I have the absolute pleasure to bring a guest writer to Project Abroad. Dani will share with you her story of moving across countries and finding her feet in Spain.
Dani is one-half of the Sincerely, Spain blog which is a website that discusses culture, travel, and life abroad in Spain. Along with her colleague Claudia, she provides insights about adapting to the Spanish lifestyle, learning a new language, and thriving wherever you find yourself. Dani is originally from Chicago, USA and studied a double-major in Sociology and Hispanic Studies in the United States. While pursuing her degree, she completed one semester of study in Alicante, Spain. From that first experience, Spain had her heart. Since then, Dani has lived abroad for seven years and has called Granada, Spain home for most of those. She is currently a writer, an avid reader, and an obsessive podcast-listener.
Over to you, Dani! 🙂
Although I studied abroad in Alicante, Spain, from January-June of 2011 I consider September 2013 the first time I “really” moved abroad. As instrumental as my first experience was during university, I think almost anyone who has done a short-term study abroad program would agree that it isn’t “real life” in the sense that most things are organized for you (in my case I lived in a homestay with a Spanish family) and you have very few responsibilities. My experience was that the course of study, which I did fully in Spanish, was still difficult but outside of that, my time was mostly spent just soaking up the culture, sun, and Spanish drinks. Thus, when I decided to return to Spain after I graduated, I knew that I should expect something different…I just didn’t know exactly what to expect!
My first years in Spain
I decided to accept a position as language assistant through CIEE branch of the popular auxiliaresde conversación y cultura program (English language conversation and culture assistants). This meant that my first year living abroad in Spain felt a bit like a stepping stone.
On one hand, I had returned under circumstances in which I would need to find my own lodging, set up a bank account, and apply for my resident card on my own. At the same time, I had the peace of mind that comes with already having a job securedas well as using an American-run company, which meant that I had had some useful assistance when applying for my visa back in the US and an orientation upon arrival.
That first year went pretty smoothly, all things considered. I had been assigned to teach in a public elementary school in a tiny village a forty-five-minute drive from the city center. The principal and other staff members were extremely helpful in providing advice about where I should live, guaranteeing that I would have someone to carpool to work with regardless of where I chose. Although I considered some smaller cities and towns closer to school, my heart was set on Granada. I am so glad I chose to live in the main city, where I was able to meet a number of good friends I still have today and make connections that would come in handy later on in my life abroad.
This most certainly would never happen in an American classroom…
While I can’t speak much about the experience of working in a typical business environment in Spain, I certainly learned a lot about the way the school system and educational culture works. As someone from the United States, I was used to a rather formal, authoritative approach. At least in the rural area of southern Spain where I worked, the culture was very different!
The students all addressed their teachers by first name and many seemed to have a very informal relationship with the teachers. Just walking up to them (rather than raising their hands) when they needed something, nestling in close or even sitting on their teachers’ laps when getting help, and giving them hugs at the start or end of the school day.
This most certainly would never happen in an American classroom!
The U.S. literally has laws against it so it was very difficult at first for me to get comfortable with having so much physical contact with my students. With time, I came to appreciate the openness and affection.
The relationships among the staff was also quite informal. I have never worked at a public school in the U.S. so I can’t speak from personal experience but in my schoolsgrowing up there was always a separation between the administration and the teaching staff. The principal’s office was located in a completely different area from the teacher’s lounge.
But not in Spain.
At the elementary school where I worked, there was an office within the teachers’ lounge that was officially the principal’s and another one for her secretary but most often these doors were left open and teachers entered and exited as they wished. It was a small school so no one had their own office space, and everyone would gather around one big table during the recess break.
I had a wonderful first year living in Granada and truly felt like I had found my home but I wanted to be sure it wasn’t just the thrill of living in any foreign-language country that I enjoyed. For this reason, I didn’t re-apply to work the same job the following year. Instead, I returned to the U.S. and spent some time living and teaching in Costa Rica in 2014.
But by September 2015, I was on the road back to Granada…
Moving back to Spain
I considered all of my same options this time around. I even spoke with my former principal about my intentions, getting a letter of recommendation from her and applying to the auxiliares program again, with the hopes of getting placed at the same school. However, because I was not technically considered a “second year applicant” (it would have needed to be consecutive years), I did not get a position at the same school.
Although disappointed, I did not lose hope about what this meant for me in terms of Granada. I was now certain that I wanted to return to “my” city, not just anywhere in Spain, and so I started reaching out to the friends I still had in the area.
Word-of-mouth in Spain is worth a lot
In many cases here, it truly is who you know, not what you know and I was pretty confident thatconnecting with the right contacts would set me up for success. It certainly did.
I reached out to one of the families where I had taught private lessons during my first year and they were more than happy to have me back as their kids’ English tutor, as well as to pass on my details to their friends. I also lucked out because one of my closest friends (also an American and an English teacher) was moving out of Granada with her family that year and therefore leaving her job at a language academy. While her boss was sad to see her go, she was happy to offer me the job – without ever having met me! – merely on my friend’s recommendation. Almost overnight, my plans were sorted.
I’ve found that (at least in Granada) it is very common when you work for individual families or family-run businesses for them to ask you to find a replacement, or at least make some recommendations when you leave a teaching position. This may be a more common practice in the last decade or two because there are so many expat / teach-in-Spain / auxiliares groups online. For this reason, we’re generally pretty well-connected to other native English-speakers who may be interested in the job.
Perhaps it seems like an outdated way of thinking to some of us, but I’ve found that all the people I’ve worked for here in Spain highly value personal recommendations. I’ve spoken with a former boss on numerous occasions when she was deciding between a teacher with an impressive resume and one with less experience, but who came recommended and her argument against the teacher with the flawless CV was always “but I don’t know them!” She also didn’t know me when she hired me, but she trusted someone who trusted me and that meant everything.
Finding those next steps in Granada
Since returning to Granada in the autumn of 2015 to give private lessonsand work at that family-run language academy, I have shifted my focus a few times. As more and more families sought me out for private lessons (almost all on the recommendation on that first family!) I decided to leave the academy and work primarily online in the mornings, giving private lessons in the evenings. When I moved to the other side of the city (and the commute became 45 minutes to and from my private lessons), I eventually transitioned to teaching fully online. Since then, I have left teaching altogether and embarked on my writing career full-time.
Although I have essentially removed myself from the Spanish educational scene poco a poco (bit by bit), it is not for a lack of enjoying it. I really liked how familial and close-knit my experience was. It was a bit difficult to “break into” the system at first, as I needed to go through a formal program or be introduced by someone, but once I was “in” everyone treated me like family. To this day, the family that runs the academy I once worked at, and the families I once taught private lessons to, are some of my biggest supporters.
They still regularly reach out to congratulate me on my successes, such as the first book I just published, and remind me that I can turn to them if I ever need help with anything. I recognize that my experience teaching in southern Spain—and, particularly, a city that has more of a small town feel—may not be the same as someone working in a different sector in a different region of Spain, but I am oh so grateful for the intimate cultural experience I found for myself in here.
What a story, right?!
I also asked Dani what would she say her top three tips are for adapting to living in a new country. Here’s what she kindly shared with me:
1.Don’t get discouraged if your Plan A doesn’t work out. As you can tell from my story, it wasn’t always possible for me to do things the way I originally planned. Getting the auxiliares position a second time was the ideal situation for me because it was what I already knew and felt comfortable with. However, doors really opened for me when I decided to be open to different ideas, stepping outside of my comfort zone but adapting to what’s common in Spain. Allowing yourself to do the same will likely open you up to options that are perhaps better than your original plan, too!
2.Say yes to as much as you can. I refrain from suggesting “say yes to everything” because I know many of us (myself included) require downtime alone in order to thrive. Still, if there’s ever been a time to push your limits and be extra outgoing, moving to a new country is the time! Accept as many invitations as you can (and if you really need to take a break the day you’re invited out, decline but make a real commitment to spend time with the new friend on a different day). Not getting any invitation yet? Be the vulnerable person who asks their colleague to have lunch, a coffee, or a beer together. Seek out language exchanges and other meet-ups where you can find others looking to make connections too.
3. Hold true to who you are. There’s a difference between adapting to a new culture in a way that expands your awareness and assimilating in a way that involves losing track of who you really are. At the beginning, it can be exciting to try to fit in and “go with the flow”—for me in Spain, this has been accepting the no pasa nada approach to life. However, it’s okay to be who are! I’m not always feeling no pasa nada and I’m not always interested in going out dancing until 6 am and the friends I’ve made here understand that and accept me the way I am, just as your new friends will, too!