Thank you for the greatest birthday ever. Two years ago I had a great one in Atlanta with Jonathan and Lori and Arnie and Kara when I got to spend time with them before shipping off to Spain. Last year was a great one in London when I spent the day with Isaac and mom at Hyde Park watching the Olympic games on the jumbo screens and later went to dinner at a Thai restaurant with both of you and Isaac and mom and dad.
But this year’s had an extra special start . . . after you went to the hospital yesterday but this morning let me know that things were still moving along, I felt so badly that the new baby didn’t want to just come as an early birthday present but instead wanted to stay nice and cozy til the actual day. So as Isaac and I headed out the door to the zoo, he told Pam (your receptionist downstairs), “No baby yet.”
So we went to the zoo – one of my favorite places to hang with Isaac and we took off towards a part I hadn’t gotten to yet. As we said hello to some animal I had never even heard of before, the giraffes caught our eyes and we were on our way there when I looked at the cell phone and saw the text you sent, “It’s a” I let out a gasp of excitement so loud that everyone around turned to stare – but . . . I couldn’t see the rest of the text! So I called you, David, and you let us know that Baby Girl Trumbell was born 50 minutes earlier. I was so relieved and overjoyed to hear that you, Faye, and the baby were doing well. I was so excited that I kept sharing the news every chance I got – with the man sweeping under the bench that Isaac and I were sitting on, with the lady who sold us the monkey mask that Isaac picked out and with the giraffes who we went to see after hanging up the phone.
While I was giddy and buzzing with excitement, Isaac was pretty mellow about the whole situation, taking it all in stride. We stopped to see the penguins and then to Isaac’s favorite thing in the zoo, the kid-sized red, mechanical London bus that Isaac loves to ride without inserting the 1 pound to make it go. As Isaac took turns being the driver and then, as three different kids came by, moved to the passenger seat without me even having to convince him to do so – I saw the great big brother that he’s been groomed to become.
On the way out we stopped in the store to pick something out for our new baby girl. Isaac and I agreed that the perfect option was a super-soft giraffe stuffed animal wearing a London Zoo t-shirt – after all, when we found out that Baby Girl Trumbell had come into the world we were at the zoo, on our way to see the giraffes.
On the way home, Isaac double fisted his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and right before nap time was so excited to see Daddy had stopped home. We looked at photos and found out that the baby is Sonia Ruth. I love our very meaningful tradition of naming babies after relatives who have passed away. So now Sonia, who was our great grandmother, has her memory alive again and Grandma Ruth, who has never been far from our thoughts, is very present again. Faye, your friend Melissa emailed me and said that Sonia Ruth means, “wise friend,” – everything I would hope that Sonia will be.
After nap time Isaac and I got to come by the hospital for a visit. I was beaming as I laid eyes on little Sonia and was so happy to get to hold the perfect, tiny, bundle. I have never held a day-old baby, this was amazing – at 7 pounds, 11 ounces she felt light as a feather and cute as can be and perfectly precious. it was already hard to imagine how she had only been in our lives a couple of hours.
It was so sweet as Isaac held his baby sister Sonia for the first time and showered her with kisses over and over and over. He read a story to her, as he knows “Honk Honk, Beep Beep” by heart.
So Faye and David, thank you for the best birthday present EVER!
You really outdid yourselves this year – I mean I thought the pedicure and haircut were already fantastic and very generous – and then you go and give me a beautiful little niece! Too much! But I’ll accept and look forward to sharing many, many, many more birthday memories with my fellow birthday girl Sonia.
Before I came to Spain I had no idea who my students would be or where I’d be teaching. As I near the end of Year 2 of teaching abroad, I could not be happier with most of my classes being in-company ones; I had no idea how much I would love teaching adults.
Classroom management issues, administrative headaches, parental pressures, grading, paperwork and so much more are a thing of the past. The biggest issue I have to manage is keeping students speaking in English. So when they tell stories about their everyday lives, one area that gets a little complicated is when they use “adult language.” It’s not complicated because I’m uncomfortable or anything like that, it’s just that they can’t express themselves as fully as they’d like to – that is, until today.
Well it actually began last week with my beginner group when Rosie was telling the other three students and me about her iPhone being stolen. She was doing a great job speaking animatedly and completely in English, until she veered off the English track to call the thief a “cabroncete”. When she finished, I decided that this was a teachable moment just waiting to happen if I’d ever seen one.
So I asked the class if they knew how to say “cabroncete” in English; and when no one responded, I filled the silence with “a-hole”. I said that the whole word is actually “a**hole” and we spent the next minute working on its pronunciation – back and forth with me saying “a**hole” and them saying “ash-ol” back and forth and back and forth til it sounded good enough that if they’re ever in NY and need to yell at someone like a cab driver, well, they’ll be understood well enough.
As I left class that day I had the “A**hole Song” by Jimmy Buffett in my head and thought that maybe I could use it in a lesson. When I looked at the lyrics I found that they were actually pretty good for a beginner class – understandable and with some good grammar points. So I decided that today would be the day that I would bring Jimmy Buffett into their lives. And to my students I say, “You’re welcome!”
In the days since I made that decision, I found myself a bit nervous when I thought about the one student who is quieter than the others and I was in their place of business after all . . . but I threw caution to the wind and am so glad I did because when I played the song for them, they . . . LOVED it! They were laughing and smiling and even took some notes. The version I found on YouTube had spelling and grammatical mistakes in the lyrics, which just made the video even more educational than had originally been planned.
Check it out for yourself: http://youtu.be/3i6OrOZwtmA
The other morning, March 14 to be precise, I saw a posting on Facebook from a math teacher friend that said: Happy Pi Day! I thought of mathematicians around the world toasting their cleverness in creating a day (3/14) to celebrate Pi, the number that is 3.14 . . . But then I realized that this day would sadly be champagne-free throughout most of the math world (and by almost all of the real world too, although for other reasons).
In Spain and in most of the world aside from the U.S., the Philippines, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, Canada and Belize, the 14th of March is in fact written as 14/3.
But don’t feel too sad for the European math nerds (and I mean this in the nicest way possible, after all I am a huge nerd in my own right) – apparently they’re so clever that their Pi Day is celebrated in July for some number that I couldn’t even begin to understand that’s divisible by or a multiple of Pi – I think.
How did we in the U.S. (and those other select countries) get this date writing so backwards? Well, at least some good has come of it – math students of all ages have had the opportunity to eat pie and pizza pie in math class once a year. I don’t ever remember celebrating Pi Day in my math classes, although I’m pretty sure it’s because I never ascended to a level high enough where Pi was discussed. Sadly, while researching Pi Day (see, I told you I was a huge nerd) I found the real reason why I may have never had the opportunity to celebrate it in school – it’s only been around for 25 years – okay, now I feel old.
This conflict in date writing can create some confusion when living between two cultures.
For a while after moving here I would do a double take when buying milk (and that’s besides the fact that it’s not refrigerated – but that’s another story for another day). I had to stop and think when checking out the expiration dates. I found this so amusing that a month after arriving here, in November 2011 I took a photo of some milk cartons. At first glance, it looked like the milk had already expired, as the date showed 11-01-12. The American in me wanted to go running to complain to a manager or buy it and sue someone for emotional distress and physical harm. But the expat side of me took control and realized that the expiration date was actually January 11, 2012.
There is a race coming up here sponsored by the department store El Corte Inglés and I’m wondering if some might miss the big day. All around town there are stands where you can sign up and the awnings are draped with the race’s date: 7/4. So while those in the know are preparing for a race on April 7, others may still be stuffing their gullets with donuts laughing at all of the time they have to prepare for the race in July. They may even think how awesome it will be to celebrate America’s Independence Day with a race around Barcelona.
One year later.
One year ago today I landed in Barcelona, took a taxi to a hostel in the Born area (minutes from Las Ramblas and not too far from the beach) and began My Life 2.0.
The year has flown by and yet was chock full of experiences – positive ones and plenty of learning ones too. I took a TEFL course, found work and apartments, opened a Spanish bank account and worked at making new friends.
13 months ago, I lived in Lincoln Square (Chicago) in a spacious one bedroom apartment that was mine all mine (for $900 a month); I lived alone and I loved it. Now, I live in Gracia (Barcelona) and for $610 a month I rent a bedroom and have my own bathroom in a nice sized apartment that I share with two other girls.
13 months ago, my Chicago apartment was chock full of things, things and more things. I had a closet in my bedroom that stretched from one wall to the other and it was crammed with clothes on hangers, clothes piled on the shelves and shoes strewn across the floor. Now, I have a bedroom the size of a dorm room and there is one freestanding wardrobe that holds an armful of clothes.
13 months ago, I had an apartment full of furniture I had amassed over the years – a leather recliner from Affordable Portables, a massage chair, a kitchen table from IKEA with red stools, a dining room table from Crate & Barrel, stools from Target, an awesome 2-piece L-shaped couch from World Market, a 5×5 Expedit cubed bookcase from IKEA, a queen size bed with a pillow-top mattress and I had a bedframe with matching bedroom furniture in espresso colored wood from Roy’s Furniture. Now, I don’t own a single item of furniture.
13 months ago, I had air conditioning – two units! One in the living room and one in the bedroom and, if I wanted to leave it on all night, I could. Now, I have a fan that stands right next to my bed to keep me cool at night while the rest of the room usually feels like a suffocating sauna.
13 months ago, I had a car! I loved my SPRT LVR silver Honda Civic – I even had an automatic starter installed so the heater could get going and the snow and ice would start to melt before I even walked out of my apartment to brave the bitter Chicago winter. Now, I have tickets for buses and trains and I have a Bicing card for the rental bike program.
13 months ago, I had so many things, too many things. Most of the stuff was sold in garage sales or given to the Salvation Army, The Brown Elephant, The Mount Sinai Hospital Resale Shop and the Hadassah House Resale Shop and some things are being stored at my parents’ house. So what’s left for me back home in the USA? Now that I’ve cleared out the clutter, it’s easy to see that the parts that remain are the essence of life – family and friends.
15 months ago, I was a junior high school Spanish teacher and I had tenure. I loved teaching and felt most alive when in the classroom. Now, I am a freelance English teacher, working without a contract – and I still love teaching. Up to 13 months ago, I was paid every other week, on time, every time, and I was paid well, very well (after over a decade of teaching). Now, I am paid by the hour with my individual students paying me in advance and on time, usually. The companies I work for pay me within the first ten days of the month, usually, although sometimes two or more reminders are necessary. 15 months ago, my career had hit a devastating low-point; after eleven stellar years of nearly perfect evaluations, negative rumors spread and lack of support prevailed. Now, I can pick and choose my students and my jobs and if they or I am not satisfied, we can move on. Now, I can tailor lessons to each individual student’s level and interests (and not just aim to do so in theory) and I am excited to do so. Now, I am showered with gratitude. 15 months ago I had to endure meetings, committees and non-stop initiatives. Now, I am meeting-free (praise the Lord)!
13 months ago, I had TMJ. I went to physical therapy on a regular basis. I tried Botox. Accupuncture seemed to help a bit. And I shelled out money for all of this treatment that the insurance company deemed unnecessary. I couldn’t yawn without pain. Eating carrots and bagels and so much more was just a dream. 12 months ago I moved to Barcelona. Today, I no longer have TMJ.
24 months ago began another year full of debilitating migraines. I missed countless workdays to writhe in pain in bed for hours and often days at a time. Beyond my family and closest friends, compassion and comprehension were disappointing. Now, I still get migraines but only had to miss one day of work in the last 12 months. Now, I make my own work schedule which allows me to take breaks between classes and reschedule classes if necessary. 13 months ago I had a PPO insurance plan, mostly paid for by the school board but still requiring hundreds more in premiums taken from each paycheck. I no longer have to get stressed out over the insurance company dictating how many (or how few) pills I am allowed each month to avert a migraine. Now, I can buy the medication any time I need (and without a prescription).
13 months ago, I had so many things and endless creature comforts. Now, my life is more tranquil and even richer.
One Fine Day – August 14, 2012
Day 2 of taking care of Isaac while Faye and David were in town for work and staying at the swanky Trump Hotel. Mom was booked for the day, though, so Isaac and I were on our own.
Isaac and I exited The Trump at approximately 8:30 a.m. with Millennium Park as our destination. Google Maps says the trip should take about 8 minutes on foot; it took Isaac and me closer to 48 minutes – but for all the right reasons. As one of Chicago’s biggest fans, I had the greatest time seeing it through Isaac’s 19-month old eyes. We set out south on Wabash and stopped at the corner of Lake St. to watch the El trains come and go overhead. We probably lingered at that corner longer than necessary, but I’ll admit I was just too curious about the movie being filmed there, although the action didn’t seem to faze Isaac. An extra told me it was a big Bollywood action film called Dhoom 3 (somehow I must have missed the first two).
With Wabash being closed for the next block for the movie shoot, we headed east on Lake and came to a screeching halt when Isaac spotted two giant cranes, a mountain of dirt, some kind of tractor (you’d have to check with Isaac on the specifics) and a truck to haul the stuff away (there’s probably a technical name for that one too). I think we could have called it a successful day right there, but we kept going, making our way south on Michigan Ave. and crossing over to Millennium Park at Randolph.
Besides being beautiful and unique, today I came to appreciate Millennium Park for a whole new reason – its modern design being wheelchair (stroller, in our case) accessible.
- As a side note, on the way over to the park I was excited to find an Einstein Bros. as bagels are almost non-existent in Barcelona. At the one place that I know sells them they’re are at least 5 times the price of one here. A kind passerby held the door open for us but as soon as I saw two stairs and a second door at the top I immediately aborted that mission.
At Millennium Park we zoomed up the ramps and over to The Bean. Isaac loved exploring the new territory and playing “Where’s Isaac?” in The Bean’s mirrored surface. His favorite part though was hands down the spotlight coming out of the sidewalk.
From there I pushed the stroller towards the Great Lawn while Isaac walked and held onto my right index finger. Isaac took it in stride when we found the lawn roped off and instead happily swung the rope around and then continued towards the Pritzker Pavilion to sit like a big boy while we listened to a drummer rehearse.
When 10:00 approached we made our way towards the Family Fun Festival at Chase Promenade North and for the next 45 minutes we shook our sillies out, sang about going to the zoo tomorrow, did all the gestures to Wheels on the Bus, oinked and mooed and performed many more kids’ (and Aunt Rachel’s) favorites. Throughout the singing we wandered around the tent to stack foam dominoes, attempt to hoola hoop, toss bean bags and play with special bubbles that didn’t pop on impact. This really must be one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets as it’s an amazing offering every single day, all summer long and completely free.
After lunch and naptime at the home base, we were met by Saba (Hebrew for grandpa) and headed to the pool. Isaac loves to wear floaties on his arms, hold on to a noodle, splash, splash, splash, kick, kick, kick and jump from the side again and again and again.
Afterwards, while getting ready to leave to meet Aunt/Cousin Jamie and Cousin Jacob for dinner at the Rainforest Cafe, Mommy (Faye) came in and surprised us. Growing up close in age to our cousin Jamie, it was fun to get to see Isaac and Jacob do the same at less than 7-months apart. There is so much to see at Rainforest Cafe with all the fish tanks and animatronic jungle animals and a constant sound of rushing rain that captivated Isaac and Jacob. However, Isaac was not a fan of the every 22-minute booming thunderstorms, and frankly, I was right there with him.
After Jamie and Jacob left for home and Faye went back to work I could tell Isaac wanted something else and when I asked him if he wanted ice cream he said, “Ice cream, ice cream,” again and again. We hopped into the self-serve fro yo place at State and Illinois and I served and paid for a dollop of the vanilla-chocolate twist for Isaac before I created my masterpiece of Red Velvet, peanut butter and a drop of chocolate topped with mochi and cheesecake bits. Isaac confidently worked the elongated plastic pink spoon dipping it repeatedly into the oversized deep bowl and let his bib, bearing a front pocket, do its job. When it was reduced to “frozen yogurt soup” Isaac lifted the bowl to his lips and finished it off bringing smiles to anyone who was looking. The frozen yogurt was a very special American treat that I have been looking forward to for a long time. Barcelona has frozen yogurt, but it’s just literally “frozen yogurt” as they only have the original flavor and personally, if I wanted that I’d just stick a thing of yogurt in my freezer and call it a day.
Dessert was followed by bath time, which is always a special time. I do my best to shield Isaac’s face when pouring the water on his head to wash the shampoo away, but he doesn’t really mind, and in that moment when he blinks up at me, I can really see my sister’s face in his.
We topped the night off by reading the awesome book, “Max the Minnow;” I say “awesome” because I love the way that Isaac repeats “minnow, minnow, minnow” over and over and over, and the giant, floating googly eyes are pretty cool too and Isaac likes to try to see them on both sides of the page.
Before settling into bed, we made sure to look out the giant windows and say “night night” to the buses, the taxis, the boats, the cars, the people out running, the tourists and the birdies too.
“One Fine Day” doesn’t do this justice; it really was “One Perfect Day.”
Thursday, August 9, 2012
- 6:00 a.m. wake up to travel to Barcelona’s airport
- 8-hour plane ride from Barcelona to New York LaGuardia
- 4.5-hour layover
- 4.5-hour flight delay
- Midnight arrival in Chicago (7:00 a.m. in Barcelona), met by two amazingly giving and forgiving parents – thanks mom and dad!
- 1:30 a.m. bed
12:45 p.m. departure for Atlanta to visit the Hotlanta Sairs.
Kara picked me up at the airport and we drove to get Jonathan and Lori from school. When Lori saw me in the doorway of her classroom she sprinted towards me and jumped up into my arms – I couldn’t have scripted the moment better myself. When we got to Jonathan’s classroom, Lori called to him and pointed at me with a grand gesture to say, “Look!”
For dinner, my special request was catered to and did not disappoint, Papa John’s Pizza! Political opinions aside, it’s the best fast-food pizza with its sweet sauce and chewy, pillowy-soft crust. In Barcelona there’s TelePizza, which I think tastes like cardboard, and there’s Domino’s that’s just okay. I have had Papa John’s while in London but I don’t think it tastes the same as in the U.S. – recipes are often distinct in different countries.
Saturday, August 11, 2012
Saturday morning I took Arnie’s car (first time I had driven in 4+ months!) to the Kroger Supermarket. As I stepped in the door I stopped in my tracks to take in the site – I seemed to have forgotten how massive and overwhelming an American supermarket is. The average supermarket in Barcelona could fit into a corner of the Kroger store.
In the afternoon, Arnie, Kara, Jonathan, Lori and I climbed into the car and went to the water park down the street. I was so impressed that Lori can swim now – when I visited last August, she was just putting her face in the water and still holding on tightly to someone. For the first time, Jonathan was tall enough to go down the gargantuan waterslide; it’s a good thing I wasn’t alone with him, because there’s no way I would have gone down it! It was the perfect weather, not a touch of the heat that puts the “hot” in “Hotlanta.” We were having a great time when all of a sudden a lifeguard called to everyone to get out of the pool, that there was a “contamination;” a little boy had thrown up in the pool and thus concluded our outing.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
All weekend long we watched the last days of the Olympics and Arnie and Kara I’m sure thought I was nuts going on and on about how much I love Bob Costas and missed him – British and Spanish commentators aren’t even in the same hemisphere. It was a Spanish interviewer that Usain Bolt asked to wait when the U.S. anthem (not even his own) was playing for a medal ceremony. And a big part missing from the telecasts in London and Barcelona were the athletes’ personal stories that I love so much.
Sunday morning we watched the Olympic marathon event. Jonathan was devastated (briefly – he recovered soon after flopping to the ground) when two of the Americans in the race had to withdraw. It was so fun to cheer with Jonathan for the final American left in the event and it was a nice little lesson that coming in 4th place was something to be happy about even though the athlete wouldn’t get a medal.
After the marathon excitement, we all climbed into the car and drove to a nice, little trail that none of us had been to before. While Jonathan and Lori rode their bikes (with training wheels), Arnie, Kara and I walked along with them. For the first half of the ride, the kids rode cautiously and Lori needed someone right next to her while going downhill (more like a slight downward slope). On the way back to the car they were comfortably pedaling along and Lori was cheerfully yelling, “wheeee” while going down the “hills” while Arnie and I did our best to keep up with the brisk pace, Kara broke into a jog to stay with the kids.
We made it home in time to watch the last half of the Gold medal men’s basketball game featuring the USA’s new “Dream Team” vs. Spain. As we sat at the table eating lunch, Jonathan kept tabs on the score in tiny print on the TV. With his math skills as sharp as always, he kept calculating how many points Spain needed to catch up. I was the only one backing Spain; I really thought it would boost the country’s spirits to win this David vs. Goliath battle. But alas, with a roster full of the best professionals in the world, it was the big, bad USA with yet another victory.
Later on Sunday, August 12, 2012 – Back in Chicago
When I got back to Chicago on Sunday, I headed to the essence of America – Target. Like a deer in headlights, I stood in the entrance for a few minutes taking in the multitude of departments under one roof – office products, groceries, sporting goods, clothing, toiletries, household goods, oh my! I started grabbing things like I was on some kind of game show, The Grab Everything You Can Before You Leave the Country and Will Never See It Again Show. I piled the basket with bottles of Ranch dressing, peanut butter (you can find it in Barcelona but it costs more than 3 times what it does here), grape jelly (available only at one tiny store that has very select American grocery items), licorice – Twizzlers and another brand – and a bunch of other delicacies. I got stuck in the cereal aisle, mesmerized by the plethora of options; what is going on at Cheerios that they have so many new kinds – Dulce de Leche, Peanut Butter, Chocolate, Fruity, Frosted and it goes on and on. In Barcelona, they have one kind of Cheerios and surprisingly, it’s not the original ones (although you can find those at the specialty American store for a pretty penny), it’s the Honey Nut variety.
I had to drag myself out of the store because the next morning would be an early one, a 7:15 a.m. departure for downtown Chicago where mom and I would spend the day taking care of Isaac. Faye and David were in town for the week working at their Chicago offices and I had the amazing fortune of getting to come home to help take care of Isaac.
And the week was far from over . . .
July began with my departure for an overnight English summer camp where I was to teach English to a group of eleven 11-year old girls. Before I get into those adventures, let’s back up a little first.
My earliest memory of camp is at Lincolnwood Day Camp seeking shade under a tree at Proesel Park with my group on a hot summer day and singing “Little Bunny Foo Foo.” My next camp memories take me to Banner and singing songs at the end of the day and having Nerf-like plastic baseballs and footballs with ugly faces in them thrown to the crowd of campers for prizes – What were those balls called?! Their grilled cheese sandwiches were equal parts soggy and greasy and yet somehow that equaled delicious perfection. For some later summers I went to tennis camp where I recall the giant containers of water-downed Gatorade and countless games of King of the Court. And then it was time for overnight camp . . .
My first overnight camp took me to OSRUI (Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute) a perfectly fine camp, just not for me. Campers slept on bunk beds with their groups under gigantic tents, went to the bathroom in Port-a-Potties, brushed teeth in some kind of trough/well and took showers as a group at some indoor facility. Just to clarify – this was not for me and neither was the sitting around the campfire singing songs. It wasn’t just that, but also the fact that I suffered from horrendous homesickness, writing letters home that I hope have disappeared because the sappiness of them would be too embarrassing for me to endure should someone find them.
Sometime in between that summer and the next, my parents must have plotted to find the perfect camp for me – as my mom grew up loving camp and my brother and sister had ideal camp experiences, I imagine that they just wanted the same for me. Over that winter, my parents hosted a presentation from Lake of the Woods camp. Dad, if you’re reading this, I apologize, as I know you’re not so fond of the following story, but just know that twenty-fourish years later I’m completely healed from the trauma – I mean, experience. So there I sat during the presentation thinking to myself how nice the cabins looked and that the connected bathrooms were just what campers should have and the variety of activities (archery, riflery, gymnastics and tennis) would be so much fun for campers – just not for me, as I was ready to tell my parents once the guy left, that I was not going to overnight camp . . . but as soon as the presentation ended and the lights were back on, my dad got up from his chair, walked up to the guy, shook his hand and said, “We’ll see you this summer.”
Fast forward to 8:30 in the morning, July 2, 2012, Barcelona, Spain with campers standing around with their parents, waiting to load the coach buses that would take them to Cerler for their English camp in the Spanish Pyrenees Mountains. One girl stood out to me because she looked so utterly miserable, like she was headed towards a military boot camp. At the rest stop a couple hours later she got in line behind the other campers on her bus, but being thirteen-years old, she towered over the tiny eight-year olds at the back of the line. So I took Claudia by the hand and beamed with joy (imagining how grateful I would have been for a counselor to facilitate this for me when I was a kid) as I had the girls her age at the front of the line to introduce themselves to her and to me. During camp, Claudia and those girls became good friends and by the end of camp you would have never known that they had just met two weeks before.
Thursday was Pedro’s last class before he moved to Vancouver on Saturday. We had worked together three days a week for the past three months to prepare him for the next three months that he’ll spend in Canada living with a family and taking an English course.
After brushing up his intermediate-level English by reviewing modal verbs (can, may, should, etc.) and getting him to use the past tense more regularly, we concentrated on themes he would likely encounter during his journey.
We practiced how to answer questions when going through Customs and Immigration at the airport – although I imagine flying through Canada to be much easier than dealing with the U.S. system (and he does have all of the necessary paperwork in order. In fact, he had wanted to study in the U.S. but the American immigration system made the process so cumbersome that he couldn’t have even acquired the necessary visa while in Barcelona; he would have had to travel to Madrid to get it.
Other lessons focused on food and ordering in a restaurant and what a waiter means when he asks, “What’ll ya have?” Textbook English provides students with a good foundation, but it’s quite difficult to function in the real world where people don’t follow the script laid out in the books: What would you like to eat, sir? We reviewed vocabulary needed in a restaurant, like a plate, a fork, a spoon and a knife. Imagine the obstacle that “knife” causes when trying to pronounce it; most students remember not to pronounce the “k” but then saying the letter “i” with its Spanish pronunciation makes the word come out sounding like “neef.”
Google Maps came in very handy to find and practice the directions he would give the taxi driver from the airport to the house and the route he would take from the house on the bus to go downtown to the school. Everything was going smoothly until I really got into it, slipped into the language that we native speakers use amongst ourselves and said the nearly incomprehensible, “So then you’re gonna head north.” Americans have gotten lazy and now regularly say, “gonna,” “wanna” and “didya” rather than “going to,” “want to” and “did you.” And “head,” well, that’s just one of countless expressions that don’t translate.
During the last week we talked about some cultural differences like tipping, taxes, elevator etiquette, building layouts and kissing as a greeting.
When it comes to tipping in Barcelona you can pretty much get away without it. It’s nice to round up when paying for a taxi but it’s not expected. In a cheap café it’s common not to leave anything extra and at a nicer restaurant 10% is fine while 15% is more than generous. There are still tip jars around but nothing like back home where I’m astounded and appalled when I see them sitting atop counters at self-serve frozen yogurt places.
Shopping in Spain (and this is true for many other places as well) is easy and efficient and if you’ve already seen the price marked or posted, there’s no need to ask, “How much is it?” You don’t have to estimate your total; with tax already included in the price, you know exactly how much to pay. On the other hand, in most of America, visitors find that they need to budget for the tax added on to the total cost of items.
When one of my students returned from a trip to D.C. she didn’t share her impressions of the amazing monuments and historical landmarks; no, what she reported to me was what a surprise her experience was in – wait for it . . . elevators. She hopped on the elevator and greeted the other passengers with the Barcelona norm of, “hola,” “buenos días” or “qué tal.” She quickly learned that our custom in The States is to get on, turn your back on the people already onboard and if you can’t face the doors, then at least avert your eyes and gaze down at the ground, and for god sakes, do not speak, but if you do have to speak with whoever you’re with, then it better be in a hushed voice.
In Barcelona when I take an elevator to leave a building at times I instinctively find my finger hovering in front of the 1 rather than the B for Planta Baja (Ground Floor). I warned Pedro that hitting B in America would take him to the basement and what he wants to look for instead is a G, L or 1 (not a 0 as it is in Europe where you enter a building on Floor 0 and go up to the first floor).
As long as it has taken me to get used to greeting and saying goodbye to people by kissing one time on each cheek, early on I figured Pedro would need to work on kissing-culture detoxification. So after a couple of the initial lessons I explained to him that the American way of greeting someone is to stand across from each other, while vehemently guarding one’s personal space, briefly make eye-contact and possibly even flash a smile. For the next couple of months Pedro dutifully kept his distance when I came in and just stood there when I left. His girlfriend followed-suit and also refrained from getting too close to me. And then, at the end of our second-to-last class he slipped up and before I knew it he kissed me once on each cheek to say goodbye. I left without saying anything but hoped he hadn’t forgotten that while America may be a vast place, we fervently defend our personal space.
When the last class arrived though, I was sad to say goodbye and determined that given the circumstances, it was appropriate to kiss Pedro and his girlfriend goodbye. As I walked out the door, I turned and left him with my last words of wisdom, “No kissing in Canada!”
When only two of my six students showed up for class the other day, they were excited for their “semi-private lesson” that we tailored to exactly what they wanted to talk about – cake.
Before the beginner class started, Marta sat showing Sara and me photos of the elaborately decorated marshmallow fondant cakes that she’s been making for her kids’ birthdays and other special occasions. Our lesson began when Sara asked Marta how she makes them. For the next hour and a half Marta gave the recipe and instructions in as much English as she could. While the two of them took notes, I wrote out the descriptions in English and Googled images to make sure they understood some of the vocabulary, like powdered sugar and a Mix Master. Afterwards, we compared Marta’s recipe to other ones we found online and they wondered why one was so specific to call for white eggs – their interpretation of what “egg whites” must have been – an easy mistake since outside of the U.S. eggs are not only white, but come in their natural brownish hues as well.
I have such a good time trying to make English relevant, interesting and fun for my students and the relationships I build with each of them keep me motivated and looking forward to seeing and working with them again.
Back at Thanksgiving and Christmas my advanced students were able to enjoy video clips of Saturday Night Live’s Debbie Downer. The other day I used an episode of The Office (U.S. version, of course) to highlight Enemy #1 for English Language Learners – phrasal verbs (examples of ones I’ve used in this blog entry: “showed up” “wrote out” “get over” “hang out” – a verb with a preposition that makes the resulting phrase mean something different from what each of the words means separately). To make the episode as understandable as possible, thus maximizing students’ feelings of success, first we went over some discussion questions like:
• It was recently reported that a 90-year old American war veteran has been copying thousands and thousands of pirated DVDs and sending them to soldiers in Afghanistan. Do you think his operation should be shut DOWN or should he be allowed to continue?
• Do you remember what you were doing the last time someone said to you, “Come on! Grow up!”?
Then, we looked at the transcript of the corresponding scene and students predicted the preposition that filled in the blank space. Finally, we watched the scene and students checked their answers and filled in the words that they hadn’t known – and most importantly, appreciated the awesome and ridiculous American comedy that The Office is.
Besides TV and movies, all of the students, from children to adults, definitely like using music to hone their listening skills and tone up their grammar and vocabulary knowledge base. In my beginner class the other day, four women battled it out to be the first to grab the past-tense verbs written on papers that were spread out over the table as they heard each of the words in the song, “Then He Kissed Me.” Later that evening I used the same activity with three kids who sat on their living room floor with the youngest two taking on their older sister, who proved to be too much of a match for them.
The other night the middle child, who turned twelve last week, was first up and we watched the Abba music video of “Dancing Queen.” On the cool website, www.lyricstraining.com, while the video plays the lyrics are displayed on the screen with some of the words missing. You have to complete the spaces as you listen to the song and if you don’t do it quickly enough the video pauses until you type in the missing word. Sometimes we have to press “delete” to replay the line – and I do mean “we” since I regularly miss some of the words and it’s a good thing there’s the “tab” key to skip the word when neither of us can detect it at all.
Next up was the older sister who turned fourteen last month. We spent her turn watching a video and doing the corresponding activities that are on a BBC website for learning English. The video featured two British kids exploring Notting Hill and preparing for the Carnival festivities that take place there.
Last up was the 10-year old and we played the game Guess Who?. This travel-sized game is one of the best investments I have ever made when I bought it at Gatwick Airport on my last visit to London. Well, I headed into the night down just 6 to 9 in our ongoing tournament of Guess Who?. I don’t know how he did it but the kid asked just the right questions over and over again (Does your person have glasses? Is your person a man?, etc.) to win 7 games in a row before our time was up. And as his mom and I settled up for the rest of the month I heard him singing, “We Are the Champions!” (in English!) throughout the apartment.
I know I’ve said it before, but I just can’t stop thinking how lucky I am to be getting paid to just hang out and have fun with such great people.
On a recent episode of Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed comedian Louis C.K. and they played this soundbite from his new show:
I see soldiers fly all the time, because that’s how they get to the war. . . they just go to Delta, and they just wait in line to go to a war.
And they always fly coach. I’ve never seen a soldier in first class in my life. It could be a full-bird colonel. He’s between two fat guys in coach. . .
And every time that I see a soldier on a plane, I always think: You know what? I should give him my seat. It would be the right thing to do. It would be easy to do, and it would mean a lot to him. . .
Because I’m in first class – why? For being a professional (beep). This guy is giving his life for the country… and I should trade with him.
I never have, let me make that clear. I’ve never done it once. I’ve had so many opportunities. I never even really seriously came close.
And here’s the worst part: I still just enjoy the fantasy… I was actually proud of myself for having thought of it. I was proud. Oh, I am such a sweet man. That is so nice of me to think of doing that and then totally never do it.
On my way home to Chicago I went through Atlanta and as soon as I landed there I rushed to the gate of my connecting flight to get a seat assignment. When I saw that there weren’t any agents at the gate I made a beeline for Au Bon Pain where I bought a giant salad and proceeded to slather creamy ranch dressing all over it – oh how I’ve missed you, Ranch! Then I sat on the edge of my seat facing the gate until a worker appeared. I sprang from my seat and threw my things together, but my adrenaline took a nosedive as I heard her tell me that the only seat left was a middle one. When I got on the plane I started to panic a bit as I saw that the legroom was nothing like the previous flight; this plane was configured for passengers to be able to perform dental work on each other. My tension began to melt away when I saw that my seat was actually in the exit row; so roomy in fact that to grab my bag from the floor I had to stretch my leg as far as possible and hook the strap with my foot. I was all set to relax for the last leg of my trip home.
And then, the woman sitting in the aisle seat in the row in front of me and the heavyset man sitting next to her got up to make way for a giant man, a soldier dressed in army fatigues. He had to be well over six feet tall and three hundred pounds and I couldn’t imagine how his body would fit into the space of the window seat he was assigned. But somehow he wedged himself in there.
As I sat eating my salad waiting for takeoff that Louis C.K. bit was playing in my head. I thought of my roomy seat but determined that with the oversized salad container the extra space was necessary for the job at hand. That salad tasted so good, but I was having a hard time swallowing it because I couldn’t stop thinking about Rambo jam-packed into his seat and the injustice of it all. Seriously, he’s willing to give up his life for what and the airline can’t even give him a preferred seat. I thought about tapping him on the shoulder and offering him my seat, but for some reason the scenario seemed too uncomfortable. I pictured everyone in the row having to get up and out of their seats and I couldn’t imagine the Hulk wanting to inconvenience all of them or draw that much attention to himself.
After I finished my salad there was an announcement that we weren’t going to take off for an hour. I went to the bathroom and when I came out I saw that G.I. Joe was in line. I knew this was my chance. So I stood in the aisle waiting for him to make his way back to his seat and when he approached I said very awkwardly and sheepishly, “Hey, do you want to switch seats? I have this big one and I’m small and you’re big and have that seat.” And when he thanked me I said, “No, thank you.”
So I crammed my body into the window seat and immediately was met with a wave of claustrophobia. I could barely force my bag to the floor, let alone under the seat in front of me. Somehow though, even with the portly man in the middle seat overflowing onto me I felt so good knowing that maybe I made a little dent in making that soldier’s day. Then I thought of that episode of Friends when Phoebe set out to do a “selfless good deed” – a good deed that wouldn’t leave her feeling good about herself, something that Joey said was impossible.
Now, ten days later I was at the KLM desk at O’Hare this morning and again didn’t have a seat assignment ahead of time and found out that there were only middle seats available. After my initial panic, I asked if there was anything else available. Somehow an aisle seat appeared just then in row 44. I realized that sounded pretty far back but decided not to ask what I didn’t want to know. When I boarded I found my seat exactly where I feared it would be – in the last row. I played the game “Would You Rather?” and decided that I would prefer an aisle seat in the last row to a a middle seat. I quickly realized that this last row seat actually came with two saving graces – first, the seat did recline and second, the bathrooms were not in the far back but in the middle of the plane. So I settled into my aisle seat of the middle area with four seats across.
About twenty minutes into the flight the unthinkable happened – the husband and wife who had the middle two seats got up and sat in another row leaving the woman on the other aisle and me to look at each other as if to say, “What the heck?” And, “Well, if this is true this is so awesome!” For the rest of the 7-hour flight I was able to spread out over two seats as I watched “Crazy, Stupid Love,” “New Year’s Eve” and enough of “Horrible Bosses.”