How to go abroad

I’m attempting to bring some sort of discipline to my blogging. The problem is, I always, always, want to present something, if not perfect, then at least pretty dang close. But the truth is, if I never write, not only do I never write, I never get better at writing because I am not practicing. Thinking of these attempts as practice makes me more likely to actually post, so here goes.

After 2 semesters of hiatus, where I stayed not only in the same country, but in the same state within that country, I headed off for my first trip to South America. I got back from Ecuador about 2 weeks ago, which was a great experience. But I’d like to talk a little bit about what came just before we left. The trip was 5 students and one other faculty member and among our group were several people who had never traveled abroad before. This comes with its own brand of hilarity – one student brought a fancy skirt, and another brought a blowdryer and flat iron. Now, I honestly don’t remember how I packed when I went to Mexico, or Guatemala and Honduras, and when I went to Spain I was going to live, so the packing was different. I’m sure I packed some ridiculous stuff myself.

So I tried to approach packing for Ecuador as methodically as possible.

  • Step 1: I went out and bought 13 pairs of socks and 13 pairs of underwear. Boring, I know, but I really, really didn’t want to have to do laundry while abroad. I knew I wasn’t going to have either the time or the inclination.
  • Step 2: I assessed my toiletries and what I like to call my “portable pharmacy”. This is something you should do way more often than I do, because most of the medications I found were expired. Into the trashcan with them, and off to Target to pick up more Pepto Bismol, hydrocortizone cream, and toothpaste. I also bought Ziploc bags because I learned once that pressure changes do not just dissipate and you can end up with an entire bottle of body spray all over your clothes before you even get to your first hotel.
  • Step 3: I started thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong. This sounds slightly doomsday, but I like to think of something my aunt once said, which I have quoted in this blog before: “If you forget anything, this is America, you can just buy another one.” Overseas, it is not America, so you’d better bring it all. I bought: a cheap poncho, extra toilet paper, heavy duty bug spray, and granola bars.
  • Step 4: I packed! Amazingly, it all fit into my frame backpack the first time. I also filled up a tote bag that I got from a coworker on the Guatemala/Honduras trip. She is a librarian so the bag says “Libraries! Champions of Democracy!” but more importantly, it zips closed.

We got one free checked bag to go internationally, with a weight limit of 50 pounds. Our heaviest bag belonged to the student who packed all the gifts for the school we volunteered at – she clocked in right at 50 pounds. The lightest bag belonged to – me! 24.5 pounds, thank you very much. I did bring some things I didn’t use (like my flip flops and a pair of shorts), but overall I think I’m getting a handle on this travel thing.

It’s beginning to look a lot like the end of November

On Thanksgiving, I called my mom when she and the rest of my extended family were at my aunt’s house, ready to dig into some turkey. I talked to several family members, and without fail, every single one of them asked me, “How’s Spain?!?!?!”, and this may sound strange, but I found it really difficult to answer. I think they were asking because normally when you go to a foreign country, it is on vacation. You go to see new things, eat a lot of new food, and stay out late, and you don’t have to do any work. To most people, getting to spend a year in Spain sounds a lot like getting to do exciting things and not working for 12 months.

 

Well, I have done many exciting things, as you all know from my previous posts. I’ve been to several cities and gone to the beach, museums, cathedrals, and castles, and I certainly work a lot less than I would if I were living in the US. But I think the one thing that I have found here that has surprised me the most is how much like normal life my life is. I don’t know why that should surprise me so much; I’ve been living on my own for 3 years, I am used to cooking and cleaning for myself and paying my own bills. I’m used to working and I’m even used to teaching for my work. So I’m not sure why I thought doing so in a foreign country was going to be different. But when I wake up in the mornings, I don’t usually think, “Oh my gosh, I am living in SPAIN!!!!!” Instead I usually think, “Hmmm, what do I want to wear today, is it cold outside? I wonder how my 4th grade class will behave today. Oh shoot, I need to remember to go to the store and buy more laundry soap.”

 

This familiarity is both good and bad, I think. It’s good to have some sort of known factor in your life when you have basically uprooted your routine and moved it across the world. I know when I was in Mexico much of my distress was due to not being able to cook for myself, struggling to make myself understood, and not knowing where to get off the bus. One time I was going to a neighboring town for a project for my Mexican culture class and I didn’t know where we were going, so I freaked out and asked the bus driver to let me off right there. I then had to walk the rest of the way on the side of the road with cars honking at me, and I remember thinking, “Stupid Mexico. I hate it here.” It’s so silly to me in hindsight, but that event really sticks out in my memory as the perfect example of why I was unhappy during my study abroad: everything was different, and I didn’t know how to cope.

 

But it’s also bad to be so comfortable because of the chance that I will miss what’s special about living in Spain. I keep thinking, the point of me living here is to experience life in SPAIN!! SPAIN!!! I am living in SPAIN!!! I should make the most of this year, not settle into a routine!! Which I think is why I struggled to answer my family’s questions. There is a 6 hour time difference between here and US Eastern time, so as my family was sitting down to eat turkey at 3 pm, I was preparing to go out to my co-worker’s house for dinner at 9 pm. “Dinner at 9 pm?????” was the response from every single one of my family members. “Uh . . . yeah,” I answered, feeling lame. Of COURSE dinner at 9 pm! That’s when you eat! It didn’t even seem weird to me. They all thought it was fascinating. My oldest cousin responded, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. It’s definitely a different culture there.” I don’t really feel that way though.

 

Of course, no matter how I feel, it IS a different culture. While my family, and every other family in America, was sitting down to a Thanksgiving lunch or dinner, here in Spain we went to work. There were no hand turkeys decorating the walls at school. There weren’t even any real turkeys decorating the refrigerated section at the grocery store. No pilgrims, no cornucopias. We also all went to work on Friday, prompting me to ask my friend, who messaged me at what would be 10 am in the US, “Why aren’t you at work???” I did have “Thanksgiving dinner” on Thursday with my co-workers, but we ate cured ham, tortilla española, olives, and a Cornish hen which my co-workers insisted on calling a “turkey”. They even put those little white things on the ends of the bird’s legs, which I have never seen in real life, only on TV or in cartoons. They had a blast with it, and so did I . . . but it wasn’t Thanksgiving.

 

Today I will be having Thanksgiving dinner, round 2, as I attempt to repay my landlord’s family for their kindness and all the help they have given me. I have 2 chickens, and I just bought vegetables at the outdoor market (and learned a new word: “puerro”, which is leeks), and I have the chicken stock and the bread all ready for stuffing. I am also going to make gravy from the chicken drippings and some flour . . .

 

Oh shoot, and I need to get flour for gravy.

La vida es social

Once I graduated from AU with my shiny new Master’s degree, I was ready to take on the world. OK, actually I was tired with school and a little frustrated with life, and I needed a change. Accordingly, I left my totally awesome roommate and the area that I love and moved away to work. I spent the next 3 years living on my own: cooking what I wanted, getting to and from work solo, paying my bills, and making sure my mailbox didn’t explode with junk mail. Know then that this post is probably colored by the fact that I am used to living alone and enjoy doing my own thing.

 

When I first started apartment hunting, I really wanted to live with other people. I was planning to rent a room in an already occupied apartment not only because it was cheaper, but also because I wanted to get back in the habit of living with people. I am not naturally a social butterfly, and I thought living with others would give me more opportunities to go out and experience all that Spain had to offer. But, like most people who have gone through this process, after weeks of looking on pisocompartido and painstakingly writing down details and prices and phone numbers, I got here to Cádiz and ended up winging it. The place I ended up renting I found from a flyer posted at my school, and I called the number, visited, and rented the place all in the same day. From what I hear this is typical.

 

I call this place my “apartment”, but my dad pointed out that we should really call it a house. I have a kitchen larger than the one from my apartment in America, 2 bedrooms, a full bathroom and a half bathroom (the toilet closet), 2 couches, a desk, a terrace, a TV . . . . It is truly twice as nice as my old apartment and half as expensive. But the most interesting thing about it is that it is actually PART of a bigger house, where my landlords and their 3 children live. There is also yet ANOTHER part of this house on the other side of my place, where my landlord’s brother lives with his wife and son. We are all grouped around a central courtyard, and on the other side of the courtyard there are MORE neighbors who at any time can open their doors and say hello to each other.

The toilet closet

Things that are good about living in my own place:

  • The privacy. I am free to be my introverted self without anyone wondering why I have spent the past 4 hours reading Game of Thrones and watching silly Spanish game shows instead of going out until 2 in the morning.
  • My own kitchen. It is a huge relief to be able to cook my own food and not have to worry about something making me sick.
  • A sense of accomplishment that comes from working and supporting yourself.

Things that are not good about living in my own place:

  • No one is there to say, “Sarah, let’s go out, you have been inside too long”.
  • Supporting yourself means you have to do all the chores, or you have to live with not doing the chores.
  • When your own place is in a small pueblo, there is a sense of, “Well, now what?” after you have finished lesson planning on Sunday afternoons.

 

Things that are AWESOME about having a whole family of Spaniards living just outside your door:

  • When it is your birthday, they will come to your door with a cake and sing Happy Birthday in English, poorly, with enormous smiles.
  • If the hot water goes out in your shower, and you go next door to ask your landlord’s brother where to buy a propane tank, he will call his brother and they will lug up a brand new tank from the bottom of the stairs, bring it into your house, disconnect the old tank and connect the new one, and take the old tank away, all while you are saying uselessly, “But . . . I was going to do it myself . . .”
  • If you have finished lesson planning on Sunday afternoons, you can open the door and 3 9-year-olds will be not just happy, but falling all over themselves to talk to you.

Things that are not so great about living in the family compound:

  • I have made several friends from other cities and invited them to come visit and stay at my place, as they have invited me to visit them. I think this is so great, and I’m excited to have my first guest this month staying in my awesome extra bedroom. However, some of the friends I have made are male, and I have so far hesitated to extend invitations to them, because I just don’t know if that is OK here, and I wouldn’t want the aforementioned three 9-year-olds to get a weird idea about Americans, haha. (Fellow auxiliar from Madrid, inventing a conversation between my landlord’s family: “‘Mommy, why does Sara have different guys come spend the night at her place?’ ‘That’s just what Americans do, sweetie.'”)
  • I guess this isn’t a bad thing, but since this is actually part of my landlord’s house, I feel compelled to keep it pristine. This leads to overly worrying when I spill washable paint on the floor. My landlady will think I’m a slob who doesn’t care about her property!!! (The paint wiped right up)

 

Yeah, OK, I couldn’t think of any truly bad things except for that first one. Living here is great. I think the only thing that would make it perfect is if I had a roommate. But not, like, someone loud who stays up really late, or a slob. Or if they constantly talked to me and never let me be by myself. Or if they left all the lights on or used up all the hot water.

 

. . . OK, I really like living alone.

Settling in

So Friday was the day I wanted to finish everything I had to do to make my rented house a real home. To me, that means getting Internet set up. That probably sounds a little silly to many of you, and by the end of this story, I felt silly myself when confronted with my obvious addiction to the Web. But let’s just blame this on me being emotional from living in a new country . . .

 

I mentioned in my last post that the Movistar store in Alcalá was not willing to set up an account for me without a NIE (Número de Identidad de Extranjeros). What I didn’t mention was that, thanks to Facebook, I had heard of people who were able to do just that. As Friday went on, I got more and more anxious and upset at the lack of Internet in my house, fueled by the knowledge that SOME people SOMEwhere were NIE-less and Internet-full. The end result being that Dad and I drove BACK to Cádiz so that I could wander around from wireless store to wireless store, trying to find a company that would hook me up. Really, I don’t know what I would have done without Dad. The result of that trip was . . . no Internet. Bah! But I did feel less stressed about it all at the end.

 

On Saturday, Dad and I played tourist again and drove into Sevilla. We visited the Plaza de España and the Jardines de María Luisa, and I will totally have to go back again, because one day is just not enough to appreciate a town like Sevilla. Once again, there would be pictures, but alas, you will have to wait some more.

 

Dad left for the US early Sunday morning and I started work Monday! I’ll post later about my impressions of work, but for now, I have a class to teach. Tomorrow I will be taking a weekend trip to Portugal, where more than likely the hotel will have Internet access (!), so I will be back on Skype and back to uploading pictures.

Plaza Santo Domingo, 8

Once again, there has been a lag in updating. I still don’t have Internet in my house (more on that later), so I am updating here at my school. Last time we blogged, I was talking about my house search . . .

So the principal of my school gave me a few anuncios that had been hanging in the school, so I got to cold call them in Spanish. There were 3 houses that I ended up looking at, and it was funny, but they went from so-so to awesome! Dad and I saw the first one at 2 pm. It was off a side street and there wasn’t much to it. It was livable, but I didn’t fall in love with it. The second one I saw at 3. It was right off Calle Real, which is close to the lower plaza. It was very nice! The landlady seemed very nice as well. It was a little more expensive though. Then, it was about 3:30 and Dad and I hadn’t eaten yet, so we went back down to the Paseo and had a belated lunch. I was exhausted by this point, but I had another house to see at 4:30.

As you may have guessed, this one ended up being the house I rented. It is amazing, huge kitchen, terrace, and the best part is, my landlords and their family, and my landlords brother and his family all live around the same courtyard with me. It’s nice because it makes me feel less overwhelmed with everything. I decided to rent it right then and there. Pepi (my landlady) seemed very anxious that the house be fixed up perfectly, and there was still a bunch of her family’s stuff in the house. I tried to convey to her that the house as it was was more than I had ever hoped for. But we agreed to come back on Thursday to drop off my suitcases, and then start staying there on Friday.

So we drove back to Cádiz exhausted but triumphant. I was so overwhelmed with everything that had happened that day that Dad and I just went out for drinks, and then we went to the supermarket and just got some fruit and veggies and bread and had a small dinner in the hotel.

More to come . . .

Oh! And here are my pictures!

The worst!

That would be waiting. Waiting is the worst. Right now I am waiting to be taken to the airport, where I will wait some more to get on my plane. I will wait during the plane ride to get to London, and then I will sit in Heathrow waiting for my next plane. I’ll wait again on that plane, and when I get into Madrid, I will wait for my bags, for our car, and to get to the hotel. I hate waiting. But at least after all these MONTHS of waiting . . . the journey has begun.

T – 3 days

Just an update to remind everyone that I will be boarding my flight to Spain in exactly 3 days. 3 DAYS. I will be running errands tomorrow and playing bridge with the family on Friday, and then it will be time, after all these months of talking about it, to finally go to Europe. I am not going to lie to you, Internet, I had a minor meltdown yesterday when I gave up my phone in preparation for the trip. Somehow, buying the suitcases, PACKING the suitcases, quitting my job(s), moving back in with my parents, getting my visa, and buying the plane tickets, didn’t seem very final. But when I disconnected my phone, I felt like this move was really happening.

 

Which reminds me . . . I have a new phone number now, so if you would like to call me (it’s an American number, so it’s a local call), shoot me an email or comment and let me know. If you’re friends with me on Facebook you already have my number. If you’re my Facebook friend and you DIDN’T get my new number . . . well I probably just forgot (probably). Let me know either way.

 

Other news:

Friday is the last day before I go that the bank can send the DMV the title to my car. If it doesn’t get done before that then I guess my parents will have to do the heavy lifting on that one.

 

And:

I have been reading El Quijote, but since I am not a Founding Father, it is taking me longer than 19 days. I had only ever read excerpts before, so I guess I never appreciated how funny it is. I hate to say I laughed out loud because everyone will think LOL, but I did in fact audibly chuckle at a few bits.