29 September 2013

Food time may not be the right time for you in Spain

This is something that always comes up with visitors to Spain. A friend has recently come to visit and in addition to noticing my food shopping procrastination,  she made me realize that we eat at funny times.

We don't eat Spanish style but after living here so long and of course dealing with the weather the same as everyone else, we have inadvertently adapted to the food schedule.

The system as I, a foreigner, understand it in Spain is generally eating five times a day. It goes something like this:

Breakfast: maybe a cup of coffee, or a cigarette, or both. Juice and a piece of toast if you're all into it.
A toast favorite of mine here is pan tomate: toasted left over bagette bread smeared with puré of fresh tomatoe, olive oil, and sea salt.

Around 10:30-11am. It's break time. I can't seem to get a firm grasp on what this is called in Spain. Almuerzo is a possibility but some say otherwise. It is not uncommon for everyone to go get a coffee from an office environment around this time and eat something small. It is very common to see people who work manually sitting in the shade or on a sidewalk eating a bocadillo (sandwich on bagette bread) and drinking wine or beer or coke. It's a snack to get you through til lunch.

2pm Comida. In the Madrid area, this is just referred to as Comida maybe different in other parts. This is normally a three course lunch. On weekdays this is a very affordable and filling option. Last week I paid 8 Euros for: course 1 - cannelones; course 2 - skirt steak and fries; course 3 - an ice cream cone, drink included. It's sort of stick to your ribs physical worker food out in the villages where we are at. In the city a few minutes away, sometime it has more finesse but it's always the same structure. This is traditionally the big meal of the day. Children are released from school to go home and eat big and they come back at 4:30 or so which makes for a challenging day for working parents and a lot of grandparent involvement or paying the school to keep the kids for this time frame. After this would be your nap if you take one, not everyone does, and many people are too far away from home to go back anyway.

5-8 pm is merienda. Again snack time but more commonly this is something sweet. A donut or tortitas: that is American style pancakes with chocolate syrup and whip cream. This is the only time of day McDonald's serves pancakes here. People generally make sure kids get something during this time frame.

Dinner, well that depends. I understand that you might feed the kids here at 8 or 8:30pm. Restaurants do not open for dinner until 8, 8:30 or 9pm depending on their preference. I've entered a restaurant at 7:50pm and been told to come back later.

For Valentine's day one year, we left our house at 7:30pm, arrived, were seated and ate our dinner as the only patrons in the restaurant. At 9pm when we were leaving, a few couples were coming in. A fancy dinner out would probably be scheduled at 10pm or perhaps 11pm.

The next question every American asks is how do they sleep with all that food on their stomach. I have no idea. I do know people stay up later here generally. Even Spaniards sometimes admit it's not good for you to eat so late.

If they are eating at home, this 9-10pm meal is something lighter, not a big three course meal. A Spanish tortilla for instance would be a dinner. It's like an egg and potato omelet but made in a flat pan shape which is a fine art here.

I usually do eat breakfast. Mother raised me to eat something before I left the house. I don't do 10:30 snack/almuerzo though on occasion will eat a cookie if I'm starving around 11am. We eat lunch in the office between 1:30 and 2 usually, rarely do we go out for the three course meal. It takes a long time and even though affordable doesn't meet our budget.

 I try not to eat anything after work around 6pm but if I'm starving I might have a snack. Dinner without air conditioning in a summer of 100+F at times got later and later. We ate consistently at 8pm but often it drifted into 9pm. Now that the weather is cooling, we might eat a little earlier. I like the free time aspect when I arrive home and often write then, rather than "starting dinner,"  so it's not going to get too much earlier than 8pm.

When we are home in the USA and someone wants to beat the crowd to a restaurant at say 5:30pm -- it sort of gives me reverse culture shock. It seems like eating a late lunch to me. Funny what you get used to without even knowing it.

22 September 2013

Telephone company induced culture shock

I had a guy who is living outside his own culture say he never had culture shock. I think he doesn't know the definition and has an ego that makes him think he's better if he doesn't have it. Maybe he is.

Having lived quite a number of years outside the USA, I would say culture shock can sneak up on you from very unexpected directions and maybe doesn't look like you'd think, even after years. After seven years in Spain, I define my culture shock moments by an unexpected and disproportional rage or reaction of some kind. It's not that the provoking event doesn't merit some reaction, it's just that proportionally culture shock jumps you several levels ahead of what it would be in your home culture.

Take Burger King for instance. The new one nearby has -- in English  -- on the seats "Have it your way" and yet a friend of mine who is particular about how she likes her food was told "no se puede." It cannot be. Yes, it's annoying and yes it's absurd but sometimes something simple can blow you out of the water. This same Burger King which has a permanent sign on it's pillar proclaiming "24 horas" told me two weeks ago at 11 am -- 24 hours yes, but not today, only on weekends.

The last two weeks I have been at conferences. The first week was here in Spain and people came from all over Europe. Now, I made the mistake of thinking these people are Europeans so they will not have a strong reaction to Spain.

What I discovered is that I am accustomed to the eccentricities of Spain and I have accepted many of them. I don't always like it but I'm used to it.  Now my northern European colleagues were suddenly asking why things were and I had no answer. I realized eventually that they were uncomfortable with the hotel changing the hours or the exact order of things or the details we had all agreed upon.

Now perhaps I have given up fighting these things since it takes so much energy or perhaps I have just accepted them as inevitable. I realized my colleagues were having a mild discomfort and confusion which is culture shock.

I know my significant other and I have each separately or occasionally together had moments of raging against something simple or terribly complicated, but invariably something we could not control.

Last Monday in fact after conference no. 1 we arrived home to discover our internet and cable tv service had quit.  We reset the system a couple times. Nothing.

In the USA the next step is make a phone call. We put that off until morning because we didn't have the energy. The next morning the automated system couldn't understand my man's Spanish. So I asked the admin assistant at work to call. She perhaps didn't realize I expected her to find the entire answer for me. She got me into a queue for English support and handed the phone back to me.

After being on hold for more than 30 minutes and passed between offices because they had me on hold for the wrong office, I found myself talking to someone in heavily accented English on perhaps the worst speaker phone I have ever heard. It was near impossible to understand anything. I fought thru the preliminaries of my phone number etc. I kept say I can't understand you. This degredated into him shouting at me and hanging up on me. I thought I was suppose to hang up on the cable company - at least I could picture that happening in the USA, but here they hung up on ME in frustration.

My Spanish speaking colleague said I should call and renounce the guy which is the word they use here for filing a complaint. It's a very expressive word that I like a lot and would like to try sometime, but I'd been passed around so much I had no idea who or what department I was talking to.

So I called back and then the automated system hung up on me. Then I called back and they tried to sell me something before they asked me my problem. Then I finally talked to someone in Spanish. I discovered embarrassingly that the payment didn't go thru as my account got too low. Okay, I can fix that. I only needed you to tell me.

I inquired two or three times in case my Spanish isn't working well on how to go about solving this. Do I need a number when I got to the bank and pay it? No. So then I repeat their expectations and what I should do a couple times. 

My man goes to the bank and there proceeds to get yelled at for not having the right information to pay this bill despite my close questioning of the phone company/cable company person.

Something that is simple or perhaps frustrating in the USA, turns into epic proportions in another culture. In the end, we figured out how to pay in another way online and service was restored but not before we'd had a war with our own emotions and the system. Often we just don't fight things because we just don't have the energy for it, but sometimes even in the same day, we have magical moments and love where we're living!

01 September 2013

Carry On Tips for Travel

Many of the airlines are getting to be sticklers and charging for luggage or even weighing the carry ons -- especially the low cost ones. It pays to pack strategically. I'm getting ready for a couple of those kind of trips. Here's some of my ideas.

Color coordinate. I can get a lot more distance from my clothes and fit better in a carry on size if I choose a color scheme. If all my clothes are interchangeable, then that spaghetti accident on day one doesn't mean I have to wear it the rest of the trip. I know none of you have this problem, it's just me.

I have a personal rule of always taking two pair of jeans or trousers or skirt or whatever due to the same risk of accident. I also take two pair of shoes. This is a personal preference because my feet will go a long way, but generally the next day they need a different pair of shoes in order to do it again. Wear one, take one in the carry on -- stick to the color scheme. As much as I want to be cool and fashionable, it may be necessary to fit it all in the bag to leave the boots or chunky shoes at home or plan to wear those each way on the plane. Only the walking worthy shoes make the cut.

I can make my clothes last and even rinse them out but toiletries for this girl are a little more tricky. That one liter bag seems to shrink as I put my essentials in it. I understand boys don't have this problem.

One tip is if you buy name brand make up and they have free giveaways (usually smaller sizes) save those for trips. Also if you go to a shop that gives you a sample of a lotion or something, keep that tiny sample dish if it has a screw on lid. That single ounce size may make all the difference from having some sunblock along on the trip or not.

I keep those little containers and clean them filling them only according to the trip's needs. The bottles and containers you buy for this purpose are often a little larger which limits how many different types of products you can take. I recently bought some shampoo type bottles. I'd be lucky to get three of them and a toothpaste travel size in my bag. I need more than three products. Look for containers that have large openings for easy refilling. The little capsule that the disposable gloves come in with hair dye is great for hair gel or creme that isn't real liquid-y.

It may sound a little rustic but those tiny bars of soap that you get at hotels can double in a pinch as shampoo as well as shower gel. If you have one of those little bars, it doesn't have to go in your precious one liter liquid bag. Leave the shower gel and shampoo at home and throw an emergency bar in the bottom of the bag in case the hotel or hostel does not provide those.

Or alternately shop on location. This is often an option but those cheap flights may be really late arrivals, or if it's an event or conference you may not be in control or in a location where you have the option to get to a shop easily.

Try to use one product for two. My face sunblock can double for the body sunblock if it's a trip that doesn't need a lot. Plus I can downsize it to one of my little containers. Conditioner will work not only to help you comb your long hair but also you can shave with it. Try to give it up a product just for the trip or plan a different hair style that leaves some product behind.

Don't forget that in addition to your travel toiletries they want you to put anything else you normally carry in your purse in the one liter bag. Lip gloss, lotion, or hand sanitizer.  I use a lotion that is a hand sanitizer to combine those.

Extra tip: even when I'm checking a bag and I can put my full size bottles in. I will pack and emergency supplies type one liter, so that should the big bag not arrive, I can survive a day or two. This is usually toothpaste, toothbrush (outside the bag), make up, an eyeliner or mascara, deodorant, and conditioner.

A handy travel product if you have room is Downy Wrinkle Releaser. I just keep the bottle and mix up my own made out of 1/3 fabric softener and water, but the bottle size generally is 1/4 of your one liter bag. If you arrive, hang up your clothes and spray them usually they'll be wearable the next day without looking like they were in the suitcase.