Chapter 18: Dotted Lines

Uncle Jimmy!

I’m curious, do you and your fellow casket-dwellers do “knock knock” jokes? Maybe you can’t reach that far, I dunno.

It’s semi-ironic that the tales of travel I’m sharing with you have spent so much of their time focused on “Countries”. Those pesky dotted lines drawn on maps that we fight over, re-draw, and endlessly repeat.

Now, I usually try to keep my letters to you upbeat, and even possibly amusing. But for a moment I need to get all serious on you. To answer the question “what does country really mean?”.

Is it just a government entity, where laws and borders stand? I think not. I dearly hope not. Or should I consider a country a cultural area, where insight into unique history shines through? Yep, I believe that is the definition I like better.

It’s one thing to visit “Spain”, but what is that really? Catalonia? An extension of Madrid? The current borders are fairly new. The various cultures within are so much older. So as I write to you, I suppose I’m trying to share my tales with mostly the culture part in mind. I want to take you to the people, not through the nuances of an aduana.

Anyway, with that deep thought winding its way through my mind, I just remembered something about Barcelona culture that I wanted to share. Something kinda silly … dogs. (And yes, that was a weird jump in topic).

So, ahem, dogs. They are everywhere here. But in Barcelona they are different. To say they are trained would be a disservice. They are almost human. We spoke with an owner who said that before you can adopt a pooch, you and they must go through serious obedience training. Both of you. And it really shows.

Dogs generally don’t walk on leashes, they walk near you. They seem to know the path, even when you don’t. They don’t run towards or away from anything or anyone. We saw one man and his dog come out of store. The guy was having a conversation with someone else and had set down his packages, including the unused leash. When he picked up his bags and turned to go, the dog looked back and saw the lead laying there … and went back to get it and carry it in his mouth. So yea, that dog technically walked himself home.

Oh, I discovered something else completely new the other day. I was sitting at the dining room table working, and someone was banging metal on metal outside, very quickly and loudly. Tap-tap-tap-tap!! I had been hearing it all trip, and I remembered it from last time as well. But this day, I was grumpy. So I went outside on the balcony to see who was making the ruckus.

A swarthy-looking dude stared up at me, like I had just been summoned. Weird. Then I noticed what he was banging. He was pushing a hand-truck (or dolly, or whatever you call them up there), loaded with bright orange metal containers of what appeared to be propane. He was a damn strolling gas salesman!

I had no idea that was how they did it. I guess I assumed that natural gas was piped into houses, if that house wanted it. But I suppose that makes little sense, since these houses were built before the US was a country. I have never seen a propane rack at a hardware store, or anywhere else. So, if you need gas for cooking or powering your whatever, you just listen for the banging and go wave at the guy. Who knew?

Since it seems this letter is to be all about the “things weird” that I’ve discovered over here, let me tell you another. We go now from dogs, to gas, to … scooters!

When I was living in Virginia, there weren’t really any motorcycles being used as primary vehicles. And even less so for scooters. Maybe folks just wanted to stay out of all types of weather. I know that when the federal government decided that high occupancy vehicle lanes were to allow motorcycles on them, usage slightly increased. But still, the vast, vast majority of vehicles you saw had doors and four wheels.

In Florida, it’s only slightly different. In the city of Miami, there are indeed more scoots and motorbikes, but only a little more so. In places like South Beach, they have some sections dedicated to bike parking, so you see more two-wheel transportation. And of course, it’s warmer all year in the state. But still, it’s not what I would call the majority way to get around.

Looking anywhere in Barcelona, scooters are easily half of what moves on the roadways. Looking just down my street, I count 11 cars parked … and 13 motos. Every area that has the slightest commercial activity will have dozens of scooters, motorcycles, and even bicycles parked side by side down the sidewalk. They are literally everywhere, and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the average resident here prefers life on two wheels and with a loud, sputtering exhaust.

Maybe it’s the price of petrol. Maybe it’s because the city has gone far and above when it comes to accommodating them. Maybe it’s the actual price of the machine. Probably all of these things. But it’s a seriously big thing here, even though the city does see cold winters and blazing hot summers. People just dress for it.

I think that’s another difference. In Barcelona and the rest of Europe, the mantra seems to be “there is no bad weather, just bad clothing choices and attitude”. People will walk, bike ride, or scoot anywhere, regardless of what Mother Nature is doing. And worst case, the public transportation system and taxis can easily support you on days when you just can’t face her wrath.

I actually really like it. Never mind that I’m a hard-core motorcycle guy that would ride in a hurricane. (Which, I’ve actually done). It’s just the idea of having that two-wheeled freedom, plus being economical and environmentally friendly, that pleases. So yea, I’ve got to put a tick mark in the plus column for how Spaniards move themselves in this city. And as I have yet to see serious traffic gridlock, I have to admit that they are doing something right when it comes to moving people around this place.

Still on the subject of motorized vehicles, I need to teach you a word in Spanish: besitos. It means little kisses. On the crowded streets of Barcelona, parking is tight. The scoots have little slotted lines they can park in-between, and they’re usually packed with one or two more per slot. And getting in and out isn’t a problem for them usually. But the spaces for cars? Another matter. Trying to parallel park, even with the smaller vehicles of Europe, requires a little kiss up front, followed by a small one in back, repeat, repeat, repeat. Everyone kisses the other cars, just trying to get in and out. And no one minds.

Strange thing is, I never hear car alarms. I suppose they are somehow de-tuned here for the besitos. 🙂

Well, that’s probably enough unusualness for you. I’ll write again soonest. Stay warm under there.

Love, Rick

LETTERS TO A DEAD UNCLE

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