Sunday, November 9, 2014

The ABCs of Teaching Abroad

(Please note, this is very different from teaching the ABCs abroad, which I have explained before!)

I haven't blogged much in awhile, not because I'm not bursting with things to say (really, I am!), but because my life is so busy and full right now that I have TOO MANY things to blog about and not enough time to do it! So, here's a quickie with some cute anecdotes about small children, who make up a large part of my life right now. And who doesn't love small children? (Please note, if you do detest younglings, maybe you should forego the rest of this post...)

Without further ado, the ABCs of teaching abroad!

A is for Alisa, aka TEACHEEEER, both of which are my accepted names in Spanish schools. I'm also known as Alisiña in Galicia, and more recently, Alisita here in Madrid. Curiously, I was never Alisette in France, but I suppose this is because the French are more formal and all teachers are known as Madame or Monsieur.

B is for British English, which is occasionally the bane of my existence. No, I cannot put on a fake British accent for class. Yes, I still feel awkward about saying rubber instead of eraser. And yes, it makes me mad when the children get yelled at for saying ON the weekend instead of AT the weekend. Both are correct, people!

C is for Cafeteria Food, which I have a love/hate relationship with. Love that it's free, hate that it makes me fat, am ambivalent about the taste most of the time. Some days are great, and others...not! I guess that's a good metaphor for life (now I'm getting too philosophical about mashed potatoes, oops).

D is for Duck Duck Goose, which I just taught to my four-year-olds, who really loved it...until one of them tripped another one on purpose and had to go in time-out. After that incident, the game had to be sliiiiightly more controlled!

E is for Extracurricular English Classes, which I'm really struggling with. I have two hours a week alone with 12 four, five, and six-year-olds, and I'm not allowed to speak any Spanish with them, not even for punishment. So far, this has resulted in utter chaos. All of this is quite new to me, and if anyone out there has advice on teaching mixed ages and levels, I would greatly appreciate it!

F is for Fistfights, something I hope to never again witness in one of my classes. The moment when I realized two 20-year-old French boys who were taller than me were about to duke it out last year was one of the most terrifying of my life, and I wish to never ever repeat the experience.

G is for Guiris, aka the other auxiliares at my school. There are 6 of us, and I've found it's pretty nice not being totally on my own and having people to share my experiences with. Some of my fellow guiris have become my best friends here in Alcalá!

H is for Hugs, which I get a lot of from my little ones. This is one of my favorite things about working with small children, how affectionate they are! It's also something I love about Spain, that preschool teachers are allowed to hug and kiss their students.

I is for Ill, which I've been pretty much constantly since starting work this year. Playing with preschoolers half the day probably isn't helping the situation, but I'm trying to be vigilant about washing my hands afterwards and hopefully things will get better.

J is for Jungle Gym, which is my four-year-olds' favorite word. It is absolutely adorable to hear them scream "junga gym!" whenever I point to a picture of one.

K is for King of the Day, a system I'm going to implement in my extracurricular lessons. The general idea is that a different child will be given the responsibility of keeping the others' behavior in line each day (as well as a crown to wear, a que mola, ¿no?). We'll see if that works to keep the classroom from seeming like a total zoo!

L is for Love, which is how I feel about working with little ones this year!

M is for Madame Chicago, as I was called in France. The teenage boys who gave me this nickname were a little cheeky and sometimes irritated me, but I quite liked the name. It's cute, don't you think?

N is for No, which you would think would translate perfectly to Spanish, given that it's the exact same word in both languages. Somehow, this is not always the case in class, and I'm still puzzled as to why... (No, I'm not really. Students love to use the language barrier to their advantage!)

O is for Other teachers at my school, who seem nice, but who I've been struggling to connect with. I would like to make friends with some of the younger ones and hang out after school, but we're not quite to that point yet. Hopefully soon!

P is for Pockets, the name of the book we're using in my four-year-old classes this year. There is a song that goes along with this book that is CONSTANTLY in my head and I fear it may drive me mad. "Pockets, pockets, let's have fun..." Aghhhhhhhh!

Q is for Quiet, which I no longer know the meaning of. I'm learning fun classroom management strategies in my master's classes to try to make it happen though!

R is for Real, as in "Are those your real eyes?" This is a question I'll never forget from one of my Galician students. Had she genuinely never seen blue eyes before? (Note: I know for a fact she had, as Gallegos are Celtic and many of them are blue-eyed.) I was tempted to be snarky and say something like "No, I had my real ones surgically replaced." However, I generally try to contain my sarcasm with children and my actual response was a bit kinder.

S is for Sexy, which one of my fifth-graders accidentally confused with the word "funny" today in class, when describing his father. As unprofessional as it was, I was entirely unable to control my laugher. Tee hee hee.

T is for Tijers, or what my Spanglish-speaking four-year-olds often say instead of "scissors." This has caused the historical linguist in me to wonder if the words have the same root. Does anyone know?

U is for Uniforms, which my students this year have to wear. I miss getting fashion tips from girls fifteen years younger than me, however on the upside I've learned a new word, which is babi aka "art smock," which all primary students must wear over their shirt and pants. Ah, private schools...

V is for Vergüenza, one of the main barriers between Spaniards (and the French, you guys aren't off the hook here!) and speaking fluent English. The word means embarrassment, and it's something Spaniards (et les français) tend to feel whenever they have the impression that they may be seen as ridiculous. They fear making mistakes, because they think they look silly when they make them, and so many people never even bother to try. Luckily, at my school this year, English is emphasized so much from such an early age that the students have mostly gotten over the fear of ridiculousness, which I think is amazing in a culture where being seen as strange, unique, or different is definitely not a good thing.

W is for White Out, which Europeans are obsessed with. One time, I told a European student to just scribble it out when he made a mistake in pen, and he gave me the most horrified look and said "but that would be so MESSY!" Ahhh, the preoccupation with propriety here that drives me mad on occasion...

X is for eXtroverted, which teaching is teaching me to least a little bit more. At the very least, I now know how to speak loudly and clearly to a full room of people, something which would have been difficult for shy little me four years ago.

Y is for Yelling, which happens a lot more in Spanish schools than American ones. Spaniards are louder than us in general, so I guess it makes sense, but I still flinch when anyone raises their voice, regardless of the fact that it's directed at the students and not at me.

Z is for Zoo, which is sometimes how a Spanish classroom feels. Students crawling on the floor? Check. Kicking each other? Yup. Throwing things? Definitely. ...How exactly is this different from being in a monkey cage?

As much as I like to joke around about my silly students, both past and present, in the end I really like my job and am very proud of each and every one of them. I'm so glad I accidentally fell into the profession of teaching abroad! Also, things like the note below make it all worth it. :-)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Photo Post: El Escorial

Last Friday, after getting out of school a little earlier than normal and feeling very excited to get a start on the weekend, despite the impending rain, some friends and I hit the road towards El Escorial, an old royal residence and monastery a little ways outside of Madrid. While I'd been to the nearby El Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), or Franco's grave, a few years ago when I was moving to Madrid to be an au pair for the summer, I'd never managed to make it to El Escorial. I'm glad I was able to get there last week though, because it was much more beautiful than I'd imagined, and the fall colors on the trees surrounding the palace really made the experience for me. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves!

Reminder to self: you now live in real Spain, not Galicia or the Basque Country!

The old glass in the windows made the trees look like a Van Gogh painting. Loved it!

I also loved this colorful Hall of Battles. So beautiful! 

I may or may not have been yelled at by a security guard for taking this picture. Oops! The flash was off, at least...

I've really been missing the mountains and greenery while living in the desert-like Meseta, so El Escorial was a nice little break!

Imposing doorway to the castle

Love fall foliage, it makes me think of home!

Having a coffee every day in a square with a view like this must really be tremendous, mustn't it?

I also really liked the landscaped gardens. I'm a sucker for symmetrical patterns, so these gardens were right up my alley! 

Have you ever been to El Escorial? Did you find it as beautiful as I did? What are some other daytrips near Madrid that you can recommend to me?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

On Growing Apart

Nothing says welcome back to Spain like café con leche and churros!!

Ah, September. It's la rentrée (French for back-to-school), the time when we shake off that summer slowness and get back into the swing of things. I, for one, am actually quite glad to see summer go. I've never been a fan of hot weather, and my skin does not take kindly to the sun, plus the fact that I (like any good American girl) get a little bored when I'm not working and haven't got a lot to do. Spain, you tried for three years to teach me the art of relaxation, but I'm not quite there yet!

So, I guess that's one good reason to be back for another year of Spain-induced madness, learning to aprovechar de la vida while actually working to get ahead in it...aka the best of both worlds!

It's been a bit of a surprise to find myself living in the province of Madrid, which I've been so vocal about disliking. I mean, I've known for a while that I was moving here, but now that I'm actually here it honestly feels a little strange. I'm trying to give it another chance, because I don't need any reasons to make myself unhappy, but I am struggling a little bit with the intense ~40ºC (~100ºF) heat. Luckily, as everyone I've met here has told me, it will only be for a few more weeks, and then I can really settle into having a good time.

In the meantime, I've been thinking lately about how bad I am about sharing my experiences with my loved ones back home and elsewhere. I almost never post photos on Facebook, as I'm not a fan of their privacy policies, and my Whatsapp and Skype sessions are sporadic, and are only with a few select people. And I think my natural reserve has caused me to keep too much to myself, to the point where I've realized that many people who I used to be so close with have no idea what's happening with me these days.

Of course, they could always write and ask what's new (and some of them do, and I really appreciate it!), but I see now that 1) expecting too much of that is clinging to the past to the point of fallacy--sharing photos and stories over social media is simply how people communicate these days, 2) people are busy, and as sad as it is, most of them don't have the time or attention span to write long newsy emails or messages, or even have Skype sessions--they need news in short snippets, and 3) when they don't hear much from you for a long time, people (also sadly) tend to forget that you stay a part of their lives, you need to have a constant presence in them--quite a challenge when you live many thousands of miles apart.

All of this to say that although I'm still not up on the latest internet crazes, I don't have Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat or Tumblr or Pinterest or Vine or whatever it is you crazy kids are using these days, and I still refuse to post most of my photos on Facebook, I'm going to try to be better about staying updated in here, so that when I DO see old friends, we don't have a year or more's worth of news to catch up on. I feel like I've grown too far apart from too many people, and I don't want to see that continue.

Bref, I just moved to Alcalá about two weeks ago to do a Master's program and teach. I haven't quite started yet, but here are a bunch of photos of my first few days.

When I first arrived, Alcalá was having its annual feria, or festival. This was definitely a nice welcome to the city, since everyone was in a good mood and out celebrating. And all the streets were decorated with pretty lights!

These were a part of the festival. They were giant statues, carried by people who have apparently trained since infancy for the job! They would walk around the streets of town, having little parades and dancing, almost every day. 

The city's main square was also decorated with lights for the festival. 

This is the main square of Alcalá, Plaza de Cervantes. You can see a bit here that the building style in this town is very different from that of Galicia, and much more what I consider "typical Espanish." That was pretty much the first thing that struck me on arrival, like Dorothy not being in Kansas anymore. And don't be fooled by the greenery of the square, which is very carefully maintained--the surrounding area looks much like the desert, dry and tumbleweed-y.  

This is the city's biggest cathedral, called "Los Santos Niños" (I'm sure there's a story there, but I have yet to look it up). It is definitely looming, but I find myself unimpressed, largely because it was mostly destroyed during the Spanish civil war and recently remodeled, so it looks not as ancient and awe-inspiring as many other European cathedrals. 

The second most striking thing about Alcalá is that it appears obsessed with its connection with Cervantes (author of Don Quixote and probably Spain's most celebrated author, for the uninformed). Not only is the city's main historical center named for him, but there are many statues and paintings all around town celebrating him and his works. He supposedly was born here, though there is nothing to prove concretely that he ever lived here. Regardless, the city has gone all out proving its claim to fame as the "home of Cervantes." This is a museum and the statues outside it at the house where his family once lived. 

Even the persianas (blinds) in some shops are painted with Cervantes-related things! 

The next thing you notice about Alcalá is that it is veeeery proud of its university. I've been told many times already by various people how it's one of the oldest universities in the country (founded in 1499), and used to be called "La Universidad Complutense" (the Roman name for the town was Complutum), until it was moved out of town and into Madrid. It reopened under a new name in the 1970s, and has taken over the historical university buildings, as well as many other historical buildings in the city center to save them from demolition. 

It is partly because of the university and its historic buildings that the city has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I look forward to attending class in such illustrious locales. 

The final big thing that's popped out to me about Alcalá (though I'm sure there will be more, I haven't even been here two weeks yet, give me time!) is the giant stork nests perched precariously on old buildings in the city center. The storks are well-loved in this city, and I do have to stop myself from wondering if it's because this is how all Spanish babies are delivered to new mommies and daddies...

All joking aside, some of these birds do seem to have gone out of their way to find strange places to nest, like the one who thought its eggs should hatch riiiight up there nestled against a big cross. Sure, why not? 

But while the nests were something I noticed right away, it took me a few days to actually see a bird. It seems to me that they come back to their nests around dusk, and the other day I was finally able to whip out my camera fast enough to capture a photo of one. 

So there you are, my first impression of Alcalá de Henares is that it's a hot, typically Castilian Spanish city obsessed with Cervantes, its university, and storks. A bit quirky, but so am I, and so far I like it well enough, and I'm not disappointed to be calling it home for the next 10 months. Only time can tell if my first impressions will last! 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bastille America

I hope all my Frenchies had a joyeux fête nationale!

Personally, I was feeling a little sad to have left just before the big day. I love seeing how other countries celebrate their national excited they get, the music, the dancing, the patriotism.

I've actually been in France before during Bastille Day (as we call it in America, much to the consternation of my French friends). During my first Eurotrip in 2006 with my parents, we luckily happened to be in Paris on July 14th. We saw jets flying over our heads, all the museums were free, and there were fireworks over the sparkly Eiffel Tower (seen from the parking lot of our hotel, due to the overprotectiveness of my parents, worried about their young daughter getting too close to a crowd of rowdy FOREIGNERS...if only frustrated teenage me could see me now, doing just that every single day of my life!). Anyway, it was glorious.

But now, after having lived in France for a year, being there for Bastille Day would have meant so much more to me. I would have loved to have spent it with des français, learning the real scoop.

But it was not to be. The visa for my next Spain adventure required that I come home to the US of A for the summer, so no fête nationale en France for me. Queue one bummed francophile.

However, said visa also required me to be in downtown Chicago le 14 juillet, and for that I thank my lucky stars. I was just walking down Michigan Avenue, on the way back to the car from my appointment at the Spanish consulate, when a French flag on a bus stop advertisement caught my eye. Mesmerized, I moved toward it until I could read what it said: there was a block party happening on Daley Plaza to celebrate Bastille Day, and it was starting in 10 minutes!

Being a sometimes impulsive person, there was no hesitation in my mind--I was going to that party. Better than sitting in rush hour traffic on the way home, I say!

The first thing that caught my eye as I walked up was that there was a group of people playing pétanque. Never in my life has a game meant for 80-year-old men made me so happy. There they were, a group of octogenarian Chicagoans, proudly representing the Chicago Pétanque Society (apparently this exists), throwing heavy balls, seeing who could come the closest to another, slightly lighter ball. And I was overjoyed to see them.

And then there were the waiter races! People decked out in French flag aprons, running around the square to serve "wine" to patrons, seeing who could do it the fastest. Entertaining? Oh, yes. Add that to the stands selling crêpes, galettes, vin, et macarons, and I was in 7th heaven.

 It's been hard, these past few weeks, being in a place where most people's idea of France consists of a country full of smelly, hairy-armpitted people who walk around going "oh ho ho" all the time. So walking into a square full of people who could understand me when I said un crêpe beurre sucre, s'il vous plaît, that really meant something. I'm not alone. I'm not an alien, and France isn't a place that I dreamed up one night, even if no one here at home cares. There are other people who love France et les français as much as I do, and being surrounded by them, even just for a few hours, was something I'd really needed.

So when they played La Marseillaise (the French national anthem), I couldn't help but smile as all the people around me started to sing. They know what I feel. Their singing said "la France me manque," (I miss France), just like my heart says.

Merci, Chicago, for bringing a small slice of France here to me. That's exactly what I needed.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

In Five Years Time...

Ciao, Chicago!

Five years ago, at about this time, I got on a plane. I get on a lot of planes, so I guess that probably doesn't seem too extraordinary for me, but this was a special plane ride, one that would change my life (though I didn't yet know it at the time).

I was twenty, and I was obsessed with Europe. I had been for at least ten years at that point, though I have a hard time pinpointing exactly what set me off in the first place. Some sort of strange mix between a love for history, the Harry Potter books, and the movie Moulin Rouge, I'd guess. I'd spent those ten years studying French, preparing for the day when I could go live in the land of cheese and baguettes.

However, I'd only been to Europe in person once (despite visiting many times in my dreams), and while I'd adored each of the seven countries we visited in our three-week package vacation (though I wasn't thrilled about being led around on a tour bus...more on that, perhaps, someday), on this special day in 2009, I wasn't going back to any of them. Not even France.

In fact, I was going to a country I knew almost nothing about, and not just for a visit--I was moving there. Did I speak the language? Barely a few sentences beyond Me llamo Alisa. Did I know a soul? Just one of my best friends from high school, who happened to be finishing up her study abroad in Madrid and was going to meet me off my plane. How did I feel about all this? Beyond nervous. As I'm sure you can guess by this point (and if you can't, I honestly don't know how to respond to that), I was moving to Spain.

Says it all...

Perhaps the most pertinent question at this point is why on earth was I moving halfway across the world to study in a place I knew nothing about? What was the motivation? Well, as is often the case in life, or at least my life, it was pure logistics. When I went off to university, I happened to decide that it would be fun to pick up a second major in Romance Languages, which meant that I needed to learn Spanish ASAP in order to graduate on time. I'd always known I wanted to study abroad, but I'd assumed it would be in France. Now that I absolutely had to learn Spanish as quickly as possible, I said to myself: "Spain is next to France, they can't be THAT different!"

How wrong I was.

Spain, in fact, is nothing like France, something that never ceased to annoy me when I was first there.

This plane ride sent me off on a dizzying journey that has found my unwilling heart captured by España, and then tugged in opposite directions as I tried to reconcile my newfound love with my old flame, France.

My first day in Spain, wearing a shirt in French...typical.

This struggle is ongoing as I hop back and forth between the two countries, sometimes preferring one and later the other. At first, I lived in Spain and couldn't get France out of my head. This past year, living in France, a bunch of people thought I was Spanish when I first met them because they'd never heard me talk about anything else.

And now I'm hopping back to Spain again. Yes, that's right, next year I'm off to do a Master's degree in Bilingual Education in Madrid. Well, thankfully not downtown (because we all remember how much I love Madrid....oh, wait), but in Alcalá de Henares, a town nearby. I'm nervous to go back to school, excited to go back to Spain, sad to leave France...basically, full of emotions.

But although five years (and two months) after that first journey to Spain, I'm going to be hopping back over there for the next year, that doesn't mean I'm going to be able to entirely forget about France, or all the wonderful people I met there, or how much j'adore parler français. Or the cheese. Mmm, fromage.

So, the cycle continues, I'll be living in one place and constantly missing another (or several others, even)! C'est la vie d'un voyageur. Et c'est cool. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Joyeux Quatre de Juillet!

Happy 4th of July! 

For those who didn't know, I'm back in the States for a visit for the summer, before heading off on my next adventure to....somewhere (hint, it's not cheeseland and it's not burgerland...).

So, today I'll be doing as Americans do, grilling varied meats on a grill, eating things in the colors of red, white and blue...

Maybe doing some themed arts and crafts...

Watching some fireworks in the evening...

And supporting les bleus. OK, that's not so American, but what can I say? All these years in Europe have changed me. I now say football instead of soccer, and I have an instinctive hope to see at least one of my adoptive countries keep going in the World Cup. 

Bleu, blanc, rouge...I love you!

Friday, April 4, 2014

How Time Flies!

Because I am a crazy person who is sometimes too interested in the past, today I was looking at my journal from last year, and lo and behold, it turns out that exactly one year ago today was the day I found out I'd been accepted to move to France for this year.

...and now, here I am, one year later, my time in France coming to a close and me without a clue what's next. At least I'm not alone; no one I know around here seems to know where they're going in life. That, as I've said before, is very European. But me, as an American, I do get tired of cyclically wondering what's next come the end of the school year. For most people, spring is a season of rebirth and hope...for me, it's one of things ending, of goodbyes and sadness.

I'm tired of saying goodbye to people, knowing things will never be the same once we leave. I do love a good adventure, but I want a home to come back to at the end of it. And I'm tired of always carrying on alone, fighting my way through the difficulties and hoping some kind soul will lend a hand once in awhile.

But when asked that eternal question: why don't I just go back to the States? answer is firm. I don't want to. Not because I don't love and miss my family (to my family reading this: I promise, I DO), but because it doesn't feel right. Not now. Maybe not ever, I don't know. But for sure, not now.

So what's next? Well, hopefully in the next few days I'll get one of those exciting emails that will tell me my future for the next year. Or one of the interviews I have set up will lead to something. So for now, it's a waiting game. And hopefully, if not this year then soon, it will be the time when I can commit to something that will ensure that the next April, I won't still be playing this immensely stressful game of "What's Next?"

I just have to trust that one day, that time will come. But for now, I'm gearing up for a truckload of goodbyes and sadness. C'est la vie. 

Leaving the port of St. Malo (literally and figuratively, could I BE any cheesier??)

Friday, February 21, 2014

La Bretagne est Belle, Quand Même...

Stereotypical Brittany--Galettes (salty crêpes) made with butter!!

Before moving here, I knew almost literally nothing about Brittany. I knew crêpes were from here, that it rained a lot, that it was Celtic, and that the traditional costume involved women in gigantic hats, but other than, not much. 

So everything I've seen thus far here has been very informative, giving me a picture of "what Brittany is like." And I have to say, it's been a pleasant surprise! I came without any pre-formed notions, and I've discovered quite a few little things that I really like.

I took a daytrip to a nearby-ish town called Dinan the other weekend, and I noticed there quite a few of the things that I have come to find enchanting about Brittany. 

Like I just mentioned, it rains here...a lot. Grey skies make life kind of gloomy. And many houses here are made out of stone, which is practical, but also not the most visually appealing. But those Bretons, looking to inject some joy into life, came up with the idea for SUPER brightly colored windowframes and doors. Why? Why not, I ask! They really pop, and I like it! 

Another part of Breton architecture that fascinates me is the wooden buildings with the different-colored supports (at least, I think they're supports...or just is not my forte!). I've mentioned these before, but my love for them hasn't diminished the longer I've been here...if anything, I've become more and more fond of these gorgeous buildings!

In fact, I've become so enamored of the contrasting wood and bright colors that I half considered calling the number on the sign on the place below to see if I could make it my own! (Kidding, but wouldn't that be awesome??)

Maybe the reason I really love these gorgeous buildings is that they make me feel like I live in the Middle Ages. I mean, I guess for some people that would be a bad thing...but...hello, nerd! 

The thing is, I really like wandering down a nice old tiny cobbled street, past these enormously old buildings and wondering what stories they have to tell. How many life stories were lived out in this one humble structure. I like imagining that if I just closed my eyes for a second, I might open them to find a horse and carriage bustling past a woman washing her family's laundry by hand in her yard. I feel transported to another era entirely, and I love that feeling.

And I also particularly love the attention to details in places like this--even the road signs were cute. Did they have to do that? No, not at all. But did it make the town seem even more charming than it already did? Absolutely. Worth it to me! 

I'm glad I've had the opportunity to get to know Brittany a little, particularly the parts that are a little further from my front doorstep. Hopefully, in the short time that remains to me here, I'll be able to discover even more adorable towns like Dinan! 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Reasons being an American in Europe is hard

This post has been a long time coming, several years in the making in fact. I suppose it's no surprise to anyone that life as an expat can be...challenging, in a word. The things below are some of the most difficult things I've really battled with here in Europe—not small things like there being no peanut butter, but differences in belief systems. This post is a bit of a change from my usual style, a bit more “heavy” as Michael J. Fox might say. But it also feels real, and I think it's a good change to focus sometimes on the more complicated parts of the life I've chosen. And I want to make it clear that I'm not complaining, I'm very aware that this life was my choice, that if I feel it's all too much I should just go home. I'm merely reflecting here on some issues that have come up for me.

And before I get into it, I also want to write a disclaimer: I'm making a lot of generalizations in this post, some of which I know may be offensive to some people. I apologize in advance for saying that “Europeans are like _____” when of course it's not true of everybody. I'm speaking generally from what I've seen in my few years of experience living in Spain and France, and traveling to and having friends from various other countries. But if you're offended, if you think I'm totally off-base, feel free to tell me about it! I don't mind having my ideas challenged, if that helps me grow as a person.

So without further ado, some things I've struggled with while living here in Europe.

The age gap.
By this I mean the discrepancy between how I act, think and feel as a 25-year-old compared with how your average 25-year-old European acts, thinks and feels. Because I've been living (far) away from my parents since I was 18 (that's 7 years, if you were counting), I'm quite independent by now, and used to taking care of myself, to not seeing my family that often, etc. Because university is (ridiculously) expensive in America, I finished as quickly as possible, when I was 22, and never looked back. I have no plans of doing a masters unless it's free or close to it, because I simply don't have $40,000+ in my back pocket. This means I've been working for a living for 2.5 years now, and I've had some time to reflect on my career and life direction. Because nearly all my friends back in the States are starting to have stable jobs, houses, cars, husbands and kids, I feel pressure to have these things too. I think my extended family and friends often wonder why I'm wasting so much time in finding a job, a man, and settling down. However, here, many many 25-year-olds are still in or just finishing university. They probably still live with or near to their parents. They may not really know how to cook, manage their paycheck, or run a household. If they don't know what to do with themselves for work (and many of them don't, having just finished studying), they can always go back and get a masters—it won't cost very much! Because, if at all, they've only just barely started in the working world, their lives are still exciting and unstable. They still want to go travel, see the world, have fun and not worry. I've been there, done that, and I'm ready for something a little more permanent. But when I look for a full-time job, or a proper boyfriend, or a place to live for more than a year at a time, people here wonder what my rush is. I'm “only 25,” after all. “So young,” they tell me. Yes, of course it's young...but I wish people understood that 25 in my culture doesn't mean the same thing it does here. That I have nagging worries about being left behind, about playing Peter Pan while everyone else back home grows up. I feel more mentally in-step with people 3-5 years older than me, but I get irritated with them when they call me a baby and tell me that I'm too young to have really experienced anything in the world. So there's a bit of a disconnect from my peers here.

The insularity. 
So many people in Europe spend their entire lives living within a few hours' radius of where they were born. That's the dream, to never have to be too far away from family. Because of this, their ties with their family and friends tend to be very strong. It's not uncommon, if they do live away from home, to go back often on the weekends. In this way, many young Europeans always have a safety blanket, no matter if they're living on their own or not. They can always go home for the weekend if they feel lonely. They always have friends just a few hours away to visit, people they've probably known their whole lives. Me, I barely talk with my friends at home because of the time difference, and I haven't lived in the same state as most of them for 7 years. I no longer feel close enough with most of them to call them up out of the blue when I feel lonely. And that happens a lot here (feeling lonely), where these friend groups that have been strengthening since infancy are more than a little difficult to break into.

The work ethic. 
Because the work ethic is so strong in the States, people often hear about what I do for work here, see the trips I take, and think I'm on some kind of extended vacation. I have recurring guilt about not having a “real” job, about working as much as I “should” be, about not earning enough money to put some away for a rainy day. I feel bad for adopting the ethic of working to live instead of vice versa, even though I truly believe it's a better way to live life. The cultural assumptions I grew up with tell me differently, and it often takes a conscious effort to relax instead of worrying about working harder, about being more efficient. But then, if relaxing takes effort, is it really relaxation? I don't know the answer to this question, and I feel a sense of conflict about it.

The stereotypes.
“What sorts of things do we eat in America?” I asked in all my first classes here. Without fault, their answers were “Hamburgers!” and “McDo!” “What do Americans like?” “Guns!” “What do we watch on TV?” “THE SIMPSONS!!!!!” Yes, it's nice that the kids here can relate to my culture. I'm glad that they have a reason to be interested in learning English. But at the same time, unlike an assistant teacher from a less-well-known country, there's less novelty in our culture and traditions. They already know all about Santa Claus and the Super Bowl just from the movies. Instead of teaching new, exciting things about my culture, I spend most of my time just trying to break stereotypes. And even when I do succeed in teaching something new about America, I feel guilt that I'm perpetuating its cultural dominance.

The English. 
The language, not the people. Because of said American cultural takeover, almost everyone in Europe speaks at least a little English, and many of them are eager to practice. This is wonderful when I'm looking for ways to earn money, or am in desperate need of friends. But when I want to really dig in and learn the language of the country I live in? Sometimes it's more difficult because I'm an English speaker. People will switch to English on me when they hear my awkward French, thinking that they're helping. But when that happens all the time, I never get a chance to get any better!

The assumptions about the crisis. 
So many people here here think that America is still some kind of “promised land,” where the job market is great and it's no problem to get hired straight out of university. I don't mean to underestimate the impact of the crisis in Europe, but it's had a definite affect in America too. No, unemployment for under-30s is no whopping 50% like in Spain. But in Spain, many under-30s are still in university and living with their parents, and they still have guaranteed health insurance. They can still draw unemployment from the government for more than a few months. In America, it's very rare to continue studying and living with your parents after the age of about 22—that's just not seen as “acceptable” in American culture. And good jobs are not just coming out of the woodwork, either. Many young people, if they are employed, work long hours without health insurance, with two weeks or less a year of vacation time, at a job that pays so little they can't afford to buy healthy food or live a good lifestyle. But then when this overwork makes them sick for too many days a year, their employer most likely can fire them without recourse. What I'm saying is, America is suffering too, and even if I do go back, I can't just expect to have a good job handed to me. America is no promised land of jobs, SUVs and flat-screen TVs. At least, not for many.

The visas.
This one sounds super obvious, but most Europeans don't realize just how hard it is to get a work visa here, as a non-EU citizen. Every time I worry out loud about trying to find a permanent job in order to stay, people tell me to just go out and look, that lots of places want native English teachers. Yes, they do, but they don't want them unless they already have work papers. And those are almost impossible to get, because a company wishing to sponsor a person for them needs to prove that said potential employee is so valuable to the company that no person of better quality can be found in the ENTIRE EU. Since that includes Great Britain, I'm more or less S-O-L as an English teacher, unless I wish to continue being an assistant forever. People from here don't understand this, and it gets frustrating having to constantly explain it.

The distance. 
Duh, again. But I don't think many Europeans think much about just how big the distance is between my home and where I live currently. They think they understand homesickness and culture shock because they did an Erasmus year away in another country. I'm not saying that anything they felt wasn't legitimate, but it's just not the same as being from almost 8,000 kilometers away. I can't fly home for the weekend when I really miss it; there's no Ryanair to Chicago. I can't call my family whenever I feel homesick, because half of the time I'm awake they're asleep and vice versa. I can't have people just send me care packages when I really miss or need certain items from home, because it costs more than $60 to send a tiny box. I can't even afford to send lots of postcards home, because overseas postage is so expensive!

As with all of these things, I'm not really complaining, I'm just saying...I wish people realized a little more what life is like right now for me!!

The need to share all this is (probably) brought on by recent personal difficulties and a feeling of homesickness; I miss my family, and life is difficult here sometimes. No matter how comfortable I feel in Europe, these are some of the things that will always remind me that I'm “from away” (as they say in Maine). I'm not European, and I never will be. Vestiges of my Americanness will always clash slightly with the way of life here, and I will always have to accept that. But some pills are more difficult to swallow than others.

Am I alone in feeling like a stranger in a strange land? Or do we all feel a little lost sometimes?