What I Know Now About Living in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is one of the biggest islands in the Caribbean and features a lush landscape with beaches, waterfalls, tropical rainforests, and mountains. PR is well-known for its Spanish heritage, rich history, reggaeton music, and buena gente (“good people”).

Island With an American Twist

Puerto Rico — also known as la Isla de Encanto (“the Island of Charm”) — is a primarily Spanish-speaking island. It’s a U.S. territory, and you can see American influence everywhere on the island.

Puerto Ricans hold U.S. passports, shop at American chains, and pay with American dollars. They don’t have the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections, but they have their own governor and flag, but a large percentage of the population doesn’t speak English. Even though many people on the island identify solely as Puerto Rican,  and some Americans may not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the island and the mainland still benefit from each other. One benefit is the ease of travel between the two destinations; mainlanders make up a large percentage of tourism to the island.

Former Spanish Colony Without Many Europeans

For many Europeans, Puerto Rico remains an undiscovered gem. A lack of direct flights between PR and Europe limits the number of visitors. If it weren’t for cruise ships that call on PR’s ports, European tourism would be rarer. Holiday offers from travel agents in Europe are still largely dominated by hassle-free “all-inclusive” resort holidays to other Caribbean destinations, including the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Jamaica.

Prior to arriving here, I also had very limited knowledge of Puerto Rico and I was surprised to discover that Puerto Rico is very different from the rest of the Caribbean. I quickly realized that the typical European vacation consisting of a week at an all-inclusive resort is just not a thing here. Instead, a vibrant, diverse, and unique culture is waiting to be discovered.

Living the Caribbean Dream

The home of the hit song “Despacito” became my home in late 2019. After living in rainy England for 13 years, I jumped at the opportunity to live on a sun-kissed island. My only exposure to the island before moving there was the song “Puerto Rico” by Vaya Con Dios. But the promise of sunny weather, a Latin atmosphere, and the inviting ocean were enough for me to leave Europe.

I arrived at the San Juan airport with a backpack and a strong desire to live the Caribbean dream.

A Friendly, Lively Local Culture

The people of Puerto Rico are one of its greatest treasures. They’re always smiling, friendly, and helpful. Don’t be surprised if strangers greet you while you’re walking down the street (buena!) or eating at a restaurant (buen provecho!). They make you feel like family, not just a visitor, and I felt very welcomed by the island’s residents from my first day. I found it very easy to integrate socially into PR. I’ve always considered myself an extrovert, but I’ve met my match with many locals here. We Europeans could learn a thing or two about Puerto Ricans! Their positive approach to life is an inspiration, and around every corner, you will find celebrations like family picnics and chinchorreo (“party buses”). It’s what makes this island such a special place!

Puerto Rico has a very rich and unique culture that is illustrated by its cuisine (local favorites include mofongo and pasteles), music (Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny), and street art. Even after two and a half years of living here, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. There is so much more to the island than palm-lined beaches (but if that’s your thing, try Luquillo beach for chilling and Mar Chiquita beach for cool drone shots), including El Morro of Old San Juan (pro tip: park in Doña Fela and walk everywhere in Old San Juan).

A Slower Pace of Life

In Poland and the United Kingdom, I was accustomed to prioritizing speed and efficiency when dealing with daily errands. But here, those things are less important. Locals are much more focused on building relationships and connecting with people. Lines at medical clinics, banks, and government offices can be long and might irritate new arrivals who are used to living their life a bit faster. Even though it can be frustrating, those who are overworked, overscheduled, and overstimulated may find that the laid-back life in Puerto Rico is just what they need. World events over the last couple of years have caused many of us to reexamine our lives and slow down a bit, but Puerto Ricans were already way ahead of the rest of us.

The Caribbean From the Postcards

The Caribbean Sea, palm trees, and pristine beaches are a huge part of Puerto Rico’s landscape. But the natural beauty of the island can also be found inland. PR is packed with majestic waterfalls, beautiful rainforests, scenic mountains, and refreshing rivers. La Isla de Encanto has fascinating flora and fauna, and it’s a true paradise for nature lovers. I have explored some great hiking trails, seen very unique flowers, and tasted exotic fruits I had never heard of. Living here has taught me that there’s so much more to Puerto Rico than what you typically see on postcards. (Though I must admit it took this city girl some time to get used to seeing chickens at gas stations, random pigs sunbathing on the beach, and iguanas casually crossing the road.)

Summer Weather All Year Round

Many dream of living where the weather is always sunny and warm — myself included. I liked experiencing four seasons, but swapping long Polish winters and English rain for year-round sunshine was an easy decision. Puerto Ricans enjoy warm, sunny, and humid days most of the year, with a rainy season between May and October. Rainfall is frequent (especially near El Yunque National Forest) but mercifully short. And as much as I hated rain in the U.K., living in a hot, humid climate has made me appreciate it more.

Perennial sunshine makes all types of outdoor activities more appealing, but the tropical climate also requires some adaptation. For example, I learned to arrive early to yoga class so that I could secure the coolest spot in the room. I never leave the house without sunglasses, a hat, and SPF protection. And I’ve gone from being ambivalent about AC to considering it a necessity.

Celebrating my first warm Christmas felt very strange. Artificial Christmas trees, no town square Christmas markets, and Santa wearing a tank top were all odd but delightful surprises. I loved immersing myself in the local Christmas culture — and enjoying the holidays while wearing flip flops wasn’t too bad either!

Hurricanes, Power Outages, and Earthquakes

My new life in Puerto Rico hasn’t been without unpleasantness. Within two months of living here, a major 6.4 earthquake woke me up in the middle of the night. While the earth was shaking, my husband slept without even stirring. I was petrified and shocked.

PR is also prone to seasonal hurricanes. Most hurricane seasons pass without incident, but Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. Locals take hurricane preparation very seriously and regularly stock emergency food, water, and medicine whenever a storm is approaching the island. I’ve learned to regularly follow all updates on earthquakes and hurricanes.

The island has also underinvested in its infrastructure. Its potholes are legendary and are just about everywhere, so drive cautiously. Public transportation is limited so prepare to drive or use a rideshare service. PR’s roads are also largely not pedestrian-friendly, and sidewalks are not well maintained if they are there at all. I am frequently the only pedestrian on the road (think suburbs of Los Angeles or Texas).

Lastly, power interruptions happen with some regularity. I didn’t know what generators were until I got to PR. But without one, your groceries may rot in the fridge, and you won’t be able to prepare meals, so it’s a necessity (and the bigger, the better).

“I like creating beauty out of scary things.” – Grimes

Moving to another country is challenging, and moving to another continent can be a shock to your system. Moving from an English-speaking country with a population of 66 million to a Spanish-speaking island with 3 million inhabitants is challenging, culture shocking, and scary. But I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

How I Became a Language Assistant in Japan

In my youth, I had never manifested any interest in Japanese culture. My knowledge was limited to the stereotypical images of ninjas, samurai, and geishas shown in films. My only “real-world” experiences came from my love of eating out at sushi restaurants in my hometown, Toronto. No one close to me would have predicted that I would spend three years of my life as a language assistant in Japan.

I heard about the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme from a student of mine while I was teaching ESL at a language school in Toronto. I hesitated in applying at first. In my first 25 years of life, I had barely traveled and never lived abroad. How would I fare living on my own in a foreign country? Would loneliness consume me and leave me feeling unhappy and unsatisfied? Would I be overwhelmed by not being able to read or fully understand my new surroundings? Should I just buckle down, find a nine to five job, and dive headfirst into the societal definition of adulthood? All of these questions fluttered around in my mind before I decided to apply to become a language assistant in Japan.  

The Decision to Become a Language Assistant in Japan

In the end, three factors propelled me towards my decision. First, a friend of mine spoke highly of his experience as a JET 10 years before. Second, my sister gave me some advice on what she considered failure to be. She said that failure wasn’t having to return from Japan because of unhappiness or dissatisfaction, but instead, that failure would be not trying. In other words, I had to give it a shot no matter what the outcome. Lastly, I had just finished my master’s, and I wasn’t feeling motivated in my first post-university job. So, what did I have to lose? Nothing. If anything, the job would give me the opportunity to live and travel the world, which excited me. So, I decided to try my luck and apply for a position in the programme. 

The Application Process

The key eligibility requirements for JET programme candidates are: they must be a native English speaker; demonstrate an interest in Japanese culture, society, and the educational system; hold a bachelor’s degree; and be a citizen of the English-speaking country where recruitment takes place. The application process took around six to eight months and involved three main steps.  

First, I submitted a paper application. This included my personal details, what region I wanted to be placed in, and a short essay on why I wanted to be a JET.  After they reviewed my application,  they called me in for an in-person interview. Here, they asked me why I wanted to teach in Japan, gauged my ability to deal with potential culture shock, and asked me to give an impromptu lesson on the topic of body parts (I performed my best rendition of “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes”). 

I left the interview feeling a bit iffy. Why? I had mentioned that in the future, I wanted to complete my PhD in History, and one of the interviewers said, “You’d be great teaching adults.”  I automatically thought that they didn’t think I had what it took to teach small children or teenagers (turns out, I was wrong). 

As a final step, all the chosen candidates submit a medical and criminal record check. The latter, in Canada, takes about four to six weeks. Success! I managed to make it through the whole process. 

Pre-Departure Preparation

Before I departed, the Consulate-General of Japan in Toronto offered free Japanese language classes to all candidates (on a first-come, first-serve basis). I got a spot in the class, and I was on my way to learning basic Japanese expressions and how to ask basic questions (unfortunately, I did not have time to attain a level where I could understand the answers to these questions, but, you know… baby steps). The best part of these classes were the connections I made. I forged some wonderful and long-lasting friendships with some fellow Torontonians. While only one of the people I met ended up being placed in the same town as me, I was able to visit the others all around Japan during the three years I lived and worked there.

Furthermore, I attended a mandatory pre-departure orientation in Toronto. Here, the instructors gave a basic introduction to the JET programme. They explained the basic duties of a language assistant and gave important pre-departure information (i.e., if you needed to ship personal belongings, bring prescription medication, etc.). Also, they held various seminars led by former JETs on how to adapt to life in Japan. 

Without a Second Thought

What I remember most about the orientation was everything I should bring from home. I needed to bring a small gift for all of the teachers at my main school (it’s customary in Japan) and a bigger gift for the Principal, Vice Principal, my Supervisor, and even my landlord.

Also, there were things that  I wouldn’t have even given a second thought to — from deodorant (the Japanese equivalent just doesn’t cut it), to makeup (not all skin tones available), to curly hair products and shampoo, to toothpaste (no fluoride in Japanese brands), and even tampons (apparently hard to find if you live in the inaka aka rural Japan). What I know now is that you can find almost anything if you look hard enough. It’s probably even easier now with the existence of Amazon Prime.

Tokyo-Bound

Before I boarded my direct flight (paid for by the JET programme) from Toronto to Tokyo, I was scared. The moment had arrived; I was actually going to be a language assistant in Japan. At the airport, my father hugged me goodbye, looked at me, and said, “If you’re not happy, call me, and I’ll buy you a ticket home.”  The support he gave me at that moment helped get me, fear in tow, through customs at Pearson International airport.

A three-day orientation session was offered to all incoming JETs in Tokyo. We were put up in a decent Tokyo hotel, breakfast and lunch included. They bombarded us with information sessions (the jetlag made it a bit harder to process). They further explained our roles as language assistants, describing the effects of culture shock, and even gave us teaching tips from former JETs. 

A statue of three monkeys mimicking the hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil phrase in Japan.

I met who would be my supervisor for the next three years and the other teachers (from all over the world) who were placed in my host city. To tell you the truth, what I got most out of my three days in Tokyo was the opportunity to explore (and party in!) the city with the friends that I made both in Toronto and in the very hotel I was staying at. At the end of three days, I boarded a minibus headed to Gunma Prefecture: my home for the next three years.

The First Big Step on My Road to Travel

I often think about what my life would have been like had I not left Canada for Japan almost 14 years ago. I know that the JET programme changed my life. It started what would be my life “on the road,” my life as an expat, my wanderlust. The process of going to Japan was long, and the decision to leave Canada wasn’t easy. In the end, with all the knowledge and experience I have gained, it was worth it. Flying abroad to be a language assistant in Japan undoubtedly changed my life.

by Maria Perez

Returning to Canada: Catching Up After a Gap Year

Carmen in San Francisco, at the Golden Gate Bridge.I first interviewed Carmen Graves when she and I met at a language school in Madrid on an intensive academic year-long Spanish program. At the time, Carmen was using the experience to study at the school’s three centers around Spain as a gap year abroad between finishing her high school degree and starting university back in her home country of Canada. Carmen began her year in Madrid. She then traveled the Iberian peninsula for three-month-long stints in Málaga and Barcelona.

Catching Up After Carmen’s Gap Year

Close to the end of her gap year experience, I spoke with Carmen to see what she’d learned and gained from her year abroad in Spain and how she anticipated it would impact her moving forward. Over a year has passed since then. Carmen is now living back in Canada and working towards her bachelor’s degree. She is currently a sophomore at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and is double majoring in Actuarial Science and Economics. Recently, Carmen and I spoke again so she could share some updates with Dreams Abroad. Read on to see what has been going on in her life since her return to Canada.

What have you been up to since moving back to Canada?

“Once I arrived back in Canada, I moved halfway across the country to attend Dalhousie University on the East Coast. I originally started pursuing a degree in Actuarial Science — a branch of Math focusing on risk assessment — but I quickly added another major in Economics. To date, I have thoroughly enjoyed my courses as well as other aspects of university life. I’ve been spending time with my friends, exploring the city, and taking on leadership roles where I have the opportunity to advocate for my peers.”

Carmen and her university friends posing on a dock next to a lake after her gap year.

What was it like returning to Canada after a gap year in Spain?

“It was a bittersweet experience. I would have been happy to stay in Spain forever, but I also missed real maple syrup. It helped that I was moving on to a new chapter in my life starting university. University was something I had always been excited about. 

When I got back, it was a challenge to find a balance between sharing my experiences and not falling into the ‘I studied abroad’ stereotype.”

Carmen in the snow after her gap year.

How do you think taking a gap year influenced or changed your first year in university?

“It was a huge influence. Living independently in a different country really prepared me to adapt to a new city and a new student lifestyle. I also learned how to manage myself and my time in a way that I had not learned right out of high school. In addition, I was also excited to throw myself into new opportunities, such as taking on roles in student leadership, to keep challenging myself now that I was back in Canada.”

How did your experience shift as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

“It has definitely been an interesting time. A positive effect has been that I moved back home with my family. I hadn’t really planned on moving back. Fortunately, that means that I have spent some quality time with them which would not otherwise have been possible.

Carmen remote learning on a pink swing chair outside.

Unfortunately, I had planned another study abroad experience in Australia for the Fall Term, which now won’t take place. It has made me incredibly grateful that I had my time in Spain. I took advantage of every opportunity to travel when I was there.”

How has the remote start to your second year been so far?

“It has been better than expected. Fortunately, I study math. The transition to online delivery of content has not been as difficult as some other fields of study. The biggest challenge has been connecting with other students and faculty while I am almost 2,000 km away from my university.”

You’ve had a number of experiences abroad even before starting your university degree. How do you think students today can engage the world even if they can’t study abroad?

“I think the most valuable thing I got out of my experiences abroad was connecting with people from different cultures with different perspectives and experiences. There are plenty of opportunities to meet people across the world, whether traveling once it’s possible again or engaging with people online. Platforms that facilitate these connections continue to grow in number.”

Carmen posing with pumpkins after her gap year.

What is on the horizon for you now? And where would you next love to go when we’re all able to travel again?

“Despite my university study abroad being canceled, I would still love to go to Australia. Once travel opens back up, I would also like to prioritize trips where I can visit the friends I made during my study abroad experience in Spain. In the longer term, I would love to work abroad.”

Carmen posing with her university friends one night.

Filling in the Gaps

Since finishing her gap year in Spain, a lot has happened in Carmen’s life. She has moved back to her home country of Canada. Almost immediately thereafter, she moved across the country from the Toronto area to Halifax to pursue her university degree. She then had the second semester of her first year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Carmen started her second year of university remotely from her family home. Nonetheless, she’s taken it all in stride — something surely attributable in large part to the skill set living abroad helped her to build.

Through the unexpected twists and turns this year has taken for all of us, Carmen has been able to draw upon her certainty of self to move forward and persevere. She’s been able to thrive through a very unconventional beginning to her undergraduate career because living abroad prepared her for the unexpected and uncomfortable. And like a true expat, she hopes to be able to travel again very soon.

by Emma Schultz

Life in Medellin, Colombia During Lockdown

In June 2020, Lamon and I were in our own separate spaces lounging a responsible six feet apart as he told me about his latest single Spotlight and finca life in Envigado, Colombia. Well, fast forward to September and Lamon has more to share. After the release of his latest single, he has been busy again working on a new track that he’s excited to promote. I also found out that not only does he have a background in teaching but he is an entrepreneur. He and his four business partners make up a company called Primeros Cinco. During lockdown, he’s been working on some promising opportunities using Medellin, Colombia as his home base. 

The last time we spoke, Lamon had me in tears with his Lamonda story. I needed a good laugh and, oh, how we laughed. I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time. If you’ve lived abroad or speak more than one language — it’s a story you will find funny too. 

Our recent catch-up call was more about — how are you? What’s going on down there? Are you ok? Most of us are feeling the same way at this point. It’s been six months of living with cabin fever and well, we’re just not feeling like ourselves. Let’s face it, the world is fighting a pandemic and we are all trying to survive and manage. Lamon, well, he’s making music and chillin’. Find out how he is doing with the most recent update from his apartment in Medellin, Colombia: 

Where have you been living? Tell us about your living situation in Medellin, Colombia.

The last time we spoke, I was staying at a finca in Envigado. It was great during the first two months of the lockdown. Now, I’m back in my apartment in Medellin, Colombia, which has its pros and cons. During my stay at the finca, I didn’t see anyone for two months with the exception of the staff and chef. Every day, I was able to exercise outdoors and enjoy fresh air and nature. Here in Medellin, I see more people. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of exercising outside or going on nature walks; that’s been a difficult adjustment.

A picture of Lamon wearing a mask and large headphones in Medellin, Colombia

What have you been doing to keep yourself occupied? Work? Exploring? Exercise?

I’m a strong believer that there is always opportunity in chaos. Since the start of the lockdown, I’ve focused a lot on mind development. Every day I read for 30 minutes when I wake up. Following that, I exercise. Right now, I’m committing a lot of time to flexibility and mobility workouts. I signed up for Portuguese classes via italki and released a new song called Kiz Kiz, which is available on all digital platforms.

Do you interact with friends or are you not allowed?

I speak with my friends/business partners often via Google Meet; we still have a number of businesses to manage and are working on new projects. Because we are on complete lockdown, it’s somewhat difficult to catch up with each other in person. We are allowed to go out once a week for groceries, banking, and other necessary errands, which can easily take up your entire day. Trying to visit friends on those days is difficult.

What is the COVID-19 situation like in Medellin, Colombia?

I’m always amazed as to how the situation is being handled here versus the States. For example, every two weeks we receive a notice informing us which days we are allowed to go out. The system is based on the last number of your local ID/passport. For example, if the last number of your local ID/passport is 6, officials will inform you that you can leave your home on Wednesday. 

Going to the supermarket or mall in Medellin is like checking in at the airport. When you arrive at a supermarket or mall, they first take your temperature to see if you have a fever; before you’re allowed to enter, you must disinfect your shoes and hands. Then, your ID is checked to determine if you have permission to be outside that day. If you have approval, your ID is then registered. Upon exiting, you must register once more that you are leaving the premises.

A picture of Lamon wearing a face shield and mask in Medellin, Colombia.

What has helped you stay optimistic about the situation?

With the exception of not being able to perform at night and clubs being closed, nothing has really changed. My daily routine and life have stayed the same. I work from home and have a home base. During the day, I work out and always have used exercise to stay positive. This keeps me focused and helps me stay optimistic about my life’s goals.

Do you have any news on when you can come home?

Medellin, Colombia is home (hahaha). At the moment, I don’t have any plans of traveling to the US. From what I’ve seen on the news and conversations with friends and family, it’s best to camp out here for a while. The reason being is to stay healthy. I feel safer in Medellin than I do stateside.  

Are there options to come back to the USA now? I have heard that repatriation flights can be extremely expensive from South America. Is this true?

Two months ago, humanitarian flights were expensive. However, I believe the prices have stabilized a bit. According to recent news, domestic flights will reopen in September and international flights will reopen in November. We’ll have to see what happens, but I’m in no rush to travel.

A picture of Lamon in Medellin, Colombia

How are the locals in Medellin, Colombia coping with COVID-19?

For the most part, locals are doing their best to cope with the situation and the majority are following protocol. Of course, there are certain neighborhoods that are not complying with all of the protocols, but that’s to be expected. I haven’t heard of any locals not wanting to wear face masks or protesting, which has been rather common in the US.

How has your family dealt with this situation?

My mom lives in Georgia. She tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized for three months; including three weeks in a coma. Naturally, my family had a difficult time dealing with the situation. Fortunately, she was able to pull through and is in recovery.

Lamon's mom, a coronavirus survivor.

Can you share any memorable situations? 

To help people deal with home confinement, sometimes the local police and/or local musicians have gone to different neighborhoods/apartment buildings and played music outside. Julio plays for an hour and a half. Check out the video at the end to see one of these performers. 

How has living in Medellin, Colombia changed any future plans that you might have?

The situation has presented some new business opportunities that I’ll be happy to share with you once we launch. 

Each time I speak with Lamon, I feel more and more excited to see where his journey will take him. I feel this same sense with many of our contributors. Nonetheless, with Lamon, I feel like he is about to take off. I met Lamon in 2015 and saw a man who was incredibly dedicated to working hard in his classroom. Today, I see a man with even more of a vision and a dream. Let’s see where Lamon will take us next.

By Leesa Truesdell

Cooking Italian Cuisine While Living in Thailand

Diego Ambrosio
Diego Ambrosio

Thirty-something Diego Ambrosio was born in Catanzaro, Italy, located in the southern part of the country. He is passionate about wild nature, cooking (especially Italian cuisine), singing, and playing different musical instruments like guitar, piano, and bass. Diego considers himself an extrovert and talkative person, but he also likes to listen to people.

While now living in Phuket, Thailand with his father and partner, Diego cooks on a regular basis. He enjoys mixing the local fresh ingredients and produce with his Italian recipes. In addition, he learned to create new fusion recipes that he enjoys just as much as his native dishes. Read on to find out more about his favorite southern Italian cuisine and his homemade Thai-Italian fusion.

What is your favorite Italian cuisine?

This is probably one of the hardest questions you can ask an Italian since they would immediately begin thinking of multiple answers. Why? Because there are so many favorite Italian dishes! If I really had to choose a dish by type, I think my first answer would be tortellini with cream, peas, and ham. The second would have to be parmigiana di melanzane with fried potatoes and peppers on the side. Finally, for dessert, tiramisu… all, obviously, homemade.

What is your Italian hometown’s signature dish?

‘NdujaAs in most countries, Italy has a rich list of excellent regional products. Many of these are even exported abroad, as they are delicious and appreciated by various European and non-European countries. Without a doubt, the best product from my region, Calabria, is ‘nduja. ‘Nduja is a particularly spicy, spreadable pork sausage typically made with pig parts such as the shoulder and belly. Producers combine the pork with tripe, roasted peppers, and a mixture of spices. ‘Nduja originates from the small southern Calabrese town of Spilinga. Italians mainly serve it with slices of bread or with ripe cheese. My hometown, Catanzaro, also has its signature dish. It’s called Morzeddhu alla Catanzarisi. This is prepared with tripe and beef offal, tomato paste, chilli pepper, salt, a bay leaf, and oregano.

Traditional Morzeddhu

Morzeddhu, a Calabrian staple

Morzeddhu must be eaten while hot, perhaps with a further splash of spicy sauce. It also must be eaten in the pitta, a typical Catanzaro bread shaped like a flattened donut and with little or no crumb inside.

According to legend, Morzello, or Morzeddhu in the local dialect, was born from that mother of invention, necessity. An impoverished widow was forced to accept odd jobs to support her hungry children. On Christmas Eve, her boss asked her to clean a slaughterhouse and dispose of the waste in the nearby river, Fiumarella.

Worried about what she would serve her hungry children for Christmas dinner, she saved the meat, cleaned it, and prepared a meat soup. And thus, Morzello was born.

What is the most famous Thai dish in Phuket, Thailand?

Without a doubt, Pad Thai is one of the country’s most iconic dishes and is easy to find all over Phuket. There are two main types of Pad Thai, Pad Thai Gai and Pad Thai Goong. Gai includes chicken and Goong, shrimp. Pad Thai is a stir-fried dish typically made with rice noodles, chicken or shrimp, tofu, scrambled egg, bean sprouts, and other vegetables. The ingredients are sautéed together in a wok, which creates rapid heat distribution. Once finished, chefs serve Pad Thai with peanuts, sugar, chili peppers, and a lime wedge on the side.

And just for the record… Pad Thai is my second favorite Thai dish. I prefer Pad See Ew which is similar but has a sweeter sauce.

Pad See Ew Goong

What types of Italian cuisine do you cook in Thailand?

When I arrived in Phuket, I thought it would have been impossible to reproduce typical Italian recipes at home for various reasons. The first challenge was surmounting the impossibility of finding all the authentic Italian ingredients. Next, we had to overcome the lack of an oven in the house. Ovens are critical for cooking different Italian dishes such as the famous Lasagne al Forno or pizza. Over time, we have fortunately managed to get almost everything we need to taste a bit of home. In fact, after a whole first year of researching, we managed to find a house that had a professional oven inside.

Homemade bread, a frequent Italian cuisine at Diego's house

Now, we can cook any type of Italian dish. In fact, we have become so accustomed to making Italian food at home that we’ve eaten out very few times. Both my father and I are able to prepare any type of Italian recipe — first courses, main courses, side dishes, and delicious desserts — that enrich our daily meals all the time. Finally, we also make our own homemade bread.

Where do you source Italian ingredients from?

Fortunately, it is not difficult to find Italian products in Thailand. There are various shopping centers and supermarkets like Makro and Villa Market, offering imported products. However, you have to be very careful when selecting your products. Everyone can easily find products of apparent Italian origin, but some of these  are actually not from Italy at all.

For example, an Italian knows very well that if he has to buy pasta, he can trust brands such as De Cecco, La Molisana, and Agnesi. All of these brands are available in Thailand, so we can avoid other little-known brands of dubious origin. The same goes for Italian mozzarella. Clearly the prices for authentic Italian products are higher than in Italy. For example, Italian fresh and aged cold cuts and cheeses cost at least 40% more. However, for some products (such as pasta), I can find similar prices to Italy.

If you were to pick a favorite Italian cuisine to make for us that you make on a regular basis, what would it be?

I practice making real Italian pizza for my loved ones frequently. Every two weeks, typically on a Saturday evening, we will get together and eat Italian pizza. My father is a great teacher, but I will obviously be his heir sooner or later and am determined to perfect it.

The preparation process has almost centennial origins, handed down from generation to generation. It has been perfected even more over time by generations of Italians.

The "Mother Yeast" Diego uses for Italian Cuisine
The Mother Yeast

The extraordinary thing is that my father created the so-called “mother yeast.” It is a natural yeast capable of regenerating itself eternally. It certainly has significantly improved the quality of the pizza. Additionally, you can vary the outcome by using different types of flour. Each flour has a specific protein intake capable of creating a unique gluten shield of its kind.

Spread the dough in round and rectangular trays. Follow that with a long process of rest, maturation, and fermentation for about three days in the fridge. At the end of this period, the pizzas are removed from the fridge, covered with a cloth, and left to rise for several hours. Finally, we move on to stuffing and baking. The oven must be at a maximum temperature of around 250 or 300 degrees Celsius. First, bake the pizzas on the bottom rack without ingredients in order to cook the bottom of the pizza. Then, add the ingredients. Put the pizza back into the oven. This time, put it on the top shelf to finish cooking.

Do you have to substitute the ingredients for the dish you are making with Thai ones? If so, what are the differences in ingredients that you see in Thailand vs Italy?

We managed to obtain all the Italian products we needed to make the pizza without having to resort to any Thai substitute. However, we have added a dose of creativity by trying to prepare some pizzas with typically Thai ingredients. For example, we made Tom Yam Goong Pizza. It is an Italian-made pizza with Thai seafood and Thai chili peppers.

While we were able to find all of the ingredients necessary to make the pizza, I can say that the Thai culinary culture is very rich in strong and contrasting flavors. Many of these flavors would seem absurd to mix together if cooking traditional Italian cuisines. This is because Thai food is actually based on a balance between different flavors, including spicy, sour, sweet, salty, and bitter.  Sometimes, chefs combine these flavors together. For example, the famous Thai dish Som Tam is both intensely savory and insanely sour — in short, the flavors of southeast Asia mixed on a plate. Every Som Tam dish normally contains garlic, chili, fish sauce, lime juice, and dried shrimp. All these flavors fit with the direction that Som Tam should “taste sweet, sour, hot, and salty.”

Do you get creative and make Thai-Italian dishes with both themes or cultures in the dishes?

My culinary passions obviously led me to the preparation of typical Thai dishes. My Thai girlfriend likes to say that one of the Thai dishes that I like to prepare, the famous Khao Pad Goong, “comes out better than the original.”

After studying and reproducing the original version of the dish, I dedicated myself to experimenting and mixing the two cultures. I managed to propose a unique and delicious Italian-Thai version of Khao Pad Goong.

I added some anchovies, dried tomatoes, sweet pepper, celery, and Italian parsley to the traditional recipe. Furthermore, I also replaced the classic rice oil with extra virgin olive oil instead. The result tastes fabulous and the multitude of flavors generated in the mouth tastes literally sublime.

What is your favorite Thai ingredient to mix with Italian food?

I think that soy sauce is a very interesting ingredient I discovered in Thailand. Chefs in Italy rarely use soy sauce in Italian cuisines. This type of sauce goes fabulously with fish dishes such as salmon. It also tastes wonderful when added to typical Italian salads with a Romaine lettuce base.

Diego is an extrovert and very sociable person but enjoys eating Italian cuisine while living in Thailand. He prefers making pizza for his family and friends. However, when he is not baking homemade pies, he recommends trying these three pizzerias in this order:

1) Pizzeria Da Moreno in Patong (probably the best ever, since it follows the authentic Neapolitan recipe)

2) Pizzeria Agli Amici in Chalong.

3) Trattoria Pizzeria Cosa Nostra in Chalong.

In his next article, Diego will share more about Italian cuisine. Be sure to stop by and check it out. To discover what other recipes Dreams Abroad members are learning about, read about Edgar’s experience making traditional paella!

Bali, Indonesia: On an Island, Under the Sun

Taylor SimpsonWe set off traveling with a desire to share in the human experience. We wanted to discover new places, taste new cuisine, and connect with new people; purposefully making ourselves uncomfortable and pushing our limits. Ultimately, we traveled to meet ourselves in our truest form. The familiar adage ‘travel far enough you meet yourself’ will always remind me of my time on an island, under the sun in Bali, Indonesia

My husband owns an online business. This has allowed us to travel extensively over the years. This fits perfectly with my dreams of being a travel writer and photographer. We decided there was no time like the present to traipse through southeast Asia. It was then that we packed up our life in sunny California. Our goal was to cut our living expenses in half so that we might live a freer, more fulfilling life. 

Breaking Free from the Grind

With nothing but fifteen pounds on our backs and a sense of adventure, my husband and I set off to new horizons. We hoped to escape the rat race of America, pay off our student debt, and to embrace a quieting of the mind and soul. We flew to Hong Kong and spent a month in northern Vietnam. Additionally, we traveled south through Singapore before we finally made it to Bali, Indonesia. 

It is no secret that Bali is a beloved destination for travelers of all kinds. Adventure seekers, soul searchers, digital nomads, and even the rich and famous all have a place on this island in Indonesia. We were drawn to the island for the weather, the especially unrivaled natural beauty, and the whisper that magical things happen on the ‘island of the gods.’ We were hoping some of those magical things might include trekking through the jungles, spending all day at the beach, and making large payments on our student loans. 

Photo by Taylor Simpson of a beach in Bali, Indonesia
Photo by Taylor Simpson

We rented a small furnished apartment a few minutes’ walk from the beach for five hundred dollars a month. We ate one meal a day at the warung two houses down for three dollars a day. Not surprisingly, I have yet to find better chicken fried rice than what the locals whipped up. Days in Bali, Indonesia pass slowly, guided mostly by the rising and setting of the sun. Power outages are frequent, locals tend their rice paddies barefoot in the heat of the day, and stray dogs are taken in as neighborhood pets. 

Island Life in Bali, Indonesia

As the days turned into weeks, we found ourselves settling into the comfortable rhythm of island life. What was it that made this island so special? For starters, the spirit of the locals set the tone for a relaxed and unquestionably pleasant environment. They are kind, giving, slow to speak, and always smiling. They perform ceremonies for the phases of the moon and to celebrate life and loss. Children meditate on the beach during the school day — a stark contrast from the hustle and bustle of the average American city. The neighbors all know each other — Their children play together in the streets while parents share in the day’s adventures over a cup of coffee. I have yet to experience this in any place I’ve lived in the US. In fact, I have rarely known my next-door neighbor’s name. 

Photo by Taylor Simpson
Photo by Taylor Simpson

The tiny neighborhood we were part of, even if just for two months, made it clear how influential a sense of community and togetherness can be. We felt a sense of safety and ease I have yet to encounter anywhere else. And slowly, I began to feel happy and truly content. It turns out you don’t need a large home, multiple cars, a closet full of clothes, or a climb up the corporate ladder.

I wore the same thing every day, worked on what I am most passionate about, and got plenty of exercise and time outdoors. I was finally able to sit down and read some books (and a lot of them, at that)! Plus, I had time to connect with family and friends back home as well as make new friends over chicken satay and broken English. All of this while simultaneously paying off significant portions of our exorbitant university costs from years prior. 

Photo by Taylor Simpson
Photo by Taylor Simpson

Returning Stateside

I would spend a lifetime in Bali if I could. As a matter of fact, we talk frequently about moving to Bali full time. Since returning to the United States, I have experienced the reality of reverse culture shock. Often, I daydream about walking down to the beach to sit by the ocean to meditate on all the things I’m grateful for. I dream of stepping into a life of presence and true joy. I found what my truest self could be in Bali, Indonesia. When I reflect on my time there, I find I always long to return to that island, under the sun.

Taylor’s experience in Bali is truly inspiring. With absolutely stunning photography, her visit there came to life. Visit Taylor’s website to see more photos from Taylor!

by Taylor Simpson

Teaching During a Pandemic: A Teacher Abroad

By Amanda WhittenSelfie of Amanda Whitten while abroad teaching during a pandemic.

Catch up on Amanda’s first interview before joining her for the second part of her three-part interview!

This has been one of the weirdest years ever for me, not just for teaching, but in general. I’m sure that the same could be said for everyone else, as well. It’s been transformative in a number of ways, which I’ll get to in a moment. This year has affected my relationships with my students, my co-workers, and even myself. One thing is for sure: the world is changing and we must adapt to it. Read on to find out how I adapted to teaching during a pandemic!

What is a typical day at your school like? 

Pre-coronavirus, I typically arrived 20-30 minutes before class because of the public transportation schedule. As soon as I arrived, I’d head to the English department room, my safe haven, and hideout. Then, I’d check to make sure that I had all my ducks in a row and that I knew what I was supposed to be doing for each of my classes. I’d also make any last-minute necessary lesson plans or preparations and basically mentally prepare myself to go into performance mode. If I had any extra time, I’d go downstairs to the cafeteria to have a coffee and chat with any of the teachers already there.

This year, classes ranged from about 9:25am to 2:00pm, which is a pretty easy schedule, I’d say. Some days, I’d have a planning period, and other days I’d have a constant stream of classes apart from one break from 11:10am to 11:40am.

Afterwards, I’d rush home, eat very quickly, and then rush back into the world to go to my private lessons, academy classes, or whatever else I had going on. Of course, I had to adjust to teaching during a pandemic, so that all changed. I spent more time doing hobbies such as painting, and am really proud of how much I’ve grown as an artist so far! 

Teaching During a Pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic initially began, I’d wake up an hour early, eat breakfast, shower, prepare my headset, laptop, and generally wait attentively to see if any students needed any help or wanted to talk in general. Other than that, I just uploaded their various activities and scheduled them to appear during class time. Kahoot and Educaplay were invaluable online resources for making quizzes about literally anything that the students could complete. 

After a while, other than the occasional video call, I started waking up two minutes before class because I had discovered, much to my lazy side’s delight, that Google classroom could be downloaded on cell phones. Then I could lazily browse and be “present” in class while laying in bed. A difficult and tiresome job, really.  

How many people do you work with? How many classes do you teach?

I interact frequently with a nucleus of about four to five teachers, but usually there are many more who actually teach at the school. At IES Pablo Neruda, I had sixteen classes and therefore, had sixteen working hours. 

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

I considered myself very lucky at what was, until June 30th, my current school. With a good rapport with all of the teachers I worked with, I developed what I would consider actual friendships with at least three of them. I really admire all of the teachers I personally worked with and basically feel that I won the lottery. All I wanted was to feel respected, appreciated, and accepted here in Spain. They did an amazing job of doing that for me. It was and is mutual. Even while teaching during a pandemic, I can honestly say these were the best coworkers I’ve had so far in Spain.

Amanda Whitten and Leganes while Amanda was abroad teaching during a pandemic

What is your favorite part of the day? Why?

I would say that I had a few favorite groups that I really enjoyed working with. A bachillerato group I worked with always reacted enthusiastically to my activities whether an introduction to country music (seeing these kids goofily sing Garth Brooks literally made my year) or getting into heated debates, I had so much fun. I also really enjoyed teaching my 1st eso kids, which are pretty much 6th graders. They are still so full of excitement for learning. They loved telling me about their favorite foods and what they did on the weekends. How could I not adore them? 

I have a few favorite students scattered here and there: naughty ones who could make me laugh as well as academic and friendly ones who enjoyed interacting with me. All of these students made my days more enjoyable. While I can’t say that I had a specific favorite part of each day, I can say that I had certain highlights during the week. It makes leaving this part of my life behind all the more bittersweet.

How is the material being taught to students? Is there a specific method being used?

It really depends on whichever teacher is in charge. For example, one teacher may prefer to heavily rely on going through the book via a program on the computer. This makes it easy to correct and grade exercises as a group. Others focus on using their book as a guideline, choosing to focus more on activities and conversation. The former may be easier, but it is so much more boring for both me and the students. The latter can be more challenging, but it is so much more fun and engaging, provided the students are interested. 

How do you prepare your lessons for each class? If you don’t plan lessons, how do you prepare for class?

Some classes required no preparation whatsoever. One teacher would give me the page numbers and exercises to correct via the computer program, and that was it. Usually, I was told that I had the freedom to come up with extra activities, but since these instructions were usually given right before class or the day before, I rarely ever knew what we were going to be going over. And for those classes, the activities were meant to “complement” the lesson, not detract. 

For other classes, I would be given a topic to make a presentation on or perhaps a topic to practice conversation around. These practice conversations would be easy enough to research a bit, and perhaps make a PowerPoint if necessary. 

Amanda Whitten pointing at a frog while abroad in Madrid teaching during a pandemic

Still, others would have me go over certain pages in the book, but without an answer key. I usually answered the questions myself before class so that I didn’t embarrass myself in front of the kids, teens, or even literal adults. 

Fortunately for me, I never had to worry about teaching actual grammar at this school, thank goodness. The teachers left the listening and conversation practice up to me, for the most part. And if there’s anything that I apparently have a gift for, it is a gift for gab. 

Do you work at a bilingual school? Is English being taught as a subject or throughout all classes?

I have worked at a bilingual school in the past, but I much preferred working at a traditional school. The reason being is that it’s difficult to teach technical concepts such as art theory or, god forbid, science and math, to even the most academically advanced students. Yes, I much prefer the straightforwardness of teaching ESL English in English classes rather than English through a different subject. I can’t imagine the challenges of teaching during a pandemic at a bilingual school. 

What goals or standards are classroom teachers using to measure the performance of their students?

If the students managed to speak up at all, they would get a point in their favor in the grade book. This would all add up at the end of the year, and it could hurt or help their grade. It was really all about mere participation, with the exception of when students gave rubric graded speeches. I’m sure that the teachers themselves had more extensive ways of measuring progress. However, in my classes, it was all about showing up and speaking up, no matter how quietly or hesitantly. Honestly, it was good enough for me because, concerning foreign languages, it’s not about the destination, but the journey. And that journey is rocky and full of humiliating errors. So if they even dare to take a step, I applaud them. 

Amanda's work station while teaching during a pandemic.
My work station I set up to teach during the pandemic.

 

Looking back at our first interview, what have you learned most about yourself in the classroom this year?

My answer applies not just to our first interview, but also all the way to the beginning of my illustrious teaching career. I have learned to relax, breathe when rattled, not be a hammer, and be a high five. I have learned that having a good time, even if just playing an invigorating game, can be worth fifteen grammar lessons. If a student is laughing and smiling, then they are learning. 

Amanda will share her plans for next year in a follow-up interview. We look forward to hearing what she has to say and where her future will take her, especially considering her success in teaching during a pandemic. Be on the lookout for her third interview.

A Faculty Led Trip to Studying in Thailand

Morgan Yearout studied at Washington State University (“Go Cougs!” as she would say) and is a first-generation college student. She is the first in her family to leave the USA for educational purposes; everyone else in her family left the country either for military deployment or for a childhood trip to Canada or Mexico. Taking her first international flight to Thailand, nonetheless during political protests, was a big deal for Morgan and her family. The following interview recaps a few of Morgan’s experiences and suggestions for anyone wishing to pursue studies abroad.

What sparked your dream to study abroad?

Washington State University’s Hospitality Business Management (HBM) program has an International Experience Requirement. It consists of two semesters of a foreign language or studying abroad for a semester. The HBM program also offered a faculty-led study abroad opportunity in Thailand with teachers and students that I already shared classes with, easing my family’s fears. This was especially important since it was my first time leaving the USA aside from when I had crossed into Canada during high school for a Junior Miss parade.

Buddha Thailand Buddha Phuket Buddhism

What were your expectations before you left? How did they change once you arrived to the location and what changed after having completed the program?

I tend to not have expectations so I don’t feel let down. Also, I had nothing to compare what I was about to experience with so I did not needlessly ponder the unknown and simply left with an open mind. I was, however, excited to see how other parts of the world operate, experience beautiful lands, and hopefully make friends with the people studying through my program.

After arriving, I found that deeply-rooted traditions, history, vibrant colors, kind people, and unadulterated natural habitation teemed in Thailand. It was infectious to my soul and transformed my thought processes regarding the western world. I left studying in Thailand feeling more connected to the Thai and renounced material possessions even more once back in the US. This led to my struggles with reverse culture shock after returning to the United States.

Phuket, Thailand

Culture Shock Hits Hard

After returning from studying in Thailand, I was officially three years into my business degree. I thought about quitting to pursue a degree in psychology. I wanted to be more connected and helpful to people. This was not a far-fetched idea for me. It had been something I wanted to do when entering college. I was in a state of mind where I did not want to perpetuate consumerism, capitalism, individualism, etc. with a business degree when I had just experienced so much joy in a poor, communal-based society.

Luckily, I had support from Student Support Services/TRiO counselors to help me grapple with my feelings and life plans. I ended up finishing my B.A. in Hospitality Business Management and graduated Magna Cum Laude. I had decided to volunteer my time trying to improve life for humans and animals rather than throw money at a problem. It took time and a lot of hard work but I eventually cultivated the sense of community I yearned for.

What did you not expect?

I did not expect to feel more connected to the Thai culture than the one I had known all my life. It was interesting to feel like more of an outsider around people I came abroad with than those I met in this new land. To experience the socio-economic disparity while attending a college campus is one thing, but it was even more distinct while studying abroad.

I was putting myself through school — relying on fieldwork in the summers and campus work throughout the school year. I intensely hoarded pennies for three years and applied for any scholarships or grants available to alleviate the financial burden of accomplishing my dream of studying abroad. This was a different experience than the majority of people I knew in college or while studying abroad.

Many came from well-to-do families that provided the financial resources they needed, making lifestyle and upbringing differences very apparent. I spent my disposable time traversing the area by foot. While I engaged in free activities, others often lounged by the pool bar, hung out on the beach getting massages, went out to eat, partied, or shopped. These were all things I could not afford and a lifestyle I was unfamiliar with. This led to feelings of isolation. Nonetheless, I would not have changed anything. This experience and the reflection time thereafter allowed my belief systems to be broken down, reconstructed, and expanded. It forever altered the way I emphasize the importance of people and loving them while disregarding the societal pressure to accumulate possessions.

What have you done since you studied abroad?

Seeing as how I studied abroad in the Summer of 2010, I have lived almost a whole decade since then! Crazy!

Briefly:

  • I moved to Texas with whatever could fit in my Coupe upon graduating with my Bachelor of Arts in HBM. I lived without the internet for a year and slept on an air mattress for three months
  • Worked corporate for five years
  • Became certified in yoga teacher training
  • Became certified in personal training
  • Taught fitness classes as a side project
  • Mentored high schoolers through Big Brother Big Sisters’ Mentor 2.0 program
  • Volunteered with the animal shelter
  • Taught fifth grade Sunday school
  • Sorted food at the North Texas Food Bank
  • Completed the Cowtown Marathon in Fort Worth, TX, two half marathons (Valencia, Spain and Austin, TX) and a women’s only Duathlon in McKinney, TX.
  • Competed in a NPC bodybuilding competition
  • Acquired my motorcycle endorsement and logged over 10K miles in the five years of owning my moto
  • Moved to Madrid as an English assistant and lived with the kindest host family for a year
  • Became PADI Open Water Diver Certified in Malta
  • Spent quality time in 27 states and 25 countries
  • Moved back to Texas
  • Re-immersed in my passion for leading teams and supporting peoples’ livelihoods through revenue managing hotels

Trip to Phuket Thailand

What’s your favorite memory from the time studying in Thailand?

Oh boy, I have so many! A vivid one is going to a local market and experiencing the variety of activity, colors, smells, and foods! It was an atmosphere unlike any other. It offered an awe-inspiring inside look at how the locals shop. We collected all of our ingredients from the market and proceeded to make authentic Thai dishes. It was my first “formal” training in how to cook international cuisine and I am still so enthralled by the combination of flavors that Thai food incorporates! Thai cooking is often a quick process, something I can appreciate as well!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to study abroad?

If you want to study abroad, then dream big dreams and make it a reality! Studying abroad is a fantastic way to explore your identity. It can foster a deeper understanding of how integrated our world truly is.

Advice For Studying Abroad:

  • Start by weighing the benefits of a faculty-led study abroad program, enlisting a third party,  or going directly through an international institution to fulfill your study abroad wishes. If faculty-led, you may be able to pay in-state tuition as I did. This made it much more affordable than other programs I was interested in.
  • I suggest targeting somewhere with a language you wish to learn, even if at a rudimentary level, since language is deeply entwined with culture. If you have a desire to know the language, it can help you commit it to memory and feel more integrated into the society as well. Also, your classes may or may not be taught in the country’s language so choosing a country with a language you would appreciate knowing could make your studies more enjoyable.

Be Honest

  • Apply for financial aid, scholarships, and pick up extra hours at work while in school or during the summer to minimize the stress of finances while abroad.  You want to be able to focus on the experience. Worrying about funding can detract from being fully present.
  • Be completely honest with yourself about why you are choosing a specific destination. If it is heavily weighted on the Instagram pictures you have encountered and/or envision replicating, please choose elsewhere. If traveling for superficial reasons you will feel the efforts and expenses to get abroad were not worthwhile. Traveling is something to be felt and images are to spark that feeling. Images in and of themselves will not bring you joy.
  • Finally, explore making a “Top 3-5 Bucket List” to accomplish while abroad. This is something I did for studying abroad and still till this day for all my travels. I find that if I have a distinct purpose that’s achievable, I reflect on trips fondly long after it is over. A full-fledged agenda with no room for spontaneity can lead to an inorganic experience.

A Wiser, More Open Person After Studying in Thailand

Overall, studying in Thailand was a defining time in Morgan’s life! Much of her personal growth during college came within that short period of time. It also led to her insatiable desire to understand the world in depth. Her experiences abroad have also benefited her family, especially her siblings, of whom she has taken on several excursions.

Morgan’s siblings now engage in their own travels and continue to evolve their views of the world! You see, increased knowledge is not just about yourself. It can have a ripple effect on your family, friends, and the generations to come. Studying abroad can be a key way to expand your family’s legacy through knowledge building. If studying abroad is in your sites, dream big dreams and make them a reality! Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or comments about Morgan’s journeys studying in Thailand.

by Leesa Truesdell

Studying Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark

Ellen Hietsch is a Dreams Abroad team member who is returning to Madrid to teach abroad for her third year. Before living and working in Madrid, she participated in a study abroad program. Ellen found the program through her bachelor’s curriculum at Dickinson College. She studied abroad for one year through the Danish Institute and participated in a core course that focused on migration sociology. This course allowed her to meet with organizations who had connections to migrant issues in Denmark and Sweden. Ellen found her master’s program due to this experience. While studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, she lived with a host family. The main transportation infrastructure of the town were bike paths. They remain friends to this day.

What sparked your dream to study abroad?

“I can’t say there was a single spark. I remember coming into college not knowing what my major would be, nor any career paths that interested me. But, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of studying abroad. I chose my alma mater partially for its renowned programs overseas.

Looking back before college, I can spot little nudges toward wanting to study abroad. Funnily enough, I didn’t leave the US until I studied abroad at 21. Before that, I had gathered snippets from all corners of the world through some serendipitous circumstances in my tiny hometown. Carlisle was not only in the same town as my future college, but also the host of the US Army War College. New military families from around the world arrived each summer to call Carlisle home for the year. Frequently, their children attended my schools.

The new arrivals were a fascinating twist from the mundane that tends to hang over small Pennsylvania towns. I greeted them with curiosity and excitement. The college itself was also a source of international exchanges. A first grade classmate’s mother was a Spanish professor. She would come to our classroom a few times a month to teach us the fundamentals of Spanish. My first few units of Middle School Spanish were a breeze thanks to these mini lessons.”

What were your expectations before you left? How did they change once you arrived to the location and what changed after having completed the program?

“Honestly, I was scared. I had reached the moment in which I realized what had drawn me to my college, only to linger back at on-campus orientation crying to the Copenhagen program assistant. After two and a half years, I was finally starting to find my place at college. There I was, about to voluntarily leave for four months. I feared that my foundation would shatter in my absence.

Sunset at the beach

Copenhagen solidified that foundation, and helped make it applicable beyond college. Through my core course on migration at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, I had the opportunity to study across borders. We had conversations with key players involved with immigration policies in three different countries. It was at a time when it was a heated topic locally: the week I arrived in Denmark, the Danish government passed a series of controversial immigration reforms. Through this class structure, I could witness sociological topics play out in daily life rather than simply reading about them behind university walls.”

What did you not expect?

“I could have never guessed how comfortable I’d feel in Copenhagen from Day One. It wasn’t even a comfort developed through challenge and compromise. Little differences were wondrous. My hodge-podged neighborhood of whimsical playgrounds, quaint houses, and lush fields reconstructed what I believed a suburb to be. My entire time in Denmark was a treasure hunt for change. Even nuisances like face-numbing morning bike rides became an awe-inspiring reward. In the States, it wouldn’t be possible to bike wherever I wanted!

In Denmark, I finally found a way of life to which I could relate. Cultural differences embraced me through the vessel of my host family. We’d share dinners with the grandeur of home cooked meals and lit candles each night. They instantly welcomed me into the inner circle of family gatherings, of which there were a few each month. The Danes I knew cared about their careers, and work shared a place at the table with their social lives and personal passions. I envied their balanced lives, especially since I grew up and went to college in the fast-paced Northeastern United States. It is a lifestyle that is now stitched into my own value set.”

studying abroad in denmark

 

What have you done since you studied abroad?

“I now live in Madrid, Spain, where I am teaching English to students of all ages. Returning to the US for my senior year was the beginning of my quest for an international career, on which this is a stop. I hope that obtaining my master’s in a subject like political sociology will open up more permanent opportunities abroad. This is opposed to being caught in yearly cycles of paperwork to maintain a lifestyle in which I thrive.

Thriving isn’t simple, however. Gone is the gentle hand that guided me through study abroad’s classrooms full of Americans and carefully curated host family matches. Madrid has matched me up against some of the greatest challenges of my life. It’s all been in the name of the international career I crave. Yet, I find myself handling each roadblock with greater grace, and have built up resilience reserves that I couldn’t have imagined for myself three years ago. Through it all, the grand prize of living internationally remains luminous.”

What advice would you give to someone who wants to study abroad?

“Disconnect from life Stateside as much as possible: friends, family, and the foods you’re craving will be there when you return. Of course, it’s important to manage the presence of these two worlds rather than ignoring one or the other, but if you must lose yourself somewhere, choose where you are in the moment. Appreciate the tiny differences and seek to understand the complexities of those that present challenges. These challenges are not insurmountable. However, viewing them through strictly an American lens is another means of getting lost in translation.

studying abroad in copenhagen denmark

During my early weeks of studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, I was constantly in contact with my friends back at home for innocent reasons. I wanted to share my awe with the people who mattered most. I was often frustrated when their reactions to my tales of Copenhagen didn’t match my own. Focusing on relationships with my host family and friends abroad eased my frustrations. Even when disagreements arose, we could have more complex conversations about them since we were living through this unique experience together. Difficulties became more navigable as I learned how and with who I should bring them up.”

Study Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark is an Experience

Ellen shared that studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark changed her life for the better. It not only helped her form a more internationally-focused mind. It also gave her a different perspective that she might not have had, had she not lived in such a different culture. Her host family continues to inspire and encourage her. She looks forward to her next steps after her third year of teaching in Madrid, Spain. For now, she is enjoying her moments abroad soaking in Spanish fiestas, tapas, and cafes!

 

The Opportunity to Teach and Travel

by Ellen Hietsch

alex warhall hiking

For a second year in a row, Alex Warhall and I have found ourselves stateside as summer saunters into Madrid. While I’m admittedly glad to be away from the stifling heat, I miss the tranquility that sneaks into Madrid’s normally stuffed streets at the height of summer as most of the city flees to summits and seasides. “Eh, everyone leaves in the summer, you’re not missing much,” friends told me as I complained about being dragged back to the US by bureaucracy yet again. But Madrid in August will always be wondrous to me. It hearkens back to my arrival at the dawn of the month nearly two years ago. Read all about his second interview and teaching at a bilingual school in Madrid, Spain here.

I met Alex on our first day in the city. He appears in all of my most important memories of that magical August. A time when the nightly festivities and languid afternoons spooked away any anxieties we’d had. While aspects of our teaching experiences have diverged, our mindsets about living in Madrid have run parallel from year to year as we’ve grown more attached to the city. What Alex initially considered to be a year-long break from his career stateside has morphed into preparations to teach in Madrid for a third year. Alex has paused from his busy summer job mentoring international high school students in Boston to explain what led to this decision.

What was the most important thing you learned while living abroad?

“The most important thing I’ve learned while living abroad is to enjoy as many moments as I can — good moments and more notably bad ones, too. Living abroad comes with highs and lows. On the one hand, I’ve had the opportunity to travel throughout Europe and beyond. I’ve met new people and built lifelong friendships. On the other hand, I’ve dealt with the stress of apartment hunting while speaking a foreign language. I’ve experienced those awkward lonely moments while solo traveling. I’ve also struggled with being far away from my family and friends back home.

Amid these highs and lows, I’ve seen real growth in myself. When I say that I enjoy the low moments, I don’t mean that I love being stressed out, awkward, or sad. Instead, I mean that I’ve learned to appreciate the moments when I step outside my comfort zone. I know that means I’m becoming the person I set out to be when I moved abroad.”

How have you done with accomplishing your goals while living in Madrid?

“I feel that I have done quite well in accomplishing my goals while living abroad. Living abroad itself has been a goal of mine for as long as I can remember. So that goal is checked off. Learning a foreign language has been another goal of mine. I’m certainly not fluent in Spanish yet. Nonetheless, I have made major progress for someone who has studied for only two years.

Another goal of mine has been to grow more comfortable with performing in public. This year, I proudly played my ukulele and sang at an open mic night with one of my best friends. I’m excited to continue playing at these events this upcoming school year. Lastly, at the age of 23, I told myself that I’d run a marathon by the time I was 25. This year, at the age of 26, I successfully completed my first marathon while in Madrid. Although I did it a year later than my target age, I am still very pleased with the result. In fact, I find it quite poetic that I ran 26 miles at the age of 26. Living in Madrid has given me the opportunity to accomplish many goals I set for myself. I’m excited to see what this year brings.” 

What has been the biggest challenge about living abroad and what advice would you give on how to deal with that challenge?

“The biggest challenge about living abroad for me is definitely the language barrier. Having never studied Spanish in my life until moving abroad, my time in Madrid has been one continuous Spanish lesson. Though I consider myself to be highly motivated when it comes to learning the language, I have my days where I am too tired to translate my thoughts into Spanish. Other days, I prefer to speak in English so that I can express myself more deeply. As a result, I will spend much of my time with my English-speaking friends (mostly because I love their company) because it’s more comfortable for me.

traveling abroad

However, I’ve realized that much of my personal growth in the language occurs when I put myself in uncomfortable situations like going out with my Spanish coworkers despite anticipatory thoughts such as, “What are we going to talk about all night? Will I speak in the correct tense?” My advice for dealing with this struggle is to be confident in the Spanish that you’ve developed, and accept that you may not speak or understand perfectly every time. Making mistakes is the best way to improve. If you do this, it is likely that you will put yourself in situations where you will be able to grow.” 

Do you have any advice for other auxiliars interested in traveling while teaching abroad?

“My advice to other auxiliars who want to travel is to say, “yes.” If you’re unsure or hesitant about buying a ticket somewhere because it doesn’t exactly align with your budget for the month, say “yes.” Buy the ticket. If your coworkers invite you on a trip, but you were looking forward to staying in Madrid for the weekend, say “yes.” Every time I step off of a plane or train or bus and into a new city, I am always glad I decided to say “yes” to that opportunity. If you’re living abroad and you love to travel, but you find yourself hesitating on a destination for some reason, say “yes” to it. I’ve never regretted going anywhere, and I doubt you will. Sometimes it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

How has teaching abroad helped with your overall professional goals?

“I originally arrived in Madrid, Spain back in August 2017. I had just left behind my job as a copywriter in New York in pursuit of travel and good memories. Professional goals were not my main concern at the time. However, after spending two full school years working with the same students, I’ve realized that I enjoy teaching young children my native language. With this realization, I have been taking my job as an educator more seriously. As a result, I’ve improved my classroom management and lesson planning skills. It has become apparent that my main reason for returning to Spain is not for travel anymore (which I still do and value highly). Rather, it is to enhance my abilities as an educator. Truly, teaching abroad has raised my interest in pursuing a career in education.”

What was your most memorable moment in class? How do you feel now that school is ending?

“My sixth grade students and I worked on a performance for their graduation this year. During the final weeks of the school year, the students practiced singing the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” while I accompanied them on the ukulele. After two weeks of rehearsal, we performed the song at graduation in front of their families and friends. It went incredibly well despite the fact that we mumbled one of the verses to the song. At the end of the day, I think we captured the mood of the song by laughing it off together. This performance, to me, was the culmination of all the great times those sixth graders and I had spent in class together. I feel a little sad, but mainly proud. After two school years of working with them, I was proud to be part of their graduation.”

picture of spain

Since you are staying in Spain another year, will you be teaching at the same school? How do you feel about that?

“I will be teaching at the same school next year, making it my third consecutive year at this school. I’m really excited to return for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that I get the chance to reconnect with my coworkers that are also returning. The second reason is that I will get to see the growth and development of the students that I have been working with for the past two school years.” 

What is the most important piece of advice you can give someone wanting to Teach Abroad?

“For anyone who wants to give teaching abroad a try, I think it’s important to remember to keep an open mind and limit your expectations. Jump at the opportunity to teach abroad. I learned about Teach Abroad from a friend. When he described the program to me, I was excited to have a similar experience. After I got my school placement and started my job, I quickly realized that my experience was going to different than my friend’s. For example, he was teaching business professionals and only taught three sessions per day. This resulted in a schedule with more free time than mine. I found that my expectations definitely differed from reality. Nonetheless, I found that keeping an open mind allowed me to see the benefits that my school offered rather than fixate on what I didn’t have. 

I have a two hour lunch break where I can practice my Spanish and connect with my coworkers. I also get easy access to tutoring jobs in the neighborhood where I work. Fortunately, I don’t have to bounce around from neighborhood to neighborhood to give lessons in business English. If you’re someone who has discovered Teach Abroad through a friend, just remember that their experience — whether good or bad — will not be your experience. They can give you an idea of what to expect. However, don’t be surprised if your experience is totally different. In all likelihood it will be. Your experience will be unique in many ways that are personal to you. And that’s the beauty of Teach Abroad.”

The Opportunity to Teach and Travel

Alex is a determined person who has found a home in Madrid that fosters the realization of his dreams. After witnessing first-hand the journeys that his open-minded attitude made possible and further understanding his poignant philosophies through our conversations, I’m excited to see what year three holds for him.
If you would like to the opportunity to teach while traveling, connect with our facebook group to ask questions.
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