Erasmus is an amazing opportunity to study abroad in another European country while receiving funding from the EU. I spent my Erasmus year in Madrid, Spain teaching English to children in a primary school, and I had the most amazing year. It has shaped me as a person in so many ways. I can now say I am a more confident person and I can even do my own washing and ironing! Sadly, Erasmus is a scheme that has a rather uncertain future with Brexit around the corner, so I’m here to tell you not only how to survive it, but how to embrace it while it’s still a thing. ‘Cus, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone and all that.
- Don’t book your accommodation online. Go and see it first!
If you are going to be living in these digs for around 9/10 months, they’re going to have to be decent. Imagine booking a place online and paying a reservation fee only to arrive and it still be a building site, and then having to live with no kitchen for your first week, no central heating (the entire time) and worst of all, no WiFi for two weeks. I bet you think I’m joking and that’s a hypothetical situation I’ve just concocted in my head. Well it’s not. It happened to me. Here is some photographic evidence if you still don’t believe me.
- Your language skills will only improve if you make the effort.
If you want to improve your Spanish skills, establish this with every Spanish person you meet when you meet them. If you begin speaking to them in English it will stick. And it’s very awkward and embarrassing to then switch languages half way through knowing a person. Depending on where you are in Spain, there may be a lot of temptation to just speak English. Which is fine if that’s what you want to do, but in my case I was there to improve my Spanish, and sometimes you have to push yourself and make extra effort to do so. If you don’t know any Spanish people you can speak to, research where your local intercambio (language exchange) takes place. These are a fun, relaxed way to practice your language skills, and it’s not intimidating as everyone there is in the same boat!
- If you’re a fussy eater, you might want to stock your suitcase full of supernoodles.
The food in supermarkets is not the same as at home. The bacon is pre-cooked for you to reheat, ensalada rusa (russian salad) is not the same as coleslaw (do not make this mistake) and if you’re a fan of fajita nights they don’t sell sour cream ANYWHERE. Literally, nowhere. Aside from this, Spanish food is actually really tasty. Try not to stick to just what you’d eat at home, you’re only there for a short time, try something new!
- While we’re on the topic of food, I hope you like jamón (ham).
If you don’t, you should probably just go home. The Spanish are obsessed with ham, and they eat it in all forms, shapes and sizes. Where I was in Madrid, there were even jamón museums. It is really tasty, though, it’s definitely a fad I was able to get on board with.
- Spanish bureaucracy is, to put it straight, a nightmare.
Getting your documents is a daunting task, I’m not going to lie about it. For some reason in Spain they manage to make everything a lot more complicated than it needs to be. Be aware of the law of ‘falta uno’ (one missing) which refers to the fact that for some reason every time you bring your necessary documents to register for whatever it may be, they will always tell you there is one missing and to come back when you have it. It’s a known phenomenon and it’s incredibly frustrating.
- When it’s your birthday, don’t expect everyone to buy you presents. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite.
At the school I worked in, every time it was someone’s birthday they themselves brought in biscuits, cake, sweets, etc for everyone else. WHY?! Surely they should be the ones being gifted? In Spanish culture, though, the responsibility of celebrating one’s birthday falls on said person. Luckily my birthday was in July after my Erasmus year was over, so I was back home and of course I got presents.
- The Spanish have their own concept of time.
Do not ever take a Spanish person seriously when they ask you to meet them at a certain place at a certain time. Instead, tell them to text you when they’re on their way. They will never be on time. Ever. Spaniards are extremely laid back, to the point where for someone as timely and organised (some may say uptight) as myself, it’s annoying. Spanish time is relative and very vague: mañana is anywhere from 8am-2pm, tarde can last until it’s dark outside, and noche can mean anything from late evening to the early hours of the next morning.
- Do not mention Catalonia or the referendum if you don’t want an argument.
Whether the person is from Catalonia or they’re Spanish, this is a topic that is bound to wind people up. It’s a bit like bringing up the troubles in Northern Ireland with someone you don’t know, you just don’t do it. Unless you’re in the mood for a debate.
- Be aware that people will stare at you on public transport.
Here in Northern Ireland, I’ve come to realise that we’re very private people. We don’t like to know each others business, we stick merely to small talk about the weather and football scores. However in Spain, everyone will watch everything you’re doing. And when you catch them staring, they won’t feel awkward and stop. They’ll continue. And don’t worry if you feel awkward, because they don’t.
- Lastly and most importantly, embrace it!
Moving abroad and experiencing another culture is an amazing opportunity that you may not get again, so grab it with both hands and enjoy every second. Be aware of the little things I’ve pointed out, but also embrace your own culture shock – everyone will make their own observations when living in a foreign environment. The year will be what you make of it, so don’t shy away from the opportunity. This ‘throw yourself into it’ mentality I picked up on my year abroad is probably the reason I took the plunge and decided to study this course which something completely new to me, and it’s exciting!
- Don’t book your accommodation online. Go and see it first!
Anna Stewart is an MSc Communication and Public Relations with Advertising student at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter: @astewart95 and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-stewart-b3127a139/