Going Home

So, long story short, I had my follow-up for my sleep study, and the sleep clinic isn’t going to give me any medicine, for reasons that are dubious at best. So I’m a little out of options now.

I haven’t left my apartment in about a month except to go to school, the grocery store, and my private classes. Even when I’m at school, I feel like a zombie, or like a shell of a human being. I don’t think I have a personality anymore, all my energy goes into not falling asleep. I can’t string sentences together, not in English or Spanish. My room is a wreck because I can’t keep up with all the things required to make my space neat. All I eat is bread and frozen pizzas because trying to figure out meals and groceries and everything related with food planning is overwhelming and I just can’t rely on food that can’t be eaten immediately. I’m too tired to prepare even simple things.

I don’t want to be like this, but I can’t change my situation through sheer willpower — even though I’ve been trying. So I’m going home.

I had planned to go back to the United States at the end of the semester, but this week I realized that it really can’t wait. So I’m going home next Friday, I’ve got a week to pack up and say goodbye to people.

The good news is that I’ll be able to get Xyrem in the US — probably — and that could turn everything around. If my insurance approves Xyrem, I could even get a supply to take to Spain in the fall so that I can come back and teach another year. So I will hopefully be able to come back.

But I really don’t want to leave. I love Spain, and I keep hoping that things will get better, that I’ll have a day where I feel okay and I’ll be able to go to Madrid or travel a little or something. But I never have days like that, so I need to go home and get my health sorted.聽It really, really sucks.

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How to Speak Spanish Like a Native

You’ve probably figured out by now that truly mastering a second language is difficult. It takes time, patience, and dedication.

However,聽if you ever visit Spain and want to blend in flawlessly without the hassle of actually learning Spanish, you really only need to know five phrases. With these up your sleeve, you’ll be able to have a typical Spanish conversation without a single problem! Nobody will ever guess that you’re a聽guiri (that’s Spain Spanish for ‘gringo’)!

The Only Five Phrases You’ll Ever Need:

Buenas: Only guiris say 鈥榟ola鈥. Whenever you greet somebody, say 鈥榖uenas鈥, as in buenas tardes or buenas noches (if it鈥檚 the morning, you can say 鈥榖uenos鈥, short for buenos d铆as, but let鈥檚 be real, you鈥檙e not getting up that early anyway).

驴Que tal?: Forget 鈥楥omo est谩s鈥, that鈥檚 not what Spaniards say. You can ask about pretty much anything using 鈥楺ue tal鈥, which is useful if you鈥檙e not in the mood to form actual sentences. 驴Que tal tu dia? 驴Que tal te va? 驴Que tal el trabajo? So native!

Vale: Want to reassure the locals that you鈥檙e following them, even though you really haven鈥檛 understood a thing? 鈥榁ale鈥 is the phrase for you! It means something like 鈥極kay鈥, 鈥楻ight鈥, or 鈥業 get it鈥, and you can say it literally whenever you want. Try to develop a look of perfect comprehension when saying 鈥榁ale鈥, because chances are you have no idea what鈥檚 going on, but it hurts your pride to tell a native speaker that.

Joder: The f-bomb. Like 鈥榲ale鈥, you can say this whenever you want, including in front of your students, without fear of using the word incorrectly. It鈥檚 always appropriate to say 鈥楯oder鈥.

Hasta luego: Don鈥檛 say 鈥榓dios鈥, that鈥檚 what gringos do. You need to say 鈥榟asta luego鈥, see you later, even if chances are good that you will never see this person again. To REALLY blend in with the locals, try to drop as many letters from this phrase as you can until it becomes a nearly indecipherable 鈥楾AUEO鈥. Say this loudly and with confidence.

These five phrases make up probably 75% of the conversations I have here in Spain. Really, this is all you need to know!

Example Conversation:

Me: Buenas!

Friend:聽隆Helen! Joder. 驴Que tal?

Me: Bien.

Friend: Vale.

Me: Vale, TAUEOOO

Friend:TAUEOOO

The Best Thing About Spaniards

I really, really love living in Spain. It’s wonderful — my only regret is that I can’t participate more fully in la vida espa帽ola (thanks, narcolepsy).聽

I know that it’s not good to make generalizations about an entire country, blah blah blah, but since day one I’ve been constantly struck by how generous Spaniards are. They give things away without a second thought, and without my asking for anything!

Here is a sampling聽of the things I’ve been given during my two months here in Spain:

-An absurd amount of free food, drinks and coffee for no reason;

-It was drizzling one day when I went to the bar, and one of my waiter friends disappeared briefly and returned with a fancy umbrella of unknown origin, insisting I keep it;

-Juanra, my favorite teacher, gives me plums, bread and, most recently, a map of Lisbon, Portugal, where he visited on a weekend trip;

-In Segovia, not only did my friends pay for my cochinillo, but聽one of them also bought me a piglet-shaped magnet/bottle opener聽as a souvenir;

-Today, I visited the bar, and one of the regulars, a young-ish dude with wild dark hair and bright blue eyes, produced a potted plant out of nowhere and gave it to me as a gift. I thought it was a joke, but he insisted that I keep it.聽IMG_1549

Thank you, bar regular!

State vs State

One of my history classes ran into a little English phoneme difficulty today.

Mid-lecture, a student raised her hand and said, “Yes, what is the difference between estate and estate? They are different words? You pronounce them differently?”

Juanra, the teacher I was helping — he’s young, fashionable, and constantly on the brink of despair about his badly-behaved students — replied, “Well, yes, you have estates like the land聽the nobles聽owned, and then you have estates like the United Estates.”

“And you say them聽the same way?”聽

“Well…”

“No,” I said quickly, hoping Juanra would forgive me for cutting him off. “No, they’re different words, they’re pronounced and spelled differently.”

Juanra helpfully wrote the two words on the board for me: ‘State vs. State.’

“One of them has an ‘e’,” I whispered.

“Oh,” he said, looking at the blackboard. “Joder.”聽

“So you say them differently,” I told the class as Juanra added聽an 聽‘e’ on the blackboard. “The first word, the land the nobles owned, that’s an estate. And the second word is just聽state.”

The entire class, in unison, made a confused noise.

“Can you hear the difference?” I asked.

“No,” they said.

Estate,” I said, as clearly as I could. “State.

“Ehm, that is the same word,” one of the students offered helpfully. “You are not saying a different word.”

“Yes, she is,” said Juanra. “She is saying first聽estate and second聽estate.”

“Uh,” I said. “Here, let’s all listen again. In Spanish, y’all don’t have this ‘s’ and ‘t’ sound together in your words, so it can be very hard to hear and make that sound in English. The first word is聽estate. The second word is聽ssstate.”

Essstate?” Juanra asked.

Sssstate.”

“Sssstate,” said one of the students, and then the whole classroom was filled with hissing as they tried, some more successfully than others, to make the ‘s’ sound without adding an ‘e’ to the front of it.

I felt like an English-language superhero.

Like Espiderman.聽

Teacher, I Don’t Understand

So far, I am loving teaching at my school — a bilingual colegio (public middle/high school) in Alcorc贸n, Madrid.

Here’s how the bilingual education program works:

All students at the school receive at least some of their education in English, with the more proficient students spending more time in classes taught in English — each grade level is divided into 5 different classes, depending on English proficiency.

Teaching core subjects in a second language creates an interesting classroom dynamic, which I will write about at length later, because it’s fascinating. Basically, though, class time is divided between teaching actual content and making sure the students are able to understand and process the English being used in the lesson, giving them plenty of opportunities to ask clarifying questions and practice new vocabulary.

I had expected to be teaching English language classes, but I am actually working in the Geography and History department, which I think I prefer. None of the teachers that I work with are native speakers of English — that’s my job, to be a native speaker — but they have a pretty good grasp of the language.聽Often, though, a聽teacher will misunderstand what a student is saying, and will then give an answer that the student was not looking for, which further confuses the matter.聽

I’m not allowed to speak to the students in Spanish, or even to tell them that I understand Spanish, so that they have no choice but to communicate with me in English.聽For the most part, I’ve been successful at playing dumb about Spanish, but I slipped up a bit today — I was trying to explain what a mace is (the medieval ball and chain weapon, right?), and as I was drawing a picture of a mace on the blackboard, one of the students said to another,聽in Spanish, “Is that a fishing pole catching the sun?”

Without thinking, I turned around and replied, “No, it’s a mace, I’m not done yet!”聽

So that was my bad.聽

The students have a decent grasp of English,聽kind of聽— their level of fluency varies from “age-appropriate” to “clearly just making random noises and hoping that it sounds like English”. I聽wouldn’t say that any of them are聽bilingual, exactly, 聽but most of the students can understand me when I talk and can form simple responses.

One of the funniest things about the students, though, is that they all mispronounce the word “yes”,聽regardless of聽their English level. It usually comes out somewhere between “yisss” and “djesss” — they always drag out the “s”, which I find hilarious, because I think they’re imitating the way native English speakers make the “s” sound — it’s a much stronger sound in English than in Spanish.

So we have conversations that go like this:

Me: Does that make sense?聽

Students (in unison): Yissssss.

The fact that they mispronounce “yes”聽doesn’t exactly make me confident that I’m being understood, but it sure is charming.

Me llamo… Helen?

A few days after my arrival in Alcorc贸n, I went back to the restaurant聽with the nice waiters who had taken pity on me during聽my overwhelming first day here. I’d adjusted to life in Alcorc贸n, somewhat, and I was able to recognize that while I had originally thought that they worked at a ‘fancy restaurant’, in reality it was just a pub that had a patio, not upscale at all.

The red-haired waitress was taking orders聽outside, on the patio, and she remembered me. 鈥Hola, guapa!鈥 she called in her thick Andalusian accent. 鈥淪it down, wherever you鈥檇 like!鈥 She ran inside the bar and returned with the waiter who had brought me free food.

鈥淒o you have money聽this time?鈥 he asked good-naturedly. I pulled out my wallet, embarrassed, offering to pay him for the other day, but he waved me off. 鈥淣o, no, don鈥檛 worry about it. That was on us.鈥 The red-haired girl nodded and brought me a caf茅 con leche without my even having to ask for it.聽

I was so excited to see both of them that I felt a familiar heaviness at the back of my neck, rushing in waves down my spine and through my limbs. No, not now. You can鈥檛 have an attack in front of them. My face twitched from the effort it took to fight the cataplexy, and I wanted to get up and leave without finishing my coffee. I wanted to lock myself in my room where nobody could see me.

The free-food waiter came over to where I sat on the patio. 鈥淲hat鈥檚 your name?鈥 he asked me.

鈥淓laine,鈥 I said, trying to pronounce it with short Spanish vowels, El茅n, and trying to keep my voice steady. Don鈥檛 have cataplexy. Come on.

Helen,鈥 the waiter said, pronouncing the 鈥楬鈥 like a Castilian 鈥楯鈥 鈥 from the back of his throat, strong, as if he was trying to cough something up.

鈥淓laine,鈥 I said, trying to be more clear.

鈥淵es, Helen! In Spanish, though, you would be Elena.鈥

鈥淚 don鈥檛 feel much like an Elena,鈥 I told him. 鈥淚t doesn鈥檛 fit me.鈥

鈥淲e will call you Helen, then,鈥 he said, still hitting the 鈥楬鈥 much harder than an English speaker would have. 鈥淚t鈥檚 nice to meet you, Helen.鈥 And with that, he returned to the bar where the other waiters were standing. They all leaned towards him as he spoke, glancing at me, and I was sure that he was telling them what we had just talked about.

I couldn鈥檛 see right, the patio looked blurry and unreal. I needed to go have cataplexy. I stood up, walking quickly and guiltily past the waiters, like I was trying to hide that I was drunk or on drugs or something. Act normal. Act normal. Do I look normal? Can they tell something鈥檚 wrong?

I made it to the bar鈥檚 bathroom, fumbled with the lock, and collapsed onto the less-than-clean bathroom floor. Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax. I was learning how to handle cataplexy. The moment of complete surrender was beginning to come as a relief, the fact that I didn鈥檛 have to fight it anymore, that I could give in 鈥 surrendering聽felt good. And of course, when my eyes opened, I felt worlds better than I had coming into the bathroom.

When I stepped back onto the patio, the waiters greeted me with 鈥淗elen!鈥 I was聽right 鈥 he聽had told them my name, or what he thought was my name.

I didn鈥檛 know it at the time, but ‘Helen’ would quickly become my actual name here in Spain. I鈥檝e been here for nearly a month now, and every single person I鈥檝e introduced myself to has, without exception,聽misinterpreted 鈥楨laine鈥 as聽鈥楬elen鈥, adding a strong Spanish 鈥楬鈥 to the beginning of my name. I鈥檝e tried to correct them 鈥 鈥楨laine鈥 doesn鈥檛 even have an 鈥楬鈥 sound! 鈥but 鈥楬elen鈥 has stuck. It鈥檚 growing on me a bit, and the horrible strong 鈥楬鈥 is actually kind of endearing. So, if we meet in Spain, I guess you can call me Helen.

Rain, Dog Poop, Coffee: Arrival in Alcorc贸n

(NB: Since stepping off the plane, I have not had a single conversation in English. So just assume that all dialogue聽from here on out takes place in Spanish.)

The minute I arrived in Alcorc贸n, I had some problems.

I was staying with an Airbnb host, Juan, for a week, but聽once I arrived at his apartment complex, nobody was home!

This shouldn鈥檛 have come as a surprise, since I was two hours early, but I felt stumped. I had not anticipated this being a problem 鈥 I am never early for anything.

The guard at the apartment complex said sorry, he couldn’t let me in until Juan came, so I took my bags and started exploring Alcorc贸n. It was raining.聽

I ended up sitting on a bench in a nearby park 鈥 there’s lots of parks in Alcorc贸n. The parks are generally quite nice, but Alcorc贸n has a dog poop problem. There were poops everywhere. There were poops on the pathways in the park. It was a lot of poops.

I聽felt like an idiot, sitting outside in the rain,聽but there wasn’t anywhere else for me to go 鈥 all of the restaurants in the area looked somewhat fancy, and it was the siesta, too, so people were all dressed up and eating with friends at these nice restaurants in their nice work clothes (siesta means “long lunch break with pals” and not “nap” these days, turns out). I was by myself, still in my airplane clothes, and soaking wet, so it didn’t seem appropriate to聽seek shelter in聽a restaurant.聽

Instead, I sat on the park bench and tried not to cry. Everything was different, and I didn鈥檛 know what to do or where to go, and I felt like an idiot with all my luggage, and my pale skin and blonde hair screamed outsider, and I was certain I was going to do everything wrong. Why had I even come to Spain? Who does that? Nobody, because it’s a dumb idea.

After a while, I got depressed at the thought聽of spending two more hours in the rain with all my luggage and all the poops, so I decided I’d just go to a restaurant and accept that I looked like a wreck and that I’d stand out as behaving culturally inappropriately.

One of the restaurants in the area had a friendly-looking waiter about my age standing outside in the sheltered patio area, so I went up to him and asked, somewhat pathetically, “Do you sell coffee here? Could I please get a coffee and sit down?”聽

I must have looked terrible. I was soaking wet and tired from my flight, no makeup, all teary because I’d spent my first few hours in a foreign country in the rain, trying not to be overwhelmed. In short, not my best look.

But聽the waiter said of course I could sit down, and he got me a table聽on the covered patio, finally out of the rain!

He asked me how I鈥檇 like my coffee, and I didn鈥檛 know what to say 鈥 I hadn鈥檛 thought to brush up on my coffee lingo. 鈥淲ith milk?鈥 he prompted, and I quickly agreed. I like coffee, and I like milk, so that seemed like a good combination.

I soon learned that caf茅 con leche is the drink in Spain 鈥 half espresso, half milk.聽It took about one sip of caf茅 con leche before I was聽hopelessly addicted. It was perfect!

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The waiter checked up on me a few minutes later and said, “Feeling better already, huh?鈥, giving me a little pat on the back. This was the first of many times I would be touched affectionately by a complete stranger. 鈥淎re you studying here? On vacation?鈥

鈥淣o,鈥 I said. 鈥淚鈥檓鈥 I just鈥 um鈥︹

That was when I realized that I didn鈥檛 know how to say 鈥渢o move鈥 in Spanish, as in, 鈥淚 just moved here鈥.

鈥淚 live here now,鈥 I said lamely. 鈥淎s of two hours ago. The plane just landed.鈥

The waiter thought about this for a second and immediately went over to the bar area, where a peppy聽red-haired waitress was smoking, and told her everything I had just said. This became a theme 鈥 every time I talked to a waiter, whatever I said was immediately shared and analyzed among the rest of the staff.

鈥淎nd you only speak a little Spanish,鈥 the waiter said, coming back over to me. 鈥淲hat else do you speak?鈥

鈥淓nglish,鈥 I said.

鈥淥h,鈥 he said. 鈥淚 don鈥檛 know any English.鈥

Then he ran back over to the waitress and told her what I had just said, and they both watched me drink my coffee. This was quickly becoming annoying.

As I sat there, trying to breathe and relax, the waiter got聽me another coffee, and free food! First he brought out bread and cheese, then a Spanish omelette 鈥 tortilla 鈥 and then the most amazing meatballs I’ve ever had, covered in sauce and sitting on top of french fries.

I tried to tell the waiter that he was being too nice, and that I couldn’t eat all this food because I’d already had lunch, but he was very dismissive of that idea. “No, no, you can eat it, just eat it already, come on!鈥 he said every time I tried to protest.

When it was time for me to pay, the waiter only charged me a single Euro 鈥 enough to pay for the first coffee.

But guess what?

Ugh, this is so cringe-worthy, I don鈥檛 even want to write about it, but 鈥 I had forgotten to withdraw cash at the airport.

I told the waiter that I knew it was dumb, but could I use a card to pay and to give him a tip? He took my card, but came back a minute later and told me that they聽聽didn鈥檛 accept foreign cards, and not to worry about it 鈥 it was all on the house!

I offered to come back later with cash to pay and to tip him, but he insisted, and as I thanked him and the red-haired waitress, I started to cry a little bit, I was so grateful. I had almost certainly done everything wrong, but they had been generous and hospitable聽anyway.

This was my first real interaction with the Spanish people, and since then I鈥檝e only encountered more of the same 鈥 the astonishing聽kindness of strangers.