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?

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.

Why I enjoyed the Auxiliar Program and how you can, too

About a year ago, I was invited to attend the “Helicheville” Bilingual Day in the school I worked at during my first three years in Spain. Emilio met me at the door with a, “SABORILLA! Te han dejado salir a la calle sin bozal?” Only someone like him would ask if I was allowed to be out without a muzzle. The day was a blur of hugs, of recounting what I’d been up to the last few years and asking if I could return to work in Olivares.

Ojalá – it was the most fun job I’ve ever had.

The North American Language and Culture Assistants program (NALCAP), or auxiliar program, has gotten a bad rep, and with some razón. Assistants say they’ve not been paid on time, or they’re left to their own devices in the classroom (or even underused), not having any idea about what their job really entails or the ability to prepare lessons and try to help the English language instruction.

I have to say that I got really lucky with my placement – wonderful coworkers who treated me as an equal, a three-day schedule with interested students and a school that always paid me on time. We even had music in the hallways during passing periods and kids rarely vandalized the school.

This utopia is not always the case, of course. I recognize that my experience was far different from that of many other friends, like Liz of Young Adventuress (who worked in Córdoba and La Rioja) or Lauren of Spanish Sabores (who spent two years in Andalucía). Their experiences are two of a myriad of them, and every experience differs. When I began teaching in Olivares, I had no idea it would leave to a career in EFL education.

And here’s the kicker: I actually LIKE teaching! It’s a profession I promised myself I’d never do, but I enjoy working with teens and the babies and find it to be a job that never gets boring. I initially planned to stay for a year and give teaching a try, and I’m still at it seven years and three jobs later.

So, with all of the rumors floating around about not getting paid on time, about indifferent coworkers and kids who could pasar tres kilos when it came to English. Believe me, I had a few issues with other teachers or students, but the day the envelope arrived telling me “Thanks for your time, but get the F out and let someone else have a turn,” my boss and I had a few tears as I realized I’d be jobless in a matter of weeks with no student visa.

Really, now could not be a better time to consider teaching in Spain, and those who have the government backing with visas and health insurance will come to Iberia with everything figured out but where to live and how to get their NIE. 

I have wonderful memories of IES Heliche, despite the long commutes, the desperation of putting up noisy teenagers and those moments of feeling really, crazily poor. But I firmly believe that you take whatever you put into the experience. Here’s my advice to incoming auxiliares:

Try and get to know the other teachers, whether or not they’re involved with the auxiliar program.

Yes, there will be teachers at your school who are indifferent, who don’t understand what exactly you do, or even tell you you’re better off not coming to class. After all, your fun lessons involving drawing hand turkeys on Thanksgiving cuts into their teaching time, too.

But there were will others who are curious or realize that you’re far from home, and even a simple hola can help tremendously when you’re missing ground beef actually made of beef and TV in English. My coworkers, for the most part, looked out for me and treated me with a lot of respect.

Offer to help other teachers with their English over your car commutes – Felisabel and I would have a sort of language exchange on our morning commutes (and she even used to hem all of my pants and take in my flamenco dress). Ask your coordinator if conversation practice with interested teachers can be part of your contract hours, and get to know the teachers personally if they’re interested. Try and learn everyone’s names – I was at a school with nearly 100 teachers, and there was flow in and out each year, but I tried my damnedest to remember if the other art teacher was Jose Luis or Jose Antonio or Jose Angel. 

The result? I scored extra private classes, free commutes and people to turn to when I had problems. Invitation to barbecues, casetas and birthday parties. Again, not every school is like this, but making the effort can go a long way. And if you’re bummed about your placement outside of the city, the good news is that young teachers are typically placed in pueblos, so you’ll have younger coworkers to hang out with.

If you want to get something out of the school year, pues, do something.

The biggest issue with the auxiliar program is that there isn’t a cut-and-dry job description. I had friends who sat in the teacher’s lounge five hours a week planning curriculum, while others gave classes to small groups in half-hour blocks. Some gave PE (and I was insanely jealous) or music or math in English, while others stuck to strictly to conversation practice, as specified by the program manual.

Each school is allowed to use their language assistant as they see fit, so your job description is practically unwritten. That said, I suggest you make the best of your time in the classroom. Play games. Listen to music. Find out what your students like, and tailor your classes to those preferences. Work with the team teacher to plan classes. 

If you stand in the back of the classroom, you won’t enjoy yourself. Remember: you’re the fun teacher who doesn’t give homework or exams or demerits, so the battle is half won.

And then there’s the feeling of spending a year doing little else than explaining the difference between present perfect and past simple or enunciating words.

Believe me, I had the idea that I was going to make my student bilingual. Naive and overly optimistic, yes, but when I learned to let go of that idea and work to engage my students in classes, I got the sense of fulfillment I was looking for. 

Be clear about your preferences and needs, but recognize that not everything is possible.

Eager to now my schedule my first year in Olivares, my boss came back with a four-day, twelve-hour schedule. I was crestfallen, at first, as my day off was Tuesday. While my friends were staying out until 7am on Fridays, I was waking up to get to work.

During my second year, I was scheduled to work on a day in the middle of the week for only two classes. In fact, I’d spend more time on the bus than giving class.

After a few weeks of grinning and bearing it, I approached my boss. I didn’t threaten or get whiny (as is my style), but instead had already looked at possibilities in the schedule for swapping class hours, as well as talked to other teachers about the possibilities. I politely told my boss that this would maximize my time in the classroom and make my commute loads easier, and she agreed.

To be clear, there are things that suck that you probably can’t change – a long commute with weird and inconvenient bus or train times, working with an age group that could be difficult or the terrible money handling (which ensures you won’t be paid on time). You may have to work four days a week or split your time between two schools, or even 1000 students.

But if there is something that could be improved – be it a better classroom switch, more planning hours with teachers or even a suggestion that can streamline your work – tell your boss politely and give reasons why. Because there’s no catch-all description of your job, only you can put limits on what you do, or recommend ways to improve the program.

Relax. It’s likely not personal.

In my mission to try to please everyone (character flaw), I grew upset and angry when teachers flat-out told me I was useless to them, or barely grumbled a hello in the morning. But I’m the language assistant! You need me! I’m friendly and bake cookies on occasion! Don’t hate on me just because I’m a guiri!

Then someone gave me an emotional slap in the face (I’m sure it was Asun, and I’m thanking her for it) and told me to calm the hell down and not take it personally. Many teachers felt that they couldn’t use me effectively in the classroom because they were preparing for seniors’ exit exams, or because two days in English was simply too much. Some teachers are extremely old school, so respect it and move on.

Once I got over myself, I enjoyed my classes and team teaching in the áreas no-linguíticas.

Remember that it’s a job that you’re doing part-time, and you’re getting paid far more than you should be getting paid.

Just to give you an idea – a teacher at many language schools in Seville work 20-24 hours a week and earn between 800€ and 1,000€ a month after taxes. Twelve hours for 700€? Casi regalao! Enjoy it, and all of the free time you have after you’re done working.

Once you have a full-time job, you’ll miss finishing work at noon and getting to take a siesta every day. Just saying.

Interested in more posts about my experience working at a rural high school in Andalucía? Check out these posts: How to Apply to the Auxiliar Program // Alternatives to the Auxiliar Program // Saying Goodbye to IES Heliche

If you are getting ready for the program and have questions or doubts  leave me a message in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!

 

The Thing About Spanish Weddings…

I went to my first wedding when I was 20. I had never been asked to be a flower girl, and my older cousins didn’t get married until I was already living in Spain. I drove with a friend out to Waterloo, Iowa, for a study abroad friend’s nuptials. The following year, I was a bridesmaid in a high school friend’s ceremony. I was as wedding tonta as they come.

The Novio invited me to a friend’s wedding on Gran Canaria (!!!!) after we’d been dating for about six months. We took a long weekend and explored the island by car, but I was underdressed, had the wrong length dress on, and mistakenly didn’t eat lunch before we left.

Since then, I’ve tallied more enlaces in Spain than weddings in the US – three of fellow americanas who married Spaniards – and I’ve even photographed one! Just last weekend, I attended a bodorrio in the Novio’s village of San Nicolás del Puerto. He wasn’t there, but I went anyway because, who doesn’t love a good wedding?

Yeah, so the thing about Spanish weddings is…

Location

Weddings are typically held in the bride’s hometown. The Novio knows the father of the bride is the one who pays, so he’s promised we can do one back home, too. In fact, I’ve only been to three weddings in Seville proper! 

Invitations

It’s considered bad taste to send the invitations to your friends and family; instead, the happy couple are expected to hand out the envelopes to guests! There have been several weddings where I’ve not gotten the actual invitation until just days or weeks before the nuptials, and most are sent six weeks before (thanks for sharing this, Lynette!).

Attire

Ladies: if it’s a daytime wedding, stick to a short dress. If it’s at night, go long. Do not mess this up, or have the marujas in attendance forever tsk-ing you. If you’re really pija and daring, you can wear a nice pants suit.

El tocado

Those crazy fascinators are ONLY appropriate for day weddings. I know, just when you want to be bold and Spanish and wear one, you find out that you can’t because the ceremony is at 6pm. Sorry.

The wedding party

It’s not common to have bridesmaids and groomsmen; rather, Spanish weddings have a madrina and a padrino who sign the paperwork that legally makes you man and wife. When the Novio’s brother got married in a civil ceremony, I was his wife’s madrina, which also meant I got to fix her hair right before I took photos of them.

Gifts

There are virtually no gift registries – you hand the happy couple an envelope stuffed with money to start their nest egg (or pay back the lavish meal you just ate).

I was horrified when the Novio slammed 300€ into his friend’s palm at our first wedding together, but money is a lot easier to carry than an olla exprés, I suppose. Brides and grooms sometimes include their bank account number in the invitation, as well, so that you can transfer money in before the ceremony.

Food and Drink

They never seem to stop serving food or drink. Ever.

In Spain, there is usually a coctel where someone will inevitably be cutting a leg of jamón, and you’ll have beer, wine, sherry and soft drinks served, along with finger foods. Once you sit down, there will be more jamón and boiled shrimp before you get two dishes, a dessert and coffee before the champagne toast.

The bride and groom typically come around to your table at this time to give you a small gift, and this is where you hand them the envelope. Every time someone shouts, ‘Vivan los novios!’ you must shout viva.

Then it’s dance and copas time! Most weddings have a DJ or band and they always, ALWAYS play the same songs. I fooled someone into thinking I was Spanish last weekend because I knew every single song they played.

All the normal stuff we do back home?

The bride and groom have their first dance, you throw rice and the bride throws her bouquet, and someone’s drunk uncle hits on you. Like many Spanish celebrations, weddings are over-the-top and full of fun moments (usually brought on by a cocktail or two). And there is always a sevillana or two!

At Jesus and Macarena’s wedding last weekend, the father of the groom asked me how I was enjoying myself. I told him it was the exact wedding I’d envisioned for myself – right down to where the banquet was held (the father of the groom’s restaurant!).

Have you ever attended a Spanish wedding (or had one yourself)? Tell me about it…I am hopeful I’ll get my two parties someday and need some ideas!

Seville Snapshots: The Joy of Snail Mail (I’ll even send you some!)

Long before it was easy to keep in contact with my family through apps and widespread wi-fi, I sent letters. You know, those pieces of paper with handwritten notes on them.

I still pick up postcards on trips – both for myself as a souvenir and as a reminder to my family that Yes, I’m still alive and, No, I don’t want anything from the American Girl Doll catalogue this year.

But what happens when you don’t find a single postcard you like? In India, the postcards we did find were faded by the sun, and not of anything worth writing home about. That’s where Lettr comes in, a new website that allows you to take your own picture, share a story and send it to loved ones worldwide for a little more than the cost of a postage stamp.

You can even sign the postcard with your own name and send a location in 2-3 days, rather than the weeks it can take for traditional mail to cross the pond.  I just sent one to a friend of mine in under one minute, from Seville all the way to Colorado!

Want to try lettr for yourself? The first FIFTEEN readers who use this link will get a complimentary postcard, on me! I’ll even send you one from Seville, just because there’s nothing quite as great as opening your mailbox to find that someone other than bill collectors are thinking of you. 

Do you like getting or sending postcards? Who would you send your lettr postcard to?

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?

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