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

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

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

Planning a Spanish American Wedding

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

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

Can I just say that my wedding may kill me?

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

But we’ve still got to get there.

Distance

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

Weddings at Meson Sabika

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

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

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

Planning for a wedding abroad

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

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

Last Name and Paperwork

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

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

mom and dad wedding

Aww, my parents on their wedding day in 1983

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

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

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

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

Cat+EnriqueEngagement042

photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

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

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

Priest and Traditions

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

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

orange and blue wedding flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language

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

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

Bilingual Save the Dates

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

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

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

Bilingual Wedding Invitations

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

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

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

Timeframe 

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

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

Cat+EnriqueEngagement065

photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

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

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

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

The Countdown

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

Cat+EnriqueEngagement078

photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

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

So glad we’re sticking to traditional vows! 

12 Grapes, 12 Months and 12 things I’m going to start doing in 2015

At 5:04, I realized the champagne hadn’t been poured and the grapes hadn’t been sectioned off into groups of  a dozen yet. We’d missed Spain’s ringing in of the new year, and just like 2014 passed in a flash, amidst a flurry of giggles and general catching up, I’d failed to take notice of how fast the time was creeping along. I popped the grapes in my mouth, washing it down with a swig of champagne as my friends watched, half amused and half horrified. What can I say? I’m superstitious, and I want this year to count.

2015 has always been in the back of my mind as the year I would turn 30, and it’s already here. As my wise (and sassy) great aunt Mary Jane says, Years are like toilet paper rolls. The further along you are, the faster things run out.

2015 new year's resolutions

I’m one to reflect, and I seriously love making resolutions. Setting goals has always helped me stay on track and continue to better certain aspects of my life. My biggest goals after college were to move abroad, become fluent in Spanish and travel to 25 countries, and then eventually get a master’s degree. So what now, considering I’ve got that all ticked off my list?

This year, as I mark two big milestones, I want to make it all about me. 

In 2015 

1. I’m going to make more time for me and for more important things than working all the time.

I’ll get it out in the open right away: I’m going to be shuffling priorities this year, and maintaining Sunshine and Siestas may fall a bit lower on my list. This blog is important to me, but it’s taking up time that could be used on other things I need to get done.

Holy Cows in India

I’ll be updating once a week, minimum, but considering I have two other websites to keep at, I’ll likely be writing longer form articles and working on my Typical NonSpanish project with Caser Expat.

I’ll still be active on social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram, so head there if you’re dying to know what I’m eating, mostly.

2. I’m going to make a conscious effort to write offline

All that time not spent sitting behind a computer might actually get me up on my awesome terrace so that I can jot down personal things in my life.

Who are you? Street art in Seville, Spain

I even bought a new notebook, and this list was the first thing in it. Toma, goals.

3. I’m going to drink less beer and more water.

I don’t love this reolustion, but if my altitude sickness and gut can attest to this last trip to the US, I’d be healthier and a bit slimmer if I didn’t love beer so darn much. I had to make a choice, though: deprive myself from delicious food, or  to lay off the Cruzcampo. 

buza bar beer

But I do love drinking beer on the water…

This may mean behaving during the week, swapping the beer for a glass of tinto or even just having a sin every once in a while, but my wedding will be full of craft beer, and I will gladly drink up.

4. I’m going to be better about staying in touch.

I may suffer from a mild form of reverse culture shock when I land at O’Hare once or twice a year, I am fortunate to have a beautiful group of friends back home with whom I’m still close. You know, the sort that you don’t see for to years (or even six, in Val’s case this Christmas) but never run out of topics to talk about, or college mishaps to laugh over.

All of my friends

But even with Facebook and whatsapp and a million other ways to stay in touch, I don’t make enough time for Skype and emails. I’m looking forward to my wedding as a time to have my más queridos in one place, but that’s one day when I’ll see them for a split second. And with everyone getting older, making plans and moving way (that’s the pot calling the kettle black if I ever heard it), there’s no time like now.

5. and 6. I’m going to learn something new, one of those being to learn to cook.

I’ve said I’m going to learn to cook for ages, but recently I’ve actually enjoyed making new dishes and reinventing old ones. Plus, it’s cheaper than eating out all the time.

cooking at a cooking day in malaga

I’d also like to learn a new skill, like lightroom or CSS for the benefit of this blog, or relearn how to sew. For real, 30 is making me feel like I need a lot more skills than I have. Napping is not a skill, as much as I try to make it happen.

7.  I’m going to take better care of my skin, cuticles and nails.

I am about as low maintenance as they come, and my skin and hands have suffered because of it. I have ugly nails, ugly hands and skin that should be taken better care of. This means taking off my makeup every night and getting more regular hair trims, but so be it!

8. I’m going to read more books.

Reading is one of my great passions, but TV binge watching while moving and unpacking got the better of me this year. When I did my master’s, I was still able to polish off 25 or 30 books, so I’ll be pushing for 20 this year. I’m nearly done with my first: Yo, Cayetana, an autobiography of the Duquesa de Alba and in Spanish. That counts for two, right?

vintage books El Jueves Market Sevilla

Thankfully, my sister is an English teacher and sends countless recommendations, and my e-reader comes with my to the gym, but no more TV before bed. Besides, it may be killing us.

9. I’m going to make travel more meaningful.

When I first came to Spain in 2007, I drained my bank account running around to European capitals on cramped budget airlines, staying in accommodation that was questionable and eating countless kabobs in the street, all in the name of passport stamps and ticking things off the list. Travel was fun, but it wasn’t meaningful.

India changed that.

The Colors of India - Taj Mahal

From now on, I want my money to be better spent on travel. I want experiences, not countries. Food and not tourist sites. I want to hit the streets of a new place or visit family. I’ve just been invited to Romania on a blog trip, and I can’t wait to explore the country more over Semana Santa.

10. I’m going to save money. 

A year ago, 100% of my salary was for me to enjoy, be it on weekends trips, tapas out with friends or even a taxi. Since buying a house, I’ve had to take a serious look at the money I make and how much I spend.

The last few months of 2014 were hard – I haven’t lived paycheck to paycheck for a few years – and the start of the mortgage coincided with the two months of the year I don’t get paid. Then there were the new break pads, a visiting friend, furniture to purchase. Needless to say, the money I’d worked to save last year while still treating myself is long gone, and I remember it every time I sit on our new (amazing) couch. 

European Euros money

I’m making a pledge to put away a minimum of 150€ a month, going as far as to map out my weird expenses, like insurance or the odd plane ticket. I may even get a retirement account!

11. I’m going to remember to go with my gut.

When I visited Jaipur in 2014, Ali took us to see his guru. Skeptical from the moment he mentioned it, we weren’t surprised to see that this guru also had a jewelry shop, and that he wanted us to buy. But when we went into a back office and he began to make shockingly accurate claims about our families, I decided to listen.

sunsets at monkey temple jaipur

The man told me I had a white aura, meaning my crown chakra. At that point in my life, I felt happy and satisfied with everything – my relationships, my job, and the life I’d created. The crown chakra is connected with positivity, inspiration and trust. With the big changes in my life (and the stress of planning a wedding abroad), I’m remembering to trust my instincts, make a decision and stop second guessing myself.

12. I’m going to remember that it’s ok to say no.

I had the opportunity to meet Geada Ford, a brand consultant who has worked with Martha Stuart, and have her over to my house in October. She gave me advice that I wish someone had given me when I was far younger: it’s OK to say no. As someone who likes pleasing people and being able to help when I’m asked, saying no is hard.

But it’s time to say no to people who won’t make me happy, plans that I don’t feel like making, sponsorships that don’t fit into my niche. 

playa de las catedrales galicia beach

Rather than using ‘stop’ or ‘will,’ I wanted to hold myself accountable and start the year on a positive note, despite a few small hiccups. I’m going to make my time count, my health important and my relationships worth leaving the computer for.

What are you resolutions and propósitos for 2015? I’m interested in hearing!

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

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

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

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

the historic center of valladolid

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

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

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

Plaza Mayor of Valladolid

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

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

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

Reflections of Study Abroad in Spain

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

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

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

ayuntamiento de Valladolid

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

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

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

How Greek Life Made Me a Better Expat

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

source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation Skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Responsibility and Philanthropy

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Taking Care of Your Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expat Life Then and Now: My Seven Year Spaniversary

I can’t clearly remember my first days in Spain. Between the jet lag, the whirlwind tour of the Iberian Peninsula with my grandmother and the nagging thoughts and regrets, it didn’t fully hit me that I had up and moved to Spain to teach English until nearly three weeks after my plane touched down on September 13th, 2007.

Cue my Jessie Spano moment once Helen was boarded on a plane back to the Motherland.

I was terrified to start a life in Span alone, barely 22 and not proficient in Spanish. Every challenge – from getting my residency card to remembering how to separate the trash – seemed to come with a mountain of self-doubt. Que Dios bendiga my bilingual Spanish roommate and my bilingual coordinator for helping me through those rough first weeks.

My first year in Spain seems like it was both so far in the past and like it was last year. I met Lucía and Valle, old coworkers from Olivares, last week for dinner, and the piropos rolled in – You look more womanly. You and the Novio seem to be a balanced couple. WAIT you and the Novio are still together? And you’re getting married?! And there’s a HOUSE in the mix!?

My, my you’ve come a long way (proof is below, as far as flamenco dresses are concerned).

Seven years is a long time, leches!

WORK then: auxiliar de conversación // now: director of studies

When I first arrived to Seville, I worked at a high school in nearby Olivares as a language assistant. For the first time, I was deviating from my goal of becoming a magazine journalist, and I’d have to do a job I had no experience in. Actually, in having a teacher for a mother, I swore I’d never run a classroom.

My job in Olivares was fun – I was respected by my coworkers and students, and found I was actually considering teaching as a vocation. After three years, I was given the equivalent of a pink slip and thanked for my participation in the auxiliar program.

Faced with no job prospects, no magic paperwork solutions and no money in my bank account, I thought I’d be done for in Spain, but both a loophole in Spanish law and a school desperate for a native speaker fell into my lap in one week, thus launching my career in teaching.

The longer I do it, the more I love it. In fact, I’ve turned down a few job offers in favor of my current job, directing the academic side of a small academy in town. I still have contact hours and get my kiddie cuddles fix daily, but not enough to leave my voice ragged and my nerves frayed at the end of the week.

SIDE JOBS then: student tour guide and tutor // now: freelance writing and voiceovers + entrepreneur

I came overly optimistic that my money would stretch forever in Spain – and it did, but only because I saved up a ton of green by working two jobs and cashing in a scholarship. But as someone who despises boredom, I needed to find something to do midday other than siesta.

Doing research for an article about volunteering abroad brought me to We Love Spain, a then baby student tourism company. I began asking questions about what the company did and where the trips took them, and was offered an internship as a PR rep. Let’s be clear – PR like you learn in journalism school doesn’t prepare you for Spanish PR. I spent time passing out flyers and making phone calls, but got to know my city and a lot of people through WLS. We amicably went our separate ways when I realized I wasn’t making enough money to support my travel and tapas habits.

I tutored up until last year as a way to make some quick money, but as my professional network grows, it’s hard to find time to commit to biking around Seville and giving homework help.

Nowadays, I fill my mornings with more than sleeping until a late hour and lazing around the house (me and lazy can only be used together if it’s post-work week, and even then, it’s a stretch). I do freelance work in both writing and translating, record children’s stories for iPads and tablets, and am getting a business up and running, COMO Consulting Spain.

Even during my ‘summer vacation’ I found time to plan half a wedding and co-author an eBook about Moving to Spain.

Hustlers gonna hustle, after all.

LIVING SITUATION then: shared flat in Triana // now: homeowner in Triana

The 631€ I earned as a language assistant my first year didn’t go too far each month, and paying rent was my first order of business with every paycheck I got. Turning down a room with a balcony right under the shadow of the Giralda when I first arrived, I ended up in a shared flat in Triana with two other girls – a Spaniard and a German.

 

Living in shared accommodation is one thing, but when you add in another couple of languages and cultures, things can get complicated. I thankfully escaped to the Novio’s nearly every night before moving all of my stuff and my padrón to his house. Four years later, I moved back to Triana with my name on the deed and way poorer. 

SOCIAL LIFE then: bars, discos and botellón // now: bottles of wine and the occasional gin tonic

Working twelve hours a week allowed me to explore other interests, like a flamenco class and loads of travel, as well as left me with two new hobbies: drinking beer and eating tapas. But that didn’t come easily – I actually had many lonely weeks where I’d do little more but work, sleep and walk around the city to stave off boredom.

Once I did make friends, though, life become a non-stop, tinto-de-verano-infused party. My first few years in Spain may have been chaotic, but they were a lot of fun!

Alcohol – particularly beer and wine – is present at meals, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have beer with lunch before returning to work. When I studied abroad at 19, I’d have to beg my host family not to top off my glass with wine every night at dinner, or remind them that I didn’t want Bailey’s in my coffee. But as soon as I met the Novio, he’d order me a beer with lunch and dinner, despite my request for water. 

Now, most of my social plans are earlier in the evening, involve far less botellóns and garrafón, and leave me feeling better the next day. I sometimes get nostalgic for those nights that ended with churros at 7am, and then remember that I have bills and can’t drink like a college kid anymore. I still maintain my love for beer, but hearty reds or a crisp gin and tonic are my drinks of choice when I go out with friends.

SPANISH SKILLS then: poquísimo // now: C1+

To think that I considered myself proficient in Spanish when I moved to Seville. I couldn’t understand the Andalusian accent, which is riddled with idioms and missing several syllables, despite studying abroad in the cradle of modern Spanish. My roommates and I only spoke to one another in English, and I was so overcome by the Novio’s ability to speak three foreign languages, that I sheepishly admitted to my parents that I’d let myself down on the Spanish front when they came to visit at Christmas.

I buckled down and began working towards fluency. I made all of the mistakes a novice language learning makes, including have to put my foot in my mouth on numerous occasions, but it has stuck. In November 2011, I sat the DELE Spanish exam, passing the C1, or Advanced, exam. I then one-upped myself by doing a master’s entirely in Spanish the following year.

I’d say I now speak an even amount of English and Spanish because of my line of work and my choice to have English-speaking friends.

FUTURE PLANS then: learn Spanish and travel a whole bunch // get married, decorate a house and start a bilingual family

A college friend put it best this summer when the Novio and I celebrated our engagement. He told me all of our friends thought I was insane for passing up a job at a news radio station in Chicago to go to Spain to teach, and that I’d made it work.  I can clearly remember the stab of regret that I had when I boarded the plane, the moments of confusion as I navigated being an adult and doing so in Spanish, of missing home and friends and hot dogs and baseball.

But here I am, seven years later, grinning as I remember how different my life was, but that I grabbed life by the horns and made Seville my own. I’d say I’d surprised myself, but I would expect nothing less.

Now that I’m planning a bilingual wedding, dealing with the woes of homeownership and starting a company, I realize my goals are still in line with those I had long before I decided to move to Spain. In the end, my life isn’t so radically different from 2007, just more polished and mature.

Reflections of My Years in Spain – Año Cuatro / Cinco / Seis / Making the choice to live abroad

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!

 

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