Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Chef Birthday

I had a nice, quiet birthday this year. Not quiet by Canadian standards, as I was out until at least 3 a.m., three nights in a row (my night in Villacarrillo ended at 7 a.m.!). One thing that I do love to do is have a theme - remember last year's Ugly Christmas Sweater birthday? This year, it was Top Chef. I really love this Spanish show. The problem is that it starts at 10:30 p.m. and ends at midnight, even 12:30 a.m. sometimes. Not good news when you have to get up at 7:30 the next day.
Victor, Marc, y Peña. Just kidding.
What did I cook? Lasagna, a simple recipe my mother taught me. It's my standard go-to to please a crowd. The others whipped up an awesome four-cheese quiche, and a delicious chocolate pie. Those who ask who the winner was, my response is we all won. The food was good! We were so full we almost didn't go out.
To be honest, it feels very strange to say my age. But it comes up a lot, because there are certain behaviourisms I have that make others think, "How old is she, exactly?" Like when I start to sing the lyrics to old Depeche Mode and NKOTB songs. Or when I cringe seeing clothes I used to wear on younger people. Or when I tell kids that I used to make mixed cassettes for friends, and they ask, "What's a cassette?"
But, there's no denying that age conquers all. Rather than shrink inside myself when I tell people how old I am, it's probably better to just outright declare it, proudly. After all, I've accomplished many dreams in my time on this planet, and there are many more to go.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

I Be Old

Last night, I received a spontaneous message from a friend inviting me to drinks. Eager to meet more people, I said yes. We went to El Chato, an old bar with a homey atmosphere. We drank at the stand-up bar outside, as it was completely full inside. Even though it was only 8 Celsius, I didn't mind because I had my winter coat and boots. It was great speaking Spanish with the guys. I'm sure they were pronouncing very carefully for me, which I appreciated because the Jaén accent and talking speed are difficult to understand. An hour later some auxiliaries arrived, and the waiter granted us a table.

As we ate, one of the auxiliaries asked what I did before I moved to Spain to teach. Hardly anyone in our program was a teacher before coming here, and not many continue teaching once they leave. I stated, very proudly, “I was a video editor. I worked at a t.v. news station for thirteen years.”

She stared. “Did you say 'thirteen'? How old are you?”


“WHAT?!?” She then proceeded to translate for the French auxiliary what I'd said.

The French girl was confused. “Vingt-six?”

“No,” her friend answered, “TRENTE-six!”

“Dude! My roomate's 20. You could be his mom!”

Everytime this happens, it makes me laugh but I also feel a bit embarassed. I asked everyone else's ages, and it turned out that I was the oldest at the table. The girls were flipping out, saying I looked ten years younger. It's cool that I could get away with wearing short skirts and wild hair colors (if I wanted to), but one disadvantage is that once people find out my age, it tends to change the atmosphere. People stare at me, flabbergasted. 
In my circle of close friends, there are those in their twenties, and older ones who are 40, 45, 50...I get along well with all of them, although with the youngins, I'm usually the one to go home earliest, as in midnight or 1 a.m. I think what matters in forming friendships is not the age, but the attitude you carry.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Reaching Out

The work day has ended. You're about to exit the room and head home, when I suddenly ask, “Hey, want to walk home together?”
You're confused, as I never ask this. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I just....don't want to walk home alone today.”
“Alright. Let me grab my coat.”
We stroll out of the building. “So, how are you adjusting so far?”
Tiredly, I reply, “It's okay. It's a lot, having to switch English groups all the time, plus the sheer number of students, but I'm getting used to it. Poco a poco, ¿no?” I say, smiling.
“Do you like Jaén?”
“More than in the beginning, for sure. There's lots to do here. I haven't visited everything, but there's time. I'm here for a while.”
“And is there anything you don't like?”
My pause lasts ages. “The racist things people say.”
You blink, and stammer “What?” You weren't expecting that. You thought I'd talk about the crazy drivers, the strange weather, the hills when walking.
“Yeah, sometimes when I'm on the street, kids yell '¡China!' But not in a good way. I can tell when there's hate behind what they're saying. I guess I can't be surprised,” I reason, my voice and my steps growing weary. “There's not a lot of us here.”
You're shocked. “Yeah, but that's rude. No matter if they've seen someone like you before or not, that's not nice.
“You deserve respect. You're a person that deserves to be respected.”
I feel a huge burden lift off my shoulders, and with relief, I smile at you.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Spanish Birthday

Hair styled, earrings dangling, and lips glossed, we were in the living room trying to pay attention to the soccer match on t.v., nervously waiting for the birthday girl to finish getting ready. “What's the rush?” she protested, “Nobody shows up for dinner anyways until 9:30.”

We looked at each other nervously. Arriving an hour late for the birthday surprise wouldn't do. “We have to be on time,” one of us answered. “People are waiting.”

For the entire week we had excitedly chatted on Whatsapp about the surprise: a private flamenco show in a little cave housed by one of Villacarrillo's bars. I had jumped on a bus 80 km away to come for the party. Seeing old friends was always a treat, but having live Spanish music was the icing on the cake.

The birthday girl's mom, normally very calm, threw open the front door and yelled, “C'mon, go, go! You have to leave now!” The girl, very confused, climbed into the car and off we went. “Why are you driving so fast? Slow down, we're in a pueblo.”

I stammered, “Uh,...I'm just really hungry.”

We arrived at the empty bar and the owner said, “Oh, you're the first ones to arrive.” The birthday girl rolled her eyes in a manner of “Told you so.”

“Why don't you have dinner tonight in the cave?” said the owner slyly. We approached its entrance, which was almost pitch black. “Can someone turn on the light?” said the birthday girl. “I can't see where I'm going.”

“Don't worry, the switch is inside.” I said.

Suddenly, in the darkness, there was a quick strum of a guitar. As our eyes adjusted, we saw a platform flanked by a guitarist and singers. A deep, strong voice pierced the oscurity with a monologue about Andalucía calling back its daughter to the village for her birthday, which made us applaud with delight.

The atmosphere took a joyous turn with songs of alegria and passion, and in the cozy space people stood up whenever the emotion overtook them, fingers snapping, feet stamping out a gypsy beat. The mood was exhilarating.
As we stood up and danced and clapped, someone asked the girl what she thought of the surprise. “One of the best birthdays of my life!” she shouted, beaming.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


In my past, I stuck hard and fast to personal rules I believed to be helpful, such as not eating crap food, and not going out too late. Thing is, it was easy to do that. I already had a circle of friends.

Now, having moved to Spain, I do compromise on my personal rules in order to not make people around me feel uncomfortable nor disturb the waters. I'm trying my best to culturally immerse myself.  If everyone else is drinking alcohol, and I feel nervous about speaking in a Spanish-only group, I'll have a tinto, thanks. When it's time to eat, bars have a limited selection, thus the waiter has no patience for me to order “patatas a lo pobre, but half olive oil, no salt, and only the whites of the eggs, please.” Just take the runny, oily, delicious plate, eat it, and sop up the rest with white, carbo-rich bread. 
(Insert Homer Simpson drool here)
In Canada, I tried hard to stand-out from the crowd. Here, when I buy clothes or makeup, I think about what people in Jaén would find “acceptable”. So no wild colors in my hair, in order to appear professional at work (because I look very young for my age yet I want to convey an air of 'authority' with my students). Mature clothing, avoiding things from 'Seventeen' magazine (although for off-hours, it's no holds barred). Makeup is the same old, same old. No wild eyeliner or crazy, pink lips (maybe in Madrid, for clubbing).

People come over last minute and want to have a fatty meal and drinks? In the past I would've politely declined, and spent a boring night home alone. Here, forget my schedule of going to bed early and hitting the gym the next morning. I'm going to put everything aside and hit the town. The gym can wait another day. Besides, walking all the way to the other side of Jaén for the best bars means – workout!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


In high school, my favourite subjects were Music, Art, and Computer Programming (in Basic, for all you old-timers like me). Although I was curious and tried to enjoy courses like Chemistry, my math skills were sub-par at best and complex formulas were not my thing.

In a revengeful way, my lack of interest in math and science have come back to bite me in the butt. I remember the day my boss sent my teaching schedule for the high school I'm an auxiliar at. As an English conversation assistant, do I have any English classes this year? Hell no. Instead, I assist in Math, Physics, Geology, History, and Biology. WTF. The exact courses I almost failed in Canada.

How does one teach Math in English, you ask? Like this: the teacher tells me the topic of what will be covered - "mixed fractions", for example. He supplies a text that the students read, line by line. However, being teenagers, they don't merely read. They chatter, throw pieces of paper at each other, start fighting over pencils...the usual. So suddenly my class becomes "Math and 'Quit Bothering Pablo Over the Pen and Read the Next Line YES I'M TALKING TO YOU.' "

I do have some lovely groups, though. There are definitely classes where the students are practically begging to read out loud in English, which is amazing because I certainly preferred daydreaming about cute boys when I was their age. (P.S. Nothing´s changed.)

My first few weeks at work, I almost lost my voice trying to shout over the din. Now I understand that teaching kids involves an inner strength and discipline, which you convey to the kids so that they stop talking and try to listen. The children I teach, they are mostly good and are very smart. I can see that this job will be a very interesting one, and I will learn a lot to supplement my career.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


As a “Language and Culture” Assistant, I did the obligatory talks at the high school I work in about Hallowe'en in Canada. (As a result of a lyric gap-fill English exercise, I now have “The Monster Mash” stuck in my head.) The younger students seemed really into the spirit of Hallowe'en. I'd enter their classes and see 30 cats / Batmen / wizards. The classrooms were decorated with spiders, witches, Harry Potter and Corpse Bride stuff.

During the evenings I wasn't in a partying mood, so I didn't put on a costume and hit the pubs like many other auxiliaries did. However, I did branch out and attend two events: an intercambio, which was a really great opportunity to meet new people, and a Hallowe'en tour of monuments in Jaén.
Getting freaked out during the tour.
The tour was really interesting, and frightening, too (I get nervous in dark places). My Spanish professor recounted legends about children, secret lovers, and priests who met their untimely deaths, and forever are doomed to haunt the streets and buildings of Jaén. My roomate, who has lived here for years, actually had no idea about some of the legends I told her about. It's funny how we don't normally take the time to be a tourist in our own hometowns.

Afterwards we barhopped, enjoying cheap drinks (maximum 2E for a “sangria” or beer) and huge, complimentary tapas. A nice, quiet night to round out my Hallowe'en weekend.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Ugly and the Beautiful

I've been thinking about race and being a foreigner a lot lately. In Canada, when I was young, my father was an angry man who was very sensitive about any racial issue that he perceived against him. I can remember a couple of incidents where he'd yell at a Caucasian for some kind of injustice, or for being called “Chinese”. As I grew into an adult, the opportunities I was able to enjoy, plus the wave of immigration into my city, made me forget the issue. As far as I was concerned, being a woman of colour was not a big deal where I grew up.

Then I moved to Spain. Specifically, non-touristy Jaén. A very mono-cultural city. I think I've seen 10 Asians and a handful of African people since moving here. Coming from my multi-cultural city, it's a very isolating feeling, to be different amongst thousands. I've become hyperaware of how Asian I look. After a few incidents over the past year, I'll admit that lately I've been paranoid. When I enter conversation with a stranger, in the back of my mind I wonder how it will turn out: will they be welcoming? Or put on a grouchy expression and impatiently speak so quickly that I have to back out? When I am approached by a non-smiling person, I wonder: will they stare and keep walking? Or will this be the day I get cursed at? It's tiring to keep wondering about this. Plus it's morphing my mind into something I don't want to be burdened with.

If you try too hard to avoid the bad things, then you can't remember the good ones. The teacher who laughs at your jokes and encourages you. The nice guys who love your Rolling Stones shirt, and tell you about seeing them in concert in Madrid. The people who smile when you mention Canada, and say they really would like to visit it one day. The student who listens to your every word, and raises their hand to participate. The kids who shoot their hand up before you even finish your question, “Who wants to volunteer to read?” Seeing an Asian kid laughing with her Spanish schoolfriends. The shop owner who beams when you walk in, and asks about your week. The bus driver who loves to kid around and greet you in a funny way.

Really, what should I be focusing on? The negative moments only? Or the hundreds of good times that come to pass? My mind is a terrible thing; it tends to focus on bad things, for some reason. Perhaps reflecting on all that is good, and remembering that the beauty of it all includes both sides of the coin, can help reset my path.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Jaén Impressions

Only two weeks in, so I'm still settling into my new city, Jaén. I feel discombobulated, but I remember I felt this way in Villacarrillo in October 2013, so poco a poco. First impressions:

-       Jaén really IS  a “big pueblo”, as they say. True, it's ten times the size of Vcar, but there are so many pueblo aspects: the empty streets on Sundays, people STARING, and not a lot of English (although the level is higher than in Vcar).
-        There are some 'bad' parts of town. For example, the “Poli”. 10 p.m. is basically the cutoff for a Canadian like me to walk around there.
-        One of my students asked if Asians eat cats. WTF. In reality, I smiled and said no. In my mind, I bodyslammed him.
-    High school students are not as bad as I'd thought. I came into this job with a sinking feeling in my stomach, but I changed my attitude and they're actually okay people. Except "cat boy" (see above).
-        About a week ago the rain started pouring almost every day. People are depressed, but I kind of like it because it reminds me of home. Terrible for the Jaén feria, though.
Jaén's opening parade for feria
-        Dog owners: you need to pick up after your dogs. Seriously. It's as bad here as the streets of Paloma, Italy. I get asked what I think of Jaén's monuments and I answer, “I don't know because I'm too busy LOOKING AT THE GROUND WHILE I WALK.”
-        There is a running track near my house, and at night it's lit with a few lights but crowded as hell. Moral: don't wear black. Other runners won't see you and you'll get bodyslammed.

Although I severely miss Vcar, I do see the advantages of living here: easy access to train travel and better Blablacar trips (putting “Villacarrillo” as my starting point didn't do me any favors); things to do on Sundays; gyms where women lift weights, a running track at night; and university classes. I'm still working on settling in, but I'm confident it won't take too long.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Gracias Villacarrillo

I've moved out of Villacarrillo and skydived into the insanity of moving to the capital, Jaén. Amidst all the noise, traffic, people, and apartment renos, I find myself regressing into that special place in my heart for mi pueblo, Villacarrillo. I feel depressed.

And what better way to cure one's depression, than to wallow in it and pay homage to what ails thee?

Thank you, Villacarrillo.

Thank you for teaching me to be strong, by giving me an alien environment in which to grow and explore. This city girl fell in love with the tranquil lifestyle, the warm people, the cozy pubs, the streets that were empty during siesta and while stumbling home at 5 in the morning, the gorgeous stars that filled the sky as I walked home. I felt secure walking in your streets, although at first your people stared at me with eyes that pierced through the shield that surrounds me. Later those eyes transformed into smiling recognition as we exchanged “Adio'”.

In the beginning, I could barely ask for vegetables at the produce store. By the time I left, I was having long discussions that lasted deep into the night, even after the pub owners were mopping up the last of the discarded serviettes and pipa shells.

As they say, “You arrive crying and you leave crying.” The resistance I felt in my body my first few weeks in Villacarrillo turned into a connection. I met amazing people that reflected this side of the world, and some of them even carry me into the next phase of my journey.

I loved gathering with my friends in your pubs. I loved taking a slow walk from one place to another, stopping each time to talk, discuss, argue, and laugh before moving on – eventually – to the next gathering. I loved the affection I received from friends and acquaintances. When they greeted me, they were so warm I felt like I was the center of their world, even if it was just for a brief moment. Whenever I was in need, neighbours and friends stepped up to help, even if they were in need themselves. It made me want to adopt parts of their personality – warm, touching, smiling, generous, friendly, loving.

Even the things I didn't like, helped me become who I am. Unlike in Canada, where it's easy for me to feel one with the crowd, in Villacarrillo I learned to accept that in Jaén I am strange and unique, and I had to work harder at accepting that in order to feel comfortable.

During the noisiest times (loud pubs, la feria) I learned that I love peace and quiet, and I learned to create space during my day to honour that need.

I learned that dating is often very different here, and sometimes a single girl has to change up her technique in order to make any progress.

I learned that for any one person who chose not to accept me, there were 20 more ready to take their place and be my friend. The world is filled with much more good than bad.

Will you ever know how much you changed my life? I don't know if I could ever return the favor with the same ardour, but please know that there will always be a special place in my soul for mi pueblo.
View of the sierra from my bedroom.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Year One Lookback

I laugh whenever I remember how I felt upon arriving in Spain one year ago: scared out of my wits, lost, confused, alone. I have since settled in very comfortably, and am absolutely loving my life here. It's a lot of fun answering the questions I asked myself in Canada a year ago:

Will I make friends?
Yes. Very good friends, in fact. I'm extremely sad to be leaving my pueblo, but luckily I'm not too far away and I can visit whenever I want.

Even my Cdn friends saw Vcar!

Will I fall in love?
Yes....but with my life, not with any particular guy (although I still hold hope!) I remember how I felt about Villacarrillo in the beginning, and now that's all changed and I love my pueblo.
I will miss la sierra
At my lowest point I wrote about dating in a pueblo. Ironically, not long after, I was suddenly catching the attention of all kinds of men. Most were from bigger cities, which has only added to my excitement in moving to Jaén.

Will I become fluent in Spanish?
Yes...but halfway. Although I'm very immersed in Spanish culture and am able to communicate easily (using the local accent, too!), I've taken almost no formal Spanish classes while living in Villacarrillo. I recently took a level test at the University of Jaén. It turned out that while my speaking level was C1, my grammar and vocabulary level were B1. So this year I will start B2 Spanish classes.

Will I find students for private classes?
Heck yeah! Spain really needs native speakers. I had no trouble finding students; in fact, I turned a few away for lack of time. Plus, I was able to demand a good hourly rate.

Will I stay in Spain permanently?
When I was in Canada, I viewed my move to Europe as permanent. During my first winter here, it was tough and I thought I'd move back to Canada. But when Spring rolled around, I decided to stay for at least one more year. Then in the summer, I extended that to two more years so that I could pursue a C1 level of Spanish. Obviously my plans change often, so for now the answer to the original question is “Maybe.” I am enjoying my time here but it can also be frustrating with the paperwork and non-permanency of NALCA job placements, so we shall see.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Feria in the pueblo

As we stood in the stands of the bullfighting ring, Lola had her hand firmly on my arm, forcing me to stay in place. “Look, the men are somersaulting over the bull!” But I didn't want to look. I had already seen the bull's face, its eyes wildly darting about, drool streaming from its mouth as young men taunted it, running away whenever the bull feigned in their direction.

It wasn't a bullfight where the animal was being stabbed, rather it was the pre-show. Still, the bull's eyes haunted me. It was surrounded by people sitting in the stands, watching, while it darted its head to and fro, confused. I'd always thought the somersault pre-bullfighting events would be something I could handle, but I was clearly mistaken. In less than a minute after arriving, I said to Lola, “I'm hungry. Let's go.” I wasn't hungry at all, but my stomach felt sick.

The feria is an interesting event for me, in that it contains a lot of things I don't usually like: animal rights abuses, crowds, loudspeakers, extreme late nights, drunkeness. But with every experience I want to try, I search for things that do appeal to me and focus on those. 
The verbena (an outdoor concert): bad music, good times.
For example, a private flamenco show I attended in the terraza of a bar was a night I won't soon forget. One by one, local singers sat onstage and, as the guitarists plucked out complex, dizzying rhythms, the men opened their mouths and poured their hearts out. Us in the audience were so enthralled by their raw talent, that we all soft-palmed rhythms, which climbed into a beat that was electrifying. Honestly, the night was one big crazy wave of emotion that swelled and ebbed, but never ceased. Even afterwards, my friends and I couldn't stop raving about the amount of raw talent the performers possessed.

The feria has also been an excuse to not work, and go out starting midday until the wee hours of the morning. My friends and I barhop, catching up with people who live outside of Villacarrillo but return every feria to see their family. This village party is also my way of celebrating my last few weeks with these friends. I will of course see them in the future, but who knows when? They ask how often I'll return, and to be honest I'll want to spend lots of time in my new city, getting to know it. So the answer is, probably not very often. But I really love my friends here so I'll return when I can.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Teacher Interrogation: Hannah

I'd like to feature an interview with my friend Hannah, who lived in both Linares and Jaén during her two years in Spain as an English conversation assistant. We met at my first orientation, where she strided up to me and said she recognized me from the auxiliaries' Facebook forum. We've been friends ever since. Hannah was someone who struck many of us first-years with awe, as she seemed extremely integrated into Spanish life – to the point that some of us questioned if she was Spanish (she's not). Her helpfulness, friendliness and generosity made her stand out amongst the people I met this year.

Do you remember what fears and dreams you had before coming to Spain? How did they turn out?

I dreamed about hearing Spanish accents and flamenco guitar music in small, intimate settings. I tried to imagine the tapas culture and what it might be like to take a nap in the middle of the afternoon. And I'm happy to say all those dreams were fulfilled. I picked up a crazy new Spanish accent, listened to authentic, impromptu flamenco music, enjoyed every moment of tapas and cheap drinks after 11 p.m. and learned to fall asleep and awake refreshed in 25 minutes flat on any given afternoon. But the best and most surprising thing, and what I never dreamed would happen, is that it would all turn into something so homely, so normal, that I didn't even give any thought to it anymore. I adapted to Spanish life like it was meant for me, and that made it all that much harder to leave.

Compare Hannah before and after 2 years in Spain.

Two years ago, I was definitely interested in language and travel and culture, but all as foreign concepts. Now I've lived them. For real. Lived them so much that I'd gotten to the point of boredom with them and then came back to the U.S. and learned to appreciate them all over again. And knowing that just gives me a huge load of confidence, of the invincible variety. Like the “if I did that, I can do anything” type of feeling.
I would say the “after” me is infinitely more comfortable in her own skin, in her own abilities, familiar with her own weaknesses and ability to overcome obstacles. I'm so excited now about what I've learned about life and so intrigued to hear others' perspectives that people often confuse me with an outgoing, extroverted person when actually it's quite the opposite. Spain itself gave me the opportunity to reflect and travel, and has given me a passion for life that is just incomparable with the feelings of the person I was before.

How has your return to the U.S. been?

I've gone through all 5 stages of grief, starting with denial and isolation, plus a hollow sense of contentedness or mostly numbness. Then there was anger, mostly at America and its more ridiculous practices (Turn down the freaking air conditioning already! It's summer and it's freezing!) and sometimes even a little resentment towards friends and others that chose to stay on in Spain another year. Later came the bargaining, where I tried to convince myself that I would go back to Spain “at least for the summer” next year and regain the things I felt I had lost. Finally I've moved into a mixed bag phase of depression and acceptance (but mostly acceptance, yay!). I'd say the biggest help in the transition has been constant work on creating a completely different life, one that is unique to before I left and includes lots of new and exciting activities and people...new car, new apartment, new grocery store (haha). This helps trick your brain into thinking you moved to another foreign country, and maintain that “new life” high that, for me, has been so crucial to avoid getting sucked too far into the depression of reverse culture shock.

On another note, I didn't realize how alone I would feel coming back. After two years away I only managed to stay in contact with a handful of my closest friends. Luckily, I have an amazing support system through my family and through the many, many amazing people I've met on my journeys. That's the great thing about traveller friends, they know what it's like to stay in contact long distance and end up being better friends because of it. I didn't expect to feel so alone and so supported (although from long distances) all at the same time.

Top 5 tips for auxiliaries?

#1: Have patience. Everything takes longer in a foreign country because people don't speak your language, both linguistically and culturally. I went in with incredibly low expectations for how fast bureaucracy would move and how long it would take for me to adapt, so that way in the end I found myself pleasantly surprised. Also, people in Spain (well, maybe just in Andalucía) take things slower. If you accept it and adapt, your life will only be more happy and relaxed because of it.

#2: Travel lots, stay home a lot. If you have the opportunity to stay for more than a few months, try to strike a balance between seeing new places and hanging out in your Spanish town, meeting people and forming relationships. Trips eventually fade in your memory, but the people are the ones you'll remember forever.

#3: Take care of yourself and allow for creature comforts. Things were rough that first record-setting winter without a heater and only an intermittent WiFi signal from the neighbours. My homesickness was at its worst during that time. Lesson learned. Your experience will be infinitely more positive if you invest a little into your own comfort. Buy that mattress to replace the box spring you've been sleeping on; indulge in a little American food at Corte Inglés. The decision may make or break your experience abroad.

#4: Say yes to everything (well, almost everything – hee hee). Someone invites you on a weekend trip to visit their grandparents at their pueblo?  Go! You see signs for salsa classes? Get your dance on! Your roommate insists you try the weird-looking food in a Tupperware container from who knows where? Try it! Nine times out of ten you'll be thankful you did.

#5: Be thankful for every minute. Seriously, it goes by so fast, it's not worth it to waste even a minute on negativity. Of course there will be times of confusion, frustration, and doubt, but don't lose your cool completely. Keep your eyes on the prize and don't forget: you're already in Spain, living the dream. No, it won't always be dreamy, but it is ALWAYS what you make of it. And if positivity and thankfulness is the attitude you carry around with you, the hard moments will be manageable and the good moments will be absolutely awesome.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Two Parties and a Night

A recent Saturday I had couldn't have contained more in the way of opposites. The first half of the night was a hipster-themed birthday party. My pueblo friends were confused about what exactly to wear. So who's the expert they called upon? The Canadian, whose city was once voted as one of the worst-dressed cities in the world. Not just for our love of yoga pants, but also for this:

 All week I fielded questions: are rubber boots hipster? (Yes.) Coloured hair? (Yes, as chunks of punky colour, not all-over.) Glasses? (Oh hell yes. The thicker the better.)

After celebrating into the wee hours of the morning, I high-tailed it home and quickly changed into more casual clothes for the Feria de los Moteros (Motorcycle Riders' Party). It's kind of like a yearly gathering in Villacarrillo of spanish Hell's Angels. What are these guys like? Very friendly, it turned out. When I was walking towards the feria, I turned the corner onto a dark street that was completely isolated except for a group of about twenty biker guys. They all stopped talking and stared as I trotted by in my heels and short shorts. I kept my guard up and my serious face on, extremely nervous, until one by one they started muttering, “La chica Canadiense!” (The Canadian girl!) Apparently my friends had told them about the Asian Canadian living in the village. I waved hello, and they smiled back. I stopped and chatted with one of them, whose brother was living in Quebec. I bid them adieu and they said they'd see me later at the concert.

The guys were very friendly, buying us drinks and asking about my experience so far in Villacarrillo. We partied and laughed until the sun came up. What a memorable way to round out my weekend!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A New Dawn

Changes are in the air. Days are cooler, as are the nights. I'm starting to wear jeans again in order to stay warm while sitting in the terrazas. Which has become a regular weekend event, as my days in the village are winding down and I try to make the most of my time with my friends here before moving away.

Whenever the summer turns to fall I excitedly start eyeing the sweaters and jeans in my wardrobe. Having learned from my first winter in Spain, I look forward to nuzzling into my flannels and taking cool walks in autumn breezes.

And, after a summer's worth of crazy schedules involving teaching, I'm elated that there's only one more week of stress and then I can start the type of life I really crave:

Slaying my debt – I'm going to get myself a roomate once I move to Jaén. The amount of rent I pay is a big money-suck so I intend to change that.

Working on the side tutoring and never working at an academy ever again – actually, I do have one academy job lined up for the coming year, but so far it's only 1 hour per week and I intend to keep it as low as possible. Everything else will involve exploring entrepreneurial opportunities.

Weekends free, and puentes – these will probably be used more for staying in touch with my Villacarrillo friends as opposed to travelling all over the place. During my horrible 2013-2014 of working every weekend and puente, I learned that travel is another big money-suck so I'm going to do it sparingly. Besides, there's probably tonnes to do in Jaén.

Studying spanish – I'm going to study for one year and get my B2 next Spring

Getting my body back – Spanish food, while delicious, hasn't helped my figure. In addition, Villacarrillo isn't exactly overflowing with running paths, re: there's ONE that people frequent. Couple that with a schedule that currently doesn't permit me to run until dark, when the path is unlit and feels scary, and there's my recipe for fitness disaster.

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel! Just one more week of putting the nose to the grindstone, and then – freedom!

Monday, August 18, 2014

So You Wanna Bring your Pet

As you pack your belongings for Spain, you look over to Peaches/Rover/Cujo and remember the huge list of things you have to do to prepare your pet for a trans-Atlantic journey: shots, papers, microchip, proper cage...

My cat survived the journey over here, but dealing with having a pet while living in Spain has been... interesting. If I'd known how things would turn out, I would have done things differently.

When you bring a pet to Spain there are unprecedented, added costs: veterinarian visits, the equipment to meet international and pet guidelines, and especially the airline ticket to and from Spain. I used British Airways because it seemed to have a great reputation for transporting pets. Plus in Heathrow, he was held for 24 hours (in the animal hospital's facilities) while vets took a look at him. Great care, but expensive to pay.

Once in Spain, you always have to consider the pet when finding accommodation. It's difficult for me to share a flat because I don't know how roomates would handle adjusting their lives to having a pet: keeping the windows slightly shut so he's not tempted to jump out, cleaning the furniture because of his hair, and being awoken to his meows of hunger at 7 a.m. are some of the things I experience. I live alone, and as a consequence I pay more for rent than many candidates in my program.

On another note, there's a huge temptation to travel while in Spain. Cheap prices abound! But when it's time to go, it's bothersome to get someone to watch your pet. I've been lucky this year because my upstairs neighbour is a gem, but I worry about next year when I move to a new city.

During the week, besides working, you'll also be out making new friends and trying out new places in your new town. My cat sees me enough because I'm a bit of a homebody, but when I am home I'm usually working on something so I'm not actually spending time with him. He just chills alongside me.

My advice: work hard to find your pet a good home in your own country. I only asked one friend,who wasn't interested. I should have put the word out more. I love my cat and he's adjusted to my new life, but if I could turn back time I would've tried harder for him to stay in Canada, so that we'd both be comfortable.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Small Town Effect

I live in a small farming village. Out of 10,000 people I am one of 6 asians, and the only Filipina. Right now I'll put a disclaimer that 97% of the people in this town are good. They work hard and are polite. I've gained a lot of friends in this town. My neighbors treat me like family and bring me to family gatherings. I love living here, and it has been one of the best experiences in my life. In fact, I begged the junta to let me stay here one more year, and they rejected me - twice.

On the other hand, I feel like it's only proper to talk about the other side of the coin, especially for English teachers coming here. Not to scare anyone, only to be mentally prepared for the inevitable. I'm lucky because I haven't been persecuted much. But it has happened.

If you're black or asian, speak English, and are unused to lots of staring, you'd better have a thick skin to live in a small town. Xenophobia rears its ugly head once in a while. What one has to understand is many people in my town can't travel often outside of Spain. They don't have money, or their work or school schedule doesn't allow much of it. With the new generation, a number of them have traveled, and some have developed a ravenous need to see more of the world.

I've been lucky in that the worst incidents have only been verbal harassment by stupid teenagers, including them yelling “China!” or “Konichiwa!”, or a few store owners having no patience for a Canadian struggling to understand their way-too-rapid Spanish.

With speaking English, some of the reactions I get from the locals are funny. Most are quite happy to hear me speak it, but some react with giggles or stares. It's usually their discomfort and not a fault of mine, although I end up feeling uncomfortable, too. I find my native tongue is a great weapon, though. I remember two particular incidents where the harassment was really annoying, and I unleashed a flurry of English swearing, which dumbfounded them.
I think traveling and going out alone have taught me how to handle myself when harassment happens.
If I had to give advice, I'd say the first thing to do is to walk away if someone says something. During my first month or two in Villacarrillo, I'd hear the odd comment but would ignore it and continue on my merry way. As soon as word got out about my purpose in living there, it basically stopped. Once you surpass the hard times, the only people left around you are the good souls.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Que bicho raro – dating in rural Spain

In the darkness of 3 a.m., I felt something scurrying along my arm. In a half-daze I grabbed at it, only to feel sharp cuts across my palm. I jumped out of bed, turned on the light, and found a cockroach with huge razor-antlers scurrying across the sheets. After annihilating it with my slipper, I stared at it, my heart beating rapidly. First I was shocked, then I felt bummed out. This disgusting insect had seen more action in my bed than any man in the past year – which is a strange thought to have when a large insect is lying dead in the middle of your bedroom. Somehow, though, this very strange occurrence had become metaphoric. Probably because dating in Spain – or lackthereof, in my case, has been coming up in conversation lately.

While on vacation with 6 women, all hovering around 40, they were shocked to find out I hadn't had any for a year. Not that they had found the best solutions either. One was in love with a married man, who was spewing the typical line, “I'm trying to work things out with my wife” yet meanwhile coming over for a weekly humpfest. Another found out that her husband has had a lover on the side for two years. Another was in a sexless relationship. Another was having no luck finding a man in a large city. Another was married with two kids, but meeting up with her lover during vacations – including during ours in Cádiz. Based on their reactions, they seemed to think that any sex (their solution) was better than waiting a year or more for a great guy and a great relationship (my hope).

It's not that I haven't tested the waters. I am extroverted, but when you want to flirt with someone who speaks another language, it's deflating to conjure up a simple line -“¿Como conociste a Carlos?” 'How do you know Carlos?' - only to be met with a look of confusion and a blunt “¿Qué?”

There have been a few whom I was interested in or who seemed interested in me. But they were either too young (Hovering around 20? Step aside, son.) or taken; what makes a guy with a girlfriend or wife think I'm going to mess with that?

A few locals have explained it to me as such: men don't ask women out formally for a date. Rather, it's a friendly, “Want to grab a coffee / drink sometime?” However, I respond with an enthusiastic yes, and then.....nothing. My friends tell me that I have to remind the guy: “How about that coffee?” Which I do. (I have to say, having to remind a guy about our get-together takes the romance out – why did they forget in the first place?) With one guy, we had drinks a couple of times together, but afterwards ...nothing.

It's frustrating. In Canada, my girlfriends attempted to teach me the “rules” of dating: don't ask a guy out, wait for him to ask you, make sure he pays, use dating sites, blah blah blah. Now that I'm in Spain, I have to learn ANOTHER set of rules? I'm in my mid-thirties; do I really have to go through that all over again? My secret dream is to be able to put on a great dress, waltz into a room, bat my eyelashes a few times and have a swarm of men hand over their number. BUT THAT'S NOT GONNA HAPPEN.

I want to give up, to bury my head in the sand. In a land where wild passion abounds, where people freely curse and express their love outwardly, I feel like casting mine to the side. As I stare at the squished cockroach, my overdramatic self can't help but wonder if it's a symbol of my love life.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Vacation with Home Friends vs. Vacation with Abroad Friends

I've just returned from vacation, and boy am I exhausted.

You'd think a vacation would replenish me, but travelling with friends from your adopted country, as opposed to with friends from your home country, can wear you out. Let's look at the differences:

Vacation with friends from Canada: eating, sleeping, and partying habits are known and predictable; no alien food preferences; communication is easy.

Vacation with friends from Spain: meals are at strange hours - 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 10 p.m. (or later for dinner); dinners are small; many times your group includes people you've never met before; friends want to eat Spanish food typical of the region; it's difficult to talk 24/7 in another language. 

Following locals can lead to cool places...

...like this isolated beach...
Vacationing with people from your adopted country involves risk, if you've just moved from home. It's intense sharing a flat and a car with other people you don't know well, especially when there's a language barrier. I learned a lot of Spanish, and most of my travel buddies spoke slowly for me, but there were times I was so mentally exhausted that I'd shut down and not say more than one thing per hour.
...and this one, too.
Do I recommend it? Of course! Just be sure to listen to yourself, and take time away from the group should you need it. Also, if there are people who speak your language, utilize that when you're tired.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Alter Native

Just like on my trip to Andorra, I've discovered more things that I miss about my Canadian hometown: live outdoor concerts, and the smell of pot.
Ciento Uno

Still found time for futbol, at a teteria (tea shop)

Place number one?  Málaga. The event?  Ciento Uno. As soon as I entered the stadium where the music festival was, I marvelled at the alternative crowd and realized how much I missed these types of people. Even though it felt like I was the only Asian there, no one stared at me. Málaga is a truly touristy city. And, as we watched Franz Ferdinand and Canadian group Rinôcerôse rock out, the waft of weed perked my senses.

Place number two?  Alcalá la Real, a small town of close to 20,000 that swells every year during EtnoSur, a free three-day international music event.  I only knew one band on the roster but the performances and venues didn't fail to blow me away. Again, I didn't spot a single Asian but because the crowd was a mix of liberal, hippy types and international music lovers, there were no stares. It was a very relaxed weekend of botellónes, botellónes, and more botellónes, and music from Africa, South America, and Spain. 
Alamedadosoulna, from Madrid

Aw come on,man.

Again, we found time for futbol.
During both events I had quite the intensive "classes", trying to decipher very strong Málaga and Jaén accents.  At one point my mind was ready to explode and I said to a friend, who spoke English, that I was hasta la narices (I've just about had it) with Spanish.  But still, I had a great time and look forward to doing it again!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Problem with Facebook Photos

Continuing with the theme of tech problems (although I finally fixed my phone), sometimes the problem isn't technology itself, but rather the users. Like when you take pics with your mobile, and your friend nudges you and says, "Send me the pics." In my case, when I answer "Okay", the word somehow leaves my mouth, magically undergoes a transformation midair, and reaches my friend's ear in the form of "Okay, I'll send them to your phone right this second. Even though I'm enjoying my time with you, I will drop everything and send you the photos right now.

But that's not what my "Okay" means. "Okay" means I'll send it when I'm back home. When I'm near WiFi. When I'm rested. It may take a while, but I'll send it.
Granted, I'm okay with being reminded. It's natural to forget. But when it's within the same afternoon, it angers me. My friend V took a photo by the pool with a friend. A few minutes later, the friend asked why she hadn't sent it yet. Uh, because they were supposed to be relaxing by the pool at that moment.

Before I get high and mighty about Facebook use, let me offer a pre-disclaimer that I am one of the most vain people on this planet. I use Facebook, I have a blog, hell, I was born in the year of the Snake, and guess what one of the personality traits are? Vanity.

However, I don't think it's fair to inconvenience others with your vanity. Think about it. It's not a photo you need for your passport, it's a stupid photo of you posing, with some stupidly gorgeous background, and you want to post it on stupid Facebook so that you can plead with your audience, "Look at me."

When I visited Málaga recently, an acquaintance I didn't know well asked if I would send her my photos I took that night. We were in a loud place, I misunderstood her Spanish, and answered in a way that made her think I'd already done so.

The next morning in V's apartment, as I sleepily stumbled out of bed, V asked me to send her the photos. With her WiFi, I did so. I then turned my data off for the rest of the day, to enjoy my time with V.

Hours later I turned it back on, only to be greeted by a barrage of angry messages by the other girl. "You said last night you'd sent them and you lied!" "Why aren't you answering me?" "You sent them to V and you're ignoring me!" "It was a mistake to be your friend!" I apologized for forgetting to send them that morning, explained I'd been really sleepy, I'd misunderstood her Spanish the night before, etc. It wasn't enough. She was inconsolable. I sent the photos, turned off my data once more, and declared to V that I never wanted to see her friend ever again because she's insane.

A day later the girl sent an apology, but the friendship is ruined. If a person can get worked up like that over photos, what would happen if bigger problems sprung up? I don't want to be around to find out.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Eating in Spain

As accustomed as I've become to Spanish culture, one thing that still evades me is eating on the country's timetable.

Here's the Spanish way:

0800 Coffee, maybe a cookie or two
1100 Coffee and a half-baguette (media tostada) with olive oil, tomato paste and maybe jam
1400 Lunch
1800 Merienda consisting of fruit or a pastry
2100 or later     Dinner consisting of tapas (appetizers) with each beverage

Here's my Canadian way:

0800 Coffee, toast / oatmeal, cheese, fruit
1100 I try to eat like my friends with either una media or fruit, but actually I'm ready to eat an entire leg of jam
1400 About to faint, I make lunch which includes a tapa fit for two, a main course, dessert, and tea
1600 Merienda #1
1800 Merienda #2, now feeling like a lard-ass
2000 Dinner at home consisting of a plate of pasta, because the tapas at the bar aren't enough for me
2100 Tapas, including the ones my friends don't eat. Leaving the last “piece of shame” (el trozo de vergüenza) on the plate, of course.
Typical Canadian brunch

I've been here close to a year and I'm still not used to Spanish people's eating habits. Yesterday while touring Úbeda, I pulled out a bag of pipas (sunflower seeds) and wolfed some down. I ended up having to buy another bag of snacks because I was ready to faint. It produced giggles from my friends, who said if I'm like this now, what about when my work schedule changes to the daytime? I guess I'll be brown-bagging it.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Prezzies & tech

There seems to be no job with higher honour than as an English auxiliary in Spain. All of us are blogging about the gifts, student presentations, hugs, and tears we received upon the end of our contracts. Me notwithstanding: I got an engraved pen, books about the sierra mountains, handmade elastic bracelets, Úbeda pottery, a dress, the biggest goodbye card ever, and this...
The first carve
A leg of jam! Iberico, to boot. I'd always dreamt of buying myself one of these but thought it was too indulgent. Luckily my students did the indulging for me! Every day I carve thin slices of this precious meat and put it in a sandwich, sprinkle it on a bowl of vegetables, or make ice cream (just kidding).

However, the worst gift I got was from my mobile company. I switched from Orange (too expensive as prepago [prepaid]) to tuenti (non-permanent contract) and right away there were problems. Firstly, I didn't know I had to liberate (unblock) the phone. I got that done via a local store, but then there was no coverage. So I'm Whatsapp-less and without text at home. All I can use is WiFi at my workplace, which is a 10-minute walk away.

Since arriving in Spain 9 months ago I have not had home internet. I've relied on using it at two workplaces, plus data on my mobile when at home. There are times when it's hard. I feel it most when I want to do online freelance, which requires constant internet access in order to check messages from potential clients. But besides that, I have survived just fine. I accomplish so much more without home internet or television: I concentrate on my food during meals, I progress in the books I'm reading, I play guitar. The last hobby is one I've always wanted to get better at, and haven't been able to because when it's time to relax, I've been conditioned to turn on the boob tube or check Facebook. On a side note, a friend asked if he should get on the Facebook bandwagon and I answered, “DON'T do it. Total timesuck.”

When I'm forced to go somewhere to use WiFi, I'm much more efficient with my time. I catch myself clicking on external links, do an imaginary slap on my wrist, and get back to work. Because of our siesta hour at 14:00, there's a timer on how long I can be online before my workplace closes for lunch.

Now that I don't have Whatsapp for a while, I can exercise my freedom to stay home since I don't have cash for going out, and my friends know I'm technologically screwed. But because Villacarrillo is tiny, if I do have the urge to be with friends I'll simply walk around and come across someone I know.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Is there joy in being alone?

Last year, I wrote about how hard it was to be a tourist alone in the small towns of Jaén. There seems to be a general consensus that people do everything together, and being alone seems to be regarded as the worst thing in the world. Eating solo and going to events solo is just not done in Úbeda and Villacarrillo. In a pinch, when you're hungry there's no problem standing at the bar and downing a coffee or a beer and a tapa. But it's rare for a woman to do it, nevermind an Asian woman.

Because of my new fear of going out alone, I'd been missing out on a lot: concerts, the San Isidro party in the countryside, and foodie events, just to name a few. So when the opportunity came to watch my student perform in a flamenco show, I decided to bite the bullet and go alone, as none of my friends were interested. I didn't care if I'd end up sitting alone with strangers. This was going to be my first time watching flamenco, Carmen was one of my favorite students, and I wasn't about to repeat my abysmal track record of missing out on opportunities.

When I arrived at the theatre, Carmen's mother spotted me and I told her I didn't have a seat. She prompted me to sit with the family. I detected a slight air of confusion as to why I was alone, but we chatted and the awkwardness disappeared quickly.
Carmen - always in the centre, because she was an excellent dancer.

Los niños bailando!
As soon as I saw Carmen perform I thanked my lucky stars I'd gone to the theatre. She was a spectacular dancer – maybe even the best one! She didn't look like a teenager; she had the air of a woman – her movements spelled confidence from years of training. I was awestruck.

After the show, friends invited me to a verbena - an outdoor plaza party with live music and a bar. I went to bed early – 3:30 a.m. is early for me now – while the band was still churning it out.
 The next day, I checked out Corpus Cristi. This is a yearly event where people decorate the streets with olive tree trimmings, flowers, coloured sawdust, and pebbles, amongst other things.

Near the end of my walk, I suddenly felt hungry and was glad I'd gone alone. If I'd been with a group I would have felt obliged to stick with them, or perhaps go to a bar and spend money I didn't have. Instead, because I defied the norm and took a chance, I had great experiences that got me in touch with local culture.