Friday, August 31, 2012

I Heart Galicia!

It's no secret that I've never liked Madrid. Like I said a few posts ago, it just doesn't feel like real Spain, and that irks me. It feels so fake, so pretentious! So many people there aren't personable. The weather sucks.

Wow, that's all so negative. But I'm just trying to explain why, despite being with an absolutely wonderful family and getting paid to take care of two kids who spoke marvelous English, I was not at my happiest in Madrid. I tried to make the best of it and explore the city, to immerse myself in real castellano (as opposed to a mix of Spanish and Galician), and even to appreciate the scorching heat.

But now that I'm done there (and have been for a month now), I feel like I can just can come out and say it--being back in Galicia is truly glorious. The weather is nice and cool, the food is fantastic and cheap, the people are friendly, and I just feel like I'm back home. I love Galicia and I'm not shy about shouting it from the rooftops!

Who wouldn't love a place like this?? It has everything!

Beautiful beaches--the water on the Islas Cíes was so blue it looked fake

Great views and the ocean to boot

Interesting geological phenomena like la Playa de las Catedrales

Mountains and rivers and great places to go hiking

Famous historical sites like the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela

Interesting musical heritage (bagpipes are cool, just like bowties)

Great food and wine, which also happens to be inexpensive

An interesting language that is not Spanish but still mostly comprehensible (unlike *ahem* Basque)

And last but not least, Celta de Vigo, a newly first-division fútbol team! (photo by the awesome Xose)

So, if you haven't been here, come! If you have, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Que viva Galicia!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What to Bring to Spain (And What to Leave at Home)

Packing your bags for a year (or maybe two) in Spain is hard. Really hard. You need to have clothes for multiple seasons, shoes that won't kill your feet when you're walking absolutely everywhere, and of course some stuff to remind you of home. But at the same time, you don't want to be that person in the airport who has to get two trolleys to carry around their multiple hefty bags, nor do you want to pay exorbitant extra bag fees. Thus, packing becomes an art, or a game. It's 3D Tetris, if you will.

Most people are aware that they need to bring layers and solid shoes. But there are some things that, in the stress of those last jam-packed days, they might not think of.

1. A winter coat, hat, gloves & scarf--Depending on where you're going in Spain, these can be essential items that many people don't think of. I know I'm not the only one who was sitting around in a blizzard while applying to be an auxiliar de conversación and dreaming of sunny Spain...but not all of Spain is that way! Galicia, where I live, is quite rainy and definitely gets a bit chilly in the winter. And even when I visited a friend in Málaga in February, I wore my winter coat part of the time. I actually have three coats here in Spain--a spring jacket, a rain jacket and my winter coat. They took up a lot of room in my suitcase, but I figured I wasn't going to have the money to spend on a good coat in Spain (and I was right).

Bundled up at the Alhambra--photo by my lovely friend Heather

2. Medication--The grant for auxiliares de conversación comes with medical coverage, but it's absolutely basic. That means that it's probably not going to be as good as the coverage you get on your parents' plan at home (or your own plan at home). Also, if you're like me you would prefer to avoid going to a Spanish doctor at all costs, because that seems simply terrifying. Thus, I brought months worth of medications with me so that I wouldn't have to try to get a prescription in Spain. I also brought Sudafed with me, because in my experience Spanish cold medications do not work. At all. I brought my own vitamins as well, mostly because I'm picky about what kind I take.

3. Toiletries (Deodorant and makeup)--You know all those jokes about how Europeans never wash and don't use deodorant? Not true, but their deodorant is the spray-on kind, which if you're like me can seem like more than you could ever possibly get used to. So if that's the case, bring a stock of sticks of deodorant with you from the US. And girls, if you like a particular brand of makeup, or if you just prefer not to pay 10 euros for a small bottle of coverup, then I suggest you stockpile.

4. Leather boots--For this one, if you're a girl, I don't care how cold it's going to be wherever you're going in Spain. You're going to want leather boots, because that's all Spanish women seem to wear on their feet between October and April, regardless of the temperature. Boots with skinny jeans, boots with shorts and'll need them. But if you're in Galicia, WATERPROOF THEM before you come. Your feet will thank you for it.

These poor boots, they lived a short but intense life. 

5. A power converter--This one might seem obvious, but I'm going to go ahead and mention it anyway. I don't suggest bringing much in the way of electronics to Spain, but of course you're going to want to have a computer. That computer will probably become your only means of communicating with everyone back home, and will be almost as precious to you as your (hypothetical) firstborn child. And, of course, for that computer to function here, you need a power converter. For Mac users (aka me), getting one was simple--the Apple store sells a set of different plugs that you can just snap onto the charger you already have, and you're set to go for anywhere in the world. Easy peasy. For everyone else...I honestly don't know, but make sure you get a converter good enough that your computer won't fry. Nobody wants that.

6. Favorite foods--Of course you want to immerse yourself in Spanish culture and eat as much of their delicious food as you can, but on occasion you're going to be homesick and want your favorite comfort foods. Or you will have mad food cravings that only Mexican/Chinese/Indian food can cure. For these times, I recommend bringing a few (nonperishable) favorite foods with you. For me, these include: peanut butter (available in Spain but really expensive), taco seasoning (for the lazy cook), Miracle Whip (I hate mayonnaise and I'm not afraid to say it), Kraft macaroni and cheese cheese packets (for days when you miss being little), and candy (mostly peanut butter-flavored, like Reese's Pieces). I also have a whole bunch of recipes, which have come in very handy not only for my own food cravings, but for Thanksgiving and also for lesson planning!

Homemade pumpkin and apple pies, om nom

7. Books--Maybe you're not a voracious reader like me, but as an auxiliar you should be planning on having a lot of downtime, particularly hours where you're sitting around at school waiting for class to start. Thus, I recommend having some books to read, be they in Spanish or English (Spanish helps you learn, but English is definitely more relaxing). Of course, the problem with books is that they weigh a lot, and so some people go the e-reader route and get all of their literary content that way. I'm not a huge e-reader fan because I just like the way real books feel in my hands, but it is nice to be able to read things while not having to think about how much room they take up. Thus I kind of go 50/50 on this one--I bring some real books and then supplement them with downloaded ones on my iPod. 

8. Things to remind you of home--Everybody gets homesick from time to time, and it's nice during those moments to have something around to make you feel closer to home. For me, this consists of a small Green Bay Packers pillow (which also serves the dual purpose of being very handy for overnight bus and plane trips) and lots of photos of my family. 

9. Teaching supplies--I wouldn't overload on these, but I found it helpful last year to have a few things from the US to supplement my lessons. Mostly I used stickers with English words on them, a few children's DVDs and 2 storybooks. This year I'm going to get a map of the USA and an American flag to hang up in the classroom, because all my school has is maps of England and the kids keep forgetting that I'm not British. 

The method I had to use to show the locations of different places in the USA

10. Enough money--This is the most important thing of all. You are going to spend more money in your first couple of weeks in Spain than you probably want to think about. It's expensive getting set up in a new place--living out of a hostel for a while, paying for the first month's rent on an apartment plus a deposit, buying food supplies, etc. etc. And on top of that, you're not going to get paid until the first of November; that's a whole month (at least) without any money coming in, unless you're able to get some private lessons set up really fast. Plus some communidades have had trouble paying their auxilares on time...there have been stories of people not getting paid for the first time until December. In Galicia, we never had any real trouble with that, but you never know. Bring as much money as you possibly can, and definitely more than $2000. 

Then there are a few things you could possibly bring, if you like to trick yourself into leaving enough room so that you can buy things while you're abroad (I do). All of these things, of course, exist in Spain, but they can be a little more expensive than at home, and if you bring them you'll either use them up or be able to throw them out when you're eventually heading back to the States. They include:

1. Batteries (for your camera)
2. Bath and beach towels
3. Toothpaste
4. Shampoo/conditioner
And finally, a few things that you really needn't bother bringing, because they will either break or be totally useless to you. 

1. A hairdryer or straightener--So many people bring really nice hair accessories and a power converter and expect all to be fine and are then really disappointed when their nice dryer/straightener gets fried. I wouldn't risk it, just buy a crappy one while you're here and throw it away before going back home. 

2. Bedsheets--European beds don't come in the same sizes as US beds, so sheets from your bed at home, while I'm sure very comfy, aren't going to fit your mattress here. Sheets are really not very expensive at the chino stores, and can also be thrown away when it's time to head back home. 

Perfectly functional European bedsheets

3. High heels--I truly believe that only born-and-bred European women can walk on these cobbled streets gracefully in high heels. When Americans do it, we just look like newborn foals trying to stand up for the first time. Trust me, that isn't attractive. And do you really want to be walking on broken glass in bare feet in a bar at 6am? Stick to your flats and be happy. 

Hope you incoming auxiliares find this helpful, and if you have any doubts about whether to bring something or not, shoot me a message or comment. I'll try to help, assuming you're interested in my opinion. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Anglophone Prejudice?

Something I've really noticed in the years I've been in Spain is that I get treated very differently by people in restaurants, shops, etc. depending on the company I keep.

When I'm with Spaniards, I get treated like just another person, usually. Occasionally I'll get a friendly "And what are you doing here? ... Oh, that's so cool!"

When I'm with other foreigners but we're speaking in Spanish or we all at least speak a decent amount of Spanish (enough to order or speak for ourselves and not seem foolish), the reaction isn't too dissimilar. Maybe slightly less curious and friendly, but more or less normal nonetheless.

When I'm alone, people tend to be very friendly (men in particular), probably because I'm blonde. I used to get pissed off about this, but now I just feel like it's a fact of life and I've come to deal with it and even occasionally appreciate it. I get asked all the time about what I'm doing here, where I'm from (they usually assume first that I'm German, because apparently I don't look American?), and usually get told about the person's experiences with English or their visit to America or whatever.

BUT, when I'm with friends who don't speak Spanish or don't speak enough to be able to communicate clearly, the reaction is completely different. People try to speak to us in horrible English and refuse to switch to Spanish even though my Spanish is clearly a million times better than their English. They (on purpose or not, I never know) misunderstand things I say in Spanish that no one has ever questioned me on before. They give me rude looks that seem to communicate "get out of my country, you English-speaker." They assume I don't understand their money. I even feel like the quality of the food I get served by them is poorer.

It feels horrible to be on the receiving end of that kind of treatment. It's truly awful to know that I may be treated poorly in Spain even though I speak perfectly good Spanish, simply because I deign to occasionally associate with those who don't.

So what's the solution? Well, I try, as snobby as this sounds, to not hang out in huge groups of Anglophones. And I recommend that to any other Anglophone coming to Spain to get an "authentic" experience. Besides, you don't learn half as much Spanish when you're speaking English all the time with your friends.

Of course, on occasion, it's inevitable that you'll find yourself out and about in the company of those who don't speak Spanish. And what to do then? I generally try to translate what the person wants to say so that I don't have to watch one of those awful scenarios in which an Anglophone comes up to someone in a foreign country and starts speaking to them really loudly and slowly in English and the other person is both confused and annoyed.

And I'm really not saying that this is Spaniards being prejudiced against Anglophones, or Americans, or anything. I've encountered that type of prejudice really rarely, which was a real relief after having heard for so many years about Americans who had to pretend they were Canadian while in a foreign country so as not to be in danger.

I think it's really just that it's plain annoying to be going about your job, having a normal day, and then have someone come up to you shouting things that you don't understand and then having to play the sign language game with them. People in America are always complaining about foreigners (particularly our neighbors to the south) not speaking English. But then they seem to be surprised when they go abroad and people who have to deal with them not speaking their language are annoyed too.

There's no real solution to any of this; I don't have any wisdom to's not like I'm going to learn Danish just to go to Denmark for the weekend, after all. But it's just something I think we should all keep in mind when traveling, that we are absolutely not entitled to have anyone speak our language, and we should count ourselves lucky when someone does. If they're cheerful about it, that's just icing on the cake.

Or I guess you could just never leave home at all...(not recommended).

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Past Travels Tuesday: Stockholm, Sweden

Past Travels are a feature I'm going to do occasionally on this blog, talking about vacations I've taken in the past that I really liked and maybe giving some travel tips. 

This week's Past Travels are of a very recent vacation, from back in May, that I *ahem* neglected to blog about at the time. A friend and I had been talking all year about how we'd both visited Norway and loved it, and how we'd like to see another Nordic country to compare them. So after much talk and little action, initiative was finally taken in May and Ryanair tickets were booked to Stockholm Skavsta for me, my friend and her boyfriend. (Many thanks to the person who actually did all the legwork for this, bought the tickets, fought with Ryanair to get the undue administrative fee charged to us back, AND managed to find us an amazing CouchSurfing host. Cheers, you are awesome!)

I really like the Swedish flag--the colors are so bright and cheery!

 After a lovely snafu with a strike by Porto's airport workers causing our first flight to be cancelled and the last-minute purchase of some overnight bus tickets to Madrid, we were on our way. A quick walk around the city center and breakfast at a cute café in Chueca proved to be all we had time for there, before we had to get to the airport to catch the plane to Sweden. A 3-hour plane ride and 1-hour Ryanair airport bus ride later, we were in downtown Stockholm, meeting up with our very sweet CouchSurfing host, who took us to her house, made us dinner (curry!), introduced us to her adorable kitty Selma, and let us crash after a long day of traveling.

You can sort of see here how the whole town is build on many small islands, as I mention below.

So basically my first images of Sweden came from looking out a plane and then a bus window. As we were landing at the airport, I was immediately struck by the hundreds of little islands dotting the coastline. It looked like we were about to land in some kind of marsh! Extremely beautiful, though. Then, as we were rolling on down the highway on the bus, I looked out the window and felt like I was back in a flatter version of Wisconsin. I very much enjoyed seeing the many long red barns popping up in the countryside; it felt like home.

I apologize for the quality of this photo, aka the reflection of me in the glass--normally I hate out-the-bus-window photos, but  there was no other way to capture the red barns!!
The next day was our big tourism day. We got up (relatively) early and hit the city. My friend's boyfriend had been before, so he played tour guide for a while, showing us the river and some buildings. Then we went to the old town (Gamla Stan) to check out what it had to offer.

Europe's smallest street

We saw Europe's smallest street (above) and wandered into many tourist shops, much to the annoyance of the man of the group. Then we went to the royal palace (below), which was honestly kind of a letdown. Apparently, a few hundred years ago much of the palace burned to the ground, and what's left is kind of ugly and not very impressive. Also part of the building was closed off to visitors because of some royal function. Darn those royals, trying to live their lives in their palaces and have some semblance of privacy!! Luckily, because my mom always taught me to try to get a deal whenever possible, the people selling the tickets believed that we were "students" and let us in for next to nothing.  So not a total loss. 

The ugly royal palace

The rest of the day, we mostly just wandered around. We discovered that the Swedes are apparently as obsessed with tulips as the Dutch, that Swedish coffee (and customer service) sucks, and that Sweden (shockingly) is cold!

Tulips tulips everywhere

After another ethnic dinner, the trying of some fish paste, a Swedish history lesson, and good night's sleep, we were ready to wander more the next day. We spent a long time in a park, seeing tons of joggers. The Swedish seem very devoted to staying fit. Then, because I had gotten it into my head that I needed to have some "real authentic" Swedish cuisine, we went to an overpriced touristy restaurant promising just that. The food wasn't great, and the service was truly terrible...apparently, our waitress didn't think we looked good enough to eat in such a fine establishment. Sorry about that one, guys; my bad, seriously. 
Strange sausage creature. I will say, though, that the real mustard was awesome!

Only having about 100 kroner left between the three of us (around 10 euros), we spent the rest of the time before we needed to go back to the airport looking at postcards. I played my usual "I'm in Northern Europe" game where I try to see how long I can fool cashiers into thinking that I'm a native of the country I'm in. It works pretty well; my height, blonde hair and blue eyes are a great Northern European disguise. So all I have to do is walk up, say hello in the native language (hej in Swedish), look at the cash register to see how much I need to pay, and then say thanks in the language as well (in Swedish, tack) and leave. If this whole interaction happens without the cashier switching to English on me, I win.

All bundled up. I think the warmest it was there was about 15º C, or 60º F. We tried to keep warm by having coffee, but it was watery and awful (American, basically...I'm such a European coffee snob) and the man seemed angry that he had to serve us. 
The last thing to do was to catch the bus back to the airport and fly off to Milan, where we had a layover on the way back to Porto, then back home to Vigo! 

Overall, Sweden seems like a nice enough place. We weren't there for very long, but we met a few very nice people and saw some sights. My overall impression is of a very clean and organized place. However, it's cold and customer service is crap (which was surprising to me, this was not what stereotypes had led me to believe would be true), and the historical sights on offer in Stockholm are not that impressive. Compared to Norway, Sweden seems less pretty and less friendly. However, I did spend way more time in Norway and visited lots of stuff outside the capital city. Plus I'm biased because my family has Norwegian heritage and I've grown up my whole life hearing about how Norway is the motherland, Norwegians never fail, and the Swedish suck. I think I'd definitely go back to Sweden, but I'd much prefer to visit some more rural areas, particularly in the north, to see if I could get more of a real vibe for the place instead of returning to Stockholm. Still, it was definitely worth my €60 forked over to Ryanair to get to see another European capital city!

So there you have it, another past vacation concluded. See where I'll have already gone next time on Past Travels Tuesday!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Past Travels Tuesday: The Arid Zone

I've decided to start doing a new type of post on this blog occasionally, which I'm going to call Past Travels Tuesday, basically a few photos and memories and possibly advice from big trips I've taken in the past that I really enjoyed. Yes, I am a copycat--I saw some other travel bloggers doing it, and it seemed like fun! I love ensconcing myself in the past for a while and reminiscing. I'm not going to do it for every Tuesday, partially because that might get old and partially because I'm not as dedicated a blogger as all that, but it's something I'm going to try for a while, and we'll see how I like it. I hope you readers (aka Mom and Dad) get some enjoyment out of it! So here we go.

I thought I'd start at the beginning (as they say, a very good place to start). I have no idea what my first major vacation was (Mom? Dad? A little help here?), but I'd almost be willing to bet that it was to Phoenix, Arizona. We have family there and we've been going there at Christmas or Easter more or less every other year ever since I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of 28-hour car rides and singing oldies with my parents or saying "Mommy, tell me a story."

One of our traditions from these vacations (I imagine started by a hyperexcited me really wanting to just BE THERE already) is a competition to see who can spot the first saguaro cactus on the side of the road. You see, the saguaro doesn't grow anywhere in the US east of the Arizona border, therefore once we spot the first saguaro it means we're almost there.

Perhaps because of this, or maybe because of their characteristically strange shape (I like weird-looking things, okay?), I've always had a fierce love of saguaro cactuses, and the state of Arizona where they live. 

I love them so much that I hug them. Do you think that's strange or something??

Even though I've been to Arizona probably 15 times in my life, every time I'm excited to go again. A lot of that, of course, is because I get to see family that I haven't seen in a long time, but part of it really is to get to see the saguaros again, to see the red dirt contrasting with the blue sky and to feel that dry heat creeping over my skin. 

Arizona is a fabulous place, a mix of bright colors and a clash of cultures. It's a place where you can play in the snow and sunbathe and whitewater raft in the same day, where you can eat amazing Mexican food, where there's a Walgreens on almost literally every corner, where you can see one of the natural wonders of the world, and where people choose the color of their car based on temperature. It's quirky, it's beautiful, and I love it. Lucky that I never have to worry about finding an excuse to go back!

In short, I recommend Arizona to all travelers visiting the USA. After all, some of the most iconic images of America that make it outside its borders are of Arizona. Even foreigners know who John Wayne is! Westerns gave that classic dusty desert town image to the world. So why not go to the place where many of them were filmed? Why not see a place that is so classically American and yet so atypical all at the same time? 

I have hundreds more Arizona stories I could share, but since there's not room to do them all justice, I'll leave you with just a few more tidbits. Some of our other Arizona traditions include finding a dive Mexican restaurant to eat at, making fun of the Arizona Cardinals as much as possible, climbing my uncle's mountain, going to the Buffalo Exchange to find vintage clothes, and taking a family picture in the parking lot of IHOP. What? I never said my family was normal. 

How about you? Have you ever been to Arizona? Phoenix? Are you as enamored of it as I am? Are you a fellow saguaro hugger? Do you have weird family vacation traditions too? I'd love to hear about it. 

Monday, August 6, 2012


Alert, alert--I should've mentioned this earlier, but I didn't. In case you didn't catch it, a few weeks ago I was featured on the blog of another auxiliar de conversación, Liz, called Memoirs of a Young Adventuress.

Here's a link to the article, which you should totally check out! It's an interview with me about why I love Galicia, more or less. And, of course, I totally recommend that you echarle un vistazo (that's have a look) at the rest of her blog as well, particularly if you're a new auxiliar looking for advice, as she's doing a great series on what to do when you first come to Spain...or if you want to know more about other regions of Spain, as she's doing interviews with expats living all over the country...or if you want to see yummy food pictures, as she does a "Pincho of the Week" feature. Or if you just want to read more exciting Spain stories.

Basically, girl's blog is awesome, go look at it now. That's all, have a nice day everybody! Back to your regularly scheduled programming.