Six Reasons You Should Move to La Rioja (and three reasons you shouldn’t)

When it was time to reapply for my second year as an Auxiliar de Conversación in Spain, I had some serious decisions to make. Second years get priority, so if all goes as it should you get your first choice. This year I was placed in Logroño randomly because my first three choices were full, and I feel so lucky for that. I love this city. My family loves this city. It feels like home. That said, I did feel a drive to explore a new area of Spain, and so was faced with a difficult choice. If you’re also struggling to figure out where to live in Spain, hopefully this list of the best and worst things about La Rioja will help you.

 

The region is so small that no matter where you work, it is possible to live in the city. You may have an hour commute, but at the end of the day you’ll be coming home to a decently sized city, and a gorgeous one at that.

And the people. Everyone is so nice. Like, extremely nice. The families I teach private lessons to have been my favorite part about this program. They are generous, patient, and want me to love La Rioja as much as they do. I have rarely met someone grumpy or unfriendly, and even the city bus drivers generally find a way to show their kindness.

The cost of living is insanely cheap here. My rent is 180 a month, a glass of wine is about .80, a night out with food and drink can easily be 10 euros or less. Yet the city itself is generally wealthy. People dress to impress, spend their money on classes and activities, and private lessons pay at the top of the range, 15 euros an hour for one student, or 20 for two. Living here as an aux, I’m paid the same as auxiliares living in Barcelona, San Sebastian, Palma, or Valencia, where the cost of living is much higher.

The Spanish here is easy. Logroño isn’t a tourist town, to the extent that whenever I hear a native English speaker I don’t already know, I pause, and try to figure out who they are and what they are doing here. As a result, the people here are not accustomed to switching over to English whenever they hear someone with an accent, or struggling for a Spanish word. In Madrid or Barcelona, when I try to talk to people, pretty much as soon as I open my mouth they switch to English. That never happens here which was terrifying at first but I think the major reason my Spanish improved so rapidly.

Also Northern Spain is GORGEOUS. It’s mountainous, it has a beautiful coast, and the landscapes are to die for. La Rioja is one of the northern most cities that speaks exclusively Spanish, instead of Spanish, and Basque or Catalan or Galego. It’s also home to some of Spain (and the world’s) best wine. It is pretty much in the center of northern Spain, meaning I can get to Burgos, Pamplona, Zaragoza, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Leon, and more for under two hours. It is a great base for weekend, or even day trips.

The size/culture is perfect (for me anyway). I’m a lot older than most of the people doing this program, many of whom are either just out of college or doing their year abroad now! For them, the small size and lack of crazy nightlife might sometimes be frustrating. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist–I live in the center of town and the noise outside my bedroom window lasts until 5 am on the weekends–but the main culture here isn’t discotecas, it’s a few pinchos with wine while entire families–babies, toddlers, grandparents, surround you. It’s relaxed, welcoming, and very chill. My kind of place. It’s also only got about 150,000 people, which I thought I would hate coming from Los Angeles, but as an introduction to a new country/language, it has been perfect. Also I’ve never lived somewhere safer. I have dropped my guard so much I’m a little terrified to ever live in a major city again.

So, how could I leave? Why should anyone pick a different region?

I asked myself that over and over, even though I knew I would. It was hard to shake the feeling that a second year in the program should be as adventurous as the first. By the time this year is over, I will be very familiar with northern Spain, and it’s really difficult to get from here to the south, which is apparently like an entirely different country. Another year exploring the same place felt like I was playing it safe, so I ended up requesting Andalucia as my first choice. My second choice was pretty random, Castilla la Mancha, but Toledo and the other cities in the area look gorgeous, and from talking to people it sounds like the area has all the things I love about Logroño, but in a very different location. Plus it’s also only 33 minutes by train from Madrid.

That is one of the main reasons I’d say you shouldn’t live in La Rioja. The lack of a nearby airport.

I generally have to fly out of Madrid (a 4 hour bus ride) or Barcelona (6 hours). And these buses never line up the way you want, meaning I’ve spent more nights than I can sanely handle sleeping in airports to catch 6 am flights, or arrived home at 5 am on a Monday and had to work at 9 am that same day. There’s an airport in Bilbao, but it’s much more expensive and really only cost effective to fly to and from London. And on my way back from London after the New Year, we had a terrifying landing experience that I have since been told is entirely common in Bilbao!

Another downside to the size and location is that it is SO Spanish. Great in so many ways, but on days where you are craving Mexican or Indian or Chinese, it can be so frustrating. Nothing is open during siesta and everything (even the grocery store) is closed on Sundays. I understand this is part of Spanish culture, but you’d probably have more variety in a larger city.

 

Last is the weather. I grew up in Boston and thought I could handle winter. But then I lived in LA for five years and my blood thinned or something, because it’s not even that cold here and it’s killing me. The darkness, the rain, and the constant chill wears on you, and I am so excited to (hopefully) live somewhere a bit warmer next year.

Overall, Logroño is an amazing city. I HIGHLY recommend anyone pick it, especially first years as I think it’s an amazing introduction to Spain and a good way to go relatively native, compared to Madrid or Barcelona. Ever since I sent in my application to renew, I’ve already been feeling nostalgic for this place. I love it here. I love my apartment. I love my street, the cathedral, the weird siren that goes off at noon every day and no one knows why. This feels like home, and it’s one I am so so happy I got to have. Maybe I’m making a mistake leaving, but at least I’ll have challenged myself, again, to try something, and somewhere new. I won’t be able to do that forever!

 

Goals for 2017

I super belatedly posted my 2016 wrap up, so now it’s time for the obligatory goals and resolutions post. How boring, right? Um, maybe to you guys! As I think is clear by now, lists and goals are my happiness bread and butter. This is basically my favorite time of year.

  1. I start this year much like the last. One of the main things I want to refocus on is my health. I was successful last year mostly, but the move to Spain really threw me off. The food here! It’s delicious, but man is it unhealthy. It’s all fried and meat and cheese. And it all comes with basically free wine. I haven’t been able to find a pilates class, and it’s too cold/wet to exercise outside. This has led to a lot of inactivity and a lot of unhealthy eating. It’s time to make a change! I want to drink more water, start taking a daily multivitamin again, eat healthier, and exercise (much) more. Also I’d like to get on a more normal sleep schedule, because apparently sleep is a little important.
  2. I want to keep working on my Spanish. It has improved massively from when I first arrived, but I’ve never been more than a high beginner, and the weeks away in December have really set me back. I want to try to do three classes a week, Tuesday – Thursday, and instead of reading 10 books in English this year, I’ll read 10 books in Spanish.
  3. I want to write as much as possible and recommit to this blog. So no more weeks/months between posts–I want to be able to look back on this time and have a complete log of what I was thinking and doing. I’m going to try to commit to a schedule of three times a week, which will definitely take some planning but it’s not like I don’t have things to write about!
  4. I want to volunteer more. The election, and I think also just the result of living internationally, has really made me feel a duty to dedicate more of my time to improving the things about the world I think are unjust or underserved. It’s time I do more. I want to try to do something based in the US, possibly here in Spain if that language barrier doesn’t get in the way, and internationally.
  5. I don’t know how possible this will be, because I make so little money I only break even at the end of every month here, but I hope to save an additional $2,000. I’m not sure how I’ll do this, I’m looking into VIPkid, or maybe getting another private lesson where that money is solely put into savings, but I hope I can at least come close. In addition to this, I want to start tracking every cent I spend, so I know exactly where my money is going!
  6. I want to go to new places. So far this year I have the following trips either booked or planned. Obviously things change, so this is tentative, but so far I have:

January – Belgium. I actually just returned from here yesterday! I went to Bruges and Brussels, and there is a full post coming soon. I also did a day trip to Pamplona.

February – I’m not totally sure what February will be. I know Gareth is coming here for my birthday/THE SUPER BOWL (!!!), but I’m not sure if we’ll try to plan anything else that month.

March – I’ll be going back to London in March, and my friend from LA will be in Europe, so I’ll be meeting up with her somewhere!

April – Spring break! I’ll be spending most of it in Italy and Slovenia, but I might try to add a trip to Budapest and into Transylvania, Romania to the end of the trip.

May – Again, nothing is really planned here yet. I’ll have to go to my new city to do my renewal forms so I don’t lose my visa, so (hopefully) a trip to Andalucia, and maybe Portugal or Palma?

June – This will be another big travel month. Hopefully I’ll spend a few weeks in Lebanon volunteering with refugees. Then I’ll go back to the states, and road trip from the north down the west coast to LA, where I’ll see my friends (AND MAYBE GET MY ITALIAN PASSPORT!?!?)!

July/August – These months are super unclear. If I’m Italian, I’ll move in with Gareth and work in London. If not, I have a few options. Au pair, work in summer camps, move home, or do a work visa for a few months in Australia?? Not sure, but I could really wind up anywhere. Exciting/terrifying.

September – I’ll return to Spain and find a place to live/get a new life set up. And hopefully take a few weeks to do a cheap overland trip from Zagreb all the way down to Greece!

From there I have no plans, but I’ll be teaching again starting in October and will probably fit in a few more trips as well. Definitely to the southern Spanish cities, and hopefully to Portugal and/or Palma if I haven’t made it there yet.

And lastly, there are a few 30 before 30 goals I think/hope I could accomplish this year.

  1. Become Italian! (It has to be this year, right?!)
  2. Go to Italy
  3. Go to Greece
  4. Stay in Shakespeare and Co bookstore
  5. Learn to cook 5 meals very well
  6. Run a 10k (or maybe a 12k Spartan race? I’d count it 🙂
  7. Learn Spanish. I hope to make that my main focus this year, and by January of next year, feel confident saying I speak the language.

So, I’ve got some plans and things to focus on. Maybe a few too many things to focus on, but that’s a problem for future Kristen!

How to apply to teach English in the Auxiliar de Conversación Program in Spain

The application to be an Auxiliar de conversación in Spain for the 2017-2018 school year is officially open, and will close this April 18th. The number of people applying this year already feels so different than last–in 2016 I applied in late February and was around number 3500. This year, they had already hit 1,000 applicants within 24 hours of opening. I stayed up and applied right at midnight and am still nearly number 400. That’s crazy!

One of the hardest parts about the Auxiliar program is the application. Maybe as a result of being free (though there are other free government programs that are not the disaster this process is), it’s pretty poorly designed and explained. I’m going to try to make a step by step guide to help anyone who was as confused as I was. I have information both for first year applicants and renewals down below.

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2016 Wrap up

I don’t really know how to begin to wrap up 2016. It was definitely a rollercoaster, but the only two things that really, really marred it were Brexit and the presidential election. Also Katie didn’t come to visit me. She is the worst.

It was a year that started rough, with a health scare, loss of health insurance, unemployment, and debt, and ended much, much better. This was the year I finally got the courage to leave the (relatively) secure life I had for myself in LA, and follow my dreams of traveling and living abroad.

Here are the 16 best things that happened to me in 2016:

1. I got a job! After months of unemployment, I was hired on an amazing show run by amazing people. Teenage Kristen would never have believed she’d go to work every day with Damon Lindelof, and yet, that was my life for nine months.

2. I got out of debt. Not only did I get out of debt, but I managed to save enough that a RTW trip is looking entirely possible, which would be another dream come true.

3. I got promoted at my job. No longer was I a writers PA, instead I was an assistant and suddenly I worked for someone who cared about my notes, talked out story ideas, and trusted my opinion. It was a great accomplishment, and one that made leaving all the more difficult.

4. I didn’t take my last months in LA for granted. When I first arrived in LA in January of 2012, no part of me thought I’d stay long term. I didn’t like the city, and couldn’t imagine ever feeling good living in it. Cut to nearly five years later, and wow do I love LA. I love my friends, I loved my apartment, the weather, the passion and drive. The landscape. I sincerely hope I end up back in California one day. And I’m proud I built a life there that was so hard to leave.

5. I went to Vegas to see Kesha with some amazing people. And the Hoover Dam. It was really hot, I lost $20 gambling, ate (and drank) way too much at a buffet, and had the time of my life.

6. I got Gareth to like LA. The first time he came to visit, I was unemployed, broke, and not super happy with my life there. I don’t think I showed him the best side of LA, though I did get him to love Santa Barbara. This time, I was in full on appreciation mode, and I think that really shined through. Also he brought a skateboard and was able to see more than just the main roads which I can admit are not the most attractive of sights.

7. I went back to the Pacific Northwest! Seattle had been on my list for years, and I realized I was leaving the west coast with no sure timeline of when I would be back. So the morning after Gareth arrived, we hopped on a plane at LAX and checked out Portland and Seattle. I love Seattle. (Portland was okay but also kind of terrifying!)

8. I MOVED TO SPAIN. That´s the big one. I can’t explain to you guys enough–for years I spent all my free time planning trips I had no time or ability to take. I obsessively read travel blogs and died of jealousy. I basically figured out my ideal life and then refused to live it. Until now! It was super scary and hard and I barely knew Spanish but here I am!

9. I hired a lawyer and did not give up on Italian Citizenship. This has been a hellish year when it comes to citizenship. After waiting a year and a half only to hear that I was being retroactively rejected, and then having my first attempt at a court order denied, it was really hard not to lose hope and just give up. But I refused, and now it’s looking like 2017 could be the year!

10. I voted for Hillary Clinton. Because I am a good person who did not want a racist, sexist, homophobic, islamophobic, predator in the White House.

11. I prioritized travel. In my first month here I booked tickets to Copenhagen, Berlin, Amsterdam, Prague, Wroclaw, London x2, and Belgium. Finally making up for my lack of travel while studying abroad!

12. I found my favorite city. I haven’t written about it yet, but it’s Amsterdam. I love that place so much and seriously hope to live there one day. I have a lot more to say, but that’ll be in a separate post.

13. I improved my Spanish. It’s not nearly where I want it to be, but hopefully I won’t be leaving Spain for a while yet, and I am committed to continuing to improve until it is.

14. I introduced my mom to Europe! This was one of the highlights of my year, and something I’ll treasure forever. She wants to start learning Spanish. She wants to come back in the spring. I’ll make a world traveler out of her yet! Also she got to meet Gareth’s family and it wasn’t horrible… I might even say it went well. So, that’s a real relief.

15. I ended 2016 right–with friends and (some) family, and we went back to the Priory, aka heaven, for New Year’s, which was spent in a tiny house in the middle of nowhere with some of my closest friends.

16. I moved to the same continent as Gareth. Wow. Can I fully explain how amazing it is to go from a 12 hour flight and 8 hour time difference to a 2 hour flight and a time difference that levels out the fact that he goes to bed stupidly early? I can’t. But trust me, it’s amazing.

A lot happened in 2016. Let’s see what 2017 has in store!

More Italian Citizenship News

I know haven’t updated on this in a while, mostly because it turned into a bit of a nightmare, and I couldn’t really handle posting about it until I had something positive to update on. AND NOW I DO! It’s long, sorry.

I think the last thing I posted was that my lawyer was going to get the court order in the beginning of September. Then nothing.

That’s because the order was denied. My lawyer was based in NY and the NY courts didn’t think they had jurisdiction over my entirely MA documents. Not knowing how to proceed, we decided to basically throw a hail mary, and try one more time under my dad’s name and hope for a different judge. If this failed I could have found (and paid for) a lawyer in MA (I looked for months during all of this and didn’t find ANYONE familiar with these types of cases), or applied directly in Italy (something that would have cost THOUSANDS of dollars), obviously two options that were less than ideal. After a few months of back and forth about when the second court date would happen, my lawyer decided it would be best to apply under my grandmother, as we could use her maiden name and avoid the courts recognizing my last name and automatically assigning the same judge.

I waited about another month, and was promised the first week in December. Then the second week. And then I didn’t hear anything for a little while. It was two weeks of torture! I am not patient! Finally I got an email saying the case had been filed, which meant it would be heard in the next few days. This was the week before Christmas, so we were cutting it REALLY close to everything closing down. On Thursday I got an email saying to have hope–that the judge I had been assigned wasn’t familiar with these types of cases, but he wasn’t against them. He didn’t want to sign off until he talked to one other judge–one my lawyer had worked with a lot and felt very confident would be supportive. On Sunday, Christmas morning, I got an email saying it had worked! The order had been granted!

YOU GUYS. I was shocked. My case was REALLY difficult. Like Secondino changed his name to ANDREW and I was trying to prove they were the same person, even though his birthdates didn’t match and his wife was sometimes on documents as Stephanie and sometimes as Bella. None of these names match even a little! I thought after not hearing anything on Friday that I would have to wait until after the holidays, and even if this judge granted everyone else their orders, mine still might be rejected because of the NY/MA jurisdiction thing. So imagine my TOTAL joy of waking up on Christmas morning to an email saying it had worked! I cried. My mom cried. Everyone was insanely happy.

I sent it translated to the consulate, and the apostilled version should arrive there this week! Right now, the turn around has been about a month. Compared to the EIGHTEEN months I waited the first time around, that is amazing!

However. I’ve noticed a problem.

The LA consulate sent me a list of about 10 things that needed to be addressed in the court order. Only nine were. My dad’s middle name isn’t on his own birth certificate, but it is on mine. This is an issue for LA. It shouldn’t be, because it’s OBVIOUSLY THE SAME PERSON, but it is. I talked to my lawyer and apparently by filing through my grandmother, she didn’t think we could include my dad, because he is a generation below her. I’ve talked to a few people and they think this is going to be a real problem.

I’m really not sure what to do. I thought it was finally over, and now it feels far from it. After the email on Christmas, we decided I’d move in with Gareth this summer. Long distance could finally be over. Now, while I have hope maybe it’ll be okay, there’s a huge chance it won’t be, and that is not ideal.

That said. The court order I do have addressed the MAJOR issues with my case. I’m no longer worried I’ll never get Italian citizenship, just that it’ll take longer than I want (though it already has considering I applied back in 2014 and it’s now 2017!).

The last thing I might need changed is so small, and so manageable, I know I’ll get it done. I have a plan:

1. Hope LA accepts it as is, but assume the won’t so I’ll simultaneously be doing step 2
2. Obtain my dad’s baptism and confirmation records that (hopefully) show how/when he took his middle name and this will (hopefully) be sufficient.
3. If both of those fail, I now feel educated enough to represent myself in a court local to where my dad lives, and I’ll fly home and try to do it myself.

That’s the update for the moment. I’ll keep you posted and you guys keep your fingers (and toes!) crossed for me.