Adjustments

SD12Starting a new job at a new school in a new city is familiar to me, and in many ways moving across the country feels a little like moving to a new country. After a few months, things start to shift and click. I am getting to know the concrete curves of clean light under clear skies on the way to work, and the sun turning the city gold every afternoon as it sets. Routines have begun to settle in place. I miss Michigan faces (family, friends, my old coworkers and students) but I don’t miss the hours of driving or taking naps in parking lots. I’ve replaced the hours of commuting with actual productivity. I do miss Michigan autumn, but here a different flavor of autumn has arrived slowly. Afternoons are still sunny and hot, in between cloudy mornings and cool evenings. Even on hot afternoons at school a strong breeze blows up from the ocean.

Earlier this year, in the final and more desperate stages of job searching, I was applying for anything I could find. The decision to take this job was hurried in many ways – my phone interview from my car at the side of the road in Detroit, in the middle of sirens and thunderstorms, and the decision to accept the job offer after only a few hours of weighing it against the job in the Bay Area that I had already accepted. In the end, it was almost on accident that I found almost everything I could have asked for in a teaching job. I think this is a school that will allow me to actually teach, and that will allow me to grow as a teacher. My days are not any shorter, and my much-appreciated prep time has quickly been filled with new responsibilities. But I don’t have the feeling I’ve had for the last few years, of being stretched impossibly thin without much to show for it. And a few months in, time has shifted and expanded. Some days I am surprised to find how much has fit into a handful of hours or even minutes.

I still need to learn how to leave room for myself. I am beginning to learn how to do that, now that it actually feels possible. I have a lunch break now, and I even bring lunch every day, though I’m not very good at eating it and sometimes one lunch will last several days because I keep running out of time to eat more than a few bites. Without my crazy commute, I’ve found time for some coveted moments of reading. (I started reading some books I loved as a teenager, which is wonderful except for when I found myself becoming a little too connected to my teenage self and her emotions, and began biting my nails.)

This week was probably the most exhausting, with parent teacher conferences. Between condensed teaching schedules, meeting with parents, translating conferences for Spanish-speaking families, and helping to run after school activities, I often had two or three commitments stacked up on top of each other, and planned my day in 5 minute blocks that didn’t leave much time for food or sitting down or breathing. However, after so many conversations with students and families I already feel more involved and more invested. I finished the week by chaperoning the middle school dance, and seeing some of my most reserved or least engaged students break dancing or just flailing around on the dance floor. I came home so tired that I almost fell asleep with my face on the table, as my long-suffering husband got dinner out of the oven. Next Monday, however, I think I will walk into each classroom feeling a little more ready to connect with each of my students.

My words feel a little scattered (overspent on translations and doled out in lessons) so how about some pictures?

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El Día de los Muertos – a small portable altar remembering Frida Kahlo, in a cigar box that I carried around to my classes. I turned off the lights and let children speculate about the flickering light that came from inside the almost-closed lid.

We didn’t learn much Spanish today, partially because culture is important and partially because I am completely defeated and gave up on language teaching in favor of cultural theatrics and coloring calavera masks. We accidentally learned a lot today, however – about Frida, about other cultures, about the ways death has played a part in the lives of my students, and what they have done about it – and about people different from ourselves, and what we are going to do about it.

I was a good teacher today, but completely on accident. I needed that, though, because I have no effort left to put into being good at things – just a lot of things that seem to be falling apart.

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In Spain, my Italian roommate asked me about Americans and their coffee. She was enchanted by the images in movies and on TV, of our to-go mugs balanced in cars and on desks and clutched in the hands of busy people rushing down crowded streets. “Oh, I would love to see that in person!” she sighed.

Now that I’ve returned to that charming world, I am sighing for the saucers and tiny cups of Europe.

The coffee is always more interesting on the other side of the world.

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Back to Ypsilanti today, for many homecomings. We met up with many people and announced our engagement (which was more difficult than anticipated, considering that my ring doesn’t look like a traditional engagement ring.)

But I really knew I was home when I was drinking wine with my  best friend in her kitchen.

 

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My weeklong training for my new teaching job wrapped up today with an outdoor picnic at the “service center” headquarters… including a dance party and a dance-off between two principals.

The training has been informative, full of free food and free goodies, and not the professional development experience that I’m used to. I know better than to evaluate a company’s environment on how they woo new employees, and I know better than to evaluate a school’s treatment of their teachers on the gimmicks they use to pump us up for the school year… but so far I feel more prepared and positive about the new school year than I have in the past.

(And that’s pretty good considering that I’m still a culture-shocked mess.)

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Went straight from the airport in Chicago to a hotel in Grand Rapids for an orientation for the new teaching job I’m starting this Fall.

It’s a disconcerting reentry into American culture.

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Lavacolla to Santiago de Compestela.

We made it! And look how excited Santiago was to see us. Fireworks everywhere!

(Or perhaps it was because tomorrow is the feast day of Santiago, their biggest party of the year?)

This is the destination we’ve had our eyes on for the last 25 days. So what happens when you arrive?

You get to Monte de Gozo, the Hill of Joy where pilgrims catch their first glimpse of the city – or in this case, where you catch a glimpse of  suburbs, a gigantic monument commemorating Pope John Paul II’s visit, and plenty of people eager to sell you crap.

You walk through the modern outskirts of the city, beginning to feel a little sad knowing that you’re done with the mountains and the peaceful green fields.

You pass into the old part of town, where apartment complexes give way to cobblestones and old stone.

You get to the cathedral – a muddle of steeples and street artists and sweaty pilgrims – in time for the daily noon pilgrim mass.

You do not have time to feel much in the cathedral, in the press of other pilgrims standing or sitting or leaning against pillars during the service, and the stream of tourists pushing through with their cameras.

You get a little excited when they pull out the famous Botafumeiro – the huge incense burner that swings terrifyingly high, spitting out sparks and smoke. You feel impressed – by the bells and the organ music and the sweet smoke mixed with pilgrim sweat – but not necessarily spiritual.

You wander out into the bright sunlight and get someone to take an after picture in the crowded plaza.

You stand in line at the Pilgrim’s office and get your Compestela – the Latin document that says something along the lines of: Good job taking that long walk, pilgrim, and here’s a get-out-of-purgatory-free card.

You find a menú del día that includes octopus, but maybe secretly remember Burgos (and the meal that now will hold all meals to an impossibly high standard.)

You realize that since tomorrow is the busiest day of the year for Santiago – the saint’s feast day – you probably should have booked beds somewhere earlier. You end up paying too much for yet another dingy private room – but outside the window are the steeples of the cathedral, cascades of bells, warm light and plate noise of a restaurant patio below.

You take a shower, take a nap, wander the city, feel a bit wistful about the journey receding behind you, now that you’ve reached your destination.

You soothe your existential crisis with tapas, at an incredible place where ordering two glasses of wine sets in motion a seemingly endless stream of little plates filled with delicious things. You watch Spain beating the U.S. at basketball, which seems unimaginable, so you talk trash accordingly.

You find a spot in the crowd with a view of the cathedral, to watch a crazy light show projected onto the ancient facade itself – making it change colors, catch fire, extinguish itself, dissolve into darkness, and rebuild itself several times, before the sky explodes into fireworks around it.

You try your best to go out and party with the rest of the city – and perhaps the rest of the region – but feel old and tired, once again defeated by the Spaniards’ party stamina. The Camino is done, and so are you.

A brief note from the Camino

I´m sitting in the municipial albergue  (pilgrim hostel) in Ventosa, after approximately a week and a half of walking on the Camino de Santiago – beginning in St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France, climbing through the misty Pyranees (a grueling first day), stumbling through Basque country, wandering through Pamplona, and striding a bit more confidently into La Rioja, feet bandaged and vineyards on every side.

Words fail me and internet time is limited, but suffice to say that the Camino is life changing.

I have always been attracted to the idea of pilgrimage – a removal from daily routines and surroundings, where the journey is more important than the surroundings. I am not doing this walk for a free get-out-of-hell card, for penance, or for a vacation. I have a list of reasons why I began the Camino, but not a list of what I expect to find at the end.

I´m more happy and at peace than I can ever remember being. The physical effort is grueling, but there are a thousand small rewards: the view from the top of a steep hill, a flock of sheep emerging from mist, the sound of real bells, a mossy fountain of cold water just when you need it. I´m learning to forget my feet and take advantage of the headspace.

I´ll see you at the other end.

Between St. Jean and Roncesvalles, the first day.

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Sunday: A parade of all the hogueras (the flammable works of art that are the center of this week of celebration), dressed in group costumes often related to the themes and motifs that will later be revealed in the hogueras.

Being Tolerable (Not Just Tolerant)

Flight

(The best perspective comes while in transit.)

 

A few weeks ago I took the tram up the coast to go hiking. I’m at that place where I have finally begun to master the equilibrium of traveling – what to bring, what to leave behind, how and when to pack without panicking, appropriate amounts of breakfast and caffeine and time to get out of the house. So I had my book, my music, and a few hours of beautiful coastline to slide by outside the window.

Then my headspace was invaded by the sound of a group of fellow travelers, a few rows behind me. They were young, they were loud, and they were very, very American.

I don’t know what it is about my fellow citizens that make obnoxious American tourists that much more irritating than obnoxious tourists in general. (This is also ridiculous considering that 99%* of the people I love and respect are, in fact, American.) Perhaps it’s that I can understand them. Perhaps it’s that their tonterías no longer have the novelty of eavesdropping on Spanish. Perhaps I’m just ashamed to be lumped together into a demographic I find irritating. Perhaps it’s the valley girl voice thing that I find grating even back home.

I got up and moved to a different car, more out of frustration with myself than out of irritation at them. (Though partly out of irritation at them.)

I think I assumed that traveling and living abroad would automatically make me more understanding, empathetic, and tolerant. As it turns out, it’s far from an automatic process. If anything, in a new country it’s easier to jump to conclusions, make snap judgements, and cling to secondhand, on-the-spot stereotypes as keys to untangling the overwhelming mess of new experiences. Keeping this in check depends on a lot of effort.

I think individual relationships are key. Lots of them. Broad assumptions about any group – Erasmus students, British tourists, middle-aged Spanish women, Americans abroad, kids who grew up rich, the Religious Right, people who find dates online – are increasingly more difficult to maintain once you start making personal connections with people. Not in a token “I’ve got a ___ friend” way, or a one-shot “once this type of person did this terrible thing to me,” but really knowing people, individuals, who have endearing and inspiring qualities even though they sometimes eff it all up.

More than anything I want to be more self-aware. Living here in a new place has made me feel like I am constantly under a magnifying glass, scrutinized by others – I am the American spectacle, after all – but even more so by myself. This might be the result of too much free time, but I think it is part of the constant process of analyzing my surroundings, which along the way brings just about everything about me into question – my accent, my hobbies, my appearance, what I eat, what I don’t eat, my politics, my sense of humor, my belief systems, and so on.

Being overly self critical is just as dangerous, but I think it’s possible to walk the line between neurosis and self-knowledge. Perhaps it’s a way to channel the mass of judgey feelings into some kind of healthy self-improvement.

This is part of being a cultural ambassador, which is one of the reason why Fulbright pays for people like me to come live somewhere new for a year. The impact of this experience on me as an individual is inevitable, but the idea is that somehow I’m here to influence Spain’s view of the United States. My vast country of origen is not just one giant combination of Friends, Jersey Shore, and American Pie. Not everyone lives in California or New York. Not all Americans eat fast food and a terrible diet in general. For that matter, not all Americans eat a gigantic breakfast – eggs, pancakes, toast, bacon, sausages, etc. – every single day. We don’t have one national dish, and we don’t have holidays that everyone celebrates.

During my time here I’ve tried to focus on people as individuals, not people as poster children for somebody’s idea of culture. I’ve tried to share information about my personal experience in the United States, and facilitated individual connections between students here and students back home through our pen pal letters. Along with individual snapshots I think it’s important to connect with a much wider and more diverse range of experience – many of the things I do are not because I am an American, but because I am Sara. Really that’s all it comes down to. People deserve the benefit of honest, individual experience.

With this in mind, I would like to apologize to the young folks on the train who I glared at and tried to escape so gracelessly. I am not irritated by American kids abroad. I am irritated by people talking too loudly too early in the morning when I am trying to write thoughtful things on the train.

 
*No real math was used in the making of this blog post.
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