Spring in Amsterdam

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Amsterdam, Netherlands

This post is a long time coming. So long, in fact, that it’s almost like when you hide money for yourself, but forget you hid it and find it again three months later. Which makes it more exciting, right?

At the end of March, Lauren and I spent a weekend in Amsterdam. It was a rainy and chilly most of the weekend, but I fell in love anyway. The city is young, vibrant, modern and full of life. It’s full of artsy shops, interesting restaurants and beautiful museums. And I’ve never seen a city that’s so bike-friendly, although joining that biking throng ourselves was a bit nerve-wracking. (Trams + cars + pedestrians + other cyclists = a lot to navigate. I banshee-screamed through intersections more than once.)

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How could you not love it here?

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Me and my yellow bike.

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Return to the Motherland

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Madrid’s Plaza Mayor.

Looks like I’ve officially joined the masses of sporadic bloggers. We should all form a sorry-guys-but-life-is-just-crazy-right-now society or something. We can sit around at Starbucks in our yoga pants. It will be rad.

Anyway, I have a good excuse. (I swear!) I just got back to the U.S. on the 11th, so I’ve been overcoming jet lag/unpacking/going through weird reverse culture shock since then. Things that have surprised me include:

  • One-dollar bills are really bulky. The other day I thought I had $20, but I really just had 6 one-dollar bills. I have a new appreciation for the Sacagawea dollar coins.
  • Toilets flush via a handle on the side. In most of Europe, there’s a button on top of the tank or a plunger that you pull up. For some reason that was really confusing to me for the first week home.
  • We have to drive everywhere.
  • Grocery stores. Our grocery stores are huge and have an enormous selection of items. I missed that.
  • Free water. I’m consistently surprised by those random glasses of water that appear on the table. “Is that really mine?” I whisper, eyes gleaming at such a beautiful sight.
  • Everyone understands everything I say. It’s funny, but I have a hard time talking to people when I buy things or order food. I spoke the majority of my Spanish that way, and it’s really unnerving that people here understand me with such clarity. (On that note, I can no longer use English as a secret language.)
  • A beer at a restaurant costs at least $4. Thank goodness I have all those dollar bills.

Overall, though, it’s been good to be home. I was sort of gloomy and unhappy for the first few days, especially since I didn’t really have much to do and was waking up at 6 a.m. every day. I don’t do very well without some sort of life plan, so I’ve shed a few frustrated tears and indulged in my fair share of emotional eating. I spent the first couple days here cleaning my room and purging all my old clothes to make room for my two 50-pound suitcases.

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The 10 Commandments of Apartment Hunting in Spain

Gorgeous illustration of Madrid's barrios by Helena Ecija. See more of her work here.

Gorgeous illustration of Madrid’s barrios by Helena Ecija. Original photo and more of her work here.

I once spent a summer combing through apartment listing websites. Those were a simpler times, when a grainy photo of a terraza or the phrase “gastos incluidos” was enough to get my heart racing. My research quickly turned into an obsession. My friends nearly staged an intervention.

I’d been sending out general interest emails since June, which was completely fruitless. Rooms move so quickly here that I typically received responses to the effect of “Sorry, the room has been taken,” or “Move-in in October? We’re looking for someone for next week.” In fact, 80% of my emails went unanswered.

Compared with a few of my friends, who spent about two weeks in hotels and Airbnbs before they found rooms, my apartment hunt in Madrid was relatively painless. I owe about 70% of that to my trusty planning skills and 30% of that to luck. I arrived in Madrid on a Friday and had three apartment visits scheduled for that afternoon/evening. We had two more the next day, and one on Sunday.

I visited my current apartment on my first day in Spain. We returned the next day to meet the two housemates, and, after an hour-long chat with the girls, I called the landlady to rent the rooms. By Sunday I was settled in my new piso. I’ve spent 10 happy months in my apartment. We’ve had relatively few roommate issues (see number 6) and my neighborhood is perfect for me (see number 5). We have a huge terraza, a large living room, central heat, and two bathrooms. See, you can have it all!

This process can be really stressful, so I’ve put together some tips on finding an apartment. Without further ado, I give you the 10 Commandments of Apartment-Hunting in Spain.

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What’s Keeping Me Up At Night

And here we are, in June. It’s part of the block-lettered expiration date on my Spanish residency card, yet I somehow never thought it would arrive — it always seemed like some distant, intangible construct of time. In Madrid, its arrival has been quiet and understated, marked by warm breezes and long, sunny days. Madrileños and tourists alike are flocking to the city’s countless terraces and plazas, making each barrio hum with laughter and clinking glasses. Summer is here, and everything is as it should be. Except for my growing feelings of indecision and doubt.

I’ve been keeping my plans quiet because I’m still not sure what they are, but here goes: at the last minute, I decided to renew my position here in Madrid. I adore this city, thanks to its endless supply of museums, restaurants, nightlife, terrazas, and concerts. I love speaking Spanish, and I’ve made some wonderful friends from all over the world.

That said, I don’t think I’m coming back. Why, dear readers?

For the past seven months, I spent nearly six hours a week repeating 50 basic questions to hordes of second-graders. The goal was to prepare them for the notorious Trinity exam, but most of them only memorized the questions and the proper responses since the teacher never taught them what the questions meant in the first place.

I work with teachers who constantly tell me they haven’t planned anything, and that’s okay because we can just look at the book right now. The other day, one English teacher told me that she doesn’t like English. Nay, it goes further: she wishes everyone in the world spoke one language because it’s “inconvenient to learn other languages.”

And then there are the kids themselves, many of whom are so talkative and disrespectful that I can’t teach them anything. I’m forced to spend half the class period trying to keep them quiet while the teacher sits on the computer or leaves the room entirely.

Don’t get me wrong, some of my classes are good. Fun, even. (Read: Only my classes with teachers who prepare coursework and control the students’ behavior fall into this category.) I adore all of the first-graders, most of the second- and third-graders, and even a few of the fifth-graders. Sometimes we do special projects or help with holidays, which is usually a good time. But the teachers I work most closely with are so frustrating that I’m not sure I could handle another year.

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Small Curiosities of Everyday Life in Spain

Persianas in Spain

Persianas, the typical Spanish blinds. Source.

They aren’t necessarily good, and they aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just curious.

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What are these big metal things outside my window? Storm shutters? No, friends, those are persianas, the typical Spanish metal blinds that double as blackout shades. They’re in almost every home, apartment and building, including my school.

Want to protect your window from wind and weather? Lower the persianas. Want to block out all sunlight as you regret the previous night’s activities/eat chips in your bed? Persianas are your new best friend.

I’m personally not a huge fan of them — they make the room too dark for my taste. However, almost all my neighbors put them down at night. Either they’re afraid of people peeking in, or they really, really hate being woken up by the sun. I would sleep till 12 if I used my persianas, but hey, everyone’s different. And you really can’t beat them for blocking out that notorious Spanish sun and heat, which is going to be very important come June.

Side note: The rattle of persianas being raised in the morning is, oddly, a sound that will always remind me of Spain.

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“Vamos de Excursión!” or, How to Make the Auxiliar Lose Her Mind

La Mujer Gigante, Parque de Europa

La Mujer Gigante in all her 1970s animatronic glory.

A couple of weeks ago, our jefa de estudios asked me if I wanted to join the 1st and 2nd grade classes on their field trip. “Of course!” I beamed: all the other auxiliares had been on field trips before, and I’d been not-so-patiently waiting my turn for months. That Friday was my chance.

No one actually told me where we were going, so I sought out the word on the street. Or rather, word on the patio, the fenced-in and paved area that serves as their playground. The first graders successfully told me we’d be visiting La Mujer Gigante (The Giant Woman). “It’s an attractions park!” one of them gleefully shouted at me.

“Okay, so I’m going to an amusement park named after a giant woman,” I thought. After interrogating a few more children, I finally turned to a more reliable source. Paloma, one of the teachers, explained that La Mujer Gigante is actually a giant model of the human body. We’d be able to go inside of her (questionable) and learn about the internal processes that keep us all running. After our visit, we’d walk around the park that houses La Mujer Gigante, the Parque de Europa, famous for its scale replicas of famous European monuments.

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Chocolate & Cheese in Geneva, Switzerland

Geneva, Switzerland.

At the end of November, Lauren and I caught an early morning Cercanías train to Barajas for our first out-of-country trip. Our destination? Switzerland, the land of cheese and chocolate.

We spent three days in Geneva, a beautiful town packed with the history, scenery, and delicious cuisine of a larger city. We chose to go to Geneva rather than the more popular Zurich because the flights from Madrid are so cheap (they almost always hover around €60 or €70).

And we weren’t disappointed. We spent a relaxing weekend taking in the mountain views and eating our weight in any and every kind of food Geneva had to offer. Although it was cold the entire weekend, thanks to the freezing wind coming off the mountains, we got by thanks to frequent breaks to enjoy cafés au laît and chocolate chaud. We drank wine, we ate truffles, and dipped our way through multiple pots of fondue.

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