Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb

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Just a bunch of face-stuffing, football-watching Americanos

A couple weeks ago, I started teaching a lesson about Thanksgiving to a few of my classes. The lesson started with an explanation of the history of the holiday. Then I helped them work through a Thanksgiving crossword puzzle. After that, I had them make a list of things they’re thankful for, which, for a vast majority of students, looked just like this:

“I am thankful for…

My family

My friends

My cat/dog

My girlfriend/boyfriend

My iPhone/Xbox/Playstation/etc

Pretty standard for teens, I suppose. 🙂

So yeah yeah yeah, the history and purpose of the holiday are nice, but what the kids really wanted to know was this: what do we actually do on Thanksgiving Day, hoy en dia (nowadays)?

Well uh, haha…good question. My favorite stand-up comic, Jim Gaffigan, sums it up pretty well:

I literally gave them this breakdown of a typical Thanksgiving Day in the lives of an American family: wake up, watch the Macy’s Day Parade on TV. Help prepare/wait for the gigantic meal. Consume your daily caloric allowance in a matter of minutes. Feel miserable. Take a nap and/or watch the Thanksgiving Day NFL game.

It never really seemed so pathetic until I said it aloud to several groups of kids who grew up in a place where holidays seem to have a lot more tradition and meaning, and during which families still go out and do things in order to celebrate.

I was asked just this week to talk about parades in the US, since we have a few that are kind of a big deal. I guess you could even say I have inside info about these parades, since my high school marching band is nationally recognized for having marched in the Rose Bowl Parade, Orange Bowl Parade, Hollywood Christmas Parade, Target Thanksgiving Parade, in Disney World and others (it’s true, check out Jamestown’s Wikipedia page!) :-p Anyway, when preparing to talk about parades, it occurred to me that the majority of them actually revolve around NFL football games. As in, that’s the sole purpose of having the parade/celebration in the first place. As I am not a fan of this sport that is so near and dear to my fellow Americans’ hearts, I think this is a bit sad. But I know many would beg to differ.

Explaining both Thanksgiving traditions and parade culture in the US was a humorous and thought-provoking experience. It’s funny how things that have seemed so commonplace all your life can suddenly seem so strange.

For better or worse, we Americans celebrate our holidays just the the way we like, and I suppose that’s just fine. A few of us expats even managed to scrap together a pretty decent Thanksgiving feast here in Bilbao–complete with a very hard-to-find turkey (“what do you mean, you don’t eat HAM on a HOLIDAY!??!” -all Spaniards), mashed ‘taters, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, deviled eggs, mac ‘n cheese, and stuffing. The bread and wine were Spanish….forgive us.

¡pobre pavo!

Vinos de Rioja: a splash of Spanish excellence for our American feast

pretty impressive spread!

Happy belated Thanksgiving, everyone! I am thankful for YOU!


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Beyonce: my new teaching assistant

Those of you who know me probably know that I’ve long been an admirer of the fabulous Beyonce Knowles. But I mean…who isn’t? She’s beautiful, talented, elegant and humble: a perfect mix that is hard to find among today’s celebrities.

And, as it turns out, some of her song lyrics are just purrrrrfect for ESL lessons.

I remember when the song “If I Were a Boy” came out. I heard it on the radio, didn’t listen to the lyrics very carefully, and quickly dismissed the song as “lame.” Then, I saw the video. Boom. Crying. Pitiful girly tears.

Is the song sexist? Yeah, probably. Girls can be just as shady and treat guys like crap too. But the lyrics bring up some things that I’m betting most people, perhaps girls especially, can relate to from past or current relationships.

This song uses a number of beautiful examples of a grammatical joy known as the “second conditional.” This refers to the verb structure used when referring to impossible situations. For example:

“If I WERE at my house in North Dakota right now, I WOULD BE stuffing my face with Thanksgiving goodness with my parents.”

I cannot possibly be at my house with parents at this exact moment (*tear), therefore this is an impossible situation and a classical example of the “second conditional.”

(Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving BTW!)

I can personally attest to the fact verb structure in the second conditional is one of the trickiest facets of grammar in both Spanish and English, and I’d imagine it’s difficult in other languages too. And what better way to learn a difficult grammar topic than to dissect the lyrics of a Beyonce song?

This has been my most successful ESL lesson to date. I’ve used it in 3 classes thus far, all with students age 16-18, and it has been a big success every time. I have them listen to the song twice to complete and check the first 4 exercises. Then we watch the original video and do the last section of the worksheet, which is a discussion of whether the song is sexist and whether they agree or disagree with the differing perception of boys and girls in relationships, etc. It has made for an interesting discussion/debate to say the least! 🙂

Here you go, people: watch, listen, and flex your “second conditional” muscles (the exercises from my worksheet are below the video):

1. Listen to the first part of the song and fill in the blanks with the words in the box

wanted, confronted, day, girls, stick up, beer, chase, bed, wanted

If I were a boy
Even just for a _______
I’d roll out of_______in the morning
And throw on what I________ and go
Drink ________ with the guys
And _________after girls
I’d kick it with who I _______
And I’d never get ________ for it
Because they’d ___________for me.

2. Put the verses in the right order

If I were a boy
I swear I’d be a better man
When you loose the one you wanted
And everything you had got destroyed!
Cause he’s taken you for granted
Cause I know how it hurts
How it feels to love a girl
I’d listen to her
I think that I’d understand
1. _____________________________
2. _____________________________
3. _____________________________
4. _____________________________
5. _____________________________
6. _____________________________
7. _____________________________
8. _____________________________
9. _____________________________

3. Put the verbs in brackets in the right tense

If I were a boy
I__________ (turn off) my phone
Tell everyone that it’s broken
So they _________(think)
That I ___________(sleep) alone
I___________(put) myself first
And _________(make) the rules as I go
Cause I know she __________(be) faithful
__________(wait for) me to come home

4. Fill in the missing word.

It’s a little too late for you to come _____
Say it’s just a _______
Think I’d ______you like that
If you ______ l would wait for you
You thought wrong

5. Read the following verses and say or write if you agree or disagree with the notion that boys and girls feel and behave in a different way in relationships. Do you think the message of the song is sexist?

But you are just a boy
You don’t understand
How it feels to love a girl
Someday you’ll wish you were a better man
You don’t listen to her
You don’t care how it hurts
Until you lose the one you wanted
Cause you taken her for granted
And everything that you had got destroyed
But you are just a boy

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país vasco: the land of endless photogenic potential

Another weekend of blessedly beautiful weather; another hike with impossibly beautiful views.

This weekend, we hopped a bus to Bakio, got off and walked along the highway until we got a tiny island called Gaztelugatxe (gahz-tell-oo-gotch-ay), one of the coolest things to see in all of País Vasco. Then we hiked down the cliff and up the hundreds of stairs to the beautiful 10th century church atop the tiny, rocky island.

We finished the hike by continuing east along the highway down into the quaint town of Bermeo, and treated ourselves to some hard-earned vino and pintxos.


The hike totaled over 10 miles, a lot of which was up and down steep hills over rocky terrain, but it was more than worth it. This compilation of video that I shot showcases some of its awesomeness:

Hasta pronto!

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going UP!

Yesterday, I went to a mountainous, green, gorgeous place called Urkiola, a national park near Durango, Spain. The excursion was organized by a “hiking specialty” subdivision of the Bilbao Couch Surfers chapter.

The “hike,” which was really more of a climb (for which we probably should have had actual climbing gear…), was both way more intense and way more awesome than I had anticipated. To say it was worth it is an understatement.

I whipped up this compilation of the video I took on our excursion. I wasn’t skilled/daring enough to film during the actual climbing part, but I got some footage of the beautiful Urkiola park, the peak of Anboto from afar (you will see it at 2:45 of the video…the high peak on the right) and of the views from the top of Anboto. Enjoy!



money, honey.

If you split up the stipend of an auxiliar in Spain into an hourly wage, we make a very decent income, especially considering the widespread economic crisis. Heck, at least we’re employed! But there’s one tiny detail to remember: we only work 12 hours per week. Not because we’re complete slackers or easily overwhelmed, but because our contract says so. You won’t hear me complaining about my über lax work schedule (did I mention we also get 34 days of paid vacation in the EIGHT MONTHS of our contract?), but let’s face it, even with decent “hourly pay”, working 12 hours/week is only enough to squeak by for rent, bills, food and a few “1€ caña” nights.

So what’s a girl to do? Surely, you’ll need new shoes at some point. The sharp increase in mileage covered on foot here is no joke. And you simply can’t go around in your Nike’s all the time, both for cultural (helloooo, dorky tourist!) and functional (the rain in Spain falls mainly in Bilbao) reasons. Also, once January hits and Spain’s annual “rebajas” sales hit EVERY store, it will be almost impossible to avoid a little spree here and there. Oh, and did you want to travel at all? Sure, it’s fantastically cheap to jump around Europe when compared even with domestic US flights, but it adds up quickly. All of the sudden, you need muuuuucho dinero…

It’s no secret that a vast majority of participants in this program are making extra money (or in many cases, almost doubling their income) by giving private lessons and/or tutoring students in English. The minimum going rate, in northern Spain at least, is 15€/hour ($21/hour) for a one-on-one lesson. You can charge more if you have lots of experience and/or special certifications, or if you are tutoring/teaching more than one student at a time.

make money, money

People in Spain are paying big bucks to learn how to speaka da eeengleesh. Why? Well, if you haven’t heard, the economy in Spain is not-so-good. As this NY Times article points out, people here are slowly realizing that, to get the jobs they want, they need to learn English. For better or worse, it’s considered the “universal language of business.”

I have done exactly ZERO work to seek out private lesson clients. I’m just about “booked up” with clients at the moment, and so far, they have all sought me out in one way or another.

Before I even arrived in Spain, one of the teachers I work with was arranging for me to give lessons to her son’s classmate: a totally brilliant 16-year-old girl, Fatima, who is studying for the “Cambridge First Certificate”, a prestigious English proficiency exam. I meet with her once a week for 1.5 hours. We review and practice the intricacies of advanced topics in English grammar and usage. This girl has a better understanding of the inner workings of the English language than most native English-speaking American high school graduates. I have the pleasure of working up from this advanced level by explaining colloquial phrases, idioms and the numerous nuances of English. I also usually choose a podcast on a topic that she has told me she is interested in, such as environmental issues. Last week we listened to and discussed this NPR Environment podcast about the oil boom in western North Dakota.

When I began tutoring this girl, her mother (who is a medical doctor) approached me about tutoring her and her husband (who is also a medical doctor!) in English. This whole discussion happened in Spanish, so I really had no idea of their English ability. In my first lesson with them, I quickly discovered that we would be starting from scratch. They haven’t had any English education since their early 20s, and even that pales in comparison to the English education that high school and university students in Spain are receiving today. This is a common theme for middle-aged professionals: the realization that any hope for advancement in their career is likely to require acquisition of proficiency in English.

So last Tuesday, I went from discussing advanced English grammar and the geopolitics of the global oil industry with a 16-year-old girl to teaching her highly intellectual parents how to count and tell time in English. Ironic perhaps, but very fun 🙂

My youngest “clients,” if you can call them that, are a 3-yr-old Xabier and 6-yr-old Aiala who are (aside from my adorable nephew Alex!) the cutest kids I know. Their father is the director of the study abroad program I participated in here in Bilbao last year. We’ve kept in touch, and he wanted someone to come by once a week to “play with the kids in English.” Lucky for me, he thought that I’d be perfect for the job! These kids think that having a “REAL American girl” come to hang out with them once a week is the greatest thing ever. I usually spend the first part of my time with them helping Aiala with her homework (she’s a VERY serious student…seriously!) and keeping Xabier occupied with books and tickle fights. Then, we move to the playroom to rock out to some tunes in English. Or draw pictures. Or play robot (Aiala) vs. mom/son (me/Xabier). Or cars. Or Wii. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. 😉

I’m in the process of setting up a few more sessions with advanced students around my age. I met with one of them today: she is in her mid-20s and preparing for Cambridge First Certificate like the 16-yr-old mentioned earlier. I’ve been hooked up with these potential clients in a variety of ways like local language exchange groups and through coworkers. I even met one potential client while shopping for shoes: at the checkout, she cross-checked my ID (I carry my ND Driver’s License) with my credit card, told me it was the most unique ID she’d ever seen, asked what I was doing so far from home and subsequently asked if I’d be willing to tutor her and her sister once a week or so. We’re working out the details now. A beautiful example of how shoe-shopping can actually be profitable.

I really prefer the one-on-one atmosphere of these private classes to the one-on-twenty chaos of the high school classrooms. It’s a no-brainer: people taking private lessons obviously have a desire to learn the material. High school students? Not so much.

Even so, I’d better keep both jobs. I’ve got some exciting upcoming trips in the works, and there’s a pair of much-needed rain boots at Calzados that is just waiting to be mine.

Feliz miércoles/jueves a tod@s!

Hasta pronto, chicos 🙂



I was just reviewing my  “to do” list for the week in Evernote (an application you should download immediately if you haven’t already). One of the bullet points, “update blog” has been copied and pasted from one day’s list to another for a week now; something for which I have no good excuse. I’ve had the last five days off of work, after all! I have posts on a handful of topics that are still in the works, but I can’t seem to wrap any of them up tonight so I thought I’d try something new. I have lots to say about things that have nothing to do with each other, so I’ve decided to organize this smörgåsbord of topics in a bullet-point format, inspired by my ever-growing “to do” list 🙂

So here are some updates on my life, in no particular order:

  • As I mentioned, I’m coming off of a 5-day break from work. I always have Fridays off, and then we all had Monday and Tuesday off for something called a “puente.” This word literally means “bridge,” but in this case it refers to the general consensus in Spain that if a holiday falls awkwardly in the middle of the week (today is All Saints Day), they will also make the day before or after it a day off as well in order to “bridge” it to the weekend. I am in full support of this custom.
  • Speaking of holidays, happy belated Halloween! Several other Americans and I had our share of Halloween fun despite the fact that it’s not widely recognized here. We had Halloween “potlucks” on both Saturday AND Monday nights, complete with dirt cupcakes and candlelight. Then we took to the streets to call even more attention than usual to our costume-donned American selves! :-p
  • We have yet to have internet installed in our apartment. Such things run on what we like to call “Spain time,” which is a very different timetable than the “giveittomeNOW” ideal so dear to our American hearts. I’ve been spending a lot of time at WiFi bars, and at home I’m tethering internet from my mobile phone which has gotten me through, but it is r-e-e-e-e-a-l-l-y  s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w. Imagine waiting 10 minutes for a simple YouTube video to load and/or just time out. Dial-up, anyone? The Euskaltel dude is supposed to come give us The Internets by Monday at the latest. w00t!
  • I’m ashamed to confess that I’ve consumed Ramen noodles (the Spanish version of them, anyway) on a couple of desperate occasions recently. The grocery store had a couple flavors that piqued my curiosity (i.e. curry and shrimp) so I went for it. In related news, I saw a commercial today for two new flavors of Lays potato chips that have hit the Spanish market: shrimp and KEBAB. I can’t make this up.
  • I have watched more episodes of Friends in the last two weeks than I had in my entire life up to that point. It is on almost 24/7, and our fancy TV usually lets us change the audio to English. Treat!
  • I went to Gernika yesterday and it was pure insanity. Every Monday is “market day” in Gernika, but the last Monday of October is the biggest one of the year. Farmers bring in the best and last of their fall harvest, and the streets of Gernika become one giant Basque party. I had heard this was a big deal, but I greeeeatly underestimated just how big this deal would be. The line for buses to Gernika from downtown Bilbao was down the street and around the corner. I finally got to Gernika at 1pm, and the streets were already packed to the gills and littered with bottles of sidra (hard cider). The main streets were lined with vendors selling everything from gourmet cheese to handmade toys to, of course, mouth-wateringly fresh produce. There was lots of live music, lots of laughing, and lots of broken glass. Not having braced for such intense fiesta so early in the day, I left after being there just a few hours. I definitely appreciated the cultural experience, but a total immersion would have been a bit much for me at that point 😉

empty sidra bottles. lots of them.

  • Is it really November? Because we’re still hitting the 70s on a regular basis here. I grew up in a place where Halloween costumes were altered to include winter coats, hats and sometimes even snow pants, so this temperate climate thing is a new concept for me. The temps in the 70s won’t last, but I’m pretty sure I can handle the upper 40s/lower 50s that will be the “winter” here. It’s a pretty nice upgrade for a North Dakota girl.
  • I finally hung pictures in my room of all my family and friends, and it made me miss everyone back home so much. I love you guys! Come visit!
That’s all for now, folks! Hasta luego!