culture shock

A Journey to the Other Side of the Earth

Moving to Spain would be easy, I told myself.

After all, this wouldn’t be the first time I’d changed countries. And this time I’d only be two hours away.

Five years earlier, I’d followed in the footsteps of thousands of young Kiwis before me, leaving New Zealand to embark on my big OE to ‘the motherland’ aka England. OE is slang for Overseas Experience. It’s a phrase that was coined in the 1970s to describe New Zealand’s version of the working holiday.

Perhaps it had something do with growing up at the bottom of the world on a group of islands with less than 5 million other people. But I couldn’t wait to see what was out there.

The best part about living in London was that I was always a short plane ride away from immersing myself in a completely different culture.

I’d been to Spain several times on holiday and had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into.

Or so I thought.

This time it wasn’t a gap year — I’d already had a very extended version of that. Moving to Madrid was a carefully planned and researched career move. I was reaching the end of my twenties and felt stuck in a job I’d outgrown.

I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay in Spain. But I was certain that teaching English would combine my interests and values in a way that my existing job couldn’t.

I’d been writing since I was a kid and had always been fascinated by the quirks of the English language. And my travels in Europe had given me a taste for learning more about other cultures. Besides, teaching would give me a chance for creative expression as well as a high level of independence.

I enrolled in a course a few streets away from my office, studying in secret over evenings and weekends. I was happy to take the risk of moving to another country, but I didn’t want to be pushed before I was ready.

By the time I’d finished, it was Christmas. Spanish schools were already a term into their academic year and no longer recruiting teachers.

But I’d already half-opened the door. How could I close it for another nine months when I’d already glimpsed what lay beyond?

I waited only until my teaching certificate arrived in the post. Armed with this new get-out-of-jail card, I booked annual leave and flew to Madrid to attend interviews and doorknock at language schools.

One academy offered me eight hours a week teaching Business English at an international company.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough to give me the confidence to jump.

I returned to London and gave notice to my astonished boss and colleagues.

A few weeks later I was back in Madrid — with no Spanish language skills and no where to live.

It was Semana Santa (Holy Week) and accommodation was scarce. Well, cheap accommodation, which was all I could afford since I’d abandoned my full time job.

I spent the first night in a hostel close to Puerto del Sol. Situated over a bar with many more around, the walls thrummed all night.

I’d moved from a country where the pubs closed at 11:30pm. At that time in Spain, they’re just getting started.

They even have a verb for it:

Trasnochar = to stay up all night (or go to bed late — depending on how you look at it).

I was to see plenty of examples of trasnocharduring the time I spent in Madrid. My students’ ability to party until the small hours and still function in class the next day was mind-boggling.

But I was a Kiwi and an introvert with English blood, and it was my first night in Madrid. I lay in my lumpy bunk bed, heart palpitating with every beat below. Finally, exhausted from working through my long to-do list in London, I fell into an uneasy sleep.

Someone once told me that if you drilled a hole in the Earth from New Zealand you’d end up in Spain.

I couldn’t have got further from my world without leaving the planet.

Over the next week, my anxiety grew as I tried to deal with the morass of getting a NIE number, opening a bank account and buying a SIM card with my non-existent Spanish. Somehow I’d imagined they’d be a lot more English-speakers to help me manoeuvre through all the red tape, especially as I was in the capital.

My eight hours of teaching (spread over four days) were not even in the city centre. Dreams of wandering down to a sunny plaza for a café con leche before class quickly faded. Each day I descended into the bowels of the earth to take the metro to Avenida de América station. From there I’d catch a bus to the outskirts of Madrid where I’d deliver after work classes to tired professionals at a soulless business park.

To compound the situation, the teacher I was replacing had gone back to the UK leaving very few handover notes and no curriculum in place.

I remember sitting in the hostel one night, trying to make sense of the sparse teaching materials and sobbing uncontrollably.

What had I done?

What was I doing here?

But how could I go back?

What would they say?

My family? My friends? My ex-colleagues?

It’s OK to be terrified

Sometimes, no matter how much we plan, we get in way over our heads.

Madrid taught me that it’s OK to be scared and doubt my decisions.

We can only grow when we know what it is to feel truly afraid. On its own, fear can’t hurt us. Only our reaction to it can do that.

We’re usually stronger than we think. We’ve got to learn to get comfortable with feeling fear, and then push ahead anyway.

It’s OK to ask for help

I stayed in Madrid for two years, but I couldn’t have done it alone.

There was the colleague who helped me navigate the Spanish tax system.

Another who got me a summer school job.

The chatty receptionist who helped me practice my Spanish.

And the local friends who took me to the hospital when I got food poisoning.

Independence is a wonderful thing, but sometimes we need to swallow our pride and ask for help.

It’s OK to go backwards

Getting out of my comfort zone was a life-changing experience — but I didn’t do it all at once.

In Madrid, I made a point of living with Spanish speakers rather than fellow English teachers. I wanted to have more authentic experience and improve my Spanish. But that didn’t mean I was immune to culture shock.

While I was living in Madrid, I took a holiday to New Zealand to see my family. I also organised some short trips back to London to visit old friends. Once I was back at work, I made sure I spent some of my free time hanging out with other teachers and expats.

If you’re moving to a new country, don’t succumb to the pressure to immerse yourself completely. It’s OK to have moments when you want the comfort of familiar people and things around you

What happened next?

I continued trekking out to the business park and pieced together a new program for my students.

A month later, I was able to pick up extra classes with another agency and later got a part-time summer school job teaching kids in the suburbs.

By the end of the summer, I’d secured a contract for the next academic year with a well-established school in the centre of Madrid. They offered strong professional development opportunities for new teachers and I stayed with them for the rest of my time in Spain.

I continued to teach at different locations as some of their classes were held in businesses and local schools.

But there was always time for a café con leche in a sunny, city plaza.

Over to you

Have you ever moved to a new country? What were your biggest challenges and how did you deal with being out of your comfort zone? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

This post first appeared in the Journal of Journeys publication on Medium.