The 1%

I’m in France for the next couple of days and I couldn’t be more excited to get to spend time with Faye, David, Isaac and Sonia who flew into Nice from Chicago. 
I’ve been preparing for the trip with some French classes. Although, truth be told, all that really came of it was a much cleaner apartment. And to be honest, that was the real motive for taking classes from a private teacher who came to my home – I had to clean before she came. 

People say (and I’m not a fan of those people at all) that if you know Catalan then learning French is easy … Pretty sure these are the same people who had said that Spanish was easy. And the same who said that Catalan is so easy if you know Spanish …

I know I haven’t given it long, but it just doesn’t seem like French will be a great success story for me – especially considering that after almost two months of lessons I still couldn’t bring myself to say my teacher’s name, sure that she’d never recognize it as her own. 

In addition to private lessons I also used the language learning app Duolingo. It seemed way too easy and pointless at times as you have to choose the correct translation of vocabulary words and yet a picture accompanies each option. My struggle with Duolingo centered on my pronunciation – a normal sequence went like this:

And so, after Duolingo pronounced me 1% fluent in French, I knew that there was only one thing to do – travel across the border and impress the pantalons off the French.

Lifehacking a Professional Tennis Tournament

  • Buy the cheapest ticket available for the central court.
  • Attend one of the early days when there are still plenty of matches going on on the outer courts.
  • Find a seat at an outside court.
  • During each changeover move your way up until you make it to the front row.
  • Enjoy that close-up of the tennis greats’ bulging muscles and even a few glimpses at how they are also mere mortals, sporting pimples and pockmarks like the riff-raff in the stands.

Photos taken with my iPhone 5

At 12:00 I started the day at Court 2, where unfortunately my cheering didn’t help Rajeev Ram, the only American in the singles draw, as he lost in straight sets.

Cheering on Evgeny Donskoy (Russia) from the first row at Court 1 - he lost. I should probably stop cheering.

Cheering on Evgeny Donskoy (Russia) from the first row at Court 1 – he lost. I should probably stop cheering.


Finally, a win for the team I was cheering for - the Spanish duo of Feliciano López and Marc López (not related)

Finally, a win for the team I was cheering for – the Spanish duo of Feliciano López and Marc López (not related).

Hard Knock Life

“Early” class at 10, now spending the day at the professional tennis tourney here (Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell).  Later on, two classes in the evening . . . tough life, I know.

Hardly a day goes by here that I don’t think about how incredibly privileged I am.

One of Those Days


One of those little girls running towards me gave me this note at our last class. It says, “I like being your student. I’ve learned a lot of things from you!! I like to be with you and I love you a lot. Happy Easter! Happy!!!”

I love days when life feels like a dream you hope never ends.

Biking and walking around Barcelona today, the weather couldn’t be more perfect, letting me sit outside for lunch.  Went to the gym and my workout clothes didn’t feel quite as tight as they have been.

And the best part was later on as I was approaching my student’s building, she was standing outside with her mom and sister chatting with a school friend of hers (who I also teach) along with that girl’s mother and brother. Once they spotted me, my two 8-year old students came running towards me, arms wide open for me to swoop them up in hugs.

What a greeting!

What a day!

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving came and went like any other unremarkable Thursday in Barcelona. But no day is unremarkable; I am reminded regularly how remarkable my fortune is. Four and a half years after moving to Barcelona, I still can’t get over how lucky I am. The thought crosses my mind almost daily. And anytime I slide and take my situation for granted, it doesn’t take long for Life to slap me back to reality.

The last time I flew home from Barcelona was almost a year ago and it was quite the journey. To save a couple hundred euros, I began by flying three hours in the wrong direction to Istanbul, Turkey, only to double back and continue on to Chicago for an 11 hour and 40 minute flight.

I still remember walking all the way to the back of the plane in Turkey and the hissy fit going on inside my head when I reached the last row. I was in the last row where my seat would horrifyingly only recline a millimeter before being met by the back wall. My seat was right next to a bathroom where less than rosy smells would waft my way on and off for 11+ hours only to be quelled by the hordes waiting their turns in the narrow aisle between the door and my arm rest.

When l was already worked up, I saw the woman who dared to sit in my seat – in my aisle seat. I quickly informed her that she was in my seat and the flight attendant let her know that hers was one seat over. As the flight took off, I felt the woman’s elbow creep over the armrest and brush my body. I tried to play it cool, as if I was involuntarily pushing against that elbow – but I was working hard to defend my turf.

And then Life showed up, as it often does, at just the right moment to shove my A-hole behavior right back in my face. This was the woman’s third flight in her entire life – the previous two being earlier in the day. She began her day in Iraq, flew to Jordan and then on to Istanbul to board this plane to Chicago where she would then continue on to Texas. Wendy was headed to the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee.

She was given the nickname Wendy when she worked at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq – fearing that using her real name could put her at risk. She was so proud that she had worked to help the Americans but, at the same time, had lived in constant fear. While she kept her head covered in public, Wendy felt so free within the American Embassy that she could go without her scarf. She said she was so grateful to the Americans for being in her country to help the Iraqi people.

Five years before I met Wendy she had applied for refugee status. Two weeks before our flight she found out that she had been approved. She had no time to sell her house and asked her brother-in-law to help her. She went to the bank and transferred the equivalent of thousands of dollars that she had saved to give to her nephews. She had cared for them for years and they were only 18 and 19 years old when she left. She was hoping they could move to Turkey to be safe and be with some of her brothers who live there. She also has a brother who lives with his family in Australia. She was moving to the U.S. all alone. She is in her late 40s and looked forward to reuniting with friends who had left Iraq so long ago that she was afraid she wouldn’t even recognize them when they met.

I asked Wendy what she was most looking forward to in the U.S. and she said being able to go for a walk. In Iraq, she explained, people were always being watched.

I asked Wendy what food she was looking forward to eating in the U.S. and she reminisced about how she and the other Iraqi workers ate for free while at the U.S. Embassy and could even take leftovers home, which she often did to share with her nephews. She said that she loves fruits and vegetables and asked if they are affordable in the U.S. She asked if you always have to buy what you want by the kilo or if you could buy any amount you want. She was excited to learn that if you only want one single apple, you can buy that one apple and don’t have to buy an entire kilo of apples.

When she asked me if my whole family lives in Chicago, I said yes. I just wanted to keep it simple and not go on to say that my brother and his family live in Florida. We left it at that – there was no way I could possibly go on to say that I would be spending an entire week with my whole family in Puerto Rico.

Early on in the flight, right around the time that elbow brushed against me, I noticed that across the aisle there was a man talking a girl’s ear off. Right then I thought how lucky I was that the person next to me wasn’t engaging me in conversation. In the end I was so grateful that Wendy was seated next to me.

On Thanksgiving I naturally think about what I am thankful for but I become truly overwhelmed thinking of how amazingly remarkable my fortune is and the extremely privileged life I lead.

A Dog Walks into a Bar

When I moved to Barcelona just over four years ago I didn’t speak a word of Catalan. My friend Danielle tried to help me out by giving me a list of handy expressions but Catalan is not like Castellano (Spanish as most people know it) – in that you can’t just look at a word and know how it’s pronounced. And so I left the U.S. without even being able to figure out how to pronounce “adieu” (goodbye – pronounced “ah-DAY-ooh”).
Four years later I am taking Catalan class two mornings a week and gave a short presentation the other day. The presentation was just telling a short story to my class of 17 students. And so I shared the story of my first or second summer at camp and how while it’s outside of Catalunya there is a Catalan employee who is always happy to help me practice speaking Catalan. 

And so during a break one day, I went to the bar to order an orange juice. I didn’t have time to wait for the fresh squeezed kind so I wanted to order a bottle of orange juice, and since I wanted to take it to go, I would add that I didn’t need a glass. And so, I drew in my breath and expelled my much rehearsed question:

Vull una ampolla de suc de taronja i no necessito un gos. 

Well, my Catalan friend Luis, the bartender at the time, gave me a half smile, chuckled for a second and corrected me “un goT”?

Right, GOS vs GOT – I had inadvertently let Luis know that I wouldn’t be needing a DOG with my bottle of oj. Normal. 

And that is my best advice for language learners looking to memorize vocabulary – not that I go out of my way to do so, but an embarrassing experience is one way to ensure you’ll never forget how to say something. 

Beginner’s Luck

2014 9 20 padel tourney torneoTwo years ago I began playing paddle tennis. 17 months later I got up the nerve to enter my first paddle tournament. My partner and I won. Today I played in my first beach paddle tournament. My partner and I won. If I want to end on a high note, I’m thinking it might be time to retire.

2 15 14 torneo padel


CAMP: Teaching and the Many Hats We Wear

cerler camp1 - rachel's group on grass

This was my third year spending July working at an overnight English summer camp in the breathtaking Pyrenees mountains in Cerler, Spain.

This summer featured two big firsts for me – (1) I was a coordinator for Camp 1; and (2) I worked both Camp 1 and Camp 2, four weeks and not just two.

Technically I am hired by the camp to be a classroom English teacher. But just like in a school, the title “teacher” only highlights one minor role that you actually play.

Here is just a small sampling of the roles that I play at camp:

  • ALARM CLOCK: On weekdays, on-duty teachers receive a wake-up call at 7:45 in order to wake the children at 8:15. When I’m on-duty, I begin waking the children with a double knock on the door while simultaneously pushing it open and saying in a gentle and quiet voice, “good morning.” I make my way into the room and over to the drapes to draw them open and let in the blinding sunshine. Then, I start to pull blankets off of the beds and if they still don’t show signs of life I threaten to open the balcony door and let in the cool mountain air. But what works 9 times out of 10 is when I threaten to sing – that really gets them going. I usually start with “Good Morning to You,” (to the tune of “Happy Birthday”) and then the select few who still refuse to move are treated to my very moving rendition of “Rise and Shine and Kick up the Glory, Glory” (while looking up the lyrics just now, I see it’s actually “and give God your Glory, Glory”).
  • song leader IMG_3031LINE LEADER: The camp takes place in a hotel and a lot of time is spent going up and down the stairs. At 9:50 each class meets at their designated spot outside of the bedrooms on the first and second floors. We then walk up to our classrooms (a hotel room without the beds and with make shift tables and lawn chairs) on the third or fourth floor. Class 1 ends at 10:50 and we head back down the stairs and outside to the break area where the children have a snack. At 11:10 it’s back up to the room for Class 2. At 12:00 it’s back down the stairs and outside for break time when the sports equipment comes out. At 12:20 it’s back up for Class 3. And at 1:10 it’s down to the dining room for lunch.
  • LOCKSMITH: This is one of my favorite roles just because the kids are so amazed the first time they see me uncoil a paperclip and snake it into a hole in the center of the door handle to the bathroom. With the paperclip in place and a little jiggle of the handle back and forth, the bathroom door that involuntarily locks from the outside at the most inopportune times, is once again unlocked. This happens multiple times a week in all different rooms and it makes me wonder if the regular guests are issued a paperclip along with their room keys.
  • comedian P1090415DISCIPLINARIAN:  We of course want camp to be fun for the kids and not feel like being at school.  But with 90+ kids in a small hotel space, discipline is a must.
  • A common scenario for the disciplinarian is asking a kid to pick up a balled wad of paper (or anything else) from under his chair in the dining room. He instinctively answers, and almost before the teacher has finished the request, “It’s not mine.” And even though it’s apparent that paper has only been torn from his part of the tablecloth, he believes in all his heart that that paper is not his. I almost cried for joy when after a week of this happening regularly with one girl, one day she replied, “It’s not mine . . . but I’ll pick it up anyway.”
  • Bedtime can be a struggle getting the children to sleep – and then keeping them asleep. After the teachers go off-duty around midnight, the children do their best to sneak around and have “parties” in their friends’ rooms. It’s pretty entertaining how atrocious they are at the sneaking part. It sounds like the running of the bulls with the slamming of one door signaling the beginning of the event. Then the pounding of feet as the stampede makes its way down the hall and finally, the slamming of the second door to indicate that the bulls, I mean kids, think they have safely made it to the other side.
  • CHOREOGRAPHER: This is a role that I never thought I’d play and really should not play as I have so little musical talent that when I was brave enough to take salsa classes years ago, the teacher grabbed me to help her demonstrate something and just as quickly sent me back to my spot to look for anyone else to take my place.
  • 2014 8 Blog camp - teaching hats CHOREOAnd so I have become a reluctant choreographer when preparing the class for the end of camp presentation. This year in Camp 1 I had a group of eleven boys, 10-12 years old. When we went through the camp songbook on the first day of class it was obvious that Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” was their overwhelming favorite. So for the next week and a half the boys focused on memorizing the lyrics and we made props like chains and a giant Miley Cyrus head for one of the kids to wear. I helped them come up with dance moves that would make the song understandable for the audience. For the line, “I never hit so hard in love,” Manuel, the boy on the end of the line made it look like he was punching the guy next to him, Beto, and then there was a domino reaction of the rest of the line making it look like they were falling over. We practiced a million times and it went smoothly a million times. But, during the performance Manuel actually made contact with Beto’s face – by accident. Beto was so shocked that he stood there looking at his good friend Manuel for so long that he missed the next couple of lines in the song.  It was hilarious – um, I mean memorable.

There are so many other roles that I play, like: social worker/cheerleader/cheerer-upper; U.S. cultural ambassador; and on and on.

clown DSC07267hike DSC00991bball DSC00837As a coordinator, I donned even more hats that are unique to the position – and the one I felt least qualified for (and was least qualified for) was playing camp nurse. With all of the adventures (or ‘misadventures’ would probably be more accurate) that role provided, it deserves a blog entry all its own; so hopefully sometime soon I can share those with you.


Cambrils“I can’t believe how lucky I am” – I’m sure I’ve said this to myself more in the past 3 years than in my previous 35 combined. Just last Friday I was relaxing on the beach in Cambrils, Spain and found myself thinking, “I am really happy.” I feel a little shy about sharing these thoughts because I know it’s cheesy, but the thing is that I don’t write this blog for anyone else – I mean, I absolutely love that people want or are willing to follow it, but the driving force is that I want to have these posts to look back on to remember the details of my experiences.

I was on the beach in Cambrils this past week all because of the kindness of Álex, a 12-year old student of mine, and his family wanting to show me their gratitude. So I left Barcelona on Thursday at 11:00 and an hour and a half train ride later I arrived in Cambrils and was met at the station by Álex and his parents. We dropped my luggage off at their apartment and headed down to the beach.

The sand in Cambrils is as soft as can be and has a golden shine to it. When the sand gets stirred up in the sea, it looks like the inside of a snow globe with golden glitter dancing all around. The beaches south of Barcelona make up the “Costa Dorada” (The Golden Coast).

While his parents went right into the water, Álex and I walked up and down the beach all the while speaking in English. I was beaming with pride, so impressed that he was able to have a conversation in English. When I began teaching him less than a year ago, (along with his friends – twin boys who are 2 years older), he couldn’t speak even one complete sentence in English. It is beyond gratifying to see his growth – how he can now hold his own and was even able to help his parents out on a trip to London in July.

A Seafood FeastAfter an hour at the beach we headed back to the apartment for a feast of a lunch. Álex’s parents, who spoke with me in Castellano (Spanish) and Catalán, prepared a seafood sampler fit for royalty. There were platters overflowing with mussels, clams and razor clams (which I politely sampled) and langostines, shrimp and prawns, which I helped myself to over and over again until I was stuffed to the gills.

We finished lunch around 4:00 in the afternoon and while Álex’s parents took a siesta, he and I sat on the balcony, looking out at the sea, and played Connect Four – and I lost – every – single – time. Álex has a brilliant mind for all things logical and mathematical. We played countless board games (like Clue and Monopoly) during our 9 months of classes and I don’t think I ever won a single game against him.

After the siesta, we took a nice, leisurely stroll to a lighthouse and then on into town to see the shops. For dinner we went to a pizza place and Álex and I shared an 8-cheese pizza that took up about half of the table. The day of gluttony continued with dessert and a stop at their favorite ice cream shop.   My two scoops (more like shovel-fulls) overwhelmed the medium sized cup and I was no match for the melting mess; good thing Álex’s mom lent me a hand.

When we got back to the apartment, Álex’s parents hung out on the balcony while we sat on the couch and practiced some language basics he wanted to work on. We made it like a game where he would say a number in English and then I would say it in Catalán and then we went through the alphabet that way too. When I tried to say the number 9 in Catalán “nou,” Álex tried his best to get me to pronounce it correctly. The sound (at least as I hear it) is somewhere between the sound of “now” and “no” and “no ooh.” After going back and forth at least nine times, Álex said exasperatingly, “NO, you keep saying it with an American accent.” So I said, “You know I’m American, right? So why does it come as a surprise to you that I’m saying this with an American accent?!”

Friday morning we headed to the beach after breakfast. I got to finally try my hand at “petanca” – a game that I see older men play in Barcelona and have always wondered how it works. For the beach version that we played, there were 4 sets of balls (red, yellow, blue, green) and each person gets 2 of the same color. Then there is a “boliche,” similar looking to a ping-pong ball. The first person (and subsequently the winner of each round) throws the “boliche” and then everyone basically takes turns to see who can get their balls closest to the “boliche.” First one to 11 wins. Beginner’s luck helped me to win the first game when I was teamed with Álex’s dad but my luck ran out when Álex and I took on his parents in the second game. By the time we finished, it was getting hot and we were all ready to head into the water to cool off. I floated in the sea and then lay on the beach and couldn’t remember a time that I had been so relaxed.

The previous day I had mentioned in passing how much I like and recommend a rotisserie chicken place in Barcelona that is near their house. So what did we have for lunch on Friday? . . . scrumptious rotisserie chicken from Cambrils. And Álex’s dad picked up a variety of ice cream bars for dessert – to be exact he picked up one of each kind of the Magnum bars that are the most decadent there are. He said he wasn’t sure which one I would like so he got one of each. I was overwhelmed with the way that Álex and his family went out of their way to cater to me and insisted on treating me to every part of my entire stay. They are an incredible family – so caring, such a great sense of humor and so kind.

My initial reaction to the family’s invitation was that it was so nice of them but then I was nervous, thinking that it would be awkward. My hesitations were quickly put to rest soon after I set foot in Cambrils, as it was apparent that we all got along like old friends. Álex and his family wanted to show me gratitude and it gave me another occasion to feel so grateful for the amazing experiences and opportunities that I have had.



Age – It’s just a number . . . or is it?

It was exciting to see my alma mater Wash U. appear on the Huffington Post’s  list of “The 10 Most Wired Colleges In The Country” but my very next thought was, “OMG, how old am?!”  I mean, I remember using microfiche slides to do research in the Wash U. library. I remember attempting probably the first internet search in my life by entering the entire question in the address field – now for the younger crowd, while that’s common practice now, in the beginning of Internet time that wouldn’t get you anywhere. It feels like I must be talking about 50 years ago – but this was just back in the 90s.

It’s hard for me to believe that I’m closer to 40 now than to 30. And I know how obnoxious it can be when younger friends fret over turning 30, so I know for my older (read “wiser”) family and friends it might seem ridiculous making a big deal out of confronting the big 4-0, especially when it’s still two and a half years away. But it’s been thrown in my face recently – the fact that I’m not as young as I would like to think.

For my winter vacation this year I went to Italy with two friends and we drove around the country. Living so carefree and fancy-free makes me feel young – feeling constantly nauseous from the stick shift car makes me feel like a grandma.  I was traveling with a friend of mine from Mexico.  We met 8 years ago when I did my teacher exchange in Mexico City.  8 years ago!  It really feels like a lifetime ago – and well, for my nephew who was born that year it really is.

And now back to Italy – I was so excited being in charge of the road-trip playlist. I collected the go-to road trip songs that would put a smile on anyone’s face and make even the most closeted shower singer belt out the chorus lines. The songs were the best of the 80s with some 70s and 90s thrown in and even a couple of current popular songs. Some of the highlights: Sweet Caroline, Material Girl, Life is a Highway, Don’t Stop Believin’ and my all-time favorite We Built this City. About 10 minutes in, my friends just said, “Um, let’s see what Karina has on her iPhone.” It was at that point that I understood the difference that our 10-year age difference made. The good news is that they’re giving me a second chance to redeem myself when we travel to Amsterdam in the spring. Wish me luck!

While I just published my post,  I just had to update when I was on Facebook and saw a friend’s update.  Her son took a photo with her plastic underwater camera.  He immediately asked how he could see the picture and when she explained that you can’t that you have to get the film developed, he asked, “what’s film?”

%d bloggers like this: