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.

How I Became a Language Assistant in Spain

It was 2018. I was a few months away from graduating from Durham University with my languages degree, and I had to decide what to do next. Since I was six years old, I’d wanted to be a teacher. I always assumed I would go straight into studying for a PGCE, then on to a standard teaching job. However, for some reason, I didn’t feel ready for that. I wanted to do something else instead of plain old teaching straight away. This is how I fell into being a language assistant in Spain. But I had to make a decision about my future first.

Being a language student, my possible plans mainly involved travelling. I drew up a list of five options, including: 

  1. Becoming a language assistant through the British Council.
  2. Doing a masters in translation, potentially abroad.
  3. “Bits and Pieces” — volunteering at a local Steiner school, volunteering abroad with refugees, and working with a mountain activity company in Italy. 
  4. “Another year abroad” — two six-month placements abroad in countries where they spoke a language I’d studied or wanted to learn.
  5. Another degree! I studied two languages and two sciences at A-Level. I felt tempted to go abroad (double benefit of practising my languages and cheaper fees!) and study something related to Biology, Chemistry, or Linguistics.

What to Choose

As I can see looking back on this list, I obviously didn’t feel ready to start a standard full-time job! In the end, I chose the first option. Apparently, I’m drawn to teaching so much that even when I don’t want to teach yet, I end up being a teaching assistant! I think I chose this option because it was the easiest to organise. Plus, I’d be paid rather than paying for it. It also seemed relevant to my career path, so I guess it was easier to justify and to feel confident enough that it was a good decision!

There’s a lot of pressure to go straight into a full-time job after graduating. But I would strongly recommend going abroad first if it is something you’re considering. There will be plenty of time for a standard job during the rest of your life, and you will get so much out of living abroad! 

Graduating from Durham University

The British Council

Many English speakers from all over the world decide to spend a year (or more) abroad helping teach English through the language assistant programme. It is a great way to immerse yourself in another country’s culture and language while working part-time to cover costs. As a native speaker, it’s also easy to find private lessons on the side to earn a bit more money.

Depending on where you’re from, there are different ways to get a placement. However, for those of us coming from the UK, we usually apply through the British Council. This involves a fairly long but simple application form. Along with this form, you will also need a reference, and, for some countries, a video interview (but not Spain, where I ended up applying). The British Council currently organises placements in 15 countries around the world, from South America to Asia. 

Where to Go

I decided that I wanted to stay in Europe to be closer to my friends in England. However, I couldn’t decide whether to go to Spain or Italy (having studied both languages). Much as I love Italy, in the end, I chose to be a language assistant in Spain. This is because there were many more placements available there, and I would be able to practise not only Spanish, but also Catalan. Through the British Council you can also put preferences of the region of Spain you would like to be in, whether you want to be in a city or a small pueblo, and what age you would like to teach. They say they take this into account, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get your first choices. 

Leaving home ready to start a new life in Spain

Application Sent

So, I sent off my application form in December, my reference was sent off by February, and then I just had to wait. In April, I heard back from the British Council that my application to become a teaching assistant in Spain had been successful. Now they would pass my application onto the Ministry of Education in Spain. Both of those agencies would work together to assign me to a specific region. In May, I found out I’d got my first choice region and would be heading to the Comunitat Valenciana in October. All that was left was to wait for the ministerio to allocate me a school.

Spain is notorious for taking a while to tell you where exactly you have been placed. They are working on this, but some people only found out which locality they would be in a few weeks before starting teaching! Luckily, I found out at the beginning of July. I was originally placed in the city of Alicante, but realising that they don’t speak much Valencià (the Valencian dialect of Catalan) in the city, I was lucky to be able to swap schools with my friend. She had also applied for the programme and was keen to be in Alicante. You’re not officially allowed to swap, but sometimes it’s possible! So, my confirmed destination was Castelló de la Plana.

Castelló de la Plana

I had never heard of Castelló when they assigned me to a school there. But it turns out that Carme, my Catalan teacher’s friend, was from there. I got in contact with her to find out what it was like. She put me in touch with a student who had been there on Erasmus. They convinced me that it would be better for my Valencià than Alicante and that it wasn’t too small, so I decided to go for it. Looking back, I had no idea what it would really be like, but I figured eight months wasn’t too much of a commitment. 

Moving Abroad to be a Language Assistant in Spain

As a previous language student, the whole experience wasn’t as daunting as it might have been for some people. I’d done placements and Erasmus abroad before as part of my degree, including in Spain. I spoke the language fairly well. I also knew Carme, and she helped with logistical things like the strange workings of the RENFE train websites (yes, plural: there are different web pages and places to search for different kinds of trains, even between the same two stations!). I’d found a flat online but only rented it from the start of October. Fortunately, I was able to stay with her parents for a week first. Her dad helped me carry my big suitcases up the three flights of stairs when I finally moved into my flat.

Before flying over there, my dad helped me sort out as much of the paperwork as he could from the UK. I carefully read the auxiliar guide and country notes I’d been sent by the British Council. Nonetheless, I don’t think you can ever be that prepared to move to a place you’ve never been before. I guess that’s all part of the adventure. So, I set off with an open mind and as much patience as I could muster for the inevitable challenges. I had a better time than I’d ever imagined. 

And that’s how I became a language assistant in Spain. 

by Kira Browne

How to Cope With Where You Are Not

“The grass is always greener on the other side” is a proverb I have always firmly disagreed with. It gives the misguided impression that fulfillment in life is inherently tied to your physical location. If you are not fulfilled, it’s because of where you are (or where you’re not). It suggests that you could be living somewhere else that’s better than where you’re currently living. It leaves you with a feeling of helplessness and scrambling to figure out coping mechanisms.

In the several stages of my life during which I was living somewhere that I didn’t want to be, when I knew the place I would have rather been in, this proverb haunted me and fueled my various episodes of depression. In this article, I will share some of the lessons I learned, mistakes I made, and adjustments I implemented which all aided in coping with the challenges of being where I was whilst knowing I’d rather be elsewhere.

Some Context

I am from Los Angeles, CA, and I first moved away from home at age 18 to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. At the end of my first year there, I studied for a semester abroad at the Berklee Valencia campus in Spain. By the end of my second week there, I had discovered that Spain was where I belonged. It is simply the perfect place for me to be. 

The knowledge of these truths was also the cause of several depressive episodes in my life, ​​despite all the clarity and gratitude which it gave me. Whether it was because of visa issues or other logistics, the simple fact of not being in Spain was a tough pill for me to swallow. It was like I was a small child who had been given the sweetest candy they had ever tried every day for four months and then told they could not have it anymore.

Expat at Heart

Besides my love for Spain, I have never felt a connection to LA or the US. I’m only the third generation in my family to have been born in the US. I have always carried a strong sense of criticism towards my environment from as young as I can remember. Whether it be towards the underfunded public school system in LA, the frustration of spending what felt like half my childhood sitting in traffic, or the laundry list of large-scale societal issues such as gun violence and income inequality plaguing the country as a whole.

My dad and older brother are both political science majors. There was always an emphasis on what was happening in the world in family conversations as I grew up. These conversations combined with my empathetic nature led me to feel very dissatisfied with “my” country. In the aftermath of my mom’s traumatic brain injury and severe depression when I was 16, you could say that dissatisfaction hit its maximum.

The First Arrival

I had already suffered from depression earlier in my life (before attending Berklee). The first “grass is always greener on the other side” depression hit me the moment I walked onto the street from Arrivals at the Los Angeles International Airport. This was my first return from Spain in 2017. 

The sound of constant cars honking, the smell of trash and smog, and the greyness of the concrete jungle which is LAX, all made me want to turn around and get on the first plane back to Spain. It wasn’t only the literal sensory overload/reverse culture shock that affected me. The weight of personal, emotional baggage which being in LA and the US brought to the surface hit me like a tidal wave. My parents brought me to their house and I sat on their couch crying hysterically for more than two hours until I fell asleep from exhaustion and jet lag.

The First Lessons of Coping

The intensity of the depression was unlike anything I had ever felt. It became my mission to return to Spain by any means possible. Studying abroad a second time at Berklee Valencia was a possibility. However, it meant I had to work twice as hard to complete all the courses for my major. Unfortunately, the school only offered them in Boston in a year less than it typically required. This was the first lesson. If you want something, especially something which is difficult to obtain, it requires some serious hard work and dedication. However, the learning of this lesson was only the first of several hurdles to be cleared. 

My unwavering focus on getting back to Spain, combined with my work ethic, was by no means a cure to my depression nor even a passing coping mechanism. If anything, it only fueled the fire. The “grass is always greener on the other side” has the often overlooked, terrible side effect of “the grass is always worse where you are.” This meant I had to learn how to cope with being where I was not.

While I was completing my major courses, waking up every day at 7 am and working nonstop until 1 am, I did my best to appreciate Boston for what it was. I thought I had understood then how to fully live in the moment, be grateful for what I had, and make the most of every situation. In reality, there was still a huge part of me whose voice kept telling me, “But this isn’t Spain. This isn’t good enough.” 

The Next Lessons of Coping

I nearly worked myself to the point of mental breakdown. Nonetheless, I made it back to Berklee Valencia in Spring 2019 for my final semester of university. I had (thought that I had) made it. I had another wonderful four months, just like I had experienced the first time I studied abroad. My Spanish had improved to a fluent level, so it was even more fulfilling than the first time.

I was also in a relationship with a woman who I deeply loved. We shared a mutual desire to spend the rest of our lives together. However, due to mutually undesirable circumstances, the relationship ended two weeks before my flight to Boston (the city we met) for my graduation from Berklee. 

After graduation, I immediately turned around and ended up in Madrid for a summer internship working with a Spanish composer. I was in an extremely emotionally fragile state. It felt like I was barely clinging to relative stability based upon the pure knowledge that I was in Spain. That fragility shattered when the internship ended, and with it, my visa.

In August 2019, I found myself hysterically crying on the same couch in my parents’ home which I had been hysterically crying on just two years before. Only this time, there was no option of studying abroad again. I had graduated. This depression lasted a solid two months, during which I was practically incapable of doing anything. I wasn’t coping with my reality at all.

The Power of a Present Mind

Sometimes, with depression, especially when it’s severe, there’s not really much to actively be done to reverse it. The healing process can, at times, be extremely slow and gradual, which was my case that summer. Once the initial shock of returning to the US wore off, I finally learned how to live in the moment and feel grateful. 

I started working at a nonprofit for music education. I moved into an apartment with former classmates from Berklee. Finally, I discovered a social life in LA that was enough for me to feel satisfied with my life. The voice in the back of my head saying, “But this isn’t Spain. This isn’t good enough” was drowned out by my actively present mind. The voice was still there and still motivated me to work towards my goal of moving to Spain. However, it no longer had the power to control my mood.

Eli living in Valencia in spring of 2019.

Key Takeaways

The lesson of taming my internal voice has been the most consequential of my life. I realized that ignoring the voice was not an option. I simultaneously loved Spain and disliked the US so strongly that it was simply impossible to ignore. Listening to it actively also was not an option as a true coping mechanism.

In the year which I spent completing my major courses in Boston, the word “Spain” went through my conscious mind at least once a day. It prevented me from enjoying Boston as much as I could have. It was only upon returning to LA in August 2019 and experiencing the worst depression I had ever had that I learned how to balance that voice. 

Finding Balance

Balancing that voice meant many things to me. Above all, it meant using only the required amount of effort needed to get me back to Spain. If there were programs to be researched, people to be contacted, or any other practical tasks that would benefit my potential return to Spain, I would use my energy for those.

As soon as my mind started to wander into “My life isn’t as good in LA as it used to be in Spain” land, I would actively do something to make myself more present. It didn’t matter whether that meant going for a drive, calling a friend, or playing a video game. This coping strategy was so much better than the unending dissatisfaction I felt before.

Anything that it took to change my mind from a state of “the grass is always greener on the other side” to “let’s enjoy the grass that I’m standing on” was sufficient. Even if, deep down, I knew that the grass I was standing on wasn’t the grass I most enjoyed standing on, the most important lesson of my journey (so far) has been that the grass is never greener on the other side. It is simply different. The color of the grass is all based on how I choose to look at it. That’s a coping technique I can live with.

by Eli Slavkin

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

How Paella Improved My Valencian Language Skills

 

Teaching Trilingual Education in Ontinyent, SpainWhen I arrived in Ontinyent for my second year of living abroad, I intended to improve my Valencian but not renew informal classes. Instead, I thought of other beneficial alternatives such as finding Valencian-speaking roommates and exposing myself to more Spanish media and news. 

However, the most lucrative idea I came up with for myself was learning how to cook food from the region. This all-encompassing activity involved eating foods I tried while traveling, reading and listening to different recipes in cookbooks or online videos, and conversing with my colleagues and others about how they approached cooking the dish and any tips they knew about the food I was learning to make.

In addition, I already held an immense interest in pursuing a career in the food industry because my high school offered a culinary program. With that interest in mind, I felt horribly disappointed I could not say yes to the question, “can you make paella?” while I was home in New York visiting friends and family over summer. 

Bridging this gap in my culinary repertoire not only presented a chance to improve my language and culinary skills, but it also provided a chance for my passion for the culinary arts to be rekindled. I also received the opportunity to reflect on the cultural knowledge I gained from my two years living in Spain that I can keep with me for the rest of my life.

Valencian Paella

Before we start, I’d like to emphasize that this is not my favorite rice dish from the region. Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny how iconic and how well-known this dish is. That’s why I’ve presented it as the featured recipe out of the hundred I learned for this article.

First, some cultural context. Paella is the word for “pan” and the name of the dish itself in Valencian. In some parts of the region, this applies to other types of rice as well. For example, black paella can be called either paella negre or arròs negre, which translates to black paella or black rice respectively. Personally, because there are defenders of traditional paella cooking, I prefer to call any rice dish that doesn’t adhere to tradition the latter. 

people eating

This Dish Is Part of the Region’s Culture

Secondly, what goes into a Valencian paella? It’s easier to establish what doesn’t than what can, but first it must be understood that this dish is integral to the region’s culture. Families reunite on Sundays in a country house to partake in each other’s company, and this tradition has persisted for many, many years. Before massive grocery chains managed to make many ingredients available year-round, paella ingredients included whatever the chef had on hand. Valencians consider chickens, rabbits, broad beans, saffron, artichokes, and other ingredients from the recipe below as paella ingredients. 

Valenciano paella

In all fairness, Valencia is geographically diverse with national parks encompassed by a variety of environments, such as mountains, flatlands, and beaches. If duck was the only meat available, duck went into the paella. Rich meatballs created from recently-slaughtered rabbit blood can also be prized paella ingredients. Depending on the season, perhaps the dish has artichokes rather than beans.

When Is “Paella” Not Paella?

This doesn’t mean that chorizo, potatoes, carrots, fish, or peas can accompany this dish if you’d like to get creative. Traditionalists will tell you that those ingredients are better suited for some lentils or a soup, however. Above all else, it’s best to strive to avoid Valencians labeling your dish as the endearing yet snarky name of “rice with things.” 

Despite their chastising, there is some truth to it. Stuffing the rice with too many different ingredients lessens the importance of the rice. However, if you are going to be a little more gratuitous about your ingredient variety, I encourage you to avoid calling your creation paella. It goes back to the cultural context I discussed earlier. Paella is a dish of cultural significance to many people and it’s a disservice to ruin that legacy and traditional dish with an excess of non-traditional ingredients. More importantly, as a cook, have some pride in whatever dish you feel inspired to make. Avoid labeling it something it is not. After all, if this dish, named after a pan, managed to be iconic, any dish name has a fair chance. Come up with your own!

Below is my recipe for Valencian paella. I opt to have more vegetables with my rice, but the amounts can easily be switched. If you can’t or refuse to use a rabbit, double the amount of chicken. 

Paella Made Easy

Paella Valenciana

Ingredients:
  • Chicken Legs, Quartered – 200 g
  • Rabbit – 200 g
  • Broad Beans – 200 g
  • Frozen Lima Beans – 200 g
  • Paprika Grated – 1 tps
  • Tomato – 50 g
  • Water – 1.4 L
  • Saffron – 5 sprigs
  • Short-Grain Rice – 200 g
Directions:
  1. Place a 34cm paella pan over medium heat.
  2. Once hot, add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Salt the bottom of the pan then add the meat. This will help prevent oil splatters. Brown the meat on all sides, for approximately 15 minutes.
  3. Lower the heat and add the broad beans until brown, which will take approximately 10 minutes.
  4. Sprinkle the paprika over the contents of the pan and stir constantly for about 10 seconds to toast the paprika and prevent it from burning.
  5. Raise the heat to medium, add the grated tomato, and stir to combine the ingredients. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated.
  6. Add the water and raise the heat to high. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the paella (pan) to deglaze the caramelized bits.
  7. When the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat for the broth to simmer, add the lima beans and the saffron. Allow to simmer for 20 minutes.
  8. Salt to taste. Raise the heat to high and sprinkle the rice evenly around the pan. Using a spoon, make sure the rice isn’t above the stock. Cook for 10 minutes.
  9. Lower the heat to low and cook for 8-10 minutes.
  10. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, then serve.
cooking for spain
The first half of the paella/making process lays the foundation for a rich broth for the rice to cook in. This includes browning the meat before adding the paprika and grated tomato.
cooking Paella Valenciana
The second half of the paella-cooking process is adding water and allowing it to simmer to create the broth. Salt and saffron is added to season and color the rice.

 

spain food
The final result: the Valencian paella. Other ingredients can also include artichokes, snails, meatballs, rosemary, or duck.

 

Paella Made Easy
A serving of Valencian paella. A wedge of lemon is optional.

 

Follow my recipe (no skipping steps) and you will have a paella that is both tasty and traditional. Buying the ingredients will improve your Valencian language skills. You will also be well on the way to becoming a honorary local.

By Edgar Llivisupa

The Positives and Negatives of My Valencian Learning Experience

Upon learning that my region spoke a second language, I was looking forward to realizing how much Valencian (valenciano in Spanish and valencià in the native dialect) was utilized in my town. I even did some research on the languages spoken in Spain. In my second week in Ontinyent, I noticed that Valencian was the primary language to communicate in school between the teachers and students. Around town, many of the public announcements for events and gatherings were also in Valencian, without a Spanish translation. Some items that did have a Spanish translation were still referred to by their Valencian term since it was universal to the town. By then, I decided to learn the language by enrolling in weekly classes as a way to integrate myself more.

This year my learning experience is a bit different. I decided not to continue with Valencian in order to explore other goals — some that I hope to be able to reveal soon.  I knew that I would come across the language almost daily at work, around town, or with my roommates.  

Up to this point, I can share some positives and negatives regarding my Valencian learning experience. 

The Positives of My Valencian Learning Experience

Adult Learning Centers

Throughout Spain, there are adult schools that offer classes in art, dance, computer programming, languages, etc. The regional or local government administers these low-cost classes. I found them to be a great resource to introduce myself to the language. The registration fee was low compared to something similar in the States. I paid around 50€. Along with my 20€ textbook, I was enrolled in one year’s worth of classes. 

Sant Carles in Ontinyent, one of the two public language-schools in town
The CPFPA: Sant Carles in Ontinyent, one of the two public language-schools in town. (Credit: CPFPA: Sant Carles Official Website)

History of Studying Spanish

Because I took upper-level courses in Spanish grammar and linguistics in college, it was easier to understand Valencian. Since both are romance languages, there are common traits like conjugation, gender, and sentence structure, just to name a few.

However, the trait that helped me the most is phonology, or how the sounds of the language are produced. The letters sound quite similar in both languages, resulting in Valencian being more ear-friendly than other languages in deciphering words and sentences.  

Immersion

One of the most important aspects of learning a language is immersion, or using it in practice either by communicating or listening to others. It’s very difficult to experience this in university. Student life presents very few chances to practice a foreign language outside of class, let alone in one of the countries where it is primarily spoken.

That is why, although sounding trivial, living in a small town that historically only spoke Valencian was a great benefit. While it shouldn’t be surprising to hear the elderly speak the language, a surprising number of people my age also mostly spoke to each other in it. I really enjoy sitting back and hearing them converse. Furthermore, a lot of the signages and posters around town are in the Valencian language, which always provides additional words and names to research or lookup. 

My worksite provides an opportunity to improve my understanding of the language as well. At school, I can hear the staff members and students chat. I can wander the halls and see the students’ work in a variety of subjects. For example, I’ve seen projects about the parts of the body and book reports, all in Valencian. Sometimes the faculty members receive official documentation or memos that I occasionally read. 

De Dalt a Baix a beginners’ Valenciano textbook
De Dalt a Baix, (From Up to Down, translated to English) a beginners’ Valenciano textbook. Page turned to unit on planning a trip.

The Negatives of My Valencian Learning Experience

Classes

While it’s great to have the opportunity to partake in language classes, it’s another to enjoy it. I enjoyed the enthusiasm of my instructor and other students. However, I had moments I wished there I had more tests or quizzes to keep me studious. I didn’t recall opening my textbook aside from classes. Alongside that, registration was open throughout the year. This meant that we had to review old material if a new student entered the class in February. 

Code-switching

Other bilingual speakers will understand this situation fairly well. If you meet someone who speaks the same language, the language first spoken often becomes the primary one spoken. It is hard to switch to the other. At school, most of my colleagues do me a courtesy by speaking Spanish while others speak to me in Valencian. Even after asking to speak in Valenciano to continue learning, it is hard for some to remember.

Improving Two languages, Working with a Third

One of the most beautiful yet frustrating parts of learning languages is continuing to improve the ones I can speak fluently versus learning more of the ones that are new to me. This is an ever-present problem when it comes to learning Valencian and improving my Spanish. Should I improve the language I will most likely continue speaking for the rest of my life even though I will have other opportunities to learn it back in the states? Or should I continue to learn the language of the culture I have attempted to integrate myself into during the past 12 months, fully aware that opportunities to utilize it will be minimal? Also notable is the fact that everyone speaks Spanish.

Spanish is always available for me to use when I’m feeling lazy or need to speak with someone confidently. An example of the former is in the morning when I have to buy breakfast. I have minimal mental capacity to speak Valenciano to the cashier to even order a tomato patsy. 

Valenciano language calendar themed on nutrition
Valencian language calendar themed on nutrition. On the bottom left-hand corner there are health tips.

 

recipes for typical dishes in the region. This one is for Pumpkin Doughnuts
The backside of the calendar features recipes for typical dishes in the region. This one is for Pumpkin Doughnuts

 

In addition, my job requires me to speak English throughout the day. Others in my position may feel uncomfortable not being able to practice their Spanish in the classroom. However, I placed the restriction on myself for the better of the students. Some students noticed my reluctance to speak Spanish as a teacher. They tried to speak more English with me as a result. I don’t get to practice the other languages, and my working relationship with some of my private students have gotten to the point where speaking in Spanish feels inappropriate. 

Co-Language

At the end of the day, Valencian is not the dominant language of the region. I’ve met people whose parents’ spoke the language but decided against speaking it with their children. There are also towns that I’ve traveled to where Valenciano isn’t spoken at all nor was it historically. This includes the capital city, where government initiatives to raise the literacy of the language have affected the signages and public service announcements. Despite their efforts, it’s rare to hear Valencian spoken at all. The language is reserved for the small villages and towns, which is bittersweet to discover since that is where its charm lies. Nonetheless, it is still sour since it doesn’t extend much further than the small municipalities. 

The Positives and Negatives in My Valencian Learning Experience

Overall, I am quite happy with my level of Valencian. I would have loved to have a B1 certification (an internationally recognized language certification) as I love studying and learning about languages. It’s obtained after taking a test that proves if one has a sufficient level in speaking, reading, writing and listening in the language one wishes to obtain a certification. It can also make it easier to return to Valencia and find work as a translator.

I can still take the exam in the summer. I don’t feel like I have the level to pass either the writing or reading part of the exam, especially because most native speakers warn me the Valencian test is much harder than other languages. This is because the majority of participants take the exam to become teachers, bureaucrats, or government officials. Regardless, I know enough for my everyday life. Whether listening to my colleagues’ talk, reading the different types of pastries at a bakery, or responding in the language if spoken to in Valenciano, I feel confident enough in any way the language presents itself to me.

by Edgar Llivisupa

Reflecting on My Experience in the Middle of Rural Spain

 

I’ve been back in the United States for almost five months now and am finally reflecting on my experience abroad. Even half a year later, I’m still in touch with some of the teachers from my school and some of the language assistants from the neighboring towns. With the new school year under way, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my experience. I wonder what I could have done differently if given the opportunity to do it all over.

Reflecting on My Experience Living Abroad

Reflecting on My Experience in the Middle of Rural Spain

I don’t want anyone to think I have regrets about my time living abroad in the middle of nowhere in rural Spain. Given the situation I threw myself into, I think I crushed my eight months in Bocairent. At the time of my arrival, I didn’t speak any Spanish. I was the only language assistant in my village. I didn’t have any money. Plus, I had no method of transportation aside from my two legs. And I didn’t know a single soul in town when I fell asleep that first night alone in my loft.

I would eventually develop some special relationships with the other teachers at my school. I would experience the cultural integration that I hoped for when I first applied to teach abroad. Eventually, I would establish a daily routine and meet a lot of interesting people. I would greatly increase my Spanish-speaking abilities. And I would get a decent amount of traveling done.

Here’s a short list of five things I might have done differently if I were able to do it all over:

Preparation for School

The English Language Assistant position is not a very difficult one. Most of the curriculum just followed the lessons in the student textbooks and I rarely had to provide my own materials. The most time-consuming activities I put together were PowerPoint presentations. To those first-time expat teachers, I’d suggest preparing a few presentations about yourself and different aspects of American culture. They should be about 30 minutes long so you can speak in clear, slow English. Set the presentation up so you can ask questions along the way to keep the students engaged. Some topic ideas might include an “About Me” presentation, American eating habits, Halloween, Christmas & New Years, St. Patrick’s Day, the American schooling system, and American sports. Finishing these presentations before you arrive will save you valuable hours later on so you can get the most out of your limited time abroad.

English Language Assistants

Doubling Down on Learning Spanish

The main reason I chose to move abroad was to learn Spanish. It was a life goal of mine and I felt the best way to learn was to drop myself in the thick of it and force it upon myself. To an extent it worked. When I first arrived in Spain, I had to rely on my bilingual father for literally everything. He helped me when it came to finding me a piso, setting up my bank account, and purchasing a Spanish phone plan and Internet. Reflecting on my experience, my brain was burned out at the end of each day.

By the end of my eight-month tenure, I could hold basic conversations with the other teachers and my neighbors. I could engage with the servers and patrons at my favorite cafetería and cervecería. Basically, I could survive. Just to get to that point involved me spending anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour each day practicing with Rosetta Stone in addition to my daily exposure.

Unless you’re living in Madrid or Barcelona, you MUST be able to speak some castellano (that’s Spanish for Spanish). I took two beginning-level, undergraduate courses in Spanish while working at FSU prior to moving abroad but neither prepared me enough. If I could go back, I would’ve taken at least another year of language courses. While living in Bocairent, I met several people who were willing to do language exchange lessons with me. We’d speak for 30 minutes in English and then another 30 in Spanish or valencià. I wish I had done more of these. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have the energy or free time at the end of the day because I was giving a lot of private lessons after school… which brings me to my next bullet.

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY, MONEEEYYYY!!!

Moving abroad is expensive. The North American Language and Culture Assistant program that I participated in only paid me a €1.000 stipend each month. In a small, rural village like Bocairent, that could easily cover rent, utilities, food, and my daily dose of coffee. In a bigger city like Valencia, language assistants struggled to get approved for housing with that stipend. Regardless, due to the inefficiencies of the Valencian government and the no pasa nada attitude of Spain, I didn’t receive my first stipend until December 14th. I had been in the country for almost three months and hadn’t been paid yet. This led me to having to devote a lot of my free time early on to working extra instead of meeting and touring the town.

parade Bocairent

The Only Real Downside

I was able to work about five to ten hours a week over the computer for my old department at FSU. Plus, I also took on private English lessons for students (at one point I was tutoring four days a week at €12 per hour-long lesson). I even sold my truck in the United States during Christmas break. I obviously wanted to travel too, which means I racked up quite a lot of credit-card debt. That debt is the only real downside to my time abroad and I’m still chipping away at it back home. If I could do it differently, I would’ve paid off my student loans and credit cards, then saved about $5,000 before participating in the program. I don’t regret it though. The experience and personal growth were worth it.

Don’t Go Home For Christmas!

One cool thing about the Valencian school system is that there’s a holiday every month that gives you an extra day or two tacked onto your weekend. My school set my workweek up so that I didn’t have to work on Mondays. Every few weeks I’d have a solid four to five days to get out of town and travel. Similar to the US, there’s a solid two-and-a-half week break for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

I used this time to fly back to the United States to spend the holidays with my family, friends, and loved ones. I had a great time and was definitely missing everyone. However, if I could’ve done it over I would’ve taken advantage of those two weeks to travel more. I would’ve spent Christmas with my Basque family in the north and then traveled to the south and visited Seville, Granada, and Cádiz. Not only would I have been able to see parts of Spain that were more difficult for me to get to, but I would’ve saved A LOT of money too.

Bocairent vista

Live Elsewhere and Commute to Work

This is without a doubt the biggest change I would make if I could redo my time abroad. Because I had no idea what was going on in the beginning and only had my dad with me for a few days to help find a piso, I chose to live in the village I worked in. It was a radical experience that I haven’t seen matched by anyone I’ve met or read about who’s lived abroad in Spain.

I lived in a one-thousand-year-old medieval village carved into the side of a mountain. I was a minute’s walk from my school and was known by everyone I passed. Different families invited me over for dinners and brought gifts all the time. I was one of the strongest dudes in the gym and generally treated like a rock star. Before I arrived, I wanted that off-the-grid, full cultural immersion experience when I applied to teach abroad and Bocairent gave it to me. I mean… we even had real bullfighting.

bullfighting arena

What I Learned

I am twenty-nine years old and am a very outgoing, active person with a big worldview. If I had been twenty-two straight out of college, I wouldn’t have lasted a month in that village. There weren’t many people in their twenties living there. There wasn’t much to do in regards to nightlife. Everyone’s preferred language was valencià instead of Spanish. And it was very difficult to get to a train station without having to ask a fellow teacher for a ride. It was a very slow, isolated place.

If I could do it over, I would have lived in the regional capital, Ontinyent (10km away) and commuted back and forth to school each day with one of the teachers who lived there. It would’ve given me more flexibility to travel, more opportunities to meet people, more amenities, and just more to do. There were about eight other language assistants living in Ontinyent, so I probably could have roomed with someone. I would have had a base group of English speakers to hang out and explore with. They still spoke valencià over there, but Spanish was more prevalent than in my town.

Reflecting on My Experience Provides Valuable Insight

Honestly, eight months wasn’t nearly enough time to truly accomplish everything I wanted to, to the extent I expected to. Nonetheless, I did my best to balance it all. I hope this article provides some valuable insight to those contemplating a move abroad. Everyone’s journey will be different, but they all begin with making the decision to take the plunge.

Learning as a Teaching Assistant in Ontinyent, Spain

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

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

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

Meet Edgar 

Why did you choose to come to Spain and Europe? 

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

Why did you choose to teach abroad? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What expectations did you have before you came here?

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

cityscape ontinyent spain

What were your perceptions of Ontinyent during your first year?

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

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

What were some of the accomplishments of your first year?

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

Ontinyent newspaper

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

What do you want to achieve for your second year? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture Shock Made Easy

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

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

teaching abroad

Looking Forward to a Future in Ontinyent

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

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

An Expat Living and Working Abroad in Ontinyent, Spain

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

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

by Leesa Truesdell