9 Things You Didn’t Know About Flamenco

Before I moved to Spain, I thought I knew what flamenco was—the traditional dance from Spain, right? But in the four and a half years I’ve lived in Spain (including 15 months where I moved to Seville specifically to deepen my knowledge of flamenco), I’ve learnt that this isn’t really the case. I could write a whole essay about what I’ve learnt so far, but here are the basic things you should know. 

Flamenco dancer performs in a square in Spain

1. It’s From Andalusia, Not Spain as a Whole

Although I don’t dance at a high level, I have been learning different dance styles since I could walk. I started with disco and ballroom as a toddler, moved to ballet and tap as a teenager, and then to English folk dancing at university. So the obvious thing for me to do when I moved to Spain was to sign up for flamenco dance classes. So as soon as I arrived in Castelló, in the Valencia region, that’s exactly what I did. To my surprise, this caused quite the confusion for my local friends. “Why are you learning flamenco here, in Castelló?!” they asked. “Well, because I’m in Spain, so obviously I want to learn the traditional dance,” I replied. “Yes, but flamenco isn’t from here, it’s from Andalusia.” You can, of course, learn flamenco anywhere. But the heart and birthplace of the art form is in Andalusia, a region in southern Spain. That is by far the best place to learn and immerse yourself in the culture. 

Flamenco dancers in a street festival in Spain

2. It’s Not Just One Style

I never even considered that flamenco could be more than one style. But it is so varied, with over 50 different palos (styles), although many are just sung, never danced to. These range from the common alegrías, tangos, or bulerías, to the less common garrotín, martinete, or farruca. There are many ways to categorise them. One way is by where they come from, as most originate from a different town or city in Andalusia, Spain. Some (the “ida y vuelta” styles) come from the mix of styles between Spain and Latin America that were then reintroduced into Spanish flamenco. Another way to classify them is based on their rhythm. Most palos are either 4-count or 12-count rhythms. But don’t start thinking it’s easy. Many 12-count palos have this strange accentuation that takes a while to get used to (stressed counts in bold): 1 2 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Two female Flamenco dangers perform on a stage holding fans

3. It’s Different Than Spanish Folk Dance

Flamenco is a traditional dance from Spain, but it is not the only one. Many regions of Spain have their own folk dances. Some, like the jota aragonesa, are even quite famous (at least within Spain). But flamenco dance is different, mainly because of the strong influence of the Roma people’s (gitanos) music and culture. It is also usually much more complicated. Folk dances tend to be simpler and more repetitive, so non-professional dancers can pick them up and dance together socially. Some flamenco palos are simpler and can be danced socially (like bulerías). But most of them involve much more complex footwork, and years of practising to get to a high level. Although Spanish folk dances and flamenco have influenced each other a lot, they are not the same thing. 

Colorful stalls and paper lanterns decorate a street festival in Spain

4. A Lot of Flamenco Is Improvised

If you’re watching a group flamenco performance in a theatre, it’s likely to be fully choreographed. However, if you’re watching a flamenco dance in a tablao, then this won’t quite be the case. Dancers will practise steps, and have an idea of the structure they want to dance, but they will have to adapt this on the spot to what the musicians play. They typically don’t rehearse together ahead of the performance! This results in a complex mix of improvisation, while also following a set of rules and conventions of what steps go where, and how to respect the musicians too. And if you’re lucky enough to see a group of people dancing bulerías at a bar or a wedding, that will usually be completely improvised. (Still following some conventions though!)

A woman dances Flamenco as a small live band plays in a square in Spain

5. Communication Between Artists Is Key

This is the most fascinating part of flamenco for me. Since the musicians don’t know what the dancer plans to do, there has to be communication. There is a whole code of steps and “intentions” which the dancer can use to indicate to the musician what they want them to play or sing. But this doesn’t usually dictate what length or style of lyrics the singer sings for example. And if the musicians aren’t as experienced, they may not pick up on the cues. The musicians can also choose to play different things which the dancer has to react to, like a guitarist choosing to play a falseta, a solo where they get to shine and the dancer chooses steps that aren’t overbearing. 

The necessity of this communication means that when you watch a high-level flamenco performance, all the artists are completely in tune with each other, and there is an intense focus that you can feel even from the audience. 

 A group of male and female dancers perform Flamenco on a colorful stage

6. The Musicians Sometimes Follow the Dancer

Due to the possibilities that this communication allows, flamenco is the only dance style I know where sometimes the musicians can follow the dancer in this way. This power is so exciting, but it’s difficult to learn how to use it correctly. If the musicians are following you but you’re not confident in this code of communication, things can completely fall apart. Many times when improvising in class, I didn’t quite understand where I was in the music and how or if I should be leading the musician, and my teacher had to help me get through the situation! It’s a steep learning curve, but an incredible feeling when it goes right. 

A man with long hair plays guitar on a dark stage

7. It’s Not Just a Dance Style

Most of the dance styles I learnt growing up, like ballet, tap, and modern, were just that—dance styles. But flamenco is so much more, especially when you study it in Andalusia. It is a way of life and a deep cultural phenomenon. Some palos, like bulerías, are very sociable, and it’s common to hear rhythmic clapping and jaleos (“Olé! Arsa! Guapa!”) accompanying the dancers at bars or from a group of friends in the street. Flamenco artistry runs in families for many generations, and it is a symbol of identity for many groups of people, especially the gitanos in Andalusia, Spain. 

Colorful Flamenco dresses hang on an outdoor balcony in Spain

8. The Palmeros Are Really Important

The palmeros are the people who stand and clap the rhythm, and shout things like “Olé!” at the right time. I used to think they weren’t as important as the dancer, and that they were extra accompaniment that could be done without. But now I’ve realised how important they are. Not just to mark the rhythm and keep the dancers and musicians together, especially in parts where they speed up or slow down or where there is syncopation (very often). But also the climax of the dance would be nothing without the intense clapping that accompanies it. The stronger, faster percussion is essential to build the intensity needed for the climax of a good flamenco performance. 

A Flamenco dancer in a blue dresses dances while musicians play on a colorful stage in Spain

9. The Climax of the Dance

And talking about that climax, there are many different parts to a flamenco performance. From the escobilla where the dancer shows off their complex footwork, to falsetas where the guitarist gets to shine, and strong verses (letras bravas) where the singer can really show off. The climax isn’t an official part of the performance, but it’s the name I give to the most intense moments in a dance (which can often be ~15 mins long). The fast footwork and impressive spins of the dancer match strong accompaniment from the musicians and fast clapping from the palmeros. The climax of a good flamenco performance is such a special experience, especially in Seville where the standard is so high. Your heart rate goes right up, and you are drawn in to that incredible intensity, skill, and passion. 

A woman dances Flamenco with her hands above her head on a stage in Spain

Intrigued?

If this all sounds intriguing, I invite you to check out my article on How to Learn Flamenco in Spain. Or come and visit the beautiful city of Seville, the heart of flamenco, by using this suggested itinerary as a guide! You won’t regret it!

Four women in colorful Flamenco dresses dance on a stage in Spain

How to Get a Driver’s License in Spain

Getting your driver’s license in Spain can be a lengthy and expensive process full of frustration. If you live in Spain, you may have heard friends and coworkers complain about how difficult it can be to obtain your license. However, keep calm and read on, because I’m going to give you some insider tips to make the process easier, faster, and cheaper. Not to toot my own horn (pun intended), but with these tips and tricks, you will be driving around Spain in no time!

Sarah PerkinsNote: You only need a Spanish driver’s license if you’re staying in the country longer than six months. For the first 90 days, you are free to use your country of origin’s license. Then, for the first six months after obtaining residency, you can drive with an international license. Some licenses are accepted in Spain beyond those 90 days and can be turned into a Spanish license. You can find that list here. Unfortunately, for most English-speaking countries, you will need to obtain a Spanish license from scratch.

1. Groupon Coupon

Although it is not the only way to obtain your Spanish license, it is recommended to go through a driving school. However, enrolling at one of these schools can be expensive, so it is best to look for either a school offering a limited-time deal, or a coupon. When I obtained my driver’s license in Spain, I searched for special rates and offers online. I used sites like Groupon to check for deals.

It can be confusing, as there are different kinds of driver’s licenses in Spain. To drive a normal car, or un turismo, you will need the Permiso B, which allows you to drive either manual or automatic vehicles.

Keep in mind that almost everyone drives a manual car in Spain. There is a license that allows you to drive only automatic cars, but it requires you to drive an electric vehicle. Also, automatic cars are more expensive to buy or rent. No matter what, you’ll have to take the practical driving exam anyway. Take advantage of this opportunity and learn how to drive a manual car.

After browsing around on Groupon for a few minutes, I was in luckfor just 19.95 euros, I bought a driving school starter pack for the theory portion of the driving class, plus four practical classes behind the wheel. The only catch? I had to complete it within six months of purchase. 

Understanding the Time Limit

This is actually the standard for most courses offered by driving schools. (If you don’t complete their classes within a certain amount of time, they will ask you to renew your enrollment.) 

The driving school I chose was Gala Autoescuela because it was well-rated and very close to my house. However, Groupon offers coupons for many different driving schools, so another one might be better suited for you depending on where you live.

Note: All courses and exams mentioned in this article were taken in Spanish. The prices in this article are subject to change over time and based on location and available offers.

2. Study Smart, Not Hard

The next step on my journey toward a driver’s license in Spain was to study the materials provided for the theoretical exam. I read the book and took the online course, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t spend much time on those. Instead, I completed every single practice test on the Todo Test app.

What is Todo Test, you ask? Todo Test is a free app that you can download on your phone. From the app, you can access all of the old theoretical exams and practice with them. If you get an answer wrong, you can read a brief explanation or watch a short video explaining the correct answer. You can also retake the tests as many times as you want. I took every test twice to familiarize myself with the questions, the format, and the bonus material that wasn’t included in the course I took through my driving school. Once I aced the tests, I was ready to take the first exam.

Brush Up on Your Spanish

The exams through Todo Test are in Spanish. There is an option to take the theoretical exam in English; however, the translations are rumored to be poor. It is easier to simply learn the vocabulary in Spanish.

3. Psicotécnico: The Secret Hurdle to Your Driver’s License in Spain

I was ready to take the theoretical exam, but there was a hurdle to obtaining my driver’s license in Spain: a surprise exam! The psicotécnico exam is a basic evaluation of your capacity to drive that you must take before the theoretical exam. There are dedicated centers that conduct these tests, and you will need to book an appointment ahead of time. The cost of this exam varies from center to center. I paid 20 euros, however, some centers may charge as much as 80 euros. You can find Groupons for this exam, as well.

The test was fairly straightforward and quick. First, I had to answer some basic health questions, and then I played what was essentially a video game. The objective is to keep the car between the moving lines. It seemed difficult at the time, but I passed with no problem. After this, there is a brief eye exam. If you wear glasses, you can keep them on. 

Don’t worry, this exam is a breeze! I was so nervous that when they asked me to raise my left hand, I raised my right, and I still passed. In total, I spent around 15 minutes in the building. It was as easy as one, two, three. In, out, and done.

4. Theoretical Exam: Two Strikes and You’re Out

With the certificate from the psicotécnico, I went to my Gala Autoescuela to register for the theoretical exam. The driving school handles all of the details to sign you up. I paid the fee for the exam, which was 92.20 euros, and handed over my certificate. The secretary told me they would text when I was scheduled for the exam. 

A few days later, I received a text with the time and date for my theoretical exam. The Dirección General de Tráfico (DGT) center where they do examinations for Madrid is in Móstoles. Many of my friends dread this building, and some have opted to take more expensive driving courses outside of Madrid just to avoid it. It can definitely be intimidating going to the DGT in Móstoles. (For any Americans reading this, it was very reminiscent of taking the SAT.)  The room where the exam is held is huge and filled with desks. We all filed in, were told the rules, and then took the test.

The test is on a computer, and it was very easy to navigate between questions. They advise you to bring a pencil, but this is entirely unnecessary since there is nothing to write down. You only need your ID card and yourself!

With the 92 euros paid to sit the exam, you have up to two attempts to take it. On each of those attempts, you can get up to three questions wrong and still pass. You receive your results a few days after taking the exam, and you can access them online. Should you fail both attempts, you’ll need to pay the fee again to retake the exam.  After this test, you’re one step closer to obtaining your driver’s license in Spain!

 

5. Relearning the Road

After taking the exam and receiving the news that I had passed (with three answers wrong!), I returned to the driving school to schedule my in-person lessons. I already had an American driving license, so I assumed I wouldn’t need more than the four classes offered through Groupon to polish up my skills, learn how to operate a manual vehicle and take the practical exam.

I was very wrong! 

As an American, driving in Europe was a completely different experience, and I was out of practice after years of relying on public transport. The rules of the road are different in Spain, and if you happen to be American like me, you will need to get used to the dreaded roundabouts. Additionally, the roads are narrower, the merge lanes onto the highway are shorter, and there are a million things going on at any given time around you: pedestrians, bikes, animals, etc. You must be very vigilant of your surroundings and patient with Madrid’s aggressive drivers. Parking is also something you will likely need to relearn because Spanish people almost always back into spaces.

Preparing for the Driving Portion

Watch YouTube videos of driving instructors teaching the rules of the road and how to operate a manual vehicle. I watched YouTube videos from both Spain and England to supplement my lessons and help build my confidence.

After pulling my hair out in frustration for about 20 lessons during cold, rainy, and dark winter nights after work, my driving instructor told me I was ready to take the exam. I didn’t feel ready, but I wanted to take the exam to become familiar with it. At this point, I had purchased two ten-packs of classes, totaling about 650 euros. I hadn’t used all of them, because I assumed I would fail the first try on the practical exam and held a couple back in reserve. 

Driver's License in Spain

6. Practical Exam: The Final Stretch

For the practical exam, I had to pay another 125 euros to register and for the driving school to process me. Then I waited, just like before, to receive confirmation of my appointment at the DGT. 

For the theoretical exam, you will need to go to the DGT on your own. However, for the practical, three of my classmates and I went with our driving instructor. They walked us through different questions the examiner might ask ahead of time and reviewed the different routes the examiner might ask us to drive. Fortunately, the day of the exam was sunny and fairly warm; totally different than what I was used to!

The Day of the Exam

I was very nervous so I requested to go first, but this proved to be a terrible decision. I completely froze once the examiner began asking me questions. Normally, the exams are only 20 minutes and you take the exam in conjunction with a classmate. One of you drives to the destination the examiner chooses, and the other drives from the destination and back to the DGT. This ensures that both of you drive in town, on the highway, and demonstrate how to park. However, because our examiner was cautious of COVID-19, I was asked to drive both legs of the journey, doubling my time behind the wheel in which to accumulate mistakes.

In order to pass the practical exam, you can have up to 10 minor infractions, two medium infractions, or five minor infractions and one medium infraction. A single major infraction (such as running a red light) automatically disqualifies you. Given my nerves and the amount of time behind the wheel, I failed as expected from a veritable shower of minor infractions. To put a cherry on top of the experience, I also dropped my residency card sometime during the exam! Fortunately, someone found it and took it to the nearest police station, where I was able to recover it. 

A Second  Chance

If you fail the first time you take the exam, don’t be discouraged! Although stressful, the experience was valuable. I used the rest of the classes I’d purchased to review the mistakes I’d made while taking the exam the first time. Then, after repaying and reregistering for the exam, I took it a second time. I was much more confident and relaxed, and very determined to pass. In fact, I was so much better prepared, that I even managed to pass whilst suffering from a blood clot in my left leg!

After the exam and arriving safely back at the driving school, my instructor congratulated me and handed me the prized green “L” plaque that signifies you are a licensed “learner,” or new driver. Learners need to hang the “L” on the rear windshield of any vehicle for the first year that you have your license. 

Finally, I waited for my license to arrive in the mail. While you wait, download a temporary license that is valid for 90 days. However, it can sometimes take longer than 90 days for the physical license to arrive. In my case, my license arrived exactly 90 days after passing the practical exam. 

Driver’s License in Spain

Lessons Learned About Getting a Driver’s License in Spain

From start to finish, the process of obtaining my driver’s license in Spain took nine months. It can certainly be done faster, especially if you have a flexible work schedule and push through the study phase faster. Realistically, give yourself at least six months to complete everything, but be prepared for it to take up to a year or more.

The Cost

In total, I spent around 1,000 euros over the course of those nine months to obtain my license. I was able to fraction the class payments and exam fees, which did help, but it was very expensive. Some driving schools offer better deals and, with a little luck, you can find better Groupons than I did to reduce the cost. Conversely, I’ve heard from colleagues and friends that the process can be even more expensive. One of my coworkers has spent over 3,000 euros on classes and exam fees!

I was staggered by the amount of money this process required; however, my driving instructor gave me some words of wisdom. He told me that I will spend more money on bread in my life than on driving classes. Now, I haven’t done the math and I’m not sure that’s true, but I understand his point. Getting your Spanish license is a one-time cost compared to recurring costs over the years. And besides, it’s undeniably valuable to be able to drive in your country of residence, as well as learn how to drive a manual car. 

If you’re looking to cut costs, study and take the exams on your own without going through a driving school. However, I would recommend going through a school. Mine was extremely helpful and walked me through each step of the process, saving me a lot of stress and hassle. Time is money, too! 

Reflecting on the Process 

All in all, the process was longer and more expensive than I’d hoped, but not nearly as scary as I’d feared. I learned a lot of vocabulary, made some new friends through the driving school, and, most importantly, finally got my license! After nine long months, I am finally ready to take my dog on road trips!

If you are in the process of getting your driver’s license in Spain, best of luck! Drop any questions you might have about the process in the comments and I will be happy to answer.

Earning a driver’s license in Spain is an important step if you’re thinking about getting a job there or simply traveling for an extended period. Once you’ve followed the steps on this list, you’ll be ready to hit the road! If your journey has landed you in Madrid, there’s no shortage of day trips you can enjoy with your new-found freedom on the road. Click here to check out three of the best.

Prequel 6: Full Circle Moments

This content is only available to our Members. To become a member, join us here.

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

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.

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 slowtrav.com, 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 a great rating online with hotel booking websites. We recommend a 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 and passionate traditional Spanish dance.

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

1) Travel to Seville

You can learn flamenco in dance schools anywhere in Spain, but flamenco is the most popular in Seville — and 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, transportation, 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 at a local restaurant) 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 about Flamenco. 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.

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. 

Disclaimer:

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.

What I Know Now About the Spanish Language

When I moved to Madrid, Spain to teach English, I didn’t know that I would also end up being a student of the Spanish language. Here I was, teaching English by day, learning new Spanish words and expressions, and training my hearing to the Spanish accent by night. As a Latina born and raised in the US, I grew up listening to, and muttering my first words in Spanish thanks to my Mexican parents. A gift I truly appreciate, and one that I knew I surely had a good understanding of. That was, of course, until I moved to Spain and learned that I had some more learning to do. Here are five things I learned about the Spanish language, as a native speaker myself.

1. Not All Spanish Language Is the Same

I consider myself to be fully bilingual in English and Spanish. I can write, read, speak and understand Spanish pretty well. However, the more I spoke with Spaniards and the more I listened to conversations around me at work, and with my host parents, the more I started to question what I thought I actually knew about the Spanish language. 

I realized through funny mistakes and misunderstandings on both sides that Mexican Spanish was actually very different from Spain Spanish in many ways. From the differences in accent, to vocabulary words and slang, to different meanings of words used in Spain vs. in Mexico. It was a lot that I did not anticipate, maybe foolishly, but it made for great learning experiences. I had plenty of funny ice-breakers with strangers. I grew a deeper appreciation for the Spanish language. 

For instance, let’s take the word “heater” which in Mexican Spanish, we would say calenton. In Spain, they would say estufa, which means cooking stove in Mexican Spanish. The funny thing here is that it makes total sense. However, it’s just not a word I would use for a heater. Yet that was the word they used in Spain.  

Another quick example is the word “straw.” In Mexico, we would call this popote, while in Spain, the word is pajita. Two completely different sounding words that can cause quite a moment of confusion for both Mexicans and Spaniards.  My mom learned this the funny/hard way when she was visiting me in Madrid — thanks, mom! 

I was suddenly hearing Spanish words for everyday things that sounded like a whole different language at times. It was intimidating in the beginning. However, I realized the grand opportunity to re-learn the Spanish language in a country where Spanish was the main language.

2. I Unexpectedly Relearned a Language I Thought I Already Knew

Moving to Spain meant a lot of changes and adjustments. One of them was expanding my knowledge of the Spanish language, which I did not expect. Relearning Spanish in Spain allowed me to learn words I didn’t know in Spanish to begin with, which was surprisingly refreshing.  Every day I was learning new vocabulary words that back home, I would have never used. For example, insurance? In Spain, it’s seguro. I would have said aseguranza which is not an actual Spanish word. It’s Spanglish. And like this, I learned a lot. I realized that senderismo meant hiking, andar meant to go for a walk, and nevera meant refrigerator. I used completely different words for these words. 

I’ll admit that the first few months, the constant and unexpected relearning of my native Spanish felt a bit intimidating. It was a bit of an identity crisis each time someone didn’t understand me, or vice versa. I had always identified as a fluent Spanish speaker. All of a sudden I faced the challenge of not being able to communicate with my peers that well. 

I felt nervous to speak, and even dumb at times. However, being an English teacher, I was reminded every day by my students what the process to learn a new language was like. I learned how to be ok with feeling silly at times. It’s not that serious, and it can be fun to learn new words in a foreign language. At the end of the day, I was grateful to know the Spanish language, whether it was slightly different or not.

3. Speaking Spanglish and Other Dialects

Maybe Spanglish is not a fully recognized language. But the truth is, there is a whole population of us that speak Spanglish in the US. Approximately 40 million people in the US speak Spanglish, a hybrid language of English and Spanish. This “agreed upon” language came about after the Mexican-American War of 1948. A unique combination of sounds, words, and meanings became widespread during the 50’s and 60s  with the waves of immigrants from Latin America coming to the US. 

After coming back from Spain, my new workplace in the US involved a lot of Spanish speaking — a continuation of my learning and appreciation of the Spanish language. This time, however, with my recent experience of being in Spain, I couldn’t help but think about this other variation of Spanish – Spanglish. I thought about the different versions of Spanglish spoken throughout the US the more I interacted with other different Spanish speakers in the US. The Spanglish that people in Texas and California speak is different from the one in Florida, or New York for instance. It reminded me of the differences in Spanish spoken in Andalucia vs. the Basque Country within Spain, or the different dialects of Spanish spoken all throughout Latin America.  Different, yet similarly understood. 

What I know now about the Spanish language is that it’s much more diverse, complex, beautiful, and rich than I ever really thought it was. I cultivated such gratitude to know this beautiful language. In fact, I’m now learning a few of the different dialects in other Spanish-speaking countries. I’m paying more attention to other countries and their specific and beautiful ways of speaking Spanish — from their accents, to their slang, and unique and cultural Spanish words. 

4. The Spanish Language Is Much Richer Than I Thought

I began to experience a newfound appreciation for Spanish after being in Spain for just a few weeks. I came to a realization of the differences between Spain and Mexican Spanish dialects. Every single day I learned a new expression or word. I had never really realized the richness of the diversity – the bending of the meaning of words that differ between countries and cultures. How amazing is it that approximately 18 countries in the world speak Spanish, with each having their own version of it? That one expression can mean one thing in one country, and it can mean something completely different in another? It’s exciting, funny, wonderful, and extremely interesting.

Another very interesting thing I learned about the Spanish language was the complexities of Spanish, and how it’s spoken differently not only between Mexicans and Spaniards, but also within Spain regionally. That was a whole other level of learning that allowed me to dive deeper into how rich — culturally and linguistically — Spanish is. What I know now about the Spanish language is that language in and of itself is such a powerful tool to communicate and get to know a culture. It is also an incredibly helpful tool to make friends, connections, get out of your comfort zone, and to appreciate something you already knew, just a bit deeper.

5. The Spanish Language Gave Lasting Friendships

Whether I am at home, or I am living in Spain, knowing the Spanish language has always allowed me to make friends with other Spanish speakers. It’s a common thread that connects people, knowing the same language. Although it makes sense, it rings especially true when traveling. Whenever I reflect on my living experience in Spain, I can’t help but feel even more gratitude for speaking Spanish, no matter how different it sounded to Spaniards. 

Speaking Spanish allowed me to connect with my co-workers, have conversations, learn how friendships are made in a foreign country, and also share more of myself authentically with locals. Whether it was a conversation over cultural differences at dinner with my host parents, or sharing my travel plans with my co-workers and getting suggestions from them, speaking Spanish facilitated my ability to connect with the people and culture of Spain so much. In the same way, it was an opportunity to share not only Mexican culture with my host parents, but also cook for them a Mexican feast. If I hadn’t known Spanish, my experience would have potentially looked very different. 

The Wrap-Up

The irony of it all was that when I first arrived in Spain, my Spanish host family, co-workers, and friends didn’t understand me completely because I spoke Mexican-Spanish and Spanglish. However, when I came back home, my Mexican family and friends struggled to understand some of the expressions I was using.  

Now, I had learned and expanded my own knowledge of the Spanish language, while living and immersing myself in Spanish culture and dialect. I used words like que guay, estropear, and other interesting words unique to Spain that I couldn’t let go of. 

In the end, I learned quickly that Mexican-Spanish differs in many ways from Spain-Spanish. While I felt very grateful to know some version of Spanish, I didn’t know that my year teaching English in Spain would also deepen my appreciation for a language I already thought I knew. I realized throughout my time living in Spain that Spanish comes in all sounds, speeds, and expressions. Language in and of itself is such a powerful tool to connect and learn about a culture on a deeper level. Especially when it’s your own. 

The Highs and Lows of Being an English Language Assistant

After weighing up multiple options post-graduation, I eventually decided to work as an English Language Assistant in Castelló de la Plana. The ELA, known in Spanish as an auxiliar de conversación usually works for 12-16 hours a week helping the main teacher. In this position, you can be especially helpful leading speaking activities or giving cultural presentations, which the (usually) non-native teacher would find more difficult to teach. 

Life’s a rollercoaster

Overall I had an incredible time in my three years as an English Language Assistant in Castelló. But there were plenty of difficult moments too, and I think it is important to talk about all aspects of living abroad. I find that living abroad heightens all my emotions and everything is just more intense. The awesome experiences were far more incredible than what I would have experienced staying in England. But I also faced more obstacles, and without such a wide support network, they felt more difficult. 

A sunrise from the Castello mountains

So without further ado, here are some of the highest highs and lowest lows of my time in Castelló. 

Working as an English language assistant

Lows: English Language Assistants normally work with a maximum of two or three teachers. But for my first year, we only realised this after we had organised my timetable… with 13 teachers! This made coordination difficult and resulted in too much last-minute planning. I wasn’t always able to make the most of my time in class. In my final year, with the excuse of COVID, my coordinator only allowed me to teach from the textbook. That’s not really an ELA’s job, and I wasn’t able to share much of my culture or do fun speaking activities. I felt useless and frustrated, and sorry for the children. 

Highs: I want to be a teacher in the future, so I definitely enjoyed the job. But it wouldn’t feature in my most outstanding memories. However, outside my main job, I taught private lessons. In these lessons, I had more flexibility and was really able to share my culture. The joy of carving pumpkins and cooking gingerbread men with excited children in English is one highlight I’ll always treasure. Another is the weekly classes that almost became therapy sessions with one of my adult students. We developed a special bond that I didn’t have with other students. 

Language

Lows: I moved to Spain to practise speaking Spanish and Catalan/Valencian. But the language barrier was, and still is, one of my greatest frustrations. I have a very good level of both languages now, but I still can’t express myself in the same nuanced manner that I can in English. I also still struggle to understand everything in group conversations or noisy situations. I feel I can’t be fully myself, or I feel that the version of me that people know isn’t everything I really am.

Highs: Valencian is, sadly, a minority language in many places it is spoken. Lots of locals can’t (or don’t) speak it. So being an English person who speaks Valencian is uncommon and appreciated. Along with the fact that I got very involved in the local culture, this turned me into a mini-celebrity in the Valencian-speaking community of Castelló. I definitely met more people because of this and was welcomed more into the local culture. 

Friends

Lows: Making friends, especially as you get older, is always a challenge. Making friends in a foreign language and foreign culture is even more difficult. And in Castelló, the majority of people were born there and have lived there all their life (or left briefly but returned). This makes it even more difficult to become part of friendship groups that have been stable in many cases since primary school! I noticed this especially keenly because with my job I had lots of free time. I missed having my university friends with me to share my adventures. 

Highs: Slowly, I began to make more friends. I didn’t ever get to the point where I felt completely happy with how many close friends I had. But I was incredibly lucky to have many people who welcomed me and shared their time and passions with me. With them, apart from my regular hobbies, I went paddleboarding at sunrise, surfing, snorkelling, rollerblading, cycling, and learnt to play paddle tennis. They lent me equipment, drove me to suitable places, and shared the fun with me! I was also lucky to have a coordinator who became my best friend. She was my confidante, inspiring me with her passion for teaching and life. We shared Christmas meals and pizza nights. We went hiking and olive picking, and I was welcomed like another member of the family. 

COVID

Lows: Luckily COVID isn’t an integral part of the English Language Assistant experience! But it understandably had such a big impact on my life in Castelló that I have to mention it. Unsurprisingly, it was a low point! In Spain, we had two months where we were only allowed out of the house for essential shopping, not even for exercise, and I was not in the best flat for this (dark, few windows, introverted flatmates…). Throughout my whole final year, there were also still varying levels of restrictions. In many ways, I found it even harder when the restrictions eased because I still felt a personal sense of responsibility. But I had to enforce my own boundaries, I couldn’t fall back on the law. 

Highs: It may seem strange to have a “highs” section under COVID. But although I would never choose for it to happen, the sense of togetherness was so strong, even though we were physically apart. Having more free time was also a bonus, which allowed me to get back in regular contact with many friends. But the most positive thing to come out of the COVID situation was, surprisingly, flamenco. 

During the strictest lockdown, my flamenco teacher began to offer classes online. I didn’t have much else to do, and they gave me a sense of purpose, so I signed up for all of them! Even once restrictions relaxed, there were still many things we couldn’t do. But dance classes, either socially distanced and with masks, or back online, were always possible. So I directed more energy to flamenco, and it became a passion that led to me moving to Seville this year to learn more! 

Paperwork

Lows: I really don’t think there are any highs for this. And I had it easier than many people I know! But I’ve still been on wild goose chases around different government buildings, being turned away at each one. I’ve nearly cried with frustration and humiliation (and I know people who have actually cried). I’ve waited longer than you should have to for a simple document. I have struggled to make a cita previa (appointment) which I needed urgently. But it is all manageable eventually, especially if you take someone with you for emotional support! 

Culture

Highs: But here is something which only has highs! The Valencia region has such a rich culture, and there is so much I could talk about. But I’m going to focus on two of my favourite parts. 

Fire: There is no way that Valencia’s fire-related traditions could happen in England due to health and safety restrictions! So I made the most of them while I could. I have three favourite fire-related memories. The first one was the Nit Màgica in the Magdalena celebrations. People with fire danced around me, sparks rained down from above, wheelbarrows with flaming bull-like “horns” whooshed past, and fireworks set the palm trees on fire. Not everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it! Secondly, the square full of people wielding fire in the Salt de Plens at the Patum festival. Never have I been more scared for my life, nor more exhilarated and amazed! And thirdly, going under and inside a massive bonfire to celebrate Sant Antoni as the clock struck midnight on my 25th birthday. If you like fire, the Valencia region is the place to be!

Muixeranga: I knew I wanted to join the muixeranga group before I even arrived in Spain. These human towers perfectly combine my love of acrobatics and climbing, with the desire to experience the local traditions. Right from the beginning, I felt welcome in their group. I especially love the mix of ages, from little children to retired people. Everyone has their space in the Conlloga (my muixeranga group). The highlight of everything I got to do with this group was the figuereta. It’s a figure where someone (me!) gets to do a headstand on top of two levels of people! It’s visually impressive, fun to perform, and came to represent my involvement in Valencian culture. 

Location

A final high: Castelló is a 20-minute cycle from both the sea and the mountains. I loved going to either of those places for sunrise and sunset. It is also surrounded by stunning villages, and I made sure to visit as many of them as possible (even better when you can go with local people to show you their secrets!)

Conclusion

I certainly struggled at times during my three years in Castelló, with problems I wouldn’t have faced had I stayed in England. But the highs fully outweighed the lows, and I had an incredibly immersive experience with so many amazing memories. Cliché as it sounds, the difficulties have made me a stronger person, and the high points have given me an experience that will forever be a part of me. I would 100% recommend being an English Language Assistant in Castelló!