I started thinking the other day about all the ways I’ve changed since I first came to Spain eight years ago. How am I different? What am I better at? Have I really changed that much? Are these natural progressions or has my environment shaped the person I’ve become? I began to compile a mental list and I think there are quite a few things that I’ve got better at since moving to Spain. So here they are (in no particular order):
-My Spanish: My God…when I think back to when I first arrived in Spain and how horrible my Spanish was and how anyone managed to understand me. Que venguenza!! It really was so embarrassing. I remember my very first day in Madrid and my other little blonde nugget and I going to Pans & Company to have lunch. We stood in front of the counter for a good five minutes staring at the menu board and deciding what we were going to order and then another five minutes on the proper way to order our combo meal. Was it Me gustaria un numero cinco? Or was Quisiera un numero cinco a better option? Or maybe we should just go for the direct Quiero un numero cinco. Hell, we had no idea. The poor girl taking our order,who probably spoke English, just stood there staring at us as we pondered our grammatical and gastronomical options. Since that first day in Madrid, I’ve worked really hard on my Spanish and it has improved leaps and bounds. People understand me and I understand them. There are few misunderstandings. I can read books and the newspaper, listen to the radio and watch TV comfortably all in Spanish without much effort. Recently I’ve had a few compliments on my accent. I even have an Advanced Certificate in Spanish from The Official Language School. Maybe this next year I’ll do the Proficiency. I’ve certainly come a long way in eight years.
My Teaching Skills: When I came to Spain in 2007 to work as a teacher’s assistant, the Ministry of Education was my meal ticket back to the land of siestas and fiestas. I was quite sure I wanted to be a Spanish teacher but teaching English was going to be completely new to me. But I thought “How hard can it be?” It’s my native language. I can totally explain the concepts to foreigners, no problem. Turns out it’s much harder than it seems. All of a sudden, I was hearing new words and ideas in my own language for the first time! Auxiliary verbs. Past participle. Clauses. Passive Voice. Adverbial Comments. Phrasal Verbs. WHAT?!?!?!? I had no idea what the students or teachers were talking about. They knew way more than I did. So I started studying my own language because to be able to teach it, I had to understand it first. My understanding of English has improved so much and, with that, my teaching skills too. I used to get so nervous before class; sweaty palms, jittery, stomach in knots, the whole works. But now I feel so comfortable. This doesn’t mean that my students don’t throw me for a loop every now and again (believe me, they do!) but I can usually handle it with no problems. And if I can’t, there is always Google to help me out!
Sticking up for myself: I’ve always said that you have to have a thick skin to live in Spain. People here are direct and they don’t beat around the bush. I had my first memorable experience with this years ago when a student called me vain to my face in front of an entire class. Since then I’ve had my fair share of “Are you seriously saying that to me?” moments. And after so many, I’ve learned to defend myself (and not only when name-callling is involved). People, many who have never stepped foot in the United States, also love to criticize Americans and the USA at any given opportunity. On another occasion I had a student tell me that all Americans were “capitalist pigs.” Imagine trying to defend that statement. Not the easiest task. One last point: Spanish people lovvveeeeeee to complain (about anything and everything) and after all these years of living here, I’ve finally learned to insist until I get what I want (or as close as possible). In a country where customer service is almost non-existent and people love to take advantage of foreigners, you learn to complain with the best of them.
My kitchen skills: I’ve enjoyed cooking for some time now. It started when I was in high school and I sometimes had to prepare lunch and dinner for my little sisters. And then in college I learned very quickly to cook well on a budget. But coming to Spain has inspired something in me that I lacked back home. First of all, I have so much more time here to practice than before. I make lunch and dinner every day and we hardly ever eat out. I have the time to look up new recipes, tricks and ideas and I make most everything from scratch. Second of all, I’m surrounded by a culture that values really good food and celebrating that food. It still amazes me after all these years the amount of time we spend just talking about food. The hubby and I will finish a 3 or 4 hour lunch with his family and guess what we are talking about? What we are going to have for dinner! It’s almost impossible to not be obsessed with food and cooking here.
Communicating: Since all my family and friends are based on the other side of the pond I’m forced to find other ways of communicating with them. Before moving to Spain we kept in touch via phone calls and text messaging and getting together whenever was convenient. Now that we’re on opposite sides of the globe with a 9 hour time difference we have to find new ways of connecting. And it’s not always easy. But Skype, Whatsapp, email and Facebook now make things much easier. But even with all these new apps and social media networks I’ve found that I still have to make an effort. If my parents don’t call me for our weekly Sunday chats, I have to call them. If I don’t hear from my sisters for a week or so, I have to make the first step and reach out. Same with my friends (even though I admit I’m not the best with it). When I first moved to Spain, it was much more difficult due to Internet not being widely available and international phone calls taking up most of my student budget but now it’s so much easier and I’m much better at it also.
Traveling: Eight years ago I got my first stamp in my passport from border control at the Barajas Airport in Madrid and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve travelled all over Spain and Europe and even convinced the hubby to get on a plane to Africa! With 10 countries under my belt and numbers 11 and 12 (possibly 13!) coming within the next year I can finally say that I am comfortable going to most any new place. I love the thrill I get of booking airplane tickets and counting down the days until we actually get to explore the new city we’re visiting. I can definitely say that is a huge change from the terrified little girl, clutching her passport, trying to hold back tears as she boarded her first international flight at San Francisco Airport.
So, all you expats out there (or former expats) what changes did you notice in yourself while living abroad? Any similar experiences? Tell me about them in the comments!