The truth about living in small-town Spain

Update May 4, 2017: Now that I’m coming to the end of my second and final year as an auxiliar, I did a write-up comparing small town life with that of a bigger city (in this case, Córdoba). Check it out!

I’m going where now?!

It never fails to amuse my Spanish friends and colleagues when I mention that, with a population of just about 1 million people, my hometown of Columbus, Ohio is considered a “small” city by U.S. standards. Among Spanish cities, only Madrid’s 3.1 million inhabitants have C-bus beat considerably, and Barcelona edges us out with 1.6 million. Although we’re a far cry from New York or Los Angeles, and most Spaniards will just kind of nod and pretend to have heard of it when I tell them where I’m from, I still love Columbus and feel more at home in a city as opposed to a small town.

Around this time last year, when I got an email from the regional government of Andalucía informing me that I’d been offered a spot as an auxiliar de conversación in sunny southern Spain, I couldn’t wait to find out which famous Andalusian city I would call home for the 2015-16 school year. My mind was filled with flamenco-driven visions of Seville, Granada, Córdoba…

…Cantoria?

Cantoria is a municipality of Almería province, in the autonomous community of Andalusia, Spain.

-literally the only sentence on Cantoria’s Wikipedia page

That’s it. Oh, and it also has a population of 3,500 people and is located in the middle of a literal desert, an hour and 15 minutes’ drive from Almería capital. Cantoria? More like CAN’Toria.

I didn’t tell my family and friends about my placement for a few days as I flip-flopped over whether or not I wanted to accept it and go. In the meantime, I pored over Google Maps, looking at every single town in the surrounding desert, hoping to be pleasantly surprised by the existence of a larger village where I could live. There was nothing within a half-hour radius of Cantoria with a population larger than 12,000.

At one point I decided to contact my assigned high school just for the hell of it and fired off a very formal email that began Estimados señores,… to the email address listed on my placement letter. I’d heard about the (in)famously slow pace of life in southern Spain and wasn’t expecting to hear back for at least a week. Needless to say I was surprised when I got an email less than 24 hours later from someone named Sonia who introduced herself as the school’s bilingual program coordinator, or essentially my boss. She seemed nice enough and even gave me the contact information for the previous auxiliar, and after emailing back and forth with both of them I decided to give it a chance.

I’ve been working in the tiny little town I nearly brushed off for about eight months now, and I couldn’t be happier that I gave it a chance. As someone who couldn’t imagine myself living in a small town (I live in Albox, the largest possible nearby village to Cantoria), I have been welcomed and included here like never before in my life. When I arrived in my placement area after spending a few days exploring other cities in Spain, Sonia drove 20 minutes out of her way to pick me up from the bus station and then spent her entire afternoon helping me find an apartment. My first week at work, two coworkers invited me on a weekend trip with them. My students, though hesitant to speak English with me at first, were really interested in getting to know me (and burst into applause the first time I spoke Spanish to them – getting validated by a room full of jaded 15-year-olds feels surprisingly nice).

I think back to where I was a year ago, and I can’t believe I was ever dreading coming to such a welcoming place.

The first year auxiliares started getting their school placements this week, and unsurprisingly some people are disappointed that they’re not in a larger area. Some people want to switch to a new area, as if the people running the program don’t have enough on their plates without having to deal with shuffling people around because their town’s population has less than six figures. (I understand that some people genuinely need to be changed to a bigger area for medical reasons/access to hospitals, etc.)

On one hand, I understand the sinking feeling in your stomach when you type your placement town into Google Maps and see basically nothing in the surrounding area. It’s especially disappointing if you requested to be in a big city on the initial application, like I did both years (I still have this mental image of a bunch of people sitting around a table last year assigning school placements, then reading my application and bursting into collective hysterical laughter before placing me in Cantoria).

But after having been here for the past eight months, I also understand the other side of the equation now. Big cities are awesome, yes. Most people want to be placed there. But if everyone got what they wanted, the Cantorias of the world would never get an auxiliar.

It’s not always easy to live in a small town, especially without a car. But I’ve made do, and it’s been so much better than I expected. Even more importantly, I feel that I’ve really been able to make a tangible difference in the lives of my students, who don’t have as easy access to English-language material as those who live in the bustling metropoli of Madrid, Barcelona, or Seville. While you’re being mildly inconvenienced during your paid year in Europe, your students are getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn the most useful language in the world with a native speaker.

So what should you do if you get assigned a pueblo perdido en el medio de la nada?

  • Don’t reject your placement right away just because the population size of your town only has four digits. At least consider giving it a chance.
  • Get in touch with your bilingual coordinator at the email address listed on your carta de nombramiento. Ask where most of the other teachers live – maybe you can commute from a larger nearby town or even a provincial capital, if that option exists for you. Look into carpooling with other teachers and public transportation options.
  • Even beyond transportation-related issues, talking to your coordinator will help put your mind at ease. After emailing back and forth with Sonia a few times, I felt much better knowing that somebody in Spain knew I was coming and was prepared to help me.
  • Make the most of it. Aside from the administrative red tape that is never fun for any of us guiris, I think that you get out of this program what you put into it. If you set yourself up to have a miserable time just because you’re in a small town, then guess what – you’re going to have a miserable time. If you go into the experience with an open heart and mind, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised like I was.
  • If you go and end up hating it, no shame. At least you gave it a chance.

Today was my last day at the place that I was dreading working at just one year ago. They hosted a surprise going-away party for me and sent me on my way after the final bell loaded down with gifts and cards.

I’m excited for my placement next year (Córdoba capital!) – I’ve been in touch with my new coordinator, who seems really nice, and the previous auxiliar I talked to had nothing but good things to say about the school. (I’m also excited to no longer be 5 hours away from my boyfriend, but I digress.) Still, I know it will be a completely different experience than this year.

Would I willingly choose to live in such a tiny town again? I don’t know. I always have been and always will be a city girl at heart. But am I thankful that I had this experience and met an incredibly welcoming community of friends, coworkers, and students, seemingly in the middle of nowhere?

Absolutely.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 6.41.12 PM
Right after I told my 1ESO students I was leaving and made my goodbye speech.
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8 Comments Add yours

  1. ivanaabroad says:

    I loved reading this! I was just placed in Huétor Tájar, a town of about 10,000. It’s about 40 minutes out of Granada, though, so luckily I will be able to live in the city with my boyfriend. I’m so glad you decided to give small town life a chance. I know it would be extremely challenging for me as well, coming from a city in Canada about the size of Columbus. Nice to know that the gente del pueblo greeted you with open arms 🙂

    1. Thank you for reading! You’ll have such a great experience in the program. Pueblo life was good while it lasted, but I just moved to Cordoba last week and it feels soooo nice to be in a city again 🙂 good luck with your travel plans and visa!

  2. Manoella says:

    Hi Lindsey, first off i just want to say that i was freaking out when i got my placement and after reading this i felt so much better! I even became excited about my placement. My only question is, how formal does the e-mail have to be and can i send it in english or should i send it in Spanish? I’m trying to find out whether any of the teachers commute. Also, if there anything else you suggest asking before going?

    1. Be polite and respectful but don’t worry about sounding overly formal, they’re much more laid back here in Spain than I was expecting! You’ll probably be fine with sending it in English if you’re not comfortable writing in Spanish – chances are there’s someone at your school who will be able to read it, especially if you’re at a bilingual school. In addition to asking about commuting you can ask for the contact info of the previous auxiliar, that way you’ll be able to ask him or her any questions you might not feel comfortable asking the school right away. You could also ask about the dress code and if there’s anything you need to bring from your home country for the classes you’ll be assisting in, just so you have an idea of what extra stuff you might need to pack. Good luck with everything and thanks for reading! Get ready to have a great year.

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