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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Belgium in Photos: Brussels, Bruges & Ghent

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Vibrant buildings in Bruges’ Markt, or Market Square.

In March, I visited Brussels, Bruges and Ghent with my mom, step-dad and sister. The beer was amazing, the food was delicious, and the architecture was beautiful. We ate Belgian waffles, toted around cones of frites, and enjoyed practicing both our French and Dutch. We learned Belgium is split into Dutch-speaking and French-speaking areas. Brussels, as the capital, is considered a “neutral” zone, where both languages are spoken. (For example, police officers in Brussels always work in pairs: One must be a French-speaker and the other must be a Dutch-speaker.)

While the weather was chilly and rainy, we loved our visit — Bruges especially. Here are some of my favorite photos from our trip.

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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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November in Review

I swooned. He gave me two guitar picks. Everything was wonderful.

The Tallest Man on Earth: I swooned. He gave me two guitar picks. Everything was wonderful.

I’ve been trying to avoid writing one of these “Sorry for not blogging, this is everything I’ve done in the past month!” posts, but November really got away from me. I had good intentions and thought I’d be able to get individual posts down about each respective activity, but I just don’t think I’ll have time. So this will have to do. (Besides, I know you’re all just dying for information.)

Here’s how I spent November in Spain:

I went to concerts.

The National: Cara loves the National, so when we heard they were playing the Palacio Vistalegre in Madrid, we decided to buy tickets. They were €50, which was a bit on the expensive side, but the show was incredible and worth every céntimo — even for a new fan like me. They had amazing energy and we had fun the entire time.

Daughter: I bought tickets to see Daughter way back in August, and I almost forgot about them. Thankfully I didn’t, because their show was amazing, too. They’re a British band who just released their first full-length album this fall. The concert was pretty low-key, but the music was gorgeous. As a bonus, we were also able to get pretty close to the stage, although I have no photo evidence because my Spanish phone has the worst camera I’ve ever seen.

The Tallest Man on Earth: This was definitely my favorite show of the three, and also one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. My slightly corny story about The Tallest Man on Earth is that I started listening to him when I was studying abroad, so I really liked that I got to finally see him live now that I’m back in Spain. I’m a big nerd and know almost every word to every song.

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The Problem(s) with my Spanish Bilingual School

This is actually a typical conversation you might have with one of my students.

This is actually a typical conversation you might have with one of my students.

I’ve been debating whether or not to write this post  — especially because I’m not sure I’m “qualified” to write it. But then again, I’m not qualified to be a teacher and here I am. My intent for this post is not to blindly criticize, but to provide a comparison and critique of and/or have a venting sesh about the illogical classroom practices I see every day.

I understand that this is a different country and a different system, but I’m frustrated. And I want to talk about it.

I’d like to present a few disclaimers/basic facts before I start:

  • I’m not an expert on this system. If you disagree or if you have any other insights I’ve missed, please post them in the comments. I’m always open to a friendly discussion.
  • Yes, I’m American and, yes, I know our school system has plenty of problems of its own. I’m not writing this because I want to sit around and say “Our system is the best. The end. Amurica.” Because, while I did have a great public school education, there’s so much reform and work to be done, especially in our schools with less resources.
  • There are bad teachers everywhere. I recognize that. In high school I had an economics teacher who literally read the newspaper while we did worksheets or copied the textbook. One time we watched Bee Movie, because supply and demand of honey I guess. (?) We all suffered and, needless to say, I learned very little about economics. I did learn, however, that Bee Movie = two hours of my life I’ll never get back.

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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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