The Reality Behind Travel

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Behind all the “grammable” moments, the gorgeous album of photos uploaded to Facebook, the amazing snaps and instastories blasted out for the world to see, the reality of traveling is a sobering one.

First, let me start by stating that I recognize how lucky I am to have earned opportunities to travel and to live abroad in different countries. I know a lot of people look at that with a mixture of incredulity, awe, and probably a bit of envy. A lot of people want me to share photos and videos so they can live vicariously through me. I get that. I do that. However, it’s a slippery slope when you’re not in the right frame of mind.

Even as I’m here, settling into a bustling, beautiful city in Colombia, I see my friends and my family and people I knew at some point having meals together, going to parks, playing games, getting engaged, married, having babies… all together. I feel envious. I feel sad. And I feel utterly alone.

From an objective standpoint, I know I’m not alone. I also understand that these 2D experiences I’m seeing are teeming with loads of challenging nuances that I cannot detect.  And currently, I’m acutely aware that I’m in the first stages of culture shock.

I’ve settled in to a beautiful house with nice people and two cats. I have a space to call my own, a place to store my food, a neighborhood to frequent. I have a launching pad from which I can go discover this city, this country, and this part of the world. It is wonderful relief.

With that relief, the ability to relax, a number of things fade: my survival instincts, the excitement of walking around a new city, re-navigating a language I love, discovering the subtleties of this culture, learning of things to try, places to see, etc. As this “honeymoon” stage melts away, room develops for homesickness, exhaustion, frustration, feelings of isolation and being stuck, even scared, and sadness.

I wouldn’t change this decision if I had to make it 50 more times. But like all things in life, there are ups and downs. Sometimes just going to the store is the hardest thing in the world. Sometimes you just need to curl up in a blanket with some mac and cheese and watch your favorite show. Sometimes things are going to suck, even if you’re in paradise.

So I guess, what I’m trying to communicate is that, while I post pretty photos and share nice stories about my experience, keep in mind that it’s not all butterflies and rainbows. Sure, revel in those moments with me, but please don’t lose sight of the magic of your own experience while you do. I’m going to remind myself of the same thing, especially in tougher moments like these.

You see the picture at the top of this page? My feet resting on a window sill that overlooks a gorgeous patio, lush with tropicalish flowers, blue skies in the background, reeking of tranquility. Well, shortly before taking that, as I ambled my gawky way into the hammock, I fell straight backwards, smashed my head into the bed so hard one of the wooden slats went crashing to the floor, scaring the cat so bad that it flew from its resting spot on my suitcase with her nails out, tearing up the fabric as she dashed away.

All rainbows and butterflies and shit, right?

Not exactly.

And good thing!

5 of My Favorite Spanish Foods

When I first arrived to Spain, I wasn’t sure what to eat or how to eat or how to shop for myself. It was if entering into a new society suddenly wiped my mind clear of all the things I had learned after living by myself for five years. I’m already indecisive enough as it is, so add in a warehouse store like Carrefour (a European version of a target market more or less) filled with brands, fruits, cheeses, meat hanging from the ceiling and beer I had never encountered before, I was más perdida que un pedo en un jacuzzi— aka, I was completely lost. (If you understand Spanish or looked that phrase up haha excellent). My roommate accompanied me and was exasperated at the fact that I had no idea what to buy. She kept asking me with increasing insistence, “Pues, ¿Qué comes?” and I kept saying “No sé!” Had I had the capacity to express myself more fully I would have said something like “Tia, dejáme aquí… no me puedes meter prisa que ya estoy agobiada” which basically means, “Dude- leave me here- I’m overwhelmed AF.” But instead she watched me flail in the aisles as I went around and picked up a loaf of bread, a half kilo of turkey and ham without knowing what the heck a kilo equated to, some tortilla chips, ketchup, mayonnaise, two types of mustard, barbecue sauce, a jar of salsa, and a 12 pack of Estrella Damm because it was on sale. Her eyes turned to plates when she saw the number of condiments in my basket– “¿En serio?” she laughed at me, “Eres muy americana.”

My bread molded before I could even use a quarter of it, the turkey and ham went bad because I got sick of eating it and I finished the beers after about two days. Over the next few weeks I observed what my Spanish roommates ate. Being students, they all had mothers back in their pueblos that prepared them a freezer full of tappers which contained pasta with meat sauce, rice with rabbit and veggies, an assortment of different types of soups and stews and seafood paella to name a few. Nearly every meal was accompanied by picos, little tiny pieces of hard bread that we’d probably find in some sort of chex mix. Soon I, too, became a pico feign.  For breakfast they’d drink Colacao, which is like Nesquik, or powdered instant coffee with cookies or little muffins. Dinner was always late and light: a salad or some tuna with onions and tomatoes.

I was in a serious phase of adjustment, so adding cooking then dishes and balancing my roommates’ schedules in order to do so was not on the top of my priority list. So, I ate out… A LOT. And that is how I became very  well acquainted with some of my favorite Spanish dishes. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was totally spoiled in that I was growing my Spanish palate in arguably one of the best gastronomic strongholds of Spain. In just a few short months, my reliance on condiments and hot sauce completely vanished. Spain’s salty, savory, FRESH, simplistic yet full-bodied cuisine redefined my definition of satisfied.

 

My very first attempt at making Bacaloa Dorado ca.2014

1. Bacaloa Dorado

Golden Cod in English, this dish is eaten quite often in Extremadura. It’s traditionally a Portuguese dish, and is made of eggs, onion, cod, and fried potatoes (not french fries). For me, it was comfort food. I found out pretty soon that it’s super easy to make, too.

 

 

 

 

2. Jamón, Lomo, Chorizo 

Jamón del bueno with nice blurry finger 🙂

Although I don’t eat much meat here, I can’t get over the Spanish cured meats. Give me a bandeja of any of these and I’m one happy camper. Chorizo is chorizo. It’s less spicy than the Mexican chorizo we’re accustomed to and has a smokier flavor because it’s made with Pimentón or paprika. Pimentón de La Vera is a specialty from the province of Cáceres, located in the north of Extremadura.  Lomo is cured tenderloin. SO GOOD.  Jamón is cured ham leg and the best ham comes from Extremadura because they’re raised in open fields and feed on the bellotas or acorns from the Holm oak trees strewn across the region. My Spanish mom sent me some lomo and jamón for my birthday and I cried. These are no joke, folks.

 

 

Utter joy

3. Huevos Rotos

My mouth became a geyser each time I saw a plate of huevos rotos go by. It literally translates to Broken Eggs– even the name is awesome, right? This is another comfort selection as it consists of a bed of fries, topped with Jamón and two over easy eggs. That’s it. Simply delicious. Another version I often enjoyed swapped Jamón for gulas, which are little sea worms. Before you get totally grossed out, if you’re in Spain– try them! They’re also amazing  sauteed in garlic and olive oil (Gulas al ajillo)–YUM.

 

 

4. Tortilla de Patata con Salmorejo

Missing the Tortilla but it’s garnished with egg and ham bits…and features two more of my favorite things: olives and beer

Ah yes, the famous Tortilla de Patata or Spanish Omelette. Spain converted me into an egg lover. I love all the eggs in all the different shapes and forms they come in. One of my favorites for sure is the classic Tortilla de Patatas–but for me it has to be on the runnier side and it’s even better when it can be plopped into a cold, shallow bowl of Salmorejo.  This is another version of ‘cold tomato soup’ that’s similar to Gazpacho (which I also love). While Gazpacho contains pepino (cucumber), pimientos (peppers), Salmorejo does not. It’s slightly thicker because it uses more bread followed by fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and salt.

 

5. Tapas 

I realize “Tapas” is the broadest thing I could list here and it sort of seems like cheating. But for me, it’s the epitome of why I LOVE Spanish food.

Tapas which literally means lid, became a cultural staple after it was mandatory to serve food with alcoholic beverages (why isn’t this a thing everywhere still behooves me). The principle behind Tapas consists of two of my favorite things: snacking and sharing. Here I described how Tapas is a way of life–it’s representative of the family-style, communal approach to eating. It stirs up conversation and it brings you closer together as you truly bond over a shared meal.

Creative tapa made in honor of the Gay Pride Festival, Los Palomos, in Badajoz

 

This list could go on for days but that would be somewhat masochistic. It’s a good thing I have all of the recipes to my favorite Spanish foods AND I just started working part time at Milwaukee’s only authentic Spanish Tapa restaurant, MOVIDA, so I can satiate my cravings until I move back. 

If you behave nice and tell me what your favorite Spanish food is in the comments, maybe in the future I’ll treat you to Part II: My Favorite Spanish Foods. I’ll be sure to include cheeses and even some recipes!

So, dime (tell me)– have you lived in or traveled to Spain? If so, ¿cuál es tu comida favorita? If you haven’t, which one of my favorite Spanish foods sounds most appealing to you? Share in the comments! 

Teaching English in Spain: 5 Ways I’ve Become a Better Human

As my second year as an English teacher in Spain winds down, I wanted to take some time to reflect on all the good things that have come of this experience. While a year and eight months seems like nothing in comparison to the amount of time I spent in college, or in K-12,  I have to say it has been the most fruitful and condensed personal growth I have experienced. For the newbies at this and the veterans alike, perhaps you’ll find some truth in the following 5 five ways I’ve become a better human.

1. Patience

I’ve always said the phrase in jest, “patience is a virtue” right after I had already lost patience and consequently lost the virtuous fight. This experience has taught me what that phrase really means on three levels: patience with others, patience with life, and patience with myself. This is by far the most important way I’ve become a better human.

Patience with others: I’ve never considered myself an impatience person, per say.  In fact with strangers, customers, and acquaintances I’ve always been extraordinarily patient. Then I started trying to communicate with people from a different culture in a foreign language. I suppose I learned much of the patience I’ve acquired through compassion. While I tried to function in my new environment, I appreciate immensely those who allow me to speak, give me time to sort my thoughts and finish my words before speaking for me or switching to English. I carry that with me everyday, and now in my interactions with native speakers in my own language, as well. As a result, I’ve become a better listener and a much better conversationalist. Also, my personal relationships have improved and communication has become much more positive. Speaking with family over skype can be highly frustrating with delays and cut-outs, but impatience isn’t going to solve that, in fact it’s just going to increase your risk of a heart attack.

Patience with life: What do I mean by this? Spanish bureaucracy. I’ve been forced to take a deep breath through every single process or proceeding within society. From walking in the streets with a bunch of Spaniards who zig-zag their way to their destination at a Sunday drive’s pace, to being the only person in the Foreign Consulate and waiting for 45 minutes because… I’m still baffled as to why. I’ve learned to take a deep breath and let it go. You get used to it. Also, I think we all get to the point in life where we have something ahead of us and we just can’t wait for it to arrive and we rush through the days for it to get there– we’re caught in this existential longing. It’s sort of like a dog begging at the table for food… you know it’s coming and you’re salivating for it, with a whine bubbling up in your chest. But we’re not dogs, so we shouldn’t act like them (some of us, at least).  You’ve got to live in the moment. You’ve got to live mindfully. Fill your days with patience. That’s the only way the future will unfold in the most satisfying of ways.

Patience with myself:  I’m used to being good at things. I know that sounds pretentious, but I’m a fast learner in many areas, especially athletics and language. However, Spanish has always been this love/hate relationship. I’m absolutely enthralled with it and always have been, but it’s not easy for me. Especially the pronunciation. With the thousands of miscommunications, the comparisons I make with myself and others, and despite the encouragement I receive, I’m very, very hard on myself. Way too hard on myself. I’ve forced myself to take a step back and put things in perspective. I’m doing pretty damn good and I’m sure you are too! And what’s the goal of communication at the end of the day: be understood. Of course it’s going to take years to communicate with the same nuance and intelligence you do in your native language. So breathe.  Be patient.

2. Humility

Living abroad has a way of humbling you. As you leave your bubble, your community, you leave behind everything people know of you. You are a blank slate. Undefined. This situation can be very frustrating if you don’t know who you are or don’t know how to simply just be with all your imperfections. Part of this process involves simultaneously detaching from myself slightly, going with the flow, and practicing compassion, as well. I don’t take it to heart when people don’t get me. Between the misconceptions, miscommunications, and preconceptions about me and my culture it’s important not to let your ego or pride flare up, especially when you’re up in front of a classroom with all those little eyes staring at you. Humility–It’s a beautiful thing.

3. Consistent Courage

Speaking of little eyes staring at you, being a teacher takes courage. I’ve never been someone who is timid, but it certainly takes guts to get up in front of people, whether they’re kids or adults, and give a presentation on what you know…and in many cases, what you’ve just (re)learned. In Spain I’m your stereotypical American girl: blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin. A typical “guiri” as they say here. Everywhere I go people immediately peg me as a foreigner. It’s obvious, and at first, it made me a bit shy, and slightly defensive. This made the already nerve-wracking first few experiences of going into the bank or post office even more of a call for courage. Day in and day out, my courage is tested and I have to say I’ve become even more bold than I was before.

4. Coping with Stress

Living abroad, learning a new profession on the fly, and a language by trial and error has tested my coping mechanisms. They even broke at some points. Learning a new profession can be stressful. Now double that with doing this in a foreign country. Learning to cope with stress and exhaustion is a must. How I did it? Sleep. Breathing. Patience. Positivity. Forgiveness. Laughter. You’ve got to breathe. Take a time out for yourself. Also, take time to be with people. Community is so, so important. Be patient with yourself and your coworkers. You’ve got to forgive yourself for mistakes, and of course, others, as well. Don’t think of stress as a negative thing. The best thing you can do is make all of these challenges into a fun game. I highly recommend taking a moment to learn How to Make Stress Your Friend.  Finally, you’ve got to laugh it all off. This is life and it’s not so dang serious.

5. Responsibility

Perhaps many of you had learned this invaluable characteristic in college, or perhaps you’re like me, and it has been a slow and steady progression to adulthood: aka being responsible. Every shade of responsibility is necessary as a teacher living abroad alone. You are forced to grow up, and it’s painful sometimes, but I couldn’t be more grateful to finally have my life together.

Thanks for reading! 

Stay tuned for the next 5 ways I’ve become a better human as an English Teacher in Spain.

The First and Very Long Overdue Post: Part I

I’ve been meaning to write this for quite some time. This and a laundry list of stories, poems, and a novel. To be fair to myself, I am working on the novel– a very slow, inspiration-driven process. I’m letting it be that for now despite the many pieces of advice saying things like Henry Miller, “When you can’t create you can work.” But the truth is, I have been working. A lot.

Due to the onslaught of personal blogs out there, especially from other people in my position, I’ve felt like I had nothing better to say than everyone else. I realize that this isn’t true. I’ve left so many things unsaid to family, friends, and even myself about my unique experience. I’ve been trapped in my head for awhile. Last year, however, I was totally in over my head. I moved to Badajoz, Spain and began learning a new profession, a new language, how to adapt in a new country, new people, new living arrangements, a new city, a new diet, a new schedule…everything new, new, new. I was thrilled when I first arrived, and completely overstimulated. I became caught up in living, you might say. Looking back, I was a bit like that person that holds their breath while they’re taking a photo. I was smiling ear to ear, excited to be in the frame I was, able to capture all these new moments; but as the moments went on I realized my face was turning red and my blood wasn’t quite reaching all of my limbs.

Absorbing every little charming detail of my new city. There are rose bushes in many of the parks.
Absorbing every little charming detail of my new city
My first sunrise back in Spain.
My first sunrise back in Spain

Right from the beginning, I threw myself in head first. With no teaching experience I was teaching 12 hours in schools and 10 hours in private classes, 6 of which were through an academy. I was dedicating 25 plus hours a week to teaching English to ages from 6 to 60, from levels 0 to advance. It was a crash course on teaching with passive guides and no instructions. Aside from a few people who gave me pieces of advice and feedback, of which I am very grateful, I taught myself how to teach. Much of the time I felt impotent, stressed, exhausted, and stretched to the limit. While only working 25 hours or so doesn’t seem so hard, keep in mind it wasn’t just working, it was teaching AND learning in a foreign environment. When Friday rolled around, I was spent. Done. K.O.

During this time, I didn’t realize why I was so tired either. Neither did my Spanish roommates. So, jokingly, but hurtfully, they’d call me things like “lazy” when I slept until noon on a Friday (which I have to say, they often indulged in, too), or after I left my dishes unwashed one evening after having worked a 10 hour day. Sometimes they’d criticize my Spanish, telling me it was “fatal” (horrible). They have good hearts and much of the time they did it with good intentions, trying to teach me and push me to improve, but I was frayed wire, susceptible to the slightest touch. For awhile I avoided my house and sought haven in my friend’s flat between classes or for dinner. In retrospect, I wish I would have taken a more self-aware and direct approach to the situation; but like I said, I was in over my head and my self-reflection was quite low during this time. Anyway, this sort of pressure, discomfort, and misunderstanding on all parts coupled with my own frustration with what seemed to me as slow development of Spanish made the first year a bittersweet one.The sweet part came in the excitement, the newness of everything, learning and growing up so much and meeting new friends, some of which I will have for a lifetime. And of course, a pipe dream come true of finding my very own Spanish Maria.

My Spanish Maria and I in San Sebastian
My Spanish Maria and I in San Sebastian

Christmas Break (free then down)

For Christmas, I took a big trip away from Badajoz, teaching, and Spanish. First stop was Madrid for El Rey Leon with my new crush and now steady girlfriend, roommate, best friend, travel buddy, and business partner, Maria. Then I took off to Ireland and spent Christmas with my then newly-made and gracious friend Emma and her wonderful family. After this, I ferried over to England where I was gleefully joined by my brother, Matt, for New years. We then hopped over to Amsterdam for a longer visit than anticipated due to poor logistics planning on my end. After that, we flew to Malaga and Matt had his first taste of the Mediterranean, and where mine was quenched for a short time (I’ve began salivating again for that sea). We bused up to beautiful Cordoba for two nights, where we met Maria, then we made it back to Badajoz. I had to return to work while my brother was in town, so my German friend studying abroad in the Erasmus program, Gerhild, showed my brother around. We managed to visit Merida, where Matt got to see the Roman ruins and experience the charm of another Spanish city.

Matt and I in Merida, with the old Roman Bridge in the Background.
Matt and I in Merida, with the old Roman Bridge in the background

After another logistics nightmare, a missed flight, and a choked-hug, I waved goodbye to my brother as he boarded the bus to begin his journey home. I was in the passenger seat of Maria’s car, staring hard out the window at nothing before the first tears began to push their way out my tear ducts. When I felt Maria’s hand on my leg I stopped fighting and began sobbing. With snot clogging my nasal cavity, my eyes like rudolph’s nose, I came up gasping for air after four months. I finally stopped smiling for the photo and exhaled.

For now, we’re almost caught up and this is just the beginning of the adventures I plan to share with you. So stay tuned!

If you have any feedback, questions, suggestions, email me or comment below! Thank you for reading!

Coming Soon:

The First and Very Long Overdue Post: Part II

Summer, Summer, Summer Time

Back to Spain

Adventures in an Academy

Migas

A Spanish Christmas

My Favorite Spanish Foods

…and More!