Saturday, October 13, 2018

Robbed in Barcelona, while in Search of the American Dream

What the Traveling Writer Endures while in Search of the American Dream

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

This week, we're back to Barcelona, where I lived for 3 months as a nanny in order to extend my one-year creative writing sabbatical.

Today I tell you the story of how I was robbed on the stairs you see directly below. I was sitting on the stairs leading up to the right--a mistake, since it was out of view of people in the courtyard. But that's where I was able to tap into the library's wifi, because the library was closed.

When the police came, I experienced a huge cultural disparity that made the situation worse.

the traveling writer in search of the American Dream
The stairs lead up to the Biblioteca de Catalunya. It was built in the 1300s as a hospital. 

When I worked on my novel, Paris Writers Circle, here, I had all the atmosphere that a high vaulted ceiling could give me. Plus I would think of how grateful I was not to be a patient there in the 1300s, the recipient of medieval medical knowledge. More Barcelona pictures below.

I sat on the stairs one Saturday needing Wifi to find an English-speaking 12-Step meeting--I was bruised by the Catalan boys' disrespect (that story is two below this one, or here), feeling low, and knew a meeting would bless me. The library was closed, but I wondered if its wifi would reach outside the thick stone walls so I could Google the location of a meeting starting soon. 

So I sat on the stairs in view of people in the courtyard, but there was no Wifi. So I moved up the stairs, turned a corner, and was all alone, out of sight of everyone. But the Wifi worked there. I quickly logged in and started Googling.

Suddenly a slight young dark-haired man was in front of me holding out his business card. I was uneasy, but then again he didn't look dangerous. 

"Why are you here?" he said in accented English.

"I'm looking for wifi."

"Wifi?" he said, waving the card in front of me. "Wifi!"

I had the library's wifi, I didn't need his, so I said no, thank you. He moved up the stairs to stand next to me and I turned me head, away from my backpack (where my wallet rested on top, since I'd needed the library card inside it to log into Wifi). 

"Wifi? he said, waving the card again. Then he leaned in close, holding the card near my eyes. I looked at the words, in Catalunyan, and waved him away.

"No, thanks."

He said okay and went down the steps.

I went back to Google for a second, then felt like something was wrong. I saw my wallet was gone. I slipped my laptop as fast as possible into my backpack--it had all my work in it, I couldn't leave it on the steps unguarded--and raced down the steps.

"Thief!" I shouted.

A man in a yellow shirt came up to me and blocked my path. "You were robbed?" he said in accented English. I kept looking for the young dark-haired man, and Yellow Shirt kept bobbing in front of me. "Robbed?" I was looking around wild-eyed for my wallet, for someone who spoke English to help me.

Then a man with a red plaid shirt that hung outside his pants came up to me holding my wallet. "You?" he said. 

I was so relieved to see my wallet, and I didn't know what this man's intentions were either, so I snatched it out of his hand. 

"You come with," he said.

I stared at him, my heart pounding, clutching my wallet to my chest.

"Who are you?"


Yellow Shirt was still bobbing around me, giving me a threatened feeling, and I had just been robbed. I didn't know who to trust.

"Identificacion," I said. 

Red shirt dug a wallet out of his pants pocket and showed me a card through the wallet's plastic window. It was completely unconvincing--I had expected to see a shiny badge.

"You come," he said.

I pushed his wallet back at him and said, "Identificacion!" again.

He lifted his red plaid shirt, and there was something black tucked into the waistband of his pants. What was that? He had another wallet?

"Identificacion!" I said.

He pulled the black thing up a bit and I saw it was a small handgun.

Well, I wasn't going anywhere with an unknown man who had had my wallet in his hand and who I now saw had a gun tucked into his waistband. 

"Senora," an old toothless man said, sitting by the courtyard fountain. "La." and he pointed to a restaurant on the other side of the courtyard. I ran to it, confused, overwhelmed with men trying to steal from me when all I'd wanted to do was Google a meeting.

I sat on a bench of people waiting to be seated at the restaurant. A nice, American young man said, "Are you okay?"

"I think I'm in great danger," I said -- but I was half-smiling, maybe as a nervous reaction. The young man didn't offer to help.

Just then two uniformed policemen came through the restaurant's wrought iron gate and came up to me slowly. To my immense relief, the handsomest one spoke excellent English.

"There are all kinds of people trying to steal from me in the courtyard," I said. "I can't believe how many."

"You are safe with the man with the handgun. He's a police officer."

"But when I asked for identification, he didn't show me a badge."

"He showed you his revolver. Only police in Spain carry revolvers."


"Well, in America, where I come from, every crazy person carries a gun," I said. "There was no way I was going with him to some unknown place."

"We want you to come to the police station to file a complaint," he said. "We caught the two thieves. In court someday we'll need you to identify them."

"Was one of them the man in a yellow shirt?"

"No, he was just some guy. He was trying to add to the confusion to block the police."

What a nightmare.

So I walked through Barcelona's ancient streets to the police station on La Rambla, the biggest tourist street in the city.

"Thieves are a huge problem here," the handsome policeman said. "That police officer was undercover to try to protect tourists and control the problem. But the law is lenient, and so are the judges. That thief will be back on the streets sooner than you will be today."

In the police station, I filled out forms. The officer in the red plaid shirt walked by. I felt bad that I'd been so uncooperative.

"Lo siento," I'm sorry, I said. He smiled and went back out the door to the streets.

I thought about writing a letter to someone in Barcelona to tell them that a man in plainclothes showing a revolver to American tourists would not reassure them. It was important that it not keep happening. But was my Spanish up to the task? Was Google Translate? And who would I send it to? No, it would be a waste of time.

Putting it all on the line for my art, and for my search for the American Dream

What was I doing, living with impossible boys, far from home and family? I felt very desolate that afternoon.

While I filled out forms and gave my Catalan family's address and agreed to testify when the case came up in a few months, I saw what could have happened to me.

Two young girls from Sweden were also filing a complaint. The police officer explained that their handbags had been stolen with all their money, credit cards, passports and plane tickets home.

Yikes! I'd been spared so much grief when the undercover policeman recovered my wallet. And let me snatch it from his hand. 

I thanked my Higher Power that, even though I hadn't gotten to a meeting, he had been taking care of me.

St. Josep's market on La Rambla. Enjoy! But watch your wallet!

A meat counter in St. Josep's.

The candy counter.

Fruit and fruit juices!

More hams, bacons. It's a great market. How about you? Ever had your wallet lifted? Comment below!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

American Dream: Find a B&B and Make Some Discoveries

The Traveling Writer Sees Quirky Things in Rhode Island

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

Last week I shared my Louisiana music festival with you. I want to recommend Zydeco again! A week ago I invested in a C.J. Chenier live recording made at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.  I’m glad I did. His showmanship is obvious even when he’s not making music on a stage. And his Red Hot Louisiana band doesn’t play a single note that isn’t red hot.

While attending the Rhythm and Roots music festival (the largest gathering of Louisiana musicians outside of Louisiana) in Charlestown, RI, I stayed with my sister in a bed & breakfast in Kingston, RI.

We went for a walk one morning and found out it’s a college town, the University of RI at Kingston. We drifted onto campus and found an arboretum with a fantastic assortment of exotic trees. They were all labeled with their English name, Latin name, and area of origin.

Everyone in my family is a plant nerd, so we really appreciated that somebody, at some time, planned this place, took care to ship in trees that were likely to survive Rhode Island winters, and took the time to make sure each tree had a label.

This arboretum is a great, humane legacy that some person or persons created and shared. I admire that legacy-building instinct, and I’m grateful for it.

Let me share some quirky pictures of the weird trees. I have pictures of the labels for some, not all. Then we'll get into the bed & breakfast.
The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Look! A tree in camo!

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
This tree has beautiful bark in flowing lines.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
This blue beauty is a Korean fir.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Here it is in close-up.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Not sure of the name, but it sure looks like green fireworks.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
This is a larch, from Central Europe. A bit quirky-looking.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
There were neat gates and structures throughout the arboretum.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Not sure what this is, but it sure does have strange roots.

The Traveling Writer Recommends the Sheppard B&Bs

We stayed at Sheppard’s Campus B&B, run by the Sheppard family. It was in an appropriately Victorian house and decorated with antiques. I always enjoy looking at this type of house and furniture, and I enjoy even more thinking how glad I am not to have to take care of any of it.

We had two terrific breakfasts and enjoyed the company of our fellow guests. We also enjoyed exploring the grounds.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
A splendid house, both inside and out.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
I love the weathered brick.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
A compass rose built into the porch floor.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Tons of antiques and healthy potted plants.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
A bird cage from India. Felt quirky to find it in Kingston, RI.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Close up of the front door.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Splendid hydrangeas, and all kinds of other beautiful plants, in the gardens.

One of the Sheppards had created a lovely garden around the house. Since I used to be a passionate gardener, and my sister developed one worthy of a House and Garden spread, we made a point of exploring the garden’s paths and noting the different foliage combinations that this gardener had fostered.

I sat in one of the seating areas to make a phone call and to just soak up the sight of sunlight on leaves. This is something I starve for in my life bouncing between Brooklyn and Manhattan. It’s one of the most gorgeous sights on earth, and this peaceful garden filled my soul up to the brim. Then a groundhog came out from under the porch and sat in the sun, to top it all off.

How about you? Been to a good B&B lately? Comment below!

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Traveling Writer Spends Proceeds of Her American Dream

The Traveling Writer Goes to a Music Festival -- Her First Ever!

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

I’d like to divert your attention momentarily from Barcelona to Rhode Island, where I attended a music festival over the Labor Day weekend. It was the biggest gathering of Louisiana musicians outside of Louisiana. It was my first music festival ever--that's if you don't count the concert I went to in the Bronx when I was 14. When the first act came on stage, people on every blanket around me and my friend Rich lit up or downed some pills with alcohol, or all of the above--but you know what I'm talking about : )

This RI music festival was so much fun!

At the ticket counter, I could see that nobody was going to take him- or herself too seriously this weekend. 

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
The black-and-white checkered sunglasses make the look.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Or maybe it's the Mary Janes...

When I walked across the field to the dance tent and heard Zydeco music kick in, my heart—no kidding—leapt for joy. Zydeco is THE most infectious dance music in the world. I took a Zydeco dance lesson with the accompaniment of the Zydeco Hogs. I highly recommend their recordings. Your feet will begin to bop in spite of yourself. It won't stop there. Knees, hips, shoulders are quick to bop.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
The washboard player herself can't resist dancing to the Zydeco.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream

I also danced to Steve Riley’s music. This is him as a child.

 I particularly enjoyed CJ Chernier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band, who is carrying on his father’s tradition. What a fantastic showman CJ is! And honey, he and his band are red hot. He loves people, loves to give his audience a good time, and gets the musicians and the crowd all riled up : )

Blues, Zydeco, country, Western, bluegrass, Cajun: the Rhythm and Roots festival in RI has it all. Sign up for it as soon as you can!
One show had some musicians that you could look at and tell: they had traveled the back roads of the bayous to play at dance halls for the last 50 years. They were goooood!

A group called Faux Paws was extraordinary. Young musicians on their way to being legendary, in search of their American Dream

I truly enjoyed the show on Sunday called “Sunday School with Christine Ohlman, Rebel Montez and the Sin Sisters.” I wondered if this was an ironic title, whether a coven of witches would show up.
The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
The Sin Sisters, back-up vocals for Christine Ohlman.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
 Christine Ohlman and Rebel Montez

Turns out Christine is my kind of Christian. With back-up singers called the Sin Sisters, how could she not be? She defies any pigeon hole of Christianity anybody, including church ladies, could try to wedge her into. She’s singing truth according to her artistic insights, free in God's great artistic freedom to not try to meet expectations of what she should look, act, or sing like. She’s a singer, songwriter, guitarist, recording artist, and music scholar. Her nickname is "The Beehive Queen.” I also approve of her shades.
She treated us to one bluesy, gutsy, beautifully rendered song after another. And she started me on a trail of other artists. She referred to Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Ben E. King and Curtis Mayfield. All treats to be enjoyed because Christine played some of their songs and credited them with enthusiasm.

The Traveling Writer Searches

I love to be not only on a music trail but a reading trail as well. A writing friend recommended George Orwell's "All Art is Propaganda" and that led me to his "Homage to Catalonia" and "Down and Out in Paris and London." I heard of Tracy K. Smith because she was a recent Poet Laureate of the U.S., and that led me to her memoir. I recently enjoyed Doris Kearn Goodwin's "Lincoln," and soon that will lead me to her book on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and World War II.

I love these avenues of exploration. How about you? You following any trails lately? Comment below!

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Traveling Writer vs. Kids in Barcelona

Persistence in Search of the American Dream

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

Dear fellow adventurers,

Please take a look at a fun (nearly manic) essay I wrote about perseverance, in which I admit to many things, including the idea that I may be more talented at perseverance than anything else in life : ) It's here, on, also known as CEO Reads.

Also, I’m quoted recently in The Washington Post travel section, in an article about rental car mistakes to be avoided (i.e., the one I made). Check it out here
Now, for some photos of Barcelona, a spectacularly beautiful city. Then this week’s story – see exactly how some other Spanish kids exhibited their disrespectto me.

the traveling writer in search of the American Dream
These pics are all from the Plaça Milicia del Desconegut. Styles from different periods of Barcelona's history stand shoulder to shoulder.

the traveling writer in search of the American Dream

the traveling writer in search of the American Dream
A mysterious doorway -- ooooo, what Catalan princess swooned here for her crazy Spanish suitor?

the traveling writer in search of the American Dream
Catalan flags draped on balconies in the plaza.

the traveling writer in search of the American Dream
Great hulking buildings -- what scenes of human travail has this one witnessed?

The Traveling Writer Resumes Her Theme

My friend May, a professor of economics and avid writer herself, replied to my last post that I was making a generalization about Spanish children. I agree with her that generalizations are dangerous to make, especially about people—not only dangerous for the people being stereotyped but also for the person making the stereotype. Generalizations / stereotypes cut us off from the richness and variety and truth of the situation.

But today I’ll tell you about some other kids in Barcelona that I taught and what happened. I’ll also quote two other adults who work with Spanish children. Then we’ll agree to not generalize about all Spanish kids.

While I lived with the 3 feral boys, some friends of their family stopped by. They seemed like nice folks, nice kids. They wanted me to teach their two girls English twice a week, on their lunch break from school. My employers said OK, so I said OK, very glad to have 30 euros in my pocket after every lesson.

Then the families stood around talking to each other in Catalan, and I just stood there, being polite and smiling and not understanding a word. Then one of the two girls I’d be teaching began doing something I’d never seen before, and it horrified me.

She lay down on the tile floor on her back, and lifted her feet up toward her father’s legs, and very slowly and incredibly gently lowered the soles of her feet onto his thighs. It wasn’t so much the action itself as her attitude. She exuded disrespect – she was doing this to lower her father. To me it was quite clear. We all read people’s attitudes every day. I think that I can read as well as the next person and that you would have gotten the same impression.

But I had agreed to teach, and I thought I might be able to handle two girls better than three boys that operated like a pack of wolves.

So I picked the girls up from school a few days later.

We walked toward their house, which was high on a hill and overlooked the blue Mediterranean Sea. To get there, we had to pass a fenced-in pasture where Calçot, a donkey, lived all alone. (His name means Green Onion in Catalan, by the way). There was tall grass along the fence, and some of it had turned brown in the intense autumn sun.

I walked ahead of the two girls, who kept a leisurely pace behind me. They weren’t in a big hurry to do more schoolwork, that’s for sure.

Well, the lesson went pretty well. The younger girl started to put her feet on me under the dining room table and I grabbed her ankle and said “No!” very firmly. She tried again another day, but on this particular day I didn’t feel her feet brushing my leg any more. The younger girl was very reluctant to participate in the games,  was slithery on the couch, made it clear she didn't much care. But with cajoling we got through the games in English that I had prepared. The older daughter seemed to have much more fun--and less of an issue with showing disrespect.

When the mother arrived home from work, I asked the girls to do the games again, to show their mom they had learned something. Then she paid me, and the 30 euros felt like bliss in my pocket. I scooted down the hill, past Calçot, and arrived on the terrace of the boys’ house with time left in the day to write.

As I wrote, I paused and touched my hair. I felt something prickly stuck there. It was bits of dried grass. How’d that get there, I wondered to myself. Then I felt another piece.

I jumped to my feet. There were bits of dead grass on the back of my head and the back of my clothes, from head to toe.

Those girls. They just had to show disrespect to an adult. It was their biggest preoccupation, evidently.

The Traveling Writer Persists in Search of the American Dream

I vowed to never walk ahead of them again.

But those 30 euros were wonderful. I would teach them again. And I would insist that those feet not rest any part of my body.
Now I’ll tell you about two other adults I talked to about the disrespect they experienced from Spanish children. One was my pastor at a church in a neighborhood of Barcelona called Gracia. The church was Eglise de Gracia, a play on the neighborhood name and the grace of God. The pastor’s name was David, and I asked him for advice to deal with the 3 boys I lived with and their disrespect.

“I used to coach my sons in football,” he said. Football is known as soccer in the U.S. Barcelona has a world-famous soccer team.  “I did it for two years, but the boys I coached were so disrespectful to me that I had to give it up.”

So there’s that. And there’s the quote I gave you in the last post, from a Barcelona native: “Los niños en España respetan nada.”

And then there’s the beautiful American woman I met at church, Stephanie, who translated David’s excellent sermons from Spanish to English for me. She was a teacher in an elementary school in Barcelona. She said the disrespect was constant, viral, feral, and hopeless. “I just do the best I can,” she admitted, “but it’s really awful, and awfully hard on me.”

That’s how I felt too. Next post, in two weeks: more stories of disrespect. Then maybe we’ll move on. How about you? Do you insist, like my friend May, that I ought not to make generalizations about Spanish children, or even just Barcelona children? We agreed at the top not to generalize, right? Okay, shall we stick to that? : ) Comment below!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Life with a Catalan Family in Pursuit of my American Dream

Please note that I'm going to a bi-weekly status with this blog. Every other Saturday.  Because each post is now longer, it takes more time to write, edit and post photographs.

Thanks, folks!

Life in Catalonia for the Traveling Writer

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

I lived with a Catalan family as an au pair for three months and it was quite the experience.
When the father picked me up with my three pieces of luggage, he drove a Lexus. I was surprised because I'd heard so much about Spain being a drag on the European Union.
I asked him his line of work. He was a consultant to CEOs of Spanish companies, he said, and the secret to helping these CEOs was to help them to see just how big an array of options they had.
As we drove through the gates to the family's home, we passed a swimming pool and a huge Mercedes van. The house was enormous -- three stories, all white with an orange tile roof, a verandah across the front, white steps up to the verandah. Inside, with all the white tile floors and cement walls, the house echoed.
He helped me with my luggage, bless him, and asked his youngest son to show me to my room.
"Welcome home," the father said.
The littlest guy led me up a big staircase, down the hall, past the three boys' bedroom to mine.  The room was pleasant -- a twin bed, a table next to it with a lamp for reading, a desk, a big closet, a big window overlooking the terrace. I thought I'd really lucked out.
Later that night, I came back to my room and found a wad of chewed gum on the bottom of my laptop.
The disrespect only got worse.
The mother and father spoke to me in respectful enough tones, but their three sons were insane with disrespect and the parents did nothing to correct them. They believed, obviously, that every option should be open to their boys at all times, including outrageous disrespect of others.
Let me give you just two examples.
I went with the three boys to their grandmother's house for lunch. She served us chicken legs that she had roasted in the oven and were quite greasy. The youngest boy, age 3, ate the chicken with his hands.
When he was done, he came around the table to stand between his grandmother and me. I watched as he put on a little act. He looked at his greasy hands, reached for the tablecloth and decided not to wipe his hands there, reached toward the roll of paper towels and pulled back, deciding not to wipe his hands there, and then a look of pleasure came into his eyes, and he rubbed his dripping fingers down my bare arm.
"Nico!" his grandmother said in an indulgent tone. And that was that. No correction, no "I'm sorry, let me help you." I was on my own to deal with it.
That was the story in this Catalan household. The kids treated me, the maid, the office staff that worked with their mother--all of us--as the most contemptible vermin in the world. One day Nico went so far as to gather spit in his three-year-old mouth, getting ready to launch it at me. I tapped his cheek with a "No!" and moved out of range.
The boys were raised to never say no to any option. Jump from dining room table to sofa to floor. Fine. Handle a brand new camera with greasy fingers. That’s okay. Dump out every box of Legos. Fine. The maid will pick it up. Nothing was off limits. “No” was never said to them. I saw the results.
The boys were a nightmare. Feral. Mean to me and devilish mean to each other. I knew deep in my gut that the parents did not see any problem with their beloved children and would never correct them or support me.
I was sad for the boys, to grow up looking at everyone, even their own brothers, through lenses of contempt.
I felt sad for myself, having to deal with a steady flow of disrespect from each boy. I tried to find ways to teach them to respect me. I was on Skype almost nightly with friends who had been teachers in the States, asking for advice, for a technique, for some way to swim in this sea of contempt. I asked new friends in Barcelona what to do.
Los niños en Espagna respetan nada,” was their answer. It was country-wide. I saw it for myself at the playground, among the boys’ friends.
I felt sad for all these kids, for their grandparents, for Spain. How can a child learn from anyone he doesn’t respect? What kind of employees could they be if they had no respect for those in authority? What kind of old age would the grandparents have as the object of scorn from feral grandchildren? These kids – this nation – were at an incredible disadvantage, unable to learn from teachers or elders of any sort.

 But I Continued In Search of the American Dream

I escaped from the boys every morning at nine when I dropped them off at school. I wrote all day long on the terrace of the house. This was why I persevered – because I got room and board free and could write full-time in exchange for being exposed to these awful human beings for no more than five hours a day. I would pick them up at six from school with dread. But Saturdays and Sundays I was free! So I explored Barcelona. It’s an amazing city. You must go.

Just avoid Spanish children.

The roof of the colonnade at the 14th century hospital, now the Biblioteca de Catalunya.

The courtyard outside the library.

A mysterious door in the wall of the library. What sorts of things happened behind it since the 1400s?

The stairs up to the library's door. I was robbed on these stairs, but that's a story for another day.

The vaulted stone and wood ceiling of the library. This is the juncture of two wings. I wrote and edited big chunks of The Paris Writers Circle under this beautiful ceiling. The milieu of the library inspired me. How about you? Been to Barcelona? Want to go? Love inspiring spaces? Comment below!