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Once Upon A Time...

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Once upon a time, there was a princess. Her name was Fallon. She had blonde hair and blue eyes. She was happy and she spoke English.

These were the opening lines of a storybook that my second grade students created and preformed for me. It is the story of a girl who sets out to find a cure for her ailing pet donkey. IMGP4485She faces many trials and tribulations along the way, but with the help of her new friends she learns that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. 

This story is a great reflection of this past year. It was simple, but the message was heartfelt and sincere. While I had no donkey to save in real life, I did face a few difficulties this past year. Fortunately for me, I could always rely on my host family, friends, and colleagues for help and encouragement. While I struggled with my own moments “lost in translation,” 10436671_10152562592152387_6756974584910436980_nI am amazed at how much my students have accomplished at such a young age. It’s a great feeling to know that you have left an impression on your students, but its even better to know that they have learned from you. This storybook, created by second graders, is a great example for the purpose of a bilingual school: to think creatively and critically in English. I am so grateful to be part of their process.

UnnamedThe halls are now empty. The classrooms are silent. The air smells heavily of bleach and mildew. The English department is a disorganized cluster of books, papers, and what seems to be a never-ending pile of flashcards. School is out, and my time as an auxiliar at CEIP Infanta Catalina is coming to a close. However, I am not quite ready to leave España. Three-day weekends and extensive traveling have made working here a breeze, but just as I encourage my students to push themselves, it is time I take my own advice. IMGP4482In an effort to make the most of my time in Spain, I will be completing the Teach and Learn bilingual master program at the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares next year. This will mean longer hours and a larger workload, yet in the end I will be doing what I love.

Now that summer is here, I cannot wait to embrace my next two months of freedom. The tickets are bought and the itinerary is set. I am heading eastbound and down towards my next adventure: Greece and Turkey. IMGP4588Bazaars, hot air balloons, swirling dervishes, scuba diving and coastal sunsets. What better way to start off the summer than touring the Mediterranean?

There is an old Spanish proverb that says, “Experience is not always the kindest of teachers, but it is surely the best.” I have found this rings most true in this program. No matter what I write about here today, every auxiliar has had a different experience. It really is what you make of it. There seems to be hundreds of blog posts about the reasons to travel and work abroad. My advice: ignore all of them. Spain can be good, bad, ugly or beautiful. It is whatever you want it to be. The ultimate goal is to experience it yourself.  

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11/25/2014

Does America Value the Lives of African Americans?

This question is not meant to be a joke, and as Americans we need to seriously consider it. Currently the answer seems to be no, African American lives are not valued. At least once a month we see in the news that another young African American male has been shot dead. One is carrying a toy gun, the other "looks suspicious," one is high, and another fights back. If this was a story about young white children would America be so silent about it? Would police brutality continue to go unchecked if our white children were being murdered on the streets every week for carrying a toy gun, or wearing a dark hoodie? Why is a police man who murders an innocent teenager acquitted? 

America claims to be in post-racial times, where African Americans — and all people of color for that matter — are just as free as their white countrymen. This my friends, is a lie. My best friend is an African American and she attests to the fear that she feels for all her African male friends and family members. She tells me about the fear she has of having a black child in this country, a child who may or may not be safe playing in the streets because of the color of his skin. How do you raise a black man in America to have respect for the law but to also have respect for himself? 

Yes, slavery is gone and there are no more Jim Crow laws, but America continues to suffer from discrimination and it can no longer go unaccounted for. American people are responding, there are riots in the streets, gunshots and violence, all in response to police brutality. That's right, I said American. Not African American. Why does an American have to be classified by the color of their skin? Why does there have to be Latino Americans, Asian Americans and Black Americans. Isn't the essence of America a melting pot of cultures? We are all Americans. Period. Humans should not be classified by race. 

I commend the people of Ferguson for fighting so vigilantly for justice, but I also cannot condone their behavior. 50 years later we are still fighting the same fight that Martin Luther King Jr. led for racial equality. However it seems we have forgotten everything he taught us. Peace prevails, not fists and not violence. We need to protest this radical injustice as if the King himself were leading us—with nonviolence. Violence begets violence. If we want to end police brutality we cannot be brutal in response. 

In conclusion America does not value the lives of Americans.

But now I’m going to turn the floor over to my aforementioned best friend: Tara Oladimeji. Her insight is not only valuable as a member of the black community, but as an American. Furthermore since I am currently living abroad, Tara has a more intimate perspective: she wrote to me from our nation’s capital, Washington DC.

 

“First and foremost, I’d like to thank Priya for offering me a forum to express my thoughts and ideas. When something like this happens, there are knee jerk reactions, and how can you blame someone for being enraged? African Americans are one of the only groups on earth to undergo the process of artificial selection as opposed to natural selection all at the hands of whites. And during this process, over centuries, these people fought for America. They fought and died for America. While they were owned they died for America. While their community was hung from trees they died for America. And the system and way of life that these people fought and died to uphold and defend has not only failed them, but it has betrayed them.

How would you feel? I am livid. I am scared. I am disappointed. But I am also educated. The push for minority education is not an idealistic push, but a strategic one, just like laws once forbidding and now systematically limiting the educations of blacks are strategic. Because once you have an education, once you are able to see and understand something for what it truly is, no one can reverse that. No one can take it from you.  But that is only one part of the process, because with an education one can also make strategic choices. Blacks in this country can choose to elect people that will, for example, reduce government spending on police forces that would in turn force commissioners like Mr. William Bratton in New York City to either implement reform successfully or lose the majority of funding. Blacks can choose to refuse to spend their money at times when a halt in consumer spending would result in the tailspin of the US Economy. Blacks can choose to stop fighting in the US Armed Forces, a move that would be devastating as they presently represent 17.8 percent of the US Active Duty Force.

As a student of international relations, my coursework focused heavily on wars and the way to end them. One strategy that I’ve seen increasing evidence of is to starve the beast. You identify the one thing (or many things) that the opposition needs for survival and you systematically and consistently starve them of it until they have to choice but to concede to your demands. In order to starve the beast that allows the killing of an unarmed black teen to go unindicted, blacks must first understand the process, which warrants a thorough education, but secondly, we must understand the system enough to make strategic choices in our every day lives that would starve the beast, so to speak.

My grandmother would always repeat a pretty famous Igbo proverb that essentially states that in order to win, one must first play the game. We’ve played this game long enough and the stakes continue to rise with every minute we wait to do something.  I’ve heard people condemn the violence in Ferguson, exclaiming that peaceful protest is the way to effect change, and while I also acknowledge that there is nothing strategic about pillaging and burning, it would be naïve to think that peaceful protest is the only thing that affects change. Behind the peaceful protests in South Africa in the late 20th century or the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century were calculated and strategic actions by both the leadership but also by the population that forced the opposition to concede to demands.  Black America and any other American that finds a society 'where police can shoot whomever they want, whenever they want, without any questions whatsoever' abhorrent can do the same. It is time that we let logic and strategy guide our actions instead of rage and emotion.”

11/16/2014

"Teacher! Teacher!"


IES Gabriel Garcia Marquez, also known as my current place of work, is a bilingual secondary school about 30-45 minutes outside the center of Madrid. Instead of having elementary, middle, and high schools as they do in the U.S., Spain divides their schools into primary and secondary. Therefore, working in a secondary school means that I work with students age 12-18 (about 6th-12th grade in the US) who are required to take about half of their classes in English. Admittedly, I was pretty nervous IMG_1356when I found out that I would be working with more high-school aged kids than I had initially thought. I mean teen angst wasn’t exactly high on my list. But as it turns out, I’ve really liked the older kids. Well, I like most of them. Every class that I work with is completely different; we’re talking polar opposites. Some are motivated and enthusiastic, others say practically nothing and stare blankly at me, and lets not forget about those who listen to absolutely nothing and are intent on wreaking havoc for the full fifty-five minute class period. 

Hence, I would be lying if I told you I didn’t have my favorite groups. Primero F, a class of 12-13 year olds, is has definitely taken the lead. They have a substantial amount of English under their belts and they are not above participating. It almost seems that someone has let them in on the little secret that, in fact, the more you participate, the more cool points you earn in the game of life. Their hands stretch towards the ceiling, waving eagerly and desperately trying to catch my attention by saying, “Teacher! Teacher!” Oh yeah, my name is now, “Teacher.” It was during this class that the following interaction ensued…

Student 1: Teacher, why deed you come to Madrid?

Me: Well I had never been to Europe before and I wanted to be in a Spanish-speaking country. Madrid, has so much going on, it’s so rich in culture… etc.

Student 2: Ummm you know we have Ebola here now, right?

Well played, well played.

 

As an auxiliar, I am essentially a Teachers-Assistant. As such, I help with the daily lessons and introduce any and all activities, games, and songs from my camp counselor repertoire. I help mainly with English language and literature classes but I have somehow also wound up in a few science and art classes. I’ve always liked science, so cell structure and world geography are totally doable. Art classes on the other hand, can get pretty interesting since my artistic knowledge spans about as far as stick figures. I should probably start taking notes. 

Beyond the actual teaching itself, I have been particularly impressed by the informality of working-relationships between co-workers and between bosses. In other words, it is expected for colleagues at my school to take a legitimate interest in each other’s lives. A strictly professional demeanor is seen as rude or aloof.  During the daily coffee break when they say, “Hi, how was your weekend?” or even just a simple, “How are you?” it is evident that they really, truly want to know. A one-word answer does not fly here. I was both flattered and a little dumbfounded by this at first. Spaniards expect a full play by play on the events of your weekend or your current emotional status; where as the same greeting is more of a formality in the US. In return, they expect you to ask sincerely about their family and friends and all the details of their weekend. It creates only the most open, personable atmosphere where I feel comfortable to ask my billions of questions and I know I will get honest, considerate responses.

Let it be known that prior to this year I had zero intention of being a teacher, nor do I plan on pursuing teaching as a career in the future, but I’m surprised daily by how much I’m enjoying it. I took a leap and chose to trade the entry-level desk job for a chance to explore new cultures and perspectives, and what a valuable experience it is turning out to be. 

11/15/2014

Count Your Blessings Not Your Years

Today is my 22nd birthday. However that was not the first thing on my mind as I woke up this morning. My brain ran through its usual morning thoughts: is it cold outside? I wonder if it's raining, what on earth do I wear?! Thank God it's Friday, oh shit what time is it? Good I still have time, is it enough time to squeeze in ten extra minutes of sleep? Eh better not risk it, just five minutes then... 30 minutes later I've decided to get out of bed.

This morning on behalf of my birthday, I added something to my pre-wake up routine. Rather than stress about the day ahead or the fresh body piercing that still aches and screams with every movement of my body, I chose to count my blessings: 22 to be exact. Finding 22 reasons to be happy wasn't exactly hard. If you read my last blog post you saw that I have a lot to be thankful for. A wonderful home, great work, amazing friends, health, youth, food in my fridge, and clothes in my closet! Still with all the abundance there was one thing I counted twice-something I am doubly grateful for: Madrid. This beautiful city, my home. A city I dreamed about living in every day for 2 years. I am truly grateful to be living here.

Cristina (aforementioned Thai-Italian fire ball) slaved in the kitchen for 6 hours to make me lasagna from scratch. Later in the evening 6 of my housemates and 8 other friends joined me to drink wine and enjoy the food! I received flowers from my best friend in America. They were waiting for me in the door when I came in from work! I was gifted a handwritten card and a fresh new album courtesy of my friend Jingwei who flew in from Belgium that morning to spend the weekend with me. Put simply: I was surrounded by people who love me, there is not a better place to be in the world. My birthday toast is as follows "this morning I woke up and counted my blessings. Every single one of you was one of them." I am young in years but old and rich in blessings.

11/10/2014

No Pasa Nada.

It has now been about 2 months since my arrival in Madrid and to say we hit the ground running would be a colossal understatement. Almost as soon as our feet touched down on Spanish soil did the incessant to-do list begin. During which time, I reluctantly learned lesson number one: nothing is ever as easy as it seems and sometimes all you can do is shrug and say, “no pasa nada.” (Don’t worry about it/it’s all good)

In the country where no pasa nada is the rule of thumb, for each item on our seemingly simple to-do list, add at least two other hurdles to jump over before you can check it off the list. You want to join a gym? No silly, you’re going to need a Spanish bank account for that. Need a bank account? No silly, you’re probably going to need to visit at least five different branches of the same bank until you find one that will adhere to your needs because naturally, they each get to play by their own rules. Insert the classic- no pasa nada.

Now don’t get me wrong, we may have struggled through each and every task on our to-do list, but such is life when moving to a new country. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not stepping far enough out of your comfort zone. Thus, the learning process begins. Best of all, then you can look back and laugh about the time that you frantically ran around Madrid looking at upwards of six different apartments until you found the right one. Or the time that you created a small lake in your kitchen because you didn’t know how to read the Chinese-like symbols on the washing machine… oops.

After the dust began to settle from the initial chaos, I finally had the opportunity to explore the city that was to be my new home for the next year…Wait, what? I live in Spain?! This fact is still a bit of an anomaly for me and I have to pinch myself from time to time. In the land where tapas and sangria are abundant, so are sites rich in history, big and beautiful parks, nightlife that never ceases to impress, and people with an authentic and friendly demeanor. Seeing as this is my first time in Europe much less in Spain, around every corner seems to lie something new and exciting. Every week we stumble upon a new neighborhood, nearby town, or even a restaurant that casually has a beach in the basement (beach chairs and beach balls included). And just when you thought you’d seen it all. We’ve just begun to scratch the surface here in Madrid and I’m beyond excited to see where the next few months lead. Tune in for the many adventures that lie ahead!

 

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View of Madrid from an incredible rooftop restaurant! 

11/07/2014

The Eternal Yes

I’m going to premise this virgin blog post with the fact that I’ve been in Spain for two months already. Living, breathing the Spanish way of life. Every day I take a 2 hour siesta, before beginning work in the afternoon. I eat dinner around 11 and stay up with friends, talking, eating tapas and reveling in the ambient street life that occupies most cities in Spain. I wake up to the sunrise with a cup of coffee in my hand before beginning an 8-12 hour day full of children, full of energy and thirsty for knowledge. On this particular day I walked into my first grade class, and within the first minute of entering, 24 6 year olds attacked me with hugs and shouts of “Priya! Priya!” I was immobilized for 2 minutes before I managed to wrench the children off of my legs and disclaim that “This is a time for learning! Let’s learn!”

How did I get to this exact moment? When it was confirmed 6 months ago that I was coming to Spain to teach primary school children, my heart was full of fear. I had never worked with children. I had never been abroad for more than 4 months at a time. I was about to embark on my greatest journey yet, with no return ticket booked. It might be years before I stepped foot once again on the soil of the place I was supposed to call home…

I got here because I said Yes. I said Yes to the things in my life that called to me the most. I said Yes to my dreams. I said Yes to leaving my friends and family. I also said yes to living with 7 strangers, which has turned out to be the greatest blessing of all.  The thing about saying Yes, is that you can’t do it just once or twice. Throw some caution to the wind. Put your fears aside. Make a mistake-but make a passionate one. Close one window, so that a door can open somewhere else in your life-somewhere you never even imagined was possible.

Today I discussed with my piso mate Cristina—a fiery half Thai, half Italian girl who has become like a sister to me— that nobody could pay me to change my life. Not for 10 million Euros would I change a single thing…I say this with 14 Euros in my bank account.

I hope whoever is reading this will say yes to that thing in their life that calls to them. Whether it be your greatest dream, the thing you are most afraid of, or both.  Save some money, make the change, move somewhere, do something, leave someone. Work every weekend if you have to. Put away the dollars now, so that one day you will be doing something so amazing that all the money in the world wouldn’t matter.

09/15/2014

Helping Students Give Back

The premise:

In Madrid, I have two main activities: I teach and I volunteer at a hospital. I would like to connect the two communities with a project, in which my students create a bilingual book for the hospital´s pediatric ward as a Christmas present.

The goals:

To give students the opportunity to give back to the community, and show them how rewarding that can be. In addition, this project will provide a way for sick children and their parents to find entertainment and fun when they need it most.

The details:

Most of the children in the pediatric ward at the hospital where I volunteer (Hospital Severo Ochoa in Leganés) are extremely young – babies and toddlers. Therefore, the children who I work with in my school (CEIP Gloria Fuertes), who are in fifth grade, will be making a child-friendly, animal picture book with both Spanish and English labels. Here is how it would work:

  • The children (approximately 50 in 5th grade) will be divided into five groups, each group being assigned a sub-theme under animals – for instance, the jungle, the desert, the poles, the forest or the ocean.
  • Within those five groups, the children will be divided into pairs. Each pair will be responsible for designing one page of the book. Thus, the book will have 25 pages, with 5 pages on each theme.
  • The materials for making the book will be provided by the school (the school has a catalog for ordering art supplies) and paid for by the CIEE enrichment grant (see budget below). I will particularly encourage the students to use materials that have interesting textures, so the children at the hospital can feel and touch.
  • Students will label their pages with both Spanish and English words, and I will edit the words for spelling. (Students will write in pencil first, then I will approve it before they copy over the words with pen.)
  • I will design the front cover, back cover, the first inside page, and the cover page for each chapter, and have the book finished and bound in time to deliver it to the hospital for Christmas.

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As I reflect on this project, I think about what a rewarding experience it has been to watch children feel the joy of giving something back to their community while simultaneously learning something pretty cool – namely, about the components of a particular ecosystem. If the project provides as much joy to patients at Hospital Severo Ochoa as they did to my students at Gloria Fuertes, then it will have been a success.

Now, as I begin my path to medical school (first through a Master of Science program next year), I will always remember this project as one of my first major contributions to the medical community.

07/02/2014

El último & parting words

 

Por fin, the school year has come to an end and I am free to frolic about Spain on my motorcycle with an expired TIE (Foreigner Identification Card). No tengo miedo de la policía, hombre. 

I suppose I could offer up some advice as parting words for anyone looking to come and teach English here in Spain. However, I don't want to lose anyone in the logistics. I will save all the advice for packing and dealing with all the bureaucratic red tape involved in legally becoming a resident here for the group forums on Facebook. 

 

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Another one of Madrid's odd statues, a baby head with eyes closed, resting on a rainy day.

First, make sure you come for the right reasons. I understand the allure of Europe and all the romantacism associated with it can have Americans starry-eyed and ready to bite the bullet when it comes to being butchered in the currency exchange slaughterhouse just to get here and pasar un buen rato. There is no need to hoard money upon arrival, just be prepared to foot the bill. In view of all that, keep in mind life is still just life over here and people are still just people... well, they happen to be people who don't generally speak your language, which brings me to my next point. 

 

Learning a foreign language is not exactly full of blithe and ease as though suavely sliding into it off the backside of the rainbow and landing in some new, sexy plane of fluency. It takes time. I have had to learn to be comfortable with not understanding everything all the time. I have also had to learn how to become a good-listener, which happens to be one of my social defects not so easily airbrushed over and concealed. My grandmother, while she was still kicking, had the candor to tell me I was stricken by 'diarrhea-of-the-mouth' syndrome when I was a child. She was never afraid to call a spade a spade. 

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My friend, Joaquin, and I searched Google images in hopes of blending in with the locals as we prepared to make our way to 'The City of Love'

Of course, Spain is a beautiful country to see and who would not want to come here? I must mention, however, there is a big difference between passing through Spain for a quick, spin-dry McEuroTrip experience and actually living here. Most Americans are used to their space, quality customer service, dryers, nightclubs that close early, a wide-variety selection in gastronomy and, naturally, speaking English--a language less inherently curt compared to Spanish. These are things that I didn't consider before I came. 

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Mont Blan'd out after a day well-shared with my friend Luke

Of course, I am not saying I have been living like a pauper here. The standard of living is quite comfortable. We just happen to be from a place in the world where even the poor get to recline in La-Z-Boy recliners to watch the big game, laugh & scratch, and maybe even share the privilege to fight over who controls the thermostat in their Section 8 housing. We have it pretty good in the States. Besides, it is hard to beat a country that sucks most of the world's resources down with the outright shameless exhibitionism of one of those excessively nude male locker room dominator types seen and avoided across the gyms of America. 

I understand that a lot of us do not come here with the intention of bettering ourselves as teachers. I studied journalism and have no intention of returning to the States to teach. However, that should not let us off the hook. At the end of the day, we are here to do a job, no matter how much the level of difficulty mirrors the most clear cut antipode to rocket science I've ever seen. 

I also understand what we are doing here is not saving the world one English-deprived child at a time. On the other hand, being an adult with the opportunity to impart something positive into a child's life is not something to be taken lightly or missed out on. All foreign language proficiency aside, one axiom always reamins true: One only truly lives in the giving of oneself to others.  

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The feet of mother and son facing Barcelona from a teleferico

I would suggest not applying if one's patience for children is low. Maybe secondaría is different, but at the younger levels, there are students whose mothers birthed them primarily to assist in the personal growth of teachers cultivating their virtues. I've seen teachers who I thought were mean as junkyard dogs in the States. They do not hold a candle to a few Spanish ones I've seen here, but then I saw the children. Of course not all are bad. There are the sweet angels  you'd be tickled pink to adopt and then there are the diablillos.

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My very first night in Spain walking about the streets of Seville

Be prepared for brain-drain/cerebral apathy and the sneaking suspicion that you may be walking about Spain casting the shadow of a snake-oil salesman. Although it is nice to speak into a young child's life, it is hard to avoid the occasional view of yourself as some quack standing about, briefcase broad and open, on a densely crowded street corner vending magical English lotions and potions, promising it is just the ointment necessary to cure all of the ailments succeeding the Bubonic plague era.  

I would also suggest bringing your interests with you, honing skills learned in college and picking up hobbies, preferably intellectually stimulating ones. The truth is the hubbub of daily college life comes to a screeching halt here, ejecting all go-getter drive acquired from the recent past swiftly through the front windshield where all backbone is broken on the civic religion of manaña. There are many graduates looking for such a break before entering the workforce, too, of course. 

Don't be surprised if you find yourself on the grand stage of human emotion known as a train station or airport having to say goodbye to a flame you may never see again. There are always taxes to be paid for transient lifestyles.

If you decide to date the locals, be ready to break it off with someone in a language that is not your own. The words, intrinsically, do not carry much meaning to us, but the effect they have on the reciever is always a barometer for your skills in the handling of the language. 

 

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And, finally, stay curious. Don't pass the entire time with other Americans or English speakers. The Spanish are generally open people and patient with those learning their language. It is a waste of an opportunity not to get to know them. I understand they are in the middle of an economic crisis and, as a result, do not always have the resources to go travel with whatever run-of-the-mill guiri happens to cross their path.

 

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The desire to seek out your own culture is natural while abroad. It is what is normal to us. For the trips about Europe's playground, there is a much higher probablity to find others like you wanting the same. However, do not be afraid to travel alone. You will meet new people you may have never known otherwise and will have experiences undefined by the company you keep. You will be a small individual sucked into a much larger, more precarious world full of all its blind alleys and mystery. You may even emerge 'some' the wiser.

 

Do not worry about coming alone and making friends either. If you want to make friends, simply be interested. If you want to be alone... be interesting. 

I have come here and I have enjoyed myself extensively. I have drawn a lucky hand to end up at the school I was in and I look forward to returning to it next year. I know others less fortunate. I hope my last entry has been somewhat useful, insightful and not in any way seemingly Holier-Than-Thou for those to come. 

With a heavy heart, I say goodbye to you all. For those of you who would like to continue reading, I provide a link to my personal blog. 

Cuídate

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http://travismott.blogspot.com.es

 

06/29/2014

Gracias a todos, por todo

At the suggestion of one of my favorite pen pals, last week I wrote about the emotive power of letters. I’d been saving that idea for late June on purpose, as I thought it was the perfect poetic set-up for my final blog post from Spain. My idea was this: to write today’s post in the form of a letter to Spain herself, as a means of expressing my gratitude for all encompassed in three years living here.

Yet problems soon emerged, as writer’s block made clear. I tried recollecting what defined Spain for me: the landscapes and cities, the culture, and the times I’ve studied versus worked here. I thought of my favorite tapas, my best successes and my funniest blunders (both the linguistic and physical). I described my first moments at Feria, the taste of Jiennense olive oil, and the now infamous monkey bite incident. I wrote about changes in politics, economics and soccer dynasties, as well as teaching policies and the Ministry of Education’s English program. I reread my final product; it still felt hollow.

So I switched gears a bit. I remembered the birthday parties, the holiday dinners, and the first Spanish wedding I attended. I thought about the dozens of visits to my original host family, the beach weekends with my second, and the tours around new cities that my coworkers always gave me. I thought about the cocktails, picnics, road trips, and family gatherings. And that’s when I realized: it wasn’t this concept of Spain that I wanted to figuratively write to. Speaking to “Spain” felt superficial and skin-deep. No, what I needed was to directly thank the people: my host families, friends, coworkers, classmates, advisors, students, and teachers. In short, all the Spaniards, Americans and other foreigners who’ve been integral to this adventure along the way.

At the end of last year, I wrote: It’s taken nearly three full weeks, but I finally feel like I’ve given out the appropriate thanks to each one of the dozens upon dozens of people who’ve helped make this two-year experience so formative and enriching for me.

This time, as I prepare to move back to the States for good I don’t know if I can give out “the appropriate thanks.” What’s appropriate just seems too little. Because for me, what defines Spain and has made the moments so memorable hasn’t merely been what I’ve learned or where I’ve visited. It hasn’t been a solo journey. It’s the people who have shaped my view of this wonderful place, and filled it with the warmth that made it not a temporary station, but a home filled with alegría.

And so thanks, everyone, for everything. Gracias a todos, por todo. 

Time for a New York adventure. 

06/24/2014

El penúltimo

 

Every story has a beginning, middle and an end. The end of my entries in this is blog is near. I will try not to let myself slip into uninhibited sentimentalism. 

The truth is all of my American friends here are headed back to the States to continue on with the lives they put on hold back home. I would be lying to say I am not a bit envious of their American prerogative to eat spicy food; to walk down spacious streets and sidewalks; and to celebrate the day it was borne in on those dirty redcoats and the rest of the world that an underdog's triumph over a giant would stand tall and beat its chest on the 4th of July for years to come. Maybe I will travel to England to celebrate Independence Day. 

Bilboa
Riding a 5-man bicycles through Bilbao, we were reminded more than once that the engineering was German, not Chinese.

Pues nada... they will go and I will stay. My extended homecoming moratorium has its reasons--causes which I feel valen la pena. I would not put off quality family time and Texas barbeque for nothing. So, what's my justification? What deems me pure as the freshly driven snow? Or, better yet, what contract has been signed in that invisible hall known as our head space that is compelling me to rivet myself to this continent? 

The answer is hidden in that same place that every old-timer dusts off to recount and deliver their fabled cock-and-bull stories of their glory days. I write of a sacred center to us all--the heart. Human emotion has a penchant for standing behind life events, blasting beams of romance, conquering the unnoteworthy, softening the edges and casting a silhouette remnant and inaccurate in view of its truer, more austere antecedent. 

Joaquin in San Sebastion
This guy has been my best friend in Spain. Adîos, Joaquin

Memoirs always have an element of romanticism. They are the classic cars on the road being towed behind dually trucks enroute to their next show hosted by the local Lion's Club during any given Memorial Day Weekend. The deliverance of these memoirs is not what is important, nor the vehicle; what is of pertinence is that substance that drives the system. A vehicle's motor burns a composition of combustible chemicals for kinetic energy. A human being's heart burns an equally combustible composition of adventure and curiosity. 

So, what is my point? Is that my elevator speech? Was that my Atticus Finch closing argument? ¿Qué dices, tío? Well, what I am really saying is this: I am not ready to say adíos España just yet. I would rather continue to fly about Never Never Land a bit longer. Besides, who would want to leave a 16-hour work week and find themselves caught in the crossfire of a 40-hr weekly trench? This is my early retirement at 28. 

San Sebastian flat
Brynn and Mark maxin' and relaxin' near San Sebastian


If I happen to get gored or pulverized or a combination of the two in San Fermin, at the least I can tell my grandparents and childhood pets I got one golden year in before being demapped. Every Spanish person I speak to tells me not to do it. El cementerio esta lleno de valientes. The deaths are usually always foreigners they tell me. Run behind the bulls, do the final stretch only or just for un ratito at the very end before entering the plaza. ¡Qué va! They cannot see I have already got the concrete mind: All mixed up and already set. 

IMG_4393 IMG_4396
Needless to say, I have been enjoying la vida tranquila. It is a bit daunting to face three months of unemployment over the summer however. I have every intention of living as a modern day Abbie Hoffman here and pinching every last centimo I have through means of shameless, hippie society drain. 

 

I have my motorcycle, backpack and tent. Ojalá, my bike will see me to Pamplona, the start of El Camino de Santiago de Compostella and a test of endurance of a ride from southern Italy back to Madrid. This could be the best summer plan I have ever conceived or it could be nothing more than a pipe dream of some naive foreigner in Europe. Judging by my track record here, I would put money on the latter. Either way, the trip will not be characterized by its comfort and ease. 

IMG_4425
Before this let's-make-a-lifestyle-out-of-this-traveling-on-a-budget idea deeply rooted itself inside mi mente, I had noticed one thing. Traveling is not always easy. As a matter of fact, I have found it quite taxing at times. Infinitely many variables can suddenly pit themselves against you and turn your wanderlust into a lake of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

IMG_4176
These were much more difficult to use than they seemed

Staring at the travels of other's through the peephole of social media does not offer the panoramic view of the truth, whether it be for better or for worse. There are always moments when pictures fall short of the grandeur. Likewise, there are also moments when the paradise promoted and disseminated to your computer screen fall short of reality. What really makes it a trip are the people you travel with or meet along the way.

IMG_4415
Walking about and snapping photos along the way to incite jealousy through the misleading hallways of social media is a lot like hacking on the same branch you are sitting on: Only you will fall for it. 

I would like to thank all those who have taken the time to read. Come to Spain and see for yourself. My next entry will be my last. Stay tuned for the uninhibited sentimentalism... 

Putting Pen to Paper

Whatsapp. Viber. Facebook. Skype. Text message. Voice message. Instant message. Email. Instagram. Google docs. YouTube. Gchat. Facechat. Snapchat. And something called Line.

As of today, these are the brainchildren of communication technology that provide us with new ways to keep in touch. In dozens of circumstances, these platforms (or most of them, at least) have proven themselves useful. Furthermore, when you’re living away from home (and especially across an ocean with a six hour time difference), these apps can virtually cut the distance and strengthen ties that might have been lost. With so many mediums to choose from, communication becomes more open, intimate, and immediate. Just two decades ago, staying in touch with those at home was limited to written mail and the occasional, very brief phone chat (at an astronomical price per minute!). Yet nowadays, both the Internet and the creative people behind mobile apps have given us options. The faster the better, right?

Of course, most travelers and ex-pats would tell you yes. And I would too in the majority of circumstances. But that’s not the point of this post, as many others have championed the merits of modern means of long-distance communication. Rather, I’m here to tell you my unforeseen realization about communicating across the Atlantic: I’ve discovered the letter can be better.

"Snail mail," postcards, hand-written notes are what I’m referring to. I love them. But the reality is that while Hallmark still has a place in many hearts, I don't know a ton of people that actually sit down to write letters. Or even cards, for any reason other than birthdays. Now there’s no problem favoring the text message, but I ask you to admit this: there’s nothing like holding a note that’s been touched by the writer, passed through the system, and traveled real mileage. Hand-written communication should never become antiquated. Living here has taught me that.

Take postcards, for example, that carry an image or graphic as well as a written message. Perhaps on the surface, only the stamp distinguishes them from emails with photo attachments. But think about it – postcards quite literally carry another story all together, that of the journey, the distance, and the time that's passed before they arrive to recipients. And unlike the certainty of an email, sometimes postcards never make it. They’re a bit risky because they’re real. But when they do reach their destination, postcards are worthy of celebrating. Of showing to friends, sticking on the refrigerator or leaning against the windowsill.

Look at me! Says the postcard, I’m special!

And then there’s the letter. While the handwritten letter doesn’t have the prominence it once did, I’ve learned to appreciate those messages as much as one hundred instant ones that come that same day. As cliché as it may sound, they carry something thoughtful in each and every line. Yes, it takes longer to write letters, and from abroad it requires planning weeks in advance so that they get there on time. But that's just why putting pen to paper means something to both the author and the reader. At least in my experience, it has. This is a time-honored practice that establishes a tangible connection between people, whether that be across one mile or one thousand.

And in the end, isn’t that the point?

 

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