Monday, March 23, 2015

Living at Home with Family in Spain

On the weekend, I went to my pueblo and slept at a friend's house. In the morning, I woke up to the most interesting sensation: I felt at home. The quiet comfort of the bedroom I was in, rock music eminating from the bathroom as someone showered, the clink of spoons stirring pots as the day's lunch was being prepared in the kitchen, a low murmur in the livingroom coming from a film on the television. The sounds soothed me, and I felt relaxed knowing there were people in the house.
Quite often, when I've lived with friends or alone, I wake up to an empty apartment. I never realized, until that morning, how much I missed waking up to sounds of people in the house. The last time I heard noise upon waking, I was living with a boyfriend. Before that, with my family. All very long ago.
Sure, my Spanish friends that live with their family aren't necessarily happy about it. In most cases, the economic situation has forced them to move back home. They may see my lot in life and feel envy. But the grass is always greener. I stay at friends' houses and receive fantastic conversation and the best meals ever prepared by motherly hands.
In Canada, my friends and I had "Orphans' Thanksgiving", where instead of gathering with family, we would head to someone's house with food and wine and have dinner together. It's widely acknowledged that many single people cannot, or don't want, to be with family during the holidays. As a person who has celebrated this way for years, I look at the family situation in Spain with envious eyes sometimes. Luckily, I have friends who are willing to extend their family to include me, and I am grateful for that.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Granada: Flirting and Fame

Last week I jumped on the opportunity to join a group of 13-14 year olds from my teaching job on a school trip to Granada's Science Park and the Alhambra. I've always loved seeing the old fortress, and it was my first time at the Science Park. Watching the kids, I remembered the dynamics of my childhood: the girls who showed up wearing the same clothes and makeup (did I really go to school wearing shorts that short? Probably.); the awkward boys learning how to be affectionate with the females; the kids who cared more about running around on the playground than having a boyfriend; the young couples.

Observing the first group, the 'it' girls, was interesting. Whether it's a result or a cause of Facebook and Instagram, they took photos against every backdrop possible, posing as if they were in a photoshoot. Most of the time, they'd stand against a blank wall, only caring that the lighting was good. One of the teachers was obviously disgusted, commenting on their behaviour both to them and to us, the monitors. I thought it was ridiculous too, but I remembered being image-obsessed back then. (P.S. Nothing's changed. Haha)

Granada's a very popular city for tourists, so the girls met a group of Americans from Connecticut, in the Science Park. I was so proud that they were able to practice their English in a fun way, by flirting. Numbers were exchanged within minutes. When we parted, the girls immediately sent flirty Whatsapp messages to the American boys.

“Teacher, I spoke English with a boy! He's my friend now!”

“Well, that was fast,” I thought. “A phone number in five minutes? That teenager's got more skills than me.”

Monday, March 9, 2015

Jaén Impressions Part 2

I've been living in Jaén since October, and I can say that I'm genuinely happier than when my contract started. Based on what I'd said before, here's what I think now:
  • I come across people all the time that like practising a bit of English with me. It's not as bad as touristy cities, though, so my Spanish is coming along extremely well.
  • Man, there's so much to do here compared to Villacarrillo – concerts, music, art, a museum open on Sundays, the gym, places to eat, ONE really good Chinese and Mexican restaurant, a movie theatre... I could go on forever.
  • My friends were right: the traffic and noise don't bother me anymore.
  • The racist incidents have lowered to almost zero, although I also know where to go and what times to avoid walking around alone. It sucks that I have to limit my life so much, but at the same time it's less stressful to do things this way.
  • I enjoy my job more. I love how some students who were initially aloof towards me are now willing to read and speak English in class. That said, I've requested adult students for next year.
  • It's only March and already we hit the early 20s in temperature daily. I take time when I can to sit in quiet plazas and soak up the sun.
  • I love how easy it is to travel to other cities via bus, train, or Blablacar.

(In the pic, I'm hiking at "Punto de la Mata", which I'd translated as "Point where you Die". Can't blame my translation skills; it was a pretty difficult hike.)
I am quite happy with my living situation right now. Obviously I just needed some time to adjust, so that I could enjoy what I have before me.

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.