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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
by Ryan Gomez