Talking to a Therapist

Talking to a Therapist

Matt Valdespino is—along with his twin, Greg—one of my oldest and best friends. When I first met the two of them, I honestly could not tell them apart. I spent years mixing up their names. But as time went by, they diverged in fascinating ways.

The brothers share the admirabe ability to mix seriousness and humor—loving to laugh without trivializing the important things. But whereas Greg’s serious side was channeled into his passion for learning, Matt has always been pulled between art and activism. His urge to help others eventually won out, and culminated in his decision to become a professional therapist. This is his story:

ROY: What is your educational background? What did you study, where, and why?

MATT: I went to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and I studied Political Science, with a concentration in Political Theory. My minor was in Modern Middle East Studies. The reason? I guess I’ve always wondered this myself, since I’ve strayed so far from that, personally and professionally. But I guess the reason is that it was the Obama years, working in politics as a liberal progressive was a valued and exciting thing. It felt like being young and politically active was really in vogue, and also really useful. So I got really caught up in that. My older brother studied political science, too, and I look up to him as an example of what a good person does.

And we talked a lot about politics in my family growing up. I definitely loved the horse race elements of it—following legislation, following campaigns, who’s up, who’s down. It was like a game but it had stakes and a moral punch to it. And the Middle East stuff, it’s because it was the post 9/11 era, and I wanted to help people in the Middle East and Americans come together—you know, the whole idyllic, Obama-era, get everyone holding hands. That was the vision I had in my head.

R: After graduating, didn’t you work on a farm?

M: Yes, yeah, I did end up working on a farm. Because all of that political stuff—despite the idealism and the interest, the more I got into it the more I realized that I didn’t like politics as a process. And even policy was really complicated and hard for me to follow. It’s so intensely convoluted and everyone says it’s all wrong, anyway. I just couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

The only thing I really could understand and feel connected to was political theory—like Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli. Like that vague stuff. The stuff that was really not about doing anything in politics, I loved that. And slowly I realized that that wasn’t what politics was going to look like. If I worked in politics, nobody was ever going to ask me what I thought about Leviathan. Nobody was going to give a shit about any of that. So I said, ok well then I don’t give a shit about you, and I’m going to farming.

R: Tell me about that experience.

M: So I graduated from college, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had been working in political internships that I thought was just selling snake-oil, selling “change” but just really fund-raising to keep our jobs. Or trying to scare-monger people to fight against the other scare-mongers. It felt fake to me. And I was reading political theory, which also felt fake, even though I liked it. So I thought, “Let me do something that’s undeniably real. Let me pick fruit for a year.”

So I ended up in Washington State. I did WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), so they just put you on an organic farm. And you work for your room and board. And the owner of the farm also had a farm down in Chile, so they flew me down there for the spring harvest (or their fall).

R: After that I understand you got into stand-up. What attracted you to that?

M: I’ve always liked stand-up. I remember the day I got Comedy Central in my house. It was a ground-breaking moment in my life. Like, oh my God, a network that’s always funny! I just loved that. And I’ve always considered myself to be funny and enjoyed making people laugh. I feel comfortable doing that. But while I was farming, I was listening to all these podcasts, especially WTF with Marc Maron where he interviews comedians. And they were all so emotionally screwed up. But they had found a way of talking about it through comedy.

And also it was a way that I could talk about the big things, personally and globally, without being so condescending. I could just provide my impressions of them in a way that was sort of digestible to people. It was a way that I could talk about intense things without it being hard for people to understand. And without having the accountability of making a flawless argument. I could just say what I felt without backing it up with a full five paragraph essay.

R: Is five paragraphs a lot?

M: Yeah, in grad school we don’t write. Five paragraphs? I can’t even think of it!

R: So what do you think is the most challenging part of being a comedian?

M: The whole idea of stand-up is that you’re funny in your real life with friends, so just translate that to stage. So the problem is that, the reason you can be funny with your friends in real life is that they have all this context—of your relationship, shared experiences, and all of these conscious and unconscious parameters around who you are. And this allows you to subvert those expectations, or touch on these older identities, yadda yadda yadda. But in stand-up (unless you’re really famous) the audience doesn’t really know you. So then you need to take what you think is funny and translate it so a stranger thinks it’s funny. Then the challenge, for me, was finding an impression of me and my sense of self that other people can understand and connect with.

R: Meanwhile, you were working as a social worker. Is that right?

M: Yeah.

R: How did you get into that? And what did that entail?

M: So I moved to Washington, and I moved in with my uncle, who’s a therapist. And I love him. He’s really funny, really goofy. And we had all these conversations about what it means to be emotionally vulnerable and emotionally open. And he was telling me what it’s like to be a therapist. So I kind of got fascinated with the idea of just helping people. I think there’s a big part of me—going back to political science—that feels like I need to be helping people. That’s a moral obligation. But I lost that because politics became so vague, abstract, and argumentative. So my uncle showed me a way of helping people where it was direct. And it was kind of fascinating. You get to learn about people, find out who they are, explore them. I applied to a bunch of helping jobs—a nurse, a hospice worker—and the social worker is the one that got back to me.

I got a job as a social worker at a psychiatric center—so people with severe mental illness voluntarily come there. The umbrella term would be a “day center,” where people with mental illness come to spend the day, to help structure their lives.

R: You were doing this, and you were doing comedy. But at some point you decided to become a therapist.

M: Yeah.

R: What, exactly, are you studying now?

M: Clinical psychology. I still really don’t have a concentration, I’m just getting the lay of the land. It’s a Psy.D at Rutgers University. As opposed to a Ph.D, a Psy.D is really for practicing therapists, not researchers.

R: What made you make that decision, that you wanted to be a clinical psychologist?

M: It was a pretty gradual process. For one thing, stand-up is really hard. It’s a very exhausting pursuit. I fell less in love with it over time. It became harder and harder to enjoy it, to create new jokes, and to feel that I was getting better—which was pretty hard for me. I also felt that I was becoming phony, like a character or a persona. And instead of my stage presence becoming more like who I was off stage, the opposite happened. I got scared that it was infecting my whole life, that my life was becoming this kind of performance. It was creepy. Like I don’t know where stage ends and life stops.

And the social work stuff. A lot of it was great and moving. But a lot of it was really, really boring. There’s so much of social work that is just so monotonous. I was just spending the day with people. And a lot of it is just sitting at a computer typing with somebody. But there are moments when people get really, insanely honest with you—just wildly honest—and I liked those moments. That’s what I appreciated. And everything in comedy just felt so performative by comparison.

R: You’ve done some practice clinical work?

M: Yeah.

R: What do you think is the hardest part of being a therapist?

M: There are two things I find hardest. One hard part is just caring enough. I definitely struggle sometimes with, “Uh, ok, lemme just get through this session.” Thinking that somebody is making a problem bigger than it has to be… Basically, people aren’t always the most pleasant in therapy. They’re their absolute worst. And that’s good, they should be. But I can sometimes get annoyed with people.

And the other difficult thing is not jumping to conclusions. A therapist is like an emotional scientist, in that you’re always looking for more information. Your conclusion is the very last thing. Mainly you’re just trying to get more emotion out there, as much as possible in the moment. And that’s hard, because you want to be brilliant, you want to blow someone’s mind like “I got it! You yell at your boss because you hate your dad.” But I think there’s so much more value in just being curious.

R: Then what would you say is the most rewarding part of therapy.

M: Getting somebody to say something that they’ve never said before.

R: Can you elaborate?

M: Absolutely not.

R: What?!

M: Alright, I mean getting somebody to an emotional place that they have been afraid of, or were struggling with verbalizing, or didn’t even know was there. I think that’s the most rewarding thing for me. So they can experience and express a different part of themselves.

R: Is there anything you want to add?

M: Yeah, there is. Therapy is a very weird idea. It’s still relatively new, even though it’s becoming more accepted to go to therapy (and also more accessible). But I think people still go to therapists and don’t really know what they’re doing. And that can be fine. That can be totally fine. But I think one thing people should do when they go to a therapist is to be more comfortable asking the therapists what’s going on, asking for help with a certain thing, and telling the therapist “This is what I need.” I think people should feel more empowered to push back against therapists.

Because I think people get stuck in therapy, and it becomes this passive process that they’re not participating in, it’s just happening to them. But you can own the therapy process.

An Emigrant’s Story

An Emigrant’s Story

(The original interview in Spanish.)

I met Antonio after moving into my current apartment. There was no doorman in my previous place, much less such a pleasant and helpful one. Little by little I got to know him, and his life started to interest me more and more. Finally, I decided that I had to interview him, and I’m glad I did.

R: Can you tell me a little about yourself?

A: My name is Antonio Bande. I was born in Venezuela. My parents are from Galicia, Spain. They were born in the province of Ourense. I was born in Maracay. Maracay belongs to the state of Aragua. Aragua is one of the central states, because it is near the capital, Caracas. Maracay is the capital of Aragua, where I was born. Maracay is located exactly 105 km from Caracas. It is a coastal region, with lots of beaches, and you can also find many open plains in the countryside.

R: What did your parents do for a living?

A: My parents set up a business in Venezuela. My father left Spain first, and then my mother. My father left in the year 1958. This was the postwar era in Spain, and Spain was very depressed, so he went to look for a future. Of my four siblings, the oldest was born here (in Spain), and the rest of us in Venezuela.

R: So you have three siblings?

A: More, really, because my dad got married again. So we are really eight siblings in all. My parents got into sales, and they set up a business. In the beginning, clothes, but later it grew, and it ended up being what you would call here a chain of stores. For a long time, as an adult— once I had finished my studies— I was working in this chain, until my father decided to sell it. He was thinking of retiring. From then on, I began to specialize in administration. And I became an insurance broker. Before leaving Venezuela, in the last 27 years, that was my job, an insurance broker, in my own office. And I trained, in fact, with an American company. It was the owner of the company Seguro Venezuela, the American Insurance Group (AIG). I trained with them.

R: What year did you move here for good?

A: Three years ago, in 2018

R: I know there’s a crisis in Venezuela, and it’s not going well. But what, in particular, made you decide to move to Spain?

A: When your life is worth the price of a pair of shoes, or the price of a watch, or the price of a phone, then you have to make some decisions. Because the price of life is something intangible, it can’t be determined or quantified. With the rising crime rate, and a complicite government, well, you have to make decisions. So, in the first place, the factor of crime is fundamental. The factor of impunity (that crimes are not prosecuted). I’m talking about insecurity, I’m talking about impunity, and I’m saying that this impunity is rooted precisely in judicial insecurity. Because, what happens? In the state, as a corrupt state, they have made it so that all the powers—that is, the executive, the legislative, the judicial—all the powers are in the hands of the state, including electoral power. So, if you’re in Venezuela it’s not reasonable to think that they’re going to respect your vote. No, no they won’t respect it. But this is not something recent, this has been happening for the last twenty years at least. And it keeps getting worse.

R: I read something about inflation.

A: Hyperinflation. I’m going to tell you something very simple. Up until this month of May, which is about to end, Venezuela has accumulated 1500% of inflation. We’re talking about this cycle, this year. There is no honorable work, there is no honest work, that you can do to support yourself. There’s none. And I’m telling you that back in Venezuela I was a part of the upper-middle class. I had three apartments. I only sold two cars to come here. I had the good fortune to be able to come, and come with my family, with my wife, my youngest children and our dog. But many people arrive alone.

R: So, if you’re earning 1,000 euros a month…

A: Do you know what the minimum wage is for a person in Venezuela? Three euros a month. And those fortunate enough to earn ten times that, earn thirty euros a month. But you can live on that in Venezuela. Because nowadays, Venezuela is an economy that is completely “dollarized.” The bolívar (the national currency) no longer circulates because the necessary amount doesn’t exist to sustain the exchange, dollar-bolívar. If you have 100 dollares, that would be many millions of bolívares. So all transactions are done with dollars. Where do people get dollars? More than 70% of the population receive support from those who have left the country.

R: Is your family here with you?

A: Here I have one daughter by blood, and two stepchildren. In Venezuela I have two more children, and another daughter who lives in Delaware.

R: Do you miss Venezuela?

A: What happens is that… yes, I miss it. But I miss it, knowing that what I’m missing doesn’t exist anymore. The country has changed completely. And it is the quality of being Venezuelan. The gentility, the humanity, of the Venezuelans. And of course I really, really miss the homeland. Because Venezuela is a country where you can go to the beach twelve months a year. It has an enviable climate. It has places with beach weather twelve months a year, places with snow twelve months a year, and even places that are deserts twelve months a year. Truly, it has a range of climates that is something to miss. And, man, the country is beautiful. What’s bad are its politics. It has dreadful politics, and that has totally ruined the country.

R: What surprised you the most about Spain?

A: What surprised me the most was not something very favorable. It’s the difficulty of working, of finding work. In general, in Spain it’s very hard to find work. And this is surprising when you’re a person used to working every day. For someone like me, who wants to manage his own life, you feel a little useless. I never thought of being a superintendent of a building. And I’m not denigrating, or saying that I’m doing something embarrassing, no. I have a job like any other, a job I like doing, not only for necessity but also because I feel comfortable. In Spain, they want young people with lots of training and lots of experience. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand how you can have a lot of experience, being so young.

R: Is there something you like about your life here?

A: There are lots of things in Spain I like. The first is that I have a part of my family here. Not only those who came with me from Venezuela, but also those who were already living here. In Madrid, in Galicia, in Valladolid, for example, or in Bilbao. I like the food and drinks. I have it in my blood because, when I was young, I ate from my grandmother’s hand, who was Spanish. First from my maternal grandmother, who died, and then from my paternal grandmother. Man, Mediterranean food… 

R: Do you like Spanish food more than Venezuelan food?

A: Every cuisine has its pleasure. The good thing about being here, is that here you can eat Spanish food and Venezuelan food, because in Venezuela you have trouble eating even Venezuelan food, since everything is scarce. You eat whatever there is. Do you know the terrible ordeal a Venezuelan has to go through to get a loaf of bread? At six in the morning, you have to be in the doorway of the bakery. Standing in line. There are 150 or 200 people, because those are the 150 or 200 loaves of bread they’re going to make that day. You can buy one loaf of bread, maybe two. And they give you the receipt, and you leave. Then you come back after 2:30 in the evening to pick up the bread.

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La historia de un emigrante

La historia de un emigrante

(La entrevista traducida al inglés.)

Conocí a Antonio poco después de mudarme a mi piso actual. No había un portero en mi último piso, mucho menos un portero tan agradable y atento como él. Poco a poco lo fui conociendo, y su vida me interesaba más y más. Al final, decidí que le tenía que entrevistar, y estoy muy feliz con la decisión.

R: ¿Me puedes decir tus datos básicos?

A: Me llamo Antonio Bande. Nací en Venezuela. Mis padres son gallegos. Nacieron en la provincia de Ourense. Nací en Maracay. Maracay corresponde al estado de Aragua. El estado de Aragua es uno de los estados centrales, porque está alrededor de la capital, Caracas. Maracay es la capital de Aragua, donde yo nací. Maracay se encuentra exactamente a 105 km de Caracas. Es un estado de costa, con playa, y es un estado con llanuras, las zonas de campo.

R: ¿A qué se dedicaron tus padres?

A: Mis padres establecieron un comercio en Venezuela. Mi padre se fue de España primero, luego se fue mi madre. Mi padre se fue en el año 1958. Era la época posguerra de España, y España estaba muy deprimida, y se fue buscando un porvenir. De los cuatro hermanos míos, el mayor nació aquí (en España), y nosotros tres en Venezuela.

R: Entonces, ¿tienes tres hermanos?

A: Más, realmente más, porque mi padre se casó otra vez. Entonces somos ocho hermanos. Mi padres allí se dedicaron al comercio, establecieron un negocio. En principio, de ropa, pero después se fue proliferando, y se acabó convirtiendo en algo que se llama aquí una cadena de tiendas. Por mucho tiempo, ya siendo yo adulto — una vez que culminé los estudios — estuve trabajando en este grupo de tiendas, hasta que mi padre optó por venderlas. Porque estaba pensando en su retiro. A partir de allí, yo empecé en una especialización de administración. Y me hice agente corredor de seguros. Antes de irme de Venezuela, en los últimos 27 años, trabajé así, de agente corredor de seguros, en una oficina propia. Yo me formé, de hecho, con una empresa americana. Eran los propietarios de la empresa, Seguro Venezuela, de American Insurance Group (AIG). Yo me formé con ellos. 

R: ¿En qué año viniste aquí a vivir?

A: Hace tres años, en el año 2018.

R: Sé que hay una crisis en Venezuela, y va muy mal. Pero, en concreto, ¿qué te hizo decidir irte por España?

A: Cuando tu vida vale lo que vale un par de zapatos, o lo que vale un reloj, o lo que vale un móvil, pues tú tienes que tomar muchas decisiones. Porque el valor de la vida es algo intangible, no se determina, no se cuantifica. Con el nivel de la delincuencia que se ha exacerbado, y con un gobierno tan cómplice, pues, hombre, tú tienes que tomar decisiones. Entonces, en primer lugar, el factor de la delincuencia es fundamental. El factor de la impunidad (no se juzgan los delitos). Te hablo de la inseguridad, te hablo de la impunidad, y te hablo que esta impunidad tiene su base precisamente en la inseguridad jurídica. Porque, ¿qué pasa? El estado, como un estado villano, se ha hecho de todo de que son los poderes — o sea el ejecutivo, el legislativo, el judicial — todos los poderes están en las manos del estado, incluso el poder electoral. Entonces, si estás en Venezuela no es sensato pensar que se va a respetar tu voto. Pues no, no se va a respetar. Pero esto no está pasando ahorita, esto ya viene pasando desde hace cerca de veinte años por lo menos. Y viene cada vez peor.

R: He leído algo sobre la inflación.

A: La hiperinflación. Te voy a decir algo muy simple. Hasta este mes de mayo, que está a punto de terminar, Venezuela lleva acumulado 1.500% de inflación. Estamos hablando de este ciclo, menos de un año. No hay un trabajo honrado, no hay un trabajo honesto, en el que tú puedes trabajar para cubrirte y costearte. No hay. Y te estoy hablando de que en Venezuela yo era parte de la clase media alta. Tenía tres apartamentos. Solamente vendí dos coches para venirme. Yo tuve la fortuna de poder venirme, y venirme con mi familia, con mi mujer, los dos hijos pequeños y el perro. Pero mucha gente se viene sola.

R: Entonces, si alguien gana unos 1000 euros al mes…

A: ¿Sabes cuánto es el ingreso básico de una persona? 3 euros, mensuales. Y los que tienen la fortuna de ganar 10 veces de esto, ganan 30 euros mensuales. Pero con eso no se vive en Venezuela. Porque hoy en día, Venezuela es una economía totalmente dolarizada. El bolívar ya no circula porque no hay la cantidad circulante necesaria para soportar el cambio, dolar-bolívar. Si tienes 100 dólares, esto sería muchísimos millones de bolívares. Entonces todas las transacciones se hacen en dólares. ¿De dónde saca la gente dólares? Más de 70% de la población recibe remesas de los que estamos fuera. 

R: ¿Tienes tu familia aquí contigo?

A: Aquí tengo una hija consanguínea, y dos de mi mujer. En Venezuela tengo dos hijos más, y otra hija que vive en Delaware.

R: ¿Echas de menos Venezuela?

A: Lo que pasa es que, sí lo echo de menos. Pero lo echo de menos, teniendo la conciencia de que lo que tú estás echando de menos ya no existe en el país. El país se ha deformado totalmente, la calidez, el gentilicio, la humanidad, del venezolano, se a perdido. Y por supuesto echo muchísimo de menos, a la patria. Porque Venezuela es un país de riquezas naturales, donde se puede ir a la playa los doce meses del año. Tiene un clima envidiable. Tiene desde sitios de playa los doce meses del año, hasta sitios con nieve los doce meses del año, hasta sitios desérticos los doce meses del año. De verdad, tiene una diversidad del clima que es algo de echar de menos. Y, hombre, el país es hermoso. Lo malo es la política que tiene. Tiene una política pésima, y se ha cargado una nación completa. 

R: ¿Qué te sorprendió más de la vida en España?

A: Lo que me sorprendió más no es muy favorable. Es la dificultad de trabajar, de encontrar trabajo. En general en España la posibilidad de encontrar trabajo es muy difícil. Y eso, pues, sorprende cuando eres una persona habituada a trabajar todos los días. Para alguien como yo, quien quiere gestionar su propia vida, se siente un poco inútil. Yo nunca pensé en ser un conserje en una comunidad. Y no estoy denigrando, ni diciendo que estoy haciendo algo penoso, no. Tengo un trabajo como cualquier otro, un trabajo que hago agusto, no únicamente por la necesidad sino porque me siento agusto. En España, te piden poca edad, mucha formación y mucha experiencia. No entiendo esto. No entiendo cómo tú puedes tener mucha experiencia, siendo una persona muy joven. 

R: ¿Hay algo que te gusta de la vida aquí?

A: Hay muchas cosas en España que me gustan. Lo primero es que tengo una parte de mi familia aquí. No solamente los que vinieron conmigo de Venezuela, sino los que ya vivían aquí. En Madrid, en Galicia, en Valladolid, por ejemplo, o en Bilbao. Me gustan la comida y la bebida. Lo llevo en la sangre porque de pequeño yo comí de mano a mi abuela que era española. Primero de mi abuela materna, que murió, luego de mi abuela paterna. Hombre, la comida Mediterránea… 

R: ¿Te gusta la comida española más que la comida venezolana?

A: Toda la comida tiene su gusto. Lo bueno de estar aquí, es que aquí se puede comer comida española y comida venezolana, porque allí en Venezuela es difícil comer comida venezolana por la escasez de todo. Comes lo que hay. ¿Tú sabes el viacrucis que hace un venezolano todos los días para comer pan? Tiene que estar a las 6 de la mañana, en el portal de la panadería. Haciendo una fila. Estár de 150 o 200 en la fila, porque esto son los 150 o 200 panes que el hombre va a hacer este día. Al pagar la barra de pan, se dará una, o máximo dos. te dan un tiquet, y se va. Para regresar a partir de las dos y media con el tiquet para retirar la barra de pan. 

(Cover image by Paolo Costa Baldi; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

I’ve been interviewed!

I’ve been interviewed!

My best and oldest friend, Oscar Desiderio, has recently embarked on a new project—the Knowledge Daddies—along with two of his comedian buddies, Sean Barry and Andrew Steiner. The three of them interview others about skills they have, and then try to learn these skills themselves. Recently, I have been flattered to be interviewed myself about my upcoming novel.

The interview is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. You can follow the Knowledge Daddies on Facebook and Instagram. I believe they will be releasing some video episodes of their online series shortly. In the meantime, enjoy the interview!

I’m on the Radio, again!

I’m on the Radio, again!

Back in June, I was interviewed for the radio station Santa María de Toledo. The host, Teresa Martín Tadeo, apparently enjoyed the interview enough to ask me to do another one. This time we talked about Thanksgiving traditions (the holiday isn’t celebrated here, so Spaniards are always curious), as well as the recent elections. I hope you enjoy!

A Student of History

A Student of History

The title image is of my brother (left) with Greg in Marseille.

Greg Valdespino is one of my oldest and best friends. But this doesn’t mean we were always friendly. We began our friendship competing for the best grades in class. For a while I was on top (I’m good at exams), and I wasn’t afraid to brag. But in high school, Greg shot forward, and it was his turn to rub it in. Greg quite dramatically won our long competition by graduating third in our class and going off to become a true scholar. (I wasn’t either 1st or 2nd.)

Now that we’re adults—or trying to be—Greg has become an even better friend than before, in part for his rare ability to be simultaneously serious and silly. It is difficult to combine a strong sense of what is right with an ability to laugh at oneself, but Greg somehow manages it. He also manages to make me feel like I don’t know the first thing about history. Here’s our conversation:

ROY LOTZ: Can you give me some description of your education? Do any professors or classes stand out for special mention?

GREG VALDESPINO: I went to public school in Sleepy Hollow, from Kindergarten to twelfth grade. And I do remember most of my history teachers from this time. There are phrases and quotes of individuals I remember about why history is important to them. 

But the big influence was Ms. Heskestad, who was my eighth and tenth grade teacher, who was a foundational, educational figure in my life. She really kind of let me deeply geek out and engage in history, as something you can really get obsessed with, making history the big thing I pursued. (And of course she’s French, and I’m a sucker for France.) I would even go to her office every day before school—or once or twice a week at least—and just talk about the readings that we had for AP European History. And I don’t know why she let me do this, but I did. She had better things to do with her time.

Then, after Sleepy Hollow, I went to Stanford for four years. At first I was hesitant to do history, since I didn’t just want to do the thing that I was really good at in high school. And I took a history class on medieval Europe and I hated it. Or I loved it, but I was really bad at it. It was at 9 a.m. and I kept falling asleep. And the professor slapped the table pretty frequently to wake me up. (It was a twelve-person class, so it wasn’t like I could be hiding in the back.) And since I was always the last person to arrive to class, I would have to sit right next to the professor, so he’d be in the perfect position to slap the table. It was not a great introduction to higher learning.

But then I took a class while I was studying abroad, with professor Caroline Winterer, who is a historian of American intellectual and cultural history in the eighteenth century. She did a class on French-American connections since the colonial period. And it was just spectacular. She had this marvelous, beautiful way of using history to reveal the complexity of the past, and the impossibility of pigeonholing past actors, and the astoundingly complex ways that they thought about their world, and that the ways that they thought evolved over time and produced the way we think… And she gave these beautiful lectures about construction of forms of knowledge and ways of approaching the world. I didn’t think it would be so moving, but it was.

Then I got the chance to do my own research in France, where after studying 18th-century intellectual history, I was in this village, talking to people about memories of World War II. To go from an intellectual approach of history to people’s actual relationships with the past—two different ways of looking at history—was a kind of master-class in the subject. So after that I was totally committed to being a historian. Within a year, I went from “Do I want to major in this?” to being like “I want this to be my life.” Even though Caroline Winterer kept telling me that it was a bad idea. 

There’s a thing Rabbis do with converts, where they have to push them away three times to find out if they’re really committed. And the first three times I told Professor Winterer I wanted to go to grad school, she admonished me about how terrible an idea that was, and how awful grad school is, and how I’ll never get a job. Then, only by senior year, the fourth time I did it, she started making a game-plan.

I finished Stanford with a history degree, knowing that I wanted to be a historian. After two years off, I started a Ph.D. in history as the University of Chicago, where I work under Leora Auslander, who is a historian of modern Europe, and Emily Osborn, who studies social history and history in West Africa. And they are glorious, and they are very different, and very wonderful.

RL: Why did you choose history as opposed to any other discipline?

GV: I think I started studying history because I was interested in stories. And I found real stories more interesting than fiction. I thought that looking at past events was an interesting way of understanding humanity, and “the human condition” (except that the longer I studied it I realized I don’t believe in anything called “the human condition,” or if I do it’s very qualified).

As I go through my Ph.D. I think less and less that the reason to study history is stories—even though I love stories—and instead I think that we study history to understand the formation of ways of being and thinking, and how they emerged and evolved and changed over time, and how they’re always doing it.

One of my advisors says that “history is the study of change over time.” And we’re always within that. We are the inheritors and the products of change over time, but at the same time we are also producing and participating in that flow of new changes. So it’s a way of viewing the world that’s in constant flux. And there’s a humility to that which I appreciate. It gives me the ability to think beyond the moment. Or at least try to.

RL: What are some of the books—both academic and non-academic—that inspire you the most?

GV: In high school, one summer, I read both King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild—about the Belgium Congo (spoiler alert: it was bad)—and Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. So it’s two very different—not complementary—perspectives on how to think about colonialism in Africa. I think that was the first time I ever thought about the history of Africa in any serious way.

In college, the most important book I read was probably The Wretched of the Earth, by Franz Fanon. As far as my intellectual trajectory goes, this book was foundational.

RL: That’s about colonialism right?

GV: Yeah, he’s a psychoanalyst thinking about the consequences of colonialism for black men—and it’s very much about black men, not at all about black women, very misogynistic. It’s a classic psychoanalytical, existentialist approach, like “the black man is created by the white gaze”—these things that have become very common knowledge now. But he was one of these pioneering thinkers. He was one of the main intellectuals of decolonization. So reading that was like a bolt of lightning. And I remember in my class of 90 people only one other person liked it (who now studies black radical thought) because Fanon advocates violence as a form of self-affirmation. It’s a very controversial book. And I bought into it, immediately.

There’s a wonderful book called Affective Communities, by Leela Gandhi, where she talks about the relationships between South Asian and British radicals in turn-of-the-century London. And she looks as vegetarians, spiritualists, anti-colonialists, homosexuals, and how they were imagining different kinds of political relationships that weren’t about similarity. Where the basis of political community isn’t forming bonds with people who are like you. And she has a wonderful theory of political action, rejecting identity politics in the sense of communities formed to include people like us and exclude others.

Then there’s this awesome book by James H. Sweet, called Domingos Álvarez, and it’s a micro-history, a history of one person. It’s based on these inquisition files for this guy who is from what is now Benin. He’s kind of magical healer who gets enslaved and sent to Brazil. But he eventually gets freed, and he becomes a healer in a community in what is now Rio de Janeiro. Then he gets accused of witchcraft, captured by the Inquisition, and sent to Lisbon in the 1760s. There he’s interviewed, producing hundreds of pages about his life. Sweet’s book is an astounding intellectual biography of him, and his efforts to use his medicinal practices to form a community and resist the social death of slavery. It’s a beautiful resurrection of a man’s life, but it also opens up a way for us to understand African intellectual traditions in the creation of the modern world.

RL: What qualities do you think a good historian should have? 

GV: A good historian definitely needs patience and the persistence to get through archival work, which is often extremely boring. They need to be simultaneously self-critical and confident. Self-critical, in order to not just use their own biases to explain the past. But confident, to believe that they are saying something worth discussing. And they need to be endearingly excited about things. Without irony, and without a need for an audience.

RL: Is there one worst intellectual sin that a historian can commit?

GV: I mean the classic answer is an anachronism, of course. That means using a term or a logic or a conceptual framework of the present to explain the past. It’s a sin because it doesn’t do service to actually explaining the past or its relationship to the present. But of course some people, including myself, believe that we shouldn’t separate the present from the past, because we really can’t escape the present or put it aside. But the anachronism is the classic great sin of historians.

But I think the real great sin is looking for documents and evidence that feed your pre-existing theory as opposed to letting your theory emerge from the evidence. That you don’t go into an archive knowing what your argument is going to be. Your argument emerges from the research. Otherwise, you just do bad work. You won’t move knowledge forward in any meaningful way. Of course, it’s the same problem in any kind of research, and it’s extremely difficult not to do this, at least a little bit. 

RL: How do you think history should be taught at the university level?

GV: I think that it’s important to assign a combination of secondary and primary sources. People need to get excited about engaging with the objects of the past. And you need to give them direct access to the words of people who came before us. But if you just give them those words, images, or objects without any framework, then people will have no ability to understand how exciting they are, beyond just “This is cool!”

You get them in with the coolness, with the story, but they become historians by learning how to analyze it. The most important thing is to teach people that history is a debate, and an analysis, and they have the right to do that analysis, to be historians, to debate it. As opposed to a high school style, which is “Here is the narrative.” People need to be given permission to make the narrative. And in order to do that they need to have access to both the data points and the broader debates.

RL: But do you think there’s a danger to this, in a sense that it gives people the license to write history to reinforce their own preferred narratives?

GV: I’ve gone past my postmodern crisis in college. Obviously all positions are personal and subjective. But that doesn’t mean that some positions aren’t more accurate than others. You need to ground historical study in evidence. Everyone has a right to be a historian. But in order to be a historian, you have to work with the sources, you have to do the analytical work. And if I can prove you didn’t do the work, or I have contrary evidence, I can disprove you. That’s what makes it different from story-telling. 

RL: Can you describe some of your doctoral research?

GV: The basic question of my dissertation is: When, where, and why did West Africans’ ability to feel at home become a political and social issue in France and Senegal in the 20th century. So essentially what I’m asking is: When did individuals’ ability to feel physical senses of comfort and social senses of belonging within certain spaces become central to certain people’s understandings of broader social and political debates. What role did these debates play in colonialism? And how does studying this allow us to rethink our understandings of colonial cultures and ideas of segregation, separation, unity, and multiculturalism in the 20th century?

RL: Can you tell us something about how you went about researching it?

GV: I’ve done archival work in France and Senegal. I did a year in France and about three months in Senegal, and I’ve spent the past year writing. The archives were mostly government archives: the National Archives of Senegal, the National Archives of France, the Colonial Archives of France, various regional archives in France, a few archives of housing agencies, or police archives. I’ve done some oral history, I’ve spoken with some nuns and missionaries. So I’ve gone all over looking at textual sources, a lot of photographs, films, novels.

RL: What kind of textual sources were they, exactly?

GV: It can be anything from a police file, to a census record, to shipping inventories. A problem is a lot of my actors aren’t literate. So even though I would love to have more letters—and I have a good amount—they mostly aren’t there. And they didn’t end up in government archives all the time, for obvious reasons. But I do have a lot of soldiers’ letters that were intercepted by censors. I have letters that individuals wrote to state officials when they were either trying to get support after their homes were destroyed by the state, trying to get support for community centers, trying to get interventions in insalubrious housing. But I don’t have a ton of interpersonal letters, unfortunately.

Each chapter in my dissertation is oriented around a specific kind of space that was seen as a solution to, or the cause of, the problem of how to make West Africans feel at home. And a big source-base for pretty much every chapter are inspections or plans of those spaces. Those can be textual inspections but also drawings, blueprints, photographs, audiovisual records, interviews with residents… it runs the whole gamut.

RL: How do you approach writing up your research? What are you trying to accomplish?

GV: I’ll answer the second part of the question first, because I think it’s harder. Basically, I’m trying to make an argument—that’s the core. An argument that allows us to view something in a new way. The structure of my dissertation is it moves chronologically from 1914 to 1974, and each chapter is about a different time and place. So I’m trying to use home as a lens to reinterpret a certain period that people have been studying. I want to make an argument that allows us to see something in a new way. And which allows us to see West Africans and their sense of belonging as essential to this time period.

On the whole, I’m trying to produce a new understanding of empire. People say that empire is always predicated on distance and separation, and that’s true in many ways. But closeness is also a central part of empire. The paradox of empire is that it’s an entity that is predicated simultaneously on unity and division, which is very counterintuitive to our understanding of politics. So the reason empire’s didn’t work is that they’re based on the politics of differentiation when politics is supposed to be based on similarity.

But for so many people this wasn’t a paradox, and so many West Africans and French people were trying to think of make this distance and closeness work politically. So I’m trying to produce a new understanding of empire that acknowledges that, for many people, the distance did not preclude it from also being intimate. And I don’t mean “intimate” in the sense of sex, I mean that you can bring these political structures close into your life. That’s my overall argument—changing our ideas of empire and why it worked or didn’t work in certain moments.

As far as when I’m writing—a totally different question, I suppose—it’s about getting all of those little arguments in each chapter that will get me to the big argument. And in the process, the first phase is what I call “word vomiting”: just write, write, write. Get all the quotes from all the sources I think are relevant and then I just kind of stream-of-consciousness analyze them. I kind of arrange them roughly into a sequence I think might be interesting, but I don’t really know what I’m going to say about them when I start writing. I write about them, and write around each of these quotes, until I get to an end.

And that’s the first draft. It’s usually about sixty pages of absolute gobbledygook. And then I ask: What’s the argument here? And then I spend weeks trying to craft an argument out of that word vomit. So I imagine vomiting onto my computer and then scrubbing it away, until I get to the argument that was underneath the vomit. 

RL: Just like Michelangelo. You remove every part of the stone that doesn’t look like a beautiful sculpture. Just like you remove every part of the vomit that doesn’t look like a dissertation.

GV: Beautifully put. I even have a separate word document that’s just called “Scraps,” because I find it much easier to delete things if I know they’re going somewhere and not just being deleted.

So, basically, the writing is the thinking. You can’t think without writing—or at least I can’t. That means that you’re going to do a lot of crumpling up paper and throwing it away. But you have to write down those thoughts first

I try to get a good chapter draft done in 4-6 weeks. When I’m in the writing phase, I write about 4 hours a day. So with that pace, by the end of a few weeks, I should have a pretty solid chapter draft that has gone through 2 or 3 revisions. My goal is to have six substantive chapters and an introduction and a conclusion. Each chapter is about 40 pages. So, pretty thick.

RL: More broadly, why do you think it’s important for society to have good historians?

GV: I was thinking about this, because we had a round-table for the history department, examining COVID-19 from a historical perspective. And I think what a historian can contribute is narration. Not storytelling, but an analytic narration. Because the way we narrate the past determines the lessons that we draw from it.

So, for example, if the narration of the coronavirus crisis is: “There was a problem in 2020 and science solved it,” then this will overlook the months of social and economic dislocation that occurred before a vaccine was (hopefully) found. Rather, we need to emphasize that long-term changes in our economy and social structure made us vulnerable so that, when there was a disruption that required time to develop a technical response, we weren’t able to handle it. The lesson we draw then isn’t “Make a technical fix,” but “Make a technical fix, and design the economic and social infrastructure that can handle the time in-between the appearance of the problem and the solution.”

That’s just the COVID example. The way that you narrate the way that something happened completely structures how you move forward into the future.

RL: So do you think that history is about learning from our mistakes?

GV: To some extent it is learning from our mistakes. But what does that really mean? We can say “We know slavery is bad,” but the bigger question is “Why did slavery emerge?” In fact, slavery is the rule, historically. It’s only the last two hundred years where it’s been banished from certain parts of the world.

So I do think learning from our mistakes is important. I don’t think that history is bound to repeat itself. That’s not how the world works. History echoes, maybe, but it never repeats. So we learn from our mistakes, but we need to understand why those mistakes occurred. Because many of the structures that created those mistakes in the past are still with us.

But to make another point, we should also learn that there were roads not taken in history that maybe we should try to take. That’s a big part of what I do. Part of the reason I study empire and the way people tried to make empire work at home is because now we have the narrative of the failure of multiculturalism in Europe. But I’m part of a group of historians who say that there were people who tried to make empire work by trying to imagine a society that wasn’t premised on similarity, but difference, and that difference wouldn’t be an obstacle to solidarity and unity. Why did that vision fail? And how could we resurrect that vision?

The historian E.P. Thomson said that we must save the past “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” The people in the past were not worse or more foolish than we are, and we aren’t smarter than them because we came after them. We can learn a lot from them. And we can be better by trying to be more like them in certain ways. That’s what I dislike about a lot of liberalism and a lot of progressive politics is that there’s always a move “forward.” But some things might have been better in the past. 

A great example is that living in multi-generational housing might actually be better. And that used to be the norm. I think we’ve lost a lot. History is not progress and it’s not loss. It’s loss and gain. We need to understand what we’ve lost and try to resurrect it, or at least get it back in some way. 

And the last thing I like about history is that historians don’t panic as much. Because we know that human beings have survived horrible things. Not individuals, of course, but humanity. Historians have the benefit and advantage of seeing things in the long term. Horrible things happen, but I think historians are less crisis-prone. Or maybe just I am. Even in wars and holocausts, people survive—and I mean people with a capital “P.” 

So there’s analytic narration, there’s learning from the past, and there’s the ability to avoid crisis-thinking. Because we don’t think well when we think in terms of crises.

Una Entrevista con Roy Lotz

Una Entrevista con Roy Lotz

After completing several interviews with my coworkers, they suggested that somebody interview me. Initially I resisted the idea. But when the wonderful Rebeca López offered to do the interview in Spanish (and then edit it so that I don’t sound like a complete dunce) I said vamos. Here it is:

Pregunta: Bueno, Roy, ¿has sido entrevistado antes?

Respuesta: Tres veces. Una vez, en la universidad, acerca de la música que hacía; otra vez, por Skype, sobre libros; y la última vez fue para el blog de una amiga, sobre mi vida en España.

P: ¿Te gusta que te entrevisten?

R: Sí, me gusta mucho hablar de mí. (risas)

P: Cuéntanos un poco sobre ti: de dónde vienes, qué estudiaste, tus hobbies…

R: Soy de Sleepy Hollow, un pueblo bastante pequeño en el norte de Nueva York, más o menos a hora en tren hasta Manhattan. Es un pueblo famoso por la leyenda del jinete sin cabeza, escrita por Washington Irving, que está enterrado en el famoso cementerio de Sleepy Hollow, a diez minutos de mi casa. Es interesante porque este hombre vivió también en España y visitó y escribió sobre la Alhambra. Para mí es interesante porque es como mi guía, ¿sabes? porque soy de su pueblo y ahora estoy en España y no puedo escapar de él.

P: Claro, porque ahora vives en España, ¿verdad?

R: Sí. Vivo en Madrid. Viví en Sleepy Hollow toda mi juventud, estudié en Stony Brook University antropología, aunque mi plan original era estudiar química. Sin embargo, aunque creo que la química es muy interesante, es algo muy abstracto y para mí era mucho más interesante aprender cómo vivía la gente en otras partes del mundo porque no sabía nada de esto. Crecí en Nueva York, fui a una universidad en Nueva York, estaba muy en mi mundo. Era como una revelación saber que había gente viviendo en la selva de Brasil, por ejemplo, o conocer tantas diferencias entre las costumbres de la cultura. Estudié antropología y fui de viaje académico a Kenia a estudiar la evolución humana a Turkana Basin, que es una escuela dirigida por la familia Leakey, una familia muy famosa dentro del mundo de la antropología, porque descubrieron muchos fósiles importantes.

P: ¿Cuánto tiempo estuviste en Kenia?

R: Tres meses. Y luego fui a Tanzania, que está también en el este de África, al sur de Kenia, y fui para estudiar la cultura, aprender un poco de Swahili, que es un idioma muy bonito, y ver a los animales. Al final hice una tesis sobre la música del este de África, leí un montón de artículos y libros, escribí un trabajo, hice una presentación, y… ya está.

P: ¿Cuáles son tus hobbies?

R: Me gusta mucho leer y escribir. Toco la guitarra, canto también, tengo un blog, obviamente (risas)… me gusta mucho andar… Me gusta mucho, sobre todo, aprender.

P: ¿Y por qué decidiste venir a España?

R: Estaba trabajando en Nueva York, en Manhattan, y para mí era algo muy aburrido, porque después de graduarme en la universidad fui a estudiar un doctorado, pero no estaba preparado para hacer algo tan duro, algo tan serio… tampoco había mucho trabajo, pero empecé a trabajar en el primero que pude encontrar. Era solo por hacer algo, no por interés. No estaba mal, pero no me interesaba, no era algo especial para mí. Al año y poco estaba harto de trabajar, no le vi el sentido de seguir haciendo esto. Quise escapar y hacer algo diferente, como romper mi rutina. Descubrir lo que quería hacer de verdad en mi vida. Mi plan inicial era ir a Alemania, porque había estudiado alemán en la universidad y me interesaba mucho la cultura, pero es bastante difícil ir a Alemania por el visado. Mi exnovia quiso ir a España, y entonces descubrí que era mucho más fácil ir a este país que a Alemania, por lo que decidí ir con ella. También, hay mucha gente en Nueva York que habla español y quería aprender este idioma.

P: ¿A qué te dedicas? ¿Es este el trabajo de tus sueños?

R: Ahora soy asistente en un instituto en Rivas-Vaciamadrid. Aunque me gusta mucho enseñar, este no es el trabajo de mis sueños. Primero preferiría tener más poder en mis clases y no ser asistente, pero tengo que admitir que no sé muy bien cómo controlar las clases. Idealmente yo sería escritor. ¿Escritor de qué? No sé, pero me gusta mucho escribir. Puedo escribir todos los días y, no sé… para mí es mi vocación.

P: ¿Qué diferencias hay entre el sistema educativo español y el americano?

R: Hay muchísimas. Por ejemplo, en mi páis llamamos a los profes “mister” o “miss” y sus apellidos, no sus nombres. Yo creo que hay más respeto por eso, es desigual el status de los profes y de los alumnos. Lo peor es que en mi país no aprendemos muy bien idiomas extranjeros normalmente. No tenemos un programa bilingüe muy fuerte y somos muy monolingües.

P: ¿Y las universidades?

R: Las universidades son muy diferentes, porque son mucho más caras y vivimos ahí normalmente. Es un poco raro vivir con los padres cuando estás en la universidad. Ir a la universidad para nosotros es un paso muy importante, porque es cuando te descubres a ti mismo, bebes con tus amigos, haces cosas locas, no tienes responsabilidades, descubres tus intereses…

P: ¿Qué es lo más complicado de vivir en un país extranjero?

R: Tienes que hacer muchas cosas sobre el visado, y si no lo haces bien estás jodido, básicamente. Tienes que tener mucho cuidado con estas cosas: los documentos, las renovaciones, las citas… es muy fácil no hacerlo bien.

P: ¿Tuviste problemas con el idioma?

R: Sí, al principio era difícil encontrar un piso y hacer amigos y esas cosas, porque no hablaba español, pero me motivaba mucho esto porque es como descubrir un lado nuevo de mí dentro del idioma. Puedo ser un niño otra vez y descubrir el mundo otra vez, dentro del español. Para mí era algo muy interesante aprender este idioma… es algo difícil pero hay que verlo como un reto y una oportunidad y no como un obstáculo. Sí es un obstáculo, pero aprender otro idioma abre muchas puertas y es como si pudieras ser una persona nueva y conocer otro mundo que no pudiste antes. El idioma no fue algo muy duro para mí, aunque me costó aprenderlo, lo vi como una oportunidad. También, cuando estás en un país extranjero es como que vives ahí pero no vives ahí… haces amigos, pero ¿amigos de cuánto tiempo? Y echas de menos a tu familia y es difícil invertir en la vida, porque es una vida semipermanente.

P: ¿Qué es lo que más echas de menos de EEUU?

R: A mi familia, a mis amigos… también lo que echo de menos es el sentimiento de estar absolutamente cómodo y entendido. Ser tú mismo sin ser forzado.

P: Bueno, como has mencionado antes, te gusta mucho leer. ¿Cómo comenzó esa inquietud?

R: No me gustaba leer en el insti, pero mi primer año en la universidad tuve unas clases en las que tuve que leer muchos libros y me gustó mucho, porque sentí que estaba aprendiendo muy rápidamente y mi mente y mi perspectiva estaban creciendo. Descubrí que los libros son un mundo sin límites, porque hay de antropología, literatura, filosofía, geografía, viajes… sobre cada tema que puedas imaginar hay un libro, y para mí está relacionado con el deseo de viajar, es el deseo que me permite expandir los límites de mi mundo, porque cada libro es como una ventana a un mundo nuevo.

P: ¿Cuál es tu definición de “libro bueno”?

R: Para mí un libro bueno es un libro que te hace pensar en una forma en la que nunca habías pensado antes. Por ejemplo, los libros de Platón o de Spinoza o Shakespeare. Hay libros ricos, tienen mucha capacidad de hacerte pensar… quizás no tienen razón, pero para decidir si tienen razón o no tienes que pensar sobre una pregunta en la que nunca habías reflexionado antes. Para mí, es sobre las preguntas. Los libros buenos intentan responder a preguntas importantes y que siempre tendrán esta importancia.

P: ¿Qué libro me recomendaría si quisiera iniciarme en el mundo de la filosofía?

R: La Republica, de Platón. Platón es muy fácil de leer. Este libro está relacionado con todo y cada libro de filosofía escrito posteriormente es una respuesta a Platón. Tiene epistemología, lógica, justicia, ética, estética… es un libro muy completo.

P: Por último, ¿cómo te imaginas tu vida dentro de diez años?

R: No tengo ni idea. Me gustaría ser un escritor famosísimo y tener millones de dólares (risas) y haber viajado a Rusia, China, América Latina… tener un perro, criados en una mansión… no sé

Holden Hollingsworth: Conversation Assistant

Holden Hollingsworth: Conversation Assistant

When I first saw Holden Hollingworth’s name, I thought “This guy is going to be interesting.” Then he told me that everyone born into the Hollingsworth family has a name beginning with H, and I thought “This guy doesn’t disappoint.” A man capable of an extended poker face, I wondered if I ought to trust such an outlandish assertion, until I met the Hollingsworths and was quickly lost in a blur of H’s. Luckily there is more to Holden than his double consonants: a smooth-talking Texan with an endless supply of anecdotes and a continually open mind, he has been a pleasure to work alongside. Here is his story:

ROY: So have you ever been interviewed before?

HOLDEN: I have been interviewed before. I guess mostly for jobs, but also I had to do this interview where the students in a school where I used to work asked me for college advice. And so I gave them advice for going away to school the next year.

R: You were interviewed for their benefit?

H: Yes, I was asked what advice I had for the students as they went to college and I advised them to go to an out of state school. Basically, I told them that going to school in a new area of the country would be beneficial for giving them a better understanding a place/people that they did not grow up with, and that that was one of the main points of the university experience.  I gave them a few other bits of advice as well. They played the interview at graduation.

R: Alright, so tell me about your background—your family, your education, your hobbies, and so on.

H: I grew up in Texas. Pretty close-knit family. There were three kids who were born pretty close together, two years apart. So I have an older brother, Harrison, I’m the second, and a sister, Hadley, and we were all born in Dallas.

R: And then two more siblings, right?

H: Well, two more but they came much later. So we were born in Dallas and then we moved to Kingwood, which is in northeast Houston. When I was 11, my younger brother Heath was born. And when I was 16, my youngest brother Hudson was born. So throughout the whole time when we were growing up there was a baby in the house. We spent a lot of time together as a family… playing games, eating family dinners, and traveling quite a bit. Especially in Texas the first couple of years, because my dad was still trying to pay off med school debt.

R: What’s his job?

H: He’s an OBGYN. He’s now in the United Arab Emirates. So anyway, that’s my family.

R: What about your university education?

H: I went to TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a good experience, and it was nice because my mother had grown up nearby and a lot of her family was still living in the area. I went in and I thought I was going to be a dentist. So I took the pre-dental course-load and I finished that but I really hated it. I thought that it was a bunch of hoops that you had to jump through in order to go to dental school.

For instance, Organic Chemistry is something that is not needed if you are going to be a dentist, and yet, it is used as the main weed-out course. Our professors suggested that we spend fifteen hours a week studying for O-chem, as it was affectionately called, if we wanted to get an A. It seemed arbitrary, and like such a large time investment and that was only the start. After dental school you have to jump through more hoops to become a dentist, and then you would buy into a practice, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then you’re paying it off, and that’s the type of lifestyle that does not allow for much freedom to do anything except follow the track that’s been set up for you. I ended up making a course change and majored in history. And then after I graduated I went into teaching.

My hobbies? I really enjoy running. I ran cross country and track-and-field throughout high school and college. I enjoy playing guitar and reading. Earlier it was mostly fiction and now it’s mostly nonfiction… Old movies, new movies… I like watching movies.


R: What did you do when you graduated college?

H: When I graduated from college I moved home and I became a substitute teacher. Then I became a full-time teacher at the same school. It was a pre-K-12 school and they focused on Classical education, which breaks education into three phases: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Your primary school is grammar, logic is middle school, and rhetoric is high school. I mostly taught high school and middle school: English, history of the middle ages, US history, and my last year they had me co-teaching the capstone rhetoric class. In this class, the students came up with a topic, usually a contentious issue, for example physician-assisted suicide. Then, they researched it all year, and they wrote a 20-page thesis. At the end of the course, the students had to defend their thesis before a panel of judges.

I was there for three years. And I was also coaching cross-country and swimming. At the end of that time, I was feeling a little burnt-out, I felt pulled in a lot of different directions. So I decided to leave.

R: Alright so, is this when you started traveling?

H: That’s when I started traveling.

R: Why did you decide to go?

H: My family had already moved to Indonesia (they lived there for several years before moving to the United Arab Emirates). So I didn’t feel any familial obligations or a strong connection to the place where I was living. I had taken this long road-trip with a buddy of mine named Tom. We drove from Houston to the Grand Canyon. And on the trip I had a revelation, which was “I can keep doing this.”

R: You mean, in terms of what you wanted or in terms of your resources?

H: I think that resources were probably an important part of it. I had a college degree, some teaching experience, and had saved a little money. But mostly it was the revelation that I was happy on the road. I enjoyed moving around. And part of it was my background. My mom really likes traveling. She prioritized that quite a bit growing up. That was one of her interests. And as I said, I was feeling a little burnt out teaching high school, and I was looking for a lifestyle changer. So when I was going to the Grand Canyon I thought that I could do something that I wanted to do, I was still quite young, I was only 25, and I could enjoy myself. So I decided to take a year off and travel.

R: Where did you go?

H: I spent about eight weeks in Turkey, Greece, and Croatia. And as I was traveling other trips were coming together. I traveled primarily with my family, a little bit alone, and also a good friend of mine named Grant. It was really nice, especially the solo travel. I had never really done that before and I was surprised by the kindness of strangers. People wanted to show you their country, their home, the things that they liked about it. So I had a lot of what I like to call “single-serving friends.” For example, I was in Greece for a little while and I kept going to this restaurant, and the waitress/owner/cook gave me a nice breakfast and a packed lunch free of charge, saying “Hey, take this, you need food.”

I did some solo travel in the States as well. I did a big West Coast trip, where I started in Eugene, Oregon, and ended in Anchorage, Alaska, and then I flew back to Texas. I was busing some, I was hitchhiking some, and then I flew from Vancouver up to Anchorage. That was a nice trip. I hadn’t spent much time in the Pacific Northwest before that. It was cool to see the people there and the culture there. I’d spent a lot of time in Texas, where people are very friendly, and I spent quite a bit of time on the East Coast (where my brother went to school), where the people are more interested in what they are doing. And on the West Coast I felt like people were very interested in the things that they were pursuing but also very interested in having relational experiences.

After that I went to East Coast of the US, Europe, the Czech Republic, Germany… I went to Bali… The rest of my time was spent in the Rockies (training for a marathon) and the western U.S. ranging from Montana to California.

R: This was all in one year?

H: Yeah. So it was my year on the road. It was a really good year. I learned a lot. I became quite self-reliant, which was good. And then I got to spend some time doing some things I wanted to do, which I hadn’t done much of when I was teaching back in Texas.

R: What did you do next?

H: I finished my time traveling and I came back to Houston for a little while, and I was working as a swim coach at a gym. Then I applied for a teaching job in Chile and I got offered the job, and I moved to Chile to be a teaching assistant, to a small town northwest of Santiago called Los Andes. I wanted to work a little bit and to go to a place where I could learn some Spanish. I picked Chile mostly because of its natural beauty. I knew that the Atacama Desert was in the north and I wanted to see that. Patagonia is in the south. Also they pay their teachers fairly well.


R: What did you do there?

H: I was a language assistant. Again I was working at this pre-K-12 school. It was kind of strange. I was with seniors in high school and then I’d go straight to kids who were pre-school age. I’d be trying to speak in somewhat elevated English and then I would be dancing and singing with four-year olds. It was fun, it was difficult, just because I was working 30 hours a week in four days. Quite a bit different from the gig we’re doing here. I traveled a lot, which was nice. Chile has a lot to offer as far as travel is concerned.

R: How did you decide to come to Spain?

H: When I was in Chile I met some people who had done the auxiliar program and they suggested it highly. They were like, “Look, instead of 30 hours a week you work 16. It’s a pretty laid-back schedule. You also have a chance to travel within Europe.” Which was exciting to me, the chance to see more of Europe, especially Spain. I’d never been there before. As soon as I got back to the States I applied to the auxiliar program. And as you know the process takes several months to hear back, apply for the visa, you’ve got to dot all your “i’s” and cross all your “t’s”—blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda.

R: What were some of the challenges of moving here?

H: Oh, mostly wading through the, you know, bureaucratic things. You have to do the paperwork, you have to figure out where you’re gonna live, you have to set things up. Every time you move to a new place there are certain difficulties. But I had already experienced that in Chile so I felt somewhat prepared. But there are always these little things, like, you have to find an apartment. Is it a good apartment? Is it the right location? Are your roommates okay? Besides that, moving here was not super challenging because I have spent the last few years traveling around and moving quite a bit.

R: What are some of your duties as an auxiliar?

H: Essentially, assisting in the classroom. Sometimes leading the class. I teach, or co-teach, help teach…  biology, English, and history. Biology is the thing I know the least about, since I haven’t studied it since college. That gave me some pause initially, trying to come up with lectures and activities for that, but the teacher that I work with has been very helpful. In history I’ll usually teach a short lecture on whatever subject they’re talking about. And for English, sometimes I take students out in small groups and really work on their speaking and grammar. Those are the primary duties of being an auxiliar for me.

R: And the challenges of being an auxiliar?

H: The main thing here has been that the behavior is very different from what I’m used to in the States. Spain is similar to Chile, where the students are more familiar with the teachers, they call them by their first name. And because of that familiarity, and maybe that lack of distance, there’s a little bit less respect. They’re talkative and you really have to get on them, like “Hey, be quiet.” And part of it is, I think, that I’m an assistant teacher, and that position is afforded less respect than the primary teacher.

R: How would you compare the education system here with Chile and with the States?

H: Both in Chile and in the States I was working in private schools. The private school where I worked in the States was quite small, 15 kids to a class. So really easy to manage the classroom. The kids were quite bright, there was an admissions test to get in. There were very few behavioral problems. And I felt like I was teaching content, not teaching students how to be what I would call “a good citizen.” And I really enjoyed that quite a bit.

In Chile, it was very different. Much larger classroom. Maybe 30-35 kids. The kids in the back would always be talking, so you would have to shout over them. They did not respect the primary teachers. And I was even less respected. Even though the kids are mostly nice one-on-one, it’s just when you got them in that group they wanted to talk with their friends and not do very much. Most students, there are some exceptions, they all fall to the lowest common denominator. They’ll do what they want to do as long as you allow them to do that thing.

Here in Spain I would say it’s in-between Chile and the US. The kids, mostly nice, mostly respectful, there are a few problems with talking. It’s not horrible like it was in Chile, but it’s not as good as it was in the States. I think the kids are quite smart here. One of the things that’s different is the culture and the grading system. I’m not used to a 5 being a pass, 50%. In the States it was 70 or above. In Chile it was more than 50% as well.

I feel like students are the same everywhere. They want to get away with as much as they can. So if you’re teaching 15-16 year old kids, there are some similarities.


R: What do you plan on doing when you leave Spain?

H: I’m hoping to get my feet wet in the National Parks job arena this summer. I’ve been offered a summer position at the historic site in Hyde Park where FDR grew up. What I would like to do is to work for a government agency, either the State Department or the National Park Service.

R: How do you think you’ll look back on this experience?

H: For me, this is a continuation of the last few years of my life. I’ve been traveling quite a bit. And I feel like, as my twenties end, so does that time in my life. At least for a little while.

R: You mean the traveling time?

H: The traveling time. And the twenties time. Anyway, I think I’ll think of it as the time when I was really trying to experience different cultures, meet different people, and learn different things, but not through book-learning. When I look back I’ll think, “This is the time when I was ready to experience new things.”

Diego is on the far left; Becca the far right; Holden the third from the right.

Diego Cruz: Conversation Assistant

Diego Cruz: Conversation Assistant

I have been working alongside Diego for two years now. When I first met him he was straight out of college—a frat boy without his frat, living all the way out in Arganda del Rey, a quiet town far from the center of Madrid. It was obviously a new experience for him. And he adapted admirably: growing more confident, more independent, and more empathetic to others in the process. Far more than two years seem to have elapsed between the Diego I first met and the Diego I know now. He recently took some time to sit down with me and share some of his story:

R: How are you feeling?

D: Feeling pretty good, kinda nervous. It’s weird, you know, having your friend interview you.

R: Have you been interviewed before?

D: Only professional interviews.

R: Tell me about your background—your family, your education, your hobbies, and so on.

D: Okey dokey. My dad is Mexican, born in Mexico. He moved to Los Angeles in the late seventies. My mom was born in America but she’s of Armenian-Spanish descent. And she grew up in Spain, in orphanages. I identify myself as a chicano. I grew up with a bunch of latinos in my community. So I always thought I was Mexican. I was born in East LA but I lived my whole life in South Gate, California.


I went to university to UC Santa Barbara, and I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. I came to Spain right after that. My hobbies? I like to go to the gym, I like to play soccer, I like to be with my friends. Sometimes write, sometimes read, you know.

R: How did you decide to come to Spain?

D: Alright, so my brother forced me to come to Spain. My brother Rafael was like, “Hey fool you got really bad grades in university so you gotta do something spectacular.” So he was like, “You should do this program.” So for a year and a half or so I was thinking about going to Spain. And then the time came to apply and I barely made it on the deadline and I was told in August that I got in.

R: In August? [The program begins in October.]

D: Yeah, so I had to do everything super fast before I came mid-September.

R: What were some of the challenges of moving to Spain?

D: So the challenges were raising the money, saving up the money to buy the tickets and for rent, security deposit, food. Then eventually it was just saying goodbye to your family and friends. Some friends don’t understand that it’s something you have to do for yourself. Some friends just forget about you. But my family is there for me, so that’s what matters the most.

R: How did you raise money?

D: I worked, I was working as a referee, I was washing dishes. And my mom hooked me up with some money, too, so I was really lucky with my mom.

R: And what about the visa process?

D: That shit was wack. Everything was new to me. You know, my dad came to the States and he got his citizenship. So I thought, “If this fool can get a citizenship then I can get my visa.” So the paperwork took me like three or four weeks. I did some of the things wrong so I had to redo it several times. And so I wasted like 300 bucks.

R: Tell me about your job as an auxiliar—your schedule, your duties, your role in the classroom.

D: Well, I work 16 hours a week, but I’m here for like twenty-something. [We have breaks between classes that adds to the time at high school.] My role is to assist the teacher. But as a second-year now, I’m leading the class and I’m lecturing. I’d say about half of the time I’m lecturing and the other half I’m with the students, with groups of four, talking. I feel we have a specific role in the classroom, because we’re obviously younger than the teachers, so we become this bridge with the students and the teachers. And sometimes the teachers come down on the students hard, so you kinda have to go to the student and tell them what’s good. You’re like, “Hey, the teacher is being a little harsh, but you gotta understand that these are the rules.” So you just try to help them figure it out. That’s how I see myself.

R: What are some of the challenges of being an auxiliar?


D: Upholding the expectations, meeting the expectations of the teachers. Because last year some of the expectations weren’t that clear, you know. So you don’t know if you’re doing a good job or not. But this year I’m doing a lot better, I have better communication with my teachers. So the challenges might be that the students just wanna keep talking to you, and you gotta be like “Hey, now it’s time to do classwork.” Last year it was a struggle to keep them attentive, but this year I’ve been doing a good job of keeping them focused in class, helping them out with their work.

R: How would you compare the education system here to ours in the States?

D: So here I think it’s a little bit too lenient. A five [out of ten] is still passing. And to me that’s failure, you know. You did half of the work wrong. So I don’t see how that’s considered passing. And I also think the students repeat too much. [As in, students are held back because they failed.] You have twenty-year-olds graduating from high school. I think it’s too easy to repeat, it’s done too frequently. But I think the issue is because they have too many subjects, they have eleven subjects in the semester. Back in the States we only had to take six or seven. They’re focusing too much on too many. So it’s too much for the kids and that’s when they start messing up in school, they start not caring in class, they start missing school.

Classroom management is too lenient, too. Some of the teachers are really strict but some other teachers just let the kids talk, and the kids are talking and talking and chit chatting. I think they send out the kids too much. [As in, send the kids out in the hallway when they’re misbehaving.] I don’t know if they should be disciplined or what, but they don’t know respect and a lot of them don’t have that respect towards the teachers. I’m pretty well respected but even if I tell them to be quiet they will just keep talking and chit chatting.

R: What do you plan on doing when you leave Spain?

D: I wanna start getting my coaching license. I want to work with professional soccer teams or college soccer teams. If I fail in doing something with soccer I’ll do something with any type of sport. And if I fail at that, I’ll become a gym teacher. But I’ll be a good gym teacher, I’ll try hard, do my thing. But I definitely want to to something with sports after Spain.

R: How do you think you’ll look back on this experience in 10 years?

D: I think 10 years from now Diego will be really happy with this Diego. I tell this to my friends, in university I was a cool guy and people liked me, but I felt like I was a loser. I wasn’t responsible, I didn’t handle my scandal, you know. I was just a loser, you know. Yeah I had friends and I know people loved me but the way I was, that was some loser stuff. And I’m really proud that when I’ve been here, I’ve been more responsible and I’ve managed to change, to live a healthier lifestyle, to be more optimistic about life. It’s just given me a brand new type of identity. Or it’s reinforced my identity and I’ve become stronger. So I feel that ten years from now I’ll be really proud of that, that I was able to leave everything back home and come to Spain, give it my all, and be the person I would eventually become. I’ll be really happy, I’ll be really content with this Diego.

R: So you think it’s important in your development?

D: Oh yeah, I already know it’s super important. For the person who I wish to become, who I want to become, who I will become.

R: Well that’s all my question. Anything else?

D: Well I want to say that, at first I thought Roy was wack, but then he’s a great guy.

Becca Kantor: Language Assistant

Becca Kantor: Language Assistant

The auxiliares de conversaciones program is a massive initiative by the Spanish state to get native English speakers into the classroom. In Madrid alone there are well over one thousand of us—seven alone in my high school.

Becca is one of these seven. She was the first coworker I met in my current high school. We came in on the first day, disoriented and a little overwhelmed, to explore the plain yellow building that was to become the center of our working lives. This was last year, when we were both simple language assistants. But this year Becca took on the additional responsibility of Global Classrooms (see below), which switched her from an assisting to a leading role. She rose to the challenge—becoming notably less diffident, more assertive, both in and out of the classroom—and meanwhile became the unofficial leader of our group of friends, organizing and planning all our outings. She recently sat down to talk with me about her experience in Spain:

ROY: Is this your first interview?

BECCA: I guess it’s my first, other than a job interview…

R: Hopefully not your last interview, then.

B: Hopefully, fingers crossed, we’ll see how this first one goes.


R: Tell me about your background—your family, your hometown, what you studied in university.

B: I’m one of four siblings, I have three older brothers. My dad was born in Germany but raised in Arizona, my mom is from El Salvador, they met in Mexico but that’s a different story. We moved around a lot growing up. I was born in Connecticut, but I lived near Boston, then two hours from Chicago, and ended up in Plano, Texas, and we’ve lived there ever since. So it’s easier to say I’m from Plano, even though I don’t really feel like I’m from a place. I went to the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, and I majored in Creative Writing and I double minored in psychology and film (they have a famous film school, so I figured I should).

R: Why did you decide to come to Spain?

B: After graduation I had moved back with my parents, and had gotten a part-time job as a tutor, at a company that specializes mostly in SAT tutoring, but they also do school tutoring. And I worked there for about two and a half years. I loved working with the kids, but after so long I felt like I didn’t want to move up in the company.

So I decided to apply for a MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) programs in creative writing. I applied to five schools, but I’m the kind of person who always needs to have a backup plan. I had come to Spain about seven months before, and I really loved Spain, and I felt like I could live here. So when I saw the language assistant program, I decided to apply for that, since it was teaching English to high school kids, and I knew I liked kids and I knew I liked Spain. This was just a backup plan. Then I heard back from the grad schools, and I had gotten into one, Indiana University. It’s a great school, but I did not want to live in Indiana, just too much corn for me. So I guess the dreamer in me said, “Wow, I can live in Europe.” It made the choice easier for me.

R: What were some of the biggest challenges of moving here?

B: The language is definitely the hardest one. I had some experience of Spanish, and I had known since April that I was going to come, so I was on the app Duolingo and speaking Spanish with my mom. But when you get here it’s a whole different game. Being away from my family was also a challenge because we’re a very close family, and to suddenly be an ocean away is difficult. Thankfully, there’s technology, and also my brother was already living in Germany. And finding an apartment, that was tough. It’s crazy in August, since everybody is trying to find an apartment, and you’re also trying to figure out your Spanish.


And it was incredible to realize how language made simple acts so much more difficult. My first few months in Madrid, I remember I would go grocery shopping and it would take me so long to shop for food. The supermarkets here were organized a bit differently than in the United States, so I didn’t know where to find all the food on my list. Asking for help from one of the workers at the supermarket would have made everything easy, but I was so worried that I wouldn’t know how to ask my question in Spanish, or, worse, I wouldn’t understand the worker’s response. So instead of asking for help, I would just wander around the supermarket, hoping to eventually find the food that I needed. I felt like such a lost child.

R: What do you think are some of the biggest takeaways from living abroad?

B: The first thing I thought of when you showed me this question is that you really come to appreciate people who are patient with you when you’re trying to speak another language. Because some people are annoyed that you’re not particularly fluent, and some people laugh at your accent, and even if they aren’t being mean it’s discouraging. So I came to appreciate the people, whose job it wasn’t to deal with my Spanish, to take the time to listen to me, even if it takes me 10 minutes to say something.

R: What did you do doing your first year here as an language assistant?

B: My first year I worked here at Antares. As a language assistant, our job is exactly that. We are there to assist. A lot of people think we’re teachers but we’re teacher assistants. We work four days a week, sixteen hours a week, and typically you have different classes you work with. So I was assigned to 1st of ESO (American 7th grade), and 2nd of ESO (American 8th grade), and I taught English, Geography & History, Biology, Art, and Music.

Each teacher was different. Some would give me something to do in the book, and I would lead the class the day that I was in there. Sometimes I would take groups of kids outside the class and play games, in groups of four, to give the students more practice speaking. In history I would give presentations about whatever we were learning or do games for review. More or less the same for Art and Biology, and Music…

R: What are some of the challenges of being a language assistant?

B: The biggest challenge is discipline. We’re in this weird limbo where we’re the teacher, but we’re also not the teacher. The kids are really fascinated when an assistant comes in. We tend to be younger, too, so that makes the students like us really quickly. They like us because we’re different. And I’m the kind of person who really likes to relate to my kids one-on-one. Like I’ll talk about Marvel Movies or Star Wars with them, because I’m a little bit of a kid myself, I like the same things that they like.

But then it would create this problem where they felt like I was their friend, but I was also trying to be their teacher. Also, it’s not clearly defined if we can discipline the kids, or how we can. Can we give them negative marks? Can we write up a parte (incident report)? And sometimes, even though I don’t like yelling, I did have to raise my voice. Thankfully, we’re not allowed to be alone with the kids, the teacher has to be there. But sometimes I don’t like that I have to rely on the teacher so much for discipline. I want to figure it out on my own. So I don’t know how to relate to them and to maintain discipline, a weird limbo.

R: Can you explain what the Global Classrooms (GC) program is and what was your role in the program?

B: The Global Classrooms program has been going on for about ten years, and it’s a program that the Comunidad de Madrid does with Fulbright and also the British Council. It’s basically Model United Nations. Only bilingual schools get to participate. Typically, a Fulbright assistant (language assistants who won a Fulbright award) will work with third year (American ninth grade) at a bilingual school. And they teach GC to the entire third year. For some people, that’s 40 kids. For me, this year, it was 145 kids.

For the first part of the year, from October to December, I was teaching them skills they need for Model UN: how to debate, how to write a research paper—and a lot of these kids have never done that in Spanish, much less English—how to find sources, cite sources, how to build an argument, how to write a speech and deliver it, and really, more importantly, just how to engage with the world and think critically.

In GC you get a specific topic for the year, and this year ours was income inequality. So I was trying to teach these kids about this problem in Spain, but also in a lot of different countries around the world. Again, typically this is what the Fulbright assistants do, but now GC has grown so much that they don’t get enough Fulbrights for it. I’m not Fulbright, but I volunteered for it, because I wanted the challenge. So that was October to December.

After that, there are two conferences, a preliminary conference and a final conference. Every school that participates in GC goes to the preliminary conference. Obviously, we can’t send 145 students, unfortunately, so the teachers and I picked a group of 10, which was really difficult. These formed five teams of two. Each of these teams was assigned a country for the preliminary conference. Of all the bilingual schools at the preliminary conference, 28 are chosen to participate in the final conference. After this conference there are interviews.

Of the students who participate in this final conference, each school is allowed to send a single student to be interviewed. That means 28 kids are interviewed in all, and of those, 10 are chosen to participate in a final, final conference that happens in New York, along with teams from all over the world—Mexico, Germany, the United States.


R: And this year one of your students won, right?

B: Yes, this year it was great. The past two years we had always made it to the final conference but our students weren’t picked at the interviews. But this year, our student María Romero was picked to go to New York, which was really exciting. I had her last year and she really deserves it, she’s brilliant, confident, and works hard. She’s right now in the process of working with her partner, who goes to a different school, and she’s writing her research paper. And in three weeks, she’s going to New York City for the first time.

R: What are your plans when you finish your school year?

B: Again, last fall, I applied for grad schools, MFA programs. And I got into Vanderbilt University. So when I finish this school year I’ll be moving back to the United States, to Nashville Tennessee, to complete a two-year Masters of Fine Arts in the Creative Writing program. Which I’m really, really stoked for.

R: What originally drew you to writing?

B: That’s a good question, but I’ve always loved writing, so it’s hard to know what drew me to it. I think it was just reading. My mom really instilled in me this love of reading. I remember when I was learning how to read I was so scared that I’d have problems. Do you remember Hooked on Phonics?

R: Yeah!

B: So I remember watching those commercials, and I remember they were for the kids who were struggling with reading. And I had so much anxiety as a five-year-old that I wouldn’t be able to learn to read. I thought I would need Hooked on Phonics and would tell my mom, you need to call that number in the commercial and order it. But I didn’t end up needing it. From the minute I started learning how to read, I loved it. And I think what originally drew me to writing was reading stories—I would read these stories and put the book down, and the stories would live on in my mind, and I would wonder what I would do in this situation, or come up with my own characters in my mind and play them out in my head. So it was like an extension of make-believe, which I always loved doing with my friends.

I remember one time I put on a show for my family, God bless them, with my Beanie Babies. I think it was like a Zorro story, because I really liked Zorro at the time, I was in love with Antonio Banderas. And they watched, and told me “That was really good, Becca,” even though it was probably terrible.

R: What do you hope to be doing in ten years?

B: Well, I hope that in ten years I’ve published something. A novel, a short story collection, or even just a short story. It would be nice to have published something, to still be finding the time to write the stories I want to write. But I also hope I’ll be teaching, because the two years in Spain have really taught me that I love teaching. I knew I liked kids from my tutoring job, but I wasn’t sure I would like teaching in a classroom, but the Auxiliar program taught me that I really love that.

I hope I’ll find myself back in Europe, maybe not forever, but to live again. Hopefully in Spain, since it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to Spain. Hopefully, I guess, married, with kids, we’ll see… Have a dog, a German shepherd.


R: And how you think you will look back on this experience?

B: I think I will look back on this experience as extremely formative, not just career-wise, but just as a person. I’ve made friendships here that I hope will be long-term. It’s always a little scary when you move to another country, and think “I don’t know how I’m gonna cope,” but I learned that, yeah, I can be independent. If I can take care of myself in another country, where I struggle with the language, it gives me confidence to do other things. I think living here has taught me to be more empathetic, to other cultures, to other people. It’s certainly helped my writing, just with all the new experiences.

When I approached it, I thought “Oh, this will be a fun year or two in Spain.” But looking back I realize that it wasn’t just a break from life, it was actually a really big stepping stone. It was necessary to get me to where I needed to go. It wasn’t a pause, it wasn’t a breather, it was an important part of my life.