Friday, September 28, 2012

Weekly Update 1: Jetlag Edition

After a day (two days?) of traveling, I have finally made it from my home in Texas to my home for the next year: Spain.

Mountains of Cazorla, Spain
The mountains of Cazorla to the east of Úbeda
On Sunday, I spent the better half of a day in the skies, flying from DFW to Philadelphia to Madrid. On the trans-Atlantic flight, I was blessed to sit by none other than a fellow language assistant named Annie—what an awesome surprise! We hit it off pretty quickly, commiserated over how crazy the application process was, and compared notes on traveling and speaking Spanish. Once we landed, we stuck together through customs and terminal transfers and had a little breakfast at the airport before parting ways. It was really great to get through the most stressful part of the adventure with someone who spoke English and was doing the exact same thing. Our paths divided in the morning as Annie had to take the bus up north to Galicia.

On Monday (now on Spanish time), I took the Cercanías commuter rail directly from the airport to Madrid’s Atocha train station and got a ticket to the Linares-Baeza station three hours south of the capital. I had a few hours to wait, so I took the Metro into town and ended up getting some chocolate con churros (non-sugary churros to dip in a liquid chocolate drink) at a corner café. Yep, it was pretty cliché, but it was Spain!

I finally got an hour of sleep (my first since Saturday night) on the train. When it departed, we were in the middle of a flat, gritty, graffiti-d urban area, and when I woke up, we had emerged into a rural hilly area covered in olive groves. From the train station in Linares, I hitched a bus to Úbeda, where I found a hotel to stay at through Friday morning. The owners there were so friendly to me, the room was clean and comfortable, and the restaurant served really tasty local food. It’s also an agricultural museum, so the walls were covered with farming tools and artifacts. Úbeda is half an hour southwest of Villanueva del Arzobispo, the town I’ll be teaching at.

What I’ve been up to this week:

* struggling to stay awake at the train station

* mailing my absentee ballot

* getting a pay-as-you-go cell phone over the course of a whole day through the company Orange

* attempting to open up a bank account but failing—twice at two different banks—because I don’t have a foreigner’s identification number (NIE)

* wandering aimlessly across the city trying to kill time until lunch (2pm) or dinner (9pm) and then trying to find a place that’s actually open

* slamming my hotel door shut because it’s the only way to close it

* drinking Cola-Cao for breakfast (warm milk with powdered chocolate)

* eating loaves of bread every day

* taking my first siesta (it was great: three hours)

* meeting teachers and staff at schools where I will and won’t work at

* speaking Spanish and being told I don’t have an accent

* hearing Spanish and just smiling and nodding

* going back and forth between thinking about renting an apartment in Úbeda or Villanueva del Arzobispo (small town)

Talk to y’all next week!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

3 Attitudes I Don’t Want This Blog to Have, and 3 I Do

Before I embark on the next phase of my life (i.e., blogging the next phase of my life), I’d like to clarify certain angles that I’m trying to avoid as I write for you, my dear reader. I’ve pored over my fair share of expat/language assistant blog posts in preparation for the North American Language and Culture Assistant program in Spain this fall, so I’ve seen the best—and the worst—of Americans abroad online. Below are three attitudes that I will try to refrain from indulging in on this blog, as well as three I’d like to cultivate.

Jaen / Spain by Mait Jüriado on Flickr

1) The magical travel blog

.~*mY fAbUlOuS aDvEnTuRe*~.
In a magical travel blog, EVERYTHING about life in Spain is “amazing.” Living in the U.S. is just so unhealthy, and the Spanish lifestyle is so lively and exciting. Writers in this category emphasize all the good aspects of life and brush over the hard parts. Their blogs tend to lack many day-in-the-life-of posts and are full of accounts detailing weekend getaways to Italy, Egypt, Belgium, or Ireland. Their lives are so glamorous since, after all, they’re living abroad in Europe. They whole-heartedly embrace the Spanish custom of partying ‘til the sun comes up and the (perhaps outdated?) notion of siesta. They may also literally embrace Spaniards by dating or being married to one, and will tote their significant other around as a token of how wonderful the country is.

2) The whiny travel blog

My life is just such...a struggle *sigh*
These bloggers regret ever making the decision to apply for the program. After the disaster of month one, they have already bought one-way plane tickets to come home over Christmas break. They will blog about their two-week-long cold, having to wait for hours on bureaucracy, and suffering in freezing apartments that have no central heating. One post may explain how they are always hungry, since they try to eat lunch and dinner at noon and 6pm, rather than at Spanish time (2 and 9pm). Another post will detail getting lost trying to find the bus station out of town and having to cancel a trip to Barcelona. A whiny travel blog is basically the opposite of a magical one.

3) The know-it-all travel blog

You HAVE to see the local dance and you MUST eat at this restaurant that isn’t even in the Lonely Planet!
Having studied abroad in Spain for a semester back in college, and having spent two years in the program, a know-it-all travel blogger will tell you exactly what you should expect the moment you step off the plane. Their experiences are universal, because, obviously, they are experts on life abroad. After all, they’ve spent almost three years here! Their blogs will be no-nonsense and often quite useful despite the tone. Posts on such blogs are full of specific details and will give you the low-down on, say, how to stay warm in your Andalucian apartment, or fun things to do in your middle-of-nowhere town. Weekend trip posts will try to present an inside-scoop look into, for example, Brussels or the Louvre: what’s a MUST-SEE SPOT and places that aren’t even worth your hard-earned euros.

Alright, alright, I need to admit that these are all very broad generalizations and stereotypes (and are full of sarcasm and general tackiness). I’m sure I will end up writing numerous posts that fall into these three categories in the future, don’t worry!

But what I really want to do in this post is make clear the attitudes I aspire to as I write this year:

1) To understand that, while living in a foreign country can be an exciting change from the ho-hum of home (*ahem*), no country is without its faults, and I should expect to encounter them quickly.

2) To realize that my life abroad will not suck; I’ll be living in Europe and speaking Spanish 24/7 for crying out loud!

3) To accept that I know very little about Spain and even after one year in the program (hopefully two!) I will have yet to fully comprehend the country. I majored in history and Spanish in college, but I still have a lot to learn.

Now, a challenge to you, my reader: keep me down to earth, and if you ever hear me romanticizing or bellyaching about Spain, call me out! And I hope we can both learn a little about this fascinating country.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Culture Shock Before Even Setting Foot in Spain

Culture shock graffiti
Culture Shock by heyrocc on Flickr
The other day I was emailing the director of the school I’m going to be working at in Spain this year, and was feeling frustrated because he wanted to meet up in a nearby town to discuss my first visit to the school. I agreed and tried to nail down a time and place to meet but got no reply. This was starting to annoy me because I’d really like to hit the ground running once I arrive, but can’t, because I don’t know where to go or when.

Then it hit me—CULTURE SHOCK. My school director wasn’t being noncommittal, rude, or shifty at all. He was just illustrating Hispanic culture, a culture in which being more laid-back is the norm and strictly holding to a schedule is simply unheard-of. I couldn’t believe it when I realized I was already experiencing culture shock; I haven’t even left the States yet!

So basically, I just need to chill out and not worry about not knowing everything. I think there’s a phrase in Spain for this: no pasa nada.

Ten days are all I’ve got left at home. I can’t believe everything for this program actually came together in the end.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

9 Ways I Experienced Culture Shock in Costa Rica

In less than three weeks I’ll be setting foot in Spain for the first time, and will be experiencing Spanish culture shock as well. As I begin to pack my bags, I’m mentally preparing myself for the patience I’ll need and for all of the kisses I’ll get (in greetings, duh). This has reminded me of the culture shock I felt when I studied abroad in Costa Rica last year. Studying abroad is fun, but sometimes it sucks, and culture shock is one of its hardest parts. Here are nine ways I experienced this facet of life abroad.

Irazú Volcano National Park
Running into the clouds, Irazú Volcano National Park

1) The rain

It rained right after class almost every single day, and not just a wimpy sprinkle, but a full-on downpour. Coming from Texas, where we often have droughts in the summer, I wasn’t prepared for these daily storms. They were kind of a downer because we had to stay indoors for the remaining daylight hours and couldn’t go exploring the town.

2) Crazy traffic

In the States, the pedestrian has the right of way, but in Costa Rica, the driver has the right of way. I can remember trying to get to the local mall and having to cross a roundabout, which involved running across the busiest street in town about four times—and that was just to get there!

3) Too much rice

And when I say “too much,” I mean they eat rice and beans at all three meals of the day—every day of the week. It’s like bread in other cultures (but probably a lot healthier). I’m a pretty open-minded person, and I enjoy eating new things, but after the first week I didn’t want to east rice or beans for a long time. But if you gave me a plate of gallo pinto right now with some scrambled eggs and just-picked-from-the-garden-fresh fruit, I’d love you forever.

4) Money

I know, I know, I should expect doing annoying math to be part of any visit to a foreign country, but it shocked me that many stores accepted American dollars as well as colones (500 CRC equal 1 USD). Little did I know that in nearby El Salvador U.S. dollars are the only official currency.

5) How to say “you’re welcome”

In most Spanish-speaking countries, the standard reply to gracias (“thanks!”) is de nada (“you’re welcome,” lit. “it was nothing” or “don’t mention it”). In Costa Rica, they say mucho gusto or con gusto, the equivalent of the Chick-fil-A “my pleasure.”

6) Safety fears

Security guards were in a lot of different places—one opened the door for me at Subway and another helped me out at the bank. Most houses and businesses had steel bars over their doors and windows, and, yes, even a few fellow students in the program got mugged. It was a little exhausting having to be alert all the time; I take peace of mind for granted very much in the States.

7) Dirtiness of San José

Let me preface this by saying the whole country is BEAUTIFUL, from the beaches, to the mountains, and the towns, too. But the capital city, San José, is just plain dirty. In some parts of town, trash is just collecting off the curbs and graffiti is everywhere. I guess I just hadn’t prepared myself for the realities of a developing country.

8) MUCH stronger sun

Yes, I am white. And, although it does get hot in Texas, I can usually avoid getting burned by using sunscreen. But traveling 20 degrees of latitude south really did a number on my pale skin. I went to the beach, I think, three times, and burned—BADLY—each time. No matter how many times I reapplied sunscreen, the burns just got worse. I was lathering the aloe vera gel on me like nobody’s business. But to be fair, I was using SPF 30 instead of, say, 50.

9) Voseo

I’ve got a separate blog post about this in the works, but voseo is just another set of pronouns and verb forms for the second-person singular (e.g., “you”) that Costa Ricans (and many other Latin Americans) use. Some examples: “¿vos sos de aquí, no?” (“you’re from here, aren’t you?”) and “¿qué opinás vos de eso?” (“what do you think about that?”). I only heard this once or twice, but it was definitely different from the standard  forms I learned in the classroom.

If you’ve ever lived abroad (be it Spain, Costa Rica, or elsewhere), what has caught you off guard or frustrated you about your host country? Comment below!
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