No matter how often you travel, you’re bound to have unexpected challenges. We sometimes revel in these obstacles. Learning how to navigate a new place is exhilarating. Small, menial tasks suddenly offer a newfound sense of accomplishment — navigating public transportation, chatting with strangers, going to the grocery store, and so on. It’s great. What’s not so great? Working without pay for months on end while living in a foreign country.
Thrills and Chills of Traveling
If things go wrong, they eventually become glorious battle scars. Travelers can’t resist sharing their disaster stories, whether it’s being trapped in an airport for 12 hours or an infamous food poisoning saga. These situations are unpleasant but they’re par for the course.
Knowing all this from past experience, I felt like a confident, seasoned traveler. But when I started teaching English in Spain, what I wasn’t prepared for was working without pay for nearly five months.
The Customer is Always Right
Embedded within the cultural ethos of the United States is the phrase, “the customer is always right.” From Sears, to Amazon, to the mom-and-pop pizza place down the street, this saying influences how people treat each other in transactional situations. People don’t always act like this, of course, but this idiom establishes an expectation within the United States.
I knew that outside the land of stars, bars, and backyard BBQ, the relationship between client and server or worker and employer doesn’t always favor the “customer.” Nonetheless, I had built up an intrepid confidence in my abilities to adapt. This was put to the test when I decided to return to Spain to teach English.
Working Without Pay Abroad
In October 2019, I returned to Valencia, Spain to teach for a reputable English exchange program I had worked for in the past. Although I was warned about delays in payment, I trusted that things would be fine. Besides, my paperwork was flawless. Documents notarized, background checks completed, and files delivered to the proper authorities. But by December I hadn’t received a single Euro. As my savings dwindled, I became worried.
My first instinct was to visit my bank. Maybe they delivered the wrong account information to the government. In Spain, no matter what anyone tells you, banking is mostly done in person. Yes, there are apps and online account portals, but these programs don’t allow you to change or sometimes even verify critical information. This can only be done in person at your bank branch — not just any bank branch — the bank branch where you first opened your account. Because I had previously lived in Valencia, my bank branch was, of course, on the other side of the city. Very convenient.
I visited my bank so many times that I thought about getting my banker, Edu, a Christmas present. Eventually, I discovered that the bank had done everything right. There shouldn’t be an issue, and I should be getting paid shortly. When this didn’t come to fruition, I knew I needed to move up the bureaucratic food chain. My next stop: the Spanish Ministry of Education and Sport.
My new year’s resolution was to get paid. I was running out of money, and frustrated because for months I had continued to work without pay. A new year forced me to reevaluate the financial stress this was causing. I considered packing my bags for a return trip home. At this point, persistence was my only shot at salvaging this mess.
The Spanish Ministry of Education and Sport was the agency that administered my English teaching program. It took me many exciting hours of combing through government websites to locate their Valencian office — a harbinger of sorts.
When I finally arrived at the office, although I felt very nervous about having such a serious conversation in my second language, I felt a sense of relief. Speaking face to face with the officials gave me hope that someone would act. Once I got through this conversation, a weight would be lifted off my shoulders.
“Two More Weeks”
The program administrators told me to wait two more weeks, and everything would be fine. When two weeks had passed, nothing changed. This was obviously not a reassuring sign. It was not an easy choice (because I dislike conflict), but I decided to visit the office each week until I was finally able to stop working without pay.
These visits were uncomfortable at best, each time I left feeling embarrassed and desperate for a fix. In high school Spanish class, there’s no lesson on arguing with a bureaucratic system for your salary. Under pressure, my Spanish didn’t feel natural. I stuttered more and couldn’t remember the right words quickly enough. What bothered me the most was that I couldn’t use words to bring levity to the situation. All I could do was ask for help.
Pessimistic thoughts gathered like drops of rain in a puddle. One thing that kept me motivated was believing that messy situations make you stronger in the long run. Displaying grit in a situation fraught with setbacks “builds character.” It wasn’t until a group of English teachers publicly protested in front of the city’s main government building did the program act to resolve the salary issues. When the paycheck finally hit my bank account, it was late February 2020. I thought my days of working without pay in Spain for the next few months were over.
Looking Back, Moving Forward
History proved different, and in March 2020 — instead of a vacation in Italy — my girlfriend and I fled our Valencian apartment to live at my parent’s home in the US. As military medical personnel set up tents in hazmat suits, and police vehicles announced disquieting health advisories, we threw all of our belongings in the dumpster and caught the last flight leaving Valencia before travel was banned for the next eight weeks. We could have waited out the onset of the pandemic in Spain, of course, but given how unreliable my payment was, there was no telling how little support we would have gotten as foreigners.
In retrospect, I am thankful for the challenges I faced during my second experience in Spain. Bureaucratic systems operate differently from country to country, and while each system has its flaws, I had the implicit expectation that things would work like the United States, where the “customer is always right.” Resilience in the face of adversity is something many of us have shown since the pandemic began in March 2020. I hope that we can all enter the next chapter of this collective experience with the same perseverance that we’ve shown this past year.