Sunday, May 24, 2015

Where Is Home?

I seem to have an innate inability to give a simple answer to a simple question.

What's your name? That depends on your native language, what country we are in, and the language we are currently speaking. Probably about half of my friends don't actually know my name, since I hate the way non-native English speakers mispronounce it. So I introduce myself in a more Spanish/French way, which is not my real name but sounds better to me than their butcherings. Bref, it's really /əlɪsə/. A homophone of Alyssa, not Elisa.

How many brothers and sisters do you have? How long have you got for me to explain it? It involves divorces and remarriages on both sides, and either way I answer it's confusing. In short, I grew up basically an only child, yet I still have a crapload of nephews and nieces.

Where are you from? Where are YOU from? My answer will depend greatly on that. Most times in my expat life, I say "near Chicago," but it's always really embarrassing when I meet another Illinoisian and they ask for more specifics. Ahem, how near is "near" to you?

And lately, I've been doing a lot of deep thinking about that last one. Not where am I from, but where is home? I have a hard time coming up with an answer, even a complicated one.

Is home the little town near Chicago where I was born and raised?

But I haven't lived there in 8 years. This past summer, I cleaned out and packed up the majority of my things from my childhood bedroom, knowing that I had officially moved on. My parents are going back to live where they consider home, up in Wisconsin. So although Northern Illinois is where I was raised, I'm not sure if it's home anymore.

Is home Alcalá de Henares, where I currently live?

As sad as it is, I've never felt particularly at home here in Alcalá. It's an all right town, I suppose, but I'm not very happy here. I don't feel very integrated into society, and I don't have a lot of friends. I'm not miserable, but I am rather bored. I'll be happy when my Master's degree is finished in a month and I can move on.

Is home Orono, Bilbao, Vigo, or Saint-Malo?

In the past 8 years, I've lived in 6 different cities. Just doing simple math, I think it becomes obvious that I haven't been able to stay in any of them very long. I've been a nomad for a long time, trying on different cities for size but moving on relatively quickly from all of them. There were things that I loved about all of these cities: Orono's student culture, Bilbao's alternative vibe, the friends I made in Vigo, the language I spoke in Saint-Malo. But were any of them home? I don't think I was able to stay long enough to find out.

I'm getting really tired of this itinerant life. I will always love traveling, but I'm not the type that can do it continually. My heart is bruised from being fractured into pieces every single time I move. I need a stable home to come back to at the end of a long journey. I want my comfy warm bed to fall into, my car in the driveway, and my long-term friends to meet for coffee the next day to share my stories with.

So right now, my task is to build that permanent home for myself. To find a place where I can stay legally and make it mine. The question is, where?

Back to Northern Illinois or some other part of the American Midwest, where my permanent ties still are? Where I speak the language and know the culture like the back of my hand? Where everything is easy? Where I've traveled more than anyone I know? Where I've felt like an alien when I've visited every summer for the past 8 years?

To some other part of the States? To explore something new and yet still be "at home"? To make a new part of the country my own? To still be at a great distance from my family, even after all these years of missing them?

To a new country? To learn a new language or dialect? To explore a new part of the world? To be in a place where I'm all alone, again? Where I still need a visa to stay? Where I'd have to learn a whole new set of cultural paradigms? Where I'm far from everyone I love?

These questions have been running continually through my head for months now, and I still have no clear answers. I've been trying to listen to what my soul is telling me, but it's coming through like garbled static on a badly tuned radio.

I heard a quote recently in one of my meditations that I really liked. It was from a man called Philip McKernan, and it went "In the absence of clarity, take action." He was saying that if you don't know what to do, just do something. Even if it turns out badly, at least then you'll know one more thing that isn't right for you!

So I guess that's the plan. I have no idea what's right or where my home should be. So until I do, I just have to take some action, any action, and hope for the best. I have one month left of living in Alcalá de Henares, and then...

Once more unto the breach!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Photo Post: A Very Spanish Field Trip

This past week, I went on quite possibly the best field trip of my life. There was some stiff competition, since last year I got invited to go with my 15-year-old French students for a day to Jersey, a British island off the coast of France, which was pretty darn cool. But this year, I went on a three-day trip with my 10-year-olds to the school "farm" (in reality more like summer camp). That doesn't sound that cool, I guess, just saying it like that, but it was honestly so nice.

 I think just on the merits of food alone, this year's field trip was the winner by far...not that British food is hard to beat.

My god, look at all that food porn. Seriously, I was served amazing four-course meals made by a Michelin-star-level chef three times a day. I was stuffed until I literally could not move.

Luckily, that was fine, since my duties consisted of nothing more strenuous than taking walks around the camp to see how the kids were doing ziplining and rock climbing with their counselors, talking down a girl who was a little homesick, and dancing like an idiot with my students at the camp "disco."

Working hard holding a bunny for kids to pet...

Checking out a sheep eating some hay off his brother's back...

Other than that, I took naps, read a book for fun, and worked on my thesis. Such a difficult life! But I'd really needed a little time off to get some perspective on the fact that in just over a month, I'll have my master's degree and I'll be unemployed. Until then, it's full steam ahead!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Takeaway from My First Blogging Conference

This past weekend, I went to my first-ever blogging conference, TBEX Europe 2015. I honestly wasn't sure what to expect before I went, and I felt increasingly nervous about it in the weeks leading up, as I thought more and more about what it might be like. 

Would I be the only non-pro blogger there?

Would the others laugh at my silly little "hobby" blog?

Would I find the information useful when I have no real intention of monetizing my blog?

Would I actually be brave enough to try to talk to a large crowd of 400 strangers?

Something you have to understand about me is that I'm enormously introverted as well as shy to boot. Large crowds of strangers make me extremely nervous, especially when I perceive them to be "better" than me somehow. So this conference had the potential to be a perfect storm of awkwardness for me. But I'm determined to overcome my social anxiety and become better at making new friends, so the weekend was also a perfect opportunity to practice that! 

The first day was extremely overwhelming. We arrived later than other people on the day after the official welcoming party due to work schedules, so things were in full swing as we walked in. Lots of others seemed to know each other, and while I was introduced to some people right away, I felt so self-conscious about making a bad first impression that I probably didn't make one at all. 

After a couple of sessions on improving the writing style of our blogs and a big lunch, I felt slightly more at ease, so during the afternoon when other people were networking with airlines and tourism boards, I was trying to build up the courage to talk to some strangers and make new friends. I kept circulating throughout the room, ostensibly checking out the pastry selections on the various tables scattered throughout the hotel lobby and continuously downing and refilling my glass of water. In reality, I was scoping out whether there seemed to be any friendly-looking people whose conversation I could easily join. A couple of times, I awkwardly stood next to groups of people, waiting for a good moment to jump into what they were saying, but finding none, eventually slunk away. After awhile, I found myself sitting at a table in the corner by myself, furiously scribbling away in my journal, disappointed in my lack of social skills. 

The more I wrote, though, the clearer my thoughts became, and I eventually came to the conclusion that although I need to work on starting conversations with strangers, I haven't given up yet, and that is admirable. Despite my clear lack of ease in this area, I keep putting myself in situations that will require me to practice conversing with new people, and for that I was proud of myself. I realized that although I had been a bit of a failure so far in the conference, the remainder did not have to be predicated on what had already happened. There was still opportunity for improvement. 

Just realizing this felt like a huge weight being lifted from my shoulders. My anxiety didn't dissipate entirely, but I felt more courageous about spending the rest of the weekend chatting with strangers. 

That night and the whole next day, I made a great effort to jump into people's conversations, even when it felt awkward or strange. And I began to find that people didn't really seem to mind. Bloggers are a pretty friendly bunch, after all. 

Of course, I would be greatly amiss if I didn't mention that I was greatly aided by the fact that I happened to have come to the conference with two of the biggest names in the travel blogging world, my friends Linda and Craig from Indie Travel Podcast. Just mentioning their names with new people gained me instant recognition, and they spent the whole conference introducing me to all the most important people in travel blogging, who also just happen to be some of their best friends. I have to say, it was kind of weird to be chatting with new people one night and then realizing the next day that they were giving some of the most important talks in the whole conference (including the closing night session)! 

Still, in general, I think I learned a thing or two about small talk with strangers, and I'll be interested to try to put that into practice in the future (with or without a buddy there to hook people with "Have you met Alisa?")!

I also learned that I'm just a wee bit different from a lot of other bloggers. I've never felt so out-of-step with the times as being asked hundreds of times in one weekend for my Twitter handle, when I still don't really "get" why I should be on Twitter in the first place, and therefore don't have one! I also don't have business cards about my blog, the other big currency at a travel blogging conference. Oops. 

It seemed like the majority of other people at TBEX were trying to make contacts to be able to sell things from their blog, or use their blog as a means of advertisement so they could go on comped trips. Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with that--there's obviously a need for companies to promote their product (vacations), and many bloggers have become unwilling to provide for that need using money out of their own pocket. I get that. It makes a lot of sense, and I found the weekend immersed in this whole new world of advertising through blogging and of people who travel for a living absolutely fascinating. 

That said, I have no real desire to make money from Alisabroad. I don't really care if I make a name for myself, I don't give a damn about SEO, and I don't intend to make this blog my full-time job. I'll never say never, because no one can ever know what the future will bring, but for now I'm really, genuinely only writing for myself. That's not to say that I don't appreciate that people want to read what I write, but I'm here for the community, I want to share my experiences because I think it brings me closer with people, and I have no desire to try to convince people to do anything, except maybe learn English as a second language. Seriously. 

Still, despite occasionally feeling like a fish out of water, I had some lovely moments at the conference. It was nice to be surrounded by people who really "get" my lifestyle, who are also constantly on the move, who haven't settled down yet in a permanent home. When we met, it wasn't "Where are you from?" but rather "Where are you currently based?" and "Where have you been recently?" 

One of my favorite moments from the whole conference was on the last night, standing with a group of women, discussing the nitty-gritty practicalities of traveling long-term. "What do you do about shampoo?" one of them asked. Suddenly we were trading secrets about refilling travel-size shampoo bottles with luxury shampoo, debating the practicalities of checking a bag occasionally, and lamenting those times when we'd had to throw away a half-full shampoo bottle before getting on a plane. I felt like they truly got what my life is like in a way I haven't in a long while, and that was good. 

So even if I may never use some of the marketing tools I learned at the conference, it was definitely worth it for me socially, if nothing else. And besides that, it was lovely to have an excuse to get away to a beachside town like Lloret de Mar for the weekend. Have I mentioned yet that I really miss the ocean?

I was also incredibly impressed by the welcome we received from the Costa Brava tourist board, who gave us adorable gift bags with the best present inside--a free portable phone charger! 

And then there was the food. Oh my god, the food. I was blown away by the amount of food put in front of my face, free for the taking, in one short weekend. I spent the lunch buffets stuffing my face with seafood, and then got to the dessert table and went only slightly overboard with a desire to try absolutely everything. Buffets are dangerous for the adventurous eater, oh yes they are! 

I was honestly shocked by not only the quantity of food given to us, but the incredibly elaborate way in which it was presented. Behold the butter dolphins on the seafood table, which seemed so elaborate and extravagant that I felt like I was at a fancy wedding. 

I was also impressed with the hotel I stayed at (chosen by me and not affiliated with the conference at all). Slightly out of the way at the other end of the beach from the conference's hotel complex, it was a rundown mom-and-pop place where the receptionist seemed incredibly relieved that I spoke Spanish, because he clearly couldn't communicate in anything besides that and Catalan. I'm fond of authentically Spanish places like this, especially after the slightly jarring feeling of being surrounded by other English speakers at a conference in Spain, leaving me unsure what language to speak in to the conference's hotel staff. But my shabby little 25€-a-night hotel had one major perk--free continental breakfast served on their garden terrace. Toootally worth it. 

Another great thing about the weekend that had nothing at all to do with the conference itself was the discovery of a bunch of food trucks on the town's main square. I had both authentic Mexican food as well as my first galette bretonne avec du cidre in nearly a year. So ridiculously good. 

And getting back to the conference itself, I was also amazed at the effort put into the official parties. Free sangría on the hotel rooftop? A party overlooking the beach at night, complete with Galician queimada? Wow. That even gave me a chance to impress people with my stories of exactly how this firey drink is prepared, and all the times I had it while living in my beloved Galicia. 

So, overall, was TBEX worth it? Although I was somewhat at counter-purposes with the actual raison d'être of the event, I still had a really good time. I thought the information sessions were mostly of high quality and very interesting, regardless of whether I ever put that information to good use or not. The food was excellent and abundant, the parties were tasteful and culturally appropriate, and the other bloggers were not as scary or snobby as I had initially feared. So, was it worth my $129? I'd have to say without hesitation, a huge resounding YES. 

Will I go again to a future TBEX? I don't know yet, but I would absolutely consider it, for the food and friends alone, if nothing else!