A year and a half ago I texted Austin and I asked him if he wanted to go to Spain with me to teach English after we graduated. I didn’t have any concrete plans after graduation, he didn’t have any concrete plans after graduation. He’d been my travel buddy through all of Argentina, it seemed like a good idea to me. Luckily for me it seemed like a good idea to him too; I wanted to teach English abroad, but I didn’t particularly want to do it alone.
Fast forward six months and we were seated on an airplane next to each other in Boston, getting ready to fly out to Portugal, then climb onto a bus for five hours, and then settle down in our new home for eight months: Trujillo.
And while this post is about the small city life that Austin and I have enjoyed for the past eight months, it’s also a post about having my partner in crime, my orange sock, and my best friend, by my side for all the ups and downs that come with moving to a new country for eight months.
So here’s to Austin: thanks for sticking with me; thanks for putting up with my near constant karaoke in the kitchen even though you hate when people sing along to songs; thanks for talking to strangers when I was afraid to; thanks for telling the bus driver that he had to let us off in Trujillo; thanks for getting lost with me in the countryside; thanks for being the world’s best listener; thanks for making me laugh over lunch and dinner on a daily basis; thanks for making me laugh at the wrong moments and almost die after choking on water; thanks for cooking me stuffing at Thanksgiving; thanks for eating all of the desserts I make; thanks for going with me to urgencias; thanks for forgiving me when I abandoned you; thanks for being there when I needed you; thanks for galavanting around Spain with me; thanks for going with me to the southernmost city in the world and dreaming about seeing the northern lights; thanks for making that a reality two years later; thanks for making sure we made it to Morocco; thanks for always knowing when abuela was tired and the introvert in her needed some alone time; thanks for never holding that against me; thanks for knowing when abuela was quiet because she was hungry; thanks for never holding that against me either; thanks for being a fellow abuela with me; thanks for having Dayquil around when I got sick; thanks for bringing me ibuprofen when I forgot it; thanks for pushing me out of my comfort zone and encouraging me to be social; thanks for hating all the same people as me (such as those who eat their burgers upside down, wear watches on the inside of their wrists, or spell “tire” with a y); thanks for the strolls through the old city; thanks for the life talks and the existential crisis talks and the school talks; thanks for talking about politics with me; thanks for always making me think critically about the world; thanks for sharing students with me; thanks for building me up; thanks for never tearing me down; thanks for taking a million photos of me; thanks for having patience with me as I took a million photos of you; thanks for eating ALL of the cheese with me; thanks for trying the especially cured ones first in case I wasn’t going like them; thanks for watching Still Star Crossed with me even though it’s a romance; thanks for agreeing to send me screenshots of Trujillo in GoT since it’s too gory for me to watch; thanks for showing me that not all of you New Englanders are cold and unfriendly; thanks for patiently teaching me the geography of New England; thanks for forgiving me when I refuse to learn; thanks for cleaning the apartment with me on Fridays; thanks for our Friday night movie nights; and thanks for being the chillest roommate a person could ask for; but most of all thanks for being present. Thanks for being by my side for the past eight months.
Most people go to foreign countries to teach English and come back talking about how it was life changing, how they learned so many things, how they felt so inspired by their students, that their kids taught them as much as they taught their kids. That has always seemed incredibly cliché to me, and I was skeptical of all of those claims. Eight months later I’m still rather skeptical of those statements. While they all might be true for me, they are still cliché and I’m not going to say them. Instead, I’m going to tell you about my pueblo and the people who live there.
First off, referencing my last blog, there are times when words fail. There are times when you don’t know have the words you’re looking for and all that’s left is pantomiming and hand signs, hugs, besos, drawing pictures in the air. For my eighth grader, when words weren’t available, drawing a heart in the air and making a sad face conveyed her feelings just as well as speaking out loud.
For my soccer teammates sometimes we just make faces at each other to convey what we’re feeling or thinking. Our striker always makes funny faces at me because she knows it’ll make me laugh. Until she started believing me when I said I spoke Spanish, that was our primary mode of conversation, and that was okay. At our last soccer game I tried to say goodbye to my best friend on the team, and thank her for being there for me all year, for always partnering up with me, for being my wing defender during the games and reminding me of my old left wing defender from high school. I couldn’t get the words out without tearing up and she told me not to cry, gave me a big hug and a besito on the cheek and told me “You’ll tell us when you come back, and we’ll play again.”
When Austin and I walk through Trujillo we see people we know. It’s a given, especially when we walk through the plaza in the evening where our students hang out. And here in Trujillo, it’s important to say hi to people that you know on the streets. You don’t have to have a full conversation with them, but it’s important to acknowledge that you saw them, and here in Trujillo that means you say “Hasta luego!” If you say “Hola,” then you’re in for a whole conversation, because that signals that you have time to sit and talk. But saying hello to people also creates a sense of community, it creates a sense of visibility. In this small town of 10,000, you can walk through the streets and you aren’t invisible, the people around you reach out and say “Hey, I see you!” and suddenly you don’t feel so alone. One of the most memorable parts of my freshman year of college was returning after the Christmas vacation and hearing a Community Council member yell at me across the basketball court to welcome me back to campus. During a year that I spent feeling very lonely and often invisible, that one small gesture reminded me that I wasn’t alone, that I was seen and part of that community. That gesture is one that Trujillanos give each other every single day on the streets, I see you, you’re here, you’re visible, you’re not alone.
Austin and I are often asked what our favorite part of Spain is, or what we like about living in Spain and I think for both of us often the answer is that we enjoy how relaxed life is here in Spain. Occasionally, Spaniards think we are referring to the stereotype about Spaniards being lazy which is often born from the fact that Spaniards have a two hour siesta in the afternoon, but in truth Austin and I are referring to the fact that there is less stress in the shoulders of everyone here. You aren’t constantly rushing to get everywhere you’re trying to go. “No pasa nada” is a phrase that really doesn’t translate well to english but essentially means “Don’t worry about it.” You’re a few minutes late to school? No pasa nada. You forgot to bring money to practice today? No pasa nada. Your flash drive doesn’t work and you can’t access the activities you had planned for today? No pasa nada. We’ll figure something out. After the extremely high stress environment of university and final exams and the pressures that come with graduating, Austin and I were able to really relax here in Spain, take our time to think things through and take a break from constantly having hunched shoulders and furrowed brows. We didn’t always feel like we were running from place to place, meals could be enjoyed at a relaxed pace. Taking a step out of the high stress environment that is the United States and disconnecting has been an incredible part of living in this pueblo.
Speaking of disconnecting, there are a few different ways that living here has disconnected me from the endless flow of information coming in through the internet. First off, the nine hour time difference that separates me from the majority of my friends means that most of them are asleep from about 9am in the morning to 6pm in the evening Spain time. Luckily I have friends all over the world so I can reach out to folks at all hours of the day and find someone if I need a shoulder to lean on, but for the most part I’m not checked into my phone during the day. There’s no reason to. But even more important than the time difference is that I don’t have data on my cellphone, I don’t have wifi at my schools, there isn’t any working public wifi in Trujillo. When I walk out of my house, I’m off the grid. After being so connected to everyone I know and being expected to be present for them 24/7 in California, being able to disconnect is a wonderful feeling. When I leave the house it’s just me and my music, or me and my book, or me and Austin. There’s no endless interruption from my phone trying to take my attention from the world with news alerts, with instagram alerts, with Facebook alerts, with emails, with earthquake alerts. All of that goes away when I walk out my front door and it’s a wonderful feeling. It also allows me to be present for whomever I’m with. I went out for coffee with a friend once and we ended up sitting at the cafe talking for an hour and a half. I hadn’t meant to spend that much time there but I hadn’t been keeping track of time because I never had any reason to look at my phone and we had a better conversation because of it.
And, of course, the waiters here understand that culture and don’t mind how long you stay. They don’t bring the check until you ask for it and if you want to sit and chat and digest your food after your meal for an hour, they will happily let you do that. One afternoon, while Austin was getting his haircut, I sat outside a nearby cafe with a coca cola on the table, my book in my hand, and read until Austin was finished. I happily hung out, occasionally waving at my students when they walked past, and thought about how amazing it was that I could just sit there and read in peace.
When Austin and I first arrived in Trujillo, exhausted, not sure of what we were doing, our friends took us under their wings and showed us the ropes. They helped us set up our apartments, get our ID cards, open bank accounts and just in general understand where we were. They even gave us the first and most useful set of directions for getting around town: “If you’re going up, you’re headed to the castle, if you’re going down you’re headed towards the main highway.” One told us that he wanted to help us because he had been helped in a similar manner when he went to the States to teach Spanish and felt it was important to pay it forward. Having been here for eight months, I think there’s more to the assistance he gave us than just paying it forward.
In a small town like this you know most of the people you see on the streets. You start recognizing faces, or if you’re Austin and I, dogs, as you walk through the town. There are no homeless people in Trujillo, the eccentric figures who have mental health issues are taken in by their families and taken care of. Those who are less well off are taken care of by their families. When Austin and I arrived our teachers and friends did everything they could to help us, rides to Caceres after school, a place to stay in Caceres when we needed it, assistance writing to the consejeria with questions about payment, assistance going to urgent care, assistance trying to sort out the medical care; they even helped Austin and I find extracurricular activities to get involved in during the week. And as the year went on we realized that everyone in this small little town, and probably in most of Spain, knows how to take care of one another. And, even more importantly in some ways, they know how to ask for help. Spaniards know how to take care of one another in a way that Americans have forgotten in our quest for individualism. And for eight months, Austin and I have been welcomed into this loving community that took care of us, and in return, we helped where we could, translating things from Spanish to English, offering up ourselves as babysitters for our friend’s children, and sometimes just being a listening ear. The community that I found and fell in love with within the residence halls and the professional staff team in Middle Earth, I found all over again here in Spain. A community that cares for everyone within it as one of their own.
Family here is important. Many Trujillanos stay here in Trujillo for most of their lives, at first Austin and I didn’t understand this, but it’s because they stay with their families. And not just the nuclear family, their extended family as well, they all take care of each other without exception because it’s accepted by all that the love and assistance will be returned unconditionally whenever it’s needed.
Now, as we get ready to go, many Spaniards ask why I’m not coming back and I tell them that it’s because I have to go back to my friends and family and they understand that in a heart beat. They pat my arm and tell me that family is important, that community is important. Spending eight months here has taught me many things about living on my own; about the importance of my friends and family and the support systems I built in college; but it has also taught me how to ask for help, and even more importantly, how to receive help.
On our first actual day in Trujillo, Austin and I sat in a small cafe up the street from our hostel watching the news. There were stories about bull fights and soccer games, and we knew in that moment that we were very far from home. We tried to figure out what was on the menu, as we didn’t know some of the words that were different from what we had learned in our textbooks and in Argentina. We sat in our seats stunned that we had finally made it across the Atlantic ocean to this tiny town in the middle of nowhere. We were excited and terrified at the prospect of sorting out our lives here. Now, eight months later, it doesn’t feel real that we’re leaving. This little town has become our home; I occasionally forget that I’m in Europe because everything feels so familiar. Sometimes it feels so much like home that it feels as though I must still be in California and my friends are only a car ride away.