study abroad

Why Are You in Spain?

Ah, the question. The question. I ask it a lot of others; they in turn ask it of me. I love and hate this question, because I love knowing other people’s stories, but I have no idea how to answer it without starting off on some ten-minute-long storytelling session, leaving my questioner with his/her mouth agape and mind reeling by it all.

So, let me just ask you, readers:

Why are you here?

Now that I’ve asked that, I can tell you why I’m here. As it says on my about page, I came to learn Spanish. I stayed for a boy. Mainly.

Would it shock you to know I kinda sorta hated study abroad? I was old enough not to get homesick, but I still did. I did not like living in a teeny-tiny room in an old nunnery with walls so thin you could hear your roommate typing late at night. I didn’t like having to wash my clothes in the shower because the laundry room charged upwards of $10 a load. (This was back when the one euro equaled something like $1.50.) I didn’t like feeling as if it were impossible to make friends except for drinking buddies and intercambios who weren’t really interested in hanging out with me after hours. I didn’t like seeing my bank account drain slowly down to almost nothing.

But I did like learning Spanish. I did like that, and so I dove in headfirst, as much as I could. I got another intercambio because one just wasn’t enough. I spoke to all the waiters in Spanish, even if they insisted on speaking to me in English (the bastards). I studied vigorously, even when all of my classmates were basically taking a semester off. I traveled as much as my budget would allow. I learned to love red wine, olives, and tortilla de patata.

But there was so much I didn’t know at the end of my stay! I didn’t know how to tapear, I hadn’t mastered the subjunctive, I had never had a real Spanish friend that I could text and ask to hang out with. This bothered me. I went back for my senior year unsure of the future and what would happen after May 2009.

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As senior year wore on, I had a decision to make—find a job or go back to Spain? I chose Spain, specifically Salamanca. I was excited to experience a new side of Spain, to live in my own apartment, and meet Spaniards. Oh yeah, and improve my Spanish.

I got back to Spain in September 2009, a year and three months after I’d left Toledo. A few days later, I met Mario. He came to the door of the place I was interning, and I was unintentionally rude to his friend and him, but he still went out to dinner with us. The next day, I pretty much asked him out, and the rest was history. My mother waited patiently by the computer to hear updates about this guy I talked about all the time, even though she’d warned me not to fall in love with any Spaniard (only because that could keep me far away from her). Oops! I was head over heels after a few weeks. After a month, I met the family. After three, I was ready to stay indefinitely, if it meant we could be together.

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Staying in Spain is not an easy task for many reasons. There’s bureaucracy. There’s homesickness. There’s cultural differences that drive me crazy at times. There’s times when I get so sick of Spanish, of struggling to find the word that I just want to scream, pack my suitcase, and get on the next plane to Chicago. Get me outta here! Mario knows this more than anyone. Luckily, although he wouldn’t feel the same way, he sympathizes as best he can.

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There are some expats that love Spain much more than I do (although, don’t get me wrong, I do love it), and they’d stay forever if it were up to them, boyfriend / girlfriend / husband / wife / lover or not. I wouldn’t, though. If not for this husband of mine, I’d be in the States, where my family is, where my friends are, where my history is. Living in another country wears on me, and I’d love to be able to just hop in my car and drive to my parents’, but right now it’s just not possible.

Right now we’re here; right now this is our home. It may not be for forever. That’s okay. When I married a Spaniard, I gave up that right to certainty about where home is. Home is here. Home is there. Home is Zamora, it’s Crawfordsville, it’s Bloomington, it’s Salamanca. It’s Spain and it’s the US. That’s why I’m here.

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What about you?

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Learning to Live in Spain

Have you all read my interview over on Expats Blog? If not, head on over to read my interview and leave a comment on my profile page if you’re so inclined.

Other people to visit: Erik, Erin, Hamatha, Lauren, Cat, and Christine.

One of the questions I was asked in my interview was “If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?” It’s a difficult question for me, because I’m not one to give advice, at least not without advising you to take whatever I say with a large grain of salt. You see, everyone is different, and I don’t think my experience is the only one, or that you’re like me, or anything of the sort.

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Maybe you don’t like garlic. But why would you come to Spain then?

But when I first came to Spain, to study abroad in Toledo in 2008, I was very unprepared for what was ahead of me. I was excited to travel and to see Europe, but I had no idea how it would be to live in a culture that is like your own but unlike it in so many subtle ways. Perhaps it’s silly for me to say that it might be less shocking to go somewhere in Asia or Africa, because at least then you’d be expecting big culture shocks.

I had to learn to live in another culture, a culture that feels more and more familiar every day, but that will never be truly my own. I had to learn to embrace it for what it is—and not what I wish it could be. I had to learn to stop blaming Spain or Spaniards in general when something went wrong.

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They’re not so bad, Spaniards

Right now I’m tetchy about the numerous and unending strikes—huelgas—in Spain. So far we’ve had three transportation strikes, a general strike, a health-care workers’ strike, and now we’re set for an Iberia (the airline company) strike for Christmastime. I understand that things are tough in Spain right now, but messing with my Christmas plans? Understandably, I’m irked. Everyone needs to be home for Christmas (if they want to), am I right?

Before this year, I would have readily and easily placed the blame on Spain or Spaniards in general, forgetting that many Spaniards don’t agree with the strikes and dislike them as much as I do. In the past, I would have let that negativity overwhelm me and color my view of Spain for a good long time. But this year, this year I’m trying something new and difficult: not placing the big bad blame on Spain. Someone’s to blame, sure. But nothing bad has even happened yet!

Learning to live in another country is easy for some, not so easy for others (me). It has taken me four years, but I’m finally getting the message: you’re in Spain, Spain’s not home, and that’s just fine. Take it as it is. After all, we all know: Spain is different.

Student, Auxiliar, Expat

Do you remember study abroad? I’ve talked about it often, if only because it was the beginning of so many things (good, bad, and neutral) for me. It was the first time I set foot in Spain; it was the first time I felt overwhelmed by the idea of becoming fluent in another language; it was the first time I truly embraced my Americanness.

At La Fundación José Ortega y Gasset in 2008.

The next stage for me was being a Conversation and Language Assistant, una auxiliar de conversación. Being a C&LA was different than being a student. I had responsibilities other than studying. I had more bills to pay. I had to deal with a lot more bureaucracy (although not as much as some people).I felt much more alone than I had as a study abroad student, surrounded by scores of other naïve Americans like me. But still there was a built-in group of people I could make friends with, my fellow C&LAs in Zamora, where I was located. Together, we found common ground in complaining about the lack of respect shown by our students, being the token Americans everywhere we went, and laughing about the abundance of zapaterías (shoe stores).

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Now I find myself about to embark on a different sort of journey—one without a set end date, without a built-in group of fellow Americans, without a sense of surety. Daunting is a word that comes to mind. Sometimes I see the new(er) C&LAs and their blogs describe their countless trips, how they see Spain—and I see myself in them, but back in 2009. And obviously 2009 was not that long ago; I’m not saying that I’m infinitely more mature than them or anything of the sort. I’m only saying that we’re always changing, and I’ve changed since then, I’ve been altered by the transient nature of life.

My time in Spain has gone from student life to auxiliar life, to life life. No longer am I thinking, “Just until June” or “I can’t do that, because I’ll be gone by then.” Instead I’m thinking of work permits and marriage licenses and in-law dilemmas. I’m thinking of buying furniture and settling down and sending boxes across the Atlantic Ocean because when did I get this much stuff?

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It’s all his fault. Mario’s, that is.

Perhaps the more seasoned expats will smirk at me and my naïveté. Perhaps they’ll feel a bit of sympathy because I don’t know what I’m getting myself into (and I suppose I only have the faintest idea!). Perhaps they’ll view me with nostalgia—they remember their beginnings too, their first trembling steps into the “real world.” I cannot say how, in a few years (or decades), I’ll view the Kaley of 2012. I can only hope that the me of today will not allow herself to be intimidated, to say no, to live a fear-driven life.

Let’s go.

Of Little Significance

Have you ever met someone who’s profoundly affected you and then lost contact? Of course you have; we all have. But there are probably dozens more people that—after all’s said and done—ended up as not-that-important. You know, the person you meet on the train or the airplane and have a fun conversation with, but soon forget about, except for every once in a while when you think, Hmm, I wonder what happened to her.

In Spain, I’ve had loads of those sorts of encounters:

  • The Korean lady who ran an alimentación shop in Toledo. Study abroad isn’t really about studying, in case you haven’t heard. Inside the walls of Toledo, there wasn’t even a Carrefour or Eroski, so we did all our late-night shopping there, buying liters of Mahou or boxes of Don Simón sangría.
  • Pablo, a Spaniard, who studied in Cologne. Pablo chose la Fundación José Ortega y Gasset (which we affectionately referred to as “The Fund,” pronounced with the long Spanish “u”) to stay during a vacation. I can’t even remember why anymore. We lived in a renovated convent, and, while it was located in a rather idyllic place, it was still a dorm. We talked about politics (why we had reelected George Bush and whether Obama would be elected), Spanish food, and studying. I don’t remember much else.

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A view from my room.

  • My first intercambio, Carlos. We were a true intercambio—we spoke one hour in English and one in Spanish. Always. He gave me my first insights into the true Spain, not just the idealized version I had read about in books.
  • My Spanish teacher in Salamanca. I can’t remember her name anymore. She at first thought I was horrific at Spanish, but soon realized I am just shy. She finally coaxed it out of me. When she heard I was dating a Spaniard, she told me, “¡Qué bien! Es la mejor manera de aprender un idioma.” Or something like that. I finished my classes with her and never saw her again, except once—through a window. She smiled knowingly, the kind of smile where you realize you don’t have much to say to the other person, but you had indeed shared something.
  • The waiters at this certain bar in Zamora. It was close to my house, comfortable, and free wifi. (Remember, in Spain it’s pronounced wee-fee.) I would usually head there in the late evening, grab una copa de Elías Mora for the ridiculously good price of 2€, and settle down for a nice Skype date (but maybe not as often as my mother would have liked).

People come and go; I’ve come and gone from several different places. We all change, and in some ways we all stay the same. I’m still me, after all. It’s jarring to think of these people, people I laughed with, ate with, talked with … existing somewhere out there without me. They live and go on. So do I.

Do you have these sorts of people in—well, out of—your life?