Saturday, November 3, 2012

Coffee and confidence

Okay, I'll admit it. Things still aren't improving all that much. While I am open to the possibility that memories of the beginning of my year in Palencia are at this point pretty rose-colored, it still seems to me that this time around is proving a lot tougher to start out. The stress of working at two very different schools simultaneously, the complications of living in an old apartment, the seeming scarcity of students in need of private tutors, the always-challenging process of making real friendships (as opposed to social connections of convenience; "Hey, I'm here, you're here, we might as well...")-- it's all adding up to mean my first month in Andalucia has been rather a challenge.

It's improving little by little, however. I've started feeling out Linares (watch for a more detailed description of my new town in the coming days), discovering the theater, some local flamenco social clubs (called "peñas"), and a mountain of delicious--and free!-- tapas. I'm gathering acquaintances, including the son of the principal of my elementary school, that school's gym teacher, a handful of other American teachers, a group of women who want to do a language exchange. I've ventured out to see the nearest big city, Jaen (verdict: Prettier and more engaging than I had hoped and than its reputation suggested) and a nearby smaller Renaissance town, Baeza, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. So, the hope is that things will start looking up soon.

In fact, I met for the second time with the exchange group this week. We had coffee together at Rosario Cafe in the "old town" of Linares, a compact web of grey-brick streets lined with a strange combination of crumbling palaces and formidable 19th century homes passed generation-to-generation. We talked about our cultures, our jobs, and our hobbies over coffee and hot chocolate, and as we drank I was reminded of a tiny frustration--one of the mountain of minute culture clashes that crop up in the daily life of an expat--from last summer.

One of the women ordered a "cafe con hielo"-- coffee with ice. This is a typical summer drink in Spain, although some people enjoy it year round. However, unlike American "iced coffee," the waitress brings the usual tiny cup of piping-hot lava, accompanied by a glass of ice. It is up to the drinker to combine the two as he or she wishes.

Therein lies the problem: for the longest time last summer, I couldn't get the hang of it. I would lose my nerve half way or incorrectly estimate the necessary angle and somehow there would suddenly be coffee all over the table or ice cubes in my lap.

I brought up the topic with the group at Rosario, and they showed me the trick again-- a deft, quick flick of the wrist and a smooth, unhalting pouring action. "It's all about confidence." They told me. "You have to decide to do it, boldly, without stopping. If you doubt, that's when you get into trouble."

As I note the passing of my first month here, I can't help thinking about this "coffee confidence." When things aren't going perfectly at the beginning this way, it's hard to know the best approach toward improvement. Is it better to flick my wrist and pour, diving headlong into whatever opportunities await me in Linares, feigning confidence and happiness where I lack it and waiting for reality to catch up? Or is that approach naive, and I should try something more pragmatic and proactive, looking for activities and friends more aggressively? To bring the metaphor to its slightly nonsensical extreme, at what point is the coffee so bad that it's worth spilling all over the floor and going back to buy something else; maybe tea this time?

A week or so ago I was talking to a friend on Skype in the afternoon. "I don't think you have to worry. I'm sure that in 20 years you'll look back on this time positively, without regrets" she told me.

A pause.

"Well, or maybe at that point you'll know that it was the worst choice you could have made," she said, then laughed. I did, too, perhaps a bit uneasily. In the next room, I could hear my afternoon coffee start to boil.


Trevor Huxham said...

Really, really enjoyed this post of yours, Alissa. I was having lunch with some teachers last week and they ordered café con hielo and I thought of your writing. :D

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