It’s siesta on a Sunday in Alcalá de Henares, Spain. Every shop is shuttered and the streets are empty and silent save for the brush of leaves stirred by the wind. The late October sun is bright and warm, generously allowing dresses. By Plaza de Cervantes, the heart of the city, locals gather at cafes and bars to socialize over drinks and tapas. Kids glide lazily through the streets on bikes while grandparents supervise at the edge of the plaza.
Half an hour away in Madrid, Sunday siesta is a different story. The streets teem with locals taking a traditional Sunday afternoon stroll and tourists toting maps and DSLR cameras. El Rastro, Madrid’s sprawling, weekly flea market in La Latina, releases its crowds around siesta, when it’s time to hit the neighborhood’s famous tapas restaurants. Around Plaza Puerta del Sol, protesters demonstrate and street performers and musicians hustle for cash.
Living in Alcalá means enjoying the best of both worlds. Only a train ride away from my relaxed, friendly community is the vibrant, exhilarating capital. I’ve been in Spain for over a month now, and in that time I’ve carved out a life here. It’s an adult life: one with bills and paychecks, responsibilities and freedoms. It’s quite different from my semester abroad in Madrid, but no less fun.
I am an English language assistant at a bilingual elementary school in Camarma de Esteruelas, a sleepy town a 15-minutes bus ride away. I work from 9 am until 1:15 or 2 pm, Monday through Thursday. I help out in English and science classes, coaching students on conversational English and reviewing assignments. I had applied in January to a government-run program called North American Language and Culture Assistants in Spain (a.k.a. Auxiliares de Conversación en España). The program places native English speakers at public schools all over the country. Assistants work for one academic year, with the option to renew for another. I’ll finish at my school in June 2014 but plan on traveling for a few months after if I can.
Moving to a foreign country after graduation had been on my mind for a long time before I applied. Despite the roots I inadvertently put down when I returned to DC for the summer to intern, I was always sure about Spain. No matter how I looked at it, living and working abroad seemed like a “now or never” proposition. Yet, wrapped up in the application and then the visa process, the move didn’t feel real until I got off the plane in Madrid. When I applied I was deep into a miserable Boston winter and busy with internships and classes. Boston felt worlds away from what awaited me in Spain: four-hour workdays, siestas, weekend trips to other countries, speaking Spanish, teaching English, sunshine, marshaling 8-year-olds, staying out until 6 am, etc. It’s a completely new lifestyle, and I love it.
At the end of September I traveled to Valencia with a new friend and experienced intense déjà vu. Almost exactly two years earlier, I’d visited Valencia when I first came to Madrid. I’d stayed at the same hostel, photographed the same sites, tanned at the same beach, and wandered the same neighborhoods. Now here I was two years later, living abroad again the best way I knew how and escaping to the beach at the first opportunity. Since then I’ve taken short trips to Ávila and Zaragoza. In the coming weeks, I’m heading to Barcelona, Copenhagen, Geneva, and London. Right now I’m planning travel as if this all might end soon; as if it’s too good to be true. It’s nice to know that it’s not.