February 24, 2007

The Roots of Bus-Drivin' Run Deep

When I went to Timnath Elementary School a decade or two ago, I always rode the bus to and from school.
So one day, on a rural road back home, the bus driver pulled the bus aside. Instead of scolding us for shouting or throwing crap, which was the usual motivation for an unscheduled stop, a sixth-grader sitting right behind her stood up. He then proceeded to raise a Rock-'Em Sock-'Em Robots game into the air. He then, over the course of a minute or two, explained the dynamics and the features of the game, and what one had to do to win the game. He had a volunteer man the red robot as he fought with the blue one. After a few seconds of plastic robot-on-robot violence, a red plastic head popped up when the blue robot had emerged victorious. He thanked everyone for their attention, sat down, and then the bus pulled off again.
Now, THAT was a guy with public speaking skills! I realize only now that that was perhaps one of the most surreal moments of my life. At the time, I probably just thought, "Ooh, Wadical!"
Some of my other strange bus moments:
1. Slamming my face against the seat in front of me. At least it was only a one-time occurrence. The sad part was that the driver was only going 5 miles an hour, and he slammed on the brakes to demonstrate the importance of sitting face-forward. And he warned us before he did it that he was going to do it. I guess I didn´t believe him. But, now I realize the importance of sitting face-forward in a bus...OR DO I??
2. The time I was waiting at the bus stop, only to realize that I had forgotten something at home. I ran home, and ran back to find the bus arrived and my Garfield lunch box crushed under its front wheel. The repentant bus driver, bless her heart, tried to make amends by buying me another yellow lunch box and giving it to me on the ride back in the afternoon. Only thing was, it was a Popples lunch box. If I´d have known how to swear then, I´m sure I would have come up with something colorful, but instead I just had to opt for lunchtime ridicule for a few years until I pestered my mom enough to get me a Back To The Future lunchbox.
3. Driving a bus for 6 years. I still can´t believe I did that.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

February 15, 2007

Another Oddly Average Day

The other day I was in San José yet again, trying to do some more crap for my permanent residency. Danilo, the immigration lawyer I have there, suggested we meet at the Denny´s by the Best Western on the freeway, since it was a fairly common landmark. So, I decided to go inside the Denny´s (sorry Dad) and get a cup of coffee while I was waiting for Danilo. As I was looking through my mound of papers and my passport, I was pondering yet again what it meant to be an American, and what it meant to reside in one place or another. As my mind was kind of wandering, I started to think that I was a bit hard on American tourists in my previous post when I depicted them as lacking a certain amount of class and savvy when traveling in foreign countries.
Then, as if on cue, 2 American couples in their early twenties walked in to the restaurant. Both of the girls were wearing bikini tops, and thier not-fat-but-certainly-also-not-toned bellies were sticking out underneath. I could tell by their voices that they were definitely Americans (or Canadian spies). I then concluded that in my previous assessments of American tourists, I´d not nearly been hash enough in my condemnations.
I mean, c´mon. We all like a nice bikini, but these weren´t nice bikinis; they were kinda skanky (but that aspect of their presentation was amplified by their loser boyfriends, admittedly). And San José is basically in the middle of the country, and nowhere near a beach at all. Finally, Denny´s isn´t the classiest of joints, but for a place that bills itself as a family restaurant, these people seemed a bit underdressed. Once again, I shook my head, Uncle Sam rolled over in his grave, and an American Bald Eagle cried a single red, white, and blue tear.
Anyhow, shortly after the freakshow walked in, Danilo followed, and we discussed my residency documents. He´s going to join me in my fight against El Hombre and his burocracia. My papers basically looked to be in order, so now he´s going to sign up for a date in March or April that he can make an appointment to apply for my residency. Yes, he´s making an appointment for an appointment for an application. How´s that for government efficiency, fuckers?
Anyhow, I asked him if I was anywhere near a part of San José called Escazú, where there was a rumored mall with a rumored international bookstore. I was hurting for reading material for my English classes, especially for my 5th and 6th graders. So he said, "Sure, I can take you to the Multiplaza. My ex-wife lives near there." So he lead me out to the casino in the adjacent building, where his ex-wife Giselle was (I swear) inside the casino, relaxing on a chair next to the slot machines and reading a book about English grammar.
So, my immigration lawyer, his Anglophile ex-wife, and I all drove across town in rush hour traffic to the mall to visit the international bookstore. It turns out they had a few things to do in the mall, so while I looked at the bookstore (score! "James and the Giant Peach"!), they did their things. Afterwards, we met up at a little restaurant, where Danilo bought us a little supper and chatted to me about literature and the German language, which he happens to speak a bit of.
We then dropped off Giselle at her house near Escazú (the whole time I never really figured out why she was even hanging out with Danilo that day in the first place...but no matter, she was really nice), and Danilo drove me back into the center of San José to catch a bus from a station that happened to be two blocks from his house.
So upon further reflection, that was certainly a strange day, but of late, my days seem to be strange. Nothing like talking dog strange, but still mildly interesting, at least. Hopefully you didn´t get too bored reading about it.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

February 11, 2007

Happy Birthday

Hey Everyone,
Just wanted to say happy birthday to my brother Paul! He´s turning 21, although the significance is a bit lost, considering he´s been in Australia studying (and drinking) for a few months. Anyhow, if you have time, go to his blog and post a happy birthday comment. It´s at http://iblogoff.blogspot.com
Or don´t. He might be too drunk to care anyhow...
Happy birthday!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

February 9, 2007

Officially Off The Market

In the above picture, one can see a pensive Angela sitting next to a Ryan who doesn´t quite seem to know how to use a pen. With that pen, I am signing a marriage license. So, Angela and I are officially, legally married, pretty much! Probably! I know, that was fast. But don’t worry, I didn’t elope, and you didn’t miss the wedding. It’ll still be in July, and we’ve still not set a date. What we did yesterday (Tuesday) was just the legal ceremony. As my friend Julien said, “It’s a beautiful thing when two people get married…especially if one of them has to do it for legal reasons.”
I myself didn’t really want to do the legal ceremony until the regular, church ceremony, but when it because apparent that the advantages of doing the legal ceremony now (an expedited residency process, the ability to work and own property, a faster American tourist visa application process for Angela, and a shiny new Costa Rican ID card for me!) were weighed against the disadvantages (no awesome shiny ID card, legal abysses in regards to building a house and working, and possible deportation!), we decided it’d be best to get legally married as soon as possible.
And no, Angela’s not pregnant.
In any case, though, I really didn’t want to get the legal thing done so early, cause it kinda made me feel like some sort of mail-order husband from a poorly-titled catalog like “Men Who Is Northamerica 2005!!” (yeah, I know: it wouldn’t even be the current edition). The ceremony itself was very legal and decidedly un-romantic. But still kind of a fun way to spend an afternoon. Angela and I hadn’t even told most people at work that we were even dating, nor had we told many of our friends that we were engaged. We just figured it was none of their business…plus we didn’t know if we’d get fired. But we had told some people, and we each agreed to bring one of the two required witnesses. I brought Abuela and Angela brought along her friend Carol from her college (family members didn’t count as witnesses, it turned out).
Right after we got to the law office in Palmares, though, the lawyer said that according to some law restriction he found or thought he might have found, he’d need someone to verbally translate the laws and documents for me, even though I understood the written Spanish. I guess he wanted to cover his bases. But, the translator couldn’t also be the witness, and the translator couldn’t be one of us getting married, either, and Abuela doesn’t know English. So, we needed another person to join our group…someone that spoke both English and Spanish and lived in Palmares. After a little cell phone hustle, Angela was able to get a hold of our co-worker Aurelys, a girl that teaches English at the Elementary school part of the Colegio Bilingue. Since she didn’t even know that we were engaged, she of course had no idea about the civil ceremony, and proceeded to freak out a bit, both on the phone, and when she arrived in the office (and likely on the walk from her home to the office, also). She kept saying things like, “Oh my God! What is this! How can I translate this!? What if I make a mistake? I can’t go to jail!” and making the sign of the cross quite a bit. Basically, it was pretty funny.
After I assured both Angela and Aurelys to their satisfaction that I had never been married in any country on earth, and that I had the documents and the sworn testaments to prove it (which was a document that Aurelys had to translate, for the lawyer) Aurelys had to read all of the Family Code regulations that pertained to marriage. Like I said, I understood the Spanish just fine, but she had to do it anyhow. Meanwhile, Abuela nodded off to sleep, and Angela chatted with Carol.
Finally, then, Angela and I were able to attest verbally that we wanted to get married, that we had the full use of our mental and cognitive capacities, and that we weren’t crazy (although since she married me, she might have been lying a bit at this point). We then signed a bunch of papers, the majority of which pertained not to the marriage, but to the fact that the documents were indeed read out loud and translated for this Gringo-assed Gringo. We also signed a paper which might have been like a marriage license, although I guess there won’t actually be a license available, nor will the marriage be legal, for another 15 days to three or four months. “Ahorita,” as they say. I think we may have even signed on for a time share in Pensacola…
Actually, all joking aside, I am very happy to (probably) be legally married (assuming it’s all kosher and the mound of extra papers doesn’t cause suspicion in San José). Angela is a wonderful woman, and for those of you who have met her, you can understand how I would not want to waste one single day before spending the rest of my life together with her. Now I just can’t wait until the real wedding in July!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

The One Dance I Can Do Well

After writing the entry about my visit to the U.S. embassy the other day, (yeah, I know, I’m posting these at the same time, but I sometimes write these things on my computer at home and don’t get a chance to come to the internet café and post them until later) I was thinking about what it means to be an American. Also, Angela is taking a class on American culture, so I had to think about what it meant to be American to help her with a presentation on an aspect of American culture or values. I suggested “pride plus embarrassment.” I thought that it would provide for a nuanced discussion about many facets of American-ness in the 21st century, but then I realized that basically no one in her English class had even been to America, so they probably wouldn’t realize what the hell I was talking about. She didn’t at least.
I explained to her that in many ways, Americans are very proud and patriotic. I even downloaded Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the U.S.A.” (yeah, that one). I explained how it was really popular around the time of the first gulf war, and that it had a second wind a decade later during the resurgence of patriotism after the September 11th attacks. She ended up leading a discussion on that song and patriotism in general, and I guess it went over pretty well.
But I still keep thinking about the other part of that dichotomy, though: the embarrassment. Any of you that’s traveled on a train in Europe in the summer likely knows the feeling. You’re sitting there, minding your own business, trying to blend in and possibly make like the locals, when—like a banjo emitting a twang from the other end of the car—you hear a voice: the voice of your Fellow American! It would seem logical that this voice would be comforting and remind you of home, but counter-intuitively, it can also make your face turn red and make you want to get off the train at the next stop.
The voice can be from any American, really. It might be a middle-aged couple from Decatur complaining to another middle-aged couple they just met (let’s say they’re from Phoenix) about the fact that they have to walk down the hall to use the bathroom in their hotel. Or, it might be a college guy with a shirt proclaiming his university of choice and a matching ball-cap turned sideways, talking to his “bro” about how they totally got fucked up last night at the “Hoffbrow House” and tried to hook up with some chicks from Australia. Or, it might just be a man speaking VERY LOUDLY in English (so the foreigner will understand him) to the train conductor about how he didn’t know he needed a ticket for this particular train, so he shouldn’t have to pay, and especially not THAT much.
All three of these examples are just archetypes, I know, but all three of them make me a little embarrassed to be an American. I feel bad to say it, but I also know I’m not the only one out there that feels this way.
I know that, among people who travel a fair deal, especially while studying, that many times foreigners don’t want to be recognized as foreigners, and would rather blend in. Maybe they’re trying to learn a new language, or maybe they’re trying to have a true cultural immersion. Either way, though, it’s not necessarily an advantage if they’re identified as Americans. I tried to explain this to Pablo (the Colombian soccer player who lived here at Abuela’s house for a bit), but he didn’t really understand. He said that any time he met a Colombian in another country, he was always happy to see them, to talk to them, to find out where they’re from, etc. And I’m sure there are Americans like that, too. I’m just not usually one of them. I wouldn’t even approach a group of people that were obviously Americans when he and I went to a bar one evening. In fact, I actively tried to avoid them the whole night, in case they also didn’t want to be “outed” as Americans. I came to call it the Fleeting Gringo Dance.
I even have to do this dance sometimes with the locals. Costa Rica’s a pretty chilled-out place, and it’s actually pretty warm towards Americans, the United States, and visitors in general. This country is kind of an anomaly, because that’s not always the case. In Argentina, Mexico, and many countries in Europe, when people find out that I’m an American, the first thing they often do is complain about something my government is doing. Or, they also like to tell me exactly what America and all Americans are like (even if they’ve never been there). Sometimes I know what they’re talking about, and sometimes I don’t. The point is, though, that we are usually instantly identified with groups of people according to our cultural, religious, or national affiliations, and sometimes, it just gets old. That alone is sufficient reason for me to dislike Bush—his very existence makes my life harder because I get hassled in foreign countries (and that’s not necessarily a one-sided political statement; the same thing happened with Clinton, too…I remember a group of my fellow classmates at my German high school incredulously attacking me and Josh verbally because our country was trying to impeach a president for getting a blow job).
Anyway, I’m getting off track here, but this has all been on my mind for some time. Please feel free to post any comments you might have relating to this. I know that a lot of my friends that might read this are Ex-pats, Eurotrash, or Fellow Travelers, so I just wanted to hear any thoughts you might have on this topic. Or, if you prefer, you can look for me on the dance floor of international relations.

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

My Country ´Tis Of Thee...

On Monday of this week I spent a few hours in the United States. I accomplished this not by hopping on a supersonic Concorde jet to lunch in Laredo, Texas, but rather by simply going to the United States’ embassy in San José. They say that an American embassy is actually American soil, regardless of the fact that it’s physically in another country. I don’t know if that’s true, though, and I don’t really care to find out. But I’ll still treat it as a fact.
So anyhow, I was in the U.S. the other afternoon going on a wild goose chase for a Costa Rican work permit. The school that hired me sent me to the U.S. embassy, despite my protests that the U.S. embassy would have nothing to do with giving out Costa Rican work permits. That kind of task, I argued, would more likely be taken care of by the Costa Rican Ministry of Migration and Foreign-ness. But still, sometimes you have to go to stupid lengths to prove a point if your protests fall on deaf ears. Plus, it was a beautiful day, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it than waiting inside a sterile, over-secured complex filled with huddled masses longing for freedom (and the huddled bureaucrats longing to deny it to them).
After a long trip just to get to the embassy, I took my number and sat down for a while. I talked to an American lady who was in the embassy to get additional pages put in her passport. She had an impressive travel resume and an impressive name to match it: her first name was Bushnell, and one of her middle names was even Bird. And this wasn’t one of those nicknames that stay within your family; all four of her exotic (or maybe just odd) names were official and on her passport. She was really nice, though, and she told me about some development projects she’d been working on in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
Finally, after a wait that only turned out to be around a half hour, my number was called and I went up to the bulletproof teller window. There was a microphone and a speaker to allow the two parties on each side of the window to communicate, but not very well; I had to continually turn my head back and forth like a moron so that I could hear when I the microphone crackled, and to look at the person just two feet away from me when I was talking. It’s weird to think that even though this is the first impression that many Costa Ricans would get of the United States’ government, there is still a line of people waiting to try to get there.
So, the lady told me (of course) that the U.S. government had no jurisdiction over Costa Rica’s internal affairs, and that I’d have to take my inquiry to the Ministry of Migration and Foreign-ness. So I asked her if I could also get some more pages in my passport. Might as well not waste a trip to the U.S. by coming back empty-handed, I figured.
And from there the story just goes on and on. Basically, the Costa Rican folks were neither helpful nor friendly, but that’s understandable, since they work for the government. The situation is still being sorted out for the work permit, and in the meantime I’m still trying to get my permanent residency. So far, though, the fight against bureaucracy is still going tolerably well (and at this point, don’t just knock on wood; beat the living shit out of some wood for me, cause I might need all the luck I can get).

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook