The Erasmus Program Inspired My Life Abroad

The Erasmus Program was only 10 months of my life but it has completely changed it forever.”

I wrote this after my Erasmus program for the ESN (Erasmus Student Network) when they asked me to sum up my year abroad in one sentence. After considering what I should submit, I decided on the above quote since it seemed like the most authentic answer. 

The Erasmus program gave me the opportunity to live and study in Seville, Spain. Indeed, continues to change my life because it inspired me to travel and make a life for myself abroad. For many of my friends who live abroad, the doors to foreign travel and discovering new cultures were opened by the Erasmus program, which is a European Union-funded organisation that gives students the chance to live and study abroad. 

For readers who are unfamiliar with the Erasmus program, it is a student exchange program created by the EU in 1987 that gives students at participating universities and colleges the opportunity to study abroad. In this article, I share my Erasmus adventures, the paths that it has taken me since, and the concerns that I have for British students who may be unable to participate in the program due to Brexit. 

Starting Out as an Erasmus Program Student

Toward the end of my second year at university, my classmates and I gathered to make our Erasmus choices. As students of modern languages (in my case Spanish and French), a year abroad was a compulsory part of our degree. We were all given options of different cities and universities in possible European destinations. When I found out I had received Seville in Spain, I was very nervous but extremely excited. 

Before my year abroad, I had experienced living away from home. At 17, I moved to Dublin, Ireland from Scotland to study. However, moving to a country where both the language and culture are different is another kettle of fish. 

Top Tips for Surviving the Erasmus Program

When I arrived in Seville in August 2016, I realised that the Spanish that I had learnt from a textbook would not help me with conversations in bars with strangers and dealing with my Andalusian landlady! 

At first, I felt slightly disheartened that my Spanish level was not high enough. I wanted to instantly connect with Spanish people. However, I persevered. I avoided socialising with other English speakers, which is one piece of advice I would give to any English-speaking traveller living in a foreign country looking to integrate with the locals. I went to language exchanges where I met Spanish-speaking people who wanted to improve their English and help me improve my Spanish. 

Additionally, I also tried to travel within Spain as much as possible to explore Spanish history and culture. I attended Feria in Seville, a huge festival in April. People party all week and the women famously dress in flamenco dresses. ESN also organised trips all over Spain and Morocco. This gave me numerous amazing experiences, from seeing the breathtaking mosque in Cordoba, the Alhambra in Granada, gatecrashing a wedding in Tangier, and celebrating Carnaval in Cadiz!

Upon returning to Dublin after my Erasmus program, I certainly felt that I had achieved much more than simply improving my Spanish language skills. I had made lifelong friends, seen incredible places, and fallen in love with Spain. Moreover, I felt that I had grown as a person. The Erasmus program is not all fun and games; It can be scary and lonely at times. There were times when I felt homesick and out of place. However, I learned how to cope with these difficult feelings which made me a stronger individual. 

Return to Spain 

After my Erasmus, I had every intention of returning to Spain after my studies. However, I completed a Master’s in Literary Translation that was then followed by the pandemic. During this time, I was living back home with my parents in Scotland. I felt unsure of where I wanted my life to go. I was not satisfied with the lifestyle that I was living. 

On a whim, I decided to apply to the British Council for an English Language Assistant position in Spain. I ended up moving to Castellon de la Plana for two years working in a primary school. More recently, I settled in Valencia. There, I am currently teaching English at a private academy. I often wonder if I would have moved to Spain if it had not been for my Erasmus year in Seville. It was certainly the Erasmus program that introduced me to Spain and its culture and the prospect of living in a foreign country. Many of my close friends who I met in Spain also started their life abroad as part of the Erasmus program and decided never to leave. That proves that this valuable program really is changing lives!

Erasmus and Post-Brexit Fears

As of January 2020, the United Kingdom is no longer a member state of the European Union. Amongst many changes, this resulted in the withdrawal of the U.K. from the Erasmus program (as it is EU funded). This is a huge blow for many students in U.K. universities and colleges. Students can no longer benefit from the multitude of opportunities that the Erasmus program has to offer. 

Numerous friends of mine have relocated to other countries through relationships that they made during their year abroad. Or, they have obtained their dream job through the connections they made through the Erasmus network. Apart from an economic perspective, I feel very personally concerned about the future of U.K. students and young people who wish to study abroad. I wish that my experience is not limited to my generation. Many generations of students to come should be able to participate. 

Most of my formative decisions in my twenties were made because of the 10 months I spent in Seville. I doubt I would be living the life I am now if it had not been for my Erasmus experience. If there are any students of languages or indeed, of any degree who have the chance to study abroad, I advise you to seize the opportunity and do it!

by Niamh Moran

Sometimes Moving Forward Looks Like Moving Backward

It’s a bit strange for me to write this article. And as a reader, if you’ve read the first two articles of this series, you’ll likely find my decisions to be strange too. In early 2022 I made the active decision, on my own terms, to move back to Los Angeles at the beginning of April from Valencia, Spain. In this final article of the push/pull series, I will detail my experience living in Valencia, its pros and cons, and what led me to return to Los Angeles — where this whole push/pull journey began. I’ll also share the unexpected twist which I could have never predicted or planned for — moving from LA to Jerusalem, Israel — a mere five months later.

I hope that readers take away from my experience that sometimes when life seems like it’s moving backward, it can actually be moving forward. On the surface, my journey has surely been quite confusing to many people in my life. Why would I return to LA if I dislike it so much and love Spain so much more? Allow me to explain.

Here’s a reminder of my timeline for more context:

  • August 2020 — Was feeling pushed away from LA and pulled toward Spain. Moved to Castelló de la Plana. (part one)
  • August 2021 — Was feeling pushed away from Castelló and pulled toward Valencia. Moved to Valencia. (part two)
  • March 2022  Was feeling pushed away from Valencia and pulled back to LA. Moved to LA. (part three, current article)
  • June 2022 — Was feeling pushed away from LA and pulled toward Jerusalem. Moved to Jerusalem in August 2022. (part three, current article)

The Return to Valencia

First, I’ll pick up where I left off in part two. In August 2021, I moved to Valencia, Spain — the place I had long dreamed of returning to. I found an apartment with a close musician friend of mine — four bedrooms and two bathrooms for just the two of us, and a total price of a mere 1000 euros per month. It was great — I had plenty of friends close by, a 10‐minute walk to the beautiful City of Arts and Sciences and a 10‐ minute walk to the popular Russafa neighborhood. Our two extra bedrooms served as music recording studios and guest rooms when we had friends from out of town visits. There were some small issues with the apartment, but nothing outweighed the amazing price, location, and space we had.

In September, my parents came from LA to visit for a few days, and we spent a weekend at a beautiful Airbnb in one of my favorite beach towns in Spain Benicàssim. It was a wonderful trip. It was particularly special because my dad had never been to Spain before and finally got to experience what I had fallen in love with. They left, and the beginning of my second year as an auxiliar de conversación was about to begin on October 1. My life felt perfect. My social life was great. I was starting to compose my third album for the US-based label I’m signed to. I knew that my upcoming commute to Almassora was going to be a bit brutal, but I was ready to give it a shot.

The Start of the School Year — A New Routine

When the school year started, my days immediately became much more exhausting. I’d wake up at 5:45 AM or earlier to bike a mile to Estació del Nord to catch the nearly 1.5-hour train ride to Almassora, followed by another 15‐minute walk to the school. The school days were short. I’d be on my way home by 12:30 PM to get home by 2:30-3 PM I’d normally eat a late lunch and take a nap because of how tiring the commute and elementary school children were.

At 4:30 PM, I’d wake up for the second half of my day. I’d try to keep this half a bit more balanced, going for walks around the city with close friends to clear my mind, playing music with my roommate, and, when I had the energy, working on my album. I also had other freelance projects with some pretty tight deadlines in October. This meant I’d normally be done with my day around 8-8:30 PM I’d cook dinner for myself, watch an episode of a show, and go to bed by 10 PM.

I had Fridays off from school, so my three‐day weekends usually involved at least one day of rest and mostly doing nothing. I’d spend the other two days going grocery shopping, going on mini adventures with my friends, going to my friend’s concerts, and working on my album. During the week, I usually didn’t end up having the energy or time to work on it. That meant Saturdays and Sundays usually were my recording days.

Feeling Pushed from Valencia — Burnout, and Lack of Momentum

After a couple of weeks, I found a carpool in the morning to school, which meant I’d wake up at 6:30 AM instead. I still had to bike over a mile in the very cold mornings to the place where I’d be picked up, so the extra hour of sleep didn’t make up for much. By November, I was already feeling a bit burnt out. I was under-rested and starting to feel like I didn’t have enough time for professional development. I even got sick a few times.

Aside from being a composer, I’m also a documentarian. Over the last several years, I’ve been developing a series of documentaries that focuses on culture and music festivals in parts of the world like the Middle East that are typically disproportionately represented negatively. This project had been on the back burner because of Covid, but I was starting to feel antsy since travel was starting to reopen. As great as my life was in Valencia, it didn’t feel like I had any forward momentum toward the eventual production of this project. I felt like the development of my career was on pause.

The Unexpected Becoming a Reality

I planned to visit LA for the holidays. However, I was having an extremely frustrating experience dealing with the slowness of Spanish bureaucracy. My residency card was in the midst of a six-month-long renewal process. It was also beginning to look like I might not have the required documents in time to travel home. By mid-November, I started to consider what had never even crossed my mind in six years. “Should I move back to LA for a while?” The idea of not having the freedom to travel to see my family when my work schedule allowed for it felt like a dealbreaker. At best, living in Spain only allowed me to see them two or three times a year. After a stressful bureaucratic nightmare, I finally received the document just two days before my flight to LA in December.

Importance of Family

While spending time with family, especially my nephew, who was soon to turn two, the decision became clear I was going to return to LA either at the end of my contract in May or even sooner, depending on how burnt out I continued to feel. As much as I hate LA as a place, it was a temporary compromise I knew I was making. I had two clear and simple priorities that would be my focus upon returning — spend time with family and start pre-production for the documentary series. My plan was to stay in LA for two to three years maximum. That would give myself ample time to enjoy family, break my streak of moving cities every single year, and get my project funded and started.

Being in LA meant I didn’t have to deal with bureaucracy to live there like I had to in Spain. And more importantly, I could take advantage of my connections in one of the biggest film capitals in the world to give myself an edge starting off my project. I knew I’d be back in Spain afterward, so I didn’t need to worry.

The Return to LA

After a few weeks of being back in Valencia in January 2022, I finally realized. It was not conducive to my mental health and professional development to continue my exhausting routine until the end of May. I decided to leave my school three months early, so I could have the opportunity to enjoy March in Valencia (especially the Las Fallas festival) before flying back to LA on March 31. This decision definitely shocked many people in my life.

When I arrived back in LA, I spent tons of time seeing family for the first month and a half. I went to my brother’s wedding in Sacramento, visited my grandma in Palm Springs, and also flew to Toronto to visit one of my best friends for a week. At the end of May, I traveled to Israel for free for 10 days through the Birthright program. The plan was to come back to LA after that trip and finally start on my documentary project.

When I returned from Israel, another curveball was thrown at me. I was invited to an informational call about a 10-month-long fellowship in Jerusalem. The fellowship would cover the cost of an apartment, public transit pass, insurance, Hebrew lessons, and even paid a stipend. My main responsibility would be to assist an English teacher part-time. It is similar to what I had done for a year and a half in Spain. Aside from that, I would be connected with any organization I’d like to volunteer with for five hours a week. The rest of my time would be free to work on my project and do what I wanted to.

An Opportunity Which I Couldn’t Decline

This fellowship was the perfect opportunity. Rather than spending two to three years in LA trying to pitch my project and consult with producers, I’d be living for free in the place I wanted to start the project — in the Middle East. I’d be able to make connections with filmmakers and organizations in the Middle East that would be essential in making my project a reality.

At the end of the fellowship, I’d have great material, connections, and proof of concept to be able to pitch my project even more effectively to get more funding. I’d be able to use the free time to compose a fourth album. And eventually, I will have the income needed to return to Spain with a different visa. Having one of these visas would be the ultimate goal for me, as it would allow me to live more permanently in Spain while having the freedom to visit my family whenever I wanted to.

Thinking About the Fellowship

I learned about this fellowship in early June 2022 and quickly realized that I would almost inevitably do it. It felt like the universe had offered me an “out” from what could have turned out to be much worse than I initially expected. Being back in LA, it seemed, was likely not going to work out with the two to three-year plan that I had originally decided on.

The difficulty of maintaining a fulfilling social life that I wanted, the cost of living, and the necessity of a car to get around would have likely burnt me out all over again and even made me depressed again. I probably would have actually felt like I had taken a step backward in my life and tried my hardest to raise money for my project and make it feel like it was moving forward. I would have spent as much time as possible with my family. But at the end of the day, I realized that staying in LA wouldn’t have had the same forward momentum and progress as the fellowship in Jerusalem.

Sometimes Moving Forward Looks Like Moving Backward

This wild two‐year journey starting in August 2020 from living in LA to Castelló to Valencia to LA to Jerusalem has been one clear straight path forward. It might seem like a series of disjointed movements, but it really is all forward. The most recent move from Valencia to LA may have seemed like a step backward, given that living in Valencia more permanently is my goal. However, it was more like the pulling back of a slingshot — a motion that, without it, would make the forward motion of the projectile impossible.

I am like the projectile in the slingshot, being launched forward in my professional life as a documentarian completing a fellowship in Jerusalem. I am also being launched forward toward a more permanent life in Spain. Each of the moves I’ve made has been like dominos falling. Without each individual one, the whole chain would break.

At the time of writing this article, just five days before my flight to Israel to start the fellowship, I have no idea if I will actually land back in Spain immediately after it ends. If there’s anything my experience has taught me, it’s that plans help give me direction and purpose, but they stop being helpful when they become unchangeable. I will continue to take the lessons I’ve learned of flexibility and constantly re-evaluating my life situation to ensure that it is as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible.


I have now lived in a different city every year for almost eight years. As much as I want to break that streak and have genuinely wanted to for the last two years, I also realize that it might turn into nine, or even ten. I certainly want a more permanent community and stability. But at the same time, I know it will be that much more fulfilling when it finally happens. I’ll know I’ve finally “landed.”

By no means do I intend to “settle down” in the more universally understood way. Rather, I hope to have a home base from which to travel, compose music, and produce documentaries. I also want to come back to the same place, same community, same friends, etc. I hope that after reading my series of articles, especially if you’re similar to me at all, you take some solace in the knowledge that we’re in this together. Living life on multiple continents can feel like living multiple different lives, but in reality, it’s one cohesive experience. One path forward.

Eli Slavkinby Eli Slavkin

How to Deal With Culture Shock Living in Japan and Spain

I remember feeling overwhelmed from excitement and fear when I decided to leave home in 2008 to teach English. While I was looking forward to traveling and discovering foreign lands, I was also terrified of being consumed by loneliness and having to return home with my head hung low to admit that I couldn’t hack it. At no point did I think that one of my biggest challenges would be continuously dealing with small bouts of culture shock.

Culture shock involves feelings of confusion, anxiety, anger, frustration, and sometimes sheer despair. In the past 14 years of living abroad in Spain and Japan, I have experienced moments of confusion and uncertainty.  But I have also learned how to deal with culture shock in varying situations.

What Is Culture Shock?

There are four main stages to the culture shock phenomenon. The first is the honeymoon period. In this stage, you are giddy with excitement. You are loving your new life and you are inoculated to cultural differences.

The second period sees the culture shock bite. Things that had a novelty factor now grate, and you start to pine for the certainties of your native land. The initial giddiness that you felt has become a dizziness. This creates nausea as homesickness kicks in.

Then you move into a period of adjustment. As you acclimate to your new home, you start to value the way the locals do things. Traditions make sense when you realize they have stood the test of time.

You enter the fourth stage when you return home to visit friends and family. Customs that were second nature now seem foreign. This is what is known as reverse culture shock. I’ve experienced each of the four stages, and here’s how I deal with culture shock based on my experiences living in Japan and Spain.

Accept That Accidents Will Happen

My first moment of culture shock occurred two days after settling into my new life of teaching English in Kiryū, Gunma Prefecture, Japan. My fridge was empty, and I needed to go grocery shopping. What I thought would be an easy trip quickly became a stressful odyssey. It all started when I ventured out of the produce, meat, and fish sections and headed down the aisles. The fact that I wouldn’t be able to read when I moved to Japan hadn’t hit me yet.

Do you remember a time when you couldn’t read? Neither could I. Is this salt or sugar? What kind of oil is this? Would it be bad if I opened the jar and smelt the contents? My brain literally short-circuited right then and there in the condiment aisle. I grabbed what I thought was what I wanted and speedily headed home.

That evening I made a wonderful tomato sauce… heavily seasoned with sugar. You might be wondering why I didn’t taste test first, but I was so overwhelmed that my logic was M.I.A. A natural response would have been to either get angry with myself or cry, but instead, I started laughing uncontrollably in my kitchen. Laughter is honestly the best medicine when dealing with these types of culture shock situations. If the worst thing happening to you is eating oddly seasoned pasta sauce, you’re golden!

That same week, I shared this blunder with a fellow Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) English teacher. He told me that he washed his floors with vegetable oil and spent a few days slipping and sliding around his apartment. As we commiserated, I realized that these sorts of blunders happen to the best of us. And then I laughed some more.

Make Local Friends

It’s one thing to move to a country where you don’t understand the language (Yes, it’s hard, but if someone wants to help you, they will), but it’s another thing to move to or visit a country where you don’t understand the cultural nuances. These little culture-specific nuggets are often a source of confusion.

If a Japanese person answers “no” to one of your questions — congratulations, you have just found a needle in a haystack. The Japanese rarely say no, and it was something that both confused and frustrated me when I moved to Japan in 2008. I would constantly ask questions at work to avoid making mistakes or doing something that could be rude, but I never got a straight answer. The answer was always, “well, hmm… umm,” and I was supposed to infer a “no” from an incomplete sentence full of noises. Needless to say that at the beginning of my time in Japan, I did a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have done. It was frustrating to then be given a dirty look when the whole thing could have been avoided if someone had just been straight with me.

I often struggled and got angry with the indirect nature of the Japanese language during my three years there. So how did I deal with this example of culture shock? First, I stopped caring about what people thought. I was raised to be polite and open-minded. My intentions were never to offend, so if someone looked at me in disgust for something I had just done, said, or worn, I just chose not to let it bother me.

Secondly, once I made Japanese friends (many of whom had lived abroad), life there started to make a bit more sense. They understood my Western way of being since they had experienced it themselves, so I would ask them questions, and they would give me direct (Hallelujah!) answers.

Ask Your New Friends For Help

Who doesn’t like receiving a compliment? Despite acting all tough and hard to impress, I have to say, I do love a good compliment. It doesn’t matter if it’s about my work, clothes, taste in music, or my looks. I am happy to have someone take notice of me. But to fully relish in a compliment, it helps to understand it. I had no idea that I was being complimented when I first moved to Japan to teach English.

A common compliment that many foreigners receive is “You have a small face.” This is not a direct reference to the size of your head, and it actually means that you are beautiful. The first time someone said this to me, I took it as an insult and replied as if I were a five-year-old child: “Oh, yeah? Well, you have a big head!” (sticks out tongue)

While not my most mature moment, sometimes, when you suffer culture shock, your tolerance levels are low, and the slightest misunderstanding can set you off. My world changed when a Japanese friend told me I was constantly being told how good-looking I was. At that moment, I’m pretty sure my ego inflated ten fold.

Interestingly enough, this compliment turned into a learning opportunity and made me think about the differences between Western and Eastern standards of beauty. It really does help to take moments of culture shock as opportunities to broaden one’s inherent way of thinking and become more open-minded in the process.

Culture Shock Strikes in the Unlikeliest of Places

I knew adapting to the Japanese way of life wouldn’t be easy, but I never imagined how frustrating moving to Spain would be. My parents are both Spanish. I grew up speaking Spanish, eating Spanish food, and even spent my summers in small-town Galicia. Plus, being Canadian meant that I grew up with people constantly asking me where I was from (as in, what are your cultural roots?). The answer was always “I’m Spanish” (insert super proud grin emoticon here). I always felt like I was Spanish until I actually moved to Spain.

Physically, I fit the Spanish stereotype. My name (Maria Jose Perez Bahamonde) couldn’t be any more Spanish. But even though I have always spoken Spanish, I have an accent easily identified by a native speaker. My accent, coupled with having been born and raised abroad, rendered me automatically not Spanish in the eyes of my cultural brethren. So here I was, strutting down the streets of Madrid, feeling like I was an intricate part of the cultural landscape, only to be constantly (even to this day) reminded that I wasn’t Spanish. I thought purity of blood was important in this country — but I guess not!

Being alienated by who I thought was my own people used to really get to me. I would get frustrated and angry and really didn’t understand why I wasn’t permitted to boast about my dual heritage. It took me a while to accept how others were defining me. What helped was finding wonderful Spanish friends that found both my Spanish and Canadian identities fascinating. This helps me remember every day who I am and where I came from.

Learn the Rules of Your New Surroundings

To anyone who has lived in Spain, you know that bureaucracy can be an absolute pain in the butt. I haven’t lived in Canada in over 14 years, but I do remember customer service being excellent, whether it was in person, via email, or over the phone (I hope it’s still like this!).  This is often not the case in Spain.

What initially boggled my mind was that the answer to questions would vary depending on who you spoke to. Can someone please explain to me how a lack of consistency within a company is effective? Why don’t you just say that you don’t know what the answer is and that you’ll get back to me instead of just making something up? Paperwork that should have only taken 15 minutes turned into a two-week ordeal (not an exaggeration!).

Many of my most frustrating moments of culture shock have been fueled by bureaucratic interactions in Spain. How did I deal with them? I used to employ the North American way. Whenever you were not satisfied with the service you received, you uttered the dreaded phrase, “I want to speak to your manager.” In Canada, this was an effective way of at least having your complaint heard and dealt with. In Spain… not so much.

There is never a manager around. So you can rant and rave all you want, but no one cares. I have learned that patience and a big smile are the keys in Spain. If you are super nice, people will usually go the extra mile to try and help you. The minute you show an ounce of frustration or cause a stink, you get pushed aside. My advice here is that sometimes you have to mentally prepare yourself to fake being OK with whatever shenanigans come your way.  At least you’ll avoid stressing yourself out.

How to Deal With Culture Shock in a Nutshell

Culture shock is normal when you’re abroad, and it happens continuously no matter if you’ve lived in a country for a year or 10. What changes is your ability to deal with it. You learn patience, understanding, how to laugh, or just how to just outright shrug it off. What’s most important is never to lose your sense of self when living abroad. Adapt to your surroundings, but always remember who you are and where you come from. My best advice is to always just “do you.”

Maria Perezby Maria Perez

Why Taking the Risk Is Often Worth It

For context, this is the second article in a series where I share my experience with the “push and pull effect” that has played a large role in my decision to move cities multiple times in the last several years. Read my first article, where I detail my journey moving from Los Angeles to Castelló de la Plana, Spain.

In this piece, I explain my thought process for moving from Castelló to Valencia and why taking the risk is worth it.— The risk I took has opened multiple doors for the next chapters of my life in ways I could never have planned or imagined.

Here’s a reminder of my timeline:

  • August 2020 — Was feeling pushed away from LA and pulled toward Spain. Moved to Castelló de la Plana. (part one)
  • August 2021 — Was feeling pushed away from Castelló and pulled toward Valencia. Moved to Valencia. (part two, current article)
  • March 2022  — Was feeling pushed from Valencia and pulled back to LA. Moved to LA. (part three, coming soon)
  • June 2022 — Feeling pushed from LA and pulled to Jerusalem. Moving to Jerusalem in August 2022. (part three, coming soon)

If you compare the timeline above to the version in part one, you’ll notice the addition of my next move to Jerusalem! Stay tuned for part three of this series for more on that unexpected twist in my adventure of life…

Part Two: From Castelló to Valencia

Before getting into the reasons, I feel like it’s important to emphasize that relocating is an often overlooked means of continuing down a straight path in life to achieve personal and/or professional goals. For me, since 2020, I’ve never felt like I was “going backward.” From the outside looking in, relocating — especially relocating often — can seem like a decision driven by negative factors. To list a few: “running away,” “being stir-crazy,” “expecting a new place to solve all your problems for you,” etc. In my experience of moving cities every year for the last seven years, I can say with full confidence that each decision was necessary and important for my current and continued success — no matter how risky each decision seemed.

Pushed from Castelló: COVID-19 Restrictions

Castelló de la Plana is a beautiful city on the east coast of Spain near the beach (and also surrounded by mountains). I lived there from August 2020 until June 2021, in a time when COVID-19 restrictions were especially tight in Spain. At one point, the only socialization that was allowed was outside with a maximum of one other person. Because restaurants, bars, and other gathering places were closed, the only option for spending time with friends was going for a walk outside — with ONE friend.

You weren’t even able to enter each other’s homes. For a few weeks at a time, this restriction was sometimes loosened to two or three people. Sometimes even small gatherings were possible inside homes. The regional government was constantly reviewing the epidemiological situation and for a while published revised restrictions every two weeks. The one thing that remained constant was a curfew (though the time itself would change from as early as 8:00 PM to as late as 11:00 PM).

During this time of constant flux, I was still working 16 hours per week at an elementary school in the nearby town of Almassora. My commute wasn’t long, and I didn’t have any issues with it. As a composer signed to a U.S.-based label, I was able to take advantage of being isolated in my apartment by composing, recording, and eventually releasing my second album. There was no shortage of inspiration because I was able to go to the beach and hike in the nearby mountains often. I also made some great lifelong friends during this tumultuous time. I had the opportunity to get to know them on deeper levels because there was a limited amount of options for things to do besides talking to people.

Small City? More Like a Big Town

I eventually realized that Castelló was becoming a bit too small and too slow for me. The locals referred to it as a city by locals because it has a cathedral. However, I felt a more accurate description for it would be “big town.” It’s normal to bump into people you know on the street multiple days a week or notice the same stranger on their morning walking commute.

Before living here, the smallest place I had lived in was Boston. It has a metro-area population of almost five million compared to Castelló’s nearly 200,000. Pandemic or not, Castelló just didn’t offer as many things to do and experiences to have as I was used to. I initially decided to live there because of how close it is to the elementary school in Almassora that I was assigned to work in. I don’t regret living there at all and I had many wonderful experiences. However, I was also being pulled elsewhere.

Pulled to Valencia

Valencia is the third-largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona, located just about an hour away from Castelló by train or car. In 2017 and 2019, I spent two of the most rewarding semesters of my college experience studying at Berklee College of Music’s Valencia campus.

When I moved to Spain in August 2020, one of my best friends from my undergrad had just started his master’s degree program on campus. Throughout the time I lived in Castelló, I went to visit him over the weekend whenever regional travel restrictions allowed it. I also continued to make new musician friends on campus through mutual friends.

Valencia offers a wide range of live music venues, massive amounts of public spaces like parks, tourist attractions such as the remarkable City of Arts and Sciences (where Berklee’s campus is located), and much more.

City of Music

Beyond the tangible offerings of a big city like Valencia, it also has something quite special. Valencia boasts one of the highest numbers of musicians per capita in any city in the world. The annual Las Fallas festival in March is a big reason for this since every neighborhood in the city has its own band.

Additionally, I felt the presence of Berklee at pretty much every music venue in the city. This community and the culture of music were very attractive to me not only in the professional sense but personally as well. When I lived in Castelló, none of the friends I had made were pursuing careers in music. It was refreshing and necessary to expand my network outside of my field, but it also felt a bit isolating. I felt like I needed to surround myself with more musicians in order to continue to grow as a musician.

The Decision — Why Was it Risky?

When I ultimately decided to move to Valencia, I also made the decision to renew my contract with the elementary school I had been working at in Almassora. This meant that I was extending my commute from about a 45-minute round trip from Castelló to a three-hour round trip from Valencia. Most of the staff at my school called me crazy for making that kind of decision, especially since my job was only part-time. There were a few teachers who made this commute. However, they were all full time which made the commute more worthwhile to them. Although my job itself was 16 hours a week, it was more like a 30-35 hour per week commitment when factoring in commuting.

I knew that spending time in Valencia meant that I would be taking on more commitments in addition to my job — more freelance music projects and more time connecting with my musician friends, going to concerts, and starting to establish myself more permanently in a place that I really loved. Knowing I’d be waking up each day at 6 AM (or sometimes earlier) to spend what felt like a full work day commuting, teaching, and finally returning home around 2:30-3:00 PM made me feel exhausted to think about it before I ever actually did it. I knew it would be draining. But I also knew that my day wouldn’t be over at 3:00 PM. I’d continue working on music, being productive, socializing, prepping my meals, going for beautiful walks in one of my favorite cities, and so much more.

Making the Decision — Why It’s Important to “Know What You’re Getting Into”

Ultimately, I made the decision to leave Castelló and move to Valencia. When the school year ended in May 2021, I packed all my things and left them with different friends in Castelló and Valencia who had some extra space to store a suitcase, a box or two, a TV, or my guitar. Then I flew home to LA to surprise my family and spend a couple of weeks at home. After that, I returned to Valencia in August to find a new apartment. When I eventually returned to Valencia and got settled into my first apartment in that city, I was beyond excited. I felt like I had finally arrived at the place I had long known I really wanted to be.

At the same time, I was a little worried about the commute that I’d be starting in October when my job resumed. Questions popped up in the back of my mind now and again. “Will this commute be too much?” or “Will I really have enough time and energy to spend on the projects that truly fulfill me?” were some of the questions I had. When the school year started in October, those questions started popping up more and more frequently. In my next article, I’ll go in-depth about how I ended up making the seemingly insane decision to move back to LA at the end of March 2022.

Why Taking the Risk Is Often Worth It

I knew I had taken a risk when I moved to Valencia. But just like living in Castelló also had its disadvantages, living in both places was absolutely worth it.

To conclude, Castelló, despite being small and isolating at times, was a necessary and important place for me to live. The slower pace of life allowed me to stabilize my mental health, be creative, make meaningful and lasting friendships outside of my field, and have more time to explore nature and reflect. In short, it was a domino that needed to fall to propel me forward.

As a takeaway, I think it’s important to internalize the idea that taking the risk is quite worth it. Being outside your comfort zone and knowing that you’re putting yourself in a situation that will likely have disadvantages can actually be quite advantageous. It forces you to be more critical of your life decisions. It also makes you constantly re-evaluate and adjust. You make sure you’re keeping yourself on the best possible path forward to achieve your goals. In doing so, you get to know yourself better than you could have ever imagined, no matter how much you thought you already did.

Eli Slavkinby Eli Slavkin

What Is Slow Travel? And How to Do it in Ingenio, Gran Canaria

Thanks to the pandemic, we will plan our itineraries in a whole new way. Sun-blessed resorts draw a crowd. So, to avoid the hordes, we need to find under-the-radar destinations and embrace slow travel.

Spreading ourselves more thinly across a destination appeals. As a result, we will get to see more of a place. Above all, as travel becomes possible again, we must draw a line in the sand and avoid the mass tourism of the past.

If you’ve queued at the airport, you don’t want to stand in line at your hotel. Slow travel is about the small. Forget chains and book boutique lodgings instead.

What is Slow Travel?

Slow travel is a 21st-century reality. Pauline Kenny, the founder of the now-defunct, coined the term in 2000. Inspired by the slow food philosophy, travellers take a more holistic approach to their holidays. Renowned travel writer Tom Chesshyre was so moved by the concept, that he wrote a book about it. Slow Trains Around Spain: A 3,000-Mile Adventure on 52 Rides is a love letter to the journey itself rather than the destination.

In May 2022, the Spanish Tourist Board unveiled their #SlowTravelSpain campaign. Despite the reputation of the Canary Islands as a haven for the bucket-and-spade brigade, they selected Lanzarote’s La Geria as a cover star. This volcanic wine region is sustainability in action.

Gran Canaria is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. Above all, for many visitors, its big draw is the climate. You can sun yourself on beaches and beside hotel swimming pools, even in winter. Many tourists don’t escape the comforting bubble of resorts such as Playa del Inglés. However, turning off the main GC-1 before reaching the likes of Maspalomas, home to Sahara-aping dunes, leads to some interesting finds. Within 10 minutes of leaving the airport, for example, you’ll reach Ingenio.

5 Reasons Why Ingenio Is a Slow Travel Hotspot

1. Boutique Villa Néstor

A big growth industry in the Canary Islands has been new accommodation targeting the slow travel enthusiast. Before Villa Néstor opened, you would visit Ingenio on a day trip rather than a sleepover. Then along came a Dutch couple who stumbled upon the potential of a base in the island’s interior.

Alienka Joustra and Arold Pietersma converted one of the most iconic properties in Ingenio, the family home, grocery shop, and casino owned by one Juanito Marcial aka Juan Rufino Rodríguez Sánchez. The building had fallen into some disrepair. Moreover, the purchase was problematic, seeing as the sale had to be divided into 32 ways to compensate Juan’s descendants. “I found myself writing cheques for the first time in years,” Alienka tells me.

Alienka was a banker in the Netherlands and her client-facing skills make for excellent service. Arold was a restaurant chef. And his vegan breakfasts are legendary, utilizing local avocados and spicing things up with curried tofu. They have an Exceptional 9.7/10 rating on too and I would love to return to stay in their simply stylish garden suite, complete with a siesta-inducing hammock and inviting hot tub.

2. A Strollable Old Town

A mere 9km from the airport, the lean streets of downtown Ingenio offer a low-impact intro to olde-worlde Gran Canaria. I was lucky enough to go through the keyhole of one of the charming period properties with Diamante Tours’ Gianni Bartolozzi, himself an Ingenio resident, and Best Time 2 Travel’s Micha Herber-Bleich.

The property/properties (as they are in reality three buildings rolled into one) in question belong to Christophe Gollut, a celebrated Swiss interior designer. Unsurprisingly, these near neighbours to Villa Néstor offer a masterclass in how to decorate your house. Christophe even has a living room with official House of Lords wallpaper. This gives you an indication of his client base.

Ingenio, as in sugar mill, was a sugar cane mecca with the white gold exported to Flanders by way of the nearby Bay of Gando. A mural depicts this 16th-century practice. Elsewhere, the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria is an early-20th-century parish church famous for its black Madonna.

3. Slow Lunch at Los Cazadores

There are many eating options in Ingenio but one of the best lunch places is Calle Isla Filipinas’ Restaurante Los Cazadores. A recommended starter here is gofio escaldado. This is the cornmeal the canarii, the Berber-descending natives of the island, pioneered. They combine it with a fish stock which you scoop up with chunks of sweet red onion.

The KM0 approach to sourcing local ingredients continues with mains such as calamares, squid caught in the Atlantic ocean which surrounds Gran Canaria. Ingenio is famous for its succulent black pigs and they end up on a plate at Los Cazadores. This is no great surprise as the English translation of the restaurant is The Hunters. However, the kitchen can also prepare off-menu plant-based dishes.

Desserts include polvito uruguayo. This is a Canarian take on a South American favourite popularized by Susana Elisa Lanús Berrutt who moved to the island from Uruguay. It’s a magical mix of biscuits, meringue, cream, butter, and caramel.

4. Small-Scale Tours

Gianni Bartolozzi walked and talked just me and Micha Herba-Bleich around Ingenio. A highlight was a visit to a craft dairy, Quesería El Sequero, which produce cured goat’s and sheep’s cheese. We also dropped by Panaderia Artesanal Amaro, Gran Canaria’s oldest bakery, whose famous pan de puño is bread made by bakers kneading the dough with their fists.

Diamante Tours also provide a picnic in the park upon request. The park in question is Parque Néstor Álamo. Here, there’s a natural skyscraper in palmera paquesito, the 43-metre-high palm that is the tallest on all of the Canary Islands.

This is a great idea for families with the kids able to roam the park while the adults feast on local delicacies. A more romantic proposition is the sunset picnic available to couples. Here, you are whisked off to a secret coastal location to watch the sun go down.

5. Waste-Free Dinner at Conesa

Jesús Conesa Pérez is a former furniture restorer and present deli owner/restaurateur. His no-menu Conesa, the very antithesis of the all-inclusive buffet, is the perfect nighttime haunt to savour some exquisite cuisine. Jesús is the apron-wearing barman, chef, and waiter with an open-door kitchen for you to see and hear him prepare his sugerencias.

Sugerencias are what the kitchen recommends. In my case as a vegan, Jesús suggests a starter of a salad. Then, he proposes blistered peppers to follow, and, space permitting, setas (wild mushrooms). After pouring me a glass of Canarian lager, Dorada, Jesús retreats to the kitchen where he prepares plant-based dishes in utensils that haven’t been touched by meat or dairy.

The salad combines avocado, tomates aliñados (sliced tomatoes spiked with slivers of raw garlic), and white asparagus adorned with oregano and olive oil. After that, a pan de puño arrives and I duly use it as a mop before turning my attention to the pair of long, thin green peppers whose skin is covered with burnt-toast-like patches both sweet and succulent. I find room for the setas whose tongue-like texture puts off some people. But I appreciate why that texture would be a turn-on, given the aphrodisiac connotations.

A good tip for a Gran Canaria holiday is to wear lots of layers and Ingenio is no exception. In fact, as I dine at Conesa, the wind rattles about outside and Jesús has two heaters turned on. It provides a cosy end to yet another memorable trip to somewhere it’s well worth turning off the GC-1 to explore.

Enjoying the Benefits of Slow Travel

Ingenio has long been accessible to British, German, and Scandinavian tourists who rank Gran Canaria as one of their favourite destinations. But it’s about to become easier to get to for American visitors too, as new flights are operating between July and September 2022. For those in the United States of America planning a more thoughtful vacation, this is your passport to a new world of slow travel.


How to Learn Flamenco in Spain

If you have read my previous articles, you’ll know that I moved to Castelló de la Plana to teach English. So what does Castelló have to do with flamenco? The answer is: not much! Before I relocated to Spain, I naively thought they danced flamenco all over the country. While most dance schools in Castelló offer flamenco classes, the Spaniards I met were really quite confused when I said I was learning flamenco in Castelló!

At first I learnt flamenco for fun, but it wasn’t a passion. Surprisingly, it was the COVID-19 lockdown that changed my relationship with flamenco! While every other activity stopped, my flamenco teacher started offering classes via Zoom. It wasn’t the same as in person, but when you’re in such a strict lockdown that you’re not even allowed out of the house for exercise, I can tell you it was incredible! The classes gave me structure to my days and something to work towards. I had more time to practise, and my teacher was great at sharing her joy through the screen. After a year and a half of online and masked, in-person classes, I decided to relocate to Seville to dive deeper into this intense, passionate dance.

Here are my top tips if you want to follow in my footsteps and learn to dance flamenco in Spain:

1) Travel to Seville

You can learn flamenco in dance schools anywhere in Spain, but Seville is the flamenco capital for good reason! It’s not the place where flamenco was first documented — that’s Jeréz, a town just south of Seville— but it’s definitely the place with the highest number of top-rated flamenco dance schools. 

Seville is a must-visit for anyone who wants to dance flamenco professionally.  The standard is high and the atmosphere is incredible to learn from, even if your goal isn’t to go professional (mine isn’t). Seville lives and breathes flamenco. 

Aside from the dance schools themselves, if you walk down any street in the city you’re likely to hear someone — a busker, a group of friends, or professionals — singing, dancing or tocando las palmas (clapping the accompanying rhythm, which is not as easy as it sounds — this is almost an art form in itself!). There are also a multitude of tablaos and theatres to watch professional performers, and many flamenco artists play concerts here.

2) Research Dance Schools

As I mentioned, there are many dance schools in Seville. But this means you should do some research first and choose carefully. Obviously, you should consider general logistics: location, class times, and prices. Seville isn’t a massive city, but there’s no point in choosing classes far away if there’s also a good dance school down the road. Some schools offer classes only in the mornings or evenings, but there will be classes to fit around any commitments you have. At many schools, the more classes you take there, the cheaper they are. It can be more economical to keep classes together at one school, or you can opt for more variety at a higher cost. 

But you should also consider the teacher, palo (the specific style), and focus. I started taking classes with two different teachers. Although one class was closer to my level, I was more inspired by the other teacher, David Pérez, who I highly recommend, so I started exclusively taking his classes. 

At first I just looked for generic flamenco classes, but I soon realised that this wasn’t the most common option. I didn’t know which palo I preferred, but now I know more about my tastes. And you also have to consider the focus — I take a class based on improvisation, a technique class, and a set choreography class. Research the different options on websites, in Facebook groups, and in person before choosing what suits you. Many dance schools allow you to watch a lesson for free to see if you like it.

3) Find a Job

Some people are lucky enough to have savings or a grant to come to Seville for a period and not work. If you really want to focus solely on flamenco and you have this option, it is definitely the best. I wanted to learn flamenco and also experience living in Seville, so I looked for a job. But it can be difficult to find one that also allows you to make the most of the different flamenco experiences. I love my job, and I’m actually staying longer than planned in Seville because of it, but it has some setbacks to learning flamenco. 

The hours are important. This includes the number of hours and the schedule so it can fit around your classes. My job was accommodating on both fronts by moving my shift an hour later so I could enjoy all of my flamenco classes first,  and agreeing that I could work slightly fewer hours than what is usually expected. But it is still a lot of hours on top of the nine hours of flamenco I currently do. It is also surprisingly physical work (I’m a waitress) which again, is a lot on top of flamenco, and took some getting used to. This combination leaves me with little time and energy for other activities, but the reason I came to Seville is because of flamenco, so I’m happy!

4) Watch Flamenco

Learning to dance flamenco isn’t just about going to classes. It is also about watching as much flamenco from different performers as possible, and learning about the structure of the music and the culture behind the dance form. There are so many places to watch flamenco, and I haven’t been to them all yet, but the two that I would recommend are La Carboneria and Casa de la Memoria

La Carboneria is a bar with a free flamenco show every day from around 8:30 p.m.. You can get tapas and drinks while watching the flamenco in a friendly, diverse atmosphere, and it is the highest level of free flamenco I have seen in Seville. I usually go there when people come to visit, and also by myself. 

But if you want a really high standard, then you need to go somewhere like Casa de la Memoria. They have shows at different times each day, usually between 6:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., and it’s usually best to book in advance. The venue is more intimate, and it’s not a bar so the sole focus is on the incredible dancers and musicians. I recommend arriving early for the best seats.

5) Join in a Jam de Bulerías

In addition to watching flamenco, it’s also great to use your new-found skills outside of class. You may get to do this at parties or weddings or in a fin de fiesta after a show, especially if you dance bulerías (a specific palo). But an event that I recommend to practise your bulerías in a friendly atmosphere for all levels is the “Jam de Bulerías” run by the dancer and singer La Chocolata. 

She sings wonderful bulerías all evening, and anyone can get up and improvise. At the time of writing, this happens every Monday night at 9:00 p.m. in the Plaza de Armas shopping centre’s Plata Odeón Imperdible, but check her website if you visit in the future. I love it because I put myself out of my comfort zone improvising in front of others, but it is so rewarding and an event I’m sure I won’t find if I move elsewhere.

6) Learn Sevillanas

Sevillanas are related to flamenco and are a set of four folk dances from Seville. They are traditionally partner dances, and the first step is the same each time before they branch out. Sevillanas are not exactly flamenco, but most people who dance flamenco also know how to dance sevillanas because they are simpler and it is easy to learn the basics. Once you have the basics you are free to expand, improvise, and adapt the steps however you like, with different styles, more spins, or dancing in a group. I recommend learning to dance sevillanas specifically to be able to dance in social settings (they are often danced at weddings in Seville), and also at the feria in Seville and surrounding places.

7) Attend Flamenco Festivals

April brings the Feria de Abril in Seville, followed by other ferias in other parts of the region. Whether you’re learning flamenco or not, I recommend visiting to see the colourful casetas (fancy marquee-type structures) and the stunning dresses, and to soak up the joyful atmosphere. Although it isn’t specifically a flamenco festival, you can dance your heart out to the sevillanas you’ve been learning, and in Jeréz you can find casetas with bulerías too. Because so much of these dances are improvised, dancing them in real-life situations is more rewarding than in class.

Two other events that are dedicated to flamenco are the Festival de Jerez in February and March, and Seville’s Bienal, which happens every two years in the autumn. Both are events where you can watch various flamenco shows from the best artists in the world, and often include premieres! These are great opportunities to get to know different artists and their styles.

So, has any of this inspired you to learn flamenco in Seville? I sure hope so! Flamenco is such an intricate and complex art form. Although I have learnt so much in the eight months I’ve been here (much more than in the three preceding years of classes outside of Seville), every day I realise just how much more there is to learn and discover. Now that I have experienced this, flamenco will always be a part of me. I am so grateful for the opportunities I have had, and those which are to come, during my time in Seville.

by Kira Browne

6 Reasons to Go to La Magdalena Instead of Las Fallas

OK, so I want to preface this article by saying that Las Fallas is an incredible celebration, and I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t go. If you can, it is definitely an event I would recommend experiencing. But if you’re thinking about visiting this area of Spain, you probably already know a few things about it. Here, I want to shine some light on a celebration you’ve probably never heard of, but that, in my experience, is just as good, if not better! Although La Magdalena has much in common with Las Fallas — plenty of fire and mascletàs, festival “queens” dressed in elegant, traditional clothes, and lit-up gaiatas which compete to win prizes in a similar vein to the fallas — it also has so much more, and is well worth checking out! 

La Magdalena: What is it? 

La Magdalena is a week-long celebration held in the city of Castelló de la Plana, an hour’s train ride north of Valencia, home of Las Fallas. It celebrates the origins of the city when the people of the original village in the nearby hills moved down onto the plains in 1252, hence the current name of Castelló “de la Plana” (“of the plain”). They moved overnight carrying canes (canyes) with lanterns and traditional doughnut-shaped bread (rotllos). This is celebrated by the annual romeria, or pilgrimage, from the current city to the old village’s chapel at the start of the festival. The whole city spills out onto the streets to walk to the chapel, carrying canyes and rotllos, and wearing green ribbons, the colour of the city. 

OK, but why should I go and celebrate the origins of a city I’ve never even heard of? 

1) It’s Less Touristy

While Las Fallas is an internationally-recognised festival which around one million tourists visit every year, La Magdalena is a much more local affair. This means that there are fewer crowds, and it’s cheaper, which is always appreciated by a traveller on a budget! It also has the benefit that it feels more authentic. This is not to deny the strong local tradition and culture around Las Fallas. But it also has to prepare and provide for the international visitors. On the other hand, the only tourist I remember seeing during La Magdalena was my friend who visited me from England! You know that all the activities are prepared by and for the locals, making it feel more special. 

2. a) There is Still Plenty of Fire

Two important elements of Las Fallas are fire and gunpowder. There is a giant parade of dimonis and other fire-related groups, people setting off firecrackers in the streets, the daily mascletàs, firework displays, and of course the famous burning of the fallas on the last night. Well, La Magdalena has just as much! Minus the fallas, which are unique to Las Fallas (unsurprisingly, given the name), La Magdalena has all of this too, albeit in some cases on a smaller scale. However, I actually like the smaller-scale correfocs (parade of dimonis) because you can participate more. The Valencian version was more impressive to watch. Still, in Castelló, I was able to dance under the sparks myself, which added an extra level of excitement. 

2. b) Extra Fire

On top of this, La Magdalena has the Nit Màgica. As a pyromaniac, it was one of my favourite nights not only of La Magdalena but of the whole year. Health and safety rules would definitely NOT allow it in England! It is basically a kind of extreme correfoc. The people of Castelló don denim jackets (less likely to catch fire) and crowd into the street. They chant a traditional rhyme, and then the chaos begins! Dimonis spray sparks around your feet and over your head, wheelbarrows with flaming horns dash past just centimetres away, and as you try to dodge all of that you hear explosions down the street and sparks start to rain down from overhead, while other fireworks whizz along wires between streetlights. This chaotic excitement gradually makes its way along the streets of Castelló, with those less inclined to get singed watching from balconies. 

Once the mass of people and fire reaches its destination, there is a firework display. It was accompanied by the rhythmic drumming that has followed the procession around the city, now up on a stage. The year I was there, one of the fireworks set fire to a palm tree, and firefighters were either unable to reach it or just didn’t come. So people started shouting “¡Échale agua!” (“Throw water on it!”), and spectators threw buckets of water from their balconies! At one point, I turned to my friend and said, “am I on fire?” and indeed I was, so she patted my smouldering T-shirt to put it out! (I’d worn multiple layers of old clothes, as we only had one denim jacket between the two of us). We wondered at the etiquette of what to do if you see a stranger’s clothes on fire — can you just hit them?! 

3) Paella Competitions

Paella is commonly eaten during Las Fallas too, but as far as I know, there is no official paella-making contest. Well, in La Magdalena, there is! Standing in an open space and seeing a giant paella being cooked over a wood fire every few metres is pretty impressive. You might wonder, “what’s the point?” if they’re all just rice and ingredients. But living in the Valencia region for 3 years, I have learnt that paella-making is an almost sacred process and recipe, and don’t you *dare* ever put chorizo in it! From village to village and even family to family, there are very strong feelings about the correct way to make it and whether or not to add artichokes, peas, etc. (this can seriously start full-blown arguments!) If you know someone involved, you might even be lucky enough to get to eat some paella after the judging! 

4) Confetti

Of the many processions during the week, from local dances and regional food to fallas-like sculptures and lit-up gaiatas, my favourite was the confetti parade. A child at heart, I arrived early to get a spot close to where the floats pass. I had just as much fun as my 12-year-old students, who ended up next to me when it started! The floats drive slowly throwing out confetti. For hours, people stay on the street making their own confetti showers from what’s left afterward. While most other events in La Magdalena have traditional roots, I’m not sure where this one came from, but it’s lots of fun. 

5) Pilota

Pilota Valenciana is a traditional sport from the region. During La Magdalena, there is the opportunity to try out some of the street variations. I love that balconies and non-standard building shapes are built into the rules; you don’t need an artificial place to play. There is also an important professional match for higher-level action that you can watch. Be careful, though, because the spectators are part of the game area, and the ball may be hit in your direction as a tactic. In this case, you can use the foam mat you are given upon arrival as protection, as the ball is very hard! 

6) Muixeranga

You may have heard of castellers, human towers that are traditional in Catalonia. Well, muixeranga is the Valencian equivalent and is actually the origin of the now more famous castellers (a fact that Valencians are quite sour about!) On the second Saturday of La Magdalena, you can watch this incredible activity in action. The Conlloga Muixeranga de Castelló hosts an afternoon of jaw-dropping human towers in different shapes and sizes. This includes invited groups who showcase the figures they have been working on. If you know someone involved, you can even be part of the pinya — the base that provides the figure’s stability. But only if you forget about the concept of personal space for a while, as any gaps could lead to injury. It’s an intensely emotional experience, either to watch or be part of. 


I had the best time during La Magdalena, but there is one thing to note before booking your flights there right now. If you don’t like fire, explosions, or loud noises, it’s probably not for you. Or at least you’ll have to accept that you won’t be able to avoid it that week. There are plenty of non-fire-related activities. But while walking around the city during La Magdalena, you can’t escape people setting off firecrackers or unexpected fire events! However, this applies to Las Fallas too!

So, should you go? 

My answer is a resounding YES! You don’t have to go instead of Las Fallas, but since they are at a similar time, why not fit a few days of each into your visit? With its fair share of fire plus a greater number of different activities, its local feel, and cheaper accommodation, La Magdalena is an interesting, lesser-known alternative that is definitely worth checking out.

by Kira Browne

How to Make Life Changing Decisions

If you read my first article, then you’re probably already a bit familiar with my experience living in LA and my mental health journey. In this three-part follow-up article series, which will be released over the subsequent months, I will share more about my relationship with the “push and pull effect.” I’ll detail how it has influenced a series of life-changing decisions and helped propel my professional and personal life forward. 

What Is the “Push and Pull Effect?”

It refers to the feeling of being pushed away from living in a place- either because of societal problems, lifestyle difficulties, economic factors, etc., while simultaneously being pulled towards living in another place. This is usually because this place is (or at least it feels) inherently opposite. For example, when I made the decision to move to Castelló de la Plana, Spain, in summer 2020, I was simultaneously feeling pushed away from LA while being pulled towards Spain. This feeling of being pushed away from one place while being pulled towards another makes decision-making, particularly risk-taking, easy. In this series of articles, I will reveal the seemingly paradoxical experience which I have lived with the push and pull effect.

Before Diving Into Part One, Here’s a Timeline for Context:

  • August 2020 — Was feeling pushed away from LA, pulled towards Spain. Moved to Castelló de la Plana. (part one)
  • August 2021 — Was feeling pushed away from Castelló, pulled towards Valencia. Moved to Valencia. (part two, coming in spring 2022)
  • December 2021/January 2022 (time of writing) — Feeling pushed from Valencia, pulled towards LA. Making concrete plans to move to LA. (part three, coming in summer 2022)

The push and pull effect has come full circle for me all in the span of a little over a year. In this first part, I will detail the reasons why I felt pushed away from LA/pulled towards Spain in August 2020. Stay tuned for my following two articles to understand how and why everything is coming full circle.

Eli Pozo Negro (nature)

Part One: Pushed From LA/Pulled Towards Spain

If you read my first article, How to Cope With Where You Are Not, you probably already know a little bit about how I feel about Los Angeles, my hometown, as a place. You’re probably also a bit shocked to have just read that I am currently in the planning phase of moving back there in 2022. Allow me to explain from the beginning.

Pushed From LA

Since long before the COVID pandemic began, I never liked living in LA- mostly due to transportation-related frustration, but also because of some personal trauma. When the pandemic began, I was in LA working as a composer. I also worked part-time for Harmony Project (HP), the largest non-profit organization providing free music education to low-income youth in LA. HP’s community was among the hardest hit by COVID in every imaginable sense. 

As an administrator and a teacher, my job quickly transformed into something that nobody in my position could have prepared for. I have never been trained as a social worker, but the work which my colleagues and I did for these families at the beginning of the pandemic was about as close as it gets. As rewarding as it sometimes was to be of practical use for a few families- helping them with access to food security after losing their income, delivering masks and other essentials, assisting with applying for unemployment via phone, etc. —  it was also a devastating experience for me. It made the pandemic hit close to home in the most literal sense possible. Given my empathetic nature, this led me to become severely depressed to the point where I needed to take antidepressants for the first time in my life.

All this left me feeling like there was no path forward for me in LA. I could feel my motivation and passion for things fading to the point where it was no longer fair to the families I was working for to remain in my job when I wasn’t feeling strong enough. Nor was it fair to myself. Fortunately, around the same time, I found out that I could return to Spain in August 2020. I remained in my job at Harmony Project until then with a second wind to keep going with the knowledge that I would soon be able to return to the place I had always wanted to be.

Pulled to Spain

If there’s one question I have learned how to answer in several ways over the last five years, it’s “why do you want to live in Spain?” As someone living outside of the country you were born and raised in, it’s a common question to be asked. In my case, it’s even more surprising to people when they realize that I am a composer from Los Angeles, who doesn’t want to take the seemingly obvious decision to live in one of the biggest music capitals of the world, which happens to also be my hometown.

Eli Boarding Pass moving to Castellon

As I mentioned, there are many ways I answer that question. Depending on the context in which it is asked because there are a plethora of reasons why I wanted to live in Spain. For the sake of this article, I’ll focus on the grounds which I think are most universally understood among people who work in a creative industry with the flexibility to be location-independent.

Creativity and Inspiration

I had studied abroad in Valencia, Spain, twice during my undergrad. Afterward, I landed an internship with a Spanish composer in Madrid. After these experiences, it felt obvious to me that living in Spain had a significant positive impact on my creativity and inspiration. The fascinating history, beautiful locations both in nature and in cities such as Sevilla, Granada, and Valencia were immensely inspiring for me as a composer. 

Castellon hike with friends


For better or worse, Spain simply has a different view on work/life balance than the US. Fewer work hours, longer breaks (both during the day and for holidays), and greater emphasis on enjoying life easily summarize the Spanish lifestyle. Additionally, the cost of living, especially when compared to a city like Los Angeles, is much more affordable. As a composer (or any type of freelancer), less income is needed to live comfortably.

Apartment in Castellon

Combining it All: Mental Health

Ultimately, my decision to move to Spain in August 2020 was for my mental health. That is to say, as a composer and highly self-motivated individual, I needed to live in a place that was conducive to me feeling inspired and creative. Having an easily attainable lifestyle was beyond important to me. In Los Angeles, those things felt so far out of reach that it was destroying my mental health. Living in Spain as an auxiliar de conversación meant a mere 16 hours of work per week to cover my living expenses (not including my student debt).

Home recording studio in Castellon

Such a work week allowed me to lead the lifestyle that I needed to. I knew that I’d use the rest of my time to get inspired, make music, enjoy life, pursue other projects, and continue towards my goal of financial freedom off of royalty-based passive income.


In August 2020, I finally arrived to live in Castellón de la Plana, a small city about an hour north of Valencia. The city was only a short commute to the town where I was assigned for my 16 hours of teaching. It was exactly what I needed — it offered a comfortable lifestyle, plenty of sources of inspiration, and the mental time and space necessary for me to compose and record my second album. In the next article of this three-part series, I will detail my experience living there and how I ultimately ended up in a similar push/pull situation that led to my moving to Valencia in July 2021. 

Eli second album cover

My journey is a wild one, which on the surface, appears to be u-turn after u-turn. After reading the whole series, you will understand how the risks and decisive actions I’ve taken have all only pointed my life in one direction — forward. My hope is that by detailing my decision-making process, it will help people to make the hard but necessary decisions which they need to make to keep their own lives moving forward as well.

Eli Slavkinby Eli Slavkin

What I Know Now About Teaching Primary School

Serenity on top of a mountain during her off time when not teaching primary school.

What I Know Now About Teaching Primary School in Madrid

So, do you think teaching primary school abroad is easy? Think again. Between the constant questions of “teacher, teacher, do you speak Spanish?” and the requests for a last-minute change to your lesson plan, being a foreign language assistant and teaching primary school can be exhausting. 

I spent two years working in a concertado school in Alcalá de Henares. Concertados are basically the same thing as charter schools. They are partially funded by the Spanish government and partially funded by parents’ payments. 

These schools require much more from the average language assistant, as your function in the school is essentially that of a teacher. They pay a higher stipend per month, but the hours are longer. If you are looking to have a professional position within a school, however, this is definitely the way to go. 

My experience in my concertado was difficult but rewarding. Here are some lessons that I learned teaching primary school in Madrid.

1) Always Expect the Unexpected

Here in Spain, everything is done last minute. From the granting of your visa to the server giving you that ketchup you asked for when your burger was still on your plate, the country consistently runs on a timer set 10 minutes slow. School is no exception. 

When I first began teaching primary school, I had absolutely no teaching experience. I was thrown in front of a class of wide-eyed Spanish children screaming my name with no classroom management skills. Boy, did I learn quickly. 

Not only did I learn how to be a teacher in a week, but I also quickly learned that teachers have a tendency to request the moon when you’ve prepared the sun. What I mean is that I would, at times, prepare an entire lesson on the opposite topic of what the teacher wanted that day. 

What I learned was to always be prepared with simple games that could be easily adapted to any topic. One of my favorites was a game where I would have the kids make paper planes. We would have a competition where the students would say a grammatical structure. If they were correct, they could throw the plane to attempt to get a point for their team. 

Kids never behave like you think they will. Sometimes, a class will be so quiet and perfect that you have 10 extra minutes at the end of your lesson, and other times you won’t even get halfway through by the time the bell rings. It’s important to always roll with the punches, and keep your cool. 

2) Teaching Primary School Can Be Fun!

Teaching primary school, despite how taxing it can be at times, is an absolute delight. Younger primary kids love to sing, whilst older primary students love a good old-fashioned competition. Basically, your multiple personalities get to shine depending on what class you’re teaching. 

With the little ones, I used to love to find songs related to our lesson plans and do a live performance. I would force all my students to stand up, sing, and dance with me. I also used the program GoNoodle, which is a fantastic educational website that offers various activities like dances and brain breaks. 

It is important with younger kids to provide a daily routine. Mine always began with a song or dance in English. For them, it subconsciously signified that it was time to start English class and that we would not be conversing in Spanish. I also learned that younger kids don’t have an attention span of more than 15 minutes. Activities that are longer than 15-20 minutes will inevitably cause classroom disturbances.  

The older kids don’t need as much structure, as your presence in the classroom will be enough to get them in the mood for English. Upper primary students love games and competition, although rules of respect must be set far in advance. Sometimes, they are a little too competitive. 

Teaching will be as fun as you make it, so it’s important to get your creative thinking cap on when you’re lesson planning. If you do it right, the kids will literally chant your name when you come into class. That’s because they know that you are a break from the monotony of other teachers. 

3) Your Kiddos Will Need Lots of Love

If you are from the United States like me, the physicality of countries like Spain will shock you. Pre-COVID, I would have at least five children come up to me and hug me before the class started, and normally at least two after class had ended. Here in Spain, teachers believe that children need a lot of love. It is okay to show them appropriate affection like hugs, or kisses for the babies. 

It is important to remember that children are often products of their environment. Unfortunately, this means that many kids who act out or are disrespectful, are often taught to do so at home. No child is actually “bad,” rather they are modeling behaviors that they have learned at home or from something they’ve been exposed to on TV.

One of the most important lessons that I took away from teaching primary school in Madrid is to always try and meet kids where they’re at. That doesn’t mean that you have to cave for them if they are being disrespectful, but you should always try and see the child as a person. 

No child is stupid, annoying, or hard to work with when you are in the classroom. Save your complaints for closed doors. You just might be the reason that a child, who all of the other teachers openly hate on, believes in themself and tries to be better. 

4) The Power of the Justificante

After moving to Spain, I discovered that this country is a mix of two really frustrating things; disorganization and bureaucracy. Justificantes are a Spain-specific type of paperwork. Essentially, a justificante is a piece of paper stating that you were at a doctor’s appointment, visa appointment, etc. They are the only way that you can be excused from school if you have either a medical problem or some sort of issue with paperwork. 

Without a justificante, a school can deduct your pay for a day that you skipped, even if you actually were at a doctor’s appointment. They are incredibly important to the school system. However, there are some ways around the justificante if your school coordinator (aka your boss) is nice enough to offer. At my school, if we ever had to miss a day without a justified reason, such as cheaper flights a day after the school holiday ended, we were allowed to stay an extra day at the end of the year to make up for our lost time. 

When working and traveling in a new country, it is incredibly important to be aware of the specific guidelines of that country, particularly when it comes to paperwork. The justificante was a concept that I was unaware of until I got to Spain. However, it is incredibly important to your job when you fall ill or need to get some paperwork sorted. Always do your research when you travel, particularly when it comes to paperwork or visa guidelines. You never want to get caught on the wrong side of bureaucracy. 

5) Don’t Forget to Explore a Little

If you go to another country to teach, it is super important to explore. Ask your colleagues about interesting places to go in the area. Do some research. 

While I was in Madrid for two years, I made it a point to get out every weekend, even if it was just for a simple walk or a tapa. I researched the best places to go in the community and asked around. I learned a great deal more about exploring my city and the community of Madrid by simply reaching out to people and asking. 

Even though I was a teacher, I learned a lot by forcing myself to meet people and experience things that I was not necessarily comfortable with. I never thought that I would eat an octopus, but now I can say I have tried it (although I was not the biggest fan). By learning about the area that you are living in, you will have the most authentic experience possible abroad. You will find the places that people actually go to eat, rather than the tourist hotspots. You will find a quiet corner that you never knew existed, and now feel that belongs to you. 

Teaching primary school in Madrid has been one of the most rewarding and interesting experiences that I can boast of in my professional career. Teaching abroad and working with children is rewarding, and one of the easiest ways to have an authentic cultural experience. You will be exposed to a country in a way that only comes from living there.

by Serenity Dzubay