My Life in the Cube

7 Dec
photo courtesy of editmycloset.wordpress.com

photo courtesy of editmycloset.wordpress.com

The biggest part of moving home has been that- thank god- I found a job! I had three glorious months of unemployment and as anyone who has ever been unemployed will tell you, it is not fun. Sure, I wasn’t working during the summer months. And, yes, I was living in a building that had a pool. But there is absolutely no way you can “take advantage of the time and relax” like everyone is telling you, because being unemployed is not like a vacation. You do not have a set time when you know you’ll be returning to the land of the living and finally start pulling in some money. You have no idea how much you should budget as you see your savings quickly dwindle. Looking back, I can breathe a sigh of relief, and even feel proud of myself that I was able to find a job after such a short amount of time- especially in today’s economic climate. But when you’re living the languid life of the unemployed, there is a constant undercurrent of anxiety to everything you do.

During my days of unemployment- and being car-less, to boot- I would intersperse my hours upon hours of reworking my resume/cover letter and applying for jobs with little breaks catching up on bad American TV or going to the pool for a quick swim. Since most other people were working, my days at the pool were spent with stay at home moms and their children, a Czech lifeguard who must have been promised a summer of fun in Boston, not knowing he would be stuck 30 minutes outside in Framingham, Massachusetts, and lots of older, retired women. Some of these women would make small talk, either because they knew my mother or because they were trying to figure out what my deal was. One day I was explaining my situation to a woman – how I was staying with my Mom for a while since I had just moved back from Spain. “Oh, so what are you doing with your time? Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked. “No, I’ve got to work on the job and the apartment before I can even think about that!” I replied. She mused over how different the priorities were for women of my generation than they were in her day. “I can’t help but laugh, because that statement is just so different from the way things were back in my day. And you know- I think that’s great! Things have changed so much since I was a girl.”

And so, since I figured the fastest way to get out of my mom’s hair was with a job- rather than going down the path of finding a man, getting him to fall in love with me, getting him to invite me to move in with him/marry him, which might take a wee bit longer- I put all my focus into networking and getting interviews. And it finally paid off. I work for an IT publishing firm just outside of Boston, which I’m really enjoying. Things are getting exciting as the plans to expand the market to Latin America are coming along a lot more quickly than was thought when I first took the job and it’s been great to be able to use Spanish in my work. And more simply, it’s been great having a daily purpose again and I’ve loved getting into a routine.

I have to say, my company is great. There’s a young feel to it- everyone is upbeat and positive. It’s a great environment to work in. But like I said in a previous post, every once in a while I do like to stop and take it all in just so I can put it all into perspective. And when I do that at work, I can’t help but laugh at how different my life is from my life in Barcelona. I mean, I work in a cubicle! And even if they call it a “cube” in what I can only assume is an attempt to make it seem more modern and cool, basically we all spend 8 hours every day in a playpen for adults. I don’t know why I find the fact that I am working in a corporate office so hilarious, but I am just absolutely obsessed with the weird culture surrounding these types of offices.

In Barcelona, I was a private teacher, so I spent all day running around the city, going from office to office or house to house teaching students of different levels and ages and needs. I was constantly on the go, doing errands in between classes or having coffee at some of my favourite cafés while I wrote in my journal or studied Spanish. I interacted with people all day long and no two days were the same. Life in my cube, however, is much more low-key. I spend my day working on projects- with one eye on the computer and the other just observing what’s around me. Now, don’t get me wrong- even though it’s a little more low-key, I like my job. I just can’t help but chuckle to myself over some of the more interesting aspects of office culture.

There were a few big selling points that my company likes to point out during the interview process and when they’re giving you your job offer to bagelentice you to accept. One is that there is a relaxed dress code, which is nice- I can wear jeans to work. Another is that they have a fridge stocked full of free water and sodas- very generous of them. Another is that we have a pretty modern, nice building, with a gym open to all employees.  But the selling point they really seem to push is Bagel Wednesday. Bagel Wednesday is exactly what you would imagine. Every Wednesday, our company buys bag and bags full of bagels for the employees. And seriously- people go cuh-razy for Bagel Wednesday. My first day of work was a Monday, and when making small talk with people about the company, a lot of conversations went something along the lines of “Yeah, it’s a great company to work for. I mean, our boss is great and always has our backs. The relaxed dress code is nice. And have you heard about Bagel Wednesday??” By Tuesday, my second day, the Bagel Wednesday talk was in full force with people throwing around comments like “Oh! And don’t forget Bagel Wednesday tomorrow! I usually try to get here early to make sure I get a good one- they go fast! The bagel slicers kind of suck, but they normally put out at least one big knife to cut it in half more easily. It’s a tough decision as to whether you should toast it or not- the lines can be kind of long and sometimes you just want that bagel fast!” And then, on Wednesday?! People sure were excited about their bagels. As people passed each other in the halls, the quick salutations went from “Hey, how are you? What’s up?” to “You grab a bagel yet? They’re goin’ fast!” I think my first week of work, Bagel Wednesday was the first time I really stopped to take it all in and thought to myself “Ohhhh, America- you weird, weird place.It’s good to be home!”

So, like I said, I work in a cube. I used to think the location of my cube was the worst in the entire office, but I’ve come to love it, because I’ve realized it’s the prime location to fully observe the most ridiculous parts of my office’s culture. I am directly in front of the bathrooms on the second floor, which means I have a lot of foot traffic in front of my cube- and a lot of people randomly running into each other and having conversations. I get to hear all the “bro’s” bro-ing out with each other. “Brooothah- what is up?” “Broseph, how goes it?” “Bro, happy hump day! Whadaya’ got going on this weekend?” And I get to eaves drop on a lot of conversations, because, for whatever reason, the small pane of frosted glass that separates me from them seems to make me completely invisible. Seriously- people have no idea that I’m there and I could write a book about the conversations I get to hear. Many times, two people will bump into each other in front of the bathroom and start catching up. Then one of them will bring up some sort of sensitive topic and lower their voice and kind of pull the other person off the side so “no one can hear.” And when I say off to the side, I mean directly in front of my cube- many times leaning against it and even a few times with their arms even dangling over into my cubicle. Why people seem to overlook me (and the sound of my typing) is beyond me, but it’s led to some very interesting eaves dropping.

BellI’ve heard people talking shit about other people at the company- who I’ve then looked up on your intranet just to put a face to the name. I’ve heard married men talking about women they’d like to sleep with in the company- luckily my feeling toward the men in my company is easily counterbalanced by the number of men talking about how excited they are to get married or how tired/incredibly happy they are after having a baby recently. I’ve heard about some people’s martial problems and I’ve heard many-a-girl talking about her wedding planning. I’ve heard people flirting shamelessly with each other and one time I heard one guy fail miserably at his pick-up attempt. He stopped a girl in front of my cube exclaiming, “Jessica, you never told me you made the basketball Hall of Fame in high school!” The girl paused uneasily and responded, “Umm, yes, I did. But how did you know that?” “I was googling you earlier and I found the page from your high school,” he cluelessly replied. That conversation kind of fizzled out as the girl uncomfortably confirmed that, yes, that was true, and the guy slowly realized that admitting to online stalking maybe wasn’t the best way to pick up a girl. I’ve really been enjoying myself, hearing all these stories, the ridiculous American lingo, and cringeworthy grammar mistakes.

While I’ve somewhat changed my perspective on the location of my seat because I find nothing but entertainment by being a fly on the wall, there are still some annoying aspects to my location. In addition to being in front of the bathroom, I am also surrounded by all the sales people- and their sales bell. Let me tell you, the salespeople have got personality. And I’m sure those personalities lend themselves perfectly to their success in sales and it’s great that there seems to be such a strong sense of camaraderie among them. But holy hell people- can you try to keep it down sometimes? Whenever someone makes a sale, they walk over to the bell and ring it loudly once for every $10,000 they’ve made the company, while all the other salespeople pause to give them a round of applause. Many times there are just a handful of dings you have to deal with- but every once in a while someone will make an incredibly big sale- like the day DJ Joey made $270,000. Let me do the math for you- that’s 27 dings. And, why yes, we do have a salesperson affectionately referred to as DJ Joey- unsurprisingly, a title he gets due to DJing on the weekends. DJ Joey also has a police light attached to the ceiling above his desk and whenever someone makes a sale, he sets the light off like we’re in a rave and plays music loudly in celebration. Or if it’s a particularly special day, he plays the “Excited Train Guy” video from Youtube. You can click the link to experience it for yourself if you haven’t already, but to sum up, it’s a video of a train-lover watching trains drive pass while he screams things in excitement like, “Oh my God! Listen to that horn! Oh my God-ughhh- she’s beautiful!” This is my life.

My cube is across the aisle from the rest of my team, which means that I didn’t really know the girls sitting behind and to the left of me. And since we’re separated by these weird half walls and there was really no un-awkward way to go about introducing myself, I sat near these girls for 2 months and we did not say a word to each other- unless one of us sneezed and then we would all say “Bless you.” And while we never talked to each other, we would overhear each other’s conversations all day long. I know that the girl behind me is unhappy with her cable subscription and recently got into a fender bender, because I’ve overheard her conversations to the cable and insurance companies. I knew that the girl next to me was going on vacation and that when she came back she was engaged- and that she’s been really, really sick for the last week.

Yesterday, the girl next to me finally broke through the wall. Suddenly, I heard her say, “I like your scarf.” It took me a minute to realize she was talking to me and as we peered at each other through the gap in our cubicles she said, “Not to be weird to be talking to you through the cracks, but I’ve been thinking how this poor girl next to me has heard me tell the same story over and over again about all my wedding planning and how sick I’ve been feeling!” And so we introduced ourselves and got to know each other a little- through the crack in our cubicles, which was really nice since now when we say “Bless you” to each other it probably won’t feel so weird.

I never really pictured myself working in a corporate office and I know movies like Office Space hilariously represent the monotony and absurdity of it all. But I have to say, for the moment I am getting such a kick out of experiencing this new office culture. It IS absurd! But as long as you’ve got the right type of people working around you, who are able to fully appreciate and take advantage of the absurdity of it all, it can make for a pretty fun environment to work in.

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Autumn in New England: Pumpkin-Flavoured Everything

28 Nov

Robbie Puggle

My blog has been lying dormant for quite a while now.  But not for lack of things to talk about! Since my last post, quite a bit has happened. I finally found a job at a great company (yayy! What a relief). And I moved into a house with two awesome girls and an adorable puggle named Robbie. I bit the bullet and got a car (the Boston T quickly became the bane of my existence). I’ve started an advanced Spanish course in Boston, since not speaking the language in five months has made me feel like there’s something is missing from my life. And I’ve signed up to be a Big Sister.  But all of these steps to setting up my new life here in Boston are posts in themselves and I’ll get to them later. I’ve had in the back of my mind that I wanted to talk about Autumn in New England for a while now- and with a second snow storm of the year looming on the horizon, I think I’m a little late to the party.

What’s been interesting these last few months has been how quickly I’ve felt at home. While doing things like walking around an American supermarket, driving my car to the Natick Mall, picking up take-out for dinner, or running to Dunkin Donuts for a quick coffee to go, it’s almost like my life in Barcelona never happened- which is something that kind of makes me feel sad for a moment when I focus on it. Aside from the stress of trying to find a job and a place to live, it’s been kind of incredible how little culture shock I’ve felt. I think the most jolting part of moving home hasn’t been the culture shock I was expecting to feel, but the “How the hell am I going to build a life here?” feeling.

One thing that has surprised me has been how nostalgic and emotional I’ll feel at really unexpected times; like when I drive past the “Welcome to Hopkinton” sign while visiting the town where I grew up. Or when I’m brought back to my college days when I see a girl walking down the street in a big college sweatshirt and Uggs (the fashion really hasn’t changed too much in the last six years, huh?). But the thing that really hits me most are is the smells I realize I haven’t experienced in years. This summer, I went to Cape Cod for the first time since college and it immediately brought me back the summers of my childhood. I was flooded with memories of beach vacations with my family- my sisters, my parents, all our cousins and aunts and uncles- and I found myself reminiscing about things I had not thought about in years. The Cape is so beautiful in such a different way than the beaches of the Mediterranean are- in a much more quaint way, with its sandy dunes, tall grass, and rustic wooden fences. The smell of the sea weed was so palpable in a way that just isn’t the same on the beaches of Galicia or the Western coast of France, beaches I visited that are also on the Atlantic Ocean.

Then this autumn (or ”fall” as we Americans prefer to call it) I was struck by how quickly the air turned crisp and the smell of browning leaves suddenly seemed to blanket New England. I realized that I have not had a proper fall in a long time.  The autumns in Barcelona are really just the Barcelona summer slowly tapering off until one day you’re just hit with winter. There were years when we were able to swim in the sea until Halloween. But in New England, fall is an event in itself and I forgot how important the culture surrounding this season was to New Englanders.

If you have never had the opportunity to see autumn in New England, it’s something you absolutely must experience at some point in your life. The landscape is suddenly overtaken by vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows as the leaves on the trees change colour before eventually falling to the ground in preparation of winter. The nature combines with New England’s quintessential country feel- with all the barns, houses with farmer’s porches, and wooden fences to make your everyday feel like a Norman Rockwell painting. Though the temperatures drop, New Englanders simply wrap themselves up in their scarves and throw on their favourite boots to go crunching through the leaf-strewn ground and take every opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, since they know the oppressive New England winter snow is not that far off.

One of the things I’ve been enjoying most about seeing the US through new eyes, has been the reminder that Americans love nothing more than a

Pumpkin Ale & Jack-o’-lanterns

theme- and when one is available to them, they take it and run with it. The culture surrounding autumn comes into almost every facet of your life. There are autumn decorations put up in the shops and in the offices. It’s like a pumpkin exploded all over New England, with pumpkins piled up in the supermarkets, in front of florists, available at every coffee shop in the form of Pumpkin Spice lattes, or at the bars with Pumpkin Spice Ale available from all your favourite local breweries. Seriously, everything is pumpkin flavoured- it’s a little much.

And all of the popular weekend activities entail taking advantage of what New England naturally offers. People go apple picking at orchards in the area, filling up baskets to go home and make warm apple pies (How American!) or to snack on for the next week. They go to corn mazes, which have been carved through fields of corn at local farms to lure tourists. There are country fairs like the Big E full of animals and seasonal food and carnival rides and games and concerts.

And the best part about fall is that it all seems to be leading up to two big holidays- Halloween and Thanksgiving. Halloween is a holiday that was very sparsely celebrated in Barcelona, with many of the Catalans rejecting the idea due to its clear Americanness and the fact it coincides with their own holiday of La Castanyada (castanyer meaning chestnut). In the States, children and adults alike prepare for Halloween by planning their Halloween costumes- with many children buying popular costumes from catalogs or party stores; and many women above the age of 14 choosing a “slutty” spin on some normally banal theme (Slutty Nurse, Slutty Disney Princess, etc.). To get you in the spirit, there are haunted houses- some of which are truly frightening; and haunted hayrides, which are kind of boring since you basically just ride around on the back of a tractor-pulled wagon and look at things. And then there is pumpkin carving! People buy pumpkins, scoop out all their insides, and carve Jack-o’-lanterns and other designs, so that the candle inside can shine through. Many people put their carved pumpkins on their doorsteps- which can be a way to share the Halloween spirit with your neighbours, but can also invite teenagers to take the opportunity to sneak up to your door in the middle of the night and then smash your pumpkin in the middle of the street. It’s a fun event for the teenagers that does not make for happy children/pumpkin-owners in the morning.

Lost in a Corn Maze circa 2005
(we made it out)

And Halloween day/night is quite the exciting time. Children go trick-or-treating going from house to house asking for candy. This was my first year working in an office and our company invited the employee’s children to go trick-or-treating around the cubicles… it was a little weird. (And the children were surprisingly rude- even with their parents standing right there. Come on American parents- teach your kids some manners!) I didn’t do anything for Halloween this year, but I’ve never been one of those people who gets really excited about planning a costume. Besides, I think the Carnival celebration in Sitges has ruined all future costume-related occasions for me. Nothing can compare to parades, drag-queen-filled streets, and dancing to DJs all night on the beach in February.

My family had a small Thanksgiving this year and it was fun- nothing compares to Thanksgiving food. But I have to say I was strangely nostalgic for all our Thanksgiving festivities in Barcelona. There is just something about a group of Americans abroad trying their best to throw together a traditional Thanksgiving meal in a place where traditional American foods are kind of hard to find. We loved inviting all our foreign friends, making them realize there’s more to American cuisine than McDonald’s hamburgers, and teaching them all our favourite American drinking games.

And now it seems like fall is already over. Christmas has taken over the stores, television, and the radio. Everyone is preparing for snow and pulling out their bulky winter jackets. My roommate has put up our Christmas tree and decorated our house with lights. Our holiday party invitations have all be sent out. And every once in a while I have to pause and pull myself out of the momentum and reflect on just how quickly my life has changed. I’m officially back in America and it’s kind of scary just how quickly you fall back into it all.

A Stroll Down Memory Lane: Barcelona 1954

13 Sep

Marie’s Europe Trip Photo Album

It’s a great day!  I found out today (3 months later- hello Spanish efficiency) that I passed the DELE Spanish certification exam I took right before moving home.  I have that excited, happy feeling in my chest I get when I think about Spain and how grateful I am for the six years of my life I spent there.  It’s the same feeling I get when I am blessed with having a dream in Spanish, which is happening much less often nowadays.  Or when I hear people having a conversation in Spanish and weirdly get a sense of being home.  I have to say that one of the best parts of moving back to Boston has been people’s excitement over sharing their European memories with me.  Many people have taken me for a stroll down their memory lanes as they reminisce about their own European travels.  Some people I’ve spoken to have visited recently and we’ve compared notes on different bars, restaurants or neighbourhoods we visited in different cities.  But some of the most interesting conversations have been with people telling me about their trips at a time when many of the places I’m familiar with were very different.  A college professor I randomly struck up a conversation with in a Dunkin Donuts (don’t judge me- I’m unemployed and a little lonely) was telling me about two seperate trips to Rome, one of his favourite European cities.  He first went in the early 1970s before the Sistine Chapel had been restored and then visited again in the early 2000s after the restoration.  He said it was incredible how much more vibrant all the colours were, but felt very lucky to have been able to have two distinct experiences with one of the world’s most breathtaking works of art.

Marie’s plane
notice the simple chain link fence for security

One of my mother’s coworkers, Marie Antoinette from Québec, was kind enough to share her photo album from her 1954 trip to Europe.  It had been sitting on a shelf for years and it was so exciting to be able to turn through the crisp, browning pages and look at the black and white photos.  Marie travelled around France, Belgium, Monaco, and Spain, but the photos of Barcelona were unsurprisingly the most captivating for me.  There were photos of many of the plazas and streets that I had walked through during the time that I called Barcelona home.

Barcelona is a city full of history and some of the changes that took place in modern times are incredibly intriguing.  Barcelona had what you could call a renaissance in 1992, when the city was revitalized for the summer Olympic games.  Catalans speak of 1992 as if it were the birth of Christ, with events happening either before or after one of the most important years in recent Barcelona history.  It’s always incredible to imagine that many of the beaches from Port Olympico on did not exist and that that part of the coast used to be inhabited by gypsies.  The photos from Marie’s album takes us back even further.  Enjoy!

 (click on photos to enlarge)

Marie walking the streets of Madrid in 1954

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The center of the city and the top of the main tourist street La Rambla,  Plaça Catlunaya has been the spot for many a Barça football celebration, occupied by protesters months before anyone thought to occupy wall street (with protestors making themselves at home by making tree houses and vegetable gardens in the square), and always overrun by tourists, many of whom strangely put birdseed on their children’s outstretched arms so that they are covered in pigeons for one of the strangest photo opps I’ve ever seen.

Plaça Catalunya 1954

Plaça Catalunya today

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Catalan Antoni Gaudí’s architectural masterpiece has been under construction since 1882, Gaudí coming onto the project a year later.  He combines Gothic and Art Nouveau styles to create this melting sandcastle rising up above the buildings of Barcelona.  My friends and I have made a pact to have a Barcelona reunion when the Sagrada Familia is finally finished, though it’s unclear if that will even happen during our lifetime.

La Sagrada Familia 1954

La Sagrada Familia today

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At the foot of Montjuic, Plaça Espanya brings together some of Barcelona’s most major streets. It’s the spot of the Magic Fountains and finishes out one of my favourite festivals, La Mercé, with one of the most incredible firework shows I have ever seen.  This will be my first year missing the show so my Barcelona friends better put up lots of photos!

Plaça Espanya 1954

Plaça Espanya today

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Parc Ciutadella is the biggest and most popular park in Barcelona.  Full of lots of green space, the zoo, musicians, circus performers (picture people walking on stilts, juggling, etc.), and people doing capoeira, Parc Ciutadella is the perfect place to welcome Spring and lie around on lazy summer evenings.

Fountain in Parc Ciutadella

Fountain in Parc Ciutadella today

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My old neighbourhood!  I lived off of Plaça Universitat my second year in Barcelona with my two friends Annie and Angela for one of my best years in Spain.  Close to the center, it gets its name from the Universitat de Barcelona whose main campus is at the plaza.  The starting point for many a student protest and one of the most popular locations for skateboarders, Plaça Universitat is always lively.

Plaça de la Universitat 1954

Plaça de la Universitat today

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Mount Tibidabo has some great hiking, the oldest amusement park in Barcelona, and a church topped with a grandiose statue of Jesus overlooking the city with outstretched arms.

view from Mount Tibidabo 1954

view from Mount Tibidabo today

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The triumphal arch of Barcelona, Arc de Triomf was built in 1888 for the Exposición Universal de Barcelona.  It’s interesting to see a tram driving past in the older photo, since there aren’t any tram tracks there today.

Arc de Triomf 1954

Arc de Triomf today

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The Christopher Columbus statue (Catalan: Colom, Spanish: Colón) is located at the end of La Rambla and the site where Columbus returned to Spain after his first voyage to the Americas.  It is supposed to depict Columbus pointing toward the new world, but he’s actually pointing South-Southeast toward Algeria.  Oops.  There is a small elevator that takes tourists to the top, but be careful- right before I left Barcelona a group of tourists got stuck at the top and had to be rescued by a crane.  Fun times.

Monument a Colom 1954
(Columbus Monument)

Monument a Colom today
(Columbus Monument)

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With starkly different opinions from Spaniards of many other areas of Spain, many Catalans are morally opposed to bullfighting.  It was recently banned in Catalunya.  I have to say, I never made it to a bullfight, based mainly on many people’s reports that seeing the way the bulls were treated made them sick to their stomachs.  I do understand the history and cultural significance of the tradition, however, and the beauty of these postcards from 1954 is undeniable.

A ticket to the bullfights in Toledo

postcards from the bullfight

more postcards with Marie’s notes in French

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Marie in costume in Madrid

Thank you Marie for sharing your photo memories.

Bonus Check out this video of Barcelona taken from a tram in 1908.

YouTube: Barcelona Tram Ride 1908

The Power of the Image: Youth Design Takes Action

30 Aug

I’m not sure if all of you are familiar with the Culture Shock U Curve, but, to explain, it represents what inevitably happens upon trying to integrate yourself into a new culture.  And, believe it or not, it’s something that happens when you’ve spent a lot of time outside of your own country and then return home.  I was very much anticipating my reaction to the different stages of my reverse culture shock, which is where the idea for this blog came from; I wanted to share my journey.  As you can see on this diagram, the first step on this journey is the honeymoon phase; you are high off of the initial euphoria and excitement.  I was at this stage my first four weeks back and loving life.  Well, about a week ago, I had a disappointing setback in my job search and was pushed over the edge into the next phase.  I fell head-first into the crisis and frustration phase and I fell hard.  I was experiencing everything you are expected to experience during this period: anxiety, confusion, self-doubt, and rejection of your new (or I guess in my case, old) culture. I had been anticipating this period and had already made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t immediately succumb to my gut-reaction to flee and avoid it.  This is all part of the process and I had to remind myself that I would get through it.  I tried using all the tools I had set myself up with.  I tried running.  I tried yoga.  I tried meditating.  I tried reading.  I tried surrounding myself with friends and family.  Nothing.  I was suffocating in my own depression.

I did not see how I was going to pull myself out, but I knew that it was going to take something powerful.  And then my childhood friend Kathryn invited me to help out at an event that she thought would “inspire” me (Kathryn’s mantra) and inspiration was only one of the gifts I left with that day.  Last Thursday, I was reawakened, reenergized, reanimated, and brought back to life.  I was reminded of why I came home and what I wanted to accomplish and was reassured that there are like-minded people in Boston and that they are doing great things.

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My very talented friend Kathryn works for Korn Design, a brand strategy and design firm headed by Denise Korn.  Ten years ago, Korn started a design internship program for students from Boston public schools called Youth Design.  Kathryn invited me to help out at Youth Design’s 2012 Graduation held at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and there I was able to see first-hand what an exciting program it is.  To give you a bit of background, ten years ago Korn had the idea to create a summer mentorship program that would pair some of the most artistic, skilled, motivated, and mature Boston high school students with designers in some of the best firms and organizations in Boston.  There were two important criteria.  Firstly, it was critical that these be paid internships, since many students need a summer job in order to contribute to their family’s needs.  And secondly, this needed to be more than a pencil-pushing, coffee-fetching internship.  In these days when school budget cuts mean the disappearance of more creative focused programs, the idea behind Korn’s program was to foster these students’ raw talent and teach them how to translate that talent into real world career possibilities.  And with those ideas in mind, Youth Design began.

Youth Design 2012 Graduation

It was an honor to meet the students from this year’s program and hear them articulate all they learned from the mentors at their separate firms and from the weekly trips they took as a group to varying design companies around Boston.  Many of the students spoke about being humbled by the experience.  Seeing their work first hand, I can say with confidence that these are very talented students.  Throughout the summer, however, many of them learned how to take criticism and interpret feedback and realized that having those skills brought their designs to the next level.  And more so than just nurturing their natural artistic talents, these students learned how to work in a professional environment and how to present and defend their ideas and perspectives to colleagues and superiors.  These students were poised and self-assured and it was not difficult to see them working among experienced designers.

There was a strong sense that the mentor-mentee relationship was equally valued on both sides.  The excitement and pride of the students was palpable and inspiring to me, a non-designer, so I can see how these relationships can affect the mentors of the program.  In 2006, Youth Design was profiled in the Boston Globe, highlighting the “two-way traffic in ideas” between this relationship.  Dean Whitney, a mentor from Continuum, sums it up nicely while speaking of his intern Carlos Cardoso, when he says,

“Carlos came to us without all the baggage about what can and can’t be done in design.  He inspired me to look at things differently, too.”

I’m sure the fresh eyes and young ideas of these students are more than valuable to the organizations involved and have reminded many of these seasoned designers where their passion began.

What left the biggest impression on me, however, was the strong sense of community among all the people involved in Youth Design.  I recently wrote a post where I mentioned that one of my least favourite parts of US culture is the exaltation of individualism.  One of the most heart-breaking parts of my move home has been leaving my community in Barcelona.  But seeing an organization like Youth Design in action has quelled any fear I had about the lack of community ideals in Boston.  Korn herself puts it best in this interview for HOWdesign.com.

“[Creating Youth Design] was my way of using what I knew as a designer to propel impactful change to the next generation of designers in our communities… Youth Design is a labor of love and commitment to the next generation.”

The program strives to inspire urban kids to attend college and pursue majors in creative fields, while at the same time building community and business awareness of the value of design and its importance to the regional economy.  The mentors, design firms, board members, and volunteers are making an investment in the next generation and I have no doubt that many of the students in the program will return to one day foster the talents of those coming up behind them.

2011 Design by Marietta Esquerdo

Another important element that cannot be overlooked is Youth Design’s focus to create diversity in the creative workforce.  It was something that board member Robert Lewis, Jr. spoke about in his speech at the graduation and a goal Korn discussed in a 2011 article in Stuff Magazine.

“It’s a diverse group of kids, and one of my goals is to change the face of design and add to the diversity of designers.”

This diversity translated impressively into a variety of ideas present in the 2012 competition, “Take Action.”  The purpose of the competition was to create a design that would inspire and move people to, as the title states, take action.  The entries ranged from such social issues as HIV, xenophobia, domestic violence, bullying, economic inequality, and homophobia.  (click on images to enlarge)

2012 Design by Daisy Mejia

2011 Design by Ena Kantardzic

2012 Design by Malcolm Davidson

The images are powerful and all the more impressive when you remind yourself they were created by teenagers.  As a non-designer, until this day I had never really reflected specifically on the importance of design in terms of motivating and inspiring people.  There are many social issues that are important to me and being a person of words and of discourse I tend to gravitate towards those forms of expression.  But seeing the work of the Youth Designers I was reminded just how much certain visuals and symbols have resonated with me without me even consciously thinking of their power.  I thought of my old favourite, Rosie the Riveter, and all that she meant to me as I formed my identity as a woman and a feminist.  And I reflected on the Obama “Hope” image that I began to see splashed in random places around Barcelona in 2008.  I was a disillusioned young American who had left her home country in 2006 and was struggling with what being an American meant to me.  Seeing that image evoked a surge of a pride in my nationality that I had not felt for many years.

Kathryn was right- I was inspired.  The excitement and ambition of these talented young people has reignited my own drive.  Seeing the support and empowerment that the volunteers, mentors, and all others involved with Youth Design are giving to the next generation has introduced me to a side of Boston that is focused on community and collectivism.  I don’t think I’m out of the woods yet with my culture shock, but I think I’m at least one step closer to feeling at home.

Visit Youth Design’s website at www.youthdesign.org to learn more about mentoring, sponsorship, donations, and volunteer opportunities.

My Night Out with the Seniors

16 Aug

Savignano, Italy

Two years ago, in August of 2010, I was working as coordinator at an English camp in the tiny Italian village of Savignano, just outside of Bologna.  My team consisted of four English teachers- not only English speakers, but actually hailing from England- which left me as the only American.  It wasn’t a big deal to me; a lot of the people I knew and worked with in Barcelona were English.  But I think I may have been one of the first Americans they had spent a lot of time with.  They were, at times, more amused by our slight cultural differences than they were by the more obvious ones between us and the Italians.  They would laugh at my use of the word bathroom over toilet, or apartment over flat.  They would chuckle at my accent or sayings.  But the thing that really got them was just how “American” I was.  They began to point out small things that never would have occurred to me as seeming particularly American.

The host families we were living with in Savignano had given us all bikes, which came in handy getting us to the school every morning and to the bar every afternoon after classes.  One evening, while trying to leave said bar in order to get home in time for dinner, one of the other teachers and I couldn’t figure out how to make the lights on our bikes work.  After trying to figure it out for a few minutes, I finally called out to an older gentleman I recognized from the bar.  “Scusi, signore!” I called.  He came over, and after having exhausting most of my Italian vocabulary on Scusi, signore, I tried to explain our predicament with a mixture of Spanish, English, and lots of gestures.  Since the five of us English teachers were already local celebrities in this small village, the signore was more than delighted to help us out and couldn’t wait to call all of his friends over.  They died laughing at my over-the-top reenactment of riding a bicycle in the dark and of shining lights.  By the time we had a large group of jovial signori surrounding us, my English coworker was bright red and couldn’t help exclaiming, “You are so American!”  I wasn’t quite sure what about this situation made me “so American,” but we eventually got the lights working on our bikes and made it home just in time for dinner.

A few days later we were sitting on the terrace outside of the bar when one of my coworkers looked down into her glass and saw a dead fly floating in her prosecco. She was really disappointed about having to buy a new glass, when I said, “They won’t make you buy a new one!  Just explain what happened and I’m sure they’ll give you another one for free.  I mean, we come here every day.”  They all laughed their “You are so American” laugh that I was now used to and my coworker told me “There is no way I’m asking them that!” in her English, I-Will-Not-Be-Demanding tone of voice.  Well, I set out to show them how things are done and brought the dead fly glass of prosecco up to the counter to explain the situation (thank God the bartender spoke a bit of English).  The bartender very sympathetically said, “Oh no, what a pity,” poured me another glass of prosecco… and asked for 2€.

Well, while I was out last Friday night, it became very clear to me where this “So American-ness” came from.  I am my mother’s daughter.  As most of you know, as I work toward getting a place in Boston, I’m staying with my Mom in Framingham, one of Boston’s suburbs.  Last Friday, I was invited out to dinner with my Mom and some of her friends.  Now, I don’t think they would mind me explaining, just to set the scene, that these friends are a little older than the crowd I would normally hang out with on a Friday night- some of them in their 50’s and some of them possibly qualifying for senior status.  I don’t think they would mind me mentioning this, because I promised them I would follow that up with the fact that last Friday night was probably one of the most hilarious nights I have had in years.

Now, let me set the scene some more.  Our party of 8 was placed in a back room with an extended family who was celebrating a child’s birthday. The construction of this room, for whatever reason, made for very bad acoustics, causing the noise volume to seem much louder than it actually was.  This caused people to feel like they had to speak more loudly, which made the children at the next table feel like they could start yelling, which startled the baby of the family so much that he started screaming, and all of this only prompted us to order lots and lots of alcohol while we waited for our meals.  And, we waited for a long, long time.  Light complaining started about this point, as everyone angrily agreed they would ask to be seated outside in the main restaurant area next time and wondered why the mother of the baby was not taking him outside to stop all the screaming.  When the meals finally started to be brought out, only three people were served.  We all waited politely for the others’ meals to arrive, as social etiquette dictates, until we realized that the other meals did not seem to be coming out anytime soon.  And that was it- my mother had had enough.

She got up to ask for a manager and, as she explained to us later, very politely and calmly told the manager that we had been waiting forever for our meals, three people had been served but felt bad about eating in front of everyone else, and on top of it all, we had a screaming baby totally unsympathetic to the fact that he was ruining our dining experience.  The manager came in and very professionally offered her apologies, which were immediately interrupted by my Mom’s friends reiterating, “You know, it’s unacceptable.  And of the food that has been brought out- the carrots are hard, the risotto is cold, and I’m still waiting for my side of pasta.  It’s just unbelievable.”  The manager left the room visibly shaking with promises to resolve the situation.  I was happy I already had my plate in front of me and I wasn’t taking any chances with the kitchen staff having some fun.

For all of the “So American-ness” in me, I have to admit I was a little embarrassed by this point.  My mother defended herself by saying that it was just unacceptable and everyone else rushed to her aid by saying things like, “I would have done the exact same thing- good for you Ellen!” and “Ya know what, it’s just not right.  It’s just not right,” while dramatically shaking their heads.  I had to laugh and say, “Alright, maybe I’ve been out of the country for too long.  I guess you’re right, we are paying a lot of money.”  “Plus, we’ll probably get something free out it now!” someone chimed in.

By the time we all finally got our meals, the family with the screaming baby had left and we were being served another round of drinks.  Everyone had calmed down a little, but I was still chuckling to myself and told everyone that, by this point, I had pretty much decided I was going to do a blog post on this.  This got us talking about the American standard of service and Americans’ demand for this service.  If someone isn’t willing or able to meet that standard, we’ll find someone else who will- and make it very clear just how much of a disappointment they are.

I think all of them were drunk with power (and cocktails) at this point.  “It pays to complain,” they told me.  “Put that on your blog.”  David told us all about how he goes into Starbucks and asks everyone to please be quiet, so that he can have a “quiet cup of tea.”  Roz told me to mention that they all “took complaining lessons from Jackie Mason.”  Even after a Wikipedia look-up, I’m still not 100% sure what she meant by that, but she seemed pretty confident it would sum it up for you all.

Well, wouldn’t you know it- it did pay to complain.  We were offered free desserts and coffee on the house as an apology.  And despite the fact that no one was in any way hungry, we ordered eight different desserts just on principle.  At this point, my memory gets a little fuzzy.  I do remember that we had gone from complaining to total, delirious happiness.  Everyone was passing around our eight different desserts, goading “Have you tried the chocolate cake?  It’s incredible!”  “You have to try the apple crisp- absolutely to die for!”  Clark started talking about the ‘60s station he has on his Sirius radio and broke out into a really long rendition of “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” everyone laughing hysterically at the end of each line.

Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh,
Here I am at Camp Grenada
Camp is very entertaining
and they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining…

Take me home, oh muddah fadduh, take me home, I hate Grenada
Don’t leave me out in the forest where I might get eaten by a bear.
Take me home, I promise I will not make noise or mess the house with
other boys, oh please don’t make me stay, I’ve been here one whole day….

Wait a minute, it stopped hailing,
Guys are swimming, guys are sailing,
Playing baseball, gee that’s better,
Muddah Fadduh kindly disregard this letter.

The manager peeked back in and asked with trepidation if we had enjoyed our desserts.  “We enjoyed every calorie!” someone shouted out, followed by maniacal laughter all around.  The manager tiptoed back out.

The night was winding down when another baby started crying in the main part of the restaurant.  “Another f-in’ screaming baby?!  I think that’s our cue to go home.”  We all said our goodbyes with tears in our eyes from laughing so hard.  Everyone agreed we wouldn’t be going back there anytime soon and that they would be going home and opening up a bottle of Tums immediately.  And as my Mom and I arrived home at 9.45 exhausted from the evening, I thought to myself, “I am certainly not in Kansas anymore.”

But, you know, I have to say that while that Friday night out was just slightly different from my nights out in Barcelona, you guys sure know how to have a good time.  And while this Friday, I’m going out in Boston with some friends- for what is sure to be a night slightly closer to what I am used to, aside from the 1.30am last lall- we should definitely do it again some time.  And maybe next time we can get free dessert and appetizers.

Happy with their Dessert

The History Behind American Wedding Traditions

9 Aug

There are some typical questions that would come up over and over again with my students in regard to the US that would cause me to chuckle and they were usually based on the depictions in films and on TV.  Do students really go to school in those yellow buses?  Do teenage girls really wear those fancy dresses and take a limo to their school dances?  Is college really that crazy?  Do people always drink out of those big red cups?  And, are American weddings really like in the films?  The answers to all of these were yes and would usually require a little more explanation to squelch the curiosity, which could sometimes lead to more confusion; like when a teenage student asked me why all the women had to wear the same colour dress to a wedding.  That opened up a Pandora’s Box of clarifications about wedding parties, bridesmaids, maids/matrons of honors, best men, and groomsmen that I really wished I had just sidestepped.

Weddings have certainly been on my mind lately.  As of this coming weekend, of the five weekends I’ve been in the States, three of them will have been spent at weddings.  About 75% of my friends born in 1984 have chosen to get married this year.  Which is great, because I can’t think of a better way to reconnect with all my friends.  Though at times I do have to laugh because I’m reminding myself of Jennifer Aniston’s character at the beginning of Picture Perfect (anyone?) as I screw up everyone’s seating charts with my single status or when it suddenly turns to a slow song on the dance floor and everyone couples up.

But really, weddings are such a joyous occasion and they’ve been making me feel especially emotional since I’ve been back.  I feel like there is always such a palpable feeling of love as you reflect on family and friendship.  And an open bar and a great band certainly make for a good party.  Since I’ve been to two Catholic weddings recently, I was thinking a lot about the ritualism present; which led me to thinking about where all our other traditions come from, as well.  So, I thought it would be fun to research the origins of a lot of these American traditions we have.  I had the pleasure of attending two very distinct Spanish weddings while living in Spain; one really low-key weekend gathering at a masía in the countryside and a more formal occasion in the city.  I was also invited to a rather ritzy affair in a Swedish castle.  Many of the elements of these weddings were the same: the white dress, walking down the aisle, family, friends, music, food and alcohol.  But there are some things that I feel are purely American- especially all the little extra parties and showers leading up to the big day!  So, for some of my European readers, I’ll explain a little bit about some our traditions and for us Americans, we can look back at where this all comes from.

The Engagement Ring

It all starts here.  The proposal is an exciting part of the journey for a couple deciding to get married.  Movies have certainly instilled in us this expectation of the perfect proposal.  My friends have some really touching proposal stories.  But it’s interesting to look back on the history of the engagement ring specifically.

The ancient Egyptians used engagement bands as a symbol of a never-ending cycle and a gateway.  They believed that the ring finger contained a vein that led to the heart.  There’s a great article from The Atlantic entitled The Strange (and Formerly Sexist) Economics of Engagement Rings.  It appears that early Americans were not quite as puritanical as we have been led to believe.  Engagement rings were actually very much tied to human sexuality until the time of the Great Depression.  They were used as a sort of “virginity insurance.”  Many couples did not actually wait until marriage to “engage in relations,” as they say, and an engagement ring acted as an insurance policy to protect the woman.  Surveys from the 1940s show that about half of engaged couples reported being intimate before marriage.  If a man broke off an engagement, he could be sued for “breach of promise.”  The monetary damages only increased if the couple had been intimate, since, “From a social angle, she had been permanently ‘damaged’ [and] from an economic angle, she had lost her market value.”  It appears this was a very unromantic symbol of financial security for the woman.

I’ve always heard it thrown around that there is an actual acceptable price tag for the ring, as well; that the ring should be worth two to three months of the man’s salary.  This apparently came from a marketing campaign by DeBeers, the largest diamond producer and marketer at the time, in 1947.  It was genius on the marketer’s part not just to put out a set price, but to give a measure that would easily adjust with inflation.

I’m not sure how much people adhere to this rule nowadays, but I do know that many couples choose the ring together (or the woman can at least pass on some helpful hints through mothers and sisters) and that the proposal is less of an out-of-nowhere surprise than the films make it seem.

The Engagement Party

The engagement party is the first of the smaller parties leading up to the big party.  Families and friends will gather to celebrate the new engagement of the couple.  Originally, it was just a normal party which the father of the bride would use as an opportunity to make a surprise announcement to the guests.  It was the first opportunity for the families and friends of the couple to merge and meet.  Nowadays in the States, invitations are sent out announcing the true purpose, fancy clothes are put on, and cocktails are enjoyed by all.

The Wedding Shower

This is the second of the smaller parties.  Traditionally, the women gather together to “shower” the bride with gifts.  The first shower dates back to the Dutch around the 16th or 17th century.  When a young girl fell in love with a poor miller, her father refused to bestow a dowry.  Unable to start a home and a life together, the villagers banded together and showered the couple with gifts.

In the past, with poorer families, showers would actually help prepare the bride for her actual wedding, with the guests even giving the future bride the dress she would wear.  In the US, showers used to be spontaneous and informal with guests arriving unannounced to help prepare the woman for her new role as wife.  Gifts were focused on her role in the kitchen and the bedroom, as she prepared for her new role as cook, homemaker, and sexual partner.  Even post Women’s Lib, the gifts still seem to fall into one of these two categories; but hey, who doesn’t want some sexy lingerie or a new juicer?

There is the option to have a more inclusionary affair, however, as many couples go with the Jack and Jill party option.  A good friend chose to have this and said it was fun and seemed more like a relaxed party with all their friends and family there (both men and women).  In my research online, I read that some people actually charge for a ticket to their Jack and Jill party in order to raise money for the wedding and that the sale of those tickets is not just limited to family and friends.  I’ve asked around though and that doesn’t seem to be the norm.

Bachelor & Bachelorette Parties

Known as a Stag Do & Hen Night to my British friends and a Despedida de Solter@ to my Spanish friends (I love the direct translation, which is basically a “Farewell to Singledom”), the bachelor or bachelorette party is the third (and most fun) smaller party before the big day.  The bachelor party is essentially the groom’s “last night of freedom,” though destination bachelor parties seem to have extended the celebration to more of a long weekend.  Las Vegas is a popular destination, as it fulfills all the needs of alcohol, gambling, strippers, and hazing activities.  Though less rowdy options of camping, fishing, and barbecuing are also popular.  If you’re looking for ideas, the top T-Shirt slogans for bachelor parties are “Dead Man Walking,” “Last Days of Freedom,” “Farewell Tour,” and “Final at Bat.”

My fake Hen Night in Barcelona… a story for another day…

While bachelor parties have been around for awhile, bachelorette parties didn’t begin until the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  But they didn’t become really common until the mid-1980s.  (I checked with my Mom- neither she nor either of her two sisters had one- another of my totally trustworthy surveys).  Bachelorette parties used to be a night of freedom, drinking, male strippers, costumes, and games.  It seems more common nowadays, though, to have destination weekends, less full of strippers and more full of drinking and games.  The top T-shirt slogans for bachelorette parties are “Last Fling Before the Ring” and “Buy her a shot, she’s tying the knot.”

Giving Away the Bride

While today this can be an emotional symbol of passing on your daughter into the arms of her new partner, I’m sure the origins of this tradition are not surprising.  In the not so long ago days of women legally being considered property, this action was a literal transfer of property from one owner to the next.  Let’s not focus on that, though, since that is thankfully not our reality today.  When my good friend Liz was given away by her father at her wedding last weekend, it signaled the transition of their youngest daughter about to leave their home for the very first time in 28 years to start her new life.  Tissues were needed all around.

Bridesmaids

80s Bridesmaid Dresses

The bridesmaids are those women lined up to the left of the bride all wearing the same dress.  Bridesmaid dresses- what is there to say?  They are notorious for being something you will never wear again.  Look back at the 80s and holy hell.  I’m sure every girl from the 80s remembers her dress-up chest featuring a few puffy-sleeved numbers.  My Mom had an emerald green one that was particularly puffy and fetching.  But I guess they needed something to compete with that feathered hair.  Today, brides seem to take into account the investment their bridesmaids are making and generally try to choose a dress that can be worn again.  Some brides even take into account that not every bridesmaid has the exact same body type, and allows them to pick out different styles in the same colour.  The original idea behind this tradition of matching dresses came about as a way to complement the bride and allow her to stand out as the star of the day.

The purpose of the bridesmaids is to assist the bride in the months leading up to her wedding and to support her on the big day.  They are sometimes involved in the shower, plan the bachelorette party, and keep her calm in the hours before the ceremony.  The Maid or Matron of Honor (depending on the woman being single or married) is the leader of this high heeled crew and many of the duties fall in her lap.  Basically, it’s a group of your sisters and closest friends who are there to support you throughout the whole journey.  It’s very meaningful to be chosen as a bridesmaid and a list many women have been reworking in their minds since they were children.

Groomsmen

The groomsmen are essentially the same concept.  The leader of this pack is the Best Man.  The groomsmen plan the bachelor party and hang out with him the day of the wedding while they wait for the ladies to get ready.  They have a much more relaxed day, without the fuss of hair and makeup, doing things like working out, going golfing, picking up their tuxes or getting haircuts.  The tradition of the Best Man is quite interesting.  Its origins come from the Germanic Goths, when bachelors would seek out and capture a bride from neighbouring communities.  The future groom was generally accompanied by a companion to give him some extra muscle.

This evolved later on with the groomsmen.  The groomsmen were called bride-knights, as it was their responsibility to ensure the bride and her dowry made it safely to the groom.  If the bride’s family tried to back out of the deal, however, it was their responsibility to kidnap her and ensure the marriage agreement was fulfilled.  It is for this reason that the groomsmen still stand to the right of the bride today.  Its origin comes from the bride-knights need to leave their right hand free in order to reach for their weapon in case the bride tried to escape.

Flower Girl

The flower girl is a young girl whose role is to walk ahead of the bridal party and sprinkle rose petals on the floor.  She is a symbol of the bride’s innocence “blooming to become a wife and mother.”  Today, she provides the comic relief for many a Youtube video, as these young girls tend to bumble their way through their job.

Ring Bearer

A ring bearer is not always included in the wedding, as the Best Man can hold onto the rings until they are exchanged.  The origin, however, is from Victorian England where a young boy was chosen to carry the bride’s train of her dress and her prayer book, along with the rings.

Cutting the Cake

Cutting the cake, and the wedding cake in general, has much more history than I expected.  It’s not just an opportunity

Liz & Joe cutting their cake

to awkwardly feed each other (or shove it in each other’s face) before feeding the guests.  Symbolically, it’s the first task the bride and groom will perform jointly as husband and wife.  Historically, however, during the time of the Roman Empire, the groom would eat part of a loaf of barley bread and break the rest over the bride’s head.  This was a symbol of his breaking of the bride’s virginal state and the subsequent dominance he would have over her.

In England, from the 17th century and into the 19th century, “Bride’s Pie” was more popular, which was a sweet bread, mince pie, or mutton pie.  A glass ring was cooked inside and the maiden who found it in her piece was said to be the next to marry; a practice that is similar to today’s tradition of throwing the bouquet, which we’ll get to later.  During the 18th century, the legend was that you would dream of your future spouse if you slept with a piece of cake under your pillow.  The bride would pass crumbs through her wedding band for her guests.

Most wedding cakes are white as a sign of purity and also as a visual link to the bride to highlight her as the center of the wedding (a stark change from the chauvinism of the groom breaking the barley bread over his new wife to show his dominance).  The white frosting used to show a sign of affluence, as certain ingredients were hard to come by- the whiter the cake, the more affluent the family.

Having a multi-tier cake was once a privilege reserved for royalty.  Today, this plays in perfectly with the idea of a girl’s wedding day being her day to feel like a princess.  In the recent past, many families were able to rationalize the purchase of a three tier cake by saving the top tier.  They would freeze it and in the days when a baby was soon to follow, they would defrost it a little less than a year later to serve to the guests during their baby’s christening.

Throwing the Garter

I had never thought much about this tradition except that it always seemed kind of strange to me, but it has an interesting history.  It comes from the idea that everyone wants a piece of the bride’s happiness and good fortune.  In the past, guests would try to literally take pieces of that happiness and good fortune by tearing off small pieces of her dress to keep as a charm.  Garters were added to a woman’s outfit to avoid her dress being torn.  Supposedly, some men couldn’t wait, however, so now there is a certain time set aside when the groom will remove the garter from his new wife and throw it into a crowd of men.

Throwing the Bouquet

This practice comes from England, and follows the idea of the bride passing on her good fortune to others.  In another attempt to avoid the tearing of her dress, the practice of throwing her bouquet to the women was created.  The bride’s good fortune is passed on to one lucky single lady who now has the promise of being the next to find love and marry.

The Wife Taking Her Husband’s Last Name

In Spain, women do not change their names when they marry.  Many Spaniards are surprised by our common practice of a woman taking her husband’s last name, as it can be viewed as a loss of identity.  When a Spanish couple has children, they are given a first name, the father’s last name, and the mother’s last name in that order (most people do not have middle names like Americans, either).  So, for example, when John Smith and Mary May have a son, he will become Thomas Smith May.  In some countries like Brazil, the tradition is reversed and little Tommy will be known as Thomas May Smith.

There is the obvious legal history to this tradition of a woman changing her name upon marrying.  In the 1800s and 1900s, US Common Law followed the doctrine of coverture, under which married women had no rights to property or the ability to make contracts in her name.  Legally, remnants of this remained until the 1960s and 70s during which some women still had problems taking out lines of credit or starting bank accounts.

There is a biological motivation for giving your children the man’s name, however, that is discussed in more detail in this Psychology Today article that is worth a read.  Paternity uncertainty is a significant problem with mammalian males.  Maternity uncertainty does not exist, for obvious reasons, but how can a male be sure a child is his?  Giving the child the man’s last name is a way to reassure him of his paternity, making the man more willing to invest in the child.  Apparently, Russians are the most insecure when it comes to being convinced of paternity, so they need extra reassurance.  Both boys and girls take their father’s middle and last names.

I can certainly see the argument over this tradition being a loss of identity for the woman; especially as women are getting married later and are establishing their professional identities with their maiden names.  I believe this tradition has evolved considerably, though.  And hearing the reasons many of my friends have chosen to take their husbands’ names and how much it means to their husbands to give them this piece of themselves, I can’t help but feel it is sort of a romantic notion.  Many women feel this is an active choice they have made.  Changing your name is no longer mandated by law, so women are motivated toward this choice for other reasons.  In these days of 41-50% divorce rates (depending on where you are getting your statistics), I see it as a symbol of two people forming a partnership and a commitment to each other, as well as possibly laying the foundation for a family identity.

 ——————–

Alpargatas

While there are some small differences between cultures, I think it’s clear that weddings throughout history and throughout the world today share many of the same elements.  While the Brits get to wear their fancy hats and fascinators and Catalan women take off their heels to slip into some alpargatas rather than getting some relief with flip-flops like us Americans, at its core weddings are all about family and friends coming together to celebrate the love of a cherished couple and send them on their way full of luck and happiness as they start their new life together.

Lessons on Happiness (part 2)

26 Jul

Education

One of the main things that was eye-opening to me as I encountered people from different countries was just how astoundingly, disgustingly expensive higher education is in the US.  I had no idea that it is not normal in other parts of the world to expect to spend the next 20 to 30 years paying off your undergraduate education.  And on top of just basic education costs, I think that thanks to television and movies, we are sold this idea that it is our right as young Americans to go away to school and have the typical college experience of communal living, keg parties, and campus life.  I can say with all honesty (and shame) that if my parents had told me that I had to live at home while I went to college, I would have thought my life was over (and probably thrown a temper tantrum).  I know that not everyone would have reacted the same way and I know a few people who lived at home while they went to school, but an overwhelming majority of the people I know who came from the same background as me had the privilege of living on campus; and don’t think many of us ever truly reflected on how economically privileged we truly were, even compared to many people within our own country.

Once I left school, I really started to miss that feeling of learning and I started to seek it out any way I could.  Whether it be learning a new language (with a teacher, on your own, or socially), joining a creative writing circle, a book club, or exchanging skills with friends, it’s possible to continue to educate and better yourself.  I think it’s important to continue to educate yourself within your chosen career- especially if it’s something you are passionate about.  But there is, also, something so pure about learning something not so it will eventually beef up your resume or help you earn more money.  Learning just as a gift to yourself is a wonderful experience.

I also think it’s so important to place value on what you can learn from the other people you come across in your life.  There are so many different view points out there and it’s important to really listen to what other people have to say and truly participate in an exchange of ideas.  I am an admittedly opinionated person, but one of my on-going “self-projects” has always been to remind myself to take a step back and truly listen to where others are coming from.  Other people have so much to offer and if two people are truly able to debate a topic while still respecting each other at the same time, it’s possible that they may be able to see something from a perspective that had never occurred to them, whether it eventually changes their opinion or not.  We need to value each other and celebrate the differences of experience we are all coming from.

Health

According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta on whatever radio station I happened to have on in the car the other morning, American restaurant portions are double what we should be eating.  (And according to Wikipedia, Dr. Gupta is a neurosurgeon who also happens to be a television personality and author, so, I mean, you gotta trust him, no?).  Whenever my Spanish friends and students would visit the States, I would ask them what they thought.  Most of their answers were the same across the board.  They’d first gush something along the lines of, “Americans are so nice! Everyone is smiling and so helpful.  I was nervous speaking English, but they were all very patient!  It was nothing like our trip to London!” (Sorry, Brits.  I’m sure you’ve heard it before anyway.)  And without fail, among the list of observations about big cars, tipping in restaurants, and people trying to practice their Spanish with them, there is always the comment, “But the plates of food are so big!  And the people are so fat!  It’s probably because of all the McDonalds and the mayonesa on all the salads.”

I’ve always felt a tinge of defensiveness for the States at the “people are so fat!” comment, because every time I come home to the States, when I look around me in Boston and New York, which is where the majority of these people are visiting, I don’t quite see what they see.  And I’ve had to correct the occasional adult who honestly thought that the majority Americans ate multiple meals a day at McDonald’s.  But, it is hard to argue with statistics, I suppose, and according to the CDC, more than one-third of US adults (35.7%) are obese.

I think that there are a lot of people in this area of the States that are focused on health and I think that’s a wonderful thing.  I think it’s great how much emphasis is placed on sports in schools and I think it’s an incredible thing for young girls that they are taught to value themselves as athletes.  So, after my years of grade school soccer and high school field hockey, I had a really good foundation.  During my time in Spain, I think I learned more about molding my lifestyle in order to fully support this idea of health.

When I first moved to Spain, take-out food and microwave dinners were almost non-existent.  Barcelona has become a little more Americanized over the years, but even though both things are slightly more available, there is still a stigma against them.  Spaniards are very proud of their food and diet.  I will truly miss the experience of buying food; of taking my shopping bag, going to the market, and jumping from stall to stall to stock up on freshly cut meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.  This may sound strange, but after planning a meal, carefully choosing all my ingredients while chatting with the people selling it, and putting it together myself, you almost feel like you have more of a relationship with your food.  You’re not just opening up a take-out box or peeling back the plastic before popping it in the microwave- and then taking down the number of calories so you don’t exceed your amount for the day.

One thing that is unquestionably better in the States, however, is our attitude toward smoking.  I smoked socially in college, but my habit became out of control once I moved to Spain.  It was inescapable there.  Up until two years ago, you could smoke in bars and restaurants in Barcelona.  Socializing under a cloud of smoke was just par for the course.  And it wasn’t that long ago that there were people smoking in offices, museums, and on the metro.  I smoked my last ever cigarette two and a half years ago and looking back, I can’t even remember why I started.  I do have to admit, I enjoyed it when it was in my life.  Nothing compares to a cigarette after a big meal or with a cup of coffee or as a little reward for cleaning one room of the house before moving onto the next.  But, like everyone always says, I just feel so much better now!  I enjoy sports so much more.  I feel less nervous.  And I don’t have that guilt in the back of my mind that I will truly regret later in life what I am doing to my body now.  I think one of the best things about the States is the ever-present social pressure.  If we see someone cutting in line, littering in the street, or trying to take advantage of us or someone else, we have no problem speaking up and letting them know that it is just not okay.  And it’s the same with smoking.  People outside the States, even my British friends, have a hard time believing me on this, but there was more than one time when I would be standing on the street or outside of a bar in the States smoking when someone would stop and say “You know, that’s so bad for you.  And it’s bad for everyone else around you, too.”  For whatever reason, Americans feel it is their social responsibility to impart knowledge (no matter how obvious) on their fellow citizens.  And, speaking as a recovering smoker, in this case I think it’s a really good thing.  You might be able to push your guilt to the back of your own mind, but when you have a fellow American in your face reminding you of the obvious, it’s much more difficult to ignore.  (Even as a smoker, it took everything in my power to hold back from lecturing a Spanish mother pushing her infant in a stroller with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, which is something that is not at all unusual.  How is that okay?)

My relationship with food has certainly changed, as has my desire to reincorporate sports into my life on a more consistent basis.  Not just going to the gym for a few hours, but incorporate it into my social life, as well.  And cut out the driving when I could be walking; which shouldn’t be too hard having sold my car six years ago.  As I said earlier, I believe that so much of happiness is dependent on your day to day choices and it’s clear that is true with health, as well.

Balance

The other day I was talking to my friend Erin about some of my doubts about moving home.  Trying to make me feel better, she said, “Well, it’s not too bad, Linds.  This summer I took an entire two weeks off work!”  When she saw my face, she immedietly laughed and realized that probably didn’t make me feel too much better.  (Love you, Erin).  Many European countries have an entire month off in the summer.  Some companies don’t even let you work in August if you want to.  And there are a plethora of bank holidays.  From September to December, there is usually a puente almost once a month in Spain.  Puente literally means bridge, but in this case it is when a working day falls in the middle of two public holidays.  That day is usually also taken as a holiday.  There’s a tendency to move public holidays to Monday, as well; in which case, a puente is more or less referring to a long weekend.  I know what some of you are thinking- maybe this is part of the reason for Spain’s economic problems.  But it happens in other European countries, as well.  And it’s not like our stingy system of vacations has made us any more recession-proof.

In the States, I don’t really feel that balance is valued that much.  There is such a focus on working, making money, status, and image, that people are always expected to be connected and available.  I have a good friend who works for a company, which will go unnamed, that does not offer any set limit of vacation days.  When I first heard that, I thought it was great, because that meant you could take as much time of as you wanted without question!  Until it was explained to me that it sometimes manages to have the opposite effect, because you are judged by everyone else in the office as to whether the break you are taking is necessary or that perhaps you aren’t as much of a hard worker as everyone else.

I believe that balance is extremely important.  Americans are constantly on the go.  In Spain, it’s considered very strange, and kind of unhealthy, to walk down the street drinking or eating something.  In the States, take-out and microwave/frozen/from-a-box dinners are so popular, because people are left with no time or are too exhausted when they arrive home to cook a proper meal.  But more so than how unhealthy it is, which we’ve already talked about, meals in Spain are looked at as a time to be with family and friends.  From the occasional extended family meal in the middle of the week and large family lunches at the weekend, families spend a lot of time together.

I know that Americans want to work less and feel less guilty about wanting to make time for other things.  I hear my friends and family talk about it all the time.  And I understand the situation is different as many people nowadays feel grateful to be one of the lucky ones with a job.  But I really hope that balance will one day be more valued.

Family

And now onto the most important lesson that I learned during my time abroad: Family is, by far, the most important thing our lives.  It was really difficult being away from my family these past six years.  Going home once a year for two to three weeks at a time is just not enough.  Things are easier with Facebook and Skype.  But it’s not the same as being a part of each other’s everyday lives.

This lesson was hammered home while living in a culture like Spain.  Over the years I was invited to many Sunday family meals.  It was incredible to see that it is not unusual for cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents to all come together once a week to share a few hours of homemade cooking and wine- lots of wine.  Food can be an expression of love and these gatherings did not solely happen on major holidays.  It’s obviously easier in a country like Spain, where people don’t move quite so far away from each other.  Many extended families I know live in the same neighbourhood in Barelona.  Many grandparents live with one of their children and their families.  One of my teenage students lived in the same apartment building as her father’s four brothers and their families!  (She told me it could get a little annoying, because she couldn’t escape from her younger cousins, but still).  And when I would work in the countryside of Italy every summer, I would see that it is not unusual for entire extended families to buy a huge house together and separate each floor into a separate apartment for different generations of the family.  (I think most Americans would agree with me that that might be a little much.)

Now, this difference doesn’t mean that these families don’t have their fair share of disagreements or problems.  Speaking to many of my friends, the same struggles still exist.  Your family are the closest people to you.  They know your whole history and they know you better than anyone.  Seeing all the joy these families shared made me start to realize that two to three weeks a year just wasn’t enough for me to spend with my own.  I was missing out on so much.  I thought about raising my children in Spain and possibly missing out on sharing that part of my life with my two sisters.  We wouldn’t be together for pregnancies and births and my children would only be able to play with their cousins during short yearly trips to my home.  My sisters and I spent two weeks every summer on Cape Cod with our cousins when we were growing up and they were the most perfect, idyllic parts of my childhood.  I want that for my children; and to be able to share that with my sisters.

Walking the streets of Barcelona, I would see grandparents taking care of new babies or bringing their grandchildren home from school.  And as I was invited into the homes of my students, I saw how much a part of the children’s lives their grandparents were.  I want my Mom to be there when I raise my children.  I soon realized that while I had learned so many lessons and gained so much from the expansion of my world, I wasn’t fully embracing one of the greatest gifts we have in this life.  I learned so many lessons about happiness and what I need to do in order to own my life and make it what I want.  But the greatest lesson of all was that nothing can bring you joy like your family.  Nothing can give you more purpose.  It is a gift that should not be squandered.  And for this reason, I know that I have made the right decision in deciding to move home.