What to do about next year

This is the time of the year when I am sick of my job. Still lagging from the holiday season (and three-week vacation), kids still not focused, shit weather and me wondering about what I want to do next year. It’s a weird balance – half of me (well, a little more than half) wants to stay in Spain while the other half wants to move on, move somewhere new and try something different. After all, I won’t teach English my whole life, and if I do continue for another year or two, why not do it on the beach in Thailand or near the Patagonia in Chile?

This year has been different in so many ways at school, despite already knowing my students and their abilities well and having the newer members of the staff be even more welcoming and inclusive to me than last year. But I feel much more integrated OUTSIDE of the English department. Because I devote nearly half of my hours specifically to the Bilingual group, I generally only have class with the teachers once every two weeks. For instance, Valle no longer takes me to school, so I had no idea she’s traveling to India in Nepal in a few weeks!

This year it’s been easier to measure success. I can note the progress some students and many teachers have made since I arrived last year, even hearing more English in the teacher’s lounge than last year. Many greet me with “Hello” instead of “Hola” and I’ve been correcting homework and copying extra worksheets because people have been more interested in learning English. Very cool.

So, you can imagine my disappointment in learning that the Junta de Andalucía, my employer, is not guaranteeing that I’ll have a job next year. I’m welcome to reapply, but since they’re cutting the positions in half (that’s to say, one assistant at each school instead of two), it’s likely I’ll get ousted in favor of a new applicant. I’m just about done with my reapplication and am keeping my fingers crossed. After China, I’m going to start tackling all of the private schools in the area to see if they’re looking for a language assistant of sorts. De todas formas, I’m staying put in Spain for a while longer. I’m not done here yet.

Spaniards and the Inauguration

Yesterday I was so anxious about the inauguration and the start of a new presidency, I could hardly sit still. The historic day was darkened by sad news over here in Spain, and I forgot to cancel a class to watch the ceremonies.

What hs stood out most in m mind was the reaction of Spaniards. News pages here in Spain have uploaded videos and transcripts of the speech translated into Castillian and Obama and his supporters’ faces have crossed every broadsheet. Yesterday morning, I read an article on the bus called “Los Siete Pecados de Bush” – Bush’s Seven Sins. While Bush has been shown recently as aged by office, Obama is either shown as relaxing and portraying how normal he is, or looking serious while making a speech. Although President Zapatero warns that Obama can’t solve all the problems that face the US and Spain alike, Spaniards are ever-confident in a president that isn’t theirs. I got lots of congratulations, handshakes, the like. My students in 1D, instead of applauding when I walked down the hall, chanted “O BA MA! O BA MA!”

But by far the most surprising was how all of the women were asking me about what I thought of Michelle Obama’s dress. While I hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at it (I’m listening to his speech for the first time right now, nearly 24 hours after he spoke it), I wasn’t thrilled. Listening chatter about it around the brasero and in the car, they seemed to criticize everything about it. I told them the two dresses were designed by minorities and that, to me, was the message, they just shrugged it off and commented on how the boxy jacket made her look fat.

There’s an interesting saying in Spanish: “Cuando los Estados Unidos estronuda, nos refriamos” -When the US sneezes, we catch a cold. How very true.

Die Baby Hunde im Austrich

By now, every detail of Austria has kind of merged together into a big, gooey memory. About as fattening as all of the butter-fried food. Kike and I spent four full days in Vienna and Salzburg with a disastrous few hours of snowboarding in Zell-am-See on the side. I have wanted to see Austria since my college friend Jess studied there, and I wasn’t disappointed, not even by the cold.
I don’t really feel like getting into details, so I will provide instead a few vignettes that stuck out in my mind:
On our first morning in Vienna, after a very expensive breakfast of just coffee and a roll with butter and jam, Kike and I hiked to the center of town from our hostel via Mariahilfer SchloB, the main shopping street. We saw all the normal things you might find on Tetuan or Sierpes – tons of clothing and electronics stores, a few scattered historical monuments, chestnut vendors. Then we heard a bleat and saw that a woman had a donkey on a leash and a sign saying, “Help me overcome the winter.” A few blocks later her buddy had her goat on a chain.
Austrian food is full of fat and butter and it made me start to feel nasty by the end of the trip. We did go to a really authentic restaurant where we were some of the only clients. Smutny’s is famous for its Austrian grub, so we chose veal cutlets with potatoes and vegetables, goulash and two huge pints of Otterkring beer (maybe one of my favorites). Not only did we eat until our veins burst, but the atmosphere and the service were incredible. After a long day on the ski slopes, it was wonderful.
Speaking of ski slopes, I was a little disappointed with the grooming at Zell-am-See. I was grumpy because our trip there took forever and the ski rental took even longer. On top of it all, the runs were steep and icy and people in Europe don’t follow American ski rules. You know, the ones on the back of your LIFT TICKET people. I crashed into a little girl, fell into an icy hole and I think Kike may have broken his knee before it magically healed when he stopped snowboarding that day. But the scenery was breathtaking!
I missed cheap Spanish breakfasts. A toast with ham and tomatoes and a coffee is rarely over three euros (unless you’re in the airport). The same breakfast in Vienna costs between five and six euros. Una barbaridad.
We didn’t get to experience most of the nightlife, but we did head out our last night in search of Kaiko. We got lost about thirteen times because the street names were all goofy, but decided to go somewhere more relaxed. The Irish pub we were at was crowded and the waitress was super ditsy. We asked for a jagerbomb and had to explain what it was. Since they had no red bull, we drank it with beer, and she watched, perhaps half in horror, as we downed two of them.
Everyone in Austria speaks English. It puts me to shame for knowing just two languages kind of crappily. But they’re friendly and helpful and impermeable to the cold. Me, not so much!

The Snow in Spain Falls Mainly in Madrid

All of my kiddos practically spat out the words when I saw them: “THEY SAY IT’S GOING TO SNOW ON FRIDAY CAT!” I had enjoyed a few blissful minutes of Iberian sunshine and warmth after arriving back to Spain from frigid Austria, only to have my reverie interrupted by some smart-ass weatherman on the radio who warned that temperatures in Sevilla, the hottest city in Spain, might get as low as one or two celcius degrees (35-37 F).
“Not like it matters for you,” Kike said. “You’ll be in Madrid and it will snow there for sure.”
And snow it did. A LOT. I arrived to Atocha about 21h30 and met Alvaro and Isabel, two friends who live there. We headed out for some din and a few beers and I went to bed early. I had to go to Madrid to get a visa to go to China, and the office is only open a few hours a week.
When I left Alvarito’s house at 9am the following morning, the snow was starting to fall but not sticking. It left wet puddles all over Puerta de Toledo. I hopped on the Metro and went 17 (yes, créetelo. 17) stops to Ciudad Lineal. Callejero street guide in hand, I followed Alvaro’s advice and hailed a cab. The Chinese Consulate is practically at the airport! I hailed a cab and he told me that the traffic was so bad because of the sudden snowfall, I would be better off walking. So I asked a bus driver. He told me the same things – half of the buses that should have been out on the streets, weren’t. So I took off walking, happy to have my umbrella with me because the flakes were FAT. And wet. My new boots have a line of salt halfway up because I walked nearly a kilometer.
I was so cold- the bus stops along the way read -1 celcius or lower – and thinking that with my luck, the consulate would have been moved to another location. Thankfully, 40 Josefina Valcarcel had posters written in chinese character welcomed me. It took a whopping three minutes to get to the front of the line and the lady was wonderfully helpful and nice. I ended up paying 123E for the visa – 90 for just being American and 33 to have it expedited immediately so I didn’t have to come back. Then it was back into the tundra, passing four of the same buses and traipsing through about 12 cm of snow.

Plaza Nueva under a blanket of snow

I met my buddy Jeremy in Plaza de España, one of the central plazas in Madrid. The whole city was blanketed in snow, but it didn’t stop the Madrileños from coming out of their houses and building snowmen, throwing snow balls and marveling in how the city had been converted into a white playground. Jeremy, who is from Chicago as well, took me to a shadddddy Chinese restaurant underneath the plaza. We ordered dumplings, rice, chicken with vegetables, sesame bean curd deliciousness and soup, and Jeremy taught me to use chopsticks (joder, I’m in trouble!). Then he said, “OMG LET’S GO OUTSIDE AND PLAY!” as if the native Chicagoan had never seen snow. We walked around Plaza del Debod, Campo de Casa, past the Palace and national Cathedral, through Puerta de Toledo and Sol.

Later, I met Alvaro and his two roommates to have dinner at their house and we switched on the news. Alvaro told me he didn’t make it into work because the roads were shit with the snow. 400km had been full of cars and traffic jams in and around Madrid, the airport shut down for a few hours. These people get snow a few times a year but the whole city shut down on Friday.

I spent the rest of the weekend with Alvarito and Izzy and made it out to Valladolid to celebrate Lucia’s 2.5 birthday and see Aurora’s new convertible. Why anyone would buy a car like that for a city that gets four months of warm weather a year is beyond me. It was nice to have real food and be in good company. I love Spanish host moms.

Were the Reyes Magos good to you?

Yesterday, January 6th, was Dia de los Reyes Magos. Spanish kids write letters to Balthazar, the Moorish one of the three kings, who brings them their presents. Santa occasionally visits houses, but not very often. Kiddies open their presents on this day, after watching parades in their neighborhoods with bands and floats carrying the Three Kings.

Of course, the students were quick to ask me, “Que te han traido los Reyes?” Or, What did the Three Kings bring you? When I asked them the same question, nearly all of them had gotten a new computer, a new mobile phone and an XBox or Wii.

I thought the whole world was in a financial crisis?

While the Reyes brought me things like Ugg boots (ugly but so calentitas!), plane tickets to Austria and to China, they also brought with them a flu and a cold. I got sick just a few days before New Years, and despite my best attempt to take it easy (which is very taxing on me!), I remained a little malita throughout the trip to Austria. Lots of sneezing and hacking and bundling up. Flying home only exacerbated the problem and I got off the plane with a really nasty sinus infection. My lovely suegra couldn’t understand what I was trying to tell her amidst all of my coughing, so she merely sent me home with half a bushel of oranges and some lemons. I’m feeling better today, just stuffy.

I had a really nice, looooong, 18-day break. It was nice to sleep in someone else’s bed and have heat and be cooked for! But really, for my first Christmas away from home, it was really enjoyable. I mostly stayed put in Andalucía, but I did go to the Sierra Nevadas, just outside Granada, to snowboard with Kike and his brother. I spent a little bit of pasta to buy some ski gear and then had to pay for rentals and lift tickets, but it was really fun. There aren’t any trees on the whole mountain! It was also windy, leading to the lift closure and tons of people on the lower slopes. For Kike’s first time snowboarding, I was really impressed at how well he picked it up. He did a lot less swearing at the mountain than me on my first day!

On New Years, I had dinner with some friends and a group of parents and rang in 2009 at Plaza Nueva. It’s Spanish tradition to eat twelve grapes on the twelve strokes of midnight for good luck – I only managed to pop 9 in my mouth because i kept swallowing seeds! It took me three hours to find a cab, resulting in me walking around Sevilla to every taxi stand I knew and calling every taxi number I have in my phone. Crying, I finally went to a hotel near my house and asked the receptionist for more numbers. She and the doorman were able to find a taxi for me and all ended well.

Lots of luck and love and happiness in the new year, especially for the new Mr. and Mrs. Pat McHugh! I’ll write about Austria as soon as I get the chance!

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