Teaching English in Thailand, Traveling, Bone-Dry Humor, Other Stuff Too

Let Me Espain

Logroño

Logroño

For those who’ve asked me or wondered what it’s like to transition into living and working abroad in different countries, how things fall into place, how I get settled, or just how to be an optimal human, here’s how it all went down in Spain. Because I think it illustrates the way these things typically go (based on my experience), as well as my mindset about them, the following is all about what happened on my first day in Spain and on my first day of work.

Day Uno

The security guards in the Bilbao airport looked at me as if posing the question, “Are you sure you’re supposed to be here?” I know this look well. They asked where I’d come from, and when I said the U.S., they let me pass through without scanning my bags or looking at my passport. I’d been in planes and airports for just under 24 hours, so I was at my best, anointed with grease like Odysseus, having just broken things off with Circe, red-eyed, occasionally stringing complete sentences together, exactly 50% of my ears popped.

Paintin' a turkey

Paintin’ a turkey and wearing the profesora’s bata

At this point, all the information I had about the next ten months in Spain was that I had an orientation meeting to attend, a meeting with one of my schools—they told me to wear a suit—and a start date for work. Still no reply from the other school, and no other arrangements except a hostel to stay in. And what I did know came mostly through automated emails. I hadn’t actually talked to anyone except a secretary from one school via email. It never occurred to me that the other teachers in my program, being people of today, make fb groups about this kind of thing and make an effort to contact each other and figure things out.

Río Ebro

Río Ebro

I walked out into a muggy fog with my two backpacks and guitar case and parked my culito on a dirty wet bench. Ah, this must be Europe.

I paused there for a minute, and people started running by me and securing the best places to stand at a runway of fences and caution tape leading from the terminal to a bus. I heard cameras clicking, girls screaming, and a few cheers. The players of Real Madrid came walking out of the airport into their bus, waving, scribbling autographs without breaking stride, or completely ignoring everyone. I peered into Ronaldo’s eyes, and as he briefly but unmistakably returned my gaze, I had the distinct sensation of nothing at all.

San Sebastián

San Sebastián

I realized at that moment I hadn’t bothered to look up where my hostel was, or how to get from Bilbao to Logroño, but I found a local bus to the station, and bought a ticket for another bus to the city from there. I met an English person sitting in a nearby seat, and three months later I would see him again and find out he lives in the building next door to mine.

Once in Logroño, I wandered aimlessly, eventually stopping for a coffee and using WiFi to look up where my hostel was. It was September 23rd: I ate a bag of cookies, took a shower, and slept for 17 hours. A week went by before work started, but more about that in a different post.

Day Uno on el Job:

On my scheduled start date, that one school still hadn’t returned my calls or my emails, so I decided to show up in person and see what happened.

I took a bus out to the fabled school, but we flew by the stop and immediately merged onto a freeway heading south out of the city. The next stop was ten minutes later, leaving me in an isolated residential area in the midst of sprawling farmland. I got off and saw that the next bus going back the opposite direction didn’t come for another hour, so I decided to walk, unaware how much further the school actually was. I saw a big bridge in the distance, a landmark I had noted nearby the school to find my way back. I b-lined towards it and cut across a huge field of dirt clods and dry brush on a farm.

Nalda, where one of my schools is

Nalda, where one of my schools is

To my east was a ridge of dry hills with jagged red rocks and clumps of grass, and west was an agricultural expanse with apple and olive trees and vineyards extending into a hazy skyline. Industrial yards with warehouses and huge piles of dirt and gravel clashed with the rustic ambience. I trespassed through somebody’s land and rounded an old stone farm house to climb a hill and take a bridge over the freeway. I walked for almost an hour in the end, laughing at myself and kicking rocks and dried shit.

It was hot, and I was getting delirious. I vividly recalled my first day on the job in Thailand, sweating in an office, facing a panel of teachers who talked at me incomprehensibly for an hour and then all pointed in different directions simultaneously, exclaiming “You!” until somebody pushed me into a classroom full of 50 Thai kids, motioned to a blackboard under a wobbling rusty fan and said “Teacha.”

View from inside the window of my classroom

View from inside the window of my classroom

When I made it back inside the city, I saw a bus stop along the same line I was on before. Unsure how far away the school was, I decided to catch the next autobus a few minutes later. The driver didn’t have change for my bill, so I had to run into the café by the bus stop first while everyone waited. Spaniards on the bus speculated among themselves about where this flustered ginger man-child could have come from, most putting their euros on England, Ireland, or Germany.

Minutes later we were approaching my stop for the second time. I pushed the button again, and the driver shot me a cryptic look of outrage, scandal, possibly undeniable lust. He wouldn’t open the side door and explained that I couldn’t take the metropolitan bus between stops within a single town. I was supposed to have taken the local bus, which I didn’t know back then. That’s why the first bus didn’t stop. We were only idling there now because, luckily, a man was getting on. But instead of walking through the narrow entryway and sitting down, he joined the driver in lecturing me about how to not suck at buses and stayed in the doorway so there was no room to pass and get off.

San Sebastian

San Sebastian

I repeatedly told the driver I was sorry, that I understood not to do this in the future, but that I needed to get off the bus anyways. He and the one boarding were both skeptical about whether or not I understood and kept repeating their explanation, sprinkling in some broken English here and there as if it wasn’t twice as dysfunctional that way. The more time went by, the more the other passengers grew impatient and complained. The background noise made it harder for us to hear each other, delaying things even further.

Now a bus-full of Spaniards was heckling me and yelling at both the driver and myself while the guy in my way—curiously passionate about bus protocol—swore and tried to think of different phrasings. Finally I said loudly in Spanish, “I speak Spanish, damn it. Are you going to let me by or not?” He moved out of the way grumbling, and I stepped off, feeling the stares of everyone on board as I crossed the street and walked through the gate of the school. Though they doubted where I was from before, I had now unmistakably outed myself as an American in nearly every pejorative sense of the title.

San Sebastian

San Sebastian

I walked along the sidewalk through a lawn towards the first office-looking building I saw, expecting something else to go wrong on the home stretch. The door was locked, but through the massive window into what looked like a secretary’s office I saw an old man dozing in his chair, bald-top head face down on the desk in front of a set of monitors. You know the kind of bald I’m talking about—hair on the sides and back but not on top, the “cul de sac,” or the “Friar Tuck,” it’s been called. I knocked gently to wake him, and he squinted at me, cleaned his glasses, put them on, and squinted at me again. He walked out of the office and came around to the door. With only his head sticking out he said, “What?” [Later on I learned he always squints at me because he is essentially blind. He’s a blind security guard who naps a lot.]

I told him I was here to kick some ass. He said nothing, let me in, and with a casual hand gesture somehow communicated I should wait for the director of English to come see me when she got out of her meeting. 15 minutes later a woman came out, smiled at me and said “So…?” She had no idea who I was.

The Home Stretch

The Home Stretch

Only when I fished my acceptance letter out of my mochila and showed her the part that listed my work sites did the pieces start coming together. We talked for a while longer and she sent me on my way saying she would email me a schedule in a few days. “Holidays,” she laughed.

At this point in my travels, and I’m referring now not only to Spain but Thailand, Southeast Asia in general, and NZ, I expect nothing less from these initial days of transition. But things like this also happen a lot in general, even after transitional periods. And I thrive in this world of floating emails, button-up shirts, confused faculty, incredulous locals, dog poop, constant uncertainty, sleepy people guarding vital information, long walks, and my own ignorance and poor planning. The unforeseen complications, the invisible chain of command between who hires you, who pays you, who you work for, and who you work with, and the once mundane day-to-day tasks I now expect to be ever-challenging, these are nearly always part of the package with teaching abroad. But the spontaneity and adaptability they demand are their own rewards, and I’m actually thankful sometimes for the inconveniences, or perhaps only for the strangeness of it all.

Madrid

Madrid

The “adventure” of living abroad, the mystique of the traveler, and whatever other romantic notion one might attribute to this lifestyle, don’t always come to mind during the “ups.” Nearly as often they come after the “downs,” when I have to correct my mistakes or cope with someone else’s, when I can’t have the things that I want, when friends come and go, when I question and grapple with the temporary world I construct from each new place I live and the people I meet. For in these moments I become the most self-reliant, and in these moments I am forced furthest from my comfort zone, far enough where too much negativity or timidity will actually stop me rather than just slow me down, so that the only option is to be resilient, persistent, faithful, audaciously content, less of an idiot, or whatever the situation demands.

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