A Very un-Sevillano Summer

I knew I had become the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ (or perhaps toro out of España) when I hopped in the car for the first time yesterday. My mom’s van was parked on an incline, and I was nervous it would roll unless I gave the accelerator a hard kick when I threw it into reverse. I reached for the gear shift to find a stack of magazines.

Oh, right, Americans drive automatic cars. I should probably not rest my left foot on the brake, then.

It’s going to be a long, strange summer back in the Grand Old Republic.

As a teacher, I relish in my two months off. Over the past seven school years, my vacaciones have allowed me to explore other parts of Spain, walk the Camino de Santiago, visit friends and family at home in Chicago and attend world-famous festivals.

At 9:30 pm on June 30th, the Novio picked me up from work and drove me straight to a friend’s bar for a celebratory beer. I had fifteen days before returning to Chicago, and my sister was coming to visit. I’d spend the morning working on COMO Consulting issues, and after a long, midday siesta, he and I would pick out paint colors and furniture for the dream house we just bought before deciding to just have a beer as the nights cooled off. Just your average veranito in Seville.

And then the mierda hit the fan we didn’t even need to turn on because it wasn’t even hot there yet. Expat life, man.

On July 1st, I made my annual trip to the unemployment office to ask for a bit of financial help during my vacations. During July, I’m normally in La Coruña directing a summer camp to be able to make it through August without regular pay, and with a new, unfurnished house in the mix, I needed a bit of a cushion.

Per usual, I was sent away and asked to come back the following morning, first thing. On the 2nd, Manolo took a crawling 80 minutes to enter my new data into the INEM’s system. Little did I know that this would be merely the start of a stressful summer.

My summer days in Spain follow a strict routine: waking up early to run errands before the midday sun hits, returning home and drawing all the shades, making yet another batch of gazpacho, treating myself to a four-hour nap/going to the pool, and finally having a few beers somewhere in la calle when it’s finally cool out, or even a drink at a terrace bar. Weekends at the pool or the beach, depending on how lazy we feel.

Then the Novio presented me with a list of things I’d have to do. Turns out that picking out furniture and paint colors was only the start. I cancelled all of my plans but World Cup games to be ready for home inspectors and furniture deliveries, changed appointments to be able to change my mail forwarding and pay my IBI during reduced summer hours and stayed away from the gym. My leisurely start to a two-month holiday was already stressing me out, and I only had to look at my agenda to remind myself that siestas were totally out of the question.

By the time my sister and Rick arrived on July 5th, I’d successfully signed up for unemployment, had all of my bank accounts frozen because of FATCA and cried to my mom about the stress over Skype. The emotional upheaval became too much to bear that  I cursed my new house and the Spanish system of doing, well, everything.

The bank issue was by far the worst – the US law to prevent tax evaders, called FATCA, went into effect on July 1st, sending banks with American customers into a frenzy trying to report tax-relevant data. On the 2nd – the same day I was signing up for unemployment benefits – ING announced that I was not only a co-signed on a join account with the Novio, but that I also had to sign and turn in a form called a W-8BEN. I got no notification of any immediate consequences.

Normally, I’d sign and mail the form off, but I was curious about this new law and how it might affect me, given I file taxes in both Spain and the US, and now had a mortgage in the mix. Surely this law wasn’t trying to tax me and my teacher’s salary in America, too?

I went to IKEA to clear my mind (or not) and do 588€ worth of retail therapy for my dream house. After resisting the urge to also throw in some rugs and throw pills and just stick to the basics, my ING debit card was declined. So was the credit card. Not wanting to face the Novio empty-handed, I drove to Nervión and asked at the bank. The teller assured me my cards were valid and that the TPV unit was probably to blame.

So I drove back to IKEA, picked up the heavy furniture we’d decided on, and tried to pay again. The same thing happened. Defeated, I wheeled the cart to the holding area and reached for my phone to call the Novio. I had left it charging at home.

Furious once I arrived, he called the bank and they confirmed that my accounts had been frozen because of FATCA, even though the bank was supposed to have been compliant with the US’s demands by the day before. Until I turned in the W-8BEN, they would remain untouchable.

And so set off the frenzy of paperwork, lawyers, denuncias, and tears as I tried to take legal action against a bank that had frozen my accounts without warning (only a judicial order has the power to cancel or suspend an account with previous warning), and the fact that the W-8BEN serves for non-Americans. 

Thirteen days later, on the day before I left for the US, my bank accounts were finally restored. I had refrained from rebajas, from overspending and from visiting the terrace bars I loved frequenting in the balmy nights in summer – un verano poco sevillano, indeed.

But the beers and the ice creams and the laughs and the joy of sharing my city with my family put a band-aid on top of the financial struggles I was having. We spent afternoons strolling from bar to bar before they’d have siesta, escaped to Granada and Zahara de los Atunes and ate out every single night (I clearly didn’t pay).

Needless to say, my whole body relaxed as soon as I was sitting on a plane bound for good ol’ America. Now that I’m back in Chicago, I’m focusing on not stuffing my face and building my second site, COMO Consulting Spain. There will be a few surprises here and there, but I’m not ready to spill yet!

What are your summer plans? How do you cope with re-entry into your home country?

Big news: I bought a house in Spain!

I have a new hell.

The foreigner’s office has been officially replaced with a new place that wants to make me rip my hair out: IKEA. 

You see, I bought a house – a 125-square-meters-with-an-incredible-terrace and three stories and a kitchen large enough for an actual table and multiple bookshelves and closet space for my two flamenco dresses. There are two bathrooms, three bedrooms, air conditioning units in most rooms, mosquito nets on all of the windows and room to put in a dryer.

It’s a HOUSE, not a piso. And best of all, it’s in my favorite neighborhood in all of Seville: Triana.

But when the Novio and I signed our mortgage in June and began talking about painting and buying furniture and the logistics of moving all of our things, I knew his functionality and my hours decorating my doll houses would lead to arguments over money and space. 

In hindsight, it was genius to not go together to IKEA. The Novio and I did some online shopping one night, then he went and graciously wrote down the numbers and where to find our basics – a table, four chairs and bed frame – in the self-service area. We calculated 600€, just what we had leftover after buying a custom-made couch and the big appliances for the kitchen. I offered to go the following day and pay with our joint account, then have the whole pedido sent to our new place.

After picking the perfect time to go in Spain, despite having entered in the rebajas sales period, I quickly steered through the maze of cute set ups and couches that wanted to be sat on. I ordered our bed frame and found a few light fixtures, then steered right towards the self-service area. 

The headboard and table were heavy, but I felt triumphant for handling it all on my own and happily presented my debit card. 

Denied.

Again.

And a third time.

After asking my bank for help and getting nothing in return, picking everything up at IKEA once to have my credit card also denied, I threw my hands up in the air, asked the Novio to take out cash for me since my bank had frozen my accounts because of the new FATCA rule, and finally, five hours later, paid for our goods.

So. I essentially hate IKEA for being the torture that it is – an obstacle course riddled with carts and baby strollers, an endless amount of impulse buys staring me down and never-ending lines. Going three times in 24 hours did not help, either.

Not that you care about my current grudge against the Swedish home decoration king (though not their meatballs), here are some pictures of our soon-to-be hogar dulce hogar. 

and the best part…

The house is on a corner lot in the Barrio León section of Triana. Wide avenues, chalets and a few famous residents, like the San Gonzalo depiction of Christ and Our Lady of Health, and the family of singer Isabel Pantoja. Most are rumored to gossip at renowned bakery Confitería Loli or in the dinky but bustling Mercado de San Gonzalo.

To me, the house is the physical manifestation of making the decision to live abroad permanently (or until I’ve paid it off), and whatever is to come next with the Novio.

Want to know more about the process of buying a house in Spain? Be patient…I’ll eventually figure out what I just did for the sake of having a house house in a beautiful barrio.

Grieving as an Expat: A Story About Loss, Life and Last-Minute Bookings

Death is about as taboo a subject as they come. As my cousin Christyn and I tried to mask our fear the last time we talked to Pa, seated on the futon, it was as if the proverbial White Elephant had come and wedged itself in between us.

As my days living in Spain have stretched on to nearly seven years, there has always been a little voice in the back of my head that has reminded me that there are things I’ve given up. While some are trivial, my heart sometimes hurts when I miss weddings, babies and other defining life events.

And believe me, it weighs on my expat mind nearly every day.

Back in November, by dad delivered the news I had been dreading since boarding a Spain-bound plane: my grandparents needed assisted living. My grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and could no longer look after herself or the man she’d cared for during 63 years of marriage. She’d forget to give him his medicine for a weak heart, or not feed him.

I decided to turn down my summer camp position to spend time with my family back in Chicago during my summer holidays. It wasn’t a hard decision in the end – not for money, and not for experience. 

I lost my maternal grandmother to cancer at age 9, my maternal grandfather to a hit-and-run at age 19 and was facing losing my remaining grandparents – one in body and one in mind – at 29.

 —

My grandfather, Don Gaa, Sr., was a man of few words. He loved working with his hands, sitting with his feet up and playing jokes on us. As my dad, who took the same name as his father, summed up a simple man who grew up in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl as he gave the eulogy: “You could tell how much Don loved you by how much he teased you.” His winks and sly smile were words enough.

When I said goodbye to him over the phone about 48 hours before he passed, I could feel his smile through the phone. It’s hard to be serious and tell someone you love them and will always remember them when you burst out laughing every time you think of him and his sly little smile.

Christyn slung her bag on her back and gave me a hug. I reminded her to call her dad that afternoon. Christyn is a nurse in Germany and had explained Pa’s condition, his decision to withdraw care and get hospice care. He was as stubborn as they come, and he wanted to go in peace.

As I unlocked the door to work that day, I got a frantic whatsapp in capital letters from my mother: CALL ME IMMEDIATELY FOR PA. I fumbled with the keys, tears flooding my eyes, as I struggled to tap out a response. “Is it really that bad?”

“Yes. <3 <3 <3″

I paced the corridor of the academy, trying to compose myself before the other teachers arrived. I decided to stay mum, not wanting to cause an avalanche of tears and blubbering and ugly cry onto people with whom I had a professional relationship. But this is life, and life sometimes sucks, and crying makes me feel better.

As soon as my secretary came in, I crawled into her lap and sobbed.

My boss allowed me to take a walk between my classes to clear my head. I had to work up the courage to call my Uncle Bill, who was at the hospital with my grandfather as he waited to be moved. My grandfather has been deaf for as long as I can remember, so I probably looked like a psycho walking around Barrio de la Calzada with sunglasses on and shouting into my cell phone in English. Pa was on a feeding tube and the muscles in his esophagus had all but stopped trying, so I talked at him as I always did as the bubbly granddaughter.

After moving to Spain, he always pretended I was speaking to him in Spanish before I’d give him a nudge and he’d envelop me in a hug. I knew I probably wouldn’t speak to him again, so I told him two important things: that I was fortunate to have him in my life for nearly 29 years and that goodbye is a word that is often replaced with “hasta luego.” It felt final but not final to send him off that way.

“He’s smiling, Catherine. I think he wants to tell you that,” Uncle Bill said before we hung up.

I continued to walk around the neighborhood for 10 minutes before happening upon a donut shop. I forked out a euro to drown my sadness in chocolate and sugar. It made me feel better.

That night, I hardly slept, checking my phone every few hours for an update on Pa. Nothing came. I awoke groggy and grief-stricken, and decided going home would be too much emotional strain on me. I didn’t send any messages to family, inquiring about how the move to the retirement village had gone or how the old man was holding up.

I collapsed into bed that night, right after work, and slept soundly.

The next day was a whole different story. I woke up and checked prices for a Madrid-Chicago trip. I texted my mom to tell her I wanted to come home, if only to see Pa once more and tell him I love him. I asked my boss to ask about a week-long leave of absence. Being a spiritual person, she immediately agreed and offered to take over my classes and speak with lawyers about the legal ramifications of missing four days of work.

Pay deducation or not, I had promised my grandmother I’d be at her funeral, and now that she was on the verge of being a widow, I felt it was my duty. And I wanted to.

My dad called just after midnight. I had already chosen flights and just wanted to run my travel plans by him so I wouldn’t be stuck at Midway with a non-functioning phone and no one to take me for an all-beef hotdog.

“Yeah, Pa just passed away about 45 minutes ago,” were his first words to me. My grandfather had slipped into a coma on Tuesday night, received last rites twice and my grandmother and my father’s two youngest boys were with him when his heart decided that enough was enough.

I was sorry, but at the same time, relieved. When someone whose health is poor suffers and who had lived to nearly 86 dies, there’s always a moment of grief and of loss, but it dissipates quicker than I had imagined it would. My dad had lost his first parent at 62, whereas my mother was an orphan by 47. I cried quietly, but nothing compared to Monday’s bawlfest with MariJo.

Somehow, I pulled it together to book a Delta flight, a train ticket to Madrid and a hotel in Barajas, then planned my classes for the following week. I slept like a zombie, relieved that I wouldn’t be racing against the clock to see Pa before he passed. In fact, I was relieved.

The following morning, the Novio took the day off of work to help me prepare for my trip. Rather than being sad, he told me all of the memories he had of meeting Don, Sr. in Chicago and Arizona. I laughed as we had a morning beer while the other abuelitos around us drank their coffee. 

“Your ‘grampy’ was the funniest man,” he said, recalling a time where he had teased my mother and her sweet tooth with a little wink.

He really was the funniest man.

My sister greeted me at my gate with a beer in hand. She and Pa had always been close, as I was the proclaimed favorite of his wife, and Pa gave everyone else all the love that Grammie gave me. “I wish we were seeing each other under different circumstances, but it’s really freaking good to see you,” she said. There was no culture shock whatsoever (my guess is from frayed nerves, a three-hour delay out of Atlanta and the fact that my trip was so last-minute).

I was beyond tired – both mentally and physically – but happy with the decision to come home.

As I plopped down I my bed, something poked my upper back: a wooden bull that my grandpa had carved for me the summer before. It went straight into suitcase to be carried back to Spain.

On Saturday afternoon, we set off to my grandparents’s house near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The Gaas had moved in to that house on David street just after they married, and before my father was born. To me, it’s the house where many of my childhood memories were formed.

My dad’s brothers and their wives were there, as well as my grandmother, who looked frail but stoically did not cry. My arrival from Spain took center stage (I had not been home in nearly two years), and I suddenly felt elated to be with my family. We pulled out the photo albums my grandmother had kept since her marriage in 1950. There were no tears, just laughter and memories and trying to find the fake poop he’d hid amongst our Christmas presents.

“Do you think you could get married in October? That would be a nice month.” My grandmother held on to me as we passed a picture of her wedding day. I’d told her that we wanted to do a ceremony in the US, and her face changed. She was so happy that the funeral home had done a great job of making Pa look like Pa, and I even said I think he had a slight smirk on his face.

She was as stoic as a widow can be during the wake, and was so delighted to see so many friends come out. My Pa loved little kids, and when all of my second cousins came with their babies at once, Grammie’s mood changed. Keri’s daughter ran up to the casket and poked Pa, then ran away, giggling as if Pa were actually chasing his only great-granddaughter.

For four hours, I played catch up with all of my extended family. The last time I had seen them was for Thomas’s wedding in Boston two years ago, and despite the circumstances, we all laughed and hugged and ate and rejoiced at being together again. “You definitely win the award for furthest traveled!” Uncle Mark quipped.

When we went home that night, I fell asleep, wrecked by a non-stop week of travel and emotional distress and jet lag. The following day, we would bury Pa in Antioch, just a stone’s throw from the house he had lived in with his family.

 —

The funeral was sad, as funerals tend to be. I cried alongside my sister, but was able to read a passage I’d selected from the Book of Wisdom about eternal life without cracking into ugly cry or even a sniffle. My voice echoed in my ears, and the tears came as soon as I’d finished.

At the funeral, we said goodbye to Pa one by one as we touched the casket. I repeated my words: hasta luego.

I walked to lunch with my dad. I’ve only seen him cry twice to date – when my mom’s parents died – and is mind is already switched to ‘Irish Funeral’ setting. Even though my grandfather was German, he played up my grandmother’s love of the motherland, often donning green and marching with us in Irish parades on March 17th. 

Beers in hand, we took turns telling stories about my Pa: his best friend Joe was with him when they picked up two Chicago broads hitchhiking to Wisconsin and ended up married to them, moving next door to one another on David Street. The elation when my cousin Brian, the only male cousin, was finally given the honor of carrying on the family name. The hat collection he kept when he semiretired from owning a grocery store to work as a mechanic at Great America.

My favorite? Pa told my great aunt Anne that he’d wink at her when he was lying in a coffin. But of course he would.

When it was my turn, I kneeled on a barstool and recounted the words the Novio had told me after meeting Pa for the first time. “Your dad is a great man, Puppy, but I want to be just like your grampy.”

“When I die, please have fun remembering me.” Don Gaa, Jr. and I were leaning against the car hood at the Dairy Queen in Mundelein. We were somber, yet I felt better knowing that we’d laughed just as much as we’d cried at the funeral. Even my grandmother seemed determined to start making friends at the retirement home.

I’ve often felt guilt at being so far away from home, and it had never burned so much as in that span of days at home. There was talk about long-term healthcare, of cashing bonds and of who would get what. Most fell to my sister, including being the executor of the will, “only because she lives here.”

I left the US the following morning after a third hot dog lunch with my dad. I suddenly felt this weird urge to get married and start a family so I wouldn’t be depriving anyone of anything. It was a topic that came up countless times in those days, and it really lit the fire under my culo

I don’t think my grandma will take too long to go. After more than six decades with my grandpa, she’s left with ever-fading memories. My heart hurts thinking about the grief she must feel, about how lonely she likely is. But how much would I give up here to be there? Is there any way to still straddle the Charca? To be present in two places?

The truth is, I wouldn’t if I could. I’m too independent, and maybe that makes me selfish. The best I can do is promise to be there when it counts. 

Have you ever dealt with death or loss on your travels?

Four Great Mobile Apps for Keeping in Touch Back Home (and free talk time giveaway!)

When I studied abroad in 2005, my host family didn’t have internet. If I wanted to check in with my family back in Chicago, I’d have to walk down the street to the locutorio and buy credit for a pay phone.

Nine years later, Telefónica’s green and blue phone booths are but an icon of the past and everyone seems to be glued to their smartphones. Ever since breaking down and getting one in 2011, I’ve been able to keep in touch with my family and friends back home far more easily, sending photos and videos of the Feria de Abril to just about everyone in my contacts list!

If you’ve got a smart phone, you have a wealth of apps to help you connect with your loved ones (or just make them jealous of the cheap prices of wine):

Whatsapp

Whatsapp took Spain by storm a few years back, as it was one of the first free messaging services that used wi-fi or 3G for texting. 

To be honest, I have a love-hate relationship with Whatsapp. It’s so great on paper – texts, photo and video sharing, and you can even share your location. But nothing beats a phone call.

Anyway,  the first year is free, and then you have to start paying, but it’s worth it for group chats, sharing, and not freaking out at your phone bill!

Get it! Android | iOS

Postagram

As a proponent of still sending snail mail from time to time, I think postagram is fun and pretty much genius. This app allows you to send a picture right from your phone in real postcard form for the same price as it would cost to send it by mail yourself – you just save the trip to the post office (aka the waiting room of doom in Spain) and what you send is more personalized! What’s more, you get 140 characters – just like a tweet – to send a message.

Get it! Android | iOS

Snapchat

I have to admit that I love snap chat. Originally created (in my mind) for teens to send gross pictures of themselves, I love getting shots of my friends on coffee runs or in beer gardens, or of my niece, Bounder the Mutt.

What snapchat does is it sends 10-second videos or photos to the contact(s) of your choice, which are then deleted and take up no space in your phone’s memory. There’s also a new chat feature where you can hold down the record button and have some face time with your amiguitos back home.

Get it! Android | iOS

toolani 

Move over, Skype and Viber – toolani has just blown my mind. 

After struggling to hear my family on Skype because of a nagging delay and loads of dropped calls, I needed to look for a new way to do our weekly calls. Most Sundays, I’m out having lunch or at a Betis game, making it hard to coincide with my family. toolani works as a phone filter that doesn’t need an internet connection to make cheap international calls – dialing the US cost less than $0,02 a minute! 

With toolani, you can call and text about 150 countries, and your contacts are automatically loaded onto its server. The app also allows you to buy more credit easily.

Just last week I called my family to catch up for cheaper than calling their landlines, as well as shot the breeze with my friends at Jets Like Taxis, who are currently in Austria. Not only were the calls well-priced, but the call quality was top-notch, and there was no delay.

Giveaway!

I’ve partnered with toolani to bring you guys free talk time on their service. There are 100 free vouchers available for Sunshine and Siestas readers with the code toolsunshine. Download their free app and present the code at checkout, and you can talk with people around the world. 

The voucher code is available for you guys from today, May 16th, until Saturday, May 30th. toolani is compatible with both smartphones and iPhones in just about every corner of the globe!

If you like the service, consider connecting with toolani on Facebook or twitter, or surprising one of your friends back home with a call!

What other apps are on your phones?

My Five Favorite Feria de Abril Moments

The horses are still clip-clopping in my head, the piercing cascabeles echoing throughout the street. At the first hint of azahar and Spring in the air, my feet find themselves marking out the steps to sevillanas, and I start making plans for Seville’s fiesta más alegre.

Every experience at the Feria de Abril is different, and each year I live it in a different way.  It has to be said – the feria isn’t for everyone. Several other blogging friends of mine cry out about the private casetas, open by invitation only, about the inflated prices of food and drink, and even about the dusty alberothat gets onto their dress ruffles.

But I love it. I’ve been to other ferias in other cities – Córdoba, El Puerto de Santa María and Jerez de la Frontera – but nothing quite compares to first time you see the portada lit up, or the feeling of waltzing into a caseta without a word to the door guy. I adore Feria during the day and I rock out at el Real until the wee hours of the morning.

As the date of the alumbrado gets closer, the ganas I have to dress up and dance seem to skyrocket exponentially. At no other point in the year do I feel more sevillana or ready to drink it all in (and I don’t just mean the rebujito).  You know what they say: Yo quiero cruzar el río para bailer sevillanas!

5. Watching the Alumbrado at Josele’s house (2010 and 2011) For several weeks leading up to the fair, workers construct a huge wooden gate, erect temporary houses and string paper lights up on streets named for bullfighters. Ya huele a Feria, y olé, ya huele a Feria.

When I gave class at Edificio Presidente, which sits just in front of the main gate, during my first few years in Seville, I would watch out Javi’s living room window as the Recinto Ferial began to take shape. “Javi, do you like living so close to the Feria,” I asked him one morning before he went to university classes nearby. 

“It’s the best during the alumbrado and when you want to stumble home, but you can get so crazy with the sevillanas music.”He had a point, but I made a mental note to find a friend with a house close to the portada to watch it light up – I’d previously seen it while being crunched between a million other people.

The following year, my friend T was dating a sevillano whose family lived in the building next to Javi’s, and Josele invited us to bring a bottle of fino, plastic cups and 7-up to have a few drinks before midnight. I watched in awe as the larger-than-life NO8DO was lit up, piece by piece. People cheered and bands struck up all at once. I gulped down the rest of my rebujito and went to join the party.

4. My first ride in a horse carriage (2010)

I waved at Leonor from across Gitanillo de Triana street. I would never forget the address of her caseta, as she’d texted it to me half a dozen times and repeated it over and over again in the months leading up to the fair. As it turns out, she and her family were across the street and one door down from Los Sanotes.

It must have been six o’clock and just after lunch when I went over with TJ, who was visiting from Aragón. Leonor disappeared in the caseta and came out wielding a plate of jamón, a jar of rebujito and a few plastic cups. I reached my hands out for them, threatening to drop them into the albero, but she nudged me away with her hip.

“I called Jaime, he’s on his way to pick you up.”

Jaime was my student and just 14 at the time. He came with a sleek horse carriage and climbed down to help me into it in my traje de gitana. Tim followed, and Leonor handed us the food and drinks. I tried to refuse the plate of ham, but she insisted, saying we would need it to reverse the effects of the sherry and 7up mix.

Jaime and his two horses took us along the official carriage route, which snakes its way around the fairgrounds from noon until 8pm. From this vantage point, we could see the whole party comfortably while snacking. Taking a spin with them is something I do yearly, but I’ll never forget how cool it felt to be sitting high up, close enough to touch the farolillos that line the streets.

Plus, I saw the Duquesa de Alba and FLIPPED out. 

3. La Noche Más Larga (2010)

I’ve had my fair share of tipsy moments during the fair. Ha, oops. Even those “Oh, I’ll just go for dinner and come back at a reasonable hour” days seem to stretch on forever.

There was the time Fernando’s nephew took Kelly and I around the fairgrounds for 12 hours, or when I was invited into the largest caseta of them all, or when my students treated me like a princess (as in, they fed me jamón and beer for a few hours). The same day that I rode in a coche de caballos for the first time, I went from classy to trashy in what is, without a doubt, the best night of Feria in my six years going to the Real.

As soon as Jaime had whisked us around, I called to meet up with my guiri girlfriends. Meag, Jenna, Bri and Tiana were all at the same caseta, where the socios was one of T’s friends. There were no sevillanas playing when we arrived – instead, people were doing body shots off of one another in something more reminiscent of Spring Break Acapulco than the Feria de Abril. I resisted the body shots, but we were given mixed drinks for only 3€. For the rest of the night, we bounced around from one tent to the next, chattering away, sharing plates of food and  passing around jars of rebujito.

Around 4 or 5 in the morning, just as the tents were closing down, Meag, TJ and I strode to the churros stands at Calle del Infierno. Exapserated, Meag wished for “la penúltima” beer, a common Andalusian phrase when your real plan is to keep drinking all night.

The carny who was coiling the fried dough of the churros smiled. “I have a six-pack,” he said, “and I’ll sell you each can for a euro.”

We drank down the cold beers with the greasy churros (yeah, I know, ick), bought some gummies and started the slow procession home. Slow in the sense that it took us TWO HOURS to walk a kilometer back to my apartment in Triana.

I blame Joey the Little Chicken for such antics.

2. The birth of Club Social “Aqui No Hay Guiris” (2008)

Susana handed me another beer and asked if I was enjoying my first Feria. Despite dressing like a complete fool, I was enchanted and thrilled to have a place where I was welcome, regardless of whether or not I was a socio.

Llama a unas amigas,” she said, “so that they can see what Feria is like.” I pulled out my archaic mobile phone and sent a few messages around. Lindsay responded and said she’d be on her way shortly.

I finished my beer and asked Isra for another. He made yet another tick on the Novio’s tab and gave me a wink. “A que esto de mola, eh guiri?“  Thirty minutes later, an exasperated rubia sidles up next to me at the bar.

Tía!” Lindsay was sucking in air as I order her a beer. “I’ve tried calling you! I kept telling the guy at the door that I was a friend of the guiri inside!”

I glanced at my phone, which had not been plastered to my body to feel it vibrating. She gulped down some Cruzcampo and related, “He said there weren’t any foreigners here. You know, waved his hand and said ‘Aquí no hay guiris.’”

And thus, the greatest social club of my fellow extranjeros was born. We’re considering putting our names on the list for a caseta just as soon as the fairgrounds are expanded to Charco de la Pava. No more chico frito or tortilla – we’re stocking that tent with chicken fingers and hamburgers!

1. “Tu, que eres, de Chicago de la Frontera?” (2009)

My most memorable Feria de Abril moment came from a drunk socio of Los Sanotes, who has forever immortalized me – at least to my sevillano friends – and still makes my students laugh when they ask me to retell it.

Late one night during my second fair, I asked Manolo at the bar for another beer. “Should I add it to your boyfriend’s tab?” he asked, winking.

Not a second later, a drunk, balding socio who reeked of whisky and fried fish was offering to pay for my drink. He looked me up and down and made kissy noises while the Novio snickered behind me.

Oye,” drunken socio cooed, “I don’t know you. Are you from around here?” I tried hard not to laugh the beer right out of my nose as he shimmied and answered, “No, I’m from Chicago.” 

Olé, from Chiclana, right near the beach. That’s nice. Olé.” Drunk socio had confused my hometown with a beachside resort town called Chiclana de la Frontera, thousands of miles away from my beloved Sevilla.

I could see the Novio and his friend Alfonso making a slow exit to leave me to my own devices. By now, I was wedged in between the bar and one of drunk socio’s sausage arms. Avoid his gaze (and whiskey breath), I answered: “Nooooo, de She-cah-go!” I corrected him.

“Ya, ya, ya. De Chicago de la Frontera, quilla.”

And that’s how I became known as the gitana from the American town with the most rate, a nickname that sticks with me to this day.

Feria begins officially on May 5th at midnight when the mayor switches on the main gate’s 10 thousand plus lights. Don’t be fooled by the local name – Feria de Abril – we stick to tradition and start partying two weeks after Easter Monday. If you’re going, remember to dress sharply and bring enough money to cover your food and drinks. For more, check out my Dos and Don’ts of Feria, or how to buy a flamenco dress and its accessories.

How College and my Study Abroad Program Prepared me for a Life in Spain

Emails form part of my daily routine, and many who write are travelers looking for a great place to eat or see flamenco, asking about what to miss and what can’t be missed, and seeking information on where to stay in Seville or how to get around.

As my blog readership grew and moved into an expat blog, I began to get more and more inquiries about moving to Spain, which prompted me to co-found COMO Consulting Spain

On my first trip to Europe in 2001, at age 15

Claire’s recent email stood out. At 17, she’s already dreaming of moving abroad once she finishes school. When I was 17, I’d already traveled to Europe twice and was hooked on the idea that I’d study abroad. The more I think about it, the more a life overseas made sense, thanks to the decisions I made in college and what seems to be a four-year beeline straight towards my final destination.

With her permission, I’m including a snippet of our conversation, as well as a longer explanation of how I got to Seville in the first place:

Claire D. writes:

I just started reading your blog a few days ago and I’m already hooked. I’m seventeen and ever since I visited last summer, I’ve been in love with the idea of living in Europe. Unfortunately I don’t know anybody else who has the same dream as me so I’ve been searching for information and advice from people who have experienced living abroad, which is how I found your blog. I feel like I have so many questions for you but I’ll start with your study abroad program.

I’ll be starting university here in Canada in September and I’m thinking about majoring in Global Studies. I know you mentioned that you studied abroad during your college education as well. I was wondering what you majored in and if it was related in any way to your studies of Spanish language in Spain.

I knew what I wanted to study from the time I was 12. My elementary school had a TV lab, and each sixth grade class got to produce a morning news program. My first assignment was interviewing other students about fire safety on the playground. As a kid with countless interests, being in a cubicle would NEVER be for me.
 
College
At the University of Iowa, I went into journalism, but we were forced to pick another major or concentration. Most of my peers chose Poli Sci or English. The reason I chose International Studies as my second major was because it was a DIY program, so all I had to do was argue my way into classes, prove that they had something to do with international studies, and I could earn credits towards my degree.
 
 
Christi and I lived with the same host family in Spain!
 
I enrolled in courses like Paris and the Art of Urban Life, Beginner French, Comparative Global Media and Intercultural Narrative Journalism. I have always loved travel, languages and media, so a concentration in international communication was a great fit for me, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed my coursework. I also chose to minor in Spanish because it was my favorite subject in high school.
 
Little did I know that choosing to minor because, hey! I’m an overachiever, would actually set a course for the rest of my life. My mom studied in Rome during college, and all but demanded I do the same (she did not, however, ask this of my little sister). Between dozens of cities and scores of program choices, I balked and did the simplest one: a six-week summer program in Valladolid, Spain, operated and accredited by the state of Iowa. A large contributing factor was the $1000 that went towards my tuition, too.
 
Study Abroad
I know virtually nothing about Valladolid, a former capital about two hours northwest of Madrid, and my first impression was not great: a hazy day and a kid peeing on the side of the road. As our program director, Carolina, called off names and assigned my classmates to host families, I grew really nervous.
 
 
With Aurora, my host sister, in Valladolid
 
Aurora lived in the Rondilla neighborhood of Valladolid in an ático. She was in her mid 30s – a far cry from the majority of señoras who were widows and creeping up on the tercera edad. Her mother of the same name came each day to make our beds, cook for us and wash our clothes. From the very start, young Aurora welcomed us into her home and her circle of friends, inviting me and my roommate out for drinks or movies, and making sure we were exposed to as much castellano as possible.
 
If you’re going to study abroad, do so with a host family. You’ll have someone to give you an introduction to Spanish life, cuisine and culture. My experience would have been much different if I’d lived with other Americans, and I still visit my host family as often as I can.
 
 
I took classes in Spanish Literature and Culture in Valladolid
 
When looking for a study abroad program, I’d suggest that you take into account more than just cost and location. Schools and programs are now offering internships, specialty courses and the ability to take class at universities with native university students. If your language skills are strong, give yourself that challenge. I also chose to study somewhere that was not a study abroad mecca – there were less than 40 Americans in Valladolid that  summer, so I learned far more in six weeks than I expected to! Consider going somewhere besides Granada or Barcelona, like Santander, Alicante or Murcia.
 
As soon as I was off the plane at O’Hate (wrote that accidentally, and it stays), I announced that I would be moving abroad as soon as I finished school in 2007.
 
Back to College
Once back in Iowa City, I dove back into coursework. I worked for the Daily Iowan, continued taking Spanish courses, had a successful summer internship at WBBM Chicago that could have turned into a job…but I dreamed of Spain.
 
My coursework became more and more focused on international communication and moving abroad, and my trips to the study abroad office were frequent.  At this point in time, there were very few gap year programs, and I had two choices: teach abroad or work on a holiday visa.
 
 
I also focused on my college football obsession and grilling brats on Saturday mornings.
 
My decision to teach in Spain was two-fold: I was nervous about the prospect of living abroad, and I knew I wasn’t done with Spain once I finished my study abroad program. I’m glad I had a primer before moving here after college – I may have been confused by Andalusian Spanish, but at least I was aware that things close midday! 
 
I received the email that I’d been accepted to teach English in Andalusia just a few days before graduating in May 2007. Then came the tailspin to get a visa, book flights, look for a place to live in Seville, figure out what the hell I was thinking when I applied to TEACH since I had an aversion to kids, and wondering if Spain was really worth all of the hassle.
 
Life In Spain
 
But I went anyway, touching down in the land of sunshine and siestas (and this blog’s namesake) on September 13th, 2007.
 
 
My parents have supported me since coming to Spain, even though we’re thousands of miles away from one another.
 
If I may say it, there’s a huge difference between living abroad alone when you’re still in your late teens as opposed to living there after you’ve graduated. Living abroad has its own set of what ifs, of doubts, of struggles, and when you’re younger (that is, if you’re a basket case like I was!), everything seems a little bit tougher. When I arrived in Seville, I lived with a 19-year-old girl from Germany who really struggled to be away from home, and ended up leaving soon after settling in. I highly suggest you consider studying abroad anywhere to get a taste of what to expect, whether in an English-speaking country or even in Spain. 
 
To be honest, adjustment was really hard at first. Now that I’ve lived here for nearly seven years, I feel at home and well-adjusted. There are so many factors that go into getting used to life elsewhere: language, customs, food, timetables, religion. I came ready for culture shock and loneliness, and I was SO lonely in Spain for about six weeks, but never turned down any invitation to do something or go out, whether from a coworker or from another expat. I have my sorority background to thank for that, and yet another reason why college really did its job in setting me up for adulthood.
 
 
Back to the studies. Here in Spain, I teach and direct an English academy in addition to freelance writing and translating, but think that my studies ultimately led me to this life abroad. Even though I’m not working with both feet in the journalism bucket, I honed my communication skills in a lot of other ways. Global studies is fascinating, and if you’re interested in higher education, should lend well to tons of cool masters programs in development, international communication or business, or even immigration law (that’s the next master’s I’d love to tackle!).
 
My Advice
Be open to all of the options and opportunities. Follow your heart. Take challenging coursework. Apply for internships abroad. Volunteer. Ask questions. Make friends with your professors and study abroad staff. Research. Take a leap of faith, and remember that you will make mistakes, have doubts and want to give it all up for the comfortable, for what you know, for a relationship or for something better (and perhaps it is).
 
You’ll probably have critics. My grandma has given me Catholic guilt all of my life, and is convinced I’m living abroad to torture her. I can say that my parents are now OK with my decision to stay in Spain and continue the life I’ve made for myself here, and they have supported me throughout – through break ups, bad jobs, strep throat, uncertainty and all of the lame stuff that being an adult (abroad or not) can bring.
 
 
Blending in…kind of…at the Feria de El Puerto in 2010
 
I do still dream of moving cities or even countries. The Novio is in the Spanish Air Force and occasionally has opportunities to go elsewhere. Even though I’m settled and happy in Seville, I’d love to go back to square one and start all over again – and write about it!
 
Do you have any questions about life abroad, teaching overseas, or Seville? Email me at hola@comoconsultingspain.com!
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