Thursday, March 5, 2015

My Changing Feelings About Spain

I think my feelings about Spain have run the gamut. I've hated it, I've loved it, I've wanted to leave tomorrow and I've wanted to stay forever.

When I first got here, more than anything else I was bewildered. I had no idea what this strange country was that I knew basically nothing about, where I all of a sudden found myself living, out of the weirdness of circumstances. 

Over the course of that first year, I learned more and more about the country, and more than anything else, I compared it with America and found it lacking. The service was slow, the prices were high, and I hated jamón. I was often miserable, homesick and feeling trapped with the host family from hell, who screamed at each other in front of me and criticised my Spanish until I cried.

I was so happy to leave at the end of my two semesters in Bilbao, and having my flight cancelled due to inclement weather and being stuck in airport limbo in Madrid for four days was the cherry on the cake. When I arrived home, I was thrilled to no longer be stuck in Spain.

However, following that was one of the most stressful years of my life thus far, as I was tirelessly writing my thesis, working towards graduating from university, and slowly ending things with my (then) boyfriend of four years. And during all of that, I often found myself daydreaming of Spain.

I saw Spain as the solution to all my problems, the escape to which I could get away when I graduated. I yearned for another opportunity to do a year in Europe (which I'd been dreaming of since I was a preteen) the right way. I craved another chance to realize those childhood dreams, and so I decided to go back when I graduated.

The second year, I was still culture shocked by many of the same things as before, plus being thrown into teaching in the Spanish system with no training whatsoever. I debated for the first half of the year whether I would just go home like I wanted, or whether I would be optimistic and renew for another year and hope things would improve. In short, I was once again pretty unhappy, and felt like it was all Spain's fault.

But the last half of that second year and all of the third one, improve things did. Those were probably the happiest 18 months of my life so far. I felt settled in Vigo, I had stable friends that I cared about, I was speaking Spanish almost all the time, and I had plenty to keep me busy. I was learning to understand my work, I was earning plenty of money, and I was traveling somewhere new almost every weekend. I fell in love with Spain in that time, deeply and unexpectedly. By the end, I had even decided that I could see myself living in Spain forever. I laughed at those small things that had once annoyed me (like Spain's notorious inefficiency), and decided to see them as the price of admission for being in a country where people work to live, where relaxation and being social are celebrated parts of daily life, where wine comes with a tapa, and where I had come to feel at home.

At the end of the third year in Spain, I wanted to stay and keep living that happy stable life, but I also felt like if I didn't take the opportunity being offered to me to realize my preteen dream of living in France, I would forever regret it.

As is common, however, upon finally realizing my 13-year-old wish, I realized that it wasn't going to be all croissants in chic cafés, living the life of Amélie. France wasn't the same in reality as it had been in my dreams, and it took me a long time to adjust to the reality of the country. And during all of those first few difficult months, I clung to Spain like a security blanket. I talked of almost nothing else, to the extent that several people thought for awhile that I was actually Spanish. I fell even deeper in love with Spain, or my rose-colored memories of it, anyway.

I did eventually begin to assimilate to life in France, just in time to have to leave, but I had a plan: get back to Spain, through hell or high water. Spain was where I belonged, I figured, and things would work themselves out if I could make it back. So I accepted a spot in my current Master's program in Alcalá de Henares, and came back.

At first this year, I felt justified in my choice to move back to Spain, what I had been told was "the love of my life thus far." I was once again enjoying all those things that made living here worth it, like tapas and siestas. But as the year has gone on, my feelings have begun to evolve once again, towards negativity. Part of it is probably living in the province of Madrid, which I've never liked as well as Galicia, but I think there are two other factors that play a much larger role.

The first one is spending more time with other English speakers than I have since my study abroad days in Bilbao. This time around, it's not because I don't understand Spanish, but because we work together and we study together, and I haven't had a lot of free time to find quality Spanish friends in Madrid (other than an old Galician one who lives here now). Being around other Anglophones means having people to complain with about those little annoying parts of Spanish life. Every time we're given a random task to complete that seems utterly pointless and yet is required of us in order to stay legal here, every time something seems to have been organized bass ackwards, and every time we disagree with Spanish teaching methods, we have each other to turn to. That is wonderful, and it's a great stress reliever, but it's forcing those small annoyances to the forefront of my mind. Things that I learned to ignore during my 18 happy months in Galicia have begun to bother me again. I've remembered that there IS another way, one that makes logical sense and is efficient. This irritation is compounded by the fact that I'm so busy this year that I don't have the time to take advantage of the best parts of Spain--the food, the people, the sunshine, the cheap flights to interesting European destinations.

That brings me to the second factor in my current negative feelings toward Spain. This year, I'm working full-time as an assistant in a Spanish school. I'm there as much as the regular teachers are, and I share many of their responsibilities. But yes, I am STILL an assistant. This is the fourth year I've worked as an assistant, and some of the realities of the job are starting to make me crazy. I think to myself, if only I had my own classroom, if only I could run things the way I want to, if only I could plan my own classes. I could handle those realities when they came in exchange for a life full of free time, friends, and travel. But now? I work all the time, I get paid half of what a Spanish teacher does, and I have no life, no freedom to enjoy all those things I once loved about Spain. And that's fine for right now, but someday soon I'm going to want something more.

And the problem with Spain is, it can't offer me that. I can probably find a way to stay here indefinitely, yes. As an assistant. Moving regions every year or two. But can I ever have stability, a decent salary, and enjoyable working conditions? No, no and no.

Spain for me is starting to become like that boyfriend you have when you're young, who you love so much and you think you'll be with forever, until you realize he can't offer you any stability.

And so what happens? You break up. I'm starting to wonder if a breakup between me and Spain is in the near future. I've had so many ups and downs with Spain and still stuck with it that I really did think it was true love...but I'm starting to grow up now. I'm starting to want to put my things away and not have to worry about packing them into a suitcase again 9 months later, and that's how things will always be for me in Spain, I think.

My emotional journey with Spain isn't quite over yet, but this is the direction it's headed in for now, and although that makes me sort of nostalgic and sad for days gone by, I think it's what's right.

So I'm probably going to be in the market for a new country to fall in love with soon, and hopefully it will be THE ONE, and not just another ex-love writing sweet nothings in my passport. Any ideas?


  1. I love Central America. And it is fairly easy to get a stable teaching job here. Low cost of living is a giant perk.

  2. Hey Caly! Where exactly are you in Central America? And do you earn enough to feel like you can live a full live and still have a security blanket for a rainy day?

  3. I live in Honduras - yes, it is home to the murder capital of the world but don't let that get you down! I teach at an American school and I make a comparable amount to what I would make starting out in a rural school in the states, but I also get a cost of living stipend to cover housing, bills, groceries, etc and my employer pays for a yearly round trip flight to the states. I personally do not feel any financial burdens and know that if I was in a tight situation I would be fine. Most of my coworkers save about $5000 USD a year.

    However, I know that my job is among the better ones for teaching in Honduras and teachers at smaller schools can have more issues.

    It's definitely not Europe - but I totally love it.