Summer bookshelves

One thing this 100 degree summer offered was plenty of down time. With temperatures soaring and AC working overtime, I spent a lot of time in my living room. On some weekends, I sprinted through 2 or 3 books at a time – some boring, some interesting, some endearing. Here’s a quick run down of some high (and low) -lights.

A Passage to India: E.M. Forster – two stars
This was not a good start to the summer reading list. This book sat on my shelf with it’s golden yellow binding and pristine font, beckoning just like a sunrise over the Taj Mahal. Then I started reading. Bear in mind this was written in 1924, and you may understand why I struggled. There were far too many times in this book that I read a descriptive paragraph, read it again, and read it one more time just to see if I could paint the picture in my mind. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Oof.

franklin flyer Franklin Flyer: Christopher Nicholas – four stars
Set in the tumultuous times of the Great Depression, this story is about a young inventor and traveler. Two parts history, one part imagination it is a colorful human tale. As Publisher’s Weekly noted: “If Graham Greene collaborated with the creator of Dick Tracy, the result might read like this…” The cover alone was enough to tempt me: a yellow fedora whirling through the canyons of what could be a black & white Manhattan.

Sima’s Undergarments for Women: Ilana Stanger-Ross – three stars
While surfing Bookmooch for my next title, I stumbled on this little gem. In a basement lingerie shop in Brooklyn, you meet a determined (and conflicted) woman and her new hire. Through the trappings of silk stockings and the tricks of fitting, the author breathes life into a saleswoman, wife, Jewess and woman with a lot to give.

Chocolat: Joanne Harris – four stars (followed later by sequel The Girl With No Shadow). After many years of stalking this book, I finally came across a copy and devoured it, as it’s title required. This was not my first brush with Joanne Harris, as she debuted in my Spanish apartment with Gentleman & Players. She paints a beautiful story, with food and it’s accoutrements, and a wee bit of magic. Shortly after finishing the book, I rented the movie. Let’s be honest, Johnny Depp also added a little something to the story. (The sequel is equally enjoyable, in a different way).

the time in betweenThe Time in Between: Maria Dueñas – five stars
This is the book of the summer, and possibly the book of a lifetime. Set in yet another wicked time period – the Spanish Civil War – the book is lightning fast and full of intrigue and emotion. I’ve recommended it to friends left and right saying, “It’s like reading a movie.” I originally thought she was writing in her second language (English) and was blown away. I’ve since discovered it was originally authored in her first language (Spanish) and I’m still blown away. Often times translated books struggle to get their point across, but this one is a grand exception. (El Tiempo Entre Costuras is high on my list of Spanish novels). As opposed to my brush with Forster, I was re-reading paragraphs in this book for sheer joy. Por favor, Doctora Dueñas, write us another.

McCarthy’s Bar: Pete McCarthy three stars
Inspired by my upcoming trip to Ireland, I picked up what I thought would be an intriguing memoir about the country. And it is, in it’s own way. One of McCarthy’s cardinal rules: Never walk past a bar with your name on it. You can imagine his success with this rule on the Emerald Isle. Spurred on by questions about his heritage (half English, half Irish), he circles around the country with a wry sense of humor and a taste for Guinness.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Rebecca Sklootthree stars
This was the freshmen reading selection at my university this summer, so I was surprised to find a copy at the local public library. Knowing at least half of the story, I hopped right into the complicated plot of cells, cancer, family, and privacy. It’s clear a significant amount of research went into the novel, although sometimes I question the delivery. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for the breakdown of this book.

Any good reads (or bad ones) for you this summer?

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

How to learn English

The small classroom was not built to contain thirty boisterous teenagers. I lose track of how many times I ask a question in English and they answer in their native language, Spanish. The inquisitive ones are constantly asking me to repeat things; the disinterested group is somewhere else entirely.

One day a student asks about my macbook – it’s the most interesting object in the room. We strike a deal: if they complete an assignment quietly, they can choose a song from my iTunes playlist. They put their heads down and work hard. Even the disinterested ones are tuned in, under the close watch of their classmates. In the last five minutes of class, we rock out to the Red Hot Chili Peppers… an assignment is born.

Over the next few weeks, pairs of students choose songs written in English. From Yellowcard to the Beatles to Taio Cruz, every Wednesday finds us filling the small room with ballads and jams.  The students bring the music to class, print the lyrics and create listening exercises based on the content. At Christmas I chose “Let it Snow” by Frank Sinatra – the blue-eyed crooner with excellent diction. “It doesn’t show signs of _____,” a lyric true in my native Northeastern US but not so in December in a tiny pueblo in southern Spain.

We found ourselves in conversations about colloquial words and leave the textbooks closed. Bon Jovi has me standing at the board with chalk dust covering my hands, explaining “wanna,” “gonna,” and “ain’t.” We get into discussions about curse words and plurals, slurs and slang.

They dance and sing and make up lyrics; recommend bands and write down songs. They look forward to class. They become more comfortable with each other. They learn English.

Music, film and television are an easy, albeit unfiltered, medium for learning a second language. It brightens a classroom, it encourages questions, it broadens vocabulary. Even if as a teacher, you don’t watch the Simpsons or listen to Michael Jackson – your students might, and they are offering you a great place to start.

How do you learn another language?

[ infographic from Kaplan International:]

Infographic: How to learn Englishvia Kaplan Blog

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!

#My7Links: A look at the archives

Fellow Hispanophile and Sevilla resident Kim of Becoming Sevillana nominated me to take part in the My 7 Links project from Tripbase that has been sweeping the blogging community. Kudos to the Tripbase group for such an awesome idea! Thanks to this phenomenon I’ve had the chance to read some excellent excerpts from some of my favorite bloggers, highlighting everything from the most beautiful to the most controversial. As for me, it’s an unexpected way to unearth some old posts and see what I’ve been sounding off about since May 2009.

Edinburgh, Scotland

My most beautiful post

Walking in a Winter (Scot)land

This was my first CouchSurfing endeavor, and also my first time in Scotland. At the time I was jonesing really hard for some old -fashioned Christmas and Spain was just not doing the trick. There was no snow. There were no decorations. And where the hell is the eggnog? When my friend Brett and I chose to go to Scotland for a quick weekend, we were taking advantage of a cheap flight and a free couch. We were rewarded with crisp, clean air and a snow-covered holiday paradise. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. It was beautiful.

My most popular post

Immigration Office: Part One

Written in October 2010 this post is all about my battle with Spanish bureaucracy and an attractive immigration officer who takes pity on me. I spent a day and a half completing the application process required for my NIE (numero de identificación). It’s not every day you can write about a tall, dark & handsome man who buys you ice cream when the internet goes bust. I will never forget this one!

Although I can’t take credit for this visual recreation, this YouTube video does a great job showcasing the red-tape scenario in Spain.

My most controversial post

I don’t do fútbol

As an American expat on Spanish soil, I was in the wrong place to declare that I don’t give a fig about fútbol. That is to say, soccer. I will watch a 14-inning baseball game (if my team is playing). I will coach loudly from the couch during March Madness. I will play volleyball until I collapse on the gym floor. But soccer? I’m busy. This? Este es controversia.

Pack it up, pack it in

My most helpful post

Conspiracy Theory

PACKING. Antoine de Saint Exupéry said “He who would travel happily must travel light.” Only a man could say this. A man with very few material possessions and a tiny closet. I try to be helpful in all of my posts, commenting on restaurants and hotels – the good, the bad and the epic. But here the problem was packing. Packing for a year abroad, to be specific. I talked about my own trials and decisions and praised several online resources that begged me to reconsider that pile of jeans. In the days leading up to my departure I followed up with Pack it Up, Pack it In and quoted the blogging maven behind Twenty Something Travel: “I’d rather go naked than make another change.”

A post whose success surprised me

On being a tourist in my own country

Truth be told, I needed to write this post. I had just come home from a year abroad in Europe and all things familiar were feeling foreign and confusing. When your native language doesn’t slip off your tongue like it should and your house may not in fact be your true home, it can be a startling experience. Turns out a lot of you have felt the same way when returning from various ports of call. What a great response.. thank you.

A post I feel didn’t get the attention it deserved

Sustainable Study Abroad

This is about how studying abroad rocked my world. Rocked my world so thoroughly that I switched gears from international business to international education and plowed full speed ahead into a graduate program, a travel agenda and a lifelong pursuit of education outside of the comfort zone. It also talks about how I made the move ALONE – a big deal for a 20 year old American female. As SoloTraveler can tell you, it can be one of the most profound experiences of your life.

With Love from Pennsylvania

The post that I am proudest of

With Love from Pennsylvania

This post did not break any records or blaze any trails. It is probably not my best writing or even my most creative. So what gives? I’m proud of this project, and the post is just a by-product. This past school year I worked with a friend in Pennsylvania to match up approx 250 high school students to launch a Transatlantic pen pal project. This post is about my Spanish students’ first reactions to receiving mail from their American pen pals. Our practiced their second language on pen and paper, writing hard copy letters to their overseas pen pals. Jess and I recently sat down over tapas and compared notes on the experience. Our students gained so much from the project, and forged friendships over distance and time. This, to me, is incredible. Thank you, Jess – desde mis alumnos y yo!

Now I’ll pass the torch to a few of my favorites. Here are my nominations:

  • Sevilla-based American expat Cat of Sunshine & Siestas .. currently working in northern Spain
  • Native Californian Natalie of The Rain in Spain .. recovering and reflecting from a year in Galicia
  • A Midwesterner gone Hungary, Jessica from Budajest .. my travel savior in Eastern Europe
  • My new tweeting friend Marco from 25dollartravel .. traveling like a rock star on the cheap
  • Canadian journalist, traveler, and author Caitlin from Broadside Blog .. writing about everything under the sun