The Truth About Living Abroad

Estanque del Retiro

El Parque del Retiro.

I’ve been struggling with the fact that I live in Madrid.

I don’t mean “struggle” in the negative, how-can-I-go-on sense of the word, but in the sense that I can’t quite believe I’m here. Even though I’ve been here for two months already, I still oscillate between random moments of Spain-fueled elation and a deepening sense of normalcy.

I realized the other day that I’ve been boxing the majority of my Spanish activities and purchases into this strange new “temporary” category of my life. Things you might typically hear me say include:

  • “I’m not going to buy that because I can’t take it home in June.” (I’ve never been on a sadder trip to Ikea.)
  • “I’ll just wait to replace my laptop battery until I go back to the States.” (My battery recently took a turn for the worse and now has less energy than Lana del Rey.)
  • “I don’t need to get a coffee maker. I can survive on green tea.” (Hahaha who am I?)

Over the past two weeks, though, it’s dawned on me that maybe my life in Spain isn’t so temporary after all. I’ve started purchasing scented candles and tacking up posters with reckless abandon. I even bought a throw pillow. (Talk about putting down roots.)

My newfound sense of permanence made me start thinking about what it means to live abroad. It’s a fact that my days in Spain are numbered — I have a job contract and a visa to prove it —  and I know I want to make the most of my time here. But it’s hard for me to decide what I’m supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis. Is it okay to stay in and read a book on a Friday night, or is that “not taking advantage” of my time in Spain? Should I instead dedicate my free hours toward the quintessential expat quest for new tastes, new sights, and new sounds?

The bare-bones truth (drumroll, please) is that I’m doing many of the same things I’d be doing back home, just in a foreign country. Whether that’s what I’m supposed to be doing or not.

Which brings me to my first point:

It’s not all tapas and siestas, kids.

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“Teaching” English in a Spanish Elementary School

Gleeful shouts fill the air. Erasers go flying across the room in not-so-graceful arcs. Two girls build crayon towers with wild abandon. A small boy uses his pencil case to bludgeon another boy in the head. Entire classes surround their hapless English assistants (ahem, me) from all sides in the form of one massive, sweaty hug.*

Welcome (or should I say bienvenidos?) to a typical class period at my Spanish school. Let me say that again: Not play time. Not recess. Class period. 

Sheep vs. Car

Real photo of me trying to walk through the hallways at school. (Spoiler alert: I am the car.)

Spanish primary schools just might be insanity incarnate. The reason is simple: The teachers rarely discipline anyone. Few kids raise their hands unless prompted. They get up and walk around the classroom without asking permission. One of my 2nd-graders actually pulled a wheeled drawer out of a bookcase during a lesson and proceeded to roll around in it, scooter-style.

It’s all been a little overwhelming, to say the least.

I work primarily with 1st- and 2nd-graders, although I have a couple classes each week with 3rd- and 5th-graders. The kids themselves are pretty cute, which, in the most trying times, is their only redeeming quality; that and the fact they’re all really excited to have classes with me and the other auxiliares. They’re really curious about us, and the best questions/comments I’ve received include:

  • “Do you have a son?”
  • “Are you Spanish?” (Hah hah hah really, kids?)
  • “Do you like One Direction?”
  • “Did you know that when you stab a wasp in the eye, his eye juice comes out?” (This one was asked in Spanish, with “eye juice” being “zumo del ojo.” I couldn’t help but laugh at that one.)
  • “Do you have a boyfriend?”
  • “Do you eat cheeseburgers every day in America?” (I think Europeans sincerely think this sometimes. Then again, I really struggle to tell anyone what a “typical” American meal looks like since we’ve borrowed food from so many cultures.)
  • And, my all-time favorite: “Do you like your life?”

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The Concise Spain Survival Guide

Guide to living in Spain, Spain Survival Guide
Spain Lesson 1:

Even though you purchased them, you cannot take glass water bottles with you.  Everyone will get mad.

That’s right, folks. Not only do you have to pay €2-3 for your bottle of water, but you have to give the bottle back. This is precisely why I always order wine.

Spain Lesson 2:

Cheap restaurants like 100 Montaditos, Lizarrán, and La Sureña are the poor man’s (or woman’s) friend. Want to drink a huge mug of tinto de verano for €1.50? (Or €1 on Wednesdays/Sundays?) 100 Montaditos is your place. Want to get 5 bottles of beer for €3? Go to La Sureña.

You can even get Chipotle-style burritos at Tierra Burrito Bar (pictured below; metros Alonso Martínez and Guzmán el Bueno) for a reasonable €6.

I like to eat, so I really like this about Madrid.

Spain Lesson 3:

All fruit you wish to purchase must be weighed by the Official Fruit-Weigher. They don’t always have scales at the cash registers, so the fruit-buying process looks like this:

  • Step 1: Put on the plastic gloves that are provided for you. (You’ll know to do this because there are 30 million “POR FAVOR, USAD LAS GUANTES” signs everywhere.)
  • Step 2: Pick out the fruit/vegetables you want and put them in separate bags.
  • Step 3: Bring all fruit/vegetables to the Official Fruit-Weigher. He’ll weigh them and put a barcode sticker on each bag.
  • Step 4: Walk away with your produce.
  • Step 5: Congratulate yourself because you know how to do yet another Spain thing.

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Step-by-Step: Spain Packing List & Packing Tips

packing for a move abroad
I have been dreading this moment ever since I decided to move to Madrid. “Oh my God I have to pack,” has become my angst-filled mantra, which I usually follow with a lot of grumbling and paralyzing waves of anxiety.

Seriously. How am I supposed to pack for a year in Spain? How is anyone supposed to do it? Can it be done?

I put off packing as long as I could, but I’m leaving on Saturday to visit my family in New Jersey from August 31 to September 10. My flight to Madrid leaves from Minneapolis on September 12. So, it will make my life 100x easier if I at least try to pack my Spain suitcase before I leave.

So, last Sunday, that’s exactly how I spent my afternoon. And let the bells ring out over the plains of America because I did it. I packed everything into my one giant suitcase and two carry-ons. (Or, one carry-on and one personal item for the technical folk out there.)

I went from this:

(Shoes, toiletries, and purses not pictured.)

To this:

Y anímate, because you can do it too! Here’s how.

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The Best (and Worst) of EasyPiso

EasyPiso Listing

My listing on EasyPiso.

I have too much time on my hands.

The visa process was an absolute nightmare, but at least I felt productive. Now that I have my visa (literally locked away in a safe, by the way), I’m at a standstill. I have one day left with my wonderful coworkers at my current job. I’m finishing up my TEFL certification. I’m trying to save as much money as possible for Spain, i.e. I spend a lot of time saying, “I’d love to go out, but I don’t want to spend money.” Then I follow that up by staying in and watching six episodes of Mad Men.

It’s too early to pack for Spain. It’s too early to plan private English classes. It’s too early to make elaborate binders filled with photocopies of all my important documents. At the same time, my departure is so close that it’s hard to think about anything else.

So, what do I do with all my spare time?

I look for apartments.

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6 Things You Learn From Your TEFL Certification

This is how learning about past participles and subject/object verbs makes me feel. (Okay, so we weren't actually learning that in this photo. This is me, left, and mi amiga Megan editing our capstone magazine. But it was equally as frustrating.)

This is how re-learning English grammar makes me feel. (Okay, we weren’t actually learning grammar here. We were editing. Shout-out to Megan, who absolutely loves this photo.)

I never thought I’d be a teacher. Ever. As an auxiliar, I’m technically not supposed to plan lessons or be left alone with a class. But I realized I didn’t even know what a lesson plan looked like. So, I decided to do the online Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification.

Now, 1.5 months and hours of homework later, I know a lot about teaching theory and methods. I’ve memorized the best seating arrangements for the classroom and I have a renewed hatred for the parts of speech. And, bonus: Having a TEFL certification allows you to charge more for private English lessons. That means more €€€ (and trips to Zara) for me.

Here’s a quick list of my top TEFL-inspired life lessons.

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Choosing an Auxiliares de Conversación Program

It was a typical March evening. I was shopping for things I didn’t need at the local Marshall’s when an email notification popped up on my phone. “Congratulations, Olivia! We have good news!” the quasi-spammy subject line blared. I almost ignored it completely until I realized it was from CIEE.

I immediately abandoned the $4.99 microfiber hair wrap I was holding (“Dries your hair 70% faster than regular towels!”) and opened the email. This was it. I’d been selected as an auxiliar de conversación, or English language assistant, and I had 10 days to confirm or decline my placement.

I panicked. 10 days? 10 days is not enough time to make that kind of decision. I have expired nail polish and heavily discounted pleather jackets to buy!

After a lot of planning, discussions, and approximately two existential crises, I decided to commit. I was officially going back to Spain. Not one to ever leave things till the last minute, I confirmed my placement and paid my program fees on Day Nine.

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