Reflection After my Year in Córdoba as an Auxiliar de Conversacion

When you summarize something, things are bound to be left out. As I ponder my year in Spain, it seems impossible that I could capture all my thoughts about it in a single essay. At the same time, I have at least documented my weekly experiences in my expat memoirs. I am so happy I wrote those stories soon after they happened (and sometimes not quite so soon after they happened). I am going to try to sum up some of my experience here. As with any summary I hope to highlight the important bits and show the essence of the thing.

El Puente Romano at dusk in Cordoba, the mezquita reflected in the river
My favorite photograph of Córdoba; the Puente Romano and the Mezquita reflected in the Guadalquivir river at dusk.

Overall I’d say my experience was good. But, obviously, I’ve decided not to go back either. I think a year was just right for me. As I sit here, knowing other auxiliares are now heading back to Spain or are venturing to Spain for the first time, I’m happy for them. I had a year full of learning, stress, travel, laughter, food, tiredness, friends, relationships, and all the rest of the things that make up life. I think some of the biggest aspects of what made living abroad unique is the culture. I was immersed into the language and the lifestyle of Spain.

Language

This section of advice is for any upcoming auxiliares— but also those keen on learning a new language. What I’ve learned: you get what you work for. How well and how much you learn depends on the time you dedicate to learning it. Immersion only goes so far. And unless you are immersed for years and fully immersed, speaking your native language seldom.

I found that when having conversations with Spaniards, I tended to use the same set of words over and over again. Using them in creative ways to get my point across. I was using the words I was comfortable with and the words where I was certain of their meaning. It takes time and is laborious to get out a translator. Gestures and hand motions save lives people! Embrace your inner Italian and talk with your hands. Or just do a bad version of charades and awkward sounds to get your point across. Did I do this? No, never…

Studying on your own is imperative. I was never good at this. (I had other priorities as you’ll soon discover.) There are great apps and websites to help you practice but it’s up to you to actually use them. Intercambios— language exchanges– and making Spanish friends are great. I found I needed the routine and repetition of classroom structure to be truly successful. I was not good at sticking to a study routine or finding motivation to study on my own.

The iconic red and white arches of the mosque-cathedral in Córdoba.
The iconic red and white arches of the Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba.

What I also found useful was consistent usage and practice. For example, I asked my friend the word for ‘frost,’ pointing it out on the ground and generally asking, “Hey what’s that white stuff, very cold, on all the plants and ground called?” She said it, I repeated it to myself and wham, in one ear out the other. Unless I’m using it consistently, I don’t remember. I have managed to build a decent vocabulary of stuff because those were the words I used it all the time. I learned a lot of useful vocab from teaching vocab in my elementary school classes. I consider myself an expert on naming the parts of the body, food, and different landscapes.

My one roommate kept a running list of new words she learned. She tried to write at least one new word a day. Overall she was just more dedicated to learning and improving her Spanish. Practicing consistently, making Spanish friends, and daily study are key. Now, her Spanish is exponentially better then when she arrived.

Overall, my Spanish has really improved. My pronunciation is leaps and bounds better. Immersion affords stellar pronunciation since you are hearing it all the time. Sometimes I was only understood by others when I spoke with the correct pronunciation. This forced me to repeat words, attempting to improve the pronunciation each time, until I was fully comprehended. There’s no getting around mispronunciation.

I picked up a lot of vocab and I can have basic conversations in Spanish. My use of present tense and the present progressive really improved! Spending over eight months in Spain forced me to practice everyday so of course I got better. I can speak and listen rather well but writing and grammar are still a work in progress.

Lifestyle

The Spanish are proud people. They have a real sense of cultural pride– at least in Andalusia where I was. People dress nice. And I mean really nice. Woman never go out of the house without lipstick and heels. No one would ever dream of leaving their place in sweatpants! When I took a zumba class, all the women wore lipstick! How was it that I felt under-dressed at a gym?

Funnily enough some of the things I learned in Spain stuck. I’m currently substitute teaching and I dress nice for my jobs. I feel like it says more about me when I dress more professionally for these sort-of temporary positions. Work attire is consistently getting more and more casual and just by putting a little more effort into my wardrobe, my dress reflects my attitude and tells schools that I take the job seriously. I went to the grocery store after school one day, still dressed in my nice clothes, and I got complemented! The old woman said, “No one dresses up like that anymore,” I was just wearing a skirt and clogs to be fair.

Something else I noticed about Spaniards was their dedication to self-care. It was both reassuring and discouraging in equal measure. It’s okay to take some time for yourself! But if I didn’t want to try on my looks, then I was weird. My sense of style is not exactly on point. But I’m trying more (especially since I’ve returned to the land of charity shoppes). Honestly, it gives you a boost of confidence.

Another thing that was culturally opposite of America is their mantra to relax and go slow. You don’t have to be in a rush all the time and you certainly don’t have to be busy all the time. It’s something that was really refreshing to experience. And people just go out. In the evening, everyone leaves their houses or apartments and just wanders around. Walking and talking and just hanging out in the parks and streets. I experienced this both in the pueblo and the city– people being social.

Sunset in Plaza de la Corredera in Córdoba; citizens of the city relax in the historical 17th century town square.
Sunset in Plaza de la Corredera in Córdoba; citizens of the city relax in the historical 17th century town square.

That’s why friends and family are important. You can just grab a coffee and grab some churros with your people and enjoy the atmosphere of the season. That’s the life blood of a happy heart– food and friends, chatting and laughing enough to squeeze your heart with comfort. With the Spanish it’s all about connection.

They also really know how to celebrate! Their parties reflect, again, that food, family, and friends are the important parts of life. If you’re not up until at least five the next morning did you even celebrate? The month of May in Córdoba, the Easter processions in April, and even the small Saint celebration in my pueblo, were amazing events to experience and some of my favorite times in Spain.

What I didn’t like was the sedentary routine of my life. Not moving my body and sitting so much was unhealthy. It made me feel bad all the time. And I never had the energy to get out after finally getting home from school. My lack of motivation was a real indication of how unhappy I was.

They say doing this job (being an auxiliar) is actually more challenging for teachers and I can attest. I’m used to the rigid structure and guidance of an American school. (I was also not used to the age level yet I quickly adjusted to that.) I’ve talked a lot about the difficulties of teaching in Spain. Not knowing the upcoming lesson and lack of planning always left me anxious; I’m a planner and I like to be organized. Coming up with engaging and fun lesson plans is my strong suit as a secondary education teacher, yet in Spain I was often left struggling to come up with ideas on my own! If I had more of a mentor or maybe talking to my friends more about lesson plan ideas might have helped. Also, I was often idle and that doesn’t bode well for me. I need to keep busy! The job wasn’t intellectually stimulating enough I think.

Part of that is because my Spanish skills were lacking. I couldn’t talk with the teachers I worked with since none of them spoke enough English. And I didn’t speak enough Spanish. So I never got to know the staff at school or the teachers I worked with. I felt like an outsider the whole year because of this. It was a lonely existence and that’s what I spent my Monday through Thursdays doing, confused and without much to do outside my classes.

I have learned so much about the Spanish culture and I feel like I understand it. I understand it at a level that any foreigner who lived in the country for a year could learn about it. Embracing bits and pieces and merging the parts that feel comfortable with the parts of my own culture. At least for me I learned about it all surface level. I can see how it has molded the Spanish people as a result. Or maybe it’s the Spanish people that have birthed this culture. Either way, both the culture and the people overlap in a way to make them indistinguishable.

Sunset Over Córdoba
Sunset over Córdoba; the Mezquita tall against the beautiful sky.

Conclusion

In the end, my experience, overall, was good, not great. My favorite parts of my time were traveling and spending time at my apartment. I’m the type of person that even when I’m home, I always have things to do, I always have projects I want to work on. This blog was one of those things that kept me busy at home.

The culture and the lifestyle, while having it’s own cool differences, was, in the end, too much for me. Moving in this setting didn’t work for me. My main motivation to teach in Spain was to get out of America and travel! But to be fair, many of the times I traveled was quick, inexpensive weekend trips, and I didn’t get to spend quality time in one place. I saw things quickly, afraid to spend too much money.  I’m also seriously lacking funds. Since I knew I wasn’t coming back I did a couple more trips than I probably could reasonably afford.

I knew it was my time to leave. As people debated whether or not to reapply for the program, I knew right away that I didn’t want to. And I don’t feel like I’ll be missing out by not going back. Because I’ll go back for a visit. It’s only that this chapter is closing. My teaching and living abroad adventure is over and my life is evolving past this.

There are some auxiliares who love their time in Spain and eagerly renew year after year. They have good relationships with their schools and they teach private lessons to keep them busy. There are even some who fall in love with Spain and choose to work there permanently. But what I’m trying to do by telling others this, is that it’s okay if you don’t fall in love with Spain. I didn’t and I know others don’t. Sometimes there is an expectation that going to Spain and doing this program is going to be exactly right, maybe even life changing. If you’re not adjusting to the lifestyle and job, than this belief can be unsettling. Is there something wrong with you for not liking Spain? I’m here to say, no, absolutely not.

Interested in applying? Read about how to do so in my post Teaching English in Spain: How to Become an Auxiliar or Language Assistant.

I also felt like I was never accomplishing a lot, it felt like I was hitting pause on my life; there are so many other opportunities out there. Of course I’m glad I hit pause and spent a whole year traveling and doing ‘me.’ Again, like I said above, I discovered that this wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. More than ever I’m certain of my goals. Especially after hiking el Camino de Santiago with my brother in June after the program ended.

My thank you to Spain was doing el Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage known in English as the way of Saint James. It was just another chapter in my Spanish adventure and a wonderful conclusion to my year. It was a different kind of experience and journey, more physical and spiritual. I grew and learned much in another way (get the pun?) and in a different context compared to what teaching and traveling taught me.

My year in Spain did teach me so much. I grew in confidence and independence. My mental health was put to the test. I gained courage to face challenges, to be open, and to get myself out there. I learned not to be afraid to try new things. I learned my limits and was reminded to take care of myself first.

Of course I will miss Spain! I love Córdoba. It’s a beautiful, quaint city that I felt at home in. I put my best photographs of my city in this post yet they only capture some of its beautiful spots. I’ll miss the laid back lifestyle and the nice, outgoing people. I’ll definitely miss the public transportation! How easy it was to get from place to place by bus or train or plane. The grocery stores were always full of freshly baked bread, ripe fruit, and a huge variety of seafood on ice.

My favorite photograph detailing the inside of the famous Mezquita in Córdoba.
My favorite photograph detailing the inside of the famous Mezquita in Córdoba.

The overwhelming fact is that I’m glad I’m not going back, I’m relieved honestly. It just wasn’t for me. I missed crafting. Having all my tools to sew, knit, and crochet. I missed having a fully stocked craft store, with daily coupons, just down the road and the money to feed my next crazy DIY. I missed the food, oh the food. No more will the only thing on the menu be fried seafood. I missed my friends, family, and even my hometown. I missed driving a car to get from place to place. I missed my dedication to reducing my waste.

Besides the fact that the auxiliar program didn’t seem like a great fit for me, I also know what I want to do with my life. I have plans. Big plans. It’s also why I’ve been so absent from my blog. So here it goes…

I’m writing a book! Yes, a huge young adult fantasy book packed with adventure and friendship. I’m excited to say that I just passed the 65,000 word mark! It’s been my dream to be an author and I have so many stories I want to write. When I got home, I realized that my blog, albeit it is writing, was taking away from the other writing I really needed to do. My book has been fully planned for about three years and last summer (while I was alone in my college apartment in the summer) and this year in Spain, I spent dedicated time to writing it. I used every spare weekend to write at least a thousand words. I managed to write about four and half chapters during my eight months in Spain. But to give you some perspective, in the two months since I’ve been home I’ve already managed to write five! Part of the reason I’m telling the internet this is to hold myself accountable. I have to finish the thing!

So what about my blog now? I am taking a small break and not publishing as much content. I will still post but, now, probably only about once a month. I hope I can return to posting more next year. Again, I have so many things I want to do! I have crafts and beauty recipes that I’ve been experimenting with that I want to share.

So, until I see Spain again. Thank you for such an incredible, unique year. It’s one I won’t forgot and one I’ll be telling stories about for years to come. If there are any upcoming auxiliares reading this, good luck! You’ll have your own unique experience and find yourself becoming more independent. My advice: take it day by day. It can be overwhelming to try and do it all, and do it all in one go. Do as the Spanish do and relax, be honest, and don’t be afraid to rely on family and friends. This is a good reminder for any person facing a new challenge. Writing my book hasn’t been easy at times but there’s nothing else I would rather be doing. I know this is the direction my life is supposed to be going. Would I have discovered this intense drive if I hadn’t been teaching in Spain for a school year? We’ll never know, but I’m eternally grateful that it has brought me to this happy place. And maybe Spain will be for you what my writing has been to me.

That’s the dream isn’t it? Knowing what you want to do with your life. It’s not all that simple though. And just because I have one aspect of my life figured out doesn’t mean the rest of it has fallen into place. Not by any means! So fellow humans, let’s keep doing our best and trying to love life as best we can with what we are given. All the while remembering to take a break every once and while. And what better way then to party like the Spanish! Olé!

Happy Travels-

Signature with Gray


 

11_Reflection After my Year in Córdoba as an Auxiliar de Conversacion

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