Back in Madrid after camp #2, various projects have been filling the remainder of my summer. Last week, for instance, I spent quality time in Atención al Ciudadano offices trying to  jump through the hoops required to renew my foreigner card. This is the less-than-glamorous side of living abroad, as the bald patch on my scalp will attest.

Additionally, this past week I was hit with a brick of homesickness. I miss: friends and family, carpet, open spaces, the color green, dinner conversation outside on the deck, the oodles of fresh basil from my parent’s garden, PBS programming, and cars (driving in them, as opposed to playing frogger).

Is summer still summer without bare feet on grass?

I was laid low at an inopportune time, as I was signed up to talk to the upcoming Fulbrighters about working as an English Teaching Assistant in Madrid. I reminded myself of the high points of the year and jumped into the conversation. The presentation went fine, and I was tickled when one of the listeners came up to tell me that the session was the most helpful one they’d had at orientation. I had taken some of the info from emails exchanged earlier in the summer with the new Fulbrighter at my school as well as another friend who was moving to Madrid. Since writing them down was an exercise in reflection on my year here, I wanted to share them with you.

Q &A

As for preparing for being a teaching assistant, are there things that I should bring or prepare in advance?

While I was told that I wouldn’t need to have experience teaching English for this position, it most certainly helps to have a good foundation of grammar so that you can explain rules and avoid the “I-don’t-know-why-it’s-this-way-it-just-sounds-good-to-me” fluff answer. I would recommend that you brush up on some certain grammar basics by getting a grammar or other helpful book. You can’t be expected to know everything, but it helps if you have the tools at your disposal.

Are there other preparations that I should do or materials I should bring to help me do a better job?  I don’t want to waste suitcase space on things I don’t really need!

Good question. Luckily with the internet there are oodles of ESL websites that can help you plan your lessons at the spur of the moment. I have run to them many a time whenever a teacher asks me to prepare a lesson for the next day or even the upcoming hour.

Since you have a few months before your bag flies to Spain, my advice would be to amass items specifically related to American culture. Co-teachers love it when you can work culture into the lesson–they also get to learn! I would recommend that you bring materials and have general lesson plan ideas for American holidays and other important dates from the English-speaking world. For example, on Valentine’s Day we spent an entire period passing out conversation candy hearts and explaining what the phrases meant. Other examples: celebrating birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day, etc. Also: recycling in your town, slang teenagers use, a typical American school day, pop songs.

Thinking of suitcase space, what is the dress code at the school?  Is it fairly formal or more laid back?  I don’t want to bring things I am not going to wear.

When my coordinator met me at school the day before classes started, he was wearing a shirt with a picture of The Simpsons. While a few teachers consistently sport dressy ensembles, it is much more common to see laidback attire. You won’t see ratty pants or sweat suits (okay, well minus the gym teacher’s), but you won’t see formal business wear, either. A typical outfit might include nice slacks with a collared or button-up shirt. Jeans are often the pants of choice. In winter, boots and scarves also appear.

Is there anywhere specific you would advise for or against living in Madrid?  I was thinking of trying to get somewhere semi-close to the city center so that I will be in a centralized location because I don’t know where I’m placed yet.

The city center is definitely a fun place to be, but it does come with a steep price tag. Wherever you end up you can bank of spending around 48 euros a month for the monthly metro pass. If you live or work in a B1 or B2 area, you will pay more.

The area of Lavapiés, in the center, is a neighborhood with a lot of immigrants and diversity. This is the place to go if you want to find ethnic restaurants or grocery stores. I enjoy walking around…but in the daytime. I have friends who live in the heart of the neighborhood and love it; they also tell me they get hit up all the time to buy pot.

If you look at the metro map, there are a few neighborhoods I’ve been told to avoid at night:  Simancas on the orange line and Villa de Vallecas on the light blue. I used to give private lessons in La Elipa, on the red line, and was always a bit unnerved whenever I walked back to the metro in the dark after some stories that I heard and the groups of shady-looking people I passed.

To the other extreme, extra-expensive areas in the city center include the area around Colon/Serrano/Velzquez. Some apartment-owners in the center may ask and arm and a leg for a chinzy place—I saw 3 different pisos that were downright disgusting but were still expensive because of the central location.

A more residential neighborhood that I really like is on the purple line, between Estrella and Pavones. This general area is known as Moratalaz, and I’m familiar with it because I have private classes in Vinateros. I don’t know how much apartments go for there, but I always feel safe there and enjoy the general atmosphere.

Anyway, the best way to get a feel for the different areas is to simply make appointments to view apartments in many different parts of the city.

And finally, have you been to Salamanca?  My parents are coming at Christmas, and we are spending 5 days in Madrid and then want to spend some time, about 4 days, outside of the city.  I thought Salamanca might be nice, but I have read that there is not much to do there.  Do you have any suggestions of someplace nice (and a good place to spend New Year’s Eve) within 4 hours of Madrid?

If possible I would urge you to rearrange your dates so that you can be in Madrid on New Year’s Eve. The excitement of being in the Puerta del Sol with a wig-wearing crowd, slurping down grapes in time to the bell chimes is an unrivaled experience in all of Spain.

I have been to Salamanca and would recommend it as a side-trip from Madrid. However, I’m not sure you can really spend 4 days there, especially if things such as the famous university are closed for the holidays. It’s a quaint, university town which might even become quainter due to the dates. Castilla y León is also notoriously cold so do keep that in mind, as well.

Zaragoza, a 4-hour bus ride from Madrid, is another city that might be a good choice. It’s Spain’s 5th largest city and offers enough for a laid-back 3 or 4-day trip. Here you can visit a UNESCO site with mudejar architecture, a few museums, a beautiful basilica which wraps around a huge square, plus shopping, pintxo restaurants, etc. If you find that the sites will be closed for Xmas, or if you want a city with more to do, consider heading to Valencia.

The clock tower in the Puerta del Sol on New Year’s Day