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


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what’s up with WhatsApp

It has been five months since Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion, yet it still doesn’t seem to have caught on in the US. Every American I know that uses it (myself included) says they use it almost exclusively for people they’ve met abroad, or foreign friends they’ve made here Stateside. So why does the rest of the world use WhatsApp, yet Americans don’t?

I remember the first time I heard about WhatsApp. “That’s a stupid name for an app,” I thought. It was 2011, and I had just moved to Spain to teach English. My 30€/month plan from Orange España included unlimited data (increíble, I know) and 50 texts/month. After you went over 50, SMS (texts) were 9 cents each, which I figured was reasonable since the data plan was so cheap.

But then my friend Lorena told me about WhatsApp. It sounded trendy and kinda dumb, but I downloaded it. She was my only contact. I didn’t really see the point at first, but I liked that it was saving me some SMS messages. Slowly I gained one contact at a time as I met more Spanish people that used the app. Soon I was telling my friends and family back in the States to download it. It could be used across any of the major mobile platforms  (Android, iOs, Windows, Blackberry,) free of charge, anywhere in the world. I could “text” my loved ones back home FO’ FREE. It was a dream come true.

I became completely dependent on this app during my years in Spain, using it with my friends, family, students and coworkers alike. Since returning to the States, it has been totally weird having to readjust to some people using the antiquated SMS. My American friends and family who used it with me while I was abroad continue to use it with me (most of them with me as their only contact,) and they too scratch their heads as to why it still hasn’t caught on in the US.

So why is WhatsApp better than SMS, you ask? Let me count the ways:

1. Media sharing: It’s very easy and quick to share photos and videos on Whatsapp. The upload progress is shown right on the media, and all the media shared with a specific person or group can be easily accessed and scrolled through within the conversation, like your own personal little photo/video album. Also, there is a “voice recording” feature right next to the text input, so if you’re driving and want to just say your message or want to sing them a song or whatever, you don’t have to “attach” the audio. Just click and hold the mic icon, record your message, release, and it is sent.

2. Conversation-having: WhatsApp is this neat hybrid of texting and instant-messaging. You can see if someone is online,typing, or when they were last online. This is useful for a number of reasons. If they’re online (which means they currently have that app open on their phone,) you know they’ll see your message right away. If they’re typing, you know to stop typing until you see what they’re about to say. If they were last online at 4am on a Sunday, you know they probably had a long night and they probably won’t be up for an early brunch date. You send an SMS to someone? You have no idea if/when they will read it.

3. Platform: The design is simple, it runs seamlessly, and there are no ads. NO ADS. Enough said.

4: GROUP TEXTING!!!: I’m yelling this because it is the most important. I have an HTC One, and it could be some sort of glitch in the specific software for the phone, but group SMS is awful. Clumsy. Inefficient. I can’t see what someone has said in the preview, and when I click on the notification it usually brings me to my own private convo with that person rather than the group convo. So I have to back out of that and select the group convo myself. When I send a message, there’s a delay. WhatsApp group conversations are beautifully designed and run very smoothly. You can name the group something funny or cute (my most beloved group is with 3 girl friends: “almas gemelas”) or name the convo based on the topic/purpose (“birthday party plans”) and then you’ll see it among your individual and group message threads under that name. You can click on a group member to see when they were last online to see if they’ve read your message within the group.

The other day I was discussing these benefits with an American friend who sparingly uses WhatsApp, and he totally agreed but said, “I feel like it’s just an extra effort to go into it and use it. It feels like I’m opening an  app and then my messages rather than my inbox and then my messages. Which in essence isn’t any different…”

Exactly. Americans seem to have this weird mindset about SMS, like it’s a special kind of messaging that we need to hold onto. But if you have a smartphone, why continue to use it? Unless you’re texting someone who doesn’t have one? (In which case, there’s a simple workaround I used while abroad so that I could text anyone back home, smartphone or not, for free from my phone.)

It takes a little while to get used to using WhatsApp, like anything else. Like my friend said, you have to get used to “opening an app” versus opening your messages, but that requires no extra steps. And once you’re in, I promise the experience will be much better.

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people are generally good

I’m currently working for an organization that places foreign students from around the world in US high schools. As their first representative in my region (and brought on board rather late in “placement season”) it has been both an adventure and a struggle to hurriedly find schools that still have open spots and families that are willing to host a student, and then to connect those two dots to a student still waiting to be placed.

passports

Last night, I was set up to do something called “dialer calls,” which I was almost certain would not work. I was told that a few thousand numbers in specific zip code would be called in a matter of two hours. The people called would hear an automated message that I have pre-recorded, and if they pressed “1” to learn more about hosting a student, they’d automatically be connected with my cell phone to talk to me directly.

Who would actually answer a call like this? Especially in this day and age?

2,119 numbers were called last night with my automated message. Before the calls began, I estimated what I thought would be the results of these calls: about 1,000 would be unavailable (it would go to voicemail) another 1,000 or so would hang up on the automated message, and of the remaining 100, many would press 1 out of confusion, an equal amount out of anger, and two or three extra-kind-hearted folks would actually speak to me to inquire for more information (you know: “Midwest nice.”)

Boy, was I wrong. My phone rang off the hook for two hours straight with a majority of people who had genuine interest in hosting an international student during the upcoming school year. Other calls were beeping in on call waiting as I visited with prospective host families, and soon my voicemail box was full of messages. Everyone was so friendly and personable.

You could chalk this up to “Midwest nice,” but I have to say that I was expecting the also prevalent “Midwest closed-mindedness” to win out when hosting international students was the matter at hand. I am refreshed to have found out that was not the case.

Something I’ve been saying for awhile, ever since I started traveling a lot, is that there are some bad people everywhere, but people are generally good. I know that this isn’t an original thought, and that lots of people come to the same conclusion after doing some traveling, but I think that last night, I saw firsthand that this is definitely true of my home state: people ARE generally good. They’re even better than I thought, in fact.

But no matter where you go, there are a few bad apples. Of the 40-50 people I spoke with directly last night, only two were examples of this. Here are are the exchanges I had with them. All you can do is chuckle.

“Hi, this is Megan with ICES. How are you this evening?”

—“Well, I’m just trying to figure out what you’re phishing for.”

“Oh, nothing sir. I work for a non-pr–”

—“Can’t you people get a real job? Go to hell!!” *click*

___________________

“Hi, this is Megan with ICES. How are you this evening?”

—“Well I just saw that you called while I was on the other line and I am wondering if there is some kind of issue.”

“Nope, no issue, I’m just calling local families on behalf of the high school’s foreign exchange program to try to find potential host families for one of our international students. Is that something you would like more info on at all?”

—“NO. I am NOT interested in hosting an international student. I mean, who knows, they could be coming from one of those countries like El Salvador or Puerto Rico or whatever and I sure as hell don’t need that.”

“Ok, well I appreciate you taking the time to call m–”

—“Besides, I work at the social service office. If I wanted a damn foreign kid in my house I could just pick one up there.”

________________________

Well, then. :-/

 

Thanks for reading!

 


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speaking spanese

Here in España, there exists a godsend we Americanos call “Chino Stores”. They’re one-stop-shops run by Chinese expats, and they have just about everything you could possibly need. Imagine a Walmart condensed to a hundredth its original size with less selection and significantly less organization: seemingly no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the products. For example, you can find bras right next to the kitchenware, and home decor in the next aisle over. Probably next to the dog toys. Regardless, I’m eternally grateful for Chino stores and their provision of cheap EVERYTHING.

A bulletin board (un corcho) has been on my list of “things to buy” for weeks. On my way to the market tonight, I stumbled upon a new Chino store in our neighborhood: not-so-creatively named “Tienda de Regalos” (Gift Shop). I meandered in, dodged a couple stacks of floppy hats and a giant teddy bear, and immediately saw a shelf FULL of corchos (bulletin boards.) ¡Que suerte tengo! What luck! I snatched up a medium-sized one and headed towards the smiling Chinese cashier.

Suddenly it occurred to me that I only had a few euro coins and my debit card with me. “¿Aceptas tarjeta?” I asked. No, he did not take credit cards. ¡Joder!  I checked my coin purse and I had exactly €3.10 in change. The bulletin board cost €3.90. “No pasa nada,” he said. No prob, I could just return another day to pay the remaining 80 cents. What a guy!

So as I’m presenting him with my insufficient payment, he makes a correct assumption when he asks “No eres de aquí, eh? (You’re not from here, huh?)” So I tell him no: I’m from los Estados Unidos (the United States).

El Chino: ¿Eh….dónde? (Where?)

Me: Los Estaaados Uniiiiidos. The United States.

El Chino: ¿Ehhh, no sé...? (Ummm…I dunno)

Me: Ameeeerica. Muuuchos estaaaados. (Maaaa-ny staaaates.)

El Chino: A ver…a ver.…(let’s see…)

Me: País muuuy grande! (Very big country!) California! Hollywood! New York! Miami!

El Chino: Pues no sé...(well, I don’t know…)

Me: Vale, da igual. No pasa nada. Muchas gracias señor, regresará el miércoles para darte los 80 céntimos. (Okay, whatever. Don’t worry about it. Thanks a lot, sir, I’ll return on Wednesday to give you the 80 cents.)

Alright, so I’m more than 99% sure that this man knows exactly where the United States is. He could probably even point out New York and California. And I don’t think that’s an ethnocentric assumption.

What this kind Chinese man and I were dealing with tonight was a classic case of language barrier-induced misunderstanding. Our native languages, English and Chinese, are ultra-different. The Spanish he has learned is probably very tailored to running his store, and it isn’t unlikely that, in this neck of the woods, I was the first American he has done business with.  For whatever reason, our conversation was just not clicking for him (which happens to me all the time, I can totally relate!) and it led to a pretty comical misunderstanding.

I will return to this particular Tienda de Regalos on Wednesday (because tomorrow is an arbitrary holiday here, invented just this year, wooooot!) to give this man the 80 cents I owe him. I may just pick up the rest of the items on my list of “things to buy” as well.


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Aupa! To the streets! (Bilbao Night Marathon 2011)

About four months ago, I was sitting in my room in Jamestown, North Dakota thinking about how dumb it is that marathons are always in the morning. I’m not really a morning person, and I am REALLY not a morning workout person. I was a fitness instructor for the last four years and some of the classes I taught didn’t even start until 8:30pm. After 6pm was when the gym was always busiest anyway, so clearly I wasn’t alone in my preference.

As with everything today, this thought about marathons had barely come to mind and I was already typing “night marathons” into Google. The first result? “Bilbao Night Marathon.” Woah, wait, WHAT? So the place that I was going to be moving to in a couple of months has exactly what I was looking for? This seemed a little bit too good to be true. I looked into it, and within a few minutes I had registered for the half-marathon (medio-maratón) and totally stoked. I can’t believe the day is finally here!

“Training”

My “training schedule” has been so all-over-the-place that it’s laughable by any conventional standards. And you know what? I’m totally okay with that.

Throughout the summer, I tried to shoot for one short, fast run (~3 mi, pushing my speed the whole time) and one longer run (6-9 miles, easy pace) each week. Since I arrived in Spain 3.5 weeks ago, I have only gone for 4 runs, the longest being just over 5 miles. So that’s it. I haven’t run more than a 9-miler since my last half-marathon in Fargo last May. That does make me a little nervous, but there’s no sense in worrying about it now.

Me after finishing the Fargo Half-Marathon in May 2011

My total mileage covered on foot since I moved back here is, however, more than what I would cover if I was going for runs on a more regular basis. I estimate that I walk between 3 and 7 miles each day, just in my commute to work and errand-running. My leg muscles have definitely not been dormant 🙂

There are 3,700 people total registered for the full marathon, half-marathon, and 7.5 K “pirate race” (why pirate? not a clue.) Of the 3,700, only 700 are women!!! The number surprised me, but when I think about it I never, ever see girls out for runs here. Occasionally I’ve seen a girl running WITH a dude, but that’s it. It’s just not a thing here. In any case, it will be interesting to be one of the females representing a mere 18% of the total participants!

Our sweet race tees!

Everyone has their own theories on how to train and prepare for a race, but perhaps the most important thing is having a positive and confident attitude. I have no idea how I’m going to perform tonight, but I know that I am practically giddy that I’m about to run through the streets of my favorite city with 3,700 other people while the lively people of Bilbao flock the streets to cheer us on.

I hadn’t watched this video since that day four months ago when I found out about the race, but I just watched it again and now my heart is pounding. Watch it from 1:00 to the end. YOU might even get pumped up.

Aupa! To the streets!


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a “family” reunion

Yesterday, I was fortunate to be reunited with my study abroad family: the directors of USAC Bilbao. I went along with them and the current USACers on a day long excursión to Gernika and Lekeitio, two little towns here in the Basque Country.

First we went to Gernika (Guernica), a town that is a symbol of Basque culture and is of great significance due to the bombing that occurred there during the Spanish Civil War, causing widespread death and destruction. The bombing, which was ordered by the former Spanish dictator Franco, is widely viewed as an example of terror bombing, inspired by Franco’s hatred for the Basque people and culture. The fact that many of the victims were innocent civilians has made the bombing a significant anti-war symbol, and was even the subject of Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, Guernica.

There was a large oak tree in the center of town under which Basque officials would assemble for meetings. Astoundingly, it was not destroyed in the bombing and is now viewed as a symbol of Basque freedom.

Ibon and I in front of the newest Tree of Gernika

The original Tree of Gernika

After visiting Gernika, we traveled to a txakoli (Basque white wine) vineyard up in the mountains overlooking the vast Atlantic. Our adorable tour guide, Ángel, was also the vineyard owner. Listen to him here as he explains why their wine received a 91/100 Robert Parker rating in 2010:

Lys (current USACer) and myself (USAC alum), both of ND!

Beeeeautiful view!

Txakoli tasting time!

We finished up the day with a traditional 3-course Basque meal and brief tour of Lekeitio, a quaint but gorgeous coastal village. We took a somewhat treacherous hike through a hillside forest up to a lookout. The view was worth it!

An bird's eye view of Lekeitio

My Basque "mom", Arantxa!

I was so happy to be reunited with the people that made my last experience in the Basque Country so special.

Here’s to many more memories with the USAC crew!


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How to you spell inefficient? N-I-E!

So what does the NIE stand for anyway? I guess it’s Numero de Identidad de Extranjeros (Foreigner Identiy Number), but as I endlessly waited in line to apply for it in the street outside the office of the Policia Nacional, I thought of a few other things it could (and maybe should) stand for. How about:

Numbingly Inefficient Experience?

Nana-nana-booing of Innocent Expatriates?

Nit-picky Identification Endorsement?

Whatever you want to call it, it is a gigantic PITA, and not the kind you eat.

For those of you who do not know, applying for and obtaining the NIE is the most hated part of participating in the Auxiliares program. This is really saying something, as there a couple of complicated hoops to jump through before you even get to that point, namely:

1. Profex – the online application system for the program which is confusing, impersonal and astoundingly poorly designed.

2. Visa application process – Not only do you have to obtain an official background clearance from the FBI, you must send said clearance to the Secretary of State in Washington DC to obtain something called an Apostille of the Hague: a process just as horrible as its name sounds. Oh, and you have to present yourself in person at the nearest Consulate (Chicago in my case) to pick up your visa. Not a hassle at all.

If you successfully complete/avoid giving up for steps one and two, you get the privilege of moving on to step three: obtaining your NIE within a month of your arrival in Spain. This process is hands down the most-discussed topic on any of the Auxiliar Facebook group threads (followed by excursion and fiesta-planning, of course.) So, in case some day you have the honor of obtaining a Numero de Identidad de Extranjero en España, you will just need to follow these 10 easy (ha) steps:

1. Arrive at your local police station at approximately 6:30am any day Monday-Friday. Bring your passport, your work contract, your iPod, an umbrella, sunscreen, a jacket, a friend, and a lot of patience.

2. Prepare to be shuffled around from one line to another with the other 50+ people waiting in a seemingly entirely arbitrary manner which will definitely involve in you somehow ending up much further back than when you started.

3. Know that a police man will probably come up to you and angrily demand to see your papers, and when you ask what papers he is referring to, he will probably yell at you and ask if you brought anything at all. Evidently, he means your work contract.

4. Now just wait. Stand in the freezing cold or rain or heat or whatever pleasant weather conditions the day may bring for a couple more hours until the office actually opens. When the office opens, watch as the other lines are filed in and yours doesn’t budge. Consider getting out of line because you have to pee and your blood sugar is getting low.

5. Congratulations! Two hours later, a policeman cut the line off juuust behind you. You’re in! Now stand inside and wait more.

6. Your turn! Approach the open desk, present your passport, and receive a piece of paper saying that you get to do this all over again on the next business day, only with lots of copies and more important documents. You have an “appointment!” wOOt!

7. Head to the nearest bank to pay 15€ for the card. Why can’t this be done at the police station itself? No one knows.

8. Return to the Policia Nacional the next morning. Experience painful flashbacks from your recent “bad trip” on Spanish bureaucracy. Wait slightly less time today because you have an “appointment”, so you get to stand in a different arbitrary line much closer to the entrance. Score!

9. After standing outside for another hour or so, you’ll receive an official “wait ticket” with a number on it (fancy!) and you get to sit on a CHAIR once inside the office. Luxury!

There are only 11 people standing between you and FREEDOM!

10. Your number appears on the screen! Approach the open table and display originals and copies of every important personal document you own. Hope you remembered to bring three new passport photos too! If everything is approved, you’ll receive a small piece of paper with a number on it. This is your ticket to come back to this place, your new favorite hangout, in 30 days to pick up your NIE card!

So that was my NIE experience. I’ve heard worse (people working in Madrid, for example) and much less painful ones. The experience is definitely dependent upon where in Spain you’re working.

My fellow auxiliaries who are returning for a second year have told me that the renewal process is far worse than the original application. This makes absolutely no sense, but I don’t doubt that it’s true.

Most importantly, the pain is over for now. I have done what I can, and soon I will have another shiny card with my smiling face on it 🙂 🙂

I write to you tonight from my second home, the WiFi bar down the street from our apartment. We still don’t have WiFi at our apartment, and for reasons I can’t even begin to expound, it looks like we won’t for awhile. The bartenders here have become like a family to us, although I’m sure everyone will be happy when we no longer have to come here to leech off their Internets.

Tonight, however, we join our WiFi bar “family” in watching Bilbao’s beloved fútbol (soccer) team as they kick CULO against Navarra. Each time they score, the bartender blasts the Bilbao Athletic song, and everyone sings along. Adorable.

¡Aupa Athletic!


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some people’s kids!

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my experience with teaching English, but I wanted to share a little bit based on my initial impressions with the kids. All I’ve done so far is give an introduction Powerpoint with some basics about myself to each class, and afterwards they practice their English by asking me questions about other things they want to know about me or the United States in general. The questions have ranged from basic to cute to entirely inappropriate. I will give you some of the more entertaining examples, in order from the most frequent to a few oddball questions that I’ve only gotten once:

Have you got a boyfriend? This has come up in every single class, even after I tell them that I’m 23, making me 5-10 years older than all of them depending on the class. Upon seeing a photo of my family, one girl even asked me how old my brother is. I kindly informed her that he is 13 years her senior; not to mention the fact that he is married and is now a father. See, even North Dakotans are considered exotic in some parts of the world :-p

Do you have Facebook and Tuenti (like a Spanish Facebook)? This question has luckily only ONCE been followed by “What is your surname?” (there’s that darn British English they’ve all learned) and none of them have tried to add me on Facebook…yet.

Do you like Justin Bieber? A couple of them have even asked whether I’ve seen him “in the street.” Yeah, all the time. He just walks around in the Midwest in his freetime.

Found this a block from my apartment. Very standard Bieber Fever graffiti.

Does everyone in the US own their own gun? Heck yes, we live in AMURIKA!

Do you go to London a lot? This question clearly demonstrates their general lack of geographical knowledge. I’m sure my geography wasn’t stellar at that age either. I mean, maybe I thought London was in the USA too. They ask me a lot where I’ve traveled, and mostly they want to know if I’ve been to NYC, LA, and Miami. One girl, however, asked if I’ve been to Mississippi. That one threw me off.

When they ask about the weather, their eyes about pop out of their heads when I tell them it regularly reaches -40 degrees in North Dakota in the winter. Then the question is whether that is in Celcius or Farenheit. Curiously, the two actually intersect at that exact point. For simplicity’s sake (and to not seem like a total nerd) I just tell them “Celcius.”

Fahrenheit Celsius Kelvin
212 100 373.15 water boils
32 0 273.15 water freezes
-40 -40 233.15 Fahrenheit equals Celsius
-320.42 -195.79 77.36 liquid nitrogen boils
-452.11 -268.95 4.2 liquid helium boils
-459.67 -273.15 0 absolute zero

I had a fun time explaining to them what “auto-start” is the other day. They could hardly believe it existed, let alone the fact that a majority of people where I come from have it installed in their cars.

As a general rule, the secondary school (middle and high school) students in Spain are far less well-behaved and disciplined than students in the United States. That may seem an ambitious claim to make given my small sample size together with the enormous size of the “secondary school” population in the US, but I still don’t think it’s an incorrect assumption. The teachers here told me this would be the case right from the start. “The newspapers all over are saying it,” they say, “the kids here are loud and disrespectful when compared to their peers in other countries.” I have to say, I agree very much. There is a good handful of them that are very polite and eager to learn. For the rest, school is just another facet of their social life, and they do what they can to see to it that it is not hindered by silly rules and lessons. I feel like I’m shouting over them about 70% of the time, and for the rest of the time there is almost always at least one or two students talking amongst themselves that I have to compete with. This simply wouldn’t have flown in my middle or high school. One class I attended on Monday was completely out of control. They maybe paid attention for five minutes, but I spent the rest of the class watching their main teacher yell at them in Basque and Spanish as he unsuccessfully tried to bring order to the chaos.

Some kids practicing handball right outside my school

The tavern/bar on campus where teachers (and some older students!) hang out during coffee and lunch breaks

Speaking of Basque, the school I teach at is VERY Basque—as in, every sign in the school is in Basque. At first, I wasn’t even sure which bathroom I should enter. There is almost no Spanish. Anywhere. The teachers speak to the kids in Basque in almost every class, meaning I have no freaking clue what’s going on except for when I occasionally hear them say my name, or when we finally switch over to English. From my standpoint, it goes something like this:

“Kaixo, klase! Hona hemen Megan da! Blahblahblahblahblah…eta…blah bat blah blahblahblah? Bai. Bat blah blah blaaaah blah. Bat blah. Blah blah MEGAN blah…blah blah…BAI? Okay class, now we are going to speak in English!”

The English that these kids have been learning in school all their lives is, as mentioned before, of the British variety. It’s adorable most the time, but frustrating at times too. The differences seem subtle when you’re a native English speaker, but they become quickly problematic when you’re teaching someone who has learned a different type of English than the one you normally speak. I’m sure they’ll soon adjust to my less proper, American English 🙂

My experience at IES Urritxe BHI has just begun, and I’m sure I’ll soon have lots more fun stories to share. If you have any questions about things I’ve discussed in this post, or if you’re also an ESL teacher and can share in my sentiments, please feel free to write in the comments section below!

Thanks for reading. ¡Que tengas un buen fin de semana!