Advice Autentico

Posted in Travel at 11:44 by RjZ

We stepped in the taxi and asked for Cuevas de Luis Candela. The hotel concierge had made the recommendation with confidence that we would be very happy, but the taxi driver smirked and was unimpressed. So we asked him what was wrong with that choice and if he had something better…after all, his guess of what there is in Madrid is bound to be a lot better than ours.

He told us that Cuevas is a place that tourists seem to enjoy but that he’d never been there. ‘How about flamenco?’ he suggested. We made our way to downtown and called along the way to see if we could make reservations at his suggested place. Nope, dinner was booked, although, the flamenco show started at 11 so we could still make that. We called another one and this one had room for us. Plus the show started at the kid friendly hour of 10 pm (which was just fine with us after a long day on the trade show floor.)

We arrived to a small venue, black inside with tables around and a bar. The urban modern furniture and simple decorations and menu we’re classy and hip. Being only 9:30 pm, it was completely empty, but as we sat at our table, we noticed that tables all around were reserved and Spanish guests slowly started filing in. The menu had only the ubiquitous jamón y queso and we added big jarra of sangria to our tab. We were a few glasses into it before the show started.

Flamenco at Las Tablas

The performers, two women and one man as dancers, two guitarists and two singers, all casually dressed, made their way to the stage. Each of them was so relaxed and comfortable, as if performing for several of their friends, which they may very well have been doing. But the performances were honest, emotional, and powerful. The singers belted out their moorish influenced chants and mournful melodies and clapped in complex syncopation. The dancers posed and spun and slammed their heels on the stage.

There may have been other tourists in the club, but it certainly didn’t seem that way. One Spanish family had brought their children (the show only started at 10 and ended at about 1 am). Jars (large pitchers) of sangria were drained and filled again at every single table and they may have carved a complete leg of smoked Iberian ham before the night was over. Still, nothing about the evening, not the lights, the acoustics, the costumes, was anything but simple, straight forward, down to earth and…absolutely entertaining.

Perhaps we missed out on traditional costumes or English explanations of the performances and traditions. These performers quite likely aren’t as good as the famous flamenco dancers getting paid much more. Maybe we would have enjoyed being in an authentic Spanish Bodega instead of could-be-anywhere urban club, but if you have a chance to see the flamenco at Las Tablas, Madrid, you’ll be treated to a truly authentic piece of living Spanish culture.

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I don’t care what you wear, unless you want to buy something

Posted in Liberty, Society at 13:50 by RjZ

I remain perplexed about what is right and reasonable for religious and cultural practices. As I wrote here, in cultures such as Egypt where it is the standard, women don’t actually abide very strictly by the religious tradition that motivates wearing a veil. All across Europe, however, while the number of women wearing the niqab (full face covering) is dramatically fewer than in Cairo, the impact is greater. Particularly in Britain, where no laws have yet been passed restricting this behavior, many people on both sides of the debate are feeling the challenges.

What do you think? Should women in Britain, or the United States be entitled to wear the niqab if the so desire? Sounds like an easy question. Perhaps you think: of course they should, it’s their right in a free country to express themselves. It’s freedom of religion! Even the most conservative amongst us have a hard time justifying making the headscarf illegal simply because these people ought to fit in and integrate just as they ought to (whatever that means) learn English. Oh sure, they ought to; like our grandparents did, but must we have a law restricting clothing?

On the other hand, we already do! People may not claim that it is their religious rights to walk around naked, because, that right would offend the prude majority. Satan worship is allowed, but virgin sacrifice isn’t, regardless of your religious persuasion or beliefs. But what’s the harm of women covering their faces? In a society where women are discouraged or prohibited from closing contracts without male family members, there really isn’t any problem not being able to identify them. In the west, women are provided with rights to buy cars and houses, so it’s not unreasonable that those closing those deals might wish to verify the identity of their business partners.

What about teaching, withdrawing money from a bank, being caught speeding, using a credit card? It disturbs me to limit someone’s freedom, certainly their religious freedom (a theme on which the United States was founded) and especially for such a trivial notion as clothing, but the customs, and economic function of Western society make it difficult to do otherwise. At some point during nearly all of these transactions, we’ll need to see her face.

Women must be allowed to dress anyway they wish (men too) whether they are motivated by religion or mere style. It’s just that the government and business partners have a reasonable expectation to expect to see more than eyes behind a veil. Do what you wish, but don’t expect to participate in society at large without some compromises.

What do you think?

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Coasting through Madrid

Posted in Travel at 8:15 by RjZ

I accidently learned a lot of Bayerisch while living in Munich. Bayerish or Bavarian is the local dialect of German and varies all over the large southern German province of which Munich is the capital. Like the Southern dialects in the United States, Bavarian carries with it an occasional connotation that the speaker is more rural than his industrial neighbors to the north and perhaps, a bit maybe, more, um, I mean…less educated.

That’s why colleagues in northern Germany would look at me so puzzled with some of my colloquial word choice. Except I didn’t have any idea that people don’t eat Semmel in Hamburg, they have Brötchen (bread rolls), or that don’t put ein Filzl under their beer, they use a Bierdeckel (coaster) instead. I imagine how comical it must have sounded to them. Here’s this guy, who clearly has an American English accent, but damn if he isn’t sounding a bit like some farmer from Garmisch-Partinkirchen. Think of a German speaking English with a Texas accent overlain on his obviously German speech. Maybe it’s not such a pretty picture.

But I really enjoyed living in Bavaria and eventhough I began to learn ‘real’ German I still prefer to ask for a Filzl from the server if my beer is flowing over. That’s why I was excited when I saw my first real beer felt here in Madrid! The name Filzl, or little felt, comes from bygone times when coasters were actually made of woolen felt to absorb the sloshed beer running down the sides of glasses and on to the bar.

Beer Filz in Madrid

Up until the 19th century most pubs were using felt squares when serving beer, but unfortunately, the thick wool patches, soaked with beer, would make great cultures for bacteria and the felts didn’t last long before they were effecting the delicious beer aroma.

My co-brewer and I have collected thousands of the modern paper beer coasters, and yet never seen a felt one. That’s why I was so excited when Santa Barbara Cervecería in Madrid served their Mahou beer on original style felts! Santa Barbara pubs have been open since 1815 according to the sign and this was a lovely one for sure. The beer was served well too, perfectly tapped beer with a creamy head. Looks pretty good on that old fashion felt, doesn’t it? Mmmmm, beer. I hope they won’t mind that I “borrowed” one for this story. You know they do get old pretty fast anyway, I guess.

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Command + Z

Posted in Society at 15:16 by RjZ

There’s a choice U.S. Americans will have to make when they start to select a candidate for president next year. It’s one that will be easy for the more than 200,000 Libertarians (United States’ third largest party…) That is, do they wish for a government that strives to reign in all the bad things the Bush administration has done for the last eight years, like the Patriot Act and war, or would they opt for one that uses its power (our power!) to do all the good things that citizens want to have done.

Most will likely choose the latter and that’s why politicians don’t usually run on what they hope to undo, but rather what they plan on doing. That’s too bad.

One problem is the basic liberal starting point that ’something ought to be done.’ Unfortunately, real world problems are complex and exactly what must be done is difficult to agree upon. We’ve seen loads of examples of this in the last divisive eight years. Should we limit a woman’s right to choose or not? Should we allow a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants or not? Shall we raise taxes to pay for new services and health care or not? Many people are pretty convinced on both sides of those issues. Who get’s to choose which of them is right for everyone else? The more we ask politicians to do something about them, the more people disagree with the results. Your version of the something that ought to be done might not be mine. Even if that’s not the case, our actions often have unintended consequences.

Of course, conservatives have lost their way as well. They’ve shamed their small-government ideals with a swelling bureaucracy and exploding debt. They’ve meddled in every part of our lives from medical marijuana, to what happens when you die; from religious freedom to property rights. Perhaps they’ve spent so much time with their liberal colleagues, ensconced as they both are in Washington. Both sides seem to agree that a “powerful do-everything state that will do just what they want it to do, and no more.”

Am I saying that politicians should sit on their hands for the next term? Not exactly. A wise friend of mine once proposed that congress ought to pass the following simple law:

For any new law to pass the house a senate of the United States, two laws currently on the books must be repealed as they are no longer necessary.

I’m confident that government could stay busy for a long time to come with this law in effect. There’s plenty to do in separating the few seeds of wheat from the overwhelming chaff of the last eight years (and beyond.) For example, even the Patriot Act, isn’t all bad. The original spark for the act, that government agencies ought to be able to share legally obtained data with each other, is certainly reasonable. It might be worth rescuing from the ever expanding realm of privacy invasion that extended just what legally obtained means.

Command + Z

One of the most powerful commands on my computer is available in virtually every application installed. Wouldn’t it be great if our government’s undo command weren’t grayed out and unavailable?

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Boring airplanes, not dangerous ones please.

Posted in at 7:39 by RjZ

There are so many rules on planes. It’s a good thing no one follows them.

I’m a little embarrassed. I turned my computer on during a flight. It wasn’t to do work, mind you…that would be really embarrassing, but I risked the lives of my fellow passengers because my wireless networking was still on from earlier in the day. I moused over to turn it off and noticed that I was not alone in my oversight. There were at least four other computers offering peer-to-peer networks.

I am sure it was an oversight, just like mine, and that these people, upon seeing that their wireless was active, immediately turned it off. It definitely wasn’t that they don’t know how to use their PCs and have no idea that their computer is offering a useless peer-to-peer network that has more chance opening their computers to malicious hacking than anything else. I didn’t check though. That could be dangerous.

Um, actually, I hope it’s not really dangerous. I’ve been flying a lot lately.

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Not so secret language

Posted in Travel at 13:49 by RjZ

Wow! A request! Well, since you asked… (check out the comment from TimR)

I always wished I had some secret language to speak so I could talk about people behind their backs or maybe haggle better in a foreign country. Problem is, you just never know if people are in on your secret.

We arrived at the north shore in the early afternoon after a few hour journey by moped across the island of Bali in Indonesia. We were met by touts who pulled along side of our moped and attempted to escort us to their hotel while we were still putting along. Bali is a such a tiny island that riding from Ubud in the interior to the black beaches in the north isn’t all that daunting, but we were still tired from the heat and humidity so we were taking a few moments on our patio and chatting about plans for the next day.

Indonesia was the first trip my long time traveling partner and I had made to a really exotic place. We were living in Germany at the time and had been around Europe quite a bit, but this was the first time we’d been somewhere that might really offer some culture shock. Still a few weeks into it, other than the heat, we were getting the hang of finding nice, inexpensive backpacker places like this one.

There aren’t so many U.S. Americans traveling to Indonesia like we were simply because it’s so much further and more expensive for them than for Europeans. That might explain why our American accents stuck out so much to the two Germans sitting in their patio next to ours and gossiping about us—in
German, of course. I didn’t really hear them much but my partner informed me that they were complaining a bit about how Americans had arrived and the stereotypical ramifications that implies. (loud, inexperienced, demanding, loud…you get the idea.)

That evening we got acquainted with a couple of other hotel guests, two backpackers from Austria. Bargain hotels like this one often offer excellent ways to meet fellow travelers such as delicious community dinners. We sat down around a big round table with fellow guests chatting about what we’ve seen in Indonesia already and offering tips about what else is worth doing. It was all rather pleasant conversation, transpiring in German, since after all, four out of six people were German speakers and it just seemed polite.

That’s when it dawns on one of the German girls. She turned to my partner, very surprised, and asked slowly “Oh, do you speak German?” She was careful to ask in English, in spite of the 15 minutes of conversation preceding this question. My partner answered flatly, barely looking up from her food to eye her new German acquaintance: “All day” she said simply.

The two girls looked at each other, eyes wide, trying to hide their shock that those U.S. Americans (!), might actually be capable of another language. Stereotypes really aren’t such a bad place to start, but if you want to avoid embarrassment, please consider being more discreet about applying them. Or find a rarer language. Perhaps Faroeish–if you can pronounce it.

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What do you mean it isn’t dirt cheap?

Posted in Travel at 17:54 by RjZ

Petra, Jordan

I could see his point. The Jordanian hotel employee is sick of people complaining about how expensive his country is. Many of his guests come here from Egypt, whose economy survives on tourism and where the U.S. dollar, along with European and Japanese currencies, is strong. Young people, traveling for several months at a time are disappointed and shocked when hotels and tourist attractions have the gall to cost just as much in Jordan as they do in their home countries!

“It’s not that bad,” he continued. Food is cheaper and this is a clean, organized country, not Egypt! He was right about that; there was really no reason for us to complain. Dinner was a delicious, homemade, all-you-can-eat affair for all of 3 USD and it was delicious to boot. Even though entrance to the ancient city of Petra weighed in at over $50 for a three day ticket, it really wasn’t unreasonable. Jordan is no back water third world country. He knew just how much things cost in the states (I recall he’d even lived on the east coast briefly) and was insulted that tourists naturally assumed this was some Jordan would be a bargain like its poorer neighbor.

Too bad I only figured out what the flaw with his argument was after returning to my room. None of us really begrudge the Jordanians for having an economy similar to our departure point, it’s just that we might not have flown so far in the first place if we’d have known how expensive things would be when we arrived.

Our new Jordanian friend assumes that travelers from rich countries are, themselves, rich and what the hell are they doing complaining when things aren’t dirt cheap? The reality is that we’ve spent the bulk of our discretionary income just getting to these beautiful destinations and there’s precious little left over for $50 entrance fees and $20 shuttle rides.

I am thrilled to have been able to travel to Jordan. As a start, I’ve wanted to see Petra as soon as I discovered it wasn’t just an Indiana Jones movie set. The friendly, helpful people and beautiful countryside we’re an appreciated bonus. Eventhough it’s unquestionably worth the expense, if it weren’t for the centuries old ruins, the similarity with Utah desert is uncanny and I didn’t necessarily need to travel thousands of miles just to see Utah when I live only a few hundred miles away and I can camp there in the wilderness for free.

The point is, for many travelers, destinations like Egypt and Jordan are only possible because they’re not as expensive as home is. When you’re frequenting a backpacker’s hotel such as the one near Petra, you don’t meet people who are traveling on their trust funds. Most fellow travelers I’ve met have given up jobs or put lives on hold in their passionate attempt to see and understand as much of the world as they can. And they’ve had to manage on a set budget that’s usually less than a few thousand dollars (USD equivalent) for their months to years long, once in a lifetime, journey. Our hotelier can complain all he wishes that we really have no right to expect bargains just because we’re in the middle east, but he should also know that we have beautiful countries at home and the only reason we’ve come so far is to make our fixed vacation incomes stretch.

It’s a big world out there, and some of us want to see as much of it as possible. I don’t see any reason to ashamed of bargain hunting. I guess I’ll be more careful about complaining when I don’t find one.

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Life lessons from Bart Simpson

Posted in Society at 11:54 by RjZ

There is a Simpsons episode where Bart finds himself alone and upset in a French barn. His foreign exchange family is a nightmare; making him do hard labor and like many U.S. Americans, he can’t understand anything that’s going on around him. Until suddenly he finds that he can! He actually understands those around them and to his own surprise the words leaving his mouth are in a foreign language he never knew he was learning.

Except for the evil foreign exchange family, that’s pretty much how it happened for me, too. I had taken German in college for a little while but I was more interested in the cute girl who invited me over to study than I was in focusing on learning the language. I thought I knew a bit too, but when we finally met our host at the train station in Regensburg, it was frustratingly obvious that I couldn’t understand a thing, much less speak.

I was enrolled in an immersive language course where the teachers spoke only German to a class of non-German speakers who didn’t necessarily speak English either! And there you are; sitting in a class with a teacher speaking German and a class saying almost nothing and you don’t really understand much of anything. A couple of months go by and you’ve learned a few phrases and can understand when it’s time to leave class or how to ask for a beer at a pub, which isn’t very hard since the German word for beer is bier but you can still hardly speak.

Like Bart, I don’t actually remember when the words on the chalk board started to unscramble themselves. I noticed there was a point when I could actually make out individual words from the stream of syllables and gibberish directed towards me a local market, but I still had no idea how much two pieces of fruit cost, or which way to go to the bathroom. I don’t remember, but it did happen. Suddenly, without warning, I did understand. I could speak German. I wasn’t translating from English, but thinking and dreaming in German as much as in English. For me, it was as if German words were just new words in my suddenly larger vocabulary, and not like I had to do anything different to use them.

Learning another language turns out to be rather easy, although not everyone has an extra two to three months to spend, bewildered, in another country like me and Bart Simpson had. And like Bart, one of the most amazing things about learning another language was the world it opened up. Much more than the culture of the people who’s language you’ve learned, but subtle things like new humor (wordplay never translates but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny, and you’ll never understand another language’s puns without learning it.)

Then there’s the mental flexibility that comes from learning how to say things with a different grammar that is capable of things your mother tongue isn’t, even while there is simply no word or expression for something that’s easy to say in your native language. Hindi, for example, has verb ‘to have.’ Try communicating without ever saying ‘have’. I have a blog. I don’t have enough time to write in it. Yet millions Indians seem to get by without this seemingly critical word: this blog is mine, and time is too short to write in it.

Better than mental exercises and cultural lessons was meeting people whom I could never have spoken with before. One of our classmates was from Poland. A fun and fascinating friend who spoke Polish and Russian but was learning German. We both had to struggle to communicate with our shaky vocabularies and unsteady grammar, but without this mutual language we’d never been able to learn anything about each other. Learning languages isn’t just a window into a new culture, it’s also a bridge to lands and people beyond. It’s also an easy way to get a smile from someone you don’t know. I can say “thank you” in dozens of languages. Get’s a smile almost every time, even from the French. Even Bart Simpson knows that.

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