with many more such chores as a new arrival, without bank account, cell phone service provider, and so on. The folk I chat with aren’t trained language instructors, either, versed in the merits of addressing extranjeros with clear, cadenced speech. They may talk fast, mumble, slur; may be sick, bored, hungover, irritated, rushed, like working stiffs everywhere. “Address second language learners like a Spanish prof” isn’t in the job description for front line sufferers at the post office or cell phone monopoly.

The upshot: I have staggered out of a few Madrid offices in a shell-shocked, hollow-eyed daze, amazed that I fumbled my way through the execution of some chore or another. I have navigated all hurdles successfully to date (fingers crossed, knock on wood), but sometimes have required repeat visits to complete chores that I would have slam-dunked in the states. I don’t understand all the technical lingo on those forms, get lost when natives speak quickly.

I arrived as an intermediate speaker, have suffered less as my Spanish has improved. If you grew up yakking in español, you might not suffer at all.

SETTLING IN SPAIN: EVERYTHING ELSE

I popped a Vodafone prepaid SIM into my cell phone a few hours after arrival at Barajas International, changed it to a conventional monthly plan after nabbing the above-mentioned Permiso de Residencia card. Movistar is another big cell provider here, but I don’t own Movistar stock. I do own shares in Vodafone.

TripAdvisor lets you search for rooms with kitchenettes. Idealista also lists short-term rentals.

My Permiso de Residencia card allowed me to open a Spanish bank account. Before that, I got by with my own good counsel from a 2015 transitophile post .

Ernst & Young offers a  ‘worldwide tax and immigration guide.’  Deloitte has a ‘Spain Highlights 2016’ pdf.

Madrid Metro ticket machines sell 7 day ‘Zone A’ passes for €35,40. Your wallet will thank you if you quickly make an appointment at a Madrid Metro office to nab a personalized, photo-and-name-on-the-back ‘tarjeta transporte publico.’ Said card will accept a thirty day Zone A pass for €54,60. Big cost savings.

I booked CrownWMS to move my earthly possessions from a California storage locker to an equivalent space in Madrid. Said possessions rounded the globe on a container ship; I followed the vessel’s progress online as it plodded south along the Baja coast, cleared the Panama canal, nosed into the Atlantic.

First rate local agent SpainSIT delivered my stuff yesterday. I haven’t had a chance to pore over the boxes and don’t know if everything arrived intact, but I see no water damage, and am inclined to mark the move as a success.

CONCLUSION

I’m happy to be here, think I chose well, but also feel that I write prematurely. I’ve been here only four months. Further, I came as a retiree, with no need to work. Spain’s unemployment rate pushes 20%. I might feel very differently about Madrid if trying to haul in a paycheck here, although I understand that native English speakers are in demand.

“How good is your Spanish?” is my first question to other retirees contemplating a move to Spain. The better your Spanish, the better the move looks, at least so far.

– – – – –

edited 11/11/2016: added information about Spainwide

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I Explain Trump to Spain

Spain is interested in Donald Trump. Understandably. I ignored many European squabbles while hailing F cars on the other side of the planet, but paid attention when Britain voted itself out of the European Union. Iberian psychology may be similar. Spaniards have their own canoes to row, little time to fret about Citizens United, Merrick Garland, other Uncle Sam concerns.

Trump is special, different, unusual. I have fielded many questions. Some have expressed fear.

What follows is one lifelong American’s perspective on the Trump campaign. If I translate my trenchant prose into español, I’ll have a link for inquisitive Madrileños.

I am inexpert, write with no special authority. I am a Yankee with opinions. That’s all.

ISOLATION

First, please remember that Americans live in relative isolation. Huge oceans separate the U.S. of the “New World” from Europe and Asia. Only 30% of Americans have passports. Americans popularized their own sports: baseball, rather than cricket, and American football.

Isolation may encourage a distorted world view. I grew up believing that Americans speak English without an accent, and that the U.S. deserved most of the credit for the Allies’ victory in Europe.

Intentionally or not, major news outlets may more easily deceive untraveled Americans than multilingual European urbanites. I remember the rage and shock expressed during the 1979 Iran hostage taking, but think few of my countrymen knew that the CIA had directed the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected leader decades earlier.

CHASING THE WORLD WAR II HIGH

A former drug addict once told me wistfully that he squandered twenty years chasing the remembered pleasure of a first high. I believe that the U.S. has spent seventy years chasing its own mythologized memory of its role in the great “good” World War II. Individual American soldiers suffered as horribly in this war as soldiers elsewhere, but the mainland emerged with few scratches. It could bathe in deserved glory afterward: the nation with the white hat, the trans-continental Dudley Do Right.

I believe that this self-image encouraged the U.S. to take a belligerent, un-introspective lead in the “war” against Communism, and to gradually squander good will in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and in CIA excesses throughout the Third World. The U.S. also ignored President Eisenhower’s warnings about a military-industrial complex, and funded a huge “defense” budget that remained behemothic after the Cold War, and devours over fifty percent of federal discretionary spending today. A force that consumes so large a share of a nation’s wealth may seek endless enemies (to borrow Jonathan Kwitny‘s phrase) to justify its existence.

America’s tragic, disastrous forays into Vietnam and Iraq encouraged corrosive distrust and cynicism. Correctly or incorrectly, millions in my country believe that U.S. elites conspired to murder President Kennedy, sponsored drug dealing in American ghettoes to fund the Contras; covered up the TWA Flight 800 disaster, and orchestrated the 9-11 attacks. In 1958, nearly three-quarters of Americans said they could trust their government. Today only one in five do.

IRAQ FIASCO

I believe that the Iraq war was especially disillusioning for Americans on the political right. Their own Republican president had called the country to war against an enemy with “weapons of mass destruction.” No stockpiles of WMDs were ever found. The war had been pointless, a fraud, fought on false premises. The mind could hardly grasp the scope and scale of the Iraq FUBAR: the shameful, obscene, criminal loss of life; the squandering of funds so colossal that even a professional CPA may struggle to hold them in perspective; the lasting, looming consequences of fueling the rise of ISIS.

Republicans reel. They don’t like Hillary Clinton. They aren’t Democrats. They may stand fast by Republican verities: that self-reliance and personal responsibility count, that a free enterprise meritocracy helped make some American companies great, that the hard-working, vice-shunning individual can build a career, create employment, realize the American dream. They may defiantly stand by their churches, too, in a lawless public arena that serves up pornography to ten year olds, that encourages the press to publicize any depravity — serial assassins, cop killers — for page views and web traffic.

But their own Republican establishment had cheerled the Iraq war.

Who could they vote for?

Enter Donald Trump, successful businessman, perhaps originally a mere protest candidate. Trump holds establishment Republicans to account for the Iraq fiasco, toes no predictable party line, appears to speak his mind on terrorism, immigration, other issues. The mainstream press obviously despises him, but angry voters may regard media opprobrium as a point in Trump’s favor. Did the press ever admit its role as an Iraq War propagandist? Has the press offered a complete picture of the U.S.’ role in the Middle East? Can any candidate so despised by the media be all bad?

CODA

I have registered at FVAP, intend to cast a resigned expat vote for Hillary Clinton. I think she’ll probably win, but also presume that terrorist attacks and riots can plump Trump poll counts, and know that he could gain traction in the debates. I regularly check poll standings, suggest that interested Spaniards can, too.

A Hillary-led America may only postpone crisis. I have never disliked her, but acknowledge that other Americans do. Sidelined Republicans can blame the worldly misfortunes of the next four years on the already unpopular woman entering the Oval Office. A dangerously angry, disgusted America is likely to become more so.

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Alecciono a España sobre Trump

España está interesada en Donald Trump. Entiendo por qué. Ignoraba muchos conflictos de Europa mientras viajaba en tranvías al otro lado del mundo, pero presté atención cuando Reino Unido votó por el Brexit. La psicología de la Península Iberica podría ser similar. Los españoles tienen sus propios problemas, poco tiempo para preocuparse por Citizens United, Merrick Garland, y otros asuntos de Tío Sam.

Trump es diferente, especial, inusual. He contestado muchas preguntas sobre él. Algunos españoles me han expresado su miedo.

Lo siguiente es la perspectiva de un americano sobre la campaña de Trump. Si traduzco mi brilliante prosa al español, tendré un enlace para los madrileños curiosos.

Soy inexperto, escribo sin una autoridad especial. Soy un Yankee con opiniones, nada más.

EL AISLAMIENTO

Primero, por favor, recuerdo que los americanos viven en un aislamiento relativo. Océanos inmensos separan los Estados Unidos del “mundo nuevo” desde Europa y Asia. Solo el 30% de los americanos tienen pasaportes. Los americanos popularizaron sus propios deportes: baseball, en lugar de cricket, y futbol Americano.

El aislamiento puede promover una vision mundial distorsionada. Crecí con la convicción de que los americanos hablan inglés sin acento, y que los Estados Unidos merecían la mayoría del honor para la victoria de los Aliados en Europa en la Segunda Guerra Mundial.

Intencionalmente o no, los principales medios de la prensa pueden más fácilmente engañar a los americanos que a los europeos urbanitas plurilingües. Recuerdo la rabia y el shock expresado durante la crisis de rehenes en Irán en 1979, pero dudo que pocos de mis compatriotas sepan que décadas antes la CIA había dirigido el derrocamiento del líder elegido democráticamente por Irán.

PERSIGUIENDO LA EMBRIAGUEZ DE LA SEGUNDA GUERRA MUNDIAL

Un ex adicto de drogas me dijo pensativamente una vez que él había malgastado veinte años persiguiendo el éxtasis de recordar su primera intoxicación. Creo que EEUU ha pasado setenta años persiguiendo su propia memoria mitificada de su papel en la estupenda “buena” Segunda Guerra Mundial. Soldados americanos sufrían tan horriblemente en esta guerra como los soldados en otra partes, pero el continente estadounidense surgía con pocas heridas. EEUU podría disfrutar después de una gloria merecida: EEUU fue la nación con el sombrero blanco, el héroe mundial.

Creo que esta autoimagen animó a EEUU mientras tomaba una iniciativa beligerente y no introspectiva en la “guerra” en contra del comunismo, y gradualmente malgastó su buena reputación en Corea, Vietnam, Irak, y a través de los excesos de la CIA en el Tercer Mundo. Tambien, EEUU ignoraba el aviso del presidente Eisenhower de un complejo militar-industrial, y financiaba un enorme presupuesto para la “defensa” que permanece gigante tras la Guerra Fria, y hoy devora más del cincuenta porciento de los gastos discrecionales federales. Una fuerza que consuma una porción tan grande de la riqueza de otra nación podría buscar enemigos sin fin — para tomar prestada la frase de Jonathan Kwitny — para justificar su existencia.

Las incursiónes trágicas y desastrosas de EEUU en Vietnam y Irak animaba desconfianza y cinismo corrosivo. Correctamente o no, millones de personas en mi país creen que las élites conspiraron en el asesinato del presidente Kennedy, promoviendo el tráfico de drogas en los barrios pobres de EEUU para financiar los Contras, encubriendo los hechos del disastre de TWA Vuelo 800, y orquestando los ataques del 9-11. En 1958, casi tres cuartos de los americanos dijeron que podrían confiar en su gobierno. Hoy solo uno de cinco dice lo mismo.

FIASCO EN IRAK

Creo que la guerra en Irak fue una desilusión especialmente para la derecha. Su propio presidente Republicano había proclamado la guerra contra un enemigo con “armas de destrucción masiva.” Pero nunca se descubrieron reservas de esas armas. La guerra no ha tenido sentido, ha sido un fraude, ya que luchaba por unas razones falsas. Una mente apenas puede comprender al elcance y la escala del desastre en Irak: la infamante, obscena, pérdida criminal de vida; el despilfarro de fondos demasiado grande para la imaginación de un contador profesional; las consecuencias perdurables y amenazantes que han resultado en la fortaleza del ISIS.

Los Republicanos se tambalean. A ellos no les gusta Hillary Clinton. No son Demócratas. Se mantienen firmes en defender las verdades de su partido: la importancia de la independencia y la responsibilidad personal, la creencia de que una libre empresa meritocracia ayudaba a algunas compañias americana a adquirir más grandeza, y la creencia de que un individuo trabajador y sin vicios pueda hacer una carrera, crear empleo, cumplir su sueño americano. Tambien, se mantienen firmes en defender sus iglesias, en un espacio público descontrolado que sirve pornografia a niños de diez años, que anima a la prensa a publicar todas las depravaciónes — asesinos en serie, asesinos de policia — para conseguir más vistas en internet.

Pero la propia casta Republicana ha motivado la guerra en Irak.

¿A quién votar?

Entra Donald Trump, hombre de negocios exitoso, quizás originalmente solo un candidato protesta. Trump critica la casta Republicana por el fiasco de Irak, no sigue una filosofia previsible, y es politicamente incorrecto sobre asuntos del terrorismo, la inmigración y otras cuestiones. Es obvio que la prensa detesta a Trump, pero quizás algunos votantes enojados pueden pensar que el odio periodístico es un punto en su favor. ¿La prensa ha admitido su papel de propaganda para la guerra? ¿La prensa ha ofrecido una imagen honesta del papel de EEUU en Oriente Medio? Si la prensa le detesta, tal vez Trump no es tan malo.

CODA

Me he registrado en el servicio expatriado de FVAP para votar con resignacíon por Hillary Clinton. Pienso que probablemente gane, pero entiendo que ataques terroristas o revueltas puedan motivar la votación por Trump, y entiendo tambien que él pueda acortar distancia en los debates. Regularmente echo un vistazo en las encuestas, y les sugiero a los españoles que lo hagan tambien.

Quizás una presidenta como Hillary puede unicamente posponer la crisis. Nunca he tenido adversión hacia ella, pero reconozco que otros americanos la tienen. Los Republicanos que han sido destituidos de sus oficinas podrían culpar a la mujer impopular en la casa blanca de los problemas del mundo durante cuatro años. Un EEUU peligrosamente enojado y disgustado probablemente pueda llegar estarlo más en el futuro.

– – – – –

editado 13/9/2016: correcciones gramaticales

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Madrid: Second Impressions

Now that I’ve been here a month:

FANTASTIC PEDESTRIAN LIFE

The clip below shows some of the pedestrian streets branching off from Puerta del Sol. I’ve been too busy boning up on my irregular verbs to study recent Madrid history, but gather that callers-of-shots here are determined to put people and transit before cars in the city center.

Pedestrian streets in central Madrid

Pedestrian streets in central Madrid

Please follow this link to the Open Street Maps original and mouse around a bit. The streets in gray are either pedestrian-only or pedestrian-mostly. In the central city, I can walk nearly a mile from Retiro Park to Plaza Mayor without dealing with much auto traffic.

The summer sun doesn’t set here until 9:30 at night, and Madrileños seem far more fond than Americans of strolling their parks, plazas and walkways. The result: a central city renaissance for the heel-and-toe traveler.

Saturday on Calle Preciados in Madrid

Saturday on Calle Preciados in Madrid

(If reading in Southern California: picture a busy afternoon on the Third Street Promenade, and imagine the cheery vibe extending to dozens of fictive car-free streets throughout Santa Monica.)

MANY ATTRACTIVE RESIDENTS

A world-traveled chum once remarked that Southern Europeans seemed to have stood first in line when Odin handed out the handsome pills. He meant Italy. He should have included Spain.

That’s a generalization. Madrid includes old, young, plump, thin, short, tall, and plenty of viejito feos like your distinguished scribe, but the knock-out rate per capita is still plenty high, and I don’t want to commit the journalistic sin of staying mum about so conspicuous a trait because I don’t know how to describe it in a PC way.

I think you’d notice if you were here.

No, I’m not going to include an educational photo.

BACK TO L.A. AIR

Madrid has restricted auto traffic and embraced pedestrian-friendly streets largely to combat notorious air pollution. It’s ahead of L.A, but not by much. Expect plenty of cars. I’ve dealt with an occasional itchy throat since arrival, miss San Francisco breezes.

LIFE IN A REAL TRANSIT CITY

In 2014, a Madrid Metro rep proudly described her city’s metro to me as the best on terra firma. I wouldn’t be that generous, but it doesn’t trail far behind Europe’s best, and is thus light years ahead of what I was used to in California.

Madrid Metro at Principe de Vergara station

Madrid Metro at Principe de Vergara station

Compare this superimposed-on-the-street-grid map of the Madrid Metro to a similar map for BART of Northern California.

Zoom in to a mile, 2,000 feet, 1,000 feet. Snoop around a bit. BART offers close proximity between stations on Market Street, and nowhere else in San Francisco. In contrast, the Spanish strap hanger can count on a short walk between metro stops at points all over central Madrid.

A subway doth not a complete transit system make. I might form a less charitable view of transit here if dependent on an un-touristy, work-a-day bus line to shepherd me to or from a job. That said: a metro is usually a city’s transit backbone, and metro expansion costs in Madrid have been far, far lower than conquerable costs in the U.S.

Please look at that Google Maps overlay again. Zoom in close, check out the distance between stations; join me in feeling happily dazed by how easily I can get around my new home without a car.

In San Francisco, I braced myself for a long, dismal bus ride to admire the greenery at Lands’ End or Golden Gate Park. For food shopping, I used my car. In Madrid, I can ride the metro to Retiro Park or Casa de Campo, and shlep groceries home from whichever next-to-the-subway El Corte Inglés superstore strikes my fancy. (Although I’d expect to pay less and choose from a larger variety at the employee-owned WinCo Foods warehouse I patronized last, a mere 5,750 miles west in California.)

Madrid Metro Callao station on Gran Via

Madrid Metro Callao station on Gran Via

I visited European transit Valhallas in 2014 and 2015, but this is the first time I’ve actually lived in one. I’m still pinching myself.

City transit isn’t perfect: a Madrileña complained of malfunctioning escalators, just as U.S. strap hangers do, as well as transit strikes timed to coincide with the tourist season. She still expressed shock and amusement when I shared my photo of an unusually gruesome New York City subway station. No metro stop in Madrid is nearly as filthy.

ENGLISH SPEAKER AS POTENTIAL VIP

Madrid is not especially quick with an English phrase book. Regard this as a potential negative for the monolingual U.S. tourist, who may struggle to be understood at off-the-beaten-track stores and hotels.

For me, it’s mostly a plus. I arrived as an intermediate Spanish speaker, am delighted to do almost all of my yakking in the native tongue. Further: many Madrileños are eager to learn English, and will flock to the native speaker willing to participate in intercambios, either through Conversation Exchange or one of Madrid’s many language exchange meetups.

OLD CITY CENTER, NEW SUBURBS

‘Old’ is relative.  Even central Madrid is a babe in the woods next to Athens or Rome. Some of the suburbs, however, are new even by U.S. norms. An intercambio partner recommended an apartment in the quiet, affordable Moratalaz district on the #9 metro line. Moratalaz sprang into life in the 1960s.

TOD at Artilleros station in Madrid

TOD at Artilleros station in Madrid

The photo shows the proximity of an apartment complex to Moratalaz’ Artilleros station. I will hand off once again to an online Google map, invite you to visit the same corner in Street View and scroll north on Vinateros.

See all the multi-story brick apartment buildings? Pure TOD … and, to a naysayer, I suppose: pure transit gulag.

I strolled this neck of Vinateros a few days ago. I harbor an unusually strong distaste for the draping of laundry on apartment porches, but otherwise found the nabe as potentially appealing as my intercambio pal suggested. Dull, perhaps. Uniform. Far less spacious than car-dependent American tract houses. But livable.

Idealista shows what can be rented here. A euro is about $1.10 USD. (Please discount the abominable quality of the photos; for reasons unknown, Spaniards post some of the most wretched ‘rental available’ shots I’ve ever seen. Antoni “we own the image” Gaudí may spin in his grave.)

(Caveat: I haven’t visited other TOD neighborhoods here, don’t know what I’d think of them.)

A WORRIED, OFTEN PESSIMISTIC SPAIN

I have not set up camp in an untroubled country.

Millenials met at intercambios cast doubt on the hardiness of economic recovery here. Jobs are in short supply, they say, pay poorly and ask a lot. Peers who long for the fixed-for-a-lifetime gigs of their parents’ generation are dreaming of a security that Spain no longer offers.

News reports describe Germany as the land of opportunity. A retiree with a secure income stream may move to Madrid, sign up for Spanish classes, cast pleased eyes on the tourist-centric street life seen at Puerta del Sol. Career-minded young Spaniards have to quit their own country, wrestle with unfamiliar grammar in Berlin Deutsch classes.

I’m quite fond of my new home, at least so far, but am not trying to make a living here. That matters.

* * * * *

More photos:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/36217981@N02/albums/72157648793450795

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Gear for Long-Haul Travel

A little over a year ago, I described myself as a ‘carry on at all costs’ flier. No longer! I arrived in Madrid in early July with a one way ticket and no return plans, had to prep and pack for a far more distant horizon than in journeys past.

Pre-trip research suggested I buy some new stuff. I’m mostly glad I did, shall describe my successes below.

I usually loft a suspicious eyebrow at product plugs in a blog, and can’t blame you if now suspect the world-wandering Bald One of moonlighting in stealth PR. It ain’t so, and I’d swear as much on a Unitarian hymnal, but that’s just what I say, right?

Use your own judgment, trust me or not, as you see fit.

HP OfficeJet 150

HP OfficeJet 150

HP OFFICEJET 150

16.5 x 9.7 x 8.6 inches, under ten pounds, and it didn’t leak ink in the suitcase. You’ll risk a straight jacket at Camarillo if you try to hardcopy a dissertation out of this gizmo, but it scans and prints short docs with ease. I have found it to be untemperamental, and was grateful that Linux recognized it as soon as I plugged in the USB cable. I presume, but don’t know, that it works as well with Windows and Mac OS.

Paper to be printed goes in on top, above the HP logo. Paper to be scanned slides in under the logo. I ignore the touchscreen at right, control the OfficeJet through Linux software, didn’t have to deal with special drivers or proprietary software. I plugged it in and it worked.

Etekcity scale

Etekcity scale

ETEKCITY TRAVEL SCALE

I completed my last of many lifetime diets about ten years ago, when my aging metabolism needed several miserable months to shed a mere fifteen pounds. “You’re not going through that again, Tim,” said I then to myself, and meant it. I watch my weight like a TMZ celeb watches a Q rating, sound unforgiving sirens if it climbs even a few pounds out of the desired range.

I want a trustworthy scale.

Etekcity doesn’t call this a ‘travel scale.’ I do. I have found it to be fussier than heavier conventional scales owned in years past, but a 3.9 pound shipping weight meant I could reasonably expect to shlep it onboard in checked luggage.

Mine wants a flat surface to sit upon. If I can press any corner and detect a wobble, it wants to be moved somewhere else. I step on it once in the morning, wait while its electronic innards decide what I weigh, then don’t step on it again until the next morning. If I insist on stepping in it again two minutes later, the little batteries are likely to deliver a different reading. (Perhaps they’re catching their breath.)

A travel scale. A far, far cry from a human-sized balance beam scale. As a travel scale, first rate. Not for a forever home, or at least not for mine.

Photographed with a one euro coin, to show relative size.

Marsona TSCI-330

Marsona TSCI-330

MARSONA WHITE NOISE MAKER

You’ve showered, unpacked, checked in (not in that order, I hope), crawled under the covers, and now discover that you can audit your neighbor’s cell phone yakathon through paper-thin hotel walls.

What to do? A box fan would drown out the yak and let you sleep, but flight attendants would snicker if you tried to stuff one in the overhead.

Consider this one pound (ahem) ‘travel sound conditioner,’ shipped with adapters for worldwide power sources. I think the Marsona’s settings for ‘rain,’ ‘waterfall’ and ‘surf’ all sound only slightly better than TV test pattern static, but I have used the little dealie (in conjunction with earplugs) with a 230V, Type F outlet in Spain and a 110V, Type A outlet in the U.S., and don’t regret the purchase.

Briggs & Riley Spinner

Briggs & Riley Spinner

BRIGGS & RILEY LARGE EXPANDABLE SPINNER

The four sturdy “spinners” make this bag as nimble as such linebacker-sized luggage is likely to get, and an interior compartment deftly handles dress coats and slacks. These deluxe bags were overkill for a one way flight to Spain. I wasn’t sure that the visa would come through when I bought them, thought it wise to prepare then for extended travel.

That said, even if I wound up not needing the quality: first rate equipment. I got what I paid for.

VPN (VIRTUAL PRIVATE NETWORK)

I can go online on the road by tethering my laptop to my smartphone or by using wi-fi. My smartphone connection is secured by the cellular service provider. The wi-fi connection may not be secure at all. In my email list managing days for TransitPeople, I expected at least one missive a week from a hacked account, likely hijacked while the innocent victim entered account information via wi-fi.

To stave off snoopers, I can use wi-fi with a “virtual private network,” or VPN. NordVPN, Private Internet Access and other commercial VPNs operate global networks of servers. I fire up wi-fi, then hook up to a VPN server in Singapore, France, Barstow, the Clintons’ bathroom closet, as I see fit. A lock appears on the network connection icon on the taskbar. Web sites see traffic coming from the VPN, and not from me.

I expected configuration headaches, but found ee-zee online instructions for setting up VPN in Linux, presume that similar handholding is available for Windows and Mac users. An account goes for $40 – $70 a year. Free VPNs haven’t been charitably reviewed; I haven’t tried one.

Two caveats:

(♦)  Online nogoodniks eagerly employ VPN to mask identities, and some major sites balk when first accessed from a VPN address. I can use gmail with VPN, but not from an email client, at least not right away; I must first log on via web, presumably to assure Google that the password-holder from the unfamiliar VPN server is really me. Facebook and other sites present a captcha screen, insist that I prove I’m not a robot.

(♦)   Set-up requires some technical chops. Not a lot, but some. I suggest sounding out a geekily inclined friend.

U.S. GLOBAL MAIL FORWARDING

I have gone paperless wherever possible, have canceled every regularly-arriving hardcopy missive I could think to cancel, but still expect some materials to be sent to my old San Francisco address. Said materials shall now be forwarded to U.S. Global Mail. My $150 one year subscription entitles me to a U.S. address and online account access. When paper mail arrives, I can pay to have it opened and scanned, can then eyeball it from abroad.

U.S. Global Mail looks well run, and staff promptly field phone calls. That’s to the good. To the bad: they wait until the last screen of the sign-up process to inform you that you’ll need to upload picture ID and a notarized form 1583 to receive forwarded mail from USPS.

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Tracy, California: First Impressions

(Or first impressions this century: I once feared Tracy and the whole San Joaquin Valley as a hitchhiker’s no man’s land in my ride-thumbing college years, have yet to forget an eleven hour wait for a ride in North Fresno.)

Tracy is a city of about 87,000 in the agricultural flatlands east of San Francisco. I am in temporary digs here while awaiting paperwork for a move to Spain1, naively anticipated a rural whistlestop far removed from Bay Area bustle.

Tracy's Harvest of Progress statue, with Altamont Hills in background

Tracy’s Harvest of Progress statue, with Altamont Hills in background

Wrong! In the 1970s, maybe. Not anymore.

TRACY MAY SOON BE DEVOURED BY THE GREATER BAY AREA

Travel out this-a-way and you’ll see what I mean. The driver exiting the easternmost Livermore fringes of the “San Francisco Bay Area” at noon can expect all of fifteen minutes of open country on the Altamont Pass before hitting outer Tracy of “Central California” at 12:15. That’s not much of a greenbelt between regions.

I hatched an informal survey question — Has Tracy become part of the Greater Bay Area? — and posed it to about a dozen locals. Votes have leaned about 2 to 1 “no” … but not 10 to 1, as I might have expected in years past.

My favorite response came while querying two fellow congregants at the Stockton Unitarian Church. One nodded, said, “Oh, it’s getting there,” but was refuted with an emphatic “No!” from an usher.

The usher explained: Tracy has attracted many settlers who want it to be part of the Bay Area, said she. They buy in, discover that they can’t endure the marathon freeway commute, sell out a few years later.

Farmers Market in downtown Tracy, California

Farmers Market in downtown Tracy, California

Another local introduced an acronym: BAT, for Bay Area Transplant. Letters-to-the-editor writers fulminated often about BATs in years past, but gave up as more BATs moved in, became neighbors.

The BATs likely came for affordable homes. I drive past a freeway billboard hawking new construction, look it up online. 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, American Dream houses: around $200 a square foot, vs $987 in San Francisco, $475 in Walnut Creek. At a picnic in Micke Grove Park, I meet a Bay Area widow who had to short sell after her husband’s death, and chose an all-cash, debt-free buy in Central California instead of a mortgage elsewhere. A retired Santa Clara native marvels at the empty acres behind his Stockton property. The picnic host fled San Jose after a steep rent increase.

I shop at vast, concrete-acred WinCo Foods, stroll among a pleasant cultural mélange: a linebacker-shouldered blond in John Deere t-shirt, lugging six packs to a big-tired pick-up; a turbaned Sikh and clan; occasional hijabs; a likely Berkeley refugee, rummaging for credit card in a tote with Feel the Bern button; many, many families.

Tehal at Gurdwara Sahib temple in Modesto, California

Tehal at Gurdwara Sahib temple in Modesto, California

Absent, however: the overtly gay, and some extravagances of youthful fashion that are commonplace on Valencia Street. BATs may have diluted Tracy’s rural roots, but still take a low profile here.

TRACY IS CAR COUNTRY

My digs are near Naglee and Pavilion Parkway, which intersect acres for four surrealistically vast mall properties on Tracy’s northwest corner.

I’ll link a map.  Mouse around a bit.

Pavilion Parkway in Tracy, California

Pavilion Parkway in Tracy, California

Home Depot is here, as are Staples, Macy’s, many car dealerships. Target is here, too, but looks like a pint-sized mom n’ pop next to the Walmart. Fate may have decreed that I spend my last weeks on native soil amidst development most often stereotyped as American. I take a spring afternoon stroll on asphalt, across adjoining parking lots, with gas stations and big box stores on the horizon, beneath the rippling stripes of American flags.

Everyone drives here. Even the Starbucks offers a drive-thru lane for profligately idling SUVs. The nearest BART metro station is twenty-five miles west, and internet wags promise wailing and gnashing of teeth to weekday commuters who hope to park there.

West Valley Mall in Tracy, California

West Valley Mall in Tracy, California

This corner of Tracy is much more autocentric than older city neighborhoods, but I still can’t imagine any serious getting around by transit. I may have driven more in a month here than in several years in San Francisco.

TRACY IS OVERWEIGHT

Is this observation related to the first two? Who wants to cook or hit a Pilates mat after dodging SUVs and semis on the daily slog home from Hayward, or Walnut Creek, or wherever the steering-wheel-clutching BAT punches a timecard? One is T-I-R-E-D. Lane changes on the 580 were work-out enough. Quick energy comfort food is what one craves, easily obtained from stuffins’-drippin’ megaburgers with four figure calorie counts hawked by fast fooderies next to the 205. Gorge now, worry about the scale tomorrow. A BAT might get all of an hour of rec time before hitting the sack for the next day’s commute.

I want to write charitably, with sympathy. I was overweight in my teens. I have stood pat at 175 for ten years because my last real diet was so miserable that I swore afterward never to slide again, and haven’t. But those miseries were endured to lose a mere fifteen pounds! Some I see on my mall strolls are more than a hundred pounds overweight. Their bodies heartlessly conspire to hold onto every ounce, to doom them to obesity until death.

Route 205 freeway exit in Tracy, California

Route 205 freeway exit in Tracy, California

Many in Tracy may be obese because they aren’t BATs, because they are the great-grandchildren of farmers who once sweated over tractors and tills, and could expect to burn through any calories consumed. I don’t know. I imagine the ghost of Lathrop J. Tracy himself grimacing at the sight of his town’s overfed progeny, courting diabetes, atherosclerosis, osteoarthritis as they lumber with overtaxed hearts on outraged joints through pastry aisles. Their bodies are like prisons.

HAS BAY AREA INFRASTRUCTURE PLANNING FAILED?

My S.F.-to-Tracy car trips have fostered a bleaker take on the Bay Area’s transportation underpinnings. It feels like a catastrophic fait accompli: bad enough to have done real harm when I moved south for a Los Angeles teaching career in 1992, little improved since.

San Francisco included some 735,000 souls in 1992. It numbers 130,000 more today, a near 18% increase. The populations of Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo county have grown by about 24%, 34% and 16% in those twenty-four years, respectively.

Not a whole lot has been built to move the extra humans around. BART sprouted a couple of spur lines, an SFO extension and an Oakland airport connector. Caltrain grew; Alameda County picked up a couple of ACE rail stations. How much else? I have been able to ignore worsening congestion while gallivanting around San Francisco aboard Muni. (Which has either improved in recent years, or impressed me more.) I haven’t been able to ignore it while traveling between San Francisco and Tracy.

I don’t expect to drive to the East Bay from S.F.’s south side during any workday hour on a weekday without hitting a wall of traffic, usually as far south as the 101’s Vermont exit. Westbound traffic is worse; I could practically count pebbles in the asphalt while inching toward the Bay Bridge toll plaza. I usually do not hit smooth sailing in the East Bay: I cringe with saucer eyes and gritted teeth in my slot in the thundering, seventy mile an hour stampede, which may remain dense past Livermore.

I long for a transit alternative, know of no good one. I’d need two shuttle buses to get to Tracy’s ACE station, then would have to hop on another bus to bridge the route gap between ACE and BART. Maybe three hours one way travel time, and not much choice about when I’d go. Or, I could duke it out with the other drivers who lust for a parking slot at BART Dublin.

Something that was supposed to happen here didn’t happen.

Or, to be fair: not nearly enough of what was supposed to happen actually happened. I picture a fire fighter without a hose, gamely chucking pint latte cups at a raging inferno.

* * * * *

I wish more attention were paid to the economic costs of the Iraq war.

Unitarian Church in Modesto, California

Unitarian Church in Modesto, California

I admit to tangent taking here, a comparison of apples to oranges. Millions not flushed down the Baghdad donniker certainly wouldn’t have become magically available for transportation projects. But numbers are available, can be compared. Americans insensitive to the war’s hideous humanitarian costs might at least care that their pockets have been picked, and remember that pocket picking in meditations on failing infrastructure.

The war cost about 2.2 trillion dollars. Roughly twelve of every hundred Americans is a Californian. Figure, then, that twelve percent, or 264 billion of that 2.2 trillion got took from the Golden State.

Subway construction costs range all over the place: $65 million a mile in Madrid, $417 per mile in Stockholm, a whopping two billion a mile for the Second Avenue subway. I’ll pull an unabashedly unreliable number out of a hat in the air, say $500 million a mile in urban California.

California’s 264 billion on the Iraq War — an incurred debt now, a done deal, in accounts payable; a past tense disaster, like a full facial tattoo bought on a binge drunk — would have paid for 528 miles of metro. Split that with L.A., and these already committed dollars could have funded an increase in BART’s system size of … oh, gee whiz! … around 250 percent.

Here’s a map of the BART system grid:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bart-map.png

BART map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bart-map.png)

Make it grow 250 percent in that fertile imagination of yours. Remember, you’re not using new money. The Iraq War cheerleaders already spent it for you.

Do you think it might make your Bay Area commute a little easier?

* * * * *

1 Or have been; my visa came through yesterday.

Please wish me well in Spain. A related post may be premature; I ain’t there yet.

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