Teaching English in a foreign country is fun, if not a bit of a challenge. I live in Barcelona, a glorious place laden with creative and exciting architecture. Everyone wants to learn my language which gives a lot of work. Because the city is advanced culturally, life is not as difficult as it could be in, say, Kenya or Tibet. It is a sophisticated environment that meets my every need. I found a beautiful flat which was amazingly affordable as it is a long walk from the city center. That is okay by me. I love to greet people as I make the trek.
When I first looked for living quarters, I had little choice. It was the high season for tourists. I made do with a cheap hotel until my current flat was available. I am so glad that I waited. It has a large picture window overlooking the park, where you will find me most evenings walking my dog. I love cities with energy. It radiates from every building and every tree. It is rather magical. The kitchen is small but well equipped with all the usual conveniences, even if they are apartment size. I like to shop daily like the locals, so it doesn’t matter what the size is of my refrigerator. I love fresh fare.
The bathroom is the best place in the flat. It is decked out in hand-painted tiles no doubt made by a local artisan. It is gorgeous as it covers the shower and the floor. It has a pedestal sink to save space and a wonderful modern oval-shaped toilet like the ones here. I didn’t expect a new one when I moved in. My friends tell me I am lucky. Their toilets are always breaking down. Mine is better than home. When I lie in bed at night and count my blessings, I remember how important toilets are. I have yet to call a plumber or handyman. Everything in the bathroom is in perfect working order.
I have plastered the walls of the flat with photos I have taken of the region. I like to explore and wander on weekends. You can walk for miles and miles. I am getting strong legs! If I want to go to the country, I will borrow a bike or motor scooter. That’s how it is done. Once, while out in the wilds, I visited a small, rustic café to use the restroom. The toilet was so archaic that I won’t even describe it. It was a cut above a hole in the ground with a small slab of concrete on either side. I really marvel now at my own toilet and how state-of-the-art it is. I think it is a Kohler. It is sleek and elegant, typical of the brand.
If I ever have to move, it will be hard to replace the accommodations I now have. Barcelona is an old city and they have only recently started to renovate the outlying streets.
I have asked my students to watch English tv shows and movies to give them more exposure to the language in a more realistic setting. I told them no period pieces; the last thing I need is them running around addressing each other as “sire” and saying “thee” or “thou.” Contemporary stuff. If they really want to learn slang stuff, I recommended reality tv. Does it make me a bad teacher that I basically assigned them to watch trash like Real Housewives? Hmm…maybe. I tell you what, that’s a rhetorical question and you don’t need to answer it!
I took a class poll of some American films to find something everyone was at least a little familiar with. Turns out, everyone seemed to know the latest Star Wars movie. So we have been watching it in class the last two sessions so that everyone can see it in English. I was hoping that by showing them something they were already a little familiar with plot-wise that they would not get totally lost or frustrated if they missed some of the dialog here and there. After the film is over, I am going to give them some newspaper articles from The Daily Mail or maybe a sports magazine and see how much of it thatmy students can read aloud and/or comprehend. I want them to learn a more formal way of speaking, which is how I teach in class. Sometimes I think the textbooks we have can be a little stiff, so I thought giving them some more real-world exposure would be helpful.I want to present them with supplemental stuff that is actually interesting and appealing. I am hoping it will motivate them a little better than just sitting around and arguing about how hard English is and how in the world we came up with the spelling of Wednesday.
After that, I have a few other teachers coming in, all either Britons or Americans, who are going to break into small groups with the class and we’re going to carry out some scenarios. Typical stuff: ordering at a restaurant, asking directions because you are lost, casual conversations, asking for help at a store, and an emergency room visit. This is mostly to prepare the students because we are going on an overnight trip to London.I am hopeful that the tv watching and small groups will prepare them a little more for the way people actually talk.Being in London will help them get some practical experience, but it isn’t quite like the exposure I am getting by being here. I have to kind of work with within the confines of the job description, though, so that’s what I’m doing.
Time for me to go. I have to brush up on my British slang, too, before I embarrass myself in front of my class!
You think that things will always be okay and that the status quo can be trusted. Not so. No matter where you live, in the US or abroad (as I am in Barcelona), things can go wrong. You just hope you can cope with it and fix it promptly so life can return to normal. This can get complicated at times. In my case, it can be exacerbated by a language barrier. While I speak Spanish, I do not speak the dialect used by many who live in the countryside. This came to light in an annoying way when my kitchen faucet broke. My landlord told me that repair was my responsibility. That I understood clearly. So I had to find a local plumber, and I hoped to secure one who wouldn’t break the bank. Plumbers in the US have the reputation of charging a fortune, no matter how simple the job. I looked around and consulted some neighbors so I could count on a reasonable fee.
What is most important to me is promptness and reliability. You depend on your kitchen faucet if you cook at home. I do and I also wash things in the sink that I don’t want to take to the laundromat. I was in a quandary until the plumber arrived. I had to wait but a day and he appeared on schedule. He got out his tools and took a look under the sink. He started to talk to me in his own language. I stood there like a statue. I heard some numbers and thought he might be quoting his fee. I didn’t want to agree to anything I didn’t understand. You should have seen the two of us trying to communicate using hand gestures. He even resorted to writing something down on paper. Of course I couldn’t read it. It was a comedy of errors since he apparently wanted to replace the entire faucet instead of just stopping the leak. That was much more than I bargained for. I made a sign to him to “stop!”
We never did get the hang of communicating in our respective languages. He was a nice enough fellow and I didn’t truly think he was trying to cheat me. We just had to come to terms with the work required and its cost. If the faucet were defective, it would have been a different matter; but I thought why couldn’t he just plug the hole in the under sink pipe? It isn’t always assumed by any handyman or tradesman that you want the most economical job. He on the other hand probably thinks the most complete repair is the best. Since I am only a renter, I did not share this view. It would be different if I owned my home. On and on we went, blabbering and gesturing with our hands. It took some time before I think he got my point. The repair was accomplished quickly, at the right price, and now I could use the faucet for any purpose.
After all the time I spent struggling to find a job, I have been really blessed with this assignment. I get to live in beautiful Barcelonafor a year, teaching English to the students here. Once that time is up, I will be going hometo the United States. I am assigned to work at their “sister school,” which luckily is not too far from where I grew up.There, I will be teaching Spanish to high school students, something I have always wanted to do. I will also be in charge of the Spanish Club there.Aside from reinforcing the language the students hear every day in class and teaching the students about Spanish-speaking countries, one of my main tasks will be leading a school sponsored trip back to Madrid every spring break. The students in the two programs meet for a week of sightseeing and social activities, which are designed to provide them with various opportunities to communicate in both languages.
It is a really incredible concept.An incredible concept that I get paid to be part of.
I think we need more language exchanges like this. The more language barriers we can take down, the better I think the world can be. We need more immersion experiences, too. Imagine us all being able to understand each other in more ways than one.Not just linguistically but also culturally. What do you think we could accomplish if we were able to understand not just the words people used but the cultural and social context?
I am not saying that we would be living in a world of peace, I am not that naïve, but I think global conflicts would decrease. When you understand someone else, they cease to be so alien to you. I think misunderstandings and ignorant fears are a large part of the problem. But with regular exposure to the languages and lives of people unlike your own, things will change. You will still see the differences but you will start to see similarities, too. Suddenly there is a common ground that provides you with something to work from.
I may sound like an idealist here, and very “peace, love, and understanding.”I have to say, I didn’t really feel this way before getting this particular job. But now that I see the way it works, I think programs like it—any language exchange where people are meeting to practice speaking a language that is not their own and coming together with people of different backgrounds to do it—are a positive first step to making the world a more understanding and compassionate place. In this day and age where we are moving toward a more global society, it is more important than ever to learn other languages and experience other cultures. At the very least, I figure it won’t hurt anybody to learn a second language or travel abroad. I can’t wait to go back home and bring a class here. It is going to be amazing to show the kids around and experience Madrid again each year.
I live and love the city of Barcelona and its cheerful ambiance. It is full of the most amazing Gaudi architecture so I enjoy long walks so I can see the many examples. There is something truly amazing about being a foreigner in such a land. You see things with different eyes no doubt than the natives who are used to everything. Only someone who comes from another country can appreciate the local charm. I am so lucky to have selected this divine place in northern Spain. There were many options for me, but this was number one. I am here with a blog to spread the word.
I walk about in good weather in my favorite sandals because they don’t bind my feet. With other types of shoes, I find that they get swollen and thus they hamper my ability to go really far. Barcelona is the kind of city that is compact enough that you can get around on foot. On other days, you can take a bus or cab, or even ride a bike. There are many motorbikes on the road as they are easy to maneuver and park. Back to the sandals. You can imagine that people see my toes quite well and that I need to keep my toenails manicured. Foot care is part of my regular routine. I like to spend a day pampering myself, and since I don’t always s go to the salon (to save money why else?), it is a low-budget affair. I am pretty good at manicures and pedicures and can style my hair with ease.
A good pedicure begins with washing my feet with soap and water then a soaking in a warm bath of water scented with lemons and oranges. This is the relaxing and refreshing part. I dry my feet after at least fifteen minutes and apply oil to the nail bed to soften it. Overgrown nails are then cut down before filing to smooth them out. Many people like to buff their toenails at this point. I then prune the cuticles and survey anything on the bottom of the foot that has to be done. This means attention to callouses from my foot callus remover and rough skin on the heel. I work slowly and carefully so as not to cut any vulnerable skin. The next step is a mini massage with a lubricating body lotion. This is the part that stands out in a salon. It is not quite the same if you do it yourself. But it is better than nothing.
After the lotion it is time to apply polish. You have to rid the nails of any lotion residue first. A pedicure requires skill and a steady hand. If you slip, you have to clean up misapplied polish with a Q-tip soaked in nail polish remover. You can do it at the end of this phase or as you go nail by nail. Once you have applied to two coats and a protective top coat, you let your toenails dry for an hour and then you are ready for those revealing sandals.
When I moved to Barcelona I wanted to embrace the culture with open arms. I didn’t want to bring old ways with me and not try something new. I actively sought new experiences and that meant exploring the city and surrounding towns, reading up on the area’s history, and adopting new habits including the content of my meals. I ate out often so I could frequent recommended restaurants that specialized in the most exquisite cuisine. A great part of living abroad is doing as the locals do. I also tried cooking, but found my skills lacking. I preferred the restaurants and invitations to people’s homes. They knew of my quest for newfound tastes and often made Spanish dishes with a regional twist. I learned a lot about food in a short period of time.
Food is ingested daily in order to survive so you can imagine what happens when you compound all this culinary goodness. I packed on a few pounds. I had no idea. I just assumed if I ate normal portions, I would remain the same size. Apparently this is a misconception. It is not just the quantity that counts in controlling weight but the ingredients and the calories that reside. I went for months thinking I was the same until some of my clothes started to become a bit tight. Not wanting to believe the inevitable, I jumped on the bathroom scale. Well, my friend, numbers don’t lie—that is, unless your scale is broken or it’s not the most accurate scale. Sadly mine was not so I had to accept the cold, hard fact that I had blossomed in size. I now knew what many people forget when living abroad: you are not eating as you did at home so you can’t expect the status quo over time. I wanted the numbers to be wrong, but they were right. It was time to buy new clothes or change my eating habits. This plan was difficult as it meant missing out on so much of my new Barcelonan life.
It is hard to cut down on portions and stay satisfied after meals. Okay, I could eliminate breakfast without much pain. I resorted to the practice of having an early lunch. I absolutely refused to stop visiting friends, but I did let some know about my dilemma. They were happy to oblige. It did reduce the fun a lot but I started to lose a few inches. I could now keep my old clothes although I was more than willing to adopt the local styles. That, like the food you eat, is part of the foreign living experience. So as not to give up on Spanish food entirely (for which I had a definite liking), I allowed myself one day a week to indulge. I could have anything I wanted including dessert if I was good the rest of the time. This plan worked as hard as it was. As soon as you sample tasty food, you absolutely want more.
I love entertaining, but my apartment is a small space. I have to limit myself to one or two guests, maybe for a simple dinner. My kitchen is not enormous either. I can whip up some nice local dishes and I have been collecting recipes. My dining table only seats four. When I get an invitation to visit a friend, I am thrilled as it offers a nice change of pace. Usually there are a variety of people and I meet new acquaintances. One friend in particular always has creative ideas for a festive evening. She might invite someone who plays flamenco guitar or a singer or two. Otherwise, we listen to recorded music and indulge ourselves in preselected treats.
One of the best features of my friend’s place is the lovely welcoming fireplace. I often say it’s one of the Finest Fires that I’ve ever seen! Who doesn’t wish they had one? I don’t. I have thought about a portable model, but alas there just isn’t living room space. I would have to move out the sofa and that is something I can’t do without. This is where I sit down to chat with a friend or play with a pet. I am always grateful to be invited out, but often feel that I have nothing much to offer. I can bring something to drink or possibly some simple finger food. One time when I was invited for a return visit, I suggested a great way to use the fireplace. Usually, it is for looks and when it is cold, for heat and warmth. Everyone loves it. Here’s what happened. I brought some graham crackers, a few bars of plain chocolate, and a bag of marshmallows. Can you tell where I am going with this? Yes, I wanted to teach some locals what we adore in the US—s’mores. For many in Barcelona, this is an unknown dessert. They don’t know the delicious gooiness that I crave. Frankly, I haven’t had them for years. It was a staple of my childhood, especially when my family went camping. When I got older, I learned how to build a fire in the pit in the backyard and make my own. I would invite friends over who left with smiles on their faces. This treat brings joy.
The Barcelonans were no different. They watched as I made the first one. I waited until the fire had died down a bit so I wouldn’t get burned. You don’t want it to be blazing for sure. You end up with charcoal s’mores. After my demonstration, I asked each guest to take their turn. They couldn’t wait. One by one they ate the American delicacy and licked their lips with appreciation. More than one person had two or more. It was the main snack of the evening. He camaraderie was wonderful, no doubt because of the way we grouped around the fire. I can’t think of any better way to introduce myself to new friends. My hostess friend said it was a super surprise.
I value my sleep. It is not always easy to nod off as my brain mulls over the trials and tribulations of a hard day. Nothing is worse than being awakened too early. I require at least eight solid hours of shuteye. If you have noisy neighbors, it can be the bane of your existence. If I am really tired it helps. Doing exercise in the evening, even after dinner, helps me unwind and relaxes my muscles. A workout in the gym, however, at a late hour is not always possible. I can watch a good movie, listen to music, meditate, read a favorite book, or try other methods to help me fall asleep quickly and efficiently. Imagine my irritation when I was awakened after a very late night by someone using an electric pressure washer to clean the sidewalk in front of their house. This person was indeed an early bird and inadvertently was making me one. What on earth was he doing? As I looked across the street I noticed some dark berry colored stains on the sidewalk from some kind of bud that proliferated on a nearby tree.
Now I was really up with fully open eyes as I watched this ridiculous scene. Why did my neighbor decide to do the cleanup chore at exactly the most inopportune time? I couldn’t go back to sleep as much as I wanted to, so I got up and dressed myself and decided to go to a local coffee house to have a good Spanish breakfast. I shouldn’t have been surprised that there were other early morning patrons because many people do this before work. They eat, read the paper, and get ready for their day. Mine unfortunately had a rough start. But now I am going to tell you how it got better in no time flat. The cutest man came over to my table to take my order. I couldn’t stop staring at his good looks. I think his presence was going to salvage my day. My food arrived and I was pleased to see how attentive he was as I ate. I lingered for as long as I could before finding that I was going to be pressed for time. Maybe some fantasies had started to form in my mind as I sipped my black coffee. People do meet after all in all kinds of unexpected places and this goes for Barcelona, too.
The morning was progressing and I had a smile on my face. The waiter finally brought me my check. His smile was bigger than mine as he asked for my cell phone number. I handed him the device and suggested that he program it in. Then I would know his name. He did the same for me and I was thrilled to realize that he was indeed going to call. Either one of us could make the first move. A day later he did, sparing me any embarrassment. I wonder if I would have worked up the nerve myself. We started to date and I have to thank my neighbor with the pressure washer for playing a big part in our meeting.
The first thing I could not get over when I moved here is the weather. It’s nice. I have not been here long enough yet to really experience the seasons, but I have been told that it does get hot and cold, just like most other places, but I wake up nearly every morning to see the sun shining. It is almost freaky. And because the weather is so nice, Madrid has gone all out with its parks. I have never been to any public place that is as beautiful as El Retiro. Rain here is so rare that it is all anyone talks about for awhile.
Another thing I am really starting to enjoy is that there’s always something to do. Maybe people who live in bigger U.S. cities are used to having all this fashion and culture within walking distance, but I am not. I go window shopping after class and to museums on weekends. At night my coworkers and I will go out dancing or try out a new cocktail lounge. Just because we can. There is no shortage of things to do. I think this is what I will miss most when I go home. And the great thing about living here is that it also can have a small-town feel, which was great for me at the beginning when everything felt really overwhelming. If you live in a good neighborhood (Barrio) here, then you are set. There’s usually a market within walking distance, and your neighbors will be very friendly and help look out for each other. When you don’t know anybody all that well yet, and there’s a bit of a language barrier, this can be a total lifesaver.
Madrid feels like the center of the world sometimes. It is right in the middle of Spain, so it is this huge hub for travelers. It certainly makes visiting other places super easy as well. And because there are so many travelers coming in and out, some have stayed—and when they do, they bring their cuisine with them, making my home away from home full of exotic treats. I have had everything from Mediterranean goodies to authentic Ukrainian dishes, and even some of the best American-style burgers I have ever had!
I’ve only experienced a few drawbacks—yes, I was the victim of a pickpocket once or twice, and it is such a touristy area that the perpetrators (and my stuff) will most likely never be seen again. But it just required me to think a little differently. It happened twice early on in my stay (once my wallet out of a backpack and once my phone off a café table while I was reading the paper) and since then I’ve gotten a lot smarter. Now I carry a front-clasp purse and I wear it across my body, and I never leave my phone out. Anywhere. There was also an adjustment period with the roommate but that’s all straightened out now, too.
A girl could really get used to this…
Being so far from home is a bit of a double-edged sword: I am not sucked into the drama (and my family has a lot of drama; we’re a large and stubborn lot) but at the same time, when something happens, I am too far away to actually be of any use. It both keeps me free of the craziness but also makes me feel guilty that I am not shouldering my fair share of any burdens or sharing in any of the joy.
Case in point: my little brother called a little while ago and told me that he and his girlfriend are expecting! I didn’t even know what to say. I love his girlfriend, she’s great, but a) they fight a lot and b) I can’t tell if he’s excited about it. If we were face to face, I could probably have figured it out but just hearing his voice on the other end of the phone made it difficult to figure out. And because of the time difference, I was in a restaurant eating dinner, so I couldn’t even hear his voice all that well. It seemed awkward and a little rude to my dinner companions to ask my brother to switch to FaceTime, so I just said that it was wonderful news and that I thought they would make great parents. He kind of snickered at that—bad sign, I know—and then changed the subject. I followed his lead, and soon we were talking about Dad’s latest girlfriend.
I love what I am doing here and the language immersion has done amazing things for my vocabulary and accent.However, it is times like this that I wished that I owned my own jet or something.Then I could go home as often as I felt like, because I know none of them are going to fly here. It’s weird: I am not what I would call homesick. I don’t even miss speaking English all that much—I guess I get my quota of that teaching class—and I can’t say that I miss living in the United States at this point (although that could be sour grapes because I couldn’t find a job therendsince I had no money, needed to move back in with my folks before I got the job here). I am sure if I saw my brother on a regular basis, we’d fight like we typically do, and I certainly don’t miss that. Sometimes I am actually glad there’s an ocean between me and my entire family, which might be a terrible thing to admit. Good thing I haven’t told them about this blog, I guess, haha! I guess the thing that I miss is the idea of my family, the fictional scenario where we all get along and everything is super.
Well, writing this post has certainly helped put things in perspective and given me an idea. I am going to video call him later and see if I can gauge his reaction. At the very least, I will ask for the due date and offer to fly home, and see what he says from there. Wish me luck!