The Gringo Game

Marcia and I have done a lot of international travel together over the years, and when we are in countries where English is not routinely spoken, we always become attentive to the times when we’re out on the town and unexpectedly hear strangers speaking our native tongue around us. More often than not, unfortunately, we find ourselves wishing that these unknown and unexpected English speakers would pass quickly out of our audible spheres, because it can be very annoying to have a resonant cultural moment or a peaceful stroll or a great meal marred by Yanks loudly complaining about or behaving badly in a world that doesn’t revolve around them. We try to be good ambassadors, after all, but not all of our fellow citizens consider such good behavior to be a priority. And that’s embarrassing and uncomfortable for everybody within earshot.

During our recent visit to Barcelona, Marcia and I were over-run on the streets one afternoon by a howling herd of Greater American Dude Brahs (species name: Pan Vomitus Vomitus) in full raging musth. After they had passed us by and quiet had been restored, in an attempt to turn this and potential future Ugly American annoyances into entertainment, Marcia and I formulated “The Gringo Game.” It is modeled after that simple staple of church fundraisers and low-octane gambling halls: Bingo. Each traveler participating in the Gringo Game is given a page containing a matrix of commonly-heard Americanisms abroad, and whenever one of these phrases is uttered by a stranger within the player’s hearing range, the player marks the box containing that phrase on his or her card. Once a player has seven marked boxes in a row — vertically, horizontally, or diagonally — on his or her card, the player shouts “GRINGO!!!” loudly, and is declared the winner.

To get you started on your next trip abroad, we’ve developed a model Gringo Game card for your amusement. Click on the image below for a full-sized printable PDF. Share it as widely as you’d like — and then when you travel, be careful not to say any of these things loudly while out on the streets, since you just might be helping some other player by doing so. You want to win, don’t you? Of course you do! You’re an American! Hell yeah!

Ready? Set? GRINGO!!!!

Gringo Game

Moments: Portugal and Spain in Six Tiny Vignettes

1. Lisbon: First day in Portugal, Marcia and I leave our hotel, heavily jet-lagged, for our first walk together in Iberia. Time to kill before we meet our new travel companions for dinner. Down the hill toward the historic central waterfront market, aimless, following gravity’s pull at each intersection. Turn a corner, and hear a sonic blast warm front of the most extraordinary pulsing rhythmic racket from somewhere unseen, ahead. Follow the noise: primal, pounding, pummeling rhythms of metal and hide, bestial, wild, attractive, audible id. Glimpse a parade line one block away, push through the crowd, turn another corner to confront a movable carnival feast of color and light and noise, winding its way to places unknown, primitive masks evoking ancient gods, rites, passions, dances, magic. We are suddenly part of something. We don’t know what. Mysteries make everything better.

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2. Rural Andalucia (I): Long bus ride into the country from Seville ends with a 30-minute jumble along a bumpy, twisted, dusty dirt road, winding between prickly pear cacti and olive trees, signs telling us this a private hunting preserve for the region’s richest residents. Arrive at a ranch where prize toros are raised for their final moments of public pain and posthumous glory in Spain’s finest bull fighting arenas. Greeted by Matias, an impossibly handsome young matador in training, dressed in traditional chaps, hat, coat, boots, his rock star dreams of arena triumph balanced by his efforts as a law student; he will succeed, one way or another. Pile into a wagon pulled by a tractor, Matias riding alongside on a fine grey horse, carrying a long spear, into the fields where eight choice bulls await their final journey in blissful, aggressive ignorance. Matias runs the bulls. He shows us the field where the cows and calves live, food atop a hill, water miles away in the valley, the long daily trips between the points of comfort keeping the animals healthy and lean. Matias demonstrates the matador’s moves in the ranch’s central show arena, manipulating the cape, frozen in handsome snapshots of equipoise, muscles clinched, a beautiful dancer in all but name. As he poses, Marcia whispers: I can has matador?

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3. Ronda: Ancient Roman mountaintop city atop a vast gorge, overlooking fields, groves, green, lush, history palpable in layers. Whitewashed walls protected long-ago citizens from plague, modern police cars protect today’s residents from parking violations, creating traffic jams as they tow vehicular offenders. Heat as a layer of clothing, worn atop shirts, hung from hats, sun haze and sweat. Leave a euro in a tiny church’s till as we pay our respects to the Holy Mother, and are rewarded with a carry-out prayer in the language of our choosing. Enter the bullfight arena at city center, wind through the shadowy concrete paths that the enraged beasts themselves follow to their final conflicts, past paintings and scrims explaining the rich cultural history of this most savage form of communal entertainment. Emerge from the dark tunnel into the ring itself, the paint of the walls mirroring the sun-yellow color of the sand. At the center, a lone figure stands with the distinctive long instrument of his trade, mere meters from his eternal foe. This is the place! Centuries of heritage unfold before us, as the mighty Caterpillador faces down the terrible Bobcat in all of its fury. Shivers. Heat haze. Herculito’s Final Task.

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4. Rural Andalucia (II): Another long bus ride into the country, Luis the driver navigating us safely through impossible straits and passes, no scrapes, no sweat: El Jefe del Autobus! Arrive at a beautiful family-owned vineyard overlooking a lush valley, ancient Ronda on the horizon’s hilltop. Greeted by Moises, one of the brothers who cares for the grapes and olives with which the family makes fine, organic wines and oils. Moises gestures down into the rows of grape vines, pointing out the fragrant lines of rosemary, thyme, tarragon nested within, designed to draw desirable bees and birds to combat the family’s greatest nemesis: the terrible tiny spiders. A palpable tremble as Moises utters that phrase. Shadows cross the sun. Dark birds take flight, croaking in horror. The Terrible Tiny Spiders! Terrible! Tiny! Spiders!!! We cannot see them, but we know they are there, waiting, patient, poised, eternal. Everywhere. Unseen. Always. This is the history of Spain: Ferdinand and Isabella unite their kingdoms to protect their people from Terrible Tiny Spiders; Franco died screaming amidst dreams of Terrible Tiny Spiders; the sultans of the Alhambra trembled within the embraces of their concubines as the Terrible Tiny Spiders swept through their gardens like poisonous smoke; there they are, there, there, crawling beneath the hooves of Guernica’s horses, battling the ants that infest Dali’s paintings, parachuting like Jesus from the spires of La Sagrada Familia, lurking in the corners of La Casa Del Bacalao. Terrible. Tiny. Spiders. We now understand Spain.

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5. Figueres: On the bus again, en route to the Theater Museum that the great Salvador Dali built to preserve his own legacy, in his own way. The skies are grey, mountains on the horizon evoke deja vu, Dali’s landscapes embedded in brain matter, known but not, silent but sensed. A palpable sense of personal pull, approaching the home and tomb of one of the greatest figures in my personal creative landscape, a man, a force, a presence who shaped the way I understand and process the world, how I see beauty, how I admire the muse, how my dream life invades my waking world, how I ask how, and why. Headphones are over my ears as we exit the highway, my iPod set to random play mode. “The Wheel” by Coil begins to play as we approach the museum, another very important touch point for me. Coil, like Dali, have long shaped the way I hear beauty, how I admire the creator, how my waking world invades my dream world, why I ask why, and how. The song begins with a tape recording of a ghost’s voice, a faint vocalization from the great beyond whispers to us from deep within tape hiss, then the drums, then the haunted, haunting lost voice of beautiful John Balance explains the world and all the things in it, and Sleazy is there, too, also calling from the places and spaces we who live have yet to experience, except in dreams. As the bus stops, these words linger: Oh, I was dragged here by an angel. Thank you.

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6. Barcelona: Last night in Spain, rain falling in torrents. Two people, one umbrella, in search of arroz negro, the traditional paella made with squid ink and langustinos. On Gaudi’s Avenue, Sagrada Familia at one end, Hospital of Saint Paul at the other. Slip into a small restaurant, take a table in the corner, order anchovy-stuffed olives, albondigas, arroz negro. A baby at a nearby table cries and can’t be comforted by an attentive mother. Somewhere behind, above, beyond us a strange noise arises, a series of shuffling clicks, or clicking shuffles, disconcerting, like something from a Japanese horror film, or one of the Alien movies. The mother continues to soothe the baby, but it is disconsolate. A large woman with a nearly-shaved head leaves the table near us and goes to the restroom, and she does not return. The clicks shuffle, perhaps in the heating ducts, or maybe just around the corner, where we cannot see the source? Wait! Perhaps the shuffles click from within the restroom! The large woman still does not return. Another man enters the restroom. He, too, is gone for the evening. The arroz negro arrives. We scrape it from its pan, and crack the little arachnids atop it with our teeth, sucking the sweet meat from within the hard carapaces, leaving little piles of claws and legs and tails on a plate between us. The clicks shuffle. The shuffles click. Now near. Now far. The baby weeps as the mother rocks her gently, trying to eat her own paella with one hand. We finish our meal and request la cuenta, the check. The waiter nods knowingly and walks away. We wait. The clicks shuffle. The shuffles click. No one emerges from the restroom. The check never comes. We wait. We do not dare use the restroom. What happened to the people inside it? Something scuttles across the room at periphery, just out of sight. Click. Shuffle. Click. Marcia leans across the table and says: The alien should eat the baby first.

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Adventure Time in Iberia

Update: More on the trip, in story format, here.

Marcia and I returned late last night from an amazing Iberian adventure, featuring a 12-day tour of Portugal and Spain that carried us from the stark beauty of the westernmost point in continental Europe to the bustling cultural crossroads of Catalunya. We booked the trip through Gate One Travel, who we have happily worked with before — though this was the first time that we participated in one of their guided Discovery Tours, which are targeted to small, active groups, rather than the huge caravan or herd experiences one can often get with cruise ship-type tours.

I can’t speak highly enough about the job that Gate One/Discovery did, from both a planning and logistics standpoint (they’re organized with near-military precision, which I appreciate), and for the detailed, on the ground care and experience they offered us. Hats off to Paul Fernandes Summers, our expert guide, who kept us moving, fed, informed, entertained and awed with his rich knowledge and lovely, genial manner. He was a delight, and you can consider yourself fortunate indeed if you ever find yourself on a tour with him. Our experience was also deeply enriched by the 15 fellow travelers who broke bread, slept on buses, and bandaged blisters with us over our two-week excursion. So thank you Nancy, Y.K., Irene, Claire, Chris, Bob, Terese, Marlise, Lily, Joseph, Terry, Richard, Cecilia, Mary Ellen, Larry and Paul for being wonderful companions — and may our paths cross again!

I’m still too jet-lagged and road addled to really process the trip in my usual travelogue style, but I did post four galleries of photos at my Flickr account if you’d like to see a little bit of what we saw and where we saw it. The four blue links below will carry you to the complete photo sets, and I have shared a few low-resolution, snapshot-sized previews of some personal favorites below on this page as a teaser in lieu of more verbiage.

Now I must try to get my brain unscrambled, which is harder than it should be with this pathetic American coffee!!

Lisbon, Sintra, Cascais and Tavira: Portugal

Sevilla and Ronda: Spain

Granada, Ubeda and Madrid: Spain

Barcelona, Figueres and Girona: Spain

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Spanish Tide

Marcia and I are on a two week trip to Portugal and Spain, hence lack of blog updates this month. I will be checking in via Twitter (see links at right) every now and then, but otherwise, we are busy in the moment, and reportage and interpretation will wait until we return. As vacations should be experienced, yes? Yes.

Alhambra, si.

Alhambra, si.

Hondakinak

1. I am prone to feats of creative masochism, where I put myself into difficult physical situations just to see how well I respond to them, and then write about the results. Epic drives to nowhere, tedious creative projects followed by destruction of the results, extreme bike marathons, urban exploration, long-term public writing endeavors, cold turkey cessation of bad habits, you name it, I’ve probably tried it, and then written about it. One of my more intense physical feats was losing 30 pounds in about 30 days to mark my 30th birthday, through a really brutal gym regimen and Spartan diet. That was 20 years ago this month, and (since I’m warped) it begged this follow-on question for me: could I lose 50 pounds for my 50th birthday? It seemed to be an absurd premise at first, since even at my heaviest weight, I’ve never looked rotund, given my height and large frame. But I decided to give it a shot anyway, and this week I met the challenge: I weighed 231.7 pounds on February 1, 2014 — and I weighed 179.2 pounds on May 3, 2015. Total weight loss: 52.5 pounds, or 22.7% of my initial body weight. Note well, though, that I didn’t do this in a particularly masochistic fashion, since I took 15 months to shed the extra pounds, with doctor’s consultation, after my family’s proclivity for adult onset diabetes and cholesterol problems had manifested themselves during my 2014 physical. I feel good having hit the mark, and the results from the doctor’s office have been excellent, with both blood sugar and cholesterol returning to healthier ranges, and my body mass index being lower than it has been since high school. Of course, now that I am a lean, mean, masochistic, middle-aged fighting machine, the internet tells me that a squishier “Dad Bod” is officially more desirable in our ever-fickle culture. Can’t win for trying, I guess.

2. The “How Old” app has been dueling with “Dad Bod” reports recently for social media band-width, so I checked it out, figuring skinnier me would clearly look youthful to the Age-Calculating Helper Bots powering this engaging little online trifle. But I was wrong, and clearly not the member of my family who has been drinking from the Fountain of Youth for the past 25 years. Behold: Cradle Robber With No Dad Bod, and His Child Bride! (Click Marcia’s photo to visit her own blog, if you get tired of looking at and reading creepy old me):

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3. I don’t mind Tax Day on April 15, since it reminds me every year that I am a contributing investor in the social contracts that bind us together as a nation. We e-filed our Federal, New York and Iowa State returns this year, and our Federal payment and New York refund processed quickly. But after three weeks, we’d not seen our fairly sizable Iowa return deposited in our bank account, so I checked the State’s “Where’s My Refund” website, and was shocked to discover that our return was being held, because the City of Des Moines had informed the State of Iowa that we owed it money, which would be docked from our State income tax return if we did not settle with the City. We had no clue what this might be, and had never received word from the City of Des Moines that we were in arrears on anything. Until yesterday, that is, when I received a letter telling me that we owed $130 to the City for speeding citations recorded by robot speed traps somewhere in Central Iowa. I have no idea what car, what driver, when, where, or why these citations were issued, since I have never received notice, nor been charged in writing, nor had the chance to address and pay these violations on my own. Which I would have done, had I known about them, obviously. This strikes me as an egregious collusion between State and City governments, and also as a completely inappropriate use of the State’s powers to apply levies to refunds due to its citizens. I get it, maybe, for things like child support payments or long overdue property taxes, but for a Robo-Cop speeding ticket in a city where I rarely drive more than 40 mph while going about my business? Come on . . . that’s a Mickey Mouse shakedown tactic, and it’s wrong. Fortunately, we’re financially solvent enough to roll with having our four-figure return delayed for a month or more, but there must be lower income families who suffer as a result of such strong arm tactics when piddly infractions result in the forced retention of refunds, which might have been ear-marked for food, housing, or healthcare expenses. So shame on you, Iowa, and shame on you, Des Moines. I’ll accept and pay my speeding tickets like a man if I deserve them, thank you, but you have to tell me that I was actually speeding before I can do that, rather than skulking around in the shadows, zapping me with hidden radar, and sniffing at the money that I already pay you both for the privilege of working and living here. That’s just bad governance.