Monday, June 21, 1999

Sagrada Familia/Dogs, Nougat & Pringles


I'm sitting in the airport station, gotta ticket for my destination (hmm mmm mmm). I´m going to Mallorca again, and my flight has been delayed an hour, so I figured I'd take out my frustration on you all and write some more. Yesterday afternoon I finally went to see the inside of the Temple of the Sagrada Familia. This is disgraceful, of course, because I´ve lived next to it for almost two months now. The same thing happened when I lived in DC. In eight years I never saw the Holocaust Museum. Buildings are like your friends. You figure ah hell, they´ll always be there, so you don´t bother to go see them. And then one day you call their phone number and it´s been disconnected. Oops, we were talking about buildings (but while we´re here, does anybody have Cathy K´s phone?)

So I went to see it. It´s not for nothing that this building is so closely associated with Barcelona. It´s our Eiffel Tower, our Empire Steate Building, our Watergate Hotel. And it was designed by the architect best known for his work in Barcelona, Antonio Gaudi. An eccentric and deeply spiritual man, he was given (almost) free reign to build in Barcelona by the city´s elite in the late 1800´s and early 1900´s. When you say the word "Modernismo" you have to say Gaudi in the same breath. When you come to see Barcelona, you basically come to see Gaudi´s work.

The temple really is quite amazing. One of the neat things about Barcelona is that you´re never more than 100 meters from some local monument, but nothing prepares you for this. The neighborhood isn´t much to shout about, but you walk through this fairly mundane street, turn a corner, and there it is. Unbelievably huge, it looks like someone has built the world´s most beautiful church and then somehow made it more beautiful by melting half of it. It currently consists of four (or eight, depending on how you count) towers, each tower a pair of granite taper candles extending upward over 100 feet. I was reminded of the castles we would make on the beach in North Carolina by dripping wet sand in a pile.

The exterior is covered with all kinds of, well, stuff... giant snails, fruits indigenous to Cataluña, a huge green Cyprus tree-- much of the stonework is in color. I wondered how they convinced the government to fund this, and in fact they didn´t. It´s being built entirely from private contributions.

A great thing about Spain is that they don´t have the legal concept of the "Attractive Nuisance". (Scenario: Guy A puts in a pool. Guy B´s kid drowns in Guy A´s pool while skinny-dipping and autoasphyxiating. Guy B sues Guy A, claiming that the pool was an "Attractive Nuisance". Guy B wins, and now has enough money to build his own pool, but Guy A is now so poor that he has to move to house C in Love Canal where he and his family contract diseases D, E, and F.) If this temple were in the U.S., there would be lawsuits galore. Going up in the towers you climb up a series of spiral staircases which are dark, narrow, twisty, and breathtaking. There were open balconies every 10 feet or so, which was fine, until a part of my brain said, what if I went nuts and... Jumped Over The Side!?!? Which sounds ridiculous, but I have proof: my brain is attracted to whatever it knows it can´t do. Like the times I´ve gone to a party, knowing I would see Jones and his wife. I would have a little talk beforehand with my brain: "In no uncertain terms will anyone in here mention the affair he´s having. Agreed?" And all the little voices in my head would assent, sure man, whatever. So I arrive at the party, and there are Jones and his wife. I stick out my hand, grin, and open my mouth: "So Jones, how´s the mistress, ahmm, I mean business"... and go plummeting 100 feet over the side of the tower of acceptable social behavior.

The towers were crawling with tourists from the US, Germany, and France. I kept thinking, Tower of Babel, Tower of Babel. There were walkways between the towers, some of them quite long, completely open to the sky. As I walked out on the longest one, I noticed I was making little involuntary noises with my throat like my Grandmother makes when she´s sleeping. Needless to say I didn´t hang out for long on them. But on one I realized that I could see my house. Cool. All I could think of was that stupid joke where Jesus is up on the cross and groans, "Peter, come here", and Peter tries repeatedly to get to Jesus´s side, but keeps getting turned away by the guards. Peter finally manages to claw and fight his way to Jesus´s side and, bloody and beaten, yells up, "Yes, Lord, what do you want to tell me?" And Jesus says, "Peter, Peter... I can see your house from up here."

I ended up just laying around this weekend, which gave me time to think about the really important things. Like, why do dogs age seven years in one year? What, are they shooting heroin when we aren´t looking or something? Or how about this: "Pringue" means "grease drippings" in Spanish. And yet Pringles sell, sell, sell here. I wonder what that means. And the packaging is different here. Most packages have their copy translated into the fifteen languages spoken here. Which makes for a lot less room for copy. In the States we have so much room on our packages that they have to hire a Copy Writer to fill up the space. Imagine this job: Some guy goes to college for seven years to get his B.A. in English lit, and ends up writing about "Krunchy, Chocolaty wafers filled with creamy nougat..." Here they have about enough room for one line of copy, which they probably delegate out to one of the nougat engineers: "Hey Manuel, gimme some copy... 'Real Nice Cookies'? okay, sounds great". And they translate it into fifteen languages and away we go.

Well, the notice board for my flight just changed to "Amsterdam". On the whole, I´d rather go there. But I guess I´d better go see what´s going on. I miss you all. Love, Tim

Wednesday, June 16, 1999

Really Good Day

Hey Everybody!

I´m waiting out a meeting here so I can head home with my co-workers. Again, I´m in lovely Mallorca, seeing beautiful skylines from our wonderful office. Yipee. My co-worker is stuck in an interminable meeting (thank god I´m not in it), and it´s considered kinda rude here to head home without the whole team. Meetings are really a big deal here, as much as we talk about doing work back in the good ole US, we do about twice as much here. We had a three hour monstrosity of a meeting this afternoon, right after lunch. It was grueling. Everyone in the meeting, including the guy who called it, was complaining, as if meetings were just part of life, something to put up with. And they´re all in Castilian Spanish (if they´re not in Catalan: eek), which lets me really feel like a martyr.

For instance, in the meeting, I was thinking to myself, it´s important never to lose one´s Sense of Wonder. Right then my Spanish was failing, and I found myself thinking, "I Wonder what the hell is going on?" and "I can´t seem to make any Sense of this". Spain builds character.

Fortunately, next week there´s a holiday of some kind. Spain´s great about this, there´s a holiday every other week, almost always of a religious nature. I started wondering why churches don´t have a holiday called "Really Good Day". It would be a day to commemorate the one day in the Supreme Being´s life when everything went just right. Like the day He got up and the sun was shining, and His car started on the first try, and maybe a girl smiled at Him. Nothing special, just better than commemorating the day He died in fearful agony. That should be "Really Bad Day".

Another great holiday would be the day He figured it out. That would be the day the Supreme Deity figured out the He (or She) was the Supreme Deity and not just Some Joe. Like He (or She) is sitting around, thinking, "y´know, water´s great, I really like water, but it sure would be great to have some wine right now," and POOF! his water turns into wine. He says, woah, and then goes on to raise people from the dead and walk on water and stuff. Kind of like "Anything Can Happen Day" on the Mickey Mouse Club Show.

I went walking on Las Ramblas this weekend, on Saturday, and ran into my friend Hector (Barcelona´s small enough to do stuff like that), who had just bought a new guitar. We ended up having an impromptu jam session on Las Ramblas with two guys from Holland, Tom (probably not his real name) who played washboard, and Juurgens (definitely not his real name, but I really didn´t get it), who played piano. The only song that came to mind was Johnathan Edwards´ "Don´t Cry Blue", and I got to relish the assuredly false impression that I was the first guy ever to play Country music on Las Ramblas. You can do stuff like that here and almost no one ever calls you on it.

One of my favorite songs ever is Joni Mitchell´s "In France They Kiss on Main Street". I´m gonna write a song called, "In Spain They Do Just About Everything on Main Street". This behavior used to surprise me some (since my Mom and Dad get to read these emails, I´m not going to explain much more), but now I just kind of smile and realize that underpopulation will never ever be a problem here.

I´m really homesick today. I miss Taco Bell and that little dog (they don´t eat tacos here, contrary to popular belief). I would miss "Allie McBeal", but we get that here, dubbed in Spanish. Which is real odd. I really miss Pennsylvania Avenue, which is the Passeig de Gracia of Washington D.C. I miss you guys. Ugh, the radio is playing "American Pie". I don´t miss that. I started to try to explain the significance of the song to my co-worker (y´know, Buddy Holly, Mick Jagger, etc) and then realized that there really was no point in it.

Yippee, the meeting is over, paella time. Talk to you all soon. Love, -Tim

Friday, June 11, 1999

A good plan

Dear Everybody,

Well, I just finished off a week in Luverly Mallorca. It was great, I sat in the office and looked out the window at the second loveliest place I´d ever seen, twelve hours a day. It looks like I´ll be returning there each week until 1 July. I turn 35 on 30 June. I´m going to turn 35 in Mallorca, Spain. I´m from Lumberton. Ha ha ha. I get to come back to Barcelona each week to take my Spanish classes on Fridays. One of the subtle ways that the language sticks it to you here if you´re an American is by changing your nationality. Here it´s Estadounidense. About 50 times a day I have to pronounce the unpronounceable "Soy de los Estados Unidos" or "En los Estados Unidos..." Everyone else gets off easy: Mejicano, or Italiono, or something. After a while, you just stop mentioning the USA. My solution, of course was to start saying I was from Texas: "Yo soy Tejano". Which worked fine. Until I found out that this actually means, "I am a pair of blue jeans", a la JFK´s "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a donut).

An Excellent plan:
a. Move to Europe.
b. Insult Europeans

Last night I had dinner with my co-workers in Mallorca, Teresa from Madrid, Maria from Barcelona, and a fellow from France named Richard. Sometimes I just have to stop and let it all sink in. Anyway, somewhere between the Tallerines Negros and Dessert, I asked Richard (of course pronounced "Reesh-ar" just to be French) where he was from. Keep in mind that this whole conversation took place in thrilling technicolor Spanish, just making the high comedy a little, um, higher. He replied that he was from some unpronounceable place in the Alps, near Hen-Ebra. Being American (or whatever I am, good lord this place is complicated) I said, oh, that´s nice, I´ve never heard of Hen-Ebra. He Look At Me In Awe, as if I had suddenly grown an eyeball in the middle of my forehead with the reflection of an American Flag waving in it. "Jou have neaver heeard off Hen-Ebra? Theese Americains! Bouf!" Whereupon I got up on my horse, pulled on my cowboy hat, and let him have it at full gallop: "Hey hombre, have you ever heard of Lumberton? Do you have any idea of where Louisiana is?" (he said it was next to Florida. Hah!) I ranted on in this fashion for a few minutes when a little trigger went off in my head: "Hmmm, Hen-Ebra... Spanish pronunciation Genebra... oh. Geneva.)"

Suddenly my horse threw me, removed its shoes, and refused to budge, claiming that its new European 32 hour work week was over. I realized that I had suddenly become very ugly and very American, and later discovered that the Tallarines Negros had stained my teeth black, making me bizarre to boot. I said the only thing to be said in these situations: "So, how about them Bears?" They didn´t get it, but it was better than, "Gee, I sure am an Ugly, Bizarre American".

It´s been a good week, really. I´m actually happy to be working again. I wonder if I´m going to be travelling constantly again for Oracle Spain like I was for Oracle USA. I´m not sure if that would be good or bad. I´m not even sure if "good" or "bad" can be applied accurately in this situation. Hmmm, this letter is taking on this kind of "¿Quien soy yo, y donde voy?" shade, so I think I´ll close until next week. Take care, -Tim

Tuesday, June 1, 1999

And then a bird pooped on me...

Dear Everybody,

Well, I got my work permit, finally. I had to go to Lisbon, in Portugal, to get it. It was quite a trip. I had to take a sleeper car, which I had done before, but not by myself. When you´re a single guy, they put you in the sleeper car with the other single guys. Single guys who have not figured out that you gotta scrub your feet once a month whether they need it or not. Yippee.

After I arrived, I went to the embassy (theirs, not ours), filled out the form, handed it in, and the guy behind the window told me to go get a cuppa joe, this is gonna take a while (well, not in those words). Half an hour later I was a legal Spanish worker.

I walked around and looked at stuff, got rained on, and once again had the strange sensation of being in a country where I couldn´t even ask for the location of the bathroom, as I speak no Portuguese. It´s hard to remember being like that in Spanish, but I did do this when I first went to Bolivia. Worse was Japan, where I didn´t learn a word in two years. Or maybe Scotland, where I thought I spoke the language but actually didn´t.

Lisbon was beautiful, and not at all like Barcelona. There was an even bigger rich to poor spread, some of it downright heartbreaking. Apparently the population of Lisbon exploded after the Portugeuse colonies in Africa were granted independence in the 70´s. About a million people came to Lisboa. Anyway, As I walked back to the train station to leave Lisbon I read the grafitti along the way: NATO FORA DOS BALCÃS (NATO out of the Balkans), then ten yards later, in perfect English, JOE IS A S.O.B. Surprisingly sophisticated. The next was written neatly on a hot pink building, again in perfect English: PORTUGAL IS CURSED BY GOD.

I got back to Spain to find that the magazine "Interviu" had recently headlined a story with pictures of the young duke Lecquio frolicking nakedly on his boat with his girlfriend. The pictures demonstrated in at least one small (well...) respect, the young duke is, um, better than the rest of us men. No one seems to tire of talking aobut this here. I went to the local Kentucky Fried Chicken and ordered a large coke. It was served in a cup with the message, "El tamaño SÍ importa": Size does matter.

On the way home I stopped off at the newstand to buy a chocolate Kit-Kat (you could live here for a year and never see an unfamiliar trademark). Newstands here are great, they sell everything. One thing they do that we don´t is to display what we would consider reasonably hard pornography in plain view. We don´t do this in the states for fear of corrupting the children. It´s a shame too, because the children here *are* corrupt. I sat down to eat my candy bar and noticed an eight year old positively coveting my Kit-Kat. Shame.

I continue to Run For President, though I´m in a country where no one can vote for me. "Run For President" is my term for Gripping & Grinning, trying to meet and make friends with everyone regardless of their race, creed, or level of pleasantness. Today as I walked into my building I saw the woman who ownd the clothing store next door. I´d been thinking about introducing myself ´cuz I´d seen her practically every day. So I entered the shop-- she immediately put on her you-just-made-a-big-mistake-this-is-a-woman´s-clothing-shop face, and I sputtered out in Spanish "You... I presenting to you... I..." (seven years of Spanish training down the drain). I finally managed to convey that I had seen her around there a lot and she replied, as if I were 2, yeah, that´s because I work here. I stuck my tail between my legs, said my name, shook her hand and rushed out. On the way out, a bird pooped on me. I´m not making this up, it was so bad I started to laugh. Oh yeah, her name was Vanessa.

People here say that it´s hard to make friends with the Catalans. It´s true, but doable. I have made a pretty good number of friends here.

You see dogs everywhere here, in the street, in restaurants, on the train. I figure dogs have it all together. You see two guys walking their dogs. The two guys stop to talk, and their dogs immediately freak out. "Hey man, I´ll kill you! Arf!" "Oh yeah? Hey yer gonna look funny when I bite yer tail off and shove it up yer ear! Grrr" and then "So, hey, ya wanna be friends?" "Okay". They smell each others´ butts and then they sit down and look around for a while. "Hey, this is my master. Pretty fat, huh?" "Oh, hey, yeah? Heh, heh, yeah, he´s huge. Oh hey, this guy´s *my* master." "Cool." "Yeah, it´s all real cool." Then they pant and watch butterflies. Of course, dogs don´t know jack about sharing. Just try to share something with a dog, you´ll come back with a stump. It´s either yours or the dog´s, but not both.

Okay, enough nonsense for a while. I´ve got ready access to email now, so I´ll try to shorten these letters up a little since I don´t have to do it all at once anymore. Take care, I miss you all. -Tim