Four years ago, I moved to Spain. In the UK, I had wanted to become a teacher. Applying for jobs and schemes usually had the same result though – ‘looking for someone with experience’. How can you get that experience if you can’t get the job in the first place? However, I soon saw a light shining at the end of a tiny tunnel. A conversation assistant in a Spanish school: great! That’ll give me something to pop on my CV. I’ll go back after a year.
Four years later, and there I still was. TEFL-qualified, experienced, and loving it. Barcelona is full of charms, and I am incredibly glad of my decision to move there. It helped me learn a language, blend into another culture, and taught me so many things.
Four years ago, I was also looking down other small tunnels, in the maze of life. One such was the opportunity to teach in South Korea, as a guest English teacher on a state school programme. I applied, and was interviewed. I pulled out because I was scared. I pulled out because I didn’t think I’d be able to be that far away from home, to live in a culture so different to my own. I pulled out because I told myself I couldn’t do it, and I wasn’t experienced enough. There’d always be someone better.
Four months ago, I began again. I believed in myself enough to apply for a position in South Korea, and wanted it enough to know that I could do it. I wanted to live in another place, experience such a new world, learn a new language, and better myself as a teacher. South Korea, an economic powerhouse steeped in tradition, but pushing itself ever forward into the modern world of technology, beckoned me. So off the radar as a tourist destination, I believed it would give me a true glimpse of life on another side of the globe.
Four months later, here I am, back in the UK, after weeks and weeks of preparation. I’ll leave all that for another day – the hoops I’ve had to jump through, and the endless paperwork I’ve almost wept tears of frustration over, have given me enough stress to last a lifetime and even two panic attacks. Four months later, however, here I am with visa in hand (well, it’s on my desk), and a position with the Busan Metropolitan Office of Education. I’m €700 worse off (not even including the flight), but my heart is lighter and sings with happiness: I did it! I got there! I’m still pinching myself over it.
So now you all know: one of the reasons I’ve been so quiet on here recently. I was planning. Plotting. Scheming for my next great adventure.
After three years in this country, I’m obviously getting very used to my way of life here, and enjoying it a lot. I love how laid-back the culture is, the fantastic food, the sociable aspect of life, and the fact that Catalans don’t take anything too seriously…it’s actually quite similar to home, in many ways. However, there are some things that I find, as a Brit especially, difficult to adjust to. One of the mistakes people make when moving abroad is to say ‘why can’t this just be like home?’, because such a thing will never happen, and this is not my intent. I simply wish to draw attention to the differences for storytelling purposes – it’s only my experience. There are some things that take time to become habit, and some things I even find nigh on impossible to accept. There are also many things that my adoptive country does that are better than those my own does, I hasten to add. Why else would I be here? However, I do find it amusing that a country so close to my own can be so different at times, despite only having an hour’s time difference between the two.
Bars, pubs, and clubs are amazing here, mostly because I’m in Barcelona, which is like hipster central and has oodles of cool hang-outs, particularly in the centre, where I’d find myself the poorest person in the world should I decide to ever live there, as such an abundance of places to sip wine and vermut while munching on olives is never going to be good for the pocket. However, if you decide to go ‘out out’ in Spain, beware. Adjust your schedule some three hours later to what you normally follow. In the UK, we start drinking relatively early compared to those here, and I’ve only just started to get used to that. I made the cardinal mistake of starting at UK times, and suffice to say that at 1am I frequently pined for my bed. What’s the problem, you say? That’s not too early to call it a night. The problem is that here, nobody will even be in the club at that time. You don’t go home until about 6am. The party don’t start ’til the locals walk in at roughly 3/4am. I went to a few clubs earlier than this time, only to be met with a wild west style tumbleweed/tense shootout music moment. No amount of Red Bull makes me capable of staying up until 7am, and the exhaustion the next day is intense.
Trying to get your items bagged before the person serving you starts scanning the next person’s is a challenge that is worthy to have been shown on Gladiators. The stress you feel while attempting to shove your items away, paying for them, and getting out the way, is roughly about the same as I imagine I’d feel if being chased by a bear. Yesterday, when shopping, three people were trying to pack their shopping away after having paid, while the cashier began scanning the next person’s. Going to do the shopping is just an intense version of Supermarket Sweep, but only at the checkout, as in the rest of the shop you’re guaranteed to be held up by someone spanning the entire aisle with their trolley, unaware there are about ten people waiting to get past.
Tutting as a general concept doesn’t exist (there isn’t a word for it, so it’s obviously not done if it doesn’t warrant being incorporated into a language), so I’m confused as to what to do when needed to express displeasure at a person’s actions. If I were Spanish enough, I’d probably just tell someone I didn’t like what they were doing, but Brit clammy hands at the idea of speaking to someone I don’t know, let alone reprimanding them, prevent me from doing this.
Aside from being one of my favourite words (look at how many letters there are when all is pronounced is the letter ‘q’!), on another branch of etiquette, the beloved queue is a beast unknown, or at least one that those here are unsure how to tame. I was vaguely surprised to see a queue forming for the bus last time I went back to the UK, before I remembered that that’s how things are done over there. Here, it’s every man for himself. I often end up boarding last due to my ‘no, no, after you’ habits. I must toughen up and barge on in front of pushchair-weilding mothers, and ignore the elderly, if I really want to make it here.
Spaniards tell you how it is, and I respect them for this very much, but I also am not used to being direct with people. The subtle, seemingly polite language used in the UK when expressing disapproval, which everybody but foreigners understands, is something I’ve (quite happily) left behind. Old habits die hard, however, and it’s frustrating that nobody understands that when I begin a sentence with ‘no offence’, the following ideas are supposed to be taken offensively. Or if I ‘respectfully disagree’, nobody understands that I think the person is a fool. Equally, no fights over who must take the last biscuit here would ever break out. The last item on the plate, called ‘la vergonya’ in Catalan (the embarrassment) is taken by whoever wants it, unabashedly. The first time I launched into a ‘no, you take it’ debacle, I was flabbergasted to see they actually took it. Therefore, I can now take the last food item on a plate without feeling deep shame, which is a fantastic feeling.
Even after three years here, I still hate kissing people on both cheeks. A sturdy handshake is favoured, and I am now in the awkward position where, even if I meet one of my own countrymen, I’ll go for the cheeks, leaving us both to wonder what we have been possessed by. I am now in a limbo where I feel bad if I don’t kiss somebody, but I loathe doing it. Going to a party, or a social situation where one must do the rounds and kiss the entire room, makes meeting up with people a nightmare. Ten minutes of kissing is more than I can bear. Stealing away into the night without having to say the typical Spanish/Catalan goodbye is a success story, in my opinion.
These, to name but a few, are some of the things I have most struggled to adjust to. Of course, these things are nothing but trivial, and amusing for the most part. I can imagine if I were to have moved halfway around the world, the culture clash would have been much greater, so I am lucky to only experience such tiny, and oftentimes amusing differences between our cultures. I’d be interested to hear from others living either in Spain, or other countries, what they have found the most difficult to get used to in their day to day life, aside from language and obvious things that separate you from your host country. Ultimately, these differences help me appreciate the country I am living in, and the country I am from, that little bit more.