Friday, December 9, 2011

Twisted Vagabondage Tale From Spain

Each summer, American university students head out to foreign countries to work abroad. I spent one summer working abroad myself, while I was studying at UCLA. I sent off my CV to some program in Spain, and voila, I was offered a job to work at a department-store/diner called VIPS, a Mexican-owned company located in Madrid. I was already familiar with VIPS as I had traveled a lot in Mexico. I liked VIPS. It was a place where you could eat chilaquiles in the atmosphere of an upscale American diner. They also sold things like books and videos.

I was put to work in the book and video department. However, the second I started the job, the countdown to my dismissal began. Truth be told, I only lasted for three days. I just couldn't figure out the currency. In my haste to seem like I actually knew what the hell I was doing, I continually counted out the money incorrectly, which resulted in my cash register lacking somewhere near one hundred dollars worth of pesetas (this was the era before the euro) each time my shift ended. I was warned by the manager that if I kept this up, I wouldn't last. Instead of waiting around for my dismissal, I fired myself, fleeing Madrid for Andalucia where a friend of mine was spending the summer - or so I thought. 

His name was Mike and his folks were Navy. So, they had a house near one of Spain's ports. Many of my travels have started like this. I have a friend I'm not really that good of friends with, who just happens to be traveling abroad, or I meet someone at a party some night, who is visiting from a faraway place. I get the crazy idea I'll go and visit them! We chat, exchange info and make plans. I'm sure most of these folks assume I'll never make it. The only problem is, I do. I'm kind of nuts that way. My hosts are always a little perplexed when I finally show up. Things don't always end well. Such was my youth. I'm married now with children, so I don't do that shit anymore. 

Anyhow, I headed down South to visit Mike, who was decidedly not interested in me. He also hadn't mentioned during our short, pre-trip discussion that he would only be in Spain for a short while before heading back to the U.S. Mike was slated to return the following week. So, we hung out for a couple of days, he left for the States, and I decided I'd stay on at his parents' place. After about three days, I found myself in his mum's car, being literally escorted to the train station. She was looking forward to the departure of this strange American girl, who had suddenly appeared out of nowhere to hole up in her house.

So much for the hospitality of my fellow countrymen. I caught a train for Sevilla, where I didn't know anyone. Still, I had heard good things about the city, and decided I would look for work there. I picked up one of those free newspapers that had listings. (This was before the Internet.) Found a family who wanted a nanny. Mind you, at the time, I had no experience with children, not to mention I didn't necessarily like children all that much. Nevertheless, I was magically hired, thanks to my English-language capability. I was thus put to work tending to the needs of three unruly children: a three-year-old boy, a five-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl.

I lived in the family's apartment, which I was not charged for. In exchange, I looked after the brats during the morning, while Mom was at work. This American woman had been studying abroad during college, when she met what she thought was the love of her life, got married and was quickly knocked-up by the Spaniard. In the wake of three young children, the relationship went bad. Mom left and shacked-up with another guy, plus her three mucous-nosed kids.

It was not the best situation, and I certainly was not the best candidate to deal with this domestic fiasco. The kids had no discipline, and I was incapable of disciplining anyone. I could hardly discipline myself. The eldest girl had a glass eye, the result of a night of heavy partying, when someone mistakenly aimed the cork of a cava bottle at her face. One of my fondest memories of time spent with this family was an evening of sangria and tapas, when Mom let the nine-year-old smoke a cigarette. I found all this hilarious at the time, fodder for many stories once I returned Stateside, never realizing how debauched and sad the situation actually was.

One day, Dad showed up and wanted to take the kids for ice cream. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to let them go. Mom was unhappy. The kids were returned later that night, after much arguing. 

Another day, I took the kids to the park. In this part of Spain, on the outskirts of Sevilla, where the apartment complexes are communist chic, parks didn't sport grass, but were just sandy swathes, surrounded by benches. The three-year-old somehow got loose (probably because my nose was in some Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel). I had to sprint after the little guy till I finally caught him by the shirt tails. Needless to say, my time there was limited. I lasted a month. I was an irresponsible reprobate, but woe to the parent who hired a nanny like me, without references or experience, solely because I spoke English. Sometimes you get what you pay for. Sadly, so do the kids.

Lara Sterling authors Twisted Vagabondage Tales for travelers who like it rough. She is prettier than Vagabonding author Rolf Potts (though Rolf is very pretty) and could kick his ass (though only if he'd like that). She has written for Playboy and Larry Flynt Publications but now hosts an online radio show and blogs at


  1. Lara,

    I greatly appreciate the conscientiousness of this story. As far as I can tell, there are only two kinds of adults in the world: those who've screwed up big time but admit it and those not ready to admit it yet. The former can grow and become stronger. The latter often diminish or even get weird.

    Friends (and shrinks) often become nervous when we accept heavy doses of responsibility - sometimes because they care, often because they're afraid we'll start expecting them to shoulder some too. I think people should avoid guilt as much as possible, but preferably by repentance rather than denial.

    I enjoyed not only your story but the delightful possibility it offers that you'll now be the target of hate mail rather than me. You go girl!

  2. Here's an interesting lecture I just listened to about regret:

    Schulz argues we *should* feel regret, because it means we care deeply about things and that we don't want to lose people.

    That said, I don't regret this experience in Spain. The kids lived through it. I tried to take care of them, even though I wasn't totally adept at the job and the parents were nuts. Hopefully the now-grown-up youngersters aren't in jail. Bring on the hate mail!

  3. Just heard the Schultz talk, Lara. Good stuff! Caring about people enough to regret choices then improve rather than despair is a crucial part of a meaningful life. Yet, wallowing in regret over one's mistakes is unproductive and often just an excuse for not changing.

    Most of all, obsessing over our inability to fulfill other people's responsibilities (like parenting their kids) is downright unhealthy and can make one neurotic or pseudo-messianic. Tending your own garden and inspiring others to do the same is the best way to live.

  4. At least it's a story you can tell your grandkids about their grandmother's crazy month abroad in Spain!