Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Confession: Why I’m Renewing for Another Year in Galicia

It’s that stressful time of the year again: the Spanish Ministry of Education has now begun assigning native English speakers from North America to work in public elementary and high schools across the country. First-timers anxiously (and impatiently) wait to hear back from the government to see where they will be spending the next eight months of their lives, and veteran language assistants have their fingers crossed, hoping to get placed in their preferred region.

Placements are already rolling out this early in the spring, which inevitably means fellow teachers, expat friends, and family are asking, are you going to renew?

Galician countryside
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Even before I first came to Spain two years ago, I knew I wanted to stay here for two years: one in the south and one in the north—mainly to make it easier to travel around each half of the country but also so I could experience both the lively, extroverted Andalusian culture and the cozy, introverted Galician one. Maybe I would make a “victory lap” and spend a third year in the Basque Country or Aragón out east, maybe not. This radically-regional country basically begged me to hop around from corner to corner, getting a different taste of Spain two-thirds of a year at a time.

Last year I was extremely fortunate to get placed in my desired region—southerly Andalucía—and live in the World Heritage-listed town of Úbeda for a year while working in a friendly, accommodating school and traveling every so often. Yes, I did get lonely in my average-sized town; the winter was cold, rainy, and dark; and my allergies and I barely survived the Olive Tree Pollen Release of May 2013. But my first round with Spain was, overall, a positive introduction to the country; it’s hard to go wrong with castles, Renaissance architecture, olive oil, and a laid-back attitude. Still, the north was calling.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain
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For this school year my home has been basically the polar opposite of Andalucía. Here in Spain’s rugged northwest corner, I’ve begun to pick up a language that blurs the distinction between Castilian Spanish and Portuguese…I’ve gained an appreciation for seafood, soups, and dry socks…I’ve done much more actual teaching than playing second fiddle in the classroom…and I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of northern Spain.

I’ll be honest, my first encounter with Santiago de Compostela where I’ve been living this year wasn’t all that encouraging; having just come down off of the high of finishing the Camino de Santiago, I arrived in a cold, overcast, granite-gray city with gruff, bundled-up denizens whose demeanor seemed much more cerrado or “closed” than the Andalusians I had hung around with just weeks before. I regretted my decision to move up north; I feared the rain, the boring-ness, the unknown.

My initial apprehensions seemed like they had a ring of truth to them when I hopped off the train this past September, sunburned from Segovia’s late-summer sun and still a little jetlagged. It was raining—of course—and dragging a 50-lb suitcase (among other things) uphill along Santiago’s main drag and through a sort-of muddy public park just to get to my temporary hostel meant I greeted my new home not with dos besos but with some, uh, unsavory words. And when I met my bilingual coordinator, Fran, to discuss the upcoming school year, I got the impression I would be responsible for planning and teaching over half of my classes all on my own.

As they say here, buf.

Clovers at the Templar Castle, Ponferrada, Spain
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Things turned around, though. The first week in town, I met my current housemate Noé, a fellow American language assistant, and found a decent piso with him in spite of my shabby apartment hunting skills. Although my school is an hour away, I feel relaxed, comfortable, and welcome there (and it’s on the coast!). Fran—who speaks perfect English and clear, measured Spanish—has been incredibly helpful in helping me “program” or plan our classes. While I had a disastrous experience with preschool at my school last year, I’ve really come to enjoy the three classes a week I have with the adorable, curious, and honest kiddos in infantil.

It has been rainy, there’s no doubt about that, but month-long dry spells in November and March have made things bearable. Santiago—a World Heritage Site just like my beloved Úbeda last year—has gradually unveiled herself to me, and I’ve fallen in love in her comfortable embrace. The stoic gray granite all so common in houses and churches here I’ve warmed up to, and the Romanesque and Baroque masterpieces I can’t get enough of. Octopus, tripe-with-chickpea stew, almond cake, and gigantic free tapas…y’all don’t even know how good Galician cooking is.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain
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In short, I was extremely lucky to get placed at the school where I am, to get to live in Santiago de Compostela, and to have this experience in a distinct sub-nation within Spain. I’ve established a great working relationship with my coordinator, Fran, gotten a handle on the “lesson-planning” and teaching I do here, and finally am getting my students’ names down. I can understand spoken Galician, no problem, although I can only speak gastrapo or an awful Galician-Spanish mix. You can never have enough octopus, and there are so many food festivals I didn’t hit up this year.

I want to continue building on the good foundation I’ve got at my school this year, I want to get to know the region of Galicia better than I do now, and I want to take advantage of this singular opportunity to live abroad, travel, and practice Spanish while I’m young.

And so that’s why I’m renewing for another year in Galicia, what will be my third (and probably final) academic year in Spain. On this blog, I’m looking forward to talking about what it’s really like living as an expat in Europe (less travel posts, more on daily life) and sharing every village, dish, and interesting turn of phrase this unique, hardly-visited region of northwest Spain has to offer.

What made you decide to continue living abroad or ultimately head back home? Tell me your story in the comments below.
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