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, that 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!