[guest blog] From North to South

This guest blog is brought to you by Natalie of crumbcastle. We met via CouchSurfing in 2010 and became fast friends over food, art and language. As the old ladies of the auxiliares hoard (then 27), we spent a lot of time in observation of our compatriots and our adopted country. Natalie’s first assignment was in Northern Spain: Vigo, Galicia. Her second assignment led her to my own backyard: Andalucía (Aracena, Huelva). Below she shares her thoughts, and original artwork.


Yes, last year was a bit of a disaster. I wouldn’t trade it out for the world, but … it was A BIT of a disaster.

My first year abroad as an auxiliar de conversación had high hopes I would be living in a corner of Spain unknown to most travelers, a place with a rich culinary tradition; I would be learning Spanish, exchanging cultures, gaining a new skill set as an English teacher; I could buy manchego and chorizo in an old supermarket.


cheese with your English?

Galicia did live up to most of these things, but two factors effected them tremendously.

1: my job. Crippling disorganization, miscommunication ran rampant; I anticipated cultural exchange, they preferred to keep things strictly British.

I was once told to talk about Pancake Day… “What is that?”
I asked to show the kids Schoolhouse Rock. “What is that??” (request denied).

Of a staff of about 10, I still think some of them had no idea that my home was an ocean and a continent away. When a girl moves abroad for the first time, a surrogate sense of family really does wonders for her transition. Bless ’em, I was the first auxiliar they’d ever had; I couldn’t be mad at them, but I could be bummed.

2: the weather. Sorry. I’m a sundress and sandals girl. Winter is “sweater weather”; rain coats, fashionably ironic; sunglasses, a mandatory part of my waitress uniform. I had never gone weeks or months without seeing a bright blue sky and Galicia soon taught me just how much that sky can effect my countenance. I was pretty grey and bleak until the sun finally came out .. two weeks before I left.

If rose-colored glasses make people think everything around them is fabulous, my pair of steely blue ones – no matter how I tried to tear them off – were casting serious shadows over my idea of cultural exchange in Spain.

rose colored glasses

not so rose-colored glasses

Luckily, in an attempt to turn grey-blue into rose-violet, I enrolled in a Spanish class at the Official Language School in Vigo. These schools are throughout Spain for inspired adults to learn a language.

We were inspired; our teacher, an inspiration. She vetoed the usual plague of flash cards and drills. Instead, she carefully directed what felt like a hilarious, addictive forum for us foreigners to go stumble around Spanish. Somewhere amid the laughter and after-school beers, I learned Spanish and found Spain.


caña? so que es?

… All well and good until the grim morning reminder of my day job. The reason I was in Spain. To renew my job for a second year would mean subjecting myself to another year of students who had no desire to learn any English beyond “toilet please.”

Yes, the possibility was powerful repulsive. At least it was only a POSSIBILITY – I could technically get placed anywhere…

Out of pure, morbid curiosity, I reapplied.

You know how sometimes your brain files a memory of a conversation under “Kind of Interesting, Soon to Forget” only later to realize it should have been filed under “Totally Creepy and Foreboding”?

One regular escape from Vigo, I happened to be on the same bus to Porto as my Spanish teacher; we got to talking about my “future plans.” This particular topic has the curious effect of turning my brain into a buoyant cloud, no matter how much I’m sure I could use the advice.

A month later, I had in my hands a teaching placement in an official language school in Andalucía. My teacher’s brief, freakishly relevant advice came crashing back: If you get placed in a language school, don’t even hesitate, just go.

before and after

The thing is, it’s really hard to ignore advice once it takes on that creepy forebodingness.

I finished off the year, spent the summer in California .. in search of a job .. in denial .. The hideous .. heart. beat.

By September, the morbid curiosity and creepy foreboding had me boarding a plane back to the scene of the crime.

It’s now April. I feel very confident I have stumbled upon a new scientific proof: If plain old curiosity kills, then morbid curiosity must create a nullifying double jeopardy where everyone walks away intact – life, cat and all.


curiosidad del gato

Truth be told, I blame it all on that most Spanish of mystery spirits: duende. I wouldn’t have been lured back at all if I hadn’t caught a glimpse in Galicia of the duende that attracted me to Spain in the first place. That spry little gnome-spirit led me on her chorizo-laden trail, then slacked off .. just so slightly out of reach …

But it’s not every day a duende clues you in like that – Who would I be to give up looking after only eight measly months? I wouldn’t be Uncle Jesse, that’s who.

Turns out I just had to look to the South to find mine – to Andalucía. To Aracena.

Here, I work with people who invite my weird California slang and pumpkin pie recipes. My students, too, are just as eager to learn and share, and I’m fortunate to call them my friends. Best of all, I get to pass on the wisdom of my Spanish teacher: it’s now my turn to lead the random forum of language-learners, to show the fun in speaking and stumbling around English together.

Call me drunk on ham and Andalu hospitality, but I actually love my job.

As for the rain? Well, I can count on two hands the number of days it’s rained in Aracena. This unusual dry spell is the talk of the pueblo. I would celebrate my great weather karma, except that this rural agriculture community I adore needs the rain for ham .. business.

Today, it finally came. I’m looking out onto a grey, dank sky, remembering my time in rainy Vigo – how different it was, how different I am. I put on the boots I bought there last year and head out, glad – READY – for the splash underfoot. Bring on the rain, Spain! This year, I came armed with wool socks. And I learned where my duende lives.



4 thoughts on “[guest blog] From North to South

  1. I so identified with this sentence: “my pair of steely blue ones – no matter how I tried to tear them off – were casting serious shadows over my idea of cultural exchange in Spain.” — Yep. I mean, my job sucked. A lot. The kids were awful, absolutely awful. And I don’t want to insult them, but jeez, I felt like shit every day. Thus, I applied my “this is terrible” feelings to every part of Spain, when — in reality — Spain didn’t deserve that. It didn’t help that I was isolated or that my boyfriend had to study practically 24/7, but yeah.

    I’m glad you’ve found your spot. I’m returning to Spain “for good” (aka a little while) in October, and I’m hoping to put back on a pair of rose-colroed glasses.



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