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An Auxiliar de Conversación in Spain: Get a heads up before you arrive

During my life I have been able to enjoy the experience of living in different countries. I want to share my experience of having lived in Spain for many years and my 2 years as a Teaching Assistant with those who are thinking of or preparing themselves for the move to Spain. I only touch on a variety of subjects but hope it helps.

I’m a little ‘ol country girl at heart, from a small town in Australia and who would imagine…..If I could travel back in time and interview myself, in ‘Back to the Future’ style, that 15 year old girl wouldn´t believe all of my experiences: studying at university, living in England and now in Spain, 800km cycling holidays, marrying a Spaniard, having gorgeous twin girls, etc.

In my hometown Renmark, Australia, most of my friends’ parents worked in agriculture and everything related. Renmark is an amazingly special place to grow up. Small town, safe, sun, river, relaxed. You would expect that I would end up working in something related to that.

However, I found that when I finished high school I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It was something that ate at me. Not knowing. I was an emotional mess. My parents were supportive but couldn’t make my decisions for me. Finally, I decided to go to university, which meant moving 300kms to the closest city, Adelaide. A daunting experience for someone who had never even driven in the city! University was a wonderful experience and without going into too much detail, a friend told me he was going to England on exchange, and before you know it, I too was in the program and heading to the UK.

I have many good memories of my years of studying and working in England. Looking back, it wasn’t a big deal. Similar culture, same language, etc.

The real adventure started on arrival to Spain.

Until arriving to Spain I had moved house so many times that I had developed the ability to rapidly adapt. However, this time there were so many uncertainties and unknowns: Will I adapt? Will I find work without knowing a word of Spanish? Will I meet new people with the language barrier?

With emigration comes the possibility of living great moments from the beginning, or on the other hand, many difficult months of feeling sad, isolated and homesick. I felt them all.

Carson McCullers Quote from ChristineinSpain.com

The Culture.

This is one of the things that I love about Spain. Spain is one of the most visited countries due to its climate, gastronomy and culture in general. But a tourist visiting Spain won’t get close to what you will experience during your 9 or more months here. But this is not something you should worry about. Learn to understand the culture. As teaching assistants we have the opportunity to get to know Spaniards from the beginning of the course.

Things that may catch you by surprise when you arrive and my advice:

Opening hours of shops. Shops open at 10am, close at 2pm, open again at 5pm and close at 8:30-9pm. In the centre of Madrid and Barcelona things are different, shops are generally open from 10am to 9 or 10pm. For me this was a problem at the beginning. I would go to the shop and… ‘it’s closed’! It took me a while to get used to that.

Advice: When in Rome…..do what the Spanish do. Try to get over the phase of comparing your home country with Spain. Although it is inevitable, it sounds like you want to change things and you won’t make many friends that way.

I’m used to the daily timetable now. You find people in the street at all hours (except in the smaller towns where you will feel like you are in a ghost town during siesta time). The days are clearly divided into parts. The morning, midday (which is actually around 2pm) and the afternoon/night which isn’t clearly defined. It still surprises me when locals say afternoon at 9pm.

Siesta Madrid - Calvin Smith Flickr

Meals and the eating schedule.

The Spanish generally eat a light breakfast after waking, a coffee and piece of toast or fruit at 11am, a big lunch (and I mean big) at 2pm, afternoon snack at 6pm and a light dinner at 9pm.  This must sound a little crazy, but after adapting to the change I really like it. Spain usually ranks in the top 3 countries for longevity and they say that diet is an important factor. They must be doing something right. Not only do people live longer here, you will see that the elderly are very active.

(On a side note, my Spanish husband’s grandfather lived to 97 years old and drank beer and wine everyday, so get on it guys, for your health’s sake!)

The Mediterranean diet

The Spanish eat a lot of fish, legumes and every single part of the pig. Something that surprised me a bit was the excessive use of olive oil, even on toast! Most substitute butter or margarine with olive oil and jam with fresh puréed tomato. Much healthier but a bit strange for us.

Advice: The Spanish are very critical of their country (sometimes excessively) but they are very proud of their food, and they will ask if you like it. Some auxiliary programs include lunches at your school. Others include a small cost (in my school is was 4.50€ for a 3 course meal). Meals are prepared by dietitians and I highly recommend you eat there at least a couple of times a week. It’s an opportunity for you to get to know your work mates, practice your Spanish, get inside info on local activities, shows, shops, etc.

Vegetarians/Vegans: Houston, we have a problem! Spanish vegetarians are almost nonexistent. You can find vegetarian restaurants in the bigger cities but in the villages and towns you may have problems. However, supermarkets stock a wide range of products and ‘herbolarios’ are a good source of ‘ecological’ food.

Supermarkets are very competitive in price although some are more expensive than others. Large supermarkets can be found on the outskirts of big cities and are generally only easily accessible by car, but each neighborhood usually has a variety of small supermarkets. If you are looking for something specific from home you may be able to find it in the Foreign Foods section in El Corte Inglès, Carrefour and Alcampo. Most cities also have specialty stores.

All cities and most towns have a local market. Make sure it is one of the first places you visit! You will find fresh fruit & veg, meat, fish, legumes, dairy products, and even some surprises. Mine has Japanese and a British food stall! And the best part….it is usually cheaper. Highly recommendable!

The Cities.

Cities in Spain are generally very compact and walkable. The majority of people live in flats or apartments. Streets are usually narrow, with churches, monuments and services. Along with the historic quarter there are usually areas with wider streets that were built in the 60’s. They look horrible from the outside but are generally OK on the inside. Public transport is usually very reliable and cheap in the cities. If you want to live in the city centre be prepared for the noise. Check for double glazed windows or find a flat in a side street. It will be worth it.

Lastly, in the outskirts there are usually big blocks of modern flats. They often have a communal swimming pool. I don’t recommend living in these areas except if you want to be close to your school. Most people in these neighborhoods use cars to move around although there should be some public transport.

English

English has been an ongoing ‘asignatura pendiente’ for the Spanish, especially if you compare them to northern European countries or even Portugal. Being a highly visited country you would expect that most Spaniards would have an ‘acceptable’ level of English, but that isn’t the case. You will see for yourself when you arrive. But don’t fret. The Spanish are generally very patient and with the help of international hand signals, body language and a big smile you can usually get by.

Maybe the low level of English can be attributed to the fact that television and films are all dubbed into Spanish, the slow inclusion of English in schools (French was taught in schools before) or the lack of investment.

For these reasons, in the last decade, and to cover the needs of the Spanish economy, they have incorporated bilingual programs in many schools at primary and secondary levels. On many occasions the teachers are not sufficiently prepared to impart classes in English and that is where we, the native speaker step in. It is hoped that new generations will speak English more fluently.

The success of the program differs from one region to another, usually dependent on the investment. For example, in my school in Madrid there were 4 auxiliares in a ‘linea 2’ school (2 classes per year level). Whereas, having spoken to other auxiliaries in Andalucia where there were the only 2 native assistants in a ‘linea 4’ school or even one assistant spread over 2 schools which meant they saw the students for 30 minutes a week. Obviously what they learn will be diluted in these cases.

The region that appears to be most advanced at this stage is Madrid, which happens to be the region which invests the most money.

Safety.

You will feel safe. After living here for 8 years I still haven’t seen a fist fight (fortunately). Verbal arguments are a different story. The Spanish love to debate everything. And they are good at it! And until you learn Spanish it will seem like everyone is arguing. The streets are generally very well lit and full of people which makes you feel safer.

The statistics say that Spain has very few suicides, homicides and rapes. Much lower than the UK and Australia.

On the other hand there is lots of graffiti, which gives you the impression that things are dirty (although some are beautiful, witty, ironic, etc).

And last of all, and the most common, are the pick pockets. In the bigger cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Seville this is a real problem. Most people I know have had something stolen from them without realizing. Girls, be careful with your handbags. Don’t leave it on a chair next to you. Always have it on your lap. Same goes for mobile phones. Don’t leave it on the table while having a beer/coffee. It will be gone before you realize. They are experts!

Graffiti - Metro Centric Flickr

Touchy Feely.

Spaniards are generally extroverted, generous and welcoming. They also don’t have the same limits in relation to personal space. I have been alone on a bus and an elderly lady has passed by all the empty seats to sit next to me. They don’t mind touching or being touched. Obviously I am referring to appropriate touching like on the shoulder or arm).

When being introduced it is customary to give two kisses on the cheeks or shake hands. Kisses for girls to girls and girls to boys. I have only seen brothers, male cousins or gay friends giving two kisses on the cheeks. When the Spanish meet you (knowing you are foreign) they may wait for you to make the first move. When giving two kisses go to your left (their right cheek), then right (their left cheek). I have seen more than one accidental kiss on the lips! Which is fine if the other is spunky, but if it is your 60 year old Director of Studies…..um….uncomfortable.

In the classroom: The children are like kids all over the world. You will find that the younger they are the more they like to ‘touch’ you. Hugs are acceptable, kisses on cheeks too. And if you are with ‘infantil’ classes expect them to climb all over you and they will tell you that they love you. It’s just great! But you will catch their colds and flu’s. It is OK for you as a teacher to give hugs and kisses on cheeks, but if you aren’t up for that there is no problem.

Hugging Montse PB Flickr

Family.

Family is very important to them and if you are in a small town or village you will have parents, grandparents and other more distant relatives asking how their child is progressing. Don’t say anything negative! Leave that to their teacher.

You may feel a bit duped by being sent to a small town however you will find you will be invited to local’s houses for lunch, weekend parties, etc. This doesn’t happen much in the city. Your experience will be more ‘authentic’.

On the other hand it can be hard to form part of a group of Spanish Friends. The same as in your home country, a lot of friendships are formed when you are in school or university and this can make it hard to form part of a circle of Spanish friends, especially when you have a leaving date.

On a positive note, the Spaniards are very spontaneous, open to improvisation and going out. If you feel like doing something, playing a sport, some kind of weekend activity, going out for dinner/drinks, etc…..don’t think twice about asking. You will probably get a positive response.

When and how to get to know Spaniards

Your first option is in your school. There you will be able to find the answers to all your questions. The younger teachers will be able to help you with almost anything. Don’t be afraid to ask. They will be happy to help. At the beginning join any event or activity that is offered. That is how you will make new friends and your Spanish will improve so much.

If you don’t mind making friends with other teaching assistants join all the relevant Facebook groups to see what others are planning. Each region and even some cities have groups and you can meet up to do activities, sightseeing or even just to hear another native speaker (sounds weird I know, but you will crave it especially if you are in a small town or village).

If you like sports this is the perfect way to meet Spaniards. Even most towns have a sports centre and the cities have loads to choose from.

A couple of good things.

Normally Spaniards criticize their own country a lot but don’t like that others criticize Spain. They will complain that things don’t work, that there is a lack of investment in education, unemployment, etc. and maybe this is true but for the most part the country functions quite well.

  • Public transport is one of the best in the world, both inner city and inter city (get on one of those fast trains!). Most of the larger cities have bike hire systems that work very well and often costs less than other forms of public transport.

Bikes Madrid - Microsiervos Geek Crew

  • The public health system works very well, although non-Europeans have to be content with the private coverage that is provided. The public hospitals don’t look very nice but they function very well. I gave birth to twins here in Spain and received excellent care (weekly tests, fortnightly ultrasounds, etc.) and I didn’t have to pay a thing as I was a permanent resident by that stage.

Advice: if you go to the doctor don’t forget to ask for a ‘justificante’ if you have missed or will miss days off work. Your principal or head teacher will ask for a copy.

  • Education. Undoubtedly Spanish schools have worse infrastructure than those in Australia and the States. From what I’ve seen sport is not really considered a priority in the curriculum. In all the schools I have worked at and where my children attend the classes have digital white boards however I know this is not the case in all schools. Children start school at 3 years old and primary school at 6 years old. The system is still quite traditional (to not say ‘old fashioned’) and memorizing still forms an important part of the school day. I would venture to say that one big different is that in Australia the education we receive is more practical rather than theoretical. This is easy to see when you realise there is no dedicated science lab or arts room (and in some cases no arts supplies!). In my experience, the knowledge of the students in science, history, geography and mathematics is considerably better than in Australia. It is also true that the students here have mountains of homework compared to other countries such as Australia and the UK. With my 9 year old students in Madrid I am able to hold a relatively normal conversation without too many problems. This is not the case in other regions nor in all schools in Madrid.

Football, food and politics.

Break time on Monday morning will include discussions related to the games played over the weekend, which restaurants they went to with their families on Sunday and politics. Whilst football and food don’t need much explanation here is a quick overview of politics. (It should be noted that I neither like nor understand it but hopefully I can be relatively impartial).

Generally speaking, the parties are divided into those on the left and those on the right. Until recently it was clearly PSOE (left) and PP (right). Now things are divided up a little more but those two are still the dominant parties. The left wing party are socialists and defend the public system and its sharing of public resources. On the other side there is the right wing who defend individual effort. On top of this there is the complicated situation with the Catalonian Separatists who want to become their own nation. Politics in Spain is difficult to understand without knowing a lot of what has passed in history.

Advice: It is very difficult and not advisable to participate in these conversations unless asking questions. Things can get heated!

Religion.

Another aspect we should include is religion, which we can generalise and say that the Spanish are split into two groups. Those that are Catholic and those that are not. Other religions don’t really get a look-in. The age group of 35 and below are generally not practicing Catholics and don’t go to church except for christenings, weddings and funerals. This is obviously a generalisation but what is not debatable is the deep rooted traditions that catholosism has instilled and can be seen with the celebration of Spanish traditions: Christmas, Easter, All Saints Day, and many more. Each city, town or village is represented by a Saint and this is celebrated with ‘procesiones’ and parties. I have to say that I’m not religious but enjoy participating in many of these festivities. I have learnt a lot about Catholocism, religion and its roots in our society since living in Spain.

Semana Santa Andaluz - K a z o Flickr

Here I have outlined some of what may help you to adapt to your new country but if you only listen to one of the things I have written here let it be this:

Come with an open mind

Let Spain change you. It is both inevitable and essential. Don’t be scared of change. Embrace it. Spain is not perfect. There is no perfect place, but accept the differences, live outside your comfort zone and try new things.

In my next blog I will outline the 4 Keys to Enjoying and Adapting to Spain: the language, money, health and accommodation.

If you need to improve your Spanish and are looking for a course let me know. There are various options available.

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