Hola, my name is Madeleine and I am currently volunteering in Spain with Lattitude. These last two months have been pretty action packed and very eye opening, and although my Spanish is still coming along slowly, I have had an amazing time experiencing all that Spain has to offer.
My brother volunteered with Lattitude in South America in 2016 and had an incredible time, so when I saw that Lattitude was offering a placement in Spain, something clicked. I could do something challenging and rewarding involving travel and people, in a country that I had always dreamed of visiting.
Spain was a major draw card for me because it was a country overflowing with history and beauty. Spanish food was also something that attracted to me, famous for their tapas and sangria; I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. I loved the idea of fully immersing myself in a foreign culture in one of the most beautiful and historic countries in the world.
I’m currently living in a small city called Avila, in Castilla y Leon (a large region in the center of Spain). Avila is an incredibly historic and scenic city, surrounded by snow-covered mountains. Avila is famous for it’s medieval wall, which surrounds the old part of the city, and the ancient churches (of which there are many!). It’s a pretty small city but it has everything you need, and bigger cities such as Salamanca, Valladolid and Madrid are close enough to visit easily.
I’m working in a high school, Jorge Santayana, volunteering as a teaching assistant in English language classes. It’s a public high school with about 400 students, located near the center of the city. I may be a little bias, but I think it might just be the best school in all of Spain.
The teachers, particularly the English department, are so enthusiastic about teaching and helping students, and the students are just as enthusiastic about learning. The students are always curious to learn about New Zealand and my life at home, and love comparing life in New Zealand to life in Spain. Working in a high school is great because the students have a relatively high level of English, which allows them to engage more during my class. Classes are often filled with debates and arguments, all of which is okay so long as they speak in English.
An average day for me at school consists of classes with a range of age groups, often giving a presentation about New Zealand, anything from traditional food to popular sports. In some classes I read Shakespeare or recent news articles, followed by a rather lively discussion. I am on a two week rotation, meaning I have a different class every day for two weeks, then start from the beginning, therefore, I get to interact with lots of different students with different levels of English. As well as teaching in school, I also teach private English lessons outside of school, for teachers, friends and total strangers! This provides me with enough pocket money to travel on the weekend, and offers another level of involvement into the Spanish culture.
Probably the best part of my volunteering experience in Spain has been my host family. Words cannot describe how welcoming, understanding and helpful they have been. My host mother is a teacher at my high school, and her and her husband have a six-year-old daughter. They have opened their home to me and have provided me with an irreplaceable insight into Spanish life. Living with a family means I get to eat traditional Spanish food, interact with their friends and family, and travel to places in Spain and Europe I would not have otherwise gone to. They have been very patient with my Spanish, adapted their meals to suit my diet, and full-heartedly welcomed me into their family.
As amazing as my experience in Spain so far has been, there are certainly a few cultural differences that took some time to get my head around. Probably the most difficult for me was adapting to meal times. Unlike the usual New Zealand 12:30pm lunch and 6:30pm dinner, Spanish people tend to eat a lot later, I mean A LOT later! Lunch is usually served around 3:00pm and dinner is 10:00pm if you’re lucky! Safe to say my first few weeks were spent with a very hungry stomach by the time 10:00pm rolled around. However, I am now used to it and actually quite enjoy the later meals. It means the afternoon lasts longer and there is no need for a midnight snack.
Something I was really worried about before leaving New Zealand was the language barrier, as the only Spanish words I knew were fiesta and siesta (both very important words to know!), but I really haven’t had too much difficultly communicating. Most people have a basic level of English, and if they don’t, they are more than happy to try their best. On my first day of school, two teachers, neither of whom spoke a word of English, sat me down and taught me the vital Spanish phrases, first of which is ordering a coffee, “Quiero un café con leche por favor”!
Regardless of these difficulties and differences, the best part about travelling with Lattitude is that there are always other volunteers only a phone call (or train ride) away; volunteers who quickly become close friends. Travelling with others who are in a really similar situation means they are going to understand your immense hunger at 7:30pm, your frustration at naughty students, and the daily struggle of being teased about the way we pronounce “ten” and “bed” in a New Zealand accent.
Like the amazing people in Spain, the country itself is also pretty incredible, and there is no shortage of weekend trips to picturesque towns and cities. Because Avila is so centrally located, most cities are only a train ride away. Every city I have visited so far has offered something different, from jaw-dropping Cathedrals to picture-perfect main squares and endless art galleries. And while Spain has an infinite list of must-see locations, it is also only a skip and a jump away from the rest of Europe.
One of the highlights of my time in Spain so far has been the many weekends spent getting lost in a new city. Weekend trips to Salamanca, Madrid, Valladolid, and San Sebastian, as well as a long weekend in Belgium have resulted in a very full camera roll and a very satisfied traveller.
Even though I have only been in Spain for a couple of months, I have already noticed some pretty cool and important personal developments. For one, I am now an expert at understanding hand gestures and sign language (given I often cannot understand a word of Spanish; they speak VERY quickly), although my understanding of the Spanish language is slowly but surely coming along. I have also grown confident speaking in front of a crowd and I have developed confidence travelling by myself. Train rides and airports are a lot less daunting now. My sense of direction has improved, helped by identifying the spire of the cathedral!
While I am still uncertain of what my future plans are, I know that a job with the potential to travel and interacting with people is what I want. Regardless of where I end up, I know the leadership skills, independence and confidence I am developing while in Spain will take me far.
Deciding to volunteer with Lattitude has been the best decision I have ever made. Not only have I been completely immersed in a fascinating and unfamiliar culture, but also I have been presented with an opportunity for personal development and I have the ability to explore a new city every weekend. I have made some incredible new friends and have gained a second family. Spain is a diverse and spectacular country; the people are incredible, the food is delectable and the scenery is unbeatable. I couldn’t recommend volunteering with Lattitude in Spain enough; it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Thankyou so much to Madeleine for writing this fantastic blog about her experience so far! If you have been inspired to volunteer in Spain, you can find out more here.