The Final Countdown
The top FOUR things I’ve done since I returned to the United States:
1) I continued to travel.
Throughout the semester, I had a couple of opportunities to stretch my wings once again, and I took them. During my cousin’s spring break, we drove off on a road trip to DC, and during my brother’s spring break, my family went to Colorado to ski in the mountains and visit family. I also went on a handful of smaller trips. One of my friends was studying at a small college in Chicago, and I spent a couple days with her. She introduced me to real macarons, the movie Frozen, and what life is like at a religious college. Another week, my mother, brother and I went on a spontaneous adventure up to the ice caves along Lake Superior. We left our house at 4am, drove for 6 hours, bundled up like little eskimos, hiked for a couple hours, took copious amounts of photos, drove on Lake Superior (my first lake driving experience!!) ate a fantastic fish dinner, and then drove home. All in one day. The caves were incredible to say the least, and I loved being able to just drop everything and go.
2) I volunteered. Extensively.
Thanks to family connections and family suggestions, I found two perfect volunteer opportunities. For just under two months, I worked Monday through Wednesday and Friday at a local Catholic Multicultural Center teaching English. I had zero experience before I started, but with good instincts, a positive attitude, and a little bit of trial and error, I learned just as much as my students did. One day I worked with a woman who had been a refugee in Bhutan. We spent a solid hour working through the sentence, “You’re welcome,” how to write it, how to pronounce it, when to use it. She had recently learned to write, and although the pencil shook in her frail hand and it took a long time to finish, the beaming smile she gave me when she had finished was a perfect reminder of why I loved that job. The love for learning is universal.
On Thursdays, I spent the day in a dual language immersion classroom for second graders, working as a teacher’s assistant. The students were taught exclusively in Spanish, except for during Science and English, and about half the class spoke Spanish at home while the others spoke English. It was fantastic. I had just enough responsibility to make me feel like I was contributing, but not enough to make the days feel like work. I’d get to help students one on one during class, listen to the teacher explain addition in Spanish, plant semillas (seeds) in the classroom garden, lead small group activities, and play with the students. During some lunches I’d sit in the teachers lounge and listen to the daily joys and sorrows and the planning of future lessons, and other days I’d eat with my students, chatting about topics that interest second graders in Spanglish and playing basketball and four square during recess. It was truly the best of the both worlds of school.
3) I earned my TEFL.
If you remember to way back in September, I mentioned in one of my blog posts that a young woman who had stayed with my host family years ago stopped by to visit on her way home from Argentina. She had shared a mountain of experiences and advice, and one of the things she strongly suggested I look into doing was earning a Teaching English as a Foreign Language certificate (TEFL). So I did it.
What is a TEFL you may be wondering. It’s a certificate that, coupled with any college degree and proof of English fluency, can help somebody get a job teaching English in whichever beautiful country around the world their heart desires. It’s a great thing to have on a resume for anybody who wants to try living abroad at any point in their life while being paid. For more information, google TEFL.
There are all sorts of different programs in all sorts of different places, but I opted for an intensive five week program at an institute close to my home town. “Intensive” felt like an understatement. Needless to say, I did not sleep much during those five weeks, but I feel that between the four different core classes, a handful of seminars, real teaching observation, lesson planning assignments, practicum teaching with an observer, one on one tutoring, and a ton of feedback, I was able to scrape the surface of what it takes to be a great teacher. Plus it was an enormous smack upside the head with a dictionary of academia. The program kept me busy for at least 8 hours every day, and I was quickly reminded how to deal with staying organized, doing homework, prioritizing plans and learning in a classroom setting. No regrets there.
A couple of my ESL students and I on our last day of class!
4) I reconnected with family, friends, and my home city.
The classic saying is “you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” After living in a different country with a different family and different friends for half a year, I came home with an even greater appreciation for the community I have in my Wisconsin home. In one of the original gap year plans, I was going to go abroad once again, and although there were moments the travel bug hit, I’m really glad I decided to stay local. Free time was scarce when I was in high school, and for the first time in years, I was able to really take advantage of everything the city I live in has to offer.
Even more importantly though, I had the opportunity to spend tons of time with my family and friends. With my closest friends and extended family, I had the freedom to both celebrate the big events, like birthdays and performances, as well as go on spur of the moment adventures like to ballroom dances, Brewers Games, treks and open mic at the Union. I was also able to hang out with my mother and brother way more than I ever had before. We played frisbee, cooked elaborate meals, went to plays and just spent quality time together. Because I’ll be leaving Madison again in the fall, I’m extremely grateful for all the time I was able to spend with my family and friends in the city I love. My family and I after Karl's first 5K race! Early morning freezing cold icy runs=excellent family bonding.
The top THREE tips I’d give to anybody living abroad:
1) Expect to give up most of the comforts from your old day to day life, but find a way to do at least one thing you love. Two families living right next door to eachother can have completely different lifestyles, so when you join a new family in a new culture, of course you're going to be bombarded by change. Just remember that different doesn’t necessarily mean right or wrong, and an open mind goes a long way when everything from meal times to family roles are not what you’re used to. That being said, find a way to continue to do something you are passionate about. Whether that’s finding a sports team or an art class or a group of people who do yoga on the beach, sharing a common interest is a great way to meet local people and bond over something even when your language skills are developing. Plus it’s essential for your mental health. Joining a running team was hands down the best decision I made during my entire semester abroad. It gave me an opportunity to keep running with people, something I love, and through the team, I met some of my best friends. Stretching before a run along the ocean. A causal Tuesday afternoon.
2) Don’t be afraid to ask. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard to ask for help or ask strangers questions even in your first language, but if you can overcome your fears and become comfortable asking questions, it’ll make your trip even better than you imagined, guaranteed. I took three freezing cold showers before I finally worked up the courage (and the language skills) to ask my host mother about it. She showed me the secret way to lessen the water pressure and thus increase the temperature, and that same night, as I was enjoying a nice hot shower, I decided I was not going to let cowardice prevent me from having the time of my life. By the end of the semester, I had no issue asking questions. Of course, keep safety in mind, and don’t be obnoxious, but sometimes asking locals questions is a fantastic idea; they have great recommendations on where to go to find the best cueca club, or what drink to order, or what book to read, or what activities are must do’s in the area, and they can help you to find the right bus, or avoid tourist traps, or understand directions. People are generally very kind and eager to offer help or advice, but they can’t read your mind. All you have to do is....ASK! Room decor at one of the tea shops that was recomended by a local. The things we could have missed out on....
3) Document document document! Take photos, keep a personal journal, write love letters, share a blog, draw pictures, record your voice, whatever it is that you want to do to record your feelings and experiences, do it! It’s a great way to see progress, see how you’ve grown and how your language skills have improved, and it’s essential if you want to remember all of the once in a lifetime moments, even those that seem unforgettable at the time. You will have incredible experiences left and right, guaranteed. However, there is no guarantee you will remember all of them come 3 months, three years, thirty years. It’s only been half a year, yet I’ve already had to depend on my journal to remember certain events and feelings. I also highly recommend keeping a blog. Anybody who is interested can follow along at their own leisurely pace, and even if only your mother always reads it, it’s still worth it; I’ve already gone back and re-read blog entries multiple times, and it’s an excellent blast down memory lane. Definitely do not let documenting prevent you from going out on an adventure with your host family, but it is worth a little time sacrifice, I promise. One afternoon Dana and I went on a photo shoot around the neighborhood we called home, taking pictures of everything we'd walked past over the previous months. This is the Reloj (clock), and it's a huge tourist photo op. Especially in the summer, there was always a crowd with cameras.
The top TWO things I miss even more than sopaipillas:
Spanish snuck up on me. One moment it was a completely foreign language that sort of soared in through one ear and out the other, and the next it had become part of who I am. When my family and I boarded the plane, I knew I was going home, but it wasn’t until we landed and all of the signs in the airport were only in English, and the advertisements in the bathrooms were in English, and the radio played English pop songs, that it a wave of sadness hit me. Before day one of being back was over, I had already begun to miss Spanish. I love the way the language rolls off my tongue for familiar words, but that I have to concentrate to say new ones. I love the funny errors I make or the tangents I have to take to get around a word I don’t know. I love the challenge of forming sentences and listening to others speak. And I love the way the language sounds, especially the familiar Chilean Spanish with all the mumbling, slurring and “po” and “weon”-ing. Spanish has become an important part of my life, and I plan on keeping it that way for years to come.
Paraíso means paradise in Spanish; it’s a fitting name. I miss the ocean and the brightly colored houses that paint the rolling hills, the expressive street art murals that kept me wondering, the little shops full of surprising purchases and people, the winding cobblestone roads that I could wander without ever getting lost (thanks to the hills), the street vendors with those crispy, deep fried disks of flaky heaven (sopaipillas!), the night life that exploded from the clubs onto the streets, the view I saw overlooking the city, especially from the balcony of Pablo Neruda’s house, the stories and legends and history that seeped out of every corner, and even the edgy-ness that made the city dangerous in certain parts. Even the people who live in Valparaíso are distinct, and I miss them too. Sure parts of the city are dirty and there are signs of abject poverty, but there’s also a strong collective culture, more so than any other city I’ve been to, and that really drew me in. I miss paradise. And I miss the stairs of course!
The top ONE decision I’ve made thus far in my life:
1) Taking a gap year!
The term “year off” could not be further from the truth; it would be better described as a year on. I could talk about the past 12 months of my life for hours on hours on hours and still not cover all the lessons I’ve learned, all the memories I’ve made, all the ways that I’ve grown, all the things I’ve discovered about myself, and perhaps most importantly, all the confidence I’ve gained. I’ve experience first hand that it’s okay to stray from the beaten path if that’s what your heart desires and that not knowing is absolutely okay. I’m done waiting for when the “real world” begins, and I’m living right here right now.
In my first blog post, I described myself as someone “looking for some adventure, a revived love for learning outside of the traditional classroom setting, new friends, a clearer sense of self, and memories that will last a lifetime.” I definitely found all of that and more in Chile. Very few people have the opportunity to drop everything and do exactly what they want to do, and I’m extremely grateful I was given the chance. When you’re young, curious, and free of serious responsibility, hay que aprovechar*, and that’s exactly what I did. (*Spanish phrase for seize the day!)
Well, that’s all folks. The end of the blog. A BIG THANK YOU to all who have taken the time to read a post here and there. Thank you again to my mother and my brother and all the rest of the loving people who made up my support web. Thank you Julies for the Wifi and electiricy in the middle of the Wisconsin woods. Thank you Chile.
My gap year has come to a close, and I am moving on to the next chapter of my life. Bring it on college; I am so ready.