meggrblog

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


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what’s up with WhatsApp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!


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smörgåsbord

I was just reviewing my  “to do” list for the week in Evernote (an application you should download immediately if you haven’t already). One of the bullet points, “update blog” has been copied and pasted from one day’s list to another for a week now; something for which I have no good excuse. I’ve had the last five days off of work, after all! I have posts on a handful of topics that are still in the works, but I can’t seem to wrap any of them up tonight so I thought I’d try something new. I have lots to say about things that have nothing to do with each other, so I’ve decided to organize this smörgåsbord of topics in a bullet-point format, inspired by my ever-growing “to do” list 🙂

So here are some updates on my life, in no particular order:

  • As I mentioned, I’m coming off of a 5-day break from work. I always have Fridays off, and then we all had Monday and Tuesday off for something called a “puente.” This word literally means “bridge,” but in this case it refers to the general consensus in Spain that if a holiday falls awkwardly in the middle of the week (today is All Saints Day), they will also make the day before or after it a day off as well in order to “bridge” it to the weekend. I am in full support of this custom.
  • Speaking of holidays, happy belated Halloween! Several other Americans and I had our share of Halloween fun despite the fact that it’s not widely recognized here. We had Halloween “potlucks” on both Saturday AND Monday nights, complete with dirt cupcakes and candlelight. Then we took to the streets to call even more attention than usual to our costume-donned American selves! :-p
  • We have yet to have internet installed in our apartment. Such things run on what we like to call “Spain time,” which is a very different timetable than the “giveittomeNOW” ideal so dear to our American hearts. I’ve been spending a lot of time at WiFi bars, and at home I’m tethering internet from my mobile phone which has gotten me through, but it is r-e-e-e-e-a-l-l-y  s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w. Imagine waiting 10 minutes for a simple YouTube video to load and/or just time out. Dial-up, anyone? The Euskaltel dude is supposed to come give us The Internets by Monday at the latest. w00t!
  • I’m ashamed to confess that I’ve consumed Ramen noodles (the Spanish version of them, anyway) on a couple of desperate occasions recently. The grocery store had a couple flavors that piqued my curiosity (i.e. curry and shrimp) so I went for it. In related news, I saw a commercial today for two new flavors of Lays potato chips that have hit the Spanish market: shrimp and KEBAB. I can’t make this up.
  • I have watched more episodes of Friends in the last two weeks than I had in my entire life up to that point. It is on almost 24/7, and our fancy TV usually lets us change the audio to English. Treat!
  • I went to Gernika yesterday and it was pure insanity. Every Monday is “market day” in Gernika, but the last Monday of October is the biggest one of the year. Farmers bring in the best and last of their fall harvest, and the streets of Gernika become one giant Basque party. I had heard this was a big deal, but I greeeeatly underestimated just how big this deal would be. The line for buses to Gernika from downtown Bilbao was down the street and around the corner. I finally got to Gernika at 1pm, and the streets were already packed to the gills and littered with bottles of sidra (hard cider). The main streets were lined with vendors selling everything from gourmet cheese to handmade toys to, of course, mouth-wateringly fresh produce. There was lots of live music, lots of laughing, and lots of broken glass. Not having braced for such intense fiesta so early in the day, I left after being there just a few hours. I definitely appreciated the cultural experience, but a total immersion would have been a bit much for me at that point 😉

empty sidra bottles. lots of them.

  • Is it really November? Because we’re still hitting the 70s on a regular basis here. I grew up in a place where Halloween costumes were altered to include winter coats, hats and sometimes even snow pants, so this temperate climate thing is a new concept for me. The temps in the 70s won’t last, but I’m pretty sure I can handle the upper 40s/lower 50s that will be the “winter” here. It’s a pretty nice upgrade for a North Dakota girl.
  • I finally hung pictures in my room of all my family and friends, and it made me miss everyone back home so much. I love you guys! Come visit!
That’s all for now, folks! Hasta luego!
🙂