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


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.


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!




the Camino experience

A month ago yesterday, I arrived on foot in Santiago de Compostela, a city in the northwestern corner of Spain, after hiking the last 200km of the Camino de Santiago. The experience was, hands down, the most incredible of my life to date. Even a month later I’m finding it really difficult to put it into words. Part of that could be that I went immediately from the Camino to the whirlwhind of moving back to the US, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think I’ll be processing the experience for months, or maybe even years to come.

Maybe you’ve never heard of the Camino and don’t get what all the fuss is about. Maybe you’re curious about it or even considering taking the plunge yourself, and you’re hungry for advice, insight, inspiration. Or maybe you’re a fellow former peregrino (pilgrim) and you know just exactly how I’m feeling. Even though everyone has an entirely different experience on the Camino that is very uniquely their own, there is something that connects every peregrino del Camino.

No matter which category you fall into, I hope I can share a little Camino magic with you today.

So…what IS the Camino de Santiago?

The Camino is a famous pilgrimage of Christian origin that has been around since Medieval times. Legend has it that the remains of St. James were brought from Jerusalem to what is now Santiago de Compostela. For over 1200 years now, people have been making this journey on foot to pay homage to the Saint.  The pilgrimage was recently re-popularized by this 2010 film, which rather accurately portrays the fact that nowadays, the tens of thousands of people who set out to do the Camino each year have widely varying reasons for doing so: some religious and some not at all.

There are several routes one can take to reach Santiago. Traditionally, pilgrims set out for Santiago from their own homes, wherever they might be. There are still some people that do that today, but typically people choose a place to begin along one of several routes, based upon the amount of time they’re able to dedicate to the journey. The most famous route begins on the French-Spanish border in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France and heads down through Pamplona, across north central Spain and up into the mountainous terrain of Galicia in the northwest of Spain for the last 200km stretch. From beginning to end, this route takes most pilgrims about a month. Pressed for time, my friend and I did only the last 200km which are, as many have said, “the most difficult, but the most beautiful.”

Who does the Camino de Santiago?

Anyone. Everyone. According to my guidebook, two-thirds are Spanish people, and among the third that are foreigners, the Germans and French dominate. But I met people from everywhere: Australia, South Africa, Japan, the US, Brazil… Most are in the 25-35-year-old range, but the next biggest group is probably the 50-80-year-olds.


Why do people do the Camino de Santiago?

As I said before, modern-day pilgrims’ reasons are quite varied. Some are religious, some are looking for an answer to some question they have in their life, some are doing it in honor or memory of a loved one, others are alt-tourists looking for a more adventurous way to spend their holiday. I personally wanted to do a portion of the Camino as a sort of capstone on my experience of living in Spain for over two years. It was a time for reflection and clarification. You can’t go into the Camino knowing exactly what you’ll get out of it, but I can just about guarantee the one thing you won’t feel at the end is regret for having done it.

In our room at an albergue in Palas de Rei: "In our room at an albergue: "Don't run, pilgrim. It doesn't matter how far you go, but rather who you are, how you feel and who you're with."

In our room at an albergue in Palas de Rei: “Don’t run, pilgrim. It doesn’t matter how far you go, but rather how you are, how you feel and who you’re with.”

What does the Camino de Santiago look like?

If you don’t already know, Spain is a land of incredibly varied landscapes. The main route take you from the rocky Pyrenees into the lush green Basque Country, my beloved former home. There’s a flat, dry stretch through the high plains of north-central Spain and the final third of the journey is once again very mountainous, and quite green.

Sometimes you’re walking on the shoulder of a highway, other times you’re walking along a shady, forested path. You’ll pass through big cities, small towns and tiny villages. You’ll see lots of farm animals and have to dodge a lot of manure.

There’s a video at the end of this post that might give you a better idea of what the Camino looks like.

What does the Camino de Santiago sound like?

Mornings are peaceful. Birds chirping. The crunching of your feet on the rugged paths. The other pilgrims you pass along the way wishing you a “buen camino.” You’ll probably be lost in thought, or maybe having an enlightening conversation with your Camino companion(s) or a random peregrino you’ve just met.

Afternoons are more challenging. You might be noticing the sound of your breath more and thinking you sound tired. Maybe you turn on your iPod to block that out for awhile.

Evenings are joyful and then peaceful once again. You’ll talk and laugh with the other pilgrims over dinner and vino, then face-plant into your pillow at the albergue.

What does the Camino de Santiago smell like?

Manure, mostly. Sometimes flowers.

What does the Camino de Santiago taste like?

Espresso and fresh fruit in the morning. More espresso and Spanish tortilla in later morning. Tuna empanadas or salami bocadillos for lunch. Cold beer pick-me-ups. Three home-cooked courses for dinner, washed down with fantastic Rioja wine.

before bedtime ritual: journaling and wine

before bedtime ritual: journaling and wine

What does the Camino de Santiago feel like?

The Camino feels like an analogy to life. There are peaks and valleys, easy stretches and treacherous ones. There are times when you feel like you can’t go on and a friend picks you up, and times when you’re the one offering a shoulder to lean on. There are times to be serious and times to laugh and realize life can’t be taken too seriously.

The Camino feels like freedom. Freedom from the modern-day construction of what life is “supposed” to be. A blast to the past, a much simpler time. No responsibilities except putting one foot in front of the other, all day, every day.

The Camino feels like unfettered emotion. The usual day-to-day emotional hindrances are gone, and you’re left to really feel your feelings. You might get really sad about the heart-breaking things of the world and then look up at the landscape around you and cry tears of joy at the beauty of it all.

In the mountains of gorgeous Galicia

In the mountains of gorgeous Galicia

I leave you with a video I compiled of my footage of the journey. Here you’ll get a sense of the sights and sounds of the Camino. Your sensory imagination will have to fill in the rest.

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do not leave us speechless!

This year, I am fortunate enough to be both teaching (English) AND taking (Spanish) classes in two of Spain’s “Escuelas Oficiales de Idiomas” (Official Language Schools). These schools exist all over the country and offer classes in a variety of languages including Spanish language classes for foreigners like myself. The schools are public and very low-cost. I paid just 70€ (about $90) for an entire school year of classes–4.5 hrs/week or a total of over 120 hours of class. That means I pay less than $1/hour to attend classes. When I started attending classes at the University of North Dakota back in 2006, I remember learning that my cost per hour of class instruction was around $20/hour. And I’m sure it has increased substantially in the past six years. Put another way: attending classes in 2006 at one of the cheapest universities in the US cost me twenty times more than attending classes in 2012 in the center of one of Spain’s largest cities. Go figure.

With Spain’s economy in the dumps, many educational programs are on the chopping block. Just like everywhere else in this recession, cuts need to be made somewhere, but I definitely side with the argument that education should be one of the last places to be making cuts. The whole reason why I’m able to be here in Spain today is because of a program that was created for the need for Spanish people to learn English so they can compete in the global job market. If language programs continue to be cut, the young Spanish people currently out of work (currently almost 50% of young adults in Spain) will fall behind even more. The low-cost language classes offered at these schools are crucial for Spain’s future.

Side note: If you are a native English speaker, take a second to be REALLY grateful for that. Somewhere along the way, English became the most important/useful language in the entire WORLD, and you’re already a master at it just because of where you were born. Now, more importantly, realize that the fact that you are indeed a native English speaker: 1. is by pure chance 2. does not make you better than anyone else, and 3. shouldn’t make you feel like you’re off-the-hook for learning another language. Learning another language (or two or three) will broaden your worldview astoundingly. In summary: don’t be an ethnocentric a-hole.

Below is a video created by the Oficiales de Idiomas de Cádiz y San Fernando in the South of Spain to raise awareness of the importance of keeping Spain’s Official Language School programs alive. The video is subtitled in Spanish, but the people in the video are all speaking the languages they’re currently learning (French, Italian, English, German, etc.) at one of Spain’s Official Language Schools. Even if you don’t know Spanish, it’s worth watching.

The text at the beginning of the video says:

“I don’t learn languages to speak. I speak languages to learn.” Isn’t that beautiful?

Near the end of the video, the creators sum up their plea by saying: “¡Que no nos dejen sin palabras!” which means “Do not leave us speechless!”


the simplest, best ever ice-breaker for adult EFL students

I am working at a language school this year, and my students range in age from mid-20s to mid-60s. Before our first classes together, I read several ideas for intro/ice-breaker activities that work well for adults learning English. I came across one that I hadn’t seen before, and it goes something like this:

1. Give the students strips of paper and tell them they have to think of an adjective that describes them and also begins with the first letter of their first name. Then, have them write their adjective and name, in that order, on the paper.

2. Have each student introduce themselves, adjective included (Hi! I’m Musical Megan), and then tell the class a little about themselves: why they’re studying English, where they work or what they study, and any other interesting facts about themselves they’d like to indulge.

3. After the introductions, gather the strips of papers from the students and mix them up. Explain to the students that they are going to come to the front of the class one at a time, and that you’re going to tape one of their classmates’ names to their forehead without them seeing it first. They then have to show their classmates the name and then ask them questions to figure it who it is. They must ask yes-or-no questions only, and they must start with basic things (Am I a man or a woman?), move onto more detailed things (Am I an engineer?) and, if needed, resort lastly to physical characteristics (Am I wearing a blue scarf?) Finally, they have to try to remember the name of the person they’ve figured out is on their head before they take it off (Am I…Mikel?)

4. The next turn goes to the person who’s name was on the forehead of the classmate before them. If my name was on Mikel’s head, it is now my turn.

This game works really well for both intermediate and more advanced adult ESL students. For the lower levels, it helps them work on simple question structure (a common mistake for Spanish people is to say “I am a teacher?” instead of “Am I a teacher?”) and recall basic vocabulary about personal and physical characteristics. The more advanced students seem to naturally rise to the challenge of making their questions more complete and varied.

This activity makes everyone laugh (we all look and feel pretty dumb with a piece of paper taped to our forehead!) and loosen up, learn each others names and get to know each other a little bit. Meanwhile, as the prof, you get a pretty good idea of their level of English right off the bat. I think it might just be the perfect adult EFL ice-breaker.

Have you used this or a similar activity before? What other ice-breaker activities have worked well for you?


livin’ la vida buena

Saludos desde España! I’ve been back in the land of fiesta and siesta for a couple of weeks now and things are going just about as swimmingly as they possibly could be. I’m so grateful for how quickly things have fallen into place. Here are some of these cosas buenas:

Mi casa – in the jetlagged hours that immediately followed my return, I viewed just two apartments, lucked out and landed a fantastic living situation right away. I found an available room in a flat in the best, most central neighborhood in Bilbao. I met the people living here, a young lawyer and med student, and after a short interview they offered me the room and I moved in the following day. One of my main objectives for this year was to live with Spanish people in order to maximize the amount of Spanish I have to speak each day, and I couldn’t have found nicer Spanish roommates. That might sound exaggerated, but really: one of my roommates actually makes extra coffee in the mornings to share with me and both have offered to drive me places on several occasions (living with two people that BOTH have a car is practically unheard of here.) Not to mention, if I have any medical OR legal concerns I’m totally covered! 😉

my new room

Mi trabajo – I’m enjoying quite the job upgrade this year. While working in a rural high school last year was a…*ahem* learning experience…I’m really, really enjoying working with adults this year. I work at an official language school, where university students and other people from all 18+ walks of life come to learn English. Most are 25-35 and looking for work (unemployment for this age group is almost 50% in Spain!), thus trying to improve their credentials by gaining fluency in English: a huuuuge leg up in the job market here. Another good chunk of my students are retired and just wanting to improve their English to aid in their worldly travels. My students are bright, attentive and interesting. I’m looking forward to learning at least as much from them as they’re going to learn from me.

Mi castellano – I landed a spot in the C1 Castellano course at a language school here in the city, so in addition to living with Spaniards I am getting lots of formal practice and refining of my Spanish-or my Castillian (castellano), to be exact. By the end of the course, I should be ready to take an exam demonstrating professional fluency/proficiency in the language. The class itself is great because all 20 of us are from totally different backgrounds, and even though none of us are Spanish, the only language we all share is Spanish…so you have a room full of people from Russia, Germany, the US, India, Brazil, etc., all speaking Spanish with totally different accents. It’s pretty rad.

Mi vida, en general – I’m back to loving and cherishing all that is Spanish culture and life–the loooong lunch breaks, strolls for the sake of strolling, fantastic yet inexpensive wine, late dinners, the list goes on…I’ve reunited with all of my friends and “family” here in these recent weeks, and I’m reminded, amazed and grateful for how many incredible people I have met and continue to meet through this experience.

good ol’ Puente Colgante, just a few steps from my new workplace


I have lots more to share with you in the upcoming days. Stay tuned!

Hasta ahora! Agur!

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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


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 🙂