Year in Review: The Good, the Bad and the Lovely

In less than two weeks, I’m heading back to Spain for my second year as a language assistant.

After a summer at home during which I had ample time to reflect (mostly while working on my tan at the beach), there are a few things I’d like to share about my first year in Spain.

My experience teaching English and living abroad has, thus far, been overwhelmingly positive. I couldn’t be more excited to be heading back for round two. However, as is to be expected when you’re a human being living life, the year wasn’t without its challenges. Breaking news: life isn’t all rainbows and butterflies.

In the spirit of transparency, which is one of the things that first drew me to blogging, I’m putting it all out there and recapping the good, the bad and the lovely from my first year in Spain.

Because I dream, I am not crazy.

 

The Good

Our Apartment  

The day we signed on our apartment was one of relief and triumph. It would have been easy to settle for a property (in fact, we almost did), but we held out and found a place we now proudly call our home.

I love our apartment. Like seriously love it. Both our living room and bedroom have huge sliding glass doors that open up onto the cutest balconettes overlooking a park. We’ve got pretty parquet floors and a little breakfast bar that’s just perfect for two. Pictures of family and friends, stacks of books, our ever-growing magnet collection and a few potted plants give the apartment that personal touch.

It was a struggle, but we found our home away from home. After a long day, I feel so lucky to return to such a comfortable and cozy space.

Teaching

I was attracted to the program because it was a surefire way for me to support myself and legally live in Spain. The job itself was irrelevant. I probably would have given garbage collecting a shot if it meant I could live in Madrid. A job is a job is a job. I figured I would put in my hours each week and be done with it. I expected not to like work (perhaps even hate it).

Imagine my surprise when a month into the school year I realized I was actually enjoying what I was doing. My friends and family couldn’t believe I, who have never been much of a “kid person,” liked working with children.

Teaching primary students, particularly first graders, is incredibly fulfilling. Really, they’re amazing little creatures. So hopeful and eager to learn. Even the hellish commute couldn’t get me too down because I knew I had two dozen smiling faces waiting for me at the end of it.

If that was too cheesy, I’m sorry, but it’s true! A year ago, I was slinging bras and panties at a department store. Today, I have the privilege of helping teach children language skills that will shape their future.

The last of school with my partner teacher, Alba.

 

Traveling

There’s a reason everyone loves Europe. My five-week backpacking trip after I graduated from college opened my eyes to all the wonders the continent holds. I’ve got a “must-visit” list in my Notes app, and it seems like every time I tick a place off, I add somewhere new.

This year, I visited:

Toledo, Spain

Segovia, Spain

Sevilla, Spain

Cordoba, Spain

Zaragoza, Spain

Porto, Portugal

Granada, Spain

Dublin, Ireland

Barcelona, Spain

Budapest, Hungary

Vienna, Austria

Prague, Czech Republic

Brussels, Belgium

Amsterdam, Netherlands

My favorite destination in Spain was Cordoba, which I visited with my family and Taylor over Christmas. I didn’t know much about the city going in and was impressed by its history. We took a fantastic guided tour that began in the city’s old Jewish quarter and finished in the spooky Alcázar which was used during the Spanish Inquisition. Cordoba, known for its whitewashed buildings adorned with colorful potted plants, is picture-perfect Andalusia. And of course, the La Mezquita, the city’s mosque-cathedral, is not to be missed.

My favorite destination outside of Spain was Budapest, Hungary. One of my college professors, who had spent some time teaching in a Hungarian university, peaked my interest in the city, and I’ve wanted to visit ever since. It didn’t disappoint. Why did I like it so much? Well, it’s hard to put my finger on it. The city is architecturally stunning. The people are friendly. The food (and wine) is delicious. The nightlife is the actual coolest. It’s all of those things, really. I just dug Budapest’s vibe. Sometimes a destination is exactly what you need exactly when you need it.

Hiking up a zillion stairs was worth this view of Budapest.

 

Confidence

I did it! When I left Spain in the fall of 2014 after my three-month stint as an au pair, I promised myself that I would find a way to return. It wasn’t easy. The visa process was a headache, and the apartment hunting was a nightmare, but with everything I overcame, I gained a little more confidence. I’m not even 25 years old yet, and I’ve already realized one of my lifelong dreams: living abroad. I set my mind to something and made it happen. Woohoo, I’m a rockstar. If I can do this, what else is possible?

The Bad

Apartment Hunting

Turns out, the Madrid rental market is crazy competitive.

In our first few days, Taylor and I called nearly 100 places. I spent hours and hours scrolling through online listings. We’d walk up and down street after street in the afternoon heat craning our necks for “se alquila” signs. On three separate occasions, we had appointments to see a property, but upon arrival, we were told it was already taken.

It was incredibly frustrating to say the least especially after all the preparation I’d done. At my lowest point, I wondered if I’d made a mistake in coming to Spain. I cried myself to sleep that night because, if I couldn’t even find a damn apartment, how was I going to manage life abroad?!

Commuting

Going into the program, I knew I would have to commute, so I was prepared for the 50 minutes to an hour it took me to get to school every Tuesday and Thursday. I used the commute time to read, listen to podcasts, check email, etc. In the morning, it was an opportunity to mentally prepare myself for the day. In the afternoon, it was a chance to decompress.

That actually sounds kind of nice, right?

On the other hand, my Wednesday and Friday commute was an absolute monster. Usually leaving the apartment around 7:20 a.m., I began my mornings with a frantic sprint around the corner to the bus stop. The bus took me to the metro station, and I rode the metro for 40 minutes. At 8:15 a.m., I was on another bus which dropped me off 40 minutes later about half a mile from my school. If everything ran smoothly, I’d walk into the classroom right around 9 a.m.

With so many moving parts though, my commute didn’t always go according to plan. The bus that took me to my school only ran once every hour. If I wasn’t on the bus at 8:15 a.m., which happened several times, I was SOL.

Getting home was a whole other nightmare. School ended at 2 p.m., but the bus didn’t come until 2:40 p.m. On a good day, it only took me 2 and a half hours to get home.

Relationships

The Spanish are known for being extremely social, and after a year in Madrid, I definitely agree. It could be a random Tuesday in the dead of winter, and you’ll still find packed bars with Spaniards drinking copas until the wee hours of the morning.

However, Spaniards, in my experience, aren’t the type of people who will strike up a conversation with a stranger, especially a foreigner. To be honest, they’re a little cliquey. It can be intimidating to try and break in. Even when you do manage to break in, the Spanish are private people, which I relate to and respect. As it should be, friendship is a serious matter. While Spaniards are happy to make your acquaintance, a relationship with any depth takes significant time and effort to cultivate.

With our busy travel schedule, we didn’t leave ourselves a lot of free weekends to go out and meet people–Spanish or otherwise. When we did have time, there was often the language barrier to contend with. Making friends is tough and definitely not for the faint of heart.

The Lovely  

Sharing every experience with Taylor

I put my own spin on the name of this post because, even on the worst days this year, nothing was ugly. Even when I was tired or homesick or actually sick, I was still waking up every morning in Spain. Even more than that, I was waking up next to my best friend and the love of my life.

Having someone to share your adventure with makes the good days even better and the bad days bearable. Taylor was my shoulder to cry on, my voice of reason and the best travel buddy anyone could ask for.

I thought we were close prior to moving to Spain, but this year brought us even closer. Separated from friends and family, we became each other’s everything. That’s a big test for a relationship, but I like to think we passed with flying colors. After this year, I know that no matter where I am in the world, I will feel at home as long as I’m with Taylor.

More than ready for a lifetime of adventures with this dude.

There you have it. The good, the bad and the lovely. What do you think? Should I do it all over again?

I think so.

What I’m doing in Spain: Life as a language assistant

It’s no secret I fell in love with Spain when I lived here as an au pair in the fall of 2014. I was heartbroken when I wasn’t able to obtain a visa to extend my stay. Before I even left, I knew I had to find a way to get back here.

My friend Ellie, who I met during my au pair days, turned me on to the North American Language and Culture Assistants program. The program is run by the Spanish Ministry of Education, and within Spain, it is referred to as Auxiliares de Conversación.

I am eternally indebted to Ellie for opening my eyes to this program. It was–and continues to be–the perfect fit for me.

The program was established to combat Spain’s poor English proficiency, which is one of the lowest in western Europe. Every year the Ministry brings in thousands of native English speakers (primarily from the U.S. but from other countries as well) and places them in schools around Spain to serve as language assistants.

What exactly do language assistants do?

Being a language assistant isn’t the same as being a full-fledged teacher. I work alongside native Spanish teachers in English-language classrooms.

Duties vary from community to community, school to school and classroom to classroom, but overall, a language assistant’s responsibilities are to correct pronunciation, play games, give cultural presentations and just assist the school’s foreign language program in any way possible. I once heard auxiliares described as “walking, talking dictionaries.” Honestly, that’s fairly accurate. I like to think of myself as a face for the language the students are learning. I consider myself an ambassador for the English language and American culture.

Halloween was a scream with these spooky first graders. I'm obsessed with the ghost in chains costume.
Halloween was a scream with these spooky first graders. I’m obsessed with the ghost in chains costume.

Where do language assistants work?

Upon being accepted into the program, language assistants are placed in a participating Spanish community. Spain has 17 autonomous communities, but not all the communities take part in the program. The communities which accept the most auxiliares are Madrid, Galicia and Andalusia. I think there’s something crazy like 1,000 language assistants in Madrid.

Most language assistants work in either a primary school or secondary school. Primary schools cover infant education (starting at three years old) through sixth grade. Secondary schools cover the American-equivalent of seventh through tenth grade.

I work in two primary schools in the Community of Madrid. Between the two, I work with four-year-olds, five-year-olds, first graders, second graders, third graders and sixth graders.

By the way, my situation is a bit of an oddity. It’s rare for a language assistant to be placed in two schools. Most auxiliares have just one school. I’m super lucky, I guess.

What’s the schedule like? How ’bout them benefits?

I work 16 hours per week. That’s eight hours in each school. The school year begins in October and ends in June. As compensation for my time and effort, I receive 1,000 euros a month and health insurance.

In every community other than Madrid, language assistants work 12 hours per week from October through May. Since they’re working fewer hours, those assistants receive 700 euros per month in addition to health insurance. The 1,000 euros per month in Madrid is to accommodate a higher cost of living

The pay is more than livable, and health insurance is swell, but the best part of the whole gig is I have three-day weekends. No Mondays for this girl. I work Tuesday through Friday, which leaves me plenty of time to travel on the weekends or just kick it in Madrid.

These little turkeys couldn't get enough of Thanksgiving.
These little turkeys couldn’t get enough of Thanksgiving.

What are the requirements to be a language assistant?

No experience with children or background in education is necessary to apply for the program. It’s different from a traditional English teaching job because there is always a head teacher in the classroom with you. As long as you’re a native English speaker and have a college degree in SOMETHING, you’re eligible.

So, there you have it.

That’s my “brief” overview of the program. Sounds pretty sweet, right? I sure thought so, and I haven’t been disappointed.

Finding this program has been the answer to my prayers in the sense that it allows me to legally live in Spain. If you’re looking for a way to live abroad, travel around Europe and learn Spanish, this program is the way (and the truth and the light).

BUT, moving abroad is not for the faint of heart. The Ministry isn’t obligated to help you find a place to live, open a bank account, navigate the residency process, etc. This program isn’t for someone who needs their hand held.

When you accept your placement in the program, you need to be prepared to leave behind the familiar. It can be scary and overwhelming. My first week in Spain and the struggle to find an apartment had me asking myself if I’d made the right decision in moving abroad. I’m not too proud to admit that I cried myself to sleep a night or two. So yeah, there are going to be tough days. As someone who made it through to the other side though, the risk is worth the reward. I’ve honestly never been happier. The good days, the bad days–that’s what make it an adventure. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you’re interested in learning more about the North American Language and Culture Assistants program, check out its website for more information. The application period for the 2016-2017 school year is open now!

Stretching Every Penny: How to be an Efficient Au Pair in London

Photo courtesy of Telegraph UK

The life of an au pair sees the extremes of both worlds. On one hand, you get to savor the million-and-one benefits of travelling to different countries, learning various cultures, and embracing the lifestyle all together. On the other, you’ll go through the lowest of the lows missing your family and friends, as well as stretching your resources. In terms of the limited financial opportunities that come from being an au pair, it’s of utmost importance to know how to use every penny wisely and come up with efficient ways to navigate a city from the airport.

For example, going through the motions of daily life in London seems exclusive for members of the high travelling society. However, contrary to what many believe, this European city isn’t all about iconic yet expensive black cab rides, as London has a bevy of convenient modes of transportation – starting from its busy airports.

A huge chunk of London’s tourism industry credibility stems from the efficiency of its public transportation system. At an airport like Gatwick, there are tons of ways travellers can feel total comfort when it comes to parking their vehicles or commuting. UK-based price comparison site, Parking4Less, lists the four parking options as long stay and summer special at the North Terminal, and long stay and long stay plus at the South Terminal. That way, people can secure a parking slot, maximize time, and more importantly, save money.

For the majority of commuters from London Gatwick, the cheapest way is to book a bus ticket in advance as it’ll only set you back £2 at the very least. Though you’ll have to sit through the congested streets for an hour to an hour and a half. If time is of the essence and you have a little more money to spare, it’s best to ride the Gatwick Express as it only takes – on average – a little over 30 minutes to reach your destination in the central part of the city. Once you’ve settled down in the heart of London, it’s easy to weave through your daily commute with reasonably priced public transportation methods highlighted by those renowned double deck bus.

If you’re wise enough to weigh the different options presented, not only will you fully relish the traveller’s dream lifestyle, you’ll also be one step closer to being a wise and resourceful au pair.

Disclaimer: This post was written for the Backpacking Brunette on behalf of an affiliate. However, I am a firm believer in services such as those mentioned to maximize your budget when traveling.