I read the Facebook groups and occasionally the forums for this year’s Conversation Assistants in Spain. I see the various questions about what to bring, visas, NIEs, etc. I also see the questions about “bucket lists” or, if you want to use the less-annoying term, “goal lists.” You know, it’s cool to have goals. I’m pretty terrible at setting goals, so I’m inspired when people set goals and achieve them. But some goals should never be set. Let me tell you what not to put on your auxiliar/Spain “to-do” list.
- Date a Spaniard—Wait, what? Is this really a goal of yours? I know, I know … I too am attached to one, and they are great. Well, Mario is great. But why oh why is your goal to date one? At the end of the day, Spaniards are humans, just like you. So perhaps you can understand why I find your goal of a Spanish significant other to be flat out stupid. They are not a commodity to be had. Sorry.
Spaniards aren’t an item to check off your to-do list.
- Become fluent—Unless you come to Spain with an absurdly good level of Spanish, your Spanish is not going to progress to “fluent” level in just one year. Fluency is notoriously difficult level to achieve. Fluency requires immersion, a lot of speaking time, and loads of patience for the times when you don’t believe your Spanish is getting any better at all. It’s a good goal, but perhaps not so realistic if you only plan to stay a year. But don’t be discouraged! You can improve a lot—if you try.
- Only hang out with Spaniards—I understand your motivation. I do! But, to me, this goal reeks of snobbery. I mean, I understand you, in a way: you want to embrace Spanish life, to have an authentic experience. But, seriously, is only hanging out with Spaniards feasible for you? You know, it is kind of nice to have a person who empathizes with you. I found my American auxiliar friends to be of great help. They knew what I was going through, and we made time to “tomar un café” once a week or so.
Hanging out with all Spaniards. Am I cool or what?
- Travel all over Europe—It’s just not possible, tempting as it may sound. While you definitely should take advantage of your time to travel around Europe a bit, you should also find time to explore your own area and even visit other areas of Spain!
Since I now feel like a total aguafiestas, I want to assure you that it’s not all a “no” for me. I’m not an expert, but here’s what I think sound like good, reasonable goals for your time in Spain:
- Make some Spanish friends—Do it! You don’t want to only hang out with English speakers. I mean, yeah, it’s cool that your friends are also from Britain and Canada, but you did go all the way to Spain, and it wasn’t just to hang out with people from Illinois. (But people from Illinois are cool! I swear.)
- Improve your Spanish—You’re going to Spain. You should learn Spanish if you don’t know it. Likewise, you should improve if you already know the basics.
- Get to know your own town or area—Like I said above, your town or area likely has a lot to offer. Zamora, where my husband is from, is not a place most guiris put on their to-visit lists. Nonetheless, it is an interesting city, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know more about it over the years. Your town may not be Santiago de Compostela or Sevilla or Valencia, but it likely has something to offer.
Exploring the province of Zamora: Toro’s wine festival.
- Realize how capable you are: moving abroad, doing it all yourself—Maybe you’re just out of college, like I was, when I moved to Spain in 2009 to do an internship. I didn’t know anyone, but I packed all my stuff into one suitcase (how?), and landed in Salamanca in early September 2009. I had no idea that I’d meet my husband that very month, that I’d be moving back indefinitely in 2012 with a ring on my finger, that I’d have a family in Spain. I was alone, but I was capable. Moving abroad can be exciting, but it can also be scary. You’re doing it!
I get a lot of emails regarding study abroad and applying to be an auxiliar de conversación. Understandably so, as I talk a lot about Spain and my experiences there and how I feel now that I’m back home. People ask for recommendations of places to eat, drink, and see the sights. I’m definitely happy to (try to) help them out, but I often wish I could give them a list of general advice …without sounding stuck up. My biggest piece of advice is to put yourself out there and go study abroad! It truly is an experience that every college student should experience. Even a student working on an online bachelor degree should pack their computer and experience another country. With the world as connected as it is today, we can often forget the value of experiencing places in person. I feel a bit sorry for all the people who attend college online through an online college program or students attending smaller schools that don’t offer study abroad opportunities. Beyond this obvious piece of advice, I had difficulty coming up with my own recommendations of what to see and experience. And then I realized what I…
First day in Spain. Ever.
would like to tell Kaley (age twenty-one).
- Life in Spain is just that: life. It may be life in Europe, but you still have to do your laundry, write papers, and go grocery shopping.
- You will walk. A lot. In the U.S., walking distances longer than to and from your car, especially in winter, is not common. This will change. You will walk everywhere—in the pouring rain, in dreadful heat, when you’re tired, when you’re not, when you are hung over, when you’ve got a caffeine withdrawal headache … you will walk.
- You will make embarrassing mistakes. You will make mistakes that are not embarrassing as well. Live; learn; deal with it.
- You will eat a lot of pork products. It’s really unavoidable.
- You will feel frustrated and realize your Spanish has a long way to go. This is okay. This is normal. Embrace it, and realize that the only place to go is up. A note: you will not be fluent by the end of your study abroad journey unless you left for Spain with an absurdly high level. This too is just fine.
- You will feel like a foreigner. Um, you area foreigner. Yes, you—all 5’11”, pale, freckled, American-faced you. You aren’t Spanish, and people might automatically switch to English when they hear your accent.
- You will be homesick at times. You might just be more homesick than other people. This does not make you weak or lame or any of those other negative words that haunt you as you try to fall asleep. You may struggle at times—with the language, with the culture, with the schedule—but you will come out stronger on the other end.
- You will feel disconnected from home. Life, like it or not, will go on without you. Your parents will buy new furniture. Your former roommate will bond with someone new. Your car may not be around when you get home. (Yes, this happened to me in 2009. Blame my brother.) You may get on Facebook and ask yourself, Who are these people?
- You will worry about money. Yes, some people will travel every weekend—London, Rome, Paris, Greece, Morocco, Lisbon. Save your money. Travel where you have always dreamed of going. Remember that there is value in staying home, visiting your bar, walking the streets of your new (albeit temporary) home.
- You will go home and feel nostalgic. When you return, whether or not you experience reverse culture shock, you will remember how you felt. You will remember the smell of incense in the cathedral, the taste of tinto de verano, the sight of Toledo across the river, the feel of your scratchy comforter as you fell asleep in a city older than your own country. You will listen to songs that make you cry, remembering what you had there, realizing you’ll never get that back. Be okay with this, this nostalgia of yours. It’s fine to miss it.
Life goes on, but you’ll remember.
Entry written because I’m totally nostalgic right now. Please forgive me.
There are a million reasons why you shouldn’t pack up your bags and jet off to another country for a year.
But then again, there are many more reasons to just. do. it.