It is difficult to leave the country that I have fallen so much in love with these past three months. I have been so busy traveling, making new friends and integrating myself into Spanish society that I have almost forgotten my reality in New Jersey. It will be a culture shock for me returning to the United States where time is money and there are no afternoon beers. I will have to continue to make my own Spanish tortilla and gazpacho! I will be serving sangria to all my friends this 4th of July.
My last day in Madrid was spent packing and teaching. Unfortunately, my youngest student, a junior in high school, did not pass his final exam and has to take it again this week. When I arrived, he was struggling to the extent that he could not get through any of the exercises in his intermediate level class and had failed every test so far that year. The level was simply too hard for him and he would have benefited from spending more time in a class for beginners. However, he is only partially to blame for his difficulty. The quality of his textbooks were awful with unclear grammar instruction, many words in British slang that he had no reason to learn and no answers in the back. In addition, his teacher for the year was a substitute as the regular professor was out for medical reasons. I tried my best to help by making PowerPoints with detailed explanations of his textbook chapter units, using vocabulary flashcards, finding online games and exercises and making my own exercises that integrated American culture into the lessons. But our lessons were a constant battle as he was already beyond frustrated with English and had no desire to improve. He sees English as a subject in school that he hates rather than a gateway into another culture and broader job opportunities. My two older students did, however, successfully pass and spent all of last week in Mallorca with their friends celebrating their graduation.
The language barrier in Spain is wider than in many other European countries. Most Spaniards I met, like my students, had taken years of English in school and even lived in English-speaking countries for some time yet still never obtained a level of fluency that allowed them to converse with ease. Those I spoke to at intercambios desired greatly to improve their English to obtain better jobs in places like Ireland, the U.K., Canada and the United States. They blamed their inadequate level of fluency on poor instruction in schools and the quantity of dubbed television and movies. In Spain almost all of their American and British TV shows and movies are dubbed, thus creating a pop culture that discourages crossing the barrier into the English-speaking world. Why learn English when you can watch "The Simpsons" every day in Spanish?
This experience has changed me a great deal. For one thing, my level of Spanish has progressed from the beginner to intermediate level. I spent two hours a week for two months taking an intensive Spanish-language course. I also visited an intercambio every week to practice my Spanish with native speakers, as well as hung out with my new Spanish friends. I am still far from fluency but I am now able to carry on a conversation in Spanish and express basic needs, emotions and concepts. Learning a new language is addicting. I found myself beginning to think in Spanish and when I return to the United Sates I will look for a Spanish course immediately so I continue to progress.
I feel more open to meeting new people and more relaxed when it comes to traveling and exploring new places. I had no idea how easy it was to stay at a hostel alone and end up going out for tapas with group of six new fellow travelers. In Spain I made friends with people from all over the world, from Canada to Turkey, each one with his or her own unique set of views and stories to share. After building relationships with these people I feel like a global citizen, connected to the world as a whole.
After twelve years of not eating meat, I am no longer a vegetarian! In Spain it is almost impossible to avoid meat as they put ham on everything and seafood is listed in the vegetarian section. I feel more relaxed about life in general after living in a country where children stay up past one in the morning during the week and eat cookies dipped in chocolate milk for breakfast. I will miss the tapas bars. Instead of eating a large dinner at home in isolation, tapas allow for a light dinner where the focus of the meal is not on the food or drink but on the conversation and connecting with others outside the home. After growing accustomed to eating my main meal midday, I believe I will continue to do so as having a lighter meal later makes it easier to sleep.
I am just as nervous to return home as I was to begin my life in Spain. I am uncertain of what the rest of this year has in store for me but I will take all I have gained from my experience abroad and apply it to my future endeavors. I will look for work that puts me in touch with international clients as well as continue to improve my Spanish language proficiency. As sad as I am to leave Spain, I am excited to embark on my next adventure in the United States. La aventura continúa!