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 had 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 Carlos?” 'How do you know Carlos?' - only to be met with a look of confusion and a blunt “Que?”

There have been a few whom I was interested in or who seemed interested in me. But they were 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 only one guy, we had a couple of drinks 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 blah. Now 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... 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.