Tag Archives: experience

Spanish, Service & Switching Places

301645_10150425046621215_890517333_nA few years ago, when I lived in Spain, I went on a weekend trip to Extremadura, which is basically a lot of desert and a few Roman ruins.  It was a school-sponsored trip, so our accommodations were classed-up considerably from the cheapest (safe) hostel we could find online, which is what we usually went for, to a formal hotel.

I don’t remember the exact problem or what caused it, but I had some kind of trouble with my room key.  Because of it, I couldn’t get in my room.  Exhasperated, tired, and hungry, I complained to the guys from my school who were hanging out in the hallway.  One of them cut me off and impatiently told me to go down to the front desk, “You’re not shy, and you speak Spanish fine.  What’s the problem?”

could speak Spanish, but I only liked to use it around people I knew well.  I knew I didn’t speak it flawlessly, and I was afraid of sounding stupid–especially at the concierge’s desk in a fancy hotel.  I hated that I couldn’t get my thoughts and ideas out exactly right, so most of the time, I didn’t even try.

I’ve barely used the language at all since I returned to the US in the winter of 2011.

But Spanish has been on my mind lately.  I’ve taken to reading el mundo at lunch and started mentally walking through what a phone conversation would be like if a Spanish-speaking person called the church.

To that end, I’ve been waiting, hoping, thinking, planning, praying, but only sortof expecting to use it.

Today, I was talking to a woman at a big, annual church work day in apartment complex that needs some love.  I walked up to her because she was alone, and I like helping people feel part of the group.

We had a comfortable back-and-forth conversation, and eventually she told me about how she usually doesn’t like speaking in English.  She’s afraid she’ll mess up.  I thanked her for her willingness to converse with me, even though it was hard for her.

Then BOOM.  No fear.  No nerves.  No hesitancy.

I started talking to her in Spanish.

My new friend and I talked a little more about our families, and then we went our ways.  But while I was walking away, I realized that what had just happened was really, really good.  I’d voluntarily swapped places with someone who was uncomfortable by putting myself in the vulnerable position.

It was a discovery that became my MO for the rest of the day.  I asked a group of shy, little girls who would barely talk to me to help me with my Spanish, and by the end of the day, I had a long shadow that followed me everywhere.  All we talked about was Disney princesses and jump rope, but sometimes what you talk about matters a lot less than the time you spend together.

I grew-up doing the work day thing.  I know how to get work done, start a party with a bunch of kids, introduce myself to their parents, help make people feel comfortable, and seek Kingdom breakthrough with people who think that God would never do anything here.  It was awesome today, just like it always is.

But doing it in Spanish–woah, that’s new.

As an added appendice to this story–I so seriously should have gotten in an accident on the way home.  I didn’t see past Shirley’s head in the passenger seat and attempted turn directly into an oncoming car, but even though I was still pushing the gas pedal, the car didn’t get any faster.  In that split-second moment of “what just happened?,” I looked down at my dashboard.  The car had slipped into neutral (??!??); major, major accident averted.

Yeah, awesome day.


In the present

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWithin a four day window, I started a new job, start my final undergraduate semester, will “finish” a chapter of my thesis, and will travel to North Carolina to attend a seminar having nothing to do with any of three previous activities.

I said I’d go to the conference because I was invited in October.  I remember the distinct thought, “It’s the first weekend of the semester.  What could I possibly be missing out on?”  I now have no less than three places I need to be this Saturday afternoon.

Knowing that this week would be uncharacteristically busy, I remember thinking that the drive back to campus in the evenings would be long.  Instead, I find myself wanting the road to be longer and wishing I could script the thoughts that come when I drive.  They’re always the most eloquent.

When I drive home, ideas come out in organized phrases that get strung together and rearranged like they would on paper, and in them is the reason otherwise absent in the momentous chaos and excitement that characterize this last week.  Slipping into mechanized motion (not zoning out, I promise), it’s so much easier to shut off the processor and just be.  And rest.  And pray.

Funny thing is, I don’t even know what that road is called or which way it goes.  It’s just the way home.  This is a slightly embarrassing fact, and I probably ought to look it up in case I need to give somebody directions sometime.  But it all sortof speaks to the point.

To that end, I will cope with the new phone that wouldn’t activate, the possibility of not being able to port my number, and the fact that the library closed at 5pm with all my books in it.  In doing so, I’ll funnel this week’s emotion and stress away from tense joints and toward my fingertips, step away from WordPress and back to Word, and finish draft one of chapter two, tonight. 

Use capitulation in a sentence

After a few days of chaos, exhaustion, and the now-familiar onset of culture shock, the buzz of campus has settled like dust– making Wesleyan home once again.  It remains an awkward squeeze for this Hoosier, but one that I’ve learned to take in strides.

The 13 hour drive from Indiana was extended by construction across the entire state of Pennsylvania.  My high-rise flirts with ninety degrees, it took some time to locate a fan, and my dresser rivals the holding capacity of my four-year-old $12 particle board nightstand from Wal-Mart.   Understandably, the first few days were challenging.

The soothing rhythm of jstor pdfs and sharpie highlighters set as soon as I organized my library and set out to define some otherwise bland and useless floor space, but once that was all settled, I had a little bit of breathing room.

My eating room (if you can call it that) is a kitchen counter that stands at an awkward height– too low to be bar stool height, too high to be normal sitting height and massive pillar divides the living space.

Shirley and I snatched an extra bed from the 7th floor and shoved it caddy-corner to the bar– thereby constructing a make-shift couch, then bought some pretty pillows at Marshalls to complete the look.  A trip to Walgreens and the dollar store for some prints and cheap frames gave the room a finished look.

At Wesleyan, we honor Labor Day by starting school and so I found myself in American Political Economy on Monday at 11, which was quite the experience.  Despite an engaging professor and what appeared to be short, but decent reading list, I found myself unengaged.  For the first time, I found myself in a quality academic setting focused on my interests and thought the class was too easy.  That was weird.  The semester’s essay questions looked like they could all be written within a week, and I was familiar with the works and major ideas of half of the authors on the book list.  This must be what they call “being a senior.”

On that note, I’ve been working very hard on the “being a senior” objective.  I have my whole life to read books and write papers, but I only have 2 semesters of free and fun everything that comes with being a student.  So…I ditched a dinner early to catch the Avengers at the Goldsmith Family Cinema last night and recruited friends until I had a gang to catch Vertigo on the big screen tonight.

<– Embrace youth mentality, manifested as braided pig-tails





Up next?  Shirley and I will be hosting a salsa party (the food, not the dance) and have decided that inviting people to breakfast is going to be our thing.  I’ve already made biscuits and gravy twice this week.

The hurried nature of week one has not permitted time to retell my game theory invoking encounter with a skunk by my car after a 2am shift at the library, the Russian Politics reading load, what it is like to live without a microwave, or the ever-evolving moster and beast that is my thesis, but rest assured it’s coming.

So, here’s to being a student (or at least an undergrad)…one last time.

Start it Right, SB: Day 1

I think it takes a lot to freak me out in church.

Now, don’t take me as cocky.  I believe in an all-powerful God that moves.  But somewhere between John Wimber’s Power Healing in the 10th grade, high church liturgies, charismatics services to Catholic mass, praying scripture, foot-washing services, and purple kool-aid (cause there was no grape juice or wine), it is not that often that I am made physically uncomfortable by instruction given in the church (note the important difference between this and movements of the Spirit).

But tonight was the night.

Not that I don’t have a ton to learn, but I usually bust down the door with a charge and a smile.  I’ve dealt with the awkward moments when you are suppose to pray with the people sitting around you… when it happens to be a big group of guys.

And yeah, I’ve learned how to explain what’s happening to people who know nothing about what it really means to be in a relationship with a living God when something unexpected starts happening.

I’ve navigated awkward group prayers when nobody knows when to end, and have tried to train younger friends how to respond to unanticipated circumstances that make you throw your plan out the window (cause there are times when the Spirit moves and that’s what you gotta do).

But a prayer fire tunnel?  (think that’s what it was called).  I’d never seen that before or read about it, much less participated.  I was a little nervous.

But it was so cool.  A big group of leaders formed two lines and reached out to lay hands on people as  they walked through the middle.  So it was personal prayer, but it really had a cooperate flow.

In the end, prayer is prayer, which is just talking to God, but there is something incredibly cool about praying in different ways.  I love how we always do something different for our prayer weeks at WesCF.  There are countless ways to come before the Father and exploring them as a group is always meaningful.

The way home was amazing too.  Abe and I were dreaming up stories and laughing most of the way back.

FYI: This is how you start spring break 🙂

I am woman.

Let it never be said that I didn’t walk into the lion’s cage.

Broadly speaking, Spain has been a wonderful experience.  Academically, it’s been a never-ending crockpot of failure.  And furthermore, so unfun, except in the two classes I am doing the worst in (ironic, isn’t it?)

So on that note,  let us recognize that which the rest of the world so vehemently seems to profess and I have adamantly denied since kindergarten   Grades matter, but they aren’t always the best measure of improvement.

I think I’ve always rejected this claim on the basis of the absence of objectivity.  I’d feel better with myself if I upright faced failure rather than rationalizing it away.

In my father’s words, “You can either use it as a kick in the butt, or you can whine about it.”   If I pretended falling short of my goals was okay, then I was tricking myself into feeling better.

We are suppose to fail, right?  (hence the fall first)  So aren’t we cheating ourselves out of something if we call failure anything other than what it really is?

Spanish is not something that I’m good at.  I think I’m not good at it for the same reasons I could never get good marks on Strunk & White Grammar tests in high school.  I stink at grammar.  I can’t put raw language in lists and make a story about it (how I passed AP bio).  I study in CSS, because it all is a story–history, where ideas comes from, how ideas form governments, etc.  This stuff excites me.  I just have to think about it and apply it.

Anyways, I think there is real merit to studying outside of your strengths.  Unfortunately, outside of your strengths, stuff is a lot less fun.  Maybe because, I don’t know, you can’t/can barely pass your tests.

All to say, this semester is open range shooting on my GPA, but at least I can take pride in coming here anyways.  Doing it in spite of knowing how hard it would be.  And what’s a couple numbers in comparison to all the other experiences I’m getting along the way?

on the river, Valencia




The cow might be black and white

But finding the milk, not so easy.

My vocabulary and comfortability with certain grammar structures is limiting, but I think my own timidity is the more serious problem.  I feel like that’s an awkward description, because I can’t think of any other time when shy is an appropriate adjective to describe of me.

The milk here is different.  Somebody said it’s because it’s not pasteurized, and that seems like a reasonable explanation, although I really have no idea.  It tastes a little different, comes in little plastic boxes, and isn’t refrigerated at the grocery store.  On my first day, my host mom asked me if I liked hot or cold milk, and I involuntarily looked at her a little incredulously.  The only time I’ve ever even heard of drinking warm milk was in Bing Crosby’s sandwich serenade to Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas.

Anyways, this morning, the milk I usually drink wasn’t in the fridge, but there was a curiously looking bottle that resembled the packaging of American milk.  I quickly scanned the bottle, saw on the back it said “mix with cereal,” so drenched my big bowl of chocolate lovers cereal in it and figured it’d be fine.   Yeah…not so much.

It was thin like milk, and  white like milk.   But didn’t taste like any milk I’ve ever known.  Going off of the whole none-of-the-milk-here-tastes-the-same and they-drink-hot-milk-here thing, I figured it was just a sweetened variety.

My host parents joined me in the middle of breakfast, and I sat there with a straight face hoping they wouldn’t figure out what I had done, and I just about made it.  I had just finished my awful bowl of cereal and was getting up to leave, when my host mom was started digging through the fridge.  After a minute, her head shot up from behind the door and she looked at me with wide-eyed curiosity.    She held the “milk” in her hand, and asked what I had put on my cereal.

It was yogurt.

My host parents felt really bad, but it wasn’t their fault.  I saw the normal milk on the counter shelf, but I didn’t want to open a new container.  I figured that since they drink cold milk in my house, somebody would have replaced the milk in the fridge when it was empty.  Hence, the “sweet milk” must be what we were suppose to use.  It seemed quite logical at the time.

In retrospect, I should have just told them I had poured something funky and sweet on my cereal.  I am used to eating food that I mess up (crunchy spaghetti, freezer burned hamburger, etc), but I suppose there is a line.  And yogurt with a milky consistency on chocolate cereal probably crosses that line.

Speaking in Spanish when I’m nervous is hard, but it will get better in time.  I left after breakfast for church.  I was really excited because I am always very comfortable in churches in the US, even ones I’ve never been to before.  This was going to be my opportunity to plug into something very normal for me, and do it in Spanish.  Best of all, I found what looks like a great church about 10 minutes from my house.

It might be close, but I still spent an hour walking around trying to find Calle de Víctor de la Serna.  I never did end up making it to church, but I had to guts to ask a woman on the street for directions.  Speaking to strangers always makes me nervous, because they often talk fast.   But with the milk incident at the forefront of my mind, I did it anyways.

I later got chewed out at home for not calling my family and asking for directions, so I guess I’m only taking one step at a time.  But at least my mistakes are making me bolder.  I’ll get there soon enough.

Path on fort in Portugal

Flashback, nosedive, no pavement (yet)

This week has been a flashback to every Spanish 1 exercise.  You know, the ones that seemed really stupid at the time, but now that you actually need them seem invaluable?

Example 1: The telephone conversation.

This skit is an eternal Spanish class favorite.  The task?  Write a phone conversation between two friends.  Arrange a time and meeting place for an event.  Do it memorized.

It seems simple, but when you actually have to do it… ay.  When leaving Santiago today we were all instructed to call our host families and let them know when we would be arriving.  My face drained white as I tried to figure out what I would say.  Understanding Spanish is hard enough in person, trying to do it when you can’t see the person’s face is much harder.  After about 15 minutes of conversation with a couple folks on how we would handle various situations, I just did it.

After going through my spiel, I realized that I wasn’t talking to Claudia (my housemother), but one of her daughters.  She passed the phone off, and I went through it again.  Important information learned from this conversation: a couple people in my host family can speak English.  Claudia said something twice that I did not comprehend at all and after a minute, she translated for me.   This lovely fact isn’t something I’m going to rely on, but is nice to have.

Example 2: Transportation

I distinctly remember airport vocabulary freshman year of high school.  I also remember thinking about how pointless it was.  At 15, I had never even been on a plane.  Today, that airport/transportation vocabulary was invaluable.

After a week of schedules and of being shepherded around in groups, they sent us out on our own today (relatively).  We were given addresses and told to find our own ways home.  I’ve only been in a taxi a couple times in my life, so taking my own taxi in a city I know nothing about, to an apartment I’ve never seen, in a language I barely know, to live with a family I’ve never met was a little intimidating.

I sat in the car thinking that there is no way I could have ever done this even a year ago.

Example 3: Greetings

Unit 1, Chapter 1 of every Spanish textbook is greetings.  It is by far the most-repeated lesson, and now from experience, I can say this is for good reason.

My housemother and her two daughters met me this afternoon.  Introductions were mildly awkward because I couldn’t figure out how to open the door to the apartment building.  I later found out that I really wasn’t that dumb, because the door really was locked.  However, I did neglect to see the doorbell right next to the door, so….

a little bit of home

The apartment is nice and clean, and there is more storage in my room than I have stuff to fill.  I very much appreciate the anti-clutter feel.  After I unpacked, I joined my housemother and her five-year-old daughter for some leftover chinese food.  We chatted for a bit, which helped the whole place feel more familiar.

As it turns out my housemother’s mother is also a student host, so another student in the program came over this afternoon because his family (grandparents to the kids in my family) was at work.  Having another student here for a couple hours, helped me feel more comfortable too.

We were given careful instruction on how to find our way to our meeting in the morning and how to get to school.  Then, my family physically took me to the metro station where I will have to transfer to a commuter train to get to campus and the bus station I need in the morning.  (this was really nice).  The five-year-old turned out to be quite the cute, little tour guide, because she explained absolutely everything on the way.

Example 4: Participation/Immersion

That’s what it’s all about, right?  All those awful weeks of forcing myself to come up with something to talk about in Spanish class, so I could earn my participation points are actually coming to mean something.  I have to talk, and I am.

I was a little embarrassed at dinner, because they were asking me which meal I wanted on the weekend. (They provide 2 meals for us each day.  Program provides daily stipend for the other meal.)  I understood what they were asking, but I didn’t know how to say I don’t know yet in a polite way.  They have to plan meals, but I still have no idea what my day-to-day schedule will be like.  I don’t think this is a big deal, because we are going to Toledo this weekend.  I’m sure I can talk to them when I have a better idea next week, but it was still embarrassing.

Guess it’s all just part of the nosedive experience.  Tonight, I hung out with my house sisters watching a little TV before bed.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my favorite show, Bones, is on here all the time.  It was fun, because the little girl kept running in and out of the room.  We talked about our favorite Disney princesses, and she pranced around in a fancy dress and her sister’s platform heels.

I think I’m my family’s 5th international student, and I hear that one girl came barely able to speak Spanish and left fluent.  I want to be like that girl…