Monday, May 28, 2012

Operación Bikini

Operación bikini = (oh-per-ah-the-own be-key-knee) The pre-summer custom many people have of exercising, going on a diet, joining a gym, and other activities associated with wanting to look good in a bikini or swimsuit

A couple of months ago I was looking at different colloquial expressions in a Spanish phrasebook when I came across the expression “operación bikini.” Apparently, this is a term used by many Spanish women in the winter and spring as they exercise, diet and prepare their bodies for the summer. Once I saw this term I laughed to myself and thought about how women in the United States do the same thing.

Then, once it started to get warmer outside I started seeing the term “operación bikini” everywhere, on the front page of women’s magazines, on TV shows and newspapers and I even started hearing the term in conversations around me.

I also began to notice that many of my friends and co-workers were starting diets and workout regimes. One of my co-workers was consumed with the idea of losing weight to look good in her bikini for summer. She told me about the spinning classes that she attends regularly at her gym and also talked about how she had to stop eating bread. My roommate also started a strict diet plan; she even went so far as to enroll in a plan at a weight loss clinic, where she buys different foods and supplements to aid in her weight loss journey.

I began to notice many of the teachers trade in their bocadillos for fruit during the snack break at school. I’ve noticed that my aerobics classes have become a lot fuller and that there are also a lot more people walking and running outside than there have ever been before.

None of these things surprise me that much; I’m sure that the cycle is similar in many countries. In winter time people normally eat more fulfilling foods and also tend to workout less, especially since its cold outside. I mean, who wants to exercise when it’s cold outside? When the spring time comes around people are disappointed with the weight that they gained during the winter and try to lose weight so that they can look good in their summer clothing.

Like everyone else I have also been trying to lose weight, although I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m doing it to look good in my bikini. Living in Spain has been beneficial to me in so many different ways, above all of it has made me a much healthier person.

There are so many things about my life here that has contributed to my physical and mental health. Because I am not surrounded by my family and friends I don’t stress out as much, because I live in a town with a fairly warm climate, my arthritis doesn’t bother me as much, and because I live alone and shop and cook for myself, I have total control over what and when I eat. Above all, the type, quality, and cost of food in Spain have been the most significant contributing factor to my well-being.

The truth is, now that I am no longer living in “the fast food nation”, eating healthy hasn’t really been a challenge at all. Unlike in the U.S. when I ate out or ordered take-out at least 2 times a week, in Spain I prepare almost all of my meals. The only time when I actually eat out is when I’m travelling or when people come to visit me in Jávea (which doesn’t happen too often). Other than that, I prepare my breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.

Now that I know that I have to depend on myself for food, I have also become a pro at preparing my meals beforehand. During these last few weeks I have followed the same routine. On Monday during my lunch break I normally go grocery shopping. When I come home I wash and cut up all of the fruits and vegetables that I purchased, put them in storage containers, and place them in the fridge. This has helped me a lot because, whenever I am hungry throughout the day, I go directly to the fridge and start munching on strawberries, pineapple, melon, etc. This technique prevents me from snacking on unhealthy foods. In addition, I normally clean and cut the meat that I buy (which is almost always chicken), wrap them in plastic wrap and place them in the freezer for later use.

It seems that having OCD has been very beneficial for me lately. Even though it takes time, the routine that I have set up makes it a lot easier for me to eat healthy when I’m hungry. It also makes it especially easier when dinner time comes around because I already have my food prepared and don’t have to bother with cooking dinner at the same time as my roommates, which can become a little disastrous.

Before coming to Spain, I ate about 2 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Now that I’ve been living here, however, I eat at least 5 servings of both fruits and vegetables daily. This hasn’t been difficult to do because there are so many fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables.

My favorite thing to do on Thursdays during my lunch break is go to the Mercadillo, a huge outside market that Jávea has every week. There are a variety of things sold here such as clothing, leather goods, nuts, cheese, meats, and above all, fruits and vegetables. I purchase most of my fruits and vegetables from here because they’re super fresh. Whenever I don’t buy my things from the Mercadillo, I go to Mercadona, one of the major supermarkets in Spain. The fruits and vegetables here are just as tasty, but not as fresh as they would be at the Mercadillo. A couple of weeks ago I bought a batch of strawberries from Mercadona and they were the most delicious strawberries that I’ve ever had in my life. I also love to buy my cherries and watermelon from this supermarket.

In addition to eating healthy I have been working out on a daily basis. Although it was a struggle in the winter, now that spring/summer is here I have been regularly attending my aerobics classes two times a week. In fact, I’ve reached a point where I actually get excited about going to class. I can almost always depend on the class to burn a lot of calories and put me in a good mood. I’ve even started going without my roommate. On the days that I don’t have aerobics class, I’ve started running along the sea at night. I normally run (or sometimes walk) from my piso to the port and to the beach. I leave at around 9:00pm and come back an hour later. To me, it’s the perfect time. It’s just beginning to get dark outside and the town is so peaceful. I never see any of the students that I teach (although I have seen a couple of teachers) and I don’t have to worry about being in the sun. Occasionally while I’m running I’ll stop, have a seat on the rocky beach, look at the sea and listen to the waves. It’s such a peaceful and beautiful moment.

On some weekends, when I’m really looking for an adventure or a fun workout I’ll go on a hiking trail. Hiking has been one of my favorite new activities.
Since increasing my intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, drinking at least 2.5 liters of water a day, and exercising regularly, I have noticed many changes. I have more energy and I am much more alert on a daily basis. I don’t have as many migraines nor problems with my autoimmune disease and I have been happier and less stressed out. In addition, I find myself craving things that I have never craved before, like tomatoes, spinach (I’ve never liked spinach), cherries and oranges. Whenever I am travelling and am not eating enough fruits and vegetables, I instantly feel it.

In addition, I believe that I have lost a little weight. I don’t think that I have lost a significant amount, but I can tell that some of my jeans are getting a bit looser and I definitely think that I I’ve lost some inches. My roommate has mentioned that I appear to be more “delgada” (slim) so I guess that’s a good thing. I also feel a lot stronger from all of the working out that I’ve done (especially the hiking).

Although I started out with an “operación bikini” mindset, I’ve quickly learned that I have made such a significant lifestyle change. Being a healthier person means so much to me. It means that I am now fully capable of making better decisions about the things that I put into my body. This includes eating a significant amount of fruits and veggies and not going to McDonalds or Chick-fil-A to satisfy my dietary cravings. It also includes drinking much more water on a daily basis and less sweat tea (Hey, I’m from the South!). And it includes exercising regularly, not because I’m trying to lose weight but because it’s necessary.

Above all, I believe that I am breaking away from a genetic trend. There is a history of heart disease, diabetes and cholesterol in my family and I’ve always worried that my sisters and I would suffer from one of these illnesses. Now that I am healthier, I feel like I have a little bit more control over what happens to me. Perhaps if I continue to eat the right things, take care of my body and encourage others to do the same, we will all be okay.

The fact that I will be returning to America soon is bittersweet. Although I can’t wait to see my family and friends I also know that it will be a lot more difficult to stay healthy. I will now be surrounded by fast food restaurants everywhere I go. I won’t have easy access to so many affordable fresh fruits and vegetables and finding the time and place to exercise will perhaps also be difficult (no more running by the Mediterranean Sea). Despite all of this, I am determined to return to the U.S. with the same “health comes first” mindset that I have recently developed.

Living in Spain has done so much for me. Above all, it has reminded me of the importance of taking care of myself. Although it’s nice to have a great job, to be able to travel, and to have significant relationships with people, one of the most important factors in your life should be your health (and God if you’re religious, like me).

I will be forever grateful to Spain for teaching me this.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Hiking Part IV: Conquering the Peñón de Ifach in Calpe

A view of Calpe from the Summit of the
Peñón de Ifach

As my time is winding down in Spain I have been attempting to try to explore as much of the community of Valencia as possible, more specifically, the towns in the Costa Blanca. As I mentioned before, one of my favorite new activities is mountain hiking. The reason why I love it so much is because it’s an activity that can be so challenging, both physically and mentally, and I really like challenging myself. Also, if done on the right day with the right person/people, it can be quite fun.

Since I’ve been yearning for some more adventure lately, I decided to look up some cool things to do in some of Jávea’s neighboring towns. After searching I came across a big attraction in the Costa Blanca, the Peñón de Ifach, a big rock located in the town of Calpe, about 45 minutes away from Jávea.

I began to read a bit more about the Peñón and it´s challenging hiking trail and I immediately became interested in going to Calpe to climb it. I told my friend in Alicante about my plans and she agreed to meet me in Calpe this weekend so that we can climb this big rock together.
On Saturday morning I packed my book bag with some crucial hiking supplies (food, water, tissue, etc.) and I took the bus to Calpe. The ride to Calpe was very quick and easy. When I arrived I tried to find the tourist office to get a little information about the hiking trail. After being misled by several different people I decided that having a map wasn’t that important and so I went on to meet my friend.
The Peñón

I met her at the beach and when I arrived I immediately saw the Peñón that we were going to climb. It was a very tall rock protruding out of the land into the sea (it was impossible to miss). When I first saw it I was immediately taken back because it was so tall that I was trying to figure out how it was possible to climb. But I was sure that we could do it.

My friend and I began to head towards the Peñón. Once we got close to it we weren’t sure which direction to take and we ended up taking the wrong route (maybe a map would have been useful) which led to a dead end. Although we took the wrong path I was still content that we went because we ended up taking a longer stroll along the sea.We got a beautiful view of the water and the rocks and even saw where the helicopter landed, which was both comforting and terrifying at the same time. Apparently, the helicopter landing point was at the very bottom of the rock, so it someone got hurt while climbing the rock they would first have to get all the way down to the helicopter before getting the help that they need. Helpful? I think not.

When we finally walked back over to the other side of the rock we were already a little exhausted (which could definitely be due to the fact that it was very sunny and hot that day). We looked at a map of the journey that we were going to be taking and figured that it looked pretty simple. But then again, things do look much simpler when you are looking at them on paper.

We finally started walking upwards towards our destination. The beginning of the path was very simple and straight, but for some reason, we were having a difficult time with it. We were only walking uphill, without any rocks or ropes or dangerous slopes but we were a little exhausted. Perhaps our bodies were warming up for the journey ahead of us or the sun was draining us a bit, but we sure hoped that the former was taking place. It would have been pretty bad if we were already exhausted before having barely started the hike.

About 10-15 minutes after walking we came across an information center. Apparently, not only is the Peñón de Ifach well known for its hiking trail, but it is also a natural wildlife park and one of the smallest European nature reserves. As we walked around the information center (which was completely empty because it was Spanish siesta time) we read about some of the history of the Peñón and the wildlife present there. After leaving the center, we crossed the “real” entrance to the Peñón and began our hike.
Like before, we continued to walk uphill, breathing quite loudly the whole way. Fortunately, this part was covered by trees so there was a good amount of shade available to us. As we were walking up we stopped at several miradors, places where you can get a good few of different areas in the town. They all had a beautiful view of the sea.

Eventually we reached the tunnel. According to the information that we read, this tunnel is what separated the two parts of the hike, the simple from the difficult. It was advised that only serious hikers attempt the trail after leaving the tunnel because it was very dangerous. Kids were prohibited.

I was immediately aware of how dangerous the trail could actually be once we entered the cave. The bottom of it was covered with extremely slippery rocks; it was as if they were coated with some type of material. Because of this, there were long ropes tied along the tunnel walls to help hikers walk across. I hoped that these rocks weren’t present throughout the entire route, because if so, then we would be in trouble.

Once we exited the tunnel we immediately noticed a series of warning signs attached to a pole. In America, something like this would have been expected, but I was actually quite shocked to see it in Spain. My friends and I joke all the time about the lack of warning signs and boundaries here. People do dangerous activities without having to sign forms, children go on field trips where they are at the top of castles and hills without any boundaries (fences, chains) present, and even all of the other dangerous hiking trails that I have done in Spain contained no caution sign whatsoever.

Seeing the warning sign made me realize that perhaps this route was actually dangerous, especially considering the fact that it was also written in 5 different languages. Although it was quite intimidating I must admit that it was definitely a relief to see. Maybe Spaniards care about such things as safety after all.

Immediately after passing the warning signs we were faced with our first obstacle, getting across a group of unstable, slippery rocks using some chains. Although I was glad that I could rely on the trains for support, this part was still a little frightening to me for some reason. Eventually, I took my time and made it to the other side.

The next 30 minutes or so of the route wasn’t too challenging; however, it wasn’t very easy either. Fortunately the ground was somewhat level and we didn’t have to do too much climbing. We were very quickly reminded about the Peñón being a natural wildlife park when we started to see and hear swarms of birds around us.

About an hour or so after hiking we finally reached the point in which we had to choose between two different routes to take. One route was much simpler and ended at a point on the edge of the rock and another route was much more challenging and went to the very peak of the Peñón. Because my friend and I are rock stars, we decided that we would do both.

First, we took the simpler route. There were a few tricky points in this route but, overall, it wasn’t that bad. The most difficult thing that we had to deal with was the group of birds that we encountered. Although they didn’t necessarily bother us, they did sit on many of the rocks that we passed and made strange noises. We had to make a deliberate attempt not to get to close to their babies so that we wouldn’t get attacked by them. Once we reached the end of this route we were standing in a small open space surrounded by small rocks. I learned that this is where the old guard’s post was once located in Calpe. It is where the guards kept an eye out for attacks by pirates in the old days. Now it consists of ruins. Looking beyond the tall rocks there was a beautiful view of the sea. My friend made the mistake of looking directly down and, once she realized how far away from the bottom we were, she developed a small case of vertigo. As we were at this spot enjoying the view we decided to munch on our sandwiches and fruit that we had brought along. After resting and hydrating ourselves, we made our way back to where we began the route.

We knew that the other route was going to be difficult before we even started because, unlike the other route that went across the Peñón, this one went directly up. We had to deliberate for a while just to figure out exactly we were going to begin going up. The climb to the peak of the mountain was very difficult but also very fun. We had to strongly rely on our hands and feet almost the entire the time. There were a couple of ropes and chains available to us at the most difficult areas. After doing much climbing and sweating, we finally made it to the very top.

Once we reached the summit we felt pretty darn accomplished. From the top of the rock you can see even more of Calpe, as well as some neighboring cities such as Benidorm and, I think, Jávea. I’ve heard that on an exceptionally clear day you can see the Island of Ibiza, but this day wasn’t that clear.

We sat at the top of the rock for a while and took in the great view. After a while, we decided to make our way back down. The journey down the rock was also very difficult. Although it would seem that going down wouldn’t be as much a challenge, it was actually even more challenging. We had to rely on almost every part of our body even more. I felt a little like a monkey.

At one point our journey down, I was making my way across some unstable rocks with the help of a chain and I accidently slipped and fell down (but I was saved by my strong grip on the chains). Although it was a little painful, I couldn’t help but to lie their (diagonally) and laugh at myself for my clumsy ways. I believe I scared my friend.

When we finally climbed and roped ourselves back to the bottom of the mountain, we were tired and hungry. I’m pretty sure that I was also covered in bugs that stuck to my sweaty skin. The total hiking time was a little over 4 hours, which was a little surprising to us because we thought that it would be much quicker.

We decided to reward ourselves with a menú del dia for conquering the Peñón. We quickly found a restaurant and sat down. Sitting down for the first time since finishing the hike felt pretty awesome. We shared a bottle of wine and some bread and ordered our first and second plates. For my first plate I ordered a spaghetti Bolognese and for the second plate we both had paella. I also had a few slices of apple pie for dessert (I think I burned enough calories to have all of that). After eating, we talked, relaxed and enjoyed the breeze. It was the perfect ending to a long and strenuous hike.

Eventually, it was time for us to return to our perspective cities. We took a bus which dropped me off at the bus station and her off at the train station and said “adéu”.

While I was waiting for the bus at the station I came across a guy who was also waiting for the bus and we started talking. He had a box of ice cream cones and was eating one when he asked me if I wanted any. I told him no because I was on a diet (despite the huge lunch that I had just eaten) and he kept persisting and saying that he didn’t want to throw them away. Apparently, he had wanted some ice cream but the store that he went to didn’t sell them individually so he bought a box of six. He was eating his fourth cone. Just to shut him up, I took an ice cream cone and started eating it. Then we began to talk about Calpe and other cities in Spain and he told me about some of the cool trips he’d taken throughout Europe and Africa.

Although I was pretty tired, when the bus finally came I didn’t sleep on it. The ride was only 40 minutes long so I decided to wait. When I made it back to my piso I took a really long shower, ate some fruit, watched a    movie and crashed. I had a fabulous time hiking in Calpe and I can’t wait for the next adventure!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Sand, Sea, Sun

Now that its springtime I am trying to take full advantage of living in a beach town, especially since I will be back in the U.S. very shortly. Since today was my day off, I decided to spend some time at the beach.

Following my usual Friday routine, I woke up, cooked myself breakfast, got dressed and went to Mercadona to buy groceries. After making it back to my piso I packed my bag and headed to the arenal, one of Jávea’s beaches.

The purpose of my trip was for both recreation and exercise. I decided that, since the beach was a nice long walk away from my piso, I would put on my tennis shoes and sporty clothes and make it a workout.
My Favorite Chiringuito

As I was walking from the port to the beach I couldn’t help but noticed the chiringuitos situated along the sea that are now all up and running. These are beach bars that are built in the spring for summer and are torn down in the fall. They go through this being built/torn down cycle every year. As I was walking I noticed many people (mostly all British) eating, drinking and hanging out at the chiringuitos.

When I finally made it to the arenal I was a little tired and hungry. I decided to sit down at a restaurant and eat lunch. I really love going to the arenal because it’s promenade is lined with many restaurants overlooking the beach. Most of the restaurants also have really great food options. I decided to eat at one of my favourite restaurants there called Carnaval. Although I was really craving a hamburger and fries (hey, I haven’t had one in a long time), I decided to order from the menú del dia because it was more economical. For my first plate I had a salad, for my second plate I had curry chicken with rice and I also had a glass of wine, coffee and dessert. I’m really going to miss the menú del dia when I return to the states.

Sitting at the restaurant and eating alone was the most enjoyable part of the day. I believe that I went at the perfect time, the restaurant was not at all crowded but there were a couple of British families there.

The ambience was perfect. I sat at a table with a view of the sea, sipped on my wine, ate the delicious food and relaxed to the music that was playing. At the end of the meal I had coffee and ice cream which was such a delicious hot-cold combination.

El Arenal
When I was finished eating I decided to lie out on the beach for a little while. Although I wore a swimsuit under my clothing with the intention of getting into the water, I decided that it would be nicer to lie out and enjoy the day. I relaxed, did some people watching and did some reflective thinking. I decided not to spend more than an hour at the beach because I didn’t want to get a tan, so after spending some time in the sun I decided to make my way back.

Before walking back to my part of town, I walked along the sea a little bit more and sat down for a while on Javea´s rocky beach. This is the part of town that separates the port from the arenal. It isn’t as popular as the sandy beach, of course, and I like it that way. I like to go there and sit on the rocks when I just want to think and spend some time in solitude or if I just don’t feel like being bothered with sand. I spent a couple of minutes there and decided to continue walking.

Javea's Rocky Beach

As I was walking back I stopped by the British supermarket, Iceland, since it was on my way back home. I bought two bags of bagels and headed back to my piso. I spent the rest of the day getting things done, relaxing and preparing for my hiking trip to Calpe the next day.

I’m glad that I decided to go to the beach on my day off. Because I’m taking a couple of school days off to go to Morocco soon, I will have to work the next two Fridays; which could possibly mean that this is my last Friday off in Jávea before I leave Spain for good. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my day.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Duck, Duck... Goose

Now that the end of the school year is quickly approaching I´m beginning to get a little sad. I´ve realized that I´m really going to miss my students when I return to the states.

I´m even sadder about the fact that next week will be my very last week teaching the infantil (4 and 5-year old) classes and the first and second grade classes. For many teachers, it might seem like a relief to not have to deal with the younger kids from now on but, for me, it`s torture.

It´s crazy how much things change. At the beginning of the year I was so terrified of going into the first grade classroom; yet alone having to enter the infantil rooms (the children were just 3 and 4-years old at that time). On the other hand, when I had my 3rd-6th grade classes I was so relieved. Now, however,  I get so excited when I know that I’m going to see my younger kids whereas teaching the older ones no longer excite me as much.

I can’t imagine what the rest of the semester will be like without going into my infantil classes. I won´t be bombarded at the door with lots of hugs and kisses when I walk into the classroom anymore. I won’t have a little child running up to me every couple of minutes crying because he/she fell or because someone hit or kicked him/her, and I won´t see children get so excited about having English class, singing the songs and playing the games that they have learned and saying ¨Good Morning, LaTasha.¨ I’m really going to miss that.

Anyway, now that we only have a week left in the infantil classes we’ve been spending our days reviewing songs and playing games in English. We´ve been playing ¨Who took the cookie from the cookie jar,¨ doing ¨the hokey pokey¨ and singing ¨if you’re happy and you know it.¨ Last week the other teacher asked me if I could think of another game to play that would take up a lot of class time. Because it´s been a while since I´ve been in elementary school I had to turn to the internet to be reminded of all of the games I used to play. Then, after doing a little research, I remembered one of my favorite childhood games…Duck, Duck, Goose!

After explaining to the teacher the rules of ¨Duck, Duck, Goose, ¨ she thought that it would be a perfect game to play. On Tuesday, I went into the infantil classes and explained the rules of the game (in English) to the children. At first they were a little clueless but after drawing pictures of a duck and goose (that's when I realized that I had no idea what a goose was) on the board and giving them a demonstration of how the game is played they immediately understood and were pretty excited to play the game.

The teacher and I decided to take the children outside to play the game since it was a very nice day and there wasn’t much space in the classrooms. We decided to have one of our English students start the game, since they understood it more and knew how to say ¨duck¨ and ¨goose.¨ One by one, the delegated person would go around and designate their ducks and goose.

Eventually, the game started to become so hilarious. Some of the children knew how to say ¨duck¨ but once they got to the person that they wanted to be the goose they just sat their hand on that person’s head and waited for us to say the word. Some of the children wanted so badly to be goose that they would raise their hand and say, in Spanish, ¨pick me, pick me¨ (I told them that this wasn’t allowed). Some of the children kept trying to pick people that had already gone despite me telling them several times to pick a new person. And the funniest moment of all was seeing the students’ reactions when they realized that they were chosen to be goose. Most of them forgot all of the rules at that point and took off running, oftentimes in the wrong direction. Some of them forgot that they were actually supposed to sit in the other person’s seat and they just kept running around in a circle. Lastly, the expressions on their faces were the cutest things that I have ever seen. I have never seen 4 and 5-year olds look so determined. The other teacher talked about how we should have recorded their facial expressions. By the end of the game I was sure that the students had learned at least 4 new words (which may or may not be very beneficial): ¨duck¨, ¨goose¨, ¨run¨, and ¨faster¨.

Playing ¨Duck, Duck, Goose¨ with the 4 and 5-year olds this week definitely made my day. I’m so sad that I won’t be teaching them in June but I can definitely say that some of my best teaching memories were with them. There’s no way that I could ever forget each of their beautiful faces and spontaneous (and mischievous) personalities.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

And the Huelgas Continue…

A couple of weeks ago I entered the teacher’s conference room at school to find a big glass box situated in the middle of the table. I had no idea what the box was for but figured that the school was using it for some sort of activity. A couple of hours later, during snack break, I began to notice that the box was actually there for a different purpose. As I was sitting at the table eating my banana and mandarin I noticed the director walk into the room with a determined, “down-to-business” expression on her face. She had in her hand a stack of small papers that she set on the table. They appeared to be ballots of some sort. Then, one by one, I saw teachers beginning to flood the conference room with more serious expressions. Normally I would expect to see about 5-8 teachers in the room during the break while the others watch the children play outside or stay in their classrooms. Today, however, almost every teacher was in this room.

At this point, it was very obvious to me that something important was about to take place. I turned to one of my co-teachers and asked what was going on. That’s when she told me that all of the teachers at the school as well as all of the other schools in the community of Valencia were going to take a vote in reference to the manifestacion, the demonstration in educational reform that has been so evident in the community of Valencia.

I watched as, one by one, the teachers answered the 2 questions with a yes or no, folded the ballot, and placed it between the slit in the box. Most of them were pretty secretive about it. As they placed the ballots in the box, there was one teacher (I suppose that she was the designated person) who checked off the names of each teacher as he/she turned in the ballot. Being curious, I happened to peak at one of the empty ballots just to figure out what was being said. Although the ballot was written in valenciano, I could actually make out almost all of it. Basically, the government explained the proposed budget cuts in education in the community of Valencia and what it would mean for the staff and the students. The yes/no questions following the explanation gave the teachers an opportunity to agree or disagree with the budget cuts. If the majority of people (in the community of Valencia) agreed then action would be taken to reduce the salaries of the teachers and change other school regulations; and if the majority of people didn’t agree then everything would continue to be at a standstill and the people would most likely keep striking.

I watched the teachers’ reactions as they filled out the ballot. Some of them filled it out quickly and quietly, others were a bit more prolonged and dramatic about it and a couple of people even shook their heads, said “no” out loud as they checked the respective box and went about with their business.

Although I have already been fully aware of the “Manifestacion” in Valencia (it’s almost impossible not to be), seeing the “vote” that day definitely made me even more aware, and a little nervous, about the future of the educational system and of the economy in Spain.

Yesterday I noticed some of the teachers talking in valenciano about who was and wasn’t going to show up for school the next day. After hearing the conversation I figured that there would probably be another strike coming up. Sometimes, the teachers are so concerned with all of the things going on around the school that they forget to tell me about these things. After eavesdropping on the conversation yesterday, I went to another teacher to confirm what I thought that I had just heard. She told me that there was going to be another huelga at school on Tuesday (read about the first one here).

Just like the first time, only a handful of teachers were going to show up, one for each cycle (there are 3 cycles plus the infantil classes) in addition to the director and the secretary of the school. A letter was once again given to each of the students to take home to their parents that contained the details of the huelga. Because the school was observing the strike, the students had the options of showing up to school or staying at home. For those that decided to attend school, there would be teachers available but actual classes wouldn’t take place.

After talking to the teacher a bit more she told me that she wasn’t going to show up on Tuesday and that she was going to go to Valencia instead to protest on the streets. She then advised me to ask my supervisor if I needed to come to school the next day. Because my supervisor wasn’t there (she went along with the 6th graders on their week-long excursion to Barcelona) I asked the director of the school instead. When I asked her, she expectantly said, “no, no hace falta” which roughly translates to “we don’t need you,” and she told me to enjoy my day on Tuesday… and so I did.

Today another national strike is held in 14 different autonomous communities of Spain for teachers and service personnel. The strike was called about by the main educational unions in Spain (UGT, CCOO, ANPE, STES and CSIF) and has resulted in the closing down of many universities, vocational schools, and primary and secondary schools. Through this strike, both the teachers and students show their opposition to the cuts in the public education system imposed by the Spanish government which include a sixth-year reduction and work-force, increased rates and increased tuition fees among many others. In the community of Valencia, many students, teachers and organizations are participating in the demonstrations throughout the cities of Valencia and Alicante.

This year, there have been budget cuts worth 3 billion Euros to educational spending. This has lead to larger class sizes and increased average university tuition fees. The people are both angered and worried, as they should be. At a time in Spain when unemployment is 24.4% for the general workforce and 52% for those aged under 25, the last thing that people want to worry about is the fact that their children won’t get as good an education because the class sizes have increased by 20% or that they are no longer able to send their teenagers to college because university fees have increased by 50%.

In addition to the class sizes and increased tuition fees, teachers in the public school system will also be affected significantly. Next term, around 40,000 to 50,000 teachers will be dismissed. Teachers will also have to increase their teaching hours by cutting the time used to prepare for classes and their salaries will be affected. According to unions, 70 percent of teachers in primary and secondary schools responded to the strike, while 90 percent of professors in universities responded.

These budget cuts began by the socialist party and Spain and intensified by the popular party elected into an absolute majority last November. The central government wants to reduce spending on education by more than 10 billion Euros by the year 2015. This will bring education spending down to a 3.9% share of GDP, well below the European Union average of 5.5%.

Living in Spain has made me more conscious than ever about the economy, social reform and the citizens’ roles in times of crisis. Although Spain (and all of Europe) is going through a very deep financial crisis at this time, it is still very encouraging to see that its citizens are not just sitting back hoping things will work out. They are taking positive action against what they believe to be completely unjust, and I can definitely appreciate that.

I have never witnessed anything like the manifestaciones (demonstrations) and huelgas (strikes) in Spain. I’ve never seen such a significant amount of citizens in one country all come together for a purpose such as this. I have seen strikes in the USA, but they were all rather small in comparison. Although I do not discuss the huelga much, it is a topic that I am constantly reminded of in Spain, whenever I walk around town and see big banners outside of the schools, whenever I listen in on heated conversations between my co-workers and whenever I turn on the TV to watch the news.

I’m not sure what and how long it will take for the European economy to get back on track, but I hope that it will be soon and without too many casualties in the educational system, after all, education is just one of those things that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Let the Countdown Begin!

I can’t believe that I am actually saying this but I only have one month left in Spain. ONE MONTH! These last 9 months have passed so quickly. I remember everything about my first day in Spain, my first week and even my first month. Thinking about the fact that I will be back in the States in one month seems so unreal to me. There is so much running through my head at this point; on one hand I am ready to go because I really miss my family, my friends and my city. On another hand I have become so accustomed to the Spanish way of living. I also know that when I leave I’m really going to miss my roommates, the students that I teach and the friends that I have made here. But I am fairly certain that this will not be my last time in Spain!

Now that I know my time in Spain is coming to an end I am more pumped than ever to make the most of these last 30 days. I’ve promised myself that I will enjoy this country as much as I can before leaving. This means that I will visit more places, spend more time with the friends that I have made here, enjoy typical Spanish things (like drinking wine in the middle of the morning?) and attempt to check off more things on my Spanish Bucket List.
After thinking about the things that I have done these last couple of months, I realize that I can now check off 12 activities!
I can check off the following things:
3. Take a solo trip
3. Take a solo weekend trip: My wonderful trip to Italy counts as my solo trip, although it was more like a prolonged weekend trip.
7: Go to a Fútbol (soccer) Game (Or watch an entire Fútbol game from start to finish): I didn’t go to a fútbolgame. I actually forgot that this was even on my list. I did, however, watch an entire game with my roommate. Considering the type of person that I am, I would say I’m definitely making progress. I actually like fútbol now.

6. Hike the 5-hour trail in Javea
6: Hike the 5-hour trail in Jávea: I did this activity a couple of weeks ago when my friend came to visit. The total trip took about 6 hours to do, but it was awesome. I would definitely do it again! Read about it here.
15: Prepare some homemade churros and chocolate: This was one of the first activities I completed after writing my bucket list. Making the churros and chocolate was definitely a fun process. I can’t wait to share it with my family and friends when I return to the states! Read about it here.
15. Prepare some homemade churros
and chocolate
16: Try out a new sport: I originally thought that I would learn how to surf or play fútbol but, believe it or not, I have really fallen in love with hiking. I really love hiking because I am always seeking to challenge my body; and climbing mountains and hiking long trails definitely does that. In addition, there are so many cool and beautiful things to see and discover when hiking making it very fun. Because Jávea has some really good hiking trails, my new goal is to do every hiking route in Jávea before I leave.
21. Get a library card, and utilize it often: I pushed myself to go to the library and fill out an application and I finally have a library card. Now I have to actually use it!

21. Get a Library Card
25. Start running by the sea in the mornings: This is an activity that I had to change a little bit because I’ve realized that I prefer to run at night. Therefore, on the nights that I don’t have aerobics class I usually go out for a run by the sea. I leave at around 9:15pm. I know that sounds late but I think that the timing is perfect because the town is so peaceful and the weather is perfect at this hour. In addition, I don’t see my students, which is the best part of it all. Running by the sea in the evening has been very relaxing and, when I return back home, I shower, eat dinner and sleep like a baby.
26. Take part in a local village fiesta: So far I have participated in two festivals in Jávea, the fiesta of San Sebastian and the fiestas of Jesus of Nazareth. During both of these occasions, the center had bull runs as well as other cultural activities. In addition to these festivals I also got to see some of the Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions in Jávea and Alicante.

30. Attend a Wine Tasting
30. Attend a wine-tasting: I attended a wine tasting with the Fulbright group when I was in Valladolid in February. We took a tour through the Bodega and enjoyed different types of wine. It was great! Read about it here.
31. Walk around town interviewing Spaniards: Although I haven’t formally interviewed people like a news reporter would, I am always asking my roommates, my classmates, the people I work with and other locals of Jávea for their opinions on different subject matters. That is how I am able to get so much information for my blog.

32. Party Like a Spaniard

32. Party like a Spaniard (as in, until 6/7 in the morning): I partied like a Spaniard on my birthday when I went to Alicante. Because it was my birthday it wasn’t difficult at all for me to stay out so late. It was the most fun that I’ve had in a long time. Read about it here.
36. Travel outside of Spain: So far I have visited 2 countries on my bucket list since I’ve been in Spain: France and Italy. I still plan to go to Morocco and (possibly) England.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Eat, Pray, Love Italy Day 5: The Departure

Back to Valencia

I woke up at about 5:00 on Sunday morning to catch the bus to the airport in Rome. The trip to the airport was less than 30 minutes. When I got there I checked in, went through security and I had time to get a coffee and donut from one of the shops. The plane departed on time, the flight was very quick and I was back in Valencia in no time. I was hoping to get to the bus station in Valencia on time to catch the bus at noon but, due to Valencia’s slow metro system, I arrived late and had to take the bus leaving hours later. I arrived back home in the early evening, unpacked and prepared for the week ahead. Thank you God for allowing me to have such a beautiful and safe trip to Italy!

In Conclusion

I couldn’t have asked for a better solo trip. The days that I spent exploring Italy were absolutely fantastic.  I learned so much about the people, the culture and the history. In addition, I’ m proud of myself for taking this trip alone. I’ve recently realized that so many people are afraid to travel by themselves, so the fact that I took a 5-day trip to a foreign country and actually enjoyed myself shows me how independent and adventurous I am becoming.

There were a lot of things about my trip that I enjoyed. I am really happy that I got a chance to visit Florence; it was by far my favorite city. Words can’t express how beautiful and peaceful it was, despite the tourists. My favorite things to do in Italy were people watch and eat gelato. Because there were so many tourists everywhere it was so fun to observe people and try to figure out where everyone was from based on the languages they spoke, their accents and how they were dressed. Also, I really liked the Italian language. Italians are so forceful and passionate when they speak and they rely heavily on hand gestures to make their point. It was so funny to listen to Italian dialogue. Half of the time I didn’t know whether people were arguing or just having a stimulating conversation. As far as my comprehension goes, I was amazed by the amount of Italian I could understand. To me, Italian is very similar to Spanish. I understood a lot of the writing and some of the speaking. I would never try to speak any of it though! Lastly, the food was wonderful. I tried to have as much pizza and pasta as I could while I was there, and both were fantastic. I was surprised, however, about the bread. It wasn’t very good. I had better bread in Spain and certainly in France.

There aren’t that many things that I didn’t enjoy about my trip. I tried to remain as optimistic as possible while I was there. I would say that the tourists were the most annoying part of the trip. They became more of a problem when I was in Rome, which was definitely expected.

Italians are a group of people that I am still trying to figure out. Although I have met many nice Italians while in Spain, the people in Italy weren’t as pleasant as I thought they would be. They were nice and helpful, but I didn’t feel like they were being very sincere about it. They didn’t really go out of their way to be helpful; not as Spaniards or Americans would anyway. Whenever I asked an Italian a question, they answered it very quickly and oftentimes without even knowing if they were giving me the correct answer. These were people that actually worked inside the train stations and airports; they get paid to help people. Even though Parisians have a bad rep, I actually thought that they were a lot nicer and more helpful than the Italians. But I still believe that Italians are cool.

Besides, this could definitely be due to the fact that I was a tourist there, in the land of tourists. A person’s experience in another country can be different if he or she actually speaks the language and is familiar with the culture. When I came to Spain I fit right in because I could speak the language and knew about the Spanish culture; perhaps that’s why I was treated so kindly. I also think that Spanish people are just naturally warm and friendly.

The more I travel the more I learn about the world and after each trip I’m so eager to learn more. It’s so amazing to have the opportunity to visit so many beautiful places in the world. At this point I have visited 5 countries outside of the U.S. but that’s nothing compared to the number of countries I plan to visit in the future.

My next international destination: Morocco!