Image Credit: Braden Collum (Text Overlay: Backpacking Brunette)
This post was originally published August 25, 2016, and was updated April 21, 2018 .
In less than two weeks, I’m heading back to Spain for my second year as an auxiliar de conversación in Madrid. An honest year in review is long overdue.
After a summer back in Michigan, 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 in this year in review of my time as auxiliar de conversación.
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 mini balconies 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.
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.
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 its history impressed me. 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.
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 rock star. If I can do this, what else is possible?!
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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?!
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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.
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.
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.
There you have it. An honest year in review. The good, the bad and the lovely.
What do you think? Should I do it all over again? I think so.
Kate Chua says
Is your boyfriend part of the Language assistant program as well? I’m just wondering because my boyfriend and I are planning to apply for this program next year. Just want to know if both of you were assigned to a same school or same location? Or is there a way that we can be sure that we’re going to be assigned to the same
Alex | Backpacking Brunette says
Hi Kate! When we applied for the program three years ago, I think there was a spot on the application to note you wanted to be placed in the same region as another applicant. Just to be sure though, we decided to put Madrid as our first choice since it’s the community with the most language assistants and smallest geographical area. We knew no matter where our schools were, we’d be able to live together and commute (Madrid has excellent public transportation). If we’d chosen a different (read: bigger) region, we might have been placed in the same community, but our schools could have been too far apart to make living together and commuting realistic. If you have your heart set on a region other than Madrid, I suggest contacting someone from the program for more information. Hope that helps, and thanks for reading!
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Hello! Thanks for sharing this honest review!
I am about to embark on the auxiliares journey this coming up October and am a bit nervous!
I was wondering, did you ever receive late payment? I’ve read some reviews where people had to wait up to 3 months to get paid (horrible!)
Alex | Backpacking Brunette says
Hi Aisha, I’m glad you found the post helpful! I, too, have heard the horror stories about late payments, but it’s never something I personally experienced. I’m not sure where you’re placed, but the Madrid region is really good about paying auxiliares on time. Feel free to shoot me an email or DM me on Instagram (@alexnotemily) if you have any other questions. Good luck!
I have been offered a position in the program. I read a few reviews that brought up issues about being paid on time. Did you experience this?
Apologies, didn’t notice the question already posed.
Alex | Backpacking Brunette says
I was always paid on time in Madrid.
Do you have to speak Spanish to do this?