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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The Truth About Living Abroad

Estanque del Retiro

El Parque del Retiro.

I’ve been struggling with the fact that I live in Madrid.

I don’t mean “struggle” in the negative, how-can-I-go-on sense of the word, but in the sense that I can’t quite believe I’m here. Even though I’ve been here for two months already, I still oscillate between random moments of Spain-fueled elation and a deepening sense of normalcy.

I realized the other day that I’ve been boxing the majority of my Spanish activities and purchases into this strange new “temporary” category of my life. Things you might typically hear me say include:

  • “I’m not going to buy that because I can’t take it home in June.” (I’ve never been on a sadder trip to Ikea.)
  • “I’ll just wait to replace my laptop battery until I go back to the States.” (My battery recently took a turn for the worse and now has less energy than Lana del Rey.)
  • “I don’t need to get a coffee maker. I can survive on green tea.” (Hahaha who am I?)

Over the past two weeks, though, it’s dawned on me that maybe my life in Spain isn’t so temporary after all. I’ve started purchasing scented candles and tacking up posters with reckless abandon. I even bought a throw pillow. (Talk about putting down roots.)

My newfound sense of permanence made me start thinking about what it means to live abroad. It’s a fact that my days in Spain are numbered — I have a job contract and a visa to prove it —  and I know I want to make the most of my time here. But it’s hard for me to decide what I’m supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis. Is it okay to stay in and read a book on a Friday night, or is that “not taking advantage” of my time in Spain? Should I instead dedicate my free hours toward the quintessential expat quest for new tastes, new sights, and new sounds?

The bare-bones truth (drumroll, please) is that I’m doing many of the same things I’d be doing back home, just in a foreign country. Whether that’s what I’m supposed to be doing or not.

Which brings me to my first point:

It’s not all tapas and siestas, kids.

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“Teaching” English in a Spanish Elementary School

Gleeful shouts fill the air. Erasers go flying across the room in not-so-graceful arcs. Two girls build crayon towers with wild abandon. A small boy uses his pencil case to bludgeon another boy in the head. Entire classes surround their hapless English assistants (ahem, me) from all sides in the form of one massive, sweaty hug.*

Welcome (or should I say bienvenidos?) to a typical class period at my Spanish school. Let me say that again: Not play time. Not recess. Class period. 

Sheep vs. Car

Real photo of me trying to walk through the hallways at school. (Spoiler alert: I am the car.)

Spanish primary schools just might be insanity incarnate. The reason is simple: The teachers rarely discipline anyone. Few kids raise their hands unless prompted. They get up and walk around the classroom without asking permission. One of my 2nd-graders actually pulled a wheeled drawer out of a bookcase during a lesson and proceeded to roll around in it, scooter-style.

It’s all been a little overwhelming, to say the least.

I work primarily with 1st- and 2nd-graders, although I have a couple classes each week with 3rd- and 5th-graders. The kids themselves are pretty cute, which, in the most trying times, is their only redeeming quality; that and the fact they’re all really excited to have classes with me and the other auxiliares. They’re really curious about us, and the best questions/comments I’ve received include:

  • “Do you have a son?”
  • “Are you Spanish?” (Hah hah hah really, kids?)
  • “Do you like One Direction?”
  • “Did you know that when you stab a wasp in the eye, his eye juice comes out?” (This one was asked in Spanish, with “eye juice” being “zumo del ojo.” I couldn’t help but laugh at that one.)
  • “Do you have a boyfriend?”
  • “Do you eat cheeseburgers every day in America?” (I think Europeans sincerely think this sometimes. Then again, I really struggle to tell anyone what a “typical” American meal looks like since we’ve borrowed food from so many cultures.)
  • And, my all-time favorite: “Do you like your life?”

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The Concise Spain Survival Guide

Guide to living in Spain, Spain Survival Guide
Spain Lesson 1:

Even though you purchased them, you cannot take glass water bottles with you.  Everyone will get mad.

That’s right, folks. Not only do you have to pay €2-3 for your bottle of water, but you have to give the bottle back. This is precisely why I always order wine.

Spain Lesson 2:

Cheap restaurants like 100 Montaditos, Lizarrán, and La Sureña are the poor man’s (or woman’s) friend. Want to drink a huge mug of tinto de verano for €1.50? (Or €1 on Wednesdays/Sundays?) 100 Montaditos is your place. Want to get 5 bottles of beer for €3? Go to La Sureña.

You can even get Chipotle-style burritos at Tierra Burrito Bar (pictured below; metros Alonso Martínez and Guzmán el Bueno) for a reasonable €6.

I like to eat, so I really like this about Madrid.

Spain Lesson 3:

All fruit you wish to purchase must be weighed by the Official Fruit-Weigher. They don’t always have scales at the cash registers, so the fruit-buying process looks like this:

  • Step 1: Put on the plastic gloves that are provided for you. (You’ll know to do this because there are 30 million “POR FAVOR, USAD LAS GUANTES” signs everywhere.)
  • Step 2: Pick out the fruit/vegetables you want and put them in separate bags.
  • Step 3: Bring all fruit/vegetables to the Official Fruit-Weigher. He’ll weigh them and put a barcode sticker on each bag.
  • Step 4: Walk away with your produce.
  • Step 5: Congratulate yourself because you know how to do yet another Spain thing.

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Getting to Know Madrid

Olivia Young in Spain

On a sunny street in Ronda, Spain.

“¡Chicas! ¡Perdona! ¡CHICAAAAAAS!”

We turned, ready to fend off yet another “Compro Oro” guy or an especially aggressive club promoter. I discovered instead a flustered, apron-clad barista hurtling down the street in our general direction, screaming as loudly as she could.

Once she caught up to us, she explained that we’d committed an unforgivable offense: We’d left the café with our half-full (glass) water bottles and carried them into the street. (“Es que esto no se puede hacer! Lo siento chicas!”)

I told her we’d give them back, but we wanted to drink the water first. (I also gave her a little culture lesson about how, in the U.S., when you order anything at a restaurant it’s basically yours to keep. Just so she knew where the confusion came from.) She was surprisingly nice and waited patiently for us to chug the water. After a few more lo sientos, we returned the bottles and went our separate ways.

I’ve been in Spain for two weeks now, and, like the Great Bottle Misunderstanding of 2013, it all feels a bit surreal. The time has gone both extremely fast and incredibly slow; most days I’m so busy that I can’t process the fact that this is my life now. I have to consciously run through the facts to really feel the gravity of the changes I’m going through: I live here. I have an apartment. I have a metro pass. I have a Spanish cell phone. I even have Spanish shampoo and conditioner. (Okay, it’s Garnier, but the label is in Spanish.)

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Notes on Moving to Spain from 19-Year-Old Olivia

Journal Photo Blog

Sorry for my long absence, everyone. I honestly haven’t had much to write about, and I’m not convinced the world needs another “10 Things I’m Excited to Do in Spain” list. Not that there’s anything wrong with them — rest assured I’ve read every single “goals for Spain” post I can find. Also, my list would have a lot to do with eating jamón and manchego for every meal, so it wouldn’t be anything new. (Joke.)

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve mostly been preparing for my move to Madrid. I’ve practiced packing, and I bought a new RyanAir-friendly backpack. I’ve also been cleaning my room. One of the many struggles of moving back home is trying to fit all your “grown-up life” stuff into your old space. I’m a neat person by nature, so I can’t live (at least, not happily) in a messy space for long. I’ve been trying to downsize by donating old clothes and cleaning out drawers, but it seems like a never-ending task I have to do every. single. time. I come home.

On the bright side, I sometimes stumble across really funny things from middle school and high school. A box of notes from old friends (remember when we used to pass notes?), a short story I wrote in 9th grade, awards and trophies that once meant something. It’s all there — fragments of my painfully awkward child- and teenage-hood, buried in the forgotten corners of my room.

It was on one of my cleaning sprees that I unearthed my Alicante journal. And I’m going to share it with you.

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On Moving to Madrid

The last time I flew to Spain, I was convinced I was going to die.

Plaza Mayor

Madrid’s famous Plaza Mayor.

I was traveling alone, sitting in a surprisingly spacious bulkhead seat. (The bulkhead, by the way, is la puta madre and the best way to cheat airlines on their “extra leg room” fees. Always pick the bulkhead. Just do it.)

The time: January 2011. 12:30 a.m. ET

The place: A sketchy US Airways Airbus with seats that were only slightly more comfortable than stepping on a Lego.

I was “sleeping,” a.k.a. panicking about moving to a foreign country armed only with my rusty Spanish skills and a couple of those touristy/pickpocket-proof money belts. Suddenly, the entire plane dropped and started jerking to the right and left. I’ve never experienced such severe turbulence in all my years of flying.

All the sleeping passengers woke up in a flurry of Dios mío-s and expletives in 5 different languages. My travel pillow went flying, but that seemed like a minor detail; I’d seen enough plane crash movie scenes to know what was next. We were going to nosedive into the ocean and I’d be forced to befriend a volleyball and knock out my teeth with an ice skate, Castaway-style. If I survived, that is.

I was white-knuckling the metal armrests while my Spanish row-mate tried to comfort me. Despite his kind efforts, a.k.a. blatant lies (“This happens all the time, no te preocupes”), all I could think was “Well. I’m finally going to Spain, and I’m going to die. Figures.”

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