Sunday, March 1, 2015

Too Much Fun Is Bad For You?

Hermiting is not an option here.
In Spain, people do not want to stay home all day. Even if they simply take a walk after a meal, most of them NEED to get out of the house. Interestingly, even when it's 2 degrees in winter, a lot of them feel a need to eat outside on the terazza, too - bundled up in coats, without heat lamps.

Going out and socializing is a big part of Spanish culture. But when you're trying to save up money for a summer of unemployment, or for future plans, sticking to a budget can be tough. Living in Jaén has the huge advantage of "free" tapas with every drink, sometimes even when the beverage is non-alcoholic. But if you're going out every day of every weekend, it can add up. Throw in trips to other parts of Spain, and you're hooped.

There are ways to save money, of course. My list includes:

- eating at home before going out
- finding free events, or having potluck dinners
- travelling to cities where I know someone with whom I can stay with
- Blablacar
- flashing my student card every time I visit a popular tourist spot
- flashing my flirty smile to score a free drink (kidding, kidding....)

Are there other ways you save money and balance being social at the same time?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Films and Stereotypes

When Spanish people find out I'm from Canada, they often ask, “Is it true that you can leave your doors unlocked in Canada?” Apparently, after Bowling for Columbine, people think Canada is so safe that we can leave our front doors open to anybody.

The truth is, Canada is relatively safe in terms of physical assaults and similar crimes, but in my city, property crime (robbing houses or cars) is amongst the top 3 on police lists. I explain to my Spanish friends that the level of safety in Canada is similar to Spain's: in big cities, most people don't leave their doors unlocked. In small towns, however, a lot of people do. I remember visiting my friend in a small town in British Columbia, and her boyfriend came home only to find I'd locked the door, which absolutely confused him.

Here in Jaén I watched El Francotirador (American Sniper). It had been a while since I'd seen such an American, patriotic film. I honestly enjoyed the camera shots of the tanks, gunfire, etc. Near the end of the film, there's a scene where Chris Kyle playfully embraces his wife, all the while holding a loaded pistol near her body. The Spanish people in the audience visibly winced and murmured loudly, clearly uncomfortable by the scene. It's possible that images like this make them think that all Americans have guns and are okay with them. The truth is, some do and some don't. But thanks to the news and films, this is one of the stereotypes they hold.
Chris Kyle
This led me to compare what Spanish films I'd watched in my life, and how their images influenced my preconceived notions before moving here. Habla Con Ella, Pan's Labrynth, Grupo 7... I thought all of the Spanish men would be tall, black-haired, brown-eyed, and hot. In reality, yes a lot of them are hot, but there's an absolute potpourri of hair, eye, and skin colour. I also thought that the women would be hot-tempered tamales. They're actually fairly composed. Many of my friends are quite calm and aren't party animals.

That's the beauty of living abroad; you really get a feel for the people. You realize how diverse the world is.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

I Got Fired

Since October, I'd been working for the union ANPE as a conversation teacher. This was in addition to my job at a high school for the NALCA program. A week ago ANPE asked me to come to their headquarters immediately. They gave me two hours notice, and I knew something was up.

Since the beginning, I'd had many problems with the other teacher and most of the students. For starters, I held a speaking test on the first day, which only half of the students attended (I chalk it up to their fear of speaking English). Of those who did the test, only half were at a level sufficient for the group they'd signed up for. But when I brought up my concerns, my co-worker's reply was, "We need to bring up their level in the next 8 months." Quite a difficult undertaking. Leapfrogging two levels of English in 8 months requires a lot of work, and they were scheduled for only 1 hour a week with a native speaker (me).

Due to their low levels, they couldn't understand me when I spoke English. In the B1 and B2 classes, I spoke at a level of A2 and B1. It floored me when my co-worker asked me to start speaking in Spanish because the students couldn't understand. I had never done that for any students in my entire teaching career. Well, perhaps a word or two, but in ANPE's B2 class I was using Spanish 50% of the time, and in B1 80%. Unbelievable.

Which leads to the complaints students had about my work. The main complaint I heard was that they were not speaking enough in class. Believe me, every lesson I planned included speaking activities. But when you're having to explain each word of vocabulary and grammar to 18 students, the hour you have gets used up pretty quickly.
Even when planning lessons, it doesn't always go as planned...
Sure enough, at the meeting ANPE fired me, although they gave a fake reason at first: "We can't continue to employ you without a contract. Since we do contracts for one year, and we don't know where you'll be in June, we can't make one for you."

"So, why not make a 5-month contract? I know auxiliaries that have 8-month ones."

Pause. "ANPE doesn't do that. We only do one-year ones."

Lies. In reality, the students' complaints were the real reason. At the same time, I'd been frustrated with their lack of ability to understand me when I spoke in slow, low-level English, and with having to speak Spanish in order to placate them. I would have rather have heard the truth, instead of being lied to at the meeting.

It was quite a blow to my ego. It always is when you try really hard to do a good job. I really wanted my students to do well on their exams. I've been complimented numerous times on my work since I became a teacher in 2013, and many have suggested I pursue a career as a teacher. But like love relationships, sometimes the one bad incident plagues you more.You forget about the good ones.

In typical Andalucían fashion, my co-worker said if I ever wanted to drop by and grab a coffee, we could. Although in the same breath, she lied and said how bad she felt that the contract laws didn't allow ANPE to continue to employ me. In my mind, I dismissed her fake offer. I turned and left as quickly as I could.

Lesson learned. If I'd had a contract, I could have prevented more salt being thrown in the wounds: ANPE only wanted to pay me for the two hours of class I gave, despite giving me only a couple of hours notice for my firing. Under normal circumstances, i.e. with a contract, when you're fired here you are entitled to approximately two weeks of salary. I would've thought that as a union, ANPE would treat me better. But the boss' view was that without a written contract, I was teaching clases particulares for "friends that they'd gathered together to learn English" (a.k.a. the students). Which was a skewed point of view, considering there was a public information page on ANPE's website for my class.

I was so insulted by the lack of respect, that I rejected their pitiful two hours of salary and walked away. This hugely embarrassing incident is a prime example for auxiliaries on what they deserve as teachers. I may never get the money I am owed, but I am excited to have the opportunity to seek out work that I'm more passionate about (translation, video editing, photography) and leave behind what wasn't working for me.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Funeral

Recently, a colleague's father passed away, and I felt it necessary to attend the funeral, even though I wasn't particularly close to his family. I had to ask someone at work what the standard dress was. In Canada, everyone wears black or a shade thereof. The dress is also formal or, at minimum, business-casual. Here, my coworker told me I didn't have to wear black. I could wear whatever I wanted, even jeans. The only no-no was wearing a mix of bright colours all at once.

The funeral also took place rather quickly. In Spain, it's common to hold one within two days. Usually families wait a full 24 hours after someone passes away before holding the mass, but for this event, it was a question of logistics. It being winter, the mass had to be early in the day, at 5:30 p.m. Technically, it was less than 24 hours but since it was better to have the burial in the cemetery before dark, it had to be this way.

We drove an incredibly windy road to reach the village, Torres, which was tucked away between snow-capped mountains. Inside the church, located at the top of a steep hill, there was no relief from the cold. Central heating doesn't exist in most village churches, so I sat, trembling, too distracted to understand the Spanish priest. It was a very simple church, with barebones pews, but the statues implanted along the walls were stunningly realistic in their sad, reverent expressions.

I used to be Catholic, and it was interesting to note differences between a Canadian mass and a Spanish one. For example, in Canada we shake hands with people around us and say, “Peace be with you.” In Spain, for anyone fitting in the categories between acquaintance and family member, you give a kiss on each cheek. I shook hands with the old man in front of me and said, “La paz.

Another difference was that at the end, we greeted the family. Being Torres, and being that some villages are conservative in the South, the men were divided from the women. I didn't know my colleague's family so I only shook their hands and said, “Lo siento.” With my colleague, even though we'd never done so at work, I gave him a kiss on each cheek.

It was interesting to experience such a private, intimate part of Spanish culture. Admittedly, it was a very sombre way to fuel my integration.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Price of Debt

Everytime I receive my salary, my mind starts churning, dreaming of what I'd buy: purple suede boots, secondhand music instruments, giant legs of ham. Then it hits me: none of the money is meant for me. After necessities like rent and food, every penny goes straight to my debt. The thought bubbles pop in that instant.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned since moving abroad was the price of an inflated lifestyle. In Canada I earned a lot, for very little work. I had zero debt when I left, but my lifestyle didn't change once I hit Spanish soil. I still honed in on "wants": an expensive apartment to rent alone, convenience foods, clothes and shoes, and yes bartender, one MORE round of drinks. It was evident how much I'd been shopping when it was time to move from Villacarrillo to Jaén, and I had SIX large boxes of stuff. There was so much that my friend had to return another day to drop off the rest at my new apartment.

I'm lucky to be employed by a program that pays enough to cover basic expenses, even if I choose to live alone. I'm also lucky in that if I choose to go out for a drink, it's cheap and the appetizers are free. But I have to be careful, and do jobs on the side, in order to really enjoy Spain: travel, gym membership, concerts, etc.

Slowly, my debt is dropping. The most important thing is once it hits zero, I must do my best to never let it accumulate again. Then I'll be free to buy those purple suede boots I've been eyeing.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sierra Nevada

Just like in Andorra, and at Cypress Mountain, being amongst the mountains, trees, and snow made me feel alive on my first trip to the Sierra Nevada.

There's no bad view here. And, according to my wise snowboarding teacher Emilio, there's no such thing as bad snow, either. "Snow is like life," he explained during our chairlift ride. "Some people only like to snowboard or ski when it's a sunny day and the snow is powdery. If I did that, I'd only go two days a season. Even when it's icy, or when there's a storm, I love it. There's no such thing as bad snow, only bad snowboarders.
"Same thing with life, or relationships. There are no bad or good days, just people with bad attitudes. You have to decide to be happy with what you've got."
Los ladrones. (Just kidding)

Not only did Emilio improve my carving, he also improved my attitude.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Home after 1.5 Years

Last year around Christmastime, I got very homesick, but I couldn't buy a ticket with such little advanced planning. So I stayed in Spain. This year, thanks to a generous gift from my parents, I flew back to Canada to enjoy snow, multiculturalism, central heating, and food from every place in the world you can think of. Also terrible fashion sense, extremely cold nights, wayyy too early dinners, and high taxes.
During a hike in the snow.
Yeah, we ate it ALL.

Indian food. Oh how I love thee.
I couldn't have been happier to be home. How contrary to when it was time to leave Canada, when I was nervous yet determined to discover a new way of life. Sometimes we find out what we truly love when we leave it. How lucky I am to be able to realize that, simply by buying a return airline ticket. In 2013, I honestly believed the move to Europe would be extremely long-term, perhaps even permanent. I'm not so sure now, after spending time back in my hometown.
So what is home to me? Home is feeling overjoyed to see the mountains, the layout of the city as your plane lands, to instantly recognize the scent of the streets as you walk out the front door. It's being able to flirt with someone cute, in those subtle ways that come with communicating with words, gestures, and timing. Home is marvelling at what has changed, and even more so at what has stayed the same. You see the same person, and although their paunch is a little bigger and more grey covers their head, they speak and it's like listening to an old recording.
Home is what you think of when you wake up in the middle of your flight home, and realize what you're leaving behind. And it hurts. So you comfort yourself by thinking about your return one day. You may not know when exactly that will be, but you know home will be there when you come back.

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 one. 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.