Guiri Life

Culture shock has most certainly been a part of this, my first, full week back in the U.S.. Six years away can’t take the American (Californian if you want to be picky) out of me, but it can certainly make my compatriots seem curious, weird, and sometimes downright freakish. There have been moments of “man, I am never going to feel right ever again” in the last few days.

I’d love to get my hands on a copy of a Bill Bryson book I read many years ago, I’m A Stranger Here Myself. The title says it all – he wrote it upon returning to the States after 20 years of living in Britain. I feel he would understand.

However, I couldn’t find that particular book before coming back. What I did find was a fairly good substitute. On the bar at J&J’s Books and Coffee, for the bargain basement price of €1.50 and weighing in at a baggage-allowance-friendly 64 pages I found, as if by divine intention, Xenophone’s Guide to the Americans.

I have since discovered that this is a whole series – and they are full of wisdom. I find them a comfort in decoding my own, long-estranged people.

I find the cover illustration, with Statue of Liberty, McDonald’s and money, to be an apt representation of what might strike a foreigner (or native stranger) about the United States at first glance. Most of my instances of cultural disconnect have been in response to their/our consumerism, obsession with spending, and our distinct idea of patriotism.

An excerpt from the foreword of this satirically wise pamphlet:

Americans are like children: noisy, curious, unable to keep a secret, not given to subtlety, and prone to misbehave in public. Once one accepts the Americans’ basically adolescent nature, the rest of their culture falls into place, and what at first seemed thoughtless and silly appears charming and energetic.

And so begins this very politically incorrect and often prfoundly truthful, yet concise, examination of the American soul. I think I will be using it as a constant guide in transitional phase 🙂


Been a little busy settling into D.C. but wanted to post about my last hours in Madrid.

So, last we found her, Karina was relaxing with a nice lunch, but her day was faaaaar from over….

The Sending of the Books.OMG! This was the hardest part of the move.

Part of my book collection set out for my mini-garage sale 😦

Before sending books, of course, I had to weed out, to eliminate, to say goodbye to, as many of my little treasures as I could bear. I sold quite a few at a mini-garage sale type thing at my house to my friends (they know I have good literary taste, and were smart to take advantage) then sold what was left to J&J’s Books.

That left me with around 90 to 100 books. I had looked around online for cheap chipping services, but most sea-freight services are for total house moving – furniture and everything. This was just a couple large boxes of books, and it turned out that the post office gave me the best price, for their “economia” service.

All in all it was about 45 kilos over two boxes. Kilos. I have been in Spain for 6 years, everything is done in kilos, and yet still, I had no idea what a 30 kilos box of books (max is 30 kilos) would feel like. It felt like pain. It felt like I was doing something incredibly wrong to my back. And arms. And legs. Luckily I MacGyvered our shopping trolley into a dolly of sorts and hefted the boxes with a little help from my friends.

The post office guy was like “ok, just set that on the counter” and I was like “uuuuuuhhh, not happening.”

The Donating of the Clothes. Ugh. More hauling. Though this was physically and emotionally less traumatic than the books. (more…)

Site of the Last Lunch

I haven’t had time to write about it, cuz I’ve been a bit busy, what with the leaving the country and six years of my life behind, but i thought I’d share a bit of my last day before heading out to Washington DC.

  • The Freak Out. You know how sometimes you wake up before your alarm goes off and then just doze for a while? Yeah I love that. Couldn’t do it though, cuz I instantly started thinking of all the crap I was supposed to do and the fact this was my last day and omg what the f$*k am I going to do in washington dc and aaaaaaaaa! So instead of having some lazy napping, I just started at the ceiling and let my thoughts whirl about like a hamster wheel being driven by a hamster on cocaine. That was fun. And then I got up.
  • The Sorting of The Crap. One of the big things I had left to do was to go through various baggies, boxes, folders, binders, notebooks, and piles of various papers, documents, letters, handwritten notes, photos, receipts, photocopies and other bits of paper I have long since forgotten the significance of and see what, if any, needed keeping. So I sat in my big blue ridicuously oversized bathrobe (thanks Mom!) with cup of tea in hand and started sorting.
    I found interesting stuff! Like:
    *  cute cheesy cards my mom sent me along with photos of my cat 🙂
    * lots of scribbled emails addresses and phone numbers that brought back very few corresponding memories
    *funny notes I wrote to myself while I was working in a bar my first summer here, scrawled on Warsteiner brand notepad paper.
    * copies/drafts of two whole post-break up letters, always amusing to read years after the fact, and thankfully, no longer painful. In fact I was quite impressed with my compositional style, and mourned that my espistolary talents count for little in the email age .
    *lots of business cards. I think I kept, like 3.
    *a napkin with a memorable joke written on it 6 years ago in a bar in Sol.
    *the driver’s license of an Irish friend of mine who I haven’t seen since 2004, but who calls once every year and a half (sometimes after a few too many) to see what’s up.
    *ticket to Benicassim 2005. Best 5 days of pure bliss I’ve had in the past 7 years.
    *ticket to Summercase 2007. Best 2 days of pure bliss I’ve had in the past 3 years.
    *photo booth photos from when I took my pic in Feb of 2004 for my Madrid metro pass. I totally want to get one of them scanned and make it my Facebook profile picture. Toooooooooooooo funny.
    *receipts for taxis in Berlin from when I was there with MobuzzTV for 10 days for the world cup. D’oh! Forgot to get my reimbursement apparently.
  • The Depositing of the Money. I enjoyed my last instance of waiting in line at the Bank to deposit my last month’s wages, which would soon be my tiny tiny nestegg for begining a new life in DC. I am royally irritated by the crappy exchange rate. I unashamedly wish for the dollar to plummet in value against the euro sometime within the next couple of weeks, so that when I withdrawl it over here, it will have magically become more.
  • The Farewell and the Piggy Bank Money. So I had this crazy red  papier mache piggy bank that my boss at MobuzzTV gave me for secret santa years ago. And I realized acouple weeks back that now it was finally time to open the poor thing. I was discussing this with a student of mine who works at Banco de España (Spain’s central bank) and he told me they have machines in the lobby to count your coins. Yay!

    Interior of the bank, can't see beautiful stained glass ceiling 😦

    So I swept passed Banco de España and met up with my student. My coins (diminished at this point as I had already spent all the big 1 and 2 euro coins immediately after gutting my piggy bank) came to a grand total of 32 euros. And this being the Bank of Spain , I got it in super brand new crispy never been wrinklen notes, and shiny shiny shiny coins. I had a coffee with my student, said farewell and went off to buy myself a lunchtime treat.

  • The Last Lunch. This was it. My last lunch out in Madrid. Where would I go? What did I want to eat? What could possibly be special enough? What could symbolize the end of this era. And as I strolled through Sol, down toards Plaza Mayor it hit me: Botin! Madrid’s Guiness World Record holding oldest restaurant, where Hemmingway ate and Goya (I s#&t you not, Goya, washed dishes). And I had never eaten there! With good reason, its expensive. But I thought, I could have a glass of wine and some croquetas, I don’t have to get the roast suckling pig. It seemed somehow poetic to go there for my last lunch.

    Photo I found of Ricla online. Gives you an idea.

    But I got there and it looked all dark inside, and it seemed a pity to go there on such a sunny day. I looked across the street – Bar La Ricla, a little bar I’d passed a million times and had always wanted to go into, but when I went back it was always closed. It was open! So, on my last day I discovered something new. Cute, small, cozy, bright, with beautiful old tiles (the ones I love with the andalusian-style, islamic-influenced geometric patterns) cast iron columns like many buildings in the area, including my flat. Glass of tinto, a bit of chorizo, reading my book on a stool, looking out the lovely, sun-illuminated facade of Botin. Juuuuuuuuust right. And it cost less than 3 bucks!

  • Lunch, cont’d….. A bit of chorizo wasn’t really a lunch, and all the other things they offered were my less than favourites (lots of fish out of tins, in vinegar, in oil, etc…) so I thought I’d make lunch a 2-parter. So I ambled down Cava Baja towards home and just before I got there, stopped at Tempranillo. Wine bar extraordinaire. With really good yummy food things.

    Pic found online of the wall of wine at Tempranillo. I am unworthy.

    If I had money and decided to become a serious alcoholic wine connoisseur, this is where I would spend my life. They have a wall of wine. A wall. Someday I will have a wine rack like that. We all need goals. Anywho. So I had a glass of priorat (nope, dunno what that means either) and a tosta with salmorejo (this amaaaaaaazing tomato garlic thick cold gazpacho tasting stuff) and quail breast. Didn’t cost less than 3 euros. And so I finished the first part of my last day!

I have just been sitting here for about 4 hours trying to write a personal statement that I have to submit online by Feb. 1.

I know. That’s cutting it close. They tell you you should leave tons of time, but hey, I’m applying for a journalism program, if I can’t write in 4 days, what kind of a writer am I right? (She laughs nervously to herself).

I can write. I know this. For all my neurotic insecurities about a million stupid things, I know I can express a reasonably clear thought in written form.

I cannot, however, write about myself. Call it my Achilles heel, but it has long been evident to me that I would not be hired to write my own autobiography.

For example. I have managed to pour out 1056 words (for a 750 to 1000 word essay) so far, and have not managed to convey the significance of my time in Spain,  nor have I explained why I would be a good student. But I have babbled about “the big questions in life”, and  mentioned my favorite children’s book. Ugh. I just lose it.

Double UGH!!!

Really, the essay sucks because in the end the voice you are having to temper is the one in your head squealing “Oooooh! Pick me!! I’m ever so good!!!” like Lisa Simpson when the teachers went on strike. They tell you you should be honest, be yourself, but if I did that I’m afraid my essay would come out as follows:

“Hey! All I do is read, write, and argue. I’m a big fat book worm, but also a people person. I can talk into a camera well and that is my most marketable skill. I’ve been in Spain for six years, so I’ve got a second language, and international experience (beyond just dating Europeans I swear!!). I’m coming home to a country I haven’t know for the better part of my adult life, and need a boost back into the job market, which is shit right now cuz of the crisis, so please let me into grad school. Oh, and by the way, do you know anyone willing to give me thousands and thousands of dollars to help pay for this cuz I’ve been an illegal immigrant for 6 years and have no savings? Thanks.”

Ah. That was therapeutic. I think I’ve done all i can do today. Time to sleep on it.

My current plan (I use it in the loosest way possible) is to go back to the States and probably do a masters somewhere. I,being overconfident about the process and a tad prone to procrastinate, have only just started putting apps together. With predictable results.

The first headache is going to be the letters of recommendation, it seems. Before I left Berkeley, I used the university’s Letter Service, whereby you can ask for letters of recommendation while professors still know who you are, then put them on file for later use. I just checked out the Letter Service website today for, oh, probably the first time since I last filed a letter, and found out that they hold the letters for up to 5 years. I graduated in 2002. D’oh!

Sigh. Berkeley’s a huge school. I almost never talked to my professors, and even the ones I did have actual face to face interaction with probably won’t remember me almost 8 years down the line. My head hurts. This is an annoying end to a nasty sort of day. Now this is just going to be rolling around in my little cabeza and keeping me from my sleep. Grrrrrr.

My immune system seems to be sabotaging me once again.

I was hoping to come back from my weekend with friends in the Pyrenees rejuventated, ready to hit the ground running, to start a million projects at once, now that my work schedule was finally solidifying (after only two months of scrambling to get classes lined up).


Wheezy the Penguin from Toy Story. This is how I feel today.

But, no. Instead I hit the ground coughing. And sneezing. And wheezing. And snotting. So much snotting. Sometimes I wonder how it is physically possible to produce so much snot and if our bodies have some sort of limit at which they just run out. I have not reached that point yet. I’ll let you all know if I do.

Upside: cough syrup that totally makes me high (Bisolvon – what is IN this stuff?)

Downside: my job is terrible if you have a cold.

I haven’t talked much here about teaching English, probably because I am afraid that I will turn into an angry rant-monster. But I thought I’d include a little mini rant today.

So – English teaching in Spain, if you don’t have papers and therefore can’t get a contract, is, in general, a racket. Some of the racketeers are less exploitative than others, but in the end, it’s really no way to build a career (especially if like me, you don’t even want a career in English teaching, ha!). But that’s not the point of today’s rant.

Today’s rant is about shlepping. (I thank Yiddish for the beautiful contributions it has made to the English language – shlep being one of my favourites). When you teach English here without a contract, you are inevitably going to spend the greater part of your day, your time, your precious life energy shlepping around from one class to another, often in distant parts of the city, cramming yourself into bus and metro and running from one to the other with your not-very-light bag of text books and photocopies and sometimes (groan) a laptop. All of which is uncompensated time and effort.

This is all very annoying in summer, but in winter, for an immunologically challenged person such as myself, it becomes unbearable. All day, running in and out from warm air to freezing air. And what air it is. Madrid is the highest major capital in Western Europe and you can tell by the cold cold, skin crackingly dry air. You breathe it in and pain shoots through your sinus cavity (if you have weakling pathetic sinuses like me). I’m just a poor girl from Northern California. I have never adjusted to this.

Two years ago a I got the flu twice in 4 weeks. Last year I spent the better part of the winter in some state of phlegm over-production. This is my third disease of the season. I give up. I admit it. I am sickly. I don’t feel like a sickly person. I think of myself as full of energy and life. But I have to face the facts. All of my friends can pick out the sound of me in particular blowing my nose, so often do they hear it. My immune system is crap. Defective. Useless. I want a refund!

And so, while most people, when they get a cold, can at least spend most of their day in one, temperature-constant environment, I’m tossed around between over heated metro cars and windswept bus stops, carrying around absurd amounts of soon to be snot covered toilet tissue in my bag (cuz the kleenex ran out ages ago) to whose over-use the red, chaffed ring around my nose attests. It is not a pretty or dignified sight. I look like I belong in a Nyquil comercial.

Reason number 435 why I don’t want to teach English in Madrid anymore.

That’s it. Mini-rant, like I said.

Now, that said, I don’t want to give the impression I have anything against teaching. I love teaching actually. I just hate doing it in the conditions that exist in Madrid. Precarious, laborious, underappreciated.

I love my students though. I have met so many fabulous interesting people so far. One of my new students is an artist. Another is a military officer who is going to Afghanistan in January. And others are incredibly sweet kids who i would gladly teach for free (but don’t tell their parents that).

I’ve also learned a lot from my students. Many of them have lent me or recommended books (I’m working on two at the moment) And one has given me the bestest, stinkiest home remedy tip of all time (for sickly sniffly puppies like me). Teresa was a funcionario for the Ministry of Housing, but somewhere in the past she had studied nutrition and knew all sorts of interesting facts about foods. But the best was when I had a cold, and complained that I couldn’t sleep well at night, because I couldn’t breathe through my nose. She told me to put a chopped raw onion on a plate by my bed. Worked like a charm. My room stank to high heaven, but I could breathe!

Used that tip on Monday night. Was kind of worried that in the morning, perhaps I smelled of onion, but couldn’t tell because my sense of smell was impaired. If I did, the army guy was nice enough not to tell me.

Gotta go get rid of some snot now 🙂 [wheeeeeze]


Now that I know I’m going to leave, this is something that’s on my mind a lot. I’m going to make this post, and the “Things I Won’t Miss” post sort of rolling posts, I’ll repost them every time I update them with something new that’s popped into my head.

1. My neighborhood.

la latina metroLa Latina. It’s fabulous. For the last two years I sometimes feel like I’m living in a cheesy movie about living in Europe. During the day, I stand on my balcony and look out over the square and the people sitting at the sidewalk cafes, and the beautiful murals on the sides of buildings, and I listen to the street musicians serenade me (ok, some of them I hate, but in general its nice), and I pop down to the bakery that’s right next door, or to the stationary store or the video store or the incredible Mercado de la Cebada where they now know me, and I think, I’m never going to get this in the states, so I’d better enjoy it now.

And at night, it can be absurd, certainly not to just anyone’s tastes. It’s loud. I mean loud. So many people are out in the streets going from bar to bar (I’ve been here 2 years and haven’t been to half of them – though that’s mainly due to being too poor) that when you open the balcony doors in our living room on a summer night, the noise is deafening. I sometimes have to close them if I want to talk on the phone in here. And I can’t count the number of nights I have fallen asleep to the sounds of people in the plaza drunkenly playing, singing, clapping flamenco after the bars have closed. Seriously. It feels like a cheesy movie but that’s how it is.


My everyday view from the balcony of San Andres and Plaza Carros


View towards Cebada

Basilica San Francisco just down the street

Basilica San Francisco just down the street


Plaza Carros on a typical sunny Sunday


Mural on building near mine


Festive Plaza Puerta Cerrada with murals

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