looking back, looking ahead

From atop the Círculo de Bellas Artes in the center of Madrid

Atop the Círculo de Bellas Artes in the center of Madrid, looking out over Plaza de Cibeles and the rest of the city I have come to call home

Although this isn’t my first overseas rodeo (or bullfight, if you want to be thematic), I started out with wide-eyed and, what I now recognize as naïve, expectations for my year in Madrid.  I would integrate myself completely into Spanish culture, I told myself.  I’d live with Spaniards, go out with Spaniards, and travel with Spaniards.  I’d eat Spanish food only.  I’d speak Spanish everywhere but at work.  Hell, I’d dream in Spanish if I had anything to say about it.  Anything else would make me a sellout, I thought, reminiscent of an opportunity-squandering college kid on a study abroad booze cruise.  It’s only natural to see one’s own culture as a neutral status quo rather than a culture at all, and so I thought that any allegiance to my own traditions and customs would dilute my time spent living in Madrid.

Fast-forward to the end of my first year here, and things have changed a bit.  Not for the worse, but rather for the…real.  There’s a spectrum of cultural integration that foreigners fall upon when they move to Spain (or to any other country, I imagine).  Some go native, while others move contently within expat ghettos, dine at Starbucks and McDonald’s, barely speak the language and step out of their comfort zones as infrequently as humanly possible.

Looking back at my first nine months in Madrid, I’ve found my happy medium.  I have fallen in love with a city that, as a tourist two and a half years ago, I found expansive and devoid of charm, especially when compared to Sevilla where I was living at the time.  Now, after exploring its wide avenues and winding streets that aren’t so spread out after all, I see that Madrid is a diverse, lively and international city that incorporates cultural elements from around the world without losing a bit of its “Spanish-ness”.

So, it makes perfect sense that some of my favorite bars and restaurants have more on their menus than ham, tortilla, and sangria; they put their own twists on the classics and borrow from the best of international cuisine.  I’ve also had stir fry, Brazilian fare, and tacos here.  That is the authentic Madrid, just like living a true New York experience would require eating something other than pizza, burgers and fries.  It’s also okay that I’ve shopped at Taste of America a few times to buy baking materials, peanut butter and Celestial Seasonings holiday tea, and I’ve enjoyed more than a few slices of carrot cake at various cafés around the city.  That, too, is the real Madrid of the 21st century: carrot cake is all the rage; plus, it’s the real me, being an avid creator and consumer of baked goods.  It’s perfectly acceptable that I have some American and British friends with whom I am able to speak colloquial English without explaining every other word and expression, share sob stories and best practices of EFL teaching, and travel and sightsee to places that locals have already visited.  You know what?  An international group of friends isn’t too far from the typical reality for a modern Spanish young adult either.  It’s also cool if I want to see an American film in a specialty theater that shows movies in their original versions with Spanish subtitles, rather than watching it dubbed out of my native language and into my second one.  That’s just logical, really.  And I’ve even decided that it’s acceptable to order tap rather than bottled water at restaurants when I’m thirsty, even though it’s frowned upon in Spanish culture…importing an innocent practical custom or two from home won’t hurt anyone.

Of course, I’ve also seen a handful of movies in Spanish, visited important historical and cultural monuments, enjoyed more than my fair share of truly traditional cuisine (I think I might be physically incapable of turning down a tostada de jamón or tinto de verano), made some wonderful Spanish friends, and adopted many Spanish customs, from the double-kiss greeting to drinking café con leche in my school’s cafeteria at break time rather than desperately clutching a Dunkin’ Donuts medium iced black on my unpleasantly early morning commute.

Idealism, meet reality.

This mixture isn’t a watered down Spanish experience, as Emily-of-nine-months-ago may have seen it, but rather a carefully navigated fusion of the familiar and unfamiliar, the traditional and the modern.  Overall, it’s been a year of pushing, pulling and prodding to discover where my true comfort zone lies.  It’s been a year of negotiating the space between expectations and reality, and between the culture within me (internalized over the course of my first 22 years) and the culture currently surrounding me (living and breathing on a daily basis), to discover what it is I truly value.  Staying for a second year will only give me more opportunities to refine those barriers and lines — learning more about myself, American culture, and that of Spain — and allow me to more smoothly put together my own personal cultural jigsaw puzzle without uncomfortably shoving any pieces into place.


dispatches from the classroom: round two

It has been an entertaining month or so at school, as my students of all grade levels have impressed me with their creativity, enthusiasm and English skills.  Here’s another installment of highlights from the classroom.

My sophomores, often the most difficult age group to engage, voluntarily stayed a few minutes after class to finish an activity in which they had to guess which hypothetical tattoo was designed by which classmate.  We laughed a lot and learned some interesting things about each other through this simple assignment, which I originally feared would be a flop.

Top chefs
My youngest pupils have been involved in two big projects lately.  Some have created their own imaginary restaurants and then written and performed skits in which customers order food and waiters solve a restaurant mishap of the students’ choice.  We’ve seen everything from choking incidents to kitchen fires to sinpas (a Spanish phrase for eat and run, stemming from the words sin pagar — without paying).

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Tall Tales
Other 7th grade classes have read a story about Paul Bunyan and the creation of the Great Lakes, the Grand Canyon, and Mount Hood, and then have written their own creation stories about a feature of Spanish geography of their choice.  With varying degrees of assistance, the kids have done some excellent work!

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It’s also been a fun month or so with my bachillerato students (11th and 12th grade).  I had my last class with the seniors a few weeks ago, during which we listened to the “Wear Sunscreen” graduation speech made famous by Baz Luhrmann, and I handed out Reese’s as a sweet send-off.  I’m impressed by these students’ hard work, both in English and in their other subjects, to successfully complete bachillerato (a bit more complicated than graduating from high school in the US) and move on to college, and I’ll certainly miss them at IES Leonardo da Vinci.  The graduation ceremony was long but lovely; standout differences from the American version include a lack of cap and gowns (replaced by almost prom-like attire), catered tapas by the school cafeteria, and a heavy dose of politicization from both student and faculty speakers, as Spanish public education faces more cuts and roadblocks than ever.


Perhaps the most exciting activity has been with my juniors, who have been participating in a project with my alma mater, Algonquin Regional High School.  After contacting my former Spanish teacher, we paired up our students, who then spent the last few months exchanging photos as well as bilingual letters and videos (in addition to the tweets and Facebook posts they chose to exchange on their own time).  Recently, we took a field trip into the city and recorded videos, showing the American students Madrid’s most important sights, sounds and flavors.  It was some of the best work I’ve seen out of this group of students, and we had a blast doing it.  Here’s a sampling:

Recording Stars
Finally, I have recruited the assistance of many of my friends and family back at home to help me with an assignment for next year.  As we prepare the virtual classroom activities for our students in 4° de la ESO (sophomores), I have been put in charge of the listening exercises.  After writing monologues and dialogues with appropriate vocabulary and grammar from each unit and sending the scripts to family and friends, I will be adding recordings of these familiar (and now internationally famous!) voices to my students’ workload for 2013-2014.

With that, the school year is rapidly coming to a close.  I’ve had quite the crash course in teaching this year, learning (but with so much left to learn) about what works and what doesn’t in classroom management, curriculum design, and student engagement.  Here’s to a second year with fewer kinks and even more successes.

menú del día

I’m not sure what it is about the end of the school year that has me explaining Franco-based phenomena right and left.  But here we are, with the second post in less than two weeks telling you about an aspect of Spanish culture stemming from the dictator’s years in power.  While my feelings toward the man himself are all negative, I feel pretty neutral about the topic of the previous Franco-related post (eh, so it’s not dark at 10pm, no biggie); however, in this one you’re going to see a lot more positive emotion.

The object of my affection?  Drum roll please…the menú del día! This relic of the Franco era is one of Spain’s true gems: an always-changing three-course meal (usually with bread and wine/beer/soda included) for around 10 euros.  And all because the dictator required restaurants to offer such an option to provide affordable and nutritious meals to workers.

To this day, almost every restaurant offers this fixed-price lunchtime option during the week; typically, options for the first course, main course and dessert are written on a chalkboard outside of the restaurant to attract customers (and on their website and/or Facebook if the establishment is trendy and tech-savvy!) and then rattled off by waiters tableside (or sometimes printed if they have any mercy).  Prices can vary, from 6 or 7 euros (usually outside of the major cities) to up to 20 or 30 euros at fancier restaurants, but your standard menú usually hovers around 10.  These fixed-prices options are in no way a downgrade from the rest of the fare offered by any particular establishment, and are a great way to sample new restaurants without breaking the bank while filling up enough to barely even need dinner.  Not only do traditional Spanish restaurants partake in the custom, but ethnic restaurants and funky new-age spots also join in on the fun.

You might be wondering why it has taken me until my ninth month in Madrid to tell you about this delicious culinary tradition.  It’s not because I just learned about them.  Oh, no.  It’s because I’ve had few opportunities to enjoy them, as my one day off during the week seldom coincides with dining partners’ free time.  Back in December I enjoyed an excellent menú featuring paella in Valencia, and just a few weeks ago I had a pretty tasty one at a Cuban restaurant here in Madrid.  However, I’ve recently had the chance to enjoy two well above average takes on this fixed-price gem of a cultural tradition, and I thought they were worthy of their very own post.

Last Friday, I sat down to a delicious lunch at Maricastaña, a beautifully decorated restaurant located in the Triball neighborhood, lovingly nicknamed “the SoHo of Madrid.”  There, for the low price of 11.50, I enjoyed the following, the highlight being the violet ice cream — fresh and floral, and as much of a treat for the eyes as for the taste buds.


Yesterday, as an end-of-the-year celebration with the English Department, I had the pleasure of eating at La Sidrería in Majadahonda, a restaurant with an Asturian name but a menu that serves fresh takes on dishes from all corners of Spain.  For a slightly higher price (20 euros) than your average menú, you get more than a few bangs for your buck.  My first course was hands-down one of the best salads I’ve ever had, with refreshing balsamic vinegar ice cream perfectly complementing sweet and acidic strawberries.  Toasted almonds or hazelnuts may have made this excellent dish even more perfect.

Good food, good company, and a good price.  As my grandmother says, “What could be bad?”


In some situations, one language works better than others.  For example, there is no perfect translation in Spanish for the word “awkward.”  We can say “uncomfortable” (incómodo) or “clumsy” (torpe), but there’s no catch-all word that so perfectly embodies those people and situations that are, well, awkward.  However, while English triumphs in some cases, it is inferior in others: words such as schadenfreude (German for the act of taking pleasure in someone else’s pain) have no worthwhile English equivalent .

Narrowing it down to just Spanish v. English, more often than not, I find that Spanish does a better job at conveying many emotions and concepts.  The language is replete with sayings (some useful, like “Hasta el 40 de mayo, no te quites el sayo,” which tells you that the weather doesn’t really warm up until “May 40th”, and others not so useful, like “con esto y un bizcocho, hasta mañana a las ocho” which literally means “with this and some cake, until tomorrow at 8:00” and figuratively means “yeah, ok, moving on…”), exclamations (a common expression of anger/frustration is “me cago en…” or “I shit in/on…” followed by anything from la leche [milk] to Dios [God] to tus muertos [your dead relatives]), diminutives (why say chica when you can say chiquilla [in Andalucía], fácil when you can say facilito, or sol when you can say solecito?), and words that I just wish we had in English.

In Spanish, sobremesa is the time spent sitting and chatting at the table after a meal.  Duende is the possession of a certain spirit, passion and/or talent displayed during a performance, often flamenco.  Aprovechar is a more word-economy-friendly way of saying “to take advantage of.”  Enchufe (literally: plug) is when you get a job because of who you know, not what you know.  Tener ganas de (to be looking forward to something or to want to do something), and tener/coger cariño a (to feel affection, romantic or otherwise, toward someone) work better for me in Spanish, while estar nervioso drives me crazy, because it can mean you feel anxious, nervous, excited, restless or stressed…too many meanings for one word if you ask me.

Another one of these great Spanish words is papeleo, coming from the word papel, meaning paper.  Papeleo can mean paperwork, but it has a distinctively negative connotation, as if to mean “that obnoxious pain-in-the-ass government bureaucracy red tape paperwork that’s making me want to jump off of a cliff.”  And that is just what I’ve had to deal with as I work through the process of renewing my foreigner’s residency card (oh, did I forget to mention?  I’m staying here in Madrid for a second year!).  I spared you the details when I applied for my visa last summer and the original residency card in the fall, and I’ll spare you again this time around.  Instead, here’s a recap: after waiting for months for various documents from my school and the Ministry of Education, I finally have everything I need to drop off my application (nine forms/documents carefully filled out and photocopied in duplicate, plus one fee paid at the bank); then, with a stamped form  showing that my renewal application process has been started, I must pay another fee and then go to a different office to request an authorization to leave and return to Spain while my application is still being processed, and then when I return in the fall I may or may not receive an appointment to go in for fingerprinting and I may or may not ever actually receive a new tangible residency card and I may or may not end up with a mere “note” on my name in “the system” saying I’m here legally.

Lost?  You’re not alone.  Read that whole sentence in one breath?  Me neither.  But somehow, I haven’t been deported yet and I have faith I won’t be in the future.  Somehow, these things work out.  For now, this: