Life as a Teaching Assistant in Murcia, Spain: Part 1

Authored by:
Leslie C.

Eyes Wide Open

I had very high expectations for my return to Spain. After studying abroad in Barcelona for four months of my third year of college, I had what I thought was a relatively comprehensive picture painted of what I’d encounter in Cartagena; Spain meant palm trees, warm weather, blue skies, fantastic inexpensive wine, café con leche, and pan con tomate. It meant leisurely meals that last well into the night, surrounded by people with impeccable style. It meant this and so much more for me. Since my return I have encountered all of these staples in Murcia, but I have not yet been embraced by the Spain that I knew. I have not felt a warm hug or been kissed on both cheeks by my new home. If there is one thing I have learned from my time in Murcia so far it is that I cannot maintain an unrealistic notion of what Spain should be, based on one four-month stint as a coddled American student.

Contrary to any of my expectations, pickpockets, uncooperative bankers, overtly rude immigration office workers, and perpetually late realtors greeted me enthusiastically during my first week in Spain. With no money in my wallet – and no wallet, for that matter – I struggled to get through my first week in Murcia without booking a flight home. It turns out that apartment searching in Spain while speaking only intermediate levels of Spanish is as difficult as it sounds. Setting up a Spanish bank account is, as well. Having my cash, debit and credit cards stolen from me made each task even more stressful, though these errands are taxing regardless of one’s financial situation. I was lucky enough to have the support of my older sister, who spent a week with me to help me settle into my new home. Even with this immense support system I felt discouraged. A few weeks of reflection taught me, however, that pushing through the difficult parts is crucial. Finding an apartment is an awful task (in any country), but it works out eventually. Eventually is a key term to keep in mind – some people I’ve met were without an apartment for weeks, so planning for this is important.

Despite my daily threats to my roommate and mom of flying home to the U.S., I never acted upon them. And while my time in Murcia has been less than ideal thus far, one bad week in a new place is not a sufficient excuse for leaving. That being said, one month in Cartagena has given me a lot to contemplate regarding the expectations I had for the Region of Murcia.

I had very high hopes for Cartagena. Both my experiences in other, bigger Spanish cities and photos of Cartagena I saw online made me optimistic. A quaint port city on the Mediterranean, Cartagena hosts tourists daily. Naturally, tourists’ photos show the tourist destinations – those that have been renovated, gentrified, and cultivated specifically to attract crowds with extra disposable income. Like most cities, however, the tourist area only stretches its arms so far. The farther north one walks, the more trash one spots on the street; the older the buildings appear (despite the fact that the area near the port is the ancient part of the city); the fewer “modern” restaurants they find. This is not to say that these areas are not safe or pretty, but the difference in appearance is stark. The tourist areas appear quintessentially Spanish, whereas many other parts of the city seem to lack attention. This is all to say that pictures on the Internet do not accurately depict Cartagena, which might seem obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind. I learned that doing more extensive research into my new home might have been a good idea, and might have softened the blow of realization that I would not be living in the charming areas from the photos I found online.

Wrong predictions about what I thought I would encounter in Murcia have been some of the only constants in my first month of living abroad. One of the most potent, and difficult, realities to reconcile myself to is the lack of help from the program through which I am working. As an auxiliar de conversación, I work for the Spanish government, but the support system is almost nonexistent. Countless questions have gone unanswered or are answered far too late to be useful. Spanish bureaucracy has been one of the most frustrating entities that I have faced, and it’s been jarring considering the amount of assistance I received from my study abroad program two years ago. I have learned, though, that I should stop comparing the two experiences.

Studying abroad and working abroad are entirely different. I expected them to be siblings, if not twins, but in reality the two are like second cousins. Their resemblance is only vaguely similar – the visa processes, the questions from family members and friends, and perhaps the initial flights over offer a glimpse of one another, but then the likeness ends. I have realized I took advantage of the support provided during my first trip abroad, as settling into a new, foreign city with no concrete plan, apartment, or handle of the Spanish language has proven more of a struggle than I ever expected. That, however, is my main takeaway so far: my expectations were unrealistic and based on experiences I had in a different Spanish region. Due to this, I am in a constant state of neutrality toward all things I’ve encountered except, thankfully, my school and students, who have been more welcoming than I ever could have predicted.

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