Saturday, September 24, 2011

Buses, Vending Machine Misappropriation, and Inhumane Laws

            I had a series of increasingly unhelpful encounters with “Information” kiosks in the Madrid airport. One particularly surly señorita, complete with über-Spanish, “I-don’t-give-a-shit-but-I-actually-do” coiffure, told me the regional buses left from “over there”, signaling in a cardinal direction that included at least half of the airport.
            Eventually, I found the bus depot. I helped an gracious, old Spanish man use the touchscreen ticket machine, which marked my second positive interaction with a native Spaniard in the two-ish hours I had been in the country. The first was with the customs officer who talked more about the book I had in my hand – Don Miguel Ruiz’s “Los cuatro acuerdos” – than about my reasons for entering the Kingdom of Spain.
            On the bus to Valladolid, I met another one of my fellow future comrades in English-assisstant-teacher-dom, the venerable Don Dave Palmer of Newton, Massachussetts. The two of us were both delirious with sleep-deprivation and new country-ation. Dave had been to Spain before so he told me a lot of what to expect, and he was with me on that hallmark first-time of being fucked over by a broken Spanish vending machine which stole my money. This was only a portent of future pilferings inflicted through the false promises of false-prophet Spanish vending machines. More on this later.
            Alas, Dave and I did not sit next to each other due to our far-flung seat assignments, which they apparently take pretty seriously on the Spanish ALSA bus. My seatmate was a stoic-looking young Spanish woman, who made sure to be looking out the window any time I glanced over at here. However, about halfway through our two-and-a-half hour bus ride, I decided to try and talk to this Spanish lady. This would be my first attempt at a real conversation with a native speaker. I had not slept in many, many hours. My body and my brain were both very confused.
            “I haven’t slept in hours. I’m American,” I blurted out in Spanish. These were my carefully chosen opening lines. “I’m very tired.”
            And again, much like my compañero on the flight over from the U.S., my seatmate on this bus livened up and immediately became very nice and helpful. She felt bad for me, el pobrecito gringo who hadn’t slept in a long time. She said I could sleep when I got to Valladolid, but that unfortunately for my tired-ass self, this happened to be the week of the Festival de la Virgen de San Lorenzo, and that sleep would neither be appropriate, nor possible, upon my arrival. This festival, she said, was the most important one of the year in Valladolid and that I had no choice but to partake once I arrived. There would be food carts aplenty, loosened-to-nonexistent public drinking and drunkenness laws for the few days, and that bars would not close.
As I’ve come to understand since, Spaniards firmly believe that our legally-enforced “closing times” at bars are a relic of antiquated Anglican Puritanism, a sure-sign of incipient fascism and the erosion of civil liberties. How, they ask, can the government mandate that bars stop serving drinks? How is this allowed? They’d imagine that in a country that still executes its citizens by firing squad ( that you could at least get a drink at 4:30 AM if you wanted to. They speak in hushed tones about our enforced stop-drinking time. They can understand the firing squad, they can understand paying thousands of dollars for health care and college, but they can’t understand bars closing at 2 AM.
Isn’t there an international treaty against that?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

La salida de los EE.UU. - The Exit from the U.S.A.

  El día miércoles 7 de agosto 2011

La salida

            Though it has improved, as of September 2011, Dulles International Airport remains a hellhole. Though the hole into/near/surrounding hell is not quite as infernal as in the past, hellish it remains. Luckily, while waiting in the several football-field-long line for international check-in, I was fortunate enough to have my distraught and frantic parents by my side to help me maintain my sense of equilibrium. Though the electronic check-in kiosk did not believe I was a real person, nor did it trust that I was not a terrorist trying to blow up La sagrada familia, I still was able to board my flight to Madrid.
            Did I mention my flight was free? Because of flying back and forth from Washington, D.C. to Portland, Oregon for five years straight, I had a shit-ton of SkyMiles to use up. To be sure, it would more suffice to say that my parents had a shit-ton of SkyMiles to use up, but you know how that kind of thing goes. Suburban entitlement and all that. That I’m a spoiled kid, don’t know the value of money, etc.
            Despite the fact that I purchased the tickets with SkyMiles from United Airlines, my actual flight service was provided by AerLingus, an Irish company, and let me tell you, this was the right decision. Those of you out there who have had the pleasure of hearing updates from the cockpit in a soothing, nearly-stereotypical brogue from the Old Green Country will understand just how awesome it was to fly AerLingus. The flight crew was an eclectic mix of genial Spanish folk, surly Americans, and plucky Irish lasses. This made for an interesting array of cultural hodgepodge.
            And good goddamn, our plane was huge. There were three or four different partitioned classes, each with at least a hundred seats arranged in alternating groups. There were sets of two seats on the port side of the plane (that’s left when you’re facing the front of the plane) five (!!) in the middle, and three on the starboard (right) side.
 Yes. I just looked those nautical terms online. They’re useful for aircraft descriptions.
            Upon finding my seat (47A sounds right - let’s say 47A) I was more than relieved to see that it was a window seat in one of the port-side, two-person rows. “Thank God,” I said to myself for dramatic effect.
Before too long, a rather pensive looking man with gray hair came and claimed the seat next to mine: the proverbial 47B. We exchanged half-smiles and nods of courtesy, but we quickly went back to awkwardly feigning attention to our own just-arrived-to-our-airplane-seat affairs. Arranging carry-ons, strategically placing books and crossword puzzles. The standard fare.
            After a few minutes had passed, our Irish-brogued pilot-oracle came over the loudspeaker system and informed us in dulcet, Celtic tones that due to “th’ fahckin’, god-fuhrsayken stahrms in th’area, wi’ th’ fahckin’ lightnin’ an’ whatnot, w’re goin’ ta hahve to l’cate a nyew pahth in which we c’n take off, th’re, ladies and g’ntlemen.” (He did not say the more profane first half of this sentence. You should pretend he did.) Naturally, as any good seatmate would do, I engaged in the archetypical make-friends-on-public-transportation strategy of Mutual Commiseration Over Typical Bullshit That You Just Can’t Believe But Have Come To Expect Due To The Incipient Retrogression of The World Into Medieval Darkness Technique - one as old and as stoic as time itself.
            “Huh, shocking,” I said, turning towards my seatmate. “At least they have Irish accents!” You can tell that this was a positive point for me.
            The man’s face, which had initially looked quite serious, if not a bit cold, slowly warmed. Slowly, like one of those new-fangled, curly lightbulbs. With a worldly chuckle, he said to me, “Well, you know, I’ve flown this flight a lot, and that’s one thing that always makes it better for me. I also love Irish accents!” At least, this is what I remember him saying. Who doesn’t love a good Irish accent? Nonetheless, with that simple offering of Mutual Commiseration Over Typical Bullshit That You Just Can’t Believe But Have Come To Expect Due To The Incipient Retrogression of The World Into Medieval Darkness - the oldest trick in the book - I made a new friend.
Goes to show you kids: don’t be an asshole on a plane.
            I found out that my seatmate’s name was John, and that my first impression of him as stoic and cold was so very far off. John was a genial, bright-blue eyed man of about 65 years who maintained a reserved, wry smile the whole time I talked to him. John had seen many places and met all stripes of people: I found that he was not only a doctor of physics (from Penn State, undergrad in English at Virginia Tech) but for many years, he was a colonel in the Air Force.
            So basically, if you’re reading this, you’re currently wasting your life compared to John. John was a rocket scientist and a high-level colonel in the Air Force. He has been to, like, every country on Earth. He can fly planes. He can build goddamn missiles. Shit, he can be build the goddamn plane and the missile. And fly the plane. And shoot the missile.
So throughout our hop across the Great Atlantic Puddle, he regaled me with myriad stories of his trips to and exploits within diffuse parts of the globe.
“I’ve been around a little bit,” John said a couple times, smiling that unassuming smile, relishing in his almost laughable understatement. At one point, he pulled out a book he had in his backpack. In fact, it was not any book, but an aviation industry catalogue that inventoried all the available types of planes on the market. “Every time I’ve ever flown, I found the plane that I flew in this book and made a little note of the year and date.” The book was full of black stamps and Sharpie marks. There was something on practically every page.
“So I’m taking it you’ve flown this kind of plane before, then,” I asked him.
John looked at me like I’d an asked an alcoholic from Kentucky whether he’d ever tried this stuff called bourbon.
“Oh,” he stammered, “well, yeah. This was one of the easier ones. Did this one a lot. AirBus [insert number and letter combination here]. In fact, this one was [insert tons of technical stuff that I pretended to understand].”
“Oh yeah, definitely,” I replied. “Definitely.”

So John was visiting his globe-trotting daughter, who just finished teaching in the Ukraine and recently moved to teach in Madrid. On the benefits of first-world residence, John said that “she’s glad the lights will come on every time you flip the switches. And that you can drink the water.” Apparently, you can’t always drink the water in the Ukraine. Not too big on water-drinkin’ from the tap ‘round there. Anyways, John reassured me that I would absolutely love teaching kids in a Spanish high school, and that his daughter had already told him that she never wants to come back to the United States, but that she would like stores to be open on Sundays occasionally. “They sleep a lot. The Spaniards really know how to kick back and relax.” I would later find out that this was another one of John’s famous understatements. But that’s for a later chapter of this story.
After a little bit longer of the Ol’ Colonel making me feel like I was one of the most uninteresting people on Earth because I had never been caught in a snowstorm in Antarctica, unable to safely return to Christchurch, New Zealand, after checking the parameters and readings of some ultra-super-crazy-ass, scientific data-collection shit at the South Pole, he decided he was going to try and get some sleep. He grabbed his Irish-themed, shamrock-bedecked AerLingus pillow, adjusted his seat back into its most non-upright position, and was out like a light.
I sat there for a little bit and thought about how if I hadn’t done the ol’ Mutual Commiseration Over Typical Bullshit That You Just Can’t Believe But Have Come To Expect Due To The Incipient Retrogression of The World Into Medieval Darkness Technique, I might never have found out about John’s wild, interesting life, nor would I have considered the shallowness and astoundingly low quantities of awesome, cosmopolitan, secret agent-rocket scientist-colonel-ness that compose my own. Goes to show you kids: don’t be an asshole on planes. Ask your seatmate whether they’ve ever been to the South Pole. Ask them whether they’re a Penn State-trained, James Bond-esque, Air Force Physicist Colonel. Or you may never know.

Me? I’m no near-hyperbole, paramilitary scientist-badass, so I can never sleep on planes. I sat there in my own way-too-tired and banal world for a while, ruminating on the interesting-ness of chance-meetings like mine and John’s, and I noticed how clear I could see all of the stars. The Big Dipper; the Milky Way; some other stars and shit with insanely long Greek names, peppered with a bunch of letters and numbers which make them seem way more epic (like Procyon A/B, 47 Ursae Majoris). I could see it all.
Then, at about 5 AM EST – or Some Other Time, Spain Time (I don’t like math or looking up foreign time zone names) I started to see a otherworldly orange phosphorescence on the horizon. And then I realized: it was a new day on another continent, one I’d never been to before.
And then I thought,
Oh shit, I’m going to be here for a year!