November 29th, 2011

A quick guide to street greetings in Spain.

Social mores are pretty set in stone here in Spain, and among them is a complex and intimidating web of expectations related to sidewalk behavior.  It is clear to every Spaniard who gets to cut people off, at what speed one should walk arm in arm with one’s mother and when it is acceptable to completely block the sidewalk in order have a conversation. Some of the expectations are related to the way you greet someone as you encounter them. It can get pretty confusing, so I have created this little guide.  Below, you will find the meaning of a few common street greetings and explanations of how to act when you hear them.  Enjoy.

Adiós

This is kind of like Aloha in Hawaii, in that it is both hello and goodbye.  It means that the person sees you, but has no intention of talking to you.  Action required: Keep walking

Hasta Luego

This is similar to adiós.  Essentially the person is saying “hey there.  I see you, and we are friends and everything, but there is no way I am stopping to talk to you right now.”  This person is probably in a hurry because they are running late for meeting in which they will sit in a café, nurse a coffee, and chat for an hour.  Action required: Repeat the phrase and keep walking.  Maybe throw in a wave for good measure.

Buen Día/Buenos Días

This greeting depends on how well you know the person.  If it is someone you know well, it means “hey there, I might be interested in stopping to chat, but there is no way that I am talking about anything more complicated then the weather.”  Action required: Tell the person how hot/cold you think it is today.  If you don’t know the person, this greeting is more of a “listen asshole, I don’t know you, but I said hello anyway, and if I could take it back I would, but I can’t, so just take your fat foreign face and keep walking.” Action required: Keep walking.

Qué Tal?

The person who says this is probably someone you consider a friend.  They probably consider you an acquaintance.  Perhaps they talk to you because they are so sick of talking to the same goddamn people every day of their life.  He or she most likely still lives with his or her parents, you know, because of la crisis. Qué Tal, means, “I didn’t have anywhere to go, but I had to leave the house, because if my mom doesn’t get off my case about getting a job I am going to flip out on her and now you are here, so I guess I’ll talk to you.  Better than going back home.” Action required: Stop and chat.  Make sure you don’t mention anything about work or la crisis.

Cómo Estás?

This person both knows you and likes you.  They are either a good friend or trying to figure out why you are walking around and smiling all the time.  They are wearing an Oxford University sweatshirt or a t-shirt that says something like “100% champion American sports team.”  It is also possible that this person is from the United States, which would make the t-shirt choice an attempt at comedy.  In any event, settle in, because this person is saying “ I literally have NOTHING to do, and unless you stop me, I am going to talk to you for at least an hour.” Action required: Talk for an hour or make up a fake coffee meeting.

Cómo Está Usted?

There are only two possibilities here.  Either the person you are talking to is Ecuadorian, or you are in court. Otherwise, why would everyone be speaking so formally with each other? Action required: Make sure you are nice to the judge.  Avoid using common phrases like “Joder,” o “de puta madre.”

Hello

This person is definitely Spanish.  They are saying “Hi.  English lessons in this town are way too expensive, and I have a big exam/interview coming up, so how about we chit chat for a while so I can practice.” Action required: Keep walking, or send the person an invoice after what is sure to be a grueling conversation.

November 22nd, 2011

This is a Dog Shit Story.

This is a story about dog shit.  If you don’t like stories about dog shit then you should probably stop reading now, but my guess is that you have never read any stories about dog shit, so this will be your first.  I hope it fulfills any expectations that you may have about dog shit stories.

In order to have dog shit, you need to have a dog. Ours is named Lorenzo.  We didn’t name him that, but when we picked him up at the shelter he looked like what we thought a dog named Lorenzo might look like, so we didn’t change the name.  He was a tiny puppy, barely big enough to go home.  The lady at the shelter told us that he had been born there.  She went on to explain that his mother was an Old English Sheep Dog.  His father was described as a “traveling salesman.”  You could tell that she had used that joke at least a couple of hundred times.   She was barely trying.

We sat the dog on the floor of the front seat of the car and drove to where we were living at the time – a house with a huge yard surrounded by a forest preserve, the perfect environment for a dog.  We brought him inside and put him in the tub.  Shelter life had left him covered in slobber, dirt and shit, so we scrubbed him clean and then let him explore his new home.

With the exception of a few carpet accidents, training the dog was pretty easy.  He responded well to rewards and seemed genuinely interested in doing what he was told. (something that holds true today)  There was that one time when he got arrested and I had to pick him up at the police station, and that other time when I found him running around the Chicago Bears’ practice facility, or the two months of his life when he would just stare at you and bark for hours at a time, but mostly he was a good dog.

The reason I mention all if this is because of one special aspect of Lorenzo’s training.  You see, I like dogs, but I am not crazy about the idea of picking up dog shit with a plastic bag wrapped around my hand.  It smells. I am always convinced that I have gotten some of it on me and you can feel the texture right through the bag.  The worst, however, has to be the heat.  A dog’s normal body temperature is around 101 degrees, so when you pick up that shit-loaf, it feels warm in your hand. The whole process makes me want to take a shower.

I solved this problem by training the dog to shit in the woods.  I would let him outside, and as long as there were no deer around for him to chase, he would trot off into the woods, ditch a deuce, and then come running back.  It was fabulous.  I never had to stash of old plastic grocery bags in my coat and I never thought I would have to.  For almost three years of Lorenzo’s life, we had an agreement - one that we both liked.  I fed him, played with him, took him running and let him sleep on the couch and he got to grow up to be a 60-pound dog living the good life.  I didn’t have to pick up his shit and he didn’t have to shit with someone standing there watching him.  Then, just when I had it all figured out we decided to move to Spain – to a city of 700,000 people.  The salad days were officially over.

Moving a dog to Spain is actually pretty easy.  Sure, there are some bumps in the road, like not being able to fly in the summer, (airlines won’t allow dogs in the luggage compartment if it is over 84 degrees) and a bunch of paperwork, but there is no quarantine for most of Europe.   In our experience we didn’t actually have to get all the paperwork from the vet and the USDA, we just had to SAY that we did. I put the dog on the plane in Chicago, and after arriving in Madrid I wheeled his cage though customs like I was invisible.  At one point I actually approached an officer to see if he needed to see the dog’s paperwork.  He just shrugged his shoulders and gave me a look that I am beginning to recognize as the “this is Spain” look.  I took Lorenzo outside and let him out of his cage for the first time in almost 12 hours and gave him a drink.  I expected him to be scarred for life from the experience of riding in the dark and noisy underbelly of a jumbo jet, but instead he just wagged his tail and stood there looking dumb. We walked to the parking garage and 10 minutes later we were on the road in our rental car.

We arrived in Zaragoza about three and a half hours later, longer than it normally takes because we stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere for what was supposed to be a bathroom break.  The dog had not gone since way before he had gotten on the plane, so if was definitely time.  Plus, he had been whining in the back of the car for about 20 minutes, so I assumed that he had to go pretty badly. I walked him up a hill along a trail lined by what looked like olive trees and down along a river.  We then backtracked and headed back for the car, stopping so he could sniff trees.  He headed for the ditch, for what I was certain would result in a nice pile, but then realized that he had discovered the badly decaying body of a large dog that had been hit by a car.  After half of an hour I gave up on the bathroom part of the bathroom break and we just got back in the car.

We got home just in time to pick up the kids from school, so I parked the car, shoved an old grocery bag in my pocket and we headed out on the loop that passes by both of my kids’ schools.  Still, no shit.  He sniffed everything on the way and was looking around everywhere, but after picking up the kids and walking for almost an hour, the dog still wouldn’t shit.  Then it hit me.  Lorenzo was looking for the woods.

I know it seems impossible to train a dog “too well,” but no matter what I did, there was no way that he was going to shit anywhere but the woods.  It certainly doesn’t help that Zaragoza is a city almost completely devoid of green space.  With the exception of one large park and a couple of smaller parks along the river, this city is completely paved.  Even when you leave the city you realize that it was built in the middle of a desert, so there is no grass anywhere.  Dogs that grew up here tend to shit in these small raised beds of grass along the boulevards. I know this because every square inch of the grass in the beds is covered in dog shit.  In fact, every square inch of any grass in the city seems like it is covered in dog shit.  Every once in a while someone from the city comes and cleans it up, but then in a couple of days it is back to normal.

Later on that afternoon, I took the dog out again for another try.  There is a small park (mostly paved) by my daughter’s school that is always full of dogs, so I figured that I would give it a try.  For the next two hours Lorenzo played with other dogs, sniffed butts and pissed twice, but no deuce.  I, however, stepped in shit twice, trying to navigate the small patches of “grass.”  We returned home, defeated. 

The next morning, we walked the kids to school again.  I was certain that he was going to have to shit eventually, so I threw another bag in my pocket just in case he made it a double-bagger.  We walked by the park and dropped off my daughter.  Nothing.  Then while walking down a side street near my son’s school, it became clear that Lorenzo was uncomfortable.  For a stretch of about 50 yards he would stop every 10 feet or so and go into little doggie convulsions, where his abdomen would flex back and forth and he would look like he was humping the air.  He obviously couldn’t hold it anymore, but he refused to go in the street.

I dropped of my son and headed back to the park, thinking that this was the moment of truth.  30 minutes more of walking around and the dog still wouldn’t go.  He played some more, this time with an off-leash boxer.  At one point the boxer’s owner, a dirty and drunk man with a tattoo on his neck, came over to warn me that the police were arresting people for having their dogs off-leash. I thought to myself, “no, they are arresting YOU because YOU live in the park.”  But I just said “oh,” and headed home.

That afternoon we left the house and headed towards my son’s school.  We stopped by the raised beds on the way.  Nothing. Then 2 minutes later, the doggie convulsions started again and it was too much for Lorenzo to handle.  He looked up at me with big brown sad eyes and said he was sorry.  I said I was sorry too. Then he crouched down with shaky legs and a broken soul and took an elephant-sized dump in the middle of the busiest pedestrian walkway in town - right in the middle of a crowd of fancily dressed businessmen on their way back to work.  I just stood there and watched him do it, waiting there with a plastic bag in my hand.

I told him that he was a good boy and then bent over and picked up my first dog shit in years and was immediately reminded of all the reasons that I had trained my dog to go in the woods.  It smelled terrible, almost a chemical smell, and was soft to the touch.  I am almost certain that there may have been a hole in the bag.  But of course, the worst part was the heat.  As I held my dog’s shit in my hand, my hand started to sweat on the other side of the bag and it seemed as if there was no bag at all.  I walked over to the trash and let the bag slide in. He had finally done it, but I couldn’t tell if that was a good thing.

Now, this should be the part of the story where I wrap things up with a nice bow by talking about how great my dog is and how he is totally worth it - how my kids scream his name and hug him every time they see him – how he follows me around all day, only taking breaks to sit out on our little fifth floor balcony trying to take it all in.  But this is a dog shit story, so you can make up your own mind.  All I know for sure is that twice a day I hold a hot shit bag in my sweaty hand and Lorenzo and I look each other in the eye and wonder what the hell happened.

November 15th, 2011

Look Who’s Legal!

             As a general rule, Spanish people love paperwork and jumping through hoops, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that after seven months of filling out forms and hoop jumping that I was required to fly back to the consulate in Chicago in order to retrieve my family’s visas.  What made it somewhat more frustrating, however, was that our visas, essentially fancy stickers, were mailed to Chicago from a building that I can practically see from our apartment. 

             I cheerfully booked myself a three-day trip to the states with the understanding that I would be returning with the fancy stickers - or not.  It was entirely possible that I would fly 5,000 miles only to find that I was missing some form or a signature from some guy back in Spain.  You never know, but I had hope.  So after a nice long trans-Atlantic flight, followed by craft beers and pork sandwiches in an effort to stay awake, I slept like the dead and awoke with just enough time to head to the consulate. 

            This was not my first trip to the rodeo.  The Chicago Spanish consulate is on the 15th floor of a downtown high rise, and at any given moment it is filled with a couple of dozen people (mostly students) staring at each other and wondering whose turn it is.  The room is small, about the size of a large American living room.  There is a wall of windows that overlooks Michigan Avenue and in the back of the room sits around 10 chairs, which no one sits in because they are either too polite or too afraid to lose their place in a line that doesn’t even exist. There is a complicated online appointment system, but some people just show up, and the result is pure and total bureaucratic chaos, if that is even possible. It is a room thick with the excitement of travel and the despair of helplessness. During our first visit there I stood in front of a bulletproof window for three hours and passed four pounds of paper back and forth under the glass only to be told that one of our forms needed to be worded slightly differently.

            This time I was determined to make it quick.  I drove downtown, paid 22 dollars to park and walked down a sidewalk that seemed way too cold for October. I arrived half frozen, walked in, took a look around the room at 30 or so lost souls and felt strangely nostalgic, but then quickly lost that sensation, walked up to a window that someone was already standing at, shoved my stack of passports under the glass and said (in Spanish), “just picking up.”  (Incidentally, the speaking Spanish part is important.  The simple fact of knowing the language has saved us days, if not weeks of time.  Spanish speakers ALWAYS get helped first.)  The clerk at the window asked me a couple of questions, and twenty minutes later I was walking out the door with four brand new fancy stickers.  Everyone in that room officially hated me.

            Finally, we were legal – A family of four Americans who had permission to work and reside in Spain – at least for the next 365 days. I was so goddamn proud of myself that I wanted to scream, or do jumping jacks, or punch some random person in the face, but instead I celebrated this achievement in the most American way I could think of– I got into my rented SUV, drove to the nearest Burger King, ordered a double whopper with cheese meal and ate it with one-handed while driving 85 MPH on the interstate.  And let me tell you, that whopper tasted good.  It was still hot and steamy, and it practically tasted like America.  Whopper sauce ran down my hand like the stripes from the flag, and I washed the whole thing down with a big cup of high fructose corn syrup.  It was absolutely beautiful.

            As I watched my country fly by between light poles I felt at ease for the first time in a while, and although I knew that there would be even more paperwork waiting for me at home, my new home, I let myself enjoy this one.  With the hand that wasn’t busy holding a whopper I turned on the radio.  I tried to sing along with some shitty song - I think it probably included the word “tonight” or “we gunna,” but that only narrows it down to about half of the songs, so mostly I mumbled the words and moved my head around in a way that must have made me look like a chicken.

In that moment I forgot about all of the problems that we have in America.  I forgot about our broken political system and staggering unemployment.  I forgot about that lady in Florida who killed her kid (or didn’t), and the other parents who will do the same thing this year but not have their trial broadcast on television. I forgot about all the bad and focused on the good.  In that moment, the good was a double whopper with cheese, but it could have been anything.  When it comes down to it, I like being American; it’s just that right now I am American from a distance.

             

           

October 11th, 2011

Yeah… I wasn’t really ready for that.

So my name is Aric Visser, and I used to write this blog called the Adventures of an Expat Househusband (this blog).  The thing is that our leaving the country and moving to a new life in Spain was much more complicated than I had anticipated.  We have been here for about 9 weeks, and although I have hundreds of stories I want to tell, being a househusband has proven to be pretty time consuming.  I guess what I am saying is that for all of you that are sitting on pins and needles waiting to hear what some idiot from the Midwest thinks about living in Spain, please be patient.  I am trying to write, changing platforms, and trying to get involved in shenanigans that will help me write  something worth reading soon.  For those of you who were tricked into coming to this page, welcome.  Look at the nice photo.  My wife Kim took it when we were in Alquézar a couple of weeks ago.  Totally beautiful. 

I still think that I am top five if you google the phrase, “House husband asshole.”  I’ll do my best to keep it that way.”

-Aric

June 7th, 2011

164 Shoes.

We own 164 shoes.  There, I said it.  We are the proud possessors of 82 pairs of footwear of all kinds.  We have dress shoes, winter boots, rain boots, soccer cleats, and sandals (among others).  My gut feeling was that this was probably the fault of my wife Kim, but then I counted.  I not only have my fair share of shoes, I have seven pairs of running shoes, and I didn’t even know it.  

I realize that 164 shoes is actually probably not that many for an American family of four, but as we begin our packing process for our move to Spain, it has become clear that almost all of the shoes have to go.  So what do you do with old shoes?  You can’t just throw them out (actually you can, but we prefer not to), especially when others would love to have a pair of shoes.  So it seems like a good idea to donate them to one of those organizations that sends shoes to the developing world, right?

Wrong.  I am not going to make any friends with this, but donating shoes, or any clothing item to an organization that is going to send it to the developing world is a bad idea.  Sure, doing so makes you feel really good about yourself.  After all, you’ve seen the images of African school children putting on somebody’s old shoes and smiling from ear to ear.  We love the idea that we can swoop down with all of our riches and save the world.  The problem is that it doesn’t always work out that way.

I spend a fair amount of time in the developing word and have seen what happens at the receiving end of these charitable donations.  There is no “happy truck” that drives around and hands out t-shirts and shoes to all those in need.  In fact, a large portion of clothing donations make their way to the market where they are sold, not donated.

So, your donated shoes and t-shirts have just become merchandise again, which presents us with a problem.  When the town market is all of a sudden flush with cheap shoes and clothing, you essentially take money away from anyone who works in textiles.  You take away their job.  No one buys hand made clothing anymore when they can buy 10-cent Superbowl t-shirts.  So the weaver or shoemaker has to figure out something else to do for a living, often leaving behind knowledge and skills that have been passed on for generations.

Even before your shoes get to that market, we encounter another problem.  Sending shoes on a boat halfway across the world is an unbelievable waste of resources.  The money and fuel spent on shipping could easily be spent on something much more valuable – new shoes.  Rather than use all that money to send your dirty kicks to Peru, spend a little money on buying a pair from a Peruvian shoemaker, or better yet, donate money to an organization that does job training in the field of textiles (like this one).  People in the developing world don’t need your shoes, they need jobs.

So what choice does that leave?  Here are a few:

·      The first, and possibly the easiest choice, is to sell the shoes in a garage sale.  You get rid of your shoes, and you make a little money, money that can be donated to a charity of your choice.

·      Call your local high school and ask to speak with the cross-country or track coach.  I coached for many years, and there are always kids who can’t afford to buy their own shoes. 

·      Donate old athletic shoes to the Nike Reuse-a-Shoe program.  They take old shoes and grind them up to make running tracks and other athletic equipment. More info here: http://www.nikereuseashoe.com/

·      Donate the shoes to Goodwill, The Salvation Army, or a similar organization.  You donation will most likely make a local impact, and you can still feel good about giving them away.  You can also deduct the donation from your taxes.

So what will we do?  We probably will do a little of all of these, and most likely make a donation to Awamaki, a NGO in the Peruvian Andes that helps traditional weavers by providing them with training and an outlet to sell their work at a fair price.  They also work in health care and community development.  Find out more at www.awamaki.org. 

In addition, check out Global Giving, an organization that helps NGOs raise money around the world.  They actually personally check out many of the projects that they promote, so you can rest assured that your donation is safe. www.globalgiving.org.

June 6th, 2011

Coca Fever.

As the sun rises over impossibly high mountains and Incan ruins in the Peruvian Andes, I am sitting in a plastic chair in front of a 15 dollar a night hotel with a mouth full of leaves.  I am chewing Coca, and feeling like a badass…

The people of the Andean highlands have been chewing Coca leaves for millennia.  It is a sacred plant that is also used for making tea and candies.  Some people even eat it.  They do so because there are real medicinal advantages for doing so.  Mate de Coca is the Andean cup of coffee in the morning, just without all the running to the bathroom after too many cups.  It helps with digestion, and it is an appetite suppressant, which can be helpful when you are working in a silver mine or eat nothing but potatoes all day long. Coca also helps with altitude sickness, which it why started chewing it. Of course, we all know that coca is the plant that is refined to make cocaine.

As a person who grew up in the “say no to drugs” Nancy Reagan age, watching armed soldiers burning  Coca plants on t.v. as part of the war on drugs, chewing the leaves made me feel like I was getting away with something. 

The first time I bought Coca and I had no idea what I was doing, so I just shoved a handful into my mouth and shoved them into my lip the way that I would imagine someone would chew tobacco (I don’t).  The taste is very much like green tea, and very pleasant, but I was not getting the help I was looking for with the altitude.  It took the help of a more seasoned chewer to get me on track.

Apparently the leaves are only half of the equation.  The other half is baking soda, which is sold in tiny clear plastic bags.  I went back to the market and got two bags of leaves and some baking soda, all for about 75 cents.  “Modern” remedies cost about a dollar per pill and don’t seem to work that much better.

I was taught to take a small amount of the leaves and organize them into a little packet used to fold up a small amount baking soda.  Think of it as an envelope of leaves filled with fine white powder.  You take the packet and chew on it a few times and then stick it in your lip.  The baking soda tastes like shit at first, but goes away and the familiar green tea taste takes over.  Then something weird happens.  The parts of your mouth that the leaves are touching start to go numb, and the altitude headache that you had actually goes away.  I have no idea who the first person was who figured out to add the baking soda, but thanks to him, I no longer had a headache.

There is a down side to being a badass, however.  There always is.  After about two days of chewing the leaves, my teeth started to hurt and my gums felt like they were scratched to bits.  I had a green stain on my lip that looked like lip liner.  It looked especially good on my amazingly chapped lips. 

Luckily, after two days I started feeling better anyway.  I still drank coca tea about five times a day, but didn’t need to chew – so I didn’t.  And  I still felt like a badass….Sort of.

May 22nd, 2011

My 85 Year Old Andean Grandmother Is a Killer

My 85 year old Andean grandmother is a real tough lady. Her husband died a couple of months ago, so she came down the mountain to live with her daughter and her family in the tiny town of Patacancha, 14,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes.  I met her about a week ago, in my third visit to the town.

My 85 year old Andean grandmother is physically fit.  Even though she walks with a cane, she can squat down next to the fire for hours.  She can climb mountains like a sherpa, making me look like an rookie as she flies up the hill past me.  She can perform a perfect dice without a cutting board. She weaves almost not stop, her fingers swift and strong.

But mostly, my 85 year old Andean grandmother is a killer.  I saw it with my own eyes.  It was a cool Thursday morning, and it had been decided that on Friday afternoon that there would be a Patchamanca feast involving a sheep.  Essentially, a sheep and a bunch of potatoes are buried with some hot rocks and left to cook underground.  A sheep was chosen – a black sheep of what seemed like normal size- but nobody wanted to kill it. So they called grandma.

She came flying down the hill where her daughter and her granddaughter had tied the sheep’s legs together and left it laying on the ground.  Grandma was not impressed with her kin.  She mumbled under her breath as they handed her the knife, “You know, what are you going to do when I die?  I hope you don’t expect me to come back from the grave to kill a sheep for you.”

She grabbed the sheep’s jaw and put the knife to its throat.  It was clearly not a sharp knife, because this was not the clean “one slice of the throat” killing I was expecting.  She started moving the knife back and forth in a sawing motion.  It took her at least 10 passes to just break the skin.  After about 20 passes she had cut though the windpipe, which made the sheep make a gurgling sound as is breathed though the brand new hole in its neck.  The sheep was clearly not enjoying this.

After about 40 passes, grandma had cut about as far as she could.  The blood was squirting out in a stream.  The sheep was still alive.  I thought for a second that she was actually going to cut the head clear off.  She didn’t, but it probably would have been better for the sheep.

After she was finished she stood up,  grabbed her cane and watched as her daughter and granddaughter went about skinning the animal.  Look again at the photo, she didn’t bother to wash the blood off her hand for quite a while.  A bunch of blood spilled on the grass.  I watched the dog lick the grass clean.

On Friday afternoon the sheep went from animal to food.  After it was cooked underground, her son in law hacked it into serving sized pieces with a full sized axe.   I ate a piece of the sheep that grandma killed, and it was delicious.  If I see her again before she dies, I am going to buy her a sharp knife.  A killer like my 85 year old Andean grandmother shouldn’t have to work so hard.

April 18th, 2011

Three Cups of Tea – Four Cups of Bullshit…

As I sat watching 60 Minutes dismantle the godlike aura that surrounds Three Cups of Tea author and philanthropist Greg Mortenson on Sunday, I felt sick to my stomach. Like many of you, I have read Three cups of Tea several times.  I followed the Central Asia Institute, (his non-profit) on Facebook and wondered when the Norwegians were going to get with the program and give him the Nobel Peace Prize.  I also teach his book, and have been for the last four years, in Spanish.  I have held him up as an example to my students, showing them that a virtuous man can make a difference in the world, and that they can too, as long as they find in themselves just a pinch of the character that makes Mortenson tick.  I even encouraged people to donate to CAI and to attend his speaking engagements. Now, it appears, Mortenson is making me look like an asshole.

I think that whether or not Mortenson actually does good work in Asia is irrelevant to this argument.  Sure, he builds schools, and he has undoubtedly improved the lives of many thousands of school children, especially girls.  He also turns out to be a liar, and in doing so risks alienating the very people (me) who have been singing his praises.

I have felt this way before.  Somewhat coincidentally, I was also a big fan of James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, the Oprah Winfrey Book Club endorsed memoir about his battle with addiction.  It turned out that parts of Frey’s descriptions of events were exaggerated for dramatic purpose and when Oprah realized that she had been duped, she made Frey come back on her show where she kicked his ass all over the stage.  He left the building with his tail between his legs.

I am willing to give Frey a pass on his exaggerations for two reasons.  First, A Million Little Pieces is a great book  and a resource for anyone wanting to tackle addiction without all the “give yourself to a higher power” nonsense that apparently happens in most drug treatment programs.  In Frey’s view, if you really want to stop using, you stop using. 

Second, Frey’s book is a memoir, just a memoir.  While he made a good deal of money exaggerating his story, in the end that’s all it was – a story.  All memoir writers change things to make them interesting, and frankly I am glad that they do, because it makes their books better. The difference with Mortenson is that his book is more than a memoir, it is a major fund raising tool that is used by the CAI to raise the millions of dollars that they bring in every year.

Unfortunately, according to CBS, very little of that money goes to building schools. Much of it goes to travel expenses related to  Mortenson’s book tours and speaking engagements. Mortenson himself admits that the CAI takes a portion of its funds and dedicates them to its endowment.  That makes good business sense to do so, but when you have school children around the country giving up their time and collecting change in order to build a school for other kids that they have never met before halfway across the world, then you better use that money to build a school.  If any of the money school children donated to the CAI went into the general fund for the organization – and therefore went to pay for airfare or payments to the endowment, then Mortenson owes the children of America an apology.  In fact, somebody call Oprah before she retires so he can issue the apology to a national audience.  I could really go for a good ass whipping right about now.

In about a month, I will be leaving for rural Latin America, where I have been bringing American and Canadian students for four years to participate in a long term service project aimed at developing a relationship between North and South American students based on the shared experience of working and living together as equals.  This year we will be constructing a number of greenhouses to help villagers to grow vegetables at over 13,000 feet in elevation. 

I don’t have a book to use to help us raise funds.  In fact, what my students do is actually not that interesting of a story.  We have a great ongoing relationship with the village, and students come up with great fund raising ideas, but it is not that flashy - certainly not worthy of a memoir.  In four years time, my students have sold chocolate, written letters, and given speeches and in the process raised almost 10,000 dollars for our projects – pennies compared with what the CAI raises.  I can say, however, that 100% of that money goes to our projects.  Not one single cent is spent on travel expenses or advertising.

I wish that I could buy into the idea that I should give Mortenson some slack because of all of the good that comes out of what he does, but I can’t.  I just keep thinking about an important part of Three Cups of Tea where he turns down funding from the Pentagon because of what would happen if the people in Pakistan found out that his schools were being funded by U.S. military.  He showed a great deal of wisdom and understanding in that moment.  He stood on the side of honesty - at least I think he did. Now, I only hope that he will do the same the next time he cashes a check from American schoolchildren.

April 14th, 2011

I celebrate my tenth post with some love.

This is my tenth blog post as an expat house husband, which (trust me) is a huge personal accomplishment.  This is actually the second draft of this post.  I have an early spring cold which is pissing me off right now, so I was all set to post a column entitled “Top ten reasons why I hate your travel blog” before Kim read the title and said, “that looks pretty mean.  You are going to end up just sounding like a dick.”  And she was right.  True, I have found the Twitterverse and blogosphere to be frustrating with a lot of people just looking to make a buck, but there are some great people out there who are doing some great storytelling.  I think the best blogs have a story to tell, and I am going to use my tenth post to send out some love to some of my favorite bloggers and writers that I have found in my first month.

@ionmarkel is a photographer in the Basque Country who specializes in iPhonography.  His work is excellent.

@christinenspain lives on the southern coast of Spain.  She writes interesting stories and takes great photos.

@fryedeye writes a new blog with stories about Florida and the life of a traveling musician.  Awesome.

@MarkMaynard has been writing his blog since 1982.  He is funny, smart and the king of Ypsilanti, Michigan.

@edugel is the author of I’m With Fatty and Money for Nothing.  He is following me on twitter, which astounds me.  I bought his books and am half way through one.  Super funny and interesting.  I think I would get along with this guy.

@rebeccamakkai I already know her, and she is an amazing writer.  Trust me, she is going to be famous.

@riderby is a family with a five-year old that is traveling around the world.  True bravery.

@OverYonderlust are childhood sweethearts who are just starting their round-the world trip.  Their recent post on getting stopped by homeland security is priceless.

http://t.co/NzxGBe5 The M Cadet  picks your music so you don’t have to.  All good picks.

So if you have any tips for good storytellers, please send them my way.  And if you feel like it, spend some time with me on Mondays and Thursdays.  I’ll do my best.

April 11th, 2011

Rugby and the Basque Art of Beating Ass…

After looking at schools for my kids in Zaragoza, I found myself once again heading for the Basque Country.  I woke up on the morning of my departure still full from a week of late night dinners and drinks, the smell of garlic butter and mushrooms  still wafting from the stain on the shirt that I had worn the night before.  Since they banned smoking in bars in January, the next day “smell replay” is much more enjoyable than the thick smell of stale cigarettes that it used to be.  My friend Josu had arranged for us to attend a French league rugby game in San Sebastian the next day, so I slipped on my Ordizia Rugby shirt*  to mentally prepare myself for the Basque Derby - Biarritz v. Bayonne.

The Ordizia team is a true success story for those of us who enjoy a good underdog – in the vein of  “Rudy” or “Breaking Away.”  Ordizia is a small town of 10,000 in the Goierri  region of Gupuzkoa, a region that makes it difficult to believe that you are in Spain at all.  People are Basque and proud, and it shows up in their language, their culture, their food, and their sport.  The rugby team started up as a modest group of guys who played on an absolutely horrible mud pit of a field on the grounds of the train factory next to the river.  Unbelievably, this group of guys, who I only ever saw in the bars, worked their way up through the ranks to the highest division of rugby in Spain.  The team finished 2nd in the league this year, helped somewhat by a handful of British and New Zealander professionals on the team – a truly formidable accomplishment.

On the way to the game the next morning (back in the Basque Country), I started to tell Josu about my theory on Basques and Rugby.  There had to be a reason that a small town team could make its way into the highest division in Spanish rugby, In fact, four Basque teams play in the first division.  So what is it about the Basques that make them so good at the sport?

First it is a well known fact that Basques are ass-beaters of historic proportions.   When the Romans were busy gobbling up the rest of Western Europe, they left the Basque country alone – which is probably the only reason we still hear Basque spoken in the streets today.  Some of the reason that this happened was the geographic isolation of the region, but not all.  Rather than conquer the Basques, the Romans hired them.  They hired them to fight in wars because they simply killed everything in their path.  When they returned home from beating ass, they returned to a rocky homeland where it rains pretty much non-stop.  Total badasses.

Today, the Basque Country is enjoying a cultural and linguistic renaissance that has created a unity of “Basqueness”  that is at its highest level since Franco died and took with him all of his laws aimed at extinguishing the Basque way of life.  Markets are filled with Basque products.  Basque language radio stations can be heard blasting from car windows.  Kids go to school in Basque, mom and dad pay all of their taxes to the Basque government.  And yes, Basque rugby teams generally kick ass.

Josu and I were walking the last few blocks to the stadium where the Basque Derby was set to take place when I laid out my theory in detail.  I explained about all the history and stuff and then added:

“It seems to me like soccer (football) is Spain’s game, both in culture and reality.  The fluidity and the grace are emblematic of Spain’s ability to turn life into a song, or a dance for that matter.  Rugby, on the other hand, feels like a Basque sport.  It is about being stronger than your opponent. It is about being an ass-beater of historic proportions.  It certainly takes a high pain tolerance to be able to be successful.  I also can’t help but think that being dominant in the sport of rugby is almost political.  This is the Basque Country’s sport.  Spain can have the others, but this is yours…”

Josu politely let me finish and responded, “ That’s totally wrong.  Rugby is popular here because we live so close to France.” Followed by, “Hey look at those goddamn French people doing their little folkloric dance, they probably don’t even speak a work of Basque.”

With that, we entered the stadium and watched Biarritz destroy Bayonne with 31,000 new French friends. We were, of course, cheering for Bayonne – they were the underdog – and Basques love rooting for underdogs.

* a side story here: (sorry in advance for getting all David Foster Wallace with the footnote)While waiting in the Zaragoza train station (wearing my Ordizia Rugby shirt) I saw a couple of big dudes walking through the waiting area completely decked out in Ordizia Rugby gear.  It took me a second, but I recognized them as members of the team.  They saw me and walked over with confused looks on their faces and asked, “Where did you get the shirt.” I explained that it was a gift from a friend and that I had been following the team on the internet.   We started walking towards the other side of the station and they looked even more puzzled.  We turned the corner and there sat the rest of the team.  I went on to explain to them (and the coach at this point) that I had lived in Ordizia 19 years ago, lived in Chicago now and continued to watch as many games as I could to follow the team.  The coach seemed convinced that the whole situation was part of a big practical joke, and he kept looking around “for the cameras.” We had a nice chat for a few minutes and then I left to board my train to Zumarraga – where they had just come from. They left for Sevilla, where they would play their last game of the season.