Wednesday, December 12, 2012

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Bigger and better things ahead

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Two Thanksgivings in six kitchens

This year was the fourth time in the last five years that I've had Thanksgiving away from home, (2008 in Italy, 2010-12 in Spain) and I have to say they just keep getting better and better.
Turkey Day 2010
This year involved two different celebrations, in Málaga and Granada, and you guessed it, they came from six different kitchens.

Part one in Málaga with friends I just played a helping role, making the sweet potatoes at my place (kitchen 1), taking them to Cait's place to stick them in the oven where she was preparing the rest of the food (kitchen 2), and then taking everything to Edu's place where we did last minute reheating and made the gravy and mashed potatoes (kitchen 3).

This Thanksgiving dinner consisted of about 14 people, six nationalities, and only one person an actual Malagueño.

The reason I didn't play a bigger role in this Thanksgiving were the plans I had for the following weekend in Granada. I had decided long before that I wanted to make dinner for the novio's family, because after all, they're my family too now.

Let's talk about planning a Thanksgiving dinner, when you're not in the city in which you'll be cooking, and trying to get non-Americans to understand just how big an endeavor this would be. I was going to arrive in Granada late Friday night and begin cooking Saturday morning. There was definitely no time for a major shopping trip. Throughout the week I was making shopping lists, planning cooking schedules, while the novio was trying to understand why it took so much time and effort to plan one dinner!

First, I got the novio's sister in Granada to order a turkey from a butcher and arrange for it to be picked up the morning of the dinner. Then, I bought everything that doesn't need refridgeration here in Malaga and stuck it in what became the heaviest suitcase I've ever transported. Imagine the total weight of a whole pumpkin, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cans of green beans, a few liters of chicken stock, nearly all my spices, suagr, brown sugar... you get the idea. We nearly broke the suitcase in the process.

Friday night we took a late bus to Granada and stayed in the novio's parents place for the night so I could get straight to work using their oven in the morning (kitchen 4). But even before that, when we arrived late that night I went straight to the kitchen to make the dough for the pie crust, and then stick it in the fridge overnight.

Saturday morning I started about 10am, planning on a Spanish dinner at about 9pm. I began baking the potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin while I sent the novio to pick up the turkey. The problem with letting him loose in the city where he grew up is that he's going to run into a million people he knows, then he's going to go see his sister (where we would later eat), and then he would come back, having forgtten the turkey in his sister's apartment.

I didn't freak out. The turkey would need about 3.5 or 4 hours in the oven, and I was still doing okay on time. I continued chopping vegetables and began making the stuffing while we sent the novio's dad to get the turkey. We waited, and waited, and waited. We called him. No answer. We called all relatives around to see if he had stopped to visit someone. No one had seen him. Turkey and father were both missing. He eventually showed up, having taken his time idling around town, but now I knew dinner would most definitely be later than planned. But this is Spain, what was I thinking anyway?

The next problem came shortly after. I cleaned and seasoned the turkey, and put it in the oven. A bit of advice for anyone making a turkey in Spain, consult your oven size before choosing your turkey size. This giant just barely fit, touching both sides of the oven. I had planned on baking other dishes at the same time as the turkey, but this guy said "No! All this space is for me!"

Therefore, kitchen number 5 came into play. While I stayed to continue basting the turkey, I sent the novio to his grandma's house across town with fully prepared dishes of sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, and biscuits to bake in her oven. I gave him complete lists with temperatures and baking times for each item.
Rolling out pie crust, a wine bottle my rolling pin
So I babysat the turkey in the oven, the novio ran all over Granada transporting food, came back to get me and the pumpkin pies which I'd also had time to make, and we ran off to his sister's apartment (kitchen 6) where 20 friends and family members were waiting and I quickly did all the reheating I could sans oven.

Yes, you read that correctly. I made dinner for 20 people, 22 including the novio and me. Quite different from any of my other Thanksgivings in Spain, everyone was Spanish except me! It was buffet style because there was no where near enough table spaces and chairs, but that didn't mean any less eating.

By the end of the night the turkey (seven kilos!) had been picked clean and the mashed potatoes, green beans, biscuits, and gravy completely devoured. Left-overs only consisted of pumpkin pie (I made two because I love it so much!), sweet potatoes (again, I made a double batch), and stuffing.

All in all, it was agreed that Thanksgiving definitely needs to be exported to Spain!
Happy and full
Part of my Granada family and friends, already looking forward to next Thanksgiving

Monday, November 26, 2012

My internet story

I moved in to my current apartment on August 23. This past weekend, three months later, we finally got internet at home. We tried contracting internet with four different companies, and all told us that it wasn't possible. We tried fibre optic. Our building doesn't have the proper cables. We tried ADSL several times, but we can't get a phone line either.
Story of my life
We live in center of one of the biggest cities in a first world country. So what was the problem? Our story starts 15 years ago with a man named José María Aznar, who was president of Spain at the time. He was not exactly popular, to put it mildly. The novio tells me that his family spent the years of Aznar's presidency (1996-2004) throwing things at the TV when ever he appeared. Among his most unpopular actions was supporting and contributing troops to George Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003. But what did he do to cause me to be trapped in a 19th century time warp? In 1997 he sold and privatized Spain's national broadband and telecommunication provider, Telefónica. (Selling it to a friend of his, of course) The European Union has since declared this action illegal.
"Yes, I screwed you over" he laughs
How does that affect me? Until 1997, Spain's landline telephones were a public entity. Selling Telefónica resulted in one company having a complete monopoly of phone lines in Spain. And boy do they take advantage of it.

For example, payphones here don't give change. You used a 2 euro coin to make a twenty cent phone call? Too bad for you. Telefónica just robbed you.
A machine designed for theft
Telefónica has been fined and sued for abuse of its dominant position numerous times since its privatization. Most notably, 57 million euros in 2004 for unfair competition, and a fine from the European Commission of 152 million euros for abuse of its dominant position

So what has Telefónica done to me? When they installed phone lines in my plaza, they made a finite number individual lines available, which is less then the number of apartments and businesses trying to get access. Meaning that when we try to contract ADSL internet, which runs off of a phone line, Telefónica says "Sorry, no more phone lines for you." Our landlord told us that there was an operating phone line in the apartment, but when the last tenant left someone else quickly grabbed the available line.

I might be a technology-addicted Generation Y baby, but in the 21st century I find it completely ridiculous that in a metropolitan area, I can't get a phone line.

The root of the problem: Telefónica is a private company, that does what le de la gana, as they say here. If they don't feel like installing more phone lines, they don't have to. The fact that a for-profit organization chooses not to provide service to a potential customer is beyond me.

The less-than-desirable solution we've found, which we knew of all along but were trying to avoid, is Instanet, an internet service that operates without a phone line. It's overpriced and offers a fraction of the speed we wanted (30€/month + 60€ to start for an average of 1-3 Mbps). But with our only other option being moving to a new place, breaking our contract, and losing a month of rent in the deposit, I'll take it.

I Skyped with my family this weekend for the first time in ages, and that's all that really matters now. Now I can do important things like pick out the wrapping paper for my Christmas presents from my mom's selection, and watch the cat attack the Christmas tree in my parents' house.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Long distance democracy

In 2008 the U.S. presidential election fell during a week I had off from classes in Rome, so I, of course, was traveling. Travel schedules and being a tourist meant that sleep was more important than staying up all night to watch the results live, so I went to bed at a normal time the day of the election. The next morning at breakfast the hostel cafeteria was buzzing with energy as people from all over the world commented on Obama's victory in all varieties of languages.

For the first time in eight years, the United States had a president that was perceived positively overseas. I noticed the change in attitude towards Americans shortly after. A couple days later I was taking a taxi in Madrid, chatting with the driver. He asked where I was from, I told him the U.S. His face lit up with a huge grin. "¡Con Obama!" he exclaimed enthusiastically. Yes, I affirmed smiling back, with Obama.

 This is my fourth time voting from overseas (2008 presidential election, 2010 midterms, 2012 primary, and now), and the third foreign address I've registered with. I guess you can say it's routine by now. I pay the price of an international stamp to mail in my ballot (0.85€ at the moment), but democracy still feels so good.
My actual ballot, which I mailed in a couple weeks ago. Naturally, I love the fact that it's in both English and Spanish. It could be because I vote from my home state of California, which has a high Spanish speaking population, but if this were nation wide I would be ecstatic. Americans voting from other states, do your ballots look like this? Are they multilingual?

Now I just need to find an election-watch party to attend. This not-so-patriotic expat just might wear red white and blue on November 6 for a change. After that, it will depend on the results.

Friday, October 19, 2012

What the NY Times didn't say

On September 24, The New York Times published a series of photos titled ¨In Spain, Austerity and Hunger¨ detailing how the economic crisis has affected Spain. Yes, the crisis is real here. I personally know people who have lost jobs, who have had to move to other countries to find work, who are struggling to make ends meet. This is the image of Spain that The New York Times has presented to America. All photo credit to Samuel Aranda for the New York Times.
A Cuban immagrant who moved to a mobile home after losing his construction job
An anti-austerity demonstration in Jaén
It´s not pretty, and it´s completely real. But it is far from the whole story of Spain, and no where near an accurate representation of what it´s like to live here. With Mitt Romney making comments that he doesn´t want the United States to end up like Spain, I ask myself, what does America really know about Spain? They don´t eat tacos and enchiladas, they are not all tan and dark haired like our image of Mexicans, and most importantly, they do not all dig in trash bins for their food. Read what the New York Times has to say, look at the pictures, because they´re all real, but then, look at this.

A Spanish news network, Antena 3, has responded. They issused a call for photos of the other side of Spain, the part that wasn´t included in the New York Times. I personally submitted several. I haven´t seen them published yet, but I´ll include them here:
 Spaniards learning about American culture. Something Americans could use a little of in reverse.
 Beautiful landscapes.
 Mouth-watering cuisine.

Spain is not a third world country. It's going through an economic crisis, but at the end of the day, Spaniards will always take care of each other. Explore other pictures that have been submitted. You will see Spain and its people, from all walks of life, in their everyday life in this beautiful country- exactly the part that American media is missing.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Pillow talk

Let’s talk pillows.

Truth: On a single bed, intended for one person to sleep, there is normally one single pillow. Exhibit A: my shared bedroom for the month I spent in Sevilla when I first came to Spain back in 2010.
Truth: On a double bed, intended for two people to sleep, there are normally two pillows. One for each person. Or two for one person who stretches out a lot. Exhibit B: My bedroom in my apartment in Málaga my first two years.
That all makes perfect sense, right? End of story? Not in Spain.

Little did I know just how abnormal my pillow situation in Málaga was for Spain. You see, here, a double bed does not mean two pillows, but rather one really long pillow. What I, and I think many others, would call a body pillow.
Using such a pillow at the head of a bed, which two people are intended to share, is something I don’t understand about Spain, and of which the Spaniard has yet to convince me. It results in an all out war over the pillow. Turning it over to the cold side, folding it in half to raise your head to read, and all other movements of the pillow, must be done in coordination. How do you do that when the other person is asleep? I can tell you it’s not exactly comfortable having a pillow pulled out from under your head.

Nevertheless, in my experience most Spaniards seem to be attached to this custom. A friend of the Spaniard’s went to Germany for a year to study. In Germany, he went shopping for a pillow for his new apartment. Much to his dismay, he couldn’t find a pillow long enough for his double bed. For months this caused him much anguish. How is one supposed to sleep with a pillow that doesn’t occupy the full width of the bed? Buy two pillows? Don’t talk nonsense. Thankfully, the poor soul came home to Spain for a short visit and was able to bring his proper, full-length pillow back to Germany, and finally he was able to sleep at night.

In our new apartment in Málaga, our landlord obviously doesn’t like to spend a lot of money. Our poor bed is deprived of the normal body pillow and instead has two of the scrappiest little excuses for pillows I’ve ever seen, and the sheet sets have two small pillowcases. This just won’t do. Luckily, the landlord’s wife had so kindly sewn the two cases together to create the more traditional long one. All we have to do is insert the two small balls of fluff, and viola! We have the typical pillow of Spain- one lovely long tube across the entire bed- but not really.
This American needs her two fluffy pillows, which in Spain means buying your own and carting them with you every time you move.

This is so worth the suitcase space.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Technical difficulties

There´s a minor prerequisite to maintaining a blog- having internet.

The Spaniard and I moved in to the new apartment (which we love, by the way) over two weeks ago. Shortly after we evaluated options for internet, chose a company, and called to contract them. And then the waiting game began.

A week later, we´ve received a call from Telefónica saying they would come that afternoon to install the phone line. Then they called saying that because our building is so old they needed some other part they didn´t have. We´ll call you back. Famous last words.

A week later, we called. Where the hell is our internet? Umm, we´ll check in to your case and call you back. Ugh.

In the mean time, I´ve had a ton of blog ideas, I´ve missed all the speeches from both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and I have friends with outstanding Skype dates from at least four months ago.

I´ll be back, I promise, when my source of internet is something other than the 3G on my Kindle.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

On family, and second families

When I decided not to go home this summer I had no second thoughts. I wanted a Spanish summer. A few months ago when most other English teachers started packing bags to go home, I was overjoyed to not be participating. I smiled at the thought of not boarding planes, not sitting in tiny seats for upwards of ten hours, and not eating airline food.
Not missing this at all this summer
Fast forward to two days ago and I was on the verge of buying a plane ticket home. I love Spain, but I also love my family, and I needed to see them. I've lived here for two years, but going home both years for Christmas and last summer means I've never spent more than six months away from home. Now I'm going on eight. I think I have some sort of internal clock, and its alarm was going off telling me to go home and recharge my batteries. I only wanted to visit for a week or two. My heart and soul are here in Andalucía, but there comes a point when Skype conversations just aren't enough to satisfy the need for family. I want to hug my dad. I want to play soccer with my brothers. I want to go out to lunch with my mom and exchange stories about our students. And I really want to walk my dog.
Sad because I'm gone, or just pretending to be an alligator
But I slept on it. I mulled over the idea, and in the end my reasons for not going, for staying here, go beyond just the price tag. This month I have a roof over my head thanks to the Spaniard's family. From day one with him, his family has been nothing but wonderful. They have accepted me with open arms. I have family here in Spain. I have his parents, sister, and countless cousins, aunts, and uncles. (We tallied the other day and I've now met all of his cousins except one). I might not be blood-related to anyone here, but I definitely have family. Running home now, I feel, would be unappreciative of everything they've done for me. Instead, I'm going to stay here, and I'm going to bake a birthday cake for my suegra (mother-in-law).

As for my own family, I'll see them at Christmas. That flight, I already have booked.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why hello there

It's been a while (again). Oops. You see, since I wrote last, my mom came to visit (!). She met the Spaniard and his family, and we spent two weeks hopping around between Madrid, Granada, Málaga, Sevilla, Ronda, and Nerja.
Exploring pueblos in the mountains of Alpujarra
A visit to the Alhambra, of course
Then I spent the entire month of July working (quite literally). Part English teacher, part camp counselor, part baby-sitter. Working a summer camp was quite an experience, and I think we'll leave it at that.

Now the Spaniard and I are back in Granada, trying to find anything to escape the heat. We've had minimal success in the matter hiking at night, and calling anyone and everyone we know here who has a swimming pool.

What's in store for the next chapter? Moving back to Málaga in two weeks, taking the Spaniard with me (for good!), and both of us starting new jobs. We already have a little love-nest rented right smack in the city center. Stay tuned for the adventures of a Granadino and an Americana in Málaga. I'm sure it won't be boring.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The revelation

Remember back when I talked about that little secret I kept from my students? They didn´t know that I speak Spanish. It was great in that it forced them to use English any way they could to communicate with me. It´s negative side was that many were shy, afraid to make mistakes, and therefore seemingly afraid of me.

I spent the entire year pretending not to understand the chitter chatter between my students, trying not to laugh when someone said something stupid/funny, and scanning the hallways for students when ever I would chat with other teachers in Spanish. It wasn´t easy, I´ll admit, and there were plenty of times I just wanted to be understood, more for the sake of classroom management than anything.

But a couple weeks ago the last day of my contract rolled around. The kids knew it was my last day, and we were saying goodbyes and thank yous. My coworker said to the class ´´Hey! You guys know that Amy has spoken perfect Spanish all year?´´ (Her words, not mine. My Spanish is far from perfect.)

A resounding ´´¿Qué?´´ echoed through the room. Jaws dropped. Then the chatter and the questions started. Many of course bragged ´´I knew that she spoke Spanish. Remember that one time I asked her to translate a word to English and she knew it?´´ Because of course knowing one word means speaking a language.

Students who have barely spoken two words to me all year outside of obligatory class activities all of a sudden wanted to talk to me, tell me thank you, and give me hugs goodbye.

For some, it was like I was a whole new person. They asked what my favorite Spanish foods are, if I´ve ever tried gazpacho, and if I´ve ever visited their parents´ pueblos. Because the idea the I also live in Spain and don´t just magically show up at school everyday hadn´t occurred to them before knowing that I speak the language.

One particularly savvy eleven year-old started quizzing me. He asked some basic classroom vocabulary, was pleased with my response, and then came the real test. ´´¿Cómo es el verbo ´andar´ en el pasado?´´ The past tense of the verb andar, one that many Spaniards don´t realize is irregular. ´´Anduve, anduviste, anduvo...´´ I began with a smile. ´´¡Whoooaa!´´ he and his classmates exclaimed in pleasant surprise.

This process continued throughout all of my classes. I spoke to each one in Spanish, thanking them for a memorable year teaching them, and urging them to continue studying languages. I explained to them how lucky they are to have started learning English so young, that most schools in the U.S. don´t begin with languages until high school. I told them that they know more English than almost any American of their age knows of any other language, and that they should take advantage of the opportunity. I told them that at their age I hadn´t even started studying Spanish, and that now I speak it well enough to live in Spain. Imagine where they could be if they keep studying.

All of the frustrating moments all year were well worth the final result, and without hesitation I would urge all auxiliars that if you can, don´t speak anything but English in the classroom. It will be a worthwhile experience for you and your students.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

They call me Vinocasa

My name (Amy, if you didn't know), doesn't exist in the Spanish language. I remember the first day in my 7th grade Spanish class the teacher gave us all the Spanish equivalents of our names, which were to be used for the whole year. Michael becomes Miguel, Kristen becomes Cristina, easy enough. When the teacher got to my name on the list she thought for a minute and said she would get back to me the next day. She came back with Amada, which is simply the translation of the Latin root of my named, meaning beloved. I've never heard of someone actually being named Amada, but it worked for the time.

Fast forward over ten years and my name is still just as problematic in Spanish. My students who have only ever heard my name pronounced spell it something like Eimi or Eymi. Many genuinely think it's Emily. Those who see it written pronounce it Ah-mee. When I pronounce my name for someone else to write it down, I say Ah-mee and it usually gets written down as Ami. I just can't win.

However, pop culture has given me a saving grace. I can't tell you how many times I've met someone and they respond with a frown. Your name is what? Amy, I respond. They pause for a moment, puzzled. Oh! Like Amy Winehouse! The first few times this happened it was funny. Then annoying. Now I'll actually throw it out there to help people wrap their heads around this strange name I go by.

A few Spanish friends have latched on to this and turned it in to a joke, and I now respond to Vinocasa. (Winehouse. Vinocasa. Get it? Yes it's that silly.)
Now I just wish there was a slightly less tragic celebrity who can bring some recognition to my name and convince Spaniards I'm not making it up.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Up in the air

My life and future are up in the air. I've played all of my cards and am now waiting to see what the dealer has. I've turned in paperwork, applied for jobs, been turned down by a whole lot and gotten some feedback on others. But at the end of the day, I still don't know where I'll be in the fall.

The idea of not coming back to Spain was just never an option in my head. Go back to California? Yeah right. Is the sun still shining in Andalucía? Of course. That's where my life is. That's where I'm going to be. Over the past months every time the novio started worrying about me having to leave I just assured him, "When there's something I really want, I find a way to get it."

Here's what I know: I have a position somewhere in Andalucía repeating the program I've been in for the last two years. It could be in a little pueblo in Huelva. It could be in Granada. It could be right back here in Málaga. I'm sitting here twiddling my thumbs waiting to find out. This wait drove me nuts last year, but this year there's a new loose end. Planning my future now involves two people finding jobs in the same city, not an easy task in a country with over 30% unemployment.

For now I'm considering myself lucky to have work in an English camp for the summer and to at least have something for the fall. With only a week left at my current school, I'm going to try to focus on saying my goodbyes and being grateful for what I have.
Grateful for days hiking in El Torcal, Antequera...

and random weekend trips to Barcelona, just because there were cheap flights

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Spaniard

All right, I guess it's about time I stop tip toeing around the topic. There's a significant other in my life. And he just so happens to be Spanish.
 Let me take you back over a year ago to last March to a little weekend trip to Granada. I was visiting a fellow English teacher friend, and we went hiking with an extended group of friends. Leading the hike was the cousin of a friend of a friend of my friend, (Yes you read that correctly) and he just knocked my socks off. We climbed a mountain. We got a little lost. We ate chocolate. We lied on our backs and looked for shapes in the clouds (I remember seeing a dragon). At the end of the day we said goodbye to each other and to everyone else in the group. I went back to my life in Málaga, and him to his in Granada.

I remember thinking after, "Wow, that guy was awfully nice. He's funny, he's handsome, and he seems like a really good guy. Too bad he lives in Granada." Little did I know he was thinking the same of me.
In his element, amongst Roman ruins
Well thank goodness for facebook because even though we didn't see each other the rest of the year, we kept in touch. We chatted occasionally over the months, asking how each others summers were going, I told him how excited I was to be returning to Spain in the fall and all the San Miguel, jamón, and olives I was missing. He promised to show me all of Granada's best tapas when I returned.

September rolled around and one of my very first weeks back at work Spain gave us a lovely Wednesday off from work. Some girlfriends and I decided we wanted to spend the day tapeando in the best place in Spain to do so, Granada. I thought "Hey, there's a guy I know there that I wouldn't mind seeing again." So seven months after we met, we saw each other for the second time.

We picked up right where we had left off in March, and the rest is history. Now we've been together for nearly seven months, spending weekends bouncing back and forth between Granada and Málaga. As this school year draws to an end, I don't know what life has in store for me come summer and fall, but we're both doing everything we can to make sure that he's a part of it.
Goofy hats and all, I want this man in my life

Thursday, April 26, 2012

How to get your Spanish students to pronounce the letter H

I was doing a lesson with my fourth graders on transportation vocabulary. Bus, train, car, boat. I go to school by car. I go to the park by bus. You get the picture. One of the vocabulary words was helicopter. (It's a fun one. Where do you go by helicopter?)

If you know anything about Spanish, you know that the letter H is silent. Always. No matter how many times I repeated it, and made them repeat it back to me, I kept getting "elicopter." After approximately 573277432 times, I threw the book down.

"You guys watch the Simpsons, right?" Blank stares.

"Los SEEmpson?" I tried. Ah of course!

I wrote "Homer" on the board. "How do you pronounce this?" I asked.

"Homer!" they all exclaimed with perfect pronunciation. You see, all good Spanish children, like I was, are raised on the Simpsons, and are familiar with character names.

"How is the H pronounced?" I continued.

"Como la jota." they responded.

"Then how do you pronounce this?" I said pointing to the word helicopter.

"Helicopter!" they all shout, finally pronouncing the H properly.
Toma! English lessons via the Simpsons. Thank you Matt Groening.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Last month for me ended with a much needed girls' weekend in Valencia. Although we didn't get the beach weather we were hoping for, it could have been a blessing in disguise because now it's a reason to go back later.

Although the highlight of the trip was spending time with friends, there are a few must-do's of Valencia we took part in.
First and foremost, paella, and the traditional Valenciana kind consisting of chicken, rabbit, and green beans. This was shared between five people and it completely knocked us out. Paella: 1. Guiris: 0.
Agua de Valencia: a fairly touristy treat, but well worth it. Think sangria with an orange juice base rather than red wine, or a spiked mimosa. It's perfect to sip on for an afternoon while soaking up the rays.
Parque de Ciencias: For me it's modern architecture and smooth, clean lines were a complete contrast to everything I'm used to in Andalucía. Both styles, I've come to learn, are beautiful and enjoyable in their own way.
 Valencia, no te preocupes, we'll be back.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

When life gets in the way of blogging

I know you're all extremely concerned and have probably sent out search parties for me, but rest assured I'm still here. I've just been busy with, you know, the normal. A few trips to Valencia, Madrid, and Segovia, hopping around Central Europe for Semana Santa, getting my wallet and passport stolen, sorting out jobs for the summer and next year, oh, and also having some minor surgery.

I suppose there could be one other explanation for the decrease in bloggage this year. Remember that human dictionary I mentioned? Well he just so happens to live an hour and a half away in Granada. Let's just say we're doing our best to keep ALSA in business, and they should be sending up thank you cards for the amount of money we spend on bus tickets each week.

Details on all coming soon. In the meantime enjoy the teaser. Can anyone tell me where each of these pictures is?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Worldly possessions

Most people have in their homes a fair number of things that are very important to them, many irreplaceable. There are probably lots of old photographs, antiques passed down from grandparents, and baby's first shoes tucked away in a chest somewhere. A preschooler's first drawing might be in a box in a closet, and there could be childhood toys under a bed.

But when you decide to pack your entire life in a suitcase and move to another continent, those things generally don't make the cut for the luggage weight limit. For me, that was all left behind at my parents' house. It occurred to me recently how different the feel of a home is when it's filled with these kinds of personal things, or when everything is new (to you). That's not to say that I don't love my apartment and haven't enjoyed my almost two years living here. But I got to thinking recently about what physical, worldly possessions I have with me here in Spain that x number of euros can't replace. To be honest, there's not much. On one hand it's a good feeling, knowing that you're not tied down too much. But on the other, it's comforting to have some reminders of friends, family, and memories with you. Here are a few things I have with me here that money can't replace.
U.S. measuring cups. There's nothing nostalgic about these particular measuring cups (and spoons). It's a set my mom happened to pick up somewhere, just to have extras, not long before I came to Spain. But I do treasure them, because thanks to these I can easily follow American recipes without converting to the metric system. I can make my favorite sugar cookies that taste and smell like Christmas to me. I can make my mom's biscuits to go with Thanksgiving dinner. Losing these wouldn't be the end of the world, but the fact that these are in my kitchen drawer makes this apartment just a little more me.
My backpack. This backpack has been with me since the beginning of my globetrotting tendencies. I bought it in 2007 for my trip to Australia, and since then it has been to just about every country that I have. I remember clearly trying on nearly a dozen backpacks at REI, weighing the pros and cons of each, excitedly talking to the salesman about my upcoming trip. In the end I was extremely happy with my purchase, and five years I still am. Sure, if this were to disappear I could go get a new backpack, but I surely wouldn't find this exact one I've grown so attached to, and it wouldn't come with all the memories.
Childhood books. To find these I actually rummaged through boxes and bookshelves of family memorabilia. These are not just any copies, but the actual books that my mom read to my brothers and I when we were little. They're some of my favorites (especially The King, the Mice, and the Cheese), and I brought them with me to read with students. These have provided for some of my favorite classes ever. When she let me take these, my mom made me promise to take care of them because she wants to read them to grandchildren someday.
Grandpa's sweater. Last, and most special of all, is this sweater. It might look like any old thing you can get at JC Penny or El Corte Inglés, but it is far from that. My grandfather, my mom's dad, and the last of my grandparents, passed away last November. When I went home for Christmas a little over a month later I had the heartbreaking experience of going through my grandparents now-empty house to claim what memories I could. Upon entering the house, I made a beeline for the closet. My entire life I remember my grandpa in his sweaters. He had a few of them, but this gray one and a navy blue one my brother took were by far the most worn. We used to tease my grandpa during the summer that in a few short months "sweater weather" would be back and he could pull out his favorite wardrobe item again. I have this sweater here with me in Spain, and this, above everything else, feels like having a piece of home and family with me. I wear it nearly everyday when I'm at home, but it never leaves the apartment. It's far too precious for that.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Beyond the plateau of language learning

If you've ever learned a language by spending time in a foreign country, you will know what a roller-coaster of a process it is. If you've never had to use the language outside a classroom before, the start may be bumpy. Why didn't your teacher ever teach you helpful little words like ticket office, and why didn't you pay attention during the lesson on giving directions?

(Tangent: Why did my Spanish teachers tell me that it's "doblar a la izquierda" when in Spain it's unequivocally girar? Ugh.)

Once you get through that rough patch, you will absorb the language like a sponge, depending obviously on how much you immerse yourself into it. If you listen to and read a language all day, before you know it you will find new words and phrases sneaking their way into your speech.

The part that comes next is more challenging, and it's where I find myself now. There will be a point at which your vocabulary and grammar will be sufficient to communicate nearly anything you want to. There will still be plenty you don't know, but using what you do know you can describe your way around the gaps in your knowledge. The phrases you put together might not be quite how a native speaker would say something, but you easily get your point across. If any of the above applies to you, congratulations, you've reached the language learning plateau.

In order to improve from this plateau, you need to make a concerted effort to fill in those gaps, take every opportunity to listen to native speakers and read in the language. This is my latest project, which I am going about in a variety of ways.

First, and I am ashamed to admit I haven't done this until now, I am reading in Spanish. Not just skimming through a newspaper each morning, but tackling a book.
I admit, I'm slightly cheating. I've read this in English (My Sister's Keeper) and know the story, but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty for me to learn in reading it in Spanish. It's a slower process, as would be expected, because I want to look up every single word I don't know or even have doubts about. Because I know the story, I can stop more and reflect on the specific language used. What phrases are used in more colloquial situations, and which in more formal? I find structures I've never heard before and suddenly have a new (more native!) way to say something.

Second, writing down all new vocabulary I come across, and then actually studying it! This notebook and my pocket dictionary come with me everywhere.
Third, every few days a couple words get put on this board in my entry way so I see them all the time.
The fourth, and most helpful step in pushing my Spanish beyond the plateau? Let's just say I've found my own personal human dictionary. But more on that later :)