Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bathroom break

One of the things I love most about travel and the main reason I wanted to get my kids to Spain is the way it broadens your understanding of the whole human race. If you always stay in one place, it’s easy to think that there’s only one way of doing things: the way you’ve always done them. But once you travel to a foreign country, you get to see that in other parts of the world, there are millions of people who eat totally different foods (and are accustomed to a totally different olive oil to potato ratio), they swim in a different language sea, they have different attitudes about public transportation or footwear or the amount of major appliances you can miniaturize and squeeze into a kitchen the size of an average pantry back home. In other words, there’s more than one way to flush a toilet.

And that’s literally what we learned in Spain. I saw so many different ways to flush a toilet on our trip it became a running joke. Each time we’d stay somewhere new or have to ask a waiter for directions to “Los Servicios” I’d play "Okay friends, how do you flush this toilet?’” I began taking my camera in with me to public restrooms. I can only assume this caused a fair amount of confusion to people in the stalls next to me. Can you imagine it? The flush followed by a short pause and then a sudden flash of light.

Yes, I became somewhat of a toilet tourist, a restroom reporter, a john junkie.

So here’s one of the recuerdos I brought home from Spain: my little collection of toilet photos. I'm just being realistic. While traveling, it seems we spent an inordinate amount of time searching for bathrooms, waiting in line for bathrooms, using bathrooms, and then talking about the odd discoveries we made in said bathrooms. It seemed appropriate to chronicle that part of the experience.

Here's a fairly standard little number from the Madrid Airport. The flusher is the large button half-way up the wall, which--when nearly every other toilet you've ever flushed in your life has a fairly innocuous little lever on the side of the tank--seemed ultra fancy and dramatic (does it summon airport security? will an alarm sound? am I launching a nuclear weapon?).

This one's from our apartment in Madrid. The flusher is a button you push on the top of the tank, which makes it easy to find. But take a look at a detail shot...

...the mystery being: what exactly is the difference between a "sun flush" and a "moon flush?"

Just when you get complacent and start thinking, "Hey, I can handle this one because I have cleverly deduced there's a button on the back of the tank" you find that the button simply will NOT be pushed. You press it multiple times and nothing happens. You're feeling like a stupid tourist, helpless in the bathroom, completely flummoxed by a plumbing fixture, wishing there were such a thing as a World-Wide Toilet Translation Phone App. You're about to call for backup when you think to pull on the knob instead of pushing it and thankfully discover that all it takes is a gentle upward tug to do the job. Sheesh. You have failed another IQ test.

This may have been the fanciest flusher I saw. Another "launcher" on the wall in a restaurant near Madrid's Plaza Mayor. But this time there are two rectangle panels and as far as my highly professional journalistic sleuthing could determine (i.e. multiple flushings) both panels seemed to accomplish the same thing. I still haven't figured this one out. Clearly I was not the only confused one because in the empty stall next to mine, one of the rectangles was permanently indented and water was swooshing down the drain, spinning furiously in some kind of eternal flush mode .

I encountered this no-nonsense, utilitarian job at the Reina Sophia art museum, a rather appropriate setting considering the fixture's totally post-modern exposure of the sign/signifier relationship. Here's the plumbing that takes you from flusher to things in need of flushing. No need to wrap things up in the illusion of detachment.

Okay, this one is from the Palacio Real and yes, I know we've seen the missile launcher variety before, but I wonder if you're noticing a trend here... Have you seen how every bathroom comes equipped with a huge garbage can? These are not your discrete letter-boxes attached to the side of the stall wall for your occasional convenience. No m'am, they are heavy-duty, tight-lidded garbage cans large enough to swallow small children. And if you think you've guessed their purpose you're only half right because they're not just in the ladies' bathrooms.

The large garbage can phenomenon led to no small amount of conjecture on our part, especially when we encountered signs like this one that--in addition to indicating that any use of the toilet is explicitly banned--seemed to strengthen our suspicions that we were not supposed to be flushing anything, including toilet paper, down the pipes.

Ahem. Moving on...

While playing "How do you flush this toilet?" I encountered a few truly baffling challenges such as this one. It took me several minutes to finally decide that the only recourse was to plunge my hand into the tank and pull on random pieces of plastic until flushing resulted. Much handwashing ensued.

At our Pension in Barcelona, it took a full-scale search around the toilet and up and down the walls to discover the pull chain hanging from the ceiling (we had to train Gabie to step up on the toilet to reach it). Also, you know you're in Spain when the bathroom is so narrow that you have to turn sideways and inhale to squeeze your way down to the toilet, BUT naturally there's room for a bidet.
In Granada, outside the lovely monastery we visited, there's a bathroom where for the first time, the mystery was not how to flush the toilet. Instead, the mystery was...can you find it?...where on earth have they hidden the toilet paper? In fact, not only was there no toilet paper, there was no dispenser on which to ever hang toilet paper. To get toilet paper, you had to buy it from the tiny, scowling, wrinkled old lady whom you passed on the way into the bathroom and only fully appreciated on your way out. Thankfully, I always enter bathrooms fully prepared (just the basics: extra tissue, pen and paper for taking notes, camera equipment...) so I didn't have to pay the lady for toilet paper. But I really, really wish I had plucked up the courage to ask if I could pay her to pose for a picture. She was a true cultural gem.

Thus ends our tour of Spanish toilets. And again, my point was that it's refreshing to see that sometimes there are a hundred different ways to accomplish a task and none of them are wrong and all of them get the job done eventually. I think my kids learned this lesson in Spain. They learned to open their minds to new ideas, learned to welcome different perspectives, learned to be a little less ethnocentric. They learned that we're all unique and not everything has to be done the American way.

Thank goodness.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Day Five - Birthday

If I were to create a recipe for the perfect birthday, it would have to include the following: 1) wake up in Spain (and already you'd know that it's one of those recipes, the ones with totally unreasonable ingredients, like fresh fennel or grouse or Egyptian limes), 2) wander around for a few hours in a world-class art museum, 3) do at least one thing that feels completely surreal, 4) eat something delicious, and 5) spend the whole day with people you love.

So that was my birthday this year. I can't remember a better one. And I'm getting to that stage in life where I dread getting older, so it feels good to think back on a birthday and experience happy thoughts rather than a tightening in my chest.

We spent the morning at what is now my favorite of the three great art museums of Madrid: The Thyssen-Bornemisza. Sure, Lady Prado flaunts all those masterpieces. And Queen Sophia has her Ultra-Famous Guernica. But in her four floors, their less-assuming sister Thyssen covers the whole history of art with the most beautifully eclectic collection I've ever seen. From glowing wooden triptychs to hip modern canvases, it's all there. My favorites were the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, of course. I can't get enough of Matisse and Van Gogh.

Berthe Morisot's Psyche (at the Thyssen)
Someday I'll write about this painting!!!

The pleasant surprise of the visit was the temporary exhibition called "Monet and Abstraction." It was a stunning collection of Monet's paintings interwoven with abstract works by Turner, Rothko, Frankenthaler, Krasner, etc (the whole concept being to show Monet's influence on later movements). We knew it would be beautiful, but I was truly in rapture through every room. We even turned one corner and found ourselves facing two Jackson Pollocks. I had not expected that at all, but to see them mixed in with Monet made total sense. My boys were awesome through the whole museum (and Ken is totally used to my slow museum pace so he was patient and helped keep the boys within sight). McKay later listed it as one of his favorite places in Spain.

After lunch, we visited (along with my sisters Teri and Anne and my brother Jim and their families) some old haunts. The first and second times I lived in Spain (when I was about 4 and 9 years old) we spent a lot of time at a "Residencia."

This was where the students in the BYU group lived and ate and studied. My family lived in apartments not far away, but we hung out at the Residencia plenty. It has changed, of course, and no longer belongs to BYU (which still makes me cringe because they should never have let this property go!) but it was a surreal feeling....stepping into the past a bit by walking on familiar but not familiar ground. The place is now subdivided into a bank and an engineering firm. They have changed just about everything except the basic structure of the building. But I could picture my brother Steve and I rolling our oranges down the marble stairs so they would be all mushy by the bottom and we could suck the juice out of them. Teri and I reminisced about walking around to the back kitchen door to ask the cooks for the feet off the chickens so we could turn them into animated claws. We remembered the little chapel tucked under the bottom of the building and the slick part of the back landing where we could slide. It's a little sad to see only traces of a building that holds such a permanent lease in my memories. And I'm worried now that the new images of the place, all fresh and repopulated, will taint the old ones. Maybe it's better just to stay away. But I couldn't resist. I've dreamed about going back to Spain for more than 20 years. And in my dreams, I often am walking down that street, looking for those columns, turning back the clock.

Anne (and her husband and the most adorable baby on the planet) went with me and Ken and the boys to see our old apartment (where we lived on our third trip to Spain when I was 15). It's in Moratalaz, if that means anything to you, but when I lived there, I knew it by its metro stop. I knew everything by its Metro stop. My mental map of Madrid is entirely based on the colors of various lines and their station names. After all these years, I remembered that we lived on the Purple line (lower right hand corner of the map) and the Vinaterros stop. However, I confess that without a quick phone call to my Mom, a little google-earth research on my brother Jim's cell phone and Anne's amazing homing skills (my heck, she was only 6 years old when we lived there but she remembered better than I did which apartment was ours) we would never have found it.

The place has gone down hill a bit (Ken's comment: "I didn't know you grew up in the hood"). There's more graffiti than I remember. The planters are a bit weedier, the buildings not as well maintained. But it was a kick to see it again. Our old doorman--Juan Carlos--is still there after all these years and he recognized us and even remembered our apartment number. I'm hoping this is because we made a good impression, not because we were a crazy, huge American family living in an otherwise ordinary Spanish neighborhood.

We ate chocolate-covered donuts from the Tienda where we always used to buy treats. I walked around to the side of the building where my old High School was (and still is).

I won't launch into all the details here, but just imagine if you were a year ahead in math in the US and then you went to a new school where everyone was two years ahead. And, oh yeah, everything, including all the math terms, are in a foreign language that you are still struggling to master and your teacher talks a hundred miles an hour and the numbers don't even look the same because ones have a long tail like sevens and sevens are crossed and commas are decimal points and...well you get the idea. I looked up at the bars on those windows and flashed back to the times I sat inside, staring up at those bars, wishing the class were over and feeling utterly, utterly stupid. I did have some good friends in that school, though. I wish we had keep in touch. The flow of correspondence trickled down to nothing within several months of my departure.

The last thing we did that evening was visit an old friend of the family. Fé is a Spanish grandma with infinite charm and warmth. She has hosted BYU students in her home for many years, starting with my older sisters Teri and Kathy back in 1985. And the first thing she showed us when we arrived was her book of Americans, a scrapbook filled with photos of my sisters (and their families, including me, although I had never met Fé before) and every other person from the US she has embraced in her generous life. What a delightful lady. She fed us dinner. In fact, had it waiting for hours (because we were late), spread out on a table squeezed into a corner of her typically tiny apartment. And you have never had a Spanish tortilla until you've tasted these. My gosh! Salty and slightly gooey with egg and fried potatoes. I've tried these at home a dozen times, but they don't even come close to Fé's. In fact, my boys--who have never liked my tortillas--were snarfing them down and saying "Mom, you should really try to make these some time."

We chatted with Fé for a couple of hours (my Spanish was improving!) and then rode home on the Metro. Yes, I meant to say "home." How funny that Madrid had already started to feel like home again. Shows you how strong those memories deep an impression Madrid made on my little girl heart.