The Spain Survival Guide

Standard
The Spain Survival Guide

Before I start this post, I just want to say that I don’t think there’s an exact way to describe the Spanish lifestyle; it’s one that has to be felt to be truly understood. The Spanish are not like Canadians in any sense. Spain is very relaxed in comparison to hectic Canadian life, which means it’s really easy to adjust to, right? Wrong. It took at least a month and a half for me to get accustomed to the lifestyle here. Now, as I sit nearly at the three month mark, here’s a bit of advice on how to handle Spain for the first time.

1. Do not underestimate siesta
Siesta is a period of rest in the afternoon, usually after lunch time, that the Spanish take very seriously. All the shops close down and workers go home on a lunch break from around 2pm-5pm which proves to be extremely inconvenient when you sleep in late and try to head town around lunchtime.

2. You can have lazy Sundays
Nothing is open on Sunday, except for restaurants, bars, and a very small handful of grocery stores. If you want a day to stay in without feeling guilty, let it be the Sabbath.

3. So….much….bread
My friends and I joke that when we go home and get asked how Spain was we are going to reply with some vague comment about bread. But honestly, you can’t escape bread here. You get it with every meal (some restaurants make you PAY for it, even though you don’t order it) or with every tapas plate you order. If you’re one of those people who tries to avoid carbs, don’t even bother here. Embrace the bread. Become one with the bread. There is no way to evade the bread.

4. Hands off the rosemary
At some tourist hotspots you’ll encounter women who will try to get you to accept a sprig of rosemary, only to demand a ridiculous amount of money. Some of these women are especially pushy and will forcefully grab your wrist while trying to force the rosemary into your hand (this happened to me in Granada). Whatever you do, do not take it! Just keep walking with your hands at your side and you should be fine.

5. Learn how to go with the flow
The Spanish aren’t big on itineraries. It’s not uncommon for my fellow au pair friends to have to cancel on weekend plans because their family decided the day before they’re going to go to the beach. You need to learn how to be flexible to survive here, otherwise you’ll get too frustrated with how quickly everything can change. Travel won’t always go perfectly smooth, so one must be able to adapt to sudden changes.

6. Your camouflage won’t work
Locals know if you’re a foreigner. It’s in the way you walk, the way you dress, and the way you talk (or the mere language, for that matter). Don’t stress over trying to blend in to the Spanish way of dress either because the Spanish will always have you beat with their tailored pants, collared shirts, and the scary way their shoes perfectly match their outfits. You can be smart about how you try to blend in (ie: don’t bury your face in a map as you walk down the street or carry a large camera around your neck) but just be aware that the people around you know you aren’t familiar with your surroundings.

7. Get familiar with the language
If you’re going to Spain without any knowledge whatsoever of the Spanish language (like me), hit up Duolingo and learn some basic phrases. Make sure you know your manners, such as please, thank you, sorry, and excuse me. Try to learn some helpful expressions too, like “how much is this” or “where is..”. Also be warned: Spanish people speak extremely fast. However, you’ll still be able to pick up on some of their favourite phrases, like VALE! VALE! (translation: Okay) and VENGA! VENGA! (translation: let’s go).

8. Learn how to do everything later
After your jet lag goes away, you’ll need to get used to a whole new schedule. This new schedule involves later mealtimes: expect lunch around 2 or 3 and dinner to be around 9 or 10. However, something to take note of is that this doesn’t mean restaurants stay open any later; most restaurants are closing up by midnight. If you’re eating later, expect to be going out later too; it’s not uncommon to arrive at a disco at 2am and find it empty, save for a few earlybirds. This is so strange to a Canadian, seeing as at home clubs and bars close around this time.

9. Carry tissues with you
You’ll be thanking me for this one big time, because more than half of the bathrooms in Spain NEVER have toilet paper. Sometimes they don’t even have toilet seats. Many times I wanted to complain to management but my lack of Spanish language skills failed me.

10. holaaa guapaaaa!
In Spain as a woman you’ll definitely get more attention than back at home. Men both young and old will shout out “hola guapa!” (hello beautiful/gorgeous) as you’re walking by and it is annoying as heck. Ignoring them is fine, but it got to a point where, much to their surprise, I just made repulsive, ugly faces at them as I walked away.

Last Weekend I Had Coffee in Huesca

Standard

After two weeks of settling in Spain, I have finally begun my travels! This past weekend I visited Huesca (pronounced Uesca), a quaint little town an hour north of Zaragoza.

Spanish graffi isn't like typical North American graffiti; it's mostly picture of THINGS, not just signatures and scribbles!

Spanish graffi isn’t like typical North American graffiti; it’s mostly picture of THINGS, not just signatures and scribbles!

My favourite site was the Castle of Montearagon, a secluded fortress high up on a hill. To get here you had to drive about ten minutes from the city centre. The view from the top of these ruins was extraordinary as you could see all over the town as well as get a nice glance into the mountains. It’s amazing how well the castle has been preserved considering it was constructed around the eleventh century!

There she is!

There she is!

Mountain views

Mountain views

New view on the ruins

New view on the ruins

The Queen in her castle! Avoid the awkward me, focus on the view

The Queen in her castle! Avoid the awkward me, focus on the view

Through the looking glass...

Through the looking glass…

More castle shots

Last one I swear!

Last one I swear!

 

After visiting the castle, we headed back into town to check out the old bullfighting ring. It was not filled with matadors waving red flags, but rather a group of old people playing some sort of game. I’m assuming it was a traditional Spanish game which looked like a combination of curling and bocci.

Bullfighting is completely unethical. Glad to see the stadium being used for something else!

Bullfighting is completely unethical. Glad to see the stadium being used for something else!

 

A few steps from the bullring was the Huesca Cathedral, built in the thirteenth century. There was a mass going on at the time but we were still allowed to go in to snap a few pictures. I was surprised at how few people were present, considering how strong a presence the Catholic church used to have in Spain.

You could pay to turn on all the lights, but I thought it wouldn't be wise to do it during mass

You could pay to turn on all the lights, but I thought it wouldn’t be wise to do it during mass

We also visited the Huesca museum. We weren’t allowed cameras in there so I wasn’t able to get any photos of the Gothic paintings or old artifacts. It was getting late, so after the museum we headed for dinner then went back to the bus stop.

On the way to the bus stop, we passed through a main square that suddenly was bursting with people! Spain truly does come alive at night, even in the sleepy town of Huesca. The square was beautiful and had a pretty fountain in the centre, which made for a great photo opportunity!

The air was filled with the scent of flowers too. Absolutely stunning

The air was filled with the scent of flowers too. Absolutely stunning

Again: avoid the awkward, focus on the view

Again: avoid the awkward, focus on the view

I traveled to this cute town with two au pairs, one American and one Canadian, who I met the night before. It was a spontaneous day trip and we really enjoyed it! We were only there from 2-9, and that’s all we really needed to see the small city. Overall it was a fun day, and I’m glad I can mark it off as the first city I’ve traveled to in Spain (outside Zaragoza)!

Classy fisheye selfie, I'll be taking lots of these now that I've discovered the setting on my camera

Classy fisheye selfie, I’ll be taking lots of these now that I’ve discovered the setting on my camera

 

Straying From The Path…But Not in a Good Way

Standard

It’s my second week in Spain and I’ve recently been hit with a bout of homesickness. I miss my friends and, dare I say it, my…family. I know this is a natural feeling, but I don’t want it to continue to ruin my time here in Spain. This is an amazing opportunity I don’t want to mess up by sitting at home and feeling sad or scared.

I think the problem is I forgot why I decided to come here. I’ve begun to act like I came to Spain to do a job, which is not true. I didn’t come here just to be an au pair; if I wanted to babysit I could have saved $1000 and stayed at home with my little cousins. I came here to travel and go on exciting adventures. I came here to start to see the world and discover new ideas about new cultures.

I think I am too caught up in trying to be a “good” au pair. My host family has always had au pairs so I constantly worry I am the worst of them because I find it a bit difficult to adjust to living with a random family. I’m socially awkward too, which doesn’t really help because I don’t know what to say to the kids or parents sometimes. Au pairs are hired to help the kids improve their English, so I think if I’m not speaking every moment I’m not doing a good job. I also worry about how integrated into family life I should be. I don’t know how much time to spend with the family and how much time to leave them alone. I know there isn’t any set time, but I just don’t know where I should be and what I should do sometimes.

I don’t think it helps that every weeknight I just stay in the house after the kids go to bed. I feel like I should make more of an effort to go out but everyone has me convinced I’ll be kidnapped, raped, or killed if I go out myself, although this city has a very low crime rate and I live in a very safe neighbourhood. Although I have a few friends, I need to start expanding my network a bit more so I’ll have more people to go out with and explore the city apart from my au pair life.

I have hope that things will get better. I overcame a bit of my airport anxiety with this trip, so I’m sure that I can overcome a bit of au pair and solo travel anxiety!

A Day in the Life of a Spanish Au Pair

Standard

So it’s official: I survived my first week as a Spanish au pair! After a long, gruelling week I’ve finally settled into my routine so I imagine the days will start passing faster and faster (fortunately? unfortunately?). I’m lucky that I was taken in by such a great, kind family with (fairly) well behaved kids. I am watching three kids: a twelve year old boy, an eight year old boy, and a six year old girl. My days are actually pretty easy in comparison to the duties of my other au pair friends in Zaragoza. Have a look:

7:55am: Wake up in my cold basement bedroom and put on the warmest clothes I have, regretting taking a job that requires getting out of bed so early. The kids are supposed to wake up at 8, so I have to go check if they’re still asleep. If I’m lucky they’ll already be awake, but usually I have to wake up the two boys while the girl is already downstairs watching TV.

8-8:30am: Breakfast time. In Spain the kids only have little chocolate cookies and hot chocolate for breakfast, which I find very strange and not at all nutritious. Sometimes the middle child has cereal, but the cereal he eats is corn flakes with chocolate chunks. I usually have a piece of fruit or yogurt. The kids are too tired in the morning to talk, let alone speak English, so I let them eat and watch TV in silence. My host family has housekeeper too, so she usually helps out with the kids by preparing their breakfast or yelling at them in Spanish when they aren’t cooperative (she’s my saviour).

8:30-9:15: The kids get dressed and brush their teeth. Sometimes this can take a while, depending on how cooperative they decide to be. I don’t actually have to help them get ready, I just make sure they are getting ready. The girl is usually quick so I spend the rest of the time playing with her.

9:15am: Walk the kids to school. Before we leave the housekeeper always yells something in Spanish at the kids. I don’t know what she says but they always listen to her (I seriously love her). The school is less than five minutes away, but the little girl walks slow and stops to look at everything, so it takes us nearly ten minutes to get there. During the walk I try to make conversation but sometimes the kids just don’t want to speak English sometimes, so they just ignore me and it’s very awkward. So, I usually don’t say much which really makes me wonder if I’m this family’s worst au pair ever (more on that in a different post). Dropping the kids off at school is pretty awkward too because I’m pretty sure they’re embarrassed that a random foreigner takes them to school. They start to walk faster when we get closer to the school gates and they ALWAYS, ALWAYS ignore me when I say bye, which is incredibly awkward with all the other loving parents around so I usually turn around and hightail it out of there!

9:30am-6pm: FREE TIME! I scored a great au pair placement so my only day time duties are to take the kids to school for 9:30 and then pick them up at 6. During the day I explore the city centre, walk the dog, go hiking in the hills, or meet up with other au pairs who luckily only live a ten minute tram ride away! This is my favourite part of the day because I get to escape the nightmare that is living with the kids you work with and go on adventures.

6-6:15pm: At this time I pick the kids up from school with my host mom and we walk home, which is pretty dreadful sometimes. First of all, all the Spanish moms dress like they’re having lunch with the president to pick up their kids while I stand there in my faded Toms and only pair of jeans I brought with me. The kids often ignore me when we pick them up and start talking rapidly in Spanish with their mom. The little girl often holds my hand as we walk home which is nice because it makes me think the kids might actually like me! The host mom always brings the kids snacks, and these kids just get the biggest thrill out of littering. They always throw their wrappers and laugh, and when I tell them to pick it up they ignore me or just shrug, which just kills me as I try to retrieve their garbage.

6:15-8:45pm: Play and work time. I play outside with the kids when they get home for about thirty minutes, a time during which my butt gets kicked in both basketball and soccer by small Spanish children. My host mom then calls the kids in and then we go inside and do homework. My host mom helps out too which is great because I’d be so lost on my own. I usually end up helping the kids with homework as best I can (their work is in Spanish so I can’t help too much) and then play with the girl until their father comes home at dinner, around 8:45. After dinner is free time but I usually sit with the kids or play a game with the girl.

This is my schedule for the weekdays only, as I have weekends off! I’m not saying au pairing is an easy job because it definitely isn’t. Working with kids is very difficult at times and requires a lot of patience. So far, my patience has only been tested a few times! My past experience working with kids has definitely helped. I don’t know if I’d au pair in the future, but I’ll see how this summer goes first and then decide from there!

 

How Broken English and Mountain Biking Helped Me Rediscover Adventure

Standard

I’m going to be honest: for my first few days in Zaragoza I have been lacking a bit of life. I didn’t jump into the adventures I thought I would when I was planning for my trip. Instead I’ve been lounging around my house, Skyping friends, reading, and walking around my neighbourhood which although is beautiful, I know I am doing as an act of avoidance.

What am I avoiding exactly? I’m not too sure. Pain of leaving my boyfriend behind? Maybe. I’ve gotten over my first horrible night (I cried probably six hours throughout the night as well as on the plane while eating gross airplane food) and have come to a realization that I have to stop pitying myself. Or maybe I’m just afraid of failure; failing as an au pair, failing to bond with anyone in the city, and failing to have the great adventures I came to Spain for.

That all changed today, thanks to my host dad. A few days ago it was rainy and windy outside, so poor little Hannah stayed indoors the entire day. When my host dad found out, he planned a bike excursion for us the next day. I was fine with this because he doesn’t know enough English that I have to keep up a conversation (I’m socially awkward), it would allow me to bond with the people I am living with, and it sounded like a nice, easy ride.

What I was not expecting was to bike straight up a bumpy mountain on one of those fancy cycling bikes, trailing hundreds of meters behind my host dad. But alas, when my host dad asked me if I liked cycling I thought, with his bad English, he just meant bike riding. Like leisurely suburban bike trail bike riding. Like scenic oh-lets-stop-and-take-a-picture biking. But no, he meant cycling: spandex-wearing, getting on a thin bike, leaning low to the handlebars, and taking on a huge hill with dangerous terrain cycling.

I think he found out I wasn’t a serious cycler when we took off on a straight path and he instantly shot off, leaving me in his dust. He showed me the quickest way to bike to Parque Grande, a huge, beautiful park only ten minutes away. I was very grateful but kind of wondering why we went through so quickly. We rode back and then he asked if I wanted to go through the mountains. Knowing my current fitness level, which ranges from a walk to the fridge to a walk to the grocery store, I politely declined because I had already ran in the hills earlier that morning (not a lie…although it really was an hour and a half walk with a five minute period of brisk jogging). However, he misunderstand me and took it as a yes as he turned the corner and headed for the hills.

Oh no. The first little incline wasn’t too bad. It was a relatively smooth dirt road, a bit difficult but not impossible. I can do this! I thought to myself, but broke off mid-thought as I saw the next huge rocky incline that took us straight up the mountain. My host dad, who rides this trail several times a week, barely broke a sweat as he steadily began to climb. I, on the other hand, pushed with all my might and only managed to ride a few feet. It was grueling. I started on the right side of the road but after a minute I somehow made my way over to the opposite side.

After climbing one quarter of the mountain I called to my host dad that I couldn’t do it, so he encouraged me to keep going. I was physically exhausted so I ended up getting off my bike and walking to the top, where I was greeted by the best view I’d had since coming to Spain. Beyond the mountain were rolling hills dotted with quirky-looking trees and larger mountains off in the distance. I could see over my entire neighbourhood and could trace the path leading towards the city centre. It was gorgeous, and then I looked to my left and saw a huge Ikea sign, which was part of Europe’s biggest mall. Ah, commercialization at its finest.

After biking through an extremely rocky trail on the mountaintop, it was time to descend the hill.

“Going down is much easier, right?” I asked jokingly.

“Easy?” My host dad said, looked very amused.

He pointed to huge scars on his arms and legs that I had assumed he got from wrestling a clan of bears or bullfighting. Seriously, these scars were nasty.

“Not easy.” He said and headed down the mountain.

Ah. The first half of going down the mountain was pure hell. There were enormous rocks everywhere that you couldn’t avoid no matter what. They shook my whole body and made my veins feel like they were about to explode as I watched my arms grow red as I picked up speed. I finally understood why he offered me a helmet before we left the house; I was sure I was going to crash, crack my head open, break my arms, and be forced to use my international health insurance card (which gives me anxiety because I fear it won’t work and I’ll be stuck with an enormous hospital bill).

I survived the first half thankfully. The second half led onto the paved road, which was awfully steep and winding. I rode the break the whole way down because I didn’t want to fly out onto the street at the bottom or, you know, die.

As terrifying as it was, as I flew down the winding road and turned every curve I felt something I hadn’t felt in almost a week. It was the exhilarating feeling of overwhelming happiness, of the wind blowing through my hair, of the hot Spanish sun beating down on my back, of wanting to laugh out loud, of just being alive.

It was living in the present. I was no longer living in the past, distraught over the good memories I had with my boyfriend. I had abandoned the alternate universe I also escaped to, imagining the summer I would have had if I stayed at home, got a well paying summer job, and spent every free moment with my boyfriend and friends. The only thoughts of the future I briefly had was that I needed to feel this freedom again, and I needed to feel it often.

I felt nothing but the immediate present, which is the best way to live. That’s where the adventures are.

 

In Case You Didn’t Know…

Standard

I think I only briefly mentioned it in a post, so I just want to make sure my readers know that I’m currently au pairing in Zaragoza, Spain! I just arrived this past Sunday so I am only beginning to explore this beautiful city, this lovely country, and my own self. I will be here until August, so prepare for the majority of my posts to revolve around my travels!

Airport Anxiety, Now Boarding at Gate 1

Standard

“Flight 1597 to Barcelona, now boarding!” calls a voice over the airport loudspeaker. But wait- I’m still stuck in the security line! And there’s thirty people ahead of me! Should I ask if I can go in front of them? Oh my god what if I miss my flight? Do I have my boarding pass? Okay I need to take all of the liquids out of my bag…wait is there a hand sanitizer at the bottom of my purse? Wait…where IS my purse?! Shoes off now???? AHHHHHHH

I have airport anxiety. Serious, serious airport anxiety. So when I pulled up to the Toronto Island Airport to take a solo flight with two connections to Spain, I was nonetheless terrified and shaking in my tourist-savvy sneakers. I thought there were so many things that could go wrong and make me late that I would end up chasing after the plane as it took off down the runway.

When I got off the ferry and walked into the main check in area, I stopped. The place was empty. Seriously, dead empty. There were six people in there, and four of them worked at the airport. There was absolutely no line up for security. In fact, at the Toronto Island Airport you can show up a minimum of 40 minutes before your flight; I unknowingly showed up three hours before, thinking it was a normal, bustling airport. Immediately, my anxiety dissipated as I found out there was a free flight lounge with complimentary snacks and drinks. However, this was only the first leg of my flight. This flight from Toronto went to Montreal, then Geneva, then finally Barcelona where I will have a three hour car ride to Zaragoza with my au pair host family.

From Toronto to Montreal was smooth. The plane had a grand total of 17 passengers, meaning we got great snacks (brand name Miss Vickies chips, how posh). The layover in Montreal was short and I had to switch planes to go to Geneva. When I walked on the Air Canada flight, I wanted to cry. I was in the middle seat of the middle section. Luckily, I was at the seat just before the second half of the plane, right in front of the bathroom, which came in great handy later. On my left, I was seated beside a middle aged woman who kept grabbing me in her sleep, thinking I was her jacket. On my right, I had a French man who was watching a movie and playing on his iPad simultaneously, laughing the loudest you could possibly laugh on a eight hour flight throughout the night. I had no room to move at all and wanted nothing more than to get up and stretch, but unfortunately the man on my right was asleep, thus inhibiting me from getting out of my seat. The flight was very uncomfortable to say the least, especially two hours before landing when I began to feel nauseous. I hardly ever throw up, but as soon as the plane landed I rushed the bathroom and threw up several times. I was all shaky but I didn’t even have time to rest because my connecting flight to Barcelona was leaving in 40 minutes, and I still had to clear security and the border.

Luckily, crossing the border was extremely easy. They didn’t ask any questions at all; a man just stamped my passport and said au revoir. Security was a breeze too…but then I failed to properly read the EXTREMELY confusing signs after security (the arrows pointed “up” but I thought they meant to walk straight) and ended up exiting the boarding area. I ended up in baggage claim so yes, I embarrassingly had to go back to security and try not to cry as I explained to the man I went the wrong way. Luckily he was nice and told me tons of people make my mistake each day; but STILL it was embarrassing because I had to butt in front of everyone and hold up the line. Apparently there is supposed to be a man on the other side of security directing passengers, but there was nobody there for me.

After my long security hold up, it was 10:50. My flight to Barcelona left at 11:10. By the time figured out what gate it was (there was NOBODY to help at all), it was 10:55 and a sign told me it took 15 minutes to walk to my gate. Great. Using the power walking skills I mastered while manoeuvring the halls of high school, I made it there just a few minutes before my flight was scheduled to leave. Boarding took a while, but they hadn’t attached a walkway to the plane so we got to walk out to the runway and board on the stairs. It felt very movie-esque which was cool, especially since the air was crisp and the airport was surrounded by beautiful mountains! However, the view wasn’t so nice anymore from the inside of the plane, as we were delayed on the runway for nearly two hours.

I slept most of this flight, but I awoke while we were going over the mountains in the north of Spain. They were pretty, and I also got to see an aerial view of Barcelona and the Mediterranean sea. I was no longer anxious but after flying for nearly 15 hours including throwing up, having a hassle at security, getting lost, and being delayed for nearly two hours I needed to get off the plane. So, I can’t say I completely soothed my airport anxiety. But hey, at least I survived! It wasn’t as bad as I imagined (I was picturing WAY worse) so on my flight home I’ll be much more prepared!