InterExchange Working Abroad Ambassador Sonia, Teach English, Spain
What I love best about living in Spain with a family is how my everyday life is similar to that of a Spanish native. After only a few weeks in the city of Caceres, I was taking classes at the local college; shopping at the supermarket; I knew which pharmacies carried the contact solution I needed; I had a favorite place to eat; and I could give you directions to the bus and train stations (in Spanish).
While everything in a foreign country is new and exciting, we often arrive and leave as tourists, never getting a feel for the actual culture and vibe of the country. For me, not only visiting, but also knowing and understanding the people and life of Spain are very important. I live with a family, travel to places on my own, eat at hole-in-the-wall cafes and restaurants on side roads and try to speak to as many people as possible. Yes, I am completely out of my comfort zone about 90% of the time, but I will leave Spain feeling like I was taking a part of it with me because of all of my experiences.
Having a local experience is not difficult, but does require some preparation. Learning at least a few key conversation starters and phrases is mandatory to "going local." Not only will this make your trip easier, but more authentic as well. I was surprised at the amount of tourists I met who just assumed there would be people who spoke English in Spain. Similarly, make sure to learn the social norms of the country.
Use Yelp, or a similar service to find local eateries. A very good way to go local is to eat at places a bit away (but safe) from tourist attractions and pop into a restaurant that looks to be full of locals. Experiencing food is a great way to learn more about a country.
I also love to use a good guidebook when I'm abroad. For me, books by Rick Steves are my favorite, because they focus on local experiences. However, there is plenty of information available online to enhance your trip.
The most important part of going abroad is to keep an open mind, and in turn, broaden your mind. Learning that people may live in ways drastically diverse from yourself, but in the end, there you'll find more similarities than differences.