October 1, 2009

Hola a Todos,

Last week, I called CRIF (Centro Regional de Innovacion y Formacion) Las Acacias to find out when our orientation was. The American woman said it was Monday and Tuesday, September 28 and 29; however, my letter had indicated it would be September 24-30. So I came to Spain early for an orientation that would happen 4 days after I thought it would. I guess the extra time has helped me recover from jet lag.

Okay, so I dressed “business casual” — but I promise you I have never once uttered this phrase. I found the Metro station on the map and drew the streets surrounding it in my datebook, which also contained the address and phone number of CRIF. After entering a gate, I surmised that the three kids whose speaking I couldn’t hear were definitely American English teachers, who seemingly sport informal dress like no one else I know, Trying not to think about my age, I approached them self-confidently and asked if they were on their way to orientation. Since no one introduced himself or herself, I introduced myself. They were very friendly and kind. One girl was the daughter of a diplomat, and she had lived in Mexico, but our dialogue ended as we entered the building for Calle General Ricardos 179 and stood in line to sign ourselves in.

Before signing up for this venture, I knew that I would probably be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Auxiliares de Conversacion. I decided not to let this thought deter me, although I looked around and thought, “What in the world am I doing here? These kids are 20 years younger than I am. I should’ve done this 20 years ago!” I wrote my name, my email address, the address of the school I am assigned to, and my phone numbers. Those whose last name began with A-F were to go to Room 2.7. There, we were greeted by a couple of men from the American Embassy who spoke both in English and Spanish. One of the men reminded us that if we ever have a bad day at the school where we’re teaching, “Just remember: You’re in Madrid! And you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how you can get back here!”

Then a Spanish woman from the U.S. Embassy spoke for two straight hours…in fast Spanish! Imagine my dismay. Now, I love Spanish and I have a lot of Spanish words in my head: The trouble is that I can’t string them together as fast as she can, so I had no idea what was going on the entire time she spoke. Although she had a nice voice and seemed to be a good speaker, she didn’t once take time to catch her breath. I sat next to a girl who had already lived in Madrid for a year, had actually gotten her master’s degree in Spanish from Middlebury College, and was probably in her early 30s, which was some comfort to me. I wrote her “I understand about half of this…I need an Advil,” and she filled me in a little. I kept wondering if I was in the right classroom, because it seemed as if the majority of the approximately 80 attendees understood what she was saying, laughing at the appropriate times, smiling at her sympathetically. I just wanted a big coffee break and a pill. Ms. Middlebury assured me that the audience were equipped with varying levels of understanding.

During the break, I approached the Spanish speaker and told her I understood about half of what she had said. I didn’t want to ask her if I had missed anything important, but I did want to ask her something which I had not yet formulated in my mind. Her immediate response? “This is a bilingual program,” as if she expected me to have perfect Spanish. But I know full well that these English teachers are equipped with varying levels of Spanish, and not everybody understood her. For me, it was strange that an English program with very important information (health insurance, U.S. Embassy information, paychecks, etc.) was conducted not in English but in very fast Spanish. Our conversation was immediately cut short, as she started to cough violently and then disappeared into the restroom, to return a few minutes later, still unable to talk. That was fine: I had had enough. And, yes, she’s right: it IS a bilingual program…for the Spanish students to whom we teach English, but It’s not a bilingual program for us.

I returned to my seat, and we listened to an American woman from the U.S. Embassy tell us, in English, to safeguard our wallets (too late) and to be safe. She said how easily it is to be distracted, and relayed the story of how when she was in Rome, Italian kids were in the trees pouring ketchup onto the people below to distract them so they could steal their wallets. I raised my hand and told her that my wallet had been stolen the first day, and she said, “I’m very sorry about that.” I tried to talk to her after her speech, but she was talking to someone else, got into the elevator with the person, and said, “I don’t know what I can do for you” since I had told her I had already cancelled my credit and bank cards. They advised me to register online with the Embassy, something I did right after I arrived here, and the elevator door shut on our conversation. She wasn’t exactly comforting.

Next, the other auxiliares and I went downstairs and had lunch: a choice of three kinds of baguette-type sandwiches (cheese, turkey, or ham) and several kinds of soda. Everyone congregated outside, sitting at picnic tables. Using my napkin, I wiped away the bird poop on the picnic table and sat next to the Middlebury girl, who was seemingly very knowledgeable about the program and about Spain. After lunch, because we had to get photos and copies of our work visa and date of entry, as well as buy a big envelope, she and I went to the photo shop and completed these tasks.

Then we returned for the final session of that day’s orientation. This time, a Spanish English teacher spoke to us and gave us tips and advice about how to teach children. That was interesting, but at the moment, I can’t remember anything she said; however, I did take notes, which are neatly rewritten and dwelling in a new notebook, as opposed to scribbled in my datebook, making the rectangular spaces for the days of October and November difficult to decipher.

Finally, my first day of orientation ended at approximately 6:00 p.m. Although I was starving and my feet hurt, I decided it wise that I accompany the Middlebury girl to a place where we had to print out a couple of pages from a website, so we took the train to Sol, one stop from mine, Opera. I wondered why “they” hadn’t printed out these papers for us, because all of this, after a long day of orientation, was a hassle to complete — and we needed to complete it by the following morning.

The next day of orientation, Tuesday, was much better. We signed in again at 9:00 a.m. and returned to the same classroom. I spotted the Middlebury girl closer to the front this time and because she had a bag sitting on the chair beside her, asked if anyone was sitting there. She said, “Only you. I was saving it for you.” Good, I thought, and sat down.

This time, the first speaker was a Spanish English teacher who seemed to be in love with teaching. She wanted us to incorporate drama into the classroom, and on the big table behind her were several kinds of different hats and puppets, which she used to demonstrate how to tell a story. She even included music, played from her computer, to sing, dance to, and act out certain stories. While dancing, she grazed her eyebrow and bottom eyelid simultaneously with her middle and index fingers while she looked out between the two fingers — if you can imagine that. Yes, here we were with an institution associated with the Ministry of Education, and we were witnessing this hilarious phenomenon, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it! The teacher went on to explain the way she attracts the students’ attention: “Students, I want you to listen to the most beautiful teacher in the world!” Highly amusing and I’m sure a very good teacher she gave us a lot of good advice about how to keep the students interested — and I took lots of notes. I thought I was being very attentive and laughing appropriately, but after the teacher’s “performance,” the Middlebury girl squealed at me, “You should’ve seen your face!” and erupted into laughter, not unlike, as we all know, something I might do. I probably was wearing a look of “Why in the world am I here?” mixed with “What in the world is she doing?” I guess my incredulousness was hard to fake.

All in all, a very entertaining day. Now Spain is getting more interesting.

Internationally yours,

Posted By HALLIE to International Girl in Spain at 10/01/2009 12:45:00 PM


Hola, Todos,

This morning, upon awakening, I walked Oliver, the dog. On our way back to the condo, an old man pointed to Oli, saying something that sounded like “adelante…que debas policia.” I didn´t say anything because I wasn´t sure what he was worked up about but just kept walking and looked at a nearby guy, who was smiling at me.

Late yesterday morning, Maite showed me the neighborhood, the enormous and very lively Plaza Mayor, and the expensive, new, huge, beautiful grocery store called Mercado de San Miguel, only about 2 blocks from us. She then took me to a grocery store named “Dia,” cheaper than the one closer to our condo. After, we walked to a small, narrow store, and she treated me to a Diet Pepsi and a delicious squid bocadillo. Then we parted, and I walked all the way to Toledo de Puente. The beautiful, narrow streets were busy with pedestrians and outside diners enjoying the gorgeous day, food, and drink.

I happened upon a Maxi Dia, so I bought a few groceries — only what I could carry back to the condo. At checkout, two Italian women in front of me were responding to the cashier in an Italian/Spanish mix, but the cashier seemed to understand them. I have heard that German and the Dutch speakers can understand each other, as can Italian and Spanish speakers — and Spanish and Portuguese speakers.

Once home, I took sweet and cuddly Oliver for another walk, and then Maite and I watched a movie she had rented, Bride Wars, which was, as I had suspected it would be, ridiculous. We thought the movie would have Spanish subtitles so we could both perhaps learn something from the experience, and maybe it did have subtitles, but we were unsure how to access them. Only at the end, when the actors had to be serious, was the acting good and believable.

Although the movie was in English, I sometimes had difficulty understanding the dialogue. I don´t know how EFL speakers can possibly understand the dialogue in these movies when I, a native English speaker, can´t understand it. The characters were running, talking, interrupting each other, speaking over each other — everything! I assume that Hollywood thinks this is like real life, but it certainly isn’t understandable.

Another gorgeous day here. I´ve been using Maite’s computer this whole time, but we’re going to try to hook up mine today. I hope to be able to use Skype to talk with my friends. If you´re in the U.S., it´s probably best we talk on the weekends; otherwise, I´ll have to stay up till about 1 a.m. to talk with you since you’re 6 or 7 hours behind, depending on your location and your job situation.

Tomorrow, I will have been away from the U.S. for a week, plus I start orientation at 9 a.m. at Las Crifas Acacias near the Vista Alegre Metro, only a few stops away. I am glad to have had a week to relax, organize my things, sleep, and find my way around a little.

Internationally yours,



Hola a Todos,

The first week of November, I decided to take a trip to Cuenca, two-and-one-half hours east of Madrid, halfway between Madrid and Valencia. I went with my travel buddy Maria, a 25-year-old girl, who had sat with me and a few others at orientation lunch in September. Maria and I had agreed to buy our tickets the previous day at Atocha Station, as I had no idea how long the ticket line would be the following morning — or even if the office would be open. Too much to figure out for a spur-of-the-moment trip. 

For most trips, especially those involving taking the train to O’Hare or Midway airports and boarding an airplane, I typically set at least two alarms so that I wake up in plenty of time to eat breakfast, take a shower, finish my packing, and straighten up my condo; however, I typically wake up well before my alarms ring, even if they are set to ring at 5:00 a.m., and this day was no different: I woke up at 6:00 a.m.

I was to meet Maria at 7:30 a.m. (we’re both early risers) at Sol, a 15-minute walk from my condo. I packed three cheese sandwiches, several tangelos, a dark orange-chocolate bar, and a few breakfast bars — all of which I had planned to share with Maria. I figured we could bring our main meal but could enjoy a nice morning coffee at a bar and later some Crianza at another one.

I took a shower, packed my backpack with my lunch and my camera; grabbed my coat, gloves, and hat, having heard that Cuenca was going to be windy and cold; and walked to Sol, where I found Maria waiting near the agreed-upon spot, the famous bear statue. We took the blue line to Atocha Renfe, where we enjoyed a coffee to go, and were advised to board the 8:00 a.m. train, even though our ticket indicated 8:20 a.m. We took that train to the next station 10 minutes away, where we waited for about 45 minutes inside the station. At 9:00 a.m., we boarded another train to Cuenca. During our ride, the train was quiet, and we took pictures of some pictures of the landscape, including what we thought were olive trees.

Once in Cuenca, we immediately went to the tourist information kiosk, where, fortunately, we found ourselves second in line, with probably 20 people behind us. The kiosk woman spent ample time with each tourist, tracing the walking route on the map she had given us. A Korean couple was in front of us, and the Korean guy seemingly understood Spanish and even declined a brochure in Korean. After she gave us our Spanish-language brochure and explained the walking route to us, I asked her for a brochure in English, but she didn’t have one.

Maria and I walked to the bus stop. Here was the trade-off to being second in line at the kiosk: We had to wait for at least 30 minutes in the cold for the bus. First, a small bus stopped at our bus stop and opened its doors, the front-seat passenger offering us a ride and its perhaps 8 or 10 passengers watching the scene about to take place: I had gotten the impression this was a chartered bus, but the front-seat passenger communicated that the ride for us would be free. Maria was speaking to them in Spanish, as she is bilingual, but one of the passengers was covering his face to hide his laughter and the guy talking to us from inside the bus was clearly kidding with us. I didn’t react, and they drove away, trying to stifle their laughter. Maria and I looked at each other, wondering why people were making fun of us: We hadn’t experienced this type of treatment in Madrid, at least to our faces.

My feeling is if you meet a foreigner in the United States or you meet anyone who is trying to speak English or a language different from his or her own, well, just remember that he or she is trying to speak a different language. Strange how some people make fun of people trying to speak English, whereas a lot of Americans don’t speak their own language correctly. Our global responsibility is to help these people, except if they are criminals. Even though I’m in a Western country and the adjustment hasn’t been difficult, there are many little differences between Spain and the U.S. in terms of how things function: I can think of only a few right now, but a newcomer often has something to figure out, so if you can be kind to a foreigner or someone who doesn’t understand the language but is legal and not a criminal, then you’re cooperating with the world. Now if the person is an overall bad egg or, worse, has an unpleasant (a.k.a. bad) personality, then feel free to be as snotty to them as you would be to your fellow American, but of course, don’t credit me with this advice.

Maria and I were informed, while we were waiting for that bus, that the buses operate on a different schedule on Sunday. After we waited for at least 30 minutes, the bus finally came, and we embarked on a ride up a curvy road between houses to the top, where we got out and took pictures of the “cliffhanger” (can’t remember if I invented this term) houses.

Next, we stopped in a bar for a couple of cups each of cafe con leche. As the coffee was especially strong, I asked, in Spanish, for more hot milk, and the old bartender observed, “You Americans always want more.” Maria and I looked at each other again. He was nice, but he was also sort of making fun of us. Why was this happening again? Had I, pretrip, failed to read the “In Cuenca, they make fun of you because you are a foreigner” literature? We started to wonder if Cuenca was famous for making fun of the tourists. Maria and I joke now that because we are Americans, we always want more: Nothing is ever enough.

As Maria and I descended the hill, we walked into several different shops, mostly to look, not to buy. Every outdoor scene looked photo-worthy, so we took a lot of photos and then toured a big cathedral, situated near a plaza. When we exited the cathedral, we noticed a parking lot filled with small cars revving up their engines. I ran between them to take a picture of the cathedral from a distance and then ran back to the cathedral so I wouldn’t get run over, because I didn’t know what the small-car drivers’ intentions. A few minutes, the drivers stepped on the gas and sped away.

Maria and I stopped to eat our sandwiches outside of an old schoolhouse atop a hill. Then we walked down a long, wide, concrete staircase decorated with fall-colored trees. We crossed a bridge over a river and walked into what seemed like the wilderness, as hardly any shops were open, probably because it was Sunday, so we walked back toward the train station, stopping for a couple of glasses of crianza, served by Spanish-speaking Chinese people, and a few free appetizers: a plate of olives and chips, topped off by some of my orange chocolate. Then we returned to the train station and hopped on the train for long ride back to Madrid.

Although this was a fabulous day, which involved much walking, here I am, six weeks later, still trying to explain this trip to my always-ailing* feet.

Internationally yours,

International Girl in Spain

*My feet are perfect now, in 2014!

Posted By HALLIE to International Girl in Spain at 12/20/2009 02:35:00 AM