5 Must-Try Foods in Galicia, Spain

What comes to mind when you think of Spain? Flamenco, bullfighting, paella, or Picasso? What about lush and, green rolling hillsides, relics of Celtic culture, bagpipes, or seafood aplenty? Unbeknownst to many, Spain is home to various Spanish cultures, each with their history, tradition, cuisine, and language. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Galicia, and nowhere is culture more present than in the foods of Galicia. 

Galicia is located in the northwest of Spain, bordered by Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean. It is an autonomous community characterized by picturesque green landscapes, wild beaches, and varying weather. Unlike most of Spain (especially the south), where evidence of Arabic influence is seen, Galicia has a connection to Roman and Celtic ancestors. The remnants of these ancient societies are present today. They’re represented not only in the ruins that were left behind but, for example, in the gaita gallega, an instrument similar to bagpipes. You won’t hear Castilian Spanish spoken throughout the region. Instead, you’re more likely to hear Gallego, another language spoken in Spain. 

What’s my connection to Galicia? If you’ve read my other pieces for Dreams Abroad, you might remember that my parents are from Spain. Specifically, they are from two small towns in the province of Ourense, which is in Galicia. When I was little, I spent my summers shuffling between these two pueblos (village or town), tending to farm animals, picking potatoes (hated this!), and walking through the green mountains. I experienced the culture of Galicia firsthand on my visits, but also in my home in Toronto, Canada, where my parents maintained their cultural traditions.  

 

Perhaps the closest connection I felt to Galicia in Toronto was through my parents’ cooking. Galicia is well known for having some of the heartiest and best food in Spain. Gallegos (people native to Galicia) really know how to eat! If you find yourself road-tripping through the region, here are five traditional must-eats that will leave your tastebuds begging for more.

1. Pulpo a Feira (a.k.a. Pulpo a la Gallega)

The word Pulpo means octopus in Spanish and feira means fair, as in the town fair. Why the fair? Because it’s the best place to grab this traditional Galician dish. Don’t sweat it if there isn’t a fair during your visit. Most restaurants will have it on the menu. It’s simple and delicious. It consists of cooked octopus (the cauldron it is boiled in is believed to add to the distinct flavour), served on top of boiled potatoes with olive oil and paprika on a wooden board. Pair the dish with a glass of red wine and a crusty baguette. My family always told me not to drink water when eating octopus to it avoid bloat. This might just be a Perez family belief, but it is a rule I have never broken.

The best place to get pulpo a feira is in Carballiño. I’ve heard that the water that the pulperas use gives the dish a distinct, delectable taste. It’s one of the best examples of unique staple food from Galicia.

2. Seafood

Having the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Bay of Biscay (Mar Cantábrico) to the north makes Galicia one of the best places in Spain to eat fresh seafood.  

Of the shellfish variety, do try percebes (barnacles), necoras (small crabs caught in Las Riás Baixas, rivers that stretch from Vigo up to Fisterra), razor clams, scallops, and mussels (a la vinagreta or stuffed). If you want a little bit of everything, order a mariscada (a varied seafood platter).

If you prefer fish, I suggest robadallo a la gallega, which is seared and broiled in white wine sauce and usually served with potatoes and carrots. I also suggest merluza or bacalao a la gallega. Sofrito is made in a frying pan and poured over the fish.

Whatever you fancy, Galician seafood will never disappoint.

3. Filloas

Of all the traditional foods from Galicia that are in this article, filloas are the only ones that my parents never made. I have only tried them while in Galicia. Sources differ on the origin of the filloa. Some say they were introduced by the Celts, and others by the Romans. Whoever first created them, filloas are worth savoring while in Galicia.

Simply put, filloas are crepes that can be sweet or savory. You can eat them all year round, but they are typically made during Carnival season (Carnival is a big deal in some Galician towns, and is often observed as a period of celebration preceding Lent’s period of fasting). Filloas can be accompanied by honey, jam, and fruit, but there are more savory fillings. It’s said the original recipe used pig’s blood in the batter! Whatever your taste, you will find a filloa that best suits you.

4. Empanadas

One of my fondest memories of spending the summers in either my mom’s or dad’s hometown in Galicia was getting freshly baked empanadas delivered by the town baker. Empanada gallega is a salty pie filled with your choice of ingredients and baked in the oven.  Many people pick them up or order them from their local baker. In my dad’s town, my mom and aunts would often prepare the empanada filling at home, deliver it to the baker, and then they would complete the baking process. This ensured that the baker didn’t skimp on the filling.

You can try many kinds of empanadas most typical in Galicia are chicken, tuna, beef, zorza, (the inside of the chorizo), and zamburiñas, which are a type of scallop. It’s one of the best foods found in Galicia!

5. Caldo Gallego

This last dish is my idea of comfort food. There are many types of stews and soups in Galicia, but my favourite by far is caldo gallego. It’s best on a cold day in winter and accompanied by a nice, crusty bread. It’s a simple, hearty soup that takes time, but the wait is well worth it. Caldo gallego is one of my favourites, and I would argue that my mom’s is the best! 

The broth is flavoured with ham, chorizo, and beef, and then white beans, potatoes and berzas are added. In my opinion, it gives the broth of the soup a delicious and distinctive taste. My mom often substitutes berzas with grelos. Both options are acceptable and delightful!

 

From My Mom’s Kitchen

As I mentioned, my parents are from Galicia, and happen to be wonderful cooks. I’d like to share one of my favourite home recipes with you: my mom’s vieras (oven-baked scallops).  I try to never miss a Christmas holiday at home in Toronto with my family. On New Year’s Eve, my mom always asks what my sisters and I would like for dinner, and vieras are what we request. In recent years, I’ve asked my mom to teach me how to make them. Along with being a wonderful cook, she is also a great teacher. I hope you all enjoy this recipe as much as I do.

Vieras (Makes 12)

Ingredients

12 scallops (frozen or fresh), cut them in half if they’re large

24 shrimps (frozen or fresh), peeled and cut in half

200 grams crab meat, cut into pieces

1 onion, diced

2 cloves of garlic, diced

¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

1 ½  tablespoon cornstarch

Milk, to cover mixture

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt, black pepper and garlic powder, to taste

Bread crumbs

12 scallop shells (for serving)

Instructions

In a large skillet on medium heat, add the olive oil and the onions. Sauté until translucent. Add a bit of salt to release the water from the onions, then add the garlic and sauté for five minutes.

Add the scallops. Sauté for five minutes. Then add shrimp and cook for about five minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste (remember you already added salt to the onions!). Mix in the crab meat, cook for five minutes, and add some garlic powder to taste.

Now add the cornstarch and stir. Add enough milk to cover the mixture, stirring until it thickens. If the mixture appears to be too thick, add a bit more milk. Turn off the heat and stir in the parsley.

Fill the scallop shells with the mixture. Top with bread crumbs, about one and a half teaspoons each. Bake in the oven at 400º C until brown on top (about 15 to 20 minutes).  

Enjoy!

Conclusion

I attribute my love of eating to genetics. The food in Galicia is what connects us as Gallegos, even across continents. I have yet to meet a person with Gallego blood who is not happiest when sitting around the table with good food, drinks, and friends. The next time you find yourself in Spain, take a trip up north to Galicia. Your wanderlust (and taste buds) won’t be disappointed. 

Can’t get enough of Spain’s adventures? If you are traveling to Seville, Spain, don’t miss these 10 must-try foods!

Dancing in the Forum

If you haven’t read my last post about my Italian pasta class and visiting the Roman Coliseum, check it out!

Our guide led us down several ancient stone steps into a patch of grass that glowed in the bright Italian summer sun. All around us were ruins in various states of completeness at the Roman Forum. Some stones barely stuck out above the grass line while others almost resembled buildings. As we walked around, the guide pointed out where old buildings used to stand and their importance to Rome’s history and culture. The 10th grade online Latin classes were finally paying off. 

Big door

A Great Accident at the Roman Forum

Forum ruins

He told us that earth had covered the ruins for centuries right where we were standing. Nobody knew for centuries that they had been walking right on top of one of the most treasured historical sites the world knows to this day. Someone discovered the ruins during some kind of routine construction project, if I’m remembering correctly. 

Roman Art

After listening to the guide’s explanation of the Forum, and feeling quite insignificant in the timeline of human history, we began exploring on our own. Dounia and I decided to check out a nearby site that was on the river: Castel Sant’Angelo. This mausoleum/citadel was one of the coolest places we visited during the entire trip. The entrance rests at the base of the giant cylinder, with the guided path slowly taking visitors up the steps to the citadel’s gorgeous view of Rome. The stunning history and ancient walls make this an unforgettable stop, with tales of dungeons, battles, and crazy Roman tales.

Rome Castel SantAngelo

battles around the forum

Armor

Gelato and People-Watching in Rome

After we finished touring the citadel, we ran into some members of our group. We decided to walk along the shade in a quieter section, certainly appreciating the slowdown from our busy itinerary. I picked up some cute Rome-themed magnets from a local vendor before we grabbed some gelato. Grabbing a spot along the wall that rested above the river, we spent the afternoon people-watching until it was time to go back to the hotel. That night was opera night. 

River

Putting on the best thing I packed for the whole trip, the whole group met in the lobby. After a short bus ride, we finally arrived at an elegant-looking restaurant. The host escorted us to a table with a great view of the stage. One of the performers even invited me up in front of the whole audience to dance as one of his co-performers sang. It was such a fun night filled with friends, laughter, and song. 

Join me next time as I talk about our trip to the Vatican!

Cassidy Kearney at the Forum

by Cassidy Kearney

 

Introducing 2020’s Mid-Year Most Popular Travel Articles

We are halfway through 2020! A couple of years ago, we started publishing a mid-year review to see which articles were read the most. This has been an interesting year so far and thanks to you, our Dreams Abroad community, we are proud to release our mid-year review. Here are your favorite articles of the first half of 2020 to remind you which topics were at the top six months ago. 

So far, 2020 has been a year filled with backpacking, travel tales, teaching in Cambodia, and the impact of COVID-19 on our team in different countries. We are pleased to share our most popular travel articles with you.

How I Traveled to Cambodia and Stayed to Teach

In this illuminating interview, Ed Gagnon caught up with Michael Carter, a fellow Canadian he met while Michael was working in the restaurant industry. Ed explains Michael’s affliction for wanderlust coupled with his move to southeast Asia in 2000. Michael has been living, teaching, and traveling abroad for 20 years. 

Traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodi Travel Articles

If you would like to know more about how to stay and teach in Cambodia, this is undoubtedly a great travel article to read. Since this interview, Michael Carter has joined our team. Be sure to check out Michael’s second interview as well as his own articles. 

Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

Emma Higgins taught in Phuket, Thailand for a year before deciding to backpack around southeast Asia for three months before heading home to the United States. In this article, she gives 10 reasons why you should backpack around southeast Asia. Emma discusses some of the cultural complexities that transform you into an especially strong traveler. In addition, she points out how you’ll learn new languages, the many different foods you’ll encounter, and how to get out of your comfort zone and discover a new one. 

The Multifaceted Effects of Coronavirus in Our Education System

children being creative

Bebe Bakhtiar is a teacher who has been working during the COVID-19 pandemic. She takes a moment to shed some light and share her concerns about the impact of the virus in addition to what its impact will have on our international education system. This article covers the positive and negative effects of the Coronavirus on students and teachers. In this powerful piece, Bebe urges all community leaders to fight harder for our education system and its teachers. 

Arriving in Mexico City

Arriving in Mexico City

Tyler Black read about Leesa Truesdell’s trip to Mexico City and decided he wanted to also visit, too. Upon arrival, he talks about the view from the plane and how large the city is. He arrives in Mexico City and discusses the first day of his itinerary. Tyler certainly enjoys tasting the local food, touring the downtown city center, and seeing the nightlife. He provides recommendations for a taco and churrería in the city — be sure not to miss this article. Anthony Bourdain ate at the same street taco vendor! 

My Tour of Paris by Night

Moulin Rouge in paris

Leesa Truesdell shares her tour of Paris by night. She talks about the rippling effects of her canceled flight through a series of articles. In this last piece of the series, she spends a very special birthday touring Paris, living a dream she had had for years. This article talks about the different places she explored with her tour guide and the different ways to approach Paris at night (if you are a beginner). If you enjoy reading about Leesa’s solo travel adventures, then this one is a must-read. It has been one of her most popular travel articles. 

Mid-Year 2020 Best Travel Articles

Be on the lookout for our annual review coming in December 2020. You (our readers) decide who makes the top five by reading our content. Each time you read or click on a post, we appreciate it. Thank you so much for reading and being part of our community. If there are other things you would like to know from any of our writers, please send us an e-mail or leave a comment. We will share your feedback with them.

by Leesa Truesdell

Working at a Catholic School in Medellin, Colombia

Catholic School Medellin Colombia

Lamon Chapman graduated from Hamilton College in upstate New York with a degree in Economics. He originally wanted to be an investment banker. However, Lamon decided to move to Los Angeles, California to pursue his musical dreams instead. He enrolled in music classes at the Musicians Institute. Lamon played for a variety of shows and bands while living in Los Angeles. 

He aspired to learn a different language while living in Los Angeles and thought that moving to a different country would help him with his language learning. Lamon decided to move to Ecuador for two months. He traveled from Quito to Guayaquil and everywhere in between. Then, he headed back to LA. 

Lamon decided that he wanted to become more fluent in Spanish and moved to Medellin, Colombia. A close friend of his told him that Medellin was going to be the next up-and-coming place for urban music. Lamon was ready to give his musical talent a new start. However, he also wanted to have another source of income while living in Medellin. After researching, he learned that teaching English abroad could be a good way to make extra income. 

Lamon volunteered at a library assisting immigrants with their English for six months. Prior to that, he had never taught English. After he received great feedback from his peers and students, he realized he was pretty good at it. That’s when he realized he had a skill for teaching others a language and for teaching in general. Soon after, he made his move to Medellin and lived there for five consecutive years, teaching and playing music. His first job while in Colombia was at a Catholic school for six months. 

Meet Lamon Chapman: 

How did you find your job teaching at a Catholic School?

“I found my job through an old high school friend. They were born in Medellin, but completed high school in the states.”

What was the process of getting hired?

“The process was rather involved. I had to pass a reading, speaking, and listening assessment; not to measure my competencies but rather to ensure I didn’t have speaking, hearing, or vision problems. Also, I had to complete a medical exam and a test in Spanish. Funnily enough, I just sat there during the Spanish test and didn’t take it because I didn’t speak or understand Spanish at the time.”

Who made up the population of students that you taught?

Catholic school“The boys that I taught were aged thirteen through fifteen. I taught four classes with an average class size of twenty. 

In Colombia, if you are single and teach at this particular Catholic school, you can only teach the same sex. For, example, I don’t have a wife, so they only allowed me to teach boys. If I had a wife, then I could have taught both girls and boys. The same applies to single women. If they do not have a husband, they can only teach girls.”

What did you like most about teaching these students? The least?

“For me, the blessing of being an educator lies in the opportunity to change someone’s life for the better and develop positive life-long relationships. There was always a sense of pride and achievement when a student would report to me how an activity or classroom experience benefited their life outside of the classroom. Whether it was translating for their parents at the customs office or simply instilling confidence to use the language, it always felt and continues to feel good to hear those stories.

The only thing I would say that I disliked about my job was being monitored constantly by nuns and priests.” 

What did you find to be the most challenging part of teaching at a Catholic school?

“I had a hard time adjusting to Catholic culture. Things like making sure all kids had dressed according to school standards did not come naturally to me initially. I also had a difficult time receiving negative feedback about group activities from the school administrators (nuns and priests). 

Side note: I never interacted directly with the parents… the school had a specific employee assigned to ‘parent relations.’ All the negative feedback came from the nuns that monitored each class and my superior; they didn’t support my decision to facilitate group activities. Additionally, they often reprimanded me for sitting down. They didn’t allow teachers to sit down.”

What are the differences that you saw while teaching at the Catholic school in Envigado, Colombia compared to volunteering at the library in Los Angeles, California?

South Korea classroom“Prior to teaching in Medellin, I volunteered at a library in Los Angeles. I worked with immigrants who had become US citizens and needed to learn English to live and function in Los Angeles. Volunteering gave me a better understanding of what it was like to teach a second language before moving to Medellin, Colombia.

My first teaching position in Envigado, Colombia was at a Catholic school. If I had to compare the two experiences (in general), here is what the main differences were: 

  • Security: Most schools in Colombia have armed security at the entrance. In the US, and at the library in LA, the immigrants did not have security guard protection.
  • Grading: If a student fails a class, the teacher must be prepared to explain why the student failed. They must also give them an opportunity to take a make-up exam and/or additional activities to pass the course. In the USA, if you fail a course… you fail.”

Explain the motivations of the groups of students for learning a second language. Were the motivations the same? How many classes did you teach?

“I taught at a bilingual school… so students were motivated to learn English because it was a requirement. They didn’t necessarily want to and this was the mentality for many kids at the Catholic school. I taught English, geography, world history, and ethics all in English.”

How did you handle classroom management for these classes? Was it regulated by the school because it was a Catholic school?

“I tried to incorporate group activities versus individual assignments into the classroom. I also tried to incorporate the use of technology in the classroom as well. Unfortunately, school officials did NOT widely accept the use of technology. I had to stop doing group assignments and I mostly assigned individual assignments without the use of technology per the request of the school.”

What advice would you give to someone who works with people from other cultural backgrounds?

  • Learn the culture
  • Learn the language
  • Be patient with the adjustment… CULTURE SHOCK is real
  • Accept the differences… don’t fight it or allow it to disrupt your experience
  • Don’t assume that everyone will understand your culture and viewpoints

Are you still living in Medellin, Colombia, and teaching at the Catholic School?  What happens next?

“Yes, I am still living in Medellin. However, I no longer work at the Catholic School. In 2016, I was nominated for a Latin Grammy music award. Since the nomination, I’ve taken my passion for music and talents to another level. This year, four close friends and I formed an entertainment company in Medellin: PRIMEROS 5 ENTERTAINMENT. Follow us at primeroscincoent. We plan and organize entertainment events that are changing the face of entertainment throughout Colombia.” 

At La Presentation College in commune 12 La América, approximately 150 students learn about caring for life on the road.
Photo by Secretaría de Movilidad de Medellín.

Looking Beyond Catholic School

Lamon stayed at the Catholic school for six months even though the odds were against him. His students misbehaved and he couldn’t provide student-centered lessons. Not to mention, nuns constantly corrected his teaching methods and conduct. Later in the school year, Lamon realized he was the first teacher to stay longer than two weeks. The other teachers congratulated him for his success and informed him that he endured the brutal challenge of teaching and disciplining this specific class of fourteen-year-old boys that no one wanted to teach.

Stay tuned for the second part of Lamon’s teaching English as a foreign language journey in Medellin, where he talks about his career of teaching English at a university abroad.

by Leesa Truesdell

Day-To-Day Life Teaching at a Thai School

by Leesa Truesdell

Diego AmbrosioDiego Ambrosio and I had the chance to catch up for his second interview Finding the Perfect International Job. He had participated in a few Thai regional tournaments since we last spoke. He went to Bangkok, Thailand to judge a spelling bee competition and a group of his students participated in a music competition in Pang Na. His group won a gold and silver medal in the competition! He wrapped up his school year and is getting ready for exams. Diego has learned so much about what it is like teaching at a Thai school over the last year. He remembers when he first arrived and how much he has grown as a person and as a professional since that day. 

Read more about what Diego said about his day-to-day life teaching at a Thai school: 

What is a typical day at your school like? 

Each public school in Thailand generally follows the same morning routines before class starts. In my school, students must be present in the main square starting from 7:30 until about 8:10 in order to observe and respect the various routine ceremonies. These include a display of rigorous respect for the Thai National Anthem in a “Stand to Attention” position and music performed by the school band, a Buddhist prayer, and finally a list of ten “commandments” to always remember. The morning ceremony ends with the school jingle played by the music band. Each lesson lasts about 50 minutes (a period) and the school day consists of eight periods. Teachers must stay in the office until 16:30. The school entitles teachers to about one hour of lunch break. There is also a school canteen if necessary.

 

How many people do you work with? How many classes do you teach?

 We currently have nine teachers of different nationalities In the Foreign Teachers English department. There is one teacher from Poland, one from France, one from Morocco, one from Australia, three from the Philippines and one from Canada. The Canadian teacher is the coordinator of the English department. This year I received an assigned eighteen hours per week teaching eight classes for a total of five different courses. However, our contract provides for the possibility of having to cover up to 20 hours of teaching per week. In any case, we must cover the hours of the other teachers if they miss class due to illness or personal reasons.

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

I consider myself a lucky person from this point of view because I was able to immediately establish excellent friendships with my work colleagues.  I consider myself a naturally sociable and peaceful person, as well as extremely empathetic. Sometimes we organized meetings outside of school and ate together on special days of the year. For example, last December 26th, we all had lunch together on Christmas Day.

thai teachers

What is your favorite part of the day? Why?

The most pleasant moment of the day is around the first afternoon hours, after lunch. I usually go for a digestive walk around the school campus. The campus has various nature trails. The school has become a lovely place because it sits inside a beautiful natural reserve of mangrove trees.

How is the material being taught to students? Do you use a specific method?

My school follows the conventional teaching method found throughout almost all Thailand English language teaching programs. The lesson plan includes four main phases that we call “warm-up,” “present,” “practice,” and “produce.” 

teacher abroad

The “warm-up” phase is generally short-lived (five to ten minutes) and includes the “call of attendances,” “introduction to the lesson,” a possible “ice-breaker” or “review of the previous lesson.” The second phase, “present,”  is the one in which the lesson is presented. Teachers explain the most important contents in this phase, through the use of projectors, audio-visual material, and obviously, the blackboard. The third phase, “practice,” consists of guided exercises to understand the contents explained, through individual or interactive exercises. Teachers must constantly monitor these activities and assist students the best they can. The final phase, “produce,”  is the final production of the learning contents learned by students. It can take place through the presentation of projects or individual works aimed at the development and improvement of oral skills and content presentation.

How do you prepare your lessons for each class? If you don’t plan lessons, how do you prepare for class?

I always prepare my lessons with care. Preparing ahead helps me feel well-organized. I have everything ready well in advance so that I don’t have to run into unpleasant or unexpected events. As I explained above, I prepare my lessons through a specific template provided by the school which includes the four main processing phases. In addition, I also like to always look for new ideas and materials. Thanks to the Internet, I can always have an endless source of teaching material available. 

Do you work at a bilingual school? Does the school teach English as a subject or throughout all classes?


The English language is taught in all the classes. This means my school is ultimately a kind of bilingual school. However, there are several types of classes that have access to different levels of teaching quality. The two main programs of study for the English language are called the “regular program” and the “English program.” The regular program includes the teaching of the English language, but not through foreign native English-speaking teachers. On the other hand, the English program provides for the presence of native speakers, therefore the enrollment cost is significantly higher.

What goals or standards are classroom teachers using to measure the performance of their students?


Like any educational institution in the world, Thailand’s school system has parameters for the student assessment during the course of the entire school year. Teachers evaluate students at the end of each semester. My school has two semesters per year. Each student can earn a total value of 100 points. They can earn these with scores from two main units (25 points + 25 points) plus a mid-term exam for a max of 20 points and a final exam with a maximum score of 30 points. Based on the total score obtained, the student will be able to access a grade ranking that ranges from a minimum of 1.5 to a maximum of 4.

I want to clarify an important detail of the Thai school system, namely that students cannot be rejected or repeat the same school year. The school promotes each and every student, no matter what. Whenever a student earns a score lower than 50/100, the teacher becomes responsible for taking care of the student by organizing an extra lesson, project, or exam for the student. The student must complete them as proof of resolution of the low score. Even if the student fails to successfully complete this phase, he will still be promoted. This aspect makes us reflect a lot, since it shows a big flaw in the process of education and growth of the Thai child. There is a very high possibility of an unprepared student reaching the upper levels of an academic course.

Looking back at our first Teach Abroad interview, what have you learned most about yourself in the classroom this year?

There is always something new to learn with each passing year. I can still remember who I was as soon as I arrived at this school and how, day after day, I managed to improve the quality of my teaching together with improved creativity and constant participation within various school events.

Recently, for example, I learned that the morale with which you start your lessons has a decisive impact on the progression of the lesson and on the learning that follows from the students. So it is really essential to always start in the right gear and have the best intentions.

Wrap Up Working at a Thai School

Due to the recent coronavirus pandemic, the minister of Thailand mandated that schools in Thailand be shut down until May. Diego wrapped up his final week of classes by giving final exams. He had originally planned to go back to Italy in April for his break. Since Italy is a major epicenter of the coronavirus, Diego will not be able to go home and plans to remain in Thailand for now.

Stay tuned for more on Diego’s Thailand teach abroad adventure.

 

What It’s Like Teaching English in Cambodia

by Edmond Gagnon

Michael CarterIn the first part of Michael Carter’s interview, he told us how and why he chose Cambodia as his new home. He targeted Southeast Asia but did not have a particular country when he first decided to come. Then, he visited a friend he’d made from Germany who was living in Cambodia. Seeing Cambodia’s gorgeous atmosphere and rich culture, he immediately applied for a job there and the rest is history. 

Here is the second part of his interview teaching English in Cambodia.

What is a typical day at your school like? 

“A typical teaching day for me begins at 7:40 a.m. and finishes at 4:10 p.m. Many schools run early evening classes as well, but not where I currently work. There is a long gap between morning and afternoon classes, between 10:30 a.m. and 1:20 p.m.). This is mainly to coincide with typical hours of Khmer schools. Most students study for a half-day at Khmer school. Students from wealthy families who can afford English schools spend the other half of their day there.”

How many people do you work with? How many classes do you teach?

The place I work employs a lot of people for various duties. There are probably about fifty to sixty teachers on staff. The day is divided into six classes — three before and three after midday. I teach anywhere from four to six classes a day, which adds up to twenty-four teaching hours per week. Most schools here use a twenty to thirty hour teaching week as a base. Notably, the afternoon classes do not have the same students as the morning.”

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

Teaching English in Cambodia“I tend to work independently most of the time. This is partly because I am the only one teaching the courses I do teach (i.e. sociology and psychology). But for other subjects, there are typically three teachers teaching the same thing and they often share ideas and materials. We also have a computer database where teachers can store and access lesson plans or worksheets that have been shared.”

What is your favorite part of the day? Why?

 “Quitting time — 4:10 p.m. Reasons are obvious I would think.”

How is the material being taught to students? Is there a specific method being used?

“I think most schools are looking for similar teaching styles, but I certainly would say it’s student-centered. We are meant to keep the TTT (Teacher Talking Time) to an absolute minimum. Group work and pair work are preferable to independent studying. Encourage learner interaction and incorporate critical thinking into the activities whenever possible. I create a lot of supplementary material and often look for short video segments on YouTube which may add another dimension to the lesson.”

How do you prepare your lessons for each class? If you don’t plan lessons, how do you prepare for class?

One of many city temples“You can’t always stick to a lesson plan to the last detail, but you should have something planned anyway. Sometimes the timing can be tricky, but you don’t want to have flat or inactive moments.”

I always plan some type of warmer (five to ten minutes) to bring the learners on board. This doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with the material in the lesson. It could simply be a short competition of some kind. The purpose is to grab the attention of your ‘audience’. Think of watching a film at the cinema — or reading a story. The first few minutes of a film are crucial to catch the interest of the viewer, just as a writer needs a ‘hook’ to make the reader want to continue. Teaching isn’t any different. Get their attention, wind them up, and then let them go.

After the warmer, give brief but clear instructions for the class activities. This is your time to teach any new material… but don’t ramble on for too long.

The rest, and longest part of the class must allow students to interact/practice etc. Depending on what you have taught, give a short (five minute) recap/review of the lesson’s key points at the end and assign extra practice (homework) from time-to-time.”

Do you work at a bilingual school? Is English being taught as a subject or throughout all classes at the school? Describe the ways English is being implemented. 

“Our school is strictly English only. We don’t simply teach English, we teach subjects in English. Of course, they learn their basics of the language there as well. However, they study social sciences, history, geography, computer, sports, etc. — all in English.

There are other schools which do just teach English language as a class, though. These places usually have early evening classes that cater to young adults after work.

Our school operates a Khmer language school as well and some students study half a day at each.”

What are the standards classroom teachers use to measure the performance of their students?

“Testing mainly. I personally think students are tested too often but this is what the Cambodian parents want and expect. We also make a part of their score based on speaking from day-to-day class activities. Once a month they are given a project or assignment connected to what they’ve been studying. A mark is given for this as well.

At the beginner levels, we stress fluency. Once they’ve attained that, the higher levels base their scores on both fluency and accuracy.”

Does your school have a set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help their students succeed?

Stone Masons at work

I’ve probably touched upon these already, but in a nutshell:
  • Critical thinking skills. Students need to be able to both think and express their ideas and opinions. It isn’t about simply remembering a lot of facts and formulas.
  • Social skills. Cambodians tend to have tightly-knit families. Unlike in most western countries, teenagers do not go out or just hang out with friends. They almost always go out as a family unit. Group work at school affords them an opportunity to interact with non-family members. Social media is perhaps changing things a bit, but not necessarily in a positive way.
  • Confidence. Unlike some schools, we do not automatically pass everybody in order to continue collecting their money. Pushing a student to a higher level when they are not ready is wrong. Students will soon realize their skills are inferior to others and this will kill their desire to participate. Getting good grades is something wonderful for younger learners to show their parents. Giving some verbal praise from time-to-time can do wonders, especially for older, less confident students.

Looking back at the first Teach Abroad interview, what have you learned most about yourself since first being in the classroom this year?

“I have been teaching for around twenty years and for about the first fifteen of those years, I didn’t teach anyone younger than the age of about seventeen or eighteen. It was almost exclusively young adults under thirty. This was both in Indonesia and Cambodia. I now teach kids as young as eleven and twelve and up to the age of seventeen or eighteen. One thing I’ve had to adjust to was having patience dealing with young, wandering attention spans. My partner is Cambodian and we have three young children together so I have become used to this fairly naturally.

Something I’ve known all along but continue to practice is changing up the way I conduct my lessons. Yes, I could replay what I’ve done in the past, though I would find that boring. Keeping things fresh is a key to retaining job interest. Nobody likes a mundane job.”

What It’s Like Teaching English in Cambodia

As you are reading this, Michael is seeking shelter from the 37°C temperatures that don’t normally come until at least a month from now. If you have any questions about teaching English in Cambodia, or the country itself, please don’t hesitate to ask.

The Cambodia Killing Fields

by Edmond Gagnon

To truly understand the country of Cambodia, one must first understand its past. Forty years after the massive genocide committed by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), more commonly called the Khmer Rouge, I endeavored to do exactly that. Having an interest in the Vietnam War, I’d heard about the mass killings in the neighboring country of Cambodia. It wasn’t until I watched the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, that I had a better understanding of what really happened. 

The Khmer Rouge

Despite the massive bombing campaign by the United States, the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian civil war that ran from 1970 to 1975. They eventually took political control of the country. Their goal was to maximize production by making everyone farmers. To reach their goal, they eliminated an entire social order that included political opponents, doctors, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, and all other upper-class professionals. 

massive genocide cambodia

Nobody knows the exact numbers, but some estimate the Rouge arrested, tortured, and killed anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million people — a whopping 25% of Cambodia’s population. The Khmer Rouge caught civilians and loaded them onto trucks. From there, they brought their victims to remote areas known as the Killing Fields. Here, their executioners sentenced them to death and buried them in shallow mass graves. 

To save the cost of ammunition for such a large task, executioners used poison, shovels, clubs, knives, as well as sharpened bamboo sticks to get the job done. Some executioners took young children to a large tree where they smashed their heads against it. The idea here was that they wouldn’t avenge their dead parents later in life. 

killing tree

This politically ironic catastrophe happened because China and the U.S. trained and supplied the Khmer Rouge with weapons and intelligence to counter the power of Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Sadly, it took thirty years for the monsters the world powers created to fade and finally be brought to justice. 

victims of killing fields

Learning About the Past in the Cambodia Killing Fields

None of what I’d previously read hit home until I visited the Cambodia Killing Fields monument. It sits about ten miles out of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. I felt overwhelmed by a sense of grief. I felt like I should remove my shoes to walk on the sacred ground. Constructed of concrete and glass, the towering monument contains stacks of human skulls. It was as if I could see the faces of the multitude of victims parading through my mind. 

killing fields Cambodia temple

I felt afraid to speak or ask questions as I quietly explored the marked grave sites. Signs explain to the visitors what exactly professionals found in each mass grave — naked women or headless bodies or children. A knot formed in my stomach; no other place on earth evoked such a strong emotion from me.

victims of mass murder

The result of this mass genocide undeniably set Cambodia back decades. With most of the country’s professionals executed, the financial, educational, medical, and political systems were in chaos, with only young and inexperienced people to fill the void. I witnessed the effects of this first hand. It’s something the country is just now almost fully recovered from. Many still consider Cambodia as a developing country, partly because of its past. Nonetheless, there are many other beautiful things to see and do there.

truck stop cambodia killing fields

The Royal Palace and surrounding grounds are a must-see while in Phnom Penh. Close by, on the river, colorful boats offer a waterside view of the capital city. The passage of time, lessons learned, and experience gained has led to Cambodia entering the 21st century successfully. If you’re visiting Thailand or Vietnam, Cambodia is close by and a cheaper alternative to absorbing the Southeast Asian culture

 

How I Traveled to Cambodia and Stayed to Teach

Harold Michael Carter(Harold) Michael Carter was born and raised in Stratford, Ontario. He studied journalism and discovered at an early age his affliction of wanderlust. Michael furthered his education in life by backpacking his way through Europe. The most important thing he learned from traveling was that he needed to do more of it. 

I met Michael through extended family, when we visited Stratford, home of the Shakespeare Theatre. When he wasn’t working as a manager or bartender in town, he shared photographs and stories of his travels abroad. We bonded over beer, wine, good food and tales of far away places.  

He left Canada for Cambodia in January, 2000, using Phnom Penh as a base from which he could explore Southeast Asia. In 2005 he left for Indonesia, where there was plenty of work back then. He managed to travel and visit home in 2006 and then returned to Cambodia in 2007. He still resides, teaches, and travels from Cambodia today. 

I interviewed Michael Carter to offer an insight into how traveling and teaching abroad can turn into a life lived abroad. 

 

Why did you choose to teach in Cambodia?

“I didn’t choose this country in particular, but I did target Southeast Asia. The main reason was that I wanted a base for traveling in this part of the world. I had previously visited Thailand and initially considered moving there. However, I came to Cambodia to visit a German friend who was living here at the time. I applied for a job just for the hell of it and the rest is history.”

Have you ever taught before? If not, what were you doing before you decided to move abroad?

“This was my first teaching job abroad. After roaming the globe for many years, I decided I wanted to base myself some place other than Canada. I was inspired by a writer from Montréal whom I met in the Czech Republic. He was writing and teaching in Prague. I thought to myself, “This is exactly what I want to do — write and travel and be able to financially support this lifestyle.” I had recently severed a relationship and no longer felt ‘tied down.’ I returned to Canada to work for a few months and by the end of the year I was Asia-bound.”

What did you think teaching would be like? Where are you teaching now?

“I thought teaching would be an ideal venue to interact with local people. It was a new venture and was somewhat exciting in the early days. I probably followed the script in the beginning but soon developed my own style. I am currently teaching in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where I reside with my family.”

Carter Family

How did you prepare for your teaching job? What steps did you take?

“I knew I would need some sort of certification and so I bunked with a friend in Toronto and took an evening and weekend TESOL course. If giving advice on the matter, today I would suggest taking a month-long CELTA course. TEFL is accepted in Cambodia but the best schools are now looking for CELTA certification.”  

What are your perceptions of Cambodia during your time there?

“Cambodia is an interesting country as it is evolving so rapidly. While many things have improved, many aspects of the country endeared me more when I first set foot here twenty years ago. To be honest, if I just arrived for the first time today, I doubt I would choose to live here. I now have established a family here and so now I will always have one foot here at least. Where would I choose instead of Cambodia? I suppose if I were single and starting over with Southeast Asia in mind, I would choose Vietnam.”

Angkor Wat Cambodia

What are your goals while you are abroad?

“Life long goals continually change. Travel opportunities would have been my initial answer to this. I now have a Cambodian partner and we have three children together. My goal now is to establish a reasonably secure base for them before I retire. At that time, I hope to pick up with my travels again. (With Cambodia as my base — health permitting). I have taught here and in Indonesia and was a whisker away from taking a job in Azerbaijan. However, I no longer have the desire to take a job in another country.”

What has been your most difficult time there?

“Tough question. I really haven’t experienced too many difficulties. I suppose becoming a financial prisoner is the main issue. Teaching pays well in some countries (such as South Korea & Japan), but the cost of living can be high in those countries. The cost of living is relatively low in Cambodia but the average rate of pay for teachers coincides with that. Most teachers can live here comfortably so long as they don’t expect to have any money left over to move on. It’s sort of like collecting a welfare cheque — it pays the bills with not much leftover. The other issue that could become a difficulty is health care. Cambodia is lagging behind other countries in the region in this department. This is not the place to be if one has health problems.”

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh Cambodia

What has been your best experience?

“Although I might not have thought so at the time, I suppose it was when I took on the task of being an adviser to a Cambodian senator who was overseeing the ASEAN conference his country was hosting. That is my best memory from a professional point of view.

From a personal point of view, I would have to say that collectively I have met a lot of interesting people here. This experience has shaped and reshaped my ideas over the years.”

How do you feel about the culture there? Do you feel you have immersed yourself into the culture?

“Cultural differences and cultural sensitivity will always be an interesting, yet sometimes challenging part of the relocation. I lived in Indonesia for a little more than a year and seemed to fit right in. In Cambodia, I found it more perplexing in the beginning. I suppose I will never fully be immersed in this culture because differences always come up with child-rearing strategies for example. My partner and I are often at odds as to how to raise our children. Essentially we have the best interest of the kids in mind but we have very opposing tactics as to how to achieve this. Cambodia is predominantly a Buddhist nation and Buddhism allows for tolerance. It is pretty much live and let live here — even though my ways may seem curious to others and vice-versa.”

Mekong River Phnom Penh

What advice would you give to other participants about their first year? What are some of the things they must do, and things they absolutely must not do?

Bousra Waterfall Cambodia

“My advice may differ from some you might hear, but here goes. Try to find out information about the schools first and then try for a job at the BEST possible school. (Not necessarily best paying, but one with a good reputation and proven record of longevity). Some people might suggest going for any job and making rookie mistakes at a lesser institute and using that as a stepping stone. Bull to that. All you will do is acquire bad habits. Work with the best or don’t work at all.

Arrive with enough money to sustain yourself for at least two to three months. Schools usually pay once or twice a month. Even if you land a job immediately, you won’t see money for at least a month and you will have initial expenses to deal with.

Finding a School

Most reputable schools are not interested in fly-by-nights. Get a place to live as soon as possible — not just a guesthouse address. Many new arrivals have the attitude they will stay in a cheap guesthouse until they find work. My advice is to look like you are serious about staying and provide an address for your potential employer. If you are only looking for a six-month stop-over to collect some travel cash then you could do better looking at a lesser operation with a guesthouse address. But if you seriously want to spend some time in the country, then present yourself as someone who might stick around. No reputable place of employment wants a high turnover rate of employees.

I’ve taught in two countries in Southeast Asia – Indonesia and Cambodia. In both countries, local transportation is relatively cheap but distances between potential employers are often far and quite spread out and transportation costs while job searching will add up quickly. If you have money, consider getting a small motorbike. If not (as was my case), pick up a cheap, used bicycle. You can get one in Phnom Penh for around $35 US. If you’re old school like me, sling a briefcase over your shoulder with your CVs and go from place to place.”

Stay tuned for Edmond Gagnon’s second interview with Michael Carter on how he traveled to teach in Cambodia. They will be sharing more great adventures with his experiences at his school. To find out more about Edmond Gagnon, visit his website.

by Edmond Gagnon

Christmas in Madrid, Spain

 

Christmas tree Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain
Christmas tree at Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that Christmas has always been not only one of my favorite holidays, but also one of the most memorable holidays we celebrate in the States. People string lights, hang stockings, and set presents under ornamented Christmas trees, of course. But the overall environment of the season is, depending on where you are, so much more than that.

It can be brisk winter air, the scent of cookies and pies baking, candles on the dining room table with the lights dimmed, all while A Charlie Brown Christmas plays on the TV. Maybe it’s unfinished Monopoly games, ice skating on a frozen lake, Christmas markets, and hot chocolate. Maybe there are traditions like opening one present on Christmas Eve. Perhaps you grew up with the advent calendar and little chocolates counting down the days to Christmas. Almost every child leaves cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Listening for reindeer hooves on your roof are memories that countless people share. Maybe there are family traditions that don’t exactly fit the stereotype, like naughty Secret Santa gifts or taking a new family photo with Santa at the mall every year even when you and your siblings are in your 20’s. 

But have you ever thought about how other countries celebrate the Christmas holiday? Have you ever wondered about both the differences, and the similarities? The Christmas season is a big deal here in Spain, just like in the United States. In fact, given that Spain obviously doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas begins just after Halloween and lasts until early January! 

Christmas Traditions Abroad

For many in Madrid, the official holiday season begins on December 22nd. It goes all the way to January 6th, a Christian celebration known as Epiphany. Thanks to globalization and popular culture, Spain celebrates several of the same traditions as in the States. Take Christmas lights, for example.

There are, however, some key differences. For example, December 22nd is El Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad, also called El Gordo de Navidad. This is one of the most popular loterías, or lotteries, in all of Spain. There are five large or important prizes, including a monetary prize of 400 million euros, and then several additional smaller prizes, such as cash prizes of €1000. 

christmas spain iluminadas valence-Christmas in Madrid Spain

Many families have adopted the tradition of putting up Christmas trees. Nativity scenes, called belén, are highly popular in this traditionally Catholic country. A huge Madrid Christmas Market called El Mercado de Navidad takes over Plaza Mayor, perhaps most easily translated as their main square. It’s a tradition that, in the event that you accidentally break a figurine from your belén, you pick up the replacement from this market. 

Santa Claus and Christmas Day in Spain

There are also many places in Spain which have adopted the story of Santa Claus, also known as Papa Noel. Other places in Spain have their own versions of jolly Ol’ St. Nick. For example, the Basque Country has the legend of Olentzero, a man who comes down from the mountains on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good children.  

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day themselves find themselves as fairly relaxed occasions. Children rise at the crack of dawn to open their presents. Families and friends dine together, sing carols, and exchange gifts. Given that the country is a peninsula, seafood is a popular Christmas food all around Spain, even in areas that aren’t coastal. These can include things like gambas a la plancha, a shrimp, or some type of seafood soup. Fish like lubina (bass) or dorada (gilt-head bream) are also very common Christmas meals. A bigger second course like cordero (lamb). Other typical foods include embutidos, or dried, cured ham. Another popular Christmas or seasonal food is called turrón, which is a sort of nougat-meets-fudge-type sweet made with honey, sugar, egg white, and typically some kind of nuts like peanuts or almonds. 

The Twelve Days of Epiphany

christmas parade madrid

Another important and diverse element of Madrid’s Christmas celebration follows Christmas Day itself. It carries over into the New Year and is known as the twelve days of Epiphany. Epiphany ends on January 6th. This holiday showcases and celebrates three Christmas characters that North America’s Christmas holiday tales mostly skim over: the Three Wise Men, also known as the Three Kings, or in Spain, Los Tres Reyes Magos — the Three Magician Kings!

The Celebration of Epiphany

As the story goes, these three kings — Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar — came bearing gifts after Jesus’ birth. And while these three kings get just a little bit of airtime in Christmas sermons at church or as figures in nativity scenes, Spain has gone the extra mile and given them a full parade, called a cabalgata, on January 5th. There are several cabalgatas across all of Spain in major cities and bigger towns. Madrid’s cabalgata alone typically draws over 100,000 people. The cabalgata, like any other parade, features extravagant floats, candy-throwers, and in Madrid, a children’s choir. People even bring umbrellas to shield themselves from all the sweets thrown into the crowd. 

Similar to Santa Claus, the Three Kings bring presents to children on January 6th, the end of Epiphany. Some churches celebrate it as the day of Jesus’s baptism. And just as children and families hang stockings and set out cookies and milk for Santa, Spanish children will sometimes leave shoes outside their doors or under the trees for the Three Kings to fill with smaller gifts in addition to the larger ones left under the tree. They also leave out, in place of milk, cookies, and carrots, biscuits and water for the Three Kings’ camels! And on the morning of Epiphany, Spaniards typically eat a breakfast of a special treat called el roscón de reyes, which is a circular and decorative pastry. 

madrid spain parade

Christmas Controversy

In recent years, the Three Kings have also been the subject of a bit of controversy. Given that the kings were traditionally played by Spanish councillors, the country has a history of using black-face during this festival, both for the black king Balthazar and also for his gift-bearing page boys. With a less explicit history of racism in the country, many Spaniards, particularly traditionalists and those of the older generation, still don’t fully understand why this is seen by other countries or cultures as problematic. However, in recent years, some areas in Spain have hired black actors to play the part instead. 

Celebrating Christmas in another country is a wonderful time to experience other traditions first-hand. For your next Spanish holiday, check out Madrid during Christmas. The holiday is one of the biggest celebrations of the year, and the cabalgata is one celebration you wouldn’t want to miss. Not to mention, the Madrid’s weather in December and January is milder than other places, so you can enjoy the festivities without a ton of snow or bitter cold. 

madrid spain

 

Learning as a Teaching Assistant in Ontinyent, Spain

edgar llivisupa profile photoEdgar Llivisupa is a native New Yorker completing a dual degree in Business Journalism and Spanish Literature and Language. His goals while teaching abroad are to improve his Spanish, test his capabilities as a teacher, and to travel. 

Edgar has been living in Ontinyent, Spain for one school year. Ontinyent is located in eastern Spain near Valencia. He is a teaching assistant at a primary school and will be returning to the same school this September. He enjoys learning Valencian and interacting with the locals. 

Edgar is looking forward to returning for another year. He wants to continue his progress with his students and dive deeper into the Spanish culture and lifestyle.

Meet Edgar 

Why did you choose to come to Spain and Europe? 

“There were many motivations for me to live abroad. Firstly, it had been rare in my life for me to venture outside New York. In fact, I had traveled out of the tri-state area only a handful of times, so I was itching to leave. Secondly, after failing a calculus course I switched my major to Spanish and started taking more intensive coursework. During a literature class, the professor flagged up  the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program. As an American, there was already an innate curiosity to visit Europe. As a descendant of Hispanics, I was also inquisitive about Spanish culture and how much it influenced Latin America. Thirdly, I had a brother living in Madrid. This put me at ease after reading online testimonials from other participants in the program.”

Why did you choose to teach abroad? 

“While I had considered studying abroad in the past, the costs made it seem out of reach. I was never the type to look for grants or scholarships to aid my studies. Alongside that, I would have to pick courses that would grant me credits at my college. Instead, this program gave me the opportunity to work abroad, which made me more comfortable rather than going abroad as a student. I hadn’t considered teaching before, but regardless, I have approached my tasks and responsibilities with an open mind and strived to do my best.”

Have you ever taught before? If not, what were you doing before you decided to move abroad?  

“I’ve never taught before. Rather, I was working very close to home at a pharmacy. It had nothing to do with what I was majoring in, but I wanted some work experience and a reference for the future just in case. Earning my own money felt rewarding as it lessened my dependence on my parents and when I decided to participate in the program, it meant I could start saving for my year abroad.”

What did you think teaching abroad would be like? Where are you teaching? 

“I am an English teaching assistant at a primary school in Ontinyent, Spain, located in the Valencian Community.

I had a feeling that teaching abroad would be extremely difficult as I had no previous experience. And I had been put off it as a career by what my public school teachers had to say about it.

I also had no idea what my students’ proficiency level would be so thank God for the chance to do some homework on them on the Internet. The school’s online blog gave me a great insight into the faculty, the students, and what the school looked like. There were documents on the English classes, their textbooks and other learning materials. I was also heartened to see that the school had recently embarked on a cultural exchange with public schools in Africa. So my arrival wasn’t going to be jarring as they had already opened their hearts and minds to another culture.”

What expectations did you have before you came here?

“I had no expectations coming to Ontinyent. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t looking forward to it. Knowing I had finally made it out of New York meant I was aware that I would have a good time regardless of where I wound up.”

cityscape ontinyent spain

What were your perceptions of Ontinyent during your first year?

“Again, I had the Internet to thank for discovering that it wasn’t amongst the most isolated towns in the region (looking at you there, Bocairent). I saw there was a decently-sized shopping mall with chains like Zara and GAME (an equivalent of GameStop), as well as a movie theater. All of the major Spanish banks were there. And most important of all, there was a train station to Valencia. 

By the end of the first year, I had learned that family is highly valued in Ontinyent. At least once a week, regardless of work or social schedules, the family, from grandparents to grandchildren, will share a meal together.”

What were some of the accomplishments of your first year?

“Moving and living abroad is a big accomplishment in itself with all the changes it has brought  me. I had never lived away from home or on my own before. Suddenly in my own flat, there was no one to clean up, cook, or pay the bills. Those responsibilities all fell on me.

Ontinyent newspaper

Many people had warned me that the town isn’t ideal for young people with few nightlife options or places to hang out. Instead I just traveled to the major cities before returning to the calm of Ontinyent. It was a great balance for me.”

What do you want to achieve for your second year? 

“As much as I strive to plan my life (after all, I first heard of this program three years ago), I have no idea where it is going. This year, I am going to lay foundations  in case I decide to relocate to Ontinyent for good. This includes continuing to study the local language, Valencian, which is a dialect of Catalan. 

I want to attend Spanish language courses. While I know enough to be considered a native speaker, I still lack confidence. So it would help to be more proficient and understand the basic facets of the language. 

Also, while I can assume I did a decent enough job to warrant a warm and lovely “see you soon!” party at my school, I do feel that there is a lot I can improve on. Since I’m returning to the same center, I don’t have to spend the first few months meeting the faculty and students or familiarizing myself with the town. Like I told some of my co-workers, I come back ready to work!”

What advice would you give to other participants about your first year? What are some of the things they must do and some things they must absolutely not do? 

“The most important thing to realize about this program is that it is going to take a while to adjust to living in Spain if you’re not in a major city. You’re not going to easily find foreign cuisine or people who want to, or can, speak English. By the time I acclimatized to living abroad, which for me was around the New Year, I was already at the halfway point of my tenure. Keep that in mind if it takes you longer to adjust to a new surrounding.

Another piece of advice I have, and this is more personal, regards technology. Yes, it makes us all connected but while it is great to talk to loved ones back home, attempt to disconnect once in a while. Enjoy your newfound independence in a different setting.”

How do you feel about your integration into the culture so far? How did you prepare before you arrived? 

“Before my arrival, I explored the town’s tourism website and looked at the traditional dishes, holidays, and festivals celebrated throughout the year. Being in a small town helped me integrate easier than a tenure in Madrid or Barcelona. There aren’t fast-food chains to satisfy my American tastebuds. The stores in Ontinyent close around 8pm. And my town is also multi-generational.

Now that it’s a year later, I can say it was a great change for me. I am happy to be away from New York. Ontinyent was the perfect size for me. Living in big cities can cause anxiety if you don’t have a big weekend planned or spend too much time at home. Choices are limited in a small town. Most weekends entail a simple football match or drinks at someone’s apartment. I appreciated simple living. When I went on trips during vacation or long-weekend excursions, I had a greater drive to explore and enjoy my time away.

Culture Shock Made Easy

Since I am of Hispanic descent, there wasn’t much of a culture shock. The passion for football extended to my family, so I ended up attending a match at every stadium of the eight La Liga teams based in Madrid and Valencia. I was even able to attend the trophy ceremony for Valencia CF’s triumph in the Copa del Rey, the Spanish domestic cup competition.

The lack of a language barrier also made it seamless to fit in. I didn’t have much of an opportunity to stand out as a foreigner. However, with my co-workers and their family and friends, it was always fun to let them introduce themselves in English. I would always follow in Spanish and leave them astonished. It meant I was able to meet everyone in a more personable fashion. They would ask me about my life in New York and how I was adapting. Meanwhile, I would ask them about their life in a small town.

teaching abroad

Looking Forward to a Future in Ontinyent

Alongside that, learning Valencian has helped a lot. Understanding a conversation between two native speakers, saying that I was taking classes, or just switching from Spanish to Valencian continually impressed people. They couldn’t believe a New Yorker was not only interested in their language but was making a serious effort to be proficient in it even as they considered it “useless for my future in the country.” Even today, weeks removed from Ontinyent, I still think in Valencian.   

I had an enjoyable year in Ontinyent, and I’ve met some of the most generous and accommodating people. Because I have traveled around so much, I’ve seen more of Spain in one year than most people I know who’ve had the opportunity to visit in all their years of living in Spain. While I have a hard time measuring how well I’ve integrated into my new town, it has been enough that a few months away is difficult for me. I am eagerly looking forward to my second year.”

An Expat Living and Working Abroad in Ontinyent, Spain

Edgar shares details about his first year abroad living and working in Ontinyent, Spain. He provides guidance for first-year teachers who are just arriving. Expat life is not easy. It can take longer than one expects. After having lived in the Ontinyent area for a year, Edgar feels as if he has made friends at work and started to better understand the language. He is trying his best to learn and understand Valencian and they appreciate his willingness to do so. It takes time. Sometimes expats live abroad for years and still don’t feel a sense of full familiarity within their new home. Edgar plans to try his best in his second year to understand the culture better by perfecting Valencian.

We look forward to hearing more about Edgar’s second year in Ontinyent. Stay tuned for his second update in the late fall. 

by Leesa Truesdell