Friday, December 31, 2010

Red Underwear

It is the custom for Catalans  – both men and women – to wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve.  In fact, it is done throughout Spain and is supposed to bring good luck.  You should receive your underwear as a gift from someone, and you should only wear it once.  Ramon, my electrician, who doesn’t believe in God and is not superstitious, wears a pair that his wife gave him a few years ago.  Not being superstitious, tempting fate by reuse apparently doesn’t concern him.  No one I asked knew where this custom comes from, although they all say it is relatively modern and August thought it may have come from Italy, which could be since they do it there also.  One American has it on his blog that it dates back to the Middle Ages when the church forbade people wearing the color red, it being the color of blood, the devil, and witchcraft.  But if that is so, no one here ever heard of it.  Anyway, I don’t think they had the wherewithal in the medieval ages to dye their underwear red.

Another New Year’s Eve tradition here is eating twelve grapes at the twelve strokes of midnight.  I’ve tried that a few times and let me tell you, it isn’t easy to get them all down that quickly.  After my first try, I discovered that everyone else at the table had peeled and picked the seeds out of their grapes, so they at least had it easier than I did, all gagged up with my mouth full of pits and skins.  But in subsequent years, peeling and seeding still didn’t allow me to swallow all twelve grapes in time.  Try it sometime.  It’s supposed to bring good luck.

The grape tradition isn’t that old either, but people seem to have an idea of where it comes from.  Mostly they say that it started in 1909 in Valencia when the grape-growers there had a bumper crop and unloaded grapes on the celebrating public.  Ramon thought it was the Italians that had a bumper crop one year and disposed of their grapes in Spain.  But then somewhere I read that the tradition was actually documented as early as 1897, so maybe people don’t really know the origins after all.  Whatever the source of the tradition, it is well observed.  Grapes dominate the produce section of the supermarkets in the days before New Year.  You can buy whole bunches of them, or portions of twelve grapes in little packets dressed in cellophane, enclosed in plastic champagne flutes, or in small tin cans.

Of course everyone brings in the New Year with champagne, except that here they tend to drink Cava – the Spanish sparkling wine made, mostly in Catalunya, in the same way as the French but with a lower price tag.  Maybe it’s not as good, and then maybe it is just more reasonably priced.

Falling in with local customs, I have on a pair of red underpants that I had in my underwear drawer.  It wasn’t a gift; I had bought them for myself many years ago, when I was still living in California.  Although it wasn’t a gift, they are new; I don’t think I have ever worn them.  I do that sometimes – buy something nice or a little special, and then save it for God-knows-what occasion.  Well the occasion for my underwear finally arrived today.  This will be my first time joining into the red underwear tradition. 

For most of the other traditions, I have made some adjustments to fit my own quirks:  I will be drinking red wine (from the Terra Alta) which I prefer to Cava (or champagne), and instead of grapes I’ll be munching on bread with two different kinds of lovely goat cheese while watching a DVD of La Cage Aux Folles (the original), my own personal New Year’s tradition – one sure to bring in the New Year with a good laugh.  And while like Ramon, I’m not superstitious either, I hope, in spite of the lack of grapes, my red underwear will be enough to bring me some good luck in 2011.

Happy New Year to everyone!

Friday, December 24, 2010

El Gordo

El Gordo, the big Spanish Christmas lottery was held on the 22nd of December and broadcast on TV with little children singing out the numbers as usual.  I meant to tune in for a few minutes that morning to hear the little ones do their strange chant, but I forgot all about it until I heard them on a radio in the village.  I definitely tuned into the news at midday to see if I had won.  After all, I, together with about 98% of the population, had a ticket.

The Spanish National Lottery seems very complicated to me, compared to what I knew in the U.S.  There, when you buy a ticket you have a unique number, and if you win, you take the pot.  What does it say then about the Spanish that there is no such thing as a unique number or a unique winner?  There are hundreds.

A Spanish lottery ticket has a five-digit number and costs 200 euros.  This same number is printed 195 times, each one with its own series number, but all 195 of them are equal.  If all 195 series of, say, the winning number were sold, the bearer of each of the 195 tickets would win 3 million euros, which was the first prize this year.  There is also a second prize, a third, two fourths, and eight fifths, plus many lesser prizes based on partial numbers of the bigger winners.

You can buy a whole ticket or the more popular decimos – a tenth share of a ticket, costing 20 euros – at an official State Lottery office.  Every city has several of these and even the tiniest village seems to have at least one.  Those decimos are sometimes also divided into smaller portions called participations.  This is done by private buyers – organizations and charitable groups, or businesses that give the participations as gifts to their employees or perhaps to clients.  The participations are given or sold, sometimes with a little extra added to the actual price, to benefit the organizing group if it is a non-profit.  These are privately printed and stamped and have the name of the group, the value of the participation and, if there was a surcharge, the amount that went to the charity or group, the value of the actual ticket, and of course, the all-important 5-digit ticket number. 

The payoff for a full (200-euro) ticket of the winning number this year was 3 million euros.  However, most, if not all of those who won held smaller shares.  A decimo of the first prize this year paid 300,000 euros; for smaller participations it translated to 15,000 euros for each euro wagered.  And that is what makes the Spanish lottery so interesting.  There are many tickets with the same number and most tickets are broken up and bought, shared, or given as gifts.  For instance, my participation was organized by the Catalan political party that I would vote for if they would let me.  I paid 3 euros for the participation; 2.40 was the actual value and .60 went to the political party.  The ticket number was 79741.  The first prize paid 15,000 euros per euro wagered.  If my number had won first prize, I would have won 36,000 euros.  But it didn’t win first or anything else

Many bar owners buy one or more tickets and then break them up into decimos or smaller participations.  Everyone who frequents the bar – neighbors, people who work nearby, a soccer team that practices in the area, and so on, all buy in.  That happened this year in Cerdanyola, a town near Barcelona.  The owner of the bar bought 60 series of the same number, broke them down to smaller participations and sold them to all his customers.  That number was 79250, the same number he has been buying for years.  On Wednesday morning, the street in front of that bar was packed with people celebrating.  79250 won first prize, and all of these people were winners.  This was a whole neighborhood of people who won thousands of euros each; some might even have become millionaires.  A group that works for a company in the fruit and vegetable wholesale warehouse of Barcelona – Mercabarna –  also won.  They all celebrated together and then went back to work.  Virtually the same story repeats every year – only the locations, the bars and the factories change.  There is never one winner; there are always hundreds, and I am very sorry to say that I wasn’t one of them.

Some people chose this year’s winning number because it ended in 50, which was the score of Barcelona Futbol Club’s recent triumphant defeat of Real Madrid.  Because the winning ticket ended in 50, other tickets that ended in 50 also won something.

Second prize paid 1 million euros for a winning (200-euro) ticket, paying 5,000 euros per euro wagered.  Third prize paid 500,000 or 2500 per euro wagered, fourth (with two different winning numbers) paid 200,000 or 1,000 per euro wagered, and fifth (with eight winning numbers) paid 50,000 or 250 per euro wagered.  Having partial digits also won money – I’ve read that there were over 13,000 prized tickets.  Unfortunately mine didn’t win even a centime.

In Cerdanyola, where that bar owner bought his tickets, 390 million euros were won in first prize money.  The week when I passed my driving test I thought maybe my good luck would hold and I bought a 2-euro ticket for La Primativa, a smaller lottery that runs weekly.  I won 9 euros.  Not El Gordo, but still a nice surprise and better than nothing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Spanish Driver (part 2)

Obtaining my Spanish driver’s license took far longer than I ever expected.  I passed the written driving exam on Tuesday 2 November after nine weeks of study, thinking I had done the hard part.  Little did I know.

I scheduled my first driving lesson with the school for that Thursday and the road test for the following week.  Carles, my instructor, took me around Tortosa, showed me the different neighborhoods that the examiner might ask me to drive to, and tried to hammer into me what the examiner would expect. 

In the nice new dual-control Seat that we were driving, not only does the clutch disengage much faster, but crawling slowly in second gear you don’t have to keep your foot on the clutch to keep the engine from stalling.  Take your foot off completely when you’re barely moving and the car just keeps rolling along very, very slowly.  In any car I’ve ever driven (including my current 13-year-old heap), if you did that the engine would stall.  Carles never told me that explicitly, or if he did, I didn’t understand.  The problem was that I didn’t know the word for clutch in Catalan so I didn’t know what he was saying.  Only the written exam was in English; everything else was in Catalan and although I’m pretty conversant with body parts, engine parts are not yet part of my vocabulary.  It took him most of the hour to get me to understand about the clutch, having finally to take over the dual control to press home the point.  Aha!  I learned that desembragar means to let out the clutch.  There was also the matter of the brakes being so much more responsive than mine.  It did take some getting used to using the brakes and the clutch gracefully on this modern car.

I decided that it would be prudent to take another lesson and not be clumsy during the actual exam.  So I paid an additional 60 euros and off we went the next day, Friday.  Now that I understood that the engine wouldn’t stall, I used my left foot less.  But I still didn’t exactly get it that Stop meant not only Stop, but Stop and linger.  Since most people here don’t stop at Stop signs at all, I thought I was doing very well by stopping, shifting to first, and then going.

There were lots of little things that Carles told me during the lesson and I tried to assimilate them all.  You are supposed to back into the perpendicular space in a parking lot.  Most cars front in, and I always do too.  But apparently that is not the correct way.  Also, you must always drive with two hands on the steering wheel, which I do, most of the time, except when I am compelled to gesticulate to make a point in a conversation.  But I steer with one hand when I turn to look back to parallel park.  That isn’t allowed on the exam; you have to use your mirrors.  Uh, oh.

The driving exam is given once a week and taken in groups by school.  Since none of us has a driving license, everyone goes together in a school car or van.  But because I suffer from panic attacks in a car that someone else drives, I drove myself.  My school knew about this and I was discrete enough to park a block away. Tuesday finally came and at 7:45 in the morning I was in Tortosa waiting for Carles and the other students to arrive.  There were five of us that day – three women and two men.  One of the women was about my age, the other was in her twenties, one of the guys was also about twenty, and the other was only slightly older.

During the exam, our instructor rides in the front passenger seat with his dual controls, one student drives while the other sits in the back seat, together with the examiner.  When the first student finishes, the two change places.  Since I cannot ride (can you imagine my panic with a student driving if I can’t ride with experienced drivers?) we arranged that since there were an odd number of students that day, I would go last.

The exams begin in the street in front of the Department of Labor of the Generalitat (the Catalan Regional government and nothing to do with the exam or the Department of Traffic).  To ensure that we would not be late, our appointed time was actually half an hour before the exam was supposed to start.  Before even the first trip out, we had already been standing out in the cold for about forty-five minutes.  It was a good hour after the first group started before my turn came up.  At one point, while I was driving down the main street in the city, two pedestrians stepped down onto the roadway just as I was approaching the crosswalk.  But I was already quite close and there was enough distance, I thought, not to slam on my brakes and have whoever was behind me slam into me.  So I decided to drive through.  The rest of the exam was uneventful and went smoothly, as far as I could tell.  I was confident and happy, looking forward to maybe stopping somewhere for a celebratory lunch on the way home.  Or should I wait until the weekend?

Back at our starting point all five of us students waited while Carles conferred with the examiner.  Eventually he came to tell us our results.  The young girl and the older guy passed, the other older woman, the younger guy and I all failed.  I was supposed to have stopped for those two pedestrians.  I hadn’t spoken with either of the two guys, but I did know that the young girl who passed that day had failed the exam before, and the older woman later told me she has failed it five times.

I scheduled another driving lesson for late in the week and another exam for the following Tuesday.  I paid another 60 euros for two more hours of practice, spending one of them on the highway there and back and the other tooling around Tortosa.  I was beginning to get to know Tortosa but not liking it any better.  The rundown city sits alongside the Ebro River which could be nice, and in fact there is an ancient castle on the highest hill and a very short, tree-lined promenade along the river, but overall the city is shabby.  I drove up one dingy street and down another, tried to make my stops long enough and not annoy the other drivers by going way too slow and, well, obeying the speed limits and following the rules.  When you do that, you stick out like a sore thumb and in fact, people did pass me on city streets!  The instructor told me to never mind.

On Tuesday, this time at 8:15 am, I was there again, waiting on the street in front of the Department of Labor.  This time there were four of us so we went two by two.  In my turn, I drove first and then was asked to park, told I could get out of the car, and walked back to the starting point while the other student went on to have her exam.  I felt I had done nothing wrong, but was uneasy because I had been driving only a short time and they say a complete exam takes 30 to 45 minutes.  This was suspicious.  When all of the group was finished Carles came to tell us the results.  One of us had passed and the other three had failed; I was one of the unfortunates.  What in the world had I done wrong?  There had been a Stop sign at a dead end street where one could only turn left.  After stopping, I inched forward in order to be able to see the oncoming traffic and when I saw it was safe I made my turn.  Inching after a stop wasn’t good enough; one had to actually stop a second time.  For this I failed?

I had thought it before, but now I became convinced that the whole thing was a racket.  What with the high cost of the driving schools and the fact that you could only get your license through these schools, you didn’t do well or poorly on an exam – you either passed or failed, and there didn’t really seem to BE a Department of Traffic, it seemed like a game run by some kind of mafia.  On top of that, they also took in extra cash from excessive driving lessons and steep additional fees for repeating the exams.

After failing twice one must wait two weeks before trying again.  Time to practice, or to reflect on the system?  I scheduled another lesson, and my next exam would be on Tuesday 30 November – this time at the more relaxed time of 11:15 am.  I had to pay an additional 210 euros, which included the cost of up to two more exams and one more lesson.  They say the Department of Traffic levies these charges for the exams and it is not up to the school, but they somehow managed to discount mine from the posted price of 260 euros.  For that next lesson I arranged to meet Carles in Tortosa since he lives there so we could better spend the whole time driving up and down the city streets, trying not to run anyone over and practicing when to slow down plus when and how many times to stop at any given Stop sign, and not waste an hour of the lesson on the highway there and back.

Tuesday came and it turned out that there were only two of us taking the exam with our school that day.  My companion was a young guy who was taking the exam for the first time, and who had already paid out over 1200 euros to the school.  He told me that until you get your license, you are only allowed to practice on the roads with an official school.  My father would have been out of his unpaid employment teaching me.

I drove first.  The first two examiners had been women but this time it was a man.  My young companion said that would be better.  Men weren’t so mean.  We started out talking about the Barça-Real Madrid game of the night before (it was the examiner who told me that Barça had won 5-0) and I got so excited about the score that I almost forgot I was taking an exam.  After a short time I was told to park, at which point I could walk through Tortosa, back to our starting point.  I thought I had done OK, I couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong, but I had lost my earlier optimism and was resigned to the worst.  Again my driving time had been suspiciously short.  I must have done something wrong, so as I walked, I went over and over how the driving had gone.  Well, never mind, I would find out what I had done wrong when the others got back.

When they did come back and Carles walked up to me with a serious face, I just kept thinking OK, how much more money do I have to pay to get this thing done?  But he was just teasing me.  I HAD PASSED!  Unfortunately my poor young companion had not.

My new Spanish driver’s license cost me a total of 780 euros.  A lot of money – more than I had originally hoped and too much to add celebratory lunches to the bill, but probably below the average of what most people pay.  It could have been worse.

It was around that time that there was a story on the news about some new electric car that was going to be manufactured in Barcelona.  They showed the Mayor taking one of these around the Placa Sant Jaume for a test spin.  Jose Montilla, the President of the Generalitat (the Catalan Regional Government) was also present but didn’t test drive the car.  It seems that he takes public transportation and has no driver’s license.  I think I know why.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Spanish Driver (part 1)

I had procrastinated for several years, but finally I could put it off no longer.  On 24 August I paid 200 euros, the first installment of the fee to a driving school, and the next day I started in on my studies.  I had to get a Spanish license and it wasn’t going to be cheap or easy.  If you ever saw how Spaniards drive, you would wonder that it could be difficult to get a license.  Surely anyone can walk in the door at the local Department of Traffic, pay 10 or 20 euros, and walk out with one.  Not so.

I got my California driver’s license the day I turned 16 and have been driving ever since.  I’ve always loved driving and even thought once, for about five minutes, about becoming a long-distance truck driver.  My father taught me to drive and I think he taught me well.  Once I got the hang of it (after almost throwing him through the front windshield of that beautiful Mercedes which was my training car) he took me up to the mountains so I could have experience on curvy roads.  When it rained he would take me out for a practice and he even had me drive his truck.  He wanted to be sure that I was accustomed to all possible driving conditions before I was turned loose on my own.  He emphasized driving defensively.  You never really know what someone else will do, thus you keep your distance, keep checking what’s behind you, and you don’t take anything for granted.  But he never brought me to Spain.

Here, defensive driving takes on a whole new meaning.  Everyone speeds, everyone tailgates, many pass on two-lane roads when it isn’t safe and take blind curves crossing to the other side of the road.  It seems to be the custom here to pull as far as possible to the left before curving or turning to the right.  No one signals, no one stops at Stop signs, everyone drives in the center or even on the left on the pavement of small two-way roads, and in this area, no one stops for pedestrians unless they are directly in front of the car.  Sometimes I can’t tell which way a one-way street goes because cars are parked in both directions.  For me, this kind of chaos on the road really takes some of the fun out of driving.

Given all this and the cost involved, I was never too anxious to go through the process of getting my Spanish license.  The fact is that I was driving illegally for several years.  My California license was only valid for the first six months of my residence here.  I pretended I didn’t know that and continued to use it together with an international license that actually had no validity at all, although it looked official.  But the time came when I had no choice and so I buckled down, paid up, and got to work.

In Spain you can’t walk into an office of the Department of Traffic and ask to take the written and road tests.  You can only do it through a registered driving school and they cost a lot of money.

In my village there are two schools.  First I went to the smaller of the two to enquire; their fee was 450 euros.  I’ve heard that people usually pay 700 to 1000 euros or more to get a license, so that price seemed reasonable.  It worried me, however, that they were a small outfit with only the one office and had only opened recently.  I’ve heard of schools that collected money from people and then closed down and disappeared, so I worried that although 450 euros was relatively inexpensive, it was very expensive if the money was going to be stolen.

The second school is part of a small local chain and seemed a safer bet, but they wanted 550 euros for the same thing.  So I explained to them that the other school had quoted me 450, and they agreed to the same price.  This would include unlimited time attending classes or studying on the computers in their office, two hours of driving instruction in their car, and three tries at the two exams.  Additional time practicing in the car or more than three tries at the two exams would result in additional fees.

I had been told that the written exam was very difficult with many questions that were meant to trick you rather than find out how much you knew about the rules of the road.  After forty-seven years of driving, I didn’t think I would have much trouble with the road test, especially since I no longer lurch and do, actually, stop at Stop signs.

On the website of the Department of Traffic you can work your way through the practice tests.  But those are only in Spanish and when I tried them, I found that mostly they didn’t make any sense.  I hoped that with a school I could at least study in Catalan, but it turned out that you can study and take the written test in Spanish, Catalan, French, German, or English.  I opted to study and then take the written exam in English, thinking that it would be more comfortable for me and the questions would make sense.

That was what I thought.  Much of the practice test questions didn’t make sense even in English, and it wasn’t clear what the point was of some of the others.

Take, for example:
Who is responsible for a motorcycle passenger not wearing a helmet?
A.  The owner of the motorbike
B.  The riding
C.  The passenger
The correct answer is B. The riding.

How does the consumption of ecstasy affect a driver’s behavior?
One option:  It reduces his/her sensitivity to concentrate
Another option: It reduces his/her ability to concentrate

This next question seemed to me more appropriate for weeding out morons than testing your knowledge of driving laws:
In order to stop the vehicle before an obstacle on the road you need to go at such a speed that the stopping distance is
A.  Greater than the distance from the obstacle
B.  Smaller than the distance to the obstacle
Give me a break (or should that be a brake).

There was an obsession with oil pressure represented by two questions, one the inverse of the other.
Test 11 question 15:
The engine is properly lubricated when the oil pressure is above the minimum value.  How can it be checked?
Correct answer:  Checking to see if the oil pressure gauge is off.

Test 15 question 5:
When oil pressure is below the minimum the engine is not well lubricated.  How can you check it?
Correct answer:  Checking to see if the oil pressure gauge is on.
My friend Don, a car and auto racing enthusiast, said that he hadn’t seen a car with an oil gauge on the dashboard in years.  In any case, I never could get the two straight so I finally memorized that above was “off” and below was “on.”

There was this:
The circumstances that increase the probability of an accident happening are called
A.  Risk markers
B.  Accidentality factors
C.  Risk factors
The correct answer was Risk factors, but who cares?  Does knowing the correct wording make me a better driver?

At least for the 450 euros I would finally solve the mystery of the roundabouts.  In the rest of the world, you have to position yourself in the outside (right) lane of a roundabout in order to exit.  But here, several people who should know told me that the person on the inside (left) lane had priority for exiting.  I thought that was strange on the one hand and dangerous on the other.  After all, the person on the right lane is not required to exit so exiting from the center can cut them off; you are not allowed to do that on a highway.  It turned out that not only were you not to exit from the inside lane, you were supposed to actually stay in the right lane.  As on highways here, the left lane is only for passing.  Thus Test 23 question 15:
On what part of the roundabout on an interurban road must your vehicle go if there are two lanes for the same direction?
The correct answer is: The right-hand lane, or you can go on the left-hand lane if circumstances advise but without cutting off the other vehicles.
There are frightfully few people driving in Spain who know this.

I was told at the school that it wasn’t necessarily important that I understand a question.  If I didn’t understand, I should simply memorize it.  Others have said that they wanted to get their license because once they had it, they could drive however they liked.

On August 24 I paid the first part of my fees and on August 25 I started studying.  I expected it would take me a month to be ready for the written exam, but in fact, it took me nine weeks, going every day, five days a week (holidays excluded), until I could do all 40 of the practice tests with a perfect score or at least not more than one error (there are 30 questions on each test and you are only allowed three errors).  Then I went to take the exam.  I passed on the first try with only one error.  They don’t tell you what you got wrong -- that, evidently, is a State secret maintained by the Spanish Department of Traffic, so I’ll never know.

That left just the driving test.  The original price included two hours of driving lessons.  The lessons begin here in the village but most of the practice is done in Tortosa, half an hour drive away, where the exam is given and where you are expected to know your way around town.  If the examiner says go to Jesus or Roquetes, you have to know how to get there.  And if a street is missing its traffic sign, you should know that too.  Thus you spend one hour of your two-hour lesson driving to Tortosa and back on the highway and learned that I was supposed to downshift through every gear when I needed to slow down or stop.    

I didn’t do brilliantly on my first two-hour lesson.  The clutch and brakes responded to a feather touch – nothing like the response of my old heap.  It took most of the lesson to really get the feel of the school’s much newer car.  So I decided to schedule a second lesson before the exam, to be sure I wouldn’t be clumsy on the important day.  That extra lesson cost an additional 60 euros (30 per hour), but I thought it would be worth it.

Finally I paid up the remaining 250 euros and scheduled the exam for the following week.  I figured it would be a piece of cake, and started thinking about how I might want to celebrate when I passed.