Guerrero, Mexico

The girls taking the public transportation to the swimming pool with their cousins. (February 2015)

Tlaxcala, Mexico

Erika picking out pan dulce at our favorite panaderia. (January 2015)

Bend, Oregon, United States

Our family photo taken in Drake Park with all three of my daughters (October 2014)

San Francisco, California, United States

Enjoying the beautiful view from the top of Twin Peaks (July 2015)

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Exploring the ruins of Palenque during our Great Mexican Road Trip. (May 2014)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Life as a Foreign Grad Student

Well, we all know that I've moved myself, and my family, to Spain so I could attend graduate school at the Universidad de Salamanca in pursuit of a Master in Advanced English Studies. I qualified for additional educational benefits under the Post 9/11 GI Bill through the VA. I lost all of my educational benefits when I separated from Army National Guard on January 15, 2007. New legislation pushed through Congress and signed by President Bush in 2008 gave me benefits again. Now I qualified for tuition benefits and housing allowance at a 60% level. I finished my Bachelor's degree in 2006 and these new benefits came with an expiration of 15 years to the day from when I came off active duty i.e. my return from Iraq which translates to April 2019 for me. The benefits cover a wide variety of trade school, traditional education, and even foreign schools. I looked into the Applied Linguistics Master offered through the University of Massachusetts Boston but that program was 2 years long, primarily online, and carried a price tag of $30,000. I am still paying off student loans from my BA so sinking another $12,000 into debt just because I had benefits to use wasn't worth it to our family. The plans for any additional education were put on hold. Fast forward to 2014 and the idea resurfaces when I start to research Spain as a third country option for our family.

As I discovered in my research, tuition costs in Europe are a fraction of what they are in the United States. I couldn't even get an associate degree for the price that I'm paying here in Spain for a graduate degree. Fast forward through my application process to USAL and here we are, one month into my program. My cohort has approximately 28 students including myself. My classmates come from Spain, Poland, Bulgaria/Finland, Russia, Ecuador, Chile, and the good ole USA. The majority of the classes are taught in English and I could get away without taking any in Spanish except I'm going to risk one. One of the literature classes, The Literary Impact of the Spanish Civil War, is taught in Spanish so I'm going to a leap of faith and hope that I can understand enough to pass the class because the subject matter is very interesting to me.
Everything just runs differently here. The sooner you realize and accept this, the sooner you will settle in. My Master's program has three tracks: Literature, Linguistics, and a mixture. My original intention was to come out of this with a degree that would enable me to teach English as a Second Language all over the world so I enrolled in the Linguistics track as soon as I got the email with my registration access details. I later spoke with the director who told me that I was better off taking the mixed course only I couldn't change my classes online so I began freaking out. Her response: No pasa nada, just show up to the classes you want when you get here and we'll figure it out later. This is NOT my personality style. I am used to the strict guidelines in the United States. So slow down and relax are going to need to be learned fast.

The program officially started on September 22nd where we were invited to an orientation and general meeting of all the students in the program. It was held in a large stone room upstairs in Anaya, the main building for the School of Filology. The two directors from both Universities gave their presentations, a former Master student who is now here doing her Ph.D. program took us on a tour around the area, and then we had a lovely wine and hors d'ouevres reception afterwards. The Ph.D. student is from Portland, OR so it's nice to have a friendly American face to turn to for help if I should need it. I started my first day of classes two days later, American Poetry and Poetics, ack!!

My classes for the first semester run between 9:15am and 11:15am or 11:30am and 2pm. My class schedule changes every single week because the classes here are short and intense. A 3 credit class means we meet 6 times and a 6 credit class meets 12 times. And some of those classes might be run by two different professors so they break it up into two sections. One professor comes in and teaches 6 classes and gives you a final assignment and then the second professor comes in and does the same so you end up with two final projects for one class. It can be a little confusing coming into the program. So far, there are NO TEXTBOOKS! We have a platform where we can log in and find articles that have been uploaded for our class or our professors hand out copied packets during class. It is all so different! One month into the program and besides some readings from these packets, my homework on the horizon includes a 10 page paper on American poetry, a 6 page paper on discourse analysis in regards to a press release, and 3 exercises and a 10 page paper for Research paper class. Since there are only 10 class slots available each week, depending on which classes I'm taking, I may or may not have any classes during a particular week due to how they are scheduled. On average, I only have 4-5 classes a week so less than 15 hours in class.

My first semester classes are held here in Salamanca and the second semester classes will be held at the university in Valladolid, about an hour away via car. The powers that be are trying to consolidate our classes into 2-3 days a week so we won't have to commute as much. A round trip train ticket would be 16,70a day so that could add up pretty quickly. This first semester runs from September to February and I have 7 classes to finish. Next semester runs from February to April and I only have 3 classes. Then I will have roughly 6 weeks to finish up my Master's Thesis, approximately 30 pages. I will defend in sometime in June or July and then our family heads home after graduation. Let's hope it goes as smooth as it sounds!

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Cost$ of Public $chool

The children who attend public school in our region do not get free textbooks for school. There is a fondo of libros which is maintained by the city government where used books are available in a limited quantity. The books for the following September are ordered the prior March so parents can have an idea of what is available and then they are picked up the week before school starts. Mia is in the Second Course of the Public College i.e. 2nd grade in elementary school. Erika got placed in the First Course at the Institute of Secondary Education i.e. 7th grade in high school. We were able to get 3 of Erika's required textbooks from the Fondo but we had to buy the others. The Mathematics book, Matemáticas. 1 ESO. Savia cost 29,35€. She is taking the bilingual track so her Biology/Geology and Geography classes are taught in English. Each of those books were an additional 35€. I asked one of my professors why these classes were chosen to be taught in English since the vocabulary is more specific and would be more difficult to understand for the students. Who goes out into the world and using a second language to discuss science matters? My professor told me it was because they are not considered to be the important subjects so it's okay if they don't completely grasp all of the information that is being taught. My jaw dropped open and I was left speechless. Way to go Spain, way to go!



While that was a relief to only have to buy half of Erika's textbooks, her art class sent her home with a laundry list of supplies to purchase! I still have no idea what half the things on the list are and Google and Amazon.es only got us so far. We had to buy every book on Mia's list since she writes in most of hers. I think that all told we spent about $500 on all of their books, supplies, backpacks, outfits for PE, and the like. To be honest, this was not an expense that we had budgeted for at all and certainly not what we expected to be faced with during our first week here in Spain. Mia's school started on September 10th and Erika's started on September 17th so we had a little time to get one started before the next. We had to wait for the official phone call that Erika had been placed at the high school next door to Mia's school and they waited until the very last day. They didn't ask for anything except the confirmation that she had applied for her TIE and her NIE number. 
Erika goes to school from 8:25am to 2:25pm and Mia attends from 9am to 2pm. There is no breakfast or lunch program and children are not expected to bring meals from home, just a simple snack like a piece of fruit or cookies. There is a cafe in Erika's school where she can buy a tapa or drink or something small for a euro or so. Mia has a snack schedule at her school. On Monday, she can bring cookies, Tuesday/Thursday fruit, Wednesday a bocadillo, and Friday is free choice.
The girls have October birthdays which means that they were held back a year in the United States since their birthdays fell after the first day of school. Here you are assigned to your grade based on the year of birth so Mia would be 3rd grade and Erika 8th. Mia had to suffer through a week of 3rd grade before they finally got permission to put her into 2nd grade. We were able to get that figured out for Erika before class started so she joined into her group on the first day. There are no lockers in high school so the students have to carry all of their books back and forth each day. Since their schedule is different every day, they pack their backpacks each night before bed so they are ready in the morning. Erika and Mia receive 3 to 4 hours a week of specialized classes to assist them in learning the Castellano language. The girls have grown up hearing us speak Spanish but neither of them have had to use it outside of the time we spent in Mexico last year. Now they are forced to use it during school hours so it has put a lot of pressure on the girls to learn quickly. After all, this is why we're here. They need to learn Spanish once and for all if they hope to be able to continue communicating with their family. Their Tía Isabel is writing them letters from Mexico so the girls are practicing their written Spanish as well sending letters back and forth. It's probably one of the first times that our family in Mexico has ever written a letter and sent it as well. It's not a very common thing, even before the advent of emails and internet. That's not to say that there isn't a lot of letters going back and forth from the United States as well. I don't care how easy it is to write an email, nothing beats the sheer joy of spotting a handwritten letter peeking out of the mailbox when you get home from school. If you'd like to exchange letters with us while we're here, please don't hesitate to send me a message with your address. We'd love to keep in touch and send postcards, letters, and other small gifts.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Empadronamiento and the TIE

The immigration system in Spain works a little differently from what we have dealt with in the United States and Mexico. When I received my permanent resident visa for Mexico, I just had to receive a stamp in my passport on the visa page and proceed straight to the nearest immigration office in my hometown in order to complete the process. Here I had to get a rental contract and take it to the local town hall (ayuntamiento) and register our residency (empadronarnos), and get a confirmation paper called an empadronamiento. Then we went to the Oficina de Extranjería and picked up four application forms (EX-15) and the payment slips that we had to take to the bank and pay around 15each. We went back the next morning and turned in the forms and payment receipts. It took about 45 minutes to get through all four applications. The girls each signed their own applications and got their digital fingerprints taken. The office is under the umbrella of the National Police as opposed to an individual immigration office so that was a little different. Our region does it on a walk-in basis so we were able to get in and out very quickly. I went back on Wednesday October 14th to see if they were ready as they had told us about 30 days before we could pick them up. They were ready so I was able to pick my TIE (Tarjeta de Extranjera) up and then bring the family back the next day to grab theirs. Our cards are our ticket to a stay within the Schengen Zone for a period that exceeds 90 days, the golden ticket envied by so many travelers. My Master's program is a year long program so our residency cards are valid through September 5, 2016. I should defend my thesis in July but worse case scenario, I have until September so I'll be able to travel back and forth and finish up the program. Somewhere in the next year, I still have to figure out how we are going to hike the Camino de Santiago. Each card has our NIE (Numero de Indentificación de Extranjero) printed on the bottom and we are asked for it all the time! When the delivery man brings a package, I have to provide my number and sign. When we purchase something like a TV, we have to provide it. For domestic travel within Spain, we only need our TIEs for identification and plane trips. For international travel, we'll need to carry both our passports and the TIEs so that we'll be allowed to remain within the Schengen Zone outside of the 90 days. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Settling into Santa Marta de Tormes

Whenever we try to accomplish things in a new environment, we limit it to one or two things a day. We have been trying to keep to a routine so that the girls have the time and space to adjust to a new home without more stress than necessary. Our little rental for this week has been perfect. Santa Marta de Tormes is a small town right on the outskirts of Salamanca so it is very easy to get around town. I have our rental SUV for a week so we turn in the car and the rental apartment on the same day. That gives us a total of 7 days to find a new home and get ourselves situated before we move on to the next phase in our lives.
Our next priority was food. We did not want to spend all of our savings eating out and the apartment cupboards were literally bare of everything except some condiments. There is a mall that lies right on the outside of town called El Tormes with a Mercadona grocery store on the bottom floor. The girls were excited to find some familiar cereals to pick out as they are not heavy breakfast eaters. The hugest difference that we have found is that there are NO FRUIT flavored cereals like Fruity Pepples, Crunch Berries, anything! I see a lot of Choco Krispies, Honey Smacks, and cornflakes in our future mornings. Most of the time we spent walking up and down the aisles and taking everything in, the prices, the selection, what compares most to the ingredients that we are used to. We learned that when you are in the produce section, you have to put on a plastic glove before touching any produce and if it is a bulk product, you weigh it in that section and get a price sticker on it before approaching the cash register to check out.
You can't enter the store with any bags or backpacks so there are lockers that cost .50 centimos to 1 euro to secure your belongings. When you go back to retrieve your items, your coin is returned when you insert your key. The shopping carts operate the same way. You put a euro in the shopping cart handle and it unlocks from the cart in front of it. When you return it to the cart corral, the coin is returned when you plug it in. I wish I could capture a picture that would clearly illustrate the fine art of Spanish parking lots. Those white lines on the ground are just a suggestion. Feel free to park at any angle in any direction and occupy as many spaces as your tiny car is able to.
Initial thoughts, everything is sold in small packages/quantities. It is still easy to spend a fortune at the grocery store if you don't pay attention to the unit of sale. Here everything is sold by grams and liters as much of the world besides the United States uses the metric system. I will post an idea about the different costs in the near future. Wine and chocolate are pretty cheap so I'm happy over all. It is hard to find the right ingredients to make the foods that we are used to so it's a learning process. Milk is sold in cartons that do not require refrigeration until you open them. It takes me straight back to living in the Middle East when you got a little box of UHT milk with your equally little box of breakfast cereal in the DFAC (dining facility).
Our search for a long term rental was a relatively short process. There are tons of websites like www.idealista.com, www.milanuncios.com, and Facebook groups for your region to help you find a home. You can pound the pavement and find apartment rentals plastered all over the streets too. We walked around town and called many numbers without any luck. I wanted a 3 bedroom piso with a bathroom and central heating so our utilities wouldn't be a big shock. An agent with Tecnocasa took us to see a three bedroom apartment that looked like it had gotten trapped in the 60's. We were advised that we wouldn't be able to get a written contract for that one though because the owner wasn't technically allowed to rent it. It is one of the requirements that we need in order to register ourselves in our town so we can get our residency cards. So that was a quick decision, thanks but no thanks.
As we walked away from that lovely offer, we decided to duck into an inmobiliaria's office and see what she had available. She had a 3 bedroom with individual heating for 350€ and a 2 bedroom with central heating for 440€. She took us to see the 3 bedroom first and that was all it took. I wanted an extra room so we could host friends and family and the girls fell in love the moment they wanted into the second bedroom. It has this "lovely" black chandelier and a gorgeous of the river from all our windows. We decided to head back to our flat and think about it before committing to anything. Jose tried calling a few more phone numbers that we collected while walking back but nothing was turning up. We talked it over and ended up walking back after siesta time and letting Cristina know that we'd like to take the piso. She called the owners and set up a meeting for the next day at 10am to meet in her office and sign all of the documents. There was no type of credit check, references, or anything. She mentioned that I was a veteran and that was all it took. The owner is in the Spanish military and he said that was good enough for him.

So we arrived in Madrid on Saturday the 5th, drove to Santa Marta de Tormes on Sunday the 6th, found our apartment on Monday the 7th, signed the contract on Tuesday the 8th, and moved in on Friday the 11th. We had to pay one month's rent as a deposit or fianza, a  real estate finder's fee of 211€, and a prorated first month rent of 221€. The utility bills for the gas and electric will be delivered to the piso every two months and could average 250-260€ for gas and 60-80€ for electric during the winter months. This is now our new home for the next 10 months! Our new landlords are turning out to be the best part of the deal. They have been absolutely fabulous from day one and I look forward to getting to know them and their family more in the upcoming months.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

From Madrid to Santa Marta de Tormes

I had set the alarm for 10am when I finally fell asleep last night but my internal clock woke me up at 8am and I quietly slipped downstairs to use the internet while the family slept. I  peeked out into the street to make sure that the rental car was still there and it was, note still tucked under the windshield wiper. We left the apartment around 10am to go in search of rope to tie down the luggage securely for the two hour drive to Santa Marta and to get some food in our stomachs. I ducked into the first Chinese market and asked for "soga", Mexican Spanish for rope. She shook her head and we were back on the hunt. We stopped at a cafe in the Plaza to order some breakfast. Everyone here is smoking and we can't get away from the smoke. The girls managed to find a couple tables without ashtrays on them so we took that to mean the nonsmoking section off on one side. Jose ordered breakfast for us.
I was in search of the infamous Spanish tortilla that I have heard so much about for the last few years. I didn't know what it was called but there were a couple tortillas on the menu on the wall. José ordered the tortilla de bonito for me. It is a mistake that none of us will ever repeat again. It was served on a baguette with what appeared to be scrambled eggs with tuna mixed in. I ate it because I was hungry but I did not enjoy one bite of it. I hate fish and I only eat tuna under certain circumstances, this not being one. José and Mia were quite happy with their breakfasts. They love their ham and eggs and the french fries are just extra. Wasps were buzzing around and taking to partake in our bacon and tuna egg sandwich as well and I was all too happy to let them. The girls, on the other hand, were trying to hide under the table. Erika didn't order anything to eat, just her orange juice so they left her alone.
Aside from the cigarette smoke, I enjoyed sitting out in the plaza and people watching. Erika was a little chilly so we walked back to the apartment to grab her hoodie and boy, was that fun! The note was missing from the windshield of the SUV so I went to open the door and grab her hoodie. An older gentleman stepped out of the building in front of the vehicle and proceeded to give me an earful that I was unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, not able to understand due to the Castellano accent and he was not very happy at all. Erika grabbed her hoodie and we hopped in the car to move it down to the street until we were ready to leave. I don't think they like tourists in this neck of the woods, especially ones that park their rental cars 3 feet into your driveway. Who in the heck wakes up early on a Sunday morning and drives somewhere anyway?
Ms. Erika on the other hand is still very emotional and upset about moving here and leaving her family. It has made this journey very hard for me because no mother wants to see her child unhappy but I know that it is going to get better. She can't see beyond the here and now and it's like her world has come to an end. This isn't the end of my travels and at some point, she will have to make the choice if she wants to stay behind and be without her mother and sister or if she wants to come. Personally, my mother moved us so often that I never had the chance to develop strong emotional attachments to anyone so moving was never this emotional breakdown. Erika wasn't quite this bad when we moved to Mexico last year and by month 3, she was quite happy and having a great time. Let's hope it doesn't take that long this trip!
We walked over to the fountain in the plaza to explore a little while Jose was waiting to pay the tab. Erika was able to smile through her tears thankfully. This has been a long journey to get here so far and I'm sure the stress is adding to her emotions as well. After José paid the tab, we wandered into another Chinese store and we decided to look for rope instead of asking for it. We finally located two bunches of cord that they use for clotheslines. Here it is called "cuerda" like a cord so the first gal probably had no idea what I was talking about when I asked for a "soga", oops, live and learn. Then it was back to the house to repack all of our suitcases and rearrange them so we could make the ride as comfortable as possible for the next leg of our journey. We must have looked a sight carefully laying out a blanket on top of the SUV to protect it from scratches and loading up all of our bags.
We managed to get the two largest suitcases and my old Army duffel strapped onto the top and everything else stuffed inside. The girls have their carry on suitcases on their floorboards and the back is stuffed to the roof with a small space for me to view through. Thankfully it was pretty easy to find our way out of town and onto the highway to Salamanca. I didn't realize that they have toll roads here, similar to Mexico. It costs around 15 Euros from Madrid to Salamanca and I'm not sure if there are free routes as well. We went through a long tunnel 3km long so we didn't bother trying to hold our breath through that one.
We found our next AirBnB rental fairly quickly and the owner met us within a matter of minutes. It was a small two bedroom apartment located on the 3rd floor. We used the very small elevator to haul all of our luggage upstairs and settle in. The view out the living room window is the rooftops of all the surrounding chalets. I've reserved the place for a week to give us a chance to get to know the area and find a long term rental for the family.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Arriving in Spain

The flight from Iceland to Spain was relatively painless. Mia was given another children's meal pack for free and this time it was breakfast style. Erika ordered the mini hamburgers while Jose and I enjoyed another ham and cheese baguette. Jose and the girls were able to get some good sleep but I have the hardest time sleeping on a plane. It's unfortunate since I am the one who also needs to hit the ground running since our complete plan is safely stored in my head and nowhere else, not the smartest plan. We landed in Madrid around 10:30pm and went to collect all of our suitcases. We didn't have to pass through anything that resembles immigration or customs. In the airport, you have to buy a token from a machine in order to collect a luggage cart. I needed two carts so two tokens. We didn't have any Euros yet since we had just landed and most of my credit/debit card managed to get blocked by the banks, just when I needed them most. I had to walk all the way across the large baggage claim area to find a working machine that would finally cough up two tokens for me.
I know that everyone in the baggage area was looking at us with a mixture of amazement and sheer horror, much like an exhibit in the zoo. Everyone else is traveling with one large suitcase and a cute backpack or carry-on and we're loading up the Uhaul of baggage carts while using our fingers and toes to count all the suitcases so we don't leave anything important behind. We landed in Terminal 2 and had to find our way to Terminal 1 without having any prior knowledge of the airport. Do we walk? Is there a courtesy shuttle? Call a taxi? Fling ourselves on the floor kicking and screaming? Oh no far worse than that. We have to push our 450# of luggage all the way to Terminal 1. It's conveniently located in the same area, just a long way down the stretch and it has multiple levels too. They kindly provide a style of moving sidewalk that goes at a very long slant before two floors. It was working perfectly until it stopped while we were only halfway up. I had to push that cart all the way up the ramp until I reached level ground again. I'm sure I was smelling quite lovely at this point after traveling for 28 hours straight by this time.
We finally found the rental car window for Europcar and I joined the line of three other people waiting for service. I'm messaging back and forth with Pilar, our AirBnB host for our first night here in Madrid. I thought we would be arriving to her piso around midnight and it quickly becomes apparant that that is not going to happen. I waited in line for over an hour before my five minutes at the desk where I quickly signed the paperwork and received the keys for a Skoda Yeti. I was worried that it was not going to hold our luggage and we were either going to be stranded or paying for a monster sized rental car to get us to Salamanca. Thankfully it had luggage racks and combined with the bungy cords from Iceland we got everything strapped onto the SUV and off to find the piso.
I found the piso without too much trouble but what I couldn't find was a parking spot anywhere near it. We unloaded all of the suitcases into the living room and I squeezed in the motorcycle sized parking spot between a driveway and curb. The front of the SUV stuck out a few feet past the red line so I was stressed. I wrote a note and left it on the windshield asking them to please knock on our door before calling the tow truck. We stayed up for a couple hours unwinding and then crashed pretty hard. Tomorrow was the big day, finding our way to our new home.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Long Layover in Iceland

Our plane landed in Keflavik, Iceland just past 6:00 in the morning local time. My challenge was to keep everyone awake for our 10 hour layover and our internal clocks were set to 11pm at night. Our first stop was immigration and we got the first stamp that welcomed us into the Schengen zone. The blond agent spoke great English and said that she had previously traveled to Salamanca and that it was a beautiful area and to enjoy our year in Spain. Customs was a choice of to declare or not to declare but no forms or agents or anything so I assumed we had nothing that needed to be declared in our carry-ons. As soon as we reached the main lobby, there was a young blond man holding up a list of people with reservations for Thrifty car rental and he provided us with front door service to the off site rental office. This was very much appreciated as it was very cold, wet, and windy.

Erika had been in tears since landing when I realized that going horseback riding was going to be out of the question. She's homesick and fighting this move at every chance she gets. She's not making things any easier for herself and instead she's making the experience less than great for the rest of the family. It might have been a mistake to let the girls bring their cells so they can stay in touch with everyone back home. She keeps texting Grandma and crying all over again.

After we checked out our car, a red little 2016 Ford Fiesta, we started off towards Reykjavík about 45 kilometers from the airport. We use T-Mobile for our cell service at home and it now includes free unlimited data and text messaging around the world so it was the perfect plan for us. I could only get messaging to work on my phone and Jose got messaging and data to work on his. I pulled over at the entrance to Keflavik to get my bearings using the map (gasp!). We hopped out of the car to take a quick picture with metal figures that looked like children. The wind was blowing a fine rain at this point.

When we reached Reykjavík, we drove in circles trying to get our bearing on the map. My co-pilot needs some serious navigation lessons. I've been my mother's navigator since I was young so I forget that reading a map does not come naturally to everyone. We found our way to the top of the hill where the church Hallgrímskirkja was located and ran out to take some pictures in the rain. I asked a man walking through the plaza where we might be able to find a restaurant for breakfast at this hour but he said nothing was open except for a bread store down the road and gas stations.

It took a few minutes to drive around and find the "bread store."  It turned out to be quite a busy bakery called Sandholt with a cafe in the back. We decided to dine in and use the WiFi to plan our next step. The kids selected pastries along with hot chocolate. Jose got a sandwich of egg salad and bacon along with a cappuccino. I ordered the quiche of feta, basil, and sun ripened tomatoes with my hot chocolate. The girls didn't like their drinks because they are stronger and richer than the American versions.

We decided to go find one of the local thermal pools and relax in the hot waters. We looked into going to the famous Blue Lagoon but it was fully booked and cost 35€ per person. The local pool was closer to 35€ for two adults, two kids, four towel rentals, and one swimsuit rental for Jose. We picked out Árbæjarlaug as it had great reviews for being a family friendly location with a water slide for the girls. There were lots of signs to guide you through their rules. The first was to remove your shoes before entering the locker room and there were plastic bags to place them in. Next, all the lockers are free. Just place your items inside and remove the key. Everyone is required to take a cleansing shower without any swimsuit on before getting dressed and entering the pools. There is an indoor pool with a water canal to the outside pools so to can easily go back and forth. Each pool was labeled with the approximate temperatures of 37°-38°, 38°-40°, 40°-42°, and 42°-44°. I have yet to learn my Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion so I started off in the coolest water and worked my way all the way up to 40°-42°,that was plenty hot for me! It was still cold, windy, and raining but we felt great sitting in the bubbling waters. The girls love swimming pools wherever we go so it was the perfect alternative to going horseback riding.

We soaked for a couple hours and then headed into Reykjavík to find ice cream and souvenirs. I had read about a place called Eldur and Is and it ended up being a few blocks away from the church and restaurant this morning. We found a parking spot and got out to walk around and explore. We found the ice cream parlor at the end of the rainbow, literally.
The Skólavörðustígur street is painted like a rainbow in honor of Reykjavík's Gay Pride festival that takes place every year in August. We walked around and found our souvenirs and postcards. We found the post office which was closed so the girls wrote their postcards against the door and we popped them into the mailbox. Then it was time to find our way back to the airport and drop off the car. We filled up the gas tank and I found some bungee cords when I went in search of some rope to tie down our suitcases once we hit Madrid. I forgot that small detail in our packing. Off to hopefully get some shut eye on this last leg.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Closest Call Yet

Today has been one of the most stressful travel days yet and we're just getting started. I made the biggest rookie mistake ever and forgot Jose's passport at home. Seriously, what kind of traveler does that?? They were all put away yesterday but I had to run to our room and grab them when I checked us in online for our flights as it asked for our passport details.  My mistake is that I didn't put it away exactly where I got it from. I slipped it into his passport wallet, only he didn't bring that this trip. I didn't realize my mistake until we were already 45 minutes from town and no extra time in our schedule. I called Mom in a panic and she was still at our house so she checked the wallet and there was one green Mexican passport. So we pulled into a parking lot in Madras to wait for our rescue. 

Even with me driving well over any posted speed limits, we still pulled up to the airport right at the baggage cutoff time of 2:40pm, one hour before our flight. To my surprise, there were several people standing in line?! It turns out that their systems had crashed and people couldn't be checked in so we were saved by technology, or the lack there of! All of our seven pieces of luggage to check were right on the mark except one and it was close so she let it go. Our carry-ons were another matter though. I hadn't realized they were limited to 10 kg. or 22 lbs. so we had to do some quick shuffling and we ended up checking Jose's carry-on with all the heavy stuff. Unfortunately, that included both laptops of the girls, our DVD camcorder,  and a big bag of Reese's. The line to get through security was very long so I was still panicking. We made it to the gate and then I worried that we'd have issues with our backpacks and carry-on but thankfully no. We made it in the plane and the departure was only delayed about 15 minutes. 

The girls were each given a pack when they boarded with a blanket, pillow, and headphones. For our meal service, Mia was given a complimentary meal as well that contained dried fruit, cookies, and a pasta with chicken dish. Their cutoff for child is 11 years old so Erika wasn't going to get one but the stewardess returned in a few minutes and said there was an extra one so she got one at all. I think another child probably turned it down. We ordered a ham and cheese baguette for the girls too and it was served hot so the cheese was all gooey like a grilled cheese sandwich, yum. The girls drank Appelsin which was an orange soda and I ordered them a Kleina which is an Icelandic twisted doughnut. I would compare it to thick fry bread that isn't sweet. I got two bars of Icelandic chocolate, milk and dark. The entertainment system was pretty great. A good selection of movies, TV shows, informational shows about the different regions of Iceland, kids activities, and more. Economy seating had WiFi available for 7€ but we skipped that. The girls and Jose slept for several hours which is good since we are landing at 6:07am local time, 11:07 pm our bodies time. 

Preparing for landing now, wish us luck! We have reserved a car for our 10 hour layover and I hope to take the family to ride the Icelandic horses. More to come later.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Saying Goodbye and Letting Go

After having our going away party yesterday, I was able to get about 5 hours sleep last night before we arose at 6 a.m. to make the drive across the state to visit my maternal grandfather. My grandmother passed away 5 years ago while I was driving to Mexico and I felt that I hadn't gotten to say my proper goodbyes and I still miss her every single day. My grandfather will be turning 95 years old in October and we won't be able to fly back to the United States if anything were to happen to him. I didn't have a father growing up so my Grandpa was that male figure and he wasn't always the easiest person to get along with, especially when your mother is a free spirited hippie. I always wanted to make him proud though in everything I did. He calls me frequently as I'm his personal IT and technical support adviser.

My Grandpa served in World War II in the Army Air Force as a pilot. My uncles John and Jerry also served in the military and Uncle Jerry served in Vietnam as a communications specialist. My Uncle John's two sons John and Jerry also served in the military. I served in the Army National Guard and served in Iraq as an engineer officer. All of us served our country and some of us served in combat and all of us wore LOVERIN on our uniforms. I thought I was an equal to the men in my family. I had earned my place of honor and respect in my grandfather's eyes. At least I thought so.

We sat today and he told stories of his youth and flight school and serving overseas and fighting the Japanese. I quietly propped up my cell phone and recorded him as he talked. I pulled down the yearbooks and old photos and his military portrait from when he was a cadet. I have never asked for anything from my grandparents estate. I am not a hoarder of material possessions, they can't bring back the person that is lost. I do love pictures though, they tell a story and show us who we came from. I don't even keep the pictures anymore. I scan and scrap them and pass them along to someone who has the need to hold onto the physical reminders.

Grandpa let us know that we will not be receiving any of those heirloom photos, books, and articles because I'm a female. I am not a son who can pass the items on to my son to give to his son. He plans to pass everything along to my Uncle John to give to my cousin John to give to his son Nathan. The age old patriarchy alive and well because they bond over hunting and fishing and Republican values. It does not matter that my mom, myself, and my daughters all bear the Loverin last name. It isn't enough for him. So I said goodbye as we left and it probably will be the last time that I ever see him alive. He has shrunk so much and even the day to day life is a daily battle. I cried on the way home but I'm letting go now. I'm letting go of my childlike desire to be loved and accepted by him. I'm letting go of my expectations of being seen as an equal to my male cousin. I'm letting go. I can carry around the hurt in my heart or I can free myself and know that it doesn't change who I am. I love my grandparents to the best of my ability and they are only human with their own faults as well.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Bankruptcy and Us

I got the call from the legal assistant yesterday. The judge signed off on our Chapter 7 bankruptcy and we are officially debt-free, well almost. We were allowed to keep our home and our 2008 Ford Escape so technically we still have our $70,000 in debt but it's what we wanted to come out of this with. I posted this question to my Facebook friends about the very subject of bankruptcy almost two years ago. Jose had just been denied the provisional waiver that we had spent $670 to submit and we didn't know what our future held or what to do.


The responses that I got back from the majority were definitely for packing up and traveling the world with two people voting to pay off all of the debt first and then go. 
  • B. P. - "Travel if you can - you only live once. One piece of advice: do not do it on credit - no credit cards."
  • B. C. - "Get out... Get out now !! Before its too late."
  • M. H. - "I would so travel as long as my kids are safe with me and had enough food and water."
  • A. Y. R. - "Leave."
  • L. C. - "Second choice for sure! All the other stuff like house,furniture and household items are just that...stuff. That is not what is important. It is family and peace of mind and having those experiences that you know you would have. Also, it's time to quit having that fear all the time of being separated from Jose not by your choice."
  • G. H. R. - "I would pay off my bills and then travel. If I made the debt, I would need to pay the debt. Darned conscious wouldn't let me enjoy myself if I declared bankruptcy. I keep looking at these people who have web based businesses that live in other countries and think it looks pretty wonderful."
So with a little encouraging advice from our friends, we made the decision to stop waiting for immigration reform, save up as much money as we could, and leave the country. Looking back, I'm so thankful we did. I was scared as hell about making the wrong choice but I knew that I couldn't continue doing what we were doing. The fear wears you down and steals your dreams. What kind of quality of life is that? 

I stopped paying our credit cards and other small debt in November 2013 so we could have a little extra to put towards our move. Moving to another country costs a little bit more than your average move. The distance for one thing and all the little costs added up. We continued to make our car payments on the Escape that remained parked in the garage for six months. I also chose to continue paying our two USAA credit cards since we do everything with them and I've had them as our primary bank and insurance company since 2001. I called during the bankruptcy and asking about reaffirming the cards as I didn't want to be on bad terms with them. As soon as the paperwork was filed though, they were quick to shut everything down. I was able to keep my checking account, my vehicle, and our car and homeowner's insurance with me. I am no longer able to log onto their full website, I am reserved the mobile version only and no more depositing checks from my phone unfortunately. The good news is that Jose's access wasn't affected since all the credit was in my name so I just log on with his info when I need to. 

So here we are two years later and I have no regrets. We did what was right for my family and I have no shame in my actions. If cities and countries can declare bankruptcy, why can't I? The credit industry isn't set up to allow people to pay back debts when they get back on their feet. The only way to wipe out a poor payment history is to declare bankruptcy and wipe the slate clean. Pretty sad if you ask me. Once you miss that first payment, your interest rate goes up and they start to tack on charges. Six months without making a payment and there is no going back. That smear is going to stay on there for years, regardless of the fact that you might have started making every monthly payment on time. I don't remember us ever missing a payment in the 6 years leading up to this decision. 

It's done and now it's time to move forward with the next phase of our life. Only 28 days to departure!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

His One Year Anniversary

July 25, 2014 - A huge day in the history of our family. Jose crossed the border from Mexico into the United States of America with a visa in his passport. Only an immigrant to our "great" nation can truly understand that feeling. I've been there beside him for almost the last decade and I can't even grasp what this truly means for him. There will be no more long walks across the scorching desert to try and cross an invisible line between poverty and providing for your family. La migra doesn't invoke fear in our hearts, at least not as much. One year of permanent residency has come and gone in almost the blink of an eye.
Jose has been able to take two trips home to visit his family and his two sons in that time. After not seeing your family for 12 years, you cherish the ability to step onto that plane and go see them just because you can.

Our next step is applying for United States citizenship on his three year anniversary July 25, 2017. We can actually submit his application 90 days prior to that. The process will take approximately 6-12 months and in the meantime he needs to drastically improve his level of English and learn/memorize the 100 Civic questions for the citizenship exam. Most Americans can't even pass this test! Then we can apply for his oldest son Michel to come to the United States and once he crosses the border, he becomes a US citizen as long as he is still under the age of 18. We will apply to permanent residency for my mother in law which will take another year and apply for both of his sisters as well. Even though Isabel and Maria might get approved in a year or two, they have to get in the proverbial line. That line is currently backed up to petitions approved in March of 1997. It's only about 18 and a half years long. Heck, by that time, we might be able to get them tourist visas since they will be old and crusty and not pose a danger to overstay their visas according to USCIS.

So slowly but surely we are getting there. I am most depressed about the fact that US Immigration is going to play a role in my family's happiness for several more decades. What a depressing thought!

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Spanish Consulate in San Francisco

Finally, I feel like the biggest hurdle is behind us now. At 8:30am on Monday morning, our family walked up to the doors of the Consulate of Spain in San Francisco to present our student visa applications. I was scheduled to be seen at 9 am, Jose at 10 am, Erika at 10:30 am, and Mia at 11:30 am. There were lots of people starting to fill up the lobby. There was a sheet on a desk that told me how I needed to assemble the student visa packet. I had already assembled our four packets in nice, neat order like the instruction sheet on their website so I had to rearrange everything while sitting there. It would have been helpful if they had just published that sheet to the website in the first place.

A lady came down and called my name so all four of us stood up to go into my appointment. She said that there was no need for any of them to come up and that they should go take a walk or get something to eat. Even though our appointments were all spread out, she sat down with me and we went through every single one of our applications and processed them right there. She asked me lots of questions here and there but I had everything that was requested. The only thing I didn't have correct according to their sheet was that the girls birth certificates and my marriage license had not been issued within the last 90 days, they had only been apostilled within the last 3 months but she didn't say anything, just stamped them all. She gave me back our originals from the state background checks, medical certificates, marriage license, and birth certificates. She inputted something into the computer and gave us four receipts for our visa applications so we can track the status online.

  1. National Visa application and copy with two passport photos
  2. Valid passport and copy of the biographic page
  3. Identification from your state and copy (we used our driver's license to show Oregon residency)
  4. Original acceptance letter from your university and copy (or Carta de nombramiento for Auxiliares)
  5. Original letter from your health insurance (must have zero deductible, minimum $30K coverage, and include repatriation. 
  6. Evidence of funds
  7. Original Medical Certificate and copy dated within 180 days
  8. Original Background Check and copy dated within 180 days
  9. Copy of Airline Itinerary
  10. Correct change or money order for the visa fees ($160 for US, $65 for Jose as non-US)
On the visa application, it was fairly self explanatory to fill out. For our address in Spain, I filled in the address for the University of Salamanca since we don't have a rental lined up yet. I signed us up for a medical insurance policy under Atlas Travel. A ten month policy for the four of us cost me $1509 which was cheaper than the World Nomads policy I had been planning on purchasing. In order to bring Jose and the girls with me, I needed to prove sufficient funds to cover us so that we wouldn't have any reason to work and therefore take away potential employment from a Spaniard. The visa application says $800/mo and doesn't mention a spouse or dependent children. I had to do research on the Spanish Immigration pages to find the true requirements: Estancia por estudios. I had to show 532,51 for myself, 399,38 for Jose, and 266,26 for each child. That added up to a total of 1464,41€. That roughly equals $1607.04 at today's exchange rate. That gives me a very tiny margin of wiggle room providing that the exchange rate doesn't go any higher against the US dollar. I printed out a copy from the VA website showing how much I receive in monthly disability compensation and a printout of the last year of deposits to show it was consistent. We also have our tax refund in the bank so that is going to be our vacation fund. The medical certificate was easy enough. The template was on the website and our family doctor just copied it onto letterhead, gave us a brief medical exam and signed off on it, all without any type of vaccinations, just a reminder to look into any possible issues that might warrant them. The background checks were super easy for me, I even fingerprinted myself and did Jose's as well. I bought our airline tickets months ago so I printed out a copy of the receipt and the itinerary and that was all it took. Now we sit back and wait the approximate one month until we receive the passports with visas in the mail. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Two Countries Two Passports

Today has been another day to rejoice in our household. Erika and Mia are finally the proud bearers of two passports. This was our third or fourth attempt to get their passports so I'm thankful that it is finally over with and we don't have to deal with it again for another 6 years! We managed to get the girls Mexican birth certificates in 2013 after 2 trips to the closest Mexican consulate in Portland, Oregon.
We attempted to get the girls their passports while we were living in Mexico last year but that was a miserable failure. The office in Mexico would not recognize the girls American passports as a valid form of identification. Instead, they wanted the girls school ID's or a letter from the doctor that had attended their birth. This was slightly difficult since they were homeschooled during our stay and the doctor that attended my labor lived in the United States. It is easier to go do to the plaza and buy a fake school ID than it is to obtain a United States passport. Bureaucracy has never made any sense though. The second time, I tried to take the girls to the consulate in Portland by myself but they wouldn't allow Jose to sign the parental permission form unless he brought the original birth certificate with him to the office. Try having the original birth certificate at two places. I should have planned ahead and left it there with him, right?! The third time, we went to the mobile consulate when it came to town and parental permission for Erika had expired and their internet was down so we just went away in defeat.
Our biggest challenge was that Erika's American and Mexican birth certificates don't match. After my divorce, I legally changed her last name and dropped the paternal last name. I did the same thing with AshLee too. My children carry on my last name the same way that I legally changed my last name to that of my mother who kept her maiden name. Yes, a long line of strong women. Actually, many cultures do not have women who change their names upon marriage. In Mexico, all children are given their father's first last name and their mother's first last name. So Mia's full legal name is Mia Azul Membrila Loverin, the daughter of Jose Membrila Medrano and Krystal Lee Loverin. All of her birth certificates and passports match since she carries both last names. Poor Erika on the hand has a Mexican birth certificate and now a Mexican passport that reflect both last names that she was born with. I took the court ordered name change with apostille to the consulate with us today but they don't recognize it. They were kind enough to accept it as verification of her identity along with her passport. So now when we travel, we will enter Mexico using the Mexican passports and permanent resident cards. When we apply for our long term visas to Spain, we'll get to save a little extra money because Americans have to pay $160 for the visa while citizens of other countries only have to pay $65. That's a big chunk of savings for us! I think they only charge us more because the United States charges $160 visa fees to foreign visitors too, tit for tat. Now I need to battle American Airlines to get the $21.77 Mexico Tourism Tax refunded. They built this fee into their airline tickets even when many travelers are exempt from paying it. This is currently under dispute in the federal court of Georgia.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hace un año

June 24, 2014 was a day of many tears and breaking hearts. The girls and I packed up our gear and clothes for the summer and boarded a plane to take us back to the United States. This wasn't like flying to Mexico without my husband and knowing I'd be back in just a few days. This time, I didn't know when we would see each other again. Mia was bawling her eyes out in the airport and Erika was sobbing over the injustice of the US immigration system. I was the rock in the middle, holding it together so we didn't all fall apart. What little idea we had about how our world was about to be turned on its head.

We had flown to Tijuana, crossed the border with Andrea's help, flown from San Diego to Portland, and crashed for the night with Corri and family. Bright and early on Wednesday morning, Jose called me and told me to check his case status immediately. I thought he was slightly crazy to be obsessing over his case and I'd been gone less than 24 hours. I logged into the USCIS Case Status app anyway and found the best news of Jose's life.

How was I to know that while our hearts were breaking, some immigration official was adjudicating our waiver favorably? I think everyone was in tears with the great news. I even ran upstairs to wake up Erika and tell her the news.

The last year has been full of roller coasters to put it mildly. It took us another month to go through the process in order to finally get that precious visa in his hand and cross the border. I had to drive the Escape down to Tijuana and pick up all of our belongings from the freight company and load up the Escape, fly to Mexico City, pick up Jose and the dogs, and flew back together to Tijuana. Crossing that line with my husband sitting by my side is a feeling that can't be described. Two plus hours at the line and sitting in a hot office while they processed his paperwork. We drove straight home without sleeping. Jose wanted to get home without any more delays and who could blame him?

How many years had we been waiting for this moment? How many fights and dreams and tears and fears were tied to this one little fucking visa? Our whole lives. That is what we spent 8 years of our lives trying to get. I lost track of how much money we spent in the process, I'm guesstimating about $20,000 give or take a couple hundred. And our legal fees were only a quarter of that. In fact, it cost us a bankruptcy so all those years of paying our bills on time went right down the drain when we packed up the family and moved to Mexico. I have no shame or embarrassment though. People have done it for much less.
This last year hasn't been easy but it's been worth it. After spending our whole marriage fighting against the injustice of immigration, it's hard to know how to live a normal life again. We went through months of bickering and fighting and trying to find our way back to what made us fall in love with each other in the first place. It's easy to get caught up in the rat race that is the American lifestyle.
A seed had been planted though while we were living in Mexico and that seed grew into a tree. A tree that is going to take our family away from our home and onto new and bigger adventures. We can finally travel the world as a family. Jose's dream has come true and now it's time to spread our wings and become world citizens. Only 71 days until our family moves to Spain for a year so I can get my Master's degree! Living la vida loca!!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

D I Y Not? Organizing Behind the Front Door

We have lived in our house for almost 6 years now. Our house was brand new so any dings, scratches, or upgrades are all thanks to our family and friends. We won't talk about the dings left over from our "guests" last year, I'm still trying to move past that. There is a small area right behind our front door with a short wall before the utility closet that houses our washer, dryer, and hot water system. For the last several years, it has become a gathering spot for shoes and anything else the girls would throw down in a hurry. I had grand ideas of finding the perfect table to place there with little baskets for my keys and a place to lie my purse. Jose started talking about buying something to place there and that motivated me to finally take care of that area.

Before: I should have left the shoes for comparison
The area was already missing the baseboards as I'm still in process of ripping out all of the prior MDF boards and replacing them with the more expensive wooden baseboards painted in an ash gray color to making the living room trim. I headed off to Pinterest in search of inspiration and this is what I found.

The Backpack Wall by Scattershotdotcom
I had a little different area to work with and I needed something for all of the shoes that find their way to this corner as well. I like color in my house as well so the first thing I did was pull out the leftover green and blue from when we painted the girls bedroom. I did not get all fancy with measurements and the such. I eyeballed how far off the floor I would need the coat hooks and taped off two squares to paint for the girls writing board. When we were at Lowe's that morning for the children's Build and Grow workshop, I picked up some 1"x3"x6's and 1"x6"x4's along with four coat hooks and a dog print hook because the girls wanted Boi and Rocket to have their own special hook for their leashes. I was going to buy chalkboard paint like the idea but right next to it was dry erase paint and we decided to switch to that even though it cost twice as much. I figure that chalk creates dust and it might end up being messier in the long run and we have dry erase markers lying all around the house.

Erika helping me paint the colored areas for writing boards

Both boards prepped, now to wait 3 days for the dry erase to cure
My wall is just a hair over 41 inches side so I divided it in half and called it good. I cut the 1"x6" to go across the top and bottom of the board and nailed it in place. I should probably have screwed it in there but I didn't. I installed the new baseboards around the two sides of the wall because I made the box mobile in case we needed to move it to open the door wide or whatnot. I ran the 1"x3"s up from the baseboard to the bottom of my first horizontal board and I created two separate panels. I decided that I didn't want to paint the entire area so we left the trim a dark ash color and the walls a dark tan. Our living room colors carry over to the length of our hallway for aesthetic purposes.

And it's done!

Each one has a place for her messages
 Both girls have several hoodies and jackets that they wear in addition to their backpacks for school and hiking so I wanted to have plenty of space and hooks to hang up everything. I placed the dogs hook right in the middle and maybe it will be easier to find their leashes the next time we hike the Butte. The dry erase paint gives the wall a very high gloss shine and slickness to that particular area.
The Shoe Organizer
I used two 1"x12"x4's to create a mobile shoe organizer to place on the floor. I put four furniture mover circles in the corners with a felt pad so it can be slid around as needed for cleaning. I measured the two outer boxes to accomodate the fabric boxes we picked up at Lowe's and left the center box open for Jose's work boots. Now the girls can hide their soccer cleats, tennis shoes, Crocs, and sandals out of sight.Luckily I was able to find two boxes that perfected matched their color scheme.


We filled it right up with everything that we needed to store there and the top of the bench works perfectly for the oversize bags that we keep ready for going to the pool. All in all, I am very pleased with how it turned out, I just wish I hadn't waited to long to get this project done! It only took me a day and a half with waiting for the different paints to dry and prepping the area.



The dry erase paint worked like a charm! I can leave reminders for the girls in their boards and keep track of our upcoming events on the side wall that I also painted with the dry erase mix. I think I am going to use my Silhouette Cameo and cut out some vinyl to make it look a little nicer.

 

Free counters!