The 10 Commandments of Apartment Hunting in Spain

Gorgeous illustration of Madrid's barrios by Helena Ecija. See more of her work here.

Gorgeous illustration of Madrid’s barrios by Helena Ecija. Original photo and more of her work here.

I once spent a summer combing through apartment listing websites. Those were a simpler times, when a grainy photo of a terraza or the phrase “gastos incluidos” was enough to get my heart racing. My research quickly turned into an obsession. My friends nearly staged an intervention.

I’d been sending out general interest emails since June, which was completely fruitless. Rooms move so quickly here that I typically received responses to the effect of “Sorry, the room has been taken,” or “Move-in in October? We’re looking for someone for next week.” In fact, 80% of my emails went unanswered.

Compared with a few of my friends, who spent about two weeks in hotels and Airbnbs before they found rooms, my apartment hunt in Madrid was relatively painless. I owe about 70% of that to my trusty planning skills and 30% of that to luck. I arrived in Madrid on a Friday and had three apartment visits scheduled for that afternoon/evening. We had two more the next day, and one on Sunday.

I visited my current apartment on my first day in Spain. We returned the next day to meet the two housemates, and, after an hour-long chat with the girls, I called the landlady to rent the rooms. By Sunday I was settled in my new piso. I’ve spent 10 happy months in my apartment. We’ve had relatively few roommate issues (see number 6) and my neighborhood is perfect for me (see number 5). We have a huge terraza, a large living room, central heat, and two bathrooms. See, you can have it all!

This process can be really stressful, so I’ve put together some tips on finding an apartment. Without further ado, I give you the 10 Commandments of Apartment-Hunting in Spain.

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An Afternoon at el Mercado de Motores

A vintage stand at El Mercado de Motores.

A vintage stand at El Mercado de Motores.

You probably don’t know this about me because it’s nerdy and I keep it to myself, but I like transportation. No, I don’t have elaborate model train sets in my basement or hundreds of hand-painted balsa wood airplanes. But I get a kick out of efficient transport systems, especially public transportation or high-speed trains.

So, imagine my happiness when I discovered that there’s a market in Madrid’s Museo del Ferrocarril. Trains and a market? Is this heaven?

On the first weekend of the month, artists and antiquarians set up their stands alongside centenarian steam trains and art deco train cars. They peddle their artisan, vintage and gourmet goods while live music plays on the terrace outside.

I wasn’t sure what to expect — I was picturing something more akin to El Rastro, which is fun, but in the same way junk-filled rummage sales are fun. Upon arrival to the Mercado de Motores, however, I was immediately impressed by all the beautiful things for sale. The museum’s main depot area hosts the hand-made and artisan goods, while the space outside the museum is filled with antique and vintage finds. You can even hop on a miniature steam train, but only if you’re accompanying a child. We learned that the hard way.

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“Vamos de Excursión!” or, How to Make the Auxiliar Lose Her Mind

La Mujer Gigante, Parque de Europa

La Mujer Gigante in all her 1970s animatronic glory.

A couple of weeks ago, our jefa de estudios asked me if I wanted to join the 1st and 2nd grade classes on their field trip. “Of course!” I beamed: all the other auxiliares had been on field trips before, and I’d been not-so-patiently waiting my turn for months. That Friday was my chance.

No one actually told me where we were going, so I sought out the word on the street. Or rather, word on the patio, the fenced-in and paved area that serves as their playground. The first graders successfully told me we’d be visiting La Mujer Gigante (The Giant Woman). “It’s an attractions park!” one of them gleefully shouted at me.

“Okay, so I’m going to an amusement park named after a giant woman,” I thought. After interrogating a few more children, I finally turned to a more reliable source. Paloma, one of the teachers, explained that La Mujer Gigante is actually a giant model of the human body. We’d be able to go inside of her (questionable) and learn about the internal processes that keep us all running. After our visit, we’d walk around the park that houses La Mujer Gigante, the Parque de Europa, famous for its scale replicas of famous European monuments.

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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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Getting to Know Madrid

Olivia Young in Spain

On a sunny street in Ronda, Spain.

“¡Chicas! ¡Perdona! ¡CHICAAAAAAS!”

We turned, ready to fend off yet another “Compro Oro” guy or an especially aggressive club promoter. I discovered instead a flustered, apron-clad barista hurtling down the street in our general direction, screaming as loudly as she could.

Once she caught up to us, she explained that we’d committed an unforgivable offense: We’d left the café with our half-full (glass) water bottles and carried them into the street. (“Es que esto no se puede hacer! Lo siento chicas!”)

I told her we’d give them back, but we wanted to drink the water first. (I also gave her a little culture lesson about how, in the U.S., when you order anything at a restaurant it’s basically yours to keep. Just so she knew where the confusion came from.) She was surprisingly nice and waited patiently for us to chug the water. After a few more lo sientos, we returned the bottles and went our separate ways.

I’ve been in Spain for two weeks now, and, like the Great Bottle Misunderstanding of 2013, it all feels a bit surreal. The time has gone both extremely fast and incredibly slow; most days I’m so busy that I can’t process the fact that this is my life now. I have to consciously run through the facts to really feel the gravity of the changes I’m going through: I live here. I have an apartment. I have a metro pass. I have a Spanish cell phone. I even have Spanish shampoo and conditioner. (Okay, it’s Garnier, but the label is in Spanish.)

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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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