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11 posts categorized "Ellen Grinnell"

Follow the Music

The day in Málaga began beautifully - warm and sunny. The night before my friend and I had made a list of sights we wanted to see and now we were headed off in the direction of the first one - la Alcazaba de Málaga.

We arrived at the fortress wall, climbed up, and were rewarded with a lovely view of the city. We were slightly disappointed at how small the wall itself seemed, but decided to be on our way to the next item on our list.

We found a path and walked down it, came to the end, and had to choose which way to turn. Unsure, we were about to pull out Google Maps when, suddenly, the soft, twangy sounds of a violin echoed from a tunnel on our right. We peered down the dark passageway but couldn't see anyone in the bright glare shining from the other end. We made eye contact with each other, shrugged our shoulders simultaneously, and turned right. If ever there was ever going to be a moment when the universe sent us a sign to guide us, a violinist playing sweet music at the end of a tunnel certainly felt like it was one of those moments.

And our violin-guide did not lead us astray. As we stepped into the blinding, warmth-enveloping light at the end of the tunnel, we involuntarily stopped in our tracks, eyes glued to the splendid scene before us. This was the fortress we had come to see. Behind us, the wall meandered through the hills endlessly. Before us, the sparkling Mediterranean sea was framed by a bustling waterfront lined with little boats, and lush gardens and palm trees filled in the edges. We hiked up the steep path along the fortress wall, planted ourselves on a stone ledge, and soaked in the beauty of it all.

 Several peaceful minutes later, we descended down the fortress and were about to decide where to go next when we heard an electric guitar playing a slow song around the corner from us. Laughing to ourselves, we obediently followed the music. It took us to a lively plaza and up on our right appeared the ruins of a Roman theatre nestled into the bottom of the fortress. We nearly giggled with excitement as we stepped onto the crumbling stone, took our seats on one of the ancient benches, and imagined ourselves sitting for a play (the people-watching from our spot was just as entertaining as any Roman piece of theatre).


So, for the rest of the day, we committed ourselves to following the music. It guided us to the breathtakingly beautiful Cathedral, to a giant, multicolored cube, a gorgeous waterfront with salty sea air and an adorable Christmas market, a bench with the perfect view of a caricaturist hard at work, and a quaint gelato shop with the most divine red orange flavored gelato we had ever tasted and probably will ever taste again in our lives.

 We forgot all about our list of “must-sees” and not once did we again pull out our phones to ask them where to go. We let Málaga and its music guide us to its little wonders and it made for an absolutely perfect day.

Día de los Reyes Magos

Christmas time in Spain is just as magical and wonderful as it is in the United States. Every city puts up a tree, festive lights are hung from the buildings, and children look forward to playing with toys on Christmas morning…

Oh wait, that last one doesn’t apply to Spain.

Gifts are most certainly brought, just not by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve night. Rather, it’s the Three Wise Men that visit homes and leave gifts the night before the twelfth day of Christmas aka Three Kings Day - el Día de los Reyes Magos.

I happened to be in a small port town in southern Spain called El Puerto de Santa María on January 5th, the day before Three Kings Day, and was treated to a spectacular show of festivities prepared for the occasion.

As I wandered through the narrow cobblestone streets, I suddenly found myself in the midst of Christmas music and crowds of children and families huddled together trying to catch a glimpse of the floats passing by for the Three Kings Parade. Children in costumes sitting on the floats tossed out candies, and the children in the crowd scrambled around with bags, gathering up as many pieces as they could and squealing with joy as they counted their treasures.


After the last float passed, I fell in line behind it and followed it to its destination - el Castillo de San Marcos. The magnificent castle was decorated with flags to welcome the Three Kings, who climbed up and stood between the stone pillars, telling the story of their visit to baby Jesus, and tossing out gifts to the children below. Jolly music and merry singing filled the air, along with puffs of “snow” and colorful confetti. The happiness of everyone there was palpable and infectious. 


It was an absolutely marvelous celebration, and an experience I would highly recommend to all Spain travelers!

Why Teach Abroad?


The first time I heard that teaching English abroad was a real thing, I thought, “Wow, what a cool thing to do with your life!

Yet, despite my intrigue, I never considered it to be a serious option for myself. It was something other people did, not me. I don’t know why, but I felt it carried a stigma of not being a viable post-graduation plan.

However, now that I’ve chosen to go through with it and have been living in Spain for over four months, I can happily say that that line of thinking was completely misguided - this has without a doubt been one of the best life decisions I’ve made to date. Period.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on why this experience has been so wonderful and influential to my growth as an individual. So, without further ado, here are my three reasons why anyone who is even remotely interested in the idea of teach abroad should definitely consider it as a legitimate option:

1. The People You Meet and Everything They Teach You

Naturally, moving to a new country means meeting a lot of new people from a different culture. I both expected and looked forward to meeting a lot of Spaniards and becoming immersed in Spanish culture while living in Madrid. What has surprised me, though, is how much I've learned from meeting and speaking with the other language assistants like me.

I say “like me” lightly because in reality, the language assistants in Madrid come from all over the world, with different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. We are united by the fact that we all chose to come to Spain to teach, which builds a bond and sense of community between us, making it that much easier to learn from each other and grow together. It has been so wonderful to listen to how others found their way to teach abroad, what they want to get out of it, and where they want to go next. As someone who is searching for my own path in life and struggling to figure out my next steps, this exposure to the variety of viable paths available to me has been eye-opening and inspiring. 

2. The Free Time that Shows You What’s Important to You

As a language assistant, I work sixteen hours a week. Sounds super lush, right? What on earth could I possibly do to fill up all that free time?

That’s just it, though. I can do anything I want with all that free time. Teach abroad is a breath of fresh air after working myself to the bone studying in a high-pressure, fast-paced American University. I used to be so busy and focused on school that I never had time to discover what was truly important to me. How could I possibly have chosen a career path right out of college if I had never figured out what I want from life?

This year is giving the opportunity to do just that: to learn what my priorities are and what will make me happy in life. I’ve discovered a newfound love for cooking, something I never had time for before. I’m getting the chance to travel and see more of the world, and the more I see and experience, the better I’m able to define my goals for the future. I’m slowly starting to grasp what’s important to me and how to build a fulfilling lifestyle. 

3. The Different Way of Life that Teaches you Life Skills

Living in another country, immersed in another language and culture, has taught me a lot of practical skills. Problem solving and improvisation are much more second-nature to me now, as I’ve had to navigate and survive in an unfamiliar world. From trying to buy groceries I don’t know the name of to needing to get to the hospital in the middle of the night by myself, I’ve had to learn to use my resources and even more importantly, how to ask good questions.

Furthermore, the very fact that I’ve adapted to a different way of living has broadened my mind and made me inherently more understanding of cultural differences, and I believe that is a fundamental skill that will never cease to be of use in any future endeavors I undertake.


So there you have it! Of course, not everyone’s experience is the same, so the above list merely represents the reasons I’ve personally found to be the most valuable and rewarding, and why I will forever be grateful that I made this choice. I hope they may be of help to anyone who is on the fence about deciding to teach abroad!

To Learn the Local Language or Not?

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Last weekend was a weekend of firsts. Not only did I visit the gorgeous country of Portugal for the first time, but it was also my first time being in a country where I didn’t speak the local language. Until then, I’d only ever been to English-speaking countries (USA, Canada, and England) and Spain.

As a lover of languages, I decided to try to learn some basic Portuguese to prepare for the trip. During the weeks leading up to my departure, I loyally completed my daily DuoLingo lessons and listened to YouTube recordings of useful phrases, repeating them constantly so that I could use them if necessary. 

Yet, once on Portuguese soil I discovered that my efforts had been rather unnecessary. Not one time during the five day trip did I come across someone that didn’t at least know English or Spanish. Sometimes when I would try to use my newly learned phrases, my American accent would give me away and whoever I was speaking with would automatically switch to English for me.

I’ve been told that this is the case throughout much of Europe - that English is everywhere and we English speakers therefore have no need to learn foreign languages because we can get by easily enough without them.

But what do we lose by depending on our English to get by in the world? In my opinion, quite a lot!

For one, we’re losing out on an opportunity to exercise our brains! Language learning is a great way to keep the mind and memory skills sharp.

We also miss the chance to show respect towards the people of the country we’re visiting. They are “hosting” us as tourists, and to me it seems only polite that we make a small effort to use our hosts’ language. It’s a small gesture that goes a long way, not only for avoiding breakdowns in communication, but also for encouraging positive cultural exchange.

Lastly, we deprive ourselves of the beauty of experiencing a new culture through its own language. Language and culture are inherently intertwined, so by learning a little bit of the language, you are therefore brought closer to the culture. You can appreciate it on a level that goes a bit deeper than the surface experience of looking at cool art and architecture. For a just sliver of a second, you can come closer to understanding not only what it’s like to visit a new country, but what it’s like to live there the way the locals do. It’s a both a humbling and thrilling feeling like no other.

So yes, English is a global language, but in my opinion, that doesn’t mean it’s the only one that matters. If you like to travel, I invite you to enrich your experiences even further by always making just a little effort to learn the local language. You won't regret it!

City Spotlight: Segovia

Ever since I visited Spain two years ago, I've been raving about how Toledo is my absolute favorite city in the entire world.

But now, I think I’m going to have to say I have a two-way tie, because I just visited Segovia for the first time and am already in love.

Just like Toledo, Segovia is a magical place. Walking through its old, narrow streets I felt as though I had walked through a portal in time, with the city’s ancient buildings and vestiges of the past inviting me to contemplate what the world used to be like centuries ago. An overwhelming sense of humility and awe came over me as I took it all in, and as the bus took me away, I was already eagerly planning my return.

Whether or not you’re inclined to such emotional and philosophical reactions to ancient cities as I am, Segovia is certainly a place all can enjoy! Here are three reasons why Segovia is an absolute must-see:

1) Alcázar de Segovia IMG_1004
Disney fans will be delighted to know that this majestic castle is rumored to have inspired the Cinderella castle in Disney World. I would highly recommend touring the inside and enjoying the breathtaking landscape views from the castle's mighty tower.

2) Acueductos de Segovia IMG_0950
As one of the city's only remains of Roman times, the aqueducts are a glorious sight to behold. They stand tall and proud smack in the middle of the city, surrounded by adorable shops and restaurants. Also worth a climb to the top!

3) Catedral de Segovia IMG_0897
A testament to Gothic architecture, the cathedral is simply awe-inspiring. Its intricate designs and powerfully looming presence make it a worthy visit. 

Other notable Segovian sights are the Plaza Mayor, Casa de los Picos, and Barrio Judío, among many others. In short, a highly recommended and very easy day trip from Madrid!

Can Openers

Today, I did battle with a can opener.

Here’s how it happened:

Fall has descended upon Madrid, and with the arrival of cooler temperatures and browning leaves has also come nostalgic memories of growing up in New England during autumn-time. Colorful leaves, crisp air, and pumpkin- and apple-everything: bread, pie, crisp, cider, you name it. While I still cannot thank my lucky stars enough to be living here in Spain, this season has got me missing home a little bit more than usual.

So, I decided to bring a little New England fall magic to Spain by bringing some pumpkin bread and apple crisp to my kitchen.

The first obstacle to overcome was finding all the ingredients I needed. American recipes unfortunately do NOT cater to people living abroad, and I begrudgingly ended up at a Taste of America store to buy a can of pumpkin purée (I could’ve gotten a pumpkin easily enough to make my own purée, but as my mom always says - not only is canned easier, but sometimes it even tastes better).

So, with my kitchen fully stocked with all necessary ingredients, I was ready to start mixing some magic. First up was the pumpkin bread.

Step one: open the can of pumpkin.

That’s when I realized that my flat did not have a can opener...at least not the kind I was accustomed to using. We did have a small metal piece with a curved tooth that clearly seemed to be intended for puncturing cans...but I could not for the life of me figure out how to use it.


Five google searches on how-to-open-a-can-without-a-can-opener later, I was sweating profusely from struggling to pry open the lid and nervously praying that I wouldn't injure myself in the process. After a solid thirty minutes, I finally made a hole just large enough to start desperately scooping out the pumpkin with a tiny spoon. It took another five minutes just to coax it all out.

When the mushy pumpkin was all sitting triumphantly in my bowl, I nearly cried from joy at the victory. And I could’ve kissed that sweet-smelling pumpkin bread when I took it out of the oven. The top was burnt because, naturally, I hadn’t set the oven to the right setting, but at that point, I was just grateful to even have pumpkin bread, burnt or not. 

Now, opening a can was something that I had mentally checked off the list of things I know how to do. As was baking something in an oven. As was going to the grocery store for ingredients. As was...etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

But moving to and living in Spain has completely changed my perspective on these types of things - the things I thought I already knew how to do. Skills and tools I took for granted. Little things like can openers that I just grew up learning and can’t even remember being taught.

Yet, I’m realizing that as frustrating as they are, these can-opener moments are incredibly important - they help us become more competent and knowledgeable adults. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of wanting to avoid looking like you don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s truly much more rewarding to test something out, fail, and be that much wiser for having tried.

In the end, I dove into a delicious bowl of pumpkin bread, apple crisp, and vanilla ice cream, tasting memories of my childhood and the satisfaction of a battle hard won. So, my advice is to not be afraid of discovering your “can openers” and to make sure you give them all you’ve got, because it’s those victories that taste (sometimes quite literally) the sweetest.


A Festival-Filled Long Weekend: Continued

My stomach was rumbling, my legs were cramped, and I felt sore from sitting in one position on the bus for the four hours it took to drive from Madrid to Zaragoza. But all that discomfort instantly dissolved as we turned the corner and I caught my first glimpse of the magnificent Basílica del Pilar, with its colorfully-tiled dome tops and looming bell towers. I gasped aloud, along with most of the people on the bus, and my heart starting pumping with excitement for the day ahead.


We were herded off the bus, handed tourist maps, and set free to roam the city to our heart’s content. My friend and I immediately made it our mission to visit as many of the historic landmarks as we could. Lucky for us, they’re all pretty much located on one quadrant of the city, starting at the Basílica. As we walked, we passed something old and beautiful nearly every couple of minutes, and squealed in awe every time.

Then, for just five euros (student discount), we could tour the museums of Zaragoza’s ancient theatre, public baths, forum, and river port - remnants of the city’s Roman origins. At the theatre museum, I was utterly fascinated to learn that the ruins had been so buried underground that no one had realized they even existed until 1972. I stood there, surrounded by the crumbling benches, and closed my eyes, trying to imagine the once magnificent, three-story theatre. I could picture Romans filling the rows, laughing and reacting together to the performance before them. What a sight it must have been.


Suddenly, the upbeat sounds of a marching band interrupted my nostalgic thoughts and I was brought back to the present, to modern-day Zaragoza. The music was wafting down from the streets above, signaling that a parade was passing by. My friend and I decided to join in the festivities and hurried out of the museum to fall in line with the crowds of people dancing and marching down the street. Many were dressed head to toe in a bright royal blue color, with scarfs that had the word “Zaragoza” printed in crisp, white print. Many also carried bottles of wine with glasses, taking advantage of the fact that during the festival it is legal to serve and consume alcoholic beverages on the streets.

We then made our way to the riverfront, where countless artisans had set up stalls to sell their homemade goods and food. We passed a giant shrine of flowers made to honor saint Pilar, and a stage where local artists played their sets throughout the day and night. Spontaneous traditional dancing filled the streets - the kind that makes you wish you knew the steps so you could jump in. And, of course, fireworks went off at night to celebrate the end of the festival.


By the time my friend and I re-boarded our bus at 2:30 in the morning, we were dizzy from the whirlwind adventures of the day. As I dragged my extremely exhausted body back home from the bus stop at 6:30 in the morning, head pounding and feet aching, I couldn’t help but feel grateful. Grateful to be here, living in Spain, and having the opportunity to experience magical days like the Festival del Pilar, and hopefully many more come!


A Festival-Filled Long Weekend

Hypothetical question: what would you do if someone were to tell you that you’re about to have a five day weekend?

That was a question I got to ask myself in reality when the bilingual coordinator at my school handed me my class schedule and holiday calendar and I realized that I had five days off the following weekend.

My mind began racing with the possibilities of places I could visit - beaches, mountains, even other countries. After a couple hours of research, I ultimately decided to capitalize on one of the best parts of living in a country like Spain - festivals!

I was lucky enough to be able to make it to the last day of Semana Cervantina in Alcalá de Henares as well as the last day of Festival Pilar in Zaragoza.

First up:

Semana Cervantina

Alcalá de Henares is a quaint little town that lies about forty minutes to the north-east of Madrid (cercanías lines C-2 and C-7). It is the birthplace of famous Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, whose house is still intact and can be toured for free!

Cervantes is best known for his work Don Quijote de la Mancha. For those that haven’t heard of it, here is my very humble and very simplified summary: a man who has a bit of an obsession with books about knights and chivalry wakes up one morning and declares himself a knight named Don Quijote. Don Quijote then convinces a farmer named Sancho to be his squire, and the pair set off on a string of haphazard adventures, including fighting “giants” (read: windmills) and rescuing “damsels” (read: loose women).


Naturally, Spain loves a good Don Quijote reference, and Alcalá de Henares is the motherland of paying homage to this fictional character and his creator. As a literature nerd who has taken an entire class on the novel, I was perhaps a little too excited to attend an entire festival dedicated to Cervantes.

And let me tell you, Semana Cervantina did not disappoint. Mere minutes after leaving the train station I stumbled upon the “Mercado Cervantino” in Plaza de Cervantes, where artisan stalls lined the streets selling trinkets, clothing, jewelry, pastries, and locally produced cheese and jamón. Medieval style flags were strung up in the air above the streets, which were bustling with people, many of whom wore medieval costumes. Children ran about and squealed with delight as the carnival rides spun them around and around. The atmosphere positively buzzed with energy and spirit.


But the best had yet to come. Just as I was getting ready to head back to Madrid, I heard music coming from down the street and noticed a herd of people gathering. I approached the melodious sounds and pushed through the crowd of people until I came face to face with Don Quijote himself - shield and spear in hand - riding his white steed, and Sancho Panza - flask in hand - riding his donkey. The characters were parading the streets, accompanied by musicians and two men holding a live snake and eagle. I nearly burst out laughing at the sight and couldn’t help but admire their level of dedication.

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All in all, an amazing day! Stay tuned for a follow-up post about the Pilar Festival in Zaragoza!

An Ode to Plain Bagels with Cream Cheese

In the United States, there exists a wondrous delicacy -

A mouthwateringly tasty one, crafted with expertise -

That is known by all and enjoyed universally,

Called the Plain Bagel with Cream Cheese.

It features a donut-shaped roll of fluffy dough

Packed tightly, with crisped edges toasted golden,

And a layer of soft, creamy goodness smeared on top.

In America, for a bagel one need not search high and low.

But in España, this delightful country which I have chosen,

The quest has been extremely daunting, shop after shop after shop...


For most people, one of the most exciting parts of moving to any foreign country is being surrounded by local cuisine and getting the chance to try new dishes nearly every day. 

I am not one of those people.

“But it’s Spain, how can you live in Spain and not want to try the paella, and the gazpacho, and the patatas bravas, and the salmorejo, and the pisto, and the tortilla española, and the…” The list could go on for a while.

The problem is: I am a picky eater. It has absolutely nothing to do with foreign foods - I struggle to find things to order at American restaurants at home. I’m not proud of it, and I’m working to broaden my horizons (one of my goals for this year!), but it’s not likely to magically happen overnight.

However, after a month of grocery shopping in Madrid, I can happily attest to the fact that even picky eaters have nothing to worry about here. Right off the bat, I was able to find and prepare many of the foods I would eat at home - pasta, eggs with toast, peanut butter sandwiches, and turkey and cheese sandwiches (although of late I’ve been opting for the oh-so-very-Spanish jamón y queso bocadillos).

But even after weeks of successfully finding my comfort foods, there was one that still eluded me: my beloved plain bagel with cream cheese. I was determined to find it.

Though rare, bagels are not impossible to find in Madrid. Naturally, I began my quest for them at the Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks coffee shops that are scattered throughout the city. To my dismay, however, the only types of bagels these shops offer are sesame. Being the picky eater that I am, I must have plain bagels. 

So, I turned to my good friend Google and found lists of the best places to find bagels in Madrid. One morning, I set off and traversed all over the city, visiting each and every one with high hopes, but with little success. It seemed as though, while bagels themselves are rare in Madrid, plain bagels are non-existent.

And then, finally, at a tiny little cafe called Panela & Co, victory was mine.


The price was steep (6,95€), but I paid it without hesitation and savored every single bite of that glorious plain bagel with cream cheese with pure and overwhelming bliss.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s good advice to spend too much of your time on a foreign adventure in search of food from home. But every once in awhile, I say go for it. Ironically, my quest for a taste of home brought me to many new neighborhoods in Madrid that I had yet to explore. It’s all about balance and finding your happiness - whatever and wherever that is - so go find it!


NOTE: Since writing this post, I have found another café, called Juicy Avenue, that has a variety of bagel and cream cheese flavors for much cheaper prices.

IMG_0418I will be continuing to take note of all the good bagel places I find, so if anyone is interested, please don’t hesitate to contact me!


The other day I went to visit Aranjuez (the town I'll be teaching in) to have a look around and become familiar with the area. After just ten minutes of exploring, I stumbled across this gorgeous view of the Palacio Real de Aranjuez and was rendered speechless...needless to say, I think I'm going to like it here :)


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