How to Live in Spain: Stories of a Temporary Ex-Pat

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

This is pretty much ridiculously overdue. Also, it is awesome. My sister moved to Spain for a year to teach English to elementary school children (primary school for any Europeans out there) before starting medical school, and as you can clearly see, is doing some amazing things. So, if you have any remote interest in living abroad, travel, Spain, Europe, and post-grad opportunities, read on...

First off, why teaching? Why not a semester abroad with your university?

Well, I always knew a semester abroad with my University just wasn't what I wanted. First of all, where I went to school, it was actually pretty expensive to study abroad. Also, they didn't have many class options for what I studied in college (biology). And most importantly, I had heard from friends who studied abroad themselves that what happens is you tend to spend most of your time around your fellow Americans who are also studying abroad and end up: a) not learning much of the language and b) not getting a real cultural experience.

So, for all of these reasons I sought out a program that would allow me to be in more control of my experience abroad. I knew I wanted to be in a Spanish-speaking country to better my Spanish, and of course teaching is the best (and one of the only) ways to make money abroad with only a bachelor's degree and no work experience. I found this program called 'Auxiliares de Conversacion' in Spain-a program where you are  a language assistant who is placed in a school and are basically the resident 'native expert' in the english classes for normally 12 hours a week. I applied to the program, was placed in a school, and that's pretty much how I ended up teaching!

How did you go about finding the program you decided to teach with?

I first heard of the program from a friend in my sophomore year of college. It intrigued me, so I looked more into it and asked around to people who have done it before. It seemed a little questionable, but the more research i did, the more my confidence in the program grew. After stalking blogs from people who had done the program in the past, talking to a number of friends of friends who were in the program, and looking at the official program website, I finally decided this was how I wanted to spend my year living abroad.

What was the application process like?

In one word...complicated. The application was all in Spanish and was pretty hard to follow. There is an application guide in english which certainly helped, but it was still tricky. But at the end of the day, there weren't actually too many components to the application. There was a general application section, a short letter of intent, a letter of recommendation, and some documents that need to be uploaded. I'd say the much harder part was after being accepted, working on getting my visa to live in Spain-now that was a convoluted process (but also totally doable).

Tell us a little about the region your post is in :)

I was placed in La Rioja, a small community in Northern Spain that no one has ever heard of (unless they know of the wine). It's filled with miles of beautiful fields of vineyards, one large capital city, and many smaller pueblos (towns or villages-one in which I live). It's really a hidden gem of Spain. It has amazing food, unbelievable wine, beautiful views, and great access to the rest of northern Spain.
What surprised you about Spanish culture?

I think the biggest surprise was the difference in eating habits. Meals are completely different here. Most people eat a tiny breakfast, a huge, late lunch, and a light, late dinner. Now, this difference may sound like not such a big deal, but it really has made a difference in my lifestyle. Due to my work schedule I've been forced to change my eating habits to this later schedule, and it's been a weird adjustment. I eat lunch around 2 PM and dinner at 10 PM sometimes, which is just crazy. It's not a change I love but it's definitely a part of the full cultural experience.

Peter and I LOVED the food when we first came to visit- La Rioja is well known for for it's wine and 'pinchas,' isn't it?

Yes, it is! The wine here is amazing (not to mention much cheaper than anywhere else). And we also have pinchos, which is a small amount of food, prepared normally on top of a slice of bread. Pinchos can be anything from shrimp to chicken to some famous Spanish sausage. The norm is to go out for some pinchos and have a glass of wine or some beer with each one and of course catch up with friends.

Has it been difficult to make friends, either with local Spanish or other teaching assistants? 

Fortunately, no, in fact it's been really easy. It was certainly facilitated by the fact that I live with two awesome Spanish girls. And then, the community of fellow teaching assistants tends to hang out together naturally since we're all working the same job. It really worked out for me in that there's a big group that is a mix of spaniards and teaching assistants from all over (US, Canada, France) that hangs out together. It's a really fun mix of people and we usually end up meeting for Thursday nights at the local Irish pub (I know, it sounds strange, being in a small Spanish town and going to an Irish pub). But it's a really great group and a really great town to live in-I really lucked out with my experience this year!

What is a typical day of teaching like for you?

I usually wake up around 8 am to be ready for my first class at 9 am. I walk to one of the schools I work at and work through 2 or 3 hours of classes. I'm always with another 'main' teacher and do different activities based on who I'm paired with (and also depending on the day). Some teachers will have me read a story to the kids and ask them questions, some will have me give a presentation on an aspect of US culture, and some will just have me help with pronunciation and going over homework assignments. It really just depends on the teacher, the age group, and the day. Because of this, every day is different and every class is different.

After that I have a 2 hour lunch break and usually return for a few hours of class in the afternoon. I also do a few private classes here and there that fill up my schedule.

What's your typical weekend? what do you do for fun?

I actually have a three day weekend, which is awesome! I don't have classes on Friday, and of course on Saturday and Sunday. So, I try to travel as much as I can. I either stay here and Calahorra and go on a day-trip with friends or I plan ahead and travel to somewhere a bit farther and spend the night. There's so much to see in Northern Spain, so my focus is to see as much of the surrounding area as I can. And I'm hoping to visit other parts of Spain, like the south, if I get the chance. Sometimes we get long weekends, called Puentes, and I try to travel farther, to other parts of Europe. The last Puente we had was in December and I travelled to Munich, Germany and Salzburg, Austria for the Christmas Markets. But of course, like I mentioned before, on normal weekends I try to keep the travels to Spain!

Have you done much traveling around Spain yet? any favorite towns or moments?

I have travelled a little around Spain, but not as much as I want to. I've mostly explored other pueblos of La Rioja and I've been to Madrid, Zaragoza (in Aragon) as well as the Pyrenees of Spain in Huesca, Aragon. But there's so much more to see. As much as it saddens me, I don't think I'll even come close to seeing all I want to in Spain by the time I finish my year here. But that just gives me an excuse to come back in the future ;)

As far as favorite towns, I really love the pueblo of Haro in La Rioja. This pueblo has many bodegas, or vineyards, with the best wine La Rioja has to offer. I've been twice now and went on tours of some bodegas followed by wine samplings. Both times I've visited have been with friends and we had a great day filled with excellent food and wine.

What are some challenges you wish you'd been aware of before heading over for a year abroad?

There haven't been any major challenges I've experienced (Thank God). And actually, although there are a few small things that are good to be aware of before a year abroad, I was actually warned about most of them before leaving. I joined a Facebook group of people from this program, and many veterans gave words of wisdom and warnings of potential challenges.

Some of the most helpful warnings were about the difficulty of finding your favourite products abroad. MOST things are easily found in supermarkets here in Spain, but there are a few products you may want to stock up on before you arrive, especially if you have a favourite brand or are extremely picky. Also, you should definitely move abroad with as much money saved up as you can because moving abroad is expensive. Between the flight, the apartment hunt, and paying for initial groceries and other costs before your first paycheck comes in-it's definitely best to come with a bit of a savings.

You traveled around a lot over the winter holiday- almost entirely alone- how did you budget and plan? 

Honestly, my christmas travels were a bit of a splurge. The most expensive part was the plane tickets. But, besides that, everything else was really cheap. Staying in hostels is obviously the cheapest option, and you also meet a lot of new people that way. And in most of the cities I visited (Budapest, Vienna, and Prague) things like food and public transport were much cheaper than I expected them to be (especially Budapest and Prague-So.Cheap.) So in the end the cost wasn't horrible!

As far as the planning, that was a bit stressful, only because I did everything a bit at the last minute (or at least that's how it felt at the time). But everything was actually so easy once I decided which cities I wanted to visit. After I had the plane tickets to and from that part of central Europe, I just booked buses to get from one city to the next and then booked the hostels. And travelling alone actually made planning the trip a million times easier than if I had been travelling with other people because all of the decisions were made solely by me. There was no disagreeing arguing, or collaborating. I chose the hostels I wanted to stay in, the dates I wanted to travel, and the cities I wanted to visit without any hesitation, which made it all the easier.

Were you ever concerned about safety when you were traveling alone (spoiler alert: Mom definitely was!)? How did you stay safe?

Haha, yeah, I definitely got the feeling mom was not sleeping at night while I was on my travels (which is entirely understandable, I must admit). However, I always felt really safe when I was traveling, despite traveling alone. You obviously have to take all the normal precautions when traveling, like: keep all of your valuables in a secure spot, always in front of you, don't look too much like a tourist, and be careful where you're visiting late at night. Overall, I was actually visiting very safe cities and never felt threatened or unsafe. If you just use your common sense and trust your instincts, you can be absolutely fine traveling alone.

Favorite moment (from living in Spain OR your recent travels)?

One moment I loved from my recent travels was New Years eve in Vienna. I met a group of people in my hostel and ended up celebrating midnight with new friends, live music, and a bottle of champagne at Vienna's town hall. Hours before I had know idea how I was going to celebrate,and then suddenly everything fell into place and I ended up having a great night! To me, that's what travel, especially solo travel is all about-the great moments you never expected. And I think they happen more often when you travel alone because it forces you to be much more open to meeting new people and also allows you to be flexible and open to new plans.

Any advice to other young people considering a year abroad?

I would say, if you can make it happen, then absolutely go for it. It can seem scary and intimidating, but it is so worth it. And while you can travel and live abroad at any point in your life, I really think the easiest time to do so is when you're young and are less likely to have other obligations tying you down. Take the plunge; I really don't think you'll regret it!


Not sure about you, but I'm just about ready to pack my bags and run away again. Special thanks to my sister for being cooler than me and sharing a little piece of her incredible experiences here. Hope they inspire someone to think beyond the typical college study abroad experience :)

Post-shift: Mood

Sunday, February 21, 2016

I had a particularly difficult shift tonight. Got home 2 hours late, laid down to close my eyes and found my mind racing. Got back up to try and work through this twisted, anxious, sad feeling in my gut. This is what came out.

One thing I have learned after 6 odd months on this job is that I hate seeing children in pain. Young, older, boy, girl- it doesn’t make a difference. When you enter an exam room, IV cart and syringes in hand, ready to get a line or inject an antibiotic or check a glucose- that look of fear and worry on their faces- it breaks me. I don’t have children, but my heart breaks all the same for the mothers, as they stoically hold their children down, tears rolling silently from their eyes, as they willingly subject their own flesh and blood to needles, to IVs, to pain, in order to get answers. It breaks all the same as the shy little toddler attempts to be “brave for mommy” and hold still as he’s approached by an alarmingly long needle that she knows will hurt her. 9 times out of 10 I leave the room holding back tears from my own eyes. It’s not fair, is it? They’re sick, and they came here for help, and we hurt them more. Of course it is so that we can help them. I know this. The logical part of my brain knows that a venous blood gas could forewarn of serious instability requiring intensive care treatment, and that a line of IV fluids can keep a child from dying of dehydration. I know that that little finger stick won’t hurt long, and will help us prevent a little boy’s blood sugar from dropping so low he has a seizure or going so high that it destroys his organs. But you can’t tell these things to a small child. I mean, you can, but they’re still frightened- wouldn’t you be? Wouldn’t you shriek and attempt to writhe away if strange people in strange clothing came towards you with strange, frightening things like masks and syringes? I stumbled upon this world of pediatric medicine because I wanted to reduce human suffering, at least as much as one sad little person can. I suppose I always knew in some capacity that my jo would entail hurting kids for a living to ultimately help them.
But you know what?

I hate it.

I hate it all the same.

I watched a lot of sweet, precious little ones cry tonight because of a line I was starting, or an order I placed. And I know that my actions helped them, in the long run. But those scared little faces, those little voices frantically telling Mom “ok, ok!” as they're told to brave and hold still - they break your heart anyways.

Monday: Mariachi

Monday, February 8, 2016

Grand Canyon Sunset, 2012ish

One of my favorite albums of all time is In the Reins, an EP collaboration between Sam Beam and a folk rock band named Calexico. I was revisiting Calexico's music on our road trip home from and it occurred to me that they have some pretty great use of mariachi style horns that I hadn't noticed before. One of the most iconic uses in popular music was Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire and the film Book of Life featured songs by Radiohead and Mumford and Sons remade in the mariachi style. Let me know what you think of this song- the album it came off of is great, and I love how the use of horns is subtle, but sets the music apart somehow from your typical Americana music.

Koselig, or: How to Love Winter

Thursday, February 4, 2016

For the most part, I was completely dreading winter, tbh. The cold that hits your face and makes your cheeks hurt when you smile, the wind that's strong enough to crush bones, and the not-seeing-sun bits are completely unappealing. But after seeing this article on the research of a Fulbrighter in Norway, I'm going to give pretending to love winter a shot. I won't go into detail (there's no way I can define Koselig, the Norwegian word for winter cosiness, eloquently enough. Just read the article.) but here's my personal plan for surviving and thriving in winter months. A lot of these are date-like, but I'm a firm believer in friend dates too- they're good for the soul :) Hope you enjoy!

- Go for a walk. Yep, you heard me. Bundle up in layers and find somewhere beautiful to let fresh air (and if you're luck, some sun too!) hit your face and remind you you're not really a zombie. Not yet, anyways. The photo above is from the blizzard we had in January (my first! ahh!) and while we snuggled under the blankets most of the day, a good hour was spent wandering and wondering in amazement at the strange beauty that a place can take on when it's draped all in white. And bonus points if you get a little sun/vitamin D to perk you up a bit
- Throw a pizza party. Winter is all about the comfort food, isn't it? We actually threw a super fun pizza party with a few friends over the summer, and while it was great, the sweltering heat from the oven combined with the heat from outside and was weighing us down a bit by the end of the evening. Having the oven on in some of these temperatures would be a welcome change from the usual chill in the air. Oh, also- pizza. Need I say more?? Have loads of fun toppings to choose from, play great music, discover your hidden talent for tossing pizza dough (or lack thereof)- this is a win-win-win, IMO.
- Visit a brewery. We're currently in the planning stages of this one. Here in upstate New York there's loads of microbreweries to hit up. They're warm and cozy, and tend to have a great atmosphere- the kind that makes you forget there's freezing rain or snow outside. Broken Bow Brewery is super popular (and has great reviews) and Dock's in Warwick has an amazing selection of wines and ciders, if that's more your style.
- Visit a museum. My cousin and I were just talking today about how we don't do this enough. I don't care what kind- science, history, art, nature, nautical- museums are cool, and there's probably at least a handful right in your area that you don't even know about yet ;) NYC obviously has a great selection, and we're heading to the MFA in Boston this weekend- yay! But even if you're in a smaller town, I can guarantee you'll find a museum or two to explore on your local government website. I've found some of the sweetest and most interesting places this way. I'd also include indoor botanical gardens in this one- for me there's nothing more refreshing than seeing greenery everywhere, and it will perk up your mood after months of bland, colorless trees.
- Plan a Chopped-inspired cook off with your person. I stole this idea from a roommate, and believe it or not, as crazy as it sounds, it's kind of fun too! Basic rules: you and your SO gather ridiculous ingredients at the grocery store (no peeking!) then swap purchases and see who manages to come up with the best dish. Admittedly, this would never work in my relationship (Peter is the clear winner in the cooking department.) Nevertheless, it's a fun change from the 'what should we order for takeout?' game and will break your kitchen rut.
- Volunteer together. If you really think about it, this is a no-brainer. Doing good things for others makes you feel good. Spending time with people you care about (and who care about you) makes you feel good. Giving back to the community is nice. So visit a nursing home, put on a coat and blanket drive for the homeless, or offer your time to a local animal shelter or food kitchen. It really puts your winter blues into perspective when you're exposed to the bigger problems out there, and being a part of the solution feels motivating and energizing.

Hope these help you survive the winter! Wish me luck surviving my first real winter. What would you add to the list?