The art of teatro

When I lived in southern Spain, I had the good fortune to meet Marta Moreno, an English teacher at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas in Fuengirola. I spent my days trying to teach Spanish to British elementary students in the neighboring town of La Cala, and my nights learning Spanish proverbs via Marta's engaging (and free) teatro classes. About half of the group were Spanish speakers enrolled in her English classes, and the other half were Americans and native English speakers who were there to practice Spanish. Marta encouraged us to bring in photos from our high school proms, to share American slang, to bring in recipes and cultural anecdotes that would provoke discussion. One week she gave us a Xeroxed handout with a number of different cartoon expressions with adjectives written under their faces (agobiado, liado, encantado) --a resource that I still have six years later, pinned to the pliable walls of my cubicle at work, though its edges are frayed and curled.

I'll never forget those final weeks in Málaga, when she invited a group of teatro regulars over to the condo she shared with her husband and daughter, just blocks from the city's central square. I remember how groovy it all was; they were intellectuals, artists, educators, speakers of multiple languages, and they lived in the most beautiful space. It was a warm night in late May when they led us up a narrow staircase to their balcony. We had to walk through a curtain of gauze to get to it. I remember the way the fabric felt against my face, the way my Belgian friend Geoff sat in the sun with his guitar.

Geoff on the patio

For my first several months in Spain, I was obsessed with the French film L'Auberge Espangole, which followed a group of young ERASMUS students from half a dozen countries. How badly I wanted that feeling--the exposure to other cultures, other languages, other everythings. It wasn't until that evening on Marta's balcony that I realized that that's exactly what teatro was: a group of people bound together by language and location. A group of people gathered on a sunny balcony not far from the sea, the throng of cathedral bells echoing off cobblestone.

Marta and I have stayed in touch. A few years ago, she established a multilingual publication called Collage Magazine that her English classes have been producing every spring. The magazine showcases writing both from her students and with her friends from around the world, and also features the glorious photographs of her husband, Lorenzo Hernandez, whose skill and talent have taken him around the world. (This is the same Lorenzo Hernandez who took the picture on my About page--taken that very day on their famous balcony.)

In 2010 she asked me to contribute a piece about San Francisco. This winter, she contacted me because they were working on a jazz issue. I submitted a piece about New Orleans, and encouraged my mother, longtime journalist and nonfiction writer Lyra Halprin, to submit as well. The issue is gorgeous--there are essays, interviews and stories written in Spanish, English and French, as well as Lorenzo's stunning images of musicians and artists from around the world. It is a true work of art--and you can view all 62 pages of it here.

I feel like it is especially important to share this right now, after the tragedy of the Boston Marathon, and the explosions in West Texas, and Congress' failure to pass crucial legislation. All week I have meditated on this violence, this tragedy, this surprising and ferocious turn of events, but it is projects like Collage Magazine that surface true beauty in the world, in multiple languages, in multiple countries. It is a humble effort, but an important one, a good reminder that regardless of what's happening in the world we can still write, we can still sing, we can still take photos, we can still revel in it, all of it, together.

Dear Internet,

Dear Internet,

Please help me write a book.

I realize that lots of letters and prayers might start this way, but mine is unique, I swear. This is not a Kickstarter pledge, nor is it the pitch letter I hope to one day write. This is the kick before that step. This is the I-have-something-in-mind-and-in-order-for-it-to-realize-its-full-potential-I've-got-to-do-a-lot-more-research step. A long step, yes, but a crucial one. One that you, Internet, could hurry me along.

When I was 22 I moved to Fuengirola, Spain, to work as an educational assistant at an elementary school that was implementing its first year of a bilingualism program. I was naive and my Spanish was high intermediate at best and I more or less flew by the seat of my pants and nothing too terrible happened and I'm a much better person for having lived alone, thousands of miles from home, in another language, for the better part of nine months.

That is not the story I am writing. The story I am writing is way more interesting. The stories I am writing are about all the things I feared would happen, an amalgamation of immigration stories that six-year-olds told me, whilst learning to add and subtract, and the stories their moms and dads told after school, and perhaps most interesting, the glaring difference between the two. The stories I want to write are about living between languages, cultures, countries, identities. The stories I am writing are about expatriates -- those that embrace the label and live each day homesick, those that slip right in while no one's looking, those that exist in limbo until the day someone finally notices.

So where do you come in, Internet?

Well, here's the thing: I've written six stories so far, and hope to write at least five more. My characters are American, Spanish, German, and English; but I want to include much more. In order to do this I need a better understanding of how people land in Fuengirola, what their life is like there, and what kinds of fears and desires they have. Don't worry: I do plan to do my homework - I will read what you recommend, and I will sit my ass in my chair and flail through the words as they come or don't come - but more than anything I need to know what life is like for expats in Fuengirola today. Now.

Note: I am not asking for money, or space, or anything fully tangible. I'm asking for people who currently live in Southern Spain, or who have in the past, to answer a few simple questions about their life abroad. This will be a piece of fiction and I am not interested in using other people's experiences or words. What I want are your impressions of life abroad, and what reflections you may have about your own nationality during your time away.

What will you get? A very kind email from me, a written acknowledgement if this thing ever gets published, brownie points in Heaven.

If you are still reading and are interested in chatting with me further about this project, please email me at

Thank you, Internet, for letting me post such a long letter. I owe you one.



Things that Repeat

I saw this in a bike tunnel in Isla Vista in 2003. The war in Iraq had just been officially declared and it was just a matter of months before the truly embarrassing and horrifying destruction abroad would occur.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I read in the New York Times that the American death toll in Afghanistan has reached 1000. I wonder, whose morbid job is it to count the dead? Does a mortician do it? A military officer? Some inverse incarnation of the stork who brings babies into the world?

I wonder, too, about the real question that this number hides: If 1000 Americans are dead in Afghanistan, who else is lost? Death and its dark honor is not a privilege that only Americans endure.

In 2007, I was working at an elementary school outside of Malaga, Spain, when we celebrated el Dia de la Paz. Peace Day. We took about a week of class time and instructed kids of all grades to design their own posters and learn peace songs. This was right around the time that the American death toll in Iraq had reached 3000, and my aunt April was hosting candlelight vigils in Los Angeles.

I'm thinking it's high time we had our own Dia de la Paz as well. If we're going to be repeating ourselves, it might as well be with something good.

Revista EOI Fuengirola: International Magazine That You Should Read

credit: EOI Fuengirola

Marta Moreno is pretty much one of the best teachers I have ever met. We met in 2006 when I was working as a bilingual educational assistant at en elementary school in La Cala de Mijas, Spain. Marta teaches English at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas in Fuengirola--just across the street from the apartment where I lived. Once a week, my American friends and I would join her for a bilingual "teatro" club with several of her Spanish students who were in her English classes. Marta organized these classes on her own time with the help of Amy Nickerson, a fellow American who, like me, had come to Spain as part of a national bilingualism-in-the-schools project. Each week we'd perform little skits in English and Spanish, in part just for kicks, and in part to engage that language part of our brain that was still transitioning from English to Spanish.

Marta and I often talked about writers and artists we liked in various languages, and by the end of the year she had become a wonderful friend and resource. This year, she emailed me to say that she and her class at the EOI were making an international magazine. She was asking around her international friends to see if we would contribute a short piece about the cities where we lived. I passed her along some notes about San Francisco, along with some photos. Today she emailed me to share the results of their year of hard work, and it is really well done:

Whether you speak English, Spanish, German or French -- whether you're an armchair traveler or a Trotemundos (Globetrotter), you'll love the work they've done.

Y a Marta y su clase de escritores, disenadores y artistas: bien hecho!