The Start of a New Chapter: Working as an Auxiliar de Conversacion in Madrid

It feels surreal to sit here, in my apartment in my new home of Madrid, and contemplate the whirlwind that has been the start of my new life. I am beginning a year working as an ‘auxiliar de conversacion’, or North-American Language & Cultural Assistant in Spain (an English Language Assistant).

Looking out over Madrid
Looking out over Madrid
The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace

After teaching English for a year in Thailand, I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to teach English again, or live abroad another year. The challenges of living somewhere foreign and teaching English were often so overwhelming that I wasn’t sure I would enjoy doing it again. However, I am more than glad that I ultimately shelved those thoughts, and am absolutely ecstatic about the coming year, already loving the experience so far. I still have yet to really explore all of the sights in Madrid, but I know I have plenty of time and it has been quite busy just settling in.

Two weeks into the school year, I can already say that this job is incredibly easy, and enjoyable for the most part. In all of my classes, I am the language assistant, and basically play the role of the native speaker, doing whatever the Spanish teacher sees fit. This is optimal for me; I am not certified or qualified to be a teacher, and so I should not be left to teach alone as I was in Thailand. That being said, I try and offer lesson suggestions or ideas or just help in the classroom whenever possible, and do not simply sit back on cruise control.

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At a park near the Royal Palace

Initially, arriving and settling in was very difficult. I managed to get sick right before leaving California, and took some time to recover while at my hostel here in Madrid. I had planned on living in the hostel for a couple days before finding an apartment, expecting a smooth transition. However, the housing market in Madrid is incredibly competitive, and a lot of times I would follow up on internet listings only to find that rooms had already been rented, or contracts already signed before I could show up for my scheduled appointment.

While I grew frustrated with being stuck in a hostel, I soon found someone to share in my frustration as another auxiliar (in my same program) checked into my room. Kristen, another American, also taught English in South Korea for six years so while we could both vent our frustrations over the apartment hunt, we also shared somewhat similar experiences living and teaching in Asia. We quickly became friends, and checked in with each other every day about work, and the continuing apartment hunt.

I was also lucky when two other Americans checked into our room (with a total of four beds), and we all became good friends. While I have stayed in many different hostels, I have never become so close with my roommates as I did at this one. I went out with them many different times, and got to know them much better than I anticipated. Although I was eager to move into an apartment, I was surprised at how connected I had become to my roommates, and was sad to leave them behind.

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Nonetheless, I still had an apartment to find. Continuing the apartment search, I was still in awe of how competitive the market was. After finding an apartment that I loved, I was a bit saddened when the owner told me he was ‘interviewing’ viable candidates, and that he would contact me if I got the apartment (I didn’t). However, I kept looking, and tried to be as indiscriminate as possible in my search.

Finally, I found an apartment that I was very excited about. Located in the Huertas neighborhood, also known as the Literary quarter (with the former homes of many famous Spanish writers including Cervantes), the apartment was literally in the most prime location of the city (still in the city center). I tried not to get too excited or invested in the apartment, as I figured it most likely wouldn’t work out. However, after seeing it, the owner (who spoke both English and Spanish, a major plus in my book), assured me that I didn’t have to decide right then. Realizing the realities of the market however, I did decide right then and jumped on the apartment. The only unfortunate aspect, however, was that I was unable to move in for a few days, and my hostel was fully booked over the weekend. I became a little panicked after looking on Hostelworld and realizing that literally everything in the city (under 100 euros a night) was booked. I didn’t see October as prime tourist season in Madrid, but kicked myself for not making a longer reservation in advance. Fortunately, I found plenty of viable options on Airbnb, and managed to book a room in an apartment for the weekend.

Graffiti near my hostel
Graffiti near my hostel
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There is literally graffiti everywhere here
Roughly translates to:
Roughly translates to: “Every law is an instrument of power to control, let no law or thing gag you”

So, after saying goodbye to my new friends, I set out for my Airbnb. Primarily looking for a cheaper option, my Airbnb room was in a neighborhood in the Northern part of the city (while my hostel was right in the center). I took a taxi there and was soon greeted by the small señora, Maria, who owned the apartment.

I took to Maria and the apartment right away, as she seemed to take me in like I was her child. A few nights before, I became sick after eating some questionable tacos, and so my stomach was still very weak and in recovery mode. After learning this, Maria insisted on making me tea and food, and inquired about my health at least every ten minutes.

I basically spent the weekend at the apartment lying in bed and fighting off Maria’s constant attempts to make me something, or take care of me. While it was very nice and charming, it did become a bit overbearing. At one point, I was attempting to simply heat up a premade soup in the microwave, but was intercepted by Maria, who somehow heard my rustling and insisted on taking over the microwave duties. Normally I would have been charmed by this, but wanting a place to live rather than being on vacation, I just wanted to be at my apartment so I could have my own space, and take care of myself. Nonetheless, the weekend went by smoothly, and as I was leaving Maria offered to teach me how to cook classic Spanish dishes in the future like tortilla Española (a giant omelet made with eggs and potato), or cocido madrileño (a chickpea stew with pork).

City Hall
City Hall

Finally, I arrived at my new apartment, breathing in a sigh of relief. Having been here almost a week, my love of the apartment and the surrounding neighborhood has grown immensely. Within steps of my buildings entrance, there is a metro stop, numerous restaurants, pharmacies, banks, theatres, bars, and interesting stores.

I also live right on the border of a neighborhood called ‘Lavapies’, an upcoming area known for its population of immigrants. In Lavapies, there are cheaper bars, many different ethnic restaurants, interesting theatres, and a fantastic supermarket called Carrefour. Currently, there is also a food festival called ‘Tapapies’ in which tons of different restaurants create a signature tapa, while musicians and street performers delight pedestrians with their entertainment.

In Retiro Park, the biggest park in Madrid
In Retiro Park, the biggest park in Madrid
Retiro Park
Retiro Park
Lake in Retiro Park
Lake in Retiro Park

I am still getting to know the surrounding neighborhood, but am very happy with what I have seen so far.

On the other side of things, my job is also going well. I actually teach at two different secondary schools, both far outside of Madrid (so I commute by bus to both schools). On Mondays & Wednesdays, I teach at the SIES Carpe Diem in Colmenar de Oreja, and on Tuesdays & Thursdays I teach at the IES Nuestra Señora de Lepanto in Villarejo de Salvanés (so yes, no work on Fridays – what?!?). My contract only lets me teach sixteen hours per week, so I am teaching eight hours at each school and roughly four hours each day.

At first, I was a little annoyed that I was placed at two different schools (which is not common), but now I actually think it has its advantages. Working at each school is incredibly different, and each have their own different positives (and negatives, although they are pretty minor). I also am getting to know two different groups of students, and the two different faculties. I am getting a broader perspective of the Spanish education system, as schools can differ (and mine certainly do) widely in how they teach students, as well as the general school atmosphere.

SIES Carpe Diem in Colmenar de Oreja, is more or less a standard secondary school. My students range in ages from twelve to sixteen (after which they go to bachillerato at a different school), and also range in abilities from little English to fairly decent English. The students at this school are pretty charming, and at their worst seem to be a little crazy in class, but never disrespectful. I work with three other English teachers, all of whom speak perfect English, and whom all teach English differently (which I don’t mind, as I am doing different things in each of their classrooms).

The classes average about twenty-five students. The school itself is tiny, and has only three-hundred students. There is a small cafeteria that I visit every day to eat breakfast, and chat with the employees Ismail and Ana, who are incredibly nice and friendly. The pueblo (the town) itself is tiny, and frankly somewhat ugly. While it does have stone streets and buildings, it is not as charming as the other pueblos around, and there seems to be nothing to do. When the students at the school asked me where I lived (before I had an apartment), I asked them if I should live in Colmenar to which they all resoundingly said, “NO!”. Now, having some familiarity with the pueblo, I definitely agree with their sentiment, and prefer my commute over the boring life of the town.

My other school, IES Nuestra Señora de Lepanto in Villarejo de Salvanés, is actually a vocational school built inside a centuries-old stone church. The building is beautiful inside and out, and one of the teachers told me that it would be hard to find another public school in Spain built within such a beautiful building. However, this school has no cafeteria, only a small coffee machine, so I have to walk outside of school to grab breakfast. The pueblo is also pretty charming, and has a small public square where the bus drops me off, as well as a fairly large castle that is still a puzzling sight.

IES Nuestra Señora de Lepanto
IES Nuestra Señora de Lepanto
Puzzling Castle
Puzzling Castle

Since it is a vocational school, it is also quite different than my other school. My students range from sixteen to twenty-six years old (yes, older than me). The students are all studying various vocations, including office administration, welding, and car mechanics. Many of the students have failed the Spanish equivalent of the GED, and thus are studying their vocation to go directly into that field. Also, their levels of English range from zero English to slightly decent English, so they are definitely much worse than the younger students from the other school. Since the students are also older, my relationship with them is much different, and some of them clearly don’t respect me as much as the younger students would. However, at their worst, they are still not really too bad, and I hope to win over most of them by the end of the year. The school is also very tiny, and has only two hundred students. My classes at this school are generally very small, ranging from ten to twenty students. I primarily teach with one other teacher, although I have two classes with another English teacher.

It has been really interesting to get to know the faculties at each of the schools. I have already gotten into deep political discussions, and learned a lot from various conversations. Spanish people are generally very direct which I like, so no issue seems to be ‘taboo’ to discuss. I feel lucky to have been accepted so quickly into the two different groups, as I am far less qualified or dedicated to teaching than any of them. However, I am very excited for the coming year, and hope to be able to have similarly interesting conversations in Spanish by the end of the year.

Finally, getting to know my new home of Madrid, has been awesome. Although not as beautiful as Paris or Rome, Madrid is still beautiful and full of interesting things to see and do. My favorite thing about Madrid is that it is very livable. Apartments here are fairly cheap, and going out to eat or for a drink is very cheap relative to the United States. Although I haven’t been to any fantastic restaurants yet, I frequently eat out for two to eight euros, and can grab a beer for as little as one euro. Because of the tapas culture, I often order a drink at a bar, only to be pleasantly surprised when the waiter also brings a small plate of food, ‘gratis’ (free of charge).

The public transportation is great, and riding the metro and buses is a breeze. The different neighborhoods all have their own different charm and character, and I still have plenty to explore. I love how Europeans just love to be outside, dining and hanging out in the streets. Madrileños (people from Madrid), also are incredibly friendly, and are encouraging if anything when I converse with them in my horrid Spanish.

I am so excited to finally live in a city and explore all there is to offer. It is also so easy to travel, that I am already planning future trips to Portugal, Morocco, Germany, and the Czech Republic (among others). However, there is also so much to do and see that I don’t feel pressed to leave the city, and know I could spend the year here and still be learning new things by the end of the year.

In short although it has been quite a whirlwind, I am very excited for the year ahead.

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