Moving to Spain, an LGBTQ+-Friendly Destination

Where I’m from, most people do not move out of state, let alone abroad. In my family of working-class New Englanders, women definitely do not. I’m from a small town in Maine, and moving to the “big city” of Portland (60,000 people) is usually journey’s end. Despite its size, Portland is very much a LGBTQ+-friendly destination.

By 24, I had achieved the dream of moving to Portland. I was working at an inbound call center, which is as horrible as it sounds. While I was assisting customers with car rentals in Europe, I was daydreaming of the life I had always wanted: to travel and live abroad. In the rare moments between phone calls, I spent my time scrolling through photos of faraway destinations. Lake Como, the Alhambra, and Gaudí’s Parque Güell were waiting for me, and I knew that I had to start making moves fast. If I didn’t, I could see how easily I could wake up one day and be 50 years old and still living in my familiar bubble. I decided that I would move abroad by 30.

The problem was that I had no clue how to do it. Scrolling Facebook one day, I saw posts from a college classmate who had moved to Madrid through the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program (NALCAP). Organized by the Spanish Ministry of Education, the program contracts native speakers to teach English in public schools in Spain. I had no teaching experience, no child care experience, and had never even been to Europe. Thanks to a semester in Havana, I already spoke Spanish well, though, so I decided to go for it. The prospect of living in southern Europe conjured romantic images of enjoying tapas on cafe terraces, and the program’s offer of free health insurance didn’t hurt either.

Spanish Selection

I had carefully prepared my application documents for months so that I would be sitting at my computer, ready to submit them right when the application opened at midnight on January 9th, 2018. The application allows you to list your top three preferences for which region you would like to work in, and preferences are met on a first-come-first-serve basis. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. When I ended up applying two weeks late, my application number indicated that there were already over two thousand applicants ahead of me, many of them dreaming of living in Madrid just like I was. I hoped that I would at least get one of my backups: Cataluña or the Basque Country.

After applying, there was the long, anxious wait to find out what region I would be assigned. Eager for my dream of moving to Spain to become a concrete plan, I obsessively refreshed my email every day. As a bisexual woman who was struggling to come out of the closet, I hoped to live in a major city like Madrid or Barcelona. There, I knew that I could connect with other folks from the LGBTQ+ community. I had already researched neighborhoods like Chueca in Madrid and envisioned myself living in such an LGBTQ+-friendly destination where the metro was even painted rainbow colors. I also wanted to live in a major city where it might be easier to access EMDR therapy, a specific type of treatment that helped with my complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD).

Updates

Finally, on May 24th, I saw the email in my inbox. I was sitting at my desk at my customer service job, palms sweating, and I clicked on the email. I read that I had been assigned…Valencia? I honestly had never even heard of it before. I was disappointed but promised myself that I would be open-minded. After some Googling, I felt reassured that living on the Mediterranean in the land of paella and oranges would not be so bad. I also still had hopes that I would be placed in Valencia city, which is the third-largest city in Spain.

Moving Abroad

I had to wait even longer to be notified of the exact location of the school where I would be working. On July 2nd, I received an email with the address of my school in Crevillent, a town of 28,000 people located half an hour inland from Alicante. It was not the metropolis that I had been hoping for, but I was determined to be optimistic. With that one email, after months of waiting, my dream had suddenly become a stark reality. Now, everything was up to me. I had two and a half months to get my student visa. I also had to quit my job, empty my apartment, and set up a new life in Spain.

Fortunately, the visa process fell together fairly easily. Emptying my apartment, however, proved to be more complicated. I had no idea how permanent my move was going to be. Would I like living in Spain? Would I enjoy teaching? Should I get rid of all of my possessions, or should I store them in case I regret the move and want to come back? Should I leave my life in a way that I could easily pick up where I left off? Or should I tie off loose ends so that I was free to roam wherever the future might lead me?

Big Steps

In the end, I decided to free myself. I sold or donated all of my possessions (except for a small box of sentimental items that a friend kindly stored for me). When I headed to the airport, I brought all that I owned: two suitcases and a backpack. After a tearful goodbye, I watched my best friend drive away.

Suddenly, the overwhelming wave of reality hit me. It was just me and my dreams, standing there in the doorway of the airport, and I was absolutely terrified. I had never had any role models in my life to advise me as a woman solo moving abroad. No woman in my family had lived the independent life that I had always longed for. I desperately wanted to call my friend and beg him to come back. I wanted to explain that I had made a terrible mistake and must have temporarily lost my mind.

Inspiring Individuals

Yet, while I didn’t have any personal role models, over the months since applying to the program, I found inspiration in the stories of others. At first, I sought out online expat networks in search of logistical advice. But over time, I realized that they offered something much more important: emotional support. From blogs to Facebook groups to YouTube videos, expats’ vulnerable testimonials were what gave me the courage to imagine forging a new path for myself. Finally, the moment had come to create my own story—I just had to take that first step into the unknown.

Looking Back

This week, I am celebrating my three-year anniversary of moving to Spain. Embarking on this journey is the biggest risk that I have ever taken. It is also hands down the best decision that I have ever made. Living abroad has nurtured my personal and professional growth in ways that I never could have imagined. I have become more flexible, patient, and confident. Problems that would have overwhelmed me in the past now do not seem so daunting.

In part, I have gained these skills due to the unpredictable nature of NALCAP. I have been fortunate to work in two wonderful schools in small Valencian towns where the staff and students embraced me with open arms. My first year, the English teachers at the school accompanied me during every class and had concrete lesson plans that they wanted me to follow. My second year, I began working at a school in another town, Alginet, and I was responsible for planning and teaching every class on my own. (Per the program guidelines, there was always a teacher in the room during each class, but the teacher did not speak English.) While there are guidelines for the position, in reality, it is up to each school to decide what an auxiliar’s responsibilities are, and this inconsistency can cause confusion but also encourages problem-solving skills.

NALCAP and LGBTQ+

Another unpredictable aspect of NALCAP is the yearly stress of waiting to receive the location of your next school. After completing my first year teaching in Crevillent, I requested to be moved closer to Valencia city. I was fortunate that I was moved to Alginet, a town 45-minutes from Valencia city. However, the Ministry of Education could have assigned me anywhere in the region of Valencia. It is often up to chance. After living in Valencia for two years, I had to face the unfortunate fact that NALCAP has a three-year limit on living in the Valencian region.

I was forced to apply to move to a different region. Again, I was in the situation of anxiously waiting to hear where I would be living and hoping that I would receive one of my preferences. I was lucky to be granted my first choice of Andalucía. In August, I was notified that I will be living in a small coastal town in Almería province. This left me one month to figure out how to move to this unknown place without a car. Solving these types of problems is now my normal rhythm of life.

Moving Abroad and Finding the Right LGBTQ+-Friendly Destination

I often think back to that crucial moment when I was standing in the doorway of Logan Airport. There were a million reasons to not walk through that door. I had so many fears: Would I be able to find mental health care? Would I make friends? Would it end up being an LGBTQ+-friendly destination where I could be myself? My journey living abroad has been an unexpected road with its share of ups and downs. Along the way, I have faced some very difficult moments. Yet, honestly, I have never once regretted my decision to take that step forward. In the most difficult moments, my consolation has always been remembering that this is not a life that was given to me, but rather one that I have built. And it all started with taking the incredible (yet terrifying) risk of building a life that I love.

Finding Resilience: Working Without Pay Abroad

Kevin Mascitelli in front of a fort.No matter how often you travel, you’re bound to have unexpected challenges. We sometimes revel in these obstacles. Learning how to navigate a new place is exhilarating. Small, menial tasks suddenly offer a newfound sense of accomplishment — navigating public transportation, chatting with strangers, going to the grocery store, and so on. It’s great. What’s not so great? Working without pay for months on end while living in a foreign country.

Thrills and Chills of Traveling

If things go wrong, they eventually become glorious battle scars. Travelers can’t resist sharing their disaster stories, whether it’s being trapped in an airport for 12 hours or an infamous food poisoning saga. These situations are unpleasant but they’re par for the course.

Knowing all this from past experience, I felt like a confident, seasoned traveler. But when I started teaching English in Spain, what I wasn’t prepared for was working without pay for nearly five months.

The Customer is Always Right

Embedded within the cultural ethos of the United States is the phrase, “the customer is always right.” From Sears, to Amazon, to the mom-and-pop pizza place down the street, this saying influences how people treat each other in transactional situations. People don’t always act like this, of course, but this idiom establishes an expectation within the United States.

I knew that outside the land of stars, bars, and backyard BBQ, the relationship between client and server or worker and employer doesn’t always favor the “customer.” Nonetheless, I had built up an intrepid confidence in my abilities to adapt. This was put to the test when I decided to return to Spain to teach English.

Kevin Mascitelli looking down at the street from the roof.

Working Without Pay Abroad

In October 2019, I returned to Valencia, Spain to teach for a reputable English exchange program I had worked for in the past. Although I was warned about delays in payment, I trusted that things would be fine. Besides, my paperwork was flawless. Documents notarized, background checks completed, and files delivered to the proper authorities. But by December I hadn’t received a single Euro. As my savings dwindled, I became worried.

My first instinct was to visit my bank. Maybe they delivered the wrong account information to the government. In Spain, no matter what anyone tells you, banking is mostly done in person. Yes, there are apps and online account portals, but these programs don’t allow you to change or sometimes even verify critical information. This can only be done in person at your bank branch — not just any bank branch — the bank branch where you first opened your account. Because I had previously lived in Valencia, my bank branch was, of course, on the other side of the city. Very convenient.

Euros.

I visited my bank so many times that I thought about getting my banker, Edu, a Christmas present. Eventually, I discovered that the bank had done everything right. There shouldn’t be an issue, and I should be getting paid shortly. When this didn’t come to fruition, I knew I needed to move up the bureaucratic food chain. My next stop: the Spanish Ministry of Education and Sport.

January

Kevin Mascitelli looking down from the rooftop.

My new year’s resolution was to get paid. I was running out of money, and frustrated because for months I had continued to work without pay. A new year forced me to reevaluate the financial stress this was causing. I considered packing my bags for a return trip home. At this point, persistence was my only shot at salvaging this mess.

The Spanish Ministry of Education and Sport was the agency that administered my English teaching program. It took me many exciting hours of combing through government websites to locate their Valencian office — a harbinger of sorts.

When I finally arrived at the office, although I felt very nervous about having such a serious conversation in my second language, I felt a sense of relief. Speaking face to face with the officials gave me hope that someone would act. Once I got through this conversation, a weight would be lifted off my shoulders.

“Two More Weeks”

Plastic seats in a waiting area.The program administrators told me to wait two more weeks, and everything would be fine. When two weeks had passed, nothing changed. This was obviously not a reassuring sign. It was not an easy choice (because I dislike conflict), but I decided to visit the office each week until I was finally able to stop working without pay.

These visits were uncomfortable at best, each time I left feeling embarrassed and desperate for a fix. In high school Spanish class, there’s no lesson on arguing with a bureaucratic system for your salary. Under pressure, my Spanish didn’t feel natural. I stuttered more and couldn’t remember the right words quickly enough. What bothered me the most was that I couldn’t use words to bring levity to the situation. All I could do was ask for help.

Pessimistic thoughts gathered like drops of rain in a puddle. One thing that kept me motivated was believing that messy situations make you stronger in the long run. Displaying grit in a situation fraught with setbacks “builds character.” It wasn’t until a group of English teachers publicly protested in front of the city’s main government building did the program act to resolve the salary issues. When the paycheck finally hit my bank account, it was late February 2020. I thought my days of working without pay in Spain for the next few months were over.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

History proved different, and in March 2020 — instead of a vacation in Italy — my girlfriend and I fled our Valencian apartment to live at my parent’s home in the US. As military medical personnel set up tents in hazmat suits, and police vehicles announced disquieting health advisories, we threw all of our belongings in the dumpster and caught the last flight leaving Valencia before travel was banned for the next eight weeks. We could have waited out the onset of the pandemic in Spain, of course, but given how unreliable my payment was, there was no telling how little support we would have gotten as foreigners.

A waiting room during COVID-19

In retrospect, I am thankful for the challenges I faced during my second experience in Spain. Bureaucratic systems operate differently from country to country, and while each system has its flaws, I had the implicit expectation that things would work like the United States, where the “customer is always right.” Resilience in the face of adversity is something many of us have shown since the pandemic began in March 2020. I hope that we can all enter the next chapter of this collective experience with the same perseverance that we’ve shown this past year.

by Kevin Mascitelli

What I Know Now About Teaching English in Spain

Sarah Perkins Guebert Bio PhotoAre you a teacher or language assistant? Thinking of teaching English in Spain? It goes without saying that there are differences in culture and education between any two countries. There are certainly quite a few between Spain and the US, where I grew up. 

You may have heard some stereotypes about Spanish education, and, no, here in Spain we do not take naps at school in the middle of the day. Nor do teachers instinctively know how to dance flamenco. In many ways, schools in Spain and the US are actually quite similar. However, there are a few notable differences that might surprise you. These are the five things I wish someone had explained to me before I started teaching English in Spain as an American. 

Five Things I Learned Teaching English in Spain

Ditch the Heels

You may be surprised to discover that Spanish teachers do not dress to impress. In fact, casual attire is the norm. This includes jeans, sneakers, and tees. It certainly wasn’t the scenario I’d pictured when I moved to Spain. When I arrived for the first time, I brought clothes typical of an American teacher: slacks, button-ups, smart cardigans, etc. However, I quickly realized that dressing too formally was out of place in the public school environment and ditched the skirts for jeans.

On a First-Name Basis

Not only do Spanish teachers dress down, but they also go by their first names. This was quite a shock to me after coming out of the American education system. On the first day of my teaching job, I was stunned when students ran up to my boss and addressed him by his first name as though he were their best friend or cousin. However, this is not something out of the ordinary here. Have fun with it and remember that the kids do not mean any disrespect.

Winging It

American teachers know that lessons require several hours a week of painstaking work. Not so in Spain. In general, Spanish teachers do not believe in working unpaid overtime. They do not usually prepare extensive lessons, handouts, or other materials. In fact, they prefer to follow the textbook, and some even show up (sometimes late) and throw a lesson together at the last minute. This can certainly be shocking for new teachers and language assistants; however, to put this in perspective, oftentimes teachers are shuffled around between grades from year to year and cannot rely on past lesson plans.

Chitter Chatter

Spanish children are incredibly active and talkative. In fact, it’s very difficult to get them to be quiet at all. This can be challenging for a teacher, but it also means that these students excel at speaking activities and games and always enjoy a lively debate with their classmates. They are happy to discuss almost any topic at length and are always eager to participate. Make sure to put a time limit on your activities, because Spanish students can easily take over an entire class.

Black Pen or Blue?

One of children’s biggest challenges is trusting in their own decisions. They sometimes struggle to make even the smallest of choices without adult guidance. Everything is dictated to them at school from a young age, making these little decisions and creativity as a whole very difficult for them to grasp. Giving Spanish students too much freedom can even result in panic. Be prepared for confusion, a bombardment of questions, or even tears from the younger if you give them too many options to choose from.

If you plan on becoming a teacher or language assistant in Spain, I would advise simply spending time in the country and immersing yourself in the culture before walking into a class. Enjoy the parks, the bars, and the street. Understanding Spanish culture will help you understand the school environment and your students. Once you’re in class, relax, exchange your fancy clothes for comfy ones, go by your first name, and most importantly, take it one day at a time.

The Impact Teachers Have on the Community

“It is interesting to see the direct impact teachers have on the community.” — Justin Hughes-Coleman

First impressions have an impact, no matter the cultural or social setting. I have noticed that in our group of language assistants, there are not as many male teachers as female. Because of this, I knew I wanted to interview a male participant. I also wanted to interview someone who commuted and worked in the north of Madrid. Therefore, Justin was a perfect candidate. I had not had a long conversation with Justin until our first interview. He struck me as a friendly type. Justin is extremely easygoing with a smile that lights up the room. His first impression was a memorable one.

Justin’s experience in Spain is going to be such a fascinating journey to follow. He is going to be an excellent teacher. His enthusiasm and joy for life will brighten up a classroom. The new challenges that Justin seeks are about to unfold. How exciting.

Meet Justin, the Soul Searcher, and Teacher

Justin hails from San Diego, California. He went to California State University San Marcos. and graduated three years ago. Since then, Justin has worked in retail, finance, real estate and in AmeriCorps as a legal adviser to families.  As Justin became proficient at each job, his mind would start to atrophy from lack of challenge and overlong hours and his  soul remained unfulfilled. Making the decision to come to Spain pushed Justin to take on new challenges. 

Before his journey to Spain, he had never taught before. Justin decided to teach abroad because of the experience of one of his good friends. Because she had done the exact same program in Madrid, Justin knew she would be a great to consult.

He has two major goals while he is here. Justin would like to learn more Spanish and travel through Europe and see parts of Africa.

map of tres cantosWhere are you teaching?

“I will be teaching at a primary school in the northern part of Madrid in an area called Tres Cantos. It’s a one-hour commute from where I will be living in the city.”

What do you think teaching in Spain will be like for you?

“I try not to think too much about it before it happens. My mom is a teacher. She has taught my entire life. We can’t walk into a store in town without one person knowing her or saying hi. It is interesting to see the direct impact teachers have on the community.”

What are you looking forward to most with teaching?

Justin looked up with a really big smile and said: “I am looking forward to preparing lesson plans and seeing how my plans impact my students.”

Justin chose to be a teacher abroad to nourish his soul both professionally and personally. He explained: “In the United States I would not be open to creating new lesson plans in subjects ranging from science to American History because I would have a bias as to what a teacher should do and the limitation on the lesson plans they are permitted to teach.

Tres cantos teaching abroad
Tres Cantos, Spain

 

He added: “However, in Spain, I do not know how their school system works and what is permitted. I can teach from a different perspective that might help the students learn in a different way. So, instead of making lesson plans ahead of time that I might have to change or totally get rid of, I am going to wait for some guidance from my school and use the skills I have learned from my mother to help craft lesson plans that will fit the needs of the school.”

Justin’s ease as he mapped out his hopes for the future masked what I didn’t know then, that he had been going through a difficult time.

What are your perceptions of Madrid so far?

“The people and other teachers in Madrid are very friendly. I am not used to that. Even strangers are personable. While looking at a piso, a receptionist at the building started speaking to me and asking me about my day.”

Justin’s perceptions should be tempered by the observation that while Spanish people can be very friendly, they can also be very direct. He has a charm which is instantly endearing as I discovered in the course of our conversation.

teachers-teaching-studentsWhat assumptions or expectations did you have before you came here? Have you found them to be accurate or inaccurate?

“I thought Spanish people were going to be more “svelte” looking people, like you. But, in general, they aren’t.”

For those of you who do not know what svelte means (me included), it means thin in an attractive or graceful way. I have to say, thank you, Justin (blushing)!

As we built up our connection, Justin opened up more.

What has been most difficult since you arrived?

“Piso-hunting has been the most difficult. People canceled appointments that I reserved minutes before I arrived. They won’t call to cancel the appointment in advance. Now that I have a piso, the hardest thing to get used to is the directness of the Spanish culture. An example of this was when someone told me I looked very messy on the subway (in broken English-Spanish). I was drenched in sweat.

On the flip side, they aren’t very forthcoming with information or specifics. Getting detailed information from potential landlords during the search was extremely challenging.”

teachers in spain

What has been the best experience of being a teacher abroad?

“Meeting all the new people and fellow teachers, Americans and Spanish alike.”

How do you feel about the integration of the culture so far? Are there things that you have embraced or are hoping to embrace?

“I have integrated more easily than I thought I would, being a teacher. When I got here, I thought it would be very difficult to get around. But that is not the case. I hope to embrace the soccer culture and understand it better. In general, the Spanish lifestyle is slower. When you go out at night you pace yourself. I feel like in America, you either go hard or go home. It’s about getting drunk. Here, it is about enjoying your friends and enjoying the evening. I’m looking forward to that.”

Justin took the leap of faith to go to Spain to find himself. The self-discovery process in Spain is going to be a great one with Justin. One thing we can be sure of, Justin will be encountering and embracing many new challenges in the upcoming months. He will be making friends and meeting other teachers abroad. We will check back with him halfway to find out more.

Stay tuned for our next connection.

by Leesa Truesdell