Looking back at Rome

A lot of the twenty-something Americans in Spain are here with a similar back story. In college they studied abroad in Granada or Valladolid or Madrid and one semester just wasn’t enough. After graduation they came running back with another student visa in hand but this time with the title auxiliar.

I can’t pretend to be all that different, but my study abroad story comes from another Mediterranean culture known for pizza rather than paella. I spent the fall semester of my senior year in Rome.

This was long before my blogging days, but I did write a bit about the experience. I remember wanting to be able to recall years later exactly how I felt. I resolved to keep a journal, which I published as notes on Facebook (anyone else remember notes?). Like any good study abroad student, I wrote a total of three times during my four months. I don’t have a whole lot to look back on, but I can certainly reminisce with what I have. Without further ado, here are my impressions on my very first days in Europe, as I wrote them five years ago.IMG_0159Buongiorno di Roma!

I’m alive and well and settled into the cutest little apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome! I’ve been here for three days and it seems like I’ve lived here for at least a month, it already feels like home. Neither of my roommates nor I speak any Italian yet, so we’ve been having fun pointing at things on menus and gesturing to indicate what we want, and we’ve been quite successful. Although it’s pretty frustrating being the stupid tourist who can’t even talk. We pick up a few more words everyday. The lady at the check stand at the convenience store next door to us teaches us something new every time we see her. We’re so excited to start our language classes on Monday so we can actually start learning how to speak in sentences and not just use our five word vocabulary.

Our goal is by the end of the semester to no longer look, speak, and act like tourists. We’ve made a few adjustments already; we realized that dinner time is about 9:00, not 6 or 7. Restaurants aren’t even open that early, as we discovered on our first night when we were starving at 5:30. Eating out usually requires at least two hours, and they won’t bring you your check until you ask for it (“Il conto, per favore”). Food here is generally pretty cheap; you can eat out for €8-10, and tonight we tried cooking for the first time. We added up our grocery bill and realized that we made a damn good meal for three, with leftovers, for about €7, and that includes a bottle of wine! I don’t think they make bad food here, everything has been amazing. Our first meal here was real Italian pizza, which is very thin, crispy, and delicious. We’ve had gelato a couple times, which is amazing. We got it once from an Americanized chain and once from a little mom and pop shop where they make it themselves and we could definitely tell the difference.

Artwork in the apartment

Artwork in the apartment

Our apartment is so cool! It’s in a building that has to be a couple centuries old. Actually I think everything in our neighborhood is. We have winding cobblestone paths instead of paved streets, which makes not getting run over by vespas speeding by quite a challenge. We have an open air market right across the street from us and we’re about a 15 minute walk from the study center, which is awesome because some people in the program got put about 45 minutes away. I’m also very glad there are only three of us in the apartment, we met some people that have 6 in theirs, and we all seem to we’re going to work really well as roommates. The apartment has clearly been used by the program for quite a while because it’s full of random crap left behind by past students, and I think some of it belongs to our crazy old landlady who tries to be very grandmotherly. Our cabinets are full of blankets, tons of extra mugs, cleaning supplies, old textbooks, dinner receipts from 2003, candles, playing cards, empty wine bottles, and a few stuffed animals. We’re trying to figure out what our contribution to the randomness is going to be. All of our appliances are really old, but they all work, so it makes it more interesting.

There are fountains all over the city that pump water through the ancient Roman aqueducts, and it’s the cleanest water in the city. We’ve been filling up our water bottles at them, and with as hot as it’s been there are sometimes lines of people waiting to drink from fountains.

 There were orientations the last two days where we learned some of the nuts and bolts of living here, got our class assignments, and some other not to exciting things. I got all the classes I wanted, so I’ll be taking Ancient Roman Civilization, the Urban History of Rome, and Gender Roles in Twentieth Century Italy. Classes start Monday but for the first three weeks it’s just an intensive language practicum, so that should help us a lot with communication. After that we have a week off then the core classes start. My roommates and I are already planning weekend trips to Greece, Munich, and Florence, and hopefully a week exploring the UK.103_0697

 Today we wandered around and ended up at the Vatican. The architecture all around St. Peter’s Square is really amazing; we’re definitely going to go back sometime and go inside, probably some time when it’s not too hot to wear long pants. Tomorrow we’re going to Lido de Ostia, which is a beach just outside the city, and on Sunday one of the professors in the program is giving a free guided tour of the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine, which I’m really excited about.

I’ll try to keep these updates frequent, but no promises!

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Why is Spain so “bad” at English?

I am immune to Spain’s economic crisis. I will likely never be part of the 26.8% national unemployment nor the 57% youth unemployment. Every time that I have looked for work, I have been contacted and offered a job by every place I’ve sent my CV. Why? Because I’m an English teacher, and English isn’t exactly Spain’s strong suit.

Tourists notice the sharp difference between Spain and other European countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland, where English is widely spoken. Yet here, in spite of dedicating time and resources to English education, only 1 in 10 people claim to have an advanced level. As a friend of mine puts it, Siempre estamos estudiando pero nunca aprendemos. We’re always studying but we never learn, he says.bilinguesSo why is Spain so “bad” at English? Why are they so behind the rest of Europe? As to be expected, it’s a variety of factors.

First of all, let’s get historical. Franco deserves a portion of the blame for Spain’s difficulties with English today. The Spanish dictator from 1936-75, he declared Castilian to be the only official language. Spain was closed off to the rest of the world in many ways, and today they are still playing catch up to succeed in global markets. Under Franco publications in other languages were forbidden, and the custom of dubbing foreign films in Spanish began. Today, in the vast majority of non-English speaking countries, foreign films are seen in their original version with subtitles in the native language. But Spain dubs nearly all films and TV shows into Spanish. Major cities will have some limited options for original version films in movie theaters, but it’s definitely the exception, not the rule.

In countries that only use subtitles on foreign language films the people are exposed to a great deal of English thanks to American media. Even though they are reading in their native language, they are listening to English. For someone who spends their entire life watching movies this way, a lot sinks in and eventually the subtitles may not even be necessary. Spain, however, passes on this enormous opportunity. Even though their cinemas and televisions are full of American media, they get no linguistic benefit. Listening to native speakers is incredibly important in learning English because of the tonality of the language, and also because pronunciation often has little to do with spelling- something that Spanish speakers are used to relying on in their own language.

A second root of Spain’s struggle with English comes from its education system. Having spent the last three years working in public schools, this is something I’ve gotten a glimpse of personally. There are two core issues with Spain’s English education: underqualified teachers, and lack of emphasis on speaking. Efforts are being made to remedy both of these, but change is slow. In the last three years I have worked alongside some teachers with incredible levels of English, who are doing a great service passing on their knowledge to their pupils. But certainly not all.

No cover for your red summer in this bar

No cover for your red summer in this bar

I can’t begin to tell how many times I’ve cringed upon seeing “Very well” instead of “Very good” written on student work to hand back, or hearing teachers butcher pronunciation to the point that I don’t know what they’re trying to say. I understand that teaching first graders the days of the week doesn’t require mastery of the passive voice and third conditional. However, children are sponges and absorb everything, mistakes and all. When I correct my adult students, it’s often for things that they have believed to be correct since primary school.

Starting this school year all teachers in public bilingual schools in Andalucía need a B2 (advanced) level in the language that corresponds to their school, whether or not they teach in that language. French and German bilingual schools do exist, but the vast majority are English.

Schools also have the problem that English classes tend to be very focused on grammar and reading, and have very little time dedicated to speaking. Almost all of the private classes I have had with adults begin with the same conversation. “I know lots of grammar and I read and understand fairly well, but have no practice speaking or maintaining a conversation.” The system leaves students completely inept if they encounter English-speaking tourists in Spain, and even more if they ever travel and need to use English. The program I was in the last three years, Auxiliares de Conversación, is supposed to be the remedy to this problem. Depending on how well a school utilizes their language assistant it can be a great help, but between budget cuts and poor coordination it’s simply not enough.

A third problem that Spain has with English, and languages in general, is that they are deathly afraid of making mistakes. Part of the language learning process is making mistakes and learning from them. I’ve had many students who were scared stiff of me, too ashamed to say anything beyond “Good morning” out of fear of saying something wrong in front of the native speaker. If only I had a euro for every time I asked a question to a class and only got crickets and thirty faces avoiding eye contact with me. I understand the feeling of inadequacy when you recognize that you don’t know something. To acquire a language is to stumble and crawl until you can finally walk. You will feel like a child. It will hurt your pride. And it is something that the majority of Spanish people have difficulty coping with.

Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy, quite infamously doesn't speak much English

Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy, quite infamously doesn’t speak much English

Last but not least, Spain has internalized this “handicap” and accepted it as part of their identity. To many, it’s comical how bad they are at English. Some even write it off as being in their genes. I avoid speaking Spanish in class at all costs to encourage students not to revert back to their native tongue. For someone who believes that they simply can’t speak English, every phrase is a conscious effort. They slip into Spanish to offer me something to drink (for in home classes), to open or close the window, and to apologize when their cell phone rings during class. “And now in English,” I demand, because most of the time they have the vocabulary to put the sentence together. It’s just that the idea of using English to communicate something real, something connected to the actual world and not the textbook is unfathomable. Many of the adult students I’ve had see English as something they need for their job. They need to be able to have certain conversations with a particular vocabulary set. But they don’t expect to ever read a book in English, or to travel to England and strike up a conversation with someone in a bar.

I need to add a humongous disclaimer to all of this: There are Spaniards who speak perfect English, who have dedicated themselves to their studies, and who have taken advantage of every opportunity they could to learn. I have met some people who have left me speechless with their level of English. This is my proof that all of the hurdles that Spain has can be overcome. Everything that I have said are generalizations which have exceptions. Amazing exceptions who have worked hard to be in the minority of Spanish people who speak advanced, if not fluent English.

For the Spain’s sake I hope that there comes a day when finding work isn’t so easy for me, but until then I will leave work happy everyday knowing that I am helping the cause.

Why do you think Spain struggles with English?

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The Animal Protection Society of Málaga

“Can you hear them?” I asked Pepe one Sunday in early June. He stopped and listened for a moment, and grinned in response. We had taken the bus to the far north of the city, past Ciudad Jardín, and were making our way up the hill to our destination. It immediately became obvious why this place was located on the outskirts of the town, almost into the montes de Málaga. Where else could you house upwards of 500 dogs without disturbing the neighbors?Protectora de MalagaWe were on our way to the Animal Protection Society of Málaga for a paella benefit they were hosting. Beer and paella in support of homeless dogs and cats? No one had to twist my arm to get me to go.

To give the understatement of the year, Pepe and I are both animals lovers. We’re the type who can’t pass a stray dog on the street without doing anything. Who instead of killing a spider in the house, will catch it and release it outside. Both of us have always adopted our pets from animal shelters or taken them in directly from the street. So when we decided to become volunteers at the Animal Protection Society, it came as no surprise to either of our families, but with warnings to not bring any many home.Malaga Animal Protection SocietyWe go once or twice a week now, and let me tell you, this place is one of the most organized and well-run groups of its kind. A quick glance at their Facebook pages (dogs and cats) will give you in idea as to how much movement the society has. They have approximately 400 animals on site and about 100 more in foster homes.2013-06-02 13.15.06Our job as volunteers is, essentially, to play with dogs. Rough, I know. But of course there’s a bit more. We are assigned to Module C, which is principally big dogs, but with some smaller ones thrown in. We take out one cage of dogs at a time, which can range from two to eight or so. We take them to a big enclosure we have and let them loose to play. We throw tennis balls, we run around, and we give and receive lots of kisses. In the summer heat we hose down as many of the dogs as will tolerate it. We have treatment lists and we take anyone to the on-site clinic who needs a quick visit to the vet. When new dogs enter we help the employees of the shelter do introductions to see who gets along well and who doesn’t. And best of all, we often bring hot dogs or other goodies from home that make us very popular with the canine population.

It is a no-kill shelter and only euthanizes for medical purposes. They even have a contract to take a certain number of animals per month from the more traditional “pound” or Zoosanitario Municipal that otherwise would have been put to sleep. The shelter’s funding comes partly from the Ayuntamiento, or city government, and partly from donations. All volunteers, for example, are rerquired to become socios, or members, and make a minimum monthly donation of 7€.

The shelter has a team of about 50 volunteers divided between all the different modules (Dogs of various sizes, puppies, geriatrics, and of course cats). Our module had 27 cages last I counted and we almost always manage to fill the weekly schedule so there are volunteers taking dogs out everyday except Sunday, when they rest. If there aren’t many setbacks, each group gets taken out to play once every two or three days, and sometimes more often.

Cooling off in the August heat

Cooling off in the August heat

Seeing so many precious faces in cages can be heartbreaking, but the society has lots of movement and many happy endings. Small dogs find homes easier than others, and puppies especially tend to have very short stays with us. But even for bigger dogs they work with organizations in Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands to find families willing to adopt. In the two months that we have been volunteers we have said many bittersweet goodbyes, only to be rewarded later with updates and photos of our furry friends in their new homes.

Glinda, a future German citizen

Glinda, who is preparing to go to Germany

Dafne

Dafne (on the right) with a new friend in her new home in Finland

Volunteering here is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. When people see abandoned animals it’s easy to turn away, because it’s too hard to bear. Yes, of course it pulls at your heart-strings, but I know that I am doing what I can. If I can’t personally give a home to any of these animals, then at least my time in the society makes their quality of life just a little bit better. Pepe and I give them the human interaction and attention they so desperately need, if only for a little while. IMG_6332To learn more or become a member or volunteer, use the following

http://www.protectoramalaga.org/

Dogs Facebook Page, Cats Facebook Page

Or visit the shelter. Camino de las Erizas, 4, Málaga. Monday-Friday 10:00-13:30 and 17:00-19:00. Saturdays 10:00-14:00.

Making friends with hot dogs. Baron, on the left, is now in Germany

Making friends with hot dogs. Baron, on the left, is now in Germany

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My 2 Cents on 3 Years as a Language and Culture Assistant

As anyone who’s read much of anything on this blog might know, I’ve been working in Spain in a program through the Ministry of Education called Auxiliares de Conversación. To provide the very briefest summary, the program places native English speakers as “language and culture assistants” in public bilingual schools to assist teachers in English language instruction.Auxiliares de conversacionThe program has lots of proponents and plenty of critics. To break it down, the life and experience of an auxiliar in Spain isn’t all sangria and tapas and wet kisses from first graders; it comes with its share of headaches and bureaucracy. Here’s my experience.

I did the program for three years from 2010 to 2013 in three different schools, all in the province of Málaga. My first year I was in an elementary school in the center of Málaga, my second in an elementary school in Fuengirola, and my third in a high school in Coín.

I’ll break down my auxiliar experience into where I was lucky and where I was unlucky, but I use the word “luck” with quotations because sometimes what you get really is just sheer luck, and sometimes it’s what you make out of it.

LUCKY

  • All three of my school always paid on time. I put this one first for a reason. It would be hard to enjoy your long weekends when you have to ask Mom and Dad to transfer you money just to be able to pay rent and take the bus to work. Although I came to Spain with a decent amount in savings, I couldn’t have survived as long as many people had to while waiting for their schools to pay them (over three months).
  • The fact that I was given a third year. The program’s official policy is that you can apply for a third year, but will be automatically waitlisted to give priority to first and second years. For many would-be third years this means waiting until late summer to find out anything, if they even got a spot. I got incredibly lucky and slipped through the cracks of the application system and not only got a spot but was placed quite early.
  • Two years of problem-free schedules. My first two years, upon arriving for my first day of work, I was handed a schedule with Fridays off. While I never got the coveted three-day work week, I had very decent schedules without gaps between classes, and even some days to sleep in late.
  • Fantastic teachers to learn from. Unlike many auxiliares, I’m in teaching for the long haul, and over the past three years I have gotten to work alongside some teachers that have shown me the type of teacher I want to be.
  • Ideal location for first year. I didn’t know how lucky I was to get the city center my first year. Now, I attribute that “luck” to having forked out a couple thousand for the CIEE program and having sent in my application the very same day it opened (I explain the differences between CIEE and the Ministry program here).
  • Not being sent to the Timbuktu of Andalucía. In the application process you get to request your autonomous community, and that’s it. The thing about Andalucía is it’s pretty big. Applying for my second and third year I knew that I could have been sent to the farthest corners of Almería or Huelva, hundreds of kilometers away from where I wanted to be. When thinking of that possibility, I got pretty lucky with towns a commute-able distance from Málaga.

UNLUCKY

  • The bilingual coordinator from hell. I’ve swapped auxiliar horror stories with a number of people, and after this past year I always win. Everything this man put me through and how I won every battle he picked with me deserves its own post. Suffice it to say for now that he and the school were used to having a first year, who was sent out to live in the pueblo, and had no idea what to expect from the job. My flaw for him was that I knew exactly what my job entailed, and what it didn’t. I didn’t fit into the cookie cutter mold, and would not be taken advantage of. I dreaded going to work everyday this year, and it was 99% because of him.
  • Location second and third year. Like I’ve said, I was lucky to not be sent too far from Málaga. I liked the city just fine; the only thing I was missing was my boyfriend. For years two and three I sent emails along with my application requesting to be in Granada, where Pepe was. Some people have success in Andalucía emailing specific city requests, but mine were obviously ignored.
  • Some really horrible teachers. Something I’ve realized as a teaching assistant is that if the class doesn’t respect the lead teacher, it’s hard for you to develop a good rapport with them. I’ve been with some yellers and screamers, some who let the class walk all over them, and many who obviously don’t prepare ANYTHING for class. For me to enter this class and contribute something meaningful is nigh on impossible. But on the plus side, I’ve seen how NOT to teach.

    Smiling student

    Not every day will be as pleasant and productive as this one

I think anyone’s experience in the program will have its ups and downs. Despite having ended on a sour note with my last school, I would recommend the program to anyone on a few conditions:

  • Be open-minded regarding your location. If you have your heart set on the center of Barcelona or Sevilla, be prepared to NOT get that. Being placed exactly where you want is difficult, and even more so in big communities like Andalucía. Investigate commuting from where your school is to where you want to live, but be realistic. For example, I wouldn’t recommend the commute I did this past year from Málaga to Coín. It’s a big part of the reason I wasn’t happy there, but Pepe had come to Málaga to be with me and found work. That wouldn’t have been possible in Coín.
  • Be flexible with your school. You are an assistant and will need to adapt to how each person teaches. Come out of your comfort zone. And remember, if you want to ask for favors (a few days off when your parents come to visit), be prepared to return it by working some extra hours or helping with additional tasks.
  • Be sensible. If your school doesn’t ask for any documentation of that one day you were home sick, don’t take advantage. They’re friendly but not stupid. They’ll notice if you only seem to get sick the first or last day of your work week.
  • Be patient with all the bureaucracy you have to go through. From getting your visa to your NIE and TIE, to renewing, be patient. The funcionarios, or civil servants, who work in government offices have a horrible reputation, but in my experience it’s not usually deserved. For what ever paperwork you are trying to process, ask questions, be polite, and if your Spanish isn’t good enough to communicate what you need, bring someone can translate for you. And yes, when they say a copy of every page of your passport, they mean it.

As many have said before me, the auxiliares program can be hit or miss, but I think that with an open-mind and some flexibility you can definitely pasarlo bien.

 

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Knock knock…

Well this is awkward. How about if we just pretend that the last six months didn’t happen and pick up where we left off? And when I say we I mean any readers that might still be out there.

This past year has been one of changes and adjustments. I was working a job I didn’t particularily like (understatement of the year) and didn’t have the option of leaving it or looking for anything else. For Pepe and I it was our first year living together and his first year in Málaga. He was working and going to school full-time. I was trying to be supportive while I was dealing with my own crisis at work. We were living in an apartment that seemed like it would be great, but ended up being the cause of a lot of stress.

Needless to say, some where in the midst of everything not only did this blog drop to the bottom of my priority list, but I also lost all interest in writing. I just wanted to get through the school year. That date on the calender was my light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t really care what was at the end of the tunnel, just as long as it ended.

Having said that, I can’t write this past year off as one of misery. Of course it’s had its highlights. My relationship with Pepe has only grown stronger. We have a happy little furry family that has just grown to include a new member, and our roots in Málaga are becoming firmer.

Possibly the best two things that have happened to us this year

Possibly the best two things that have happened to us this year

But throughout the year I haven’t completely forgotten about blogging. I still come across things nearly everyday that I want to write about and experiences that I want to share. I don’t know how often I’ll end up blogging, but I’ve decided I want to return. There are things in my life I want to share, opinions I want to elaborate, and stories I want to tell.

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