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  • Writer's pictureNatasha Cara

It’s not all sangria and sunshine: Balancing the good with the bad in Spain

Updated: Jul 4, 2019

As of November 2018, I have been on my year abroad for four months. I have completed a just under third of my time frame I have lived in two different countries and had two very polarising experiences. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs and at times I had even considered giving up. I started my year abroad in a Paris, France for the summer working as an office manager for a co-working company. I had the time of my life; I was working hard and playing harder. I threw myself in stereotypical Parisian culture, fulfilling my Francophile fantasies; I would peruse vintage bookshops, drink wine on the Seine with my friends until late in the evening and for a dash of culture I frequented my local museums every now and then. Paris exceeded my expectations and I thought life couldn’t be better than that. That was until it was time to pack my bags and move on to Valencia, Spain to begin my 8-month placement as an English language assistant in a high school. During this transitory period something changed within me (I allude to this further in my previous blog post). All of a sudden the reality of moving to a new country kicked in.

If i say ‘I study modern languages at university and I’m currently on my year abroad’ people's first response is either to say ‘So does that mean you’re fluent in X and Y languages?’ but more recently ‘Wow that’s amazing- it’ll be the best time of your life’. But people often fail to acknowledge the difficulties that come with this. The year abroad isn’t always a picture perfect experience; many of us will feel a mixture of euphoric moments and also periods of homesickness, loneliness and self -doubt. In my four months of the year abroad I have discovered that it’s completely normal to experience extreme highs and lows and I’d like to talk about my own experiences of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides of living abroad in Spain.

The not so great things about Valencian/ Spanish culture:

Hablas ingles?

One recurring issue is the language barrier. I always knew that it would be a potential issue for me here in Valencia. I started Spanish from A.B initio level at university and after two years of studying I was advised to pick a city like Valencia due to the fact that they have a clear and understandable accent. A piece of information that people neglected to tell me was that in recent years the Valencian language has gained popularity immensely and it is spoken more and more. Now I have to decipher whether it’s Castellan or Valencian, which is being spoken. Sometimes when I do try and speak Spanish some people automatically realise that I’m an English speaker and take the opportunity to practise their English with me. This can be quite disheartening, especially as my primary goal here is to improve my language level. I’ve found that if you are a little stubborn and continue to respond in Spanish they’ll speak Spanish back to you.

No pasa nada: The art of not giving a damn

Another negative aspect that has clouded my experience here in Valencia is the ‘No pasa nada’ attitude, particularly when applied to bureaucracy. It’s extremely hard to translate ‘No pasa nada’ into English but the best translation that I’ve found is a combination of ‘Don’t worry about it’/ chill out’ or ‘It’s not important/ It’s not that deep’. This mentality is applied to all aspects of life. Can’t find an apartment? No pasa nada. Don’t know when you’ll be paid? No pasa nada. For me, who is someone who likes to plan and be organised this mind-set irritates me. I like things to be efficient and done as quickly as possible. Spain operates at a slower pace of life; deadlines exist but if they’re missed it’s (usually) not a big deal, it just means your plans are pushed back even further. Moving from the hustle and bustle of the French capital to a more laidback Spanish town has definitely thrown me off kilter. Moreover, there are so many catch-22s here. Spanish bureaucracy has truly worn down my patience - each time I think I’m making progress I’m told that I’m missing a document or that something isn’t filled out properly. The bank has been the constant source of my strife and I feel like it’s my second home as I’m there multiple times a week. Sometimes I’m told conflicting information and when it finally comes down to the crunch I’m hit with the ‘no pasa nada’ response. Most days I feel like I’m going round in circles but I also am learning to grin and bear it; one thing is for sure- by the end of the year I’ll have become a more patient person.

Seeking support

Ever since I moved to Spain I‘ve felt as though I’ve been thrown into the deep end. I am currently employed but the Spanish Government and my British ‘host’ is the British Council. I have quickly found that they can’t provide advice, information or support for individual cases. At times I wish there was more communication between the language assistants and the government. Not knowing whether you’ll be paid on time, when certain deadlines are, if you need to apply for residency are some of the questions and problems that I’ve recently encountered. Due to the fact that there isn’t a comprehensive guide for language assistants in each region, I’ve found a lot of information from both current and former other assistants rather than the British Council themselves. I knew that I would have a lot of independence this year but I also wish that I did have a little more support.

F.O.M.O. (Fear of missing out)

Since term started again at Durham, I’ve noticed now that FOMO is definitely real and social media definitely intensifies this. Over summer it didn’t really affect me as I was working a 9-5 job and then socialising and experiencing Parisian life in my spare time. However, seeing all of my friends hanging out at college, going to formals and even nights out at Klute makes me miss home even more. It’s inevitable that we compare our situations and my friends often comment how much they’d love to trade places with me. Granted, I’d hate to be planning a dissertation right now I do have moments when I reminisce about being back in Durham. I’m learning that it’s all about perspective- people always think that the grass is greener on the other side.

The flipside: Positives of living in Valencia:

On the other hand I‘ve had some really positive experiences in Valencia so far. Recently I’ve been taking the time to create a new network of friends and socialising as well as keeping in touch with friends that I’ve made along the way. In Spain it’s a social norm to grab a beer with your friends after work or even just grab a coffee and have a catch up if you’re not a big drinker. I’ve found a great network of other language assistants here in Spain from the U.K, Canada and the U.S and have even made international friends from Brazil and France too. It’s comforting and reassuring to know that I’m not alone when I feel frustrated or homesick and that we’re all in the same boat. Nobody really has a clue as to what’s happening. Through all of the stress and anxiety we always find a way to lighten up and laugh, taking the good and bad hand in hand.

I’ve also found a new sense of independence whilst being here. My contract is limited to 12 hours a week of work and my school have been kind enough to allocate me classes Tuesday- Thursday 9-2pm. I have more time on my hands than ever and I’m enjoying trialling new things that I have always wanted to do. So far I’ve been to a Hatha yoga class on my own- completely in Spanish, I’ve joined a gym and have even taken up running again. I still have so much that I want to try: Pilates, dance classes and Spanish classes. I like the freedom of being able to pick and choose new things and not being fully tied down to activities. Even if I decide not to return to the classes and activities I take something away from each of them; my confidence speaking Spanish improves, sometimes I make a new friend but ultimately I have the memory and I know that when I’m down I can look back on these opportunities and be proud that I put myself out there and tried something new.

Another aspect of living in Spain, which I’m fully exploiting, is the ability to tap into my ever-growing wanderlust. I have a huge ever-growing list of cities, towns and countries that I want to visit this year. Having a four-day weekend every week provides me with the option to do this. After visiting my friend Kira in Castellon last weekend (blog post coming soon) it reignited something inside me. I’m not sure when if or when I’ll have the opportunity that I have now- limitless travel options, a stable job with a flexible timetable and youth on my side. No partner, no kids, no mortgage. My only commitment is looking after myself physically and mentally. People often say that your twenties are supposed to be your selfish years and now I’m realising that it is okay to be a little selfish if it means finding out more about yourself.

Last week I decided that I didn’t want to sit in my room every weekend feeling homesick and sorry for myself but to put myself out there- whether that be taking new classes or booking a 36 hour round trip to Barcelona because why not? (Another blog post is incoming). I read a lot of articles from travel bloggers and digital nomads Damon and Jo on their blog ‘Shut up and Go’ and I’ and I’m constantly inspired by their carefree, optimistic outlook on travelling. Now that I’m on my year abroad I’m finally realising and appreciating their philosophy of ‘Shutting up and going’. I’m learning to take risks- not necessarily being reckless but pushing myself out of my comfort zone and taking everything in my stride.

So what next?

So what do I think the rest of the year will be about? Honestly I have no idea. I can fantasise about my dream year abroad, filled with jet setting every weekend, joining new clubs and activities and making a bevvy of friends along the way. In reality it might be like that, but I also expect it to still be challenging some days. I expect to feel low, homesick and perhaps a little stressed out sometimes. This year isn’t perfect, it isn’t #instagramgoals 24/7. It’s real life and its what I make of the experience. I’m learning that some things are out of my control, I can’t manufacture the cookie cutter mould year abroad experience but I can make sure that I keep on looking at the bright side and take the good with the bad. It’s not an exaggeration when people say there is always a silver lining.

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