MY CARNAVAL RIDE

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August 3, 2010

Hola a Todos,

Our school celebrated Carnaval on Wednesday, February 17, and we teachers were supposed to wear firemen (bomberos) costumes — red hat, red polyester pants and polyester jacket with black straps — which we bought through the school. Imagine: All of this entertainment for only 15 euros. I signed up fast.

Here’s my advice: Don’t ever listen to other people, except me. A couple of female teachers, whose names I won’t divulge here, at least, ruined the day for me because they had said that the firewoman’s dress was “slutty”, which is why I should’ve bought it in the first place. I might as well have had some fun at least one day in Madrid, BUT come the day of the great Carnaval event, these female teachers were wearing the so-called slutty “fireperson” outfit, but the dress was just a nicely styled dress that showed off their legs and was far more attractive than the oversized firemen’s garb the rest of the teachers and I were wearing. I’ve never worn so unflattering an outfit for Carnaval (okay, so I’ve been to a total of one Carnaval event), and the fact that I wore no makeup that day and my uterus was growing, by the second, with tumors didn’t help my look much. (Hyperbole, I thank you.) No one really to impress at school, but I wouldn’t have mind at least impressing myself.

So we teachers and students were supposed to wear aprons over our clothes until lunch or after lunch. I’m not even sure that the Spanish teachers were certain, or else there was no particular rule about it. No one had clarified what the significance of the apron was for Carnaval, so please excuse me if everyone in the world knows its significance but me, as I have not yet researched this fascinating topic on the internet just yet (4 1/2 months later), but I went with the flow and wore a flamenco apron. The Spanish teachers had never seen a Flamenco apron and wondered where I had bought it, with Carlos, the Chief of Studies, asking me to give it to him (yes, your guess about his sexual orientation is correct; I didn’t give it to him, in more ways than one). I bought it in a place where Madrilenos never go in Madrid: a souvenir shop.

After lunch, we teachers changed into our firemen costumes, went to the gym, and messed around there to very loud music. (Call me old, but I don’t want my hearing ruined by loud music, although I will gladly model a slutty outfit, so don’t call me that old.) The students, by grade, circled the inside of the gym, single file, their homeroom teacher leading the line by dancing a dance that the students imitated. Through this display, everyone could see all of the students and their costumes. (See the picture section of this blog.)

I took pictures of a couple of the teachers’ children [at their parents’ request], but there is a rule in Spain about not taking pictures of minors. Even the parents aren’t supposed to take pictures of their own children when they come to school for an event. I’m not clear on what our school’s rules are, because other teachers, including us foreigners, were snapping pictures of the kids, and no one stopped us from doing it, so it’s just something else in Spain that’s a bit murky in my mind. Check out President Obama and Michelle (my nemesis) getting their pictures taken with Spanish President Zapatero, his wife, and their Gothically dressed daughters, whose faces are blurry — but not in real and actual life, I suppose, although in my mind, they are since I wouldn’t know them if I were to see them in real life:

http://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2009/09/29/espana/1254212500.htmlhttp://www.nowpublic.com/world/zapatero-daughters-photo-spains-first-family-pic

http://www.nowpublic.com/world/zapatero-daughters-photo-spains-first-family-pic

Anyway, the kids’ costumes were very cute — I love the kids so much, I can’t stand it — and it was a nice day, even though I felt lousy and needed an operation. (Hyperbole, I thank you again.)

Instead of going to wild Carnaval out in Madrid somewhere, I went to controlled Carnaval at school, and I have pictures to prove it. And I would really appreciate it a whole heck of a lot if you would use Photoshop to blur out my face here in these pictures. Carnaval wasn’t one of my best beauty days. There should be a law against taking pictures of 48-year-olders wearing firemen costumes and no makeup.

Carnavally yours,

International Girl in Spain
http://www.BeltStyles: Buckle up for the perfect look and fit.
Copyright 2014. BeltStyles, LLC. Chicago, Illinois.

BASQUE-ING IN SPAIN

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12/23/09 to 12/26/09

Hola a Todos,

On Wednesday, December 23, the day after our Christmas celebration at school, I traveled on an Alsa bus to San Sebastian, Spain, where Javier lives. (Madrid is the center of Spain, and San Sebastian is about 5 hours north by car, near the border of France.) At about 7:45 a.m., I rode the Metro to Avenida de America, a huge train station and bus stop. Since I hadn’t eaten breakfast, I decided to eat at the enormous train station and found a restaurant offering the bocadillo, a sandwich consisting of a long bun with perhaps, cheese or cheese and Serrano ham. I bought one for breakfast and one for my bus-trip lunch. There was a packed bar filled with smokers, so after I ordered an orange juice, coffee, and 2 bocadillos, I immediately drank the orange juice and carried the rest of the items (no trays to be found), plus my luggage, to a table outside of the glass-enclosed, smoke-filled bar.

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Enjoying my bocadillo and coffee, I sat there watching a tableful of 15 women in their mid-50s, chattering, laughing, and yelling across the table to each other, as if this were their husband-free day to let loose and whoop it up with the girls.

As I had my confirmation number and my passport, having been told over the phone that these were all I needed for this bus trip, I went where the train turnstyle-stander-by guy had directed me. A few of the buses said “San Sebastian,” but to make sure, I asked the train information window woman, who could barely be bothered to look at me but somehow managed to scrape up enough energy to point downstairs. I hurried downstairs, ran over to the ticket office, got my ticket, and asked the ticket seller for the floor and gate number. I arrived at a different place, these buses also saying “San Sebastian.” At 8:50, the bus driver checked our ticket and passport/ID, and we were off exactly at 9:00 a.m., my seat, which I had selected over the phone, being at the very front.

I had barely gotten on the bus, when my “seat partner” was directing me to put my little bag overhead. I don’t know why she was so concerned, as she would in no way be bogged down either by my physical or emotional baggage. I put my small bag behind my feet and held the other bag in my lap, in no way edging over to her seat. She gave me some more advice in Spanish, but I said nothing to her, as I hadn’t asked for her advice. My bag held my laptop, and having already been robbed in Spain, I wasn’t about to take any chances storing my bag somewhere other than in my protective hands.

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Happy that I had once again reached my destination, the comfortable bus seat, and that the bus was filled with nontalkers, except for my little seat partner, I breathed a sigh of relief. The previous week had been filled with activities: the Christmas dinner, shopping for our Invisible Friend, preparing for the Christmas program, packing, making cookies for school and Javier, finalizing details for the three trips Margaret and I were to take. I was tired and wanted to be left alone, but my seat partner would have none of it. I could have actually spent my time talking to her in Spanish and maybe might even have learned something, but sometimes I just need to sit, be quiet, and not learn about my environment or the language, not walk the dog, not tend to students, not try to figure out what the teachers are discussing at lunch, not try to find an address, not try to get along with a roommate, not try to communicate with someone who doesn’t initially understand me, and [now] not try to talk to someone on public transportation. I didn’t feel like accommodating anybody at that moment, so after spending the first half hour looking at me or attempting to talk to me or glancing at my English language crossword puzzle book, my seat partner gave up and went to sleep. Peace. I would’ve talked to her if she hadn’t been annoying, but sometimes it doesn’t matter what language a person speaks: you know they’re annoying. Although I am disgusted by some aspects of American culture (mostly guns and violence) and might not be the most patriotic American on earth, I do love my country and I love the English language basically because it is my language and the language of our handsome, intelligent President. And I’m very happy that I understand the lyrics of famous songs and movies. So, sometimes I just need to be me, an American whose mother tongue is English, who gets jokes in English, who understands what Americans mean by how they say certain words or how they react, who can understand the finer aspects of my fellow Americans’ personalities. However, I can assure you that this smugness doesn’t come in handy when I actually have to communicate in Spanish.

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A movie came on front and center, Dan in Real Life. I wasn’t interested in trying to understand a movie without visual aids and with creepy, dubbed-over Spanish voices, but watching Steve Carell in action was amusing, as he is pretty darned cute and funny, and I could make out what was going on by watching characters’ expressions and actions.

I was spending a little time trying to figure out if the two girls across the aisle from me were lesbians: They were pretty and dressed like girls, but judging from their body language, although they weren’t doing anything overt, seemed together. I always like to think I can figure these things out, but for a variety of reasons, my conclusions are occasionally inaccurate, especially
lately, as people dress any which way now. I worked at ad agencies for 9 years, and I was wrong about a few of my coworkers: I had definitely thought certain guys were gay and then later had to conclude they weren’t, my conclusion affirmed by others. I didn’t care one way or the other: I just needed to know. There was a girl I used to work with who was about 15 years younger than I, and as she would bring me editing work to do every day, and I would ask her, “What did you and your young life do this weekend?” to which she usually responded that she had gone out drinking with some of our coworkers. After I was laid off, I was with an ex-coworker who told me that she was gay. Then toward the end of my time at that company, I remember her mentioning at the mockup table she would be attending the Gay Pride Parade that weekend. I still hadn’t put two and two together because lots of people go to that, as if it’s a spectacle. I guess I don’t find it as interesting as everybody else does. What I do find interesting is my sometimes inability to guess accurately anymore. Again, I resort to the advice of my father, who, as a musician, had spent some time around gay men in his profession: “They show you as much as they want you to know.” I never believed this for a long time, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how accurate and wise that information was.
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In the meantime, I was enjoying the scenery, and midway through the trip, our bus pulled into a rest stop, where I bought cafe con leche and ate the rest of my bocadillo. The rest stop was big and clean, and equipped with expensive gifts, souvenirs, alcohol, and a cafeteria. After 30 minutes, we boarded the bus again and were off.

Another movie was shown, this one starring “The Rock,” an ex-WWE [I think] guy who actually looks like a nice, half-intelligent,
humorous guy in real life, but the movie itself 1779315_10206422234455879_886725537271669441_nlooked stupid, so I worked on my crossword puzzles. (A former coworker had given me two crossword-puzzle books at my going-away party last September, and I have definitely used them.) Soon it was snowing, and we were driving much more slowly, my seat partner now awake and discussing every turn with the bus driver, who was sometimes on the phone discussing the weather and what he should do. From what I could tell, the woman wasn’t annoying him: she was just rambling on about the weather with him and then, when we reached San Sebastian, thanked him for helping us arrive safely to our destination under somewhat treacherous conditions. I, too, thanked the bus driver, and I almost thanked my seat partner for exiting the bus.

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Javier was standing on the sidewalk right in front of where the bus was pulling in. Like its airport, San Sebastian has a very small bus stop, where you would be hard-pressed to miss someone. He and I returned to his apartment, set my stuff down, and went grocery shopping.

On Christmas Day, we went to his mother’s house for dinner, and then she, Javier’s brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew came over to open presents on Christmas Day. I had brought Stroopwaffels (waffle-shaped, syrup-enclosed, Dutch cookies) and Hershey’s kiss cookies for everybody to enjoy. The next day, around 1:30 p.m., Javier and I drove downtown to meet his friend at a bar for pinxtos. Then we ate at a nearby restaurant, and the others took me to the train station. These buses and trains don’t dilly-dally: they leave pretty much on time, and I was off at 4 p.m. sharp.

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Margaret was to arrive Sunday, December 27, around noon, so around 11 a.m., I took the Metro to Madrid’s Barajas airport to meet her. We returned via Metro and took her stuff to my condo and then walked around Madrid Plaza Mayor, a few blocks from my condo, noting the people wearing wigs and the many Christmas kiosks set up there. (I asked a couple of teachers at school why Madrilenos wear wigs around Christmas, and they said that they just like to dress up.) We had a delicious cafe con leche in Plaza Mayor and a wonderful late-afternoon fish dinner in a nearby restaurant.

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My roommate was still at home, as her trip to Argentina had been changed, so she was planning to leave Madrid on New Year’s Eve, the day Margaret and I were to leave for Tangier, Morocco. Margaret went to bed early, not only because she had jet lag but also because our train was to leave by 8 a.m. from Madrid’s Chamartin station. Margaret slept in my bedroom, I slept on the couch in the living room, and Maite slept in her room. As usual, I had set 2 alarms.

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I had been instructed that if we left at a certain time the next morning for Chamartin, we would have plenty of time to arrive, but those instructions were off, and I should’ve listened to my own instructions. I had made the grave mistake of having printed out only my paid itinerary instead of the tickets. I had had so many things to think about and had thought, anyway, that the woman I had talked to on the phone said I needed only my passport and paid itinerary. I had tried to print the tickets out at school, but the printer wasn’t working and then I guess I had forgotten. At Chamartin, I was running ahead of Margaret, asking where the train for San Sebastian was. Directed to a platform, we took the escalator down. I showed my printout and passport to Security, but we were supposed to have the actual tickets, which of course makes sense. I had talked with many people and done so much research for all three trips Margaret and I were to take that I must’ve gotten this part wrong. Unusual for me, as if you know me, you know I’m pretty good about checking on things to make sure, but I guess I needed more panic and stress in my life, and this was my morning to embrace it.

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Margaret and I put our luggage through the screener, which I’ve never done for a train ride, the train woman still directing me to venture back upstairs to get a ticket, but there was no time. She finally acquiesced and I asked her “Which car?” in Spanish. I didn’t understand anything anybody said to me at this point, even if they had spoken to me in English: I was too stressed from having things go wrong after having worked so hard to organize three trips for Margaret and me. I did understand the number of the car, though. Once on the train, I suggested to Margaret that we sit anywhere until Senor Ticket Taker forced us to sit elsewhere.

Mr. Ticket Taker indeed came by and asked that we retrieve our luggage — Margaret’s being overhead, mine being in my greedy hands — and walk several cars to who knows where. I had paid for the ticket. I couldn’t help but ask him in my mind: “What more do you want from me? I’ve paid for the tickets. Go hassle someone else who is actually draining the system. Do I look like I’m trying to cheat the Spanish train system? Do I look like a criminal?”

I wasn’t sure where we were going, but we kept walking through more train cars. Finally, we reached his destination: a Spanish girl who spoke English quite well. She was just a regular passenger he was somehow acquainted with. Margaret and I sat down across the aisle from her, the primary reason his taking us there was that we needed to know that the train would split midway to San Sebastian, the front car heading toward Bilbao, the back car heading toward San Sebastian. As San Sebastian was also her destination, we were to get off the train with her and run to the back train cars. She would help direct us there, as the train guy knew she was going there. How would I have ever known to do that? They don’t tell you any of that over the phone. We thanked Mr. Ticket Taker profusely, and throughout the trip, he brought a few more foreigners over to her, and we couldn’t help but laugh. I told her she needed to be a tour guide.

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When Margaret and I arrived at SS’s train station, we walked across the street to catch a bus. Javier couldn’t pick us up because he was busy, so he had told me which bus to catch to go to his condo. The bus came immediately, so this part of the trip was a breeze. He had texted me that his condo would be 10 stops away. This piece of information was crucial, because even though I’ve been to San Sebastian eight times, I’m familiar only with the downtown area, but the bus didn’t go through downtown to Javier’s condo: instead, it meandered up curvy hills away from downtown. And I wasn’t used to approaching his condo from the opposite direction, but I counted the stops, and we got off exactly where we were supposed to. If I had been by myself, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but now I had company and luggage.

Equipped with Javier’s key, we headed straight for the condo. There were 2 couches in Javier’s living room, plus he had bought a blow-up bed! I took one couch, Margaret the other, and while she slept, I grocery shopped. After I stored the groceries, Margaret was still sleeping, so I treated myself to a manicure/pedicure at a nearby shop, making an appointment for a massage the next morning. For the pedicure, I sat uncomfortably in a chair, both women working on my feet, but they don’t the work they do in the States: I was getting a superficial pedicure. How would I ever explain this to my in-great-need-of-a-real-pedicure feet? There was none of the foot scraping, nail buffing, feet soaking in jet-spraying hot water, lounging in a warm, vibrating seat equipped with a remote control. However, I made the most of the situation by practicing my Spanish with them. One woman asked me: “Are you [pause] comoda?” I laughed at her trying to accommodate me by speaking my language. She laughed, too. I wasn’t really comfortable, but inching myself around in the chair, I grew a little more comfortable and told her I was. I didn’t think they could make me more comfortable anyway.

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The manicure was so-so, so I was wondering how good the following day’s massage would be. However, I had enjoyed their company and returned to Javier’s. He, Margaret, and I drank some Crianza and watched CNN in English. I fixed stir-fry, and we ate that and the vanilla-ice-cream-topped cherry pie I had baked that morning. We decided that CNN’s dramatic anchor Richard Quest really needs to have his own show.

The next day, while the others were sleeping, I enjoyed perhaps my best massage ever at the same place. When I returned, I fixed eggs, toast, and fruit, while Javier prepared us coffee. We drove us to St. Jean de Luz in the south of France, only about 45 minutes away. We walked around, stopped in a dark restaurant for cafe con leche, and watched the rain. Later, we bought a slice of Basque cake and ate that while we walked around in the rain. We also went to Guadalupe and Fuentarribia, where Javier took us to a restaurant to enjoy wine and pintxos. Then we returned to SS.

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The next morning, Javier drove us to Zarautz, Guetaria, and Zumaia. I had seen these places my first year in San Sebastian but had forgotten how wonderfully scenic they are: winding roads, the Cantabric Sea, the mountains. We returned to Javier’s condo, and I fixed lunch: Crianza; spaghetti; spaghetti sauce with garlic, mushrooms, and olives; bread and olive oil; salad; fruit salad; and tiramisu. (I believe in eating all the food groups.) Then Margaret and I packed, and Javier drove us to the train station, this time I had tickets in hand.

A very short but wonderful trip to the Basque Country, thanks to Javier and his incredible generosity. Javier, I’ll be back!

Internationally yours,

Hallie, Your International Girl
http://www.BeltStyles.com, halliebelt@beltstyles.com, 312.285.8429

PREPARING FOR THE HOLIDAYS AT SCHOOL

February 7, 2010

Hola a Todos,

There were many things to do to prepare for Christmas and The Three Kings (January 6). The teachers and students decorated the school corridors, and I volunteered to help my team teacher paint big signs to hang just outside our classrooms, as she doesn’t like arts and crafts and I do, depending on the medium.

Although I don’t excel at drawing or painting, I very much like to try to do both, so I went to the English classroom, poured red paint and green paint into separate plastic cups, got down on the floor with my big sheets of white paper, and wrote Merry Christmas on one and Feliz Navidad on the other. I figured that if the writing wasn’t perfect, I could paint over any mistakes. And if my writing looked like that of a second-grader’s, all the better, so I painted both signs, my team teacher very much impressed not only by my writing but also by my dotting the i’s in Christmas, Feliz and Navidad, with a yellow-painted flame. Genius, I know.

The students colored wreaths, bells, and all sorts of Christmas pictures. During a couple of classes, we helped them make holiday cards to give to their parents: we handed out colored paper to each child, instructing them to fold the paper in half. Then on the board I wrote:

Dear Mom and Dad (if they had both parents),

Merry Christmas

and a

Happy New Year!

Love, [Child’s Name]

The students were to write this message in pencil on the inside of their now-doubled-over colored paper. I was amused that several of them had signed their name on the holiday card as if they were a grown-up signing a credit card: after they had written their name, they scribbled over the signature. I asked the teacher why they did that, and she said, “They love it!”

After my team teacher and I had checked each holiday card for mistakes and legibility, the students traced over their letters with a colored marker of their own choosing. I had set up a desk in the back with three chairs, and two students at a time came to sit with me and view the sample holiday card the teacher had drawn and painted (complete with inside message): snowman, with branches for arms, buttons, eyes, nose, and mouth, a hat, a scarf, and falling snow. Then they were to create their own holiday card, with my help. The children who normally act up in class — about 30% of them — were amazingly good and patient when I was helping them in the back of the classroom with this project. The reason? It was fun, creative, and directly related to them.

To avoid paint-tipping-over chaos, I kept the plastic cups with the paint in a cardboard box and asked each student which color paint he or she wanted to use next. I didn’t initially come up with this brilliant idea: I had to suffer through several near-paint-spills to figure out a way to release myself from the agony of constantly hovering over the plastic cups of paint, ensuring that they didn’t spill because of impatient, attacking, little fingers.

Starting with white, I painted only the top line of the snow-covered ground and, for the snowman, a big circle and a small circle atop the big one — just so that they had some structure and we could get the job done quickly, as I had to work with 25 students in each class. The students painted the rest of the ground and inside the circles. They picked whatever color paint they wanted — black, brown, yellow, white, and red — for the rest of the card, the activity serving as both a creative and English lesson in colors and names: “What color do you want for the arms [eyes, nose, mouth, buttons, scarf, tree, snow, etc.]?” I told each student how wonderful their paintings were, and I meant it, even though a few of them looked kind of scary, with lots of black and brown.

One boy, who only occasionally seems to know what’s going on in English class, surprised me. This boy jokingly and daily makes crazy gestures and faces at me during class, and the girl who used to sit beside him would point to her temple, making circles with her index finger as in “He’s crazy,” but I later found out from the teacher that actually he should be in a special education class but that those schools don’t have enough room. His was the best card in terms of, well, representation. Amazed, I told my team teacher, and she says he’s really very good at art. I was glad he is good at something. I often sit and help him with his English and notice the light only sometimes goes on. All I can do is, while encouraging him, try to ignore his inattentiveness and growling, and wait for him to flip his “on” switch. At least he seems to have a good personality, because after he growls and I growl back at him, he smiles, getting a major kick out of my response. Sometimes he pushes me away, and after a while, I walk away.

I noticed that, the next day, my “Merry Christmas in two languages art” had been hung on the wall outside our second-grade glasses. I taped the student holiday cards to the wall to complete the look. Simple, but cheery. One very sweet student presented me with his family Christmas card, on which was a small picture of his mother, father, brother, and him. I think he gave a card to all of his teachers.

We English teachers had to teach the students six songs, some of whose lyrics they already knew: We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Silent Night, Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Feliz Navidad. The second graders, at least, didn’t have the lyrics on a piece of paper in front of them because my team teacher said that they would lose them, so I wrote the lyrics on the board. I said a line, and the students repeated it; I sang a line, and they did the same. Although I’m frightened to death of singing at open mike, maybe because it’s much more intimate and personal, I am not in the least bit afraid of standing in front of a class or even the whole school and singing. The team teacher also sang while I walked around the class and sang loudly so that the students could hear my pronunciation.

The week before the Christmas concert, the English teachers and I went to the gym to help the students practice the Christmas songs, us English teachers leading the students, the British English teacher playing the guitar. I noticed that he had a very good voice, and he informed me that one of his parents, like mine, was a classical musician. The students were pointing at me, whispering to their friends, amazed that I could sing Feliz Navidad in Spanish, not realizing that it’s just a few words (if you say “hola” to them, they think you’re bilingual!) and also not knowing that Jose Feliciano had made this song very famous decades earlier.

We also had Secret Santa at school, which the Spanish call “Amig@ Invisible” (“Invisible Friend”) — the @ designating Amigo or Amiga. So I was the Secret Santa for a teacher I had almost never seen. I bought her cranberry soap, chocolates, lavender sachet, lavender votive candles  having heard she loves the color purple — and aqua and dark-blue potholders. Each gift was only 1 euro or less (about $1.50). The main gift, to be put into the Secret Santa box on Tuesday, December 22, was supposed to cost about 15 euros, about $22. Because I didn’t really know a thing about her, I bought her something generic: a bath set of soap, shower gel, lotion, etc. — in the color purple.

The Christmas program — a Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and the Three Kings Spanish-and-English-song combo — was a big deal because the parents came to the school to see their little ones sing in both languages. The rumor was that everybody was to dress up as if it were New Year’s Eve — this meant jammies for me — but before the big day, I had asked a few teachers what we were to wear. A couple of them responded to dress smartly, and one of the male teachers joked that the female teachers get their hair done so that it looks better than usual. Another teacher said she was just going to wear what she usually wears, which I guess would be tight faded jeans, boots and a tee shirt that says “My day!” Another said that some of the teachers wear long dresses. I think I can remember having owned two long dresses in my life: A “Maxi,” a long yellow dress with small flowers I had worn as a 12-year-old sixth grader in 1973. I  had sewed it myself and, along with Maxi-dress wearing Judy Oussoren and Mary Beth Piper (as I recall), wore it to school. (During elementary school, we usually called up our friends to see what they were wearing the following day and, equally importantly, if they were going to “buy” or “carry” their lunch.) Then, for my 20th high school reunion in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — don’t ask me why I got so dressed up — I wore a long, slit-up-the-leg lavender dress. I’ve been a bridesmaid in two friends’ weddings, so I wore long dresses then, but that just about sums up my long-dress-wearing history. And I wasn’t about to go out and purchase a long dress, partly in the face of so many conflicting stories but mostly because I can’t afford to purchase even a shirt. I figured that the focus would be the students, not me, and I would get my first manicure in four months, dress nicely, wear some makeup (some days I don’t even bother with it), and maybe even curl my hair.

During the week before we revealed ourselves to our Invisible Friend, some of the teachers were getting little presents or fun notes from their Secret Santa. (A Mr. Jon C. Lundell told me he had thought that an “Invisible Friend” was a girl’s period. I responded that our period was just our friend, not our invisible friend; maybe it was our visitor: I can’t remember now.) I still had not received a thing, which I joked didn’t bother me, considering I had spent more than half a year in Chicago getting rid of my stuff so that my condo would be cleared out for a potential tenant. However, I was starting to wonder if I had been forgotten or if I really had a Secret Santa — not that this was a critical world problem. On the Thursday before the present-opening day, I hadn’t received even a little note. Then two first-grade girls brought a present up to the science class I team teach, but they gave the present to my Spanish team teacher, who proceed to open it while the students were doing their homework. It was a Hershey’s peanut chocolate bar, with a nice note from the Secret Santa, something about how when you smile, it lights up everybody’s life and makes everybody feel better. I had thought that that was a really nice note and how great it would have been had it been my present, partly because of the beautiful message and partly because of the creative presentation: a surprise from two adorable girls. Still, I enjoyed my team teacher’s happiness and took the wrapping from her so I could recycle it.

Then since my team teacher couldn’t figure out something I had asked her about my cell phone, she suggested I run down to ask a Spanish English teacher who, she said, knew about these things. I found the other teacher and asked her about the cell phone, while commenting on how two cute girls had come up to give my team teacher a big Hershey’s bar. She said, “That present was for you!” while running up to my team teacher’s classroom, entering the room and explaining to her — in front of the class, mind you — that the present was mine. The team teacher apologized to me for taking it: apparently, the little girls had dropped the little name card on their way to bring it to “us.” I ended up giving the Hershey’s chocolate to an American friend of mine. I tell you, I just wanted to be remembered, I guess. The teacher whole told me the present was for me had given the present to the girls because she knew I hadn’t received anything so far and had found it in the later that day and wanted to make sure I had gotten it before I left for the week.

On Friday, December 18, in the morning, I stood in line at the police station to present documents so I could finally get my Spanish ID card on January 18. That night, 14 teachers, including me, met in front of the school to dine together at a restaurant in the area. Our dinner consisted of salad, salmon, bread, wine, champagne, and other food I can’t very well remember, because the meal was just so-so, I thought, but we had a nice time. I was getting concerned about how late the train would actually be running. Having stayed out all night in Tokyo a few times because all the trains stopped running around 1 a.m. and a taxi back to Yokohama was about $100, I am not a fan of being out all night, waiting for a train to start up at 5 a.m. Since almost everybody else lived in the area, no one else had the same dilemma, except one of the 21-year-old American English teachers, who later told me she was glad I had been concerned, as we definitely would have been stuck had we left any later. I decided I needed to go, and a Spanish English teacher was kind enough to drive me and the other American to the closest Metro station.

We took the train to Madrid, our train arriving at the Metro station Principe Pio, which was relatively close to my Metro station, Opera. We ran to make our respective connections, but the last train was pulling into the station for the night, just as I was approaching it. Earlier, the American teacher had told me I could catch a bus, so I walked a couple of blocks with the crowd to a bus stop and queried about the schedule, unsure of how to read it. She directed me to the “N” (“Noche” or “Night”) schedule. I waited for the bus for about 20 minutes, watching all the drunk people, kissing couples, guys peeing behind trees, people yelling to each other. I just wanted to be home in bed, but I figured this would be the only time I would experience very-late-night/early-morning Madrid, and I would at least understand the bus system better. I took the bus to Gran Via, a shop-filled, huge street close to my Metro station, and walked the rest of the way via Sol. I guess the partiers had decided to trash the place because all along my walk, but especially on Calle Arenal, there were huge piles of trash all over the place. Stunned and disgusted, I tried to find a clear path for walking. I have never seen anything like this in the United States, but then again, even though I live only two blocks from Division Street in Chicago, I never hang out there late at night to see what really goes on — and I never plan to. At any rate, the cleaners had their work cut out for them, and they manage to destroy the evidence, as Calle Arenal is always back to normal by daylight.

On Monday, December 21, we teachers practiced the songs with the students, and on Tuesday, we had the Christmas program, which was to start at about 10 a.m. The parents were waiting on the sidewalk, a locked gate to keep them from rushing in to get a front-row view of their child’s performance. The kindergartners, then the first graders, then the second graders, and last, the third graders. The fourth, fifth, and sixth graders were in the auditorium with their parents. The children were all dressed differently: some of the girls were wearing lots of make-up — one American teacher noted that one of my second-graders looked like a child prostitute, and I had to concur — and glittery dresses, while others were dressed in their normal school wear. Some of the boys were wearing suits, some jeans. The concert was held in the gymnasium, and the parents herded in and were roped off. As there were no chairs, they had to stand up. There was a gym ladder on the side walls, and a few of them were climbing the ladder to get a better look at the performance. There were already columns blocking the parents’ view, and I figured since I wasn’t watching my child, I would sit on the floor to avoid blocking their view. Remember my bad knees and feet? Not an easy task for me to get up and down, as well as sit on a gym (or any) floor in a nice skirt. I then sat on the side bench between two of my second-grade boys, one of whom kept trying to pull the curled ribbon, which I had difficulty trying to subdue as it kept springing out of my grip. I was to throw it later when we yelled “Happy New Year!” right there in the gymnasium, almost 10 days early.

After this chaotic, but o so cute, performance, there were message on a screen in Spanish, and then we counted down to the New Year and yelled “Happy New Year!” and some of the teachers, also equipped with the springy ribbon, threw the ribbon and candies up into the air for the children to scramble after. We then returned to the classrooms for our normal break at 11:30 a.m. and the cafeteria “ladies” brought us pitchers of chocolate and plastic bags of churros. I was pouring little plastic cups of the chocolate for the students and handing out the churros. While I actually have pretty healthy eating habits, I think I might have a dangerous addition to churros, as I must have eaten about 7 them, wanting to eat more but hoping they would vanish, my not being the culprit. While we were enjoying our treats, the students, who also had an Invisible Friend (a fellow student), were busy opening presents. One boy looked none too happy that he received a picture frame or something of that ilk, although I tried to make a big deal about it, while another had gotten a Nerf-type basketball set. Then they snatched their note to give to The Three Kings, who were now in the auditorium, with the parents now watching each child go up on stage to sit on the lap of one of The Three Kings. So we hurried back to the gym to watch the students form a line, each approaching one of the Three Kings, sitting on his lap, giving him the note, and telling him how good he or she had been all year. For a couple of students, I wanted to intervene, sorry I wasn’t equipped with a videotape of their behavior during some of our classes, but I didn’t want to give them the big chance to learn how to lie to an authority figure. It might serve them well later in life.

A little after noon, we teachers went to the music classroom, sat in desks set in a big circle, and enjoyed our own Secret Santa, all the gifts being in a big box at the front. The Spanish English teacher in charge of the activity called up the next person to receive his or her gift. I had been starting to think my Secret Santa was the “very-nice-and-doesn’t-know-he’s-funny-but-he-always-cracks-me-up” British English teacher I like very much. First of all, he had written his note to me in Spanish and English that needed no help, plus he had learned I had never eaten a Kinder chocolate, because we had talked about it at break, and one of his little presents to me was a Kinder chocolate. My present, a book in English entitled Winter in Madrid, was indeed from him. Other teachers received such gifts as scarves, a fun (Hello-Kitty-type) top for a teacher that wears this sort of thing, pajamas, chocolates, and alcohol, etc.

Then we all gathered for a nice lunch in the staffroom: shrimp, salmon, fried squid, bread, salad, vegetables, flan, chocolates, a big bowl of fruit, coffee, and tea. At the parallel table, two female teachers kept turning around to listen to our table’s conversation, but also throwing paper wads at other teachers or putting salt in the water glass of the gym teacher sitting across from me. Everybody knew that they were goofing off and were ready for their pranks. I kept watching to see what the gym teacher would do once he returned to his seat. All he did was look at his water glass, commenting that he knew they had done something to it.

Although the day and dinner were pleasant, I was tired and ready to head home. This was another noisy but fun-filled day. And although I didn’t actually receive any presents at Christmas this year, besides my Secret Santa’s present and a present from an American friend here (Note: My stepmother had asked me if I wanted anything and I said “no”), I will always have the gift of participating in and remembering the preholiday festivities in Spain, a gift money can’t buy, a gift I will always cherish.

Internationally yours,

International Girl in Spain

MY BIRTHDAY, THANKSGIVING, AND ASTHMATIC BRONCHITIS

January 24, 2010

Hola a Todos,

November has always flown by for me in the United States, and in Spain, November’s speed was no different. My birthday occurs in the middle of the month, and I am usually very busy pre- and post-celebration, as well as the day of, but this year was different: nothing special happened on my birthday, except that my age changed and I was in Spain. What good could I find in being 48? I found my consolation: the two handsomest men in the world, George Clooney and Barack Obama, are 48. So what if one has a girlfriend and the other is married and I’ll, most likely, never meet either? They’re out there, and they’re my age. That’s what matters.

I know I have my health and my friends, but there is something very dissatisfying (if I were satisfied with everything, this would just be another run-of-the-mill “I did this; I did that” blog now, wouldn’t it?) about being this age and having everything turn out much differently than I had planned for myself. Okay, maybe it’s better in some ways, but it’s definitely worse in others. For example, I don’t have George or Barack — and life would be a lot better if someone would tell Oprah about these blog entries: I’d quickly get my book published and be the last guest on her last show. Think about it, please.

In the morning, my roommate gave me Belgian chocolates and a mug on which was a cartoon-like flamenco dancer and the word “Madrid.” In Spain, or at least at my school, the birthday teacher is supposed to bring his or her own sweets/cake to school. This is probably a very good idea, because then you won’t get angry with anybody but yourself for having forgotten your birthday. So it’s basically, “It’s my birthday. Here are the sweets, and everybody kiss me on both cheeks now.” I made cookies for the other teachers and myself, plus I brought a box of assorted cookies.

The special part of my day? I received “Chocolate a la taza” chocolate — reputedly the best kind — to make a chocolate drink. This gift was from a generous, thoughtful, interesting teacher with whom I have a Spanish-English exchange. She had remembered that I’d never drunk this particular drink or eaten churros, which accompany it, and I had told her I was very curious about trying it and was planning to treat myself to this special drink on my birthday. Her gift saved me from having to go out and spend more money: I ended up making the drink at home (chocolate and milk heated up in a saucepan). Very sweet of her.

I didn’t do anything special that night, as I really didn’t know anybody at that point, except for the teachers and a couple of others, but I don’t think I know anybody at this point either, and it’s almost February. I had Thanksgiving to look forward to — and I knew that Javier’s visit to celebrate both occasions would be guaranteed fun, which I needed.

I decided to make Thanksgiving into a big deal. Neither Javier nor my roommate had ever eaten Thanksgiving dinner, and I was excited about preparing it, although it was a lot of work. I went to Taste of America — a store that sells mostly American items — to get the cans of pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce, as well as the Stove Top stuffing. I couldn’t easily find cloves and allspice in the regular grocery stores in Madrid, but this American store had several spices — cinnamon, cloves, allspice — mixed together in one little bottle, so I bought that to make the pumpkin pie. I made sure I had gotten these items at least the week before because I knew that if I waited even 2 days before, the store might run out of everything — and I was right, because I went back to Taste of America 2 days before the big day, and they had no cans of pumpkin pie left.

Appetizers consisted of homemade salmon pate with crackers. I served red or white wine or beer, chicken instead of turkey, real mashed potatoes, gravy (some British brown crystals you add water to and heat up), “Stove Top Stuffing” (added chestnuts and mushrooms), cranberry sauce, canned corn, and homemade pumpkin pie and crust topped with butter-pecan ice cream. I had bought coconut chocolates, and my roommate had bought truffles, so we definitely had enough food.  

Along with Javier, my friend Maria and her boyfriend Derick were my guests — and my roommate had invited her friend Carmen, who lives around the corner from us, so there were six people around a small table. Of course, if you know me well, you know I would’ve wanted to make the meal much more elaborate, but I’m just not equipped with either the time or money here to do that.

The timing for Javier’s visit was perfect in a way because I was home sick from school with a bad case of asthmatic bronchitis, which I had gotten a week before Thanksgiving. I went to the health center a few blocks from my school, and I spoke to everyone, including the doctor, in Spanish. “Bronchitis Asmatica” was the diagnosis, and he prescribed me pantomycin and mucasin, which I got from the pharmacy in Madrid. The pharmacist wasn’t particularly nice, and I apologized to her, saying that I had been in Madrid only a couple of months so I couldn’t speak super well yet. Of course, then she perked up and faked being an understanding person about my Spanish. Yeah, right, as if I’m going to buy that, but I usually get that reaction of understanding if I give them that [true] line. Nothing like dealing with pissy people who can barely be bothered to help you when you are standing at the counter waiting for 10 minutes to be waited on, as they sit there and look in every direction but yours. Yes, I know we have our share of them in Chicago.

Javier left Friday morning, and I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner that Saturday: that of around-the-corner Carmen. So my roommate and I went to her place for dinner. I brought homemade cookies, cranberry sauce, and chestnuts. Carmen had invited about 4 other people: an American-sounding girl who had a Spanish father and a British mother, a freelance professional Spanish musician, two not-with-each-other gay guys (one of whom had lived in Ireland for six years and was very nice to talk to), and an American girl she team-taught with and who had the especially important task of bringing a delicious turkey to the dinner. I spent a nice time there but decided at midnight that my asthmatic bronchitis and I had better go home, which I was thrilled was around the corner.

I had difficulty sleeping for three weeks, not being able to breathe through my nose, but I sounded much worse than I felt. In fact, apart from not being able to breathe (and having problems with my feet, which are unrelated to my asthma but always need mentioning), I felt fine and I thought that my wheezing laughter deserved to be on laugh track and I should be paid handsomely for it. Javier was joking with me that I sounded like a truck revving up. It’s hard to explain just how feminine that comment made me feel.

I called the Chief of Studies from my school to tell him that, again, I wouldn’t be coming to school, and to make me laugh, an activity he revels in, he said, “Oh, no, Hallie. You have a hangover? Okay, don’t come to school.” He knew full well I was sick because I had been at school around him and all of the teachers, and it’s kind of hard to fake that congestion — plus I had given him the note from the doctor so that my absence was official. The Ministry of Education had told us that we would need a doctor’s note if we were sick, but I honestly think our school doesn’t care one way or the other. I gave them the official note, though, because I didn’t want them to think I was taking off because of Javier’s visit and Thanksgiving.

Anyway, I ended up missing about a week of school and had bronchitis for about three weeks, though I was diligent about taking my medicine, which finally worked.

And that was the speedy month of November, which leads me to write about the month of December… in my next blog entry.

Until them, as always, I am…

Internationally yours,
Hallie

HALLIE-WEEN SCREAMS: COPING WITH MY HALLE BERRY CELEBRITY

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Hola a Todos,

I have fallen woefully behind on my blog-entering because I’ve been distracted by various holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, my birthday. I have also been trying to rent my condo in Chicago (the various images of my potential homelessness dancing in my head), lying in bed and suffering from asthmatic bronchitis, trying to breathe well enough to write more in my blog (see asthmatic bronchitis entry a few words back), collect-calling my banks in the U.S. eight million times to find out where in the universe my credit card was since MasterCard was supposed to send it to me weeks ago (I finally received it last Wednesday). Note to Self:Never ever ever EVER allow anyone ever to steal your wallet ever EVER again.” I don’t know Martial Arts or how to defend myself in any other way, but you had better believe I will have thought up something good if anybody even thinks about digging their greedy hands into my purse. I will intuit something…somehow, even if it’s merely to heap shame upon the person or partners in crime by scolding them loudly in my mother tongue or in my scary Spanish. I know that sounds violent, but I don’t care: I’m planning to work on that scathing Spanish speech today, since I’m in bed enjoying that asthmatic bronchitis I just wrote about.

Back to my Halloween story…
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The Spanish teachers, the students, and the foreign English teachers decorated the school for Halloween: drawing, coloring, painting, cutting out, and hanging decorations. The second-grade Spanish English team teacher let me skip part of class a couple of times to work on the decorations just outside our classroom. I love her attitude: She is very nice and free with me, saying, “Just draw a spider and a spider web however you want.” The third-grade Spanish English team teacher and I spent part of the classroom time coloring and painting her huge drawing of a haunted house accompanied by a zombie, witch, and various creatures. I truly enjoyed helping to draw, color, and paint the decorations.

To prepare for the big d40838_1536419691636_4471524_nay, we English teachers — Spanish, American, and British — held three meetings conducted mostly in Spanish. I understood maybe half of the plans, so after each meeting, I had to confirm what had transpired; however, like everyone else, including the Spanish English teachers, I was still unclear about how the day’s activities were to unfold (unravel is perhaps a better word). All I knew was that I was selected to be the old witch in a story about an old woman who swallows various bugs/animals to kill the previous creature she has swallowed: She first swallows a fly, then a spider to kill the fly…followed by a cat, dog, goat, and cow. Finally, she chows down on a horse, an act that causes her death. We had toy animals to show the kids so that they could connect the animal to its name in English, but our horse was about 1/4 the size of the cat — and the stuffed spider was a huge, scary black animal, much bigger than the horse and cow put together. But I didn’t care about any of this: I was concerned only with two questions that kept popping up, at least in my mind: “How was I selected, without hesitation on anybody’s part, to be the old witch, and why wasn’t anybody else even in the running?”

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We had blocked some of the story, but nothing was well-thought-out, so before the program, we were scrambling to block it. I didn’t want to keep bothering the Spanish teachers, so I went with the flow, knowing that they had done these Halloween programs a few times before and everything would somehow magically work out. (I was pretty sure we needed a witch’s potion to get through all of this. I needed some sort of potion.) However, I absolutely detest that unnecessary panic, as it relates to performing before an audience, that panic that so often goes hand in hand  with the fact that no one has worked out any of the details. All of that last-minute drama could so easily be avoided, but the Spanish teachers had to return to their classes, and we had no idea who would turn on the projector or the music or do other things while we were up there on stage. Well, it all turned out okay anyway…sort of.

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The week before the big day, we four native English speakers helped the students learn a chant. I had memorized it because I wanted to be sure about at least one thing that was going on:

Trick or Treat. Trick or Treat.

I want something good to eat.

Give me something nice and sweet.

Give me candy and an apple, too.

And I won’t play a trick on you.

Of course, we gave the students a typed version of the chant, but I didn’t know how the six-year-olds were to memorize the lyrics if none of the English teachers, including the foreign teachers, kept stumbling through the chant, substituting “we” for “I” and “I want” for “Give me,” but I guess the whole idea was to get the students to say something “holiday”-related in English and perfection didn’t matter much. While in class, I had stood in front of the second graders to lead the chant, and the six-year-old boys would break dance or dance as if they were American rappers, simultaneously bringing their arms down together to cross their forearms at their abdomen. The Spanish English teacher and I smiled at each other. “I will never forget this,” I laughed. Anything music-related causes most of our bundles of joy to move in their chairs or to get up and start dancing unabashedly. They are highly amusing and out of control.

39714_1536431171923_7512361_nTrick or TreatA couple of days before the Halloween program, since one of the American teachers was sick, her Spanish English team teacher asked me to lead her fifth graders in the chant. She left the class to take care of something, and while she was gone, a couple of the kids were trying to have “fun” with me, the foreign teacher! When the Spanish English teacher returned, about 20 minutes later, I specified to her the student who kept interrupting me and volunteering other students to answer my questions. I could have accomplished something during that class, but there are always at least a couple of students who ensure that that doesn’t happen: They need attention so badly that they disrupt the learning for everyone else. I have taught for 10 years, so I know what the score is, but I let her deal with them when she returned to the class. The next day, while I was on the stage, I noticed that the child I had “reported” was staring at me intently, but not maliciously. Just for kicks, I made sure I called on him to participate in one of the games. Who knows what he was plotting, but the few times I have seen him since, he has been nice to me. I might be foreign, but I’m not a pushover.

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Since Halloween fell on a Saturday this year, our school celebrated Halloween the Friday before, and although three out of four of us foreign teachers don’t work on Friday, we were expected to participate in the Halloween events. We ended up doing the production six times: 9:50, 10:30, 11:00, 12:00, 3:00, and 3:45.

The storyteller wore a white princess-like dress, a white wig, and white makeup. Her aunt happened to have that dress at home and it fit her perfectly. As the dumpy old witch, I sat on stage wearing a long black dress, black shoes, a witch’s hat, and a big nose. I had packed a backpack under my dress in the stomach area for greater frump effect. The other American teacher and the British teacher wore long black tunics and a wizard hat and mask, respectively, and brought the bugs/animals up to me in order, and I, sitting in profile to the audience, tilted my head back and opened my mouth, ready to swallow them, which they then dropped into a box on the other side of me on stage, hidden from the audience.

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Meanwhile, all ready to go was a projector to show a drawing of a stomach, including all of creatures in it labeled in English, a teaching exercise to boot, but no one had switched the projector on, and most of the Spanish English teachers were gone. After I had “eaten” the horse, the last creature, I fell forward to my death, lying face-down on the floor, my soles facing the ceiling, my legs dropping to the floor. Doing that six times that day almost did me in. After we finished our first show, the Spanish English teachers told us that the storyteller needed to slow down so that the students would be able to understand the English. And we decided to make our show more interactive, with the “animal gatherers” starting from the back of the student audience and making their way through the audience, in effect to scare the students with the animals.

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After the story, we called on six volunteers to come up on stage to “bob” for apples. This “bobbing for apples” game isn’t the now-disgusting version from our childhoods: the one where everybody sticks their mouth/head into the same water to try to bite an apple. This was the updated, flu-free, much-cleaner-but-not-exactly-sterile version. The Spanish English teachers had strung a wire across the stage a few feet above the kids’ heads and had hung six shoestrings, each about a foot apart, with one end hanging from the wire and the other end tied to the stem of an apple, which was dangling around the kids’ chins. Although one student was a winner, all six students received an apple as a prize.

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None of us foreigners was sure about the next item on the agenda. I had assumed that the Spanish English teachers were taking care of the rest of the show, but I was wrong. They wanted us to do more with the students, as we had another 20 minutes to fill. Maybe I had missed this part of the meetings, but then again, the other foreigners were as clueless as I.

One Spanish English teacher advised us foreigners to lead the broom game. We were to pick 20 kids from the audience, and the kids would form a circle on stage, passing the broom around while music played. Whenever the music stopped, whoever was holding the broom was “out.” That worked pretty well and seemed to be interesting both for the participants and audience; however, we felt that the broom was a little dangerous, so we substituted the big, hairy and scary stuffed spider. Two participants remained, a girl and her (I later learned) ex-boyfriend, and the girl won, the prize being an apple. When she was leaving the stage, a group of boys were jeering at her and had even blocked her seat so she couldn’t sit down. Then almost all of the kids were chanting “Queremos!” (“We want”), referring to an apple, but we didn’t have enough for everybody. (Group chanting seems to be a popular sport here.) The Spanish teachers cut them off. After a couple more shows, we teachers had our 11:30 a.m. break in the staff lounge. Although we are always served cookies, fruit, coffee, and tea at these breaks, I had made and brought orange chocolate-almond-kiss cookies, a big hit.

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After the break, we held a few more shows, and when the second graders were there, we “actors” had to remove our masks after the show so that they wouldn’t be scared. Still, between shows, a Spanish English teacher carried a crying child over to us. She was scared of us, so the teacher was trying to allay her fears by showing us without masks. I think she finally convinced the girl we really weren’t scary. Then, when we started the last program, for the kindergartners, one of the kids in the front row burst into tears, so a teacher picked him up and left the auditorium. He was just scared: He wasn’t crying at our acting inexperience, although I have had some acting experience, which didn’t matter much here.

After each show, each student received three pieces of candy and a “Happy Halloween!” on their way out. Both before the show and after, the students would yell our names or wave to us, excitedly, which was very cute, as if we were Hollywood movie stars.

So that is Halloween at my school. Remember my list of scary experiences from my previous blog entry? Well, my having been so easily and unhesitatingly selected as the old witch is now #1 on that list, and I can delete the one about my potentially becoming destitute because I have finally rented my condo in Chicago.
Happy Halloween

Internationally yours,

International Girl in Spain, halliebelt@beltstyles.com, http://www.beltstyles.com, 312.285.8429

Posted By HALLIE to International Girl in Spain at 11/28/2009 11:58:00 AM

I KNOW LESS (OR MORE) THAN THEY THINK

October 20, 2009

Hola, Todos,

This past week was monumentally better than the previous one. I’m still dealing with interesting situations, and I guess that will continue the whole time I’m here.

I do have to tell you about one girl in my English class. She’s about six or seven years old, and she and the boy next to her say “Hola” to me, and I respond with “Hola,” and then they accuse me of knowing Spanish. “You speak Spanish!” they say…in Spanish.

My response is, “Everybody knows ‘hola’!” They insist that I know Spanish — they’re right, but their evidence is flimsy — and say so almost every class. Finally, today, at the end of class, the Spanish English teacher left me alone with the kids. They were running around, out of control, so I finally shouted (I do have a loud voice, which I rarely use, and know how to use it when I’m teaching), “Estoy esperando! [I’m waiting!]” They looked at me in astonishment and looked around at each other. At least I had gotten their attention. However, we English teachers are supposed to speak only English to the students, and I abide by that rule 99.9% of the time. Once in a while, to make my point, I’ll say one or two words in Spanish. Most kids are fine with that, but this one girl who accuses me cannot get off the topic.

Last week, we English teachers had a meeting about Halloween. Even though Halloween is actually a Saturday, we will celebrate it on Friday at school and we foreign English teachers have to be there. I don’t work on Fridays and will be able to take a day off the following week or whenever. For some reason, the meeting was conducted in Spanish, so I understood about 1/3 of what was going on. If they had slowed down the Spanish, I would’ve been able to understand about 1/2 to 2/3, but at the rate they talked, I was lost. I think they had a story in mind for Halloween, and one or two people wanted me to be the old witch. I said, “Why do you want me to be the old witch? I want to be a princess.” Then we all laughed. Right now, from what I have gathered, the idea is to have a story corner, a song corner, treats, decorated bathrooms and classrooms, and who knows what else.

On Friday, I had an interview for a part-time English teaching position, so I took the Metro from Opera station to Sevilla station and, since I was wearing heels, was delighted to discover that my destination was almost right at the Sevilla Metro stop. The address was c/ [this means calle or street — for Americans it looks sort of like in care of] Alcala 20, or Alcala Street #20. Don’t ask me why you need to know this.

What follows makes me often question myself and how I got to this particular so-called station in life. I can’t help but think, “Why am I not married to a fabulous guy? Why am I not raising polite, cultured children? Did I make the wrong turn at the Atlantic Ocean? Did I not absorb the right information when I was a child? How did I end up here…in this guy’s office?” My answer to these questions? I don’t have one that makes any sense.

I walked into the building and had remembered that “this guy’s office” was on the second floor: In Spain, the second floor is [for Americans, at least] the third floor, because Spanish people consider the ground floor the zero level and we consider the ground floor the first floor. The elevator [called “lift” in English here] looked complicated: it was one of those small ones that holds about two people and has an iron lattice door and, once it arrives, requires that the passenger to slide the door and do goodness knows what else. So I opted for the stairs, which wound around and had no rail. Up until about 1996, I gladly used the stairs, but after climbing Mt. Fuji in 1992, falling down the stairs in 1996, and jogging in Chicago’s 8K Shamrock Shuffle in 2002 — my knees have hurt ever since — I decided I hate climbing mountains and walking up stairs. I’m normally so energetic, my stepmother gets worn out just from listening to all the things I’ve done…or watching me do them all.

Afraid of the complicated elevator, I walked up the railing-less stairs and knocked on a door whose sign read “Viva Lengua” or something to this effect. This certainly wasn’t the name of the guy’s company, but at least it was something related to language. The Spanish woman who answered confirmed that I had indeed knocked on the wrong door, and some British guy wanted me to come on through, but I couldn’t tell if he was directing me somewhere or if he was, indeed, the interviewer. Finally, I said, “Oh, you’re not Richard.”

He said, “No, he’s here,” directing me to the adjacent door in the hall. I thanked them and waited in the hall…in semi-high heels. After they closed the door, I heard them laughing about the incident.

Richard had scrawled a note on his door: “Be back in 5 minutes. Richard.” “Richard” was illegible. It was one of those scrawled “I’ll sign my credit card receipt so no one on earth can read my handwriting” – and I always think, “I’m grown up! I should sign my name like that, too, so that no one else on the planet can read it.” But I always sign my name clearly, the way I’ve signed it for years. In addition to the scrawled message on his door, there was a drawing of an Indian and nothing else. What the Indian had to do with the English language was beyond me, and I majored in English and have a very active imagination, so normally I can find the symbolism, the underlying meaning, but I couldn’t cough up anything good here.

I stood there in those stupid semi-high heels, waiting for Richard and his illegible handwriting to appear on the scene. He showed up at 12:00 noon, the appointed time, wearing gray pants, a white shirt, and suspenders. He sounded British. He later informed me he was Scottish: I have a good ear and am usually pretty good with accents, so I think Spain has softened his Scottish accent to sound British. I gathered that he was a few years older than I and couldn’t discern if he smelled of alcohol or cologne…or if he just smelled.

Richard opened the door to his office – a dingy, gloomy, small space. I entered, amazed: His office was a nightmarish mess. The carpet was dirty, the lighting gloomy, and books and papers in disarray all over his bookshelves and floor. I tried to suffocate my shock, but I could hear Ms. Middlebury in my ear squealing, “You should’ve seen your face!” I kept waiting for him to apologize: “So sorry! I’ve been so busy, and I haven’t had time to clean up,” but that apology never came. I sat down, still looking around at the mess in disbelief, and he sat there, pulling up my “CV” on the computer, unable to print it out, telling me he needed to get a “technician” in there to fix his printer.

I said, “It was hard to find your place. Was there a sign? I didn’t see one.”

He responded, “Someone took it down, and I couldn’t be bothered to put up another one.”

“What a snotty attitude,” I thought.

I’ll run through his questions to me to show what I was dealing with. Keep in mind that I’m there to teach English to Spanish people — nothing more.

Him: So if you had to teach a group of elementary kids or 40-year-old businessmen, which would be more fulfilling?

Me: Well, it depends on how interested and motivated they are. Kids absorb information very easily, and sometimes it’s harder for older people to do that. On the other hand, sometimes kids don’t want to learn English and adults know that they have to learn it for their job.

Him: But if you had to make a choice.

Me: [I gave him an answer.]

Him: So what did you get your graduate degree in?

Me: English Literature.

Him: So why did you choose that?

Me: Because I think I’m a pretty good writer.

Him: What did you study in grad school?

Me: Shakespeare, Yeats, Hemingway…

Him: So what did you think of Hemingway, as an author and as a man?

Me: Well, I think he’s long-winded and he could’ve said what he said in fewer words. [And I realize I could write my blog in fewer words, but I don’t feel like it.] As a man? I don’t know.

Him: So, do you think that The Old Man and the Sea was long-winded?

Me: [Thinking: What in the world does this have to do with teaching EFL? Does he not think I possess a graduate degree in English? Should I send him a copy of my scanned graduate degree? Where is he going with this?]

Anyway, these were the types of questions I was answering. Either I was trying to answer questions that had no real answer because my answer depended on the situation, or else I was trying to respond to questions that had nothing to do with teaching EFL. Maybe he was just trying to see how I think off the top of my head, or maybe he was trying to make conversation. I don’t know. All I wanted to do was get out of there. Another American interrupted us, and my interviewer asked him to wait downstairs.

I was looking at my watch, so the interviewer asked me, “Are you in a hurry?” He was creepy.

I said, “No, but I do have some things to do this afternoon.” [Translation: I need to be anywhere but with you.]

After about half an hour, I was ready to bid him adieu…and did.

That afternoon, I stopped by the hairdresser, literally two doors away from Maite’s and my condo, and asked him for an appointment and for magazine pictures of hairstyles. He appeared with four magazines, so I sat there for about half an hour, looking through the styles. I showed him three pictures, and he agreed to keep the pictures for the following morning, when I would get my hair cut.

Later that afternoon, I noticed that an ad agency I edit for in Chicago had sent me work, so I spent four hours editing that material and then emailing them the finished product.

On Saturday, equipped with my Spanish-English dictionary, I walked about 10 feet to the hairdresser. I confirmed how much the haircut, shampooing, etc., would cost. I had checked the previous day, too. He said 31 euros. I wanted to make sure because sometimes in the U.S., hairdressers charge the customer for a blow-dry. Maite came to check on me before she went to work to ensure that Juan the Hairdresser and I understood each other. He cut my hair with a razor, and I came home and colored it too dark, but that’s the way it goes.

On Saturday night, Maite asked me to go to see the movie New York, I Love You, which was in English (not dubbed over) with Spanish subtitles. According to Maite, in Madrid, we get a specific seat at the movie theater, as if we were at the opera or at a play or a concert in the U.S. You know what that means: No movie hopping, not that I do that.

The movie was wonderful. Ms. Middlebury had told me that the dubbed movies use the same people over and over for the dubbing in Spanish so the voices are the same for different actors, so a young character might have an older voice. I much prefer watching a movie in English with Spanish subtitles.

One day Maite and I were watching a documentary about the Amish in Pennsylvania, only about an hour away from where I grew up, and I would hear the Amish person talking in English and then the Spanish voice-over simultaneously discussing what the Amish person was doing or saying. Imagine my confusion.

On Sunday, I spent the afternoon retracing some of my steps and taking pictures of places I had visited in Madrid. Maite and I watched a movie (dubbed over in Spanish) with Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken, and after half an hour, I realized that I basically had no idea what was going on. I try to understand the Spanish, but normally the characters are speaking so fast, I can’t catch everything. Then after a while, I start to space out and realize I’m gaining absolutely nothing by sitting there.

However, to my credit, I do understand more Spanish each day. In fact, one of the English teachers explained something she needed me to help her with, and she explained it in fast Spanish, and I said, in English, “You know? I actually understood everything you said!” I try to read some of the newspaper every day, and I study my Instituto Cervantes textbook on the train to and from school. My progress is slow, but I’m trying to study diligently.

Internationally yours,

Hallie

Posted By HALLIE to International Girl in Spain at 10/20/2009 01:47:00 PM

HOMEWORK FOR HOMESICKNESS

October 13, 2009

Hola, Todos,

My forlorn feeling has vanished — we’ll see how long that lasts — as of today. There’s so much noise and commotion at school that there’s no time for me to feel sorry for myself and haunted about my situation. Anyway, what I was upset about was a little bit of homesickness and my evasive roommate, but the situation magically changed, so I feel better. Someone asked me how I had dealt with homesickness when I lived in Yokohama, Japan, for three years. I wasn’t exactly homesick, but at times, I was wildly lonely and experienced an emotional rollercoaster ride for months. I would feel terrible or lonely, and then someone would invite me to their house or give me a present or take me somewhere. It was one surprise after another. The way to deal with it? Go out, get involved, meet people, and stay busy. Lots of times this works; occasionally, it doesn’t.

I team-teach students six to nine years old. We American English teachers have been in different classes and with different teachers but finally got our schedule today. The students are energy zappers: They constantly talk and can’t remain quiet for more than one second. I honestly don’t remember that we Americans talked that much in grade school, but don’t quote me as I reminisce about the Stone Age.

Here’s a typical scene: The Spanish English teacher gets mad at the students, the students are quiet for literally one second, and they then continue talking again, with absolutely no regard for the fact that we are standing there. One of the English teachers identifies who is talking while she writes their first initials under “No Break” on the chalkboard. Then she says, “Alejandro is talking, Joel is talking, Roberto is talking” and then yells You aren’t listening!” If they are particularly talkative, they must leave the classroom and wait in the hall. While waiting in the hall, one boy kept opening the door a crack to eavesdrop on the class. He finally came back in, said “sorry” to me, and returned to his seat.

Another English teacher is overly strict with the students. Occasionally, if a student has written in the space beneath the page’s top line instead of on the top line, she will take his or her paper and rip it up, which astounds me. I had just praised a little girl who had written every word correctly, and then this teacher noticed that the girl hadn’t written on the top line and said, “No, you didn’t do it right!” and ripped her paper up and threw it into the recycling box. The little girl looked defeated.

Or if a student has been talking, this same teacher will stop and say, “Alejandro has been a very bad boy. What do you think, Hallie?” On the inside, I’m shrugging my shoulders, as I don’t know how to respond to her question: I don’t want to say he has been a very bad boy because then he’ll grow up thinking he is a very bad boy and need therapy for the next 20 years — haunted every time he hears the English language. I just look at her, trying to not to side with anyone in particular but also trying to support her, and say something innocuous and ridiculous like: “Well, I think we should all pay attention.” I keep envisioning these Spanish kids, now only 6 years old, traveling to the United States in 10 years, when they’re full-fledged adolescents, to find and beat me up, all because I sort of sided with this teacher.

Then something truly funny happens in class, and this teacher says, “Marta, it isn’t funny! Do you think it’s funny? It’s not funny!” I think it’s funny, but l have to wipe the smile off my face, keeping in mind that it isn’t funny because I want to support her. What I really want to say is, “I don’t think it’s funny: I think it’s hilarious!” – but of course I can’t. For example, the kids were doing their homework, and I noticed a girl had put a small eraser with a pencil stuck perpendicularly into it atop her head and was sitting there nonchalantly wearing this combo before the teacher who doesn’t think anything is funny (but laughs about the students to me in private) spotted it and made her take it off her head.

Then one kid was trying to cut his eraser, and as the kids are basically taught British English (have got and rubber for eraser), the teacher said, “Juan, don’t cut your rubber!” I had spotted an English conversation on the bulletin board, and it said something like, “Share your rubbers” or “Paul, can I borrow your rubber?” (While the kids are making noise, I love to indulge myself in these readings.) Although I’m quite involved in helping the teacher by reading English aloud or walking around and explaining to the kids what they are supposed to do, one day, for just a few seconds, I was distracted: I was reading something off the bulletin board, and the teacher was walking toward me, and initially I feared her saying, “Hallie, pay attention! Class, Hallie has been a very bad girl, hasn’t she, Class?!” Of course, she didn’t: She was just walking over to tell me something.

There are 25 students in each class, and we need to get them each more involved in speaking English and give them more attention. I think we need to split the class up sometimes and work with a smaller group.

I team-teach two hour-long classes in the morning, then there’s a half-hour break, one class from 12 pm to 1 pm, 1 1/4 hours free, lunch at 2:15 p.m. (by this time, I’m famished) until 3:00 p.m., a class from 3:00 pm to 3:45 pm and one from 3:45 pm to 4:30 pm. I get out by about 4:30 pm every day and have Fridays off. I enjoy the students and the Spanish English teachers. I’m learning a lot about teaching this grade level, and the Spanish English teachers actually teach in English, which impresses me. When I lived in Japan, the Japanese teachers oftentimes taught their English classes…in Japanese.

What saves me is that I think I’m having a positive impact on the kids and I have input in the classes, and I like helping the kids understand what they’re doing. When the kids are very noisy, what saves them is that at least they are very cute, and oftentimes not only do they yell my name excitedly — “Hallie! Hallie!” — but they also sometimes come up to me, out of the blue and hug me around the legs. It doesn’t get much better than that, and they are certainly helping me conquer my forlorn feeling. And the teachers are nice, too.

So I’m having a good day. We’ll see what the next few days bring.

Internationally yours,

Hallie

Posted By HALLIE to International Girl in Spain at 10/13/2009 02:45:00 PM

“YOU SHOULD’VE SEEN YOUR FACE!”

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,
Hallie

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

MIXING UP THE LANGUAGES

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,

Hallie

CUENCA CARS, CLIFFS, AND CULTURAL CLASHES

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

International Girl in Spain is my humorous and real take about the year (2009-2010) I spent teaching English in Spain, as well as my travels to different cities and countries while I was there.