Transit vs Car: Four More Points

Yet another post! Despite an implied battening-down-of-hatches in 2015.

I’m sorry. I still lived stateside in 2015. My perspective has changed.

For now, four more bright red subheads:

LOS ANGELES AND SAN FRANCISCO TRANSIT VS MADRID TRANSIT: NO COMPARISON

My ’14/’15 tourist treks showed me the chasm between transit West Coast and transit West Europe. Two years of Spain residency have clubbed me over the head with it. I realize now that I never saw the mobility big picture while living stateside.

Madrid Metro at Plaza España station in Madrid, Spain

Madrid Metro at Plaza España station in Madrid, Spain

If you care, think, talk, write or vote on or about transit-related issues in California, you ought to know how horribly the state transit grid sizes up next to what I ride daily in Spain. That does not mean I think that envy-struck Golden Staters should wave hasty wands over every big buck transit pitch on the ballot, particularly if said pitch promises to siphon funds from now-essential California bus service.

(Remember: the U.S. could build four TransAtlantic tunnels yearly with the shocking 600+ billion flushed annually for a Cold War military, even though the current Prez is seriously suspected of being a de facto stooge of the original Cold War enemy. I couldn’t make up anything so ludicrous.)

It means only that the comparison matters. Transit works here as it never worked in L.A. or S.F.

On to specific, occasionally repetitive examples, all easily corroborated with online maps and service schedules. Regular readers have watched my eyes open in related posts past.

Inter-city rail: I could get up from the keyboard now, ride the metro to Madrid-Atocha or Madrid-Chamberi, and soon board a high speed train for Barcelona, Sevilla, Salamanca, Malaga, Valencia, and other cities across Spain. (Although not to some points north and west.) Barcelona is about as far from Madrid as San Francisco is from Los Angeles. Barcelona-Madrid service frequency aboard 150+ mph high speed AVE: hourly. Travel time: 2.5 to 3.1 hours.

California may have operational high speed rail late in the next decade. What it has today is the Coast Starlight. San Francisco – Los Angeles service frequency: one train a day! Travel time: 11 hours.

Urban rail: I live less than a block from a Madrid subway entrance, feel mildly scandalized if I have to wait more than five minutes for a train, weekdays and weekends. The metro grid blankets the central city, usually requires me to walk only a few blocks to my destination. If I yen to roam farther afield, I turn to the fast, brawny Cercanías commuter rail system, which links to the metro at more than two dozen stations and offers ten to twenty minute headways on most of the grid.

Cercanías commuter rail at Madrid Atocha station in Spain

Cercanías commuter rail at Madrid Atocha station in Spain

The Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area metro grids, in contrast, are like skinny lines stenciled on the sprawling flank of an auto-dependent whale. (The BART map compensates with a Japanese Shunga-like exaggeration of the grid’s relationship to underlying terrain.) One may commute by metro to city centers, yes, and to the relatively few acres proximate to subway stations. If you want to go elsewhere, you’ll transfer to something slower.

California commuter rail? It exists, but as more of a white collar rush hour shuttle than as a transit artery, with sometimes laughably infrequent mid-day headways. Slow, low-capacity light rail lines rate star transit billing in California, although such lines often putter along in city traffic. (Especially in San Francisco.)

Bus: When I recall my California straphanging days, I most frequently picture myself in a bus: chugging through downtown L.A. on a 51/52 after a TransitPeople trip, steeling myself for a forty-five minute wagon ride on a jammed 29 or 43 in S.F. Here, I can offer no comparison. Two years in Spain haven’t yet motivated me to explore the city bus grid, although Madrileños describe it as excellent. I can go everywhere on the choo-choo.

Image: I believe that San Franciscans are thought reasonable for living without personal cars, especially in the era of shared-ride-by-smartphone. In Los Angeles, I often felt stigmatized as a straphanger, TransitPeople and personal convictions notwithstanding. I couldn’t help noting the poverty of many fellow L.A. bus riders, the proportion of (much loathed) Transit TV ads dedicated to debt relief.

In Madrid, in contrast, I know three car-free U.S. expat millionaires who rely on city transit services without hesitation. Everyone uses transit here: third generation gatos, tourists, communists toting fliers to Tirso de Molina, buttoned-down funcionarios, Franco-sentimentalizing conservatives. I sniff no trace of stigma. Personal cars in city limits are widely viewed as burdensome, albatrosses, unworthy consumers of time, effort, money.

* * * * *

Not all comparisons favor Spain. Expect serious crowding on some Madrid Metro lines at peak hours. BART offers more generous seats. Hollywood/Highland and other Los Angeles metro stations boast spectacular artwork. San Francisco hosts the touristy Cable Cars and Market Street Railway, and offers great Dolores Park views on the J line. I know of no Madrid equivalent to Los Angeles Rapid Buses. Further: some Madrileños — lifelong Spaniards, mind you, with a native’s perspective on how decisions get made — assure me that I can thank the country’s powerful construction lobby for the breadth of transit services. I don’t want to inadvertently suggest a wine-and-roses public sector on this side of the Atlantic.

Madrid-Barcelona high-speed Renfe AVE train at station in Zaragoza, Spain

Madrid-Barcelona high-speed Renfe AVE train at station in Zaragoza, Spain

But, with those qualifications out of the way: if debating transit-vs-car issues in California, please pause to reflect on how abominably S.F. and L.A. transit compare to what I take for granted in Spain. Someone who says that “public transit can’t work” or that “no one uses public transit” either lies deliberately or hasn’t traveled, or both.

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for similarly blunt comparisons from the mainstream American press. (Now ranked forty-fifth in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom index, behind Burkina Faso and Romania.) I never worked as a staff reporter, don’t know how these things work, but a lifetime as a news consumer has taught me that the U.S. media is in no hurry to publicize the superiorities of life overseas. “Let’s encourage our coveted entrepreneurs and educated, law-abiding professionals to jump ship, so we’ll have more room for Newt, Rush, Diamond and Silk.” Apparently not.

SPRAWL AS AN AMERICAN ADVANTAGE

By American standards, Madrid is ancient. The ninth century Muslim Walls still stand near La Almudena Cathedral. Felipe II moved the capital here in 1561, more than a half-century before America’s Plymouth colony.

Long-ago developed urban center = population masses dwelling in city acres that never anticipated the personal car. Mouse around in Google Maps, call up Street View in Madrid’s Latina, Chueca, Malasaña, Lavapies. Eager to berth a SUV on one of those skinny streets? Madrid needs a serious, grown-up, no BS transit grid, unless city leaders decide to evict millions, raze the capital, sell off most of the urban land area to the Irvine Company.

Contrast ancient Madrid to greater Los Angeles. Founded by Andalucía native Felipe de Neve and a few dozen duped pobladores in 1781, sure, but the population didn’t boom until the twentieth century, and the boom accompanied — was joined at the hip to, shared vital organs with — the sale-to-the-masses of the affordable personal car, the gutting of the Pacific Electric grid notwithstanding.

Cookie-cutter communities in the San Fernando Valley, Inland Empire, Orange County. Same deal in the Bay Area suburbs. Blocks and blocks, miles and miles of tract homes, each with driveway, lawn, back yard. Suburbia. The American dream.

If I want to see a complete truth, I have to acknowledge how appealing this living-large-on-the-land lifestyle can look to some Europeans. You get your own yard, for gardening, pets, barbecue, for your kids to play in. Space between your house and the next house over, so you don’t have to listen to your neighbor’s thumping bass or woodworking tools. Access to big box shopping centers, with free parking for all, everything-under-the-sun U.S. of A. supermarkets.

Never mind if auto-centric development can doom major urban centers to Houston-style homeliness. Never mind if environmentalists judge it as unsustainable, reckless, if it plunders the commons, steals from the unborn. Stare stonily past the iconic ‘space required to transport 60 people’ poster, that shows how rapaciously auto-dependent development devours resources.

YOU get more. The Number One you look out for. You don’t make do in an eco-friendly cubby hole while Al Gore sprawls in a nine bath, sixty-five hundred square foot Montecito mansion. Reckless, short-sighted real estate development is more egalitarian, at least in this case, helps narrow the gap. He gets to live profligately. Free market capitalism lets you live profligately, too.

(Although not with a Montecito zip code.)

A Cercanías sightseeing ride through Madrid’s afueras shows me kilometer after kilometer of high-rise residential development: some of it ritzy, some of it run-down, but much of it straight out of a Transit Oriented Development textbook. I haven’t knocked on doors to conduct surveys, but my decades of personal experience in transit-centric homes assure me that at least a few of those TOD dwellers are privately miserable, thanks to proximity-to-neighbors issues that wouldn’t plague them in sprawling ‘burbs.

SERVICE OFTEN DICTATES SUCCESS

Should Tom Trekker journey by car, transit, bike or weary bunions to job, market, pharmacy, Flat Earth conference, Tinder assignation? I expect Tom to choose selfishly. How much does the train cost? How often does it run? Can he park? Is there a toll? How much is gas?

Like that. A civic-minded Tom may opt for his transit pass in a toss-up choice between transit modes, but not if the choice would cost him a lot. Some committed environmentalists will sacrifice more, but I presume that they are rare, statistically insignificant. As travelers, we act collectively like acre-feet of water released on a slope. We go where the slope lets us go.

C-5 Cercanías arrives at Embajadores station in Madrid, Spain

C-5 Cercanías arrives at Embajadores station in Madrid, Spain

Put Tom in Los Angeles. He lives in Culver City, just nabbed a swing shift gig at the Lakewood Marketplace, thirty miles southeast. The after-work drive might take a half-hour. Tom leans green, fires up Moovit to investigate transit alternatives.

Moovit has ’em, all right: Tom may gird loins for a transit ride of TWO AND A HALF HOURS each way, with transfers and plenty of walking.

Tom’s going to CarMax. Or he’ll Uber, or quit, or move. A crooked P.R. writer could paint his choice as a knock against public transit as a transit mode. It wouldn’t be. He would travel as poured on the slope, as city infrastructure encouraged him to travel.

In the New York Times, I read of Koch Brothers efforts to kill U.S. public transit projects. In the Economist, I read of declining transit ridership, with a focus on U.S. cities. Forgive me for connecting dots, particularly if I reflect on last century’s Great Transportation Conspiracy.

Age has taught me to pay more attention to such corollaries. Shaft, cheat and sabotage your adversary behind the scenes, bat innocent eyelashes while publicly pronouncing her proposal as unrealistic, misguided.

Shared ride is a different story. Uber undoubtedly siphons off gobs of transit riders without bottom dealing, controversies notwithstanding. I also open interested eyes as others point to an autonomous vehicle (AV) revolution on the horizon. “By 2030,” opines the BCG consultancy, as quoted in another Economist article, “a quarter of passenger miles travelled on America’s roads will be in shared, self-driving electric vehicles, reducing the number of cars on city streets by 60%, emissions by 80% and road accidents by 90%.”

“I hope they’re right,” thought I, as I read, and then edited myself: “In much of the U.S., something like that will have to be right.” What else are some growing, auto-dependent U.S. cities going to do? They didn’t expand around a brawny transit infrastructure, a la Stockholm or Copenhagen. They sprawled with the car, painted themselves into a corner. Shared-ride AVs or else.

PERSONAL CAR AS CANCER IN DEVELOPED EUROPEAN CITIES

The world-class, powerhouse Madrid transit infrastructure coexists with endless clogged lanes of honking, smoking, particulate-spewing cars, cars, cars. Madrid makes room for them on traffic arteries, but not gracefully. Central Madrid wasn’t made for them. On some of those twisting, narrow central city streets, every car can feel like an intrusion. Conversation pauses as it approaches — noisily, on brick-paved streets — waits for it to pass, continues after it goes away.

It’s easy to wave a toy wand from a little blog soapbox, decry problems uneasily fixed in the real world. I presume that Madrid provides a livelihood to merchants who would face bankruptcy without an auto trade, who know where political bodies are buried and how to push power levers, who may be happy to leave a pol alone if the pol leaves them alone.

The real-world maneuvering must be plenty tough, but I feel confident in judging it as worthwhile. Nearly anything that these ill-suited-for-the-auto European cities can do to restrict traffic may be for the better, especially if said cities can attract tourists or hope reasonably for urban renewal.

* * * * *

7/26/2018: Two eenie-weenie style edits.

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openSUSE Tumbleweed: a Linux Distro review

I chronicled my Windows-to-Linux transition in early 2016, posted a mid-2017 update, today describe adoption of a new-to-me Linux variant.

Two warnings! This post is:

() Inexcusably geeky. Inexcusably! I had something to say in 2016 and 2017, today only wallow shamelessly in a long-dormant computer nerd’s streak rekindled by the switch from Windows.

Other geeks may read my ravings with interest. No one else will. I am not a computer writer, have no business pitching the blog 4×4 into the bush for a wild-eyed hobbyist detour. No editor would accept this.

openSUSE Linux gecko | CC-BY-SA 3.0, https://github.com/openSUSE/artwork/

openSUSE Linux gecko | CC-BY-SA 3.0, https://github.com/openSUSE/artwork/

() Potentially dangerous. Casual new Linux tinkerers should be shooed away posthaste from the variant to be described, may monkey wrench functional machinery, tempt rage, bankruptcy! madness! death!

Fellow nerds may be curious anyway. So were ancient Greek mariners, about those sweetly-crooning sirens in Odyssey. Read on! You’ve been warned.

* * * * *

Since Windows NT begot Windows 2000 and Windows 2000 begot Windows XP, I have dreamed of freedom from the operating system release cycle. I understood the “why” of the release cycle. Software developers couldn’t kick powerful new features out the door willy-nilly; they had to test, tune, package, test again, fuss over scripts to transition clueless hunt-and-peckers from superseded Platform A to latest-and-greatest Platform B.

The “what” rankled. I didn’t want to buy another box, another license, a new disc, another bloated manual. As Windows matured, I bitterly suspected Redmond of issuing new editions largely to extort license fee income from defenseless users.

Might there be an alternative? What if I could install an OS once, only once, and thereafter let the binary thing nurture itself online; consume patches and upgrades as needed; sip, feed and excrete without regularly demanding new licenses, boxes and disks from weary ol’ Tim? Did I dream idly? Might such an OS exist?

Not in the Windows world, and I saw no hope from Cupertino, either; MacOS users trudged from Lion to Yosemite to Sierra, as I had slogged from NT to XP to 7. Most free Linux “distros” also evolved via the release cycle model.

(Which should have told me plenty. A whole lot of plenty. I risk getting ahead of myself.)

But: the anarchic Linux world also offered a few tantalizing exceptions: “rolling release” distros. I read details of these hybrids, blinked, rubbed disbelieving eyes. My dream made real!

The user might install a “rolling release” distro once, only once. The OS could thereafter slurp limitlessly from an online fountain of youth, forever make itself fresh, current, up to date, whole. A rolling release is versionless.

Reddit contributors claimed that Arch Linux rollers installed in 2008 and 2010 still tickety-tocked smoothly in 2016. These did not limp along on patch-swaddled last legs, like an obsolete Windows install in the twilight of an extended support cycle. No: the 2008 Arch install had rejuvenated itself time and time again, could declare itself equal to an Arch install downloaded and configured this morning. It may continue to emit that new OS smell in 2025, 2030, beyond.

I studied, prowled Linux bulletin boards, identified rolling distros, compared. I could try Gentoo, which powers Nasdaq (or did in 2011), but glimpsed signs of a fading star. Arch is certainly the best known roller, but is notoriously opaque to newcomers, won’t install without mechanicking. Worse, for me: Arch seemed far more willing to frisbee bleeding edge software to users without adequate testing. Variants Antergos and Manjaro would be easier to use, but hadn’t been around that long, at least by my standards.

I turned to openSUSE Tumbleweed. A post by openSUSE chair Richard Brown averred that Tumbleweed tested far more thoroughly than Arch or Gentoo, thanks to the Open Build Service. I contemplated praise from Linux writers J.A. Watson and Swapnil Bhartiya, judged the praise as credible. No less a light than Linux Foundation fellow Greg Kroah-Hartman had conjured up the Tumbleweed model. How wrong could I go? And I felt like tinkering.

I bid adieu to the already-excellent Linux Mint distro, installed Tumbleweed in the summer of ’17, write with my verdict a year later.

Do I like it?

I do! Very much! I hunt and peck these very words on a computer directed by Tumbleweed.

Should I have adopted it in the first place?

Probably not. openSUSE, sure. The Tumbleweed rolling distro, well …

Do I recommend it to most other users? To Linux newcomers?

NO! NO! NO! NO!

NO! NO! NO! NO!

Only to enthusiasts. If you enjoy computer configuration and can cope with inevitable related bumps and scrapes, join me as I plunge into the gory details:

* * * * *

The Tumbleweed distro is issued in snapshots. Subscribers to the online open-suse factory mailing list receive automated messages declaring issuance of snapshot 20180626, or 20181030, or, if all goes well, 20850105. Each snapshot incorporates whatever whiz-bang software cleared testing after the release of the predecessor snapshot days earlier.

Users may see seven snapshots in a week, or three, or, rarely, none. It depends. One may ignore their issuance, compute merrily along with a snapshot from months before, but may not always compute safely; the fresh snapshots also tend to security concerns.

How does one upgrade a snapshot? As I write in mid 2018: via one occult command, and one command only, issued from the root user terminal prompt:

zypper dup

Will Tumbleweed harangue the new user to use this command, and this command only? No! Worse: the freshly-installed Tumbleweed OS is likely to include a cute icon in the system tray, brightly informing the clueless newbie that XX updates are available for download.

The newbie is supposed to ignore this cute icon. (And may finally be abetted in this ignoring by a long overdue distro change, according to a recent post on the support forum.) The icon would invoke changes afield of the sacroscant zypper dup, could monkey wrench Tumbleweed’s innards. He is just supposed to know that, as one knows how to squirm, lick lips, drool.

The user willing to overlook this idiosyncrasy shall greet an otherwise first rate, state-of-the-art Linux operating system. Eventually she shall want to invoke the almighty zypper dup, to see if anything has changed since installation.

Usually, something has. A lot of somethings. Rolling releases like Tumbleweed strive to offer the latest and greatest. If program author A tweaks two lines of code to issue version 0.97.6.7.5.3b of her pride and joy, superseding version 0.97.6.7.5.3a, you’re going to get it after it clears testing, whether you needed 0.97.6.7.5.3b or not.

I judged my old Linux Mint installation to be busy if it downloaded a half dozen patches in a day. A single zypper dup may announce availability of hundreds of new packages, editions, kernels, patches. If you’ve let the computer sit for a month, ‘hundreds’ may swell to ‘thousands.’

Everything new, current, up-to-date. I run the latest and greatest Linux kernel, or close to it; the latest and greatest browsers, email clients, office suites, utilities. I don’t download programs from hither and yon, as in my Windows days; my software is tested, verified, hails straight from the openSUSE repositories. I compute more safely.

Tumbleweed feels zippy, polished, expert, tight, more so than Linux Mint, far more so than Windows 7. The above-mentioned repositories host most everything I could hope to install while using any Linux distro. I have escaped the release cycle, as I dreamed, and have done so aboard one of Linux’s most professional, respected distros.

What’s not to like?

Two negatives, one trivial, one not trivial at all.

() Zypper dup can consume thirty minutes, even with an SSD.

And the potential deal breaker:

() On five occasions since my summer-of-2017 adoption of Tumbleweed, zypper dup either Chernobyled my computer or rendered some essential program inoperable.

Get that, please, grok it; put it in your pipe, smoke it. Innocent, unsuspecting moi ran zypper dup to update like a good Tumbleweeder, as a Windows user would update on Patch Tuesday, and found myself afterward with an unusable machine. Zypper dup had blackjacked my box, without warning, through no fault of my own.

(The culprit in two of the five Chernobyls was Tumbleweed’s temperamental relationship with the proprietary Nvidia graphics card driver, warned about in the J.A. Watson article. I could have swapped cards, or used the open-source driver. The other three blow-ups had nothing to do with Nvidia.)

So life goes with a rolling distro. Self-reliance is presumed, a frontier spirit. New point releases are fine tuned, fretted about, fussed over, presented on sparkling silver cloche platters. Additions to rolling distros are heaved brusquely over transoms. No one forced me to compute alongside the experts who run rollers. They can fix the occasional mess made by a Tumbleweed or Arch update. I’m supposed to be able to fix it, too.

So far, I have managed. An update that KOs my computer invariably KOs others. The experts gripe, on the mailing list and in the openSUSE forums; they troubleshoot, offer tips, solutions. I keep Clonezilla disk image back-ups of my Tumbleweed installation, can fall back on an older snapshot until the problem is fixed.

The bittersweet result: I may be free of the operating system release cycle, but have spent far more time fussing over my rolling distro than I ever would have fussed to upgrade from point release A to point release B. openSUSE impresses, but I probably should have (sigh …) adopted their point release distro Leap instead, or stood pat with Mint. (Although I’ll likely Tumble from here on in, now that I’ve hacked my way through the worst of the Tumbleweed learning curve.)

If also tempted by the Tumbleweed bleeding edge: Dost thou know how to make and restore a disk image, either via the fabulous free Clonezilla or a commercial equivalent? Canst thou partition a disk, and, perhaps, fix a broken boot loader? I’ll dare to name these skills as entry bars for Tumbleweed adoption, especially the first one. I figured out how to do this stuff, still judge my knowledge as barely adequate to drive Tumbleweed daily. (Although one can install the Tumbleweed ISO in a virtual machine, fiddle to one’s heart’s content.)

* * * * *

Mostly nerd-only notes:

() I’ve got lots of ram, installed Tumbleweed without swap in a single ext4 partition, immediately disabled Snapper. Clonezilla likes ext4, hasn’t played well with the default btrfs file format.

() I installed the Nvidia driver “the hard way,” was unimpressed by experiments with the Tumbleweed Nvidia repository and DKMS.

() Expect freely-given expert advice in the user forums, a strong openSUSE plus.

() Thank you, openSUSErs Simon Lees, Doug DeMaio, Jimmy Berry and unknown others, for graciously fielding my ignoramus questions at the annual conference this May in Prague.

() Amiable openSUSE chair Richard Brown told me at this conference that Greg Kroah-Hartman gets credit for that fat Weltschmerz of a distro name: Tumbleweed. Think about it. It doesn’t roll; it tumbles, like a rusty TV clattering off the back of a dump truck. What opinion does its own inventor hold of that which tumbles? Did he call it a TumbleDiamond, or a TumbleBlossom? Success despite pessimism!

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Mugged in Guatemala City

Before I saw the mugger’s knife, I noticed his shirt: a roll-your-own-logo tee, the kind you’d order online as a gift with a relative’s favorite hokey catchphrase. Official Olympic Beer Drinking Team. Duct Tape Ph.D. I’m With Stupid. That kind of shirt.

An English catchphrase on the shirt, even though he mugged me in Guatemala City. Something senseless, something about cigarettes. Maybe he’d worn it on purpose. You want to roll tourists, you can wear a weird shirt, lure in their eyeballs until they’re too close to get away.

It was early afternoon on May 4, already too hot for me. I was sweaty, tired, had just tramped north on 7A Avenida from the archaeology museum, hoped only to get around the big Boulevar Liberación traffic interchange to continue east to my hotel. My smartphone map had shown me a pedestrian walkway behind the Tecún Umán monument. I’d taken the walkway on the way to the museum, had noted — uncomfortably, more presciently than I knew — that a forty meter stretch under the eucalyptus trees was isolated from traffic. But how else was I going to get around that big interchange? And this part of Guatemala City was supposed to be safe. Wasn’t it?

An online photo shows where it happened. See the beige fence behind the monument? Where it dips into the eucalyptus trees on the left? That’s where he got me.

I think I’d just passed the last beige fence section in the photo when I saw him, a crew-cut, thickset twenty-something, hiking up the walkway toward me. With that shirt. I remember trying to stare at it without being obvious, wondering what it meant and why anyone would want to print that ridiculous sentence about cigarettes.

Then he pulled the knife.

A fixed-blade knife, like a bowie, but with a shorter blade. Maybe four inches. The police report said he threatened to kill me. That part wasn’t right. He didn’t have to. I knew why he had it.

I sized up my options. They weren’t good.

I could turn, run, try to get back to traffic and eyewitnesses on 7A Avenida. They were a long way back now. Retirees rarely outrun twenty somethings.

I could resist. He had the knife and at least thirty years on me.

He held the knife at shoulder height to get me to look at it. He stepped closer.

* * * * *

Guatemala exists, functions, abides; simultaneously, it crumbles, collapses, caves in on itself. Its people industriously erect new girders on the national superstructure, even as the beams of stories below crack, rupture, collapse. The country reminded me of a former D.A. I once knew who worked in sales while recovering from a nervous breakdown. To meet the man was to see both the D.A. and the breakdown: an orator’s stage presence accompanied by twitches, trembling.

Chicken Bus in Guatemala City / CC BY-NC 2.0 by Catherine Todd

Chicken Bus in Guatemala City traffic / CC BY-NC 2.0 by Catherine Todd

Corruption infests all levels of Guatemala’s government, a charity worker told me; she gestured at storefronts as we rode through the outskirts of Antigua, opined that most proprietors pay rent to gangs. The gangs also prey on the operators of the public transit “chicken buses,” at least in Guatemala City. Two long-timers in country had warned me away from these buses (which is why the mugger caught me on foot). Some rode safely for years, they said, but gangs had gunned down drivers, held up riders at gunpoint.

How does one travel in the capital, if fearful of walking or using public transit? One may drive. Or ride cabs, or Uber. Before my mugging, I had tramped wearily past endless homely Guatemala City blocks gridlocked with rumbling, smoking, honking cars, cars, cars: cars like fortresses, with windshields and side windows tinted dark, nearly black, foiling the view of a potential thief or gun man. “If you live in Guatemala,” a businessman would tell me, on the plane ride back to Madrid, “you learn how to stay safe.” I had enjoyed a few blocks of Zone 10’s Zona Viva and the park-like campus around Museo Popol Vuh, but otherwise judged the city to be as cute as an abscess, largely thanks to the traffic.

“Child labor is a fact of life in Guatemala,” guides will say, to steel visitors for what they will see and not change. As a Los Angeles school teacher, I chose seven year olds as crayon monitors, listened to their giddy hopes for visits from Santa. In Guatemala, I saw children that young pace between fuming exhausts on gridlocked traffic lanes, selling lottery tickets, fruit, candy. Working. Twenty-three percent of Guatemalans live in extreme poverty; almost half the population is under nineteen.

Why do natives risk life and limb to emigrate to the U.S.? Visit. You’ll see.

* * * * *

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala / CC by 2.0 by Tatiana Travelways

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala / CC by 2.0 by Tatiana Travelways

Guatemala still offers sights worth seeing, its malignant infrastructure notwithstanding. The waters in the shot above belong to Lake Atitlán: a half-day drive from Guatemala City, spectacular, described as safe. It too is in the process of collapsing, thanks to serious, inadequately addressed pollution issues, but I judged the pollution to be largely invisible to sightseers. I smelled no untoward odors, saw no floating debris.

Picturesque hamlets dot the shores of the volcano-ringed lake, and a tourist can comfortably visit most in a single day via a boat ferry. Three-wheeled tuk-tuks noisily ply the narrow roads, bussing riders for a few quetzales. Camera-toting Europeans stroll alongside young Guatemaltecas in bright Mayan dress.

Each shoreside town offers a different vibe. Little San Juan struck me as the prettiest. I stayed in Panajachel, dubbed “Gringotenango” for its population of pale-faced tourists. San Marcos could have been transported by time machine from a sixties hippy commune; a visiting baby boomer may wax nostalgic here over a carob-fruit smoothie, under a cafe bulletin board advertising yoga classes, crystal healing.

Hours closer to Guatemala City is another tourist hub: Antigua, a centuries-old capital of Spain’s empire in the Americas. Antigua is flat, cobblestoned, home to the eighteenth century Convento Santa Clara, the Templo Santa Teresa de Jesus, Cerro de la Cruz, a charming Plaza Mayor. In Atitlán, I mostly met tourists visiting from the Old World; in Antigua, I met more Americans, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps because I took a Bay Area expat’s (excellent) tip to dine at vegetarian Samsara. Cuisine that appeals to one Yankee may appeal to others.

Some Guatemala visitors hop aboard short, cheap Avianca or Tag shuttle flights from Guatemala City to Flores, then ride north to admire the ruins of ancient Tikal. Others are partial to Livingston and the Rio Dulce. Visit either and you’ll know more than I do: I saw only the capital, Antigua, Atitlán and the roads between.

Tuk Tuks in San Pedro / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Clark & Kim Kays

Tuk Tuks in San Pedro, Lake Atitlán / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Clark & Kim Kays

You could go! Avoid Guatemala City, book private transport from the airport to Atitlán, Antigua or whatever site you decide to visit first. Approach ATMs with care, and read up on their use first on online Guatemala travel forums. The European tourists seemed happy to be vacationing in Guatemala, although a few griped about their hotel accommodations. I met no other crime victims.

* * * * *

The mugger got my smartphone first, accepted it with his left hand as his right held the knife close to my midsection. Then he wanted something else, and despite my shock and fear I managed to register a moment of fleeting, bitter irony.

“Los paños!” he had just demanded.

Los what?!

Paño meant cloth; what was he talking about?! I goggled at him helplessly. For almost two years I had battled daily with español as an expat in Madrid. How horribly fitting that my inadequate Spanish might now get me knifed.

“Los paños!” he insisted again, but must have judged my incomprehension as sincere, and changed tack. He seemed to be in a morbidly cheerful mood. Did my bewilderment amuse him? Or was he pleased to have stumbled into a likely crime of opportunity, to have bagged an elderly tourist?

“Tu dinero!” he demanded. I pulled out my wallet. “Todo, todo!” I opened the billfold, grabbed all the quetzales, handed them over.

And then it ended. He said something stern about staying put, walked off. Dazedly, so did I. I felt as I might have felt if spattered with mud from a passing truck while en route to a wedding in a tuxedo. Something bad had happened, something unexpected; I couldn’t travel back in time to make it right; I had to adjust.

Could I find my hotel without my smartphone? I reached Calle Montúfar, squinted uncertainly east toward the distant skyscrapers of Zone 10. At least he’d mugged me close to the hotel. If I could just find the plaza; that would be close enough; I’d recognize buildings.

I settled into the hike, flanked again by lanes of the city’s interminable traffic, as hot and sweaty as I’d felt before the mugging, and now dazed, too. Instinctively I reached for my smartphone to check the mapping app, had to remind myself why the pocket was empty.

* * * * *

My childhood trips to San Francisco’s Playland-at-the-Beach amusement park almost always included a go on the Devil’s Wheel: a circular platform, perhaps seven meters wide, surrounded by bumper cushions. A dozen kids might rush onto the platform at the start of a turn; we picked our spots on the polished wood, braced our little fingers. The wheel began to rotate, picked up speed, spun faster, faster; we squealed as it spun us into the bumpers. Sometimes only a single victor remained sitting at the end of the turn; often, there were none.

My trip to Guatemala reminded me of that wheel. No challenge seems to more frustrate humankind than good government. Study some health metrics — from Transparency International, Reporters Without Borders, the Economist Democracy Index and the OECD — and you may conclude that only a handful of countries have achieved anything like it: Scandinavian countries especially, Switzerland, New Zealand, a few others. The rest flounder for a grip on various spots on the wheel. If they are as close to the edge as Guatemala, life conspires constantly to make matters worse.

Scores of online travel forum threads report ATM fraud in Guatemala; some suggest darkly that bank insiders have played a role. Experts describe organized crime networks within branches of Guatemalan government. Consider the implications. Any society needs and should produce citizens who are honest, bright and stable enough to make core institutions function: utilities, banks, hospitals, providers-of-essentials, government itself. What happens when individuals in this rank take a shaft-or-be-shafted attitude: grab the bribe now, get rich while the dirty money is available, let society take care of itself?

“Nothing good,” is the answer, and the crumbling invites more of the same. Leaders can’t demand a clean slate, have to play with the chips left over by administrations, decrees, lucky and unlucky breaks past. Guatemala can’t call Deliveroo for a cheerier twentieth century CV (hold the CIA coup, the Rios Montt dictatorship) or a sunnier set of vital stats.

* * * * *

The Guatemala City cops wore powder blue uniform polo shirts. They sat across the table from the hotel security chief and me, two athletic twenty-somethings, asked polite questions. When had it happened? Where? What did he steal?

Going through the motions, I thought. Where did I think I’d been mugged, exactly? Oslo? Zurich? What miracles did I expect them to perform for a tourist leaving the country in a day in a city where gangs gunned down bus drivers? But: I was entitled to make the report, and perhaps too they felt privately grateful to sit for awhile in a quiet, ritzy, air-conditioned hotel conference room, away from the heat and scorching sun. They asked more questions, took notes.

I thanked them, returned to my room. I stared dourly out at the city skyline from the picture window and tried to size up where I stood, a mugging victim in the computer age.

I hadn’t lost much. I had left my dSLR in Madrid, thanks to Guatemala’s crime rep, had also safely stored passport and some vital ID and bank cards before venturing outdoors that morning. The six hundred stolen quetzales came to under seventy euros. The cellular sim card was a prepaid from Guatemala telecom Claro, picked up at an airport kiosk. I would have chucked it on the plane anyway.

The main loss was the smartphone. One of the cops had asked about Android Device Manager. I’d answered simply that I didn’t have it, rather than tell the long story about the switch to F-Droid, why I’d rather lose a phone than be tracked worldwide. But now I had to accept the downside: I couldn’t use Device Manager to erase the phone from afar. Any personal data in /sdcard was in the wild.

Still not much. I regard smartphones warily, avoid them for log-ins, email, banking, shopping. But I’d copied .pdfs of my passport and Spanish ID onto /sdcard. In the wild now.

Then I remembered a .pdf’d itinerary on /sdcard, with emergency contact information for a relative and a friend. Would a crook contact them with an “Urgent-I’m-in-the-hospital-please-wire-$10,000” scam?

Better be safe. I rode the elevator to the hotel lounge, asked to use a computer, logged into a junk e-mail account to send heads’ up messages to the friend and relative in question. A lounge host lingered solicitously. Could he get me anything to drink?

We chatted. He was about thirty, regally dressed in a starched white tunic, fit for Buckingham Palace. We started in Spanish, but his English turned out to be excellent, as good as I’d heard at the hotel.

“You must have lived abroad.” He smiled self-consciously; yes, he had; eight childhood years in New England with his family. I thought of asking about the return to Guatemala, checked myself. Perhaps a sore point. Too personal.

He asked politely about Madrid. I spoke enthusiastically of my adopted home, described some of the hurdles of the visa application process. I offered details, too many. He must have realized that I assumed that he wanted to get out of Guatemala. He blinked, flustered, looked at me in confusion.

* * * * *

In Madrid, I showed the Guatemala police report to a few regulars at the intercambio I host at the VIPs Velázquez — our home restaurant now, cool, plush, soft lit, tucked under the Calle Velázquez oaks in the El Viso ward, one of the city’s toniest. Some clucked sympathetically. No one was surprised.

“Isn’t the crime like that in all the Latin American countries?” one Spaniard wondered sadly. Look at Venezuela. Horrible problems. Of course, people wanted to leave. Why, half the waiters in central Madrid now had to be from Caracas! Twenty years ago they’d all come from Buenos Aires. Had I heard of the corralito in Argentina? The bank run?

No, nothing that bad now in Spain. I shouldn’t misunderstand, the financial crisis had been terrible, terrible … but no, nothing like that. And Madrid was a relatively safe city. Not all parts, not the Cañada Real, but who went there? Drug users.

The chat moved to other matters, the usual intercambio fare: summer heat in Córdoba (46 Celsius sometimes!), dealing with accents (Andalusia, the Canaries, the American South), what was my candid personal opinion as a native English speaker of the Vaughan Method? Be blunt!  (No idea; sorry.) The meeting ended. Participants drifted off. I set out on my usual shortcut to the Gregorio Marañón metro station, in no hurry (The trains ran every four minutes.), listening to a Spanish radio interview through ear buds as I strolled through the lengthening shadows of early evening in spring. I felt fortunate.

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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:

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

* * * * *

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

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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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