[guest blog] From North to South

This guest blog is brought to you by Natalie of crumbcastle. We met via CouchSurfing in 2010 and became fast friends over food, art and language. As the old ladies of the auxiliares hoard (then 27), we spent a lot of time in observation of our compatriots and our adopted country. Natalie’s first assignment was in Northern Spain: Vigo, Galicia. Her second assignment led her to my own backyard: Andalucía (Aracena, Huelva). Below she shares her thoughts, and original artwork.


Yes, last year was a bit of a disaster. I wouldn’t trade it out for the world, but … it was A BIT of a disaster.

My first year abroad as an auxiliar de conversación had high hopes I would be living in a corner of Spain unknown to most travelers, a place with a rich culinary tradition; I would be learning Spanish, exchanging cultures, gaining a new skill set as an English teacher; I could buy manchego and chorizo in an old supermarket.


cheese with your English?

Galicia did live up to most of these things, but two factors effected them tremendously.

1: my job. Crippling disorganization, miscommunication ran rampant; I anticipated cultural exchange, they preferred to keep things strictly British.

I was once told to talk about Pancake Day… “What is that?”
I asked to show the kids Schoolhouse Rock. “What is that??” (request denied).

Of a staff of about 10, I still think some of them had no idea that my home was an ocean and a continent away. When a girl moves abroad for the first time, a surrogate sense of family really does wonders for her transition. Bless ’em, I was the first auxiliar they’d ever had; I couldn’t be mad at them, but I could be bummed.

2: the weather. Sorry. I’m a sundress and sandals girl. Winter is “sweater weather”; rain coats, fashionably ironic; sunglasses, a mandatory part of my waitress uniform. I had never gone weeks or months without seeing a bright blue sky and Galicia soon taught me just how much that sky can effect my countenance. I was pretty grey and bleak until the sun finally came out .. two weeks before I left.

If rose-colored glasses make people think everything around them is fabulous, my pair of steely blue ones – no matter how I tried to tear them off – were casting serious shadows over my idea of cultural exchange in Spain.

rose colored glasses

not so rose-colored glasses

Luckily, in an attempt to turn grey-blue into rose-violet, I enrolled in a Spanish class at the Official Language School in Vigo. These schools are throughout Spain for inspired adults to learn a language.

We were inspired; our teacher, an inspiration. She vetoed the usual plague of flash cards and drills. Instead, she carefully directed what felt like a hilarious, addictive forum for us foreigners to go stumble around Spanish. Somewhere amid the laughter and after-school beers, I learned Spanish and found Spain.


caña? so que es?

… All well and good until the grim morning reminder of my day job. The reason I was in Spain. To renew my job for a second year would mean subjecting myself to another year of students who had no desire to learn any English beyond “toilet please.”

Yes, the possibility was powerful repulsive. At least it was only a POSSIBILITY – I could technically get placed anywhere…

Out of pure, morbid curiosity, I reapplied.

You know how sometimes your brain files a memory of a conversation under “Kind of Interesting, Soon to Forget” only later to realize it should have been filed under “Totally Creepy and Foreboding”?

One regular escape from Vigo, I happened to be on the same bus to Porto as my Spanish teacher; we got to talking about my “future plans.” This particular topic has the curious effect of turning my brain into a buoyant cloud, no matter how much I’m sure I could use the advice.

A month later, I had in my hands a teaching placement in an official language school in Andalucía. My teacher’s brief, freakishly relevant advice came crashing back: If you get placed in a language school, don’t even hesitate, just go.

before and after

The thing is, it’s really hard to ignore advice once it takes on that creepy forebodingness.

I finished off the year, spent the summer in California .. in search of a job .. in denial .. The hideous .. heart. beat.

By September, the morbid curiosity and creepy foreboding had me boarding a plane back to the scene of the crime.

It’s now April. I feel very confident I have stumbled upon a new scientific proof: If plain old curiosity kills, then morbid curiosity must create a nullifying double jeopardy where everyone walks away intact – life, cat and all.


curiosidad del gato

Truth be told, I blame it all on that most Spanish of mystery spirits: duende. I wouldn’t have been lured back at all if I hadn’t caught a glimpse in Galicia of the duende that attracted me to Spain in the first place. That spry little gnome-spirit led me on her chorizo-laden trail, then slacked off .. just so slightly out of reach …

But it’s not every day a duende clues you in like that – Who would I be to give up looking after only eight measly months? I wouldn’t be Uncle Jesse, that’s who.

Turns out I just had to look to the South to find mine – to Andalucía. To Aracena.

Here, I work with people who invite my weird California slang and pumpkin pie recipes. My students, too, are just as eager to learn and share, and I’m fortunate to call them my friends. Best of all, I get to pass on the wisdom of my Spanish teacher: it’s now my turn to lead the random forum of language-learners, to show the fun in speaking and stumbling around English together.

Call me drunk on ham and Andalu hospitality, but I actually love my job.

As for the rain? Well, I can count on two hands the number of days it’s rained in Aracena. This unusual dry spell is the talk of the pueblo. I would celebrate my great weather karma, except that this rural agriculture community I adore needs the rain for ham .. business.

Today, it finally came. I’m looking out onto a grey, dank sky, remembering my time in rainy Vigo – how different it was, how different I am. I put on the boots I bought there last year and head out, glad – READY – for the splash underfoot. Bring on the rain, Spain! This year, I came armed with wool socks. And I learned where my duende lives.



On leaving Spain

a belated farewell from 1 June

I’m sitting in the Sevilla airport all alone. It’s 7:40 in the morning, and possibly my favorite time to fly. Watching planes take off the runway from wide windows, it is peaceful and quiet. Although I woke up in my apartment this morning, I will fall asleep in Prague, Czech Republic. This is the beginning of a 2 week trip in Eastern Europe that I have been planning for months. Fifteen days from now I’ll be back in the United States having breakfast with my dad, reading with my mom, playing with my friend’s new babies and eating as much American food as I can handle.

Monday was my last day at school and it was a good one. I stopped by to see my 1ESO students and they were beside themselves. What do you do when 32 eleven year olds chant your name like a soccer cheer and bang on their desks with their little palms? Me – I laugh. I have enjoyed that class so much this year, and laughing is what we do best. Several days ago they locked me out of the classroom so they could set up a surprise inside. Every student had made a letter or painted one on a shirt and they lined up to spell out: “Kelly We Will Never Forget You ❤ !!” How awesome is that?

I had my last official class with 2ESO and when I came down the hall one of my students was loitering outside the door. I’m thinking no way did he get kicked out already when he sees me and bolts back inside, slamming the door behind him. Suspicious! Sure enough when I open the door the room is dark – until someone turns on the lights and my students leap out from under their desks yelling “SURPRISE!” A Sponge Bob piñata hangs from the ceiling and the board is covered with “no te vaya” and “We ❤ Kelly.” They are beside themselves about the surprise and the enormous basket of candy they have to give me – the ultimate gift from 12 year olds!

In most of my goodbyes I’ve said “see you soon” – which will be true if I come to Madrid in the fall. So no tears and no sadness, just a sense of .. I’ll be back in a little while. The same goes for friends here from the US – some of us are taking the same end of term trip and will cross paths in foreign cities. Some of us will meet up in the States over the summer, and a few more will reunite in Spain in the coming year.

Walking through the city last night on my way home from the final Final despedida, I take a look around and realize that I love Sevilla. The orange trees and the cobblestones, the Cathedral and my barrio. This comes as no surprise given my long term love affair with Spain and particularly, the South (ya sabes, soy del sur). They have finally opened the garden in Puerta de Jerez and I wonder what it will look like when everything is in bloom. Is that when you know you are truly part of a place – when you consider its future?

It doesn’t feel like goodbye when I shut my apartment door and haul my belongings out into the elevator. It still doesn’t feel like goodbye when my friend drops me off at the airport. Here in the waiting area I’m more concerned with the cute guy a few rows away than I am with the fact that my year in Spain has come to an end. For this reason I am certain that it is “see you soon” and not “goodbye forever.” Spain could not get rid of me if it tried.

Un beso desde Sevilla International,

Q&A: show me the money

on getting paid, making a budget & fiscal survival in Spain

Q: How’s the pay? Are you able to make ends meet?

A: As an auxiliar working 12 hours a week, I get paid 700 euros a month. At this time that is the equivalent of approx $970 USD. Some of you are probably thinking of your rent payments and wondering if I am surviving on bread and water. Remember that the standard of living is noticeably different here in Sevilla. Take care not to include this statement with other major Spanish cities because Madrid and Barcelona are much pricier. I share a 3 BR apartment with two other people and am only responsible for my share of internet and electric on top of that. To see a typical breakdown of expenditures, check out this post from October.

Regarding making ends meet, it is fairly simple to blast through this kind of money. Going out frequently, or buying a new pair of boots adds up in a hurry. That being said, I am conscious of my choices on a daily basis — do I need that from the grocery store? Will it spoil before I get the chance to eat it? Most noticeably, it has changed the way I shop for groceries — it’s a huge change for me to be in a place where I can walk over to the store if I need bread or milk. So I buy less and tend to shop more often, purchasing only the things I need in the immediate future.

Q: How often do you get paid? Do you receive an actual check?

A: We get paid at the beginning of the month, or sometimes at the tail end. It varies because our checks are physically signed by the director before they go to the bank. If he is at a conference or we have a holiday, the check isn’t signed and we don’t get paid. There are some schools that issue a paper check, which is extremely difficult when the banks are only open from 9 am to 2 pm on weekdays and we are at work during these times. My school offers direct deposit, and this is a blessing. It means I can check my deposit online through my bank’s website and it also means that I don’t physically have to receive a check. Blissfully, it also means my bank account can be replenished while I’m traveling – and that is worth its weight in gold.

Q: Are you living solely on your paycheck or do you have any additional income?

A: My paycheck is supplemented substantially by my efforts in private tutoring. I cannot stress enough how rewarding it is as an experience (and not just financially). It was also relatively easy to do, as I mentioned here when I first ventured into tutoring back in October. To give you an idea of how lucrative this actually can be, here’s the breakdown of my private classes. I am tutoring three people: a 40 year old businessman, a 31 year old publicist and a 9 year old girl. The average price for private lessons is between 12 and 15 euros an hour. I see the 9 year old once a week for an hour at 12 euros each session; the 40 year old for 90 minutes at a time, up to 3 times a week for 15 euros each session and the 31 year old twice a week for 60-90 minutes at a time for up to 18 euros a session.

Even with my excessive traveling at the end of February, I still made 160 euros that month. This is cash in my wallet that I can use for groceries, a bus trip or a cup of coffee without worrying about tapping into my bank account. Three cheers for English!

Q: Do you still maintain an American bank account?

A: Yes. I am still responsible for a significant amount of bills back home in Real Life – including but not limited to a car payment, student loans and other fun things. Unfortunately my Spanish debit card does not work for online purchases, which is idiotic, and also one of the largest oversights I could have ever made. The flights and trains and hotels I purchase go on my American credit cards, which also means the charges are in USD and depend on the current exchange rate, and get paid through my American account.

I have not yet tried to send money back and forth between accounts, but I’m sure it will be an adventure so I will share that info when I attempt it. Going forward I will switch to an international bank to avoid ATM withdrawal fees and find a debit card that allows me to make online purchases. Did you know they also don’t use checkbooks here? Very strange. But they DO have an automated machine that prints out a checkbook balance for you if you go into the bank to complete a transaction. You know, during the five minutes they are actually open during the day.

Q: How are you doing your taxes?

A: In the last fiscal year I was a full time employee, so I still have a W2 to deal with in addition to student loan interest and other accounts. Luckily, my family uses a marvelous accountant who is taking care of my taxes … so I was only concerned with the collection of all the necessary paperwork.

Q: How can you afford to travel?

A: Traveling while living abroad is a high priority for me. It makes me happy and I have no problem spending the money I’ve earned to get to great places and see amazing things. So if that means I don’t go out to eat for a week or two, that’s fine. If it means I pick up some more tutoring on the side, that’s fine too. Watching the airlines fares for flexible dates rather than fixed ones is key, and so are the sites I mention so often when travel planning. Being aware of a tighter budget has also made me more receptive to things like couch surfing, and networking amongst friends to find a free place to rest my head. This is an incomparable benefit to having friends abroad – I love both hosting and being hosted. There is something special about showing someone your life and where you live, just as the local connection is so important in a new place.

To conclude..
.. yes you can survive here on what they pay you if you live carefully and are fiscally responsible. Keep in mind I started with a specific amount from the US as start up, not to mention back up (if you remember the horror stories of people not being paid until December). Don’t let money hold you back from an experience like this!

ciudad de mi corazón

Driving from place to place in Andalucia is beautiful. By train, by car or by bus – you can see olive groves, mountains and trees for days. Just this afternoon on my way home from Granada (3 hours by bus, direct) we drove alongside a fiery sunset, lighting up the sky and creating giant silhouettes of the turbines on the hills. Solar farms fly by, wind turbines turn in the distance and you travel to the soundtrack of your ipod. It makes me smile every time.

I smiled a lot this weekend. I returned to Granada after six years away and fell in love all over again. We stayed at a monastery (no, really) along the river and made all the required stops: Cathedral, Alhambra, Capilla Real, Mirador de San Nicolas. We marveled over the monstrous free plates of tapas with every round of drinks (damn you, Sevilla).

But the best part for me was a chance to see my host family again. After six years, I can say that everything looks the same – like it was frozen in time. My señora made paella and I was able to sit and chat with mom, dad, brother & sister about the past six years. It was happy, sad, hysterical, and perfect all at once. It has a very big feeling of full circle-ness to it, and I have no idea what it means. For now I know it means my sister will visit me in Sevilla, I’ll finally to see my family’s cortijo and with any luck my parents will get to meet my host family in a few months! Talk about full circle.

Dale limosna mujer, no hay en la vida nada como la pena der ser ciego en Granada
Give him charity woman, for there is nothing in life like the pain of being blind in Granada.

Thanksgiving Abroad


hand turkeys!

This week we had our students do worksheets with the infamous turkey hand and a bit of writing: “I am thankful for …” (Estoy agradecido/-a por/para). We did the same at dinner last night, with a large group of auxiliares and friends here at the apartment. Some highlight include: Skype, Carrefour, Spain, pumpkin pie, the Chinos* and each other. We had Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, California, Texas, Massachusetts, and Spain represented at our little shindig and we had A LOT of delicious food. Turns out there is no Spanish equivalent for potluck .. they better figure it out!

On the menu: turkey (!), gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, carrots, corn, salad, green bean salad, bread, cheese, spinach & artichoke dip, sweet potatoes, broccoli cheese casserole, pork loin, apple pie, pumpkin pie, chocolate-banana cake .. and 9 bottles of wine.

Thanks to our parents for sending so many crucial ingredients (hello, Stove Top stuffing and cranberry sauce) and fun decorations. Thanks to Loli from school who gave us a touch of Spain on this holiday with her homemade tortilla de patatas. Thanks to our neighbors for the two extra seats and the carving knife, and thanks to little old Antonio who opened my cranberry sauce can with a knife because we don’t have a can opener. Lots to be thankful for ❤

Enjoy the photos! http://picasaweb.google.com/Kelly.M.Holland/ThanksgivingInSpain

*I promise a post later about the Chinos. I’ve been brewing this one for awhile!