Tuesday, October 27

"The World is a Book and Those Who Do Not Travel Read Only a Page..."

This has long been one of my favorite quotes, more so when I fully discovered its true meaning during my first adventure abroad six years ago.  There is so much more to traveling than being on vacation.  No classroom can prepare you for what you learn on the road, albeit the historical sites you see, the traditional food you taste and absolutely most importantly, the people you meet.  The characters in my travel story have played so much more than a simple role during a brief scene with a beautiful backdrop.  They have opened my eyes to an unknown and fascinating world which has only, in turn, made me increasingly aware of the concept of "home."

It's no foreign fact that I have the tendency to collect friends wherever I go as if they were stamps in my passport.  I have done this very thing since I was but a wee tyke when my brother used to ask my mom just why I had to boogie-board with those other kids.  I thrive on the possibility of adventure meeting new people can bring... you never know what secret outlooks or life lessons are locked in the heart of a former stranger.  Life in a foreign country provides the all-too-perfect stage for just this very thing.  Whether it's the cafe owner,  the rosy-cheeked 12-year-old girl in my barrio or man at the local copy shop, there's just something about going where everybody knows my name (even if they happen to call me Benji, Lassie or Gwendolyn.  More about that another time... for now, just chalk it up to phonetics!).

People in remote Spanish provinces have a fervent sense of local pride and from what I've encountered here in Andalusia, rightfully so.  Aside from the obvious region-defining customs and landmarks, businesses have been established in the same spot for decades at a time, forming communities, friendships and ultimately, families.  This has created a huge support system within Jaen.  Luckily, Jenna and I share the belief that loyalty is the root of solid relationships, and have steadfastly turned some of the local shops in our barrio into living versions of Cheers' reruns.  Our reward?  These families have welcomed us with open arms.  Whether it's the small act of a round "on the house," a spot in the cheering section of a Sunday afternoon futbol game or an invitation for paella and horse-riding on a ranch, we have happily settled into our Barrio Belen family.  Home IS where the heart is, but when you can't be there, it's certainly a joy to feel it in another sense of the word.

With the family stamp etched in permanent ink in my Jiennense passport and happy reminders of those cheering me on from afar, the concepts of family and home are constantly on my mind.  I have been ever so fortunate to have had the wondrous wanderings that I have, so much that when posed with the question of "Where to next?", besides mega-adventures such as Japan, India, Egypt and Israel, the answer is transparently clear: Armenia.

In this wild journey of connecting with the world's past, new people and colorful interpretations of the concept of home, it makes much sense a trip to Armenia would be stirring about.  I think of all that my family went through, the horrors of the genocide and how, if my great-grandmother Cora had not escaped, I wouldn't even be here today.  It seems unfair to be exploring so much of other peoples' pasts when I have so much to discover of my own.  Even a trip to my family's hometown of Bitlis (same as Mr. William Saroyan's himself!), would require a trip to Turkey, seeing as how most of our country was "relocated."  When Armenia was finally liberated, they found but 500 of the previous 16,000 population in Bitlis.

For now, both money and the (only slight) fear for my safety given the geographic location of Armenia in today's current affairs make this a distant yet attainable next chapter.  But hey, a girl can dream... in fact, a girl always should.

Wednesday, October 21

The Good Life Just Got Better!

I've mentioned before that my conversation Spanish is shockingly good enough to get me by in even the most foreign (pun intended) of situations.  Even if I don't know the correct word or verb tense I can usually jump around it enough until they know what I'm saying, but c'mon now... I live in Spain.  Time to get to it and learn it for all it's gross tenses and proper vocab.  It's been 13 years since I had any formal schooling in Spanish, so I knew that's what I needed.  Well, jolly ol' Universidad de Jaen is offering F R E E Spanish classes to all the international peeps living here this year!  The class is three days a week for 1.5 hours per day.  I LOVE IT.  My class is basically the European Union.  What a trip it is to be in classroom with Polish, Slovakian, Estonian, Italian, German, Greek, French and British students!  Our teacher, Sergio, has already dubbed us Americans as the delinquents of the class, but we know he secretly loves it!  In any case, it is SUCH an incredible experience to be back in a formal classroom, in a Spanish university with such colorful class roster.  Another prayer answered... thank you, God!

Tidbits: I am working on some fun Halloween activities for my students... they don't celebrate it here TOO much and even then, it's not like we do!  There are so excited to learn about American customs and I get to be the one to teach them!  Today, in music class, they presented me with a concert they'd been working on during my off days.  Most of the students were on recorders, while Eduardo (one of my faves!) played the violin and Jesus brought in his sax.  It was awesome!  Afterward, they all wanted to know how they had played and said they tried very hard to do well for me.  BE STILL MY HEART.

Teaching a foreign language is SOOOO gratifying.  I love catching on to students' insecurities and helping them to overcome them.  I pulled one of the shyest, least confident kids in the class (Luis Miguel) aside for some one-on-one and even by the next class, he had more pep in his step, raising his hand to answer and participating frequently.  He would look to me for approval and I would smile and nod and he would just go for it!  What a wonderful opportunity to make a difference in these kids' lives.  I think they are making more of a difference in mine :)

Oh, I may get to go to an IRISH WEDDING!!  My friends in Ireland are getting married and have invited me to the festivities, granted I am still around, which they think I still should be.  Can you imagine?!  I know what BB and Levs are thinking here and no, I don't think it will be the kind of Irish wedding with broken bones.  That's just a Blake/Rabbitt tradition...

I'm sure some of you are sick of hearing me gush, so I will try my hardest to think of some less than thrilling news to report.  Hmmmm... well, yesterday my clothes were hanging on the line and it rained...  I had to wait another day for them to dry.  Does that count?!

Love to you all!  Been loving the awesome convos/chats/emails... keep em' comin'!  I always want to know what's going on with YOU!

Tuesday, October 20

“It’s Not a Sunday Without a Unicycle!”

We had a long weekend (Columbus Day… actually celebrated here in Spain!) last weekend, so everyone went on mini-adventures.  I headed back to Sevilla while Jenna went to Cordoba to see Katie, a good friend from our program.  That train runs on the same line, so we got to go together.  I decided to paint my toenails while we waited and realized I had sealed my fave color immensely tight for my journey over from the U.S.  The old men behind the ticket window took pity on me and offered to open it.  They couldn’t do it either.  Frustrated, one of them decided to bang the glass bottle against the counter, which OBVIOUSLY resulted in the bottle breaking and dark gray nail polish all over him, me, his office and the ticket window.  What else can you do but laugh, so laugh is what we did and thanked our new train station friends as they wished us well on our way.  I had a FABULOUS weekend, and when I arrived back in Jaen, my train station friend welcomed me home.  And you know, it FELT like home and I was happy to be feeling such warm feelings as I found laughter barreling through the streets, the walk to be familiar and even friends greeting me in the road, asking about my trip.

I got to go on a field trip with my first year bilingual students!!!!  It was WAAAAYYYY too much fun.  First of all, we went on a 5-km hike through Via Verde del Aceite, a path that follows a since torn-out railway route through the gorgeous olive groves of Jaen.  Aside from the spectacular views of endless olive trees, we also got to pass over a bridge constructed by Gustav Eiffel himself (yes, the man who built the Eiffel Tower!), as well as trek through spooky barely-lit tunnels that I swear have ghosts trapped in them (maybe Michael Jackson).

The other best part of my trip was getting to hang with my students outside of the classroom!  The first-years are my fave class (shhh!!) and they did not leave my side all day.  They wanted to know all about me (in English), while I also showed them my vulnerable side (in Spanish), so they knew we were all in this learning boat together and were more open to learning from me.  The day was A BLAST!

This whole past week was Feria de San Lucas, which is like a national sport here in Spain.  Each city takes its turn having Feria, which is basically like the County Fair, Spring Break and Mardi Gras rolled into one.  I was invited by my school for the annual Feria dinner with all the staff, which was too fun.  I got to try a ton of authentic Spanish food and didn’t speak a word of English for about three hours.  They invited Jenna to join us for drinks after dinner and we enjoyed getting a taste of the festivities!  We waited for Katie and Kelsey to come into town the next night (Friday) to really do it up, so everyone came over to our place beforehand.  We had quite the night and I think we’re all glad that Feria is but once a year!  It was really cool to experience a true Spanish tradition and see all of the traditional costumes about town!  Plus, it officially ended on Sunday night with what we thought were bombs (ahahha) but then realized were fireworks, JUST outside our balconies!  Jenna and I ran down the block and joined the masses as we watched fairydust sprinkled all across our city.  Truly magical  :)

We enjoyed our weekend with our visitors and were pleased that they, too, loved our fine city, even though they had been placed in more well-known areas in Andalusia.  We know Jaen was fabulous, but it never hurts to be reminded!

Check out my pics for all the Feria action and especially our Sunday in the Plaza, where we set out to enjoy some Tinto de Veranos, Tapas and each other’s company (which we did!), but were more intrigued with the nutty performance artist who set up shop right next to us wearing shorts with holes in the seat and who’s main prop was a condom (no one batted an eye but us!!). 

Ah, just a day in the life of a Spaniard!

Thursday, October 15


All I can say is God really knew what he was doing getting my butt over here hahahah!  When I left, I knew this would be a strategic career move for me in some vaguely foreshadowed way. 

Yes, I have toyed around with the notion of going into teaching.  Can you imagine me leading a Creative Writing, Journalism or English class at a Junior College?!  With flexible schedules, eclectic personalities and young, moldable minds (muah ah ah), yes, I do think that is something I would relish.  My experience teaching so far has been exhilarating.  I absolutely thrive in that classroom and feed off the genuine enthusiasm and sweet faces of these incredible kids.  And thankfully, these ever-complimentary teachers have informed me it comes quite naturally to me!  They let me take charge (shocker) of the class instead of just assisting and say the kids are never so enthralled when the actual teachers are the ones doing the teaching!  I love it with all my heart (I’m still new… don’t ruin it for me, veteran teachers!!!). 

Ok, so option number two is to build up my travel writing portfolio so I can get paid to traipse all across this great big world and write about it like Rick Steves.  Really though, what has he got that I haven’t?!  Or, at the very least, work for an awesome travel magazine…

Weeell, thank you to the incredibly selfless Alex Coonce, for taking a chance on her brother Sean’s and boyfriend John’s crazy friend Lindsey Ashjian from college, and putting me in touch with
www.NileGuide.com.  I have just been hired on as the Local Expert for Andalusia, the entire south of Spain.  I will be getting PAID to travel 'round and write about my adventures… what to see, what to do, what to eat (what not to eat ahhaa).  It’s not much, but it’s something!  Most importantly, it will allow me to do what I have dreamed of doing for so long and no one can ever take that away from me.  This will be on my resume for all my life and I just revel at the opportunities it will bring me in the future.

So, THANK YOU ALEX, and thank you to all of you for your ever-so-awesome interest in my whatabouts. 

In other good news, I just found out a major project I edited is going to be sold at BARNES & NOBLE this Christmas!!!  Is that outta this world or what?!  More news on that when the timing is more appropriate.

I received all of this incredible news as I made my first batch of Chicken Piccata here in Spain, Skyped with dear friends from home and giggled uncontrollably with my precious roommates and newest old friend, Dustincito.

Yes, today was a very good day here in good ol’ Jaen.

Love to all :)

P.S.  Happiest of birthdays to my Jainey Marie, the sunshine of my life!!

Wednesday, October 14


Ok, so OBVI not everything here has been perfect, but the few bumps in the road we’ve tumbled over have been more funny than anything. For example, the not having of internet for (gasp!) a whole week.

We put a call into our landlord to ask if he would mind putting his name on the contract so we could waive the no contract fee for our less-than-one-year stay.  When I explained to the woman who worked there how it was virtually impossible to talk to Luis Cortes Cortes on the phone (a difficult task in any foreign language… facial expressions, pointing and hand movements are VERY handy!), she offered to make the call for me. Within one nanosecond of hearing Luis on the other end of the line, her eyes bugged out of her head as she moved the phone as far from her ear as her arm would allow and she did the Catholic Jesus, Mary and Joseph across her chest and face. I just looked at her and mouthed, “I’m sorry. I know.”

Luis said no, which wasn’t surprising, but within minutes of hanging up with him, I received a call from Antonio Luis. I knew immediately Luis had called him and was confused. Sure enough, in Luis’ crazy mind, he understood that we were trying to move out of the apartment. Again, any foreign language is difficult on the phone, so Antonio Luis wasn’t quite grasping what I was trying to explain to him about the contract. He said he was near the internet store and would go in and see what the deal was so he could better inform Luis. Again, this guy is my boss at my school… he is NOT my personal crisis-mender! Granted, he knows we are foreigners, but can you imagine your boss doing all this for you?! Hahahaha! Not to mention it was on a Saturday…

I told Jenna we needed to head back over there to save not only A.L, but the poor woman who worked there, who had already been sucked into the hot mess known as Luis Cortes Cortes. When we walked, in she just started laughing and said A.L. was around the corner on the phone with Luis, explaining the exact occurrence of events. She was such a good sport with all of us and even managed to hook A.L. up with a referral fee since he is an ONO customer as well. At least he got SOMETHING out of it!

Just when we thought things were over and were saying goodbye outside the store, A.L. got ANOTHER call from a raging lunatic gypsy named Luis Cortes Cortes. As A.L. hung up and looked at us, he said he needed to tell us something, but it was difficult for him to do so. In this case, it wasn’t the language that was the problem, but the subject matter. Luis had basically told my absolutely humiliated boss to tell me and my roommates not to put anything “feminine” in the toilets. *Le sigh* What else can we put this poor man through?! Thanks, boss. See ya at work.

Wednesday, October 7


I imagine some of you are wondering how the thing I actually came here for is going.  Weeeeellll...

For real, my job is AWESOME. Essentially, I am working with first and second year bilingual students in "high school" aka Escuela Secondaria, mostly ages 12-14. They have to choose to be in the bilingual program so they are very eager to learn the language, which makes a world of difference. I definitely have one up on some of the other teachers in my program, being from California and all. The kids’ eyes bug out when I say I’m from California and they immediately want to know if I know anyone famous! It’s just so innocent, it’s endearing. The classes that are taught in mostly English (but also a good bit of Spanish) are English (obvi), Music, Science and P.E.

I LOVE the English class, for obvious reasons. One difficult thing though, is that they are learning British English and there are definitely some differences. For example, instead of asking, “Do you have a pen?” they ask, “Have you got a pen?” It’s not wrong, per se, just different. So even in English, there are some challenges, but I really enjoy getting up in front of class and sharing my language. I have done everything from lead discussions to facilitate activities to translate videos. I have worked with full classes as well as small groups of four kids for more personal interaction. These hours are really special because I have them on my own in the English Department instead of a classroom and we can have a ton of fun! I know if I can make them laugh, they will learn and enjoy the language so much more. Plus, it’s awesome getting to know these kids on a personal level. They are really great kids (I will have the same 50 or so all year). The first year kids know much less English that the second year kids, so we chuckle along as I try to explain in Spanish, then translate and help them to answer in English, both written and verbal. Whew!

Everyone at the school is SOOOOOOOOOOO nice – beyond warm and welcoming!!  While Antonio Luis is my right-hand man, I am really only with him for three hours a week (two hours worth of music classes and one for prep). The other hours I spend with three other teachers (English, Science, P.E.) and they are all SO kind and enthusiastic about me being there to help them. They also never fail to tell me that I am doing a wonderful job and thank me again and again for my help. It’s SUCH an encouraging environment… I really couldn’t ask for more.

Coffee breaks are very big at our school. We spend lots of time in the cafeteria, which is really just a small room with a counter, where Pilar and Pilar work. The big thing in Spain is when someone “invites you” to coffee.  This doesn’t mean they ask you to join them, more that while I am enjoying my toast and tea, Pilar tells me who “invited me” that day which means someone took care of my bill (it’s ridiculously cheap!).  I have yet to pay for breakfast at school, which is kinda awesome! Once I get paid, I will “invite” everyone myself!

The school itself is bright, cheery and fully equipped with technology, which makes for a fabulous learning and teaching environment. There is a huge teachers' lounge where I am told to make myself at home, use the Internet and whatever else I may like. The English teacher also gave me a key to the English Department to use at my leisure, for Internet, a quiet space for work or to facilitate small groups.

Two of my working hours are my “Coffee Talk” hours I think I mentioned before, where I basically sit down with several of the bilingual teachers and the Director (Principal) to help them with their English. These are a hoot as well, because the conversation is a little more adult and will go anywhere from talking about NY Pizza slices to American politics. They really help me connect with all the teachers and are equally as beneficial for me as they are for them, because whenever there is confusion, one of us will explain in Spanish!

My schedule is a dream: Weds., Thurs. and Fri, from 9:15-1:45 with a half hour break right in the middle and about 10-15 mins between each class (things are VERY lax here).  It’s about a 30-min walk to and from school each day, but I really love that time of my day… good for contemplating and exploring! Also, there are a ton of hills here in Jaen, so I just think of how hard my legs are working and I charge up those hills!

Ok, so there's the goods for this incredible opportunity that brought me here in the first place! Hahahha :)


Tuesday, October 6


Disclaimer: I am trying desperately to keep this short but that has proven to be an impossible task. Internet comes to our flat this week, so I will finally be able to write less, more often. Bear with me here! Every day is an uproarious adventure and I just couldn't fathom not sharing the details. So read at your leisure and remember, you've been warned!!

Life is better in color. Check out the photos for the rest of the story!

I have but three words to say: AY. DIOS. MIO!!!! Let me tell you, the words tornado, rollercoaster and whirlwind are but mere understatements to describe our first week in Jaen. Starting a new life in a foreign country doesn’t sound easy, I’m sure, but it actually hasn’t been too tough. Not when you are able to take these daily challenges and LAUGH your head off about them!! And that is exactly what we’ve been doing ☺ It helps that we have a posse of people looking out for us, too!

After seeing six or seven pisos (apartments), we knew in our hearts the very first we’d looked at was our new home. Go figure that the dueños (owners/landlords) would be utterly insane. Firstly, they are just shy of 70 years apiece. Secondly, they don’t speak ONE WORD of English. And lastly, you know how you hear of the gypsies who live at the foot of the mountains in Spain? Yeah, that’s them! Thank the Lord we have Antonio Luis (my boss) to facilitate. I haven’t really had any trouble getting by here with NORMAL Spaniards who don’t speak English, but our dueños are one heck of a different story. Their names are Luis Cortes Cortes and his wife, Juana. Luis has one outfit he wears when he comes into town (they live on a ranch about an hour away), which consists of a matching leisure-suit type of situation, that is striped green and has a matching vest, pants and newsie cap. It’s definitely from 1972. One day he wore it with a purple shirt, another with a straw hat and I couldn’t help but stare in amusement as he wrapped his leg around his cane and just yelled. He’s not yelling AT us (it took us some time to realize this), but I don’t think he has the ability to speak without shouting at the very tippy-top of his lungs. Meet him and you will NEVER call me loud again! Juana is drenched in gold jewelry, including half her teeth with jet-black hair, streaky 80s blush and blue eyeliner around her entire eye. Total gypsy.

My first official day of work was on Thursday, but just as I walked into school, Antonio Luis said we had to go pick up Luis and Juana at the bus station. They were two hours early and had called Antonio Luis about 30 times already (what I have put this poor, poor man through). As we pulled up, there they were in their Sunday best, holding a T.V. and shower curtain rods. It was quite a sight.

We go to the flat where A.L., Luis and Cristobal (the 80-year-old man who does the day-to-day stuff with the pisos) review the contract and talk shop. All the while, Juana was pulling my arm out of its socket showing me all the things she bought for the flat. She was enamored with the rubber ducky shower curtains, so of course I pretended I was, too, as I helped her hang them. When some of the work was done, A.L. had to get back to school and told me to take the day off to get the house together. There were still a few things that needed to be bought, so while Jenna went to check out of the hotel, I took on the oh-so-amusing task of going shopping with Luis and Juana. As we walked down the street, it struck me just how much they stood out, even among their “own people.” Juana and I picked out dishes while Luis got keys made. We were yapping it up and let’s just say after asking me several VERY personal questions, by the end of the convo, she had basically promised my hand in marriage to her nephew, Chiqui.

After hanging out a bit, we were (kinda) like family. We had been invited to their ranch to ride horses and Juana was going to teach me how to make homemade bread, quiso (Spanish stew) and paella! They also wanted to take us out for the afternoon, so I found Jenna and we went into one of our favorite local haunts. The beer and tapas were flowing, as well as the very interesting conversation. They ordered practically everything on the menu and Jenna and I tried snails and coagulated pigs blood, a local delicacy. The snails I could handle, the sangre, notsomuch! We were there for easily three hours before they headed back to the other gypsies in the hills.

It would be impossible to capture the true essence of this afternoon, but when all was said and done, Jenna and I needed a little taste of local comfort, so we went next door to see Tito Andalusi (Uncle Andalusi), another bar owner who has welcomed us with open arms since our very first day in Jaen. We realized we were there at the exact time he said all the local boys come by and boy, were there a lot of them! We told Andalusi it was our first official night in our new home, but we didn’t have any sheets. The boys all work for him, so he summoned one of them to take us to the Carrefour (Spanish Wal-Mart), so we wouldn’t have to take the bus. Then when we asked for some tools to take apart the beds’ headboards to switch the rooms they were in, the boys went above and beyond and did everything for us. We have been totally pampered since we arrived. I think the people of Jaen are some of the nicest in the world... almost like a requirement to live here!

We’ve also met up with the other Auxiliares de Conversacion (my job title) and there are a lot of us here! We have become fast friends and won’t have to worry about being lonely here.  Not only are there a lot of us, but we get to meet each other's roommates too, many of whom are Italian.  Perhaps I will try to brush up on my Italian while I'm here... I've already been practicing with an import named Davide hahah!  Our third roommate, Megan, is the sweetest, most relaxed girl from Minnesota. We are thrilled to have her here with us for the next nine months! Another of our faves is Dustin, a fabulous Southerner from Alabama, whom we lovingly call Dustincito. He is SOOOOOO hilarious and easy to be around.

Every day is full of little obstacles to overcome, therefore every day feels triumphant. I have successfully signed a lease for a flat, obtained a cell phone, secured internet, opened a bank account and applied for residency in a foreign country, ALL IN SPANISH. Even the little things, like lighting a propane tank to get hot water for a shower, doing a load of laundry and trying to cook imaginatively with little space and fewer utensils (we have no oven or microwave and at this point, our freezer roars at us, so we'll see if we can ever use that!) are things to pat myself on the back for, every single day.

I am absolutely in love with our life here in Spain. We have been ever so fortunate in our endeavors, but I will never take that for granted. We've been surrounded by tons of friends, lots of support, buckets of laughs and one amazing backdrop of a city. More to come in the next couple days... I want to salvage your interest here!

With all the love in my heart to my favorite people in this world,