Right Swiping Your Way to a Second Language

Well guys, I can officially call myself a paid writer. Honored and humbled by the opportunity to write for Listen & Learn. Here’s my first blog post for them:

Allow me to introduce myself:

My name is Aaron and I am an American living and studying in Barcelona, Spain.

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Ever since moving abroad, my answer to the inescapable “de donde eres” question has strategically shifted from ‘the U.S.’ to ‘California.’ I must admit, it’s a great strategy. As soon as the word leaves my lips, smiles ensue. The Golden State truly is a golden word that invites much more, well, pleasant and often hilarious queries, like…

“OMG do you surf?”

Or

“Why would you ever leave Cali?” (People who aren’t from California love saying Cali)

And

“Why Barcelona? What do you love about it here?”

My answer is always the same: options.

Barcelona offers so many options. Whether it’s visiting an art exhibit or museum, sunbathing on the beach with friends, catching an outdoor movie on Montjuic, or dancing the night away at a free concert, Barcelona is a cultural and social goldmine. Throw in the fact that the most expensive event I listed will cost you a whopping six Euro and you can start to see why I’m on the constant lookout for a wife with an EU passport. I never want to leave.

Unfortunately, for those who come to immerse themselves in a second language, speaking Spanish is also an option in this great city by the sea. One of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Europe, Barcelona is teeming with English speakers and a local population whose native tongue is Catalan, not Castellano (Castilian Spanish). Even the courses at my university, Pompeu Fabra, named after the linguist who developed the Catalan language, were offered in English.

Want to check your skill level before heading overseas for study? Take a free placement test to see how your level measures up!

One month into my stay I realized that if I wanted to improve my Spanish I would need to make a conscious effort to capitalize on every speaking opportunity afforded. For some examples and tips on how to make the most of your language learning experience while abroad checkout fellow blogger Katie’s post. As Katie alluded to in her piece, the most progress comes when stepping out of your comfort zone and staying there. And what’s more uncomfortable than an awkward first date?

With over 50 million active users, Tinder is one of the most popular dating applications in the world. Let’s pretend you’ve never heard of it so I can give you the basics.

Pulling bio information and pictures from Facebook, Tinder users sift through profiles in their vicinity, swiping their way to romance through their smartphones. A left swipe on a profile means that you are not interested or simply “nope.” A right swipe signifies interest. When two users ‘right swipe’ each other, a ‘match’ is created and a lovely push notification is sent to your phone. The process is a bit shallow, I know, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to doing a little dance every time my phone lights up and says “Congratulations! You have a new match.”

No rookie to the dating app scene (I once met a girlfriend, now ex-girlfriend, through a similar app called Bumble. Heeey Nikki), I initially used Tinder to engage with other Americans living in or passing through Barcelona. While abroad, there is a level of comfort that comes from spending time with people from ‘back home.’ But in the spirit of growth, and like Katie already told you, FORGET your comfort.

Determined to shake off the shackles of complacency, I updated my Tinder profile, switching all of my bio text from English to Spanish. I began left swiping any user from the U.S. or England. I never thought my quest to perfect a second language would lead me down the dark path of racial profiling, but hey… by any means necessary, right? If I got a match, I made sure to always send my first message in Castellano, establishing my ability and desire to communicate in Spanish.

And it worked.

I soon found myself sipping café con leche and speaking Spanish through entire dates. Initially, I was a sweaty mess, stumbling over words as I struggled to communicate with the vocabulary of a nine year old. I’m sure the double shots of espresso didn’t help. However, a couple of months into my Tinder experiment, I noticed that my confidence had greatly increased while speaking Spanish. I am proud to say that my vocabulary grew from that of a nine year old to the level of pubescent teenager, one awkward Tinder date at a time.

Interestingly, my language skills were not the only thing that Tinder helped to improve. As I connected with more local girls, my cultural experience in Barcelona was also enriched. I gained insight into Catalan traditions, cuisine, celebrations, and festivals. Catalans love their festivals. I’ve even managed to learn a bit of the Catalan language through the process.

Yesterday I was giving a tour through the Barrí Gótic (I give street art tours in the city center in an effort to support my Tinder coffee date habit), when I met a beautiful and very Ukrainian looking gal by the name of Justina. I know, I know, racial profiling. Since Tinder has yet to teach me Ukrainian, I addressed Justina in English. Her face strained as I spoke, clearly struggling to interpret my Californian.

I stopped mid-sentence and asked, “Hablas Español?”

“Of course,” she replied, relieved. “I feel much more comfortable speaking Spanish,” she continued in perfect Castellano.

Surprised, I asked how she, a recent arrival from the Ukraine, had learned the language so fluently.

“My husband of course.”

“Oh wow,” I responded, “and how did you meet your husband?”

Justina blushed and replied through grinning teeth, “Tinder.”

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The Terrible Towels

My abuelito thinks I’m gay.

“When I was your age I already had 7 kids!” He teased me in Spanish.

No gracias Abuelo.

But in his defense, it has been a long time since I’ve brought a girl around the family.

My younger siblings getting married and having babies doesn’t help.

Thanks a lot guys.

The final straw took place in January when I went home to spend time with family. Trying to show off my improved Castellano,  I made the mistake of lisping the “c” in Barcelona in front of the old man.

He slapped his knee and pointed his finger, letting out a laugh that I’ve never heard him make, like an ‘I knew it!’ kind of laugh.

I thought it was hilarious. 

Don’t get it twisted guys. This isn’t some homophobic rant, some of my greatest friends are gay. Like they say in Spain, me da igaul. But I know my old man doesn’t like his old man thinking his eldest young man is gay.

Ever-cognizant of this antiquated yet completely hilarious quandary I’ve put my pops in, I wasn’t going to tell ya’ll about what happened to me last month.

But here we goooo.

Sharing a living space is never easy.

After spending my first eight months living in the Barri Gótic with some of my best friends in the city, it was time for me to find a new flat. After a month of some serious searching, I finally found a room in the beautiful neighborhood of Gracia. Although Gracia is often considered the most gentrified neighborhood in Barcelona, a certain charm of authenticity remains. I hit the narrow streets during sunset as the locals take their evening stroll around the neighborhood. The paseo is a delightful tradition, bringing a strong sense of community to the barrio. Young parents chat as their children laugh and play in the street. Sometimes I sit and watch the old men play their pick-up games of bocce ball in the dusty squares. 

The neighborhood more than makes up for the size of my room. “Shoebox” is an upgrade. And I haven’t had a bed so small since I was eleven.

“We’ll share the shelter of my single bed?”

Bob Marley was full of shit on that one.

But I have my own terrace that gets amazing sunlight and a cool breeze. I even strung up lights and bought some flowers and aromatic plants from a local nursery. Please don’t tell my grandfather.

I share a wall and a huge bathroom with Melissa, a rad chica from the U.K. who’s in Barcelona for hairdresser school. Our bathroom has a bidet and I’m not sure how I’ve managed to live this long without one. So fresh and so clean clean.

My two Italian roomies, Franceso and Andrea, best friends since childhood, share a room and a smaller restroom down the hall. After about a week, I noticed that they had begun taking the liberty of utilizing our more spacious lavatory. ‘Not a big deal,’ I thought to myself, ‘mi baño es su baño amigos.’ I’m prone to fits of claustrophobia myself so I understood their need for ample leg room whilst handling their business.

I forgot to mention that our apartment is technically a student housing unit of sorts. I was leery upon finding this out, but essentially the title is just… well… a title. A way for the management company to assuage a community that has witnessed rent prices skyrocket in their neighborhood over the last decade. But the title does come with some perks. Basically, any appliance or piece of furniture that we need is a simple text message away. Need an iron? Text our landlord Sebastian and you’ll have it within a day or two. More plates and silverware? How about a fan in my room? No problemo.

When I noticed some new hand towels hanging in the restroom near the door, I smiled and thought, ‘Sebastian… what a guy.’ 

For about a week I used those lovely little towels with gusto. I preferred the green towel, which was bit more course, for drying my hands.  I reserved the white towel, which had a higher thread count and much finer fabric, for my evening face wash. One night, after plunging my face in that lovely white cloth, I noticed a hint of funky smell emanating from the fabric. ‘Hmmph,‘ I thought, ‘must be time for a wash.’ After finishing up with the green towel, which still had a sweet fragrance, I took the white towel, along with some other clothes that needing cleaning, and started up the washing machine.

A couple of hours later, Andrea returned from work after a long day at the pizzeria. He changed clothes and made his way to my (our) restroom, newspaper in hand. But before the door closed Andrea muttered something in Italian and remerged into the hallway, angry, quite uncharacteristic of the ever-chipper and gregarious Italian. “Aaron, what has happened to my towel? Have you been using my towel?”

Taken aback by his aggressive tone, I responded in a like manner, “What are you talking about, bro?”

“If you mean our hand towels in my restroom… then of course I have.”

Clearly frustrated by my response, Andrea barked back in Spanish (his Spanish is better than mine, another fact that would probably make my abuelito laugh and point in my direction), “you should not use other people’s towels Aaron.”

“Listen buddy, you and Fra have been using my restroom for weeks and I haven’t said a word. And now you want to claim our community towels too?”

“No. You do not understand. Those are our towels. From Italia. They are for the culo. You have been using our ass towels.” The anger in his voice had subsided into a menacing laugh.

“What?” I asked, feeling a bit light headed.

Apparently, a bidet is no mere luxury for Italians. Nearly every home in Italy has a washroom fully equipped with toilet and bidet. Next to each bidet you’ll find a rack with small “hand” towels. DO NOT use these towels. Like, ever. Don’t even look at ’em.

For Francesco and Andrea, pooping in my restroom was not about leg room. Utilizing a toilet without a bidet would be outright barbaric for them, and leaving their ‘booty towels’ on the rack near the bidet was nothing out of the ordinary, something they never even thought to warn their ignorant roommate from the USA about.

Awesome.

After regaining my composure all I could do was laugh and tell Andrea how Francesco’s booty had a much sweeter fragrance than his. Like fresh lavender and honey.

You can laugh, just don’t tell my old man.

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Drowning with a Smile

the-road-less-traveled

 

September 30th marked my one year “Quit-Your-Day-Job” anniversary.

A necessary deviation from a well-traveled path. An elevated perspective offered a snapshot of my life further up that road, and I didn’t like what I saw, so I jumped the fuck off the trail.

The decision has afforded me a plethora of life’s most precious commodity.

Time.

I have had time to explore.

Time to explore foreign lands and cultures, and perhaps more importantly, the expanses of my own mind. Time to read and learn and reflect and when the Muses have allowed… create. Time to laugh and breathe and love slowly.

A year of testing waters.

Dipping toes in tepid lakes to find the one worthy of a plunge.

I am not sure I have found her quite yet, but I have certainly discovered that I love to swim.

So here I am, back in Barcelona, doing the doggy-paddle as my professors try to drown me with Nietzsche and Aristotle.

And I couldn’t be happier.

 

 

The Hostel World

 

When my brother travels, he travels in style.

Dapper Dan stays in five star hotels and orders room service.

He buys VIP tables at exclusive night clubs and always drinks from the top shelf.

I’m more of a Circus Circus and sneak through the backdoor kind of guy.

So when I told him my plan to work and live in hostels during my travels, his lack of enthusiasm was expected.

Sounds pretty cool bro,” he replied, trying to match my excitement with a hint of obligation in his voice. No one wants to be a joy killer. Plus, he’s my little brother, he’s been conditioned to go along with my stupid ideas since birth.

I recently left the great city of Barcelona where I spent six weeks living in a cramped and claustrophobic dorm-style room with seven other staff members. The smell: a lovely essence of dirty feet, butt crack and Axe body spray. It was like living in my seventh grade gym locker. But the strong bonds I formed with my flatmates made the smell much more tolerable. It also helped that I was the only snorer in the group.

Sorry guys.

I’ve received a few emails from readers asking my opinion on hostels so I’ve put together a little list for your reading pleasure. Stinky feet aside, I assure you… there are plenty of benefits to staying in hostels during your travels.

Wait, what are you talking about?

That’s a fair question. Prior to my Europe trip last year, I only had a vague, and mostly inaccurate conceptualization about hostels and was less than optimistic when my friend suggested we utilize them during our trip. Then she told me the price…

Hostels are lodging establishments that offer low-cost accommodations to travelers (generally young travelers) who stay in shared rooms and often share amenities.

No, You Won’t Get Murdered

Okay I can’t guarantee that. But I am shocked by the number of people that have looked at me in horror when discussing my travels and said something like, “Oh my God! I would never stay there. Haven’t you seen the movie Hostel?”

Seriously, at least five people have said that to me. Yes, there is a crazy Dutchman with tranquilizers and a drill waiting for you at every hostel in Europe. Look out.

Camaraderie

Don’t let my social media accounts fool you, it’s not all camel rides and rainbows. Traveling can be a lonely endeavor. One step off the plane and you’re thousands of miles from your friends and family in a new city where you don’t know a soul, don’t speak the language, don’t have a Wi-Fi connection and all you want is a fucking carne asada burrito.

Staying in a hostel provides an immediate network of like-minded travelers and a helpful source of information about local happenings and attractions. If you’re looking for some company at that museum you’ve been dying to visit, chances are there’s someone at the hostel who’s interested in joining. You’ll soon find yourself making deep connections with people from all over the world in a matter of days.

My Barcelona Familia. I miss these guys everyday!
My Barcelona Familia. I miss these guys everyday!

Save Money

Need I say more?

Traveling isn’t cheap and aside from plane tickets, nothing hits your wallet like accommodations. A bed at my hostel in the heart of Barcelona, depending on the night of the week, can cost as little as 7 Euro. Hotels and Airbnb’s start at nearly ten times that amount. Skip the fancy room and go out and explore that new city you find yourself in.

Cook it Yourself

I am definitely a street food advocate but you can only eat so many tacos and kababs. Eating healthy on the road can be damn near impossible. While visiting Rome, I lost two things very dear to me: my favorite pair of socks and my six pack.

Every hostel I’ve visited has some sort cooking area for it’s guests and not a single one of those kitchens has a decent non-stick pan. However, utilizing the hostel kitchen can save you some cash and provide unique insight into the local culture and economy. A quick visit to the neighborhood grocery store will leave you with a general idea on the area’s cost of living and how the locals eat. For example, one step into a Mercadona and you will understand just how much Spaniards love their pork. Want some cheap eggs? Head over to Lisbon where you can get a dozen for less than a Euro. Needless to say, I ate a lot of eggs in Portugal.

Find a Balance

I’ve come to realize that Americans travel a bit differently than most. Our work obsessed culture awards minimal vacation time, forcing us to take crammed, sprint-style vacations, visiting as many locations as possible in week or if we’re fortunate, two week intervals.

My extended experience abroad is rare for an American and I am truly grateful for the luxury of time that I have been given. That being said, four months of hostel living will leave the most patient of men begging for a respite of privacy. When small talk and friendly encounters with guests begin feeling like forced conversations that annoy the hell out of you, it might be time to give Airbnb a look. Just be sure to time your luxurious stays appropriately. A private apartment for a week in Paris could wind up costing you a month’s rent back home. I recommend splurging in more affordable cities and getting the most out of your hard earned money.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Letter From the Road

Komo en Kasa... my favorite café in Barcelona
Komo en Kasa… my favorite café in Barcelona

 

Hey Ma,

I’ve been trying to call, but I think heaven has a crappy wifi connection.

I think you can hear me, but your voice is mostly muffled.

Sometimes I get lucky and the signal is strong and I can hear you so clearly it’s as if you’re all around me.

Those are the best days, but they don’t come often.

So I figured I’d write you a letter.

My journey has been amazing so far. Spain is beautiful. Did you know tortillas are something completely different out here? They’re like a potato omelet with eggs and onion. I ordered some tortillas at a restaurant and when the camarero brought out this thing that looked like an egg pie, I was so confused. But they’re pretty good, I think you’d like them.

Do you remember that Rage Against the Machine shirt you used to wear with Che Guevara on the front? I need to buy that shirt. Anyways, Che used to write his ma from the road too. While traveling across South America he wrote,

Querida viejita,

What do we leave behind when we cross a frontier? Everything seems split in two. Melancholy for what is left behind, and the excitement of entering a new land.

I can relate to the dichotomy, and it made me think of you. I experience things out here and the only person that would be excited to hear them is you. The road can be lonely. But so can life.

Travelling is very much like life. I anticipate the unknown with enthusiasm, the crisp unwritten page of a new day. But my soul also yearns for the comfort and familiarity of yesterday. I cling to sweet memories of days I can never relive. Days when I could pick up the phone and hear your voice. When I could tell you about my day or take you out for coffee. Remember when that waiter thought we were a couple? You were so happy because he thought you were my age. I thought it was pretty weird.

I travel through space and time as I travel the world. My mind lives in the present, my heart beats in the past. A modern day Doc Brown, without the DeLorean. The closest thing we had was your strawberry Dodge Neon that you used to let me and my brothers drive. The radiator was shot and it would overheat in the Arizona sun, so we could only drive it at night. The Night Rider. I don’t think she could hit 88, not even on her best day.

I love my new surroundings. The sounds, the tastes, the people. I walk the Spanish streets with eyes wide open and a smile on my face. I found a cool little café that I know you’d love. I sit on the window sill and write in the afternoon sun.

There is so much to see in Barcelona, but when the rush of fresh stimuli subsides, my gaze always drifts to the West.

Home calls.

And sometimes I wonder…where is home? When was home?

Home is in the past. No Neon or DeLorean can take me there. So I’ll stay on the road for a while longer.

My Spanish is getting better Ma, and I’ve been making it to mass every Sunday. I think you’d be proud.

I’ve also been thinking that you would have wanted me to go to Mexico and visit the Basilica de La Virgencita. I’ll try my best. I saw a stained glass window of her in an old Spanish cathedral the other day. The rays of the setting sun illuminated her cloak and she was beautiful.

Well, it’s time to run Ma. I’m off to meet some friends for tapas.

Love you,

Aaron

 

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Barcelona or Bust

Forca Barca!
Forca Barca!

 

Barcelona.

This is the city.

The catalyst. The motivating force that pushed me through moments of doubt and fear as I plotted my escape from my comfortable office job.

No other word encapsulates the romantic notions that my subconscious mind associates with the Spanish culture more than “Barcelona.”

Say it with me.

Lisp that “c” if you’re really into it. “Barth-elona.”

There you go.

After a spontaneous pit stop in California to surprise a certain gal for the holidays (smooth right?), I made it back to Europe, happy and five pounds heavier after two weeks of stuffing my face with tamales and prime rib. Seriously, I think that’s all I ate the entire time I was back home. And tacos. There is always room for tacos.

Tacos.

Now it’s back to Spain where I have assumed a role working in the Public Relations department for a prominent hostel near the University of Barcelona.

Translation: Me and three other lucky bastards get to live in a great city for free and meet cool people and basically all we have to do is get the party started every night. We work from 9 to 12, five nights a week and arrange activities for the guests. Last night, for example, was karaoke night. The PR team facilitates and socializes, all while trying to sign up guests for our “party bus” to the touristy beach clubs of the Barcenoleta. Once we get the guests on the bus, we are free once again until 9pm the following evening. Not a bad gig right? The schedule is perfect, leaving us the entire day to explore the city.

So far I’m two for two with the Workaway experiences.

Over the past month I’ve received messages from a few people who read my posts and have become inspired to make some changes in their life.

“Seeing the stuff you post makes me want to quit my job and travel. Really inspiring stuff.”

or

“I’ve been at my job for eight years and I fuckin’ hate it bro. I think about quitting everyday… Any suggestions?”

Their souls itch to break the chains of monotony. To make the jump and risk failing miserably.  I cannot express the feelings of gratitude and humility that overwhelm me when I receive those kind of messages. I haven’t done much. I was just fortunate enough to realize that if I didn’t make a move my life was going to pass me by in an instant. So I jumped. But we all know what it feels like to freeze. To look over the edge and start the countdown… three… two…. one… never mind.

Humans generally don’t like change, change is scary. Most of us thrive off of routine and the familiar. Our minds try and avoid it all costs, instinctively firing off self justifications and rationalizations like Bill Cosby throws out the Roofies. And Cosby don’t miss. So if you’re thinking about making some big changes in your life and don’t have a ‘Barcelona’… get one. Visualize your goal. Whether it’s you welcoming your first guest at that restaurant you’ve been dreaming about opening, or hiking your final mile on the Pacific Crest Trail. Keep your eyes on the prize. And let me tell ya, it feels pretty damn good to get there.

Our PR team is so outdoorsy. (we definitely got lost on this 2 mile hike)
Our PR team is so outdoorsy. (we definitely got lost on this 2 mile hike)

DCIM101GOPRO

 

 

The Sunny Side

For the record, this egg is not over easy, it's sunny side up. I just learned the difference, but the Sunny Side sound good so I'm stickin' with it.
For the record, this egg is not over easy, it’s sunny side up. I just learned the difference, but the Sunny Side sound good so I’m stickin’ with it.

 

I’ve done it.

The odds were heavily stacked against me.

People said it was impossible, that I was wasting my time.

But I shrugged the “haters” off and used their negativity as motivation. Every morning I’d try, and fail, but return the next day with a new sense of optimism and determination. My father’s mantra looping in my head as I focused on the task at hand, “perseverance through adversity son, perseverance through adversity.”

This morning, on the fourth day of December, in the year of our Lord 2015, I finally succeeded in cooking two, not one but two, beautiful and completely intact over easy eggs.

Now, some of you may scoff at this feat.

You could be thinking, “My eight year old daughter can make over easy eggs, dude.”

You might even be laughing as you read this. But trust me, there’s nothing funny about preparing the perfect breakfast sandwich every morning, fully equipped with the finest of ingredients: freshly baked whole grain bread, organic tomatoes and spinach from the local market, a thick slice of gouda cheese and savory pieces of world-famous Spanish ham, Jamon Iberico. Only to fail miserably with the piece de resistance and pop the damn yolks in the crappy hostel frying pan.

No amount of olive oil or butter can make the pans in any hostel “non-stick.”

The pans are beat up and tired, any trace of Teflon scraped away long ago by the backpackers of yesteryear.

The deplorable condition of cooking surfaces in hostels makes runny egg-yolks a much desired commodity. A mirage in the desert that can never be reached. But this morning I did it. When I bit into my sandwich the rich yolks exploded into my mouth and dripped onto my plate, like puddles of liquid gold.

A moment I shall never forget.

The lesson is simple friends: Never give up, never surrender.

Or… if you like over easy eggs and have the room in your backpack, bring a small non-stick frying pan.

 

The man, the myth, the legend.
The man, the myth, the legend.