girl goes guiri

Is my blog.

Addressing my Hanging Chad


Boy, did I ever give up on this thing.

It’s kind of funny how you can be totally committed to something one minute and it can become the bane of your existence the next. Okay, that was a bit dramatic. Blog writing didn’t become the bane of my existence. But around the time of my last few posts I was becoming increasingly aware of how much time I was putting into the maintenance and quality of this little bugger, and how little time I was putting into existing as a human outside of my computer.

When I last wrote, a little over three months ago, blogging felt vital. At that time, I was generally liking how things were going in Spain, but I was still observing life in Madrid as an outsider. I felt the need to reflect on my experiences in a concrete way in order to make sense of what was happening around me. I was still so overwhelmed by my surroundings that I think I actually needed to catalog my experiences in order to process them.

Cataloging felt good for a while, but then it began to feel constricting. I started to worry about the uncomfortable blood-shot eyes and runny nose that came weekly from waiting up all night for people back home to read what I had written. The combination of loneliness and perfectionism made my first foray into the world of blog writing unhealthily all-consuming. This was the way I was connecting with the people I love, and I became obsessive about maintaining those connections. Pretty intense for a dumb blog, wouldn’t you say?

This was supposed to be a fun exercise. And it was supposed to be easy. But I didn’t read much as a kid and my vocabulary and grammar are shits because of it. So pushing out anything worth publishing took time and consideration and a certain meticulousness that was supposed to have been left home in Toronto.

I decided to take a week or two off or, rather, I forced myself to stay away from my computer for a little while. I planned to take some space, gain some perspective on how insignificant this thing is, and come back a more relaxed and natural writer. Instead, I guess I just stopped.

At first I thought I was just too busy to put anything down on the page. I had a few visitors pass through- first some old friends from London, and then my parents- and those days were so packed full that I needed the following weeks and weekends just to play catch up on the life I had started to develop here.

Then when things settled back to normal I told myself I wasn’t allowed to spend time on the blog unless I actively spent time studying Spanish. Preventing myself from writing because I was being lazy about my Spanish was fooolish- I have never been much of a studier nor am I particularly self-disciplined (por ejemplo: my two and a half decades of nail biting) and I have not picked up a book to study Spanish since the weather became too cold to comfortably sit outside for more than 20 minutes.

I think I was okay with studying in the summer because it was hot and gorgeous and I had a pretty successful reward system going on with myself. Getting in an hour of studying per day was easy as long as I had the pleasure of people-watching and sun tanning while doing it. In the summer I could prepare myself for an afternoon of “studying” knowing that 80% of my time would be spent watching people make out in Retiro or by the Palacio Real.

But it’s for real cold here now and when I try to use a winter-friendly reward system with my own brain, I fail. The part of my brain I’m trying to trick usually tells me to eff-off and consumes the reward anyway. I’ve eaten a lot of candy, read a lot of Game of Thrones, and watched a lot of TV because of this. Actually so much TV that the other day I went shopping and found myself unconsciously selecting shirts and dresses that looked like the outfits on Downton Abbey. I kept trying to figure out why everything I liked on hangers looked ridiculous on my body until I realized what I had been drawn to and had to face the reality that Mary Crawley wears corsets and doesn’t have any boobs.

It's winter in Madrid

It’s winter in Madrid!

So, since my Spanish studying was at an all time low, and I had told myself I didn’t “get” to blog unless I studied Spanish first, my regular posting ceased. I put the get in quotation marks because what really happened was I fabricated a perfect excuse for myself for not updating. It made sense in my head that Spanish should come first and I felt less guilty about not writing by telling myself it was for my own punishment.

The truth is, at some point, both blogging and studying Spanish switched from being exciting pieces of my adventures in Spain to chores that were getting in the way of my having any. Giving them up for a while relieved this pressure and allowed me to actually find my niche here.

For about a month I was relieved not to have anything to put my brain into. But then, around the time my parents came to visit, I felt inclined to write again and just couldn’t. It wasn’t a writer’s block or anything- I started keeping notes of interesting things that might be post-worthy- but almost overnight had no idea how to fit writing into my life.

As it happens, I followed the same pattern with writing on the regular as I do with trying to make a habit of working out. Sometimes I can get myself really into it and make it a totally significant part of my weekly routine but then I stop for whatever reason- maybe a bad cold, a boyfriend, a preference for going out for nachos over yoga class- and have no idea how to reintegrate it. I tend to give up exercise for months at a time until my body hurts enough for me to see no option but to start again. I suppose that’s the feeling I’m having today as I write this. Though for the last few months it has felt impossible to fit writing into my day-to-day, I’ve more recently felt an uncomfortable stiffness in my fingers that has led to no option other than forcing writing’s reintegration.

I’m not sure if I’m going to write much more, but I felt inclined to write this if only for my own piece of mind. The thought of it being 5 years from now and me going “oh hey, remember that time I wrote a bit?” and then looking online and finding a half-finished account of my experience made me feel uncomfortable and a bit like a quitter. Putting something up publicly is such a weird thing as it is and I just didn’t want it to look, even to myself, like I had disappeared.

So now this post exists and if it ends up being my last, cool beans. I’m satisfied, my fingers don’t hurt, and I can cross it off the things I have to do if I decide that’s what I want. Kind of like with working out though, I actually hope I don’t want to cross blogin’ off for good. It’s a good way to be reflective and it challenges me more than it probably should. In any case, whether I’m up for this kind of challenge in the future or not, at least now I can hit the publish button and feel guilt-free.


Music, Food and Good Humans

After my mopy post from a few weeks back I decided to take a week off blogging. Things just got a bit too womp womp for me, and I felt like sitting in front of the computer for three hours writing about my feelings wasn’t the best way to get over my funk. Just like staying at home in the evenings in order to skype with family or friends (as much as I love it) keeps me from experiencing the things there are to experience here, sometimes I think I use the blog and my self-imposed obligation to update it as a way to hide from real life. I must have been doing more hiding than I realized because, though the first month and a bit in Madrid were filled with wandering and excitement, the last month was starting to feel a bit stagnant… Not a great thing to notice after only two and a half months of living in a new place so clearly it was time to get out of my apartment.

The last two weeks have been rejuvenating. I’ve done some of my favourite things to do but in Madridish ways and am finally feeling awake after a sleepy return to Madrid post Portugal. I’ve thrown myself into lots of music, food and good company, which have collectively helped me to like it here again.

Early on in my trip I promised myself I would see lots of music, but it has been difficult for me to find small-scale shows since 99% of music advertisements are written exclusively in Spanish. Thank goodness for people who are more in the know than I am because last week I was able to see three completely different shows in eight days. And this week my roommate brought me home a magazine with all the concert listings in October so from here on in I should be set.

The first concert I went to was Latin jazz at Sala Clamores, an old-school cabaret style venue where you sit at a reserved table and can actually feel confident the show is going to start on time. We saw The Jerry Gonzalez Band (That link was pretty much exclusively for the benefit of the Finestone family. Shout out!) from a delightfully centered second row table. I probably understood this show the least of the three- Jazz is way hard to follow- but I still enjoyed the music enough to inspire a week of concert-going.

Jerry Gonzalez jazzing-out

The second show was the kind of music I truly love. Two guys, one on guitar and one on his voice, singing blues in the basement of a café slash bookshop. I don’t remember the name of the band or if the band even had a name. The crowd at this concert capped at 40 people and most of us sat on the floor drinking beers and munching on free chorizo and crackers. I felt like I had stumbled upon an intimate house party with really good hosts. For an hour and a half every single person in that basement was my best friend. The music wasn’t even the greatest- the guitarist was impressive but the guy singing had a really funny and performative way of attacking the blues- but it didn’t matter because the atmosphere was fabulous. The singer’s pseudo-suckiness all the more made it feel like I was there to support a struggling artist friend.

A real legit concert in a basement

The third show could have been a guiri guilty pleasure but a Spanish friend took me so I have no guilt whatsoever. We saw a flamenco performance in the city centre that had me dangerously close to tears and literally stopped my breathing. My Spanish tutor would respond to that last sentence with “Queeeeee dramaaaaatica, Lauren” but my description is truthful and he uses that sentence much too much for my liking anyways. The dancing was intense and the singer was strong and raw and the combination fully punched me in the stomach. Oooff. Flamenco. Into it.

This lady won whatever there was to win for sure

In addition to regular concert going, I have really been missing two of my favourite weekly Toronto food events- Saturday night dinner and Sunday brunch. Fortunately last Sunday I was able to fill their void with a 2 in 1 Sunday foodfest extravaganza.  We were supposed to be making lunch at a friends house but when plans fell through I jumped on the chance to have people over. I really really missed cooking for people and, just like in Toronto, it was nice to be able to squish too many people into my tiny kitchen for some yummys. Since my oven here isn’t the greatest and my stove is small, I proposed a sushi-making party. All I had to do was prep the fillings and everyone helped out with the assembly.

From this angle it kind of sort of looks like I have enough room in my kitchen to comfortably fit this many people.

Here you can see that we are smushed. COMFORTABLY smushed!

I LOVE Sunday lunches in Spain. They aren’t ever just lunches, but full day events of eating and lazing and conversing until we’re hungry again and ready to do something for dinner. My foodfest extravaganza was no different and lunch lasted ten hours.

Before dinner, the few remaining stragglers and I went for a walk around the neighbourhood. My friend Riqui used to live close by and he showed me where to do all sorts of good eating and exploring. I’m an idiot and apparently have been spending the last two months wandering in the wrong direction of my apartment. It turns out my neighbourhood is awesome. And it turns out there’s a real-deal indoor market 5 blocks away.

Now that I’ve discovered said market and the impressive ham shop within it, my mostly successful- let’s say 95% successful- vegetarian diet is in serious jeopardy. My first day at the market, I ordered 100 grams of a good-ish quality jamon Iberico and the guy misheard me and gave me 150. My Spanish is not at the point of correcting these moments of miscommunication so I just went with it (7 euros later… that’s a lot on ham I think). I accidentally ate this ham in one day and had to return the next day for more. This time I was given 200 instead of 100 grams and you know how the story ends. My chest only hurts a little bit from the salt overload. My hope is that I’ll out-pork myself in a week or so and then be able to return to being nice to my stomach. Then again, I mentioned chorizo earlier on in this post so maybe I’ll just be okay with my 5% margin of error.

This Sunday I continued my few weeks of good food and good company by spending a day wandering El Rastro- a ginormous market that happens here every Sunday- and sitting down for an eight euro Indian lunch feast in Lavapies. Recall the street party? That place but in the daytime… it’s basically a district of Indian restaurants. Apparently Spanish people don’t have much taste for spice so, consequently, Indian restaurants here have a bizarre tendency to cut through delicious spiciness with heaps of sugar. One must be careful, as this can be extremely nasty. My dining companion quickly requested our food “Mas picante de ketchup” (More spicy than ketchup) which was a hilarious way to ensure our waiter was on our side and our food was authentic tasting.

Throw all these great sensory experiences together and I’m feeling a whole lot better than I was a few weeks ago. I recognize this was a bit more of a “the things I did in Spain” post than I normally put out, but I thought I owed it to my bummy self from a few weeks past to highlight some of things that continue to make Madrid exciting. I think it’s important to both seek out experiences I could enjoy in any context so that I have a sense of normalcy and be open to all those experiences that make living here so unique. My first month and a bit were filled with the unique, the last little bit was filled with maybe too much normalcy, but I think I might be starting to find the balance.

I would yes please like some cheese with my whine

“After all, one cant complain. I have my friends. Somebody spoke to me only yesterday. And was it last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said Bother!”

I had a bit of a moment this weekend and was really missing home. I’m very aware that part of this whole process is accepting that some days are going to be crappier than others but that doesn’t make it any easier to force myself out of my apartment on days when I just want to hide from the life of a solo traveler. I’ve shared a lot about what I’ve loved here, and a bunch about the things that have been challenging with positive outcomes, but since I’m climbing out of feeling in a funk for the last few days, today I offer you a giant slice of cake from my pity-party.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve befriend a group of really great Spanish people, but maybe haven’t talked a whole lot about the continuation of these friendships since we first met at Matadero. The night I went to Matadero, two weeks into my move to Madrid, really was a lucky one. I connected with a few people, which led to connecting with more people and so on so forth. I’m actually starting to feel like I have a social circle in Madrid, which feels unexpected. Of course I thought I would make friends while I’m here, and hoped to establish strong relationships with at least a few them, but at least in recent memory feeling part of a group has been a bit foreign to me. Not that I have purposely avoided being in a group or anything, I just tend to gravitate towards one:one relationships. I think it is a comfort thing more than it is a choice thing- I just feel safer spending my time with people who know me really really well and vise versa.

If I am being totally honest, I can be reluctant to meet new people. I fear awkward silences (take that, two years of social work training!) and am shitty at asking people questions about trivial things (thank you, two years of social work training!). Consequently, when I do meet new people, I’m usually pretty anxious about coming off as too intense. A duh. Building intimate friendships takes time and taking steps towards feeling comfortable with new people and acquaintances was a major goal for me in this move.  I’ve been getting a lot of practice, and I do see an increase of my general “friendliness” and a decrease in my general “hide in my apartmentness,” but that doesn’t mean I’m not feeling the effort it takes to constantly push myself outside of my comfort zone.

I feel really lucky to have met a bunch of different people in a bunch of different settings since moving here. But now I’m at the point where I’m looking to move forward in these relationships, and am hoping to get to know people better and share more of myself with them. What’s been difficult is that I lack the language skills to communicate with people beyond what I would share with a new person or casual acquaintance. So now I find myself stuck on the surface or obliging other people to speak with me in English. I know some people don’t mind doing it but I hate when people think I’m not trying, and I have a lot of guilt about asking a bunch of native-speakers to give up their norm in order to convenience me.

If I were to walk into a religious building I would expect to accommodate whatever the social norm might be and would, for example, cover myself up. I would never ask someone in a this context to be okay with my wearing a tank top and shorts or, worse, ask someone to change their dress to make me feel more comfortable. I would make the change to accommodate the culture and I would be glad to do it. But then why am I okay with asking someone in Spain to give up their language comfort in order to speak with me in English? In truth, I’m not sure how okay with it I am, but I’m constantly finding myself stuck between wanting to be culturally appropriate and wanting to communicate with the people around me and, given my inability to engage and accommodate the norm at the same time, I kind of have to pick one over the other.

So let’s just say for now I’m choosing to engage with other people in whatever way I can. We all need to feel connected, so I can accept that this is my choice at least temporarily.  But this isn’t a choice that will work for me forever and it isn’t actually cutting it in all contexts at present.

This past weekend for example, I spent time with new friends in a few different social settings with varying degrees of communication success. On Friday night, we started by going out for dinner and I felt good and had lots of things to hear and say. Next, we went to a bar to pre drink for another bar. This setting was much less successful. The room was dark, it was loud, and we were drinking. All of these things work against me and my desire to communicate with others here. I’ve noticed that even one beer in I find it more difficult to speak to other people in Spanish. I can still understand people pretty well through two beers but after that my communication skills fall into the toilet. I find it really difficult to hear all the words, and it’s impossible to read the lips and facial expressions of anyone beyond two feet of me. At this point putting on my glasses is an absolute necessity, which often creates an added challenge of focusing on the person sitting next to me and the person across the table at the same time. Two beers in a English setting and I would feel pretty close to normal, if not slightly more conversational, but here I’m practically muted. Isn’t my inability to hold a conversation in another language a fabulous example of the real effects of alcohol impairment? I can picture the PSA…

Half way through this stage of the night, I found myself trying really, really hard to follow along and failing. My friend Pablo told me that when he first moved to London he would stand in a group of people and nod emphatically through conversations until someone turned to him and asked, “Do you understand?” It seems that he was generally able to fake it through most conversations. My facial expression in these moments must be somewhere between dread and hypnosis because people never seem to need to ask me if understand them. I usually clue back into a conversation when I hear someone sensitively tell their friend to speak in English so I can participate. Or, in the case of Friday, when someone gestures towards me empathetically and says “she doesn’t understand what I’m saying.” What generally ends up happening in these situations is one person ends up playing translator (which I don’t mind… It’s really nice actually and it keeps me part of the conversation) or, more frequently, joins me for an English conversation on the side. I’m not so self-deprecating to think that they aren’t enjoying talking to me, but I still feel guilty about needing to be babysat.

I was feeling a bit discouraged after the bar on Friday so was excited for our third setting- a funk music dance party. In this setting I think I thrived-not a whole lot of talking, fabulous dancing, and a hilarious game of choreographing dance moves for people in the bar to follow. I loved this and felt in my element and didn’t feel like a half-person in any way.

I got to bed at 5:00 am but thanks to my gorgeous floor to ceiling windows was up a mere four and a half hours later. And thanks to the more than two conversation preventing beers that I had had, I couldn’t get back to sleep. By Saturday afternoon I was pooped and in major need of a nap but only had time to close my eyes for 20 minutes before heading, late, to a friends birthday party.

When I got to the party I was physically exhausted and did not have it in me to be “on”. The party is what actually made me realize how hard I work to participate in or at least try to follow conversations in Spanish. Even with my glasses on for the whole night, I couldn’t read lips or focus long enough on intonation and body language to figure out what was going on around me. I was so tired that I was even failing at the one:one conversations- and those ones were in English. It is not so unusual for me to have a quiet night where it feels more comfortable to listen and observe than it does to participate, but typically on these nights I can be an engaged listener and at least somewhat attend to the people around me. Saturday night, I found myself just entirely shut down. I felt badly about it, but my moment of funk hit it’s peak when faced with my bad case of the tireds.  Ultimately I gave up. I excused myself early aka 1:00 a.m. (Spain, you crazy) and went home.

At this point in my blog posts I typically try to point out all the wonderful lessons I have learned from my moments of feeling inadequate. I’m not so into that today. I don’t think there is much more to say other than, when you’re in a new country trying to respectably learn a new language, sometimes you just have to hold your head high and accept the suck.

Sometimes finding the life lesson is transformative, but sometimes the only way to make feelings feel less intense is engaging in some good old-fashioned self-care. Though I had lots of plans to leave the house and do interesting things on Sunday, I stayed home all day to do a bit of wallowing. I enjoyed me some pathetic fallacy and watched the first rain since I moved to Madrid. I got groceries, and did some cooking therapy, and talked to friends and family over skype for most of the evening. Today, in between my first Spanish class after a three-week hiatus and work this evening, I tried to go to a yoga class (failed but that’s another story) and ended up doing yoga alone in the middle of Parque de Retiro. I ate some of my feelings in my FAVOURITE Spanish tapas dish- Gambas al Ajillo and, in an effort to channel some Canadiana and further fulfill my stomach’s desire to sooth my soul, just made a veggie-filled lactose-free poutine dinner. And now, of course, I’m journaling. The lesson might come later, but right now I’m happier doing the things that make me feel good about myself no matter where I am or what language I’m trying to communicate in.

This gorgeous blob of hot mess is a poutine of carrots, potato, broccoli, and pumpkin oven fries, lactose-free cheese, and mixed mushroom and shallot gravy. It’s basically a big smush of the best thing you’ve ever eaten.

The thing is, I will get better at Spanish, and will be able to develop deeper connections when I do. It’s hard right now but something else is going to be hard 2 month and 5 months and however many months from now. So yeah, I’m holding my head high and accepting the suck, and plan on being out of my funk entirely when I wake up in the morning.

Bueno. Tomorrow’s another day.