Sep 30 2014

Why Live Here

When it rains in Barcelona, it rains decisively. The morning might start out sunny, but by midday the dark clouds have slipped over the crest of the mountain, wrapping their gray billowy arms around the church perched at Tibadabo and crawling down toward the sea, dropping their contents with deliberate force. The rain might start out as a prolonged sprinkle, dotting your shoulders as you wait for the bus – and you hope it’ll hold off until you make itgray_and_sun home – but when the sky opens up, the rain teems down. Rain pounds the balconies and pelts against the big glass windows in our living room. Rain falls strong and fierce. The sky pours its soul out on the city, filling the streets with angry, wet weather.

The next day, usually, the sky is clear and sunny. Rain rarely lasts for consecutive days, like in my beloved Paris where the cloudy ceiling lingers for weeks at a time, dampening your mood and your shoes with its prolonged presence. Barcelona’s rain comes down hard and then it stops and there’s sun. That’s a good reason to live here.

~ ~ ~

The Internet-connecting technician designated to come flip a switch somewhere in our building – and that’s all he has to do since I’ve already hooked up the router to the phone and to our computer and our little home network is four-bars strong but for the fact the bars connect to nothing – was supposed to come two weeks ago. There were subsequent promises from our new provider, about an arrival between 8 am and 2 pm on one day, or 4 pm and 8 pm another, jailing us in our home for fear of missing the arrival of this man with a tool belt and a magic stroke that will connect us miraculously to the rest of the world. Each appointment has evaporated into a non-event. When I called to inquire why nobody arrived, the customer service agents seemed as confused as we were.

This weekend I went back to the store, a brave endeavor given the Saturday morning press in such a place. I lined up with the regular working chaps who can’t, like me, peek in on a less crowded Tuesday morning to buy a phone or organize their Internet. After waiting for the couple ahead of me to decide which plan to take, and to painstakingly select their new phones, it was my turn. After recounting the debacle of our hook-up, I learned the real reason for our delay: there is a problem in our sector, all the installations in our neighborhood are delayed. I was shown a long list of other new clients, wireless neighbors of mine, waiting for service to commence. yellow_circuit_boxes Apparently all the competitive service providers are still obliged to rely on Telefonica, Spain’s old state phone company, for this last technical step in the installation. And apparently, our wait for hook-up has been extended until October 20th. That would be four weeks away. Nearly two months from the start date of our contract.

For De-facto, when it rains it pours. Not only was he trapped in the house for nearly two full days last week, waiting for the mystery technicians who never showed – we’re guessing they were never going to come, it was just a ruse to get us off the phone – but his computer conked out on him, too. First the flashing screen and the hard drive grinding to a quiet, definitive halt. It’s under Applecare so will be repaired, but it’ll take two weeks – forcing him to use one of the two old machines we have on hand. Both of these computers worked dutifully for many years, but as it happens with old Macs, the rainbow colored wheel-of-doom starts to spin, programs take forever to open and web-pages load at snail speed.

De-facto doesn’t get on well with electronics to begin with. I’m the one who hooks things up and regularly goes through his laptop arranging bookmarks and filing systems and urging him to upgrade and back-up. He takes pride in being a luddite, and gave up his decade-old Ericsson regular feature phone only because it ceased to function. Part of our new Internet package includes a smart phone for him – at least that’s working – so he shouldn’t be adrift, except, well, he hasn’t quite mastered his new Android phone. This would explain the cursing and occasional pounding of the desk radiating from the office next to mine.

~ ~ ~

Soon we’ll all have telephones. Short-pants already does. When she started walking to school on her own two years ago, it seemed the right thing to do. I was afraid she’d fall into the head-down-at-her-phone crowd, but she hasn’t caught the texting bug. Occasionally I’ll get a flurry of “I love you more” texts from her, but her correspondence with friends is very limited, I think she doesn’t even know their phone numbers. I almost never see her at_the_phonewith her phone out. The phone is her tool, not the other way around.

I, too, will have a new phone. It’s on order, and when it comes in – next week I’m told – the not-so-smart phone I’ve been using for the last year will be handed down to Buddy-roo. She’s champing at the bit, eager to have what her sister has, ready to stay in closer touch with her friends. It’ll help her coordinate the after-school meet-up-to-walk-home rendezvous with her sister, and we’ll be able to reach both of them with important messages. They can’t use the phones in school, but surely she’ll be flipping them open as soon as they walk out of the gate.

If our new Internet hook-up ever becomes a reality, then our home be humming at full connectivity. At present you can only get a signal in one corner of the apartment, fortunately that’s where De-facto and I have our offices. The girls bedrooms have been wi-fi free zones, which meant they had to be under our noses when they went on line. That’s about to change (one hopes). Computers and telephones and iPads will connect in every room on both floors of our apartment, which will make our work much easier, but probably not without an impact on our family life. At dinner last night we talked about drawing up a contract covering use of electronic devices, modeled after this one (an excellent example of parenting) that made the rounds two years ago. We started a list of all the things that might be included in our agreement: no electronic devices at the table during meal times, no texting while walking, no screen time until homework is done, surfing and viewing on age-appropriate sites.

The latter is a tricky one. It’s easy to suggest that they avoid content with a lot of violence; I’ve seen Buddy-roo click away from something because she knew it would be disturbing. But how to get them to avoid the sexy stuff? The minute you mention not to look at it, they’ll want to. I have a friend who catches her daughter watching porn on the iPad, and forbidding it doesn’t seem to help. I gave it my best shot anyway, in a command I meant to be clear but it was probably a meandering way of saying “don’t watch people having sex.” Apparently De-facto, Short-pants and I were all facing Buddy-roo during this part of the conversation.

“Why’s everyone looking at me?” she said.

~ ~ ~

This morning, rain, again. A steady percussion on the little balcony outside my office. De-facto fidgets in the next room, restless in his (truly) wire-less condition. In better weather, he’d hop on his bike and troll up the mountain, or go for a run. If I had my druthers, I’d prop my pillows against the headboard and climb under the covers with the laptop and work from bed. It’s that kind of day.

Alas, there is no wifi in the bedroom, and anyway, I have a conference call on Skype which requires a stronger, more reliable connection than the one we borrow from our neighbors. I have no choice but to trek out in the sloppy weather to a umbrella_dayshared office where I’ll have desk space, creative camaraderie and resilient wifi. But on a wet day like today it’d be my preference to stay home and dry.

On the way there, I’ll go by the phone store to buy some more credit for my temporary phone. I’ll nudge them again about the technician and our Internet hook-up, just to give me the satisfaction of at least trying to do something to move things along. It’s unlikely to help, we’ll probably have to slog along with our make-shift connection for a few more weeks. But at least tomorrow the rain will stop, and the sun will shine. I keep reminding myself, that’s why I live here.


Sep 21 2014

Not Quite at Home

I took some ribbing from De-facto about my trip to Paris. I’d tried to tie it in to some business travel coming up next week – often if connecting flights are required, I’ll arrange for a change in Paris and take an extra night to run into town, check in with friends, get the mail at our old apartment and attend to my hair – but next week flying via Paris made no sense in terms of timing or cost. It’d been two months since a haircut. My hair has its own personality and works at several lengths as it grows, until it gets too long and heavy and sloppy-headed. I combed the travel sites for a reasonable fare, and just when I was about to give up and go to a local salon, I got an email from a discount airline offering 35-euro flights. I found one that would whisk me into Paris one morning and return me, well-coiffed, to Barcelona the next.

Walking through the Orly airport I felt buoyant. The spring in my step, the kind you get when you are someplace you’re glad to be. The sounds of the airport, the look and language of the people, it was all comfortably familiar. paris_rooftopsEven when my French bank card was rejected at the train ticket machine, I didn’t panic. I went to the window and tried it again with a human helper. The card was damaged, he said, probably the chip. I had enough cash to get a ticket into the city and enough time before my appointment to stop at my bank branch and order a replacement card and withdraw some money the old fashioned way, from a teller.

This transaction was effortless. I know how to navigate in French without thinking too hard. I know what metro stop to take to get where I want to go without studying the map, or the app. I can count on my bank to be open during what I consider normal business hours. How many times in Spain, have I tried to attend to errands only to be confronted with a dark office, a locked door or a closed gate because its during the hours of the afternoon siesta? What a relief that I could simply solve this surprise problem with a quick detour to my bank and I could make myself understood instantly. France actually seemed easy.

Can you believe that? Navigating the hidden code of its bureaucracy, enrolling the girls in school and at the conservatory, sorting out cartes de sejour and the tax foncier – not that many years ago I labored to figure out the complexities of the French system. Compared to Spain, France is efficient. Things get put off and re-directed, but there’s not as much mañana. Maybe it’s just more familiar after nearly two decades there. Surely if I remain in Spain, or Catalonia – my Spanish friends remind me that Barcelona isn’t really Spain – this comfort will develop. Funny how it takes not quite feeling at home in a country to realize that I felt quite at home in a country and didn’t realize how much I felt at home in.

~ ~ ~

Our cross-country trek put me in the United States for the longest stretch of consecutive days since I moved abroad. We spanned the nation, taking in its west coast cool, mid-western earnestness and east coast hustle. I understood every word of every conversation I had with every store clerk, waitress or stranger in the street. I spoke English non-stop, except for the odd French or Spanish exchange with Short-pants, who has a knack for languages and enjoys exercising her linguistic muscle.

Yet despite the ease of communication, I didn’t really feel at home. So many things about my own country feel foreign to me. I moved away from the United States 22 years ago, just as Bill Clinton took office for his first term. It was a different America that I left. Pre-9/11, you only waved the flag on the 4th of July. The middle class wasn’t an endangered species. People didn’t white_black_Obama_flagneed to debate Genesis vs. Darwin, one was a belief, the other, a fact. Religion meant helping your community rather than damning another. Elected representatives compromised to forge solutions instead of waging a war against the opposing party no matter what its objective. I’m not saying the United States was perfect in the ‘80s. Women and minorities have a much better place in American society now than they did then (there’s still a lot of room for improvement) and I’m proud that we elected a black president for two terms. But it’s a very different country than the one I left, and it doesn’t always feel familiar to me.

By the time we crossed the border to Canada and made our way to the airport, I couldn’t wait to get back to Spain. It did feel good to turn the key in the door of our Barcelona apartment. My first walk around the neighborhood, to my local haunts, gave me a feeling of returning to something home-like. I even have a Spanish ID number now, which means I am able to obtain our very own ADSL internet connection, something we survived a year without, thanks to generous neighbors who shared their network with us. (Not even a pre-pay option exists for internet in Spain.) I ordered our Internet service twenty days ago and though the router arrived via post, we are still waiting for the technician to come and to flip some switch to make it operable.

I have been back to the store twice to inquire. During the most recent trip I figured I’d stop and make a deposit on the way, but at 4:00 pm the bank was still closed for its lunchtime siesta. You can’t imagine how many times I turn up at the tailor, the eyeglass shop, the you-name-it store, thinking it’s way past lunch, they have to be open by now, only to find out that they don’t open again until 5:00. Granted they stay open until 8:30 or 9:00 pm. But by then I’m already having cocktails, not running errands. Clearly I’m not yet accustomed to the Spanish clock. I’m still not quite at home here.

If you ask the girls where home is, you’ll get different answers. For Buddy-roo, Paris is her true home and awaits our return. Short-pants loves living in Barcelona, and optimistically remarks that France and the United States feel like home, too. I’ve written before about feeling in between two cultures. you_are_here Now it seems I’m dancing among three cultures at once, carrying an American passport, a French Carte de Resident or a Spanish Permiso de Residencia, appreciating each one but never quite feeling at home in any of them.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the laid-back attitude in Barcelona, especially during a long, late lunch or heading to the beach to go Stand-up Paddleboarding. But if you are trying to get something done, well, just expect a few hiccups. On Friday I was promised the Internet technician would come between 8 am and 2 pm, but he never showed up. When I phoned the service provider to ask about it, there was no record of my appointment, and no way to tell me when I might be given another. So this posting comes to you courtesy of our neighbor’s connection. Maybe in this modern world, home is where the wifi is. Once I get it, I’ll let you know.


Sep 7 2014

Up in the Morning

It starts to happen, as our children get older, that the cherished memories we have of their childhood lose their clarity, and the boundary between sun_shineswhat we remember and what really happened begins to bend and blur. I want to tell you that when Short-pants was a baby, not quite a toddler, we’d hear first stirrings as she’d stretch and come to life slowly in her crib, taking in the new day. Then we’d hear her little voice call out enthusiastic, “Up in the morning!”

I’m not sure if that’s exactly true. It might have started that early, but maybe not until later. I do know that when she could finally escape on her own, over the railing of her crib, she’d toddle into our room and crawl up into our bed to make this morning declaration. She would pronounce each word with delight, as though lyrics of a song, all this while wearing a supremely self-satisfied smile.

A dozen years later, it’s still the first thing she says to us when we bump into each other in the kitchen, or if she slips in to our room while we’re still in bed: “Up in the morning!”

Getting the girls up in the morning and ready for school has long been my task. This involves assuring their state of dress and putting breakfast in their bellies, commanding the final assembly of book-bags the brushing of teeth until De-facto, a few minutes prior to the must-be-out-the-door moment, lifts himself from bed, throws on whatever clothes might be handy and walks them to school. Occasionally I’d be the one to escort them, but most days this has been our routine, in Paris as well as in Barcelona.

When Short-pants entered collège (middle school) two years ago and started walking to school on her own, she developed, instantly, an admirable sense of self-responsibility. She sets her own alarm, dresses and prepares her backpack, eats whatever you put in front of her or makes breakfast for herself, monitors the time closely and steps out the door in plenty of time to make it to school without having to rush. She likes the morning walk, and though accepting of our company on days we join her, has admitted to us that she prefers to walk to school alone.

So far this year, though, she’s been accompanied by her sister, who’s just started at collège. Buddy-roo is a professional sleeper and not such a happy-in-the-morning person. She is rallying, though, as part of the get-a-dog campaign. A campaign she’s won, by the way, as last spring not only did she demonstrate the capacity to wake herself earlier and more self-sufficiently, no_walking_with_parentsshe also achieved fine grades at school. Grades were not the objective; being conscientious about about her work was the goal. But by doing that she surprised us all – and mostly herself – with a recommendation from her teacher. (The dog, incidentally, an impending acquisition. Watch this space.) Part of the rite of passage to this higher class level involves making the trek to school without a parent, whether by walking or public transport. Since the girls start school at the same time now, they walk together.

~ ~ ~

Last week, on the night before the first day of school, we sat around the table after dinner, a family meeting to review the girls’ household chores. Since we’d been gone most of the summer, everyone was a little out of practice. I wanted to give the girls an opportunity to switch up their tasks and also to add new and different ones; as they get older and taller, there’s more they can do to help around the house. They are good natured, mostly, about the jobs we ask them to take on. Except one: Despite years of making it a required activity, I still can’t get them to replace an empty toilet paper roll or move the finished cardboard tube in to the trash, let alone to the recycling bin. Not sure why these tasks are so challenging to accomplish, but the three people with whom I live with seem unable to complete either of them. Though everyone has pledged, once again, to do their best.

For some reason, my annual clock rotates on a scholastic calendar, and I always think of this time of year as a time to change habits or get started on new projects. Or return to old projects, which is an objective of mine this year. I have a languishing manuscript. It needs a bit of re-work and a few chapters to end it. I’ve been working on it for a decade, and its time to finish and publish.

One way of changing a habit is asking for help from the people around you; this insight came to me during a session at Mindcamp, which resulted in the idea of setting aside just an hour a day to work on my manuscript. But not just any hour. The first hour of the day, before my fresh-from-the-dream-state imagination is spoiled by reading the news or email or by all the don’t-forget-your-maths-book kind of conversations that are part of shooing children out the door to school. It’s not the first time I’ve thought of this, but I’m just not enough of a morning person to get up before the girls, and askeven when I manage to rise before them, as soon as they’re up, they’re in my hair.

I decided to ask my family for help. After all, when they ask for something, I’m happy to do what I can to support them. Wouldn’t they show me the same courtesy? De-facto made what I perceived to be a slightly patronizing remark and Short-pants corrected my grammar, so I had to pound the table a moment to make them understand that this was actually something about which I was feeling very tender and even slightly vulnerable. A moment of discomfort around the table was followed by a how-might-we discussion about the people setting their own alarms and getting their own breakfasts. Everyone agreed we could try.

“Think of it as an experiment,” I said, “to help me get back in the habit of working on my book. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Up in the morning,” said Short-pants.

~ ~ ~

It is a mild surprise that they’ve adapted quickly to the new morning plan. Not that it’s been flawless: they forget and walk into my office to ask for something and I have to remind them that this is the kind of thing they have to ask me about the night before, so I can focus on writing in the morning. I get a knowing-nod and tip-toes out of the room.

Whether Short-pants and Buddy-roo leave for school together or separately, they leave early. At eight o’clock, or shortly after, I hear the door slam and their steps in the stairwell. By the time they’re out the door, I’m typing at full-speed. I don’t know if what I’m typing is any good, but I’m typing, and that’s as good a start as any. By the time I move on to the other tasks on my to-do list, professional and personal, I’ve logged at least an hour on my pet project, and that feels huge.

De-facto and I have gained hours that we didn’t have before, hours once taken up with walking Buddy-roo to school or picking her up at the end of the day and bringing her back home. Plus her day is longer than it was in the primary school. Add to that my extra writing time in the morning, and this year could be a whole new world for me. More time, the thing I’m always lacking.

Only a few days in to our new reality, I was at my desk, partly working and partly wondering if it wasn’t time for the girls to get home. De-facto walked behind me, through my office to the little balcony that looks out on the street. I kept waiting for him to pass back through my office, but he didn’t return. I stuck my head out the door to find him leaning against the rail, looking down the street.
balcony_watch
“Waiting for the girls?” I said.

“I miss them,” he said.

I thought about how I’d hardly seen them in the morning and how they’d been gone all day. I wasn’t just missing them, I was aching for them. Maybe just because we’ve been so together all summer, it’s just an adjustment that takes getting used to. I wondered if this up-in-the-morning-writing-routine was going to work. I’m happy to have the creative space, but there’s definitely a price to pay.

“Me, too,” I said. “It’s a long day.”

De-facto wrapped his arm around me and we stood on the balcony together, our eyes fixed on the street below, waiting for their two heads to come into view so we could wave frantically and welcome them home.