Tuesday, April 22, 2014

As the page turns...

I still have three months left here, yet in a few clicks of a camera, a few swigs of badly mixed drinks, a few long nights and a few raw goodbyes, it'll be over. This book will be done, the present unfolding European adventure will have folded for good (or at least for two years). My story has been a wild one, more twisted, painful and rewarding than I could've ever predicted. I hope I will be able to say the same for the epilogue.

Closing out the final chapter of my Tales of Twenty-some Countries will be harder than it was to introduce the pursuit. But the epilogue is nothing to cry about. I've accepted a two-year graduate assistant position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, my alma mater, in the New Student Enrollment office.

I'll help coordinate, plan and implement orientation programs for new students, with special emphasis on international ones. I'll develop and direct an international-student seminar, run an English language group, arrange meals for foreign students with local families and create activities to increase interaction between foreigners and Americans. As part of the deal, the university is going to pay me for that job and even pay all of my Educational Administration Master's degree tuition. That's hard to pass up. So is finally being around to kiss my little gang of nieces and nephews, to join in family dinners and to dress in red on fall Saturdays with friends in Lincoln.

Even so, the decision hasn't been an easy one. I've had to turn down an opportunity to teach next year in the sunny, palm-tree lined coastal region of Spain that was just named the "world's best place for the good life." I guess I've chosen "The Good Life" over "the good life."

I believe our lives should read like a book. We are the protagonists in our own stories, and we must drive their course. There should be progress, excitement, inevitable lulls, a climax and a denouement. A good story has forward motion, a maturing plot and evolving characters. Happy endings are great but only if someone trudged through a patch of thorns in shorts to get there. I've recorded my narrative here, including my battles against the proverbial thorn patches that scratched me to sh**but ultimately left me better off. I hope to pen a happy ending here, too.

I've made a decision to keep moving and advance my story. So, here's to continuing to write one heck of a tale.

Monday, January 13, 2014

What I've come to believe

I believe in adventure and growth and learning by living; in seeing something in a book or on TV and making it real.

I believe in change, in the pursuit of dreams, in committing when you're ready and acknowledging when you're not.

I believe in the beauty of being hopelessly lost and, in the struggle to find your way, noticing people, places and details you wouldn't have seen otherwise.

I believe in trial periods and return policies and in telling time to f*** off because the only purpose it serves is to rush you or remind you of what you haven't done.

I believe in respecting the wisdom of others but giving your gut the last word.

I believe in a fluid definition of accomplishment; in the acquisition of knowledge; in recognizing the things you don't know and working to fill the gaps.

I believe in focusing on yourself first so that you can better focus on others, in always thinking for yourself and regularly thinking of yourself.

I believe in being responsibly irresponsible because with too much diligence you'll have too little fun.

I believe that talk and tears are miraculous, that the best memories come from the worst circumstances, that there is a reason for coincidence and chance encounters because they really aren't coincidence or chance encounters at all.

I believe in never stopping, never settling, never being OK with being stuck in the mud.

I believe "I was busy" always means "I didn't want to make time."

I believe in toughing it out, but when the levee breaks, I believe in the healing touch of home, of Mom's cooking and Dad's jokes.

I believe that we can always be better and things can always be worse; I believe in counting your blessings before counting your money and in saving the worst for last.

I believe in the power of, "I love you," "I'm sorry," "Thank you" and "Excuse me."

I believe that make-or-break moments come more than once in a lifetime and that improvised disaster is more worthwhile than scripted perfection.

I believe in saying "no," in the beauty of being alone, in regular self-reflection and self-improvement.

I believe that normal is an incredibly boring thing to be and that we should leave an "I was here" mark on the lives of the people we meet.

I believe in guiltlessly eating an extra piece of chocolate, sleeping an extra five minutes, drinking another glass of wine and watching stupid television.

I believe that people who say they have no regrets are full of sh** because we'll always wish we did things differently.

I believe that people change, that all of us deserve second chances.

Most importantly, I believe in the pursuit of happiness, whatever that happiness may be. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

52 signs you're an American in Spain

...because you can take the American out of America, but you can't take the, well, you know...
  1. You have a love/hate relationship with the siesta.  
  2. You're not a fan of dubbing. 
  3. You're really awkward with the double-kiss greeting.  
  4. Your English gets worse by the day. 
  5. You're waiting for Netflix and Pandora to get their you-know-what together and start functioning overseas. 
  6. You curse the lack of toilet paper, paper towels and/or soap in the bathrooms here. 
  7. You've explained countless times that rugby and American football are not the same. 
  8. Your internal meal bell still rings around noon and 6 p.m. 
  9. Cooking with butter reminds you of home.
  10. You've gone to the ethnic aisle to find peanut butter. 
  11. You have introduced said peanut butter to foreign friends. Their response was something along the lines of, "It tastes like peanuts," or my personal favorite, "Um, it's really thick."
  12. You've paid outrageous prices for said peanut butter, ingredients to make tacos or baking supplies.
  13. You wonder why anyone builds living quarters without an oven.
  14. You've corrected a Spaniard's English and then later realized it was actually correct in British English.
  15. You've been teased for your Central American/South American Spanish.
  16. You'll never be able to keep up with Spaniards on the social scene. Going out at 2 a.m. isn't easy. 
  17. You try to adapt your wardrobe to Europe, but on days when life sucks, you put on tennis shoes and your college sweatshirt and ask Europe to cut you some slack.
  18. You brought a college sweatshirt from home. Or four college sweatshirts from home. 
  19. You're the go-to expert on how life in America is/is not like it appears in the movies.
  20. Spaniards think it's weird that you wear socks around the house.
  21. Anywhere within eight or nine hours driving is a totally doable weekend trip. Spaniards don't agree. 
  22. You don't have the heart to tell Spaniards that you don't catch a cold from not wearing shoes in the house/not wearing a scarf/not buttoning your coat. 
  23. It's hard for you to understand that going to the doctor is free. As in, you don't have to pay. At all. No, really, you just go and then leave and keep your money.
  24. You see gas prices here and suddenly $3.50 a gallon seems like a bargain.
  25. You wonder why Europeans prefer hatchbacks over small sedans.
  26. You've had to explain to people back home that Spanish food is not Mexican.
  27. "Spicy" Spanish food doesn't seem remotely spicy to you. 
  28. Sometimes the whiny, entitled American comes out when you can't buy something at 1 a.m. or anytime on a Sunday.
  29. Your friends in America are 24 and married, while your friends in Spain are 30 and still staying out 'til 8 a.m.
  30. You've realized that wine and coffee in Spain are far superior and cheaper than in America. 
  31. You've told a Spaniard which part of the country you're from, and they've related your state/city to something from pop culture.
  32. Or they said, "That's in the north, right?" To which you've responded, "No, it's actually in the southwest/center/complete opposite part of the country."
  33. You've explained that Americans don't wear scary costumes for Halloween, and we instead use the holiday as an excuse to dress like an idiot or a lady of the night.
  34. When you visit the States or have a visitor in Spain, you stock up on food (i.e. Reese's) and cosmetics.
  35. You've realized Americans know nothing about European geography or politics.
  36. You've visited more of Spain than most Spaniards. 
  37. You've lost multiple battles against Spanish bureaucracy and customer service. 
  38. It took you months to stop apologizing to people who run into you on the street.
  39. Old people on park benches in the evening strikes you as the epitome of Spain.
  40. You regret not learning to drive a stick-shift (or you're really glad your parents made you do it). 
  41. You can point out America's flaws, but if a European does it you suddenly get all sensitive. It's like the great U.S. of A is your best friend or your mom. Nobody dogs on your mom.
  42. Sometimes the lack of political correctness in Spain makes you squirm.
  43. The Spanish practice of putting a heater under the table in the living room took some getting used to.
  44. You dearly miss your clothes dryer. 
  45. You'll never stop eating breakfast on the run/ordering coffee to go, even though it's totally un-Spanish. 
  46. You've yet to eat an American-caliber burger in Spain.
  47. You've explained that we don't eat burgers every day.
  48. You feel uncomfortable in McDonald's or Burger King because you feel like everyone there knows you're American and are therefore fulfilling the stereotype. 
  49. You have no good defense for, "That's why Americans are obese."
  50. You wonder why America doesn't have cañas.
  51. Given the crisis, you're thankful for the economic opportunities we have waiting for us in America.
  52. But you're not ready to pursue those opportunities yet because you're floating through your youth in Spain, where life is usually beautiful, sometimes frustrating, sometimes backwards, occasionally tears-inducing, mostly entertaining and always worth it.
Dear fellow countrymen and women, any signs you'd add to the list?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

On being an American introvert in Spain

After a weekend in a mountain house with 12 Spaniards, this post seems timely...

Spanish is a social culture, which makes it an anomaly of sorts when compared to individual-based America. Spain is all about evening walks on the crowded city-center sidewalks, where old men are dapper in cardigans, slacks and leather shoes. Here, friends go to each other's homes for mid-afternoon coffee and company. Spaniards meet on weekend afternoons to tapear, in which they sip beers and order dishes to be picked over by the group. They talk, they laugh, they kiss hello and sometimes goodbye, too. They thrive on the communal experience, on shared moments together and conversation over long lunches and drink dates. To not be social is to not be Spanish.

I love this picture I took in Avila because it sums up Spanish culture so perfectly. 

Which puts me, an introvert and an American to boot, in a tough spot sometimes. Let me begin this spiel by noting that being introverted and being anti-social are not the same. The latter is a personality disorder, actually. Introverts don't hate people or parties or talking or groups of three or four or five. Like most humans, we enjoy revelry, banter, fun and togetherness, but we reach a point in which we are simply drained by the beauty of it all. We replenish our energy in the most glorious way possible, I think: by being alone. I love the silence and the tranquility of being solo, and quite frankly, I need it.

My need to be alone doesn't necessarily defy American cultural norms. Sure, some of my friends think I'm a weirdo when I am noticeably delighted to be holed up solo, but it's not widely frowned upon. Here in Spain, from what I've gathered, at least, being alone or doing things alone isn't quite as acceptable. There are times I want to eat alone. There are times when I'd rather not have coffee at her house or my house. Because as a teacher, I'm surrounded by people and energy and commotion and chatter and screaming every day. So after work, sometimes I just want to go to my room and let my thoughts fight each other for my attention. There is no better noise to me than deafening silence.

Even so, I try to accept any invitation offered to me as a way to embrace Spanish culture and experience everything I can during my short time here. But you can't fight nature. Sometimes I feel like a gorilla in captivity because like him, I've grown comfortable in an environment that's entirely unnatural for me. But there are times when I bang my head against the glass or mindlessly spin in circles, thus showing there's a part of me that still knows I'm going against the grain here.

The emphasis on relationships and community and living life with people instead of just around them is something I admire about Spanish culture. And I envy the people who can embrace that each and every day. For me, it's a challenge, but I'm making the effort and making friends. So here's to different cultures challenging us, teaching us and changing us.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Stuff I Eat: Yemas de Ávila

The lack of recent posts about my culinary adventures doesn't mean I haven't been trying anything and everything edible (and some things that would be, by most definitions, inedible). Quite the opposite, actually. I've been too busy eating to write about how much I've been eating.

Name: Yemas de Ávila (Yemas de Santa Teresa)

Translation: Avila egg cakes (Saint Teresa egg cakes)

So what is it exactly? It's a pastry typical of the province of Avila. It's egg yolks mixed with a syrup made of sugar, cinnamon, lemon and water. The result is a soft yellow confectionery that I can best describe as a mix between a pastry (because it's soft and sweet) and a candy (because it's small and totally unlike a traditional bread-based pastry).

Where I ate it: Avila, Spain. I popped into a traditional pastry shop (the city is loaded with them) and bought a box. They're gold in food form. I don't say that for their yellow color but rather because I paid 5 euros for a box of 12 tiny yemas.

Before trying it, I was thinking...: "These look like lemon drops, but the fact that 'yolk' is in their name is throwing me off."

Texture: Because I anticipated something resembling lemon drops, I wasn't expecting them to be soft. Needless to say, I was surprised (unpleasantly, at first) to find that yemas are indeed barely solid. The exterior is slightly crispy, but it dissolves on contact with your tongue and gives way to the treat's gloriously gooey innards.

Taste: Given the ingredients (read: lots of sugar), it's very sweet. It tastes like a soft ball of sugary goo with a touch of lemon, all of which is given consistency by the yolk. They're slightly reminiscent of a gum drop, but they're softer and just plain better. I thought I would be able to taste egg in the yemas, but much like the eggs used in any other pastry, the egg-like flavor is completely disguised in the pastry.

Verdict: Heavenly...and way too easy to eat way too many. They're tiny but incredibly sweet. I'm a serious addict to sweets, so I could easily down a few of these at a time. But if you're not a fan of sweets, these golden balls of saintly deliciousness aren't intended for you.

It'd be blasphemous for me not to like something named for Saint Teresa, given she's my patron saint and namesake...I'm not much for blasphemy.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Nine things you thought wrong about Morocco

A Spanish friend and I took a week and traversed the gut of Morocco. Much like I described the derelict parts of Bulgaria, the desolate, dog-eared side of Morocco has its charm. The half-finished buildings and the missing windows and the trash-strewn fields and the "toilets" at roadside stops all contribute to the intrigue and offbeat beauty of Morocco, a country that doesn't try to hide itself behind blush and high heels. You can’t fully understand and experience a country in seven days, but we got a pretty extensive glimpse into Moroccan life on the road from Marrakech to Fez and back. It was us, our van, the Sahara Desert, the Atlas Mountains and hundreds of kilometers of open highway. And wow, was it incredible.

Tinghir, palm tree oasis in the Sahara

Atlas Mountains
I learned a lot in a short time on The Great Moroccan Road Trip. I realized that people know nothing about the country, that much of our “knowledge” of what Morocco is and isn’t comes from tall tales and TV shows. So, inspired by the bountiful tourist misconceptions, I’ve jotted down a list of things you thought wrong about the jewel of North Africa.

1. Police only want to rip off tourists.
This couldn't be further from the truth. I'd read horror stories of tourists being hassled for speeding and paying arbitrary fines on the spot. What if they took us for all we had? It's true the country is one giant speed trap. Police checkpoints are everywhere, and the speed limit signs are posted so close together it's impossible to obey them. But we passed through more than 15 stops, and every time, the officers saw we were tourists and let us on our way with a smile and a bit of elementary English or conversational Spanish.

2. The roads are awful.
Sure, they are not like U.S. highways, but anyone who expects them to be doesn't understand much about the world. Moroccan roads are narrow and generally lack asphalt shoulders, but they are in surprisingly good condition. The main and semi-main highways have gravel shoulders. We crossed the center of the country in a big van with no problem, and we didn’t use four-wheel drive. We navigated using street signs, a Michelin map and English/Spanish/broken French to ask for directions. We got lost a few times and cursed poor signage when we did. But guess what? We lived to tell the tale.

3. Going on a guided tour is the best way to see Morocco.
I don't doubt that the guided tours are great. But they aren't necessary. If you have someone who's comfortable handling tight curves on mountain roads and who's not intimidated by offensive and defensive driving, I'd recommend a road trip. The guided tours post their exact itineraries online. It's easy to find one you like and use it to plan your own adventure. Let it be known, however, that renting a car wasn't cheap (250 euros for four days, including extra insurance for peace of mind. I’ve read it’s cheaper if you rent from a local company.). Despite the expense, having a car was great for convenience and comfort. Do be advised, though, that passing through towns is like an obstacle course, but not a fun one. The only reward at the course's end is knowing you didn't crash into a donkey cart or run over a cloaked woman. The country is full of long-haul cabs that take tourists and locals to and fro, but they pack as many people as possible (plus one or two more) into those aging Mercedes. I imagine traveling in an overcrowded hotbox could make the red rocks of the Sahara look a little bit like the bowels of hell. 

Defensive driving at its finest.

Driving gave us the freedom to soak in views like this. 

4. Morocco is incredibly cheap.
This may have been true before the tourist boom, but Morocco is no off-the-map destination. It’s full of tourists, and the prices reflect that. You can find beds at well-reviewed youth hostels for about 9 euros a night per person (which is comparable to Budapest and Prague, for example), whereas nicer hotels are closer to 20 euros per person and up. It’s en vogue to renovate old homes and convert them into gorgeous hotels, and for how nice they are, they’re definitely cheaper than a similar lodging option in, say, Italy or Paris. But don’t think visiting Morocco with a clinking coin purse is sufficient. You’re going to spend a decent chunk of change if you want to see more than one city. You can find traditional food for around 3 euros a person, but if you’re more comfortable eating at tourist restaurants, expect to pay closer to 8 or 10 euros for a meal. As for souvenirs in the medinas, hard-line negotiation is a must. At most you should pay half the price vendors initially quote. 

The souks, Marrakech

5. Since it’s touristy, everyone speaks good English. 
Morocco is the first place I’ve visited where people were much more inclined to speak Spanish than English. Geographically, it makes sense, of course, given that it’s directly south of Spain. In Marrakech, the vendors spoke just about any language necessary to lure a customer in for a sale. But outside of Marrakech, I noticed English was much less common. When we camped in the Sahara, the workers all spoke great Spanish but limited English. Along our driving route, neither English nor Spanish worked well. Broken French was the best – and often only – way to communicate. This isn’t to say you can’t make it on English alone, of course, but it’s likely to be more difficult.

6. The Sahara Desert is made up of endless sand dunes.
You know that awesome footage you’ve seen on National Geographic of undulating mountains of powder-fine sand kissed by the desert sun? Most of the Moroccan Sahara is nothing like that. Much of it is rocky and dusty. Some is flat. Some is mountainous. The rest falls somewhere between the two extremes. There are two small parts, called the Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga, that are as orange and dune-y and spectacular as what Google boasts. But for reference, the Erg Chebbi is only 22 kilometers across at its widest. Think of that in terms of the expansiveness of the Sahara and you’ll realize it’s only a small blip on the map. 

This is the Sahara. 

So is this. 

And this. 

And this. 

And this, too. 

7. Moroccan men love to harass Western women.
Yes, some of them do offer camels in exchange for ladies, but the only time I heard such a proposal, it was a joke. Moroccans are sales people, and they’re tactical. If they see you looking at a map, they’ll offer to guide you to the location, hoping for a small service tip at the end. If you stop to look at their wares at a stand in the medina, they’ll often badger you to go inside to browse further and talk prices. The closer you get to the desert dunes, where tourism is the area’s lifeblood, the worse the hounding gets. Men will block the highway or flank your vehicle on their motorcycles to promote their sales pitch. But from what I saw, they did that to men and women alike. 

It didn't take much coercing to get me into the shops. 
8. Morocco is all desert. 
I'll let photos speak to the country's geographical diversity. 

9. The food and water will kill you. 
Oh, how we Westerners love to have our food packaged or pasteurized.  In Morocco, if you refuse to try any local fare, your overall experience will be as sterile as that pre-made supermarket sandwich you opted for at lunch. I found a dead, petrified bee in the taffy I bought from a street vendor, and I ate it anyway. I ate fresh salads, olives and fruit. I drank juice in the mornings and ordered traditional pastilla and cous cous at afternoon meals. At the Marrakech food market, I went as far as to eat the leftover eggplant off a stranger’s plate after she left (that was probably a bit too far, admittedly). In the end, my gut didn’t violently scold me, and as far as I know, my body hasn’t been ravaged by a tapeworm or pathogen. I never did drink the water, but I did brush my teeth with it. I wouldn't necessarily recommend my careless approach to eating whatever I saw, but a little culinary adventure is healthy. 

Delicious mixed salad

Pastilla, a traditional dish (often described as a "meat pie" of chicken) in a crepe-like crispy shell and topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon

Beautiful traditional sweets

Marrakech food market

So, with all that said, here’s to living and learning, to debunking myths and to spreading truth in a world of tales. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

On living anonymously

It's OK to fear starting over, to stew about the person people know you to be and how you want people to know the New You. It's scary to build yourself from scratch, to leave behind the people and places whose smells and smiles you recognize, whose presence is so intricately linked to your identity that you don't know who are are without them. 

We all have those people and places that help define us. There's that restaurant you go to when your diet crumbles and then there's the one you go to when you start anew. There's the rundown party house that reminds you of morning-after struggles with Captain Morgan and the tacky bar that'll always make you think of The One Who Got Away. And then there are the people who give these places meaning. 

In your new home, no one will be a pharmacist, cook, biggest fan, friend and listener quite like Mom. No one will affectionately and intentionally annoy you like your big brother. And no one will grip your secrets as tightly as your best friend. But there's something refreshing about living anonymously. Each day when I walk down the street, I see no one from my past. I only see people who may or may not be part of my future, people who may turn out to be my roommate's cousin's tutor or the worthless woman at the bank who's at work to do everything but her job. It's both terrifying and invigorating that people here aren't tied to milestones or mile markers back home. Restaurants and parks and street corners here aren't tied to memories. Everything is new, and so am I. 

With every person I meet, I can define my identity. No reputation precedes me. No yearbook entry tells people here I'm the most or least likely to succeed. No two degrees of separation tell a new acquaintance her roommate didn't like me in high school. I am Teresa, whoever that may be. I'm not saying I'm here "trying to find myself." That's a cliche, and nobody knows what the heck it really means, anyway. But starting over has an interesting way of sparking self-reflection, of making us question which parts of our former selves we'd like to conserve and which ones are better left to die along with the previous Me. So, as I stumble through this latest adventure, here's to Teresa being more thoughtful, less catty, more selfless, less volatile, more delicate with feelings and altogether less like the worst parts of the Old Me. Because sometimes it takes leaving behind who you were to realize who you'd like to be. 
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