Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Thesis, theses...

Am I the only person in the world who hates that the plural of thesis is theses? Sounds too much like a funny word...


I'm supposed to be writing my Master's thesis right now. Clearly, that's going really well, since you're currently reading these words on my blog post ABOUT my thesis which does not in any way help me get said thesis finished.

If you're curious why I might be writing a Master's thesis when you all just thought I was doing another year as an auxiliar de conversación in Spain, well, that's a story for a different day.

But struggling to write this thesis inevitably reminds me of another time and another thesis, when I was sitting angrily in front of my computer screen willing myself to just write actual words already. That was, of course, four years ago (has it really been that long??), when I was writing my undergraduate honors thesis.

At the time, I was struggling with the choice between taking a "year off" (ha) to teach abroad or going to graduate school for literary translation. Fittingly for the latter, my thesis was a translation of the poetry of one of my professors in Bilbao.

So day after day I would sit on the futon in my sad, tiny, freezing little all-brown student apartment, and try to get to work. I would tell myself, "Just translate one sentence. Just one. Go on, do it!"

The weather out my window quite often looked something like this (when people ask me what it was like to study in Maine, this is inevitably what comes to mind...this is also the type of scene that comes to mind when people try to complain about "cold weather" in Spain, and then I start to laugh). 

As the snow swirled outside for months on end and I drank a probably unhealthy number of cups of tea, little by little, poem by poem, snowday by snowday, I made progress on my thesis, until finally the day came when I defended it in front of 5 professors, who said I could go really far in the field of translation if I wanted, and I felt on top of the world.

Just a few days after that, I decided to take a position to teach English in A Cañiza, Spain.

Why do that if I could have been so great at translation and didn't want to be a teacher?

Well, the experience of writing that thesis had taught me that I had no desire to be self-employed and have to set my own deadlines. The idea of spending my future going through that struggle of self-revilement, procrastinating and feeling bad about it every single day, sounded like honest-to-god torture.

In the end, my "year off" to find myself turned into four, and find my profession I did. I ate my words about not wanting to be a teacher, since here I am, doing just that and loving this dynamic job that is different every day and does not require me to muster enormous amounts of self-discipline about writing long essays.

But as a cruel twist of fate, studying to become more qualified to teach leaves me right here right now, staring at my computer screen, fighting the exact same battle as four years ago. "Just write one sentence. Just one. Come on, do it!" Except now, I've been out of practice for four years, and my skills are a bit rusty. "Is that how you spell that word? Does that word even exist in English, or is it Spanglish? Does that sentence sound right? How do people say that in America? Is that British English or American?"

The battle to write just one sentence is up an even steeper hill than it was four years ago, and I am absolutely floundering. However, having done this once already, I do know that I can, and that helps immensely.

More importantly, it also reinforces my plan to continue in this profession and not switch over to higher education or back to translation! I can fight this battle from time to time, but I still say: every day, no frigging way. Give me teaching or give me death!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Negativity in the Classroom

Something that occasionally annoys me about some (usually older) Spaniards is that they complain all the time. I'm no saint in this area myself, but I do feel that it's a problem and it's something I'm working on. In English, we have a saying: "No one likes a Negative Nancy."

I'm actually not sure if there's an equivalent in Spanish, but I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't.

Spaniards have a habit of being very direct--it's almost embedded into their language, and most definitely into their culture. For example, it isn't seen as at all rude here to comment on someone's weight or appearance. Over the years, I've been told I'm looking fat, that I'm looking too thin, that I look tired, that I look really sick...all serious no-no's in English.

What do you MEAN, I look fat today??

...Now that we've established that sometimes Spaniards like to tell me I look like crap, where was I going with this...?

Ah, yes. So Spaniards tell it like it is. When I say "We're past the winter solstice, from here on out, the days are getting longer! Spring is coming!" they look at me darkly and say "The worst of the cold is yet to come, you'll see," all sinister-like, as though there were no point in looking forward to spring.

Um, OK, great, thanks, guys... That makes me feel so much better...

"The sun will come out tomorrow?" More like, you will never see the sun EVER AGAIN! BWAHAHAHA!

That sounds trite, but their defeatism really frustrates me when we're talking about more serious things than the weather. For example, the students at the schools I've worked at. Occasionally, when certain students or classes really misbehave, I will hear teachers make comments like "They're all going to end up in jail one day," as though that were a fact, and all we have to do is put up with them until they day they can be safely locked away.

Another gem I've heard, in reference to students from different backgrounds who are far behind their classmates and really struggling, is "That student can't learn. [He/She] is lazy, because [he/she] is from (such and such foreign country)." So that takes any responsibility away from the teacher in needing to help them. It's a lost cause, so why try?

Aside from being really shockingly racist, this upsets me because if the teacher is instilling in the kids the idea that they are bad and can do no better than they are right now, why would they try to improve?

Maybe I'm just a naïve young teacher, but I think we shouldn't be saying such negative things to or about young people, especially within their earshot. I really prefer to think that there is hope for everyone, and perhaps instead of just constantly complaining about how "impossible" some of our students are, we should instead recognize that they are the ones who need our help the most.

Yes, I've been at the end of my rope just like everyone else; I've had those frustrating days where I'm at my wits' end and feel like I will never get through to such and such kid or class. I've often felt like I really don't know what I'm doing. But I still want to, have to, think that there is hope for everyone. If not, why are we even teaching? Just to get a paycheck? That seems like truly the wrong reason to be molding young minds, if you ask me.

I'm not saying that all Spaniards are like this, and I'm certainly not saying that American teachers are necessarily better. I'm just saying that right now, today, this fatalistic mindset is really bugging me, and I want to tell every single Spanish teacher, from every school I've worked in, to take those minutes they usually spend moaning about how little José (for example) is impossible to deal with and instead use them trying to think of ways to give him extra attention.

He's not a lost cause until you make him believe he is.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Je suis...

This past weekend, nearly every francophile in Madrid gathered together in Puerta del Sol (the literal center of Spain, and one of its busiest plazas) for a demonstration. In case you've been living under a rock and hadn't heard, there was a terrorist attack on a French humor magazine called Charlie Hebdo last week, and ever since, many French people have been uniting under the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) to represent their dedication to maintaining their right to freedom of expression without fear. As a lifelong francophile myself, I felt I needed to be there to support one of my adopted countries. Freedom of expression is important to me too as a writer and blogger, and I hate violence in all forms.

Madrid has a hefty French expat and student population, France being just the country next door, and so the plaza was packed with people holding up signs and pens to represent their support for the illustrators who had died. For the first time in my years in Spain, I heard mostly melodic French being spoken around me, only occasionally punctuated with the staccato tones of castellano. A particularly jarring moment was when everyone sang La Marseillaise at the same moment as I was watching the Spanish flag from the President of Madrid's office waving in the wind. 

Although I thought the demonstration could have lasted a little longer, and that the speakers used for the speeches could have been put at a higher volume, I was glad I went to demonstrate my support. Now I just hope is to see fewer acts of terrorism in the world, while at the same time also hoping that people will learn to better contain themselves from making a racist backlash against all Muslim people. In my opinion, there's absolutely no reason we need more hatred in the world!

Je suis Charlie.
Je suis Ahmed.
Je suis la liberté d'expression.
Je suis l'amour.

Friday, January 9, 2015

2014 in Pictures: Part 2: America and Spain


I started the second half of 2014 freshly landed in America. Literally the day after I arrived back, (part of) my family took off for West Virginia to visit my sister, her husband and their new baby. It's a beautiful, underrated part of the country, and we had fun playing around in front of pretty scenery! It's always great to be around family, especially being silly.

While we were already out that way, we took an educational "field trip" to show my eldest niece and nephew Washington DC. It reminded me of my very first plane ride and excursion without my parents, during my 8th grade class trip out there. And I also realized what a cool, hip city DC is! Even in the sweltering 40ªC heat (plus humidity, blegh).

Since my nephew (yes, the boy who is taller than me...unbelievable!) missed his own 8th grade class trip to DC, I was sort of his tour guide, showing him the things I remembered from my other couple of trips out there. But this place I couldn't, because it's's the World War II monument. Having just come from a very WWII-centered vacation, seeing the American monument meant much more to me than usual!

Next up was the Fourth of July. I'm not the most patriotic of Americans, but I do love celebrations of all kinds and am very enamored of fireworks and grilled foods, so it's actually a holiday I quite like! Also, don't we have a pretty flag?

Back in Illinois, I wasted no time in partaking of those foods that I severely crave over in Europe...such as Chicago-style deep dish pizza. Om nom nom. 

Trying to take advantage of the fun quirky things in my home area, I also spent a day with my mom at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, one of my favorite annual summer activities. Being a huge history and costumes nerd, this place is right up my alley! Plus this year, my mom got picked to be Little Red Riding Hood in one of the theatrical productions, which was pretty hilarious!

Being that I only had so much time at home, I tried to spend as much of it as possible with my family, especially my beloved nephews and niece, who I miss dearly when I'm gone. It's nice to do really simple activities that remind me of my own childhood, like berry picking up at the old family farm!

As I had a relatively urgent matter to take care of in downtown Chicago (new Spanish visa!), and also since that's where a few of my old friends live now, I spent a fair amount of time down there this summer. I really like feeling like a part of the hustle and bustle for a little bit, and there's always something new to discover!

It wasn't too long (although at times it felt like it...not working and not traveling aren't my favorite activities) before it was time to say hasta luego once again to America and head off to my newest Spain adventure...but not before a few airport hugs and tears shed, as always.

And suddenly, I was back in Spain, something I'd never in a million years expected when I thought I left for good a year before this. Reentry was both glorious and difficult, as I remembered both the wonderful and frustrating aspects of this country that had captured my unwilling heart. This beautiful central plaza of Alcalá de Henares definitely counts as one of the more amazing aspects, though!


The beginning of September was spent exploring my new town, and remarking on just how different it is from everywhere I've lived in Spain before...namely, it's pretty darn typically Spanish, unlike Galicia or the Basque Country!

One of these oh-so-typically-Spanish things about Alcalá de Henares is that it's (supposedly) the home of Miguel de Cervantes, the Shakespeare of Spanish literature and author of Don Quixote, the novel about the crazy would-be knight who battles windmills with his pudgy friend Sancho Panza. Might sound familiar? Literary history warms the cockles of my former-English-major heart, so I was pleased to find myself living in a place with so much of it!

Beginning to explore my nearby surroundings, I took a daytrip to the nearest town in another communidad, Guadalajara in Castilla La Mancha, only about half an hour down the cercanías line. It was a cute little city, and I particularly liked this gorgeous church!

Next up was another short trip with my new gal pals, this time to Valencia, one of the few major Spanish cities I'd never visited. I'm glad to have finally had the chance, if for nothing more than the food! Valencian paella is seriously a million times better than the kind made anywhere else in the country, I swear. And their horxata and fartons, oh man. Take me back there, please?


I spent part of October exploring Madrid a little more, and one day when I was wandering around down in Sol, I ran into this protest against the monarchy. Since old King Juan Carlos abdicated over the summer, many Spaniards have felt it's time to do away with the monarchy (which retains a certain tie to the Franco era, and also has been plagued with recent scandals regarding money and corruption) and embrace full democracy. From a sociological point of view, I found this truly fascinating!

Alcalá is a cool city because it embraces its history so much. So, every year in the middle of October, they hold a medieval market and fair to celebrate Cervantes' baptism (as his exact birthdate is unknown). I liked looking at the wares of all the different stalls, seeing geese walk the streets, and trying new foods!

With one of our nice new Spanish friends, one day in October we made a quick trip to another famous place I'd always been meaning to go to but hadn't visited yet--El Escorial. I thought the place was really beautiful, and I'm glad I finally made the effort to go!

Since I work at one of the bilingual English schools in the Communidad de Madrid, Halloween is a big deal there. I still refuse to play to the Spanish convention that it needs to be scary (I dressed up as a unicorn), but I like celebrating it. These are some of the hundreds of sucker ghosts I made as a present for my little students. So much work, but so worth it to see their awed faces!


November was the end of our Indian summer in Spain, and it found me making a trek back up to mi pueblo (ha), Vigo. Surprise surprise, it was raining when I got there!

Vigo is where my Spanish "brother" and "sister" live, and I was so happy to be back with them, and to surprise the former for his birthday! Combined with returning to the city that I love best in Spain, it was very nearly a perfect weekend.

November wasn't the easiest of months, however, as one morning I woke up to one of those life-changing, devastating whatsapps, that my last grandparent had passed away. The subsequent frantic chaos to get off work and get to Arizona for her funeral, all while feeling so sad and helpless and far away, was one of the more trying bits of my life so far, but I got through it and was glad to be there for my family, who all gathered together to say a proper goodbye. 

Arizona holds some of my fondest vacation memories from my childhood. As it was my Ramblin' Rose of a grandmother who was the one to first settle part of the family there (so far from her own Midwestern hometown), reflecting on the things I love about this beautiful state made me feel closer to her. I also feel like I partially have her to thank for some of the restless nature, wandering spirit, and fierce female independence that have led me to Spain in the first place. So, traveling to her faraway home from my own felt like a fitting tribute to a woman who blazed the trail for all fearless women to follow, in a time when that was no easy task. To her and all others like her, I can only say thank you.

Perhaps it's fitting that the very next thing that came up right when I got home from my whirlwind trip to America was Thanksgiving. There's no better time than after having lost someone you loved to reflect on all you have, the wonderful people surrounding you, and all you're thankful for. I was too exhausted from jet-lag to do my usual full-on cooking extravaganza, so I just gathered together enough energy to make apple and pumpkin pie. Dessert is the most important part of any meal, right?


As we rolled on into December, I delved once again into my past and went back to the city that started it all, the city I left over 5 years ago now, Bilbao. I studied abroad there back in 2009, and the experience changed my life in more ways than I could have known back then. I didn't always love the city (or Spain, for that matter) while I was living there, but like many things, Bilbao is a place that grows on you. I have so many fond memories there, and although my current travel companions really hated it, I couldn't help but reflect on how lucky I was to have lived in such a cool alternative city.

It would be a shame to live so near Madrid and not go check out the center when it's all decked out for Christmas, which is exactly what I did one sunny day in December. Sol, Madrid's vibrant center, is where everyone is watching on December 31st, and where the big clock chimes 12 to ring in the New Year and prompts Spaniards everywhere to start gulping grapes like it's their job. (Imagine if it were, that would solve this whole crisis thing right quick! Ha. Ha.) 

After a flurry of Christmas activities at school and cooing over my babies shaking their tambourines at the 3 Kings, we were officially on Christmas break, so I took off straightaway on vacation, first to Zaragoza. I loooved the colorful Mudéjar-style tiles on the roof of Nuestra Señora del Pilar cathedral, and I am officially inspired to go search out more examples of this style of architecture.

After Christmas came and went, I was off back to my beloved France, to see a bit that I had dreamed of visiting since my early days studying French and reading Peter Mayle in high school--Provence! On my way there, I stopped off in some smaller towns that I ended up liking better than dingy Marseille, one of which was Carcassonne. I knew nothing of this town before stopping there on a whim one day, and I was utterly charmed by the gorgeous and very complete castle just outside the city center. 

After Carcassonne, I fell further in love with the Languedoc-Roussillon region when I visited Nîmes, which has a spectacularly well-preserved coliseum (much better than the one in Rome, in my humble opinion), as well as several other Roman ruins. Being a smaller city, it was also not too crowded or touristy, which I appreciate more and more the older I get!

I finished off 2014 in my own non-stereotypical way, feeling no guilt whatsoever about it (I so love that about getting older...who cares what other people think??). I spent New Years Eve not out partying, but in stuffing my face with all the French foods that I'd really been missing since my departure in June. A fitting end to a year that really taught me to love and rely on myself above all others, I'd say! 

2014 was quite a rollercoaster ride, and while I enjoyed the majority of it, I'm kind of hoping that 2015 manages to be a little calmer. However, no matter what happens, I have confidence that I can make it through anything, which I guess is the most important thing, in the end! 

I hope everyone's 2015 is getting off to an excellent start! So far so good on my end, no complaints about getting to travel more through southern France and then get hello hugs from my little students upon my return! Bonne année, feliz ano novo, urte berri on, feliz año nuevo, and Happy (late) New Year to all!

Friday, January 2, 2015

2014 in Pictures--Part 1: France

2014 was quite the rollercoaster ride for me! There were a lot of good parts, also some bad ones, and in general I'm happy to see it go and excited to find out what's next. But first...let me remember all the fun adventures I got up to!


I started out 2014 visiting some of my best friends from Vigo. I enjoyed seeing them again, as well as revisiting all my favorite spots in the city, like O Castro (the park on top of the hill in the downtown, with the BEST views).

Next up was my birthday! I celebrated a few times, first in Vigo and then in France, where I had a 1960's-themed birthday party! (Thanks for the picture, A)

After all the excitement of the holidays was over, I was feeling a little bummed, so I tried to really appreciate the beauty in my everyday surroundings in order to cheer myself up. This photo is of the area of town I where I used to live in St. Malo, and this walk was one I took quite frequently, as it was the way to get to Intra-Muros, or the walled city, where all the exciting things happened!

Still appreciating the beauty of the ordinary, one day I took a daytrip to a town nearby called Cancale, where they have the best oysters. They also have those typical Breton buildings with the colorful entrances that I love so much! 


February started out with a bang, as we watched the grandes vagues (big waves) come into St. Malo. This only happens once every few months, where the tides and the moon cycles coincide to bring huge waves crashing against the sides of buildings. It was really impressive, and I loved it until a big wave hit me and I got totally soaked!

As I was learning about Breton culture, I (obviously) also heard a lot about their food. The most famous (and arguably the best) food that comes from this region is crêpes and galettes (salty crêpes). But the Bretons, they are obsessed with (salty) butter. So, the sign says: J'aime la galette...savez-vous comment...? Quand elle est bien faite...avec du beurre dedans! (I love you know how? When they're well-made...with some butter inside!)

I took a few daytrips in February to combat my continuing moodiness, and one of them was to Dinan with my roommates. It was a beautiful day with some of my favorite girls, and I absolutely adored the town. A lot of the reason had to do with the colorful buildings. I'm obsessed! 

Next up was a daytrip to Rennes, the capital of Brittany. Some of my favorite-ever and most-photographed colorful wooden buildings are there, so I'm always pleased to make a visit to them!

On this particular daytrip, we also visited a French market, which is something else I love...fresh food all put out for display (and sometimes taste-testing!)...such a wonderful concept. And everyone knows how the French love their cheese...well, I love getting to try all the different types!


In the beginning of March, we had 2 weeks of vacation (because French schools give you 2 weeks off for every 6 weeks lux!). However, I decided to get some extra cash by working at an English camp in Rennes for the first week. I hated the commute, but I loved getting to explore more of a city I love so well! And yes, more wooden buildings!

A friend of mine had recently gotten a cool fancy camera, so in March he let me play a little with it and I started learning how to take interesting pictures, which was awesome. Except now I want my own expensive fun camera, waaah. 

Another day trip was next up, this time to Perros-Guirec on the northern coast of Brittany. This place is famous for its pink granite rocks, which we took a nice walk along. (Thanks F for the picture!)

Towards the end of March, one of my seconde classes at the high school I was working in took a field trip to Jersey, a British island off the coast of France, and I got invited along! That was a cool trip because I had to partially work as translator while we visited their parliament, and also we visited this super interesting cave hospital from WWII that explained all about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands during the war (betcha didn't know that a small part of Britain had been taken over by Nazis, didja?).


April was absolutely full of daytrips. During a visit to the Forest of Brocéliande, where Merlin supposedly lived and King Arthur may have pulled his sword out of a lake, I was very impressed with all the rapeseed fields in bloom, which made huge patches of the countryside yellow!

The next trip was to Carnac, to see the menhirs left behind by prehistoric people thousands of years ago. I was so amazed by this place, with hundreds of giant boulders lined up for miles. I can't begin to imagine how much work that must have taken for these ancient people. And I also love pondering the mystery of why...

April was also a bit strange because it was already time to start saying goodbye to people. My work contract finished at the end of the month, and so we had various meetings on the beach to celebrate and see people one last time before they started taking off! This is from one such celebration, in front of the marine swimming pool in St. Malo.

I also tried to spend some time really exploring St. Malo better, because I knew that it would soon be time for my departure as well. So I walked out to the nearby islands one day when the tide was low, I explored the Cité d'Alet (the first place settled in the area), and I generally just tried to take it all in. I was mostly pleased to be finished working at my technical high school, not because it was the worst job in the world, but because I am well aware that it was not the best fit for me professionally! So getting to the end of April was kind of a relief for me in at least one way.


As soon as May came, I was off on a 3-week vacation with my parents! I met them in London, and we explored such historic sites as Canturbury, the destination of the famous pilgrimage that brought us Chaucer's Canterbury Tales!

You can't take a bookworm to London without stopping at Platform 9 3/4!

Then we were off to Scotland, where my nerdy self was thrilled to see actual blue police boxes that look exactly like the TARDIS...

We did a highland tour, and were amused by some hairy highland coos (cows, for all of you non-Scottish burr speakers out there).

In Liverpool, we took a Beatles taxi tour, which was well-worth our money, as we got a full history of each of the Beatles' lives and landmarks in Liverpool, as well as a picture in front of every single one! I'm obsessed with the Beatles, and this was really a thrill for me. Here's Strawberry Field orphanage, like from the (Lennon) song Strawberry Fields Forever...

When we took the ferry back to France, our first stop was in Normandy, to see the American cemetery and the beaches where so many men gave their lives during D-Day. As we were there just before the 70th anniversary celebrations, many of the towns were totally decked out!

On the way back to St. Malo, just before (or just after, depending on who you ask!) crossing the border back into Brittany, we stopped by Mont Saint Michel. Although it was as full of tourists as ever, the beauty of a church like this out on an island in the ocean is undeniable! 

I fully enjoyed showing my parents around the town where I'd been living for the past 8 months, and I think they got a kick out of St. Malo as well, particularly the parts of it associated with World War II (my dad is obsessed)! 


After I'd sent my parents back off to the States at the end of May, June was a much calmer month. I went bowling with some French friends (which is ridiculously expensive by the way, serves me right I guess for trying to do American things in Europe!).

I had a beach bonfire with some friends, which honestly felt like something out of a movie to me!

I visited Brest and the small towns nearby, where there were some sea caves with really gorgeous colored rocks!

I spent several hours watching FIFA World Cup games and supporting les bleus win against Switzerland. Allez!

And then, sadly, it was time for me to say au revoir to St. Malo. It wasn't easy leaving a place I'd come to care about and feel at home in, where I had good friends (it never is). But St. Malo gave me a beautiful sendoff, as we went to a final beach bonfire to celebrate the summer solstice, and saw a gorgeous sunset for our trouble.

When I got home to America, I thankfully had fresh sugar snap peas from my mom's garden (my favorite food in the world) waiting to greet me. That helped stem the tide of my sadness at least a little!

I ended the first half of the year in the best way possible, meeting my newest nephew! He's absolutely adorable, basically the Gerber baby, and the happiest little guy I've ever met, so it was a big thrill to finally get to see him in person!

The first half of the year was busy, but mostly good, with some very difficult moments thrown in just to keep things interesting! Stay tuned for the second half in the next few days...