First Week in Madrid: Initial Impressions?

I apologize for the delay in posting. At first I was too busy apartment-searching to write, and then I was sick for almost a week straight so I had no energy, and now I’m finally back on my feet. Here’s a list of my first impressions now that I have a bit of time to relax and reflect on the past couple weeks.

1. I’ve got a LONG way to go Spanish-wise
Prior to coming here, I thought I had a pretty good foundation in Spanish. And I do, after many years of studying in high school and again in college. But now I’m realizing that all the knowledge I accumulated the past few years just scratches the surface. With vocabulary I’m like meh because that grows over time. I’ve already learned tons of new words such as zipper, vacuum, sweatshirt, hood, pug (my favorite dog breed), raindrops, bed spread, and way more than I can list at this moment.

The view from my apartment in Madrid

The view from my apartment in Madrid

What gets me are the verbs. The actual memorization of the meanings of the verbs (ie. to iron, to pinch, to fill) are easy because it’s just more vocab, but what is difficult is using them properly. I have the present tense down-pat, and although I sometimes use the wrong one, I can at least conjugate the preterit and imperfect tenses. The future tense is also alright.

But then you start getting into past subjunctive (“If I were…”), past perfect subjunctive (“If I had been.”), and future perfect subjunctive (“I will have been…”). My brain seriously can’t speak more than 15 words per minute at that point.

I could write a book about all the things I don’t understand about Spanish, but for now I’ll just leave you with this: My catch-phrase here is “Habla despacio, por favor.” SPEAK SLOWLY PLEASE!

2. The language isn’t the only thing I have to translate
I’m not saying this to offend Americans or America (I’m from the United States), but seriously when is this country going to get the clue that the rest of the world uses the metric system, which intuitively makes more sense anyway! But when you are seeing it out in everyday life like kilos in the grocery store or Celsius on the weather channel, and you’re used to pounds and Fahrenheit, you are forced to once again reach back into the recesses of your mind and try to remember middle-school science class in order to get some sort of reference point for what those measuring points are.

Here’s a fun example: I went to a Carrefour store a few days ago and bought salmon. I think the price was 13.43 euros per kilo. Not only did I have to mentally calculate the price in dollars, but I also had to calculate the weight in pounds! And I suck at math but I think this is how it works:

13.23 euros/kg = 18.17 dollars/kg

1kg = 2.2 pounds

18.17 dollars/2.2 pounds = 8.25 dollars per pound? Kind of expensive compared to what I was used to! But am I really going to get out a calculator in the middle of the store and do the calculation before making the decision to buy something. NO! You just gotta go for it until you eventually gain a mental spectrum of what’s expensive and what’s not.

Even shoe sizes are different! I used to be an 8 or 8.5 back in the states, but here I am somewhere between a 38 and a 40. Still not sure which…

My first Spanish-style tortilla de patatas

My first Spanish-style tortilla de patatas

3. The people, in general, are incredibly nice
Almost everyone I have met since getting here has been very friendly and helpful. I’m just now starting to get comfortable with the whole “dos besos” thing, which is where people kiss each other on both cheeks as a greeting, even if it’s a total stranger. For me, it felt weird at first because I’m used to either a handshake or an awkward “nice to meet you” wave of the hand.

But maybe there’s something to be said for the dos besos. Maybe there’s just a greater sense of closeness among people than I’m used to. At first I was almost skeptical of everyone’s kindness, in the sense of “now what do you want from me?” But that honestly just seems to be the genuine nature of the people.

After I spend more time and accumulate more experiences here, I will be able to extrapolate on this topic. On Monday I start my month long TEFL course. Please continue to read and leave your comments!

Upcoming blog posts:
-       Tips for finding an apartment in Spain
-       Should I live with locals or with other English speakers?
-       About the TEFL course

Night before my Flight: Tips for calming your nerves before traveling abroad

It’s like when I was a kid and I couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve because I was so excited about getting presents the next day. Except this time I won’t be getting presents, but instead I’ll be starting the most amazing adventure of my life. You

might argue that this adventure began months ago when I began the application process, but somehow it didn’t really feel real until tonight.

Since the beginning, this trip always just felt like a future event, like in a dream where you’re running towards something but never seem to get closer. And now I’m mere hours away from leaving home and my mind is in overdrive. Am I forgetting something? What’s going to go wrong first?

As I reflect upon the past week or so, I wanted to share some of my tips for how to calm your nerves and maintain your sanity before traveling abroad.

Stay Organized!
This is by far the most important. Keep all your documents (passport, flight itinerary, phone numbers, etc.) in a folder, all nice and neat so that you can access them when they are needed. There’s nothing more stressful than scrambling to find your passport the morning of a flight.

In addition to keeping your documents organized, keep your plans organized. Write down a list of priorities for when you arrive. For example, my priorities upon arrival are to be picked up at the airport (my friend Miguel will be doing that), having a “home base” to drop off my bags (again, Miguel is generously sharing his apartment for a night or two), getting phone service, finding myself a place of my own, and getting a bank account. These may seem like obvious tasks, but I feel more in control when I know what my next objective will be.

Pack EarlyImage
Not like several days early, but instead of packing the day before a flight, try packing two days before the flight. That way can take a final inventory on what you have and pick up any essentials that you may be missing. You can also get an idea of how much space you have to spare. If it turns out that you overestimated how much stuff you could fit in your suitcase, then at least you have budgeted an extra day for reprioritizing your belongings.

I was able to spend my last day in the United States with my grandma and my parents instead of being in ultra-stress mode at home with my suitcase.

Have your airport outfit set aside
It’s nice to be able to just wake up, get dressed in a pre-chosen, comfortable plane outfit, and have a leisurely breakfast at home with bags already packed.

Allow yourself to go through the emotions
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you get sad or anxious. A little “cold feet” is normal before any huge change. Don’t take it as a sign of weakness. Instead, allow yourself to feel however you feel for a few minutes, and then do something to reenergize and lift your spirits. For me, google-ing pictures of Madrid and Spanish food reminds me of how much I am looking forward to teaching English in Madrid, and my anxiety tends to diminish. I know that, for me, the anticipation is making me more nervous that I need to be, and when I actually sit down by the gate and wait for the flight, I’ll suddenly slip into a state of calm.

Double-check your flight time, set an alarm, and know when to leave for the airport.
My flight for Miami leaves at 2:10pm EST and goes to Miami where I wait for 2 hours. Then I leave for Madrid and should be arriving at 7:40am Spain time! Next time I write, I’ll be writing from Spain!

“Of all the hardships a person had to face, none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.” – Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns

One-way ticket: Eleven days til I depart for Madrid!

Buying plane tickets is a crapshoot. You could spend all the time in the world researching airlines and travel sites to get the best deal, but you’ll never really know if you could have saved a few bucks. Flight prices change daily, if not hourly. So many factors come into play that I’ll never understand how they set prices for plane tickets.

But what’s done is done (lo hecho, hecho está), and for the first time in my life, I bought a one-way ticket…. Not round-trip. One-way. As in, you go across the ocean one time, and not back. It’s like bungee jumping without the return journey back up to safety (except it’s not like that at all…) But either way, it’s scary. And invigorating. I’ve never felt a sense of adventure quite like this before.

I began the processDSC00250 of searching for a TEFL program in September 2013 (has it really been that long??) and four months later, my flight to leave is set for January 23. As you can see on the right-hand column of this page, my countdown ticker is set!

Why did I decide to leave so early, considering the TEFL course doesn’t even start until February 10?

I wanted to get there a couple weeks early because I know that once the TEFL course starts, my schedule will be jam-packed. I will need the extra time to find permanent housing, pick up some supplies (towels, sheets, and other things that I won’t be able to pack), and just overall collect my thoughts in a leisurely manner without having to stress and rush through everything. I want to visit apartments in person before signing a contract so that I can get a feel for how close it is to grocery stores, metro stations, restaurants, bars, and other places of interest.

How did I get my flight?

I got the most unbelievable deal on a flight! Thanks to my good friend Kayla who travels frequently, I was made aware of a website called STAtravel.com which I had previously never heard of. Forget Expedia and Travelocity and all the others who claim to find you the cheapest flight. Like I said, booking flights is a crapshoot, but I couldn’t find anything that beat the rates I found at STAtravel.com. I got a one-way ticket for just $452.50 total, which is insanely cheap considering it’s an international flight, and a long one at that! It’s also an American Airlines flight, so you aren’t limited to no-name airlines with no credibility.

The only caveat is that in order to take advantage of the deals, you have to be under 26 years old and/or in possession of an International Student Identity Card. However, I’m pretty sure you can just buy an ISIC online, but I didn’t look into it much because I am only 21 and so I don’t need one. In just a few short days I’ll officially be on my way!

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

 

Got the Student Visa: But fair warning, it was NOT easy!

I have broken this post into four sections: (1) the trip down to the Spanish consulate in Miami, (2) the problems I encountered at the consulate & how to avoid making the same mistakes, (3) how to fix the mistakes if you do make them, and (4) how it resulted for me.

Part I: The Trip

It was all smooth sailing for the first 3 hours of the 4 hour long drive, just my mother and I having a nice relaxing day. Traffic was light, the weather was pleasant, and spirits were high.  Just a few short miles from our intended exit was the Sun Life Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins football team. As our luck would have it, the Dolphins vs. Patriots game had just ended, so there was mad traffic in all directions.
Interestingly enough, we saw the buses carrying the New England Patriots being escorted in the opposite direction by several police cars, but that certainly wasn’t worth the additional 30 minutes it took for us to drive a mere 2 miles to reach our exit. To make matters worse, my mom’s 1998 Toyota 4Runner decided to take a nap  in deadlock traffic. The engine turned itself off 3 times while we were stuck there! As it happens, no one even noticed because we were moving at a grand total of 4mph regardless, but it still added the question of “is the car even going to make it?” to the whole equation.
Luckily the Little Engine that Could finally did make it to the hotel that we had booked for the night, but the aggravations didn’t stop there. Apparently valet parking is not an option in Miami, it’s an obligation which was made even more irritating by the fact that the parking lot was literally 50 feet from the front door. You feel guilty not giving the guy a tip because you know it’s expected, but at the same time he basically commandeered the keys and then acted like a guard dog for the rest of the night. Every time we tried to access the car he would come rushing over and insist that he bring the car out for us, as if we are incapable of doing so ourselves.
None of that would have been a big problem except for the fact that we were both tired and hungry, but a tasty meal and a comfy bed made up for most of it by the time we finally hit the sack.

Part II: The Problems

This is the part of the story that I assume most of you are interested in. Be warned—don’t make these mistakes (yes, plural) As you’ll find out if you keep reading, it all turned out fine, but I think I got very lucky. So if you can help it, don’t take your chances by messing up the way I did.

Mistake #1: Even though I had checked, double-checked, and triple-checked that I had everything I needed, I somehow forgot about the $160 money order until fifteen minutes before my appointment! We were driving toward the consulate office, which was only a few minutes away from the hotel, and suddenly it sprang to mind. My mom ended up dropping me off at the office so that I could be on time for my appointment, and then she ran across the street to a Publix so that she could bring the money order up to me. Thank God I wasn’t alone!

At the Spanish consulate they use the word “appointment” quite loosely. I walked in and the security guard asked me for my name, checked a list, and then handed me a number like in a deli. You pretty much just make an appointment in order for them to put your name on a list, and after that it’s first come, first serve. So yeah, don’t forget the money order. It’s one of those things that seems like a last-minute item so it can slip the mind quite easily.

Mistake #2: This one wasn’t a mistake so much as it was a miscommunication. The issue, in my opinion, comes from the fact that the consulate doesn’t actually answer visa-related questions over the phone. They simply expect you to get everything you need from the website, which is fine except that different people interpret the written word differently. The list of required documents for a student visa requires that you have the State “Public criminal background check” issued by the Department of Law Enforcement (of Florida, in my case). I got that document successfully, translated into Spanish and everything.

As I was presenting the items to the woman behind the counter, she asked for something called the “Apostille Certification” as casually as you might ask someone to show you their ID. Apostille Certification? Isn’t an apostle a messenger of the church? As far as I was concerned, she might as well have been asking for unicorn blood or leprechaun hair. That’s how foreign a concept it seemed to me.

Part III: The Solution
What I didn’t realize when I was originally gathering the criminal check documents was that there was an extra step involved: you have to take the first document, the one that you get from the State Department of Law Enforcement and send it to the US Department of State along with a check (mine was $10 but it might vary by state) and a cover letter stating the country that it will be used for. Confused yet? Trust me, I know.

Because I had no access to a computer, I hand-wrote my cover letter on a piece of scrap paper while waiting in line at the post office. The Department of State for Florida is located at the address below:

Department of State
Division of Corporations
Apostille Certification
P.O. Box 6800
Tallahassee, FL 32314-6800

 If you are in a different state, you’ll have to Google the Apostille Certification mailing address and instructions. Anyway, you also have to include a pre-paid envelope (express-mail if you are in a time crunch like I was) so that they can send it back to you.

I was worried because my appointment with the consulate was on December 16 and my TEFL course is set to start on February 10. The student visa application can take 4 weeks or maybe even more to be approved. And I was told that getting the criminal check legalized could take 3 to 10 business days. Considering it was nearing the holidays, I started to freak out because 10 business days could turn into three weeks, which could delay my student visa to the point where I’d be late arriving to Spain! Feeling stressed and defeated, we began the long drive home.

Part IV: The Result

Finally some luck came my way, and the Apostille Certification arrived only three days after we sent it off. At that point I express-mailed it down to the Miami consulate with a letter explaining what had happened and my passport number so that they could add it to my otherwise complete application.

This is what the Apostille Certification should look like. If only I had known!

This is what the Apostille Certification should look like. If only I had known!

Even luckier, I got a knock on my door from a postman on January 3rd, and I had my passport with student visa stamp in hand just two and a half weeks after the in-person appointment at the consulate!

So moral of the story: Try to have all the information you need before you go down for your appointment. I was lucky because everything arrived hastily, but I don’t believe it’s worth taking the risk. If you have ANY questions about the required application materials, be sure to find someone who can help you far in advance of your appointment. Remain calm if something goes wrong, and good luck!

Whew, that was a lot of writing, but I hope it helps those of you who are beginning the student visa process, or are thinking of doing so in the future. Now that holidays are officially over for this season, I will have much more time to write regularly. Keep checking back  because things will be accelerating rapidly from now on! Just six weeks until the TEFL course starts!

P.s. Happy New Year from Orlando, Florida!

“Sometimes when people are under stress, they hate to think, and it’s the time when they most need to think.”
– Bill Clinton

Reality Check: What it’s like to say goodbye to your friends before moving abroad

The last few days since graduation have been a huge blur of driving (I feel like I live in cars these days), packing, sorting, donating stuff, and saying goodbye to friends. As it turns out, I’m leaving at a pretty convenient time because the fall semester just ended and most people in town – Gainesville is a quintessential “college town” after all – have left to be with their families for the holidays. That makes saying goodbye much easier because now that almost all my friends have left town, I can just slip out and never look back.

Image

I barely have any recent/decent photos of myself with friends, so here’s one of my cat Chip and I (don’t worry, he lives with my parents so he’s not coming to Spain)

I HATE goodbyes.
I get really emotional and nostalgic and I get a sinking feeling in my stomach about the future and I start worrying that I won’t be able to make new friends and, and, and… you get the idea. So in order to avoid that “what if we never see each other again?” feeling, I decided to get all my goodbyes out of the way these past couple of weeks, after exams but before everyone bounced for the holidays. That way it feels more like people are leaving for a couple weeks like they do every year around this time, and less like me explicitly leaving them.

So what does it feel like to say goodbye to your friends, knowing that you will be moving more than 4000 miles away?
In a word, it feels weird. Why? Because when you make plans to see that person, it feels like any other time that you hang out with them. You catch up on what’s been happening since you last saw them, you talk about other friends, you talk about your plans for the immediate future. Hanging out as per usual. HOWEVER, in every case there’s a silent but powerful voice in the back of your head that is dreading the part where you have to part ways with that person.

So when that time of the night comes around and both people are about to go to their respective homes, I usually opted for the “have a great Christmas/New Years” method. It feels less like a goodbye and more like a  “see you later!” Except in some cases I failed miserably at being stoic and wound up crying incessantly right in front of them. And in ALL cases I cried a little when I got home.

 If this sounds depressing, I have good news:
After the initial wave of intense sadness, I felt relieved. I thought about how easy it is to keep in touch with things like Facebook, Skype, and even snail mail if you are dedicated enough. I also realized that no matter how much time passes, if someone is a true friend, they will never forget about you. That gives me courage, and I hope you can find comfort in this post if you are going through a similar experience.

“Time is the longest distance between two places.” – Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie 

I graduated: A few words about college

It’s been a wild ride, and I’m elated to say that I finally graduated from the University of Florida. I know this is a bit off-topic from the kind of things I usually write about, but I feel that if it weren’t for my years in college, I wouldn’t be where I am today: preparing to teach English in Madrid. So this is my two cents about college.Image

College is the appetizer: a good sample of what’s to come but not entirely satisfying. College isn’t where you go to stay forever, it’s where you go to decide where to go next.

I disagree with people who say that college is the “best four years of your life.” (If only I had a nickel for every time I heard that phrase growing up). To me, that’s like getting full off the appetizer; you end up not enjoying the entrée.

As much fun as I had in college, I wouldn’t want it to last forever. I have tons of memories from the fun times I had, but that’s what they will always be from now on: memories.

Sure, some people really hit their stride in college. They get involved with everything on campus, make all their lifelong friends, meet their soul mate, land the best internships, and then return as a successful alumnus who speaks to the freshmen congregation about how to be successful. Great for them!

That wasn’t my experience. It absolutely wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t the “best four years” thing that everyone built it up to be. It was life. It had ups and downs just like any other time. They say youth is wasted on the young, but that’s coming from the perspective of those who are no longer in their awkward, trying-to-fit-in-but-somehow-always-feeling-slightly-off phase of life.

As for me, I feel like now that college is over, I’m about to come into the best years of my life. I still have a lot of growing up to do, but I feel more confident in myself now than ever before. When I think about why, many things come to mind. It wasn’t like one day I woke up and suddenly felt this way. I learned to let go of the things that used to hold me back. I learned to cope with the many painful changes that life brings. And I learned that change can be positive.

It’s this newfound faith in change, I think, that gives me the strength to look ahead and not fixate on the past. Thanks for the lesson, college. I owe you.

I know this post isn’t directly related to Madrid, Spain, Teaching English, or any of the other major topics of this blog, but if it weren’t for my time in college, I might have never considered moving abroad. So I felt it was necessary to dedicate an off-topic post to the past three and a half years that helped shape me into the person I am now.

Sorry for the lack of posts these past couple of weeks. I had to study for finals and news was slow on the Spain-trip side of my life. But now that school is over, things will be happening very fast for me, so stick with me and soon I’ll be in Spain!

Drunk with Anticipation: Top 5 Things I am Looking Forward to about Madrid

Whenever I start thinking about this upcoming adventure, I feel giddy with excitement. The idea of teaching English in Madrid thrills and energizes me more than anything I’ve ever done or thought of doing. I’m even more exhilarated about this than I was about going to college! I want to speed up time and get there already, but anticipation is half the fun. In the meantime, below are the Top 5 Things I am looking forward to most:

1. Food
I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a million times: Spanish food is severely underrated in the United States. If you ask people what they think about Spanish food, a lot of them will automatically think you are referring to Mexican food. What they don’t realize is that authentic Spanish cuisine has its own identity. You could describe it as Mediterranean. Butter, I’ve heard, is practically nonexistent. Instead, everything is cooked in olive oil. Ham, fish, and lots of fresh veggies. I won’t go into too much detail right now, but in a word it’s incredible.

It’s not just the food itself that I want, it’s the whole eating culture. People seem to truly enjoy the food. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and many people drink wine with it. Dinner is late (9 or 10pm) and can last hours. Before dinner people often meet for tapas, which I’ll probably write a whole post about later. And then they go for drinks after. Mealtimes are reserved for friends and family, and rushing is not in the vocabulary. Out of all the things that I’m looking forward to, the food (and the socializing that goes along with it) absolutely makes this list.

2. Intercambio
For those that don’t know, an intercambio is a language exchange. They are organized at bars, bookstores, and other places around the city. There is bound to be at least one intercambio happening every night of the week. From what I’ve read about them, you show up at the designated meeting spot and sit with a group of people who want to learn your language (generally English). You talk to them and let them practice English with you, and in turn you get the chance to practice in Spanish. Drinks, new people, local bar. What’s not to like?

I don’t have a lot of friends in Spain *cough* just one *cough* so I need to take advantage of every chance I get to make new friends. In addition, English speakers are in high demand, so I know I won’t be sitting awkwardly in the corner waiting for someone to talk to me. It will also serve as free teaching experience for me. As I mentioned in my post about my Top 5 Fears About Moving to Spain, being a bad teacher was one of them, so I welcome the opportunity to practice. When I was in Madrid in 2012, I never went to an intercambio although I should have, so this is my chance to check it out!

3. Teaching job opportunities
As much as I’m nervous about teaching English in Madrid, I’m equally as excited about it. I will only be working part time so I know it won’t be super overwhelming, and it will be a great way to meet locals. After I finish the TEFL course is when I’ll be eligible to start working, so I’ll write more about it when the time comes. I can’t wait to have a classroom full of students. It will be hard, but I say “Bring it on!”

4. Easy transportDSC00215
In Gainesville, you need a car to get around except for the downtown area. If you want to go shopping, you have to drive to the grocery store and park in a huge boring lot, and make your way to the chain store that is exactly like the all the other ones across the state. Walking around takes forever and it’s generally too hot to be even remotely comfortable.

Madrid on the other hand, is a big city with an excellent subway (or “metro”) system. It only takes a few minutes to get anywhere you need to go, and you don’t need to look for parking. In addition,  walking is a pleasure because you have plenty to look at while doing so: the small shops, boutiques, bars, cafés, restaurants, the architecture of the buildings, the buzz and energy of the city, all make it fun to walk. It’s not just a means of transport, it’s an experience.

5. Fashion!
We’ve all heard the stereotypes: American people wear jeans and fanny packs, British people wear socks with sandals, and the Spanish wear heels and scarves. It’s not necessarily true for every person every day, but I noticed that Spanish people generally dress more nicely than their American counterparts. Then again, there’s more motivation to dress up when you are going to be seen walking around, as noted in point #4. I admit that I’ve gone grocery shopping more than once in pajama pants and a sweat shirt, who am I trying to impress? No one. But I like the idea of presenting myself nicely for no reason, just because that’s the way it is.

Those are the top 5 things I am MOST excited about for Madrid. Fellow travelers: what are/were you looking forward to most about your trips?

“Never forget that anticipation is an important part of life… without excitement, you have nothing. You’re cheating yourself if you refuse to enjoy what’s coming.” – Nicholas Sparks