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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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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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?

06/18/2014

El Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid

In Madrid, you never know what you’ll discover if you just keep looking. As a tourist, some think you need only one or two days here, and maybe that’s true if you rise early and stay out (very) late. But if you have the chance, don’t rush! Give yourself a little more time here; the Spanish capital has much to offer.

Of course, there are lots of well-known things to see: the museums, the royal palace, and the Cibeles building, for example. After you’ve been to all these, you can picnic at Retiro park or venture to Santiago Bernabéu to tour the much-loved stadium. There’s also the Temple Debod, Parque del Oeste, Plaza de España, and Gran Vía. There are the La Latina, Lavapiés and Chueca neighborhoods. And as I now know, thanks to my grandmother’s research before her visit last week, one should always leave time to explore Madrid’s botanical gardens (El Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid).

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The gardens, inaugurated in 1781, are situated today along the bustling Paseo del Prado in between the Prado museum and Atocha train station. The architect behind their design was initially Francesco Sabatini, and later work was done by Juan de Villanueva. Though I’ve walked passed the iron gates surrounding the grounds on countless occasions throughout the year (it’s open all twelve months), it was only at my grandma’s suggestion that we went for the first time last Tuesday. I didn’t quite know what to expect before entering, since I’d only been to one or two of these ages ago. Would there be lush flowers? Was there a rose garden?

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In reality, we went too late in the year to see most of the prettiest flowers in bloom. May would have been perfect, but by June the Spanish sun was more extreme. In other words: wilting! Yet we were still more than intrigued by the collections of trees, plants, and grasses from all over the world, the vegetable garden, the herb garden, the marble statues and fountains throughout the property, and the noteworthy photography on display in the exhibition building. We stopped to examine exotic trees, guess vegetables, and to compare palm varieties to determine our favorites. Yes, really! No audio guides, no digital visuals, just nature.

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In short, the place was a perfect escape for an afternoon away from the fast pace of the city center. Again, quite literally, you never know what lies behind gates here. 

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* Note: here’s some useful information from TripAdvisor for those interested in a visit:

Webpage: http://www.rjb.csic.es/infov_eng.php

Address: 2, Plaza de Murillo 
28014 Madrid
 (opposite Museo del Prado)

Public Transport: Buses: 10, 14, 19, 24, 26, 27, 32, 34, 45, 57, 140, C1and C2. Underground station: Atocha, Atocha-Renfe


Opening times: Open daily from 10:00 (except 25 December and 1 January) 
Closing: 18:00 November-February, 19:00 March, 20:00 April, 21:00 May-August and 20:00 September.

06/17/2014

For the Foodies Out There…

It hit me today: two weeks left in Spain. That’s half a month. That’s fourteen days. The end of this proverbial chapter is just around the corner, and it’s time for the reflecting, preparations, and goodbyes to start. But before the wave of more sentimental considerations, I thought it’d be fun to post one last “guessing game” based on photographs I’ve taken on recent trips around the area.

Back in January I wrote: There are lots of places within and outside of Spain on my list, and during the next six months, both time and my budget will determine where I eventually make it.

Since then, I’ve actually been able to visit a number of nearby cities and, best of all, fly to Milan with my boyfriend before hiking (read: walking) the Cinque Terre villages. There’s been so much beauty, in so many places. And it’s worth pointing out that along the way, one priority has not only been exploring, but eating like the locals as part of the experience. Although I’m not the most adventurous, those dining with me made up for it. Oxtail? Yes. Rabbit? Dig in. And pastries post gelato? Nutritious!

Anyway, back to the game. The photos below are all from Spain or Italy. Can you match the picture with the country it was taken in? As you scroll down, feel free to take a snack break.

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* Answers * 

1. Spain: Cheese stand (Mercat Santa Catarina, Barcelona)

http://www.mercatsantacaterina.com/presentacion.html

2. Spain: Flamenquín (Tapas bar, Seville) 

3. Spain: Meat stand (Mercat Santa Catarina, Barcelona)

http://www.mercatsantacaterina.com/presentacion.html

4. Italy: Dark chocolate gelato with wafer & chocolate fondue (CioccolatItaliani, Milan)

http://www.cioccolatitaliani.it

5. Spain: "Hamburger" pincho (Pincho bar on Cava Baja, Madrid) 

6. Italy: Moretti beer stand (Open air market outside Sforza Castle, Milan) 

7. Spain: Vegetable paella (La Marcelina restaurant, Valencia)

http://www.lamarcelina.com

8. Italy: Cavatelli pasta with spinach and mussels (Farmhouse Cerrolungo restaurant, La Spezia) 

http://www.cerrolungo.it

9. Italy: Coca-Cola Light (CioccolatItaliani, Milan)

http://www.cioccolatitaliani.it

10. Spain: Meringue tart (Mercado San Miguel, Madrid) 

http://www.mercadodesanmiguel.es

05/29/2014

Let's give'm somethin' to talk about Capitulo 2

As I have left my former entry unfinished, I am compelled to share a final handful of uncanny events that have taken place between my students and I. For those of you who have not entered my colegio, I am kind of a big deal. My reputation draws countless high-fives, shameless expressions of adoration, and an endless ration of hugs belted out to me as though the children were on an assembly line. It is hard to be humble when one is as great as I. 

Barcelona Parque Güell
La madre y yo en Parque Güell durante Semana Santa en Barcelona

Insofaras my popularity is expanding, so are my ploys to trap my students in verbal conundrums. As if it were not bad enough that they are forced to speak a foreign language with me, I am apt to unroll a slew of deductive fallacies, non sequitors, paradoxes, ethical compromises and palindromes--that's right, palindromes. To sum them up into one Spanish word, tonterías comes to mind. Allow me to explain while you passively scroll by some unrelated photos of different parts of Spain during Semana Santa and all its weekly wonders.

Parque Güell delinquency
Shots like come at the cost of plastic badged security guards' verbal lashings; it is still worth the pain though

It may help to know that I have certain portions of the day when I speak with students alone or in pairs to boost their English skills. These times are precious to me. These are the times that try men's (or children's) souls. The standard "who is your best friend" or "who is your favorite teacher" questions don't exactly plug the brain drain on my end, so, naturally, I am savvy to shake things up a bit. 

The best friend question may at times, depending on my thirst for fifth to sixth grade gossip, be followed with a "who is your worst enemy" followup. Many are all too eager to confess their playground fueds or sassy scorn toward their classmates. I reassure them of my blacklist of enemies back in the United States and curtly end with a "I owe a lot of people money back home" comment. 

Jesus
La Sagrada Família and Jesus hanging tough in times of endless construction and never-ending lines


Outside Parque GüellThe question regarding their favorite teacher is met with either the presentation of an impossible ethical situation or a correctional measure with a threatening undertone. I size the child's mental toughness up the moment they take a seat and make contact with my shark-like, vacuous eyes. Spines either stiffen after our encounters or return to a flaccid, linguine-state following a walk in the garden of my turbulence. 

For one 'favorite' is a term of supremacy. It is a lot like the Highlander tagline: There can only be one! Based on this axiom, I am morally obliged to present them with a situation which forces the decision out of them when they tell me of two or more teachers being their favorite. I hit them with a lifeboat-esque type of question. "If said Professor A is hanging on to the edge of a cliff facing certain death while simulataneously Professor B is facing the same turn of cruel fate, and, what's more, there is only time to save one, then who would it be?"

AngelOnce they tell me their choice, we make a pact that I will not tell the other whose life was deemed less valuable. It is my way of debriefing them, one could say. Although, I occassionally have a student who is psychologically unfit to make such a dire decision, resulting in both of their favorites plummeting to their untimely deaths. 

On the other hand, if the student has a favorite reigning undisputed in their mind already, I swiftly crush that dillusion. No sooner than their tongue flicks the first syllable of a professor's name that isn't mine, I change the tempo of the room like a SWAT team flash-bang grenade. My face goes from the jovial, welcoming teacher to that of brash, Stalin-grade austerity. One can feel the temperature of the room change.  My eyes center and I bring all I am into a laser beaming gaze. Only then do I correct their misspoken folly. It is actually an emotionally taxing thing for me, too. It takes a lot out of a guy to teach proper adoration. Now I know how Kim Jong-un must feel; poor guy. 

 "Listen up, from here on out, I do not care what you think you know or who got to you first, but your choice has now changed," I tell them. Then I pronounce myself as their favorite teacher. There is no other option. I reassure them there is nothing else out there but empty wasteland and hunger. There is no choice, really; only acceptance. Resistance is futile when you are eight years old.

Sevillian Nazarenes
The Nazarenes of Seville march the night away in their church garb at the maw of Holy Week

 

Sevillanas
This statue sums up the ethos of Andalucía and all its ease

I am not always so severe. One girl was nervous before her Cambridge exam and I decided to make a point of placing faith in her and attempted to instill some faith in herself. I told her, "Look, you are not going to grow up and be one of those people walking around in life having pianos fall on their head out of the clear, blue sky. You have done the work, your English level is high and now all you have to do is execute." She looked at me, then Violeta, the real teacher, and cracked a smile out of the side of her mouth. 

 I asked if she understood, but I think both her and the teacher may have gotten lost at the 'pianos falling out of the sky' part. Nonetheless, I assured her she was not ever going to self-victimize and I promised I would explain in greater detail later. 

Beginning procession in Plaza de EspañaI am not alone in forcing these pobrecitos to perform mental aerobics in such a mongrel language such as English. Another auxiliar (who will remain nameless) has his own approach and respective sense of humor, however unhinged it may be. We share the same room during our time alone with the students at times and we cannot help but get involved on each other's homefront. He takes the flank, I come at them with an impenetrable phalanx of verbage. 

The other day we were discussing the ailments of watching the television while sitting too close. My accomplice mentioned that he was guilty of watching the television so dreadfully close in the past that a cutting-edge team of medical experts had to replace his eyes with the eyes of a saiga--the Eurasian steppe antelope, not to be confused with the 12-guage shotgun. We had to assure them they were doing this sort of thing these days of course. By the end of the conversation, we had reasonably deduced that sitting too close to the TV may result in an eye transplant with Eurasian steppe mammals. 

Plaza de EspañaBesides the verbal ploys we spring on them, I would say the students like us. When I am not telling them my favorite tapa is human meat, I try and get the jump on them by violently springing out from behind doors. On one occassion, I had an actual respectable funcionario (state-employed teacher) help place a trash can in front of a closet door I was hiding in only to make it all the more violent when I came crashing out sending the trash can off like it were a balistic missile across the room. I have even seen one girl grow weak in the knees and hit the deck. She is definitely one of my success stories I take home to hang on the hat rack. 

The topic of soccer often comes up with the boys. When asked who is my favorite team, I deliberately butcher their names and then dismay when they tell me they do not exist. Why didn't anyone ever tell me that Atlético de Barcelona, my favorite team of all time, never existed? It simply cannot be! Oh well, I am not as bad as another friend of mine who is a gym coach at his instituto. He has outright told his students "soccer is a communist sport" because there are ties. Oh, how we attempt to culturally imperialize these Spanish students to a newly depraved degree of Americanism. They will be crippled by obesity and rolling about Walmart while heavily breathing and asses planted in electric scooters soon enough.

Semana Santa begins
 

05/16/2014

Educating Students One Tasty Treat at a Time

“Okay, Melissa. I’d like you to do the speaking section on page 72, and then the activity on page 73,” my cooperating teacher instructed as I walked into my next class of the day. I grabbed my book and skimmed over what I would be teaching. A smile immediately came to my face. My topic? Food. More specifically: sandwiches. Even more specifically: peanut butter and jelly. I couldn’t wait. I instructed the kids to open their books to page 72, with hopes of a certain outcome as we completed the activity.

Workbook
Apparently, peanut butter and jelly is a "popular teatime sandwich" for children in the USA...

Once finishing the speaking section, I asked a volunteer to start reading about "two delicious sandwiches." Per usual, after each reading, I asked the class if they had any vocabulary questions, and just as I was expecting, I got the question I anticipated: 

“Qué es la significa de…”

“In English, Jaime”

“What is the meaning of…peanut butter?”

A huge smile took over my face. It's no secret that peanut butter and I go together like, well, peanut butter and jelly! I go through a jar every 2 weeks! No exaggeration. No shame.

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This was how I spent my Christmas Eve. My name is Melissa, and I have a problem.

“Does anyone know what peanut butter is?”

Blank faces. 

I then spent the next 8 minutes enthusiastically raving about the wonders that is peanut butter to a classroom of 32 students with questionable expressions and muffled giggles as they listened to and watched a 27 year old grown adult talk animatedly about how she eats it by the spoonfuls, and the endless possibilities of pairing it with apples, bananas, celery, nutella, chocolate, etc. 

Lucky for them, my mom had just sent me two giant jars of peanut butter - mother of the year - in a care package, and I was more than willing to have them sample it next week in class.

 

PB Convo
Mom: Feeding my peanut butter addiction since 1987

That next week as I was walking toward the classroom, one of the students had passed me and excitedly questioned:

“Profe! Profe! Did you bring the…uh…crema de cacahuate?”

“You mean the peanut butter?”

“Yes! The peanut butter!”

“I did!" 

To which he then ran into the classroom and exclaimed, “La traído! La traído!” (She brought it! She brought it!) Which was immediately followed by a chorus of “Toma!” (Yes!)

Needless to say, I felt like a rockstar when I walked into the classroom as a herd of 12 and 13 year-old students came trampling my way, but instead of asking for my autograph, they wanted to pull and yank at my bag carrying this treasured commodity that they’ve heard so much about.

Once class had settled down and each of my devoted fans were in their seats, I unzipped my bag and pulled out the magical, anticipated jar of Skippy creamy peanut butter. Smiles and looks of excitement filled my audience’s faces. As I unscrewed the lid, stuck the knife into the jar, and pulled it back out, the kids literally had their butts off their seats, palms on their desks, and were leaning forward to get the first glance at what creamed peanuts could possibly look like. Mostly excitement filled the air – with a mixture of scrunched noses of uncertainty – as I started to spread peanut butter on individual pieces of tostados. 

PB Tostados
Aren't they beautiful?

With the tostados spread and ready, I began passing them out. Some kids wanted a large tostado all to themselves, whereas others wanted me to break it apart and split it with their classmates as they were uncertain as to what to expect. As I passed them out, most kids took them willingly and popped the entire thing into their mouth, whereas only a few others hesitantly took the piece of tostado as if there were a dead bug on it I was forcing them to eat. Those same students scrunched their noses and stuck out only the tiniest bit of their tongue to taste it as if they were concerned I may have poisoned it when they weren’t looking. I laughed when I walked around and saw the kids continuously licking the roof of their mouth due to the creamy thickness, similar to what dogs do when they are given peanut butter. 

PB Dog
Note: These are NOT my students. Only an adorable, furry reenactment.

I’m happy to report that I only saw one student throw their sample into the trashcan, while practically the rest of the class all had their hands eagerly in the air when asked if they wanted more. As class came to a close, I took a survey and asked how many of them liked the taste of peanut butter. So many hands shot up, I had to ask a different question: how many students didn’t like the taste of peanut butter? A measly 4 hands replaced the 28 hands that had been in the air only moments ago. 

I think with that ratio, I’ll gladly label Operation Peanut Butter a success!

05/15/2014

Snapshots of Spain: Study Spots for Exam Season

For many Spaniards, study abroad students, and Language Assistants enrolled in formal classes here in Spain, the middle of May not only marks one month until the start of the World Cup (!!!), but also that time when exams are just around the corner and studying must commence. But, lo and behold, the sun, newly opened terrazas and constant roars of locals watching the Champions League may make this a bit difficult.

Also, there’s the problem of finding wifi spots. And quiet spots. And have I mentioned the custom of everything being closed on Sundays? Needless to say, it can require a bit of creativity to find a sufficiently Zen spot to park yourself and concentrate.

As a Masters student studying in Madrid, this past year I’ve found that with such hurdles sometimes the best place to study really is that Starbucks down the road, despite my semi-strong desire to stay local and avoid the American coffee giant. The reality is that in fact, on any given Sunday throughout the year you might’ve found me camped out at one of my three favorite Starbucks, typing away at my thesis or taking a quick break to study phonetics. But usually, the Starbucks visits were limited to cold winter weekends, when a variety of other choice locations were either closed or too exposed to sit outside for a few hours. Otherwise, spots like Retiro Park and the Cibeles building have been enticing not only for their practicality, but also because they’re just plain beautiful. When in Spain, things often are. And let’s be serious – to achieve that pinnacle of efficient studying, sometimes it’s all the better when you’re somewhere that's pleasing to look at.

Note: I’m not saying that productivity requires flying straight to the Canaries, but I think you get the gist. 

Below I’ve posted pictures of a few of the places I’ve called study homes this year. I admit, I’ve certainly spent ample time reading and writing at each one. While I’m sure there are dozens that others could add to this selection, these are the few that have stood out for me. However, as the year comes to an end…I will say…good riddance! 

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05/11/2014

Spain, In Bloom

Flying into Madrid, there comes a certain point when you dip below the clouds, and finally get to see it – land! After hours of cruising over the blue Atlantic, you’re excited to get a glimpse of Spain. Depending on your location, you may see a few mountains, but more likely than not you see miles and miles of vast agricultural plots. The earth looks like a quilt sewn with patches of tan, yellow and brown. The Spanish plains are spread out before you, baking under that famous Mediterranean sun. So far, there’s not a lot of greenery.

But after landing at the airport and making your way to the city, you’re starting to see more color. As your taxi darts past Retiro Park, you know you see some flowerbeds. Winding through the streets of Lavapiés, you spot your first orange and lemon trees. And later, after unpacking and wandering to the Palace, you’re charmed by the neighboring Sabatini gardens. As your first day comes to a finish, you’re already appreciating more than the brown and yellow plains.

Especially in the spring, Spain is a country in bloom, a country bursting with colorful flora. While it may make allergies a total bit of a nightmare, the sights and smells are gorgeous. At the parks and nature preserves, along the coastlines and beachfronts, lining the streets and filling hanging pots, flowers are literally everywhere. Despite the minimal rain, when you see the pink and yellow and purple and red, it can somehow even feel tropical.

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Now I have to admit: personally, when spring comes around I fear pollen as much as I welcome the fragrances. Nonetheless, during the past few years I’ve risked red eyes and headaches to go out and photograph flowers that have popped up everywhere. When I was studying abroad, we even made a contest out of who snapped the best photograph. I don’t think we ever made a final decision, but since it’s once again that time of year, I’ll post a bunch of my favorites below. Macro shots, we called them. Or was that just the camera setting?

And when you take a look at these flowers, maybe you can even identify them (something I know I’m particularly awful at)!

Regardless, enjoy the springtime images :-)

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