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


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?



when RyanAir goes wrong

I set out last Wednesday morning on a trip to Spain’s westerly neighbor, Portugal. I caught an early bus from Bilbao to Madrid, arrive with time to spare,and hopped on the shuttle to the airport.

Once at the airport, I headed straight for what RyanAir calls “visa check.” You see, if you fly RyanAir, you can conveniently print your plane tickets online ahead of time (which you conveniently get to pay 6€ to do, or else pay 60€ once at the airport if you opt not to…blackmail, much?) and THEN all you have to do once at the airport is go through a “visa check” (which is, essentially, the same thing as checking in…) before you go through security. This check consists of a RyanAir employee looking at your passport, asking you if you packed your own luggage (nope, my mom did!) and then drawing arbitrary squiggles somewhere on your printed ticket to indicate you have been “checked.”

I breezed through security and found my gate just on the other side. Over an hour to kill before boarding! I headed to a nearby cafetería for some tortilla española and a caña. I ate my lunch slowly, critiquing the tortilla with every bite (I’m a connoisseur now, you know) and mentally patting myself on the back for being so ahead of schedule.

Time to get to the gate. With RyanAir, there are no seat assignments and no boarding groups: just a clusterfook of travelers huddled around the waiting area at the gate hoping to make it on the plane WITH their luggage. I was in line behind a Portuguese couple, and listening to their chatter I started to get pumped–a new language, a new culture, a new COUNTRY to explore!

I hastily shoved my purse into my cabin baggage (RyanAir doesn’t allow a “personal item” like every….other…airline) and got ready to juke for a window seat. I gave the ticket lady my ticket and started shoving my bag into the size-tester box (a ridiculously obligatory step with RyanAir. If it doesn’t fit they’ll kindly check it at the gate for only 40-50€!) As I was busy proving my obviously small bag wasn’t an 26″ upright, this conversation happened:

Ticket Nazi: “This isn’t the right ticket”
Me: “Ha….what?”
Ticket Nazi: “Yes. This is Madrid, ma’am. This ticket is from Porto to Madrid.”
Me: “I’m entirely aware that this is Madrid. So you’re saying they validatedd the wrong ticket?”
Ticket Nazi: “I’m saying you don’t have a ticket to get on this plane.”
Me: “Oh, but I do. Here it is, see? With the same name, passport number…”
Ticket Nazi: “I can’t let you on the plane without a visa check confirmation on this other ticket. You need to go out, get it validated, re-enter security and come back. You need to run! Last call! Plane leaves in 20 minutes!”
Me: “@&?#!”

Sprinting. In heeled boots. Holding a 20 lb suitcase. Through an entire terminal. Calves killing from yesterday’s run. Couldn’t find an open exit. Saw a security checkpoint, got desperate and asked two Policia Nacional how I could get out. They saw my desperation, had mercy on me, and actually let me go backwards through a security checkpoint whilst running. In hindsight, this may be the single nicest thing a stranger has done for me in this country. I budged to the front of a line of 50-or-so people at the visa check and told the lady she had stamped the wrong sheet and needed to stamp this one. She apologized, didn’t even look at my passport (may try this approach if ever need to travel illegally :-p) and stamped my ticket.

More sprinting. At security again. Ducked under the barricades and cut in front of two large families. Pretended not to speak Spanish while being cussed out for it. Wearing only leggings, a tank top, and socks, but somehow the metal detector goes off when I pass through. The TSA lady pats me down and comments on how sweaty I am. Happens when you’ve maintain max HR for early 15 minutes while fully clothed, I guess. I shove my iPad and liquids back in my bag and run, shoes and coat in hand, to the gate.

No one at the gate. No. One. Look at my watch. It’s 3:38. 7 minutes til takeoff. I had just sprinted through an entire terminal, to visa check, through security and back to the gate in a record 13 minutes. Where is Ticket Nazi and her equally condescending sidekicks? Why does the gate’s screen now say “Santander” and not “Porto”????

Well played, RyanAir. Well played.

There is a reason why my (original) fare was a steal at only 40€ round trip (including taxes and fees!) RyanAir boasts being “The low fare airline,” and that is exactly what they are. Nothing more. Their fares stay low because they nickle-and-dime customers for everything they can. This is no secret. The shadier side of this is that they also depend a great deal on customers’ mistakes and oversights as sources of profit. They create an incredible obstacle course full of hoops to jump through if you choose to fly with them, and any mistakes along the way will cost you. I like to think I’ve mastered these hoops as a pretty experienced traveler, but in this instance I got dooped. Any other airline would have taken the blame (it was, after all, started by one of their worker’s oversights) and re-booked me free of charge, no questions asked. But RyanAir has a very different business model that essentially lacks a customer service component altogether. And their crazily low fares let them get away with it. So hear this, savvy travelers: every time you book a steal-of-a-deal flight with RyanAir, know that someone, somewhere is paying for it. Someday, it might be you!

I made it (on a much more expensive newly-purchased outbound flight) to Porto, Portugal the next morning. And I suppose it was worth all the hassle 🙂

Looking back at Porto from the port near the mouth of the Douro River


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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Al final…

Last week marked 100 days since my return to the US. The summer is gone, and I’ve begun my final year of college. It seems almost innappropriately late to be summing up my previous semester abroad, but I’ve struggled to bring myself to this point. Each time I added ideas to my draft for my last entry, I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. Something about hitting the “Publish” button just made everything seem so final; like it was really the end. Certainly the experience itself has come to an end, and for that I am very, very sad. Sometimes I have Spain-related mini-breakdowns. I’ve likened this to the feelings you get after a breakup– everything little thing reminds you of them, it hurts to think about it, etc. It’s really the same way with leaving behind a wonderful home and an incredible time in your life.  But the countless memories and lessons learned carry on. I want to share a little bit about those lessons and reflections.

One last round of Spanish delicacies in Plaza Mayor of Madrid.

Kcohs erutluc. Our advisors and profs told us to brace ourselves for the infamous “reverse culture shock” upon our return home. I will say that, in my experience, it is a very real phenomenon,  but not in the way I was expecting. I would describe it as a more paradoxical phenomenon in which everything is amazingly familiar and “normal”, but uncomfortably foreign at the same time. You come back to your old house, your old friends, your old hang-outs, and instead of it feeling like you’ve been gone forever, it feels like everything picks right back up where it left off. The life you had abroad seems like a different life and time altogether–one that bears almost no resemblance to your “real” life you’ve returned to. It’s a frustrating feeling that is difficult to describe.

Here are a couple of more tangible, specific examples of this “reverse culture shock” that occurred on my very first day back in the US:

I remember that the day I flew into Minneapolis, my parents and I went to a Subway. This was my first time really being in “public” back home, other than at the airport. Two very strange things happened. The first was that I thought I recognized almost everyone eating in that Subway, but the chances of me actually knowing any of them were slim to none since we were still 300 miles from my home. So why did I think all of them were friends or acquaintances? For the first time in several months, I was surrounded by people who looked like myself, my American friends, and my family. In my day-to-day life I had been interacting with people who looked very different than me, so my brain must have seen these familiar-looking people and thought “Hey, look! It’s ‘so-and-so’!” Bizarre. The second strange thing that happened at that Subway was that a stranger smiled at me as she passed me on her way out the door, and I was so thrown off by it that I didn’t even smile back. I learned very quickly that in Spain, if you smile at someone, they assume you know them. This can cause for a pretty awkward convo (“Oh, sorry, I don’t know you…I was just smiling because…it’s what I do…never mind”) and therefore I learned very quickly to maintain a relatively blank expression when I met eyes with a stranger. I’m happy to say I’ve fully readjusted to the Midwest’s friendliness and I’m all smiles 🙂

Beyond the obvious hugely valuable gains in language and culture, I took away a few awesome life lessons from my time abroad. It would be a surprise to me if anyone has ever used the words “laid back” to describe me, but I think after my time in Europe I’ve definitely moved down the spectrum from away from “high-strung” and more toward “laid back.” I tend to need to plan things and don’t adjust particularly well to a deviation in plans, but there were so many situations during my travels in which things went wrong that were totally beyond my control that I was forced to adapt and chill out after awhile. Also, being in an environment where every little thing you do requires way more effort than usual (i.e. because it’s not in your native language) better equips you for many difficult situations. You can take a lot more stress and deal with it more effectively. That in itself is a pretty life-changing thing to make improvement on.

Me with my all-Spanish surf school classmates. Receiving surfing instruction in another language was a challenge!

Another “life lesson” that really defined my experience abroad was learning that less IS more in regard to material things. If you were to graph the number of items I packed for each trip through the semester, you would see a steady decline. I learned that the more things you brought, the more you were responsible for, the more you had to carry, the more you had to think about, the more stressed you were, etc…I think this is a harder lesson for girls to learn than it is for guys. Guys don’t typically have to think, “Well, what shoes will I wear with this outfit? And I can’t choose between my volumizing mousse and my straightening serum….I just can’t…” But you can. And you do. You figure out how to get by with less and less, and it is the most liberating feeling ever. When I got back to the US, one of the first things I did was sell and donate over half my old wardrobe. The less I own, the less I have to store, move, and worry about in general.

The final big ticket lesson I came away with was enjoying every moment. Not to get all philosophical or sappy on you, but all you really have is this moment. You can’t guarantee anything for 5 minutes from now. Get over the hang-ups of this moment and start enjoying and appreciating all the greatness around you.

So many things gained from this experience are countless, but I’ve come up with a few examples of quantifiable things from my time abroad.

So here it is: my 5 months abroad by the numbers:

19,112 miles traveled by plane
5,176 miles traveled by bus and train
142 total days spent abroad
140 (or more) cafés con leche consumed (about one for each day!)
80 bottles of fine Rioja wine savored (conservative estimate…)
50 rides across historic Puente Colgante
35 napolitanas de chocolate eaten (1 for each of Juan’s classes…soy chocolate adicta!)
30 wonderful new friends (fellow USACers!)
20 Bershka shopping sprees
16 European cities explored
10 surfing lessons attended
6 countries visited
5 major city metro/subway systems mastered (Bilbao, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, London)
4 upper-level Spanish courses completed
2 major cultural immersions (Spanish and Basque)
1 experience of a lifetime
Thank you to everyone who has read meggrblog. I hope you’ve found it to be a good source of information and/or entertainment. I do plan to continue blogging in the future, and I’m currently working on a new focus for that blog. Please check back here for a link to the new blog in the near future.
As they say when parting ways in Bilbao, “¡Vale, venga, hasta luego, AGUR!”

Looking out at the vast Atlantic on one of many cliff hikes in Getxo