Letter to myself

Please get involved. I know you aren’t doing enough. It is not enough to talk about politics with friends and family, discuss events with classmates or colleagues, or post on social media from time to time. No. You must organize or participate in peaceful protests, volunteer as a poll worker, vote, actively register new voters, write personalized letters to your local representative, continue to sign petitions, and increase your knowledge base. By this I mean, keep learning about the issues, and don’t let yourself be deterred. Read books, watch documentaries, ask questions, and be sure to not only historically contextualize what you see today but also remember to look at today’s events from different perspectives that question if you see that just and equitable society that you want to live in. It’s important now as well as in the future to keep asking whose interests do certain decisions, statements, policies, etc. serve.

Normalizing Conversations About Mental Illness

The past two weeks, I have been struggling quite a bit. I struggle often when the weather changes, despite all of my cognitive knowledge of how much I LOVE fall. Coincidentally, I just started the birth control pill. I have felt incredibly dejected, tired, and it has been hard to do normal day-to-day actions like get out of bed. I cried at almost anything. Everything felt negative. There was this heavy weight on my chest, as I tried to continue on as normal. Ignoring my emotions made me feel like a fake. I skipped two full days of classes to sleep. I wanted to be alone, as if my condition was contagious. I felt congested with emotion and sadness.

Usually in times like this, I absolutely abhor small talk. I makes me feel as if I’m hiding a large part of myself. I feel disingenuous when I say that I’m “good” or “okay” when someone asks me how I am doing. This time, I have allowed myself to open up. At work, one of my boss’ significant other asked me how I am doing outside of classwork. I initially said that I was good, but then I let myself go. I told him I have been kind of down due to a new medication and the change in season. He told me, “Yeah, I don’t really do well without a lot of sunlight.” I felt calmer and safer just for a moment. This very normal description of Seasonal Depression was refreshing. It fit in all of society’s restrictions on what conversations are acceptable, but it felt so much more honest and open.

Earlier in the week, I took to social media to share with the “close friends” distinction on instagram that I needed some stress relief advice and help with seeking therapy. I received more thoughtful conversation starters than I had anticipated. Friends reached out with their own past and current experiences, and I had productive conversations with them all. They were supportive and uplifting. My partner reached out to me too, just to say that he was proud of me for sharing my struggles with others, saying that, “vulnerability is vulnerability whether it’s in front of thousands or a few.”

While, I am by no means cured, I feel a little fraction of the weight lifted. I felt more open to the idea of help and with the idea of sharing my pain with others. With every interaction, I felt a little bit more of myself. Authenticity and honesty are some of my characteristics that I value in myself. It has meant a great deal to be able to share about my experiences, even the darker ones.

Summer Travels VII. Edinburgh, Scotland

While in Edinburgh, I visited the Royal Mile, Old Town, and spotted the sights where JK Rowling is speculated to have drawn inspiration from for the Harry Potter books.

Both perfectly overcast and small enough not get lost in with professional bagpipe players populating every street corner, Edinburgh indeed had a certain magic to it.

Arthur’s Seat

Located at the end of the Royal Mile, I started to climb up Arthur’s Seat, the remains of an extinct volcano that last erupted 350 million years ago. Some claims say Arthur’s Seat may have been where King Arthur’s legendary castle in Camelot was located whereas others say the name stems from Gaelic to mean “height of Arrows” that may have evolved into Archer’s seat then Arthur’s Seat.

There was a single dirt trail that gradually increased in incline until I reached Arthur’s Seat. It was the same path that led the descent back down. At its highest point, I saw Edinburgh Castle and ultimately a panoramic view of Edinburgh. The winds caught high speeds at Arthur’s Seat, but since it was the summer in Scotland, the temperature was in the 50s-60s.

Summer Travels VI. Ireland: Galway, Dublin, Howth

All in a Day’s worth

Since I was staying in Dublin, I booked a day excursion so that I could see Galway and the Cliffs of Moher.

Galway

Although I was only in Galway, a harbor city located on Ireland’s west coast, for only an hour, I loved it. You could walk the streets where Irish folk musicians and dancers would entertain. You could explore the seemingly endless supply of traditional pubs and shops. You could observe some of the city’s maintenance of medieval city walls. On this bus tour, I even met a Study Abroad advisor Ally and a couple from Texas. It was interesting to see other Americans abroad, as for most of the semester, the amount of Americans in Clermont-Ferrand were sparse.

Cliffs of Moher

Next, I was off to the Cliffs of Moher– Ireland’s most visited attraction, and of course the site of the caves used in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. For some context, ‘Mothar’ (meaning ‘the ruin of a fort’ in old Gaelic) was a ruined fort razed during the Napoleonic Wars (in the early 1800s) to make a signal tower at Hag’s Head. Hag’s Head, located at the southern point of the Cliffs, was strategic because of its peculiar rock formation. The rock formation resembles a woman’s head looking out to sea, thus providing a useful vantage over much of the cliffs.

Walking some of the 5 miles (or 8km as the crow flies) that the Cliffs stretched upon, I could only describe seeing the Cliffs of Moher as witnessing pure beauty unfold before me.

The Cliffs of Moher’s highest point reaches 702 feet (214 m). So it was no surprise that I could see collections of islands and mountains in the distance. Though, I must caution that if you plan to visit the Cliffs, not to get too close to the edge. The Tragic Reality of Deaths at the Cliffs of Moher puts into perspective the dangers that coexist with the breathtaking nature of the Cliffs.

The Irish adore Barack Obama

On the walking tour, I learned about Irish history and their fascination with former President Barack Obama. Obama had only come to Ireland for a day, but 12 hours was all it took. Unsurprisingly, Obama’s ancestry, like most Americans, had been traced back to Ireland. So he traveled up to his distant Irish cousin to share a pint of Guinness.

But this trip would live on beyond the day Obama spent there. On the ride back to Dublin from the Moher cliffs, the day excursion I took stopped at the Barack Obama Plaza in Moneygall who dub themselves the ancestral home of Barack Obama.

The Plaza had authentic Irish food, Michelle and Barack Obama cardboard cutouts, and a museum dedicated to Obama’s visit (complete with the glass of Guinness he drank out of). Finally, my understanding of Ireland’s fascination with Obama had come full circle. Obama, like previously adored US presidents with Irish ancestral roots like JFK and Bill Clinton, were symbols of a Democratic party, strong with immigrant party ideals. But, do those other presidents have such a glorious folk song written about them by the Irish themselves: There’s No One As Irish As Barack O’Bama?

Howth, Ireland

Howth was a cool opportunity to see a bustling fishing village. While there, I walked the Howth Cliff Walk Loop where I saw Howth Summit and Bailey lighthouse. Then I ended the visit with the best fish and chips I’d ever had in a nearby park where several people were doing the same. Just watch out for seabirds like this European herring gull. Albeit being a delight to see, these birds will steal your fish and chips if given the opportunity.

Getting Around All this Time

As a final word, I got the LEAP visitor card when I arrived in Dublin. The LEAP visitor card includes unlimited travel on the DART (train), Dublin Bus, Airlink (to and from the airport), Commuter Rail, Luas, and Go-Ahead Ireland routes in Dublin. The LEAP visitor card is an excellent option if you prefer not to rent a car.

Summer Travels V. Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Landing in Amsterdam, I was surprised to learn that navigating was reasonably straightforward. I knew what to do, and getting lost was a thing of the past.

We took a canal cruise, walking tour, and time to eat their famous dutch pancakes (and fries)! To do something out of the ordinary, we bought tickets for the Amsterdam Dungeon.

The Amsterdam Dungeon provided a fun way to learn about a city’s dark past. The guide took the group through a series of rooms where strange characters exhibited what it would be like in that time in history for that city in a scarily fun manner.


Summer Travels IV: Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

Earlier in June, we stayed with our cousin Micol. This time, we stayed with Micol’s half-brother, who was also our cousin Kim. He picked us up from the airport, and we stayed the night. The next morning we were able to properly meet his wife and kids at breakfast full of Danish pastries. They were kind and intelligent. Although they were Danish, they could speak English and German fluently.

We spent the day exploring different parts of Copenhagen, which were bustling with a steady stream of bicycles at all times. We enjoyed a fresh lunch, ice cream, and beautiful summer weather. I was also able to meet up with my friend Sara who traveled down from Aalborg to see me one last time before I left this side of the world. Before we knew it, Kim was driving us to the airport for our flight to Amsterdam.

Summer Travels III. Greece: Athens, Mykonos

Athens, Greece

Before setting foot in Greece, I thought back to when I was in 3rd grade when we were asked if we could visit anywhere in the world where we would go? I’d made a detailed pop-up book about Greece without hesitation. It was my first conception that there was actually a world beyond where I lived and my own life. Thinking back to this memory made coming to Greece that much more surreal.

I’d also grown up on the Percy Jackson books, and it’s spin-offs. These coupled with my constant interest in Greek mythology and how philosophers would gather at the Roman Agora to learn from each other and teach, as well as marking the birthplace of democracy, made coming to Greece that much more surreal.

The walking tour I got to go on was the best walking tour of the entire trip. Walking through the history and culture dense Athens, I was blown away by the rich history of the city, most of which I proudly already knew, thus skyrocketing my level of appreciation and awe for Athens.

A caveat. Our tour guide pointed out many pickpocketers she’d put in jail who looked more like tourists than I did. We also saw many people running after people who’d pickpocketed them.

Mykonos, Greece

Known as a party island, I don’t think my cousin and I lived up to Mykonos namesake. After traveling nonstop for most of the trip hitherto, it was nice to watch the sunset, relax, and finally get more sleep. Though, we did stay at a hostel. Coincidentally, we ended up in a shared dorm with six other American girls, many of which were solo travelers.

Summer Travels II. Italy: Varese, Milan, Rome

Varese, Italy

We stayed with one of our cousins Micol near Varese, Italy. We’d never met her before, but I’m glad we got to stay with her. I admire that she was kind-hearted and outspoken.

Varese, Italy bordered Switzerland, was equipped with lakes and mountains and had a rich variety of culture and food. We go to line dance with Micol and her friends, eat pizza from a local pizzeria, get gelato and cappuccinos, walk through the local markets, and marvel at Lake Varese’s beauty. 

Milan, Italy

In our day in Milan, we mostly took in the upscaled fashion scene with wide eyes. Though we did buy tickets to go inside the Milan Cathedral, we ended up spending half the day waiting in line. We still had a fun time exploring the crypt, rooftops, and inside, but we wished we’d been able to see more of Milan.

Rome, Italy

Next, we took a train to find ourselves in the beautiful, yet the congested city of Rome. A city of monumental history and architecture. We went on a walking tour where we go to see the Spanish steps, Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum. The next day, we checked out the Vatican City and its museum.

But don’t be mistaken. There were con artists to count, overpriced food, rampant theft on the trams and metros, and unbearable heat. Still, I had the best time in Rome and truly enjoyed everything I got to see and do.

Another Side of Rome

Walking to the bus shuttle to Rome’s airport at 4 am experience wasn’t the best idea. We took a taxi from our Airbnb since public transportation didn’t run until 5:30 am. Since our taxi had dropped us off on the opposite side of where we needed to be, we walked through rows of homeless people that lined every free space of the Roma Termini Train station.

Across the street, the glow of everlasting parties shone in stark contrast to the beaten-down people sleeping soundly, packed like sardines without enough space between them. Just before we made it to the bus station, we came across two guys dragging another guy. Quickly, we rushed to the bus station where we realized the guy being dragged was being mugged in the wee hours of the morning.

Summer Travels I. Barcelona, Spain

In June my cousin, Matt, met me in Spain to travel around countries in Western Europe. So after taking finals and moving out, I took a 14-hour FlixBus stretching from the early evening of June 4th to the morning of June 5th to take me from Clermont-Ferrand, France to Lyon, France, then from Lyon, France to Barcelona, Spain. I was so tired that I forgot my S’well Water Bottle on the bus. RIP. 

From there, I followed Google Map’s walking directions to the city center (Plaça de Catalunya), where my cousin’s airport shuttle bus would drop him off in the evening. To pass the time, I took my time getting there and exploring the center but often stopped so that I could have a break from the backpack on my shoulders.

From the get-go, we were off to a rough start. The next day when we walked close to 20 miles out of excitement (and our Airbnb being located far away from things we wanted to do coupled with getting lost), my feet felt broken for the first two weeks of June to the point where I’d gotten crutches because I couldn’t take a step without a severe limp and pain shooting up my leg. Not the best look to be sporting as a tourist. 

Takeaways from the above experience

  • Invest in good shoes
  • Don’t walk so much
  • Take a free walking tour where you can decide what you pay, explore a city in a group setting, and not get lost for a few hours (bonus: now, you’ll know how to get around)
  • It’s probably worth it to spend more money on closer accommodation
  • Random note related to the picture below: pay attention to the prices because the prices at the market we went to were incredulously high

Unlike the other places we visited throughout June, our experience in Barcelona was tainted by foot pain and related consequences of other travel mishaps. Therefore, I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate Barcelona. Nonetheless, Barcelona was a beautiful place with amazing beaches, architecture, and sights to see.

Auxiliar de Conversación: A Day in the Life

Have you ever considered living in Spain for a year to teach English? Maybe you already applied to work as an auxiliar de conversación in Spain but don’t know what to expect? Here you’ll find a detailed summary of my day as an auxiliar de conversación while employed by the Comunidad de Madrid under the Consejería de Educación e Investigación.

Early Morning

I get up at 6:30 AM and proceed to get ready, eat something and have coffee. I walk a few minutes to the metro stop closest to where I live and catch the metro around 7:45. After moving here I was lucky to find an apartment close to my ideal subway line, so it’s a straight shot to get to the public, non-bilingual high school I was assigned to work at.

Morning Work Schedule

I’m on the metro for around 30 minutes and I get to the high school at 8:20. I start assisting in English classes when school starts at 8:30. In my case, I work with four different teachers in the English department, and the students are between the ages of 12 and 18 years old. The education systems in Spain and the United States are somewhat different, so the particular instituto/secondary school that I work at is a middle and high school combined (this can differ depending on the population of the surrounding area, whether it is a public/private/charter school, etc.).

Learn about the Spanish education system from the organization itself through this old auxiliar guide; see pages 3-7.

Today there is a students’ strike (the exact goal of the “strike” remains unclear to me, but it seems like it was a good reason for the older kids to skip class). There are only 3 students in my first class, so the teacher and I discuss topics for future presentations that I will give. We also pass the time talking about differences between Spanish and American healthcare systems.

I get my materials from the teachers’ lounge and head to class #2 to find that they have an exam today. The teacher tells me that I’m not needed, so I go back to the teachers’ lounge to read until my next class.

Class #3 is made up of about 40% gamberros (hooligans), 60% decent kids. With this particular professor I tend to teach a lot, so I pretty much spend the whole hour yelling over the few kids who won’t shut up; Discipline is very rarely utilized at my assigned school. The students generally pay no attention and the majority don’t have much prior knowledge of English, so it takes 10-15 minutes to explain instructions for the exercises.

Recreo (Recess/Break)

There’s a half hour break between 11:00 and 11:30 AM, so the students run out to the courtyard, screaming and pushing each other. The younger kids eat their bocadillos (sandwiches) and the older ones head to the front of the building to smoke a couple of cigarettes. I tend to go for a walk or grab a small sandwich from the school’s cafeteria.

Afternoon Work Schedule

After the break, as the auxiliar I have an hour assigned to practice English conversation with whichever professor is interested. Although they are sometimes busy grading papers or planning lessons, today I chat with a teacher about current events and about differences between Spanish and American cultures. I help her translate some phrases and better understand English phrasal verbs.

My last class is from 12:30 to 1:30 PM, although, depending on the day of the week, this varies by an hour or two. Because I help with different groups of students every hour of each day (I only have one class repeat twice a week in my schedule), some classes are better than others. Certain days I have mostly “good” classes while a few times a week I help “teach” some extremely difficult students, most of whom are gypsies (which unfortunately coincides with negative stereotypes). Their collective misbehavior – screaming, shouting, moving consistently and sometimes becoming violent – makes me anxious to end my “work day”, which wasn’t even that long to begin with.

Most auxiliares in Spain work between 16 and 22 hours per week and are paid 700 or 1000 euros per month, depending on the region.

I catch the metro around 1:30 and catch up on a TV episode that I downloaded to watch offline. The metro becomes packed as we get closer to Madrid center, but I’m able to spend half the ride in a seat.

After Work

During the afternoon, one of two things usually happens:

1) I go home to eat something, relax for a bit and head back out to teach private English lessons, or

2) I go home to eat something, relax for a longer “bit”, exercise, etc.:

Considering I only got 6 hours of sleep the night before, I contemplate taking a siesta (nap). According to science, the ideal siesta length is 30 minutes, but considering that socializing in Spain doesn’t tend to start before 8:30 PM, it’s difficult to get a full 8 hours of sleep with my job. Most Spaniards hear what time I get up in the morning and gasp in horror. Oh, the luxury of working a nine-to-five…

After I drag myself out of the house, I head to the gym. Despite my restrictive salary, I continue to justify the cost of a gym membership, which is 25 euros per month. Exercising consistently keeps me happier, and it helps me be able to enjoy the endless supply of tapas and cheap wine that Spain has to offer.

Check out my post about some of Spain’s “can’t-miss” foods here.

When I get back from the gym I make a small-ish second lunch for myself. I shower and then either get in touch with family or do some freelance work. While in this job, I’ve also spent a lot more time than I’m willing to admit watching Friends and How I Met Your Mother. As an auxiliar it can be easy to have a seemingly endless amount of free time, but there isn’t a whole lot of extra money to throw around for activities.

Evening

Towards the end of the day I might get together with friends, go to the park, take a walk or call family if I couldn’t catch them earlier. If I’m lucky I’m able to catch a friend or get ahold of my mom. 

___________

So there you have it! As amazing as it can be to live abroad, most of it is just that: living life, similarly to how you would at home, but among new people, in a new place, speaking a new language, etc. It can be overwhelming, but it is definitely an experience that I wish everyone would have – I’ve learned so, so much about myself.

Have you ever lived in a country other than your own? Would you ever consider doing it for a year? Feel free to comment or email me at allisonldooley@gmail.com.

Are you interested in becoming an auxiliar de conversación in Spain? Check out this comprehensive post from Alternative Travelers, which answers common questions such as how to apply, whether you need a TEFL certificate and more.

Disclaimer: Every auxiliar’s experience differs depending on their assigned school’s location, social environment and supervisor involvement.

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