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.

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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!

 

Elephant Riding in Rajasthan: Good Idea, Bad Idea?

“Ok, you have one minute to decide: ride elephant, walk.”

Ali swung around, eyebrows raised. His heavily-decorated tuk tuk’s engine shivered as it halted to a stop and he used his leg to steady it. I looked at Hayley and took a deep breath. “I can’t do it, I’m sorry.”

The city I most looked forward to visiting in India was Jaipur, a metropolis dubbed “The Pink City” that is famous for its salmon painted buildings and the Amer Fort. Once we’d gotten our bearings in Delhi and Agra, Hayley and I were set to enjoy endless lassi yogurt drinks and climbs to some of India’s most jaw-dropping forts and palaces.

Other travelers told me that Jaipur rises out of the desert like a mirage, but we rolled in on a sleeper train that was delayed several hours through a seedy part of town. The porter knocked on the door and motioned for us to get off. Jaipur, after Delhi’s chaos and the scam-laden town of Agra, was already a dream.

Ali stood, arms crossed, waiting to take us to Hotel Kaylan. Though illiterate, he pulled out a journal that was full of recommendations and reviews from other traveler. He stood up and opened the compartment under his seat, taking out a photo album so we could settle on an itinerary.

Apart from the city’s main sights, like the various forts and palaces, the Janta Mantar and the Hawa Mahal, he pushed the Elefantastic park, allowing us the opportunity to paint, feed and swim with the pachyderms. After all, the Rajasthani state is famous for its Indian Elephant festivals and breeding grounds, and elephants have been used for centuries in trade and commerce. What’s more, one of Hinduism’s most beloved gods, Ganesh, the god of good fortune, is depicted as an elephant.

Ali drove us to the Monkey Temple at sunset. Animals are quite commonplace in the streets in India – not only are sacred cows able to freely roam cities and eat all the trash they can find, but we saw goats in rickshaws, pigs and warthogs complacently lying on patches of cracked cement, and now monkeys swinging about temples as the faithful prayed.

India is different when it comes to animal treatment. As an American, I’ve always had a pet and have been taught to respect animals. My parents contribute to the National Parks System and sent me to summer camp as a kid, and I’ve been riding horses since I could walk. That said, I eat meat and would probably defend a human over any other four-legged creature.

I found India to be a strange paradox: Gandhi once said that you can measure a nation on how they treat their animals, but there were scores of abandoned creatures. In fact, I didn’t see an animal on a leash until our last morning in India.

We spoke softly to a man who carried around a bag of mangoes and spoke good English. Despite leaning on a cane for support, he’d been climbing up the slippery slope that wound up a steep mountain a few times a day to feed the massive flock of Rheus Langur monkeys that lived in the vicinity of three small temples.

We’d given the Amer Fort a full morning before hiring Ali to take us to the Mughal markets for shopping. But I was still faced with the decision of whether or not I’d want to ride an elephant up to the magnificent, sprawling residence. We spent the breezy night up on Hotel Kaylan’s terrace restaurant, sipping fizzy soda water flavored with lime and salt. While Hayley settled something with her bank, I dove into researching elephant treatment in Rajasthan. 

Part of the hesitation about the ride came from participating in the Travel Blogging Calendar to raise money for Thai elephants. After being clued in to exactly what happens to elephants when they are tamed there, I would have been horrified to support a rehabilitating practice.

I was encouraged to learn that the Indian Government opened and has sponsored an elephant compound since 2010, meant to be a refuge for the pachyderms and a tourism center for Indian elephants. There’s also an Elephant Wellness Office to which abuse and mistreatment can be reported.

The 100+ elephants working at Amber Fort have specific rules about how many trips they can make per day and are limited to two passengers, plus their Mahout, or handler. In fact, most are able to stop working for the day by 11am, before it gets too hot. No downhill trips are permitted.

But get past the first few pages of Google, and the horror stories crop up – elephants dying of heat stroke, of mahouts being trampled to death, of lack of funding for sick and suffering animals. I didn’t even bother investigating how the animals were trained.

The issue, of course, is not black and white. As animals have traditionally been domesticated by man for millennia, and this sort of tourism is crucial to many communities in India, I began to weigh those points as well. The Novio has trained horses and dogs, and his family relies on animal to earn their living, so would I be hypocritical by refusing to take the ride when I’ve ridden horses and camels?

By the time we went to sleep, I was still uneasy about the decision I’d have to make. I’d imagined elephants would be a part of my India experience, just as dosas and a guru reading my chakras and learning to drive a tuk tuk were.

Ali showed up early the following day to pick us up and take us for a lassi before driving to the palace. He pulled off the road adjacent to the Maota Lake and asked: to the elephants, or are you walking up?

I had asked his opinion on the ride, and he admitted that he wouldn’t think about doing it. Ever. Full stop. Ali is a spiritual and respectful man, so I trusted his judgement.

We set off walking, having to dodge hawkers and other tourists on the ramp and stairs that lead to the Suraj Pol, or Sun Gate.

When I saw my first elephant, trunk decorated with paint, I gasped. Having only seen elephants in zoos, I couldn’t believe I was just a few paces away from one – so surprised, in fact, that I narrowly missed a pile of fresh poop.

The climb itself was incredible, and we passed by the elephants through narrow gates. I didn’t, for one second, regret my decision to forgo the ride – it looked shaky, so I wouldn’t have gotten any good photos anyway.

Watching the passengers dismount in the lower courtyard, called the Jaleb Chowk, the elephants turned around and went back the way they came. I couldn’t deny that it was beautiful to watch them sway as they left the sun gate and went back for the next batch of passengers. 

Elephants, in Hindu culture, represent strength, prowess in war, majesty and royalty, and a vehicle to the divine world. But in no way does a vehicle to the divine world mean sitting on top as the elephant trudges up a slope.


  

This article was written as part of Contiki Storytellers’s campaign for Costa Rican sea turtles (please watch the video above!). Animals are an important part of ecosystems, after all. I cannot tell you it’s right or wrong to ride an elephant in India or Thailand or elsewhere, merely that you investigate and make the decision based on your personal feelings. I am not a conservationist or an animal rights activist – I’m just a traveler who didn’t feel right taking an elephant ride. I was not paid for this article.

What’s your take on animal tourism? I’d love to hear from other bloggers like Green Global Travel, Wanderlusters and Hole in the Donut, who are into responsible tourism.

The Amer Fort is located 11 kilometers from Jaipur in the village of Amer and is open daily from 7:30am until 5:30pm. Foreigners pay a 200 rupee entrance fee (about 3€). The cost of riding an elephant is 1000 rupee for two people, plus a tip for the driver.

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire D. writes:

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

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

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