I'd like to feature an interview with my friend Hannah, who lived in both Linares and Jaén during her two years in Spain as an English conversation assistant. We met at my first orientation, where she strided up to me and said she recognized me from the auxiliaries' Facebook forum. We've been friends ever since. Hannah was someone who struck many of us first-years with awe, as she seemed extremely integrated into Spanish life – to the point that some of us questioned if she was Spanish (she's not). Her helpfulness, friendliness and generosity made her stand out amongst the people I met this year.
Do you remember what fears and dreams you had before coming to Spain? How did they turn out?
I dreamed about hearing Spanish accents and flamenco guitar music in small, intimate settings. I tried to imagine the tapas culture and what it might be like to take a nap in the middle of the afternoon. And I'm happy to say all those dreams were fulfilled. I picked up a crazy new Spanish accent, listened to authentic, impromptu flamenco music, enjoyed every moment of tapas and cheap drinks after 11 p.m. and learned to fall asleep and awake refreshed in 25 minutes flat on any given afternoon. But the best and most surprising thing, and what I never dreamed would happen, is that it would all turn into something so homely, so normal, that I didn't even give any thought to it anymore. I adapted to Spanish life like it was meant for me, and that made it all that much harder to leave.
Compare Hannah before and after 2 years in Spain.
Two years ago, I was definitely interested in language and travel and culture, but all as foreign concepts. Now I've lived them. For real. Lived them so much that I'd gotten to the point of boredom with them and then came back to the U.S. and learned to appreciate them all over again. And knowing that just gives me a huge load of confidence, of the invincible variety. Like the “if I did that, I can do anything” type of feeling.
I would say the “after” me is infinitely more comfortable in her own skin, in her own abilities, familiar with her own weaknesses and ability to overcome obstacles. I'm so excited now about what I've learned about life and so intrigued to hear others' perspectives that people often confuse me with an outgoing, extroverted person when actually it's quite the opposite. Spain itself gave me the opportunity to reflect and travel, and has given me a passion for life that is just incomparable with the feelings of the person I was before.
How has your return to the U.S. been?
I've gone through all 5 stages of grief, starting with denial and isolation, plus a hollow sense of contentedness or mostly numbness. Then there was anger, mostly at America and its more ridiculous practices (Turn down the freaking air conditioning already! It's summer and it's freezing!) and sometimes even a little resentment towards friends and others that chose to stay on in Spain another year. Later came the bargaining, where I tried to convince myself that I would go back to Spain “at least for the summer” next year and regain the things I felt I had lost. Finally I've moved into a mixed bag phase of depression and acceptance (but mostly acceptance, yay!). I'd say the biggest help in the transition has been constant work on creating a completely different life, one that is unique to before I left and includes lots of new and exciting activities and people...new car, new apartment, new grocery store (haha). This helps trick your brain into thinking you moved to another foreign country, and maintain that “new life” high that, for me, has been so crucial to avoid getting sucked too far into the depression of reverse culture shock.
On another note, I didn't realize how alone I would feel coming back. After two years away I only managed to stay in contact with a handful of my closest friends. Luckily, I have an amazing support system through my family and through the many, many amazing people I've met on my journeys. That's the great thing about traveller friends, they know what it's like to stay in contact long distance and end up being better friends because of it. I didn't expect to feel so alone and so supported (although from long distances) all at the same time.
Top 5 tips for auxiliaries?
#1: Have patience. Everything takes longer in a foreign country because people don't speak your language, both linguistically and culturally. I went in with incredibly low expectations for how fast bureaucracy would move and how long it would take for me to adapt, so that way in the end I found myself pleasantly surprised. Also, people in Spain (well, maybe just in Andalucía) take things slower. If you accept it and adapt, your life will only be more happy and relaxed because of it.
#2: Travel lots, stay home a lot. If you have the opportunity to stay for more than a few months, try to strike a balance between seeing new places and hanging out in your Spanish town, meeting people and forming relationships. Trips eventually fade in your memory, but the people are the ones you'll remember forever.
#3: Take care of yourself and allow for creature comforts. Things were rough that first record-setting winter without a heater and only an intermittent WiFi signal from the neighbours. My homesickness was at its worst during that time. Lesson learned. Your experience will be infinitely more positive if you invest a little into your own comfort. Buy that mattress to replace the box spring you've been sleeping on; indulge in a little American food at Corte Inglés. The decision may make or break your experience abroad.
#4: Say yes to everything (well, almost everything – hee hee). Someone invites you on a weekend trip to visit their grandparents at their pueblo? Go! You see signs for salsa classes? Get your dance on! Your roommate insists you try the weird-looking food in a Tupperware container from who knows where? Try it! Nine times out of ten you'll be thankful you did.
#5: Be thankful for every minute. Seriously, it goes by so fast, it's not worth it to waste even a minute on negativity. Of course there will be times of confusion, frustration, and doubt, but don't lose your cool completely. Keep your eyes on the prize and don't forget: you're already in Spain, living the dream. No, it won't always be dreamy, but it is ALWAYS what you make of it. And if positivity and thankfulness is the attitude you carry around with you, the hard moments will be manageable and the good moments will be absolutely awesome.