What Story to Tell

When people ask to “tell me about your time in Spain,” what they are really asking is for a story. They want to hear a great story that puts them in the front seat of the sights, sounds, successes, failures, and above all the story that I went through myself. What I typically tend to do is present a bunch of jumbled up facts that don’t amount to much of a plot. But since my aim  is to be a story marketer,  I know that I need to obey the laws of “story.”

First of all, if I am in an interview, I am going to choose from the 7 basic story forms one that will be both appropriate, and put the great confusion of this time into a manageable framework. So, let’s walk down the list:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
    Yeah, there were monsters to overcome, especially Spanish bureaucrats, but that wasn’t the overall picture of what I was accomplishing. There was no major resolution after the monster was overcome.
  2. Rags to Riches
    This would work if I had gotten rich or had decided to make a life in Spain. It might be the story later, after I go from making near nothing to earning well.
  3. The Quest
    I didn’t have any particular quest in mind, except perhaps self-discovery and to help create a greater society in America by bringing back with me what makes Spain a great place (and leaving the bureaucrats here). Possible.
  4. Voyage and Return
    This is the land of Robinson Crusoe – a strong possibility. This is the voyage that always had the plan of return, and self-knowledge is gained and the disorder in the world is resolved as a result of the voyage. Let’s see.
  5. Comedy
    This is where things that are normalized become chaotic, but eventually become righted again at the very end. This righting is usually the result of some self discovery or some self-knowledge. This is another strong possibility.
  6. Tragedy
    There has been some tragedy while here, but that isn’t the main arc of my time in Spain, nor do I think it’s a particularly appealing plot device for an interview. Skip.
  7. Rebirth
    I certainly have undergone renewal, and would say I am a different, more confident man at the end of this experience, but I didn’t have to sacrifice myself at any point. There is no willing giving up of self in order to have a new life in a new way. Skip this for now too.

So, that brings us down to two strongest options, Voyage and Return and Comedy.

To decide on this, I am going to go for what I think an interviewer wants to hear in particular, “why do you want to work for our company?” This means that making the plot point of “self discovery” to be the key moment (no matter where it falls in the plot), is essential. Therefore, the choice is simple: the story I tell to an interviewer should be a comedy since its form has a stronger connection to this self discovery moment.

Okay, one other thing, how does my “comedy” plot fit into the story marketing framework? If the client asks me the questions, how does that help the client be the hero? Well, keeping in mind that my job is to be more master Yoda and less Luke Skywalker, so I need to give my credentials.Even Yoda says, “For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi.”

Therefore, the story needs to give credibility for who I am and what I can offer.

Alright, this week, I’m going to try and tell my story of my time in Spain as a comedy. I’m gonna make it short, and try and tell it 5 different ways, all using the comedy framework. That’s my promise to you!







St. Anthony and the Lost Wallet

As an American Catholic I rely on St. Anthony to help me find things. Incidentally, Spanish Catholics don’t rely on St. Anthony to find lost stuff, rather to find a boyfriend or girlfriend–go team! But on rare occasion it happens, and I will lose something, and in this instance it was my wallet.

Trying to get things put back together and get some excercise, I sheepishly walked up to the front desk of the gym and I explained to her that I needed to get a new card, because I had lost my wallet. She said she would give me a temporary card, and asked if I wanted to wait a few days before she made me a new one. I was reluctant because I really just wanted the problem to be solved, but I gave in. It had been only 48 hours since my wallet had gone missing, but I was still a bit stressed from not having it. However, something in her voice told me that things would probably be okay.

Another day passed, and by then I had asked for new cards from my banks, health cards but I was still stressed that I would have to return to the Spanish department of foreigners, the “extranjería.” If you thought it was hard to go to the DMV to get a drivers’ license replaced, imagine going to a soviet bunker where the haircuts are as bad as the service. Questions are answered awkwardly, and the amount of paperwork is staggering. Everything must be in triplicate, your entire passport must be scanned, and you will walk out likely trembling because of the adrenal rush and stress hormones flowing through your system. I was not looking forward to returning to that diabolical place.

I called the office for lost articles for the city bus, the police station that handled lost items, and nothing was found. They both took my name and number in case a wallet with that documentation showed up, but, as I have come to learn, I never expect calls back. Another day passed, and I learned that there would be another hoop to go through if I were to go to the extranjería, I would have to first go to the Police and make an official report that I lost my wallet. As if my own humiliation wasn’t enough, I would have to tell the police “uhh…yeah…so it fell out of my pocket…” and receive an official piece of paper, called a “denuncio” clarifying the full extent of my stupidity so that I could go back to the extranjería.

Something must be added to the extranjería horror. You don´t go just once, you always go twice. The first time, you ask for information, and you get a report that details all of the documentation that you need, whether it needs to be original or a copy, and how many copies that you will need (only the original, original and copy, original and two copies). But wait, it gets worse. Then you have to come back after you have all the information and documents, and your information is excruciatingly reviewed by a functionary (government worker) who delights in making sure every single bit of information is filled out. They will probably go check with their boss to confirm that all is in order. Then you are required to pay a fee. But you cannot use a card or cash. Instead you must go to a bank (the closest being about 8 blocks away) and ask them to give you an official receipt and copy after they take some of your cash–it’s kind of like a money order…kind of. If you don´t have an account with that particular bank, then you are welcome to pay a €6 fee for each item. You scurry back to the office, and walk up to the functionary’s desk, awkwardly interrupting the person they are currently helping. Then you are told to wait for four weeks and (I’m not making this up), then call ahead to be sure that your card is ready. Oh, and you can only come in the afternoons from Monday – Wednesday or Friday (so not Thursday), to pick it up. When you come to pick it up, you will be finger printed again, and finally have your ID.

If you complain about going to the DMV, may I suggest that you have comparatively nothing to complain about.

Back to the police station. I show up and realize there is a queue of people waiting to do the same, so I felt slightly less embarrassed. I sat down with the nice police officer and I said I was here to do a denuncio because I lost my wallet. She looked at me and said to wait, because she thought that they might have it! She zipped to a back office and brought it back me, saying “Alan Nelson, verdad?” I had never been so grateful. Not only that, all the documents were there, and everything was in its right place.

It’s amazing how it got there. The officer said that it probably just arrived that morning, but that it had passed through two other busses, an office at the transit department, one other police office and finally there.

I immediately started giving thanks to St. Anthony, and remained grateful for the little city of Pamplona and Spain in general. Even though the extranjería is a small taste of purgatory, the fact is that Pamplona is such a rarity in that all of my information and wallet was returned to me. The people were honest, and did the right thing. It is a society that is built on trust, and even if the paperwork can be infuriating at times, the hearts of the people make it a truly marvelous place to be, making miracles like the return of my wallet actually happen regularly. The woman at the front desk of the gym was right, it did turn up! And she could comfortably trust that enough people would do the right thing enough times that it was probable that my wallet would turn up.

There are no small miracles. It’s just that when we are no longer in control, we start to look for them.








Spanish Manners: Sobremesa

When is the last time where you sat down at a meal and really enjoyed a nice, long conversation afterwards? Where did you last sit for what seemed like minutes but was actually hours? Where did the hospitality and wine flow but never made you drunk?

The Spanish “Sobremesa” is a term used to describe what happens when this occurs. It literally means “over the table” and it is when you are having you desert, coffee, digestifs that have you spinning for hours in conversation. Now, it’s not possible every week, but on special occasions and Sundays, even Saturdays too, it’s a phenomenon that happens when we sit down to make time.

As an American family with a toddler this almost never happens unless we have guests. Somehow, when we have guests, we are able to slow down a little bit more and relax. We are able to bring out our best, and in turn, able to slow down and focus on the other.

This is the strange lesson of hospitality, it’s a lot harder to enjoy yourself if you are not able to serve others.

Now, part of the Spanish meal structure makes this possible. Below is the fullest description of a Spanish Sunday lunch that I have found, and the term for this is a “completo” or complete meal.

Soup: This is just a little soup to warm you up in the winter or cool you off in the summer (Gazpacho).

Aperitivos: These can be cheese, nuts, pintxos (tapas), little bits of food the tide you over until the meal begins.

Primeros: Can be warm or cold, but we wait for everyone in order to begin with the primeros. These can be a salad, a soup, stew, or the like but usually emphasize vegetables more than meat.

Segundos: These are meat or fish dishes that usually compliment the segundos. Unlike the primeros, people begin eating the segundos as soon as they are served so that they do not get cold. We always stress this fact so no one feels uncomfortable to begin eating.

<Here  is where the “sobremesa begins”>

Postres: This is of course, dessert. But this dessert might consist of something significantly more healthy than we typically think of, meaning fruit, yogurts or cheese. It can also include more decadent delicious things.

Coffee: Coffee is never served until after the dessert in Spain. I have actually come to agree with the Spanish on this point except in some cases with chocolate cakes and such.

Chupito: A digestif that helps with digestion and finishes the meal.

Cigars/Pipes: This is no longer done typically, but if someone smokes, they smoke here.

The “sobremesa” ends only when people are ready to end the meal, and there is never any rush.

It’s a long process, but compared with the any number of different options that one might have to work, organize or television shows to watch, this investment in people seems a lot more worthwhile than any other.






Maribél the Fish Monger

I recently made a resolution to slow down and to pay attention to the sights, sounds, smells and people around me. And I am so glad I did.

It’s Lent so for us that means more frequent trips to the fish market. I usually look around at the various fish offerings, but I am always attracted to one stand in particular, usually on account of their tremendous display of  monkfish and other critters from the Cantabrian coast.

Although I had things to do, I told Maribél (featured here, and holding one of these creepy monkfish) that we were leaving Spain. She was very sad to hear the news and we were talking for a good 10 minutes about various topics related to this, primarily the goodness of what lies ahead and what the opportunity to be close to family. We both understood each other perfectly well when we realized that not having Spanish nationality and living in Spain complicates things a lot, not just with the mass of paperwork that is needed, but also with the future opportunities that not having nationality prohibits.

Maribél and a Monkfish!

Maribél herself is from the Dominican Republic and married to a Spanish man. She has been working at the fish shop for a good 3 years.

Eventually she asked what kind of fish I might want and I found some “carrilleras de bacalao,” basically cod cheeks — very tender! I asked her if she might have a recommendation on how to cook them and her eyes lit up. She told me a good length how to make them with a green sauce, including how to make the fish stock that would be used to add additional flavor.

She then asked if I had fish stock at home, (This is Spain, so it’s possible I might have) and I said that I didn’t. She told me to hang on a minute. She ran and grabbed a big fish head and started taking the giant clever and splitting it in two. She was getting me the fixings for the fish stock without me even asking! Then she offered me a huge bunch of fresh parsley to make the green sauce. This plus the 1.5 lbs of fish came to a measly €7,32. I don’t know if I have ever been so excited to boil fish heads in a pot, but that Friday I was.

We said goodbye over more conversation, and she confirmed when I was leaving, but of course, I said I would be back many times before we left and would be visiting soon. She insisted that I come back to visit when we did visit Pamplona next.

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads…

I had spent the last 5 days or so trying to figure out what it was that I had done to deserve such undivided, personal attention. What was it about this fish shop that allowed them to both stay in business and also provide this kind of service. A friend recently told me the exact reason, it was because I had offered her the personal gift of my time, my interest and my ears. I had been genuinely open to a human connection with this person, one that could have been fishy but ended up with a delicious meal (don’t worry the recipe is below).

When we have the opportunity to work with anyone, the genuine interest and openness that we offer them is both immediately apparent and also obvious. Otherwise we fall into the take-a-number service that we are so tired of as a culture and as a nation. This does cost us something, though, it costs us time. We think that time owns us so much of the time, when the fact is that there is always enough time for everything. It is in our own minds that we do not have enough time. It is this slavery to the clock that prevents our ability to engage each other in meaningful relationship and dialogue, and as one of Germanic and British origin I am more guilty of this than anyone.

Take time this week to be present to the sights, smells and the people around you. Look for the gifts of people’s time and attention that many freely offer, and do not turn down one of these valuable opportunities. That will lead to greater inspiration and creativity in your own life and in those around you.

Alright here is the recipe for Maribél’s Carrilleras de Bacalao


  • 1.5 lbs of cod cheeks (serves 4)
  • 1 small-medium onion
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 bunch of fresh parsley
  • 1/3 cup white wine.
  • 1 tbsp corn starch or 2 tbsp tapioca flour (arrowroot can also work)
  • Oil, salt, pepper, water, etc.


  1. Get some nasty bits of fish (head, spine, etc) that the fishmonger would otherwise throw away. Make sure to get a head and have him or her cut it in half (or do it yourself). Set this to a boil in a pan, and just cover with water, you wont need much. Let this lightly boil for 45 minutes.
  2. Salt and pepper the cod cheeks and set aside.
  3. In a large pot, take a diced onion and begin to carmelize (i.e. add salt) in about 3 tbsp of oil.
  4. Meanwhile, mince fresh parsley (must be fresh) to get 1/4 cup finely chopped.
  5. As the onion starts to turn brown, add a diced garlic.
  6. Make sure the fish stock is ready, then add the tappioca flour and allow it to bubble for a few seconds.
  7. Add the white wine to deglaze the pan. Don’t let it all evaporate.
  8. Add the parsley and stir it in. Allow the mixture to heat up and start to thicken a bit.
  9. Add the cod cheeks and let them sear just slightly (1 minute) then add enough fish stock just to cover the surface of the cheeks. Do not use too much!!!
  10. Allow to simmer for 30 minutes, then serve! Add a bit more fresh parsley as a garnish / for presentation.
Here is an excellent example of the consistency of sauce you should be aiming for. Note this isn’t carilleras but other parts of the cod and mussels in this picture.
Here is mine, I used a bit too muchstock and parsley so it looks a bit soupy.

















Permission to have Gratitude

After revisiting Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing, I realized that the need for “permission” does not extend only to marketing but also a whole host of other interactions that we have on a daily basis. Marketing is perhaps the most important with respect to our wallets or profitability but even more important is the way in which we cultivate our communities, the way we develop our own social relationships, the way we spend our money, the way we organize our communities.

The core concept of Permission Marketing is that if we are merely interrupting someone and not offering something of value then we have essentially spammed them. However, once we have permission we have the holy grail of marketing “frequency,” that is, the opportunity to send repeated messages to another person that are expected, valued, and to earn higher and higher levels of permission with them.


However, I want to turn permission on its head for just a moment. Think about all the ways that others have given us permission, and think about the gratitude that this can inspire. For example, we walk into a restaurant and we have permission to sit down at a table, to use the bathrooms, to be served. We have permission to go to a coffee shop and read the news or have a conversation. We have permission to practice our faith to the fullest extent. We have permission to start a business that is for the good of society. We have permission to pursue our dreams, to get an education and to build a family.

Yes, each of these permissions is given for the sake of a relationship. We go to the restaurant to be served and we in exchange pay for what we order, we keep the bathroom clean, we treat the ladies and gentlemen with respect and courtesy. We have an ongoing relationship with the business or person. Sure it isn’t super deep, but at some point maybe we become a regular, maybe our picture winds up on the wall of fame, maybe we get to know the owner and each of the waiters.

Yet so many people still may abuse the privilege of going into a restaurant and abuse the relationship that they have with the restaurant, which begs the question of why people choose to squander this chance?

I’m not always sure in every situation, but I know one thing that is lacking is gratitude: gratitude for the permission given and for the value of the other, gratitude for the relationship. In order to make a “permission economy” working well, we must first practice of gratitude in our own lives. Without gratitude for the restaurant and their bathroom, trash is too easily thrown on the floor, and water is too often left splashed around the sink. Without gratitude for the customer, they are too quickly treated like a commodity, they are seen as replaceable, and there is higher wait staff turn over.

If we don’t begin entering into permission relationships with gratitude, then we will quickly squander what we have been given.