El transporte

My coworker had invited me over to her parents’ house for lunch, and I was excited to meet her siblings and speak in Spanish all afternoon. I took the bus to her hometown and she picked me up at the station in her car. Her younger brother was in the passenger seat, and after introductions, we began chatting about – what else – life in Spain versus life in America. “Do you have a car at home, Sarah?” he asked me. “Yes,” I responded, “right now my parents are taking care of it.” “What kind of car is it? How big is it?” he asked. “Well, just average size I guess . . . about the size of this car, actually.” He turned around in his seat to stare at me, shocked. “What??? That’s all???” Confused, I qualified my statement, “Yeah, well, I’m single and I don’t have any kids, or pets, or any expansive hobbies . . . I don’t need a big car. Why are you staring at me like that?” I finished defensively. “I thought everyone in America had big cars, and they drove them everywhere, even across the street to the store, because gas prices there are so cheap that they don’t have to worry about having a car with good gas mileage.”


Foreign countries can be full of surprises. Even though you’re expecting it to be completely different, it’s always a revelation to discover that something that you took for granted as a universal occurrence – Driver’s Ed at 15 or 16 years of age, getting a car for your birthday or scrimping and saving to buy your first ever car, the thrill of independence when you can drive to school for the first time as a senior – turned out to be an experience particular to your time and location. Basic transportation, getting to and fro, is a whole different kettle of fish in most other countries.

In Mexico, buses were the most common way to get from here to there. When I was there (in 2005), a city bus trip was about 30 cents, which you gave to the bus driver as you got on. There were no bus stops – people just congregated on the sidewalk to flag down the bus as it passed by, and when you wanted to get off, you pushed the stop button or just shouted at the driver. Destinations were posted on the windshield. If there were set routes or times, I didn’t know them. Longer distances were also covered by bus, but by a much more sophisticated fleet of buses. These were Greyhound-type charter buses with bathrooms and air conditioning. They had fixed schedules and were more expensive (to the tune of $10, mind). You got an assigned seat, a place to put your luggage, and even juice and a snack as you boarded. In a country as small as Mexico, flying was reserved for international travel.

In Guatemala, city buses were very similar in terms of price and functioning, but city-to-city travel was often accomplished via “chicken bus”. Chicken buses are old American school buses which have gone to Central America to die. Some of them still have the lettering on the side stating to which county they used to belong; in Guatemala City I saw a bus from James City, Virginia, not far from where I lived at the time. Like local city buses, chicken buses that go from city to city are cheap and have no set schedule or route. You congregate on the side of the road and flag down a bus. Some chicken buses have destinations posted on the front windshield, and some are just painted a certain color to indicate the destination. Occasionally this painting will be in the pattern of the traditional clothing from the area where the bus is going. This makes it easy to tell a buses’ destination if you cannot read. Chicken buses also have the advantage of luggage storage – on the top of the bus. A porter puts your stuff up there, and when you advise the driver that you want to get off, the porter climbs out the window and onto the top of the bus while it is motion to find your bag. The bus stops, you get off, and the porter throws down your belongings, and off they go again. Flying again is reserved for international travel.

In Spain, city buses were much more tightly scheduled, often with stops and times available on the Internet. They were also more expensive, similar to city bus fares in America, so anywhere from 1 to 2 euros. Many bigger cities also had subways or light rails. Long distance buses similar to those used in Mexico were very popular, as were short-distance trains. There’s even a high speed line that goes from west to east, taking you from Sevilla to Barcelona in no time. Although the country is actually smaller than Mexico, cheap flights a la RyanAir were common to get from the south to the north, for example. And although, as my opening anecdote suggests, cars in Spain tended to be smaller, it was much more common for people to have cars, although I met many adults who had never even taken a driver’s ed course.

In Ecuador, especially in Quito, transportation is a problem. There are so many people in such a small space that if everyone had and drove cars, like in Spain, no one would be able to get anywhere. So Quito has come up with 2 very interesting solutions – pico y placa, and the bus lines. Pico y Placa is the name of a program that regulates who can drive when. “Pico” is short for “la hora pico”, which is rush hour. “Placa” is your license plate. So, depending on your license plate number, you are assigned a day of the week in which you cannot drive your car during rush hours. The idea is to cut down on the number of cars on the road. There are of course a lot of city buses in Quito, but they also have 3 bus lines that have dedicated lanes in the middle of the principal avenues. For example, the Ecovía line runs down the middle of the Avenida 6 de Diciembre, and no other cars or buses can drive in those lanes, which are separated from the rest of the road by curbs. There are little islands in the middle of the lanes at each stop, which you access by putting a quarter into the turnstile. City to city buses follow the Mexico/Spain model, and flights are used for international travel or to get to the Galapagos.


I can’t decide whether I prefer the transportation culture here in the US or that of Spain or Ecuador. It was certainly nice to spend an entire year not filling my car up with gas while I bused my way around the Iberian Peninsula. But I also like the freedom of my car. Thoughts?



Sociology is what they wanna give me!

Even though I took it in high school and it wasn’t even a honors or AP class, I love love loved my Intro to Sociology class from senior year. This might be because I finally felt not weird being the person who would look at human behavior and think, “Why they do that?” And I have slowly come to notice that my life almost every day here in Spain has become a very similar exercise.


For example, although people here are just as polite and considerate as in the US (and depending on who you are interacting with, often more so!), the lack of obvious verbal politeness is a little foreign. I have heard many people say that Spaniards just don’t say “thank you” as much as Americans, but really I haven’t noticed that so much. Maybe people are saying thank you to me more often than they normally would because I just keep saying thank you to them, who knows. But what I HAVE noticed is the lack of “Bless you”s after sneezes. I ALWAYS say “Bless you” (or, if you’re a member of my family, “Knock it off!!!”) after someone sneezes, and it is very surprising not to acknowledge a sneeze, or to have one of my sneezes acknowledged.


So, I thought, ok, maybe in Spain they just don’t say these sorts of pleasantries. Just because they don’t say “salud” when you sneeze doesn’t mean they’re thinking, “You disgusting pig, how dare you sneeze in public!” And I have done favors for Spaniards who were perfectly appreciative without explicitly saying “gracias”. That is until I was reminded of one of the strangest (to me) conventions of the Spanish language: the Hispanic “bon appetit”.


I noticed this first in Mexico, and then amongst my co-workers when I worked at the Smithsonian Latino Center, and once again I’m seeing it here in Spain. No matter where you are, in public, in your home, walking to work, and whether you are alone or in a group, if you are eating something, people will come up to you and say “Buen provecho” or (more commonly here) “Que te aproveche(s)”. I guess it isn’t so weird when you know the person saying it. It’s kinda nice to have a friend or colleague say “Enjoy your meal!” But things start moving into the weird territory when 1) the person wishing you a good meal is a stranger. When you eat at an outdoor café in Spain, people who don’t know you from Adam will come up to you to wish you a good meal. One time, I had just finished eating lunch with my colleagues, and a stranger wandered over to our table and said, “Oh, I guess I can’t say ‘buen provecho’ . . . you’ve already finished eating . . .” 2) Weirdness also ensues when you are in your own private space or, even worse, your home. My landlords are constantly wishing me “buen provecho” as I’m sitting on my couch in sweatpants eating cereal. 3) But the worst is when YOU ARE NOT EVEN EATING A MEAL. People will say “que te aproveches” when you are eating an apple and nothing else. Uh . . . thanks? I will enjoy my apple, thank you. I mean it borders on a compulsion when you have to wish out loud that a stranger enjoys eating a single piece of fruit.


I am always polite when people wish me a good meal, don’t get me wrong. It is wonderful that Spanish society has this mark of politeness. . . . I just don’t know WHY . . .

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.

Down with the sickness

When you are ill in a foreign country, you don’t just feel sick. You often also feel overwhelmed. Even if you happen to be in a country where the language is the same as your native tongue, the health care system is invariably completely different. You probably have health insurance, but you don’t really know the protocol for actually using it. You can find a pharmacy, but God only knows what things they are selling in there. If you happen to be in a country where they speak a language that is NOT your native tongue, things get even more overwhelming. Even if you speak passably well, it is still more than likely that you will end up in a clinic somewhere with absolutely no way to describe your symptoms without resorting to little kid vocabulary, a la “pee pee” and “poo poo”. There’s probably a different set of weights and measures. The money is different. I could go on and on.


Fortunately, although I am currently sick, it’s not the kind of illness that will rush me to a hospital: I have a good old-fashioned cold. But even navigating the world of cold-treatment here is Spain has not been challenge free. For example:


When your sinus feels like it is going to explode from pressure, the actual, I-swear-I’m-not-making-this-up word for it is “constipado”.

People here are convinced that I have gotten sick because I don’t wear a scarf, and that if I don’t begin to wear one I will become hopelessly diseased.

The decongestant medication that my neighbors were so kind to lend me has 4 active ingredients, 3 of which I do not recognize. The one I do is pseudoephedrine, so  I am relatively confident that I am swallowing the correct pills.

I have also never heard of the brand name of these pills: Frenadol PS.

I can’t find any hand sanitizer. I mean, not that it matters. Yesterday a little girl wiped her face on my pants so I don’t know how sanitizer would have helped.


The good thing about being sick in a foreign country is that illnesses are the same everywhere: you get them, you feel terrible, and then they go away. I will now be napping to make that process hurry along just a little faster.

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.