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

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aerial views

I’ve flown in and out of Bilbao more than a dozen times, but today the view from the plane window was unlike any I’ve seen before. As we took off at 6:45 this morning, the city was still lit up like night, but the sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, dimly lighting the coastline and mountains.

After all this time I’m able to easily identify each part of the city from the plane window based on the bends in the River Nervión. Now on the brink of sunrise, the bends can be seen as outlined by the evenly spaced lamps along the promenade, and I think of the hundreds of miles I’ve run there.

running around river bends in central Bilbao

running around river bends in central Bilbao

I see the blinking lights from the Iberdrola Tower, Bilbao’s lone skyscraper, and I think of the way it’s shiny exterior seems to reflect the sky in a different way every time I see it.

I identify the surrounding beach towns (Algorta, Sopelana, Gorliz…) based on their various unique curvatures of the coastline, and I think of the surf lessons, never-ending beach days with friends and the countless times I’ve sat and watched the sun sink into the water from one of the many perfect perches along the coast.

a fall sunset in Sopelana

an autumn sunset in Sopelana

I see the lights from the Puente Colgante transporter bridge, and I think of my days as a student here when I lived just down the street from the historical bridge, back when even just Getxo felt like a big place to me. I think of how fortunate I was this year to have had the chance to return to this neighborhood for my work.

Puente Colgante

Puente Colgante

I see the mountains that tuck Bilbao into its seaside nest, and I think of the many hiking excursions and the excitement I feel after hiking up a mountain to get a new perspective on the surrounding landscape.

taking a breather after climbing Vizcaya's steepest peak: Monte Anboto

taking a breather after climbing Vizcaya’s steepest peak: Monte Anboto

No matter how much I fly, it never ceases to amaze me how small the whole thing looks from the plane. This tiny-looking little world that once felt so big to me has become the perfect-sized place I’ve been so fortunate to call home for the better part of the last three years.

I didn’t board the plane feeling ready to leave this place today. But I don’t know if I could ever feel that way. A place that becomes so deeply a part of you is a place you will never be able to say goodbye to forever. So although I don’t know when or in what context, I’ll be back, Bilbao.

Hasta la vista.



the techie expat’s guide to smartphones in Spain

I’ve  been referred to as a “techie” person for as long as I can remember. Having a natural knack for all things tech is a great thing in today’s world, but it means you’re often fielding tech questions from less-techie friends, advising people on gadget-buying decisions and helping troubleshoot when dreaded tech snags arise. I truly do enjoy helping my friends and family with any and all of these things, but I find that a lot of times I am answering the same questions over and over.  Most of the questions I’ve been getting more recently since I became an expat deal with the likes of having a smartphone abroad, so I decided I should write some posts that answer some of these questions in a concise, step-by-step manner. So here you have it, the first post in what will be a series of tech-advice related posts from yours truly, @meggr the tech geek (or @meggr la friki, como dicen aquí 🙂 )

Despite the ubiquity of smartphones, there are a handful of expats that still stick to modest flip phones: either because they dig the simplicity and off-the-grid-ness of not having a smart phone, or because they simply aren’t aware of just  how do-able having a smartphone abroad can really be. This post is mostly written for the latter, although I would argue to the former that a nice balance can be struck between reaping the numerous benefits of having a smartphone as an expat while still staying relatively off-grid and low-tech.

1. Acquire a global phone. Most newer smartphones are global, which simply means that they have a GSM radio and a SIM card slot. You can read more about it here. I recommend buying the phone in the US either on eBay or Amazon. Electronics are more expensive in general in Europe, and you’ll have way more options (and much cheaper shipping) buying online in the US. For an even better deal, buy a used or refurbished model. The most I’ve paid for a global phone is $250, and that was a refurbished HTC Droid Incredible 2 just after it was released to the market two years ago. That phone is STILL going for $150+ on eBay. Do your research, find a good phone with good reviews, and if you take good care of it you can get most of your money back selling it on eBay when you decide to move on to a newer gadget.

2. Unlock the phone. You can buy them already unlocked on eBay, but unlocking it yourself is pretty easy (you buy an unlock code for $3-5 on eBay and follow a few simple steps) If you don’t want to mess with the unlocking process and can’t seem to find the phone you want that is also already unlocked, you can go to any number of places that have a sign outside that says “Liberamos moviles! (We unlock phones!)” and they will do it for you for 10-20€ ($13-25.)

3. Decide on a mobile carrier and plan. Pay-as-you-go plans are the rule here, not the exception like in the States. And they are SO CHEAP! I have my phone service with Orange, and my plan is called Tarjeta Tarifa Delfín (Dolphin Plan…adorable, I know.) I pay 4.20€/week ($5/week) for unlimited data and 50 text messages. I have not once used all 50 of my text messages because EVERYone here uses a free texting app called WhatsApp (more on that in an upcoming post.) Calling can get a little spendy (15¢ to connect + 9¢/min), but the beauty of Orange is that every time you add money to your account, they give you a “prize”. The prize is almost always free calling minutes or an extra 5€ added to your account to use towards calling minutes. What US cellphone service gives customers free minutes/money simply for paying their bills? Pretty sure none.

4. Keep the minimum “saldo” (balance) on your account at all times to ensure connectivity. For my plan, this minimum is around 5€ to cover my weekly plan, although they send me a message when it gets below that and give me a few days to add money to the balance before suspending my service. You can add money to your account in a variety of ways: at ATMs, in convenience stores, even in the checkout lane at most supermarkets! I opt for paying by debit card on Orange’s website.

4. Enjoy the numerous ways a smartphone can enhance your life as an expat/traveler/wanderer, but don’t let it control your life and/or keep you from being present in the real world. Leave it at home sometimes. Put it away when you’re dining with friends.

I hope this can offer some help to anyone confused by the world of cell phones in Spain. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and just give up when everything is run differently than you’re used to and also not in your native language, but overall it’s so much cheaper than it is in the US that it’s completely worth the trouble to get it all set up.

Happy connecting!


manners matter

As I sat in a small café eating lunch yesterday, a man entered with his dog and headed back toward the bathroom, his dog following him. He nodded to me and said “Que aproveche” (Bon appetit) as he passed, then waved a vague signal in the general direction of his dog, who then promptly sat down about 6 feet from me. The man continued on his way to the back of the café to the bathtroom, and his un-leashed dog waited patiently for him, occasionally glancing over at me, probably envious of my succulent jamón ibérico. I got to thinking about how normal this whole scene was to me: the stranger telling me to enjoy my meal as he passes me on his way to the bathroom, the dog entering the café unleashed and then sitting patiently for his owner to return…where am I? When did these things become so normal to me?

No tying up necessary: a dog waits patiently for his owner outside a bank on my street

**Side note: the manners of the DOGS here is a topic that deserves a post of its own. As I’ve mentioned before, they’re not usually on leashes, and they’re soooo obedient! What kind of dog training programs do they have here that we don’t?!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about differences in what is considered polite and impolite here in Spain and in the States. I started compiling a list a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine asked me on Twitter whether it was true that Spanish people say goodbye to each other when leaving an elevator. Yes, that is in fact true, and it really struck me how that had become so normal to me I don’t even think twice about it.
So here is my ever-growing list of differences in manners/politeness between the US and Spain:
  • Say goodbye when you leave an elevator. I didn’t find this quite so funny until I was talking about it with my dear friend Jackie the other day and told her that you don’t actually say “Adios” but rather “Hasta luego” (See ya later!), as if you have plans to meet up with these strangers again later in this same awkward, claustrophobia-promoting scenario.
  • Say “Que aproveche/Buen provecho” to tables you pass in nicer restaurants. My roommates also do this at home– if I’m eating and they enter the room, they wish me an enjoyable meal. Adorable, no?
  • Don’t say hi to or smile at strangers on the street. They’ll think you’ve mistaken them for someone you know, or that you’re just crazy. The exceptions to this rule are: 1. When you meet strangers on a hiking trail and 2. When you meet strangers in the hallway or entrance to your own apartment. Then it’s totally cool.
  • Say hello and goodbye; it’s kind of a big deal. After living with a Spanish family this summer and now with Spanish roommates, I’ve concluded that they’re much more intent on saying hello and goodbye whenever they come and go, as well as goodnight before retiring to bed and good morning the first time they see you each morning. And the hellos and goodbyes themselves are a bigger production: when you encounter family or friends in the street/restaurant/bar/etc., you give them “dos besos” (two kisses) which aren’t exactly besos, but rather you pull them in, your right hand on their left arm (and them the same to you), and you touch cheeks with them on each side, making a kiss sound. I guess it’s a pretty intimate greeting/salutation compared to the way most Americans greet each other. It’s amazing, though, how quickly it becomes normal. Even my American friends and I here greet each other in this way.
  • Keep your hands on the table. Last year at a Christmas dinner at the house of some Spanish family friends, I learned that at meals here, it is most polite to keep both hands on the table at all times. This is something I still have to be conscious of almost every time I’m eating a nice meal here. From a young age, I learned that the proper thing was to keep your non-dominant hand in your lap. It turns out that here (also in France and maybe other parts of Europe), if you don’t have both hands on the table it signifies that you’re not really enjoying the meal. But I suspect that, in Spain, it could also have something to do with the fact that you have bread at every meal, and it is to be kept on the table (not the plate) on your non-dominant side. Children are taught that the bread can be used, in the non-dominant hand, like another utensil to soak up the oils or juices from the dish. So in this case you need the dominant hand on the table to be your “bread hand,” so to speak.
  • Get out of the way. In the US, when we bump into someone we pretty much act like we’ve fractured their skull: “Oh my gosh, I’m sorry! I didn’t see you there!!!” The return is often just as dramatic: “No it’s okay! I’m fine! I didn’t see you either!!!” Oh, so you mean you didn’t nearly die from me brushing up against your shoulder? Good good good. Well I have to say that here, it’s the opposite extreme, and I don’t like that either. People rarely apologize for bumping into you, even if it’s a pretty good shove. And I still haven’t figured out who moves aside for who on crowded sidewalks. Younger men will usually move for me, but among women it seems like I always have to be the one to step off the sidewalk onto the street  in a crowd. I guess I get voted off for my foreign-ness.
  • Raise your umbrella. In my 18th non-consecutive month living in rainy Bilbao, I think I’ve figured out the umbrella-raising codes. *Note: I know this may only be a foreign concept to my fellow North-Dakotans–not that it doesn’t rain there, but if it does we just run to our cars or avoid going outside. And in North Dakota you certainly never find yourself in the situation of walking down a crowded street where everyone has an umbrella, so it has been a big learning curve for me. Umbrellas make your space bubble a foot or two wider all the way around, so how do you navigate your much larger diameter through a crowded street? Umbrella-raising. In my experience, there are three simple rules in a head-on umbrella encounter: 1. If you’re a male, raise your umbrella. 2. If you’re younger, raise your umbrella. 3. If you’re taller, raise your umbrella. So being young and tall, I do a lot of umbrella-raising. That’s okay though, it’s good for the biceps.
    Manners are a peculiar thing, and it’s good to be aware of how different they can be from country to country, culture to culture. Even the most culturally-conscious of us are bound to make a faux pas here and there. Laugh it off, learn from it, and move on.
    Buen fin de semana!

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round 3

I’m about to board a plane to Spain for the THIRD time. I’ve had the most wonderful seven weeks at home visiting friends and family. In fact, these past couple of months have highlighted the importance of supportive and loving family and friends more than ever for me. I’m very, very fortunate. I can’t thank all of you (you know who you are!) for all you’ve done to make my extended visit to the US so great. THANK YOU! Goodbyes are always tough, but I know they’re really just “see you laters.”

I’m very excited and ready to get on the plane today. It will be so great to be back in Bilbao, and this year will be even better than last. I’ve got some exciting new challenges lined up.

I threw together a video of random clips from my past year in Spain. Enjoy!


el tiempo vuela!

Hola gente!!! It has been MUCH too long since I’ve written an update, and for that I apologize. I have 4 or 5 half-written posts on various topics, but  just couldn’t seem to seal the deal on any of them lately :-p…so look for smörgåsbord of upcoming posts in the near future.

So…I’ll give you all the (very) short version of what has been happening over the past several weeks:

I finished my job in Amorebieta as an English auxiliar for the Basque Government. It was sad to say “agur!” to everyone there, but I’ll always have lots of good memories!

My last day with one of my 4 ESO (high school sophomores) classes

I visited Valencia and Alicante with my good friend Bryce during his month long trip through Europe. This is a part of Spain I hadn’t visited yet, and I absolutlely LOVED it. It is now second only to my beloved Pais Vasco. 😉

Valencia in a nutshell: a charming city with an eclectic mix of both festivals/events and people, science museums and futuristic architecture galore. Oh, and did I mention it is the birthplace of one of my favorite dishes on earth: paella? Eating paella at a beachside restaurant in the city of its birth was truly mmm-mmm-magical!

jumping for science geek joy in the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia

Alicante totally exceeded my expectations. I knew it was going to be nice, but WOW! A city built around a huge castle fortress on a mountain that overlooks a Mediterranean beach!?? Few places are that perfect. You can (and we did) spend the day on the beach, swimming in the sparkling blue ocean waters and then head up to the castle fortress for a 360° view of the sunset. Unforgettable.

is this for real? yes, really. for real.

I landed a dream volunteering job for the month of June, assisting with social media strategy and photography for the TEDxDeusto conference at the University of Deusto in Bilbao. If you’re unfamiliar with TED, do yourself a favor and rectify that right now.

the TEDxDeusto Team and speakers

I moved in with a Spanish family to work as an au pair! This is something I was pretty sure I would never do, but two days into it I am absolutely thrilled that I did. There kids are twin 4-year-olds (a boy and a girl) and a 7-year-old boy. I spend most of the day with just the twins, as the older boy goes to German school until just before their mom comes home. The family really couldn’t be any nicer…I’m so lucky!  They live in a small village in the country outside of Bilbao, so I’ve gone from waking to the bustling sounds of city traffic out my window to waking to the sound of a rooster crowing up the road from our house. I’m loving the change of pace–it’s so peaceful and beautiful out here. Definitely more on all of that later!

And, last but certainly not least, I’ve decided to stay in Spain for another year! I applied for the same program I was in this year, but to work at a different school. I was accepted to the school of my choice, so next year I’ll be working at a language school in Getxo, Bilbao’s seaside suburb.

I’ll be coming back to the States in about a month to visit friends and family, and since my program doesn’t start until October, I’ll be staying for almost two whole months!

I hope all of you back State-side have a fantastic 4th of July holiday…grill some goodness for me!

Hasta la proxima!


a pain in the mane

I was a Groupon virgin until last week, when I decided it was time to “get my group on” with this deal:

Translation: for just 25€ (a 130€ value), I could get my hair colored, cut and styled….PLUS, I could choose from one of three “special treatments,” and for fun they were throwing in a cranial massage and a shine treatment finish. Sign me UP!

I bought the Groupon and walked the few blocks from my apartment to the salon to make my appointment. It was a small place–just 3 hair styling “stations” and two stylists working. I walked in, told them I’d bought a salon package on Groupon and asked if I could make an appointment for the next day, Saturday. ¿Sí, muy bien. A las 10:00 o 11:00?”  I took the 11:00 appointment and was on my way, skipping along happily at the thought of the steal of a deal I had just scored.

I woke up excited for the day on Saturday, reviewed my Spanish haircut vocabulary (bangs, layers, blend, trim) over breakfast and headed out the door. When I got to the salon, I was immediately taken aback by the number of women inside. There were the same two stylists that had been there when I made the appointment, but now about five additional women were there as well. “Surely, some of them must work here,” I thought. I stood there shaking out my umbrella and wondering if anyone was going to acknowledge my presence. Nope. I figured any minute one of the stylists would approach me to get my name and “check me in” for my appointment in some way, as is standard in every salon I’ve ever been to. Nope. 3 minutes. I’m quickly realizing that the only two people doing any sort of work are the two ladies I saw yesterday. There’s another older lady aimlessly pacing to and fro between them, but everyone else in this joint is a client. Ooooh boy.

5 minutes. One of the stylists looks up from her work and motions to the only empty chair in the joint, telling me to sit. The chair she has deemed as mine is an abandoned stylist station chair that sits opposite the three still-in-use stations, still bolted to the floor, facing a large mirror. The table and drawers have been removed, so now it is just a chair, off by itself, facing a mirror. I am now sitting in a hairdresser chair, looking at myself in a mirror. Yesss.

10 minutes. Ok, I’m annoyed, but this was a really good deal. I’m gonna stick it out. Gathering from many experiences I’ve had as a retail customer in this country, I don’t even think the term “customer service” exists. I just need to keep that in mind. I become complacent and read the last 18 hours of posts on my Twitter feed.

20 minutes. I notice the older pacing lady is now assisting with washes. I wonder if she’s one of the stylist’s mothers. I figure this is a family business. I assume the staircase at the back of the salon leads to their home flat. I find this very European and cute.

30 minutes. I realize the two sylists are cycling clients through a haphazard (albeit relatively efficient) chain of highlights, rinse/treatment, cut and dry/style: starting one thing on one client while the other waits for the next stage to be complete, and so on. I think about how, “where I come from,” you have a stylist to yourself for the 2 hours or so of your cut/color/style. I wonder what my old stylist did during the downtime. I consider that this crazy hair-styling assembly line may actually be a better system.

40 minutes. The elder, pacing, hair-washing woman approaches me-. “Sweet, my turn!” I think to myself. She doesn’t even look at me. Instead, she turns to a small crockpot-looking device filled with green goo on the table next to me. I didn’t even notice it until now. She walks up to the mirror directly in front of my chair, stirs the green go with a wooden stick, scoops some out, and slaps it on her face. Without a flinch, she rips it off, ridding her face of any lady ‘stache that may have been. This is happening 2 feet in front of me. Our legs are touching. I wonder if she’s crazy. No one else in the salon seems to be fazed by her public display of her personal hygiene routine. Am I just that uptight?

50 minutes. Lady Beard has finished her facial wax self-treatment. I frantically refresh my Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds in desperation for news from “normal” outside world.

60 minutes. Ok. That’s it. I said I’d only wait an hour. Gotta draw the line somewhere….I mean, I had an appointment, after all! It was an hour ago! I prepare my “storming out speech.”

70 minutes. …but what good is storming out going to do? They’re not really concerned about “bad reviews” in Spain, and they’re sure as shiz not gonna care if some American girl gets her brugas in a bundle over waiting an hour for their services. If I leave, I’m going to have to try to get a refund from Groupon AND go back to the drawing board on getting my hair done.

80 minutes. It’s 12:20pm. Some girls with noon appointments swing by and ask how long it will be until the stylists are ready. The stylists tell them about 30 minutes. They smile and say they’re going to run to the market and be back later.  NOOOO PROBLEMA :-D!!! So…are appointment times just a suggestion? Like…a suggestion of when you should wake up in order to make it to the salon an hour or so AFTER your actual appointment time? Cuz I missed that memo. Maybe this is something that should be included in Spanish culture classes, you know, right along with the info about the Spanish siesta and the dos besos (two kisses) greeting custom. I have a Spanish minor, after all. I should be in on these things.

90 minutes. That’s it. This is stupid. I’m hungry. I’m leaving. In five minutes.

95 minutes. One of the stylists approaches me, identifies me as “The Groupon one” and leads me to her chair. I surrender and hope for the best.

The appointment itself went pretty smoothly. They have to know what they’re doing with the way they run that place. It may be a little bit, uh…below my standard of “normal,” but somehow they make it all work.

And at the end of the day, like they say, “it’s just hair!”

post-salon: touched-up highlights, no more split ends, significantly lower blood pressure

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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!