On Letting Go & Floating On:  Musings from a Chronic Traveler

At lot has changed with me this week: I got married! The Novio and I finally said our Sí, quieros (albeit in English) in a bilingual, bicultural fiesta. In the US for the rest of the month, I’m gearing up to say adiós to a potential life in America and hello to a future in Spain.

There, I finally said it.

Danni, another Chicagoan-turned-española and a part of Las Morenas de España, sent me this article that I found myself nodding to. Do we have to say goodbye constantly to say hello to what we really want and maybe even need?

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I’m a chronic traveler. I’ve said “hello” and “good-bye” more times than I can count. The issue lies in the fact that I spent so many years holding onto my “home”, Chicago, because I was afraid that if I loosened my grip even in the slightest, I’d lose it forever. I felt my heart being pulled in several different directions spread out all over the globe, but I felt that if the anchor that held me to home budged even a little bit, that I’d have to address the fact that I see home in several places.

I tried to keep one foot in Chicago, and the other wherever my plane or train landed next, and I came to the realization that it’s hard. I assumed that the more time and distance I placed between myself and “home” the blurrier the memories, the weaker the connections and the further I’d drift out into open water. Little did I know that “home” is fluid, and that by allowing myself to drift ever so slightly, I don’t necessarily lose a home, but gain the ability to feel at home wherever I am.

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On Saying “So Long” in order to Say Hello:

That’s the funny thing about traveling: in order to say “hello” to someone, or some place new, you must first leave where you are, and that’s not always the simplest thing to do. It’s never easy taking those first steps to venture away from the comfy, cashmere snuggie that is your “now” and leave.

Whether you jumped from the cliff on your own will while screaming “Viva Wanderlust”, or you inched your way slowly with the help of family, friends, and travel-inspiration on Instagram, you did it. No matter how you arrived, or what made you leave: I commend you. You are brave. You are strong. You’ve done what others talked themselves out of doing, and spoke louder than the voice in your head, you know, the one that disguises itself as “logic”.  Hello. Hello to you, and welcome.

On Saying Hello:

Hello. Hola. Bonjour. Ciao. Ni Hao. Hallo. Habari. Shalom. However you say “hello” it means the same thing: I’m here, and I’m opening myself to you and my new surroundings. Even if your voice shakes, hello is an invitation for life to happen and for you to live. At times, hello is tiring, and it’s intimidating and it’s daunting.

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It’s an act of self-assertion. I’m here. It leads into those long conversations with people who start out as strangers and end up as friends. This word—these five letters—are crucial for the chronic traveler because combined with a smile, they can melt any ice. Saying “hello” for me is the first step that opens my heart to a new home, and stretches the ropes that tie me to my first home, where I was born and raised. Hello starts the game of tug-of-war that pulls me from here to there as I travel.

On Getting Situated:

What do you need to feel at home? Do you need familiar faces? Your favorite brand of cookies or candy? Do you need to hear a language that you can understand and speak? Do you need McDonald’s or are you more of a Burger King fan? What makes you feel at home: safe, happy, comfortable and at ease? I asked myself this question several times and this is what I’ve come up with:

  • Food: Vegetarian food, International cuisine, and American-style Brunch make me feel at home. I live on happycow.com because in my opinion, food and positive food experiences line the walls that make “home” for me. Sharing a meal, cooking with strangers in a hostel, shopping in local markets: this is a form of making memories that is essential to my feeling at home and content.
  • Jeans (with at least 2% spandex): I know, that’s really specific, but I mean it. I feel sexy and comfortable in jeans. I’ve lived in 4 countries and traveled to several more, and there is a direct and undeniable link between my ability to find jeans that make me feel my best, and my likelihood to live (happily) in a place. Okay, it’s not just about jeans; it goes a bit deeper. It means being able to shop, and feel like my size and my style is represented. It’s about the fact that I’m halfway across the world, and everything I’ve ever known, and still manage to participate in the mundane act of shopping. I feel those ropes that link me to “home” pull tighter because I realize that what I did there, I can do anywhere and what I’m trying to hold onto so tightly isn’t unique to that one place. That’s a sobering thought.
  • Community: I need community! I need friends, and friendly people with whom I can chat about everything, and about nothing. I yearn to look at my calendar and see that in X amount of days, there’s an event that I’m looking forward to attending, and with people that I genuinely want to see. That’s why I became involved with Las Morenas de España, a site for young, adventurous, WOC interested and/or living in Spain. I want to hug those who arrive at Barajas with looks of confusion, exhaustion and pure adrenaline and tell them that it’ll be ok, and that they’re home. Home, there goes that word again. It gets easier. Now, every time my heart extends its strings to form a new connection with a fellow chronic traveler, I feel my fists loosen and my mind relax slightly, which again, draws me further away from my home base, but I’m learning that’s okay. I tell those who lay down roots in Spain to collaborate, to reach out and to speak up because more likely than not, our narratives will overlap. I found so much in common with other women and travelers on a recent trip to Nantes, France than I ever could have imagined. I try to find community wherever I may travel, even if it’s for a weekend holiday: there are secrets to be revealed, experiences to be had, and people to meet.  Support one another, and build something great. To all the nomads, travelers, self-proclaimed wanderlust-havers: we are stronger together than we could ever be apart. Build. Create. Unite.

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On Saying Good-Bye:

There’s a certain ease and comfort of realizing that home is where you are in that moment. I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that it’s okay to loosen my grip, because that’s the only way to make space for new connections and links. The trouble with home is that it cannot be captured and contained. At times I feel pulled in a million different directions: Portugal, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Spain, America, France, Germany; all of these places, and the people I was blessed to cross paths with left an imprint on my heart. On the other hand, they also pulled the rope away from where I started, where I thought home had to exist.

How foolish I was to think that I could bottle home and keep it stagnant. It’s impossible. It’s unrealistic. Hello’s happen because good-bye’s happened first. With that being said, I’d like to remind you of the most beautiful thing I’ve learned as a chronic traveler: our heart is a muscle. Muscles require that you use them, and the more the use them, the bigger and stronger and more flexible they get. I can say now, with no fear or doubt that I find home—what I love about home—in every experience, new friend, adventure, hello and, the inevitable good-bye.

11822432_10152934229266533_4550720742415852319_nDanni, Community Director at Las Morenas de España, is a twenty-something, Chicago native currently residing in Madrid. Lover of language, words, and travel, she’s managed to combine all of her passions through her work. In her free time, you can find her exploring the winding streets of Madrid, hunting down good flight deals, planning her next adventure and writing & researching for LMDES. Danni loves spicy food, natural hair, music and of course, her wonderful life partner. If you need to find her, she’s the girl with huge hair and her face buried in her Kindle.

A word about Las Morenas de EspañaLas Morenas de España is redefining the Black experience in Spain. With stories, resources and insights and exclusive travel knowledge, Las Morenas is the ultimate destination for anyone with an interest in Spain.  This site is a space for diverse stories to be shared, community to be fostered and for people all over the world to have an inside guide to Spain, inspiring them to experience and enjoy the country in a way they never have before.

Sound off: can you empathize with Danni? 

Ten Weird Things to Know About Teaching in Spain

As the school year winds down, I often think about how I ended up here. Not physically in Spain – after a summer drinking more Kalimocho than water, it was a given I’d be back – but how I turned down a radio news job in Chicago to come to Spain and be a slave to Cambridge exams, student reports and surly teenagers.

Must Know About Teaching in Spain

For someone who was set on being a journalist since age 11, it shocked everyone to hear me utter, “I actually like teaching.”

Having not gotten an education degree, I was thrown to wolves that looked an awful lot like bored fourteen-year-olds and told to teach past simple irregular verbs during my first week as a maestra. After eight years, I’ve taught a range of levels, from three-year-olds who refuse to take a pacifier out of their mouths to oncologists whose questions had me stumped. I’ve run daycamps and language schools. I’ve handed out detentions and failing grades. And I’ve survived working in the Spanish public and private school system.

If I say one thing, let it be that teaching in Spain is a lesson in hilarity and it’s a lesson in learning to just let it go.

Cursive Numbers and Letters

“My name is Miss Cat” I stated to the 27 kiddos sitting in front of me, turning from writing in colored chalk on the blackboard. Most were picking their nose, leaning into the kid next to them or fiddling with something. “Can you read that?”

During my trial lesson at a school I’d later be employed at, I was not having much luck rousing up the kids, who were just back from recess on a hot September day. They were sluggish and not impressed, and I was beginning to panic that I wouldn’t be offered a job. Try planning a lesson for five-year-olds when you have no idea if they can even put on their jackets, let alone follow a lesson entirely in English.

I switched gears, and they seemed to liven up, and after a three-hour interview and another class, I was hired as the bilingual preschool teacher.

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And before I learned the names of my 150 new alumnos, I was introduced to the characters of Letrilandia and given feedback from my class: Your penmanship is terrible.

I’d never claimed to have perfect handwriting, but it’s legible (and by that time, I had three years of being a language assistant and had directed a summer camp). As it turned out, Spanish children learn to write cursive before they learn to print, and that not writing according to their system had my students confused my lowercase letters – the Bs became Fs, the Ss were Rs.

Additionally, my task of teaching numbers to 100 meant I had to start crossing my 7s and giving my 1s a bit of flair. Calling on the age-old “If you can’t beat them, join them,” I found it was easier to change my old habits than try to change theirs.

There are five continents, not seven, and Columbus is the President of America

Yes, what you just read. The entirety of the Americas are considered one continent, and Antarctic is just one big lump of wasted space.

As for the Columbus thing, there’s an entire day dedicated to the Spanish race on October 12th, the day the Italian-born explorer reputedly landed in the Bahamas. Working in a preschool for a very Spanish family, I was asked to dress up as a Native American (I opted for a sailor instead) and remind my students how Spain had done the world a service by “liberating” the natives during their numerous expeditions to the New World – all as the Spanish national hymn rung out for the whole morning. 

Spanish holidays are varied – from Peace Day in elementary school to Day Against Domestic Violence for the older lot, so embrace them. But please teach them that there are seven continents.

Lockers and Book bags

I came to teach in Spain right in the middle of the High School Musical craze. Apart from the folders emblazoned with Troy Bolton and endless questions about whether or not American high schools had glee clubs and pep rallies, I had students involve me in another plot: to convince the school’s director to install lockers.

Really, they had a point: high schoolers have a dozen subjects, some of which they have just once or twice a week. Backpacks sagged and kids would often turn up without materials. Lockers would have absorbed some of the noise in passing periods and helped correct premature stooping.

I got the last laugh when I played an April Fool’s joke on them, proclaiming there would be lockers for all.

As for school supplies: pencils come without eraser (evoking the endlessly hilarious, “Can I borrow a rubber?” request), kids like to doodle on themselves with sharpies and white out, and paper has a size. 

Lunchtime and Snack Time

When I taught preschool, my favorite time of the day was recreo, or recess. My zany babies could run and play while I sat on a bench getting Vitamin D, and they’d hand me their half eaten sandwiches, bananas and cookies. 

Midmorning snacks are far more common than eating lunch at public schools – in fact, my students were shocked when I told them that a part of my daily chores was making a brown bag lunch. Instead, students have a 30-minute recess that happens midmorning. Expect common areas of the school to be littered with wrappers and juice boxes. 

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Teaching as a conversation assistant meant that I could break out of school and have a coffee down the street with other teachers, and now that I work in the evenings, I avoid shopping between 11 and noon, lest I have to claw my way to the Polvillo for bread when teens from the school next door are ordering bocadillos.

If you’re placed in a private or concertado school, your students will sometimes stay for lunch in the mess hall, called a comedor. Run from the puré de garbanzos and the palitos de merluza!

Gossip

Walking into a newly assigned baccalaureate class after a schedule switch, I quickly introduced myself and began a lesson. I could hear the students snickering and immediately felt my butt to see if I’d sat in a batido or something at recess.

One girl, probably named Mari Algo, raised her hand but blurted something out in Spanish before I could even call on her. I gave her my best side eye for interrupting and told her that if she needed something, it would have to come in English.

“Yes, erm, who is [Novio’s name]? Valle say us you are a boyfriend.”

Valle, my effervescent coworker and part-time spirit animal, just smiled and shrugged. On one morning commute, I’d confided in her that I’d met a guy I was interested in, and she mentioned it to her students. I took it in stride (hola, my name is Cat, and I have a blog!).

You know how lice is a thing in elementary schools? Liken that to gossip in Spanish schools – once it starts, it’s hard to stop. If you want something to be private, it’s best not to mention it around the brasero on a cold day. 

On a First Name Basis and You May Touch the Children

Speaking of Valle, I was also shocked to find that teacher-student relationships are a lot more relaxed than they are back in the US. I was called by my first name and asked personal questions about my age/sex/location. Students wanted to know if I’d buy them beer. I once ran into one partying who was hysterical, and I took her back to my house to settle down and dry out for a few hours.

Oh, and then there’s the end-of-year dinners where students drink the Spanish equivalent of Boone’s Farm, all under the watchful eye of their teachers from senior year. I had to embrace it and have a drink with my graduating seniors at a disco because, hey, drinking age is 18. Never mind that I was only a few years older than them!

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Working in an elementary school, I was once told the children found me to be cold and uncaring. I was wiping their boogers and reminding kids that the Reyes Magos were watching their bad behavior (which included hiding my winter jacket in a toy box overnight) – I was certainly caring.

In Spain, it’s totally fine for teachers to hug and touch students, and many are close with older students outside of school. Some have followed me on twitter and like to message me about what last week’s homework was. My response is always the same: get off of twitter and do your homework, lazy!

On Wednesdays, We Wear Track Suits

I was appalled to learn that my high schoolers only got two hours of gym class a week. They seemed to have more pep in their step when those special days rolled around (though I could usually smell them before they entered class. Teens and PE and Spring in Southern Spain is a torture worse than my allergy to olive blossoms). Plus, they came to school with a special uniform.

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Gone were the sheer shirts and the booty shorts – it was chandal day, a public service announcement that my teens who had been chowing down on Doritos at recess were going to be running a few laps around the playground.

Working in a private elementary school, my kids called it Tracksuit Day, or ¡toca chandal! I loved chandal day because they admittedly smelled better (their parents gave them tiny packs of cologne for their school bags because, pijos) and I didn’t have to re-tie 25 ties and dust off 25 tiny blazers.

ABCs and B1-B2-C1 (and Trinity-Cambridge-TOEFL)

Spain has what’s called ‘titulitis’, or a problem with requiring documents to prove anything. Can you drive a car? PROVE IT. Can you pick up a letter at the post office from your grandma? PROVE IT. And when it comes to speaking English, only a stamped letter from an official language assessment will suffice.

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Recently, the European government required all university students to present a minimum B1 level of English to even get the paper copy of their degree (ach-titulitis!). If you’re totally new to teaching, the system of level assessments and certificates is confusing, especially one against another. What does a Trinity Level 7 correspond to in Cambridge? What does CPE stand for? Try being in charge of academic development at a school and explaining that to parents whose first defense will be, “I don’t know, I studied French.”

Yeah.

The Takeaway – School’s Out for Summer

I often think back to my first days of teaching. I had a newly minted TEFL degree, teaching genes apparently in my blood and no idea what to do in front of 30 teenagers who’d rather copy Justin Bieber lyrics off of the blackboard (yeah, that’s how long I’ve been at it!).

I always swore I’d never be a teacher after watching my mom scramble on Sunday nights or having to manually put in all of her grades into a gradebook. The boss I had when I was an auxiliar once told me that I had vocación: I had what it takes to be a teacher. After eight school years, probably 2500 students and a million eye rolls later, I think she’s right. 

Teaching in Spain is rewarding, frustrating and hilarious all rolled into one job with pretty amazing vacation time.

Want the skinny on teaching in Iberia and tips on how to land and get situated in Spain? I co-penned a comprehensive e-book last summer on how to move to Spain and set up as a teaching assistant.

book pages preview

Read more about it here or purchase it for 10€ through eJunkie! We’re currently re-vamping the book and adding even more to it, so join COMO‘s FREE newsletter for more information on its release date! I’m also happy to recommend TEFL programs and teaching opportunities.

More on teaching in Spain: How to Apply to the Language Assistant Program | Paying Teaching Programs in Spain | What it’s Like to be a Language Assistant

Seville Snapshots: Palm Sunday Processions

I packed my bag hurriedly but with purpose: I’d need sunscreen, lipstick, a street map and my camera with long-distance lens. Nothing more, nothing less. I locked the door and walked hurriedly to the bar.

After more than seven years in Seville, I was finally staying to see Holy Week, the somber processions that punctuate the spring rains and precursor to the raucous fair. My ten-day break from school usually means a trip to somewhere far away from pointy hats and heavy floats – I’ve used Semana Santa to see the Taj Mahal, sip Turkish coffee in Istanbul, to road trip through Europe’s youngest country.

But this year, I made torrijas, a typical sweet eaten during Lent, and buckled down to see the pasos. After lunch in Triana, Kelly and I took the long way to see La Estrella – one of the neighborhood brotherhoods, called hermandades. This takes planning, sturdy shoes and a lot of patience.

Carrera Oficial Semana Santa Sevilla

Friends in Spain

As a Semana Santa Virgin – bad pun, I admit it – I was intrigued and had an open mind. And after weeks without even taking Camarón with me, he was long overdue for a day out. Over 400 photos later, I’ve been convinced that Holy Week is aesthetically pleasing, albeit a logistical headache, even in the back-end of Triana! Here are some of my (untouched!) favorites:

La Estrella – from the Seville side of the Puente de Triana

Rather than crossing over the Puente de Triana, we took El Cachorro. The city’s most iconic bridge sees five brotherhoods pass over on its way to the Carrera Oficial between la Campana and the Cathedral and back home.

La Estrella is Triana’s first and one of its most beloved. The purple and blue antifaces seemed less jarring in a bright afternoon light. Seeing my first paso had all of the hallmarks – nazarenos handing out candy to kids, barefoot brothers seeking penitence while clutching rosaries, two floats and brass bands.

We watched the Cristo de las Penas pass by, the air tinged with incense and azahar mixing with doughy fried churro steam. And, in true Semana Santa, we then went to a bar, had a drink, and emerged an hour later to wait for the Virgen de la Estrella.

I’d come to discover that this is Semana Santa – waiting, pushing, waiting, drinking a beer, walking, waiting.

Penitent of La Estrella Brotherhood Sevilla

Photographing Semana Santa

Incense Holy Week

El Cristo de la Penas en su Procesion

Barefoot penitents

Kid Nazarenos

Virgen de la Estrella

El Jesús Despojado – from Antonia Día/Adriano

As soon as the band immediately behind the Virgen de las Estrella passed by, the throngs of people immediately disseminated. Like a couple of cabritas, we followed them, hatching out a semi-plan with the use of the Llamador guide and a vague idea of where some streets were.

We found a spot on the curb just past the bull ring to watch Jesús Depojado – an image of Christ being disrobed – just before the Cruz de Guía emerged from an alleyway. Brothers handed us small pictures of the images, called estampitas, as they passed by, lighting the candles they held in their hands as dusk fell.

This particular procession captivated me, from the way children dipped their white gloves into the pools of hot wax as the cirios burned down to the way the costaleros turned the float around a tight corner to cheers and clapping. 

Cruz de Guia Jesús Despojado

Wax balls Holy Week

Holy Week Processions in Sevilla

Penitence Cross Holy Week Seville

Virgin Mary Procession

Virgen of the Jesus Despojada

Cirios in Holy Week Seville

La Amargura from Placentines/Alemanes

Kelly and I found Ximena and Helen after taking the long way around Barrio Santa Cruz. Helen had found a pocket of space in the shadow of the Giralda to watch her boyfriend’s procession, La Amargura. It was past 10pm, and the lights of the buildings had been switched off.

La Amargura is a serious brotherhood whose nazarenos cannot break rank. Even with their faces covered and hands grasping their antifaces, the solemnity was evident. When the white-clad nazarenos begin filing by with their cirios lit, I gasped. It was eery, haunting.

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La Amargura near the Cathedral

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Just as I was crossing over the Carrera Oficial with the help of some local police and a hold up with El Amor’s procession, my mom called. I stumbled back to Triana via side streets just in time to watch El Cristo de las Penas enter into its temple.

Like a car backing up into a garage, the float was maneuvered halfway in before lurching out three times, finally entering on the shoulders of 48 costaleros after more than 13 hours of procession. I stumbled into bed well after 3am, myself having done a procession of my own for 13 hours.

Have you ever seen Semana Santa in Sevilla? Which processions are your favorites?

Why do Spaniards call us ‘Guiris’?

Hay alguién aquí de fuera? called the drag queen from the stage. A hoarse shout came from right behind me: “Mi guiri, mi guiri!”

My friend S had sold me out to a total stranger and a bar full of side-eyeing pijas, and she’d done so be calling me a guiri. This was before any of us turned 30 but after an entire afternoon of beers, so I skipped to the stage and joined the drag queen, dancing all of my shame out. She later apologized for screaming HERE’S A FOREIGNER a few days later, though I’d already consented to another drink after my show as a way to shrug it off.

the word guiri

Guiri is a catch-all phrase for both foreign tourists and Northern Europeans, used more often than not in a joking, affable way. I’d never really taken any interest in knowing where the word come from until an early morning wake up call on a Sunday morning had me watching Canal Sur’s program about the origins of common practices and traditions in Andalucía. If you are into etymology like me, your ears would have perked up when you heard “Where does the word guiri come from?’ I nearly spilled my coffee on our new coach.

The most common explanation is literally a page out of a Spanish history book: The word guiri has existed for some 130 years since the time of the Guerras Carlistas during the first half of the 19th Century, a series of skirmishes that followed the death of King Fernando and that pitted the royal’s only a heir, Isabel, against his brother, Carlos María Isidoro de Borbón (it is, therefore, not a phrase derived from a way to call out the socks with sandals thing).

According to the Royal Decree of 1713, all ascendents to the throne were required to be male, so Carlos V made a play for Isabel’s blue-blood given right. This sparked the first of the Carlist Wars, with Isabel’s mother, María Cristina de Borbón Dos-Sicilias fighting for her daughter.

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Those who supported Isabel and her mother became known as cristinos, and fighting was especially fierce in the northern regions of Navarra and País Vasco. Cristinos from this region saw their leader as radical liberals who hoped to  make sweeping reforms in the whole country, beginning with the right to the throne. What’s more, the this band received support from other countries like France and Great Britain, causing alarm with the northerns who were, characteristically, more traditional and supporters of Carlos V.

The name for the northern became known as guiristinos to the carlistas, an ambiguation of cristinos in the Basque language. Because the majority of María Cristina’s supporters were Basque and Navarrese, the name stuck and was even used as a way to call Guardia Civil officers during Franco’s regime. At its most basic, it also served as a moniker for outsiders and people with radical new ideas, shortened to simply guiri.

Guiris dressed up as flamencas

However, the word guiri didn’t become popular in Spain until the 1960s when tourism began to bring thousands of travelers – namely the British and the Dutch – to coastal resorts. Post-war Spain and Francoist mentality were not ready for the influx of foreigners in the wake of two decades of self-sustainability, so guiri became the popular way to call light-skinned tourists, usually from Northern Europe, the US and Canada. (Another beloved Spanish tradition to surge during this decade? The menú del día. Bendito manjar, clearly).

Some decry the word as a direct attack on those who fall into the category, but most Spaniards will insist that it’s a term of endearment. As most groups of friends have the token ‘El Cabesa’ and ‘El Tonto,’ being ‘La Guiri’ is kind of like my calling card, a simple way to distinguish myself and make me feel like I’ve squeezed my way into tight sevillano social circles.

Have you ever been called a guiri? How do you feel about it?

Five Things that Make Planning a Spanish-American Wedding a Logistical Nightmare

I’m going to admit it – my upcoming wedding is bringing out the worst in me. There’s the stress of planning from abroad, coupled with my body changing with the coming of the Second Puberty (otherwise known as turning 30), the bickering and tension with trying to keep both families happy and me in the middle, plus the logistics and the blind faith of letting other people decide details for someone who doesn’t know how to delegate.

Everyone said weddings are work, and I’m realizing that, yeah, that’s an understatement if I ever heard one!

Planning a Spanish American Wedding

I’m officially down to six months until the sí, quiero. When I chose a date and venue and bought a dress in late July of 2014, August 2015 seemed forever away. So I went about my merry Spanish life, eating jamón and indulging in siestas (kidding, not my real life, and the only difference post-pedido is one more thing in my agenda to do each day).

And then when my sister got engaged at Christmas and started eating a bit healthier, I felt like August was right around the corner, waiting to stick out its leg, trip me and laugh as I picked myself off the floor.

Can I just say that my wedding may kill me?

I keep reminding myself that no one will really remember what they ate (unless it’s terrible or exceptional) or what music the DJ played (unless it’s terrible or exceptional or I convince the Novio to dance sevillanas with me). The most important thing is that we’re there, we’re happy and we’re ready for what comes after the party.

But we’ve still got to get there.

Distance

By far the biggest challenge to the wedding madness is the distance – I’m living in Seville and planning a wedding in Chicago (6,731 kilometers away, in case you were wondering).

Weddings at Meson Sabika

I’m a control freak having to cope with letting someone else decide a lot of the details, though giving up said control means does I’m not obsessing over every detail. This has worked out nicely for my mother and her sweet tooth, as it’s them who will be deciding on our wedding cake, and my Travel Ninja dad is working on the logistics, transportation rentals and hotels for our out-of-town guests.

So, planning. Last summer, I spent hours pouring over wedding magazines, calling vendors and venues, and beginning to work out plans for the big day. I was never one of those girls who dreamed about getting married one day, so I was literally staring with zero ideas, except knowing who I was going to marry. On the way home from the airport in July 2014, we stopped at Jewel and Nancy bought my three wedding magazines. I fell asleep on top of them – THAT was how I felt at that point.

Slowly, plans came together, even if I did do a few things backwards, and when I left for Spain six weeks later, I’d hammered out the big plans, leaving my mom to do the flowers (I sent her a pinterest board with some ideas, and I hate myself for ever typing that) and address US-bound invitations, my dad the tuxedos, and my sister to supervise.

Planning for a wedding abroad

When I chose vendors, I immediately eliminated a few who rolled their eyes when I told them where I lived. Flexibility and email skills were important, as the time difference with Chicago would be killer. One such contact is proving to be less likely to answer me within two weeks (ahem, the church), and I will have to sometimes cancel plans to take a Skype call after work.

Thankfully, I have five weeks of summer vacation to smooth out all of the last-minute details, RSVPs and seating charts. My sister-in-law is in charge of wrangling the Spaniards up and getting them where they need to go on time. Hopefully the day will be enough of a blur that I can ignore the small problems and concentrate on remembering to breathe, eat and smile.

Last Name and Paperwork

Surprise! My last name is not pronounced “gaaaah” but “gay.” Imagine being the new kid in middle school and having your teachers ask you to repeat it time and time again in middle school so they’d get it right.

Yes, that happened, and I couldn’t wait to get married and change my name when I was younger. In fact, my mother told my father on their first blind date that she’s never marry him because of his surname. Thirty-some years on, I’m convinced that she got over that quickly.

mom and dad wedding

Aww, my parents on their wedding day in 1983

Nearly two decades later, who am I to scoff at sexist Bible readings for the ceremony and then go ahead and change my name? I’m not an ultra feminist, but have taken that argument to heart. It’s mine, so why should I have to give it up for tradition’s sake? Not like we’re a normal couple anyway.

In many Hispanic countries, everyone has two last names: first their father’s, and then their mother’s. So if your name is María de Dolores de la Cruz García, de la Cruz is your father’s first last name, García is your mother’s. Imagine trying to write all of that at the top of a standardized test.

I’d gotten so used to using my middle name to fill out paperwork that when signing up for things like bank accounts and supermarket discount cards, I’d put my middle name as my first last name. My name was wrong on my paycheck stub for an entire year, despite my pleas to change it, lest I lose years towards retirement.

The whole name change thing makes my head spin. Apart from changing my email nick, I’d have to change my US-issued passport, driver’s license, social security as a start. In Spain, it’s about the same, though the process is bound to be arduous.

Cat+EnriqueEngagement042

photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

At the moment, I’ve decided to stick with Gaa and bring a whole new generation of guiri descendants to Spain. I do have to renew my NIE, passport and US license within eight months of another, so I could change my mind. Regardless, my middle name and the Novio’s surname begin with the same letter, and Catherine M Gaa could totally pass for both.

The Novio’s solution is simple: convert my surname back to its original Dutch form, lost and subsequently butchered when my ancestors immigrated to America: Van Gaal.

Priest and Traditions

When I first arrived to Chicago, my first order of business should have been contacting the church where I did my confirmation to check availability and book a date. I went ahead and scheduled appointments to see venues and find a wedding dress first because, priorities (and my sister was in town from Texas).

I was hesitant about whether or not to get married in a church – not because of religion, but because one usually be a part of the congregation. What saved me from questions was that I’d done a sacrament and that my dad is active at Saint Mike’s, and August 2015 was wide open.

orange and blue wedding flowers

As Catholics, we’re required to complete a pre-marriage course called a pre-cana. In the archdiocese that my church belongs to, this is a weekend-long event to the tune of $250, plus subsequent sessions and attendance at mass. But Father Dan gave us the go ahead to do the course in Spain since we live here and communicate in Spanish – in fact, he even offered to do the course over Skype with us! I assured him we’d find a course in Seville, and he told us we’d just need to present a certificate of completion and the Novio’s birth certificate.

Bonus: the curso preboda is free in Spain and less of a time commitment!

With that figured out, we could focus on the ceremony and reception. But first, a primer: while Spanish weddings and their American counterparts are largely the same, there are a few big differences, and they’re causing confusion to the Spaniards (and usually the ones who pleaded that I have a big, fat, Hollywood-style wedding).

If I have to repeat, “There are no rules to what you wear to American weddings” one more time, I may throw up. If someone asks me “por favor can you find a way to smuggle in jamón,” I will break down into tears. Attire and timetables are proving to be more meddlesome than I excepted.

Spanish women wear short dresses and fascinators at day weddings, and long dresses to night ceremonies, so imagine the confusion with the ceremony at 2:30pm and the reception at 5:30. I don’t care, so long as you don’t come in jeans. This is also appropriate:

Spain's Duchess of Alba Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva dances flamenco beside her husband Alfonso Diez at the entrance of Las Duenas Palace after their wedding in Seville

And when will the Spaniards eat?! I may be up the night before my wedding making ham bocadillos for them to chow on between the ceremony and reception, and because we’re getting kicked out at 11pm, we had to look for a place for an after party and serve more food to soak up the liquor from the open bar. Because of this, we’ll be buying our own alcohol based on estimates from the caterer, yet one more pre-wedding task (but one that means I’m not stuck drinking Michelob). Our menu is pretty American, but with a few Andalusian twists. Y punto. No 12-hour gorge fest. 

We’ve also opted for a wedding party, so I’m coordinating tuxedos with the three Spanish groomsmen living in three different cities. My American bridesmaids are all set to go and will even be sporting a few Spanish fashions, but not having the mother of the groom as the official witness did mean some feelings got hurt. The solution is letting her accompany the groom to the altar.

The matter of a registry was also a pain. In Spain, most couples receive money, either to a joint bank account before the wedding or in an envelope between dinner courses. While my family scoffed at the idea of giving us money, it’s what we prefer because we’ll be making our home in Spain and don’t want to cart gifts back on an airplane. In the end, we decided to do ZankYou, which is an online registry available in both languages, and where we can choose to buy the items or pocket the money. Our house has the basics, but we’d rather not jump the gun and buy something we don’t want.

The ceremony has yet to take shape. Unfortunately, Catholic tradition is pretty rigid, so we’re still unsure about how much wiggle room we’ll have. I’d have loved our exit song to be a heavy metal ballad played on strings, or something a bit more nosotros, but we picked our readings blindly and happened to agree on them. Also an easy decision? No mass!

Language

I learned Spanish for many reasons, and one of those was love. The Novio and I speak about 90% of the time in Spanish, with occasional English words mixed in, like, “Estoy muy sleepy.”

How, then, do you plan a ceremony, speeches and the like in two different languages? The reception has a decidedly Spanish theme, between azulejo tiles and oranges, but there was no way I’d make two sets of save-the-dates, two sets of programs and two sets of invitations.

Bilingual Save the Dates

Our wedding web is currently in two languages, and the save-the-dates play on easy Spanish words. My bridesmaids also got tiny packets of saffron with a cut-out Osborne bull that said, “Help me with the wedding BULLshit. Will you be my bridesmaid?”

But I’m still puzzled as to what to do for the church programs and have decided that menu cards are totally unnecessary – you choose your entrée people! The tricky part could be the reception cards that will need to come back.

In Spain, invitations are handed out in person just a few weeks before the big day, and everyone is served the same food. This means that all of the extra stuff – the reception card, the RSVP and the extra, self-addressed envelope – is useless and even confusing to a Spaniard. People considered our save-the-dates to be the actual invitation, as a matter of fact!

Bilingual Wedding Invitations

For this reason, we’ll be sticking a few extra pieces of paper into the envelopes going to Spaniards to explain that they have to return the reply card and to give them our bank information.

The ceremony will likely have one reading in English and one in Spanish, and we’re hoping to speak to a Spanish priest about the verses and refrains used here. I want to have a balance so that the Spaniards don’t feel left out during the service – because you know I’ll have tons of crappy Spanish pop songs and sevillanas at the reception! Speeches are not common at Spanish weddings, though we may ask a groomsmen to do one. We’ve also decided to splurge on a videographer so that family and friends who aren’t able to make the trip can share in our big day.

I’m almost relieved that the church won’t allows us to make up our own vows, because that would open a whole new can of worms. I know my family would like me to do the votos in English, and the Novio’s family in Spanish. My goal? To fill in the language gap with laughter and love. Oh dios was that cheesy.

Timeframe 

For me, there was no argument about when to get married – I’d need to work around my work schedule, even though I am entitled by law to 15 days off. Looking at a calendar, we had four Saturdays: July 25th, August 1st, August 8th or August 15th. The 15th was off the table – it’s my 30th birthday.

I had a few things to consider: When could he come? When would be convenient for the Spaniards with their holiday time? What about fares from Madrid to Chicago? And, considering how much I’d have to do before the wedding, which date would give me the most time to prepare before the big day?

Cat+EnriqueEngagement065

photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

We chose August 8th, as all of the pieces just seemed to line up, both with holiday time and vendor availability. This, of course, caused uproar because of pricey flights from Europe. The Novio gave me good advice: those who want to come will make the effort. Those who don’t – that’s one less person to coordinate. I rejoice that my partner is so pragmatic, particularly when I get carried away.

I also headed home over the holidays to meet with a florist, have my dress fitted and do a hair and makeup trial, and I’ll be jetting back for a month before the wedding to take care of the last details, including having a shower of sorts and a bachelorette party (bonus! I get one in Spain, too!). July and August have been insane months for the last three years, and 2015 will keep pace.

We’re opting not to take a honeymoon just yet because of other expenses (clearly not my choice!). Japan and Cuba are the top choices, and hopefully a minimoon just before returning to Spain to begin married life.

The Countdown

While many people enjoy the planning process of a wedding, I don’t feel like I’m much a part of the whole thing. The Novio’s been out of town on business for four of the last six months, and I’m not stuffing envelopes with my bridesmaids. The light at the end of the tunnel is being husband and wife and able to share our love and future with our más queridos. So for every headache, there is something to look forward to in the future.

Cat+EnriqueEngagement078

photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

People have asked me if I’m nervous to get married or to stay in Spain for life. The Novio and I have been pretty serious since we first met, so the answer is no. We also did the very Spanish thing of dating for a bajillion years before getting engaged, so his feeling on the matter is, “I’ve learned to live with your caprichitos, and I’m old enough to know what I want and who I want.”

So glad we’re sticking to traditional vows! 

The Five Things No One Tells You About Finding an Apartment in Spain

I am the first to admit that I did the apartment thing all wrong when I moved to Spain – without so much as seeing the place in person, getting a feel for the neighborhood or even exchanging more than a few emails, I paid a deposit on Calle Numancia and September’s rent.

Looking back, it was probably not my smartest moment. What if the place was a dump? What if the landlord lived there, too? Would my roommates smoke indoors?

Thankfully, everything worked out fine, and I lived in that apartment with the same Spanish roommate for three years before packing up and moving in with the Novio and eventually buying a house.

How to Look for an Apartment in Spain

When people ask me for tips on apartment searching, I am often not a great source of information because – confession time – I have never searched for an apartment on my own in Spain!

I have heard all of the horror stories and read all of the advice, but there are a few things missing, mostly by way of what they don’t tell you about flat hunting (not included on this list: my creepy landlord who had a habit of showing up whenever I was in the shower).

You will have a noticeable lack of appliances

In building my wedding gift registry, I’m taking a look around at what sorts of appliances we may need. For years, I lived without an oven, a toaster, a dryer and electronic water heaters. My clothes were torn apart my machine wash cycles.  The TV was archaic. I forgot what heat and air conditioning felt like.

But I got by.

Currently, we don’t have a microwave, but this is only a problem during Thanksgiving. I haven’t had a clothes dryer since moving here, but thanks to warm weather and plenty of sun, I haven’t needed one (ugh, except for the year it rained three months straight).

are there dryers in Spain

Many landlords are older and have had the apartments left to them – a staggering two-thirds of Spaniards live in apartments as their first residence, and living in a  house is quite uncommon. This means that you’re stuck with older, heavy furniture, ancient appliances and occasionally a saint’s bust.

Nothing a little IKEA trip (or nicely asking your landlord) won’t fix!

There will be scams

The most common way to search for apartments is through online websites like Idealista or Easypiso, which allow you to put in specifications by number of rooms or neighborhood, among other factors.

So, you spend all afternoon browsing, getting a feel for what you can find in the center of town with international roommates who will feed you and who are clean and who maybe have a cat. Then, the perfect place pops up and, surprise! The landlord speaks English!

You get in touch with him via email, and he claims he’s had to run back to his home country for a family emergency, but can mail you the keys if you wire a deposit.

Red flag! It is never, ever wise to send money to a landlord if you’ve never seen the place in person. But if you’re not into the whole hitting the pavements and making endless calls, there are bonafide agencies that can set you up with a pre-approved place to live (and SandS readers can get 20% off fees with the promo code CGSS15 until December 31st, 2015!)

http://www.spotahome.com/Seville

http://www.spotahome.com/Seville

Spotahome is currently working to provide long-term visitors and students with a place to live straight off the plane, and they’ve just added several dozen properties in Seville. Rooms and locations are approved before the listing goes on the site, so you’ll not need worry about scams or the dreaded search for a place to live, and with far less language issues! They also have excellent city and neighborhood guides on their youtube channel.

And for reading Sunshine and Siestas, you can get 20% off your fees – just use the promo code CGSS15 before December 31st, 2015!

 

You won’t be best friends with your roommates

Once I’d moved in, I was thrilled to meet Eva, my German roommate in the back bedroom. She was a fantastic friend who announced that she was moving back to Germany a few weeks later.

While I was pining for European roommates to share meals with and practice Spanish with, I was on opposite schedules and rarely saw them. And because we were three girls of three different ages, three different native tongues and three different cultures, there were often misunderstandings.

Having Roommates in Spain

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve stayed in touch with both Eva and Melissa, our Spanish roommate, as well as the other two girls who came later – but the expectation that you’ll all have one another’s back isn’t always true. Convivencia brings out the claws, people.

My advice is to lay out house rules right away – can guests spend the night? How do chores work? Is smoking permitted indoors? It’s one thing to live with strangers, and entirely another to combat language and cultural issues!

You can (and won’t) always get what you want

It’s good to have parameters to help you find the perfect place for you – I firmly believe that your living situation has the power to make or break your experience in Spain. Think about price range, neighborhoods, connectivity and a few comforts, like an oven or a double bed.

How do Spaniards decorate their houses

Then remember that a decently-sized Spanish apartment is a glorified walk-in closet, not every place will have a terrace and the chances that you have both air and heat are slim to ni de coña in many areas, including Seville. Or, you can get the mess that is my next door neighbor’s house as far as ‘pisos amueblados’ go. 

I’m not saying to give up on those things, but to remember the reality of the Spanish apartment situation. Remember that most apartments already come furnished, though you’ll have to buy your own towels and sheets. At least that’s good news, right?

Now you see it, now you don’t

When we bought our house and signed the mortgage in late June, the property stayed on the realtor’s listing and on several websites for weeks.  If you see a piso one day and can’t make a decision about it, move on. These sorts of places come and go quickly, so even in a span of a siesta, you may be caught taking a place you didn’t feel so fondly about because the top places were gone. And don’t get discouraged when a place you’d like to have is suddenly off the market, either.

Here’s some advice: start early, ask the right questions and don’t give up and settle. Where you hang your hat or flamenco shoes at the end of the day can have a huge impact on your year (or seven) in Spain.

book pages preview

Considering a move to Spain? Hayley Salvo and I have written an ebook that includes tons more advice about not just searching for your hogar dulce hogar in Spain, but also give brilliant tips on setting up phone lines, internet and getting registered with city hall.

The ten euros you spend will save you tons of hassle when it comes to moving to the land of sunshine and siestas.

This post was brought to you by Spotahome but written by me. I was not compensated for this article in any way – check out what other young expat entrepreneurs are doing!

 You might also like: Eight Simple Rules for Convivencia | Strange Things in Your Spanish Apartment | Seville’s Best Neighborhoods

Would you add anything else to the list? What should newbies in Spain be wary of when looking for a place to live?

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