Blog,  Travel

España: Darkest Before the Dawn

Spain Weeks 7, 8 & 9

November 2017

Do you know how hard it is to teach another language without a voice? I’m not trying to be all metaphorical here and get into a debate about power. I’m talking about not having a voice because your throat decided to rebel against you. With the change of seasons I always seem to get a –not sore exactly– shot throat. Because I am in the southern region of Spain, autumn just really started to set in November. The frequency of these things increased dramatically: windy days, cold nights, and runny noses.

Autumn is in the Air

And without fail every season I lose my ability to talk. I usually muddle through and sound like a cheerleader returning from a month long competition where I didn’t stop shouting. But my job here as an auxiliar is to speak English, students hearing and repeating the correct pronunciation. So on one glorious Tuesday I woke up sounding like an actual frog whose croak had broke. I could whisper but carrying a lesson all by myself was not in the cards for me that day.

Before coming to Spain I looked up the weather for Córdoba. While I was packing, my friend and I analyzed the average temperature to help me decide how many sandals I should bring versus how many closed toed shoes. And I vastly underestimated my capacity to brave the cold. The average temperature here is around 40 F in the winter. This sounds nice but that’s what it’s like during the sunshine of the day. And even for November the average temperature is around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But this means that it gets to around 40 at night, which means my flat also gets cold really fast. The entire place is made of tile. Stone doesn’t keep the heat and what makes it better is I don’t have any heat! (I feel now like I can relate to lords and ladies living in massive stone castles.)

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Other reasons I know it’s officially fall: I had to buy a fuzzy blanket, I made two different kinds of soup, and my landlady gave me an electric heater. Yes, my kind landlady gave me an electric heater. I was not the only one struggling with the cold weather. My flat mate Sandra was freezing too. She asked my landlady about a heater and told her it is essential to have one (aka I shouldn’t have to buy one myself and the apartment should come with one).

Now, this was something that I had never encountered before or had even heard about. The heater I have is a simple round electric thing. But what’s curious is that you don’t use it to heat the room. The tables in my piso (all two) have bottoms with round holes in the center. This hole is where you put the electric heater! It doesn’t seem quite safe but you set the heater in the middle of your table, cover the table with two thick round blankets, and like magic you have your own heated table blanket contraption. My apartment is especially antiquated so it would takes years and a million dollars to heat the whole place. Instead, the cheap and surprisingly effective solution is the heated table blanket contraption. Sandra and I sit around our table watching TV or working on schoolwork feet and legs warmed by the heater.

In other news I have gone and purchased something in every grocery store in my town. I think this is quite the accomplishment but maybe that’s just me. In other news it was also my birthday. I had quite a normal day unlike last year. Last year my birthday was on election day so you can maybe imagine how that was… Well actually last year it was quite a nice birthday while the day after wasn’t so nice. This year the day after my birthday I went to Granada! (A treat to myself– a solo getaway for the weekend.)

Another day and another year older. There was no fan fair or celebration but that was okay. I went to school and taught some English to my students. Had some lunch while having a catch with my mom. Taught my private lessons. Purchased my plane ticket home for Christmas. If anything I had a very productive day.

But at least I didn’t have to cook dinner! Some teachers and I went out to the plaza for dinner (aka tapas). Two glasses of wine warmed my insides as I wore my black leather jacket like armor against the outside cold. I painted my lips blood red and smiled with my eyes. An outfit can give you a mindset and frame your mood. And for me I wanted to tell 23 that I am bad ass bitch ready to take on whatever comes next.

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What came next was a chocolate cake as it happens. These people who I’ve only know for a handful of weeks surprised me and treated me like a princess. Cheers to this grand adventure and the others to come.

A Terrible Bout of Loneliness

I am all alone again. Sandra’s substitute teaching position is over so I again have my flat to myself. I didn’t wish Sandra gone but I was looking forward to having the whole apartment to myself. If only so I could do nothing without as much guilt for not hanging out with my roomie. It’s only that I was exhausted. I was taking siestas during siesta.

After my birthday weekend in Granada, I spent the next weekend trying to “sleep it off.” And drum roll please… For the third time this year, and twice while not in my own country, I have gotten strep throat. I know the signs by now so I didn’t wait to go to the doctor. However, I didn’t feel that bad to warrant a trip to the health center until I woke up Sunday morning. I was afraid they were going to be closed!

It was early and I walked to the hospital/all in one medical center. No lights shone and doors were shut. The main entrance had blinds pulled shut and only a paper on the door with phone numbers. I even walked up the dodgy ramp to see if the second floor entrance had other information. I wondered: do I need an appointment, it’s not urgent so should I wait until tomorrow, how do I even make an appointment? The only people awake were old men shuffling to the bars. (And yes there are going to the bars for a drink. Not coffee or tea but beer or liquor I can attest.) One of these old men pointed to the emergency entrance and said “Open.” “Yes, thank you.” I replied. I didn’t want to be rude because I wasn’t about to keel over and die. But I went in anyway.

The only one there, I approached the secretary with caution. I was prepared with my translation for strep throat in hand– or in phone translator. I told her my pain, literally, and gave a horrible pronunciation of faringitis estreptocócica. The issue was my insurance. I get insurance through my program but it has weirdly specific coverage locations. If my small pueblo is one of them is still in question. I showed her my American insurance for good measure. She was trying to fill out my information and it wasn’t that I couldn’t understand her, I couldn’t hear her! A sore throats also comes with clogged ears that made me seem like an incapable foreigner. I offered that I was an English teacher and this small admission always explains how I ended up in this remote Spanish village.

The doctor spoke English and filled in the rest of my information. Ten minutes later I have two prescriptions in hand. I asked the doctor what pharmacy would be open on Sunday– unhelpfully he wasn’t sure but said to start at the one across the street from the hospital/all in one health center. Convenient. Closed of course but there was a handmade sign with a bell to ring for after hours medicine. Tentatively I rung it and a man on the third floor above sticks his head out the window, “Dime.” I wave my papers like a white flag of surrender– save me from fighting any longer.

At first I planned only to ask if there was another pharmacy open but he was there and it wasn’t an unreasonable hour. I gave him the script for my antibiotics. Five minutes and ten euros later I’m on my way home.

It just so happens that there is a quaint churrería on my way. I waited in a short line with moms in their pajamas and got myself some churros for breakfast. Not a healthy choice but soft and delicious.

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There were many factors that contributed to my actually getting not just lose my voice sick, but actually ill. I fought the cold for what seemed like weeks when in reality it was just two. My weekend trip to Granada was amazing but it didn’t help me get over the sickness.

And for that week and a half I was terribly lonely. The home sickness hit me like a cold wave on the beach in winter. It washed over me and left me drained. I was in a numb zone. I took it day by day. But the tiredness, the cold, and solitude made for a bad week.

Hello Teacher

If you haven’t gathered, schools in Spain are more relaxed than those in the US. Here I am known as Hayley. No struggle to pronounce my obviously, and therefore difficult to pronounce, German last name. There is also no “Missus” or “Miss” this or that. I’m known as Hayley or teacher. Actually all the students when referring to their teachers call them teacher. Occasionally there is a señor or señora but only when a teacher is not paying particular attention to a persistent student.

I think my students have more of an obsession with saying my name because it’s different. Like so many of their names, mine is one they have never heard before.

All classes are different and the personalities of my classes are really starting to take shape. My first grade class is so excitable. Whenever any of my first grade students see me they automatically say “Hayyyyleeeeeeeey” is a very high pitched accented version of my name. It’s adorable. When I enter their classroom there is a cacophony of “Hayley’s” echoing off the walls. And one day the students rushed me. Like a flock of birds they flew up to me and starting hugging me. I was almost knocked over by children who only come up to my belly button.

This month I finally really feel connected to my students. This is what teaching is all about and to finally feel like my students actually know me is making it worth it. And I’m not just teaching kids but I get to be one again too. My Spanish pronunciation is sometimes as rudimentary as my students’ pronunciation. We are all kids mumbling and stumbling learning languages.

It’s also a pleasant change teaching youngsters. Instead of teenagers lifting their clothing to show off a new tattoo, my students– first grade especially– have a habit of lifting their shirts to show off some rash or spell of spots they have. All I can do is coo at their red blotches and give a sympathetic nod– hands tucked neatly behind my back.

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I loved getting to play games with my students. It’s reassuring because they expect a certain level of fun when I walk in the door. Their faces light up knowing that this next class period won’t be full of monotonous writing.

I truly know I’m connecting when I can make a joke and they actually laugh. Or more like I do funny gestures and they giggle at my ability to make a fool of myself and not care. How else will your students remember their animal vocabulary unless you join them walking around the classroom demonstrating the different “walks” of animals, waddling like a penguin, prowling like a lion, and swimming like a fish (puffed cheeks and all).

There were also really touching moments. I like to remind my students that I’m human too. For the introduction for my sixth grade students’ new unit on modern history, I talked about my experience with 9/11. There was no mistaking the water glistening in my eyes. They were all attention and for me it was such a powerful moment to share. They knew nothing of the event and being able to share an emotional tribute as opposed to a dry lecture, has double the impact. I was in elementary school when it happened and I am probably the last age group that will ever have memories of the day. They are vivid in my mind. Living outside of Philadelphia is a dynamic location between Washington DC and New York. And that day, my position made the experience that more potent.

It’s the little things too. Two of my fourth grade boys have a real talent for Flamenco singing (not an easy task I can attest). I have one student that even lives on my street.

The most important thing is that I am finally learning their names! It’s one of the most important things. It makes a teacher go from a cold professional to a kindhearted mentor. Being able to ask, “How was your weekend Carmen?” is so much more personal. And with a name like Carmen, at least one gal in the class has the name.

The worst realization I had was that I finally noticed that I have a pair of twins in my sixth grade class. How could I have gone for a month and half without noticing! I felt like an unobservant buffoon. I had to reason with myself a little bit. I only see each grade for an hour and a half each week. It’s not a lot of time. And usually I’m trying to come up with an English lesson on the fly because I just found out what unit they are studying.

Thanksgiving they were excited to show me all their carefully hand drawn turkeys. It made me giddy. Students wrote what they were thankful for on their turkey’s feathers, all the while I was telling my students what I was thankful for in words they will understand. Those big things: family, friends, neighbors, school, home, food, love. I drew many fat turkeys that week. I have absolutely no shame when it comes to hand drawn poultry.

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Students love to show off if you give them the opportunity. It was a sweet moment when I put on holiday music (American Christmas music of course) while they were coloring turkeys. My students know all the lyrics to “Last Christmas” and were not only singing it but bursting at the seams singing and dancing the entire song. Even the boys in the back weren’t embarrassed enough to not join in the joyous raucous.

Without Sandra this means that my mentor is at school now! Completely healed from her car accident, our first meeting was a brush on the stairs. I was obviously her auxiliar because she didn’t recognize me (and the blonde hair helps set me apart). The students were exited to welcome her back and made signs and cards. Her experience is evident in her management of the classroom. The students listen to her with rapt attention. The discipline is considerably better with her keen gaze.

A Week of Brilliant Colors

The week of Thanksgiving was so full. After two weeks of washed out and gray days, week nine was a rainbow.

That cold wave washed over me again but this time it invigorated me. It woke me up to what a blessed life I’m living and how grateful I am for an opportunity like this.

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The week of Thanksgiving actually propelled me out of feeling homesick. I got to talk about my family and joke about how I missed my cats the most. Of course I had to make Thanksgiving dinner. I invited my teacher friend Ana (first grade teacher, God bless her) and the auxiliar in the high school Andrés. Now you have to understand the limit that a Spanish grocery store carries. There were two options for turkey: breasts or roast cubes. I went with the turkey breasts.

Everyone state side had the day off to cook. I only had an hour and half. I had school then private lessons into the evening. Good thing I was only cooking for three. I FaceTimed my mom and as she showed me the not one, but two huge turkeys roasting, I baked the turkey in the oven with butter, olive oil, rosemary, and onions. (Imagine me shrugging). Along with mashed potatoes, corn, cooked carrots, and –the most interesting– veggie stock gravy. Ana brought ham and cheese of course. I honestly don’t think Spaniards can go one day without ham. But seriously, I think I’ll write a whole post dedicated to jamón. Andrés brought dessert from the local bakery to finish it off. Well, I bought wine too.

And it was all palatable. I’d say perfectly American. Ana didn’t like the rosemary I added but she has a strong aversion to all vegetables– even microscopic green seasoning. I got a lesson in Spanish slang (maybe or may not have been brought up after earlier that week I said excita instead of emocionada. To be frank, we were talking about the dinner and who doesn’t get hot thinking about food. Only kidding.) We listened to traditional Spanish music and sat around my heated blanket table contraption.

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Spain also has Black Friday. I of course spent the day sleeping in. I was up late cleaning every single pot, pan, and dish I own because all of it was enrolled in the Friendsgiving feast. I didn’t even have enough left over containers so most of the food sat in my fridge between a plate sandwich.

I did choose to #optoutside. Who doesn’t need a bit of fresh air and exercise after Thanksgiving? Let me tell you, I was not disappointed. There’s not much in terms of sights to see but the monastery on the hill for sunset was my plan. The sky was an ombré magic. Water colored with pastels, I strolled in a canvas, mother nature the artist. There is just something so invigorating about a cool breeze reddening your cheeks and the smell of dry grass.

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The week ended with the event of November in Hinojosa: La Ruta de la Tapa. All the bars in town create their own tapa and their is a tour (or route) to try them all. It’s basically impossible to try all of them in one weekend. I only went to three places myself. But there’s nothing better than friends, food, and drink. And for only two euros for a tapa and drink, what could be better?

So even in the shadow of a tunnel, there is light at the end. And if you just keep walking through the gloom you’ll reach better times. In my case, I only had to trudge on for week. Sometimes one has to endure through the bone aching tiredness for a lot longer but if you remain faithful, grace awaits you.

Happy Travels-

Signature with Gray


4_My Expat Files_ Darkest Before the Dawn, Cordoba Spain

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