Closing the Door on Madrid: Moving Away

Amanda Whitten Moving AbroadBy Amanda Whitten

Catch up on Amanda’s interview series by reading Part One and Two!

Dear reader, my goal is to be nothing if not sincere. I want to answer as honestly as possible and show you the good, the bad, and the ugly — even if the ugly resides within myself. I’m just a person with a dream. I have so many, many fears, some real and others imagined, but my dream keeps me going. It is ever-changing and evolving. I won’t say that if I can do it, then anyone can. 

I have my privileges as well as my traumas, my character flaws, and disadvantages. I hope that my words inspire hope and courage to go out there and do the Thing. Ironically enough, it was a movie villain that once said it best: sometimes you can’t wait for opportunity to come knocking. You have to drag it kicking and screaming through the door. Don’t wait for life to come to you. Go and get it. This is the third and final interview that concludes a big chapter in my life — I’m moving away from Madrid.

Can you remind us what your reasoning was in moving away to Spain to work and teach abroad? Was it to learn Spanish? 

I decided to live in Spain because it’s a Spanish-speaking country. That means I chose Spain more out of convenience than as a method to become fluent in the language. Before moving away to live abroad, I earned a degree in the Spanish language and gained fluency a couple of years prior. That being said, my language skills have improved immensely since being here. 

A photo of a Hibiscus flower, which Amanda photographed after moving away from Madrid.

In your last interview, we talked about your goal to reach out more to Spanish locals. How are you doing with that?

Oh, my goodness. It’s worse than ever, haha! Now that I primarily teach online, I rarely get out of the house except to go to the beach (which I’ll talk more about in a minute). I do need to make an effort, but I find it easier to connect with ex-pats in general. Locals have already-established social circles while foreigners are always on the lookout for a good friend. I’m not complaining, though. I don’t know if I would want to make friends with people who were almost always moving away in the near future. It would be exhausting, I imagine. 

One of your goals in moving away to Madrid was to travel and experience a new culture while teaching. How did you do?

I think that I’ve done pretty well. I’ve traveled more than I ever thought possible. I’ve been able to dip my toes into several cultures. COVID made traveling this year nearly impossible, of course. I was finally going to visit Northern Spain after putting it off since I arrived. It’s sometimes easier and cheaper to travel to a whole other country such as Malta than to go to Northern Spain. Unfortunately, those plans got squashed. However, I recognize that I’m incredibly lucky, regardless. 

a photo of a stack of masks

Where did you travel in your free time from Madrid?

I’ve had the privilege of traveling to several countries. During my first year here, I went to Morocco, Portugal, and Italy. Over the next few years, I went to Belgium, Germany, Malta, and Iceland. I might be forgetting one or two, which is an incredibly weird feeling. 

What have your experiences been with travel during your time teaching abroad? Do you have any advice for other auxiliares interested in traveling while teaching abroad?

In the ministerio de Madrid auxiliar program, you have the choice of taking either Monday or Friday off. I would recommend having Monday off due to cheaper return dates for flying. Also, if you must choose Airbnb for your lodging, please consider renting a room instead of an entire flat. We must be conscientious travelers and not push locals out of their homes

In your previous interview, you mentioned that you were speaking and teaching English most of the time. What can you tell us about learning Spanish through immersion?

I can tell you that true immersion for English speakers is more or less no longer possible. English is too global and too common to become fully immersed in Spain. An exception to that rule is if a person moved to a tiny pueblo where no one spoke English — somewhere outside of any major city center. If you want to improve your Spanish actively, you have to put yourself out there. Go to free language exchanges, take a Spanish class, volunteer somewhere, and date locals that don’t speak English if you’re single. Sidenote, I don’t advocate using people. I mean that one must make it a priority to mingle and make connections with people who speak the target language. It can be mutually beneficial.

a photo of a supermercat in Spain

What was your most memorable moment in class? Do you miss your students?

In one of my academy classes, we had an activity as a part of our daily routine, where each student would write a different thing on the board. One would write the date, the season, the day of the week, the time, etc. The one that they all clambered over was getting to draw the animal. Eventually, we stopped limiting the drawing to animals, and with the permission of the student being drawn, the artist would draw one of their classmates. Eventually, they decided that they wanted to draw — you guessed it — me, the teacher! Their interpretation of what I looked like as a five-minute drawing was pretty awesome and hilariously sweet.

Let’s talk about your school experience: how have you been doing with learning more about the kids’ exams at school? What are your feelings like now that you’re going in a different direction with teaching?

It’s been interesting learning about their college entrance exams. Those tests are a really big deal for the students, and when they tried to explain all the aspects about them to me, I pretty much had a brain aneurysm. When I had my big, important pre-university test in high school, I took the ACT. It covered English, reading, science, and math. Over the years, I’ve found that it’s much more complicated here. 

These days, I’m focusing more on online classes with ESL companies such as VIPkid, Cambly, VIPX, Bling ABC, etc. I liked my job in Leganés, but it’s a relief not having to commute or plan lessons, among other things. I’m also sad, though. My time as an auxiliar was great, and I got to have all of the teaching benefits without most of the downsides. I made lasting connections whereas the barrier with online teaching makes me feel a little bit alone and isolated. It’s a tradeoff to be sure.

Follow up: remind us again what the Cambridge exams are and what ages take this exam?

The Cambridge exams help students enter the universities of their choice and pursue their dreams. The Cambridge exams start with young learners taking the PET and KET. When they are more proficient in English, they can take the Cambridge First and the Cambridge Advanced. Usually, it’s bachillerato students who take the Cambridge Advanced. 

a photo of a child taking a test

What do you miss most about Leganés and Madrid since moving away?

Madrid itself has a lot of personality. I liked it even more than I liked Barcelona. I found that surprising to me since Barcelona is by the ocean, and everyone rightly sings its praises. Each barrio, or neighborhood, in Madrid is unique both in atmosphere and in culture. In contrast, Leganés felt like the perfect place to raise a family. It had and has a certain tranquility to it that I had never quite experienced before. There are school buildings and parks everywhere, and the air of learning and education feels tangible there. 

What will you miss most about Madrid?

Even though Madrid was my home away from home, or perhaps because of it, I started putting down roots, even if I subconsciously did it. I made friends and became comfortable with my neighborhood. My boyfriend’s mom lives there, and I felt as if I was coming home when returning from traveling. I had a favorite coffee shop and places to go when I was feeling down and out. So, I guess that I’ll miss all of that and more. 

A photo of Amanda looking at the sunset

What have you been doing this summer?

This summer, I was supposed to go home to see my family. Unfortunately, COVID complicated everything. I was worried about catching it and bringing it home to my family. Quarantining on both sides of the trip was going to complicate my work schedule and cost me money. I was in the process of making the move to the Canary Islands, and it was all too overwhelming. So, I canceled the flight, worked online, continued to save up, and moved on September 1st. 

What are you up to now?

I’m glad that you finally asked. My boyfriend and I decided to move to Tenerife. Since then, I’ve been teaching on the previously mentioned ESL platforms and adjusting to living on an island. I decided to become autonomo, which basically means that I am officially self-employed and can be my own boss. There has been a lot of paperwork, bureaucracy, and hoops to jump through. Ultimately, this feels like the right decision — at least for this moment in time. Living by the ocean in a place where it’s practically perpetually warm is worth it, so moving away from Madrid was definitely the right call. 

A photo of the beach near where Amanda lives after moving away from Madrid.

Living here is a culmination of everything I’ve ever really wanted out of life. Life is good, and my only regret is not making it happen sooner. But the more that I reflect on my life, the more I can directly connect the dots in my mind’s eye. They make it clear to me that every decision, every choice I’ve ever made in my life — from choosing my single elective in sixth grade, to deciding to study Spanish in college, to moving away to Madrid — has led me directly to this place and time. And I do so love where I’m at, even if at times homesickness eats away at me.

What’s your next step?

I honestly don’t know. The future is an open canvas, and I have never been freer. In a way, I feel that Tenerife is the true adventure. I wasn’t in any way boxed into choosing it, and I’ve come here more or less alone. I didn’t have a regular job waiting for me upon my arrival or any other connections, for that matter. Despite all that, I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be except with my family. I see now that my time on the mainland was a very big stepping stone, and moving away from Madrid was the right decision. 

A photo of the beach near where Amanda lives after moving away from Madrid.

If you could do one thing differently than you did this year, what would it be?

This year looks so different from the last that it’s nearly unrecognizable. However, last year, I wish I had followed my own advice a little bit more. Take the pastries to the break room. Speak to at least one new coworker a day. Put yourself out there. See what happens. 

We are so excited to see what Amanda can accomplish after moving away from Madrid and to Tenerife! Keep an eye out for Amanda’s next post about her adventures abroad.

Making the Jump Abroad and Teaching Online

 

Michael ToddMichael Todd was born and raised in southwest Virginia. Before making the jump abroad, he worked an assortment of odd jobs. Michael has worked as a barista and a tutor assisting immigrant children with their English skills. He also has worked various gigs in the arts. Entering his third year in Madrid, Spain, Michael is looking for ways to further put down roots and build a life that goes beyond just visiting. He spends a lot of his time writing, attending literary events and concerts, and searching for good iced coffee.

Aside from his search for community, another goal for Michael’s third year is to travel as much as he can. When we spoke, he was getting ready to travel to Lisbon, Portugal to see The Lumineers in concert. He’s also hit up Munich, Germany to attend Oktoberfest, as well as visited some friends in Lund, Sweden. Where else will he end up? Follow his story to find out!

Side note: during our discussion, I asked him to describe himself with three adjectives and here is how some of his friends, parents, siblings, roommates, exes, acquaintances, and some total strangers described him (in alphabetical order) as adventurous, caring, creative, cosmopolitan, crusty, cultured, explorative, fearless, funny, hairy, honest, intelligent, inquisitive, majestic, pale, pondering, queer, questioning, witty, and unique. 

Meet Michael:

Why did you choose to Teach Abroad in Spain and Europe? 

“I’d always wanted to travel aroundand possibly live inEurope. Finally landing in Spain as my home base was a bit of an accident. My best friend back home recommended I look into an Associazione Culturale Linguistica Educational (ACLE). ACLE is a summer camp that teaches English to kids in Italy. She’d done the same program during university and thought I’d be a good fit for it. Plus, Italy was basically at the top of my list of places to visit. 

Once they accepted me to teach for that summer I thought, why not try and stay longer? I researched some programs for Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL), keeping in mind that I needed some sort of visa assistance if I wanted to stay in Europe longer than the three months allowed with an American passport. One of the more promising programs I found was here in Madrid. I reasoned a popular metropolitan city with good travel connections (and very gay-friendly to boot) fit my interests perfectly. To top it all off, I’d studied Spanish during high school. I hoped that integrating into life here would be a lot simpler than, say if I went somewhere like Germany. I would later discover this was not actually the case, but I still feel pretty happy with my choice regardless!” 

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

streets of spain“I’d never really thought teaching would be part of my career path until around my sophomore year at university when I was offered a few gigs around the city. I mostly worked doing summer camps in the arts or by giving specialized workshops in things like prosthetic fabrication (stuff like body parts for theatre productions). That was enough to show me that teaching wasn’t always a grudgingly difficult process like it always seemed to be in high school. This really opened me up to adding teaching to my toolbelt, so to speak, when it came to pursuing a life in the arts. 

Before I moved abroad, I worked freelance in several jobs: barista, figure model for art classes, theatre designer (props, set, and makeup), writer (magazines and local papers), and, yes, teaching. Directly before moving, I worked for about six months as an assistant at elementary and high schools helping children of immigrants with their reading and writing skills. Most of them spoke English very well and just struggled with the written element. Virginia, where I lived, was all about test scores.

I’d also taught a few writing and theatre workshops around Richmond. Some classes I taught were a class on fabricating severed heads (yes, there is a market for that, apparently) and a writing course for LGBTQ+ teens in the area. 

All this is to say, teaching is much like Spain was for me initially. It was an accident I’ve come to love as a supplement to my personal creative practice.”

What did you think teaching abroad would be like? 

“Honestly, much easier, haha. I envisioned effortless classes and loads of free time exploring Europe. Which isn’t to say that teaching English is always difficult, or that I haven’t traveled at all. But our language is slippery and flexible, which can make it challenging to teach at times; there was a ton that I knew without knowing why I knew it, so the first year was a lot about teaching myself before I could teach my students.

More than once I had to honestly tell my students, “I’m not surelet me look into that and we can talk about it next class.” And that’s the hard reality of it: if you haven’t, say, majored in English or some type of education, you’ll probably have a steep learning curve if you decide to go into ESL. Nonetheless, I found that as long as I told the truth about what I did or didn’t know, my students were patient with me. And by the second year, I had significantly fewer gaps.”

Where have you been teaching? 

“I taught my first two years at an academy about 45 minutes outside of the city. Based on my group of friends here, I’d say this is pretty normal. You’re lucky if you land a nice academy gig in the center of the city, or if you get placed at a high school close by. The academy I was at had some amazing teachers but some pretty toxic management. 

michael todd

 

During the second year, I started transitioning to teaching online and left academy life entirely this past June. It’s been so much easier and less stressful to work from homethe preparation has been reduced by probably 80%, and I’m paid better than when I worked in academies here, even with the exchange rate and taxes. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t teach in an academy or as an auxiliar. There are some amazing academies and an auxiliar job can be perfect if you get a good school. However, if I’d known that teaching online existed upon moving to Spain, my first two years here may have looked significantly different. I very much support educating yourself on all your options.” 

What are you doing now? Will you be teaching online this year?

I am teaching online with a company called VIPKid. I teach lessons that range from about 25 to 30 minutes. It’s much more convenient because I can choose my own schedule. Being in the European timezone, my workday much more resembles a regular 9:00 to 5:00 job versus in academy life, where my hours were closer to 4:00 to 10:00 PM. This also means that if I want to go on a trip or something, I don’t have to worry about asking for time off.

What expectations did you have before you came here? Were you afraid to travel far from home?

“I really didn’t have clear expectations. It’s hard to imagine a new life you haven’t lived yet in a place you’ve never been before, even with looking at pictures, watching films, or talking to people who are already there. I was lucky enough to chat with a few people before moving abroad about what their lives were like, where I should look for housing, what pay was like, and so on. If I had any expectations, it was that my life here would be easier and happier than back home (which is not to say that I was terribly unhappy, but rather that I had a very romanticized idea of life abroad). 

As for if I was afraid to travel far from homenot at all. I’d dreamed of it for years. I don’t think anyone felt particularly surprised when I finally made the jump. I think a lot of people thought, “Ah, finally, he did it!”

What were some of your accomplishments of your first year?

“Surviving, haha. Teaching can be a difficult gig sometimes. I spent a lot of my time feeling unsure of myself and feeling like a champion if I got through a class without actually sweating. 

Besides that, I did a fair amount of traveling in my first year. I went to Scotland with a friend for a long weekend, visited my ex in Paris, and also hit up Italy, Germany, and Portugal. I’m also really happy with the fact that I stuck with my Spanish classes on top of teaching. 

Really, probably my biggest “accomplishment” was deciding to stay a second year when I wasn’t sure that this was the right fit for me. Spain, again, was coincidental, and I didn’t necessarily love the experience the first go-round. Plenty of people leave after the first year, or even earlier if they’re that unhappy. I really considered calling it quits, but I’m glad I decided to stick it out.” 

What do you want to achieve for your third year? 

My third year is about traveling more, establishing more friendships, seeking out community, and strengthening the ties I have. Madrid is a pretty transient city. People come and go often, sometimes they feel unhappy, they find other jobs, decide to try other countries, marry, go to grad school… The list goes on. What I mean is, it can be hard to anchor yourself. Initially, I thought I would be more nomadic, moving each year or traveling more frequently. But I’ve learned through leaving America and coming here that community is important to me, and so that’s a big goal for me this year. I’ve found a great writer’s group here through a trilingual bookshop called Desperate Literature and I’ve started auditioning for local productions after probably six years without acting, so I’m excited to see how those things develop. 

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

“That’s a great question… If I had to answer this question as if I were talking back to myself as a first-year, I would say, be kinder to yourself. Stop obsessing over the perfect lesson plan, because it doesn’t exist. Be flexible and focus more on the students themselves than what you’ve told yourself you need to teach. Get out of your apartment more. Madrid is an amazing city for many reasons: it has an NYC vibe in that there are always people out there are always things to do. I didn’t do nearly enough my first year, so don’t make that mistake. Go to the open mic nights, join a sports group, go on hikes, go to intercambios… Don’t forget why you came here in the first place.” 

Italy michael todd

How do you feel about your integration into the Spanish culture so far? What are the steps you have taken to prepare yourself? How did you prepare before you arrived? 

“I did basically nothing before arriving beyond looking at some old Spanish notes from high school, haha. Probably a mistake. But since coming here, I’ve done as much as my life as an English teacher will allow. It can be difficult to fully integrate into this culture when half of your day is in English. But I’ve really stuck with my Spanish classes, and I’m somewhere between B2 (upper-intermediate) and C1 (lower-advanced). It’s a very fuzzy place to be, but I love pushing my limits. Spanish people are also very warm in many ways, but also somewhat flaky. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t immediately line up to be your best friend. If you’re patient and persistent, you can wiggle your way in, and at that point, they’re really loyal. That will be a big part of my whole community-building goal this year.”

Teaching Online and What the Future Holds

In addition to staying for a fourth year, Michael is also currently looking into graduate programs as an option for the near future. He plans to earn an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Michael will spend the month of April doing a creative writing residency in northern Vermont. He is currently participating in the Writer to Writer Mentorship Program with AWP, which brings together burgeoning and established writers. Michael will be writing for Dreams Abroad so visit our site frequently to see what he will be sharing about teaching online and being abroad. 

by Leesa Truesdell