Resources for Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence and Rape Victims in Spain

On April 11th, 2018, the Today Show aired the story of Gabrielle Vega, a young woman who alleged she was raped while studying abroad in Spain. While on a semester in Salamanca, Gabrielle contracted the services of a student-run tourism company, Discover Excursions, to travel to Morocco. Given that Morocco isn’t the safest place to explore at night, one of the guides (and owner), Manuel Vela Blanco, invited Gabrielle and two friends to his hotel room for a drink. With his back turned, she alleges, he poured a glass of champagne.

The next morning, she woke up woozy and realized she’d been violated by the same person entrusted to keep her safe in Morocco.

I wish I could say I was shocked, but I wasn’t. Rumors have long swirled around Manu and his employees  – I’ve been privy to them boasting about sleeping with multiple women a night – but he continued to run a successful tourism company whose target market was female study abroad students. I’m disgusted that I interviewed for Discover Excursions in 2009, the year Blanco Vela bought out the company and the rumors began emerging.

Since that date, more than 30 women have come forward with a similar story (not everyone was raped) and authorities in Spain are investigating the allegations.

I was deeply affected by Gabrielle’s testimony. Even as someone who has never been their client and much less their friend, I reached out to Gabrielle on social media and asked how I could help. Her request was simple: a list of resources for women who might find themselves in a similar situation. Working in higher education, I am familiar with Title IX reporting, with local resources in Madrid and how to file a police report – but there is not an extensive list.

I seek to provide that here. When I began this blog post in late April 2018, I had no idea of how reporting worked or that there was infrastructure in place to help victims.

Sadly, domestic violence and sexual assault are an everyday occurrence in Spain. Have you heard of La Manada, a group of men from Seville who were recently convicted of sexual misconduct after allegedly gang raping a woman at the San Fermines festival in 2016? Spain is behind the times when it comes to handling sexual assault and rape charges, and even something supposedly harmless like cat calls are commonplace – but citizens are thankfully speaking out, and each autonomous community has resources for victims – from hotlines to pamphlets to volunteers.

empty bench lonely

Please share the information about where to go if you are the victim of a sexual assault, of sexual violence, or of rape while in Spain. Even if you think it will do no good to denounce someone while abroad or you feel ashamed to report, now is the time that we must speak up. Below you will find a growing list of resources for the major study abroad cities, which happen to be many of Spain’s largest. If you have further information, please comment or email me so that I can update the list.

What constitutes rape or sexual abuse in Spain?

It’s helpful to know a little bit about law in Spain regarding sexual abuse, gender violence and rape, which is under fire with the La Manada conviction. Spanish penal code defines both sexual abuse (abuso sexual) and rape (violación) as an act against a person’s sexual liberty.

Much like a robbery or petty theft, there is a heavier penalty when violence is exercised against the victim. This could be through intimidation or force but can be difficult to prove – and this is exactly why the Manada, a group of five guys who gang raped a woman during the San Fermines festival, were let off. Worse, they filmed the rape and planned it ahead of time, sharing the crime on a whatsapp group.

Hermana yo te creo

The jail time associated with each is from one to five years if there is evidence of violence; if not, the maximum prison time drops to three years. Like I said, Spain is a little behind the times when it comes to punishing these sorts of crimes.

Spain-wide resources

If you are the victim of a sex-related crime in Spain, follow these steps immediately after the crime and making sure you are ok (better to have a trusted friend and preferably one who speaks Spanish):

  1. Have a medical examination performed. The word for rape in Spanish is violación, and you should keep a copy of the medical report for the police report.
  2. File a police report (denuncia) at a National Police Station.
  3. Contact the Servicio de Atención a mujeres víctimas de Violencia de Género (Support Service for Women Victims of Gender-based Violence, herein referred to as S.A.V.G.) – 24 hour service, where you will receive specialized social, psychological, and legal support and where they will help you to come up with a safety plan for potential risk situations. This service is available 24 hours a day, 365 day; the number is (+34) 900 222 100 and is free to the caller. You may also use this service if you are not a legal resident of Spain or in an “irregular” residency situation. Email is savg24h@madrid.es.

The emergency number in Spain (similar to 911) is 112. The hotline for women who have been physically or sexually abused is 016. Both hotlines are free to call and are available in several languages (some lesser-spoken languages are only available from 8am – 6pm during the work week).

If you are the victim of any sort of crime in Spanish territory (this includes Ceuta and Melilla), you are strongly encouraged to fill out a police report. This is called a denuncia, and it can be filed at any National Police (policia nacional) station, which are open 24 hours a day. Here is where to file a police report. Be sure to be as descriptive as possible, bring an ID with you and, if you feel your Spanish is not up to par, bring someone who can translate.

You can file in person, via telephone (at a cost) to 902 102 112 from 9am until 9pm. Victims of sexual abuse or rape cannot file a police report of this nature online. If the crime was committed outside of Spain but involves a Spanish national, it may be hard to file a report and you may get pushback – but that shouldn’t stop you from trying.

In Spain, gender violence, also known as domestic violence or violencia de género, is investigated and prosecuted via the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality (Ministerio de Sanidad, Servicios Sociales e Igualdad), they have an informational sheet about your rights (mostly directed towards victims of violencia de género). The Guardia Civil is tasked with investigating violent crimes against women and minors as part of the EMUME program. They have an office in each province, which you can download here. In addition, there is a Spain-wide toggle search of resources according to the type of service you are looking for, as well as geographic location.

I cannot tell if ATENPRO still exists and whether or not it is a program funded by the Spanish government or by the Red Cross of Spain.

Your country’s Embassy or nearest consulate will have resources, too, and it’s understood that the consular agents are tasked with protecting the interests of their constituents. Most Embassies are located in Madrid (a full list is available here) and many have consulates around Spain. The US has consulates in Spanish territory in Barcelona, Seville, Valencia, Fuengirola (Málaga) Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Palma de Mallorca. Andorra is also under the jurisdiction of the US Mission to Spain.

The US Embassy website and American Citizen Services in Spain – including emergency services – can be found here. You can also request a translator through ACS.

20180505_134840

Additionally, most major cities have a branch of the Instituto de la Mujer (Spanish only). You can read about your rights in the event of a crime via an online contact form or find information about legislation in Spain regarding sexual harassment and asault. The organization is headquartered in Madrid on Condesa de Venadito, 34. The nearest metro stop is Barrio de Concepción (Line 7), or you can take bus 53 from Puerta del Sol. Below, I detail the contact information of the Instituto de la Mujer in popular study abroad and touristic destinations.

The city of Madrid has put out a short pamphlet (in English) about where to go and what to do if you have been assaulted or raped. Further, Red Ormiga provides assistance to undocumented immigrants, including in cases of rape or sexual violence.

If you suspect you have a sexually transmitted disease, called an enfermedad de transmición sexual, you can have a test performed at any public clinic, so long as you are registered through an empadronamiento.

Important: if the person harassing or violating you has access to your computer or phone, always clear your browser history. Many websites listed on this post will also have a button called “salida rápida” which will allow you to close the page quickly. I, unfortunately, do not.

Finally, you can choose to do online counseling via Better Help. If you are in Spain with health insurance, check out your options, as many programs will allow you to see a therapist as part of your coverage.

Pathways to Safety: an overseas resource for Americans abroad who have been victims of sexual abuse, rape or aggression 

American victims of sexual assault and violence have access to a toll-free crisis phone number. Dial the country code first, which for Spain is 900-99-0011. After dialing the country code, the victim will be prompted to dial the hotline’s direct number, which is 833-SAFE-833 (833-723-3833).

Important: For calls on a mobile phone, the call should be deleted from the call history log for safety reasons. On a landline, they should first hang up the receiver, then pick it up and dial another random number and then hang up again. This prevents someone from redialing, and this can help you stay safe at the hands of a person who is hurting you.

The phone number is for immediate response. You also have the option to email a crisis case manager at crisis@pathwaystosafety.org. The response time via email may be anywhere from two hours to six hours; in an emergency situation, a phone call would illicit an immediate response. If a victim chooses to report their assault to the police, an English interpreter will be provided upon request. If you are traveling alone, you can contact the U.S. Embassy to request that an officer accompany you for the medical examination in addition to a police station.

Pathways to Safety seeks to help victims of interpersonal and gender based violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and forced marriage. At this time, they only help Americans who become victims while abroad in ways like safety planning, legal aid services, counseling, and transition and basic needs assistance either in a foreign country or back in the United States, whenever possible.

You could also contact RAINN – the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network headquartered in the USA. They have an 800-number and a live chat in the event you are a victim or would like to consult the statute of limitations.

Resources for sexual crime victims in popular study abroad destinations in Spain

This post is not meant to be directed only at students enjoying a semester in Spain. But the truth is that rape culture is prevalent in the US, particularly at the university level. Remember the Penn State sexual abuse scandal a few years ago? It’s estimated that one in six university students will be victims of sexual harassment or abuse.
Additionally, study abroad students are often more vulnerable – the drinking age is lower in many countries, they are out of their cultural and linguistic element and often lack the knowledge of how to deal with intense or potentially dangerous situations. There is even a 2013 study about how young women on a semester abroad are at a higher risk for becoming victims of sexual crimes.
I’ve taken the most popular study abroad destinations in Spain and found a few local resources. I will be adding to this list every time I find new or updated information. You can also check the site Securely Travel, which is a blog run by a former security adviser and who has covered Ms. Vega’s case.

Madrid

metro of Madrid

Madrid is regarded as one of the safest cities in the world, but lewd comments and catcalling are, sadly, commonplace in La Capital. You will find a number of resources here, including headquarters and a number of non-profits. This list will likely expand.
Important: If you are the victim of a violent crime and require a rape kit done in Madrid, you should go to Hospital de la Paz and ask for an evaluación forénsica to be performed. Be sure to fill out a police report prior to your hospital visit. Paseo de la Castellana, 261, metro Begońa (Line 10). +34 917 27 70 00.
You can find a list of shelters and resources in English, published by the local government, at this link (in Spanish here). If you are outside of the Madrid city limits, there are satellite offices and shelters in several large towns, published here.
  • APUNE – an organization of American university programs in Spain. They are located on General Martínez Campos, 24,between the Iglesia (Line 1) and Gregorio Marañón (Line 7) metro stops. +34 91 319 91 18.
  • SINEWS – a multi-lingual counseling company offering support for victims. Their offices are at Zurbano, 34. Nearest metro stops are Rubén Darío (Line 7) and Alonso Martínez (Lines 4, 5 and 10). +34 91 700 19 79; +34 60 926 93 23 is the emergency line.
  • Asociación Asistencia Mujeres Violadas – a non-profit that provides psychological and legal support to rape victims at Calle Alcalá 124, 1º A. Metros are Manuel Becerra (Lines 2 and 6) and Goya (lines 2 and 4). +91 574 01 10; asociacion@cavasmadrid.es.
  • Servicio De Atención A La Mujer (Sam) – a newly-formed division of the National Police tasked with investigating violent and sexual crimes. The Madrid-based headquarters is located in the Comisaría de Policía at Avda. Doctor Federico Rubio y Gali, 55; Metro at Francos Rodríguez (Line 7). +34 913 22 34 21.

To file a restraining order, you can do so at the located at the Comunidad de Madrid Dirección General de la Mujer at Calle Madrazo, 34, 3rd floor. The nearest Metro is Banco de España (Line 2); +34 91 720 62 38: or at C/ Manuel de Falla 7 , 2ª pta. (nearest metros are Santiago Bernabeu and Cuzco, both on Line 10) +34 91 720 62 38.

This is saddening but also necessary: In Madrid, you can now share where and by whom you were assaulted on this interactive map via Free to Be Madrid. I urge you to share your story, in English or Spanish.

Andalusia: Sevilla, Málaga and Granada

Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla

In Sevilla (as well as Granada, Málaga and any other town in Andalusia), the Ministerio de Sanidad, Servicos Sociales e Igualdad and the division known as the Instituto de la Mujer are responsible for overseeing resources for reporting and attending to victims. The autonomous community-wide ministry is located in the capital of Seville at Avenida de Hytasa, 1, +34 95 500 63 00; the central office for the Instituto Andaluz de la Mujer for the entire comunidad is located in the center of town at Doña María Coronel, 6: +34 95 454 4910, consulta.iam@juntadeandalucia.es.

That said, you can find information about the Instituto de la Mujer in each province of Andalusia, as well as their satellite offices in other municipalities in the same link. The organization provides shelters and psychological help for victims of gender violence, as well as health and employment training.

Córdoba

Centro Provincial Instituto Andaluz de la Mujer Córdoba

Avda. Ollerías nº 48 (14071).

Teléfono: 957 003 400. Fax: 957 003 412.

cmujer.cordoba.iam@juntadeandalucia.es

Granada

Centro Provincial Instituto Andaluz de la Mujer Granada

C/ San Matías, 17 (18009).

Teléfono: 958 025 800. Fax: 958 025 818.

cmujer.granada.iam@juntadeandalucia.es

Málaga

Centro Provincial Instituto Andaluz de la Mujer Málaga

C/ San Jacinto, 7 (29007) Málaga

Teléfono: 951 040 847. Fax: 951 040 848.

cmujer.malaga.iam@juntadeandalucia.es

Sevilla

Centro Provincial Instituto Andaluz de la Mujer Sevilla

C/ Alfonso XII nº 52 (41002).

Teléfono: 955 034 944. Fax: 955 035 957.

cmujer.sevilla.iam@juntadeandalucia.es

  • The Servicio de Asistencia de Víctimas de Andalucía is a gender-inclusive psychological and judicial support service for victims of crimes – which includes foreigners, tourists and minors. There are offices in each province of Andalusia and the Campo de Gibraltar, and their services are listed in their English-language pamphlet.
  • The Costa del Sol chapter of Soroptimist International is active, championing for women’s issues and providing support in nearly four dozen languages.

There are US Consulates in both Sevilla (Plaza Nueva, 8) and Fuengirola, a town to the west of Málaga (Juan Gómez Juanito, 8).

If you need a restraining order, you can follow the steps listed on the Junta de Andalucía’s website.

Castilla y León: Salamanca

rainy in plaza mayor valladolid

While the Junta de Castilla y León is located in Valladolid, where I chose to study abroad in Spain, the capital isn’t home to a plehora of Erasmus students or co-eds on a semester overseas. The regional government provides a list of resources under the Health and Social Services Ministry and runs a program known as PAWLA to bring resources straight to victims of gender and sexual violence.

The Sección de Mujer of Salamanca – home to one of the world’s oldest universities and a destination for abroad programs, it located in the Edificio Administrativo de Usos Múltiples (ESAUM) on C/ Príncipe de Vergara, 53-71 – Planta Baja; (+34) 923 296 746 or (+34) 923 136 458. This governmental organism also provides help to family matters and those dependent on drugs; the list of satellite offices is found on the Familia, drogopendencias y mujer section of the Junta de Castilla y León’s website.

The central office for the Centro de Acción Social (CEAS), which deals with citizens in crisis, is located in Valladolid, but a simple Google search will yield the office nearest you – even if you’re not in a provincial capital. They will be able to direct you to more resources and translators, if needed.

Finally, the Asociación de Asistencia a Víctimas de Agresiones Sexuales y Violencia de Género is active in Castilla y León and partially funded by the regional government. León, Valladolid and Burgos are of note; the Salamanca office is located at C/ Corral de Villaverde, 1, 5ºB; the office phone is (+34) 923 26 05 99 or the 24-hour (+34) 609 83 53 36. 

Cataluña: Barcelona

parc guell barcelona3

Many will argue that Catalonia is not Spain, but the northeastern region of the Iberian peninsula is also known for being one of the more progressive. A simple Google search for this post brought back a number of resources for victims of sexual crimes, including free therapy sessions for victims of sexual crimes during youth, monetary compensations for victims and a number of organizations meant to protect and support victims.

While the official language of all of Spain is Castillian Spanish, it’s more common to hear catalán or inglés. That said, if you speak in Spanish in larger urban areas, you will be attended to in Spanish. Keep in mind that, at the time of publication, local law enforcement is upheld by the Mossos d’Esquadra, a division of the Civil guard whose day-to-day operations are run by the Catalan government. Within Catalonia, the emergency number 012 will connect you to the Mossos; you can also dial (+34) 932 14 21 24 outside of the region.

Like all other regions, you should follow the protocol of calling the police, having a pelvic exam and making a denuncia, as outline in this PDF about sexual assault and rape put out by the catalán government. To file a police report, the Mossos Denuncias page describes how and where to do so around the comunidad. And bravo to the Catalonian government’s website that has clear instructions and resources for the whole region, the most relevant of which are listed below.

The general hotline for victims of sexual crime in Catalonia is: (+34) 900 90 01 20 (24/7).

Two major hospitals in Barcelona will treat victims of sexual assault and have specialized units for their emotional and psychical treatment:

The public Hospital Clínic de Barcelona is one of the largest treatment centers in the region, and in addition to an ER and psychological units, treats victims in the Programa de Prevención y Tratamiento de las Secuelas Psíquicas en Mujeres Víctimas de Agresión Sexual c/ Rosselló, 140, bajos; (+34) 629 63 45 53. Note that the aforementions unit is only open Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 am until 1pm. Hospital Sant Joan de Deu has a Unidad de Agresiones Sexuales for sexually abused minors. Ctra. De Esplugas, s/n: (+34) 932 80 40 00.

  • Catalonia’s Instituto de la Mujer is part of the Minsterio de Bienestar y la Familia. Their page regarding sexual crimes is in catalán, but you can find the office at Plza. Pere Coromines: (+34) 934 95 16 00; icd@gencat.cat
  • The Oficine de Atenció de Víctimas de l’Delicte (OAVD) is a division of the Ministry of Justice that can help you with legal matters related to sxual crimes.Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, 111. Edificio I. planta 3ª; (+34) 900 12 18 84 (toll free); atenciovictima.dji@gencat.net.
  • The Servei d’Atenció, Recuperación i Acollida (SARA) goes a step beyond by offering refuge to women, children and anyone who has been the victim of sexual violence as well as anyone in their family o immediate circle.. It is a division of DONA. C/ Marie Curie, 16: (+34) 932 91 59 10; sara@bcn.cat
  • Associació Assistència a Dones Agredides Sexualment (AADAS) provides survivors with legal and psychological support. (+34) 934 87 57 60; http://www.aadas.org.

Finally, there is a US consulate with select Embassy powers in Barcelona in the Sarrià neighborhood at Paseo Reina Elisenda de Montcada, 23; (+34) 93 280 22 27; the Ask Citizens Services email is barcelonaacs@state.gov. The nearest subway station is Reina Elisenda (the end of Line 12).

Communitat Valenciana: Alicante and Valencia

Fallera Women in Las Fallas

In Valencia, the Instituto de la Mujer is overseen by the Consejería de Bienestar Social and, at a more local level, the Dirección General de Familia y Mujer. Unfortunately, many of the websites and associations listed on the Consejería’s website were broken or out of date (the Plan of Action was last updated in 2012 and only gave actions through 2014, for example). You can reach the central line, operative 24 hours a day, at (+34) 900 58 08 88 or (+34) 900 152 152 for the hearing impaired. The Generalitat also lists police commissaries that have special attention to victims of sexual assault.

You may find that some services operate first in valencià, a language closely related to catalán. Those organizations with pages in English have been added here, though the most complete information will be in valencià or castellano.

  • Institut de les Dons in the Comunitat Valenciana is located on C/ Castán Tobeñas, 77 in the Ciutat Administrativa 9 d´ Octubre, torre 3; (+34) 961 24 75 89; mujer_web@gva.es. Closest metro is Nou d’ Octubre (lines 3, 5, 9).
  • Their counterpart Alicantina, la Coordinación La Dona, is on Av/ Oscar Esplá, 33-35 in Alicante. (+34) 965 92 97 47.
  • The Centro de Asistencia a Víctimas de Agresiones Sexuales is likely to give more support. While they do not have resources in English on their webpage, they are a reference in Spain for their pioneering work in support for victims and are right in the center of town. C/ Guillem de Castro, 100; (+34) 963 94 30 69; info@cavascv.org.
  • The Asociación para la Protección e Integración de la Mujer provides services for immigrants, particularly for victims of abuse. They are headquartered in Valencia at C/ Baron de Carcer, 48 8L; asociacionprim@hotmail.com.

Further, the Generalitat offers economic help to survivors who meet certain socioeconomic conditions, such as residency and income. This page is in Spanish, as well as the online platform to apply.

There is a US Consulate near the Colom metro stop on Carrer del Dr. Romagosa, 1, 46002; (+34) 963 51 69 73.

País Vasco: Bilbao and San Sebastián

Lastres Asturias village

Like Catalonia, the Basque country has a higher degree of autonomy; their police force is known as Ertzaintza. Again, although the official language of the whole country is Castillian Spanish, you may find that resources or services are in euskera first; the Ministry of Justice does have an informative pamphlet in English about the steps victims should take, as well as contact information for the following resources and services.

  • The Specialized Information Service and Hotline Service For Female Victims of Domestic Violence (S.A.TE.VI.) is available around the clock for confidential information and support at (+34) 945 01 93 27 or (+34)  945 01 93 16; violenciacontramujeres@euskadi.eus. The hearing and speech impaired can get assistance by sending a text message to (+34) 600 12 31 12 with personal details and location, by typing the words “gender violence”.
  • The Servicio de Asistencia a la Víctima (Victim Assistance Service, or SAV),  is service which provided by the Basque Government that offers information and the social, legal and psychological assistance. They have limited hours, so you should call authorities outside of normal business hours, taking into account reduced hours and staffing in the summer months.
Bilbao

Palacio de Justicia

Ibáñez de Bilbao, 3-5

(+34) 900 40 00 28 (free phone)

(+34) 944 01 64 87

San Sebastián

Palacio de Justicia

Plaza Teresa de Calcuta, 1

(+34) 900 10 09 28 (free phone)

(+34) 943 00 07 68

  • The Instituto Vasco de la Mujer is known as Emakunde in the Basque language, and their services also extend to men who have been victims of sexual crimes. The main office is located in the Basque capital of Victoria-Gasteiz (+34 945 01 67 00); emakunde@euskadi.eus. They have a website in English and have listed their protocols in a helpful PDF (in Spanish). I could not find information about satellite offices in the comunidad.
Title IX
If you are on a program abroad through a US university, there will likely be a Title IX point person. Originally meant to prevent discrimination based on sex, race or creed, it also covers sexual harassment and sexual violence, and the Clery Act deals with reporting crime on campuses.
If your study abroad program (I believe this can only be program-related and not a private company, such as CIEE) does not have a point person or does not report, they may be in violation of the Clery Act and you should push them to train staff members.
Discover Excursions
If you have anything to share about being a survivor of a sex crime related to Manuel Vela Blanco or a staff member of Discover Excursions in Sevilla, you are encouraged to write Gabrielle Vega at: desurvivorsspeakup@gmail.com. At the time of the original posting, the company had cancelled their upcoming trips and their offices are closed. Plus, their social media has been wiped. While they may be difficult to convict, we’re making progress:
Discover Excursions
I could not have written this post without the help of Nicole Pradel, Meghan Holloway, Lindsay Vick, Helen Lyons Poloquin, Ali Meehan of Costa Women – and, of course, Gabrielle Vega. They are not only women I admire and call friends, but they took also it upon themselves to gather resources and reach out to their contacts. Niñas, thank you for fighting with me.
where to go if you've been assaulted or raped in Spain
This post is meant to be a starting off point – women in Spain are angry and we’re shouting at the patriarchy and misogyny. If you know any other websites, groups, demonstrations or the like, please comment below or email me, and I will add them to the list.

Ten Mistakes New Language Assistants Make (and how to avoid them)

My Spanish now-husband couldn’t help but laugh when I looked, puzzled, at our new coffee maker. I was jetlagged, yes, but also coming off six weeks of straight drip machine American coffee. The cafetera had me reconsidering a caffeine boost and swapping it for a siesta.

‘Venga ya,’ he said, exasperated, ‘every time you come back into town, you act like you’re a complete newbie to Spain!’ He twisted off the bottom of the pot, filled it with steaming water and ordered me to unpack.

Even after eight years of calling Spain home, I can so clearly remember the days when everything in Seville was new, terrifying and overwhelming. That time when the prospect of having a conversation with my landlord over the phone meant nervously jotting down exactly what I’d say to him before dialing.

You know my Spain story – graduate, freak out about getting a teaching job in Spain, find an internationally recognized TESOL certificate that would make me competitive in the ESL world and successfully complete it, hassles with my visa, taking a leap by moving to a foreign country where I knew not a soul.  How I settled into a profession I swore I never would, found a partner and fought bureaucracy. I’ve come a long way since locking myself in my bedroom watching Arrested Development to avoid Spanish conversation, though each year I get more and more emails from aspiring expats and TEFL teachers who ask themselves the same questions:

Is it all worth it? Is it possible at all? How can I do it?

Like anyone moving to a foreign country, there’s a load of apprehension, endless questions, and a creeping sense of self-doubt as your flight date looms nearer and nearer. I tried and learned the hard way how to do practically everything, from looking for a place to live to paying bills to finding a way to make extra income. Call it dumb luck or call it nagging anyone who would lend a friendly ear, but I somehow managed to survive on meager Spanish and a few nice civil servants (and tapas. Lots of tapas.).

As a settled expat, I am quick to warn people that Spain is not all sunshine and siestas, and that it’s easy to fall into the same traps that got me during that long first year. Year after year, I see language assistants do the same, so let these serve as a warning:

Packing too much

Back in 2007, I packed my suitcase to the brim and even toppled over when I stepped off the train in Granada. Lesson learned – really think about what you’re packing, the practicality of every item and whether or not you could save space by purchasing abroad. There are nearly more packing Don’ts than Do’s! If you’re smart about packing, you’ll have loads of room for trendy European fashions to wow your friends back home (and you won’t have to lug your bag up three flights of stairs).

Deciding on an apartment without seeing it

Typical house in Seville Spain

I was so nervous about the prospect of renting an apartment that I found one online, wired money and hoped for the best. Despite my gut telling me it was maybe not the smartest idea, I decided to grin and bear it. I ended staying in that same flat for three years.

In hindsight, choosing a flat before seeing it was a stupid move that could have turned out poorly. What if I didn’t like my roommates, or the neighborhood? How could I tell if it was noisy or not? Would my landlords be giant jerks? Save yourself the trouble and worry about finding a place to live when you get here.

Choosing not to stay in touch with loved ones

My first weeks in Spain were dark ones – I struggled to see what my friends and family were up to on Facebook or messenger, and I did a terrible job of staying in touch with them. I was bursting to share my experience, but worried no one would relate, or worse – they simply wouldn’t care. Get over it and Facetime like crazy, download whatsapp and count down the time difference. That’s what siesta hour was invented for, right?

Not bringing enough money

Money is a sticky issue, and having to deal with what my father calls “funny money” makes it more difficult. Remember – even coins can buy you quite a bit! Consider bringing more money than you might think, because things happen. Some regions won’t pay assistants until December, or you may not be able to find tutoring side jobs. Perhaps you will fall in love with an apartment that is more expensive than you bargained for. Having a cushion will ensure you begin enjoying yourself and your new situation right away, without having to turn down day trips or a night out with new friends. If you need tips, check out my Budgeting Ideas for Spain.

Not taking time to learn Spanish

Moving is scary. Moving abroad is scarier. Moving abroad without being able to hold your own in the local language is the scariest. Take some time to learn Spanish and practice conversation at whatever cost. Spanish will help you accomplish things as mundane as asking for produce at the market to important situations like making formal complaints. Ah, and that brings me to my next point…

Not interacting with locals

I studied abroad in Valladolid and met not one Spanish person during my six weeks there. While I have great memories with my classmates and adored my host family, I feel that I missed out on what young people did in Spain (and I had trouble keeping up when they did talk to me). In most parts of the country, Spaniards are extremely friendly and open to meeting strangers. Even if it’s the old man having coffee next to you – lose your self-doubt and strike up a conversation. I scored cheaper car insurance just by talking to a lonely man at my neighborhood watering hole.

Adhering to timetables and traditions from your home country

As if adapting to language and a new job weren’t enough, Spain’s weird timetables can throw anyone into a funk. I tried getting a sensible night’s sleep for about two weeks when I started to realize that being in bed before midnight was nearly impossible. If you can’t beat them, siesta with them, I guess.

And that’s not to say you can’t bring your traditions to Spain, either. Making Thanksgiving for your Spanish friends is always memorable, as is dressing up on Halloween and carving watermelons for lack of pumpkins. Embrace both cultures.

Not exercising (and eating too many tapas)

My first weeks in Spain were some of my loneliest, to be honest. I hadn’t connected with others and therefore had yet to made friends. I skipped the gym and ate frozen pizzas daily. My weight quickly bloomed ten pounds. The second I began accepting social invitations and making it a point to walk, I dropped everything and more. Amazing what endorphins and Vitamin D can do!

Not getting a carnet joven earlier

Even someone who works to save money flubs – the carnet joven is a discount card for European residents with discounts on travel, entrance fees and even services around Europe. I waited until I was 26 to get one, therefore disqualifying myself from the hefty discounts on trains. This continent loves young people, so get out there and save!

Working too much

Remember that you’re moving to Spain for something, whether it’s to learn the language, to travel or to invest more time in a hobby. Maybe Spain is a temporary thing, or maybe you’ll find it’s a step towards a long-term goal. No matter what your move means to you, don’t spend all of your waking hours working or commuting – you’ll miss out on all of the wonderful things to do, see and experience in Spain. When I list my favorite things about Spain, the way of life is high on my list!

So how do you avoid these mistakes?

It’s easy: research. I spent hours pouring over blogs, reference books and even travel guides to maximize my year and euros in Spain. While there were bumps in the road, and I had to put my foot in my mouth more times than I’d like to recall, I survived a year in Spain and came back for nine more (and counting!).

That’s why COMO Consulting has brought out an enhanced edition of it successful eBook to help those of you who are moving to Spain for the first time. In our ten chapter, 135-page book, you’ll find all of the necessary information to get you settled into Spain as seamlessly as possible. In it, we cover all of the documents you’ll need to get a NIE, how to open a bank account, how to seek out the perfect apartment, setting up your internet and selecting a mobile phone and much (much!) more.

Each chapter details all of the pertinent vocabulary you’ll need and we share our own stories of where we went wrong (so hopefully you won’t!). Being an expat means double the challenge but twice the reward, so we’re thrilled to share this book that Hayley and I would have loved to have nine years ago – we might have saved ourselves a lot of embarrassing mishaps! The book is easy to read and downloadable in PDF form, so you can take it on an e-reader, computer or tablet, and there’s the right amount of punch to keep you laughing about the crazy that is Spain.

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Downloading Moving to Spain is easy – the button above is linked to COMO’s online shop. Click, purchase thru PayPal, and you’re set! You will receive email notification of a successful purchase and a link to download the eBook. You can also click here.

Have you ever moved abroad before? What’s your biggest piece of advice?

Expat Life Then and Now: My Seven Year Spaniversary

I can’t clearly remember my first days in Spain. Between the jet lag, the whirlwind tour of the Iberian Peninsula with my grandmother and the nagging thoughts and regrets, it didn’t fully hit me that I had up and moved to Spain to teach English until nearly three weeks after my plane touched down on September 13th, 2007.

Cue my Jessie Spano moment once Helen was boarded on a plane back to the Motherland.

I was terrified to start a life in Span alone, barely 22 and not proficient in Spanish. Every challenge – from getting my residency card to remembering how to separate the trash – seemed to come with a mountain of self-doubt. Que Dios bendiga my bilingual Spanish roommate and my bilingual coordinator for helping me through those rough first weeks.

My first year in Spain seems like it was both so far in the past and like it was last year. I met Lucía and Valle, old coworkers from Olivares, last week for dinner, and the piropos rolled in – You look more womanly. You and the Novio seem to be a balanced couple. WAIT you and the Novio are still together? And you’re getting married?! And there’s a HOUSE in the mix!?

My, my you’ve come a long way (proof is below, as far as flamenco dresses are concerned).

Seven years is a long time, leches!

WORK then: auxiliar de conversación // now: director of studies

When I first arrived to Seville, I worked at a high school in nearby Olivares as a language assistant. For the first time, I was deviating from my goal of becoming a magazine journalist, and I’d have to do a job I had no experience in. Actually, in having a teacher for a mother, I swore I’d never run a classroom.

My job in Olivares was fun – I was respected by my coworkers and students, and found I was actually considering teaching as a vocation. After three years, I was given the equivalent of a pink slip and thanked for my participation in the auxiliar program.

Faced with no job prospects, no magic paperwork solutions and no money in my bank account, I thought I’d be done for in Spain, but both a loophole in Spanish law and a school desperate for a native speaker fell into my lap in one week, thus launching my career in teaching.

The longer I do it, the more I love it. In fact, I’ve turned down a few job offers in favor of my current job, directing the academic side of a small academy in town. I still have contact hours and get my kiddie cuddles fix daily, but not enough to leave my voice ragged and my nerves frayed at the end of the week.

SIDE JOBS then: student tour guide and tutor // now: freelance writing and voiceovers + entrepreneur

I came overly optimistic that my money would stretch forever in Spain – and it did, but only because I saved up a ton of green by working two jobs and cashing in a scholarship. But as someone who despises boredom, I needed to find something to do midday other than siesta.

Doing research for an article about volunteering abroad brought me to We Love Spain, a then baby student tourism company. I began asking questions about what the company did and where the trips took them, and was offered an internship as a PR rep. Let’s be clear – PR like you learn in journalism school doesn’t prepare you for Spanish PR. I spent time passing out flyers and making phone calls, but got to know my city and a lot of people through WLS. We amicably went our separate ways when I realized I wasn’t making enough money to support my travel and tapas habits.

I tutored up until last year as a way to make some quick money, but as my professional network grows, it’s hard to find time to commit to biking around Seville and giving homework help.

Nowadays, I fill my mornings with more than sleeping until a late hour and lazing around the house (me and lazy can only be used together if it’s post-work week, and even then, it’s a stretch). I do freelance work in both writing and translating, record children’s stories for iPads and tablets, and am getting a business up and running, COMO Consulting Spain.

Even during my ‘summer vacation’ I found time to plan half a wedding and co-author an eBook about Moving to Spain.

Hustlers gonna hustle, after all.

LIVING SITUATION then: shared flat in Triana // now: homeowner in Triana

The 631€ I earned as a language assistant my first year didn’t go too far each month, and paying rent was my first order of business with every paycheck I got. Turning down a room with a balcony right under the shadow of the Giralda when I first arrived, I ended up in a shared flat in Triana with two other girls – a Spaniard and a German.

 

Living in shared accommodation is one thing, but when you add in another couple of languages and cultures, things can get complicated. I thankfully escaped to the Novio’s nearly every night before moving all of my stuff and my padrón to his house. Four years later, I moved back to Triana with my name on the deed and way poorer. 

SOCIAL LIFE then: bars, discos and botellón // now: bottles of wine and the occasional gin tonic

Working twelve hours a week allowed me to explore other interests, like a flamenco class and loads of travel, as well as left me with two new hobbies: drinking beer and eating tapas. But that didn’t come easily – I actually had many lonely weeks where I’d do little more but work, sleep and walk around the city to stave off boredom.

Once I did make friends, though, life become a non-stop, tinto-de-verano-infused party. My first few years in Spain may have been chaotic, but they were a lot of fun!

Alcohol – particularly beer and wine – is present at meals, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have beer with lunch before returning to work. When I studied abroad at 19, I’d have to beg my host family not to top off my glass with wine every night at dinner, or remind them that I didn’t want Bailey’s in my coffee. But as soon as I met the Novio, he’d order me a beer with lunch and dinner, despite my request for water. 

Now, most of my social plans are earlier in the evening, involve far less botellóns and garrafón, and leave me feeling better the next day. I sometimes get nostalgic for those nights that ended with churros at 7am, and then remember that I have bills and can’t drink like a college kid anymore. I still maintain my love for beer, but hearty reds or a crisp gin and tonic are my drinks of choice when I go out with friends.

SPANISH SKILLS then: poquísimo // now: C1+

To think that I considered myself proficient in Spanish when I moved to Seville. I couldn’t understand the Andalusian accent, which is riddled with idioms and missing several syllables, despite studying abroad in the cradle of modern Spanish. My roommates and I only spoke to one another in English, and I was so overcome by the Novio’s ability to speak three foreign languages, that I sheepishly admitted to my parents that I’d let myself down on the Spanish front when they came to visit at Christmas.

I buckled down and began working towards fluency. I made all of the mistakes a novice language learning makes, including have to put my foot in my mouth on numerous occasions, but it has stuck. In November 2011, I sat the DELE Spanish exam, passing the C1, or Advanced, exam. I then one-upped myself by doing a master’s entirely in Spanish the following year.

I’d say I now speak an even amount of English and Spanish because of my line of work and my choice to have English-speaking friends.

FUTURE PLANS then: learn Spanish and travel a whole bunch // get married, decorate a house and start a bilingual family

A college friend put it best this summer when the Novio and I celebrated our engagement. He told me all of our friends thought I was insane for passing up a job at a news radio station in Chicago to go to Spain to teach, and that I’d made it work.  I can clearly remember the stab of regret that I had when I boarded the plane, the moments of confusion as I navigated being an adult and doing so in Spanish, of missing home and friends and hot dogs and baseball.

But here I am, seven years later, grinning as I remember how different my life was, but that I grabbed life by the horns and made Seville my own. I’d say I’d surprised myself, but I would expect nothing less.

Now that I’m planning a bilingual wedding, dealing with the woes of homeownership and starting a company, I realize my goals are still in line with those I had long before I decided to move to Spain. In the end, my life isn’t so radically different from 2007, just more polished and mature.

Reflections of My Years in Spain – Año Cuatro / Cinco / Seis / Making the choice to live abroad

Five Weird Things You’ll Find in Your Spanish Apartment

Everything came full circle on my first day back in Spain after a summer in the states – the Novio asked me to pick up a few housewares and suggested I head to the cheap bazaar shop two blocks away. My jet-lagged body was on auto pilot as I walked in, found the corner dedicated to tupperware and kitchen utensils, and picked out a few necessities.

It hit me: this was the same place I bought my household necessities when I first moved into a shared flat in Triana seven years ago. And now, with a big kid paycheck and an entire house to fill, I was back at the same chino to buy dishes and tools.

As we settle into our newly purchased chalet in Barrio León, we’re slowly learning the quirks of the so-called ‘Alcázar.’ Our outside lights don’t work, the oven takes an hour to heat for a morning tostada and the lock on the heavy iron door to our parking spaces split a key in two. But it’s ours! Part of the fun (or agony) of looking for a place to live in Spain is the differences between homes in the US and homes here. 

It goes far, far beyond the house versus apartment debate.

Bombonas

Melissa was clear about setting down the rules: she would shower every evening at 8pm once she was done with her classes, so no one could use the hot water from 6pm. When I inquired why (first world problems, indeed), she opened a cabinet in the kitchen to reveal a bright orange tank  – of propane.

In order to heat water, the bombona uses pressure and a small flame, which flows into the pipes in your sink, shower and washing machine. When the tank runs dry, no hot water: you’ll have to call up Repsol and wait for them to deliver a new one, or just wait until siesta time, when the truck will inevitably drive by and clank all of the fuel tanks together to wake you up.

I ended up joining a gym nearby just to have unlimited hot water.   Flash forward to 2014 and there’s an electric hot water tank in my house that holds enough water for a family of four!

Lights on the Outside of the Room

How many times have you fumbled around in the dark to find a light switch?

Surprise! Spanish living spaces tend to have the light switches outside of the room they correspond to. This isn’t always the case, but you may have to reach around the doorframe to illuminate the kitchen after a night out. That, or use the fridge to guide you.

The lights above correspond not to the hall or study, but to my bedroom. When I’m just waking up in the morning, I’m thankful it’s already daylight.

Persianas

I never leave home without a pair of sunglasses because the Andalusian sun is far too bright. Your house has an answer to that, though, as one of the greatest inventions known to man – persianas. These industrial strength blinds are awesome for cutting out light and noise when you’re taking a midday snooze or wanting to sleep in late, but they also mean zero air flow. Fine when it’s cold, but not fine when you’re on the fourth floor and it’s summertime.

Now that I’m living in a house and not a flat, curious neighbors are always peering into our living room, so we often have the persianas down and the lights on. I’m still bumping into walls as I search for the lights.

Braseros

Believe it or not, it gets cold in Spain – even in the south. While houses in the north are more prone to have central heating and thick carpets, Andalusian houses have thick walls, tile floors and often a noticeable lack of central heating and/or air.

Take it from a Chicagoan: you do not know cold until you have lived a damp Andalusian winter.

Spaniards cope with homes that are colder than the temps on the street by installing something called a brasero. Simply put, a space heater is put under a table, and a thick blanket is draped over the table to trap in the heat. People gather around the brasero and try to cover as much of their bodies with the blanket (extra points if it’s velvet). Ingenious? Maybe. Dangerous? Definitely.

Jesus Tiles

There is nothing more Spanish than bad decor. It was hard for me to imagine living in my new house while the former tenants’ things were still there – heavy wooden furniture, mismatched fabrics and enormous portraits of the Virgin Mother above every bed.

It’s not uncommon to see a flat that has hand-painted tiles depicting Jesus Christ crowned with thorns or a weeping virgin (or, if you’re that lucky, the timeless Spanish rose known as Cayetana de Alba). Each city and town have their own patron saints, which grace buildings, benches and even bars. Sevillano favorites? The Virgen of the Macarena, Jesus of the Great Power and the Queen of the Swamps, Our Lady of Rocío.

The Novio and I have one new tile, a housewarming gift courtesy of my younger sister: 

If you’re lucky, your digs will have modern furniture, an oven and a dryer – and you will have essentially won the Spanish housing lottery. Snatch that place up if the price is right! You also won’t get mosquito screens or air conditioning, so start training your body to cope with bugs and heat rash.

Our second year on Calle Numancia, we were able to give the place a good coat of paint, though the mint green in my room clashed with the heavy, dark wooden furniture. But somehow, it felt a little more like my own place in the city. Now that my name is on the deed, I have come to miss those days when I paid rent and utilities, and left the rest to Manolo, my landlord.

Are you stressing out over the apartment search? Fumbling through online ads and not understanding the lingo?

COMO Consulting’s guide to Moving to Spain has an extensive chapter on finding flats, from deciphering online ads to what questions to ask your landlord, plus two pages of relevant vocabulary.

Moving to Spain COVER 2015 English

And that’s just one of nine chapters! Click on the button above or here to learn more about Moving to Spain: A Comprehensive Guide to Your First Weeks Teaching English in Iberia.

More links: Where to Live in Seville // How to Survive Spanish Convivencia

How are you going about searching for an apartment? Have you found anything strange or kooky?

 

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.

Classes are often held in the evenings, which also gives you time in the morning for online teaching gigs or hours to devote to personal or professional deveelopment.

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?

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