Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Bells on the Bus Go Brring Brring Brring

For 10 days in February, I was holed up on the Spanish coastline, chasing some sun. I figured with a name like "Costa del Sol", it would be a good place to start. Not so much. According to the concierge at the hotel, it was some of the worst weather he had seen in a long, long, long time. He was flat-out amazed at the amount of wind and rain pummeling the coastline. I, on the other hand, wasn't surprised at all.

One stormy day, I decided to head to Malaga to check out Picasso's birthplace and museum. One would think, given all my (mis)adventures on public transportation, that I would take a cab. One would be wrong. I opted for the M110, the local bus marked "Benalmadena to Malaga". The way I saw it, I spoke passable Spanish, the bus stop was directly in front of my hotel, and the museum was the last stop on the route. All things considered, what could possibly go wrong? Well, let me break it down for you.

I hopped on the bus with a big smile and a twenty euro note and asked the bus driver, "Malaga Centro?" I've found that this is really the best approach to take when you have absolutely no idea where you are going - ask the guy driving. In this case, he replied, and this is a direct quote, "si, but it is only 1 euro 25. Do you have anything smaller?" Yep, this was going to be a piece of cake.

Generally when travelling on public transportation in a foreign country, I try to get the seat closest to the driver. In this case, I snagged an aisle seat, front row, right side of the bus. I considered it a win-win situation. Chances were pretty good that no one would want to crawl over me to get to the window seat; I could see the driver, and, more importantly, the driver could see me, which meant that the odds of him telling me which stop to get off were leaning heavily in my favor.

The bus driver was, by far, the happiest guy I have seen working in a public sector industry. Absolutely nothing phased this driver -- not the traffic, not the weather, not the old Brits (which, by the way, from what I can see, make up almost the entire population from Benalmadena to Torremolinos) who held the bus up while they were digging for their fare or bus passes, not the road construction, which was B-A-D bad. I even caught him humming a time or two.

Well, just as I had anticipated, when we reached the last stop at the Malaga bus station, the Happy Driver turned around and said, "this is you." Muchas gracias, senor! I hopped off the bus and immediately decided that it was not the day to see Malaga. The rain had picked up, the wind was raging and, quite frankly, I did not want to deal with the weather hassle, let alone sacrifice one of my new umbrellas.

So, decision made, I jumped on another bus, this one marked "Malaga to Benalmadena." As before, I approached the bus driver, this time with 1.25 on the ready, and asked for a "billette." Unlike before, I did not get a ticket. Instead, I got what would probably be best described as a Spanish verbal smackdown. Tapping deep into my Tex-Mex Tijuana Spanglish, I was able to discern that, apparently, when boarding a bus in Spain at the station, one needs to purchase a ticket at the booth and not on the bus. Good to know. But, I also learned that if one keeps pushing the buck 25 back at the driver, and the line starts to seriously back up, the driver will, eventually, take one's money. Pick your battles, people, that's all I'm saying.

As before, I took the seat on the first row, on the aisle, door-side of the bus. Even though there was no chance in hell that this particular driver was going to give me the heads-up on my get-off stop, old habits are hard to break. I settled in and watched as the bus started to fill up.

It was obvious that this driver did not enjoy anywhere near the job satisfaction as his colleague, nor did he share his same sunny disposition. He rarely acknowledged anyone, unless you consider "rapido" a greeting. He cut people off in traffic; he yelled at other drivers through his window; he cursed when he didn't make the traffic light. Basically, he was just an all-around nasty man.

As more and more people got on the bus, I got to feeling a little guilty about blocking the window seat. I decided that if an old person got on the bus carrying something heavy, I would slide over. That was my deal -- old and carrying something heavy.

I don't know who tipped the devil off to my internal bargain, but, sure enough, a couple of stops later, this old man got on the bus, literally dragging a huge green duffel bag. Curses! I slid over. Since the duffel bag would have blocked the aisle, the man wanted it on his lap. Being the good global citizen that I am (okay, to make myself feel better about hogging the seat), I leaned over and helped him put his bag on his lap. I also slid as far to the right as I possibly could, crossing my legs to give him even more room, which meant my knees were now smashed up against the side of the bus. Small price to pay to ease the guilt.

As the bus navigated through the various pothole-ridden roads and construction zones, a pattern emerged. The bell would ring, the driver would look in his big center mirror (with a very irritated look on his face), the bus would pull over at the next stop, and people would get off. It was Pavlovian beautiful.

We left the city center and entered the motorway, where the bus picked up cruising speed. Now, I don't know why there are bus stops on the Spanish motorway, but, there are -- lots of them. As before, the bell rang and the driver, looking irritated, pulled over at the next stop. But, unlike in the city center, this time, no one got off. The driver, looking even more irritated (which I didn't think was humanly possible), waited for a break in traffic and then merged back onto the motorway and started picking up speed.

We jostled down the road for a couple of more minutes and then, brring, brring. The driver once again pulled out of traffic and stopped at the next stop. Once again, no one got off. The driver glared at us from his center mirror and shouted something in Spanish, which I didn't catch, but, from the look on the faces of the people around me, it must have been a real gem.

Just as the bus was accelerating to merge left back into traffic, brring, brring, brring, brring, brring. At this point, the driver is not watching the road - at all. His eyes are fixed on the center mirror, trying to catch whoever it is pushing the button. The rest of us on the bus are looking around trying to do the same thing. Personally, I had my money on the young guy with the cammo jeans and the white jacket with the Ipod wires dangling from his ears. He just looked way too nonchalant, in a very cocky sort of way. If anyone was going to kick Cujo, it'd be him.

We had gone about a mile or two before the bell went off again. The driver pulled over. No one got off. At this point, the driver was well on his way to a ruptured aneurysm. Part of me admired anyone with the cajones to jack with this guy, but another part of me was mortified that he was going to make all of us pay - dearly. From where I was sitting, we were one gun shy of a CNN reported incident.

By now, it is getting pretty damn uncomfortable on the bus, largely because of the maniacal way the driver kept glaring at us from his rearview mirror. He had stopped cursing several stops ago, and, quite frankly, I found his steely silence even more disturbing. The old guy seated beside me started shifting in his seat, moving closer to me, in, what I presumed to be, an attempt to dodge the driver's direct line of sight. I, too, did not want to risk making eye contact with the driver, so I looked down at my lap. And, that's when I saw it. The little red thing. The little red thing that my knees touched every time I moved. The little red thing that goes brring, brring, brring!

I've only experienced paralyzing, mind-numbing fear a couple of times in my life and this was one of them. Fortunately, survival skills kicked in. I knew I had to get off the bus, immediately, but I couldn't exactly push the little red button now, could I? Instead, I jumped up and yelled "proxima por favor", "proxima."

The bus driver pulled over. I got out. I walked the last two miles to the hotel, in the pouring rain, without an umbrella, singing to myself, "the bells on the bus go brring, brring, brring," and thinking about winning the battle, but losing the war.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I Miss My Phone

My brand-spanking new Treo 750 smartphone has gone the way of my wallet. (I'm really starting to take this personally!) Fortunately for me, the person who took it was kind enough to leave me my credit cards, my ATM card, and my driver's license, all of which I had been keeping in my phone case because I was without a wallet. (The credit cards were turned in to the reception at the hotel as being "found" in a corridor -- no word on how they got out of the phone case or where the phone was at!) Now, I am reduced to using an envelope from the Torrequebrada Hotel in Costa del Sol, Spain, with a big piece of tape on the back, as a wallet. Tres trendy!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

I Miss My Wallet

My wallet is gone. Not gone as in "lost" or "misplaced", gone as in "stolen."

I hope that whoever took it did not just abandon it in a trash can somewhere near the metro station. No, I sincerely hope that they are enjoying running their fingers over the well-worn leather, smooth and supple after years of use.

I hope they recognize that this wallet is not only a designer wallet, but it is "vintage", as it is over 15 years old and no longer available for purchase.

I hope that they are going through all the plastic cards, wondering what in the hell is a "pets perk" card.

I hope that they are looking at the pictures of my nephews and are commenting on how adorable they are.

I hope that they take the measly 80 some-odd euros that I had in it and buy themselves something special. Or, ever better, treat someone they love to lunch or a cocktail.

I hope that they go to Paris and get some use out of the Paris metro tickets stored behind my organ donor card.

I hope that no one ever takes this wallet away from them!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Mind the Crack

If you've ever ridden the London tube (that's the metro or subway for all us non-Brits), you have probably seen the sign above the door that reads "Mind the Gap." Again, for the non-Brits, that translates, roughly, to "Watch Your Step."

Last week, Joni and Jason, some friends of ours from SoCal, along with their 10-month old daughter, came to visit us in Brussels via London. We made plans to meet some of my friends for lunch near Schuman, so I suggested we take the metro. Seriously, what kind of tour guide would I be without exposing my guests to the workings and smells of the underground? Besides, I wanted them to experience just how different Brussels' underground was compared to London's.

For reasons not important to this story, we got on the metro at the Gare du Midi, which meant that we had to change lines at Arts Loi and then we would have only two stops before our destination. All things considered, and by that, I mean, given that we were riding the subway and Jason was carrying his daughter in some sort of contraption on his back that protruded out a good foot and a half and he had yet to cold-cock someone while turning, we had a pretty smooth experience -- until Joni smelled smoke.

When we got on the new line at Arts Loi, Joni looked at me and asked, "Can you smoke in here?" I looked around and, sure enough, there was a woman, seated about 5 feet from where I was standing and, more importantly, seated directly next to the little sign indicating smoking is not allowed in the metro, thoroughly enjoying herself a cigarette.

The Smoking Lady saw me at about the same time I saw her. Rather good-naturedly, I wagged my finger at her in a "that's a no-no" sort of way, and BAM, cardinal rule violated. How many times have I said that you are never to engage the crazies? Well, let me tell you, finger-wagging at a crazy person is like a waving a red cape to a bull. I know this now. Do with it what you will.

Smoking lady started smiling in that raging psychotic nutjob sort of way, accentuated by tell-tale crazed serial killer eye rolls. And, it seemed, I had her undivided attention. She took a long pull on her cigarette and threw it down at her feet, still very much lit, in the poorly-ventilated train. Part of me knew, just knew, that nothing good was going to come of this. Call it want you want, mojo, intuition, experience, whatever, but I could just sense a bloggable event coming on.

As we approached the Schuman stop, I inched forward, gesturing for Joni and Jason to follow me, so that we would be ready to make a quick exit when the doors opened. Smoking Lady beat us to the punch. When the train stopped, Smoking Lady was in the middle of the train doorway, fidgeting with her skirt. I was trying to figure out the least intrusive way of reaching around her and pushing the little green button that would open the doors, when she hit the release button and solved my problems for me.

Since no one was waiting to board, I figured Smoking Lady would step off the train and head straight. My plan was to step off and make a quick right, hoping Joni and Jason would follow my lead.

Well, you know what they say about the plans of mice and men. Smoking Lady threw me a curve when she stepped straight off the train and then IMMEDIATELY hiked up her skirt and started using the bathroom! At this point, I am directly behind her, with one front on the metro and one foot on the platform, caught between the soon to be closing metro doors and her bare ass, trying not to stumble over her, or, worse, step into anything that came from her general direction.

Backing up was out of the question as I would have run into Joni, who would have run into Jason, who would rammed their baby into whoever was standing behind Jason. With the metro about to depart the station, I edged right and prayed that Joni and Jason would follow. If not, they were screwed, as they had never been in the metro before, did not have a cell phone on them, did not speak French or Flemish, and had no idea where we lived. Basically, your standard tourist nightmare if the guide decides to adopt a "you are on your own" mentality.

Miraculously, we all made it off the train without the baby getting caught between the closing doors and without tumbling over Smoking Lady. Once we were clear of the Smoking Lady, Joni looked at me, kind of dazed, and said, "You know, I always thought you were exaggerating in your blog about crazy things that happen to you over here, but not anymore."

Monday, February 04, 2008

Super Bowl XLII

It's 12:57 am and I'm watching the SuperBowl on "sportschau live". It's a first for me and not just because it is nearly one o'clock in the morning and it is just the first quarter. The game is being broadcast in Dutch! At least, the bulk of the commentary is in Dutch. Apparently, there are no direct Dutch translations for "spygate", "kick return", "offense" and "bad boys of defense." But, all things being equal, it beats listening to a John Madden or Brent Musberger!

Note: Hixson (#87 for New York) is married to a Dutch woman. I'm watching her being interviewed, in Dutch, and wondering what cool commercials I'm missing!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Should I Be Alarmed?

I'm no gym rat, but I have seen the inside of a gym a time or two. And, during a couple of these visits, I have even seen the occasional naked female body in the locker room. But, I have, never, ever seen a naked female body on the actual workout floor -- until today, when I saw two!

Up until minute 26 on the elliptical trainer, it was my basic run-of-the-mill workout in Brussels. As usual, I spent the first couple of minutes of the workout scoping out the apparel of my fellow gym mates. It never ceases to amaze me what women will wear to work out in. Now, please don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those women that show up to the gym in full makeup and matching workout clothes. Okay, that's a lie. Usually my workout clothes do match, but that's not the point. The point is, I have seen women come in straight off the Brussels' streets and start working out --- in their street clothes! I'm not exaggerating when I say that I've seen women run miles in sandals or flip-flops. But, I digress.

Twenty-six minutes into my workout, or, four minutes left in my workout if you are a "glass is half-full sort of person", I heard an alarm go off. (No, it was NOT the cardiac alarm on the treadmill!) It sounded exactly as if someone left through an emergency exit door. One would think, based on my previous experiences in Brussels, that I would immediately head for the exit -- clothes, coat, umbrella, and keys be damned. But, alas, if nothing else, I'm committed. I had 4 minutes to go and, short of flames shooting out of the ass of the woman wearing the leopard bra and matching thong with the white capris on the treadmill in front of me, I was going to go finish my workout! Besides, no one else seemed in the least bit concerned, including the employees. So, I just turned up my Ipod in an attempt to drown out the alarm and kept on going.

The alarm quit sounding somewhere during the middle of "Pour Some Sugar on Me." I finished my workout and headed downstairs to the weight room, pretty darn pleased with myself for not bailing on my workout. As I hit the bottom of the stairs, I looked to my left to see how crowded the weight machines were when I saw not one, but two, naked women standing in the middle of the weight room!

Under the circumstances, I tried not to stare, because, let's face it, gym etiquette dictates that you don't openly stare at other people's nakedness. Sneaking a peek is one thing; a blatant double-take quite the other. But, since they were naked in the middle of the weight room floor, I figured that bare boobs by the barbells pretty much trump just about any unspoken gym etiquette. So, yes, I did whip my head around and confirm that there were, in fact, two totally nude women hanging out in the weight room. Why? I had no idea. I just shook my head and chalked it up to the "expat experience", which is pretty much a catch-all category I've created for all things weird and bizarre that I encounter over here.

Perhaps I was hypersensitized to the situation, but, when I entered the locker room, I noticed that there were, in fact, a large number of women in various stages of undress -- most of them wearing towels and standing outside of the showers, which, by sheer coincidence, is where my locker was located. As I was trying to unlock the magnetic lock on my locker with my membership card, I couldn't help but notice a peculiar smell permeating the locker room. It is a smell that I'm sure anyone who has ever plugged a US blowdryer into a European socket would recognize.

When, after about six tries, my locker would not open no matter which direction I swiped my card, I realized that no one was able to get in their lockers, hence all the (mostly) towel-clad women standing in the locker room, most of whom were staring at me trying to get into my locker. Apparently, there was a fire in the showers (yes, you read that right --- a F-I-R-E in the showers!) which short-circuited the system that controls access to the lockers.

I have to admit, the situation sparked several questions, including:
  • How do you start a fire in a shower?
  • How does a fire in a shower room wipe out a magnetic locking system in the adjacent area?
  • Why are there two naked women in the weight room?
Unfortunately, I have no answers for you. But, I now know where the emergency exits are in the gym and what the fire alarm sounds like!