Viva Los Novios [The Story of a Spanish Wedding]

I have to laugh when my iTouch auto-corrects “boda” (Spanish for “wedding”) to “bodacious” (80’s American for “awesome”) .. my various bits of technology cannot keep up with my code-switching.

This wedding was an adventure from the get go. Three important facts to start: 1) not my wedding; 2) not in the country in which I currently reside; 3) invitation received via Facebook on April 26 for wedding June 16 (yes, same year).

So what do you do when your host sister says “I really want you here to share my day.. in 6 weeks?” You buy a plane ticket, of course. Forget the fact that it’s summer, high-season, hot, wildly expensive and on very short notice. Buy the plane ticket! And that’s what I did.

It was to be my first Spanish wedding, and after all the hype I’d seen surrounding other events like this one en la patria (see: Fatima’s First Communion), I started asking questions. Luckily, I have several friends who a) are dating Spaniards, b) are married to Spaniards, c) have attended Spanish weddings. Everything from some of the most basic advice on what to wear (evening wedding long dress no hairpiece); on what to give (pay for your plate); on what to expect (at least 8 hours of your time).

In what can only be defined as Typical Spanish – I did not actually have confirmation of wedding details until the night before. You know, when I met up with the bride for a beer and some tapas. The night before. Before her wedding. It is a true testament to the Spanish that they can maintain the “no pasa nada” attitude in all things, at all times. This must have brushed off on me over the years because I booked a ticket and boarded a plane without these precious details. Americana / Andaluza, ya sabes.

During my whirlwind weekend, here are some of the differences I noticed between American & Spanish weddings:

* no rehearsal dinner – as evidenced by the bride’s availability within 24 hours of her walking down the aisle.
* old, new, borrowed & blue – also holds true in Spain. This discovery after a panicked conversation with the bride the night before.
* Catholic mass, yes. Wrote their own vows. Dad walked her down the aisle (looking super guapo in his tux, I think).

walking down the aisle

walking down the aisle

* conspicuously absent: “you may now kiss the bride” – in fact he kissed her on the cheek when she arrived.
* also missing: “I now pronounce you man & wife” – family photos commenced almost immediately afterward, leaving the Americans in the audience waiting for the return walk down the aisle that never happened.


family photo

* no bridal party – bride’s choice. As Kaley recently lamented, this also eliminates the need for choosing a color and coordinating all of your decorations.
* exchange of coins, and rings – coins are a nice touch; “I will love you even if we go broke in this economy.” It should also be noted that the ring goes on the right hand in Spain – a point of contention for many Americanas.


with this ring

* no father / daughter dance – which is a shame because Juan would have been a hit on the dance floor.
* no tapping of the glasses to get the couple to smooch – instead some yells: viva los novios! and the response is: viva! Yes, this is a mixture of “long live the Queen” and “go team” which is pretty appropriate for matrimony.
* gifts to guests – handed out, instead of favors on the tables (olive oil for the men, fans for the women).


ideal favor in 100 degree heat

* four hour meal, several courses – LONG dinner.
* cut the cake with a sword (!) – I’m told this is seriously old school, but it happened.


sword cutting the cake

* no garter toss – bouquet did go, to a particularly aggressive friend in the front.
* pictures of tables – similar to theme park photos, smile pretty and buy this from us later! Which is why we’re taking a photo of the photo.

photo of photo

photo of photo

* videographer – and I don’t mean, let’s get this documented for future generations. I mean, let’s get this on the 5 o’clock news. For reference, see the cake-cutting photo.
* package deal – most weddings I’ve been to involve the church bit and the reception bit, it’s not so much a pick and choose. Well at the church there were approximately 50 people. At the reception there were 200, and that’s what we call priorities.
* rose petals & rice – the tradition of throwing things at the happy couple continues.

Total time clocked at the wedding? About 12 hours. I walked home (in flats) at the end of the night, or the beginning of the following day, at 5 a.m. Anything in the name of love, right?


Americanas & family

Volver: To Return, to Go Back

[Friday, June 15]: Catching up on posts from last week!

Tienes hermanos, Kelly? Yo no. Soy la unica. Eres hija unica?!
Do you have brothers or sisters? Nope, I’m an only child. The only child??

Regardless of the language being spoken, after my admission of a solo childhood, there usually follows an expression of surprise. Some people ask if I enjoyed my only childhood, did I wish I had siblings. I usually tell the story that my parents told me: when I was 2 and people starting pestering me about my sibling status (“are you ready for a baby brother?”), I shook my head definitively and declared, “No, I’m quite enough.” Sometimes I crack a joke about not being able to blame the dog for any household wrongdoing, or refer to my common practice of borrowing other people’s siblings.

For those that know me, my parents and I are quite close. My friends also think of my parents as an extension of me; likewise, my parents adopt my friends. There are emails, letters, gifts, hospitality. What a compliment to have these two people that accept everyone I love, and automatically love them, too.

When I went abroad for the first time – age 20, hija unica – it was terrifying for my parents. They were pretty good about hiding it under a veil of excitement, only confessing to me upon my return that it was deeply and profoundly scary. Their only daughter spending six months overseas in a place they didn’t know, a language I kind of knew… I can understand the anxiety. But one small comfort, a silver lining – there would be a family.

Six months later, I would be sobbing hysterically in my Spanish apartment, clinging to my señora, torn between going home and leaving a place that had also become home. The cab driver telling me I would come back, “they always come back.”

Family 2010

Juan, Josefina, Kelly, Esther, Juani: 2010

Six years later, I prove him right, returning to the same apartment, visiting during my year teaching English abroad. As if no time had passed at all, the family sits down for lunch together and the sound of Castellano bounces around the room, bouyant, full of the joy of return. With every mouthful of paella, I am grinning, telling stories and recounting the last few years.

Eight years later, I will direct my taxi driver to the same apartment. I recall a train ride in from Sevilla two years earlier. Americans, gathering like they do, exchanging plans and stories. A girl several years younger than I, referring to her semester in Granada a few years back. I ask immediately about her living situation, and she mentions that she stayed with a host family. I ask where she lived, and she shakes her head – she can’t remember – and she returns the question. Startled, I repeat my host family’s address and explain the general direction. She shrugs and nods. This is my first true recognition that not all host family experiences are created equal.

Josefina Esther

Josefina & Esther: 2004

For me, a señora who loved to cook. Who always had “her face” on, who made me special meals when I was sick. She let me cook in her kitchen, and she comforted me when my grandmother died. Host to more than two decades of American girls, a most generous soul. A father, who worked hard on the family property and loved jokes and sweets. Extraordinarily shorter than his American daughter, and equally proud to escort me to the plaza on my first day in town. Two siblings already moving on with their lives: a handsome older son working in Madrid, a kind woman with a five year old princess who let me plan an Easter egg hunt for her.

Most notably, a sister. Gorgeous, model thin, incredibly Spanish. She quizzed me about my days at university, shuffled around in silly slippers, taught me Sevillanas (kind of) in the marble hallway. Inquired about boys, America and my future plans. Entertained my friends, praised the cultivation of an Andaluza accent and baked a birthday cake for my roommate. Quick to laugh, an expert at an American-Spanish accent and so animated, so Granadina.

And so tomorrow, a wedding. Her wedding. Tradition, fun, finery and .. family. A triumphant return to a beautiful city that I think about all the time. A seat at the table with a family not my own, a series of American sisters celebrating a sister not mine, or theirs. Olé.

The thing about Places

“Places all have their own characters,
and returning to a city where you have lived before
is like coming home to an old friend.

Chocolat, Joanne Harris –

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Granada & Sevilla, Spain / June 2012

Unpacking Nicaragua

Study Abroad at it’s most basic can be divided into three acts: Pre-departure, experience and re-entry; the before, during and after. Pre-departure is paperwork, preparation and reassurance – all leading toward the experience itself.

It’s important to realize that the experience does not stand alone.

Students don’t just board a plane and come home six months later ready to hop back into the life they left. It is not a series of journal entries or photographs, but an entire experience. Re-entry, the third act, is not the downward slope of the roller coaster coming to a halt; it is a continuation, a process.

As we so often counsel our students (right after the Power Point slide on Culture Shock): You will return home a changed person. I joke and say Charleston will not change, which always gets a laugh as if to say “Duh, Kelly.” I point out that the traveler is the one who embodies the change. Their parents, siblings, partners have remained the same – but the student has experienced a shift. We use the time worn phrases to coach them: broaden your perspective, open your mind, change your life. So with our blessing, they go forth and conquer .. and then what?

Re-entry, which conjures images of space shuttles breaking the atmospheric bonds of Earth, is not to be taken lightly. Students are counseled to articulate their experience – we put them in focus groups, teach them to craft an internationally ready resume and encourage them to talk and share with other students. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and stories often tumble out of them as if someone (or something) opened the flood gates.

Articulating an experience is not just for students – I try to unpack my experiences, too. As a returning student, I was asked to sit on panels and speak at trustee events, effectively selling the experience of study abroad. Nowadays my means of unpacking often means writing. I have always seen writing as a means of catharsis, as evidenced by this blog and the host of notebooks, napkins and journals that line my travel bag.

My thoughts about Nicaragua have a lot to do with observation of others, including my students – several of whom had never left the US before, or flown on a plane. Each time I sit down to write about my experiences in the other Granada, I am waylaid by images from history, presented to me via Susan Meiselas photographs, and a verbal history from my teacher for the week: Maria Lidia. Growing up in the late 1970’s in a family of nine, she saw and heard many things during the revolution. Flipping through the horrific photos, her voice provided the soundtrack to a history I knew nothing about.

Riding in a van from Managua to Granada in the dark, we passed open trucks full of people and kids and teenagers playing on the street. In broad daylight, the brightly painted homes revealed themselves next to rundown shacks. We spent an afternoon at a local after school project, and made our way down dirt roads bearing gifts of empanadas and white boards. The educator in me flared up and I found myself wishing I could distribute sustainable change like candy, drowning the Savior complex in the rain barrels outside the door.

In the shadow of tourist-ready Costa Rica, Nicaragua clamors for attention on the Central American stage. Websites are few, reports are less so. And yet on my first day in Granada, Americans jogged through the streets, stepped into markets and collected at the fountains. I wasn’t ready for them, or for the poverty around them. Barbed wire lines the rooftops of local homes, and doubles as a clipped clothesline. Houses are open to accept the heat, and the lack of screens allows for bugs and other visitors. I collect information on wages and the school system, the price of bread and the state of politics. My students and I climb volcanoes and zip line like tourists, and I watch the matriarch of my host family sew infant clothes in the evenings.

I get sick. So viciously sick that I am unable to stand up in our two room schoolhouse, preferring to sit on the stone floor. I sweat, and sweat, and sleep. High doses of amoxicillin start to battle back whatever has taken over my system and I prop myself up to play Barbies with two of the girls at home. My señora takes care of me, going to the store for crackers and Gatorade. I miss out on a special dinner served on Fridays during Lent, and watch a religious procession from a chair in the living room. By 3 a.m. on Sunday, I am fumbling with the lock on the door, letting go of the gigantic iron hook with a BOOM, bringing my señora and her sister to the door. They send me off with sleepy blessings and good wishes, and I go through the motions of getting back to Illinois.

In Miami, I am speaking English and looking forward to my own bed in an enclosed home with air conditioning. I think about my students back in Spain and how they used to flip over photos of our houses and gardens. I think about the hot shower waiting for me, and the undrinkable water in the city I’ve just left. I think a lot. And I’m still thinking.

Immersion: 8 girls, 2 volcanoes, 1 week

When you hear the word immersion what comes to mind? A dip in the pool of culture? A cannonball in the lake of language? A chance to “go native?” Immersion is one of many buzzwords in education abroad today. It wiggled its way into the rhetoric, and even debuted in Sh*t Study Abroad Students say. So what does it mean?

In a workshop last spring Michael Vande Berg, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), made an obvious statement and a true one, immersion is interactive. More buzz words, right? Wrong.

Immersion, like tango, takes two.

Both student and host culture are involved, working toward a common goal – be it language acquisition, cultural awareness or a better understanding of one another.

I have a strong dislike for the phrase “go native.” For me it conjures up images of ornery expats holding court in a local restaurant or Jersey Shore deviants buying grass skirts at the market. Don’t “go native.” Just go. Go with an open mind, a good attitude and a flexible agenda. Go with your eyes open, and respect as your guide. Go with questions in mind, camera in hand and come home with new knowledge. Plan to share all three when you return.

map courtesy of Lonely Planet

Next Sunday I will not only spring forward, I will head south to Central America into 90 degree heat, sunshine, and Spanish. I am leading a group of 8 female students to Granada, Nicaragua for spring break. These women are challenging themselves to improve their Spanish outside of the classroom.

As a customized faculty-led program, it boasts many of the comfort factors which make this and programs like it the #1 study abroad choice at my university. Four reasons stand out: 1) short-term program, 2) group travel, 3) scheduled activities, 4) leader familiarity. Our students consistently choose programs that are short (2 to 4 weeks), led by a faculty or staff member they know, with an itinerary followed by the entire group. They will travel together, lodge together and often complete coursework together at each stage of the program.

But WAIT, you may argue … I thought the point of study abroad was to get outside of your comfort zone?

courtesy of wikipedia

Yes, I agree. But some people prefer to test the water before jumping right in. Can you blame them?

I point to psychologist Abraham Maslow for research on this. He is well known for his work on human motivation, and the “Hierachy of Needs.” Although his theory was first penned in 1943, his points hold true today. Maslow believes that in order for individuals to truly gain from their experiences, they must first have basic physiological needs satisfied. Can you breathe? Do you have access to food, water and shelter? The next step is safety, a key factor in study abroad: security of body, mind, health, resources, finances, etc. It is here students must confirm their feelings of safety (and comfort) before moving up the pyramid to self-actualization. This is what comfort looks like, and it doesn’t look the same for everyone.

Does this one week program qualify as an immersion experience? Yes. My students will be living with host families while we’re on the ground, a huge bonus for their language acquisition. Not only will they be tested in the classroom, but also in the home, where communicating for those basic human needs like food and water will be necessary. We will also be spending our afternoons zip-lining through the rainforest, climbing volcanoes, exploring bat caves and attending a local festival. Our last day will be spent on the beach, where we will focus on immersion in the Pacific Ocean.

Much of our data shows that students returning from a short-term experience will often come back for more. This continuous travel broadens their perspective, and helps them establish their place in the world. They become ambassadors and travelaholics, like so many of their advisors (myself included).

It is not a trip. It is not a tour. It is an experience. And I think we’re going to have a damn good time!