What’s armada with Spanish bureaucracy?

Archaeological evidence suggests that one of the reasons the great Spanish Armada did not inflict that much damage on the smaller British fleet in the famous battle of 1588 is that the Spanish ships were initially loaded with canon balls without regard to whether they fit the canons on that ship. The delay in having … Read more What’s armada with Spanish bureaucracy?

Our first impression of Japan

Our first encounter of Japan was the toilet in Narita International Airport. To say that I was extremely impressed was an understatement to describe my reaction to Japanese toilet technology. Awe-struck was more like it.

The toilet comes with a soft-cushioned, warmed seat, with motion detection so the soothing sound of water played as soon as I closed the stall door (and stalls, by the way, are much more sealed off than American, gaps at the junctions ones). There were four to five different functions to suit one’s needs, including two directions of bidet.

My first thought was that, because it’s the Narita International airport, I would encounter this sophisticated and advanced toilet technology as a way to wow visitors to Japan. After all, the airport is one of the world’s top airports (ranked 11th in Skytrax’s world’s Top 100 Airports for 2018).

We soon discovered, however, that this type advanced super-toilet is widely available at most public places. The train station, the mall, the hotel, and even small restaurants had versions!

On the contrary, due to the costs, most homes or apartments have the basic toilet that we are accustomed to in the US, including our son’s apartment in Tokyo.

Tokyo may be the only city where we preferred to use a public restroom over a home toilet. No doubt our son wondered why we were so voluntary and eager to take his dog for walks for him!

Puente (Bridge day)

Today, Friday, November 2, is called a puente or “bridge day” in Spain. Basically, if you have a holiday (like All Saints Day) fall on a Thursday, many people take the Friday off, bridging into the weekend (the same goes for taking Monday off if a holiday falls on a Tuesday).

Yeah, I know, Americans produce more, make more money, have bigger houses, cars, etc.

And Spain is predicted to pass Japan as having the longest average life span by 2040.

TGIF, America. We’ll say Gracias a dios por los puentes.


When Granadans answer the phone, they generally do not say “Hola,” but rather say “Dígame,” which means “Tell me” or “Talk to me.”

Many consider that just another aspect of the infamous Granadan “get to the point” attitude of conversation, but more and more I want to invoke it to tap into the rich background I am discovering here.

Living as an expat, we are part of two communities. One is the organic community of Granada itself, for which we are taking Spanish and trying to learn the cultural norms that have shaped this city for over a millennium.

The other community is somewhat inorganic, or at least composed of disperse, non-native parts: the expat community itself.

We come together periodically, often over tapas and drinks. The common language is generally English, but a conversation, even one sentence, can roll into Spanish, then French, then Arabic, even Thai, without missing a beat.

We bond over our commonalities, we compare notes on struggles in acclimating, and generally support each other. But I also revel in hearing each person’s background story as to how they came to be sitting here, at the same place and time, by some great cosmic coincidence.

After spending a life-time talking, I love just saying “Please tell me your story.”

So far, some of those stories include:

– A British teacher from Cornwall, who, aside from bonding with my wife over Aidan Turner’s shirtless scenes in Poldark, came here to teach.

– A Frenchman who traveled the world in the military and now repairs motorcycles and scooters (and who promises to teach me “the joy of badminton”).

– An Armenian who used photography as a means out and now leads photography expeditions for people around Africa, claiming that he has been chased by nearly every deadly animal on that continent.

– A Syrian refugee to France who wants to become an actor but says, despite his accent-less French, he cannot get any roles other than “sinister Middle Easterner” (He hears America is more open-minded about casting; I told him about Hamilton).

– A young couple who have backpacked all over Southeast Asia and now have turned their passion into a blog and business arranging bottom cost trips for fellow backpackers.

Many more stories are out there (Jiab is pending lunch with a Thai woman who was a Qatar Airways flight attendant, and we await the novel a former New Mexican Spanish teacher is writing here). There are just so many experiences, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to hear each of them.

This world, with a collective soul composed of over seven billion parts, has so many stories to offer, like a living library. All we have to do is get out of our usual circle of noise, shut up and prepare to listen, and then say the magic word to someone, Dígame.




Cabreado (ca-bre-a-do)

At some point, the move, the sleep adjustment, the “Not quite what I meant but I don’t know how to say it,” all catches up with you. It’s like when my son, Ben, was a toddler and I could tell he was overwhelmed and would not be happy until we met his seeming demand that everything in the world be shifted two inches to the left.

For Jiab and me, it hit one Friday morning. We went to register at a municipal office but found we were missing a document and had to come back. It was a humid day, with storms threatening to roll off the mountain by mid-day, so the persuasive pressure to get things done was reinforced by a growing thickness in the air that made clothes stick to the skin.

Worst of all, we were looking in frustration for netting at every ferretería (hardware store) we could find. Our kitten loves the terrace, but being five floors up, we wanted a little netting to keep her off the ledge. Despite trudging to five or six stores, no one had what we wanted. I was irritated in that, though I knew the word for netting (la malla), and could play it on my phone to hear it, no clerk at any store could understand when I said it, so I had to re-explain it each time. Jiab, for her part, kept insisting she remembered one store we visited days ago that had it (I don’t remember it, but she’s usually right).  Then, in the midst of my flailing my arms trying to pantomime “netting” once again, my elbow caught Jiab on the chin and gave her a whack.

We were, as a local friend put it, cabreado:  tired, fed-up, ill, and just plain pissy.

We rode the bus back to the apartment in silent defeat, the distant thunder seeming to vocalize our spirits. We stopped at a local place for lunch around 1:00, only to be told they did not start serving lunch (early bird) till 1:30! We went home tired, unfed, and unfulfilled.

Fortunately, Spain has a wonderful cure for such days, and it really hearkens back to what every parent learned was the best solution with cranky toddlers: siesta.

Most everybody in Spain stops and takes an afternoon break. Americans can show stats how much more productive we are, our higher GDP, even our higher incomes and the more stuff we have in our homes. The Spanish response is simple, Buena suerte con eso, Good luck with that.

We napped, refreshed, and Jiab suggested we start the day again. La malla? Mañana!

The measure of a good place is not that it is irritation-free, but that there is a path by which to move away from the irritation. The same is true for a good marriage.


La economía de las palabras

We were told Granadans have a reputation around Spain for being rude. To be sure, at first glance (or first listen), they may not say much to you.

Turns out, it’s not rudeness; it’s that they are very economical in word usage.

  • Greetings are often just “Buenos,” assuming you can tell if they mean Diaz (morning) or Tardes (afternoon) by the sun’s position on your own.
  • Goodbyes can be merely “Hasta;” who knows when we will see each other again?

The ubiquitous response to “Hablas Ingles?” (“Do you speak English?”) is “A little,” which, in Granada, narrows it down to somewhere from that phrase being all they know, to their having studied English for years and already can tell by the inflexion in your voice you don’t use the Oxford comma when listing things.

Then there’s the all-purpose word, “Vale.” It can mean anything from “OK,” to “Yes!”, to “We’re done here.” I have seen conversations for minutes where one person just repeats it and still holds up their end of the conversation, like “I am Groot” but 67% more efficient.

Still, the best example so far was when Jiab and I walked into a cafe for lunch. As we entered, a waiter turned and looked at us. We waited for him to greet us or ask us how many. Instead, he stared for what seemed like a full minute and then said, “Well, what do you want?” If they hadn’t had a great menu del dia (daily lunch special), we would have walked out.

Turns out we were lucky. By the end of the meal, he was making great recommendations of good wine to go with our cod in tomato/basil sauce as well as a sumptuous lesser-known local dessert. We explained we were relocating there and he was the first to welcome us to Granada and said to be sure to come back.

First lesson of Granada: when there’s good people and good food, don’t let words get in the way.



In every locality, there is some artist or visionary that one must never, ever, question their talent or suggest that someone did it better.

In Mississippi, it’s Elvis (even more than Faulkner).
In Dallas, it’s Stevie Ray Vaughn.

IN Granada, it’s a man whose name must be uttered in almost a hushed undertone of respect, as if one is not worthy to invoke him.