Mind the Gap

I sit across from the doctor, a desk separating me from the slight, brown-eyed, middle-aged OBGYN who, moments ago, was examining me. From the Spanish I can comprehend, she had just informed me the prescription I was hoping to get refilled isn’t available in Spain.

Now, she is writing something down and simultaneously giving me oral instructions on how to return for a blood test, in the hopes I can obtain a similar prescription.

I nod along, giving the impression I understand. 

Internally, my mind churns.  I am both attempting to process the torrent of Spanish flying at me and subdue the anxiety I can feel rising in my chest.

I leave utterly unsettled. My unasked questions echoing in my head: My prescription isn’t available?  What’s the closest alternative?  What are the potential side effects? 

And, I need to get a blood test, in the morning, after fasting?  How am I supposed to schedule that with my teaching-hours?

The feeling of disorientation is a mixture of confusion in interpreting details, defeat in communicating my needs, and inadequacy in advocating for myself. 

And the worst part is, this feeling is no longer foreign. 

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote, so let’s take a moment to check-in.  Over the past three weeks, Catalonia and Spain have been at odds. On Friday, Catalonia declared independence, and Spain imposed direct rule.

For those of you interested in a slightly more detailed version of events, here’s a brief overview:

To find out more, check out this timeline by the Independent or listen to the first 5 minutes of this newscast by BBC.

As you can imagine, it’s been a bit crazy here.  Almost every weekend there are protests or some form of organizing in the streets. In fact, as I write this, I hear the drone of helicopters outside. This noise, which I’ve come to associate with demonstrations, media and the police, has been a common occurrence over the past three weeks.

While my region is declaring independence and attempting to establish nationhood, I’ve been studying Spanish (I’m hoping it will still be useful in Catalonia), and attempting to figure out basic life-tasks, like how to best negotiate with my landlord, how to communicate with the bank, and how to navigate the private and public healthcare system (I’m also hoping these will continue to be stable).

These endeavors, which I remember as being time-consuming and confusing in the U.S., sometimes feel near-impossible here in Spain.  Not only am I decision-fatigued from attempting to navigate a new job, a new city, and new roommates, but I am often inundated with information in a foreign language, that I don’t understand well yet. I rely on translations (verbal or electronic) in order to comprehend content.  This often leaves me feeling overwhelmed and dependent on the translator.

Luckily, our school has an amazing Head of Human Resources who is willing to help with almost-anything, and I have awesome friends who are patient enough to help me with Spanish.  Unluckily, no matter how awesome my resources, there are many things I need to do myself.

Which brings me back to my opening anecdote.

I spend the night tossing and turning.  My mind is preoccupied with planning. 

Which day can I miss? We have a six-day rotating schedule at school, and I didn’t know how to arrange coverage for myself yet. How do I set up sub plans?

What transportation can I take from the bloodwork appointment to the school? I normally take the school bus with the kids, and public transportation takes at least an hour. 

If I am getting coverage, will I have enough time?  What time does the clinic open?  I can’t find the information online.

Do I have to call? Attempting a conversation in Spanish is hard!  I feel so stupid because I can’t say what I want.

Finally, morning comes. I get out of bed, unrested but sure of one thing: I need help. 

Cue our amazing HR Head, Ana.  After checking Google calendar, and coordinating both of ridiculously complex six-day schedules, I make an appointment. 

Ana, as always, is patient, gracious, and helpful.  She listens to me, sympathizes, and helps me problem-solve

“Why don’t we just get you an English-speaking OBGYN?” Ana says.

I want to cry and give her a hug all at the same time. 

“That would be perfect.”

In both this situation and many of the other institution/life negotiation interactions I mentioned, I am noticing a common theme:

My lack of agency comes from feeling like I have a lack options.  However, I am realizing there is often a gap between my perceived options and my actual options.  It just takes someone who knows the what the actual options are to show me my real choices.

In this situation, Ana served as my resource to the list of real choices.  She provided me with the name of a medical group that specializes in delivering services in English; she called and talked with them, asking about the doctors available, and then she passed the phone over to me so I could make an appointment. Afterward, we discussed public transportation options, and whom to talk to in order to arrange sub coverage.

What all of this leaves me thinking about is the populations of people who experience the same phenomenon: a lack of agency derived from the gap between perceived and actual options.

For me, both my students and immigrants in the U.S. who don’t speak English well are on my mind.

For my students, I wonder, how often do they feel limited by their options?  How often do they not know how to navigate the school system, and therefore, are unsure of how to advocate for themselves?

For immigrants in the U.S., especially those who do not speak English fluently, I wonder the same.  How often do they feel limited by their options? How frequently do they miss out making the choice that is best for them, because they do not even know that choice is available?

 In Choice Words, education professor Peter H. Johnston discusses the importance of educators providing students with a range of options.  Johnston introduces his own ideas, and then makes a connection to the counseling profession, citing Stanton Wortham’s article, “Narratives in Action: A Strategy for Research and Analysis.”  Johnston writes, “In school, we try to help children open possibilities by restructuring the narratives they have available. This is also part of a counseling practice (Wortham 2001).”¹

As teachers, we have the power to introduce new and different narratives, new and different opportunities and choices, for our students.  We also have the power to teach students how to advocate for themselves, how to identify when they need to advocate for themselves, and who to talk to in order to figure out their options.

Right now, I am in the process of identifying this for myself.  Over here, I’m figuring out who I can ask for help, and when I need to ask for help.

I am continually aware of my privilege in this: Not only do I have my school, with Ana–who speaks  English, Spanish, and Catalan, and helps me navigate everything from banks to my landlord– but I also have Spanish-Speaking colleagues and friends, who understand the systems and are more than happy to help me navigate them.

For a person without a school or company like this, or without a readily-available network of people helping them, or for undocumented people, I am reflecting on how incredibly difficult this process would be. Setting up a bank account, getting a phone plan, registering my address- all of this would be overwhelming challenging if I didn’t have my school helping me.

Tomorrow, I have my new OBGYN appointment.  While I am not looking forward to another physical exam, I am looking forward to being able to communicate my needs and advocate for myself with my doctor.

In this crazy world of uncertainty and newness, that’s about the most control I can have right now.  And I have to say, I feel okay about that.

  1. Worth S. 2001.  “Narratives in Action: A Strategy for Research and Analysis.” In A. Ivey, ed., Counseling and Development Series.  New York: Teachers College Press.   Cited in Johnston, P. 2004. “Appendix A.” Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, pp. 89–90.  Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Hello, 27

What are we sure of? Happiness isn’t a town on a map
or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work

-Mary Oliver in “Work, Sometimes”

As I write this post, I am sitting in my room on an unseasonably chilly September-Barcelona evening. I have a steaming cup of tea nearby, candles lit throughout the room, and the scent of a paolo santo stick lingers in the air. It is the eve before my 27th birthday, and I am taking a moment to pause and take stock of the transition I’m living in.

The first two weeks of school have been exciting and challenging and amazing and overwhelming all at once.  As I write this, I have a mildly sore throat and a bit of a drippy nose- no doubt from the combination of exhaustion, the interaction with hundreds of new people, and exposure to viruses from all over the world.

Since school started, I feel like I’ve been functioning either at 100% or 0%. Either I am navigating new relationships, both at work and in my social life, or I am at home, under the covers, eating popcorn and watching Netflix, alone.

It’s a bit disorienting, these extremes; however, this is exactly where I am in the transition process.  I am constantly surrounded by people, but I don’t know anyone well yet.  I have budding friendships, tentatively-building trust, and the base laid for classroom relationships, yet, after two weeks, nothing could possibly be anymore than it is right now.

When I woke up this morning, I stayed curled up in bed, and reached for the book nearest my nightstand.  My hand grasped New and Selected Poems: Volume Two by Mary Oliver.  My first notable thought when reading this book was I really need to gather more books about Spain, because reading poetry about the U.S. makes me homesick.

My second notable thought came when I stumbled across the following lines in Oliver’s poem “Work, Sometimes:”

What are we sure of? Happiness isn’t a town on a map
or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to find happiness here.  In this new place, I’ve been alternately energized and exhausted, on-top-of-my game and completely overwhelmed, connected with the people around me and feeling lonely.

Tomorrow, at 1:52pm Barcelona time, I turn 27.

It’s my first birthday in a foreign country.  My first birthday at my new job.  My first birthday I’ve had to plan for myself in a while (shout out to Mel), and my first birthday I’ll be celebrating with friends from all over the world.

So tomorrow, when I wake up and remember it’s my birthday, I will be filled with nervousness and excitement and apprehension for my job and the day ahead.  And I will take a deep breath, and remember, the groundwork is laid.

I have my projects I am passionate about- teaching humanities, supporting ELL students, carving out time for yoga and swimming, learning Spanish, making friends.

It’s okay if I am curled up watching Netflix alone a little more than I would like to be right now.

The good work is in process and progress will come.

Hello, 27.  I look forward to meeting you tomorrow.



Tiny Triumps

Over the past week, I’ve had a few small moments worth celebrating in my Spanish Learning adventure:

  1.  I understood a joke my yoga teacher made in class, and was among the first to giggle. A win for mindfully listening to the teacher and catching the humor. 
  2. I dreamt in Spanish. Okay, to be fair, I had a dream where I said one sentence in Spanish. I asked a person “¿Que idiomas hablas tu?” which translates to “What languages do you speak?” I’m not even sure they answered in Spanish. But still. One sentence more than I’ve ever dreamed before!
  3. I was able to translate a short conversation for a friend. While in Ibiza, the bouncer wouldn’t let us into a club. I understood and translated the explanation: my friend wasn’t allowed to have his bag.  

Am I approaching conversational? Not really. 

Am I making progress? Yes. Measurably!

Other budding events include:

  • eating lunch with the Spanish teachers at school (they are patient and incredible, and talk and practice with me)
  • understanding random snippets of peope’s conversations on the subway and at the gym (eavesdropping on a foreign language takes talent)
  • gearing up for Spanish class to start again in two weeks

¡Tengo mucho aprender! Pero para ahora, estoy feliz. 

No Tinc Por: I Am Not Afraid

Crowds gather on Saturday for the No Tinc Por Solidary March in Barcelona, a response to the terrorist attacks of last week.

Moving to a new city in a new country where I don’t speak the language has been a lot to navigate.  Moving across the world and then reading about current events in the U.S. and experiencing the terrorist attack in Barcelona has been more than I’ve been able to fully comprehend.

I was home alone when the first attack occurred.  I was sitting at my kitchen table, eating ravioli, when my I received a text from my friend telling me not to go to Las Ramblas because there was a terrorist attack, a car crashed people all the way down.

My heart jumped.  My hands started to shake. Immediately, I checked the news.  Nothing was out yet.

I texted my roommates and all of my friends to let them know.

My mind raced: Is this a real attack?  Or an accident?  I flashed back to September 11th when I questioned the same thing.  It is probably an attack.

I opened my computer and watched the events unfold.

The attacks happened about two miles from my apartment.  I could hear the emergency team responses, but I was safe.

Several of my friends were right there.  They were ushered into buildings, and told to wait.

Friends who lived nearby witnessed the police create blockades, set up checkpoints, and search the streets.

But we were all okay.

Scared, shaken, and saddened, but okay.

The next morning, I had an early flight to Paris.  It felt confusing to be leaving the city in such a time of crises and greif.  Would public transportation be working? Would planes be taking off?  Was the airport safe?  Was it okay to leave?

Ultimately, I decided the strongest act of reclamation against terror I could do was to make my plans happen, as close to exactly as I had arranged, before the attacks occurred.

I called a cab and got on the plane.

While I enjoyed Paris (I was there visiting the city with good friends from the states) my heart was heavy.  There were memorials being assembled in Las Ramblas; there was a moment of silence for those who were lost and injured; there were conversations on the streets, in coffee shops, and around the city talking about what happened and how to move forward, and I was missing all of that.

I was struggling to move forward without being in Barcelona to witness the aftermath of the attacks and process what happened.

Yesterday, I got this much-needed community time.

Barcelona held a “No tinc por” solidarity march.  No tinc por means “I am not afraid” in Catalan.  People from all over the area (500,000 of us according to this Aljeezera news article) came together to march for peace and to show life will continue to thrive in our city.

People gather at the top of Passeig de Gracia to begin the march.
Catalonian Independence Flag is carried in the crowd, mixed in with signs calling for peace and the end of terrorism.
More Youth More Peace, an organization that holds annual summits bringing together youth from around the world, marches in the demonstration.
View from the Passeig de Gracia.
This sign, written in Catalan, translates to “We want peace, not to sell weapons”
Another sign protesting arms sales. People are upset with the relationship Spanish officials, including King, Felipe VI  and prime minister,Mariano Rayjoy, have built with Saudi Arabia.
Folks who are Muslim speak out about the violence.  In the front, the sign reads, “I am not afraid.  Terrorism has no religion. Islam means peace.  Muslims condemn terrorism.”  Behind this sign, blue signs read, “No to Islamaphobia.”
Sign reads, “Violence is not a religion.  It’s politics, and it’s the worst.”
Sign in front reads, “No to Islmaphobia.”  Sign to the right reads, “We are not afraid.”
A Catalonian Independence and Gay Pride Flag flies with the crowd in Plaça de Catalunyna,  
The march slogan, “No Tinc Por” translated into multiple languages.
Police walk through the crowd, and people part and clap.
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A memorial, filled with candles, stuffed animals, and notes, at the top of Las Ramblas to honor the victims of the attacks.
A man who is Muslim stands in Las Ramblas, holding a sign denouncing terrorism and stating that Islam is a religion of peace and safety.
View from Las Ramblas.
Another memorial in Las Ramblas.
Together, signs send the message, “Racism kills, not Islam.  Islam is not hate, nor anger, nor fear.”

The march left me humbled, hopeful, and reflective.  Peoples lives were lost.  Terrorism around the world continues to grow.  Nations need to figure out how to work together to communicate and address these very real threats.

But for now, we are here.  We are alive.  This is our community.  And we have lives to live, and work to do.

Thank you to everyone who reached out to me during this time.  I really appreciate the support, care, and conversations we’ve had to process these events.  This story wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to my mom, who called me as soon as she learned what happened and spent hours on video-chat with me watching and processing events as they unfolded. Your hugs were felt from far away.

If you are interested in reading more about the march, check out the article, “‘No Tinc Por’ demonstration fills Barcelona; king and Spanish PM Rayjoy booed” by Marta Lasalas in El Nacional.cat.

Con Tiempo y Paciencia

Right now, I am a bit confused, by basically everything. The language is new. The public transportation is new. My grocery store, which I finally found, is new.

To be fair, I am living in a major city in Europe in 2017, so as far as culture shock goes, I have it pretty easy. In fact, I think I am experiencing more city-shock than culture shock. I have never lived in a big city before, and let me tell you, there are many differences between the city and the suburbs, or even between a big city, and a mid-sized city, like Madison.  

One of the biggest challenges for me in this new place was finding my grocery store. Food is very important to me. I am used to having a car, driving to the store, filling up the cart, and then loading up my car and driving home. Here, in the city, I no longer have a car. I walk almost everywhere, and, when I go grocery shopping, I can only take what I can carry.

Two weeks ago, I found my grocery store. This was no small feat for me. Out of the dozens of markets, fruit stands, and meat shops everywhere, I needed one place I could call grocery-store home. One place I could go if going to a million different little shops wasn’t going to fit the bill that day. One place that was within close-walking distance, was well-priced, and had good hours. And I finally found it: Condis Life.

At my new grocery store, I couldn’t wait to buy fresh fish. At the back of Condis Life there is a whole fish counter. No, not a counter, a display. A gigantic table filled with ice, and fresh whole fish, and shrimp, and piles of other seafood. I couldn’t wait to buy fresh salmon in Spain and cook myself a meal.

However, I had a couple of problems. The first was, I had no idea how to identify salmon in full form. My cooking skills are to the level of being able to identify a salmon filet by sight. But with the scales still on? Forget it. And beyond that, I had no idea how to buy it.  Do I buy the whole fish? What do I do with the head? Do I have to cut it open and de-bone it myself?

When I don’t know what to do, my general game plan is to observe and study.  To watch the people and systems before me and gain an understanding of how things work.  

What this amounted to when attempting to buy fish in the grocery store was me my pulling my basket back and forth in front of the fish counter, pretending to look at all of the different seafood options, while really eavesdropping on business transactions.* Once I overstayed my welcome at the counter area, because I wasn’t buying anything, I discreetly moved to a nearby shelf and pretended to peruse the lovely canned options available, all while staying in earshot of the counter.

I implemented this method for about twenty minutes, and still had no idea how to buy salmon. What I had deduced was the large fish to the left of the counter was indeed salmon. To my relief, I had witnessed it was possible to purchase a piece of salmon, rather than the entire fish. It even seemed that the person behind the counter would de-bone the fish for you. Win.

However, the same man who had ordered a piece of salmon fifteen minutes earlier was still standing there as the lady cleaned his fish.  And it looked like he was getting an entire fish. It seemed this salmon-ordering operation would take a long time, and I decided for today, it was currently too taxing for my growing hunger and still-emerging Spanish.  

I picked out a piece of frozen salmon (I had studied these extensively while observing the fish counter, so I had no trouble deciding which one to grab), and decided to settle for frozen fish and fresh vegetables for dinner. I could be content with the fact that I had at least gained some valuable information.

A few days later, I relayed this story to some American friends of mine, who have lived in Barcelona for several years. They told me I was being ridiculous, and the people at the fish counter were there to help me. All I had to do was ask or motion, and we’d be able to figure it out.

I decided my friends were correct. It was time for me to woman-up and buy some fresh salmon.

I marched into Condis Life, grocery list in hand.  I picked up my fruits and vegetables for the week, and then headed to the fish counter.  Phone out, Spanish Dictionary App at the ready, I pulled up the word ¨piece¨ in Spanish. I was prepared to order my piece of fish.

¨Quiero un pedazo de salmon, por favor,¨I enunciated to the man working behind the counter.

¨Do you know how the pricing works?¨ he replied in English.

My face fell. I wasn’t sure whether to be happy or disappointed.  I had geared up for a mumbly and confusing conversation in Spanish, in which I was hoping I would learn something, and now, he was speaking to me in English?  I quickly decided what was important was figuring out how to order fish. I could figure out the Spanish another time.

¨No, I don’t know how it works,¨ I said in English.  ¨Could you help me?¨

Later that night, I sat down to a meal of fresh Moroccan green beans, rice with onion and garlic, and salmon pan-fried with olive oil and lemon wedges.  I poured myself a glass of wine, and took a celebratory sip.  I had done it.  I had bought fresh fish and cooked it myself.  I had made a delicious meal in Barcelona.

As I took my first bite, I discovered there was one more thing I should’ve done before cooking the fish.

¨You didn’t take the bones out?¨ my roommate, Enrico, asked.

¨I thought the piece the man gave me was without bones!¨

¨They take out the major bones,¨ Enrico said, ¨But you still have to do some of it yourself.¨

Okay, so I still have a ways to go.

And this, I realized, is what my life is currently going to be like for a while. This is the beauty of transitions. I am going to be confused almost all of the time. I will study and observe, and then woman-up, and take action.  I will feel proud of myself for this, and then I’ll realize, I still have a lot to learn. 

But for now, I’ll take it. Even with the bones, the salmon is pretty good.

And with time, and patience, eventually, I’ll figure it out.


*Side note: This whole pulling a basket-thing is new for me.  Rather than grocery carts, here, we use baskets.  Like the ones I used to carry in the States, except bigger, more durable, and with wheels.  Similar to the ones I used in the States, these have one handle to hold with your arm if you are only getting a few things, but, they also have an additional large handle you can extend if you want to put the basket down on the ground and pull it behind you.  It’s sort of like luggage.  Or a tiny grocery cart.