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My Journey Back to Spain…again

My desire to live abroad was coupled only by my worries for how to make it happen. Thankfully, my study abroad office at the University of Iowa gave me the information on a relatively new program to teach English in Spanish public schools. I threw out my plan to follow my friends Matt and Brian to Ireland and began brushing up on my Spanish.

Five years later, part of my morning coffee goes to helping my readers find a way to make their dreams of sunshine and siestas a reality. One such reader, Mike, and I have been in contact for quite some time, and he’s finally decided to quit his job and apply for the Auxiliar de Conversación program that brought me here initially. Here’s his story:

Before I get started on my story, I’d like to thank Cat for being so gracious and allowing me to write a guest post as I’ve been an avid reader for a while now. Hopefully, everyone will enjoy my post as a guest author and find it helpful in whatever capacity they are looking for. I am currently applying for the auxiliar de conversación program in Spain.

However, my story begins long before me just recently pulling together my application materials.

My Story

Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my mom had always told me that she was forcing me to study abroad when I was in college. She had studied in Copenhagen, Denmark  and told me it was an experience that everyone needs to have. During my junior year in high school I was afforded the opportunity to go on a week-long trip through Spain with my Spanish class. It was then that I fell in love with the language, people, cuisine, and culture. I knew I would be returning to Spain at some point in my life.

A recent shot of Mike in America

When I was in college at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, I took a Spanish class during my first semester. It was extremely difficult for me, and I ended up dropping the class. I thought I was done with Spanish and did not enroll in the class again. After a couple different major changes, I found myself with a foreign language requirement that had not been met. Thinking it would be an easy class since I could remember some basic Spanish from high school, I enrolled in an Introduction to Spanish course. After the first class, my professor noticed that I was ahead of the others who had never taken Spanish before and recommended to me that I move up a few levels. I was cautious, but ultimately agreed. The higher level course was naturally more of a struggle, but it was far more rewarding as I rekindled my love of the Spanish language. Following the course, I applied, was accepted, and studied abroad in Granada, Spain for a semester in the spring of 2010.

Studying in Granada, Spain

 

My study abroad experience was undoubtedly the best experience of my life,  and ever since I returned to the US, I have been yearning to return to Spain. After graduation, like many people out there, I applied for a bunch of jobs and eventually was offered and accepted one. It was a desk job, doing something that I thought I may be interested in; however, it was not for me.

Mike and his host family in Granada

Since accepting the job, I have dabbled with the thought of applying to teach in Spain, but have not been fully committed to it, until now. There have been plenty of reasons that kept me from applying, primarily that my job is steady, secure and well-paidl. Essentially, it is a job that many would probably die to have, but that’s not me. It’s a job that most would imagine themselves having when they are 40 years old or mid-career professional, and I do realize that I was lucky to land in it. This has held me back from applying to teach in Spain for over a year, but I had enough. While many may die to have my job, I would die to teach in Spain.

Over the past year, I have consulted with Cat as well as anyone I could find who taught in Spain or even another country about what one needs to know before teaching abroad. It has been a huge help to me in making my decision to take the leap, so thank you for everyone for your advice. The number one piece of advice that nearly every single person echoed was that if you don’t do it, you will always regret not doing it. I truly believe this is the case because I can picture myself always regretting it and wondering “what if” had I not ever tried.

Applying for the Auxiliar Program

Once a current auxiliar directed me to the website for applying and I found it, all I could find was information for the school year 2012 – 2013 program, whereas I would be applying for the 2013-2014 program. I started to panic because I figured I was doing something wrong and simply could not find it. I thought I was missing something obvious and was going to be late in applying. I checked the website just about hourly to see if it changed or if I missed anything. Then, one day, November 5 th to be exact, there was finally an update. It said they were working on the call for applications for 2013-2014, and that the application period would open up on January 8th, 2013. It also noted the manual for the application would be posted soon. I felt an enormous sense of relief.

As for now, I have been using the 2012-2013 manual and application checklist on the website to begin to pull together my materials. I realize that some of the materials may change, but I figure this will give me a jump-start for when the application period opens. If I end up doing something that is no longer required, I’m fine with that because it’s exciting doing it since this all part of me going back to Spain to teach! The two primary pieces I am pulling together are my letter of recommendation and my statement of purpose. An applicant also needs a copy of their passport and their college transcript or diploma.

Mike hiking in Ronda (Málaga)

While waiting for my transcripts and after pulling together my statement of purpose, all I have to do is wait for the application to open and the manual to be posted. I know it’s only the middle of November, and while it said December, I am still getting anxious and still checking back just about hourly.

I hope to keep everyone updated on my journey from America’s dairyland back to Spain. While Cat and I both came from the Midwest, Chicago and Milwaukee respectively, I can imagine that our experiences will be different since a lot has changed in the five years since she first left for Spain, yet I am extremely hopeful that my experience will be just as astounding and inspiring to others as hers was and is to me.

Hasta luego.

Mike.

Mike will be contributing to Sunshine and Siestas regularly until he hears from the program about his (hopeful) return to Spain. Got any questions for either of us about being an auxiliar or about how to apply to the program? Or about doing a TEFL degree? Leave us a message in the comments, or join my Facebook page for more scoop!

Two Weeks on the Camino de Santiago: 14 Pictures of my Journey (Part 2)

Where we last left off, I had literally just climbed a mountain, but I had also scaled a mountain of self-doubt that told me my body was not strong enough to continue. We were halfway there, distance-wise, but coming to grips with the impending end of the journey.

Day Eight // Monday, August 5th, 2013 // Gontán – Vilalba //20km

Money can buy you happiness, it turns out, and we left Abadín before dawn after a few beers the night before and a sound sleep in a comforable bed to the tune of 19€ each. At this point, I’d only opened my sleeping bag once.

We didn’t speak much on the way to Vilalba, a once-powerful city that hosts a Parador. All of the sudden, there were more pilgrims on the trail who we’d never seen before, and we felt rushed to get to the next inn on time with Croissanthead (our so-named mascot for an earlier Xacobeo celebration). We had wine at the parador and met the cook, a man who had walked 15 Caminos in his life. I’d read somewhere that those who live along the trail are obligated by law to protect pilgrims and not do anything to ruin or impede their Camino. Written or not, pilgrims are respected by these townspeople, and not just for the tourism dollars they bring in. We were treated to a snack, courtesy of this fellow peregrino.

Even the local Proteccion Civil officer who ran the large albergue locked up 15 minutes later than normal because we invited him to a shot of orujo.

Day Nine // Tuesday, August 6th, 2013 // Vilalba – Baamonde // 20km

The reality of passing the halfway point in our journey was starting to weigh on me. The simplicity of pilgrim life was so inviting after a year of many changes and transitions for me, and knowing that I’d be finished in just five days got me a little depressed. I no longer befriended pilgrims, knowing I’d have to say goodbye to them once we reached Santiago. José was an exception. Sharing 20 kilometers with him into Baamonde was a treat.

The road that day was littered with small towns, dairy farms and leafy groves of trees and rudimentary stone structures. José is a secondary teacher in Valencia, so Hayley and I immediately had a connection with him and his outlook on life. Almost immediately after meeting another pilgrim, you exchanged the, ‘So what brings you on the Camino?’ question. José’s was simple, and it made me think of my own reasons.

The say the Camino always provides, and it does – from new friendships to a bit of clarity to a stronger body, or even a hot plate of food after a long trek.

That afternoon when we rolled into Baamonde, just 103 kilometers from Santiago, and we had ample time to enjoy the 94 others who were there sharing four showers with us. Afternoon beers, a large and tasty meal in a table that was far too small for us and our food, jam sessions in the patio as we waited out a rain cloud. When you only have one thing in common and nothing else matters, it’s easy to make friends. Besides, that’s what Facebook is for!

Day Ten // Wednesaday, August 7th, 2013 // Baamonde – Miraz // 14.5km

“Be careful of the Santa Campana,” Fernando warned us before retiring to bed. Our walk from the sprawling pilgrim’s inn at Baamonde to the rumored ‘nicest albergue on the Norte’ was a short one, but we’d have to rush – there were just 26 beds in Miraz.

We woke at 5am. It would be dark until nearly 7:30 a.m., but we didn’t have any time to waste. My guidebook told me that we’d walk three kilometers out of Baaaaaaaaaaamonde before turning left over the train tracks. Our flashlights bounced off trees, searching desperately before we got off-track and lost a bed.

Then it began raining. We thankfully didn’t see the witches of the Santa Campana, said to lure pilgrims into sorcery by handing them candles when it’s dark and rainy along the trail.

By the time we got to Miraz around 9:30 that morning, there were already six or eight other pilgrims in line. We set our bags down under the overhang, respecting the pre-established order for beds and joined the others in the town’s only bar. We considered continuing on to Sobrado, but I’m glad we didn’t – apart from a warm bed and blanket and other English speakers (the small albergue is run by the British Cofraternity of Saint James volunteers), we spent hours in the bar, warming up over beers and sandwiches. The rain and the fact that we had to wait forever was made better by the fact that there was a bit of cerveciña to make the time pass quicker.

Day Eleven // Thursday, August 8th, 2013 // Miraz – Sobrado dos Monxes // 25.5km

We took our time walking into Sobrado dos Monxes the following day, knowing that we were nearing the end of the road. It was a perfect day, with puffy clouds within reach and enough solitude to hash out issues and just talk about nothing in between.

The albergue is housed in a 10th Century monastery, and Hayley and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to our weeks working in a haunted monastery in Uclés, Cuenca. The pilgrim hysteria was high, as a Jesuit group was also there, taking up nearly half the beds. After checking in and getting our stamp from the monks who lived on site and raised dogs and cows (which Carmela and I got to see!), Hayley and I escaped to a bar further outside of town. When we finished, half a bottle of wine each later, a stray dog who I’d tripped over earlier in the day was waiting for us, his broken chain dangling from his neck as he drooled over the hot pavement. We tried to lose him, and the poor pup kept getting shooed out of the monastery.

I honestly would have loved wasting hours petting him in the interior lawn of the sprawling, gorgeous palace, but he was not allowed to enter.

Long live Blacky. That is, if he stops tripping pilgrims.

Day Twelve // Friday, August 9th, 2013 // Sobrado dos Monxes – Arzúa // 22km

Fernando gave us a pep talk as we headed out of Sobrado towards Arzúa, the last major stop on the Francés and where our route would hook up with the main pilgrim trail. We’d lose most of our friends on this day who favored a shorter route that skipped the pilgrim town. Many bikers making their way to Santiago passed us, and we knew they’d reach Santiago in time for Pilgrim’s Mass that morning while we still had more than 50km to go.

Reaching Arzúa was a bit strange – there was already a long line outside the municipal inn when we arrived, despite making good time. Most of the private inns were booked up, too. In the end, a hotel offered us a good price for a street side room right near the central plaza.

‘You’ll need these,’ he said, handing us a pair of earplugs. I already had some, courtesy of the Novio, but I shrugged and took them anyway. We took long showers, ate a filling lunch and caught up on the news for the first time in days. Here in Arzúa, pilgrims are kings and there are loads of facilities for them. We had ample choices of where to eat, had special deals on laundry services and massages, and found ourselves feeling alone in a booming town – it took us ages to find familiar pilgrims.

Pilgrim culture shock at its finest.

Our second to last sleep was interrupted early the next morning by a bagpipe. The town had some sort of festival, hence the lack of private inns, and its last revelers were playing bagpipes to signal the end of the party. So that’s what the earplugs were for.

Day Thirteen // Saturday, August 10th, 2013 // Arzúa – O Pedrouzo // 19km

We wizened up and book a private pension again, not willing to hurry our penultimate day for sake of a cheap bed. This meant we could take our time walking, stop more often and really soak up the last few kilometers. By now, we were 41km away from the Plaza do Obradoiro, which we decided to split into two days.

This day was among the most enjoyable – frequently stopping for a beer, running into familiar faces, realizing we’d done 300 kilometers and were all but finished. Joining us were loads of bikers (we nearly got plowed into!), many families and scout groups, and even people pushing strollers! We saw the turigrinos – those who sent their packs ahead and just walked with little weight. I felt lighter than on any other day, and even the purge I’d do later that day of things I wouldn’t need or hadn’t used in two weeks seemed to lighten the load tremendously.

I realized that I’d done everything I intended to do on the Way, save arrive in one piece to Santiago.

Hayley stopped just ahead of me and pointed – didn’t you want to leave something at this mile marker? Once in Galicia, it’s easy to see how many kilometers are left until the cathedral because they’re all marked with the distance down to the thousandth. Exactly at 21,0km I left a purple and orange ribbon for Kelsey. I’d scatter several more the following day, too – at the Lavacolla airport, at Monte do Gozo and at Saint James’s tomb.

Day Fourteen // Sunday, August 11th, 2013 // O Pedrouzo – Santiago de Compostela // 21km

I slept terribly. Maybe I was anxious, but it could be because a homeless man walked into the albergue and took a shower, and then an obnoxious family who hadn’t walked much all took showers after 11pm, turning on lights and hair dryers after I’d already drifted into dreamland. I tried to read Shirley McClain’s The Camino, but it was full of weird mystical dreams and meeting random dead Scottish men who give her a locket and then there’s a big black dog that chases her and she sends him a big red heart of love in her bind of some shit.

Anyway.

I was grumpy, but we didn’t have time for it. Every step meant one second less of our journey, one second closer to the end. Memorials and statues were around every corner, and I felt like we were racing to get to the finish line (we did want to arrive by mass at noon). I made sure to stop in the chapel of Santa Lucia, following my protocol to always leave her a donation as my Catholic aunt told me I was to do if I took her name for my confirmation. I was emotional, about ready to burst at any moment.

It finally happened after reaching Monte do Gozo. After leaving a ribbon on the memorial to Pope John Paul II and stamping our passport for one of the last times, we started the trek downhill. I teared up, wiping away my emotion as Hayley warned me to get it together, or we’d never make it.

We stalled as much as possible without losing track of the time, which included shooting last-minute footage, splitting an Aquarius, stopping to admire a part of the city we hadn’t seen on previous visits. It was ending.

As we arrived to the old town, I was overcome with emotion – for the struggles, for Kelsey, for knowing that tomorrow meant Seville and life and the school year and social media. The bagpipe that I’d heard several times on previous visits rang out and I tripped over my feet. Within moments, we’d passed under the arch and into the morning sunlight. The lichen-covered church towered before us, and even though I’d seen it many times, it was more striking and more beautiful and just plain bigger than ever before. We laid down immediately, taking it all in, happy for the journey and the fact that our legs didn’t fall off.

We had 36 hours or so in Santiago, in which we drank beer, ate international food and paid out respects to Saint James. Hayley decided to shop for other clothes to wear on the plane, but I wore my smelly clothes home, concha attached to my bag. I was proud of it, and I wanted to it last until I was back home.

The thing is, the fact that I’ve seen and done something I’ve always dreamed about doing means that it’s going to last forever in my heart and my memories and my photos.

Yes, even this one: creepy doll heads in Lavacolla, just one of the weird things we saw in 325 kilometers.

Want more? My flickr page has every photo you could ever want to see, and I’m working on my first video! In the meantime, you can watch Hayley’s Camino video and tear up when I do when arriving to the Obradoiro (or laugh at how excited I get about a plate of lentejas)! To learn more about the Camino de Santiago, check out my resources page, or get your FAQs answered by Trevor of A Texan in Spain.

Two Weeks on the Camino de Santiago: 14 Pictures of my Journey (Part 1)

The Camino is full of little moments – a beautiful medieval bridge, a small roadside shrine, a memorable meal shared with other pilgrims. In the 14 days it took us to walk from Avilés to Santiago de Compostela, we saw all of the things I love about Spain. Much as I wanted to capture it all in my journal or with my camera, there was simply no time. For once, I was living in the moment and learning about myself and about life.

But really, I would have ‘sooner broken my neck’ than leave my camera behind.

In all, I took 25MB of photos and videos. I wanted to remember EVERYTHING  – what our meals consisted of, the people we met and their faces, the names of every small hamlet we passed through. We saw breathtaking beaches, the lush rolling landscapes of Northern Spain, hundreds of farm animals and stone crucifixes.

The pictures that follow all have stories, or they were simply a part of pilgrim life – simple living at its best. I could write an entire blog about our daily experiences on the trail, but it would be much of the same: We walked. We stopped for a coffee. We walked more. I got a new blister. We kept walking…

These 14 pictures go beyond the big moments that we experienced – they’re all the little things that went into our shared experience.

Day One // Monday, July 29th, 2013 // Avilés – El Pito // 26.5km

I easily shot the most on this day – everything was so new, every way marker a bit different from the last, the landscapes so dramatic as the cliffs of Asturias dropped into the sea. The weather was perfect and my body felt strong and able. We got lost early on in the day, stopped for beer just because and even splurged on a gorgeous guest house with the most comfortable beds ever.

What has really stuck with me, though, was our afternoon stop in Cudillero, a quaint fishing village built on a hidden inlet. Foolishly thinking there was a beach, Iván and I waded in the shallow bay, letting the cool water ease the pain in our feet. I watched the local kids splash around and look for hermit crabs between the moss-covered rocks.

I remember feeling extremely happy, between the kids and the water and the bottle of cider that followed. The journey had only just begun, and I couldn’t wait to wake up the next day and set out again.

Day Two // Tuesday, July 30th, 2013 // El Pito – Santa Marina // 21.1km

Ouch. We began the day with a tough climb to Soto de Luiña, and I was relieved that we didn’t do those last 10 kilometers the day before. The trail led us back and forth between the beach and the rolling hills straight off of a bottle of Leche Asturiana as we passed through beautiful Soto and hugged the N-634 highway into Santa Marina, where we’d spend the night.

After a painful hike down a steep hill and about 100 stairs, we arrived at a beach that looked straight out of Jurassic Park – rock crags shot up from the water, creating small pools full of water when the tide came in. It was windy, chilly and rocky, but considering I am like a seven-year-old boy when it comes to prehistoric lizards and Asturias was once Dinotown in Spain, I was psyched.

But that hike up the hill again definitely deserved a super enormous dinner, one of the best we had along the trail.

Day Three // Wednesday, July 31st, 2013 // Santa Marina – Luarca //27 km

I had a terrible night’s sleep, but was psyched to get to Luarca, considered one of Spain’s most beautiful villages. It was a day with a lot of highway walking and a constant threat of rain, and we got to Luarca absolutely exhausted and later than normal. I also got my first two blisters long before arriving, though we did get fabada and a kick-ass salad. Not all was lost.

Day Four // Thursday, August 1st, 2013 // Luarca – A Caridá // 31km

This was the longest, absolute longest day ever, and also the ugliest. Every time we’d ask how far off A Caridá was, we’d get the same ‘Just about a kilometer’ answer from nearly everyone, when, in fact, we were much further. We ran into road construction, never-ending hills and detours. I honestly thought my feet were going to fall off by the time we got to Navia for a snack, and there were still 10 kilometers still to go (there was, however, a puppy halfway through).

We got several laughs by the time we’d had a beer midmorning and were so tired that everything was laughable – a deranged old lady who hassled Hayley, a cow who mooed at me while I relieved myself in the middle of a field, two more who got it on as we walked by (that was for real the funniest thing ever). I also sat on an ortiga, causing an itchy rash.

It was also here that we finally stayed in a shiny new albergue, grabbing the last three beds before the place filled up (which would have meant backtracking three kilometers to the old albergue). The hospitalero was amazing – he opened up his restaurant for us, gave us second helpings and bought us a drink later in the evening. When they say that people protect pilgrims and do what they can to make the Camino easier, they’re right.

Day Five // Friday, August 2nd, 2013 //  A Caridá – Ribadeo // 21.5km

After seven days between Oviedo and Figueras, we left Asturias, arriving to Ribadeo early enough to enjoy a long lunch, a long siesta and a visit to Trip Advisor’s top-rated beach, Playa As Catedrais. It was a quick day walking, to be honest, knowing we’d be racing the others to get to a bed in the teeny albergue in Ribadeo. Santiago seemed closer than ever as we crossed into the region of Galicia. All at once, the way markers changed direction and we walked with more purpose.

Ribadeo reminded me a lot of Cádiz or El Ferrol – you could tell that, if taken care of, the city could really shine. It was the perfect introduction to Lugo.

I also remember falling on this day in Porcia as we crossed a medieval bridge. My knee began giving me problems, and I’d eventually cave and go to a pharmacy for a knee brace. The pharmacy was located next to a store called ‘Todo para Abuelos,’ and we had to laugh at the irony.

Day Six // Saturday, August 3rd, 2013 // Ribadeo – Lourenzá // 27.5km

While in Ribadeo, Hayley and I realized we needed a breather from our other peregrino friends – we just wanted a bit of solitude. On the sixth day, we did a long hike through rolling meadows, passing towns with nary a supermarket or bar, just a small collection of houses and an occassional church. Villagers raised their arms to wave and mutter a ‘Buen Camino!’ and everything (including watching a huge caterpillar get pummeled by a car) seemed hilarious.

For the first and only time on the hike, we stopped for lunch before reaching our finishing point. After ordering a large beer, the woman at the bar informed us that she only had potato chips and old pastries to offer us. I was a bit crestfallen, as we hadn’t packed many snacks that day, but the bar next door didn’t disappoint – an enormous fuente of lentejas, a bottle of strong red and the laughter of the other pilgrims who had also stopped for fuel.

We spent the last 10 kilometers belting out John Denver songs. Rocky Mountain high….yes.

There was just one bed at the inn and no shower door in Lourenzá, so we decided to splurge on a private room. Just 10€ for a bedroom, hot shower, laundry facilities and a kitchen where we’d meet Valèrie and Guido, the adorable French couple who moved faster than we did.

Day Seven // Sunday, August 4th, 2013 // Lourenzá – Gontán // 24km

My first step out of bed was fine, but the second caused a weird crack in my knee. It was still dark and I fumbled for the bottle of aspirin I’d left nearby in my plastic bag filled with drugs, earplugs, needles and band aids. It was going to be a long day.

The trail wasn’t so long, but after a quick nine kilometers downhill into Mondoñedo, we had to literally climb a mountain. As we zigzagged into one of Galicia’s ancient kingdoms, I told Hayley that I was considering taking a bus or taxi to Gontán. She nodded her head in agreement, though I knew she wouldn’t be joining me. I even got tendonitis as we neared closer to our breakfast spot, an aptly named Bar Peregrino.

After a strong coffee and an enormous breakfast, my optimism came back, and I was willing to push through the pain. As we left Mondoñedo and its breathtaking valley and continued the climb up, I was happy that I decided to forgo a free ride and stick to my plan to walk the entire way to Santiago.

Halfway up the mountain, which was a climb of eight kilometers, Santine and Claude were stopped, talking to a woman on a rickety chair dressed entirely in black. Two small boys rode bicycles in the small hamlet behind her. She pointed to a cemetery down the rode with a dozen headstones. ‘They’ve all left. I’m all there is,’ she lamented.

Reaching Lousada meant we were nearly to the top of the mountain, and even then there was another hour of walking. We tried to animarnos with a bit of cheese and chocolate, and I’m pretty sure we both cried that day of physical pain and exhaustion. The inn was once again full, meaning walking to the next town, Abadín, and paying for a hotel room.

…to be continued.

Want more? My flickr page has every photo you could ever want to see, and I’m working on my first video! In the meantime, you can watch Hayley’s Camino video and tear up when I do when arriving to the Obradoiro (or laugh at how excited I get about a plate of lentejas)! To learn more about the Camino de Santiago, check out my resources page, or get your FAQs answered by Trevor of A Texan in Spain.

My Camino Playlist

I have to admit that I’m a little embarrassed about the way I’m going to be doing the Camino. I’ll not only be carting my gear and clothing, but I’ll be pretty connected – I’m bringing my new GoPro Hero3 Black (thanks, Dad!!), my point and shoot Panasonic (mayyyybe Camarón so I can actually get nice shots), my smartphone and their chargers to capture my journey to Santiago.

And I can’t part from my iPod. Music has been a cherised friend since I was a kid, so I couldn’t imagine setting my 200+ miles to tunes. I’m the nostalgic type that connects songs to special moments, special people. I’m walking for Kelsey and other kids and their families, and I’m walking for me. I’ve spent alternate hours updating my iPod with a few songs especially for my Camino For the Kids:

It’s Gonna Be (500 Miles) – The Proclaimers

Ok, so it’s only 200 miles that I’m walking, and if time allowed, I’d do more. I’m already imagining the blisters, sore muscles and joints and complaining I’ll be doing throughout, but in the end, it’s all For the Kids.

Lean on Me – Bill Withers

Dance Marathon, the cause I’m supporting, is a 24-hour marathon of strength and mental grit. During the last two hours, the DJs turn up the music and we boogie down, using every last ounce of energy until we’re finally able to sit and rest after 23 hours. Just before 7pm on Saturday, when the total amount of money raised is shown, everyone joins together, arm in arm, to sing this song. We all need somebody to lean on once in a while, right?

Swim – Jack’s Mannequin

Andrew McMahon, frontman of Jack’s Mannequin and formally Something Corporate, underwent treatment for leukemia in 2005 while preparing the band’s first tour. After beating it,  he began a non-profit called The Dear Jack Foundation to raise funds for pediatric cancer. This song has quickly become a favorite, with its central message begging to just keep your head up and swim.

Walk on the Wild Side – Lou Reed

Reminding you to dare to do something different, to push your boundaries and to inspire others. I will not, however, change my sex as the song suggests.

Dire Straits – Walk of Life

One of Dance Marathon’s mottos is “Dance For Life.” I haven’t been able to dance for six years, but I can still Walk For Life.

Two Step – Dave Matthews Band

I love the central theme of this song – Celebrate we will, cuz life is short, but sweet for certain. I remember how excited Kelsey was to turn 21 and finally be able to go out with her older sisters and friends for a Long Island. Such a shame her 21st was her last birthday, so I try to have a long island when I find them in Spain for her.

The Show Must Go On – Queen

My boots are bought, my bag soon to be completed and we’ve got a place at the beginning and end of the Camino. Come what may, there’s no stopping us!

Don’t Stop Believing – Journey

This is far and away one of my favorite songs. I know the Camino will have hard days – terrain, weather and emotions may get the best of me – but arriving to Santiago has been a dream of mine since 2005. This year was a marathon with loads of fruits, so it’s time to give back and believe in other causes.

Any ideas for what I should have on my playlist, Camino-related or otherwise? You can learn more about my Camino on my Why I’m Walking post, donate a few bucks to The Children’s Miracle Network and University of Iowa Dance Marathon, and join my Facebook page for more updates and information on the Camino de Santiago. Thank you all so much for your overwhelming support over the past few months! #CaminoFTK

The Camino for the Kids is made possible by the following sponsors. I have some received gear and lodging, though I have not been paid in any way for this article:

China 6: Universiade and The long journey home

The city of Harbin is nearly three times the size of Chicago, population-wise at least, so we couldn’t even tell you in what direction the river was from our hotel, nor Beijing for that matter. My dad suggested we get a bird’s-eye view of the city from the Dragon Tower, one of the 25 tallest buildings in the world and the telecommunications center for northeast China. After the Berkowitzes and we paid nearly 20 bucks a piece to ride an elevator, climb some rickety stairs and barely see a few blocks ahead of us because of the smog. My dad really didn’t get the view he wanted, but we did give Ellen a little bit of a scare because of her fear of heights. She did a quick lap around the top and went inside to look at the butterfly collection.

The new ice sports complex wasn’t more than a 15 minute walk, but the clear day was mistakenly took for a warm day, and we suffered because of it. The two rink are connected by a long tunnel lines with inflatable Dong Dongs and the hotel in front of them made us pass through security and metal detectors just to make it into the lobby! We had originally only wanted to stay for the 10-minute practice, but because of a lack of good information, we were told we may not be allowed to enter for the competition. This was at 12:50 p.m. and synchronized skating wasn’t scheduled to start until 9:30 p.m. Instead of taking risks, my family decided to stay and I was thankfully to have brought a book and snacks (we were also told there would be no food, so Nance and Linder brought cheese, crackers, chips and fruit).

Margaret’s team skated third to Roxanne from Moulin Rouge. In the collegiate division, they skate just one program that’s about 7 minutes long and is creative and includes a lot of lifts and stunts. The short program, which is about four minutes and much more technical and precise, consists of compulsory moves that a team must complete – big moving circles that cover 75% of the ice, for example, or a backwards pass. Out of the five teams competing, they came in fourth after the short program for not having all of their moves counted. But, you have to give them credit for learning a new program while perfecting another one for national championships. The girls were upset, but I thought it looked cool and everyone stayed on their feet.

The next morning, my dad and I headed to a Confucious Temple in town. It’s on a pedestrian street, and the first thing I noticed was that the people were actually fat. Not fat in comparison to Americans, but fat in comparison to the other Chinese we’d seen. The temple was masked by a heavy cloud of incense, as people used giant pits to burn incense in paper bags while saying prayers to giants Buddhas placed all over the complex, which is bigggg. In the middle, there’s a giant golden guy and people left food offerings at his feet. The buildings that ring around him have the traditional tiers and dragon riding kings, which made me feel like we’d escaped the city. Then, upon leaving, we saw a monk wearing crocs and talking on a cell phone. And people think China is cut off to the rest of the world!

We met Helen and Larry for an early dinner at the Russian restaurant we’d eaten at a few days before, where I ordered the exact same thing, and headed to the rink for the end of ladies free skate. We sat much closer this time, so we could see every finger on the skaters’ hands as they landed jumps and spun out of spins. For the long skate, the girls skated second, after Switzerland. They had these AWFUL pepto bismal pink dresses and danced to Mamma Mia! and it was a fun program. The hockey team came to cheer them on and many of the spectators behind us took flags to participate. Margaret didn’t skate this program, but she did get on the ice to pick up sequins that had fallen. The finished fourth behind Sweden, Finland and Russia, despite not being the senior team. They were disappointed not to medal, but just recently won the National title at the nationwide collegiate competition. I was especially proud of Margaret because she was cut from the team her sophomore year and won a spot back on the team by dedicating a lot of time to working out and passing skating tests.

Our wakeup call the following morning was 4:30 a.m., and it was even colder than we could have imagined. One of the other dads was nice enough to preorder breakfast for us, so we had fruit and dim sum and sausages and thermoses of coffee. The Harbin airport is goofy city. There was hardly anything written in English, so we couldn’t figure out which ticketing counter belonged to our flight back to Beijing and ended up being pushed to the end of the line with a bunch of other athletes. The security checks were seperated into three parts – ticket and ID, bags and finally body searches. This wasted enough time to get us to the gate with just 2o minutes to boarding.

Once in Beijing, we were met at the gate by an army of Harbin Universiade athletes. I had a four-hour layover and wanted to stay with my family for a little while before heading out, but the volunteers practically pulled me away from them to get the bus to another terminal. They all seemed a little disoriented, so I kept getting handed off from one to another. Finally, I found myself with a tall, skinny boy and another girl. They offered to carry all of my bags, convinced I was an athlete despite my objections. They rode the bus with me even though I assured them it wasn’t necessary and I could get there on my own. The queue at Air France was long, so I once again told them they could leave, but they instead checked me in at the Business Class counter and tried to upgrade my seat before accompanying me all the way to the gate.

The 10.5 hour flight passed without sleep, so by the time I got to Paris, changed terminals, had my passport stamped assuring I got into the EU (at which point I realized my French lessons were COMPLETELY worthless because I couldn’t tell the man, “J’habite dans l’Espagne” when he asked why I was going to Spain), then going through security again and having a man tell me our government didn’t spend money properly, I realized I was completely wiped. I could barely keep my eyes open waiting and listening to music, so I grabbed the cookbook my sister gave me. I got on a shuttle to the plane and started hearing Spanish. FINALLY a language I understand and can express myself in! I recognized one of the other passengers from the airport in Beijing and smiled weakly, still overcome by my heavy eyelids and the fact that I’d been up well over 20 hours. He was speaking on his mobile and said, “There’s a girl here coming from Beijing, too. I think she’s foreign because she’s reading a book in English about Spain. She must be going to Spain for tourism purposes.” So I broke out some Spanish slang to tell him I was returning to my curro, or work, in Sevilla.

We talked for a bit (I think his name was Jorge? I was so asleep at that point I could barely string a few sentences together!) and I wished him a good trip. Turns out he was sitting right next to me. Que casualidad, right? We talked for the whole trip before he told me, “Tienes cara de sueno” – you look tired. You think? Once we arrived in Barajas, he offered to accompany me by metro because he lives a stop away from the bus station. I accepted and grabbed my bag from the luggage claim. As we were leaving, a study abroad student chased me down and said, I think you have my bag. I apologized and said mine was the same size and color and I had completely neglected to read the tag. He said, “I asked if there was another big, blue backpack that had arrived and they said no.” AWESOME. It’s 24 hours after I left Harbin and I have no bag and a six-hour bus ride to endure before getting to my bed.

Jorge helped me with the baggage claim simply because I was too tired to speak. My cell phone needs to be unlocked every time it’s switched on by a four-digit pin, but it had somehow become locked while in China and I had to enter a bar code used to activate the card. So when she asked for the phone number so the airline could deliver my bag (which was chilling out in Paris still), I tried to give her my home line. I of course couldn’t remember it, nor did it do any good to give her Kike’s number since he was in Somalia. I started crying out of exhaustion and frustration. The good news was my bag had been located and I had a light load to take on the metro, which has a transfer. By the time I got on the overnight bus from Mendez Alvaro a few hours later, I passed out, only waking up in Ecija, a mere hour from Sevilla.

I have never been happy to get back to Spain. The more I travel and the more of the world I see, the more I feel at home in Sevilla and the more I like even the most bothersome things. I’ll put up with beauracracy and moscas if it means I can drink beer at 11 am every day and get to swear at my kids when I’m frustrated!

For pictures of China and the rest of the year, check out http://sunshineandsiestas.shutterfly.com .

Lost and Found in Spain: Susan Solomont talks her book about being an ambassador’s wife abroad

Serendipity. A random occurrence of events that happens casually or unexpectedly.

Not that my run-ins with Spanish bureaucrats have been serendipitous, but as I looked back on 12 years of Spain through rosy colored glasses (or just a Cruzcampo haze), I realize that so many of the relationships and milestones of my Spain life have been a series of coincidences. From my hearing casually about the auxiliar de conversación job to meeting the woman who would introduce me to the Novio (who happened to live around the corner from family back in Chicago) to how we named Millán.

I recently met with Susan Solomont, a former diplomat to the American mission in Spain, for coffee and a chat on a rainy morning in Seville. Her literary agent had put us in contact months before, but between our schedules and the time difference, a well-timed email meant that we could meet the following week during the Solomont’s annual trip to Spain instead of connecting over Skype. Serendipitous, indeed.

beautiful old door in Europe

In many ways, her husband’s appointment as ambassador to Spain under Obama was just that – a happy coincidence and the chance to serve her country’s diplomatic mission abroad. Spain and the US have long enjoyed a positive relationship, so despite the frantic preparations to arrive at Calle Serrano, 75 and all of the minutiae of being a diplomat’s wife, Susan’s journey was, like mine, full of small but bountiful coincidences.

My reporter’s notebook – a relic of the days when I planned to be a journalist and had a heavy interest in Washington – stayed shut as we filled an hour with conversation that carelessly flitted between topics – touching on politics (got that right out of the way), sharing our favorite places in Spain and musing about raising children to be kind and forward-thinking.

In her book, Lost and Found in Spain – Adventures of an Ambassador’s Wife (you can nab it on AmazonBarnes and Noble or Indie Bound), Susan starts off with an anecdote before delving into an aspect of Spanish identity, from cultural to religious to historical. In many ways, Susan’s inception of the news she’d be headed to Spain, her apprehensions over the move and settling into her new life mirror my own, just revved up on Cola Cao Turbo. I felt moved by the shared experience and wanting to learn more about life in Barrio Salamanca – just a few blocks from my house but somehow worlds away.

Susan Solomont headshot

Susan graciously answered my questions via email so that she could enjoy snuggling Millán and tell me about her own children while I sipped my fourth coffee of the morning over our chat.

Can you speak about how your letters to loved ones back home evolved into a book?

When I lived in Spain I wrote a series of letters I called Holas. They started as personal letters to keep in touch with my 13 closest friends. They started to go viral, and I started writing more about our life as diplomats. They were more informative than personal and they ended up reaching over 3000 people.

Leon Square Spain

A literary agent friend who received them encouraged me to put them into a book. She said to me, “A book of letters is not a book. You need a beginning, a middle, an end. Tell a story”.

It took me two years to write the book and two years to find a publisher. These things take time and finally, in 2018, the book came out.

Your transition to Spain was not a smooth one, despite training and assistance from the Department of State. Looking back, what could you have done to prepare yourself for the post?

The transition to Spain had its highs and lows. I was not able to bring my professional work to Spain and instead had to work hard to forge my own identity – hence the “Lost” part of the title. Plus I was away from family and friends and my community. The “Found” part – I found my role, my voice, my place in the Embassy community and Spanish community.

Our Department of State (DOS) is changing [sic and] can find roles for spouses and partners. Perhaps now I could have brought my professional work with me, but in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t.

No doubt, an ambassador’s job takes you to many interesting places across Spain for various functions, several of which you detail in your book – I particularly liked the story of Jerez del Marquesados. What was your favorite? And is there somewhere you didn’t get to that you wish you could have visited?

view of Trujillo, Extremadura

I’m often asked what is my favorite place in Spain. Impossible to answer, I love so many places. We traveled everywhere in the country. It is so special that I know each region and have visited. I do have a particular fondness for Extremadura and its countryside. I also love Mallorca. The color of the water, the beauty of the Tramuntana countryside.

One day I will return to walk part of the Camino.

An ambassador’s life or his wife’s seems glamorous. What were your days actually like?

Our days were very busy. People assume this is a job where you are socializing all the time. Yes, we were constantly meeting people, but it’s not fancy teas and dinner parties. The work was political, economic and cultural. We also were there for Americans living abroad and traveling. We worked long and hard days advancing the agenda of the US [in Spain], sharing cultural values and strengthening the bilateral relationship.

Holidays can be both memorable and difficult times for those of us in Spain. I celebrate July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas in my house, which my husband and his family willingly take part in. How has your view on American culture changed since your assignment?

When we lived in Spain we celebrated all American holidays and also celebrated Jewish holidays both with our Jewish friends in Spain as well as non-Jewish friends. Our July 4th celebration was very special. We served hot dogs and hamburgers, had an American rock n’ roll band, danced the night away and celebrated the US’s birthday.

american products thanksgiving

Halloween- I used to host a doggy Halloween party where embassy staff would dress their dogs up and come play on the lawn. Our Marine Unit had a Halloween party as well.

And Christmas- we had the most fantastic tree, decorated in Spanish and American flags.

There are many Spanish stereotypes flirting around Spain and the Spanish lifestyle – I’m guilty, having lived in the land of toros and tapas! Are there any that you found utterly false, or even alarmingly true?

bullfighting in Seville Spain

YES— we wanted people to know that siestas, bullfights and flamenco are not the norms. Spain is a modern democracy that works hard. Perhaps on a weekend someone might take a siesta. Or perhaps there are people who go to the bullfights but not everyone likes them. And the same for flamenco.

Spain and the US enjoy a strong relationship, and each sees the power and mutual benefit in these relations. Were you met with any hostility as part of yours and Alan’s mission while in Madrid?

Not at all. We were embraced by Madrid and all of Spain. People would stop me on the street and say, “I love your country, I love President Obama”.

Have you been back to Spain since 2013? What is your first stop in Madrid?

metro of Madrid

We come back at least once a year. We always spend time in Madrid. We get very busy seeing old friends and eating and drinking too much. We always need a vacation after our time here.

I had to glance at my watch to keep a well child check up, but Susan’s second coffee date of the morning arrived shortly before I had to duck out. Juan and I have always had a case of six degrees of separation – we have about a dozen people in common – but on that rainy, midweek morning, finally gave one another dos besos. Another serendipitous moment (appease me, please).

Chance led both Susan and I to Spain, and despite our moments of both feeling lost, we found ourselves – and, funnily enough, one another – through its people, culture and food and wine.

Susan Solomont titles

Susan and her agent graciously provided me with a PDF copy of Lost and Found in Spain, but all opinions expressed here are my own and were not contingent upon meeting Susan. I enjoyed its lighthearted tone – it does read like a long form letter in many sections – and its reflections on Spanish life and culture through an American lens. You can find more about the book and her companion’s children’s book, Stella the Ambassadog (adorable!), on her author webpage.

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