Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Other Side


Well, folks… We’ve arrived. Four and a half months ago, when my dad got one of the worst cancer diagnoses out there, I tried to imagine this moment: life post-death. I had a few misconceptions: one, I didn’t think it would arrive so quickly. Two, I focused too much on the death part and forgot that life goes on. But bad news turned worse, worser, and worst, until finally even the bad news was more forgiving than the actual progression of events. It was kind of like the classic cartoon montage of a character first falling through an attic floor, then through the next floor, and then unexpectedly through 10 more floors. I’ve been using this metaphor for months now, and it’s still the most accurate one I can find to describe how it feels to have a loved one with terminal cancer. 

And now we’re here in the cartoon basement, which is terrible because it’s sad and scary and lonely, but slightly comforting in an odd way because at least you know you can’t fall any further. A week and a half has passed since my dad shed his meat suit (his words, not mine), and I still don’t know how to picture a world without him in it. To me, it feels like Bill Thompson III the public figure has died—not my dad. Reading the flood of tributes online, I feel somewhat detached. They don’t really make me cry like you might expect. I guess it’s because they’re mourning just a part of the person I knew. Even my sweet mama accidentally fell into this trap—when she sent me the draft obituary full of his accomplishments to look over, I felt I had to add a paragraph about how much he loved things like the Pirates and grilling. These were the somewhat less spectacular but nonetheless wonderful things that rounded out who my dad was.

My dad was a visionary. That man had so many ideas it made my head spin. If you were anywhere close to him, you were destined to get caught up in his creative tornado at some point. Many people are aware of his brainchildren such as the podcast This Birding Life, as well as various Bird Watcher’s Digest events and associated acts. But many never knew he had dreams of installing a pond on our dry ridge top to round out the bird checklists with some waterfowl. He was always planning something, whether it be a music party, a birding outing, or what to grill for dinner. Every weekend we were all home together, he cajoled Liam and me into some grand project like cutting up a felled tree, building a sweat lodge, or going deep into the woods to cook burgers and beans over a hot fire. From an astrological perspective, he was a sensitive Pisces dreamer with an Aquarius persistence, intellect, and worldview—a powerful combination.  

The man knew how to have fun. And he chased it constantly. Obviously, music and birding were two major outlets, but he also loved playing just about any sport or game. Liam and I spent so many endless summer evenings with him in the yard, rotating between whiffle ball, frisbee, basketball, bocce, and more, as swallows chattered on the telephone wire and my mom tried not to get hit. In winter, he was always game to go sledding, and GOD help you if you became his target in a snowball fight. He was also amazing at darts and was the NYC Metro League champion one year, a legacy I am now trying to live up to in the bars on La Gomera. Sometimes we’d go outside with one of his rifles and practice our aim on some old fruit, beer cans, or a stale gingerbread house (you know, Ohio things). There was always a Heineken nearby. 

Travel. Boy, did he love to travel. I think passing along his ability to get up and go and make friends anywhere in the world is one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me. He sparked my wonder by bringing back “surprises” from any trip he went on—beautiful handcrafted earrings, unique toys, fun candies. As I started to venture out into the world little by little, he equipped me with everything I could possibly need, from outlet converters to binoculars. Before I left, he always assured me that if I ever needed him, he would jump right on a plane, and send one of his countless birding friends to help me out in the meantime. Anywhere I told him I was going, he presented me with the contacts of multiple people who would care for me as their own. He’d developed this network effortlessly, just by being himself and genuinely engaging wherever he went. As I prepared last August for my biggest journey yet, he was there with me throughout my panic about moving to a tiny island, and (correctly) assured me it would be absolutely amazing as he expertly packed my suitcase. Any possible problem had a solution when my dad was there. 

The Pirates. This wouldn’t be a proper impromptu eulogy if I didn’t mention this man’s undying love for his hard-luck team. I signed on as a fan when I was 12 or 13, much to his delight. He was convinced it all started back in the mid-90’s when he’d give me my bottle and rock me to sleep on his chest while the Bucs played in the background. Together, we watched the Pirates finally break their 19-year losing streak in a manner not unlike watching a baby giraffe struggle to take its first steps. We had the highest highs—chanting while floating back across the Clemente Bridge after an amazing win—and some really low lows, like when the Bucs slid from playoff contenders to basement dwellers in a couple of consecutive Augusts. Now, when I watch or listen to baseball, I know exactly what my dad would be saying (or rather, yelling): “THAT WAS A HANGING CURVEBALL!” “C’MON!” “How could you swing at that?!” “I could be a commentator.” “LAROCHE, YOU BUM!!!!!” At the last Pirates game we attended together, he managed to do something of which he’d always dreamt: he caught a home run ball on the fly. Made it on TV and got a shoutout on multiple networks and everything. Unfortunately, it was tainted with Cardinal victory, but he was so triumphant it didn’t matter. As we walked out of the park, countless people congratulated him after seeing us on the jumbotron. At his request, I am now the proud owner of the ball. 

I can’t say I planned to write something like this, but es lo que me salió. I miss my dad so much already, and will spend the rest of my life doing so, but I am so incredibly grateful for the 22+ years we spent together and the fact that we got a chance to actually say goodbye. That was the hardest and strangest thing I’ve ever done, but I know that so many people lose loved ones without ever getting the closure of thanking them and hugging them one last time. His life was far too short to live out all his dreams and execute all his plans, but then again, 100 years more still wouldn’t have been enough. 

I’ll leave you with some of his typical wisdom that became a mantra for me. He knew we shared the same tightly-wound and restless mind, and told me a version of this almost every time we spoke. 

“Don’t fret. Almost every problem is a small one. Let them pass, confront them head on, just don’t let them consume you. Worry 80% less.

Workin’ on it, Daddy. 


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

La Calima


Contrary to popular belief, living in the Canary Islands isn't all sunshine and rainbows. Well, maybe 98% of the time it is, but certainly not 100%. One of the few less-than-ideal situations that plagues the archipelago from time to time is none other than la calima: a hot and dusty wind blowing from the Sahara directly to your front door. Close your windows and don't even THINK about putting your laundry out to dry unless you want it to end up plastered in dust and/or in the Atlantic.



Where I live, calima is a relatively infrequent visitor that stops by once every month or two just to remind everyone just how close we are to Africa. Here in Valle Gran Rey, it's about 250 miles. But the easternmost point of Canarias is closer to Africa than Cuba is to Florida. While calima is just a colega to me, it's a true [en]amiga of my friends on the eastern islands.


For most canarios, calima is just a minor annoyance. But I always get a little worked up thinking about our first encounter. I was flying back to the islands after Fulbright orientation in Madrid. I was exhausted, and was really looking forward to resting and settling down in such a beautiful setting. As we neared Tenerife, I glued myself to the window... but all I saw was haze. Uh oh... I had read about calima before leaving the States and was relatively prepared, but wasn't expecting her to be on my welcoming committee. Upon deplaning, I noticed my nose stuffed up immediately. This didn't bother me much until I drifted off to sleep in my sweet friend Nelli's apartment, and woke up in a panic 40 minutes later because I couldn't breathe. I looked out the windows and saw the neighboring buildings cloaked in haze. I then proceeded to have the closest thing I've (thankfully) ever experienced to an asthma attack, which was most likely just an anxiety attack with a stuffed up nose. I called my mom and dad and frantically texted my brother and best friend, and eventually calmed down enough to sleep again. But the grudge was fully in place. 

ugh!!
Lately I've been trying to be more perceptive of colors. The past few days I've taken my journal along to watch the sunset, and attempt to put the flash-in-the-pan colors I see into words. One night I was writing about the glass blues and greens and pinks of backlit waves, and the next:

"Today everything is metallic and steely. Calima hides the vivid colors behind its dusty back, settling over the valley like a lethargic cat. I see mostly gray blues and blue grays, but directly in front me there's also a pearly almost-gold. It's like if you made beige shine. All the valley has this hue thanks to the haze. It sits atop the gunmetal of the waves like a glaze, dimpled by capillaries and interrupted by foam. The foam itself looks like white fabric that was accidentally put in the wash with a new pair of jeans; there's a subtle blue hue that just won't let go. The sun, meanwhile, hangs tired in the sky, ready for this blustery day-that-sort-of-wasn't to be done."



As I finish writing this post, calima has mostly blown away, and the bright blue sky is back. I'd love a cleansing rain to rinse off the thin layer of dust stuck to (literally) everything, but that's a pipe dream. For now, I'll just breathe freely and deeply.

_________________________________

I'm back on the island now and away from my family. But here's a beautiful personal update from my dad: https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/bt3updates

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Hang On


Roughly two weeks ago, on Tuesday, December 18th, the world as I knew it flipped upside down. I was wrapping up my first semester teaching in Valle Gran Rey, and was preparing for a weeklong Christmas trip to Lisbon. I had been experiencing moderate anxiety for a couple of weeks leading up to that day, but had been unable to pinpoint a source or a trigger. I just woke up one day with that familiar pit in my stomach and couldn’t shake it. Normally, I can chalk it up to hormones or something in the stars, and it eases after a day or two. But this anxiety was different, and settled in my mind in a way I hadn’t experienced since my sophomore year of college. I wrote it off as homesickness and frustration with my ankle injury and tried to move on with my life. When my mom asked to call me that afternoon, I immediately shot down the thoughts in my head that something could be wrong, and told myself she just wanted to talk. After two weeks of anxiousness, I was mentally loaded for bear and was working hard on redirecting unhealthy thought patterns. But just seconds into the phone call, my unexplained uneasiness suddenly had root. My dad had been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. 

Thinking back, I’ve never had such a clear turning point in my life. Basically all prior change has been pre-meditated. The events that rolled out after that phone call with my mom were anything but. In the following 24 hours, I canceled my Lisbon plans, booked flights home, alerted those close to me, packed a suitcase, cleaned out my fridge, pleaded for and (thankfully) retrieved a return authorization from the Spanish government office on the other side of the island. By the grace of some all-powerful entity, I found a transatlantic flight for just 350€, despite the fact that I was booking just two days in advance. The JFK-Ohio leg was nearly the same price. I spent 39 hours in transit, completely numb. I hadn’t been expecting a return to the United States until June, and much less one under these circumstances. I had also been planning on avoiding winter for a year, having lost my ironclad Maine cold tolerance completely. But shock and disorientation make for a fine coat. 

I am home now. The days have been slow and gray, with little bright spots here and there. I am relieved to be in the arms of my family, taking in these precious moments with them in our little rural bubble. Nearly everything is different, but a few things remain unchanged. My brother is still making us laugh, my mom is still holding everyone together, and my dad is still first and foremost concerned for everyone else. I have to laugh when he asks me “What’s wrong?!” Of course, I am still the family’s emotional weak link. 

Against my Gemini stellium nature, I’ve had little contact with the outside world—I can’t seem to muster the energy to maintain lengthy text conversations or even answer many messages at all. All of my processing has turned inward. Spiritually, I feel full of mud. I know that I have to seek a “new normal”, but it seems like such an immense effort right now that I’m not yet inspired enough to face. I’ll get there, though—I know people get through times like these by leaning heavily on their spirituality. I welcome any recommendations.

I know for certain I must recapture my sense of gratitude. It will come back to me as things settle down and the seemingly constant flow of bad news stems a bit. For now, I’d like to officially publish a list of the things I am thankful for in this moment.
  1. My dad starts chemotherapy tomorrow. I know he will head into this battle with the same optimism and intensity he’s always carried inside. Though it’s going to be a tough road, we’re all relieved that tomorrow is the day we start fighting back. 
  2. We have an incredibly supportive network of friends. I always knew that my parents had a lot of connections because they’re nice people and great birdwatchers, but I never fully grasped the sheer number of amazing people who care about my family. Thank you. 
  3. I’m so lucky to have had the privilege to race all the way home to Ohio from a tiny rock halfway around the world. And though there’s no good timing for something like this, having it line up almost exactly with my Christmas break is incredibly fortunate.
  4. The sun still rises every day, even if Ohio hides it behind gray flannel most of the time. 
  5. I am healthy. 
  6. Everything in our lives has rapidly been distilled into things that matter and things that don’t (there’s a great Rascal Flatts song about this). Problems and worries that once seemed insurmountable are now entirely irrelevant. Sprained ankles will heal. Money will come back. Happiness should come first whenever possible.
  7. I have a sweet, thoughtful, and patient boyfriend who’s certainly gotten more than he bargained for when he invited la americana to watch the sunset back in October, but who has handled every twist with grace and understanding. 
  8. I also have a big family of wonderful coworkers waiting to welcome me back to Canarias. Thanks to them, I will leave one home and return to another. 
  9. My current anthem: Hang On by Guster. 
Thank you for your time spent reading this journal-entry-turned-blogpost. I’ve been drafting it in my head for a week now to explain tone changes/delays in posting, but I realize it also helps me immensely to distill and transcribe my thoughts. I am grateful for this medium and hope to bring more joy here soon. 

If you would like to keep up with my dad’s story, please visit https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/bt3updates.


Monday, December 3, 2018

Eating in Canarias, Part 2: Out on the Town

Bueno! Now that I’ve chronicled my adventures as a #home #chef (#homechef), it’s time for me to try to describe the experiences I’ve had dining in restaurants here on La Gomera. Though I transited through Tenerife, my experience on other islands is nil. However, this past weekend, I left La Gomera for the first time since early September to attend a meeting, and got to explore another chunk of basalt for a few days. I was very excited to go, but also felt like an octopus clinging to a rock with four tentacles. I was not entirely certain I wanted to leave!


In our pre-departure guidance and orientation, it was stressed over and over again that Spanish social culture revolves around food and drink. That we should never be afraid to apuntarse, AKA to join a group for coffee, dinner, or drinks. Of course, I’ve found this to be spot on, especially in this sleepy little town—time is spent with friends at cafés, restaurants, and bars. The typical American budgeting of only eating out once every week or two is totally incompatible here. Every Thursday evening, a group of at least 6 teachers goes out to eat and have a drink or two. This has been aptly dubbed juernes, which is the combination of jueves (Thursday) viernes (Friday). Plans are always announced in the group chat, and everyone responds with either “me apunto” (I’m in) or “me quedo” (I’m staying home). I almost always apuntarme, and have kind of been throwing financial caution to the wind in favor of new experiences. I didn’t come to Spain to sit at home alone!

The typical dinner structure is as follows: Once everyone has arrived to the restaurant of choice (usually around 8:30 or 9 pm), one seasoned veteran orders for the table. They typically ask around prior to ordering, but people generally put their faith in this spokesperson and don’t even crack their menus. After ordering, we get bread and mojo to start. Mojo is a staple of Canarian cuisine, and typically comes in two different flavors: red and green. Mojo rojo is made from garlic, vinegar, and peppers, and usually has at least a little bit of a kick. Some restaurants have reputations for having very picante mojo rojo, and someone at the table always gives a warning if that’s the case. Mojo verde, on the other hand, is cilantro-based and mild. Though rojo comes close in some restaurants and has certain niches where it excels, I am a strong verde ally. Bowdoin people: this is a debate on par with that of Moulton versus Thorne.

Los dos mojos--image from spain.info/es
Though the food we order varies on location and attendees, we typically get one or two appetizer-ish dishes and two meat-based entrees. Dishes are placed strategically in the middle of tables, and everyone takes a small portion to try. I still have trouble with this when something is particularly delicious and I feel like I could easily eat the full plate myself (if not two), but I have come to appreciate the method for how many different things I’ve been able to try for the price of one meal. I also think it’s very interesting to watch people share food so regularly—in the US, there’s the classic “you HAVE to try a bite of this”, but that’s just one bite and then it’s back to your regularly scheduled eating. In Spain, I eyeball the dish, lock in on a target, serve myself an appropriate portion (making adjustments if I accidentally take too much), and only go back for more if I’m certain it would be fair. One thing that always makes me laugh is that it seems to be customary to leave one tiny portion on the group plate. I think it’s a symbol of politeness; a candle left in the window for anyone who might want more. But no one EVER eats it. It could be a single chunk of pork loin or steak, or one more spoonful of dessert. People gradually finish chewing, put their silverware down, and carry on conversation as the lone bite chills in the evening breeze (we always eat outside!). I have spent many an hour locked in a stare down with these sad remnants. I’m also apparently not very subtle—if there is significant food left over, it’s usually offered to me. My teacher friends have also learned to interpret my indirect American tap-dancing of “no, I’m good” to mean “yes, I will 100% eat the rest of that.” I feel so seen. 


Without further ado, it’s time for some food description. To start, I’ll detail one of the most typically Canarian meals I’ve had. It blessed my life about a month and a half ago, when my fellow teacher and friend Mariola invited me to go up into the interior of the island with her, her daughter, and her daughter’s friend for a day. We went to La Laguna Grande, which is not actually a big lagoon but instead just an open expanse of grass with no trees. A lot of people go there to hold barbecues and picnics, but one of the main draws is the restaurant. I knew I was in for something good because Mariola is one of my favorite people to dine with—as a native Gomeran, she knows exactly what to order, and also always advocates for ordering more food for our dinner groups just to be safe. 


Of course, we started off with bread and mojo, but soon after, I was introduced to one of the loves of my life: queso asadoQueso asado is basically a triangle of super fresh goat cheese that has been roasted/grilled to perfection, such that the exterior is browned and the whole thing is slightly smokey and really flavorful. It’s often topped with mojo or miel de palma (palm honey), which is a Canarias staple. Queso asado is typically just consumed straight up with a fork and knife, which always makes me feel like I’m getting away with something because Americans rarely consume large quantities of cheese without some sort of medium (fries, chips, crackers, etc). However, I’ve also had it in bites throughout a walnut and arugula salad dressed with miel de palma… Oh lord. 

You could play Canary Islands bingo with this picture: queso asado, almogrote, mojo verde y rojo, and a gofio treat all in one!
Our next dish was one that I can confidently say was one of the more peculiar things I’ve consumed: chicharrones con gofio. You’ve heard of pork cracklings—now, imagine them hidden under mounds of floury roasted grains mixed with a little sugar. When each forkful enters your mouth, you’re first almost choked by the gofio, which is the consistency of powdered sugar. It’s slightly sweet with a wholesome grainy undertone, and dissolves quickly. You then feel the heat of the pork crackling (insulated by the topping), and taste the rich and savory flavor set off by the touch of sweetness from the gofio. Though I wasn’t entirely sure if I really liked it or not, I could not stop eating it. My current preference for consuming gofio is in a dessert mousse, but people here use it to top soups, mix into smoothies, and hold together terrines. It’s nearly impossible to imagine until you’ve tried it. I ate a gofio-based cookie the other day, and the closest flavor I could think of was really good cereal milk. Below is a video courtesy of my friend Gara, who toured a gofio factory today and recorded the entire process!

                                                            

Chicharrones con gofio--image from La Abeja News
After drowning myself in pork fat and gofio, we moved on to the first main dish, which is rather universal but executed extremely well in Canarias: chicken breast in a mushroom sauce. Pechuga de pollo en salsa de champiñón. Oh man, do they know how to serve chicken here!! This is a staple at most restaurants, and it’s hard to go wrong ordering it. It typically comes with rice and some roasted/sauteéd vegetables, and always has potatoes on the side. You get your choice of fries or papas arrugadas, which is the typical Canarian preparation (wrinkled with salt). We usually opt for fries which we can drag through the remaining mushroom sauce, while arrugadas are best enjoyed with mojo or even almogrote (a pâté made from hard cheese, olive oil, peppers, and garlic).

A classic dinner plate--image from Pizzería da Luiggi on Tenerife
Following the chicken in quick succession was an enormous bowl of puchero, which is a traditional Canarian stew. The recipes seem to follow an “everything but the kitchen sink” policy, and every spoonful brought me something different. Chickpeas, pumpkin, squash, beef, chicken, pork, green beans, sweet and white potatoes, carrots, and more, with a corn cob to finish it all off. Everything was totally tender and harmonized perfectly. Since it was my first puchero, I was given the honor of eating the corn. One pot of this could probably feed me for a week! I want to attempt it soon, but I’m not sure I have a pot big enough. 

Image from hiperdino.es
To finish off our meal, we ordered leche asada covered in miel de palma. This dessert is very similar to flan, but slightly less uniformly dense, which allows the miel de palma to infuse it all with sweetness. As I mentioned earlier, another popular dessert is mousse, which comes in many different flavors—gofio, passionfruit, chocolate, and mango. It’s always a nice, (texturally) light way to assuage my sweet tooth… And I love seeing it on English translation menus. 

Image (and recipe!) at cookpad.com

tag yourself I'm cocolate Mouse

This post really ran away from me, but in the best kind of way. Of course, I’ve only described a portion of what I’ve experienced, and have so much more to tell! I am now being frequently fed by a Canarian mom, and let’s just say I reaaaaallllyyyyy need my ankle to heal so I can get back to running ASAP and counterbalance things a little bit. 




¡Buen provecho!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Eating in Canarias, Part 1: Home Cookin’


Happy Friday! I am sitting on the roof of my apartment building, listening to waves crashing against the shore as my laundry spins in the washing machine. I spend a lot of time up here, taking my time arranging my clothes on the drying racks while scanning the water for dolphins. On normal laundry days, I’m zipping up and down the four flights of stairs to do other chores between cycles, but today, I’ve been forcibly sidelined by a sprained ankle. So I hauled my laptop up to the roof and am here to write about what really matters: Canarian food. 

the view from up top

When I found out I’d be in Canarias, one of my first Google searches was, of course, “Canary Islands cuisine”. I was initially a little sad that the famed Spanish tapas didn’t seem to have a strong presence in the islands, but was very quickly appeased by the mention of cheese, fresh avocados, papayas, and cilantro, as well as the incorporation of almond (one of my all-time favorite flavors) in many desserts. It was still hard to get a grasp on platos típicos and general themes, however, as every website said something different and many descriptions were written by tourists and highly subjective. The one thing everyone mentioned but failed to really describe was something called gofio. Every so often in my ocean of pre-departure panic, “what if I don’t make any friends?!” and “do I actually know how to speak Spanish?” would be replaced by “What the hell is gofio?” (to be explained in future post)

Bananas are also everywhere!
Before leaving the States, I remember having a conversation with my best friend Elizabeth about cooking for myself in a foreign country and the kinds of things I thought I’d eat. I wondered aloud about whether or not I’d gain weight. “Oh, I bet you’ll lose weight”, she said. I agreed, picturing myself wandering around in the sand hungry and barefoot, fueled exclusively by fruit. How wrong I was!! The food I have eaten since arriving on La Gomera is some of the best I’ve ever had. When I video chat with my mom, she often says “you look like a cream-fed cat!” Well, I feel like one, too. I’ve had so many satisfying meals, both in restaurants and in my very own kitchen. In this first food post, I’ll talk about how my home cooking has translated over here, and in the next, I’ll dive into what other people have fed me. 

In comparison with the US, grocery shopping here is cheap and efficient, and I’ve been able to find a lot of surprising ingredients I never thought would be available on this little rock. German ex-pats have opened up many markets with imported goods, and there’s even an Italian specialty store owned by my new friend Nando who gave me free wine for the chicken marsala recipe I wanted to try. Sure, a single head of broccoli may only appear in stores roughly once a month, but there are plenty of other more exciting things to try. Predictably, I’m hooked on the avocados, and am also currently heavily dependent on my daily kaki, which is an (imported but fantastic) variety of persimmon. I was hesitant at first, used to the little wrinkly Ohio winter variety, but my mom gave me so much persimmon envy that I had to go for it. Most days during my walk home from school, I stop in the frutería and pick up whatever looks good. The owner now loves to feign surprise when I plop three kakis on the counter, and sometimes throws in a little almond candy for me to try. I love it here. 

A typical frutería haul: a kaki, an avocado, an almond candy, and... shallots?!
Grocery shopping is always something I look forward to doing here in Valle Gran Rey. The one chain grocery store, SPAR, has two locations in town, and I go there for all of my staples. I’m now a recognized community member (as opposed to a tourist passing through), which means that the guy at check out greets me with “¿Cómo estás, mi amor?”, and my friend at the meat counter always says “¡Hola, preciosa!” Our friendship started the first time I did a big shop, after I apologized for staring at the selection for ~10 minutes without speaking. I told him I was utterly unprepared for shopping in Spain after a lifetime of buying prepackaged meats in the US and largely ignoring the metric system. Of course, he was incredibly patient and gave me suggestions on what to buy and how to cook it. Now, when I’m having a bad or lonely day, I go talk to him and buy something new to try. To top it all off, meat is blessedly cheap here, and cooking just two recipes can feed me all week. 


I’ve never considered myself an intensely creative person in the generic sense of the word. When presented with a blank canvas, I totally freeze up. My little brother, on the other hand, can come up with a character, scene, or comic strip off the top of his head and fill the page with color and humor. He clearly got the artist genes. However, over the past few years, I’ve realized I can be creative as long as I have some sort of constraint. If I’m at point A and need to get to point B, but can choose my own route, I’m thrilled. Thus, cooking here is a challenge I very much enjoy. I find recipes online knowing that I won’t be able to follow them exactly, but put my all into recreating them to the best of my ability using the resources I have here. Innovative is what I think they call it! 

This is where the magic happens
My biggest constraint in cooking here is that I do not have an oven. Or a microwave! Just one 2-pot electric stovetop. When I put my big sauté pan on, nothing else fits. But I’ve managed just fine, and am now very skilled in the art of reheating leftovers on the stovetop. In the past month, I’ve cooked cilantro lime pork chops (Iberian pork is truly unrivaled), steak fajitas with black beans, Thai coconut chicken soup, broccoli with fried shallots and olives (pounced on the broc when I saw it), pork ragout, mango sticky rice, and chicken marsala. While these aren’t Spanish dishes, I do try to select recipes that put Spanish/local ingredients in the spotlight. More recipes will come with time! Each meal has been surprisingly successful, but I also think my pride is the world’s finest seasoning that can mask almost any error or ingredient shortcoming. But hey—I’ve had a few guests and think they came away happy. 














My biggest cooking feat thus far: Thanksgiving! Yesterday, I ran that little electric stovetop into the ground making a four point menu. Up until about a week ago, I wasn’t planning on anything special—I’d go out to eat with the teachers and just be quietly thankful in my head. But then I thought about my dad’s mashed potatoes. And realized I didn’t need an oven to make them. Then I mentioned mashed potatoes aloud to my favorite Gomeran, Oscar. And he said he’d like to try them. Aaaaaand then I decided I’d just do the damn thing! 


I wasn’t expecting to find turkey here, but lo and behold, when I went shopping on Wednesday, SPAR had one fresh turkey breast. I found a stovetop recipe with fresh herbs and sautéed vegetables that seemed doable. I also bought a ton of potatoes, re-upped my butter supply, and grabbed some green beans to stir fry in garlic and soy sauce in my mom’s style. I was fretting over dessert until I realized that I had all the ingredients for the beloved grapefruit (+ avocado + pomegranate + honey + lime) salad my mom and I make each winter. Yesterday, I cooked for ~5 hours, and finally invited Oscar over at a quarter past 10 pm (had to make it a little Spanish, ya know?). I think everything tasted quite good (my guest said it was buenísimo), but really, I was just deliriously happy to have pulled off a Thanksgiving meal given the constraints and to be sharing it with someone who has made this place feel like home. 


Friday, November 9, 2018

well would you look at that... I'm a teacher

Alright, alright... It's time to talk about the real action! 


So. I got a month deep before receiving an official schedule at my school, meaning that my introduction to formal teaching was wild, unpredictable, and wonderful. The one native English speaker in the school (who is the 5th and 6th year teacher and also happens to be the bilingual coordinator) was on maternity leave for the first month, and her substitute did not speak English. We’re still missing a permanent teacher for 1st and 2nd year, and the guy filling in had never taught before and also did not sign up to teach English!! This meant that I immediately had a much larger role in the classroom than I had been expecting. Though it was very stressful to be thrown off the deep end with admittedly very little prior experience, I think it was the best thing for the development of my confidence and my bonds with my students. Instead of someone who just sits in the back and observes, I think they see me as more of a legitimate teacher, and our mutual respect has grown markedly. 

unexpected/unexplained double half rainbow seen during my walk to work
As everyone who survived an elementary education probably knows, teaching is rarely glamorous. I was a member of an elementary school class with a bad reputation, and now I really feel the pain of our poor teachers who tried everything to maintain order. Even as an empathetic teacher’s pet, you don’t realize how frustrating it is to be in a chaotic classroom until you’re legitimately in their shoes, trying to get a point across. Some kids are listening intently, others are quiet but in their own little worlds, and still others are fighting, yelling, and running around. I’ve had a few tear-my-hair-out moments, compounded by the fact that my younger students do not understand me at all when I’m asking them to behave. In order to encourage English use, they are not supposed to know that I speak or even understand Spanish, which I have found to be a debatable teaching strategy in general. In terms of behavioral policing, “please be quiet!” just doesn’t have the same effect as a biting “si quieren, CALLAR!!!”


Of course, some classes are more challenging than others, and a lot depends on the time of day. For example, my 1st year students (~6 year olds) are baby angels first thing in the morning, but would drive nearly anyone to drink in the last hour of the day. Regardless of the hour, I’ve had a particularly challenging time with my 2nd year class, which has about four ~difficult~ students whereas other groups have just one or two. Yesterday was actually the first time I felt like we had a slight breakthrough—their behavior was a little bit better and the majority demonstrated a good grasp on the vocabulary we’ve been building over the past month.

Recently, in my younger classes, I’ve tried taking students aside during free moments for one-on-one conversations on the balcony. This has helped both parties exponentially. For one, I can quickly gauge levels of understanding and see what content each student hasn’t grasped yet. I can also personalize our relationship a little bit more—rather than just being the talking head at the front of the class, I can ask questions specific to the student and make them laugh. I also cheat a little bit and throw in some Spanish if I know they’re not understanding me, which I think humanizes me more in their minds. Finally, at the end of our conversations, I like to elicit a pinky-promise from my more challenging students that they will behave and listen to me. The success rate isn’t 100%, but things are a hell of a lot better than they were when we started. 

me being a very relatable human teacher fending off a sneeze next to a cactus
Luckily, for every frustrating/difficult moment, I can count five moments that made my heart feel fit to burst. Some students latched onto me immediately, particularly those who already speak English quite well. Others were on board after about a week. The ones that really get me, though, are those who open up after we speak one-on-one. The other day, I spoke to a girl in 2nd year who routinely shut down and glared at me when I called on her in class or tried to nudge her in the right direction on worksheets. Out on the balcony, we spoke about her Hello Kitty earrings, her family in Germany, and her pretty dress. Part way through the conversation, she put her hands on my knees as she was talking. When I walked into the classroom the next day, she ran up and gave me a big hug for the first time. 

I’ve noticed that my students generally demonstrate trust through physical gestures like these. The most engaged and open kids give me hugs and high fives every day. When I kneel down to talk to students at their desks, they’ll often lay their hands on mine while they ask a question. My most endearing example came one day when I pulled out Sergio, one of my most entertaining 1st year students. As one of the smallest and youngest of the bunch, Sergio routinely melts my heart but couldn’t give less of a damn about English. His focus in class is non-existent. He knows I’m not supposed to be able to understand Spanish, but rambles on at length to me anyway in the most adorable squeaky voice. On the first day, when my co-teacher Roboam asked the class to draw a picture of the two of us, Sergio drew a penguin. “Penguin” happens to be the only English word I have successfully taught him. I noticed one day that he was struggling with a worksheet on colors, so I pulled him out onto the balcony for a chat. As we slowly worked through the sheet, he climbed onto my lap and tucked his head under my chin, displaying physical trust for the first time. To say I melted would be an understatement. Now, when we do group activities like meditation or dancing, he plants himself directly in front of me and won’t budge. 

To help reinforce the vocab we've been building, I had the kids come up to the board to draw a random animal with a random number of one body part (i.e. A Shark With Six Eyes), as dictated by me. Here, the master himself works on a Penguin With Five Legs. 
During the first-day portrait drawing activity mentioned above, I also came to know Enzo, one of my true standout students. Earlier in the day, I prompted him to count to 10 with me in English. He didn’t take a full breath until he’d reached 50, so I knew something good was up with this kid. As I was walking around to see the drawings of Roboam + Phoebe, Enzo’s caught my eye:


For comparison, here’s what I looked like that day: 

My current aesthetic is basically just to look like I google image searched "teacher" and dressed like what popped up
It’s important to note that this 6-year old captured every detail of our appearances—the colors and designs of our clothes, my blue eyes, my (slight but exaggerated) height advantage over Rob, his beard and arm/leg hair, and my freckles. I was blown away, and sure enough, Enzo has continued to amaze me. He speaks to me only in English, and I can see his little gears turning as he chews over a question and thinks up an answer. He also spelled CHAMPION and PINEAPPLE yesterday without my help. If I had to make a list of Things I’d Look Into If Given A Crystal Ball, Enzo’s future would be top 10. 


One more little thing I’ve noticed about these kids that has captured my heart is what they do when left to their own devices. There are individually charming behaviors, of course—for example, I have one first grade student who loves to look at himself in the mirror. I always catch him turned around in his seat, smiling at his reflection. But what really gets me is what happens when I turn the class loose on a creative activity like drawing. Many students talk to their neighbors and run around to borrow colors, and the ambient noise inevitably builds. The majority of the sound, however, is singing. It stopped me in my tracks on the first day—at least half of the students in the classroom were immersed in their artwork and singing their own special songs. This wasn’t an isolated event, either—idle musicality just seems to be the thing here. Maybe my teacher friends in the United States have noticed something similar—either way, it’s so precious. Equally entertaining but maybe less precious was when I asked my second grade students to sing me a song on the first day, and a group of boys gathered in a circle and chanted “DAME TU COSITA, UH UH” in the stylings of this video: 


But this is all just a regular day at school.

The view from the balconies

Monday, October 29, 2018

How the turntables turn


Well! I’ve officially been in Spain and living on La Gomera for over one month (????!!!!!!!!!!), so it’s probably about time for me to write some posts about what the hell I’m actually doing here (teaching). When I was just an applicant stalking Fulbright blogs, I sometimes wondered why there was so little content about the actual teaching experience. I think I know why now—for starters, there’s a lot going on outside of work. So many side missions, cultural quirks, and thoughts about transition are also vying for space in my mind. I didn’t just start a new job—I started a new life (this sounds incredibly navel-gazey, but it’s true). Really, the Fulbright experience encompasses all spheres—professional, social, and private—and it’s unrealistic to expect one of those to outweigh the others. #MÁSqueunabeca

me thinking deep thoughts !!
Another challenge involved in blogging about teaching is that every day is entirely different. I had a nice and tidy mental summary of my first day all ready to roll, and then the sun set and rose again and I had a completely different experience. Finding a way to corral all of the unique experiences and emotions is really difficult. However, after a month on the job, I think my sample size of days is starting to inch toward “respectable”, so I’m going to give it a whirl. 

Here's a picture a fellow teacher took of me on my first full day in infantil classes. Not pictured: marker stains on my pants
In this post, I’ll start with the facts. I am assigned to teach English to infantil and primaria students at the only school in the Valle Gran Rey municipality. The school is small, but hosts students anywhere between the ages of 3 and ~16 years old, mostly from La Gomera but also from other islands and many different countries (Germany, Italy, Moldova, Venezuela, Cuba, etc) thanks to tourism. In Spain, children can basically start attending school straight out of the womb, but this of course depends on resources and availability. In this area, students officially start in infantil around age 3, move to primaria at age 6, and then to secundaria when they’re 12. After they finish four years in secundaria, they’re done with obligatory education, but the next step for many is bachillerato and then universidad. It’s a really interesting feeling to return to the beginning of the process after just crossing the finish line in my own education. I’m teaching ages 3 through 12 every week, and my youngest students are still a few years out from reading. I look at them and wonder if they’ll be pulling all-nighters to finish research papers in ~16 years. 


The school is charming, built around an open-air patio where all of the students have recreo (recess) together. A map of the islands is painted on the ground, and plants and student garden projects line the perimeter. The classrooms have big windows and balconies with a casual ocean view, and the walls are painted daffodil yellow. The students I teach begin class at 8:30 am and leave around 1:30 pm, with a ~45 minute break in the middle for lunch and recess. Factoring in my long bus rides, my days in elementary school were about twice as long. 


The hub of activity for teachers is, of course, la sala de profesores. I was told ahead of time that Spain takes teachers’ lounges seriously, and it’s true. Every teacher in the school must enter the room at least twice a day to sign in and out, but it’s also the only place in the building to get coffee, print, and store personal belongings and classroom materials. My favorite part is the community snack tin that always has an assortment of my new addiction: Gomeran cookies (more on these later). There are always people in the lounge, and it’s an unspoken cultural rule that anyone entering should always announce themselves with a greeting. Generally, when starting a new job, my approach is to be quiet as a mouse until I feel comfortable (former co-workers reading this will laugh), so this initially made me nervous. But I have to say, after spending an evening alone, it’s really nice to walk in the next day and receive a chorus of “buenos días!” 


The teachers at my school have been incredibly welcoming to me, and I feel very lucky to be a part of their cohort. I didn’t know this until recently, but small islands like La Gomera have a high teacher turnover rate because of A. isolated location and B. Spain’s requirements for tenured positions—at the end of every year, all teachers vying for a plaza fija (fixed position) must take the infamously difficult oposiciones (exams), and if they don’t do well, they’re sent to another school. I started at the school a week later than everyone else, so by the time I arrived, people knew each other and were relatively settled in. Little did I know, all but ~3 infantil and primaria teachers were also new to La Gomera! Many of them are Canarians in their mid-to-late twenties, and already have a group chat to announce plans for things like dinner and drinks. This dynamic is my saving grace—La Gomera does not have a university, so there are very, very few people my age around town. But because all of these teachers are new and looking to make friends just like I am, they’ll put up with my stuttering Spanish and pesky kid-sister vibes for the sake of companionship. I love them already. 


Snapshot from a typical Wednesday night spent poolside with my coworkers
Next up: my classroom experience!