Whenever people ask me why I’m in Spain, I always say “I’m an English teacher but the real reason is to learn Spanish.” Teaching English was a logical way for me to do that. A way to find legal work in a foreign country and get to stay for a while. I was hoping I would really love teaching and therefore maybe finally have a more clear idea of what I want to do when I grow up. The reality is that my life as a Language Assistant is probably not an accurate representation of what life would be like as a full time teacher.
Because my job requires very little preparation on my part and is essentially stress-free, I haven’t thought much about whether or not I like it. I tend to show up, do what I’m asked, and go home. But something happened today that has changed this for me. Being in front of a class full of little humans, I often find myself wondering a lot about who they will become. I wonder how their lives outside of school are: do they play sports, who are their friends? And for some of them, I wonder if they live in loving, safe homes – not because I prefer these individuals over others, but because sometimes it’s clear that something is not okay. I thought these thoughts were just regular old curiosity, but today I was told that one of my students is not coming back to school due to issues at home. My heart immediately sank. I am so sad that I won’t see him again. The thing is, I had a suspicion this boy had a bad home life. He always showed up late, often fell asleep in class, and seemed to have some delays in learning. The general level of English among the students in his class is low, but he always impressed me whenever I asked him a question. He had some of the highest comprehension and speaking abilities that I have seen in comparison to his peers. I was always so pleasantly surprised by him.
I started thinking about what my job was like one year ago today. November is the height of the busy season as a Study Abroad Advisor as the students are in a mad dash to get their visas before the winter holidays and their upcoming departure. This time last year I was sending and receiving hundreds of emails a day, mostly pertaining to immigration issues and whether or not a student was going to be able to share a dorm room with their best friend in Barcelona. It never felt meaningful, probably because I never met any of the 600 or so people I was responsible for working with. This made me realize that the job I have today is really important to me. I’m not just an assistant who comes in, says some words in a language that not many of the students understand, and leaves. I’m a person working face to face with real people. I’m an adult in their lives, and maybe I can be a positive influence in a life that doesn’t have one at home. And I really care about these kids. When I think about my original intent for this year abroad, I realize that it doesn’t matter whether I do this for one year or for 40. Today I found meaning in my work, and that is immensely important to me.
This past weekend, I ventured to Extremadura with my friends Katya and Claire for a quiet weekend away from the city. When I told people where we were going, they all responded with quizzical looks, as if to say “Extremadura? But there’s nothing there!” And I would mentally respond with “Yes, exactly.” We stayed in Cáceres, Spain at an Air BNB apartment (which I HIGHLY recommend instead of hotels for your future travels). Cáceres is a beautiful town with a medieval center that lights up at night. Our apartment had a terrace that looked out over the gorgeous view of centuries-old structures. It’s amazing how old stuff is in Europe! We spent Friday night drinking wine and chatting on the terrace, lit by the full moon. It was surreal. We also bought cupcakes to enjoy that evening, but unfortunately they turned out to be bran muffins with seemingly sugarless blue frosting. That was a bit of a disappointment, but the view made up for the sweetness they lacked.
The plan was to take a train to a nearby town called Merida the next day. When you travel, getting between places can be tricky because you’re dependent on someone else’s schedule (in this case, Spanish trains). The timetable would have put us in this tiny town for 9 hours which is more than plenty. So on a whim we decided to rent a car. This significantly opened up our opportunities for the weekend. We not only went to Merida, which is full of Roman ruins and storks, we also travelled to a little hilltop town called Trujillo. There really is not much going on in this tiny place except for incredible architecture and a beautiful Plaza Mayor. We sat under heat lamps and watched the rain fall on the plaza while sipping coffee and eating homemade cookies we bought from cloistered nuns in a convent a few hours before. We all agreed that it was exactly the type of weekend we had been looking for.
Since we were only an hour away from the Portuguese border, we spontaneously decided to take a drive to a tiny town called Marvão on Sunday. The landscape on the sunny drive was perfect, sprinkled with olive trees as far as you could see, and quite a lot of horses, cows, and sheep grazing through fields. The actual border of Portugal seems to be a natural border because mountains spring up out of nowhere and separate it from Spain. Marvão is about 10km from the border, and as we approached you could see it on top of a huge hill in the distance. It looked so lonely up there. As we got closer we noticed there were a lot of police directing traffic, which seemed unnecessary for how small this place was. We soon realized that there was something special happening that day, which just so happened to be a wine and chestnut festival! For a very small amount of money, we paid the entrance and got handmade souvenir ceramic mugs which were filled (a few times) with incredible wine. We also ate roasted chestnuts, which aren’t my favorite thing but it was part of the experience. We spent the day wandering in and out of pottery shops and giggling with how awesome this place was. We also stumbled upon a fantastic band with a funky beat of bagpipes, guitar, and drums. It was the best day.
From the top of the town, the landscape is splattered with tiny pueblos and beautiful green hills. All the buildings are white with red roofs. Looking out over all this, I was overcome with this sense of happiness, and a little bittersweet realization that I wanted everyone who I love to be able to see what I was seeing in that moment. The takeaway is that sometimes life gifts you with surprises that you could never have imagined to find. Had we not rented the car, had we not visited Extremadura, I never would have experienced a Sunday afternoon in nowhere Portugal. So my message to you all is don’t forget to be spontaneous sometimes. You never know what you’ll find!