Friday, May 30, 2008

A Day in the Life

The alarm goes off at eight. I’m not sure why since we never get out of bed until nine. I’m just a man so I don’t wonder, ask or complain. One of the many things I learned in my twelve year marriage. Wendy gets out of bed at nine after nine. She heads to the kitchen to get her morning caffeine, the first of many Diet Cokes. I slumber in bed until the door to the shower shuts.

I roll out of bed, put on sweat pants, a Superman T-shirt and some slipper moccasins I bought for six Euros. I amble down the hall to Wendy’s computer and turn it on, then turn on the intern’s computer. I amble back up the hall and strip the pillows off the bed, then make it. I am the bed fairy. The stealth bed maker. The walrus. Coo coo ca choo. Wendy always thinks I’m going to sleep in and then she gets out of the shower and the bed is made and I’m sitting at my desk.

I pour about three ounces of coffee into a cup and drink it cold. As always, I longingly think back to the time when I used to drink fifty ounces a day. Ever since my first massive soul-destroying panic attack I haven’t been able to tolerate caffeine like I used to. I need the three ounces to wake up, but even then I’ll get a little jittery in thirty minutes and regret drinking even that much. A pot of coffee lasts me a week or more. Every time I make a new pot, the old filter and coffee is moldy. (You can file that under “information you really didn’t want or need to know.”).

I do the dishes in the sink and then check to make sure Wendy’s computer has come up alright. Sometimes Outlook gives an error stating “Outlook failed to start correctly the last time you opened it. Would you like to start Outlook in safe mode?” It happens about once every five times. I’ve looked up the fix on the net but haven’t applied it yet. If it gives that message, the computer hangs until you click “no” and won’t finish loading programs in her startup.

I retire to my desk and read new email then check for new updates. I flame a few people in the forums for claiming Tim Silvia is boring but Lyoto Machida is an elusive artist that only “true” MMA fans can understand. Then I check out “Penny Arcade”, “PVP-Online”, “CTRL-ALT-DEL”, “PBF”, “xkcd”, Google news and “The Huffington Post.” All of which takes about ten minutes unless there’s something compelling on the news or the post.

At ten o’clock Wendy’s new intern Diana comes in. She doesn’t know me at all. So far all she’s seen is a guy sitting at a desk in sweats, unshowered, unshaved, hair a tousle sitting in a computer chair as Wendy showed her around the apartment. I let her in and ask her if she needs coffee in the morning. “Oh yes, I’m addicted to coffee.”

“Let me make you some fresh coffee then” and she follows me down the hall to the kitchen. Out of her backpack she pulls out both instant coffee and milk. I guess she is addicted. She came prepared. I show her how to use the microwave, where to put the milk and ask if she needs sugar. We make small talk for a bit and I learn about her home town in South America and how much she loved living in Washington D.C.. When she finishes making her coffee she heads back down the hall to the office space of the house where Wendy’s office is. I’m convinced I’ve made a good impression and settle back into my desk. A few minutes later the other intern, Sandra, comes in. She speaks English worse than I speak Spanish.

“Hola Jamie.”

“Hola Sandra. Como Estas?”

“Bien. Y tu?”

“Muy bien.

She makes tea and I want to ask her how her allergies are doing but can’t find the right words so early in the morning so I go back to work.

It’s a little intimidating. At one end of the apartment is three beautiful women, all perfectly made up, in stylish clothes, that have all been to grad school and speak three or more languages calling the most powerful companies in the world. At the other end is an unemployed writer who went to a state college, speaks one language and is wearing a Superman T-shirt.

Proof there is a God.

Most days at this point I’ll do flashcards and The Rosetta Stone until my brain is fried and I need a break but today I cannot get motivated so I read some MMA forums, some political forums, argue about Scott McClellan’s new book and berate myself for not working harder. I finally am able to force myself to do some Rosetta Stone and “Supermemo” a program that I have put all my flashcards into over the last week. (Thank you Bripalm for the link in my comments section. I hated the program at first but have come to love it.)

I do this until twelve-thirty and then the doorbell rings which Wendy answers. It is a tiny Spanish woman who wants to tell us that barbequing on the terrace is very dangerous and we can’t do it anymore. She states this with authority, as if she has some sort of power. Which she doesn’t. Wendy explains that the firemen had been here before and didn’t tell us it was a problem or illegal. The woman insists that it is. She and Wendy argue for a bit because, no, we are not giving up our barbeque until the police or fire department tell us to stop, which they won’t. The woman tries to tell us she lives in a three hundred year old house that will go up in flames if a spark hits it. Considering she lives about fifty yards away and a sparks lifetime is about two seconds, I’m not that worried.

She tries to tell Wendy that “As of today, it is forbidden.” Which makes me laugh.

I would like to tell her to go smoke a pole but my Spanish isn’t good enough to keep up and Wendy is doing a great job all by herself. I’m sure I’d misunderstand and make things worse so I let it play out. They keep talking for a good twenty minutes and I just keep thinking to myself “Who does this woman think she is? It’s not illegal to have a barbeque on a terrace in Madrid. End of discussion. Go away crazy lady.”

Wendy befriends her and they start talking about the woman’s dead husband, something about her kid and they part with the woman insisting that it’s forbidden now and Wendy promising that we will be very careful when we barbeque. When.

I jump in the shower and head to class.

Montse and I talk bullfights for ten minutes and then get down to the dangerous task of learning “complement directo” and “compliment indirecto” pronombres. This is one of the hardest things for me to learn, to listen to, to understand and use in speech at all, much less use it smoothly.

Pronouns in Spanish work quite differently than in English.

A quick example –

“Me has escrito una carta?”

“Have you written a letter to me?” (Even my example sentence is different than we would write it in English. Doing a strict translation of that sentence actually translates to “To me, have you written a letter?”

In English, you would respond with “Yes, I have written it to you.” “It” replacing “a letter.”

To respond using Spanish Pronouns, the pronouns go first in the sentence.

“Si, te la he esctrito.”

“Yes, to you it I have written.”

It’s like I have to learn Spanish and Ebonics at the same time.

We drill this and do worksheets for an hour and then it’s off to conversation class.

Have I told you how much I hate Italians?

Not all Italians, just the ones from Italy.

Of course, I’m kidding. Mostly. In point of fact, at International House Mario “Superman” Washington was from Italy and he basically saved me in that class. I still have a man crush on that guy. (File that under “more information you really didn’t need, or want, to know.”) But in general, having Italians in class has been awful for me. Spanish and Italian are so similar they can speak in a mix of Spanish and Italian and the teacher can understand what they are saying.

Since the two are so similar, and they rarely have to struggle with tense, vocabulary or even how to use pronouns correctly - they speak very fast, and I can’t get a handle on the accent. You know how sometimes you watch movies or TV from England and you can’t understand what they’re saying because their accent and slang is so different from American English? Italians speaking Spanish doesn’t even sound like Spanish to me. So in a class of conversation, when the teacher and the Italian are having a fast paced, spirited discussion about something and you lose the thread of what’s going on, you can’t contribute. You don’t know what’s been said, whose on what side or even if they’ve switched topics. So when the teacher turns to you and asks -

“Jamie, what do you think?” and I can only think -

“I think I’m a dumb shit. What do I think about what?” it sort of annoys me.

On top of that, Italians really like talking and will dominate a class of lesser talkers for a good percentage of the length of the class. So, when you do know what’s going on and want to contribute, it’s tough to get a word in edgewise.

This week I have a staggering three Italians (the most ever) in the class and it is Hell.

Today was entertaining. The topic of the day was fidelity. Raquel was teaching today and while I only understand a little more than half of what she says, it’s usually hilarious. Blunt. Rude. Not politically correct. Often insulting. She is a little younger than me, thin, pretty, long brown hair, hawk like nose and persistent hiccups. She has hiccups every day.

She had some great things to say in class today to keep the conversation going.

“Men are all the same and they’re all pigs.”

“Women cheat less than men because they’re more intelligent.”

“All men cheat, the ones who say they don’t are just better liars.”

After each one of these statements she would turn to me and smile because I know she’s kidding (I think…) and we wait for the conflagration together in silent solidarity. Or laughter if we can’t keep a straight face.

Spain’s not very politically correct yet. Raquel states that “The married office manager that is humping the secretary doesn’t love her. It’s just sex.” At this point, Francesco stands up and adds to the debate something about bending her over the copier and mimes humping someone while standing.

The class erupts, including Raquel. A few minutes later I realized that the class consists of seven men, Raquel and Ula, a small polish girl who rarely says anything in class. I wish I had looked over when everyone was laughing to see her reaction. She seemed perfectly comfortable in class but that moment would have been telling.

Tomas asks if I’m up for a glass of wine with him downstairs and I respond “Yeah, I need a bit of alcohol after that.”

Below and next door to the school is the “Paraiso del Jamon” a favorite place of mine. When I had classes in the morning I would go downstairs at the eleven a.m. break and order three eggs over easy. Which is a stereotypical American breakfast and not something you ever see Spaniards do. People would literally walk in off the street, pat me on the shoulder say “American?” I would chat with the bartenders in my broken Spanish and they would welcome me every morning with “Hola! Como estas Jamie?” I’d ask them about their weekend or how hard they were working and then I’d run out of words. Reese, Antonio and Mariacruz. Good people.

Tomas and I order a wine and I start bitching about the Italian accent and three American girls come in. They don’t speak a lick of Spanish and one of them points at the stack of bocadillos (Spanish sandwiches, essentially a dry sub style bread with jamon and nothing else. No garnish, no salt, no mayo, lettuce, nothing) and asks Mariacruz “Can we have three of those?”

Mariacruz grabs one down and I say “Tres” and the girl who asks repeats “tres.”

“Can we have cheese on those?”

Mariacruz looks at her blankly.

I go over to the girls and offer some help. Reese comes over to help Mariacruz.

They tell me what they want and I translate for Reese. I’ll probably spell this wrong but I said it right – “Quisiera tres bocadillos, todo con queso y uno con tomate, y tambien, tres Coca Colas porfa.”

Can I have three sandwiches, all with cheese and one with tomato and also three Coca Colas please. (Porfa is slang for por favor.)

I go back to my wine and watch to see if they need more help. In a minute they get their food and start looking for a place to sit. I go back over.

“Do you mind if I explain one more thing to you?”

“No, please.”

“In Spain there is a different price for food at a table, food at the bar and food outside at a table in the sun. If you order at the bar its customary to eat at the bar.”

“Is the bar the cheapest place to eat?”


“Thank you again.”


No more problems arise and Reese hollers across the restaurant “Jamie! Gracias!”

“De nada!”

I decline Tomas’s offer of another wine, telling him I have a lot of writing to do and head home. I work on “Marilyn’s Story” until seven-thirty when Wendy finally quits for the day. About this time we’ll make something for dinner and watch a bullfight or a movie but she’s been cooped up all day in the office so I propose something else.

“Want to go out for a walk?”

“I’d love that. I need about ten minutes and I’ll be ready.”

We walk about twenty minutes up to the park we go running in and pull out a table at a quaint little shop with umbrellas over the tables as it might rain. From here we get a great view of everyone entering into the park since I inherited from my parents a great love of people watching. We sip a glass of wine and comment on the old folks walking hand and hand into the park, the vast multitudes of dogs and runners streaming in and out and young kids looking for a quiet bush to “make a baby in” which is our slang for people making out in public. You see a lot of this in Spain since most kids live with their parents until married. It’s normal to be thirty and still living at home.

I love dogs. We chat about the different kinds of dogs, what kinds are the best for kids, which are skittish or barky, the benefits of mutts over pure breeds, how Doug is doing, how impressed I am that she picked up all her stuff in New York shipped it here, set up a life, set up a company and now has contracts with some of the biggest companies in the world. We talk about American politics, my books and running with the bulls.

“Why do you want to run with the bulls this weekend?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure when you get to Heaven all your points are added up and I need the points.”


“Sure, like you get a point for each book you’ve read. You get twenty points for owning a house. You get a hundred points for being a good father and another hundred for being a faithful husband. I think you get like fifty points for running with the bulls.”

“How many points do you get for being paralyzed by doing something stupid and deprive your girlfriend of great sex for the rest of her life? I’m thinking like minus a thousand…”

“Um, another wine?”


You can tell Spain is not a tip driven society. While a very nice guy, our Brazilian waiter has vanished, not checking on us once in the hour we’ve been here. I go inside and ask him for two more. He asks if I’d like olives with them as the tapa. I tell him that would be great and then I head downstairs to the bathroom. I come out to find him and Wendy in a spirited discussion about America, Spaniards, South American speaking and talking styles, everything. I can understand most of what he says so we talk for like twenty minutes and I’m actually able to contribute small bits of information.

Wendy and I sit and talk for another hour and then it’s too dark to see people and dogs well so we head down the street towards home and food. We find a nice restaurant half way home and, drawn by the morbid sight of sleek, white suckling pig in the window peek our head inside. We’ve had drinks on their terrace before but never eaten inside. I order us two glasses of wine and sit down at a table while Wendy finds a restroom. One of the guys behind the bar says something to me and I don’t hear him so I stand up and approach. He repeats it and I don’t understand. I ask him in Spanish to talk more slowly. He does and I’ll save you the translating part I indulge in earlier.

“Do you like Jamon?”

“Yes, very much. I have a Jamonera (Jamon holder and carving station) in my apartment. (This never fails to impress Madrilenos that an American would have and carve his own Jamon.)

“What kind of Jamon? Serrano?”

Wendy snorts at the suggestion, having just returned from the bathroom. “Iberico de Bellota, of course!”

Because, why would you have a Jamonera for Serrano? That’s like boiled ham you put on sandwiches. Just buy a package in the supermarket! Clearly he thinks we are gringos.

“Would you like a racionito of Jamon then?”

A racion of Jamon is a plateful thinly sliced, just enough to cover the plate. The -ito on the end means a small plate. We haven’t gotten our tapa yet so I’m assuming that he’s offing us a sampler. I have my own Jamon at home why would I buy a full racion of the stuff in a restaurant? The stuff is the same price as lobster!

He starts to talk us up. Showing us the hams hanging above the bar and telling us the Jamon is a private family business and very good. He gets us menus, chats a bit with us, gives us cards if we want to buy our next Jamon from them. I’m a little leery of this guy. While perfectly nice, he also has that oily used car salesman vibe about him. He finishes his little spiel and then says “I won’t bother you anymore.”

A few minutes later he brings us a full plate of Jamon. This is starting to get suspicious. Are we actually being “upsold” for the first time ever in Spain?

He then brings our tapa, a mix of cold potatoes, onions, olives and a light sauce. Then he brings over Chorizo from Hell, which is just Chorizo sausage in a spicy sauce. He says (which I didn’t understand at the time) “Here is the Chorizo you ordered.” Since I didn’t listen to what he said, Wendy has no way of knowing that I didn’t order Chorizo when she was in the bathroom. When it comes, I just thought it was the typical Spanish custom of “people we like get free shit.” (Hell, we’ve sat and talked with our friend Elvio for five hours and he’s brought us a banquet of food, never let our wine glasses go empty and presented us a bill of seven Euros at the end of the night. )

Luckily, the Jamon is amazing. Easily some of the top Jamon we have ever had. I am sure my next Jamon is going to come from this place. We talk some more, sip wine and chow down for an hour, then, sated, we ask for the bill.

Not only were we upsold, they’re now trying to screw us.

The bill reads –

Racion of Jamon - $28.00
Bread $1.00
Chorizo from Hell $7.00
Wine $4.00

Notice it doesn’t say “racionito.” Did I mention we got bread? No, that’s because we didn’t. And notice the Chorizo that we didn’t order. We did eat some of the Chorizo so not a huge deal. And the Jamon was excellent. Not angry after such a great day, but clearly we have been upsold. And by upsold I mean “screwed.” I head to the bathroom and Wendy explains about the bread and Chorizo to the waiter. He removes the bread off the bill and leaves the Chorizo.

I emerge to find Wendy smiling and talking with an old woman who is clearly one of the owners. Now, in many parts of Europe, especially Spain and France, it is a huge deal to admit you are wrong. It almost never happens, even at the cost of business. I’ll go into the amusing stories this has caused in another post, but just trust me.

Wendy tells the woman what happened, just as information that one of her waiters is trying to screw people, and the woman does the typical Spanish, very not American thing which is to deny everything. It’s not important to keep business, it’s important to make sure that the other person knows “it’s not my fault. You are wrong.”

“Oh, I’m sure there must be a mistake. It must have been an order for another table that got confused with yours.” (There were two other tables, both deuces.) “But you ate the Chroizo.” (Yeah because in Spain free shit comes all time when the waiter has just spent ten minutes talking to you and you can tell he likes you.) “We’ve been here thirty-five years and I’ve raised five kids in this business.” (Well, having said that how can we ever think your waiter (probably your son) would upsell us and inflate our bill by twenty plus Euros. Because he wouldn’t be doing it for more of a tip since tips are 1-3% of the bill here.

But, whatever. We’re never coming back and you just lost the sale of a leg of pig down the road.
We are in good spirits and laugh about the incident.

Somehow, it is two-thirty in the morning when we get home. We get to sleep around three, rise at nine a.m. and work a full day. I try to take a nap in the middle of day and fail. I do Spanish class, two and half hours working on Marilyn’s story and write seven pages of this story.

Thank God it’s the weekend now.

Have a good one.

(Not to be a whore, well, actually, totally to be a whore… if you liked the story click some Google Ads for me. Thanks.)


  1. hooker...I did your dirty deed and clicked on the foul corporate parasite links.
    now I need a shower.

    My knee just poped.!! Ow!
    Holy Crap that hurts....!!!

    any way Nice story. The kind of thing I want to get into. Living like other people. Not like a tourist but to really KNOW another culture.

    Do they need computer people in spain?

  2. How much do you get for us clicking on the google ads? Does it add up? If it helps with your writing, so be it. I clicked on the bathroom add and got to the 'Who do you shower with?' site. I'll have to check that one out later when I'm not at work.

  3. Computer people are needed everywhere. Getting a work visa is the problem. You need to convince the spanish givernment that you're the only one who can do the job and have a company ready to hire you.

    Google ads have generated me between five and nine dollars a month for the past seven months. Peanuts actually. I was curious to see what would happen if I encouraged people to actually click on them.