Europe, Spain

Reflections on the First Two Months

After the first month, I stopped doing a weekly day-by-day post. In part because I got busier once school started, and in part because things became a bit less blog-worthy. There was less “firsts” and more getting acclimated to a new place and new way of life. Now that it’s the beginning of December, I have been here for over two months. Closer to 10 weeks in fact, which feels unreal.

I think having space for a stream of consciousness and reflection is important, as even the mundane and repetitious experiences are all part of a larger experience that is transformative. I’m not quite sure where to begin, and I won’t get caught up in perfection. I use this blog, my Instagram, and a private journal as spaces to achieve all of this. In no particular order, here’s some updates about life in Pontevedra, Spain, as an auxiliar.

Being an Aux

Teaching at the school has gotten more comfortable as time has gone on. I am struggling with a lot of fatigue and insomnia, which makes it difficult to be upbeat for the kids for four classes each day. I try and put that aside and power through the six hours I’m there each day because I know it matters to them. Some days I do better than others. The kids have limited vocabulary and conversational skills, so our communication is quite basic. It’s still nice to see some growth in them even just from a couple months ago.

COVID continues to affect day-to-day life at school. There’s disappointing things like the annual pumpkin decorating contest being cancelled because the kids can’t bring in items from home. Or being limited on fun games because we can’t do anything where they share an item (e.g. board or card games, sports games, etc). I’m surprisingly enjoying working with the infantiles (age 3-5) which I was not expecting at all.

I’ve also started one private tutoring session a week, which is currently online until the only-being-with-cohabitants ban is lifted. This is a new experience for me, and I’m making good use of other auxiliares and websites like Baamboozle and iSLCollective.

I’m hoping to add a few more private tutoring sessions to my weekly schedule as it is good TEFL experience and also hopes make ends meet on a rather tight auxiliar budget. In my region, the salary is 935€/monthly which is fair for working half-time. Although, a third immediately goes to housing, and as a recent graduate, a chunk goes to student loans as well. I’ve gotten tighter on budgeting and tracking purchases, so that’s a good life skill I’m fine-tuning. I’m grateful that Galicia has a lower cost of living than other regions. For examples, auxiliares in Madrid typically spend half their budget on housing alone, as the pay is almost the same and cost of living is significantly higher.

Language Learning

If I haven’t said before, my Spanish is at a low to mid A2. Getting by in day-to-day life in basic situations has been manageable but having conversations is quite challenging. At my school, only a couple of the teachers speak any English. The rest speak Castellano (Spanish) and Galego (Galician). At times, they slow down and remember me and ask some simple questions to include me, but a lot of the time I feel like an observer on the outside looking in and trying to understand. People speak very fast and words roll together.

In mid-November, I attempted to go to Vigo. After a few weeks of the burden of the language barrier really building up, I had my first breakdown in Spain. I experienced a whole range of emotions and ultimately felt exhausted. Physically exhausted from trying to concentrate and think hard all the time. Emotionally exhausted from feeling isolated, always observing conversations and never in them, and always being just a few words away from understanding or being understood. I wrote a post on this a couple weeks ago which you can read here.

While I decided not to take the class at the EOI that I mentioned in my post about the trip to Vigo, I have been working on other efforts to keep building up my conversational skills, grammar, and vocabulary bank. It’s a slow process, and I have to remind myself of that. If I only learn a couple new words or a new grammatical role, or if I master something small, like ordering a coffee and making pleasantries with the barista or telling a story to a colleague, those are the successes to celebrate.

I took some basic Spanish when I was in elementary school. I’m taking an hour a week after school with numbers, colors, hi, bye, how are you, and so forth. When I started high school, I took two years at my first school and then a third year at my second. My senior year I chose not to take Spanish IV/AP Spanish and somewhat regret it. I was planning on taking courses at my university but they had no classes at the time. They brought back the major and minor in Spanish my senior year, and at that point, I had a tight graduation plan and no more room for electives. I signed up for a adult education Intermediate Spanish class and took that for two months until COVID shut everything down. And here we are.

I have a workbook that I use to study vocabulary sets and grammar rules, and I’m also a big fan of good ol’ Duolingo especially for vocabulary repetition. I try to ask questions when I don’t know a word someone is saying or use translation apps if I see something on a sign or website. I need to continue to dedicate more time to this and help myself behind-the-scenes so I can make the most of the immersion opportunity.

One small but very exciting thing is after many, many hours of practice, I can finally trill/roll my R’s which makes all the difference in both correct Spanish pronunciation and authenticity. This has been difficult in communication over the years and especially while I’ve been here. For example, pero (but) and perro (dog) sound the same if you can’t roll your R’s, yet mean two different things. I have videos on my Instagram and TikTok if you’re in the mood to laugh at my progress. Next goal is to combine a rolled R with each of the vowels. I’ve been chatting with our speech therapist at the school who’s given me some good insights that I’ve found invaluable.

Another thing I’m learning first-hand is that communication is the goal, not perfection. I’ve heard this and written about this in my TEFL course and studying language acquisition, but I’ve really seen it play out here day-to-day. There are many times where I have to describe the word I’m trying to say, such as (in Spanish) “it’s the opposite of XYZ” or “it’s before or after XYZ.” Sometimes the words I forget are the simplest, like this one anecdote where I forgot the word for thousand, but I still communicated.

I’m in the phone store trying to adjust my plan. For my life could not remember the word for thousand (mil), so I said (in Spanish), “For my minutes, I have 5… not 5 100s but 5 bigger than 100s” and let me tell you he said, “Oh okay you have 5000 minutes?!” Communication is the goal, not perfection! I won’t forget the word for thousand again though. That was painful.

The goal of language acquisition is communication not perfection.

And, to balance things out, here’s a less-than-positive experience with language immersion that really had me down:

There’s times when you feel confident and motivated to keep trying to learn a second language. Then there’s times when you try and fail at a shop counter and a group of customers nearby start laughing at you, making fun of your word choice and conjugation, and say “must be an English speaker.” I might not understand everything but I painfully understood them.

There’s so much anxiety each time you go to form a sentence you’re not so sure about. But not trying isn’t going to help you learn. Yet man it frickin’ hurts any times people make fun of you and have a good laugh over your struggle. Excuse me while I try not to cry and give up.

I’ll reflect more with time about what it’s like to be plopped somewhere with minimal communication skills where neither of you speak each other’s language at higher than an mid to upper elementary level at best. It’s challenging and isolating. And it’s part of the journey and experience.

COVID-19

I could write a whole post just about COVID, and so I think I will. When I arrived here, the restrictions were quite lax. It primarily had to do with events being cancelled, limited capacity for people in restaurants and bars, clubs closed, mask requirements, and so forth.

I may not have my timeline totally correct as things quite literally were changing on a daily basis. The big changes started coming Halloween weekend. It was announced there was a nationwide curfew of 11 AM to 6 PM (adjusted one hour on either side to the discretion of the autonomous communities) and that inter-city travel was no longer permitted. My favorite daily activity of going to a coffee shop came to a close. The last day we were able to, I found a coffee shop and spent a whole lot of time enjoying and being grateful for that moment. Hopefully someday soon, I’ll have it back and have an increased sense of gratitude.

I’d also like to point out I have mostly paid attention to Pontevedra and Galicia policies. At the same time as our policies change on the regular, different things are happening in other regions, some stricter than us and some more lax. For example, Ourense (which is also in Galicia) had its own confinement and restrictions weeks before Pontevedra did. Madrid, which is in another region/autonomous community entirely, also was confined and lockdown from the time I had arrived in Spain.

It’s hard to keep track of what’s happening and changing daily. It’s nice to have group chats with the other auxiliares and we all keep an eye out for newspaper articles and help translate so we all know what the heck is going on. Things have even changed this week, such as what towns you can go to. Some towns were originally grouped together and travel was allowed, and now some are split and new ones are joined together. I need to invest some more time in reading line-by-line what’s going on, but the ins and outs of the policies aren’t super important, especially in this post.

What’s important here is that I am pretty much stuck in Pontevedra and Poio. I currently cannot be with anyone I don’t live with, and my main activity is walking around. I’m trying to make the best of that and explore new places within the city, but it’s discouraging to suddenly not be able to do that with some of the auxes I had been starting to build friendships with. Tomorrow starts a long six day weekend for me (as Monday and Tuesday are holidays), and the fact that I can’t leave and go do something in another city in Spain or Portugal or hop on a train to France is discouraging. I understand that it’s all part of the global pandemic everyone is experiencing and that social responsibility is important and laws must be followed. And, at the same time, I am sad for what things could look like. I try to let go of the “what could be” mentality and focus on what is and what I’m grateful for.

As we are coming up on the 2-3 week Christmas break, it’ll be interesting to see what policies are like and what’s allowed. Today, Portugal announced it would be closing its borders on Friday, and regions and cities in Spain continue to have confinement set up. I hope I can leave Pontevedra and do something safely and responsibly, but only time will tell.

More on COVID in another post! Here’s a brief break from the monotony of so much text to share some photos from my walk around the Isla De Las Esculturas the first full weekend of November. I reflected a lot on how its up to me to make the best of a crappy situation, and I can explore even within the small 45 square mile city I’m in.

Personal Life

This is also probably something that could be another post in and of itself, and maybe I’ll elaborate on it further someday soon. Through much of November, my struggle with anxiety and depression was flaring up pretty intensely. I’ve yet to be able to find a therapist (for a multitude of reasons), the pandemic and feeling isolated, culture shock, and the simple physiology of a brain with mental illness really had me in a low place. I won’t say I’m totally out of that episode, but I have been actively working on getting through it, managing symptoms, and trying to get through. Some days I thrive, and sometimes I just survive. Somedays I’m swimming and somedays I’m just trying not to drown.

I’m hoping to get connected to a therapist and psychiatrist to keep working on things and keep everything in check and manage the daily things. Even at baseline with no environmental stressors, I can struggle a lot. So adding in these outside things, I really need a well-rounded clinical and peer support team and some kick-ass skills to manage.

I write more about this experiences on my Instagram (@wanderlustadventures97) and will continue to talk more about the daily experiences of mental illness and physical illness on there rather than here. It’s one of those things that the day-to-day provides more insight than any type of monthly summary. I also keep a journal for the things I don’t necessarily want to send out into the Internet, and I tried to attend at least 3-4 support groups a week (the goal is daily, but that’s not been going so well, so we’re aiming for one every other day right now).

I was accepted into the Nonprofit Management graduate certificate program at the University of Southern Maine, which is where I completed my undergraduate degree in 2019. I’ll be taking two classes in the spring, and I’m excited to work on those. My ultimate goal is to start on my master’s in social work within the next couple of years. I’m grateful for some time off in between the degrees but glad to be taking a few courses in the in between. It’s a one year program, so hopefully I’ll have it completed by December 2021.

I’m staying connected to friends and family as I can. I videochat with people at least once a day and stay connected through social media as well. It’s disappointing I can’t have people come and visit me like we had dreamed about and got excited over, but it’s another thing to accept.

The 2020 election was a whirlwind and certainly feels like it was way more than a month ago. Leading up to that and the week after was quite stressful, but I’m glad it’s over and for things turned out. Not being in America during a critical election was an interesting experience, and there was a sense of solidarity from people here with me about it.

Of course, Thanksgiving also happened at the end of November. There is no Thanksgiving in Spain, but I was able to Zoom with my family and a couple friends and spend some virtual time together in the afternoon.

I cling to a lot of mantras lately. One of them being:

Let go of the illusion that it could’ve been different.

I find a lot of freedom in that quote, and it brings me back to the present of accepting what I do have in this moment. Thinking about how it could’ve been different robs me from the opportunity to have gratitude and find meaning in what I do have and have experienced. Although, at the same time, I do give myself spaces to grieve for what could’ve been and what has been lost. It is certainly a balance, but I try to spend more time in the first way of thinking.

The view from my balcony at my new apartment. I spend a lot of time sitting out here thinking and reflecting.

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