Merry Navidades from Sunshine and Siestas!

I am admittedly the biggest Scrooge when it comes to Christmas, but there is nothing quite like being home for the holidays. 

merry christmas from cat

Well, home isn’t really the mountains, but it may as well should be. I’m not only getting my Rocky Mountain High, but snuggling up to peppermint bark, ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas and plenty of teasing from my family. After eight Christmases in four countries and six cities, I’ve got a white Christmas and a serious lack of carols (which I loathe).

No matter where you are, how you celebrate or how many polvorones you stuff in your belly, season’s greetings and all the best for 2015. I have no clue what is in store for me (fingers crossed it’s fiscal responsibility and the Novio showing up at our wedding, at least), but am happy to have you all along for it.

Felices fiestas, y’all! 

Reflections in Valladolid (or, the Weird Sensation of Returning to Your Study Abroad City)

Alejandro didn’t even need to tell me where to turn. As soon as I’d passed the Valladolid city limits, I went into autopilot and followed the roads I used to walk as a study abroad student in the capital of Castilla y León. Easing into third, I made my way past the bullring and Campo Grande, along the Rosaleda and the Pisuerga river to Plaza San Pablo, smack in the middle of the historic city. Alejandro was shocked that, nearly a decade after I studied there, I knew Valladolid better than he did.

He also found it hilarious that I remembered my first glimpse of the former Spanish capital – a boy peeing on a tree. A sign of the things to come, I guess. We had a good laugh as I navigated the wide avenues of Pucela.

I parked off of Avenida de Palencia in a square I’d pass through on our my to the university every morning, handing him his bags and giving the standard dos besos as I wished him well. He suggested having a beer, and I was only a few blocks from my host family’s new apartment, but I needed some time to soak up the city where it all started.

the historic center of valladolid

I walked from Avenida de Palencia past the National Sculpture Museum at Plaza San Pablo. Stood next to La Antigua and  in the shadow of the cathedral as the sun inched high into the sky. I was hoping to have a glass of wine in a bar I’d once nipped into, but the blustery November day meant that most things were closed. It was like a metaphor for everything I’d heard about pucelanos before I lived there – closed off and shuttered.

My feet led me back towards Plaza Mayor and its stately buildings and beautiful town hall; my stomach led me to Los Zagales, where my ears were treated to castellano. Just as I was paying and putting on my jacket, a hail storm erupted and the bartender smiled as he gave me another dos dedos of wine. Closed off? Maybe, but stingy the locals are not.

The hail suddenly slowed and then stopped, and I whirled around looking for what I knew would come next: a rainbow, stretched just behind the statue of the sacred heart. 

Plaza Mayor of Valladolid

Aurora’s whatsapp came just as I walked in front of Sotobanco, our favorite bar. She asked how the driving had gone and if I’d like to meet her and her mother to pick up Lucía, Aurora’s eight-year-old daughter. Again, my feet traced the city streets, slick with rain.

Older Aurora grabbed my hand and led me towards Plaza de la Universidad, literally tracing back the steps we’d taken when she first picked me up from the bus when we were assigned host mothers on that day back in May 2005. Back then, she seemed aloof, soft-spoken and overly Catholic. In these nine years, she’s become more than the woman who washed my clothes and made me tortilla.

When we arrived at Plaza de la Universidad to meet Lucía’s school bus, I reminded old Aurora of when I’d been on the bus, the last student to be chosen by a host mother. Be it luck or destiny, she smiled and clasped my hand tightly. “Sí, Cati, lo recuerdo.” The rain began again, a site I’d not seen in Valladolid ever – not when I studied abroad, nor on my subsequent visits.

Reflections of Study Abroad in Spain

The following morning, Aurora and I took Lucía to a children’s workshop in the newly inaugurated Auditorio Miguel Delibes, near the Real Valladolid Stadium. Sitting high above the Parquesol subdivision and a hill that slopes down gently towards the river, I contemplated the cold, gray day, and the nine yeas that had passed since my first moments in Spain.

The city of Valladolid itself didn’t seem to have changed since 2005, save the weather. Back then, we’d spend our afternoons next to the manmade beach, eating ice cream and drinking beer on the argument that it was cheaper than water (viva España).

Now, as I buried my nose in my scarf, I had to breathe a sigh of relief that this place, so emblazoned in my heart and my head and my first digital camera’s memory card, has remained largely the same. The hue of Plaza Mayor was the same fiery red, the naked statue in front of the post office still made me giggle, and the dollar store where we’d meet every morning to walk to class together called Los Gatos was open, despite slowing business in La Rondilla.

ayuntamiento de Valladolid

Returning to Valladolid is always a strange swarm of memories – the euphoria of discovering a new culture and language coupled with the then-debilitating homesickness and language barriers, namely – but Younger Aurora wields a bottle of local wine and two glasses.

A tí, Cati,” she says, pouring me a hefty glass, “and to this Spanish American life you’ve created.” Little does she know just how important she was to making it so. I hand her a Save the Day card and her eyes glaze over, but we toast and gulp down the wine, catching up on the changes our lives have seen in these few years.

Did you study abroad? Have you been back to visit since? If so, what were your impressions?

How Greek Life Made Me a Better Expat

I am a member of Alpha Delta Pi and came home to ADPi more than ten years ago to the Alpha Beta Chapter at the University of Iowa (my chapter turns 100 next January!). As trite as it may sound, Greek life made my college experience for more rounded, fun and significant – and it’s helped me to adapt to expat life in many ways.

source

My dad, former president of local fraternity Sigma Nu Chi at St. Norbert’s College, encouraged me to rush. Indeed, all of his cousins joined him at ENX, as well as his middle brother. Joining a sorority could make a big school seem more manageable, he claimed. Is Greek Life right for me? was never a question that crossed my mind – the social, leadership-craving me wanted it.

Choosing to go to college with several of my high school classmates could have been a big disaster, but as several of my WWS classmates and I sat on Beth’s futon after our first day of recruitment, I had already narrowed down by choices to three houses. As the week went on, my choice was clear: I wanted to go ADPi. I pledged in 2003 after recruitment week.

I have wonderful memories of playing tricks on one another in the Pi house, of coordinated dance routines for Greek Week and Homecoming (please, I got to play Peg in a Napolean Dynamite routine), of volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in Iowa City. Several of my sisters have come to visit me in Spain, and thanks to social media, I still feel involved in their lives.

And it was my sister Aly who encouraged me to study abroad! On my first day of university classes, she called me from across a lecture hall in Spanish class, and we became instant friends, both studying abroad in Valladolid.

While speaking about Greek Life to Spaniards, it’s a hard concept to fully explain. It’s like subtracting the religious part of an hermandad and adding kalimotxo to some degree, but it’s so uniquely North American that most shrug it off as another thing we Americans do, like tractor pulls and fireworks on the 4th.

But despite all of that, Alpha Delta Pi has been a significant part of my life as I served many positions – including Membership Education Vice President on the Executive Board – and sought out the advice and shoulders of my sisters. 

As I prepared to enter the real world, I knew that Europe was my path, and that my leadership training with ADPi had given me a solid kick in the pants when it led to starting a life abroad.

Conversation Skills

My birthday always fell during recruitment week, which was as awesome (100+ singing you happy birthday all at once) as it was not. For hours, we’d spend time getting to know women interested in Greek life, telling them about our sisterhood and finding ways to connect with total strangers. Through those countless informal chats, I’ve found that having well-honed conversation skills is a must for any professional today.

Now that I live in a different country and often travel by myself, I have a constant turnover of friends and acquaintances. Aspiring expats and new arrivals reach out to me through my blog, and I’m often out meeting someone for a coffee or caña. The one thing we have in common is usually Spain, so I read up on what’s happening in my adopted city and country and always have a story on hand to ease into those awkward first moments. Just as transitions into conversations during recruitment can be unnerving, so can meeting people.

It was then that I also realized how much first impressions count, and that intuition can go far. Sure, there’s the aspect of recruitment which means telling a woman she’s not right for your group of friends (in the most stripped-down sense of recruitment, that is), but following your gut is really what it’s all about. And the same goes for choosing a sorority to call home.

Moving abroad to teach in a program like the auxiliares de conversación is a lot like going away to college – there are other people just like you who are uncertain, homesick and looking to make friends. Just as you’d leave your dorm room door open, life as an expat means leaving a figurative puerta open to tapas, drinks and weekend trips.

In those blurred first weeks in Spain, I felt I really didn’t connect with a lot of people. Most of them had studied abroad together, so I was the one left feeling like the transfer student who didn’t understand the local lingo. It wasn’t until I had an easy conversation with two other American girls that I got that gut feeling that I had found new friends.

My intuition served right – Kate, who lived around the corner from my aunt in another Chicago suburbs just as she lived around the corner from me in Triana, introduced me to the Novio a few weeks later.

Social Responsibility and Philanthropy

On the third day of recruitment, we learned about ADPi’s national philanthropy, the Ronald McDonald House. As someone who volunteered throughout high school, I knew that I wanted service to be a big part of my college years. Apart from weekly volunteering, fundraising and participating in other philanthropic events at other chapters.

One of the best ways I volunteered my time in college was by joining Dance Marathon, a student-run philanthropy that raises money for the Children’s Hospital of Iowa. A good number of hours went weekly into fundraising efforts, into visiting kids at RMH or the hospital and into the logistics of running an event with more than 1,000 people. Along with Alpha Delta Pi, it was one of the better decisions I made in college, and something I was happy to make time for.

Now that I’m abroad, I found it impossible to not work with kids, and not just because that’s the easiest profession to get into in Iberia. I never thought I’d say it, but teaching is a perfect fit more my personality. What’s more, social responsibility is ever-present in my mind. I work to teach values to my young students, from recycling to manners to animal care. I encourage my older students to volunteer or spend time with their grandparents when they could be whatsapping.

It was also for a one of my Dance Marathon kids that I chose to walk the Camino de Santiago. I completed 200 miles on the Northern Route in memory of Kelsey, spreading the word about pediatric cancer care in the US and handing out purple and orange ribbons – the colors of leukemia and sarcoma awareness. I even raised $500 that was earmarked directly to an organization I care deeply about. In fact, many families I came into contact with through Dance Marathon used the nearby Ronald McDonald House while their child was undergoing treatment. It was like everything came full circle.

Now back in Spain for the school year, I hope to find more volunteer opportunities.

(if you’re interested in learning more or even donating to the University of Iowa Dance Marathon, please click here)

The Importance of Taking Care of Your Friends

ADPi’s motto sums it all up: We Live For Each Other.

Living under one roof with so many friends certainly bred strong friendships, and my sisters were there for me when I needed it the most. Most notably, when my maternal grandfather died during finals week, a few of my closest in the house took me for a midday Dairy Queen and kept me company while I sobbed through “Elf” when they should have been studying. I had people to advise me on everything from classes to take to job searching tips just a few feet away. My best memories of Iowa City were usually with “the girls from my house.”

The longer I live abroad, and now that I’ve made a decision to buy a house and make Spain my permanent home, the more I realize how important my friends are to me. With my family so far away, I lean on the Novio’s family and my group of guiri girlfriends to gripe to, to share Thanksgiving with.

Alpha Delta Pi taught me the value of friendship, the kind that goes further than hanging out for a coffee or a bite. With my Spain girlfriends, we’ve endured engagements and break ups, promotions and being laid off, the struggle to decide if we’re doing the right thing or if we’re with the right person. I know I could call up my closest friends in Seville if I ever needed something, even if they don’t live down the hall in the Pi house. Making time for them means sometimes having to shut out other guiris, but cultivating those friendships is far more important.

I joined a sorority for, above all else, the camaraderie, and perhaps that’s what I most got out of my four years in college.

I always knew it, but it became more real when I took the Novio to my chapter house and recounted the stories of pranks, of late nights studying or talking and showed him our composites and where I used to sleep in Third Quad. Many aspects of my life had been shaped through my Greek experience at Iowa through more than just socials, date parties and philanthropies.

Somehow, I ended up in Spain, far away from my sisters and their growing families, but I felt just as close to them as I did when we were all in school.

Were you Greek? How has that experience impacted your life? If you weren’t, was there any significant aspect of your college years that shaped you?

Three Things I’ll Miss From the USA, and Two I Won’t

The plane took off on the first clear Chicago day in a week, passing over I-294 and seeming to hang just for a few moments in the air. I could faintly make out the skyline a few miles away, and as the thin clouds enveloped the plane. 

They say parting is such sweet sorrow, and my eyes certainly pricked with tears as I pulled the curtain and the plane rose higher, bound for Boston, then Santiago de Compostela and finally Madrid.

And I’m sitting in a Starbucks right now – what does that tell you about wanting to leave America?

For 40 glorious days, I walked my dog, I took advantage of having a dryer and I zoned out in front of Bravo for hours on end. Well, that, as well as planning a wedding, entertaining the Novio on his trip out here, and making sure to not gain too much weight. Forty days, by any measure, is not a long time, but it was heavenly (once I got over the reverse culture shock, that is): The pulse of the big city, the warm hugs of friends, the brilliance of a home cooked meal.

Even with the stress of the new house and a huge, bilingual party to plan, it was so comforting to be home with my family for the first time in two years. As someone who will be perpetually straddling the Atlantic – and thus two languages, two cultures and two continents – having two months off to visit is something I appreciate about teaching. I will never have it all, and I’ll always miss things about one home when I’m in the other. Call it my personal expat dilemma.

Usually, I’m ready to board a plane and head back to the land of 1€ beers and the social acceptance of a midday nap, but this time was different. I was sad to leave, finally feeling settled and comfortable. Apparently a few friends echoed that sentiment:

There are several things my heart will ache for once back in the Madre Patria, like

Craft Beer

I am in love with the idea that beer doesn’t have to taste like the beer of my college days, but can be full of hops or taste like a handful of blueberries. Trips to the basement for a bottle for me and my dad with dinner often resulted in me brining up four or six varieties so that we didn’t settle into a routine. I drank my fair share of microbrews, visited three local breweries and smuggled New Glarus – the darling and a new favorite – across the Wisco-Illinois border for the sake of my younger sister.

My father swears he drank more in those 40 days than he had since last summer. The Novio, despite a new love of wheat beers, was disappointed when his beer didn’t really taste like beer.

And I feel that way about coffee, for that matter. When I walked into a gorgeous little coffee shop to meet my wedding photographer, I stared blankly at the menu for maybe 90 seconds before the guy behind the counter offered to help. His bone dry cappuccino was exactly what I needed.

America, you have endless choices, but this little guiri was overwhelmed. But, really, I will be excited to just order a beer and not have anyone ask me what brand, what size and what the hell they’re thinking for charging so much. Cruzcampo, I am waiting for you.

Wi-fi everywhere

I had forgotten what it was like to be able to connect to wi-fi anywhere in the USA. Seville’s half-assed attempt to put in hot spots has reduced it to, well, Starbucks. For someone whose mobile battery lasts about an hour, this saved me during endless errands for the wedding and friends who thought I’d adopted the Spanish habit of being late to everything.

My friends. My wonderful, hilarious friends.

I don’t really miss American much when I’m in Spain, but I do really, really miss my friends. Cheers to every single one of you for making the time to see me, even for a quick drink at happy hour or a ten-minute chat on the phone.  It was especially telling when I announced that the Novio wouldn’t be at the engagement party my parents threw us, and we ran out of the keg her in 90 minutes because my friends still came.

Being home is like an endless carousel of meals out and money spent, but every penny of it was worth it. I love being able to fall easily into a conversation, even after so many months away. Suffice to say, I am already looking forward to being back home next year and throwing a huge party with all of my nearest and dearest.

And then there are a few American annoyances that I won’t miss:

Driving

Ugh, if I didn’t drive again for forty days, it would be too many. On the multiple trips to see friends, to interview vendors and venues for the wedding and to visit family (plus the road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa City twice each, as well as Indiana), I must have spent a whole week trapped in the confines of my mom’s 2004 Plymouth van.

I love the convenience of having a car in Spain, but I’m already looking forward to breaking out my bike and walking to meet friends or go to work. Traffic and gas prices are just a pain.

The Food

Now, I won’t miss all-beef hot dogs or sweet corn on the grill, but I am ready to eat food that isn’t laden with artificial colors and flavors. Those strawberries my dad bought me the first weekend? They’ve only begun to sprout mold. And the yoghurt I got for breakfast at the hotel? I took one bite and pushed it away, convinced it was just a combination of chemicals.

Since adding preservatives to food or livestock is illegal in the EU, I feel heavier and unhealthier after six weeks back home in Chicago. One thing I love about Spain is the cuisine, and knowing that a banana from Canarias is, in fact, a banana from Canarias makes me feel better about my average daily intake of food.

When my plane rolled into Barajas a few hours ago, the depression of going back to work and having to start paying for my groceries seemed to evaporate. Even with a serious lack of craft beer, I’ll be happy to have a plain old café con leche and stay off my phone when catching up with Spain friends.

How do you deal with being an expat when it comes to missing things? What do you miss about your home country when you’re gone, and vice versa?

Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock (or, why my country confuses me)

When my phone buzzed with a friend inquiring where I was, I had an excuse for being late: I was overwhelmed with being back in the US and had gone to get a coffee. Then I got overwhelmed again with how to order that and settled on whatever it was that the woman gave me.

“Yeah, sorry. America confused me, so I consoled myself with a gallon of coffee.” I then proceeded to be perplexed by the El’s new card system and nearly walked onto a southbound train rather than heading up to Lakeview.

Two weeks into my American foray, I’m still feeling like Cady Heron in ‘Mean Girls,’ and even my friends who have known me for years are puzzled by my being puzzled by America. I have become the adorable foreign girl who squeals over brunch, IPAs and oversized supermarkets and who answers the same questions day after day:

“You mean there’s internet in Spain?” Duh, how would I maintain this blog?!

“Let’s go for tacos! Wait, you’re probably sick of them.” I WISH I had that problem.

As I’m focusing on party planning and COMO launching, I find myself making rookie mistakes when it comes to American life. 

As my sister puts it: America, 364. Cat, 0. For the first time ever, I can honestly say that my American way of life is all but a thing of the past. Apparently 22 years count for next to nothing but my native tongue, and even that seems to be getting lost in a flurry of British expressions and colorful Spanish interjections.

Cash is all but a foreign concept

In Spain, I always carry cash on me and try not to use bills over 50€. In America, you can pay with your debit card, your cell phone and probably the promise of your first-born. As a matter of fact, I’ve only taken out money once in two weeks!

Condiments puzzle you

In a country where mayonnaise is king, this just made me nervous:

Ranch dressing on a Wisconsin brat? I just can’t.

You try to pay in any other currency but American dollars

Going along with the money issue, I’ve accidentally accounted out European coins or forked over my remaining 20€ bill for a gyro. The woman behind the counter gave me a confused look and then launched into an interrogation about how I got the money, how much a gyro platter would cost in Spain and do they even eat gyros over there? My food was practically cold when she was finished.

You ask silly questions like, “Can I use debit here?” or “How will we get groceries if it’s Sunday?”

My Spanish timetable is now a well-oiled machine, so getting a new cell phone on a Sunday and running to the grocery store at midnight is blowing my mind and upping my productivity.

People judge you for having a beer with lunch or wanting to sleep immediately after

In the US, I am usually the one who skips drinking with meals and only need a day or two to adjust to chow times and a conservative grandma, but not this time around. Naps and cervecitas still figure in to a part of my day.

Driving an automatic car is a challenge (and it’s twice the size of Monty)

I keep reaching for a gear shift and trying to push down the clutch. In fact, my sister told me I’d been demoted from driving after I got lost in O’Hare airport (which is one big loop) and was late picking her up. I should also say I’m driving a minivan, so that in of and itself merits a lunchtime beer and nap.

You walk away from a counter without tipping (and after freaking out over a) how big the beers are and b) how much they cost) 

You see, there’s a reason why I usually skip a midday beer – they’re costly! And then, once you factor in tip, it’s not even worth it.

America, pay your wage workers something decent so I don’t feel like a terrible person when I walk away when I forget to tip.

People say hi to you everywhere you go, and you give them your best sevillana stink face

I was the type of person to say hello any time I went into a store and I normally chat up strangers. You can imagine the surprise when people were allowing me to cross the street with my dogs or just waving hello. My confused face is strangely like my sevillana stink face.

It’s freezing

Afternoon showers and 75° weather? Wearing a jacket in late July? Lake effect? Chicago is cold, and I’m not adjusting to the air-con being on all the time.

The joy that is texting for free, and abusing that freedom

Americans have not embraced whatsapp – I’ll send my mom on my favorite free texting system, and she’ll respond with a text message rather than directly replying. I asked why, and she reminded me that texting plans are really generous. Oh, right.

Just as I’m starting to get settled in and remembering cultural cues, I realize that the Novio is coming to visit on Friday for two weeks, which means I’ll practically undo everything I’ve assimilated in these past few weeks. But it also means more siestas!

How are you adjusting to life in your home country after time abroad? Any good stories to share?

Americana Overload: A Weekend at Road America

It’s a family legend that my father took my mother to a swap meet on their first date. A blind date.

Nancy, a sworn non-drinker, coped by downing piña coladas before noon.

While Don hasn’t exactly passed along his love of old hot rods to his eldest, one of my favorite things to do with my dad is hit classic car shows in his ’57 Vette and scope out muscle cars.

When my dad mentioned my early arrival date would allow me to accompany him to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, I jumped at the chance. Things had been stressful since my grandpa’s passing, and I needed a few days’ break from a new house, issues with my Spanish bank and technology. I immediately cancelled plans I’d made with friends.

What I really needed was a good old dollop of Americana, the familiar lull of V8 motors and little else to do but stare at a lake with a beer in my hand.

When my dad went to college in Wisconsin, Elkhart Lake was halfway in between his hometown and his college town. For my entire life, he’s been spinning stories of the good old days when he and his friends would moon girls from the pier, stir up trouble at Siepkin’s Pub and sleep it all off the next day (yeah, I know, apple doesn’t fall from the tree). 

The town of Elkhart Lake sits along the north and west boundaries of the lake and was made famous in the 1950s, when road racing on the back county roads began to draw crowds. After a proper track was inaugurated in 1955, amateurs began racing vintage cars in time trials on the 4.5-miles track. Road America‘s classic car weekend is the biggest bash of the year, and the three days where my dad and his buddies meet up.

On Friday night, we met my Uncle Bill, cooler stocked full of beers, water and snacks for the weekend. The town was crawling with people – most decked out in Harley Davidson or Road America tees – with the token koozie and beer belly. After the hot rods roared through town, we carried our roadies down the main drag, where old-time, mom-and-pop shops sidled up to a curb-less road that once served as the finish line to the original road race.

Three bands rocked at the three bars, and after about a gazillion gallons of beer (what a sip of fresh air compared to two years of non-stop Cruzcampo), I belted out Journey until my voice was raw with my cousin and his friend.

Welcome home, Cat. 

My hangover the next morning was Unwelcome, but a reality as I sipped on a coffee without milk and watched the morning Milwaukee news. Don tossed me a hat and told me to get dressed to go see the track. I put on a cute dress and not-so-sensible shoes (though I would have done better with clothes that were way too tight and even LESS sensible shoes!).

“Oh, you meant go watch the races?” Oops. Apparently the time trials began at 7am, so we were running late. We paid $50 each to gain access, and my dad drove me right away to Turn 3 for the Ultimate breakfast sandwich. Capital U: a Sheboygan butter roll topped with Sargento cheddar and a specially made patty of bacon and brat. Doesn’t get any more ‘Sconsin than this sandwich.

Back in the ’70s when my dad and Ken would camp out at nearby Plymouth Rock, they’d watch the cars come down a shallow slope, nearly run themselves off the track at Turn 3, then speed off down the straightest part of the course. Back then, the course didn’t have barricades, and you could literally feel the cars rumbling in your chest.

I found the noise and the speed and the legendary rumble to be mesmerizing.

I followed my dad and uncle to the Pit and to a Bud heavy, where we watched the finish line. Don kept track of the leading cars around the six-lap track, where I just thought about how cool it was that he’d watch the course and its environs change over the last 40 years or so as I snacked on a Johnsonville Brat.

After two years of beginning to feel sevillana, one weekend, torque, and an endless array of condiments was all it took to remember I’m a corn-fed Midwesterner with a love of beef and hooch-mamma spotting.

What makes you feel really American when you’re home? Do you like going to car shows or car races?

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