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


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sacred sundays

fel·low·ship

/ˈfelōˌSHip/
Noun
     1. community of interest, activity, feeling or experience
     2. a company of equals or friends
     3. the quality or state of being comradely
(Definition from Merriam-Webster.com)
I grew up belonging to a fun, friendly church community in which, like in most church communities, there was a social hour following the Sunday morning services called “fellowship time.” It was held in a big gathering space in the church basement appropriately called “Fellowship Hall.” Church members took turns bringing cookies and lemonade, and everyone gathered to get caught up with friends and family. Kids ran around and played while the grownups talked. But fellowship time was understood to be quite finite. After only a half hour or so, families trickled out of Fellowship Hall and off to their separate lives. There were errands to run, sports practices to attend, house chores and yard-work to do.
Spain is a place where fellowship time is understood to be an all-day event. Every Sunday. The idea of Sunday being a sacred day obviously comes from Spain’s very Catholic roots. But while 70% of Spanish people still identify themselves as Catholic, only around 15% attend mass regularly. Nowadays, this tradition of religious origin is so ingrained in Spanish culture that it persists despite having lost much of its religious purpose.
Sunday fellowship time in Plaza Nueva, Bilbao

Sunday fellowship time in Plaza Nueva, Bilbao

One of the main reasons Spain’s Sundays have been able to remain so sacred is that still, in 2013, almost everything is closed on Sundays. Running errands on a Sunday is simply not an option. Apart from a few pharmacies, fruit shops and convenience stores, the only open businesses on Sundays are places of gathering: restaurants, cafes and bars. Like in many European countries, legal restrictions exist in most of Spain that limit businesses’ rights to be open on Sundays. But that’s slowly changing: In 2012, all restrictions were lifted for the entire Madrid metropolitan area and in the most touristic parts of most other Spanish cities. You can read more about European “Sunday shopping” regulations here.

Of course SOME people have to work on Sundays. The people that run the cafes and bars that are open are working, though their work seems mostly enjoyable—many of their clients are long-time friends and neighbors. And obviously some institutions have to run regardless of the day, but many run on a “holiday” schedule every single Sunday. The Bilbao metro system schedule literally lists “domingos y festivos (Sundays and holidays)” as equal. But for now, the majority of Spanish businesses seem to be successfully resisting the Western trend towards making Sunday another day of business and productivity.

So is preserving this tradition a good thing or a bad thing? I’ve been on both sides of this debate. By now, I’ve gotten really used to it and generally think it’s an important and beautiful reflection of the Spanish culture. But I’ve also complained many a time about not being able to get anything productive done on a Sunday, and about the generally unavailability of things on Sundays. I also share the belief of many that, with Spain’s economy suffering as it is, it may do these businesses some good to stay open on Sundays and bring in some extra coin. But to lose the tradition of sacred Sundays would be to lose something at the very heart of Spanish culture.

I try to imagine my life in the US with Sundays as a sacred day, everything closed. What would I do? Go for a long walk with a friend, have coffee with my mom, play piano…sure, these are things I might do on a Sunday in the US anyway, but it would make a huge difference if there weren’t really any other options. If there was a cultural understanding that that’s what Sundays are for.

paseando por la Ría del Nervión, Bilbao

paseando por la Ría del Nervión, Bilbao


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It’s hard to believe we’re well into June! Now that things have slowed down a bit for me, I’ve had more time to reflect. May was a seriously great month. Hands down, it was one of the very best of my life. It started with great travels with my parents and continued to be full of experiences, fun and unforgettable times with friends.

On May 19 in San Sebastian, I ran my sixth half-marathon (third one on this side of the pond, after doing the half at the Bilbao Night Marathon in 2011 and 2012.) I’ve changed to minimalist-style running over the past year, and although the adjustment really took an entire year, it has finally paid off big time. I beat my half-marathon PR by 8 minutes, meaning I knocked almost an entire minute off each mile. It was a beautiful race in a beautiful place, even when the pouring rain and high winds kicked in during the last mile. Maybe you can find a happy/exhausted American girl crossing the finish line in this video.

The weekend after the race was my birthday weekend and it was…the…BEST. I’ve made so many great friends from a variety of circles in these past couple of years, and many of them were able to join me  to help me celebrate with a Mexican-style potluck in my apartment. I put together this GoPro-recorded account of the night:

My main job here as an English auxiliar for the Basque Government ended at the end of May as well. I’m much more sad about that than relieved or anything else. My job was seriously amazing: my boss and coworkers were super friendly and easy-going, and my students were intelligent, creative, engaged and extremely appreciative. There probably aren’t many teachers in the whole world that can say all of those things about their work. Thank you, EOI de Getxo, for EVERYthing.

one of my classes at the EOI, goofing around like they do best ;-)

one of my classes at the EOI, goofing around like they do best 😉

One fabulous month rolled directly into another, and June is off to a great start. I can’t wait to see what more great things this summer has in store.

I hope you are all doing well in your various corners of the world. Let the summer fun begin! 😀


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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!


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honey, I’m home

Greetings from the US of A! Hard to believe it, but my 7 week visit home is more than halfway through. Time has flown. Everyone wants to know: how does it feel to be back? I think the best way to describe it is that it feels exactly the same as it did before. Like I hibernated and dreamed I lived in Spain for a year and then woke up back in the same life I left a year ago. That’s not a bad thing; I just mean to say that it really hasn’t been the shocking experience that some people seem to think it might be. My first few days back I was a little weirded out by being surrounded by English everywhere, and sometimes I still have reflexive “Spanish” moments, like saying “perdona” instead of “excuse me” when I bump into someone. Also, I’ve had a hard time with the American meal schedule (lunch at noon, dinner at 6:00.) I much prefer the late lunch (2:30ish) and much later dinner (10:00pm) that is the norm in Spain. I’ve done everything I can to push back my parents’ dinner time bit by bit as the weeks have gone on. The record so far is 7:00pm… :-\ But apart from these minor adjustments, it is business as usual here in ‘Merica.

That said, I’ve been pondering some US-Spain differences that I had never really thought of or realized were so significant before. This is my second time returning to the US after spending an extended period of time in Spain (the first being in 2010 when I studied abroad in Bilbao for 5 months) and I’ve noticed things this time that I didn’t before. Maybe because I was there twice as long, or maybe because I was more integrated into the culture in a lot of ways. I’m not sure. But here you have it, some ways the US differs from Spain:

Things that are completely out-of-control excessive in the US:

  •  Air conditioning. Turn it OFF, I am freezing! Very few homes, businesses, or buildings of any kind in Spain have A/C. And as you probably know, Spain isn’t a particularly chilly place. I spent the entire month of July living as an au pair in a big, beautiful and very modern home…with no A/C! On the days that the temps soared into the 90s, they just lowered the persianas (Persian blinds: very thick, interlocking blinds that block the outside heat, cold, light and noise) and the house stayed relatively cool. It may have been a few degrees warmer than “room temperature” inside, but it was hardly noticeable, and BONUS: you didn’t enter the preliminary stages of hypothermia from the 30+ degree temp drop upon entering the house after being outside. It seems that the approach in the US is the hotter it gets, the colder we make the insides of the buildings. The result? I have to wear a sweater out to dinner, even when it’s 95 degrees outside. Dumb. It’s no secret that European countries are much more energy-efficient than we are. I think that Persian blinds could single-handedly turn our energy crisis around. When I am a home-owner one day, they will be on every window.
  • Product variety. I recently read an article that said that the number of products carried by the average US supermarket has more than tripled since 1980. In Spanish supermarkets, you usually only have a couple choices for basically identical products (other than the mysterious “digestive cookies” and yogurt, both of which often seem to have their own aisle…) At the Walmart in my home town, there are THIRTEEN varieties of Cheez-Its. How do you choose? I think the excessive product variety can be considered good in some ways but really bad in others. The main problem is that a vast majority of these products are complete junk and often very misleadingly marketed, contributing to the increasing obesity epidemic in the US. On that note:
  • Portion sizes. This is a tired statement, I know. But I don’t think it has struck me as much as it has in the last month. Have they gotten bigger? I’m usually completely satisfied, if not totally stuffed, after eating less than half of a portion in a restaurant here. Luckily “to-go” boxes are a much more widely accepted thing here than they are in Spain 😉

Things that are fabulous in the US:

  • Genuine friendliness. In Spain, strangers never* smile at each other as they pass. It doesn’t mean Spaniards are mean, bad people, it’s just a cultural thing. You make eye contact, you look away. If you smile, the stranger will be puzzled, thinking you recognize them. I’ve gotten really used to that, but I’ve really enjoyed the smiles and small talk I’ve gotten from genuinely nice, well-meaning strangers over this past month.

*I’ve found there are two exceptions to this rule: it is totally normal, expected even, to smile and/or greet strangers when hiking in Spain, or when you are entering or leaving your apartment building and encounter other tenants of your building.

  • Things are open all the time. You can run errands aaaaall day long if you want, even on Sundays! Or for some things, in the middle of the night! Gosh, it’s so convenient! The Spanish practice of businesses being closed from 2p-5p (“siesta”) and all day on Sundays, while being a precious part of their culture and a reflection on their value of spending time with family and friends, is a common source of frustration for most expats.
  • Wide open spaces. This is pretty Midwest specific I guess, but I’ve enjoyed the spaciousness that is my parents’ house, the streets I run on, the open roads I drive on. There’s a lot less chaos. Open space = peacefulness. I love the bustle of city life, but the break has been soothing.

our big ol’ Midwestern backyard

Have any of you made observations of differences like these upon returning to the US after life as an expat? I’d love to hear if you share some of these or have made different ones.

As always, thanks for reading! 😀


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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!


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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