Tag Archives: Spain

The problem with foreigners

She and I enter the elevator.
As always,
in Japan,
we move to the back
and slide like shoji*
into our respective spaces,
giving each other room
while saving the other
the embarrassment
of eye contact
in such a tiny space.
She then slides closer to the handrail
and places her hand over her bag.

I look around
but there is nobody else.
Just her and me
in our little pulley-boat.
I am the danger?
In my 40’s, a {mostly} sweet Canadian woman.
A Counselor.
A person who cares for others
for a living.

The metal doors open.
The woman explodes
out of the elevator.
Not very Japanese, I think.

An epiphany lands lightly.

The problem with foreigners
in Japan
is that there is no way
for the Japanese to know if
(and to what extent) we:
1. know the rules
2. understand them
3. are committed to following them.

This is not your garden-variety
about the foreigners.

In Barcelona,
locals would hush happy groups
of English speakers
even though the hushers themselves
were speaking much more loudly
in Catalan or Spanish.
They found us
(and our habit of speaking English in public)
To them,
we seemed like children.
Entirely too happy,
we were
seen as simple.
(And very poorly dressed.)
What I felt was disdain or contempt
at worst.


The bottom line is that we
(strangers, quite literally)
did not change the fabric
of daily life in Barcelona
for the Catalans.

The sweet life…
as embodied by tapas and cava
and the reverence for a long lunch
as well as the not so sweet…
bureaucracy and bad service,
these things
continue to thrive
in spite of
the arrivals and departures
of foreigners in Gaudi-landia.

In Japan,
I never feel contempt.
(The Japanese are much better
than Catalans
and Canadians
at keeping their thoughts
to themselves.)

What I feel
from the Japanese
is genuine concern
about the way they live their lives.
Japan didn’t get to be
the safest, most secure and courteous
nation in the world
by accident.

There is a code for behaviour for every occasion.
How to…
Enter and get off the metro. (Walk on the left, please.)
Greet people. (With deference. Bowing.)
Give money. (In an envelope. Always.)
Carry your umbrella when entering a restaurant. (Wrap it in plastic.)
Stand when waiting to use the ATM. (On the green foot prints)

At first,
I found these rules
A dirty, brown albatross around my neck.
(As an order-loving, type A Canadian,
I was actually surprised to feel this way.)

But the abundance of rules
brought out the rebel in me.
I channeled my inner James Dean.

Now it’s been ten months
(sometimes it takes months
or years to get the rhythm of a place)
and I am starting to get it.

They like Japan the way it is.
They don’t want it to change.
I get how they feel.

When DP lost his wallet
in a taxi,
it came back
with all the cash.
When I left my computer in a restaurant
my little silver machina was right there
30 minutes later
when I returned
wild-eyed and breathless.
The order and restraint
shown by of millions
of Tokyo train commuters
every day
is a miracle.
(The Pope
should show up
to see it.)

Most of us
love these things about Japan.
We appreciate
the Japanese way of life
and try to emulate
this behaviour
as best we can.
We also want Japan
to stay
and courteous.

But the Japanese are right.
Foreigners have different
We weren’t raised the same way.
We may not have been taught
to spot the dropped glove
and place it on the closest bench
where the owner of just one glove
will return and find the mate
waiting patiently.

Not very good at hiding our emotions.
So fixated on placing our own needs
before the collective.

We are unpredictable
in a country that depends
on predictability.

Please know that so many of us are trying.

*In traditional Japanese architecture, a shōji (障子) is a door, window or room divider consisting of translucent paper over a frame of wood which holds together a lattice of wood or bamboo.

A peculiar story about time travel

I don’t know if this happens to you but sometimes, in the middle of a mundane regular-life moment, I find myself somewhere else.

Standing in front of the greeting cards section at a Target in McAllen, Texas.

Eating panna cotta in a tiny restaurant in Florence… and, at the table beside us, four raucous women are licking their plates and laughing until tears stream down their faces.

Waking to the sound of the call to prayer in Istanbul.

We’re in a gorgeous, sun-filled cafe in Vienna and the waiter, who seems impossibly kind, explains that the woman sitting in the next booth is a poet. And she won the Nobel Prize when she was younger and had black hair. (He whispers the part about her hair.)

My first heavenly bite of a tamale at the Christmas Posada at our school in Monterrey.

Birkenau in Poland. It’s snowing lightly as I walk behind Damien and our guide. I didn’t expect there to be beauty here but there is. For a moment, I’m light-headed and I think I might pass out.

We’re preparing strawberries to make jam. I’m with my mother in her kitchen and the walls are the colour of baked cheesecake.  My fingers are stained red.

I don’t know if it’s time travel or not but I find myself visiting past moments quite a lot lately. And for that moment, I’m really there. I can taste the panna cotta on my tongue… feel the sun on my face and neck… smell the jam as it thickens on my mother’s stove.

All these moments – those from my past… and this moment right now – these moments make up my life and I’m grateful for every one of them. Even the hard ones.

And I’m particularly grateful for the time travel.

Recently, I’ve been visiting Barcelona in my mind frequently. I wonder that that means.

{Photo Credit: Kyle Hepp}

Where have you been going in your mind?

The Charms of Barcelona: Guest Post

DP and I were in Barcelona for a glorious week this summer and all I wrote for you was one (just one!) post about our photo session with Kyle and Seba.

Until now, that is.

I’ve written a guest post on Dry as Toast and you can read it here.

Dorkys Ramos, the blogger, is in Barcelona right now so I am, of course, a bit envious.

Un-wedding Photos, Barcelona

I confess.

I totally talked him into it.

This is actually the second time that I have coerced DP into playing along with this particular scheme; the first time was a few years ago in the Tuileries in Paris.

I am speaking, here, of having our photographs taken by a professional photographer.

As non-conventional souls, we have opted out of many things including marriage. That’s not a big political statement on our part; we have just never felt the need to have our relationship recognized by church or state. (In our case, how would we begin to figure out which nation state’s blessing is required?) I do, however, love wedding photos especially when they are taken by photographers as talented as Kyle Hepp and her husband Seba.

When I saw that Kyle and Seba would be in Barcelona at the same time that we were visiting in June of 2011, I contacted Kyle about the details for an un-wedding shoot. When I knew that it was possible, I asked DP if he was interested. He said he’d think about it. He thought about it… I encouraged him… he caved. This is no small thing as DP would always prefer to be on the other side of the lens.

This is what love looks like, folks.

On June 16th, we met up with Kyle and Seba at the train station in Gracia and retraced our walk home through the neighbourhood of Gracia to our former piso (apartment) on Carrer Seneca (Seneca Street).

I felt nervous. Nervous and overheated. And then my head started to sweat. (If you know me, then you know that I’m a famous head sweater from way back!)

Then Kyle and Seba arrived at our meeting point and they were so friendly and accommodating that I soon forgot about my nervousness (my head, however, continued to sweat) and we walked through the favourite parts of our old neighbourhood having our photographs taken. This is a seriously surreal endeavour which I highly recommend to single people and married people and happily unmarried couples.

Yes, if you have been wondering, people do stare. They are trying to figure out who you are and why you are having our photographs taken. Mostly, they are just curious.

The surprising thing about having our photographs taken in Barcelona, where we lived for three years, was that people on the streets were much friendlier and accommodating than we had imagined. I have a saying about Barcelona which tickles me to no end… “You don’t go to Barcelona for the hugs.” (Catalans are notoriously suspicious of outsiders which is completely reasonable given how they were treated by Franco!) When we were having our photos taken, however, people stopped and waited patiently for Kyle and Seba to do their thing. A couple of people on a moto actually apologized which made us all laugh.

With some guidance from Kyle, we had chosen 7:00 to 9:30 p.m. and we were well rewarded with the most delicious light. As Mara says about Florence, “You could eat the light with a spoon.”

We totally recommend Kyle and Seba who have created an amazing photography business by being intentional and professional about every aspect of their business. They are warm souls with whom we felt immediately at ease and they made it a priority to understand who we are and what we wanted as clients. They are both amazing photographers and DP and I love their aesthetic. Amazingly, less than a week after our shoot, Kyle had already posted the preview of our photographs. Oh, the photos!

You can check out our un-wedding photographs here on Kyle’s site.

What’s the lesson here?
1. Do what you want.
Do it even if it feels goofy or you think other people might not approve. Live all over the world. Move to Japan. Have your photos taken on the light-filled streets of Barcelona by two strangers who are no longer strangers. Do it! What do you have to lose?
2. DPs love for me is an awesome thing. I totally owe him one.