The old, the young and being 21

Our new OP blogger Fiona Tomas has moved to a new country, found a flat, opened a Spanish bank account, turned the big age of 21 - but what has been most challenging?

LAST UPDATED: 15 Feb, 2015 @ 23:25
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The old, the young and being 21

OVER the last two and a half months, I’ve grown up a lot.

I’ve moved to a new country, found a flat, opened a Spanish bank account, turned the big age of 21 (which I’ve discovered isn’t so big in Spain), decided to move flat, met countless numbers of new people and have had to commute with total strangers to my new job.

Never did I imagine that my first two months of my Erasmus year abroad would involve so much on the organisational front. I’m spending eight months working as an English teaching assistant in a primary school in Motril, a tropical coastal town forty minutes south of Granada city.

One of the biggest changes with my new life here has been living, working and socialising with a different age group. Most of the teachers at my school are well into their forties or fifties, and this has made my experience of the staff room occasionally awkward at times.

I wouldn’t say the teachers made me feel particularly welcome. At first I they behaved rather cold towards me, shouting at each other in their thick Andalusian accent among themselves and they generally seemed disinterested in why a white British girl was sitting among them. I was childishly scowled at by one woman for accidentally taking the wrong coffee mug on my second day and I tried to ignore their astonished, almost disapproving reactions when I would tell them how old I was. Even as I’m writing this in the staff room, one of the male teachers who has never muttered so much as ‘hello’ to me is currently having a massive go at an innocent little third year for getting her maths all wrong.

I realise that it’s always me starting conversations in the staff room. Even in the classroom, it’s so hard to get feedback about how well I’m doing, let alone praise or encouragement. This is my first time I’m doing the whole teacher-thing.

This led me to reflect on the said stereotype of the Andalusian – how they are meant to be warm, friendly and welcoming people. I don’t want to get all deep and discuss Spanish stereotypes and identity in twenty-first century Spain. That’s too much for the student-turned teacher who can just about manage twelve hours a week with eight classes of highly energetic kids who seem to all need the toilet every five minutes. Let’s just say I wasn’t greatly impressed with the way in which I was received by the teachers in my school and in Motril itself, where I couldn’t help but notice the cold stares people gave me in the street. Being particularly tall, with my blondish hair and blue eyes, I’m anything but the image of a small, olive skinned Spanish señoritaand I obviously stuck out like a sore thumb.

I realise I haven’t exactly painted an amazing picture. Thankfully, they aren’t all like this. The younger group of teachers here – who are all still part time studying for a fixed teaching job, are more talkative and friendly with me.

The kids are fantastic – when I pass them in the corridors they have, dare I say it, been a shining example to what I could only hope the older teachers could be like.

They constantly greet me with, “Hola maestra!” or wave at me, trying to get my attention shouting “Teacher Fiona, teacher Fiona!”  The girls run up and hug me, their faces beaming with huge smiles, and I hi-five the boys. During my first week, the comparison between my name and Princess Fiona from Shrek was (inevitably, I thought) albeit blandly acknowledged in the staff room. The little ones loved it, and gazed at me in awe when I included it in my introductory presentation.

They probably think that’s who I am.

Whilst living in this coastal town, however, and working with people a lot older (and younger than me, if you count the kids) I began to miss my student life. “Motril isn’t Granada,” the phrase which constantly cropped up in conversation when I talked about the possibility of moving to the city. Everyone spoke to me about Granada with an air of respect, with a smile, as if it was something beautiful. I could really exaggerate and say that I could almost detect a slight twinkle in their eyes…

The thing is though, I’m not exaggerating. Now that I’ve moved, I see why Granada is so much better – it’s where I can be both the tourist I want to be on my year abroad and the student that I already am. The authentic streets, the Albayzín, (which is the old, more traditional part of the city) scattered with cute Arab teterias, its variety of clothes shops, the astronomically cheap tapas bars, its magnificent cathedral, the Christmas markets which have recently started up, it has everything. After living in what I shall call a ‘dormant’ town for six weeks where nothing really happens, it makes me appreciate where I now am even more.

I suppose being around a different kind of age group at school to what I am normally used to – whether with young kids or middle aged teachers is, in some respects, a breath of fresh air. I definitely feel more like an adult. On my twenty-first, I went to school as normal and didn’t tell most of the teachers in the staff room that it was my birthday. This, I thought, was definitely a sign of surpassing adolescence.

I don’t want to play the sympathy card, though. I did tell my year six class, who excitedly sung ‘happy birthday’ to me in both English and Spanish, before I dished out cake to them – a ritual which is religiously carried out when there’s a birthday in the class.

This still makes me a kid, right?

10 COMMENTS

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  1. Strange,
    I thought this young woman wrote in a very balanced way. I also thought that the middle aged teachers treated her in a very insecure and immature fashion and it had nothing to do with their being Spanish or even Martian.

    Maybe Mary you are displaying some jealousy because Fiona is young and you are not.

    I’m not surprised Fiona is enjoying Granada which is my favourite city anywhere. She should check out the Jazz scene there, some really good Spanish jazz bands. Try ‘The Piano’ the vegan take away restaurant – brilliant.

  2. Frankly, I don’t think Fiona had a very welcoming experience at all. When I worked in a large international law firm in London, we always made a point of welcoming new employees and I had the unofficial role of showing them where to find the different departments, staff restaurant etc. and making sure they were settling in OK. At no point was anyone ever treated the way Fiona was and we had people of all ages, many of whom were in their forties and fifties but this made no difference, everyone was friendly.

    Being helpful and friendly costs nothing.

  3. Thanks for all the comments everyone. I’d like to point out however, Derek, that I’m not an expat and that I certainly wouldn’t describe my experience thus far as being bitter at all.. why would I be when I am in such a beautiful city?!

    I shall make sure I check out the restaurant whilst I’m in Granada Stuart, thanks for the info!

    Jane yes I totally agree with you! It’s great to hear your work that you mentioned can have such rewarding results within the working environment for employees of all ages.

  4. Fiona, I have had three kids in public school here in rural Andalusia for five years.

    Yes, they now speak fluent Castellano [and even the dreadful Andaluz]; however, the experience with the teachers [with exceptions] has been a negative one. They are jealous of outsiders, clannish and parochial.

    Our local Spanish English teacher is totally useless.

    Good luck!

  5. Malachy – I’m sorry to hear this. A lot of the teachers who I work with in my school complain a lot about the way English is taught in Spain, how in bilingual schools force English upon the kids with a more direct, vocabulary-focused approach in subjects such as science. Since writing this initial blog post I’m pleased to say that some of the teachers’ attitudes have become more positive towards me.

    I hope your children’s proficiency in English won’t continue to be too badly affected by the poor level of teaching you mentioned.

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