Friday, October 21, 2011

Sometimes Spain Makes Me Sad, But Then I Get Over It

Last time, you heard about my apartment searching woes, and now you’ll get to hear about why starting school made me seriously consider buying a seat on the first plane back to the USA.

I don’t mean to sound like such a whiner, really I don’t. I know that I’m incredibly lucky because I live in Europe and I have very few responsibilities and I work only 12 hours a week and I earn enough to live on (if I’m thrifty) and the teachers I work with are very nice. But living abroad isn’t always a piece of cake; I definitely learned that last time I was in Spain as well. It’s hard to hear about the things your family is up to and wish you could take part. It’s hard to miss so many conveniences that you take for granted at home (like not having to change a gas tank by hand, or having the internet, or having a car, or not having to speak a foreign language all the time). It’s hard not always understanding the culture and feeling so out-of-place.

I was homesick last time I was in Spain, but it didn’t really start until a few months had gone by and the newness had worn off. This time, my homesickness was almost immediate. I worried a lot that I had made a terrible mistake in coming, because I just wasn’t enjoying myself, and I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be at home with my parents. And then I had terrible apartment problems, and I got sick, and the straw that broke the camel’s back was my problems with getting transportation to my school.

When I visited my school right after I got here, the coordinator for my program told me that I should live in Vigo and that I would have no problems at all carpooling the 50km to work with other teachers. However, no definite plans were made and suddenly it was the night before I was supposed to start work and I had no idea how I was getting there the next day. I freaked out a little bit, I admit.

Then the next day, after I had taken the bus to school and realized that it cost 5,85 euros per trip, I was even more worried. I ended up not doing anything at all that day except getting my schedule for the secondary school (my schedule for the primary school came the next day…I work in one school one week and the other the next) and being told that I needed to find my own way to Santiago the next day for orientation because the teacher in charge lives in Ourense, about 100km from Vigo, and couldn’t drive me (like they were supposed to). I discussed carpooling with some of the teachers and felt like they weren’t going to be able to help me, for various reasons. I also got told that in the secondary school, I would be expected to run the classes completely by myself, make up lesson plans by myself and everything, and that the main teachers were going to leave the room (even though it says in our contract that they’re not allowed to do that). Then they didn’t tell me what the students were studying so I could do activities that went along with those themes (like body parts or animals or whatever it might be).

I had no idea what I was doing and was being thrown in headfirst into a very awkward and scary situation. So then I freaked out more.

As I walked the mile from school to the bus stop and then paid the 5,85 to get back to Vigo, and then walked an additional mile back to my apartment, I was thinking of how ridiculous this all seemed and got more and more angry. By the time I made it to the internet café that evening, I was really really pissed off at my school and the whole program in general for being so disorganized. I had no idea what I was supposed to be teaching when I came into school on Wednesday, and I knew that I was going to be thrown straight into teaching on my own. I called my mom and cried and said I wanted to come home, and I was completely serious about it in that moment.

It was definitely a weird feeling to be so close to giving up, something that I don’t do easily. She tried to talk me down and said that I needed to at least try it for a few days and see if I could make it work before giving up completely. I knew she was right, that I couldn’t give up without even trying, but that didn’t make the way I felt go away.

Luckily, I got a ride to school the next day and ended up spending all of my classes just introducing myself and asking the kids questions about themselves. Their level of English was surprisingly low, but I managed. And then I worked out a schedule of rides to school with some of the other teachers, so that made me feel a lot better. I still have to take the bus back a number of days and that’s definitely going to get expensive, and I still have to walk two miles (uphill both ways, no joke) to get to/from each bus station, but it’s better. And the teachers have definitely been going out of their way to try to help me, especially once I told them how much the bus costs!

So after my gigantic freak out, things ended up working out at least somewhat, as they always do. Phew. And now I don’t want to go home anymore or give up, and I’m having some fun…thank goodness! I've been giving classes now for 3 weeks, and everything has been fine. So far I've done a week in the secondary school introducing myself, a week in the primary school introducing myself, and a second week in the secondary school talking about Halloween. I taught the kids the words to Thriller! I guess I can't complain about my job too much when it involves playing pop music in class, right?

Reading over these last two posts, I realize just how verbose I am. So sorry about that! Once again, as a reward if you made it all the way through this post (or even if you just scrolled to the bottom to see how long it was), here are some pictures of my schools.

A view out over the countryside near my school--it really is a tiny village in the middle of nowhere!

The village is famous for its ham.

The teachers lounge in the primary school

A small example of the Galician language (Gallego in Spanish) written on the wall of the school. Many of the students speak Gallego, and I'm slowly learning to somewhat understand them (although they don't know it, since I'm pretending like I only speak English).

This is my approximation of North America, to help my students understand where I'm from. Pretty accurate, right? I know I'm a fantastic artist and all...hah!

The English classroom in the primary school. In the secondary school, the children don't change classrooms, the teachers do! Thus I didn't feel it was necessary to take a picture of all of their classrooms. You get the idea. 

Next time, I promise my stories will be happy ones, to counteract all these whiny posts!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tales of an Apartment Hunt

Blogoworld, I’m sorry. I’ve been terribly negligent with you, and you’ve perhaps thought of giving up on me entirely. I’m going to try to be better, though. I still have no internet at my apartment, so posting is slightly difficult, but I’ll try to be better. When I last wrote, I said I was going to tell about all the problems I’ve had so far, so I suppose now is the time.

Before I left the US, people asked me often whether I was worried because I was moving to a completely new city in a foreign country, and I had no idea where I’d be living. But I brushed them off, saying it would be easiest to figure it out when I got here. Well, I’m here to say now that that may have been a mistake.

Apartment hunting was way harder than I thought it would be. Apparently I had slightly too many expectations, although they seemed simple enough to me. They were that I wanted to: a) live with people my own age, b) have internet at home and c) live close to the city center, and I hoped if possible that I could: d) live with Spaniards or other foreigners, e) have a nice apartment and f) get along with my roommates. The last three were not requirements, but I wanted to try for them if possible.

During my first two weeks, I scoured about 9 different apartment hunting sites (including easypiso.com, yaencontre.com, fotocasa.com, etc.) for listings that sounded interesting and sent messages to the people listing the apartments. However, I didn’t think to look at first at when the places were listed, so oftentimes I was contacting people about listings that had been online for weeks or months and had been filled long ago. Now, in my opinion these people should have taken the listings down when they were filled…but I digress. So it took me a few days to figure out that I should only contact people about listings that had been done in the last week at the most.

Once I did that, I started getting responses, and once I finally got a phone I was able to call some people back and set up some appointments. I saw a few apartments during that first week. One was a youngish Spanish couple looking to rent out their second bedroom, but they didn’t have the internet. Another was a 45-year-old (ish) woman who wanted to have me rent her bedroom and she would go sleep in her big closet. Then there was an apartment full of international students, but it was far from the city center and it didn’t have the internet. None of these satisfied my three basic requirements, so I decided to keep looking.

After I had been in a hostel for a week, though, I started getting worried about how much money it was costing me to stay there (30 euro a night), and so I got anxious about finding a place as soon as possible. Finally I saw a place that I really liked, on a recommendation from another auxiliar. It was an apartment with a German girl and a Thai girl, both Erasmus students, and it was cute and close to the city center and it had the internet. Plus I seemed to get along really well with the German girl, from what I could tell after meeting her for 10 minutes. So I told her on the spot that I wanted to come live there, and she immediately called her landlord.

…However, he told her that he had already found someone to rent the room. She was very angry that he hadn’t told her, and that he had gotten a male when they only wanted to live with females, and so she tried to convince him to let me live there instead, but it was a no go. I was extremely disappointed and felt very disheartened about the whole apartment searching process.

So I kept looking at internet listings and made some more appointments, but then I got the stomach flu and couldn’t leave my bed for 4 days. After I finally felt better, I had almost been in the city two weeks and had no apartment and hadn’t been able to go get my NIE (foreigner identification number) or get a bank account or do any of the other things that I had planned on getting done before school started.

I went to look at the apartments where I had the rest of my appointments, and they all turned out to be older ladies renting out rooms in their apartments to students. That was just not what I wanted, and I didn’t want to settle for something that I hated and then be miserable for the whole year. So I decided to keep looking, even though I was running low on money from staying in a hostel and I was getting worried that I wouldn’t find a place before school started.

Luckily, though, my fellow auxiliares D and V realized that they had an extra bedroom in their apartment and let me come look at it. It was nice, close to the city center, they were planning on getting the internet, they are around my age, and I enjoyed their company, so I took it on the spot. I really like the place, actually. It has character. It belongs to an elderly woman, so there were all sorts of glass knick-knacks all over the place, and about thirty tea sets in the tearoom, and paintings from pre-Civil War Spain on all the walls. The best part is that there is this awesome retro tv in my room (that probably doesn’t work, but it looks so sweet), and my bed is a radio (which actually does work). Yes, you heard me right…the bed is a RADIO. Coolest. Thing. Ever.

I do regret slightly not being able to live with Spaniards or other foreigners, just to be able to learn about culture and language at home and to have built in people to teach me about Vigo, but I’m not really disappointed in my living situation. Not everything is always the way you dream it will be, after all. I just have to work a little harder to make Spanish friends, that’s all. And there are certain advantages, including being able to come home and relax and speak English after a long day and having people to whine about my Spain-induced problems with. So it’s not so bad after all. I’ve been here two weeks and we haven’t had any problems yet (well, except for not knowing how to manually change a gas tank in order to get the hot water to work, and not having the internet yet), so things are pretty good.

After all that text, I will now reward you with pictures of my apartment, including the evil gas tank and my awesome radio bed. Get ready to be pretty much blown away. 

Radio. Bed. Need I say more? And check out that awesome retro tv.

The tea room. How cute!

Kitchen, obviously.

Bathroom, nothing too exciting.

Laundry room

View from the laundry room

Stupid gas tank.

Our elevator door. TARDIS blue. :)

View from our living room (which I forgot a picture of, sorry...but it has a chandelier!)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Post in Pictures

My mom and I crying our eyes out in the airport when I left. You're famous now, Mom!

Chicago gave me a very beautiful sendoff.

See? Gorgeous!

First views of Vigo--this is a statue on Gran Via, the main street downtown.

One awesome thing about Vigo is that there are the ruins of a fort in one of the parks here!

I found this symbol downtown and it reminded me of the Rockford symbol. A small piece of home, haha.

A statue of horses at Plaza España, one of the main roundabouts in downtown Vigo

A view out over the town--as you can see, very hilly! I'll be getting plenty of leg exercise here, that's for sure.

This is how many bags I had to drag across the world. They were insanely heavy!

So that's all I've got for right now. Next time I'll put up some pictures of the Islas Cies, where I went last weekend. I started work this week, also. I had a minor expat freakout earlier in the week (life abroad is hard, newsflash!), and then I learned that being a teacher is hard. All I can say right now is that some days are harder than others, some classes are harder than others, and I have learned that I do not like teenagers. I'll leave you in suspense about all that for right now and elaborate about my apartment problems and my school problems next time. 

Until next time, don't forget that if your life is easy, then you're not really living!