Sunday, January 25, 2015

I Got Fired

A week ago the union ANPE, for whom I'd been working for as an English conversation teacher, called me and 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 my workmate and most of the students. For starters, I had done 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 to my workmate, her reply was, "We need to bring up their level in the next 8 months." That's a difficult undertaking; leapfrogging two levels of English in 8 months requires a lot of work, and they were scheduled 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 respectively. It floored me when my workmate 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 in class with me. 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.

Sure enough, last week 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?"

Pause. "ANPE doesn't do that. We only do one-year ones."

Lies. In reality, as I found out later, the students' complaints were the real reason. At the same time, I hadn't been pleased with their lack of ability to understand me when I spoke in slow, low-level English, nor with having to speak Spanish in order to placate them. I would have rather have heard the truth, instead of being lied to my face 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 have been complimented numerous times on my work since I became a teacher, but like past relationships, sometimes the bad ones plague you more.

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 automatically discarded her fake offer. I turned and left as quickly as I could.

Lesson learned: as an auxiliary, I can legally be given a contract to work for a company outside of the NALCA program. Had I had one, I could have prevented more salt being thrown into my 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, like in Canada, when you're fired here you are entitled to approximately two weeks of salary. In ANPE's view, 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 these "friends" had learned about the clases via ANPE's public website!

I was so insulted by the lack of respect ANPE showed me, that I rejected their pitiful two hours of salary and walked away. I may never get the money I deserve, 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, 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.

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?”
“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 had jumped on a bus 80 km away to come 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


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.