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?”
“Thirty-six.”
“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.

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 excitedly hopped on a bus 80 km away and came 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

Compromises

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

Penance

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

Hallowe'en

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.


Villacarrillo