14 December 2010

La vie en rose

I am feeling particularly content this week, even amidst busy concludings and preparings that often accompany the end of a semester and the beginning of a holiday break. Since I last wrote, the strength of my friendships and new connections this year has become abundantly clear, and the bounty of my community has graced my table, my travel, my life.

Even aside from the innumerable things I have to be thankful for, Thanksgiving was a momentous occasion in itself. Luz and Anna let me decorate the apartment with hand-made turkeys, cornucopia baskets, and feather headbands as part of the preparation for the ultimate cooking marathon and Thanksgiving dinner. The menu chalked on our kitchen wall read: crispy mashed potatoes, whole wheat rolls, spicy pear crumble, sweet corn, squash soup, pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, sweet potato biscuits, baked mac and cheese, stuffing, green beans in lemon sauce, and finally turkey, which I purchased direct from my favorite Mercat de Sant Antoni. It’s rare that I cook meat at all, let alone an entire bird, and believe me it was an exciting experiment (highly successful, I’d say). Around this full table we gathered: friends, classmates, and roommates, each thankful for numerous blessings. It was truly a fantastic occasion.

Then I burrowed through a few days of class before the long weekend. No, I didn’t have Thanksgiving Day off to cook all that menu, and I even had class until 9pm when the cena began. But I made up for it when good fortune (and scheduling) extended my long weekend into a week-long break. From 1-9 December I took a break from Barcelona and returned to my native land. Or was it just France? So many things feel so comfortably familiar in that land of berets and baguettes that I was nearly overwhelmed by nostalgia. Or was it just the chocolate croissants I managed to eat every day? Returning to such familiar territory felt like living la vie en rose. Or rather, returning to the open arms of some dear friends in France made my stay rosy and cozy.

In any case, I spent most of the break in Paris, metro-ing across town to see museums and expositions. Ana, a Spaniard who spent last year teaching in the same language assistant program, had never visited the Musée d’Orsay, and so we spent an afternoon in the remodeled train station enjoying the Impressionists. I caught a fantastic Monet exhibit in le Grand Palais, with nearly 200 paintings gathered from all over the world, the likes of which I will probably never see again. One impressive pairing was the side-by-side paintings of the British Parliament, painted by Monet twenty years apart with the entire evolution of Impressionism between them. It must have been a Monet week, because I also made it to the Musée Marmottan on the west side of the city to see another collection of his. In between I went to the Arab World Institute, the Musée Carnavalet of the history of Paris, and the Catacombs. Few people realize just how many tunnels and old quarries lie underneath Paris, who knows how many of them filled with bones from the 18th century when a large city cemetery was emptied. I have now seen much of Paris from many angles…but there’s always so much more to discover.

But my heart still lies in Alsace, and I was thrilled to be able to visit Strasbourg this December during the Christmas market. I acted as guide for a French friend who had never visited the city, and the light snow that whisked our train away from Paris brought us east to the sunshine.

We visited my old haunts, my favorite picturesque Strasbourg sites, the neighborhood where I lived, and all along the way I remembered moments of my life there. Not all painless, but all meaningful. It was enchanting.

Back in Barcelona now, my nose to the grindstone. Two projects and an exam down, three projects to go. And Sunday looming with its flight home into the arms of my family to celebrate Christmas. I could not be more excited!

23 November 2010

Life Doesn't Settle Down

Routine is hopeless. Just as life is becoming less busy, it becomes more intense. My Spanish courses have ended, but my roommates decided it is time for me to learn Catalan and insist that I become accustomed to common phrases now to begin full immersion in January. Although I would like to understand Catalan and to have more exposure to specific Catalunyan traditions and history, I keep begging for more time to improve my Spanish. They argue it’s quite sufficient.

Of course, they’re right on both points, and the policy holds for all immigrants: Catalan helps integration and Spanish acquisition is nearly unavoidable given its omnipresence. I have some examples to illustrate these points. This weekend I returned to the Girona country villa where I was invited to celebrate Luz’s birthday, again with the group of friends who gathered for the cena two weeks ago. The ambiance had changed, as everyone had just seen each other recently, and perhaps my attitude had also changed. I was quicker to connect with individuals, who also made more efforts to address me directly in Spanish, and the topics of group conversation in Catalan seemed more accessible. I found I could get the gist, and I was more willing to interrupt to confirm and comment. We had a great time! I had read and worked all day in front of the woodstove and enjoyed relaxing in the evening in the amazing facilities Luz’s house affords: bar, group dining room, and dormitory with bunk beds. You can host great get-togethers when you live in a retreat center! The weather was beautiful, full moon included, and in the morning some people went mushroom hunting while others visited the horses…and of course we all cleaned up. I can’t overstate how nice it is to get out of the city.

Then yesterday I had occasion to prove my Spanish competence, despite ignorance of complicated grammar. I presented solo at the meeting of Rotary Club Barcelona Mar, which gathers every Monday in a beautiful hotel on La Rambla. Lunch was divine and the presentation was more an exchange that incited some interesting discussion about immigration, languages, politics, and economics. I was thrilled to connect so well with them, and they declared me a “guest of honor” and invited me to their Christmas dinner in a few weeks. Here is a photo of the cheery group:

As I mentioned at the beginning, routine is impossible. I finish two classes this week and enter into preparations for final projects, due in a few weeks. Most deal with designing studies or testing a certain instrument or method of analysis. In the meantime, I start a new class on content-integrated language teaching, for example teaching math in a foreign language. And also in the meantime, I’m using a long weekend to travel to France and visit old friends and old cities.

16 November 2010

Friends and Visiting

One thing I love about life here is the endless cause for celebration. So far not a week has passed without festivities, whether in the region, the city, or our apartment. I arrived during the Festival of the Mercè, metro’ed through film and now music festivals, blended Halloween with the Catalan chestnut holiday, and am preparing to host a Thanksgiving meal next week. Last week, my festivities revolved around visits from friends from around Europe, including an Australian road-tripping from Spain to France with a German and a Breton who also happens to be my banker. With these friends from my years studying in Strasbourg and teaching in Pontivy, I revisited all the Barcelona sites: Gaudi’s Park Guell, the beach, Montjuic’s fortress, the Gothic Quarter, and the lively Boqueria market. I’ve included a selection of photos for your enjoyment.

On Sunday we even ventured out of the city to the famous pilgrimage site of Montserrat, home to the Moreneta or Black Madonna. The monastery is built into the mountainside, supposedly around the Moreneta statue because it could not be moved, and we enjoyed hiking around on some mountain trails with amazing valley views. There were a stupendous number of tourists and so it was difficult to appreciate the legendary holiness of the site, but easy to appreciate the natural beauty.

This weekend I was also invited to present at a meeting of Barcelona Rotaract, which is a young adult version of the Rotary club. We met outside of town in Castelldefels, a beautiful beachside suburb where we had a picnic lunch meeting. The group is incredibly welcoming and has an international flavor: only one member is actually from Spain, and the rest come from South America, Russia, and France. For those of you from Michigan, never fear, I taught them all how to locate Grand Rapids using their hand as a map!

This week holds much work and study, catching up from last week’s distractions. My Spanish courses are coming to an end, and I’m looking for a language exchange to take its place, along with cultural activities sponsored by the University and possibly a gym membership. It’s about time to move on from the adjustment phase and settle into a routine, I think.

08 November 2010

Weekend in Girona

After some weeks of getting to know Barcelona, this fantastic city where I live, I had the opportunity this past weekend to venture out to the city of Girona. My roommates, both from this town located one and a half hours by train north of Barcelona, invited me for the town festival. I could compare it in some ways to a county fair: there were carnival rides and games, concerts, and food booths selling all sorts of regional goodies. There were no animals or competitions, but the festivities lasted much later into the night and morning.

On Friday I went with my roommate Luz to her house in the valley of the Llémena, a stream that flows down into Girona. Through my young American eyes, her house looks like a mix between Italian villa and medieval manor. In fact, “Can Sala,” belonging to the Señor Sala, was built around 1100. The latest addition to the house was built in 1773, and all has been renovated extensively by Luz’s family. They have turned it into a magnificent mountain retreat center called CEL, Centre Ecològic Llémena and Catalan for “heaven.” The family manages an organic and natural foods brand, bioSpirit, and the house has a shop, restaurant facilities, and guestrooms. I loved spending a sunny fall day in the countryside in such a beautiful setting, visiting the horses, swinging in a hammock on the balcony, reading on the sunny patio with the cats, and exploring this grand house. I hope I’ve made a good impression and will be invited back!

After a relaxing day, we returned to Girona on Saturday evening for a friend-guided tour of the city. Girona began as an Iberian city, expanded later by the Romans, inhabited by the Visigoths, conquered by the Moors and then Charlemagne before being incorporated into Spain. Most tourists come to Girona to see the “Call” or Jewish quarter, a cramped but beautiful cobblestone neighborhood that reflects the flourishing community that was then deported during the 15th century Inquisition. We also walked along the city walls, strong fortifications that protected Girona during many sieges. Part of the tour took us through the festival food booths, where I tasted local cheeses, sausages, sauces, candied almonds and roasted chestnuts.

My roommates, back in their hometown, had organized a cena (late dinner) for everyone to get together. The restaurant was located in the old part of the city, so the ambiance of stone walls and wooden beams was magical, but something about the evening gave me a new perspective on the very subject I came here to study: multilingualism. These friends, like most youth in Catalunya, speak Catalan amongst themselves. This shows a strong resurgence of a once-banned regional language which is now used across Catalan society. The same youth also learn Spanish, both through bilingual schooling and its use as a community language.

At this cena, I was the outsider in all senses, but this time I was limited by my nonexistent Catalan instead of intermediate Spanish. At first, friends were careful and spoke mostly in Spanish, and it wasn’t until later that I realized how awkward this was for the group. I had assumed using a common language with people who speak it natively would be a smooth transition, forgetting that sustained interactions usually fall into one language, and clearly in this instance that language was Catalan. I spent the last hour of the meal barely catching the gist of the conversation, much less jokes and references to other friends I didn’t know.

It was frustrating to come face to face with a situation that I have often argued against: language as a barrier instead of a bridge. Through experiences and research and writing, I have maintained that the beauty of linguistic diversity is people’s capacity for multilingualism. But there I was unable to integrate into this multilingual group because of their natural preference for Catalan. I understand the context, the tendencies, even the absentmindedness, but I was at a loss for how to address the situation. How often can you interrupt to politely remind people of your own linguistic limitations?

Tonight in class I’m going to check with some of my Catalan classmates for their perspective on this situation, how they would address it, and how it interacts with the concept of Catalan identity and history. Not to mention how they think I should address it! And then next semester I’m starting Catalan courses!

25 October 2010

Late News

Due to an extremely unfortunate two-week internet outage in my apartment, I have not been able to upload this post from 10 October until now. Enjoy a little belated update:

Today it’s raining in Barcelona, the first time a shining blue sky has not greeted me. I’m ready to stay inside, though, since I have a lot of class reading to work on. My four classes for the next several weeks are Bilingualism and Multilingualism, Research Methods, Tools for Quantitative Analysis (statistics), and Crosslinguistic Influence. Most require me to read and comment on articles in the field of second language acquisition, and some will involve projects like reporting on the linguistic profile of my home country, designing a research project in bilingual studies, and using a data analysis program.
I also began Spanish classes on Wednesday, taking a forty-hour intensive that puts me with other international students. It’s a helpful forum for asking grammatical questions that bug me in my everyday speech, the equivalent of asking the difference between since and as. My Spanish is functional and even better sometimes, but the classes will help me with vocabulary, comprehension, and definitely the subjunctive verb tense. (In English this would be, “If I were you…” and in Spanish it’s rampant.)
Although I just began classes, this weekend is a welcome five-day breather. Tuesday is a national holiday celebrating Spanish culture, although it seems some nationalist groups abuse the day to downplay regional cultures, a very contentious issue here in Catalunya. Many of the customs we think of as Spanish, such as flamenco dancing, bull-fighting, and ¡Olé! in fact reference Madrid’s Aragón and southern Andalucia. They’re not indigenous to Catalunya, whose regional dance is called sardanas and involves circles of hand-holding jiggers. The Sunday I visited Park Güell, I met some on the Passeig de Sant Joan. Another Catalunyan tradition is castellers, or human pyramids, which I have yet to happen upon.
Speaking of traditions, the Rotary clubs in the Barcelona district have a spectacular fundraising tradition for Rotary’s campaign to eradicate polio worldwide. Every year, the clubs have a blind tasting of cava, Catalunyan sparkling wine. The winner boasts the Rotary symbol, and a euro from each bottle sold is donated to the campaign. Last year the district raised over 13,000 euros from sales, and this year’s winner was announced on Friday at the reception and check-presentation ceremony. We four scholars in the district were invited to attend and enjoyed cava, pan amb tomate (bread rubbed with tomato and salted, also a Catalunyan specialty), and smoked ham jamón serrano while meeting the district governor and young Rotarians.
And from today, 25 October:
Last weekend I was fortunate enough to go to Berlin for the wedding of Susi and Nathan, two dear friends of mine. Susi taught German last year in the same high school in Brittany where I worked. Nathan is originally from Virginia and writes, plays, produces and records music. He sang a song he wrote for Susi at the reception, then we danced the night away to the 80's music most Germans adore. Also during the weekend I visited the German History Museum and its new exhibit on Hitler and German society, which portrays the build-up of Hitler's persona as an expression of societal desires of the time. Sunday was a perfect fall day to spend in Berlin's largest park, visiting segments of the Berlin wall, and eating a warm and filling German dinner. And now, back to Barcelona.

05 October 2010

A Spanish Life

Since many of you have not visited Barcelona, you may wonder what daily life is like here. Although my life as a foreigner and student may differ from that of most working Spaniards, this week is my best chance to establish a routine. For those of you who have followed my writing some, it might also be helpful for me to compare life here with other places I’ve lived abroad.

First let’s talk schedules. It’s true that if you live as Spaniards do, you will burn the candle at both ends—and rarely does the post-lunch pause actually mean having a siesta. Some stores open at 8:00am, most at 9:00, and some university offices at 10:00. I’ve heard of workers taking breaks for breakfast while at work, although I don’t know how common this is, although coffee breaks are rampant. Shops stay open until 2:00pm, and generally this is the most productive part of the day. Whether it’s for enrollment, bureaucracy, or shopping, my errands aim for the morning. Then I return home at 3:00 for la comida, the main meal of the day. My roommates, two wonderful Spanish girls, usually return home from classes at this point and we eat heartily and leave the table slowly. Businesses then reopen at 4:00 and most stay open until 8:00. I have evening classes between 6:00 and 9:00, and then I make the twenty minute walk back home to eat la cena, a lighter dinner meal, sometimes leftovers. We gradually move from eating to talking to homework for the rest of the evening, and bedtimes are late. World-renowned Spanish nightlife doesn’t start until midnight and often ends around 6:00am, when everyone comes back to have churros con chocolate. On Sundays stores stay closed and everyone takes a paseo, a stroll, around the parks and down the popular avenues.

As for language, I’m learning. People speak both Castilian Spanish and Catalan, a similar Latin-based language that has made a significant comeback since it was outlawed under the dictatorship of Franco, 1936-1975. In comparison with my past observations of Alsatian and Breton, regional languages in France, the regional language here has retained and even cemented its role in administration, education, and media. Public schools teach only Catalan and classes at the university may be offered in both languages; if you don’t speak it, Catalan language classes are offered free of charge. My roommates speak to each other and their friends in Catalan, so I’m looking forward to taking classes at the end of this semester. For now I’m focusing on Spanish, although all my Masters courses are taught in English. Although I’m not aiming for total immersion as I did while studying in Strasbourg, language intensives will help me move beyond the functional Spanish I speak now. Classes start tomorrow, 11:30am-1:00pm.

School and home life: I live much now as I did last year in Pontivy, France. It’s an academic life, with all the benefits of the academic schedule and calendar. I love being back in the student seat and thoroughly enjoy the Masters cohort I’ve fallen in with: Spanish students, young multilinguals from Belgium, Finnish-Brazilian couples, two culture kids, and a few of us Anglophones. My class last night on bilingualism could not have benefited more from this mixture, debating questions like: What is a mother tongue? What counts as bilingual? Do balanced bilinguals exist? What is “native speakerness,” and until what age can it be acquired? How is what you speak associated with who you’re speaking to, where, when, and why? I love being a part of these discussions. And then I come home to a living language lab! I question my roommates relentlessly about their Catalan, education, use, words, and more. I would love to study how reinforcing Catalan has affected speakers’ knowledge of Spanish and their use of both languages. The city is like a never-ending experiment rolled out before me, day after sunny day.

That’s why I came to Barcelona.

02 October 2010


I have been in Barcelona for one week now, and what a long week it has been. First, let me tell you of my arrival: I have worn out my beginner’s luck with travel. On the flight from Chicago to London, one of the passengers became very sick (in fact was having a heart attack) and we changed routes and landed in Boston to have him hospitalized. The delay caused me to miss my connecting flight in London, which may have been the most ill-timed mishap in all of flying history. Usually there are several flights daily to Barcelona from Heathrow airport, but I happened to be flying on day 7 of a French air traffic control strike. Ah the French, I think of them constantly. And I thought of them constantly during eleven hours of being on standby in Heathrow, hoping for just one flight to go through with a seat for me. I finally boarded a flight at 7pm, arriving Barcelona at 11pm, glad to be in Spain…but without my bag.

I logged my missed bag and made it to my hostel. Fortunately I was staying at the hostel where I had stayed a few years ago, so I knew my way around and was glad to see a familiar place. The staff were extremely helpful, but informed me that since the next day was a holiday (the festival of the Mercè, Barcelona’s patron saint), all the shops would be closed. So here’s to living out of a carry on bag! My bag did show up the following evening, late, and fortunately that day I’d made contact with Natalie, another Rotary scholar from Texas.

I stayed on Natalie’s couch for a few days while letting her show me around, help me get a phone, and look at apartments. Can I say she has become my patron saint? We also went out to some of the performance stages, because really the Mercè is a great time to arrive in Barcelona. And the weather has been beautiful, sunny and 70-75 degrees.

On Sunday I visited an apartment rented by Anna and Luz, two girls from Girona (a town an hour outside Barcelona) who are studying here and who just moved in themselves. Something about their new paint job (my room has a bright lime green wall) and friendly faces drew me in, and I came back later that day for la cena. La cena is dinner, but eaten later around 9 or 10pm, and is a lighter meal than la comida, the midday meal around 3pm. I really enjoyed their company and have ever since Tuesday when I moved in.

Since then it has been a whirlwind of paperwork and visits. All of my documents are in to the Universitat de Barcelona, waiting for the Rector’s final approval. On Monday I had a meeting for my masters program (Applied Linguistics and Language Acquisition in Multilingual Contexts) and am deciding which electives to choose so I can register next week when classes begin. I am now an official resident of Barcelona, although I need one more paper to go wait at the foreigners’ office to become an official year-long visitor to Spain. I’ve visited several of Barcelona’s main attractions, taking advantage of my free time this week. One of the attractions happens to be my university:

And today I attended my first event with my host Rotary club, arriving just in time for the district’s group meal out at a farm in the countryside. It felt great to leave the city and see the mountains, meet my Rotary sponsor Pilar and other members of the local club. I’m excited to present at a club meeting, which should be coming up here soon.

03 September 2010


I would like to re-introduce myself to the blogosphere this year as Colleen, Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar to Barcelona, Spain from North Manchester, Indiana.
I will be enrolled in a Masters program in language education from October until June 2011. The title of the program is Applied Linguistics and Language Acquisition in Multilingual Contexts, and every one of those words gets me excited!
All the paperwork is through and I'm nearly ready for my departure on 22 September. Now, just to find an apartment or host family.
Thank you to all the folks, especially the North Manchester Rotary, who encouraged me to pursue this opportunity and helped me along the way. I look forward to blogging often and hearing from you in return.

11 March 2010

Reprise and Recovery

Last week was a downer, and I will never forgive March. I mean depressing, discouraging, disappointing, a real down-right downer. The kind they make movies out of, because in the end all you can do is gather all your woes together (provided they are not too serious) and pour them into a bottle of a wine with a friend. Everyone laughs at the end of a bottle of wine shared around common frustrations.

It all began with the heat. Again, you say? Yes, and you will say again again before long. When I arrived chez moi after a difficult return journey on Sunday the 28th, I found the heater had gone on strike, as anything French is wont to do. Conditions have been worse in the apartment, if you will recall my return from Christmas break to an unheated apartment and sluggish heater. By comparison, that story ended happily. Last week’s saga ended with a reprimand from the gas company, who argued we had never paid our bills, neglecting the fact that we have yet to receive a single one. Although using utilities for six months without paying may seem odd, it does fall into the venerable tradition of colossal French paperwork and goes the way of, say, my housing assistance.

On Monday morning, still without heat, I awoke to a dear FedEx package that cost me a hefty price to receive. But I was grateful, seeing as a second package that had been delivered just after my departure could no longer be found by the Poste. They are still looking.

But this was a minor sum compared to the large charge sitting on my account from the phone company. I had settled my grievances with Orange and graciously pardoned them last month, when for all my troubles I was finally reimbursed, and then some. Well, the “and then some” is now the problem, as Orange has figured that it over-reimbursed me, and now has over-billed us. Since I am now an expert in French phone negotiations, I decided to try a new tactic to widen my repertoire. After eliciting the service rep’s sympathy for our six months of entanglements, I mentioned that I was “on the verge of cancelling the contract because I have no confidence that next month’s bill will be correct.” And you know what, it worked! I was offered a pitiable sum to pacify my concerns—enough to cover next month’s payment to Orange.

Also, bad news came from the Académie: our request to change our end-of-April work schedules was denied. Since a two-week spring break cuts April in half, leaving just one of week of work before the end of our contracts, we thought it would be wise and reasonable to make up the twelve hours beforehand. The idea of leaving in five weeks had become very appealing these last two months, as I slowly realize the futility and dissatisfactory nature of my work here. Simply put, I have never worked a full week; I have never been asked to coordinate my activities with teachers; and I have never received further training or supervision. I don’t seem wanted or needed here. To be required to return, for (possibly) twelve hours of work, out of petty propriety, is infuriating.

And to top things off, I received notice from the McGill Masters in Linguistics program that I have not been accepted. That took a few days to sink in. To quote a dear friend of mine: “Are you sure you read that right? They must have their heads up their bums. Christ, what are they looking for?” Let’s not dwell on it: the next step is to get my Rotary scholarship reassigned to another institution, and the four I’ve submitted are two public universities in Montreal, one in Brussels, and one in Barcelona. I most like the program in Barcelona, but I would be happy in any, and I imagine Rotary would prefer to keep me in the same country as the original institution. I’ll keep you updated.

As if to bring me from the depths of defeat into the realm of psychotic irony, the CAF finally granted me my housing assistance. I guess they just ran out of excuses for delaying. It’s retroactive and covers a good majority of my housing expenses from October to February. I receive 154 euros per month towards my rent, and although I am exceedingly grateful for this help, my question for the CAF is this: and what if I hadn't had the funds to wait six months?

Questions better left unasked. Like why can't one week just go as expected? Bills become routine instead of tribulations? One bureaucrat be organized and knowledgeable and sympathetic? Coworkers be more welcoming? And my favorite, What if I just don't like teaching?