Ahhh. Mid-September. Crisp autumn air is arriving, leaves are crunching beneath your feet, you sip happily on your pumpkin spice latte as you sit on a park bench marveling at the colors of the changing leaves….*screeecchh* Hold up! Actually, none of that is happening as you’ve just arrived to Spain to teach english for a year and you’re feeling totally lost.
This morning as I lay in bed waiting for my iPhone software to update, I likened moving abroad to updating to iOS 7. I’m actually totally serious though. You’ve read all about it and you know about lots of the new features. You’ve seen pictures and videos of it and you feel pretty prepared, but theres the slight nagging feeling of worry about leaving the old iOS behind. You know it’s going to be great, but change is always tough. The day finally arrives and you click the update software button; you board the plane. Finally, an hour (or 8) later, you arrive. WOAH. Okay so you knew it was going to look different, and it does. It’s pretty easy to navigate because I mean, you’re educated and you have common sense, but something went wrong with the update and the language preferences accidentally got switched to Spanish and you can’t switch it back. Whoops.
Okay, end of analogy.
Transitioning to a new home, especially one overseas and during a season that invokes so much nostalgia (at least for me, I love the fall!) is HARD. And then take into account the fact that you’re dealing with culture shock and OH YEAH you don’t know a single soul within a 2,000 mile radius, and you’ve got a recipe that’s heading for disaster. But wait. Before you start crying into your café con leche (it’s just not the same!) why don’t you read my tips for dealing with homesickness, nostalgia and loneliness so you you can start enjoying yourself to the fullest, and not have to fake it while Skyping home to mom and dad.
1. The internet is your new best frenemy
You need to connect to the internet ASAP. No, I don’t mean that you should sit inside on your computer all day… that’s probably the WORST thing you could possibly do right now (seriously, after you read this go outside). What I mean is, finding available WiFi while waiting to find your new piso/waiting for your WiFi to get installed can definitely be used to your advantage… call your parents, call your best friend, call your sister, and don’t just talk about you! It’s easy to spend 45 minutes harping on about how different everything is here, but don’t you think that you’re being a bit counter productive? Talk about the normal things and it will help you feel more connected to your life back home, while not ripping on your new and different life here. You can also use the internet for other productive causes! Finding an apartment is a pretty obvious one, but you can also search for other English speakers in your town, and perhaps even join in on a Couchsurfing.org meet up which take place in tons of cities all over Europe. There are lots of apps that are super useful as well! I’m a bit guilty of abusing this one. My first week in Spain in 2011 I felt completely alone as no other auxiliares had arrived to my town yet. Luckily, I had already found an apartment that came with WiFi, but for almost the entire week I hid out inside feeling a bit sorry for myself. Definitely do as I say, not as I did. Be productive but don’t get too sucked in!
2. Go for a walk
This goes along with a point I made above. Don’t hide out inside! My first week in Spain was really rough for me. I was alone in this big empty house, my roommates hadn’t arrived yet (we pre-arranged our living situation over the internet which is an idea that I now don’t 100% endorse) and I had no idea where anything was in my town, even the grocery store! My landlord treated me really well when I first got here; he picked me up from the train station 30 mins away and drove me to my town, and he even took me to Mercadona to grab a few things so I could survive the night. In my haste I only grabbed some bread, cheese, water, cereal and milk. After two days with only those things I was pretty desperate and I had recovered from my jet lag so I finally sucked it up and just went outside to explore. Maybe I’m the only one who didn’t feel straight up adventurous when I got here, but I doubt it. Anyway, I Google mapped the route to Mercadona and memorized it and headed out. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad (duh). I found the store with no problems and it actually made me feel a lot better! Colors! People! Florescent lights! It was nice to just wander around and examine all of the products and figure out what they were. Don’t underestimate the power of a good grocery vocab session. The next day I grabbed my camera and went out and took some pictures. Despite getting lost for 2 hours on the giant cliff that is the old town, I captured some great shots and got to realize how BEAUTIFUL Arcos is. It got me excited about living here and craving more. Walking around town just makes you feel more connected to the people, whether or not you talk to them.
3. Write it all down
I’m not saying to start a public blog like I did, because blogging isn’t for everyone. It actually wasn’t really for me either until something clicked in my brain this past summer and I was totally inspired to kick it up a notch. But you wont regret keeping a private journal, especially at the end when you can look back and see just how far you’ve come. I first started my blog in 2009 when I studied abroad in Granada as a way for my friends and family to read about what I was doing. Looking back at those posts now is really interesting because I love remembering what my initial reactions to things were and how I dealt with adjusting to Spain and my host family. I think I wrote about 10 or 12 diary style entires before my motivation fizzled out around Thanksgiving. I was living it up as it is so easy to do when you study abroad with an American program, surrounded by built in friends. Moving here was different. I had no built in friends and I was not in the lovely city of Granada. I started up my blog again and wrote about the things I thought were interesting, and mostly just personal journal-style entires. I was a bit homesick, but it was cathartic and helped me figure out specific reasons why I was feeling happy or sad. I only wrote occasionally, and then in my second year here only a handful of times. I wish I would have wrote more! Luckily I took lots of pictures of everything, but still, I like to go back and revisit my writing and I unfortunately didn’t capture everything I wish I would have.
4. Make comfort food
This one’s pretty obvious. Food is like the ultimate comfort giver. But don’t go crazy (or do and join a gym ASAP). I have never been a good cook or baker. I hate the preparation part of it all because I’m (okay I’ll admit it) pretty impatient. But coming here there are just times where you NEED something familiar! My first foray into comfort food was banana bread. I then branched out and started making and adapting recipes as necessary from this cookbook that I bought during college and brought with me. I made falafel, quiche, tacos, omelettes, chicken pot pie, various types of pasta, honey mustard chicken breast, apple pie and snickerdoodles and chocolate chip cookies! And those are just the things I’ve pretty much memorized. At first it was rough because all of the recipes I had weren’t in the metric system, and I didn’t know the names of all the ingredients in Spanish, let alone whether or not they would be available. But I figured it out and am all the better for it. There’s just something about making food you’re familiar with that is soothing, and this is actually a skill that you need to develop in life so you might as well just start now and not live off of frozen pizzas for eight months (if your apartment even has an oven, but thats a story for another day). If this is at all interesting to you, be on the lookout because I’m going to start a section on this blog of recipes that I’ve used and adapted for use in Spain (for all of you out there who feel helpless when it comes to cooking, just like I was when I first got here).
5. Personalize your living space
When I think about decorating my room it makes me feel like a middle schooler again. But it doesn’t have to be super cheesy with a “No Boys Allowed” sign from Claire’s on the door and sparkly trinket boxes covering every surface of your room. I’m totally into DIY, but even if you’re not it’s as simple as printing out some pictures and buying cheap frames from the chino to bring a bit of home to your living room and bedroom. Spring for the sheets and duvet cover from IKEA that you really like, and buy the mushy pillow if you want it. Nothing is worse than being homesick or coming home from a long day to a bed that isn’t calling your name cause it doesn’t feel like it’s yours. If you’re into DIYs like I am, you can find crafting supplies at the chino and you can scour Pinterest for ideas that will make your room feel like your room, and will make your new strange piso more like your new strange piso.
6. Join a class
Joining a class is probably the scariest thing on this list, but also one of the best things you can do! I joined a Spanish class when I first got here, and later on a flamenco dance class! The Spanish class was helpful and obviously benefitted my life outside the class too, and the flamenco class was fun and challenging, in a good way! I’ve taken dance classes ever since I was 5 years old so for me learning bulerías came easy, but even if you’ve never done it, GO FOR IT! Seriously, when else will you have the chance to learn from a professional native dancer? Probably never. The bonus is that you’ll make friends in the class that you can call up to go for tapas for for a drink. Making friends this way (in my opinion) is easier than making friends out at a bar because 1. Spanish girls are so intimidating and 2. Seeing them in a vulnerable state while learning to dance will help you forge a bond that would be harder to make if you just met them out at a bar.
7. Visit your school
This one is for all of the auxiliares out there. Most of you will arrive to your towns before October 1st, and in my opinion there is nothing wrong with going to check out the school. It will put your mind at ease about all of the worries and questions you’ve been having and you’ll finally get to SEE the place you’ve been imagining for months now. I went to my school the day before school started, and good thing I did because the buses were tricky to figure out and I would have been an hour late for my first day otherwise. I got to meet my coordinator and she walked me around to meet all of the teachers and helped me figure out which teachers lived near me and could give me a ride to school everyday. Luckily the gym teacher lived a two-minute walk from my apartment and I was able to catch a ride with him, PLUS we totally bonded as the only two young teachers in the school and through him I met his girlfriend and now the two of them are two of my closest friends in Spain.
So, do you feel a bit more prepared? Are you ready to do this? I definitely know how lonely it can get, but keep yourself busy and I promise you’ll feel so much better and you’ll actually be having fun. Just don’t forget: living in Spain isn’t just a long vacation. You’re actually living here and it’s normal life. You have bills to pay, hurdles to overcome and some days you’ll be questioning why you made the decision to even come here in the first place. But by the end you’ll be stronger for it, you’ll have traveled and opened your eyes to new cultures, grown a new understanding and respect for the people you’ve come across, and you absolutely won’t regret it! I’ll leave you with a quote from Shawshank Redemption and a motivational video, ’cause who doesn’t need some inspiration every once in a while?
“Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
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