Thursday, 18 November 2010


I am now into my third month here in Madrid.When I moved, I envisaged these first three months as something of a trial period, after which I could justifiably retreat back home if it had been a catastrophe. Happily, I have survived without any major disasters and as yet, have no intention of retreat.

However, although I still cock a smile at Spanish idiosyncracies and relish waking up to blue skies most mornings, I think it is fair to say the Honeymoon Period is over. It´s not that I am no longer captivated by the bubbly language, exuberant culture and unhurried etiquette, but rather my enchantment with Madrid has been slightly tarnished by occasional longings to go home.

When gloomily pining for London over a bowl of soup recently, a friend advised me to google ´culture shock´. According to Wikipedia, culture shock is something that most people experience when moving abroad: after the excitement of arriving in a new place subsides, anxiety and insecurity set in – with physical and emotional symptoms. Perhaps this is a bit dramatic to refer to relocations within Europe, but it does have some resonance for me.

My initial enthusiasm to meet charming, welcoming locals has unwittingly been replaced by a foot-dragging reluctanct to date supposedly charming, Latino strangers; the refreshingly laid-back, everything-in-your-own-time service has become infuriatingly inefficient; sipping a Fanta Limón while propped up against a bustling bar has lost its appeal and instead I´m craving a squashy chair and a pot of Earl Grey...

Whereas I previously enjoyed never quite understanding the day-to-day happenings (considering it as something of an opportunity to live in my own bubble), after a series of back-to-back confusions I am now weary of total incomprehension and fed up of never knowing what the hell is going on. The initial enthusiasm has subsided and left me feeling distinctly frayed around the edges: permanently chasing sleep and pining for a city where I can understand the barman and a friendly shoulder is never far away.

Last weekend I allowed myself a guilt-free break from all things Spanish, indulging my pangs of nostalgia in an Irish pub in the North of the city. I spent a happy afternoon drinking pints, watching rugby on a big screen and chatting to a Londoner who could have walked straight off the set of Only Fools and Horses. Two games and four pints later, I left feeling comforted and revived (probably the result of the Heineken more than anything).

By no means am I having second thoughts about moving to Madrid. On the contrary, I´m even more impatient to graduate from broken spanglish to fluent spanish: when communication isn´t such a fiasco I know I will feel more of a local and less of a tourist. As and when that happens, sporadic weekends of all-things-English and visits from friends will be sufficient to ease the waves of homesickness and to refocus my rose-tinted spectacles firmly on Madrid.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Being on the wrong side of the blackboard

Having spent an unsuccessful two months meticulously editing cover letters and labouring over lengthy job applications, when I arrived in Madrid in September and flip-flopped into a language school armed only with a crumpled CV, I didn´t hold out much hope of getting an interview. As such, I was gobsmacked when after a chaotic twenty minutes I left with a job. After talking to other teachers, I soon realised that their TEFL qualifications (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) are the result of a four week residential training camp. In comparison, my seventy hour online TEFL certificate seems flimsy to say the least. Indeed, when I started the course I never anticipated that I would actually end up teaching - part of me had hoped that my half-hearted efforts to secure a position in a language school would fall flat and I would be able to retreat to the familiarity of working in an Irish pub. Instead, I have had to confront the laughable reality that I am a teacher.

In addition to being hideously underqualified, I also feel ridiculously young to be a teacher, and I quote one of my students here: “You´re not actually a teacher are you?” To say I´m learning on the job seems to be something of an understatement. After four weeks I´m still far from comfortable with blackboard, chalk and a roomful of expectant faces. Although all of the classes are exclusively in English, I have found it hard to relax into the comfort of my mother tongue, and often find myself freestyling my way through confused explanations of English grammar. Despite studying English, when it comes to explaining the idiosyncracies and foibles of a language, my knowledge fails me. Phrasal verbs have become the bane of my life. Sometimes there just is no rhyme or reason as to why things are the way things are, yet when faced blank incomprehension, the explanation, “this is an exception to the rule”, isn´t quite substantial.

My three hours of classes with children are also something of a challenge. Although gaps in my knowledge of English are less apparent, being bubbly and enthusiastic about farmyard animals at 7pm is a difinitive struggle. After a painful few weeks inflicting worksheet upon worksheet upon reluctant ten-year-olds, I have resorted to non-stop games. I´ll take games and smiles over education and frowns any day!

Grammatical improvisation and children aside, its not all been bad. I have generally been blessed with lovely, understanding, encouraging students. One invited me to the dress rehearsal of the National Orchestra of Spain, where I spent a surreal Friday morning sitting amidst the orchestra as it played Mozart´s Requiem. Another, mortified to learn that I don´t eat jamón, whisked me off to a vegetarian restaurant for a two course lunch after class. My apprehension about intensive one-on-one private classes also proved to be misplaced. I have found myself having long chats in beautiful flats with incredibly interesting people, including most recently a journalist who travels the world producing documentaries.

I am slowly coming round to the idea that teaching could be a better option than pulling pints in an Irish pub. Despite the fact that by teaching English all day my level of Spanish is remaining stubbornly low, my standard of English is coming on in leaps and bounds, and I am slowly adjusting to being the one conducting the class. In fact, now that the tables have turned on me, I keep having nostalgic pangs for university. As an unsympathetic student I would frequently criticise stilted lesson plans or boring lecturers. Now, I know I would be much more forgiving!