What’s in a Name? A Primer on Spanish Names

“When we have kids, promise you’ll let me name all of the boys.”

I don’t remember where or in what context the Novio asked me this favor, but I shrugged – and then mentally shuddered. We were only a few months into our relationship and I was probably thinking about where we should have dinner, not children. After all, I was 22, temporarily teaching English in Spain and Gambrinus would not be a proper name for a peque.

Who are you? Street art in Seville, Spain

Nine years later, we’d been married for eight months when I found out I was pregnant with our first child. As the Novio shouted, “We’re screwed!” and I immediately regretted the beers I’d drunk the night before (I deep-down suspected being preñada while having dinner with a friend), he pointed at me and reminded me of the promise to let him name the varones.

Admittedly, the only time I’d felt inclined to pick out baby names was when I had a grade-school crush on Jakob Dylan and vowed that my child would have musical prowess and blue eyes. And when you’re expecting a child whose parents do not share a language or culture, it was almost better that we’d divided the task. But naming a child is a big job. As the gender reveal date hurtled towards us, I had a lot of thinking to do.

Middle names and last names in Spain

The only people who call me by my full name, Catherine Mary, are my mother and the Novio’s youngest brother. Oh, and the doctors who look blankly at the list of names and peep a, “Mah-reeee?” before I stand up and correct them, or the letters addressed to “SRTA. MARY” as if it were my first surname.

I often have to explain to people over the phone that I have one surname, Gaa, and two first names. In Spain, most have one name and two surnames. If I were Spanish, my first surname would be my father’s first and the second would be my mother’s first. This means I would share surnames with my siblings, but not my parents.

lost child

So, imagine my mother is named María Gracia González de la Fuente and my father is Ricardo Hidalgo Barros. So, I’d probably be Mari Catherine Hidalgo González. Because I decided to keep my last name when the Novio and I got married, our child(ren) will have a Spanish surname first, followed by my hard-to-pronounce, very odd and very Central European surname. Vaya.

And then there’s the question of compound names: Jose María (male), María José (female), Juan José, Luis Miguel, and so on. These are considered full first names, not a first and a middle.

The Novio was very firm: no compound names, and no middle names. And with a last name like mine, it’s highly unlikely that someone will share a name with Micro during his lifetime (and that only one name will be sternly shouted when I have to get cross).

Family ties and the name game

Paco regaled me with his favorite idioms in English as I tried to gauge his level of English during our first class. “My tailor is rich!” he repeated a few times before asking me for a moment to skim the sports section as I picked at my nails. I asked him about the basics, hearing drilled answers about his job and summer vacation rattled off until I asked him if he had children.

“My wife, she is Rosa. We have got two childrens, no, no! Two chiiiiildren, aha! They are Javi and Rosa.” I glanced at he business card he’d given me. Paco’s name is really Francisco Javier, as is his son’s, and his wife and daughter share a name. Two Franciscos and two Rosas sharing 65 square meters. Typical Spanish.

This is a common practice in Spain, which came in handy when I’d meet the parents of my students for the first time. If I’d neglected to look at the school records, I assumed the child shared a name with a parent; more than half of the time, I would be right. Perhaps more so than in the USA, children are named for close family.

I made it clear to my parents, Nancy and Don, that we wouldn’t be naming our children after them. After all, Nancy is the name of a knockoff Barbie that had her heyday in the 70s and 80s in Spain, and Donald is Mickey Mouses’s duckbilled pal. It’s bad enough to have a weird last name.

Both the Novio and I were named for family members; in fact, my mother tried to petition to change her name to Catherine Mary, after her maternal grandmother. My grandmother Agnes wouldn’t even entertain the idea, so the name for her firstborn daughter was picked out before my mom could even drive a car.

The Novio shares a name with his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. My own grandparents are Jack, Donald, Marguerite and Agnes; the Novio’s, Alquilino, María del Robledo and Elundina. My father has a Jr. after his name, and we have four John Robert Nicholases on my mom’s side.  Many of the Novio’s cousins were named for family members or a combination of them. O sea, it wasn’t until I began thinking of what to name my own child that I noticed all of the patterns in baby naming in our families.

If we had a boy, there would be no discussion about names. Punto, pelota.

How do you solve a problem like María?

The English department of I.E.S. Heliche consisted of six women and a lone male, Miguel; Charo, Nieves, Valle, Asunción joined Ángeles and Silvia. While I admit that my Spanish wasn’t very good when I first moved to Spain, I gathered that their names were Rosary, Snows, Valley, Assumption, Angels… and Silvia.

Virgen de la Estrella

The majority of them were in their early 40s, meaning they’d been born during the Franco era in which women were required to have their name proceeded by María de, Mary of Something. Our Lady of Whatever. Most women of a certain age have a religious name or biblical allusion, so you rarely heard a Jessica or Jennifer in a small town like Olivares. I soon began to connect the names I heard with their religious names: Pili comes from María del Pilar, the patron saint of Zaragoza, Maribel was the juxtaposition of María Isabel.

Many women drop María in favor of their second name, or they blend them.

Of Saints and Sinners

I had a very concerned parent at the door on the morning of September 13th, half apologizing and half worried that her daughter would act up that day. The result wasn’t a fever or a poor night’s sleep: I had neglected to recognize a little girl’s Saint Day.

In a place like Sevilla, religion runs deep, and María wouldn’t let me forget that as she pouted her way through even P.E. class, directing her six-year-old rabia straight at me as she played dodgeball.

Should I have been born sevillana on my same date of birth, there is a good chance I’d have been called Reyes. August 15th is not only a national holiday, but the observed feast of the Assumption, known as Día de los Reyes. Many Spaniards are named for the saint on the day they were born, such as my former coworker who was born on St. Joseph’s Day and thus called María José (if you’re curious, here’s the Catholic church’s Santoral so you can check out your birthday); others for a patron saint of their parents’ village. And then there’s the question of naming a child after a petition or promise one makes to the church.

One of the Novio’s coworkers has a strange name due to a promise his mother, who had trouble conceiving, made the the nuns she asked to pray for her. They tied a string around her stomach, which she was told not to take off until she was pregnant. She promised that, should she have a daughter, she would call her María de la Cinta; when M was born, his full name became M de la Cinta.

st james at the santiago cathedral

Some names are particularly regional or local; it’s common to hear shouts of Diego! in the main square of San Nicolás del Puerto, where the saint was born in year 1400. Eulalia, a teenaged martyr in Luisitania, is popular for baby girls in Mérida, and Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia, is amongst the most popular name for boys, year after year (there are 67,000 of them!).

In 2012, the Instituto Nacional de Estadística released a database of the most popular names and surnames by province. Much like in the US, age-old names are making a resurgence: Nearly half a million children were born in 2015, and María and Daniel amongst the most popular.

Remember Paco? I taught him out of his office for two years immediately after giving his son, Javi, class at home. Javi had coyly told me about a girl he was interested in, and Paco slapped his palms on the table to echo the news – though far more excitedly – that Javi was finally dating. “Guess her name, Cat! It is so typical in Seville.” I tried the three most common: Macarena, Esperanza and Rocío.

I not only named his girlfriend, but her two younger sisters.

Micro’s due date is January 1st, so we could have considered Jesús or Manuel. Not on our shortlist, though.

The guiri conundrum: language versus culture 

As if I didn’t have a million names spinning around my head already, we have the language issue: I am incapable of pronouncing the Novio’s name correctly and call him by his nickname. Rodrigo was out of the picture for the difficulty with the Rs. And if I can’t pronounce them, his American grandparents wouldn’t be able to, either.

baby-names-in-spain

Many of the female names that are popular today have English equivalents: Laura, Paula, Emma, Sofia, Julia. I like them in Spanish but not in English, or vice-versa. Paula in English becomes pauw-luh and Emma pronounced in Spanish sounds like you get your mouth stuck between syllables. Of my guiri friends who live in Spain and have had babies in the last few months, only a handful of them have chosen non-Spanish names; of those, the Anglo names are easy to pronounce with Spanish vowels.

What we’re naming our son

I’d been assigned any girl’s names, despite feeling like I was carrying a boy from the beginning. My mom quizzed me on which names I liked before asking the equivalent in English. “So, you’re saying that I could have a granddaughter named after the town where Jesus was born?”

Point taken, Nancy.

I casually thought about girl names. I like Belén, Martina, Carolina and Laia, but tried not to get my heart set on any one name until we found out the gender. I’d long known that a first-born male would have the same name as his father (and the three that came before him), and that Santiago and Diego were close seconds as the patrons of Spain and the Novio’s village, respectfully.

Baby Shower in Spain

As I’ve found in my eight months of being pregnant in Spain, there’s no waiting to find out the gender of your baby. In fact, I’ve met just one woman who wanted to be surprised, and mostly because her Irish partner preferred waiting. I was a bit crestfallen when the Novio expressed that he’d wanted to know right away, as I genuinely believe this could have been one of the last happy surprises we’d ever get. But knowing we were having a boy made the naming process easier.

When the obstetrician pointed out the baby’s extra extremity, I breathed a sigh of relief as I pronounced his name aloud for the first time. The fifth in a long line of men who had been farmers and soldiers. And I could forget about female names until perhaps the next one came around.

We’re only five weeks or so away from getting a first glance of Enrique, who will be born in Triana between Christmas and Reyes. I often imagine who he’ll look more like, what we’ll teach him and how he’ll change us – giving him a name before he’s born has made his presence far more real to us.

What people name their children in Spain

What do you think about Spanish naming trends? I’m curious to hear the common names where you live!

A Guiri Guide to Having a Baby in Spain: Second Trimester

The start of my second trimester, at 14 weeks, coincided with another big event in my life: Leaving Seville for a job and a new life in Madrid.

After a relatively uneventful first trimester, I found out that being pregnant in Spain – especially when your second trimester coincides with the hot summer months and the ghost town that is Madrid – was not going to be a cake walk (and what the hell is up with my lack of cravings for cake?!).

the-guiri-guide-to

I can’t say I have complaints about how I felt during my first third of the pregnancy: no morning sickness, no noticeable weight gain, only nominal sleepiness. But the heat, looking for an apartment and drinking in a new city (and drinking cerveza sin and Nesteas in all of the old man bars we could find) meant afternoon naps and sitting down on benches any chance I got. For many weeks,  I avoided eye contact on the Metro, particularly with old people, because I wasn’t big enough to warrant getting the coveted pregnant lady seat just yet.

Miss the English Guide to Pregnancy in Spain? Just click!

People say that the honeymoon period of any pregnancy falls between weeks 14 and 28, or your second third of the cooking. This is the time to exercise, to travel (we went to Asturias via car and I took a jaunt around Northern Europe for work) or to live life as you would have before the achy joints and doctor visits, to savor the moments before midnight feedings and being covered in baby dribble. Considering I’ve had an easy, low-risk pregnancy so far, my biggest complaints lie in the bureaucratic limbo I’ve been in and not to how my body has reacted to being pregnant.

This side eye goes straight to you, Comunidad de Madrid. But we’ll get there later.

Second Trimester tests and check ups

By the time I was making the transition to Madrid, I was almost ready to take the first apartment I saw because there was something more important in play: finding a doctor and signing up for local healthcare. After we signed a contract on a flat in Chamberí, I googled the nearest public health clinic and was delighted to find it within waddling distance of my house.

Centro Médico Espronceda took care of changing my health care from Andalucía to the Cupo Madrileño, promising a card would be mailed to me within the month (and it was!). In the meantime, they gave me a print off and took care of assigning me a médico de cabecera, or a primary care doctor, and nurse.

spanish-doctors-office

While I was allowed to make my own appointments with the primary care doctor and midwife, I was assigned to another medical center around the corner for by obstetrics appointments. This would be the doctor who refers me for tests required for prenatal care. My plan was to get everything out of the way before beginning my job at an estimated 16 weeks of pregnancy, but it didn’t work out that way…

Being new to the health system in Madrid – remember that every autonomous community in Spain has their own regulations regarding public healthcare – I knew that meant a few more visits than normal. Plus, I was looking for a private doctor and had a few Goldilocks moment: too stern, too aloof… until I found one at Clínica La Luz who was just right.

This second trimester has been marked by a slew of doctor’s appointments, to say the least, and mangled test results. Here are the big tests you’ll need to complete if you’ve got a healthy, low-risk pregnancy:

Analisís del segundo trimestre / second trimester blood and urine analysis: Sometime around the middle of your pregnancy, you’ll be instructed to have blood drawn and a urine sample tested for your sugar, protein and iron, plus toxoplasmosis, rubeola and AIDS. Remember to go en ayunas, or without eating or drinking anything but water.

In the public system in Madrid, test results of this nature are typically ready within three working days as opposed to a week in Seville.

Eco de las 20 semanas / The 20-week scan: Arguably the most beautiful moment of the pregnancy, 20 weeks marks the middle of gestation and the most thorough sonogram you’ll have. A doctor will check to be sure Baby has all its fingers and toes, that most of its organs are fully formed and that he or she is not over or underweight.

In fact, the baby is nearly fully formed at this point, so the last half of your pregnancy will be the time he or she gains weight, sprouts hair on the head, begins growing its lungs and continues to develop brain cells. If you’ve been waiting to find out the gender, you should be able to see the sex organs, too – but remember, be very specific if you prefer to wait! Spaniards tend to want to know as soon as possible, so I had to remind doctors that I was waiting until the 20 week scan so as to avoid mistakes.

Pro tip: I was told to consume a bit of sugar before the scan so that the baby would be active. It must have worked: we got the full frontal, so it was easy to determine the baby’s sex!

Curva de azúcar / glucose test: Also called the test O’Sullivan in Spain, you should have your glucose test between 24 and 28 weeks of your pregnancy. This tests for gestational diabetes and can take several hours to complete, depending on your pregnancy and your immediate test results. I decided to do my test in the public system, which I got done at the same time as my second trimester blood and urine exams.

glucose-test-pregnancy-spain

People often complain about the sugary drink, which tasted like a cracked-out version the McDonalds orange pop that we drank after soccer matches as kids. I jokingly told them woman I’d chug it like a beer, college style, but she ordered me to consume it more slowly, in 5-10 minutes, and then sit. Someone will take blood again at one and two hours of consumption to determine your risk for gestational diabetes, which can provoke an overweight baby or preeclampsia. After the second hour, you’re allowed to have breakfast (what sane person deprives a pregnant lady of food?!) and walk around a bit. Thanks to the Novio feeding me plenty of legumes and fish, my margins were extremely low.

Tósferina / whooping cough shot: If your doctor merits it, you’ll have to also have a whooping cough shot around 28 weeks. I was told to put it off until after my third trimester scan to see if it was actually necessary.

Differences Between Madrid and Andalucía’s healthcare systems 
I fully expected to not have any issues with changes from the cupo andaluz to the madrileño. After all, everything works better in Madrid! There’s an appointment system! The Metro runs on time! You can go grocery shopping on Sunday night!
But, much like moving to Spain in the first place, I ran into a lot of bureaucratic brick walls, head first.
When I first met my gynecologist, an older man who stared at me over his glasses while I pulled out all of my paperwork as if he was late for a delivery, I was not impressed. He continually told me that the Andalusian care system was crap, that he had no access to my records, and that he wouldn’t even see me until I’d done another round of blood tests and a sonogram with another doctor. He tossed my cartilla de embarazada back at me and proceeded to pull out a folder and write my vitals on it. I will remember until the day I die that March 29th, 2016 was the first day of my last menstrual cycle – I have probably recited it 100 times by now.

micro-meets-freddie

Apparently you don’t keep your cartilla de embarazada with you, but at your doctor’s. This wouldn’t have been a big deal had it not been during summer vacation time – but I’ll tell you that story later.

Additionally, my doctor doesn’t make my appointments for me. After getting assigned a test or follow-up, you must make the appointment at the medical center: you can do this by phone or internet, or simply by waiting in line at your assigned center. In the stressful first weeks trying to schedule my 20-week scan, I was jockeyed between medical centers and put on a wait list, finally being called by the public system 30 minutes before an appointment – and I was in Seville for the weekend. My being proactive (as in, calling the sistema madrileño de salud out on their inability to adequately staff a public health clinic during the summer months) succeeded to a point, but even being an “urgente” case did nothing to give me any preference.

Once you do get in to the doctor, be sure to have your appointment print out, called a volante, with you. Rather than being polite and asking what time everyone else’s appointment is, you have to stalk the obstetrics nurse and shove your volante at her when she comes out to call a name. I suppose it’s better than the uncomfortable shuffle of times or cutting an abuelita in line, but I was scolded on more than one occasion for not presenting the paper and being skipped over.

If you don’t have a volante because you called for an appointment, flash a photo ID so that the nurse knows you’ve arrived.

The Autonomous Community conundrum

I was – and have been – optimistic about my pregnancy, and am taking it all in stride as my body stretches, droops and tires. Being proactive, I called my OB-GYN before he called me and made an appointment immediately. It wasn’t that I was concerned, but I wanted to be sure that I had my 20-week sonogram scheduled so that the Novio and I could find out the gender together.

Twenty weeks also coincided with our birthdays, which sweetened the deal.

The doctor ordered me to repeat the tests that he didn’t have access to, which was fine, despite a disorganized system at Hospital San Carlos and a two-hour wait, urine in hand. That afternoon, I went to my local clinic to make an appointment for the results with the hope of scheduling the 20-week scan.

hospital care in Spain

I waltzed up to the appointments counter, flashed my brand-new card and presented the papers from the work up. Without looking up, the man shook his head and said that no one – NOT ONE DOCTOR – was available for the month of August. I laughed, “What do you mean? Every single obstetrician in this medical center has been sent on vacation for all of August?”

Tal y como le digo. You have to go to the Centro de Especialidades Avenida de Portugal in two weeks’ time.” Now, I’m new to Madrid, but generally speaking, a street bearing the name of another country tends to be on the way to that place. I’d been sent to the other side of town to pick up test results, out towards our westernly neighbors!

“Babies usually aren’t born in August.” Again, I laughed, as both of Micro’s parents are August babies, and asked for an hoja de reclamación to make a complaint. I was informed that one could only do that between the hours of 9am and 2pm. Had there been a table, I’d have been tempted to flip it… or at least pound my fists.

I begrudgingly left work after a week of waiting to head to Avenida de Portugal. The young doctor was gracious and apologized for the packed waiting room before folding her hands in her lap and asking what I had come for. I responded that I’d like to get my test results from July 27th, to which she gave me a blank look and informed me that I had nothing on file.

“Well, at the very least, let us weigh you and take your blood pressure since you’re here?”

Public or private?

I’ve long been a proponent of Spain’s public health system. Doctors are well trained and the treatment is free, plus prescriptions are subsidized.

And then I moved to Madrid.

I had absolutely no right to ever gripe about the system in Sevilla, because wait times were half as long and doctors took their time with patients. I felt rushed and unattended in Madrid in the public hospitals, like no one really knew what they were doing or where to send me. Is this how things are in America? Is it really normal to lose three different tests from the same person?

After asking some women at work, I checked out Hospital Clínica La Luz, a private hospital up the road from campus associated with Quirónsalud that accepts my private insurance. Unlike in Andalucía, most people I know choose to go private for healthcare, no matter what it’s for.

I was assigned to Dr. Alvi, a young woman who is specialized in pre-natal care and scans. I briefly explained my situation, and she took a look at the few papers I still had in my possession before performing an ecografía. The service seems more personable here, even if the wait times once you’re in the clinic’s magazine-stocked waiting room are longer.

We’re still undecided whether or not to have the baby in the public or private system, but that’s a tarea for third trimester.

So, does it have a pito or not?

I could tell the Novio was visibly nervous when he arrived at my office the day of our scan. He barely said a word as we quickly ate a menú del día at the nondescript bar next to the hospital.

That morning, I’d gone through the public hospital for my 20-week scan. Despite my previous woes with Hospital San Carlos, I was called just before 9am and shown into a stark room. An intern gave me a quick pelvic scan to measure the height of my cervix before dropping the goo on my stomach.

“For a pregnant lady, you’re very calm,” he said as he spread the jelly around the reaches of my belly, which now domed slightly over my profile.

And I was – this baby has made me mellow.

micro-at-a-wedding

I asked him to turn the screen away so that I could get the surprise (reiterating that I did NOT want to know the sex), but he assured me that the baby was healthy and so was I. Even my worry that I wasn’t gaining enough weight was shot down!

Once I’d wiped the goo off and got dressed, I was instructed to wait in the waiting area. A nurse handed me a few pamphlets and a facts sheets about the baby like how much it weighed and its predicted height.

The private hospital experience was a bit more welcoming. Despite my doctor being away on vacation, Dr. Orozco was pleasant and thorough, explaining every measurement he was taking, showing how the blood was flowing in and out of the ventricles and assuring us that the baby didn’t have Zika (the head was actually a bit bigger than normal – thank you, blue fish).

“What do you prefer?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders because I had bounced between the gender just about daily, even though I had a feeling our first child would be a boy. The Novio admitted he was hoping for a girl, and the doctor told him to watch the screen.

Between the two wiggling legs was something else, proving that a mother’s instinct is always right (and meaning I didn’t have to stress over choosing a name!).

The 0,0 Smackdown

My body seemed to know I shouldn’t be drinking beer from the time we conceived. In plena Feria de Abril (but seriously, this kid is andaluz through and through), I spent my final day sipping water, followed by cancelling plans for the Patios de Córdoba last minute.

If there’s one thing I miss, it’s beer. The sin alcohol or 0,0 stuff tastes plastic-y and has no gracia, so I’ve been sticking to juices, tonic water and the occasional Fanta when we go out to tomar algo.

which-non-alcoholic-beer-is-best

I’ve been sampling the 0,0 and non-alcoholic beers, much to my dismay. The worst sort? Cruzcampo. I know, Cayetana de Alba, strike me down for this blasphemy, but it is absolute garbage. Amstel has been my favorite thus far, and the Novio even scouted out a German beer bar that boasts a nicht alkoholisch on tap (it’s called Saint Germain at Calle Rios Rosas, 7) with a generous helping of snacks.

I’ve been promised a cold botellín in the puerperio, the recovery period directly after birth. I am holding my husband to that.

Everything that I know about pregnancy is wrong

Admittedly, I was nervous to be pregnant, afraid I’d balloon up like a cow and be unable to keep active. I saw my nine months of carrying a child as the beginning of the end of my freedoms – to travel, to meet friends and to sleep.

Strangely enough, I’m really enjoying it! I lay in bed for 10 minutes every morning – often before my alarm – feeling the baby wiggle around. I haven’t started speaking to him yet, despite having a named picked out and knowing that the earbuds have already developed.

micro-and-his-other-girlfriend

Everything I thought I knew about pregnancy has been utterly wrong. I expected to have the morning sickness, the stretch marks, the discomfort; but I’ve been pretty comfortable all throughout my pregnancy, save a little less spatial awareness. As a heavy eater, I assumed I’d blow up as I gave into cravings and be grazing all day. It’s true that I feel fuller faster, but it’s sometimes a question of blood sugar, and a few nuts or apple slices will suffice.

My biggest complaint is that I can’t eat everything I want. It’s difficult to remember to ask a waiter to skip the jamón in my salmorejo, or to cook the red meat just a little more on each side. I’m trying to eat more blue fish. The biggest surprise is that most of my cravings have been for healthy foods, so I’ve kept my weight under control with very little effort. And from what I hear, breastfeeding is when you really start to feel hungry!

I’ve also been sleeping like a baby, practically falling asleep and staying asleep from the time I shut my eyes until it’s time to stir. Clothes are just beginning to feel tight in the wrong places, as my belly seemed to double in size in the last five weeks of second trimester. My sister finally confessed to my husband, “YES! Cat is finally showing!”

The only complaint? Why isn’t my hair gorgeous and shiny?! The Madrid dryness means that it looks dull and dead; the upside is that my nails are growing.

What’s up in third trimester?

second-trimester-baby-bump-evolution

Apart from getting rounder? Stretch marks? Swollen ankles? I’m beginning to feel pregnant, from having to stand up slowly or feeling my belly descend towards the end of the day. I just bought my first piece of maternity clothing – a dress for a fall wedding – and have dug back out the books to think about the due date and giving birth.

Things we’re still looking into are storing the umbilical cord blood, me eating my placenta (which prompted a, “YOU WON’T EAT GRILLED PIG’S EAR BUT YOU’LL EAT THAT!? from the Novio) and childcare once my 16 weeks of maternity leave end. My OB-GYN switched me to a high-iron pill with folic acid, which I’ll take for two more months so that Micro is getting the nutrients he needs.

One of my biggest question marks still is where to have the baby. All signs point to Seville and a public hospital, and that makes sense – we have a car, the space and one of the best maternity hospitals in Spain. But if Micro comes early, I’ll need a Plan B! And as a planner, I’m remembering that the baby will come when he wants, not when’s convenient to us.

Finally, we’ll begin pre-natal classes with the matrona.

As the due date hurtles towards us, I have a little bit of everything – elation, apprehension, sorrow that it will all end and nothing will be the same. I’m enjoying my pregnancy and the way the Novio and I are savoring our time alone together. I’m sleeping and eating well and still able to take advantage of a new city, traveling for work (Micro hit four countries in one month, and I felt fine but for aching limbs at the end of the day) and feeling like my old self.

I sometimes feel like I’m fumbling for the lights in a dark hallway, bumping into walls and furniture as I try and navigate pregnancy in Madrid and Spain in general. My American friends with kids have admitted a certain degree of jealousy in knowing that I’ve had so many sonograms, but I’m just relieved that Micro is healthy and I’m feeling so good.

Remember: every woman’s body and pregnancy are different – I had very few risk factors in my family and the Novio’s, am at a healthy weight and age for pregnancy, and have not experienced any problems, save a bit of bleeding at the very beginning. I am not a doctor, so this post is a result of my experiences and research. Consult with your health care professional and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Those of you mamás who have given birth in España: have I missed anything? Any words of wisdom for my readers and me for pregnancy in Spain?

If you missed the first trimester, skip to the first trimester of pregnancy in Spain post!

Why I enjoyed the Auxiliar Program and how you can, too

About a year ago, I was invited to attend the “Helicheville” Bilingual Day in the school I worked at during my first three years in Spain. Emilio met me at the door with a, “SABORILLA! Te han dejado salir a la calle sin bozal?” Only someone like him would ask if I was allowed to be out without a muzzle. The day was a blur of hugs, of recounting what I’d been up to the last few years and asking if I could return to work in Olivares.

Ojalá – it was the most fun job I’ve ever had.

The North American Language and Culture Assistants program (NALCAP), or auxiliar program, has gotten a bad rep, and with some razón. Assistants say they’ve not been paid on time, or they’re left to their own devices in the classroom (or even underused), not having any idea about what their job really entails or the ability to prepare lessons and try to help the English language instruction.

I have to say that I got really lucky with my placement – wonderful coworkers who treated me as an equal, a three-day schedule with interested students and a school that always paid me on time. We even had music in the hallways during passing periods and kids rarely vandalized the school.

This utopia is not always the case, of course. I recognize that my experience was far different from that of many other friends, like Liz of Young Adventuress (who worked in Córdoba and La Rioja) or Lauren of Spanish Sabores (who spent two years in Andalucía). Their experiences are two of a myriad of them, and every experience differs. When I began teaching in Olivares, I had no idea it would lead to a career in EFL education.

And here’s the kicker: I actually LIKE teaching! It’s a profession I promised myself I’d never do, but I enjoy working with teens and the babies and find it to be a job that never gets boring. I initially planned to stay for a year and give teaching a try, and I’m still at it eight years and three jobs later.

So, with all of the rumors floating around about not getting paid on time, about indifferent coworkers and kids who could pasar tres kilos when it came to English. Believe me, I had a few issues with other teachers or students, but the day the envelope arrived telling me “Thanks for your time, but get the F out and let someone else have a turn,” my boss and I had a few tears as I realized I’d be jobless in a matter of weeks with no student visa.

Really, now could not be a better time to consider teaching in Spain, and those who have the government backing with visas and health insurance will come to Iberia with everything figured out but where to live and how to get their NIE (which is why I wrote an ebook about it!). 

I have wonderful memories of IES Heliche, despite the long commutes, the desperation of putting up noisy teenagers and those moments of feeling really, crazily poor. But I firmly believe that you take whatever you put into the experience. Here’s my advice to incoming auxiliares:

Try and get to know the other teachers, whether or not they’re involved with the auxiliar program.

Yes, there will be teachers at your school who are indifferent, who don’t understand what exactly you do, or even tell you you’re better off not coming to class. After all, your fun lessons involving drawing hand turkeys on Thanksgiving cuts into their teaching time, too.

But there were will others who are curious or realize that you’re far from home, and even a simple hola can help tremendously when you’re missing ground beef actually made of beef and TV in English. My coworkers, for the most part, looked out for me and treated me with a lot of respect.

If you stand in the back of the classroom, you won’t enjoy yourself. Remember: you’re the fun teacher who doesn’t give homework or exams or demerits, so the battle is half won.

And then there’s the feeling of spending a year doing little else than explaining the difference between present perfect and past simple or enunciating words.

Believe me, I had the idea that I was going to make my student bilingual. Naive and overly optimistic, yes, but when I learned to let go of that idea and work to engage my students in classes, I got the sense of fulfillment I was looking for. 

Be clear about your preferences and needs, but recognize that not everything is possible.

Eager to now my schedule my first year in Olivares, my boss came back with a four-day, twelve-hour schedule. I was crestfallen, at first, as my day off was Tuesday. While my friends were falling into bed after a night at the discos at 7am on Fridays, I was waking up to get to work.

During my second year, I was scheduled to work on a day in the middle of the week for only two classes. In fact, I’d spend more time on the bus than giving class.

After a few weeks of grinning and bearing it, I approached my boss. I didn’t threaten or get whiny (as is my style), but instead had already looked at possibilities in the schedule for swapping class hours, as well as talked to other teachers about the possibilities. I politely told my boss that this would maximize my time in the classroom and make my commute loads easier, and she agreed.

To be clear, there are things that suck that you probably can’t change – a long commute with weird and inconvenient bus or train times, working with an age group that could be difficult or the terrible money handling (which ensures you won’t be paid on time). You may have to work four days a week or split your time between two schools, or even 1000 students.

But if there is something that could be improved – be it a better classroom switch, more planning hours with teachers or even a suggestion that can streamline your work – tell your boss politely and give reasons why. Because there’s no catch-all description of your job, only you can put limits on what you do, or recommend ways to improve the program.

Relax. It’s likely not personal.

In my mission to try to please everyone (character flaw), I grew upset and angry when teachers flat-out told me I was useless to them, or barely grumbled a hello in the morning. But I’m the language assistant! You need me! I’m friendly and bake cookies on occasion! Don’t hate on me just because I’m a guiri!

Then someone gave me an emotional slap in the face (I’m sure it was Asun, and I’m thanking her for it) and told me to calm the hell down and not take it personally. Many teachers felt that they couldn’t use me effectively in the classroom because they were preparing for seniors’ exit exams, or because two days in English was simply too much. Some teachers are extremely old school, so respect it and move on.

Once I got over myself, I enjoyed my classes and team teaching non-lingusitics courses.

Remember that it’s a job that you’re doing part-time, and you’re getting paid far more than you should be getting paid.

Just to give you an idea – a teacher at many language schools in Seville work 20-24 hours a week and earn between 800€ and 1,200€ a month after taxes. Twelve hours for 700€? Casi regalao! Enjoy it, and all of the free time you have after you’re done working.

Once you have a full-time job, you’ll miss finishing work at noon and getting to take a siesta every day. Just saying.

WHY I ENJOYED THE

Interested in more posts about my experience working at a rural high school in Andalucía? Check out these posts: How to Apply to the Auxiliar Program // Alternatives to the Auxiliar Program // Saying Goodbye to IES Heliche

If you are getting ready for the program and have questions or doubts  leave me a message in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!

 

Eight Reasons Why You Should Teach English in Spain NOW

The most common question I get when meeting new people in Spain is, ‘Why did you originally come here/go to Spain/decide on Seville/move abroad to work as a teacher?’

I could answer this question in volumes, but it’s just easier to say, to travel, to learn Spanish, and to try out teaching English as a foreign language.

In March 2007, I found out about the Auxiliar Program, known in the United States as the North American Language and Culture Assistant Program. I gathered the recommendation letters, drafted a letter of intent in my best 101-class Spanish and sent off a packet to Madrid. Spending a year in Spain for 631€ a month sounded like a good plan.

This is where I shake my head and think, If only I knew that this was the start of everything.

I spent three years working as an auxiliar de conversación in a high school in Olivares (Seville). It has been, to date, my favorite job, one which I looked forward to going to every day. I got to talk all I wanted, plan activities as diverse as a gap fill about Evil Knievel to a Halloween party, and my coworkers bought me breakfast every day.

My last day at IES Heliche was gut wrenching, but, I came away with skills I didn’t think I’d ever acquire, and the job plus my formal training with an academically challenging and internationally recognized online TESOL diploma has led to others in the same sector in Seville. There are many nay-sayers who are quick to blame the program for its lack of organization or slow payment process, but I firmly believe that  you get out what you put in.

And now they give you materials about how to teach. I was thrown to the lions (lions that looked a lot like 13-year-old kids).

I receive emails everyday about teaching abroad. Given how difficult it’s getting to stay under the radar without a visa, I always recommend the auxiliar program or a similar gig which grants you a student visa and health insurance, along with a stipend. There are 3,000 jobs up for grabs around Spain which will pay you between 700€ and 1000€ a month in exchange for working 12-16 hours, and now countless companies are offering similar positions.

Let’s practice a bit of first conditional, in which we talk about circumstance which can be true in the present or future.

If you go to Spain to teach,

You’ll learn Spanish.

Immersion learning is one of the best ways to acquire a language. From dealing with the bureaucratic mess that can be the Spanish government to living with international students or workers, there is no doubt that your spoken Spanish will improve. Try turning off the subtitles on the TV, reading the local paper and chatting up the abuelos in the bar down the street. When I first met the Novio, he told me my castellano was gorgeous, but my mistakes made it difficult to understand me.

Nowadays, he’s threatening to not take me to anymore Betis games because my potty mouth is too much for the other fans around me. Spain is a great place to put your textbook Spanish from high school to use (and you’ll finally get to exercise the “Oh, they only use that in Spain” vosotros form!).

Spain is also home to several dialects and even another language, so if you geek out about linguistics, Spain will be an audible treat for you.

You’ll have ample time to travel.

Ever heard that Spanish people love to party? It’s true, to an effect, but there are multiple holidays that will make a long weekend (you’ll likely work just four days a week) even longer. There are a dozen national holidays that fall within the school year. Plus, you’ll get local and regional holidays off, plus two full paid weeks during the Christmas holidays and another during Holy Week. If you’re in Málaga or Bilbao, you also get another week off somewhere because the local festivals are during August.

You’ll travel for cheap.

The running joke when I was an auxiliar was, “Where is Cat going this weekend?” Since coming to live in Spain as an English teacher, I’ve been to every autonomous community and 20 countries. Budget airlines abound in Europe, and Spain has several hubs along the coasts and in Madrid. Sign up for offers from every airline that flies out of your nearest city, and you’ll be surprised how cheap it can be to get around Europe.

Apart from that, Spain’s network of public and private transportation is top-notch. All major cities are connected via rail, and private bus companies are a comfortable way to travel both long and short distances.

You’ll have people looking out for you.

When my mother first met my boss from the auxiliar program, Nieves, she gave her a hug. It had been three years since I’d worked in Olivares, but Nieves and I have remained close. My mom thanked her over and over for looking after me when I first arrived to Seville without a single contact and flailing Spanish skills.

Now that the language assistant program isn’t new, its participants know you’re likely in your 20s and far away from home. I was taken care of like one of their own, even offered winter coats, free rides to work and the opportunity to take part in several cultural experiences (I spent the first weekend in Seville betting on horses at the Pineda racetrack and then stayed out until 8am). That said, everyone has a different experience with regards to coworkers, but attitude can go a long way to forging healthy relationships with them.

You’ll gain international experience.

Getting a job in America seems scary competitive, so having international experience on your resume will be a great talking point in an interview. Apart from learning Spanish and trying out something new, be sure to tell a potential employer that you’ve picked up valuable problem-solving skills and explored diverse interests. Network on LinkedIn before returning home, keep a blog of your experiences and be sure to make your year or two teaching in Spain stick out.

You may just get sucked into it, too.

You’ll learn about Spanish culture, and not from a textbook.

They say experience is the best teacher, so forget all of the business you learned in high school from your textbook. Without a doubt, living in Spain and working as a teacher has given me first-hand knowledge of Spanish schools and Spanish life.

As a tutor, I became friends with several of the families who employed my services. This meant offers to attend first communions, family luncheons and even ride in horse carriages during the Feria. Inviting me into their homes meant I got an idea of how Andalusian families lived, from crowding around their braseros when it got cold to checking out what Spanish kids ate for merienda. While I only moonlight tutor now for one family, I’ve remained in contact with several of the households who once paid my groceries and travel habit.

You’ll have the visa and health insurance figured out.

Coming to work in Spain legally if you’re a North American is difficult. The various teaching programs offered to native speakers have the advantage that you’re awarded a student visa for the duration of the program which is available for renewal, as well as private health insurance during that time. I’ve had all sorts of work-ups and check ups done, just for the sake of milking it for what it’s worth. The student visa will also entitle you to student discounts and the ability to travel around Europe longer than a Schengen visa can provide.

To be clear, the auxiliar program through the Spanish government employs you for either 12 or 16 hours a week, which also gives you time outside of work commitments to try other things. I’ve taken flamenco and French class, worked for a student travel company and still found time to do tutoring and partake in the siesta culture.

You’ll get to live in Spain for an academic year, and you’ll get a stipend to do it.

You get paid to talk in your native tongue a dozen hours a week. If that’s not reason enough, I don’t know what is.

Not too keen on an assistant teaching position, or you’ve already gotten around the visa issue? In Seville alone, 26 new English language academies opened for the 2012-13 school year, and it’s a growing sector. Once you’ve got a TEFL degree, finding a place to work is far easier. There are also many alternatives to the auxiliar program that still get you the necessities to live here, and I’ve broken them all down for you.

If you are an auxiliar, tell me about the good and the bad of your position. Would you recommend it to a friend?

Four Kid-Friendly Options in Seville

As a teacher, I often sigh thinking of how wonderful it would be to grow up in a city like Seville. The beautiful parks, proximity to historic sites and the long lifespan of their abuelitos seem to make childhood here happy and educational, even if the kids do dress up like pansies. Though it has long been known as a city with a rich history, many of the activities that people traditionally choose in Seville – museums, parks and flamenco – can prove to either be a bit dull or not youth appropriate.  Here’s a few picks for where to take your niños in La Hispalense:

Cheer on one of Seville’s fútbol teams

While my great sports love will always be the Iowa Hawkeyes, I’ve become a die-hard Real Betis fan, one of Seville’s teams in the top-tier of La Liga. La Liga is home to world famous football squads such as Real Madrid and Barcelona.  These two squads annually compete in El Clásico. Due to the match’s popularity, free tickets have been given away from a competition making El Clásico one of the grandest and much-awaited sporting event in Spain.

The Estadio Benito Villamarín hosts Real Betis home games and has a capacity of 45,000 spectators.  They say that only Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have more fans than the verdiblancos of La Palmera, and football is not just a sport, but a passion for fans. Tickets are usually cheap, and the thrill of constantly teetering between victory and defeat gets anyone’s heart racing. Your kids likely won’t understand the choice swear words for the referees, called árbitros, anyway!

Visit the Museum at the Plaza de Toros

The Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza is the second oldest modern bullring in Spain and home to one of the most well-known bullfighting festivals in the world. Even if you do not like to watch bullfighting matches, it is still worth a visit. The mustard-colored albero sand and the stark white of the building is insanely gorgeous.Construction began on the structure in 1749 and the building has been maintained until today.

There’s also a small but informative museum that celebrates the history of the sport, explains its three parts and pays homage to the toreros who compete, which can be conducted in English. You can even see the head of the mother of Spain’s most famous bull – the one who killed prominent bullfighter Manolete. According to tradition, if a bull fatally gorges a bullfighter, the mother of the animal is slaughtered.

Seville Bike Tour

If you are only going to be in Seville a couple of days and want a way to see as much of the city as you can, consider taking the Seville Bike Tour.  A bike rental is included in your fee and your tour guide takes you around to the best places in the city while explaining to you the history of Seville.  Tour guides speak English, Spanish, and even Dutch and are very friendly and accommodating.

La Reserva del Castillo de las Guardas

One of the largest wildlife parks in Europe, La Reserva del Castillo de las Guardas has over 1,000 animals and 100 different species in settings nearly identical to their natural habitat.  You can drive through the habitat on your own or have a guided tour while seeing lions, zebra, and all sorts of wildlife as if you were on Safari.  In addition, there are also exhibitions and live shows separate from the wildlife habitat that include sea lions and even a recreation of the American Wild West. La Reserva of Castillo de las Guardas is located about one hour north of Seville in the town of the same name.

Other museums like the Pabellon de la Navegacion or the Castillo de San Jorge are cheap and kid-friendly options, as well as the wealth of parks and plazas. If I were a kid, I’d been in and out of the fountain in La Alameda de Hercules during the hot summer days (but mostly just to get a funga face from the Naners)!

Where do you mommies and daddies hang out with your kids in Seville?

Applying to to the Auxiliares Program: How to Apply to be a Language Assistant in Spain

this post was updated in February 2016.

Nine years ago, I began researching a way to make it back to Spain. I was a senior at the University of Iowa, finishing a degree in journalism and minoring in the inter-disciplinary “how the hell do I get abroad.” 

Fast-forwarding to the present day, I’m sitting in the sunlight basking into my new home with a café con leche. My one goal post-college was to move abroad, and thankfully the North American Language and Culture Assistants gave me a visa, a job and the ability to make Spain my hogar dulce hogar. And since it began nearly a decade ago, loads more teaching programs in Spain have begun.

Remember Mike? He wrote about his intention to start a new life in Spain through the same program, and has gladly shared his experience of tackling the application process.

Tips on How to apply to teach English in Spain on the North American Language Assistant Program

Well, the application period for the Auxiliares de conversaciones extranjeros en España finally opened up. However, I felt that I was going into this application process basically blind. All I really knew is that I had to login to Profex (the application system they use), and upload documents. Everything I had read of various blogs and forums said that you should apply AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE! Basically, once someone applies they are assigned a number, and then once the application has been approved, placements in regions and schools are given out in the order of the application received. First preference being given to those who are renewing their current placements.

The website has a program manual that outlines the application process and a Profex manual that detailed each screen on Profex and how to navigate the page. Once I was actually in the process of applying, these documents were actually very helpful. I was able to begin working on the list of documents on the website which needed to be submitted for the application:

  • The main page of a U.S. or Canadian passport
  • A copy of college transcripts or college degree
  • Letter of intent or statement of purpose
  • Medical certificate (if not a U.S. citizen) – to be turned in during VISA application process
  • Letter of recommendation

Before the application period opened, I was diligently working on the collecting all the items above. The passport page was an easy photocopy, as was the copy of my college transcript. I browsed many forums and blogs, as well as the Facebook group for this year’s auxiliares to see if it mattered between the transcript or the degree. Everything I came across said that it didn’t matter as long as one was uploaded. Needless to say, I chose the transcript. The letter of intent was fairly simple, as I had to put into words why I wanted to teach in Spain. However, the only glitch with it was that it had to be 300 words, so my 750 word first draft had to be significantly reduced. Who knows if they really even read it though?

The website had a guide for how to write and submit the letter of recommendation. The letter had to come from a professor or former professor unless the applicant has been out of school for over five years. I contacted my former professor and faculty advisor. She was ecstatic to be writing the letter for me. I was thrilled because I had been nervous that since I could not ask her in person she may say no or put it on the back-burner and finish it later than when the application opened. My professor wrote the letter in the format they requested and mailed it in. I asked that she send me an electronic copy so I could upload it online just in case it got lost in the mail. Luckily, she obliged and I was able to upload a copy when I was applying.

On January 10th and 5:01 p.m. here in Milwaukee, WI, (00:01 a.m. in Madrid), the application period finally opened. I began logging in and creating a user account, while following the Profex manual. After I had created a username and began entering my personal information, the system started to load very slow and kept shutting me out. I attempted to login a few times and kept receiving an error message from the website. Quickly, I began searching forums to see if others were having this problem, and I found out that others had the same exact problem. It seemed as though the mad rush of applicants had overloaded their server.

I attempted to login nearly every hour, sans when I briefly slept; however, it was to no avail. The same error message popped up every time. Since it didn’t work through Friday Spain time, I figured it would be down through the weekend, which it was. Although, it did not stop me from constantly checking to see if for some reason it would work! On Monday, I was able to login and finish my application. The Profex Manual was a breeze to follow with actually having the web page up in front of me. Most of the fields that need to be filled in are personal information, college information, any teaching experience, and any study abroad experience, fairly straight forward.

After all that information was completed, the fun part began: selecting region, type of city, and school preferences. For regional preferences the applicant put each group in order of preference, from 1 to 3, and then selects one region within each of those three groups. The options for regional placements are:

Group A: Asturias, Cueta y Melilla, Extremadura, La Rioja, Navarra, País Vasco

Group B: Aragón, Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha, Cataluña, Galicia, Islas Canarias

Group C: Andalucía, Castilla y León, Islas Baleares, Madrid, Murcia, Valencia

The regional preferences are followed by the type of city preferences, which allows the preferences of a rural community, medium sized community, an urban community, or no preference. Then, the school preferences consist of primera, secondaria, or no preference. Personally, I found this to be the most exciting part, as I was actually selecting where I would prefer to be located. Now, I know that I may not get placed in any of my selected preferences, which is perfectly fine with me. I was just excited to be actually submitting something that said where I would like to go and what I would like to do.

Once this part of the application is finished, Profex generates a .pdf print out. It is necessary to print this out and sign it because it needs to be mailed in to a specified regional coordinator along with a checklist that is initialed and signed.

An application becomes Inscrita once the online part is complete. When the regional coordinator receives all the documents the status is changed to Registrada. This is where my application is at this point. Admitada is the next stage, which is when all the submitted documents have been accepted. So far, no one that I know of has been placed past this stage this year.

According to everything I have read, it takes a long time to reach the next stage, Adjudicada, which is when they send the autonomous community assignment that the applicant has been placed in. You have seven days to accept or reject this placement. Assuming it’s accepted, the status becomes Aceptada. The final stage is when you receive your Carta de nombramiento, your school placements. These latter stages of the Profex application process are exciting to think about, but still seem far off for me. I’m just looking forward to being Admitada!

This whole Profex process was not actually as difficult as I had anticipated. Current assstant blogs and forums were incredibly helpful and reassuring throughout the process. Unfortunately, I discovered Facebook group for those applying to teach after I applied, otherwise that would have been pretty helpful too. In the end, I wound up with number 780. While it’s not the best number in the world, I still feel as though it is respectable and feel very comfortable that I should get a placement. I’m checking my applications status every hour, if not even more frequently, and I look forward to keeping everyone updated with my thoughts about this whole process.

Got any questions for Mike or me about the program?

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