Monday, March 31, 2014

Stay or Go?

When we Auxiliaries are approaching our 2nd year, the NALCA program gives us an option to change our placement. We also tend to be the first to have our requests granted, versus first- or third-years.

Around December, I started to notice the differences between Spain and Canada. Some of these differences were enough to depress me. I won't go into them, but they were significant enough to make me question staying in Spain another year. Friends who have lived abroad before chalked it up to culture shock, albeit 4 months into my move.

The decision to stay or go, or to move to a bigger Spanish city (with a beach!), weighed heavily on my mind for months. The bone-chilling winter weather didn't help matters. In the end, it took a lot of thought and journal writing to come to the firm decision to renew my contract, with the same school in Villacarrillo.

Why did I want to return to Canada?
            I realized the area I live in in Canada is my home. I have travelled enough that I now know it.
            I truly miss my wonderful friends there.
            I miss multiculturalism.
            Canada suits my personality – an outdoor activity-loving, casual-dressing, wacky Canadian.
            Not being fluent in Spanish is frustrating sometimes.

Why did I want a bigger city in Spain?
            There would be so much more to do, than in a pueblo.
            In terms of convenience, the shops are open more often, and there's more selection.
            (Ojalla) I would be closer to the beach, compared to my present location in Jaén.
            A bigger city would probably be more multicultural than Villacarrillo.
            It's easier to travel from a big city than from my pueblo.

Why did I pick Villacarrillo?
            The biggest reason: my level of Spanish has improved tenfold. Based on reading other auxiliaries' blogs, I wouldn't be learning as much Spanish in a city.
            I have made great, great friends here. Leaving them now would honestly be too early.
            I have adapted to being the only Asian, and to the way the pueblo works, and the way my school runs.
            I wanted to avoid having to start over in a new place, and having to make friends all over again. I've done it so many times in the past few years that I am enjoying having settled into my current place.

Oh, and p.s. Jaén has free tapas!

Although the last few weeks were rife with stress about what to do, in the end I can report that I am extremely happy with my decision to stay another year.

Monday, March 24, 2014

El Día del Padre

Everyone loves receiving money, not least of all as a gift. I figured it would make a perfect present for Father's Day. But instead of giving straight-up cash, I bought a lottery ticket in Spain for the first time.

I chose the lotto for Dad's present because I have memories of him and Mom buying a ticket every week. I don't believe in throwing my money away like that, but their belief was, “If you don't play, you won't win for sure. If you try, who knows?” Although when I multiply their $2 - $4 weekly spending habit by the number of years they played.... ouch.

In Spain there are a ton of choices to play the lottery: La Primitiva, El Gordo, EuroMilliones... I did a lot of reading on the internet, before braving my first journey into the Lottery Office. I actually had to go twice; the first time I went in, there was a lineup and I didn't want an audience while struggling to make myself understood to the clerk. So I returned in the afternoon when no one was there. The guy at the desk could tell I was new to playing, and spoke slowly. “Buena suerte,” he said as I left.

I could tell Dad was excited when I told him about my present. Usually, his emails are short and terse: “Thanks for the birthday wishes. I didn't do anything for my birthday.” or “Thank you for your email. Take care.” But this time, he wrote an entire paragraph about the benefits of trying your luck, and he even used an exclamation mark!

I think I picked the right present.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Capital

Oh how I love Madrid. Only because I'm currently living in the exact opposite kind of place. I hustled up there last weekend, foolishly bringing my winter coat because I'd thought it would be colder than Andalucía. The temperature is pretty much the same.

It was quite an ordeal getting there. In my area, on Sundays getting a taxi is like hunting for treasure. It was so difficult to find one that I ended up missing my train. Thank goodness I didn't buy a ticket ahead of time. When I finally stumbled into my friend's apartment in Madrid, I dropped everything and announced I was ready to eat.

And eat I did - my first night, and the entire following day. Normally, I follow a healthy, restricted diet. But put me in a city and I go CRAZY. I seek out food that I can't find in my village - Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Italian. I ate that weekend even when I wasn't hungry, because I absolutely wanted the comfort food. And the pastries! The yemas were such a buena pinta!
(insert Homer Simpson drool here)
The recipe looks dang easy:

330 ml can condensed milk
9 egg yolks
1/2 tsp lemon rind
2 tbsp butter to grease hands
1/2 cup white sugar for rolling
1.) Combine the first 3 ingredients in a non-stick frying pan
2.) Cook over low heat, stirring continuously until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan. It is best to use wooden spoons for this.
3.) Allow to cool for 15 minutes.
4.) Butter your fingers and form the yema mixture into small balls.
5.) Roll the yema balls in granulated sugar and place in fluted baking cups.
Am I going to make this? YESSSSS!

Monday, March 10, 2014

I Came, I Saw...I Fell

When you miss home, small things can bring memories to your mind and tears to your eyes. That would explain why I'd become silent on the bus ride from Barcelona to Andorra. As we edged closer to the border, I was overcome with the realization I'd seen the snow-covered mountains before: a year ago, while heading to the mountains with my ex-roomate in her beat-up car, to take advantage of a free morning to go snowboarding.
I wasn't expecting such a strong reaction to the country my co-worker had invited me to, and to which I'd replied, "What the hell's Andorra?" This tiny, non-descript parcel of land turned out to be a fulcrum upsetting the peace I previously had about my future goals. You see, I'd been enjoying the language immersion, the food, and the culture of Andalucía. I'm still fascinated by it. But being in a snowy country stirred my soul. In Andorra I realized that I love snow too, and Canadian traditions.

On our first day we did many activities at Grau Roig, where I marvelled at the dry, fluffy confection of snow.

Afterwards, in Soldeu, we stumbled upon a cozy bar filled with people enjoying cover songs - sung in English! - by an expat. It was fun educating my Spanish friends about the things in the bar that are typical of a mountainside bar in my Canadian province: wood interior, stiff drinks, outdoorsy clothes, and good music. I didn't want to go, but I did because the next day, I had to be up while it was still dark in order to take advantage of the fact that I was in Andorra, popular in Europe for its breathtaking ski runs.

The conditions in El Tarter were perfect. Once I got my bearings, I was flying down the hills. I felt amazing!

Until the front edge of my board caught. I flew forward like a flapjack, landing face-first into the snow. In an irony befitting a teacher who complains about her salary being too low, I'd landed on my wallet, which was so full of change it fractured my rib. Basically, I'm so rich, my wallet hurt me.

I cut my snowboarding day short and slithered down to the base, in pain. My rib wasn't completely broken, although I didn't know it was fractured so I continued lugging heavy bags around Andorra, thinking I'd merely bruised a muscle. It was only when I returned to Villacarrillo and the pain became unbearable, that I finally went to the doctor and was x-rayed. His recommendation was that I rest for a month, not doing any sports except for walking. 

Did my injury sideline me forever?  Heck no! As soon as I'm fully healed I'll be raring to hit another mountain, or perhaps with the weather turning, try out some surfing...

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Searching for Spring

It's late February, and it's so cold that inside my apartment, I'm still dressed like this:
(This is not sexy)
Yesterday I woke up before the rooster crowed to get ready for a hike. Imagine my surprise when we arrived in Puerta de Segura, and basked in brilliant sunshine:

Everytime I hike in the sierras of Jaén, I feel like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings.

The weather was hot and spectacular; a perfect balm to soothe the doldrums of winter.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Olive Oil Tour

Ever had olive oil on toast? It's how a lot of people in Spain enjoy their breakfast or mid-morning snack: a honkin' piece of bread with olive oil poured all over it. Sometimes there's crushed tomato, ham, or salt & pepper added. Me, I like it plain. I used to be a bread & butter lover – now, olive oil is my friend.
So when my school announced an oppportunity to tour the biggest olive oil cooperative in the world, guess who ran to the sign-up sheet? This tour was an exercise for some C1 level students to practice their English – a big plus for me, since I'm still having trouble understanding the tough Andalucian accent.

The location of Nuestra Señora del Pilar Cooperative is just outside of Villacarrillo proper - lucky for me, as the previous location was on my street, the next block over from my apartment. With the millions of kilos of olives processed every year, I can't imagine how hellish the traffic and noise would have been had the new factory not been built.

According to my info sheet, there are about 14,000 hectares of land, with more than 1.5 million olive trees. The modern, clean buildings were completed in 2011. It was amazing to see how spotless and huge everything was. Plus, the extraction process is contained to minimize contamination of the water table and surrounding land. They even put aside the leaves and pits, to sell as biomass fuel.
The plant is much appreciated by the coop members, because the previous location, located in the center of my community, was choked with tractors during previous harvests. Sometimes it was so busy, farmers waited in line until 2 a.m.!
A pleasant occurrence in the tour was the heady smell of olive oil. It hung in the air and made me smile everytime I noticed it. All in all, it was a very informative and fun field trip!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What Teaching is Like

"It's not what I expected" is the short answer. I haven't had to work this hard in years. When you're a teacher, you're always 'on'. If you're having a bad day, you can't go to work and shut your office door. You have to take a breath, smile, and walk into the room ready to pull English out of your students - even if it's like pulling teeth. Non-native speakers will look at you and say, "It's easy, all you have to do is talk for an hour." To which you'll smile, shake your head and let the bags under your eyes show your disagreement.
In the NALCA program, you work with more than one teacher. Which means you deal with more than one teaching style. Some teachers have the whole year planned out. Some haven't even planned to wear the same socks when you arrive to work. Some are kind and warm, and you'll become good friends outside of work. Others are like drill sergeants whom you secretly loathe.
The students are all different. Some, who you thought were full of promise because they did well in class, will quit halfway through. Some, who you thought would never pass, find an inner motivation to start answering your questions and do extra exercises at home. If they're adults, you'll begin socializing with them during conversation classes, finding out bits of their life story. Some will even be generous enough to invite you to family dinners!
This job is definitely not what I'd imagined in Canada. But the NALCA program has been a wonderful opportunity so far. I hope if you're reading this, you decide to take it on as well!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Are Spaniards impolite?

The way people speak here is quite different from how Canadians speak. Examples:

At the store, the clerk says:

Canada: “Hello, can I help you?”
Spain: “Dime!” (“Tell me [what you want]!”)

Passing someone while walking:

Canada: “Hey, how are ya?”
Spain: “Hasta luego!” or “Adios!” (“Bye!” - they're saying hello and goodbye at the same time)

Answering the phone:

Canada: “Hello, Aga speaking?”
Spain: “Dime!” (“Talk to me!”)

Giving money to the cashier:

Canada : “Here you go.”
Spain: “Toma!” (“Take it!”)
This is how close one of my neighbors talks to me. And she knows my Spanish level isn't great so she yells, too.
As you can see, the way people speak here is almost command-like and very direct. Are they less polite? In my opinion, no. Certain ways of communicating are more “efficient”, but there's a lot of politeness in other aspects. When you enter a store or approach a group, you say hello to everyone in general and they will greet you back. (Just in the pueblo. If you do this in a big city like Madrid you won't get a response.) Also, here the entire group is considered for activities. Leaving someone to fend for themself is not considered in proper form.

Sometimes people show more patience for the older generation than I've seen in Canada. On a bus in Úbeda, two older women were chatting in the aisle. A younger woman, heading towards the back, stopped and waited for the women to move out of the way. And waited. And waited. She and the guy behind her never asked the women to move, instead they politely waited for them to finish their chat. The whole time I watched this, I thought, “If I was them I'd be yelling right about now.”

How ironic that I'm a teacher for students wanting to learn English here, and meanwhile I'm getting the best education ever on a different way to relate to others.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Five-month Update

Wow, it's cold here in Spain. I don't have heating in my apartment, but neither do many of my friends so I'm not alone in my suffering. We do what we can to survive, such as sitting with the brasero for months, drinking coffee, coffee, and more hot coffee, and huddling indoors in warm bars. Honestly though, some nights I feel like I'm camping. Funny enough, years ago I had considered living in a camper and traveling on the road, making a living by working online or obtaining odd jobs here and there. Not that it's the same, in my HUGE apartment. Despite the fact that it's an absolute bitch to stay warm in, I still love the views of the sun rising and setting over the Sierra, my quiet street, and my caring neighbours.

In terms of my job as an English teacher..... uff, I feel like I'm working like a dog. It has been a true immersion experience, in that I work almost as hard as my friends in the village do. The difference for me has been my popularity – people are absolutely clamoring for my time, and as much as I want to help all of them pass their exams it's been impossible to say yes to everything. I'm hoping next year I'll have more time to help them, as they're all absolute darlings and invite me to hang out all the time.
Teaching the young kids English words for 'family'
There's a moment that stands out in my memory.... one night after school, some students invited me for a drink, at a bar I'd never been to. At one of the tables were two brothers. One of my students used to be their teacher, and asked me if I liked Flamenco music. He walked over to the brothers and asked them to play something. Out came the guitar and, in the near-empty bar, our group started dancing sevillanas (a type of local dance) to the sounds of Flamenco singing. So random; so Spanish!

Speaking of hanging out, Spaniards work hard and damn do they play hard, too! I can't count the number of times we've been at the bar, and I've asked what time they start work in the morning and they say “7:30 a.m.”, and I look at my watch and it's 3 a.m. Yeesh. One of my friends asked what my secret was for looking so young. Besides being Asian, I said the other secret was I SLEEP.

So I'm having a really good time here.... it's not an exciting, go-to-the-beach-all-day, travel-every-weekend kind of life, but I'm sincerely quite happy living in the pueblo. So happy that I've renewed my contract for the coming year. As a second-year renewal, I could have applied for a change in region, but I've chosen the exact same pueblo and same school, too. We'll see what the next few months bring!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Madrid and Porto

Near the start of my Christmas holiday I traveled to Madrid with a group of girls from various parts of Jaén. We had a nice time exploring the city centre. I was soooooooo happy to be in a cosmopolitan city where I wasn't being stared at for being Asian, I could go shopping whenever I felt like it, and there was a nice variety of food!

The foot traffic near Puerta del Sol was too much.

San Gines, baby!!

I rang in the new year with a group of lovely friends at Puerta del Sol – my first New Year in Spain! The tradition involves gulping a grape for every ring of the clock at midnight – 12 rings total. I cheated and picked the tiniest grapes for myself. I was so glad I had made a big Canadian flag – we met some nice tourists in the crowded plaza.
Roscón - {insert Homer Simpson drool}
After eating a pile of food and indulging in roscón, we walked over to Kapital, a 7-floor club. I loved the variety of music and the strong drinks, but I absolutely hated the coatcheck lineup (god bless my friends for lining up for me) and the boys. I say 'boys' instead of men because so many of them tried to touch the mask I was wearing, my hair, my friend's hair, or greeted me with “Konichiwa”. WTF. I love dancing, but I will never go to a youngin club ever again. 35+, please!
7:30 a.m. Turkish breakfast, anyone?

After recovering from New Year's I headed to Porto, Portugal by myself – although I made contacts on Couchsurfing so I wouldn't be completely alone. On a recommendation I stayed at the lovely Hotel Poveira, and had to take either the metro or train to the ancient centre. This trip was the first time I studied absolutely nothing about the language or culture of my destination. I had no idea how to say hello or thank you or please, which disorientated me. Luckily, the people of Porto have an incredible command of English, are super-duper friendly, and are used to seeing Asian tourists. I asked one storekeeper what was up with all the Asians, and she stated that the wealthy ones visit to see if they can buy vineyards and other properties. I understood her point – the land surrounding Porto was perfect for growing grapes. Portugal is a place where you can't NOT try their local spirits. Or food. Or fabulous desserts.

Francesinha - SO.GOOD.
This is living: in-house dessert and 40 year-old port.

Many buildings had beautifully tiled outsides.

Boats with port barrels

The buildings were old and needed rehab, but were moving and beautiful in their ancient way. Many stated it was too bad it was raining so much during my visit, but it didn't really bother me as I'm quite used to rain.

As happy as I was spending time in big cities again, I'm glad to be back in my tranquil pueblo and seeing my friends here. The differences between small-town life and a cosmopolitan city are sometimes huge, but only one of them is the right choice for me at this point in my life. To visit? Cool. But to live in? It's the pueblo life for me.