It’s hard to believe that my year in Spain is almost over. It seems like yesterday I was applying for my visa at the Spanish consulate. Despite Spain being known for taking it slow, somehow times speeds up once you are here. It’s difficult summarizing every experience I have had since I arrived here, so I won’t bother doing that. Instead, I’m going to reflect on how I have changed during my year abroad, what I would do differently if I could, and general advice for those about to move abroad.
How I Have Changed
I could write a whole book about how living abroad has changed me, but I will spare you.
Probably one of my biggest changes must be my patience. Coming from the US, we are so used to efficiency, to getting what we need when we need it. Spain is different. You will be working through a seemingly never-ending wave of paperwork during the time before you arrive and the first few months here. From applying for your visa to getting your NIE you will encounter bumps along the road. For Americans, it’s very difficult to not get stressed out by these delays. When I started the program I was this way, I was always worried about getting what I needed. Now I am different. It seems that in Spain, things somehow work out in the end. I’ve learned to trust the system, to know that just because something is delayed does not mean it won’t happen.
Another part of me that has changed is my openness. I certainly was not closed minded when I got here, but as Americans it sometimes is difficult breaking out of our cultural bubble. We’re so used to everyone speaking English and don’t consider that some people may have difficulty with the language. Teaching learners of English changes your thought patterns so much. You realize that some of the phrases we use really don’t make any sense, you realize that our grammar system is a bit of a mess, and you realize how lucky we are that we speak a commonly spoken language. I can say that teaching ESL has opened my perspective in ways I would have never considered previously.
What I Would do Differently
As cheesy as it sounds, there is very little I would do differently. My experience abroad was basically perfect and I wouldn’t want to change any major decisions I made. There are a few things I would tweak however.
I would have started looking for housing earlier, maybe even before I came to Spain. If you arrive in September, you will realize the housing market is crazy, with students returning to the city for university. This should not discourage you, you will find an apartment, but it will help if you start as early as possible. This will make you familiar with the housing search and will widen your housing possibilities.
The other thing I would change is I would have made an effort to go out more, especially in the middle of the program. At the start, I was going to intercambios and tapas with friends, but in the middle, I stayed in more to save money. This isn’t a bad thing, you should be aware of your spending. But what I didn’t realize then was how many free things Madrid has available. There are free yoga classes, if you are under 30 most museums will be free, and there are constant meetup events. Just because you want to save money doesn’t mean that you need to stay in your apartment the whole time.
Don’t worry about your visa and your NIE. They are both time consuming processes, but if you are on top of things it will work out. Don’t let all the paperwork negatively impact your Spanish experience.
If your goal is to improve your Spanish, set a goal at the beginning. My goal was originally to learn how to read museum placards in Spanish, I quickly surpassed that goal by the third month. One common question we ask our students in class is what are their goals for English and we should be doing the same for Spanish. Maybe you want to hold a full conversation with a native speaker. Maybe you want to be able to handle a Spanish phone call. Think of where you want to be at the end of the program and figure out the steps you need to reach that goal.
Travel, but don’t forget to appreciate Madrid. I know that it is much cheaper traveling Europe when you live here and you should take advantage of this opportunity. That being said, Madrid is a great city and deserves your attention as well. Make sure you spend a few weekends every month exploring the city, there is so much more to Madrid than tapas and the Prado.
I think it goes without saying that this will be my last blog post for the CIEE program. After I pick up my paycheck in July I plan to travel around Europe before returning to the United States for a while. I don’t yet know what I will do in the future, but I know I have gotten some of the best memories of my life from living in Spain. I sacrificed money and time and there were many stressful moments, but all of it was worth it in the end. If you are able to live in Spain, I would say you should do it. Trust me, you won’t regret it for a minute.