Ten Mistakes New Language Assistants Make (and how to avoid them + eBook giveaway)

My Spanish now-fiancé couldn’t help but laugh when I looked, puzzled, at our new coffee maker. I was jetlagged, yes, but also coming off six weeks of straight drip machine American coffee. The cafetera had me reconsidering a caffeine boost and swapping it for a siesta.

‘Venga ya,’ he said, exasperated, ‘every time you come back into town, you act like you’re a complete newbie to Spain!’ He twisted off the bottom of the pot, filled it with steaming water and ordered me to unpack.

Even after seven years of calling Spain home, I can so clearly remember the days when everything in Seville was new, terrifying and overwhelming. That time when the prospect of having a conversation with my landlord over the phone meant nervously jotting down exactly what I’d say to him before dialing.

You know my Spain story – graduate, freak out about getting a teaching job in Spain, hassles with my visa, taking a leap by moving to a foreign country where I knew not a soul. How I settled into a profession I swore I never would, found a partner and fought bureaucracy. I’ve come a long way since locking myself in my bedroom watching Arrested Development to avoid Spanish conversation, though each year I get more and more emails from aspiring expats and TEFL teachers who ask themselves the same questions:

Is it all worth it? Is it possible at all? How can I do it?

Like anyone moving to a foreign country, there’s a load of apprehension, endless questions, and a creeping sense of self-doubt as your flight date looms nearer and nearer. I tried and learned the hard way how to do practically everything, from look for a place to live to pay bills to find a way to make extra income. Call it dumb luck or call it nagging anyone who would lend a friendly ear, but I somehow managed to survive on meager Spanish and a few nice civil servants (and tapas. Lots of tapas.).

As a settled expat, I am quick to warn people that Spain is not all sunshine and siestas, and that it’s easy to fall into the same traps that got me during that long first year. Year after year, I see language assistants do the same, so let these serve as a warning:

Packing too much

Back in 2007, I packed my suitcase to the brim and even toppled over when I stepped off the train in Granada. Lesson learned – really think about what you’re packing, the practicality of every item and whether or not you could save space by purchasing abroad. If you’re smart about packing, you’ll have loads of room for trendy European fashions to wow your friends back home (and you won’t have to lug luggage up three flights of stairs).

Deciding on an apartment without seeing it

I was so nervous about the prospect of renting an apartment that I found one online, wired money and hoped for the best. Despite my gut telling me it was maybe not the smartest idea, I decided to grin and bear it. I ended staying in that same flat for three years. In hindsight, choosing a flat before seeing it was a stupid move that could have turned out poorly. What if I didn’t like my roommates, or the neighborhood? How could I tell if it was noisy or not? Would my landlords be giant jerks? Save yourself the trouble and worry about finding a place to live when you get here.

Choosing not to stay in touch with loved ones

My first weeks in Spain were dark ones – I struggled to see what my friends and family were up to on Facebook or messenger, and I did a terrible job of staying in touch with them. I was bursting to share my experience, but worried no one would relate, or worse – they simply wouldn’t care. Get over it and Facetime like crazy. That’s what siesta hour was invented for, right? Or at least Skype.

Not bringing enough money

Money is a sticky issue, and having to deal with what my father calls “funny money” makes it more difficult. Remember – even coins can buy you quite a bit! Consider bringing more money than you might think, because things happen. Some regions won’t pay assistants until December, or you may not be able to find tutoring side jobs. Perhaps you will fall in love with an apartment that is more expensive than you bargained for. Having a cushion will ensure you begin enjoying yourself and your new situation right away, without having to turn down day trips or a night out with new friends. 

Not taking time to learn Spanish

Moving is scary. Moving abroad is scarier. Moving abroad without being able to hold your own in the local language is the scariest. Take some time to learn Spanish and practice conversation at whatever cost. Spanish will help you accomplish things as mundane as asking for produce at the market to important situations like making formal complaints. Ah, and that brings me to my next point…

Not interacting with locals

I studied abroad in Valladolid and met not one Spanish person during my six weeks there. While I have great memories with my classmates and adored my host family, I feel that I missed out on what young people did in Spain (and I had trouble keeping up when they did talk to me). In most parts of the country, Spaniards are extremely friendly and open to meeting strangers. Even if it’s the old man having coffee next to you – lose your self-doubt and strike up a conversation. I scored cheaper car insurance just by talking to a lonely man at my neighborhood watering hole.

Adhering to timetables and traditions from your home country

As if adapting to language and a new job weren’t enough, Spain’s weird timetables can throw anyone into a funk. I tried getting a sensible night’s sleep for about two weeks when I started to realize that being in bed before midnight was nearly impossible. If you can’t beat them, siesta with them, I guess.

And that’s not to say you can’t bring your traditions to Spain, either. Making Thanksgiving for your Spanish friends is always memorable, as is dressing up on Halloween and carving watermelons for lack of pumpkins. Embrace both cultures.

Not exercising (and eating too many tapas)

My first weeks in Spain were some of my loneliest, to be honest. I hadn’t connected with others and therefore had yet to made friends. I skipped the gym and ate frozen pizzas daily. My weight quickly bloomed ten pounds. The second I began accepting social invitations and making it a point to walk, I dropped everything and more. Amazing what endorphins and Vitamin D can do!

Not getting a carnet joven earlier

Even someone who works to save money flubs – the carnet joven is a discount card for European residents with discounts on travel, entrance fees and even services around Europe. I waited until I was 26 to get one, therefore disqualifying myself from the hefty discounts on trains. This continent loves young people, so get out there and save!

Working too much

Remember that you’re moving to Spain for something, whether it’s to learn the language, to travel or to invest more time in a hobby. Maybe Spain is a temporary thing, or maybe you’ll find it’s a step towards a long-term goal. No matter what your move means to you, don’t spend all of your waking hours working or commuting – you’ll miss out on all of the wonderful things to do, see and experience in Spain. When I list my favorite things about Spain, the way of life is high on my list!

So how do you avoid these mistakes?

It’s easy: research. I spent hours pouring over blogs, reference books and even travel guides to maximize my year and euros in Spain. While there were bumps in the road, and I had to put my foot in my mouth more times than I’d like to recall, I survived a year in Spain and came back for six more (and counting).

That’s why COMO Consulting has brought out a new eBook to help those of you who are moving to Spain for the first time. In our nine chapter, 110-page book, you’ll find all of the necessary information to get you settled into Spain as seamlessly as possible. In it, we cover all of the documents you’ll need to get a NIE, how to open a bank account, how to seek out the perfect apartment, setting up your internet and selecting a mobile phone and much (much!) more.

Each chapter details all of the pertinent vocabulary you’ll need and we share our own stories of where we went wrong (so hopefully you won’t!). Being an expat means double the challenge but twice the reward, so we’re thrilled to share this book that Hayley and I would have loved to have seven years ago – we might have saved ourselves a lot of embarrassing mishaps! The book is easy to read and downloadable in PDF form, so you can take it on an e-reader, computer or tablet, and there’s the right amount of punch to keep you laughing about the crazy that is Spain.

Downloading Moving to Spain is easy – the button above is linked to COMO’s online shop. Click, purchase thru PayPal, and you’re set! You will receive email notification of a successful purchase and a link to download the eBook. You can also click here.

If you act quickly, you can score Moving to Spain for a discount this week:

         Timetable            Discount          Final Price
Monday, September 1 thru Wednesday, September 3                50%                 5€
Thursday, September 4 thru Friday, September 5                 25%               7,50€
From Saturday September 6                  0%                                            10€ 

 

(note that days are defined as GMT+1)

And get this – I’m giving away TWO of our eBooks, free of charge, to aspiring auxiliares. All you have to do is post a question in the comments, which I will gladly answer, and follow COMO Consulting on social media to win more entries. This contest is a quick one – just 48 hours – so if you don’t win, you can still get the eBook for a discounted price.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

As someone who has been there, I know it’s tough to leave a life behind for a new one you know nothing about. But trust me, it’s worth it. You only have one life, why not make la vida española part of it? 

Please remember that intellectual property is just that – this eBook belongs to COMO Consulting Spain, is copyright and should not be duplicated, reproduced or resold. Remember that science project you worked crazy hard on in elementary school, and you beamed when it was over and you were proud? That’s how we feel about Moving to Spain: A Comprehensive Guide to Your First Weeks on the Iberian Peninsula. Gracias!

Visiting London During Halloween

To anyone who knows me, no holiday gets me more excited than Halloween. I was shocked to find, during my first school year in Spain, that my favorite day of the year is reduced to kids dressing up in ghoulish outfits and teenagers looking to get drunk at an all-night botellón. No trick or treaters, no scary movie marathons and no candy hangover.

But even as an expat in Spain, I relish in our pumpkin carving parties and mini trick-or-treats, even if I don’t dress up. And because the holiday falls on a long weekend every year for All Saint’s Day, I have often ‘treated’ myself to a trip away in destinations as varied as Dublin and Germany.

 One such destination I have in mind for a future Todos los Santos long weekend? None other than London.

While the historic structures of London may inspire a great many things during the rest of the year, on Halloween, the city transforms itself into an eerie place. Every nook and corner hints of a terrifying creature lurking around, adding to the “spirit” of this festival. For those who have a thing for gloomy dungeons, spooky towers and bloodcurdling history; there’s no better way to get your fix than on Halloween in London.

Terrifying Events in Halloween
There is surprisingly a large number of rather terrifying Halloween events that are hosted at some of the creepiest venues around town. With a number of scary attractions and parties, people can make the most out of their well planned costume to give others some creeps as well.

The London Dungeons
With a fabulous cast of theatrical performers, The Dungeons is an amalgamation of amazing special effects, sets and a unique walkthrough experience. With a chance to see, hear, smell, feel and touch; all your senses will be in for a horrific ride. Considered a little scary, the Sweeny Todd performance at The Dungeons is a worth visit.

Jack the Ripper Ghost Walks
This tour commences right in the heart of the locality where the famed murder took place. This walk takes a rather atmospheric path through really old alleyways in the East End that are sure to give you some chills.

The Dias de los Muertos Halloween Party at Mestizo
This fun Mexican restaurant and tequila bar transforms itself into a ghoulish environ for a single night each year. Celebrate the Day of the Dead the right way by visiting this establishment on Halloween night.

London RIB Voyages’ Thames Rockets – Beware the Barrier!
This unique experience will take you at 35 knots all the way to the tombstones in the Thames Barrier. On Halloween, London RIB Voyages offers to you a spine-tingling experience. Your boat heads off into the waters in the middle of the night for a hauntingly dark experience. This experience is probably the best way you get into the spooky spirit of the festival.

Spooktacular Halloween at The Roof Gardens
There is nothing more eerie than celebrating this night at spectacular heights. Head to the Roof Gardens where you can party while overlooking the fascinating Kensington High Street.

Other gripping events include the Candlelight Club’s Halloween Masquerade Ball that will be hosted at a Secret Venue. ‘Strange Factories’ by Foolish People is also a unique Halloween experience worth considering.

Spending a Night in London on Halloween
An increasingly popular concept in London is the idea of spending a night in a haunted hotel while in the city. Most modern day hotels transform their lobbies and public spaces to represent the spooky spirit of the festival. There are also a number of properties that are centuries old and come with a fair share of eeriness around them.

A number of boutique hotels in London enhance your experience on and around Halloween. Visiting the city towards the end of October helps you be a part of these spooky celebrations.

As for this coming weekend, my friends played a nasty trick –  they got me to sign up for a 5k in Seville! 

Have you ever traveled anywhere haunted? Do you like Halloween?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cash is all but a foreign concept

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

Condiments puzzle you

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

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

You try to pay in any other currency but American dollars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s freezing

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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