Thursday, December 19, 2013

Q&A: Teaching English in Spain as a North American Language and Culture Assistant

A few weeks ago I got an email with questions from someone interested in working as an auxiliar de conversación (North American Language and Culture Assistant) in Spain next year.  In case others have similar questions, I thought it might be useful to post the questions and my responses here.

1. Looking back on your overall experience, are you glad you decided to spend 8-9 months in Spain? Was the decision worth it? 

Without a doubt, yes.  I am so glad I went back to Spain for another year.  Some of the people I met during my year as an auxiliar became my best friends --and are still to this day.

2. What was your biggest reason for participating in the Auxiliares program? 

 a. A desire to teach English abroad.
 b. A desire to improve your Spanish language fluency by living abroad.
 c. A general desire to travel and live abroad.
 d. Or some other reason.

I had studied abroad in Madrid my junior year of college and loved it. I actually thought I would be serving in Peace Corps (PC) after I graduated college, but when I randomly got accepted late into auxiliares (and my PC health exam didn't pass) I decided to go to Spain.  Reasons being: To live in Madrid for the Spanish language, the sunshine, the relaxed lifestyle, to make new friends, and to have new experiences. I was also really excited to be teaching instead of studying like last time, so I would have more free time instead of needing to study and write papers.

3. What was the best part of your English teaching experience in your school? 

The best part for me was getting to know the students. I was at two public vocational schools, so my students were ages 16 - 40.  Many were around my age in their early 20s. Sometimes that felt strange, but they were all really nice and I learned more about Spanish culture through conversation with them. I actually became friends with some, and hung out outside of class a couple of times.

4. What was the worst part of your English teaching experience in your school?

I didn't feel I was utilized as much as I could have been by my schools. As an assistant, I had little control over the format of class, and thought the way my students were taught English by their teachers was not the best way to learn a foreign language. But please see #5: 

5. What advice can you give to a future Auxiliar about having a positive teaching experience?

Please keep in mind that your teaching experience completely depends on the school(s) you're placed in and the English teachers. Unfortunately you won't know until you get there how it will be -- but don't let that stop you! I was placed in two (poorer) vocational schools, and it was the first year that both of them had an auxiliar. So they didn't really know how to best use me. It's not like it was a bad experience - I didn't dread going to work or anything, I just uh, felt useless/powerless most of the time, which is a shame because I thought I had a lot to offer with my experience/knowledge of learning/teaching foreign languages. 

Other auxiliares were a lot busier than me, and a lot more involved in their classes/school. Some schools are wealthier and have more materials than others.  One of my auxiliar friends got to go on a school trip to the UK with her students during the year!

Again, you won't know until you get there, but either way you can make the best of your situation and have a great year. Since my work as an auxiliar wasn't very fulfilling to me, I made sure that the rest of my time was. Work is only 16 hours a week, so I put my energy and dedication into my private English classes - where I did have control over the format of class. I felt useful there! I also joined an ultimate frisbee team and spent multiple nights each week and nearly all weekends with them at practices and away at tournaments. That's where I made my best friends and have the best memories.

Juanito's Open (ultimate frisbee hat tournament) , March 2012 Madrid

6. Whom did you end up living with? Americans? Spaniards? People of other nationalities? And was it a good experience?

I lived with a young Venezuelan couple (28 and 30), and yes it was great (they cooked a lot - and would often make me a plate of whatever they'd made!). I'm a quieter type, so I didn't mind living with people a bit older than me who were going to have quiet nights in most of the time. I highly recommend living with Spaniards to improve your Spanish. Other people have gotten shared flats with international students, which sounds like an incredible experience as well, actually. But you won't have the language practice at home -- so it depends on what you're looking for. But also it depends on what's available in your budget when you're apartment hunting... 

7. Did you teach private English lessons or have any other side jobs?

Yes, I taught private English classes and I really enjoyed them. I charged 16/hr for all of my classes but one (15/hr for a student I had taught when I studied abroad -- we left it at the same price as before. I adore this kid and his family, so I didn't care). And what I made in private classes actually covered my rent each month, since my rent was cheap and I taught four classes a week. (If you're looking to do so, here's how I found my private classes). 

I love these girls, two of my private English students!

8. Was the Auxiliar stipend livable? Plenty? Too little?

Yes, the auxiliar stipend is definitely livable. I found a place with significantly lower rent than most in Madrid, but even paying a higher rent price, there's still plenty to spend each month, and room to save for travel/loans/etc. This obviously depends on your lifestyle - if you eat out every day and blow a lot of money going out every weekend, you're not going to have as much. (Here's a rough breakdown of where I think my money went). 

9. How fluent were you in Spanish upon arrival in Spain and how fluent were you when you left? (1=beginning level fluency, 10=near-native fluency)

I know you wanted numbers, but I'm going to give you words instead! I think my level of Spanish may have actually been the highest at the end of my study abroad year, and that's because my classes every day were taught in Spanish, and I read and wrote in Spanish when doing homework/classwork. When I worked as an auxiliar, I was speaking in English most of the time because that was my job! So keep in mind that since you'll be speaking and thinking in English during your auxiliar classes & preparations and private lessons & planning.   Thus, in order to improve your Spanish, every moment outside of class you should be speaking and thinking in Spanish (theoretically)! 

Watch Spanish TV.  Read Spanish news.  Speak in Spanish at home and with your friends.  Here are some more tips to get better at Spanish.  Just by living in Spain, your Spanish will improve.  But the amount you improve obviously depends on the situations you create for yourself.  Back before the internet when my study abroad advisor studied abroad herself as a student, she became completely fluent during the year -- such a high level of Spanish.  And that's because she was speaking and thinking in Spanish all the time. She wasn't reading English websites or Facebook or writing English emails, or skyping with friends in English. So obviously the more immersed you are, the more you'll learn and improve. 

10. Were you able to travel while you were in Spain? What was your favorite destination?

Yes - there is time to travel! Since you only work four days a week, every weekend is a long weekend.  There are lots of other random national holidays too, plus winter break. I think my favorite place in Spain (outside of Madrid) is Granada.  For a beach weekend, I loved going to Málaga or Alicante.  Barcelona was also a wonderful trip.  I have been to many places in Spain, but still have never made it to Galicia or Asturias (or many other places!).  There is so much to see within Spain.

Alicante, Spain

11. Were you able to sufficiently experience Spanish culture?

Yes - I had some Spanish friends from my previous year, but you can definitely meet Spaniards at intercambios, meetups, couchsurfers, a sports team, out at night, etc. If you live with Spaniards, you will learn lots more about the Spanish culture! There are so many events in Madrid all the time, many of them cultural. Eat the food, visit the parks, go to the museums, travel the country, speak Spanish! (This is a big one, because if you're constantly hanging out with other Americans speaking English, then you're way less likely to meet Spaniards. You can still have American/foreign friends, I just highly recommend speaking in Spanish when you hang out!) 

12. What was the most frustrating aspect of the Auxiliares de conversacion program and/or the Spanish government?

One part I didn't like is that all of the communication was through email. The first orientation really didn't orient us into the program (I felt), so had I needed to get in contact with someone for any reason, I didn't know who to contact or the best way to do so. (Most of the emails we got say "do not reply to this email address") at the bottom. 

13. What advice do you have to make these frustrations go more smoothly?

Just knowing to expect some frustrations should help. Be flexible, and realize that this is how the Spanish government/offices are for Spaniards, too. Take it as a cultural lesson, and a great lesson in patience! The other part to remember is that it's only for 8-9 months. If I were going to live in Spain forever, I'd have to do some thinking, but it's not too much to put up with for the things you'll need to do during those 9 months. Remember that tons of other native English speakers have all gone through the same program and they get their NIEs and they get paid. Now that it's been some time since I worked as an auxiliar, I only really remember the good parts. Whatever frustrations I may have felt were all temporary and resolved. 

14. Considering your entire experience in Spain overall, would you recommend that an interested person participate in the Auxiliares de Conversacion program? Basically, was it worth it?

Definitely! You will have experiences that will last you a lifetime. The Spanish culture/lifestyle is so great! The country is diverse and exciting to discover. Speaking Spanish is fun, and you will gain a great language skill.  Worth it 100%!

15. What final advice would you give to a future Auxiliar? And what is the best way to prepare for the program and 8-9 months in Spain?

Advice -- It sounds like you've already been reading blogs, which can give you a good idea of what to expect. But don't treat these as word of law, because your experience will be what you make of it.  I've tried to leave advice here and there in the above questions.  Work is only 16 hours a week, so make sure you get involved in something during the other hours.  Whether it be teaching private lessons, joining a sports team, volunteering, going to intercambios, etc. - just don't sit at home!  Whatever your interests/hobbies are, I'm sure you can find a way to get involved in Spain.  Lots of people go off to different European countries every weekend, but don't forget about where you're living!  Seeing and experiencing the local events and visiting other parts of Spain will better integrate you with Spanish culture.  Lastly, apply!  You can always decline when you get accepted, but I would just go ahead and apply so that you have the option.

Have any more questions?  Please leave a comment!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Spanish animal sounds

Last month one of my third grade classes here in Korea reminded me of the fact that different languages have different sounds for animal noises.  I reflected back to when I first learned that animals in Spanish made different sounds than in English, and how it was a real eye-opening moment.  More small moments like that one accumulated during my first year abroad, which amounted to my "new perspective" of the world that I brought back with me - and have been building on ever since.

Animal sounds in different languages

So what do Spanish animals sound like?

Some Spanish animal sounds are pretty similar to their English counterparts, like these:

Bee (abeja): bzzz
Cat (gato): miau
Cow (vaca): muuu
Duck (pato): cuac cuac
Donkey (burro): ii-aah
Owl (búho): uu-uu

And others are a bit different:

Chick (pollito): pío pío
Dog (perro): guau guau
Frog (rana): cruá cruá
Horse (caballo): jiiiii, iiiou
Hen (gallina): coc co co coc
Lion (león): grrrr
Monkey (mono): i-i-i-i
Rooster (gallo): kikirikí
Turkey (pavo) gluglú

Hear them spoken by a (cute, young) native Spanish speaker below:

Monday, October 28, 2013

Humana: Used clothing store in Madrid

I love thrift stores.  When in the states, I do my clothes shopping at St. Vincent De Paul's and Goodwill.  So the first time I moved to Madrid, I was worried that I would have to buy new, expensive clothes - or none at all during the year.

Then a friend told me about Humana, a used clothing store in Madrid.  Hurray!

Humana is an NGO with projects in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and Asia.  Humana collects and sells used clothing in order to fund its projects.  There are multiple Humana shops in Madrid (and elsewhere in Spain!), and numerous donation bins all around the city.

The first time I went to Humana, it was 4 euro day; every item in the store cost only 4 euros, just for that day.  I was amazed! (And shopped!).  Jeans, sweaters, coats: 4 euros.

Imagine my surprise that a few days later I happened upon 3 euro day at another Humana.  Amazing!

(Note: If anyone is still looking for a halloween costume this week, Humana is the perfect place to shop!)


Throughout both my years living in Madrid, I was a regular shopper at Humana.  I even had a punch card!  In fact, I also visited Humana shops when traveling: one in Sevilla, and I went to two different Humana shops in Barcelona!  Point being, Humana and I are great friends.  I'm actually surprised I haven't explicitly blogged about Humana until now, apart from my post about the first two times I went there back in 2009.

And at the end of both years, while packing my suitcases to return to the states, I always had a huge bag of things I donated to Humana.  You can donate clothes directly at the store, or put it in any of the donation containers around the city.  There are 5,000 Humana donation bins in Spain, and that link will help you find the closest container to you!

Humana donation container
Humana donation container
Image from:

There are currently 12 Humana shops in Madrid, so visit as many as you'd like!  (There are 2 in Sevilla, 2 in Granada, and 12 in Barcelona).

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Living on an auxiliar's 1,000 monthly stipend

In the auxiliares de conversación program in Madrid, language assistants receive 1,000 euros a month during the nine-month contract (700/month in other regions of Spain).  Is this enough to live on?  Certainly!  I'm going to break it down in just a bit, but first I'd like to touch on a few other financial topics:

School loans

I had just graduated from college before working as an auxiliar de conversación, so I had loans to pay -- and I made monthly loan payments throughout the entire year in Madrid.  If this is your case, I highly recommend paying on your loans while you're in Spain.  To date (one year since finishing my job as an auxiliar), I've already paid back three of my four loans, and this would not have been possible had I deferred them, accruing interest the whole time (scary thought!).

Transfering money to a U.S. account

I could only pay my loans from a U.S. bank account, but in Spain I was getting paid directly to my Spanish bank account.  To not completely drain my U.S. checking account, I would transfer money to my U.S. account using paypal.  I hooked up my BBVA (Spanish bank) account to a new paypal account and I already had a U.S. paypal account connected to my U.S. checking account.  So every now and then I would make personal transfers from my Spanish paypal to my U.S. paypal.  I found that sending 150 euros at a time was the cheapest (1,50 fee).  This is what worked best for my situation.  Most of my money was being spent in Spain, so since I was only sending smaller amounts no more than once a month, this was easy to do.  I didn't have to mess with any wire fees, or worse -- Spanish banks!


Just because the question always seems to come up, a brief note about taxes. The 1,000 or 700/month stipend is considered a grant/scholarship by Spain's Ministry of Education, so it's not taxable in Spain (since it's not considered income). I thought this meant it also wasn't considered income in the USA (and read that several places back when I was an auxiliar), so I didn't list it when I did my U.S. taxes. However, according to this thorough "How to Do Your Taxes as a Language Assistant in Spain," you should list it as some type of income on your state and federal taxes. I'm so obviously not a tax expert, but check out that resource linked to above... and then you'll probably want to get advice from an actual tax expert.

Additional income

I also taught private English lessons every week to supplement my income.  (Want to teach private English classes?  Use this resource to find students!)  You're only (supposed to be) working 16 hours a week as an auxiliar, so there is definitely time to teach some evening or weekend private classes.  I taught four classes a week, three at 16/hr, and one at 15/hr, so I made 63 additional euros a week, around 252/month if no classes were cancelled.

Monthly Budget

Alright, let's break it down.  The italicized items varied each month.

Total monthly income: 1,252 euros
  (1,000 auxiliares + 252 private classes)

Monthly expenses:
Rent: 240
Utilities: 15
Abono (metro/bus pass): 30,50
Loans: 250
Cell phone: 5 - 10
Tournaments/travel: 100 - 200
Groceries: 120
Drinks/Eating out: 75?

Total Expenses: 835,50 - 945,50 euros
Unspent: 306,50 - 416,50 euros


This is a rough estimate -- my tournament costs varied greatly depending on location, mode of transportation, and the tournament fee.  Some months I had more than one tournament, some months none.  I don't have a good idea how much I spent each month eating out or going out for drinks.  Again, I tend to spend less than my peers, but I would still go out with my friends for cañas and tapas.

Many people will notice that my rent was considerably low compared to what most auxiliares will pay (nearly double my rent cost).  If I taught all of my private classes each month, I could pay my rent with just that income, leaving me with a full 1,000 euros after rent.  I lived with two others in an apartment five minutes from one of my schools.  My roommates (a young married couple) didn't want to make any money by renting the third room; they simply wanted to cover 1/3 of their monthly rent.  I chose not to live in the center of Madrid (I lived in Artilleros), and to not look at an apartment unless it was in my price range back when I was apartment hunting.

During 2009-10 when I lived in Madrid, I paid 320/month (internet and utilities included) for an apartment in Salamanca.  Again, I only had two other roommates -- it was a great find.  If you're frugal like me, know it can be done!  Just don't settle during your apartment search, because you'll be paying that rent every month -- it adds up quickly.

I didn't have a smart phone when living in Spain, rather, I had a tarjeta pre-paid "plan". This meant I simply added money to my account whenever it was low, and paid by the minute  and per text. I didn't make phone calls or send texts very often, so my monthly cost was low. If I were to live in Spain again, I would bring a smart phone and get a plan with internet. My friend's internet phone plan in Spain cost 8 euros a month -- data plans are much cheaper than in the states!

From July '12 through September '12 I was supporting myself in Madrid with no income (June is the final month of the auxiliares contract).  Those summer months included a two-week trip to Germany and a two-week trip to France for me.  When I returned to the states at the end of September, I still had over 1,000 euros in my BBVA account.


Are you paying your student loans while working as an auxiliar de conversación?  How does your monthly budget in Spain compare to mine?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

10 differences between British and American English

Because of its proximity to the UK, most English teachers in Spain teach British English as opposed to American English.  Both of my schools used British English textbooks, and so did my private English students.

Over time I picked up on the pertinent UK lingo and grammar (learning to keep my mouth shut when my kids said "I have got a sister" instead of correcting them, "You have a sister.").  Sometimes in class I would have those I-have-absolutely-no-idea-what-this-word-means moments when we'd come across certain British English words in the textbook.  Then I would take it home and look it up.

So here are the ten differences that stuck out to me the most while teaching basic and intermediate English in Madrid:

10. Maths

The school subject of mathematics is pluralized in its shortened version, so I'd often hear students say simple sentences such as: "I need to study maths".

9. University

If you went to college in the states and got a Bachelor's Degree (for example), you'd best say to your European friends and students that you went to University.

8. Spanner

One day with a small class of "electronics" students, they had a matching activity in their workbook -- word to picture.  I could figure most of them out by elimination, but I did not know what a freaking spanner was.  It's a wrench!

7. Lift

I remember my Tues/Weds teacher making a deal about this one in front of the class.  It means elevator, but here's how she pointed out the two different vocabulary words.  First she wrote "lift" on the board, saying how logical and simple it was, because it lifts you up to higher floors (and the word is short).  Then she wrote "elevator" below, saying "I don't know why it's such a long, complicated word.  Elevator.  But in the United States, it's what they say".  Biased much?  And yes I know it comes from the verb to elevate.

6. Travelling, favourite, etc.

You will come across many spelling variances between British English and American English, but since many of my students learned present progressive (am/are/is  ____ing) that year, and the textbook used "travel" as one of the six verbs to practice with, I saw an awful lot of "travelling"s.  Luckily the teachers recognized the American spelling as well, and accepted both spellings on exams.

5. Rubbish

Trash.  Put it in the rubbish bins!

4. Torch

No, my students are not carrying around flaming torches to see at night, but rather, flashlights.

3. Have got

The British use the verbal phrase "have got" where we Americans simply say "have".  This one really sounded strange to me at first, but after two years of drilling my students, I now find myself using this verb all the time -- even back in the states!  "Have you got any pens?"

2. Pet hate

There was a small section about "pet hates" in one of my school's textbooks.  By context clues, I figured out it means pet peeve, but again, at first I was puzzled when the English teacher asked me what was my pet hate.

1. Rubber

Last (first?), but certainly not least, I will never forget the day when my 8-year-old Rodrigo started talking about his rubbers.  You have what in your pencil case?!  They're erasers.  What were you thinking?

What other British English have you picked up or been exposed to while teaching English abroad?

Friday, August 2, 2013

How to practice Spanish before studying abroad in Spain

I didn't prepare myself too well the summer before I studied abroad in Madrid in college.  I think I downloaded some free podcasts, but I didn't do much else.  So: do as I say, not as I did!

How to practice Spanish before studying abroad

These are some of the ways I keep from losing my Spanish, now that it's at a fluent level after my two years in Madrid.  If you're planning to study abroad or live in a Spanish-speaking country, I highly recommend doing some or all of these in the time before you leave.  You may (and again, I recommend) do all of them no matter where you're living to improve your Spanish.

1) Speak at a conversation table or intercambio

The best way to get better at speaking Spanish (or any foreign language for that matter) is to do it.  Speak, speak, speak, and make tons of mistakes!  The sooner you start, the sooner you'll improve.  In Madrid there are many intercambios, and many cities around the world have conversation tables (Madison does!).   Check Craigslist and ask around -- or start your own!

2) Watch TV in Spanish

In the states, I feel like watching TV is being lazy - a waste of time.  Not if you're watching in Spanish!  Start watching Spanish TV shows before you study abroad.  In Spanish, TV shows are split into three main categories: series (fictional TV series), programas (talk shows, game shows), and noticias (news).  One channel you can watch both online and in Spain is Antena 3:

Antena 3 is another great site to watch TV shows, documentaries, etc.  It's got a few channels, whereas Antena 3 is just one.

Here's my complete guide to learning Spanish with TV shows from Spain—including many show recommendations!

3) Watch Spanish movies

Some movies you can find online, but if you've got a local library I recommend checking out the DVD copy.  This way you can turn on the Spanish subtitles while you watch, which is the preferred way (if you need subtitles).

Need movie recommendations? Check these out.

4) Listen to Spanish podcasts

Notes in Spanish is a separate site that offers free real-life audio and video in Spanish.

5) Read Spanish newspapers

Start reading El País instead of spending time on Facebook or reading the news in English.  Reading this newspaper will not only help your language skills, but it will ease the transition to your future community by increasing your cultural knowledge.

6) Listen to Spanish radio

When living in Madrid I would often listen to Cadena Dial (91.7 FM in Madrid) on my radio in my room.  The station only plays music with Spanish lyrics.  Again, not only did this help my Spanish, but I also felt a step closer to fitting in with my Spanish friends.  If you're out and your fellow Spaniards are all singing along to a popular song, it feels really good when you know the lyrics and can sing along with them!  Oh, the little things.  Not in Spain yet?  Listen to Cadena Dial in real time here.

Cadena Ser (105.4 FM in Madrid) is a talk show / news station that will definitely help your ear get used to the Castilian Spanish (castellano).  Listen directly online here.

And here's an exhaustive list of Spanish radio stations that you can stream live on the internet to find your own favorite.

7) Play

Lyrics Training is an online game where you watch music videos of popular songs as the lyrics appear on the screen.  Every now and then there are blanks in the lyrics, and you need to type in the missing word as quickly as you can.

I actually showed this game to my English students, but it was also fun for me to play in Spanish and French.  Lyrics Training has songs in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, German, and Dutch. Definitely give it a try!

8) Set electronic accounts to Spanish

Change the settings of your email account, Facebook, cell phone, camera, laptop, etc. so that the language is set to Spanish.

9) Various Online Resources

This page from CEC Study Languages Abroad offers 10 free online resources for learning Spanish, and it's a good place to start.  This BBC Spanish page is another.


New Spanish-learning resource added 4/21/14:

10) FluentU

I received an email last week from the founder of FluentU, who describes his site as a "new education startup for learning languages with real-world videos like cartoons, TV shows, and songs". Here's a quick tour:

I opened an account and have actually been using the site to continue learning French. I'm really impressed so far, and highly recommend the site for learning/practicing Spanish (or any of the other languages offered, for that matter!).

Additional Resources for Learning Spanish

In the year after originally publishing this post, I began working for FluentU and was with them through the end of 2016. During that time I wrote several articles with advice/tips for learning Spanish, which I've listed below. Honestly, these posts are much more detailed and helpful than this old one you just read!

What tips/resources have been helpful for you on your Spanish-learning journey?

Friday, July 26, 2013

How to grocery shop in Madrid

I've written a guide to eating out at restaurants in Spain, but what if you're new to Madrid or Spain and need to buy some groceries?

Main Grocery Stores in Madrid/Spain

Here are the main grocery stores in Madrid (also found throughout Spain):


Source: Wikipedia

Mercadona was by far my favorite grocery store in Madrid last year, so I'm listing it first.  During my first year in Madrid I didn't live near one (they're aren't too many in the city), so I never went.  This past year there was a Mercadona right next to my Tues/Weds school, so I went often.  It's always clean and there's a great selection of items.  This is where I'd buy hummus and gluten-free items (they have lots!).  Highly recommended.


Dia, Source

All three apartments in which I lived in Madrid were all about a block from a Dia supermarket.  Dia has cheaper prices, so I'd go there more frequently for basics and every day purchases, like baguettes and rice.  If you're living in Madrid, get a Dia card -- you get new coupons every month.  Just ask about it at the check-out counter and they'll give you a slip to fill out with your name and address.


Carrefour, Source
My favorite reusable bags (pictured below) came from Carrefour -- but I never shopped here regularly during my two years in Madrid.  It just wasn't the closest grocery store to me, but I think the quality's great! [Update: While living in France from 2015-16 I shopped regularly at Carrefour and really love it.]

Carrefour reuseable bags, Spain



I never shopped here regularly, since there's a much smaller selection and higher prices, but take note that OpenCor is open 18 hours a day (until 3am), 365 days a year.  I went here on New Year's Eve with my grandma and mother when they visited, since every other grocery store was closed for the holiday.


Alcampo, Source

Alcampo is gigantic.  It sells more than just groceries: clothes, books, musical instruments, electronics, school supplies, etc.  So if you can't find something at a smaller grocery store, chances are high that you can find it in Alcampo.  There aren't many in the city since they're so big; I can think of two Alcampos that I know of in Madrid.  So if you go, prepare yourself for lots of people and a huge store.  My Tues/Weds school last year was near an Alcampo (across the street from Mercaonda), so I'd go there a few times when I wanted a bigger/different selection.

Corte Inglés

El Corte Inglés (Source)

Don't go grocery shopping here! Unless you have piles of money to use up, that is -- Corté Inglés is an expensive place to grocery shop. They do have a wider selection of health food / dietary restriction items though, so you might want to explore it just to know what's available.

Eroski + superSol
Two other grocery stores off the top of my head are Eroski and superSol.  I don't have anything special to say about them - they're just more grocery stores you might happen to live by in Madrid.

Eroski, Source

superSol, Source

Important Things to Know about Grocery Shopping in Spain

- Bring your own plastic or reusable bags.
You'll have to pay a few cents for each bag you need at most grocery stores.

- Don't touch the fruit!  
If the fruit is self-serve, there will be plastic gloves readily available. In Spain you must be wearing a glove to touch the fruit. At other grocery stores someone works behind the fruit counter. Tell them what you want and they'll touch the fruit and weigh/bag it for you.

- Bring change and have patience in line.  
Some grocery stores have a minimum amount you must purchase in order to pay with a debit/credit card (at Dia it's 14 euros).  Most people still pay with cash and count out exact change, so be prepared. 

Not all places (Dia, for example) are always able to break 20s and 50s.  I'll never forget the first time I was waiting in line at a Dia, and the cashier asked everyone in line if they had a 5 or 10 euro bill.  Someone from the line passed up a 5 so the cashier could make change for the current customer.  This happened often enough there, but the first time I was really surprised.

- Milk and eggs will not be refrigerated.  
Milk is prepared differently in Spain, so the boxes of milk don't need to be refrigerated until after you open it.  I found this kind of nice, because you could stock up and buy six bricks at a time, then leave them in the cupboard.  I put my eggs in the fridge after I bought them, but for whatever reason they're not refrigerated in the store.

- Peanut butter is not a Spanish staple.
You can find most food items from the USA in Spanish grocery stores, but not peanut butter!  Try an herbolario -- that's where I bought my rice milk.  Herbolarios also have vegetarian, low sugar, and other special diet foods.

- You can take single items from packs.
This mostly applies to beverages, and it's fantastic. You can take out a single can of soda from a six-pack's plastic rings, or open up the plastic from a package of 2-L water bottles to take however many you need. That's why you'll see open packs on the shelves. (You'll notice the price listed is per single unit.) I've also seen yogurt packs split apart to take however many singles you want—but not the kind with a cardboard case around the yogurts.

- Grocery stores are closed on Sundays.  
This one took a while to get used to, since Sunday is the grocery shopping day in the states.  Plan ahead and make sure on Saturday that you have what you need to get you through the weekend, otherwise you might be stopping at an OpenCor!

Did you find this post helpful?

Take a look around the rest of the blog, and feel free to email me if you have any other Spain questions! (rebeccarosethering [at] gmail [dot] com)

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

European Championships of Beach Ultimate 2013: Calafell, Spain

The 2013 European Championships of Beach Ultimate (ECBU) are happening right now, as I write.  And guess where ECBU is being held this year?  In Calafell, Spain!  On the same beach where I played with Granada's team for the Calafell Tournament last spring.

I'm pleased to have friends on all of Spain's team's that are participating in this championship: Mixed, Women's, Open, Master Mixed, and Master Open.

ECBU Spain 2013
Spain at ECBU 2013 in Calafell, Spain
Photo source

 ECBU 2013 games are being broadcast live here.  I missed Spain's mixed game vs. Germany this morning because that was at 4am Wisconsin time, but I plan to watch Spain's mixed masters and open masters games tomorrow.

Looking good Hermann! (#31)
Photo source

¡Vamos España!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

How to get a library card in Madrid

If you're living in Madrid, whether you're studying abroad or working, I highly recommend getting a library card.

Benefits of a library card

The benefits are numerous:
  • Wide selection of books in Spanish = great Spanish language practice
  • Children's books in English = great for private English lessons
  • Movies or TV series in Spanish = great Spanish language practice
    • (I always recommend watching with Spanish subtitles if you need them -- not English!)
  • Movies in English = could be watched in an English class if you're a North American Language and Culture Assistant
    • (Like above, in this case make sure the teacher turns on English subtitles)
  • Audio CDs = listen to Spanish artists
  • Check out neighborhood happenings on the library bulletin board
The library in my 2011-12 neighborhood (Moratalaz) always had the neighborhood newspaper sitting on a table near the entrance, free to take.  There would also be flyers for neighborhood events and such.  Some weeks there would even be magazines and books (some in English, some in Spanish) that the library was getting rid of for free.  One week I took a few English magazines from the table and brought them to one of the schools I taught in.  Another week I grabbed a Spanish magazine for myself to read.

Library systems in Madrid

In Madrid, there are two different library systems: Bibliotecas Públicas de Madrid and Bibliotecas Municipales.  Each system has its own library card.  I believe the main difference between the two systems is simply who runs them (please comment if you know more!).

I lived near bibliotecas públicas both years that I lived in Spain, so that's the type of library card I got.  Here's a link to a search to find the closest library in the Comunidad de Madrid to where you live.  This network of libraries encompasses Biblioteca Regional, Bibliotecas Públicas, Bibliobuses and Bibliometro.

Getting a library card

A library card in Spain is called a carné de biblioteca, and it is free to obtain at both types of libraries.  You must bring your actual passport as means of identification, and be prepared to provide your complete Madrid address as well.  (When I was getting my first card in 2009, I didn't know my zip code.  Since I lived just a block away, they put in the library's zip code and I was good to go.  Next time, in 2011, I made sure I knew my zip!)  

So the "process" is really simple -- just go up to the counter and say you would like a library card (Buenos días.  Me gustaría un carné de biblioteca.)  Show them your passport.  They'll ask you for your address, and then they will give you your card on the spot.  (Don't forget to say gracias!)

Checking out/returning materials

Now that you have a card, you're ready to check out some books (or DVDs or CDs).  When you bring books to the counter to either check-out or return, you'll have to specify which action you're taking.  Say "para devolver" to return the books, and "para llevar" if you want to check the books out.

The biggest differences in check-out rules in comparison to Wisconsin is that you can't renew anything in Madrid, and you can only check out three books at a time (that last one took a while for me to get used to!)  Here are most of the rules:
  • You can have a maximum of 3 books checked out at once, and the check-out period is one month
  • You can check out up to 3 CDs/DVDs for a maximum of 7 days
  • You can check out up to 3 magazines at a time for a maximum of 7 days
  • Electronic book check-out period is one month
  • You cannot renew anything
  • You must return materials to the library from which you checked it out
Note: check-out lengths during the summer (June 15 - September 15) at the bibliotecas municipales are extended.

Do you have a library card in Spain?  How often do you check-out materials?  Please comment with any other tips/pointers you have!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Intercambios: Way to meet Spaniards and improve Spanish

A great way to practice Spanish with native speakers and to meet new people is through intercambios.  The simplest definition of intercambio is a language exchange.  As a native English speaker seeking to practice Spanish, my intercambios in Madrid were with native Spanish speakers that wanted to practice English.  So it's the event, but I've also come to use the word "intercambio" as a noun for the person with whom I'm having the language exchange, as you'll see throughout the rest of this post.

If the intercambio is one-on-one, the norm is to talk half the time in English, then half the time in Spanish.  Do not talk in Spanish and have your intercambio answer in English -- it's so much more beneficial to both be speaking in the same language.


If you want to find an intercambio partner with whom you can regularly meet, check out these sites:
You could also post flyers around your neighborhood.  If you're college-aged, I recommend posting flyers at/near the universities.

Bar Intercambio Nights

Perhaps meeting one-on-one with someone is too intimidating for you, or maybe you don't want that level of commitment.  That's just fine, because numerous bars in Madrid have weekly intercambio nights.  These are a great way to meet people and to practice Spanish.

Grab a friend (or go solo), head to the bar, buy a drink (some bars have discounts if you say you're with the intercambio!), and start talking!  It's usually easy to figure out who's there for the intercambio if it's your first time.  Most intercambios have someone in charge, and that person tries to introduce newcomers to the other people attending the intercambio.  You can also just listen for English or French, or look for other foreigners.

Okay, so where/when are some of these intercambios?
  • Beer Station
    • c/ Santo Domingo, 22 (Metro: Santo Domingo, Callao)
    • Thursdays (22:00)
  • Café Madrid
    • c/ Mesón de Paños, 6 (Metro: Ópera)
    • Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays (Starting at 21:00)
  • Downtown Madrid
    • c/ San Mateo, 21 (Metro: Alonso Martínez, Tribunal)
    • Thursdays (18:00 - 23:30)
  • J&J Books and Coffee
    • c/ Espíritu Santo, 47 (Metro: Noviciado)
    • Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights (20:00 - 22:00)
  • Madrid Hola to Hello Intercambio Meetup
    • c/ Huertas, 38 (Metro: Antón Martín)
    • Wednesdays (21:00 - 22:00)
    • Talk for 10 min in English, 10 min in Spanish, then switch groups
  • The James Joyce Irish Pub
    • c/ Alcalá, 59 (Metro: Príncipe de Vergara, Retiro)
    • I'm actually not sure what their current intercambio nights are, and I'm not finding it on their site -- please leave a comment if you know!
  • O'Neill's
    • c/ Príncipe, 12 (Metro: Sol, Sevilla)
    • Tuesdays (starting at 21:00), ask for Mark
  • The Quiet Man
    • c/ Valverde, 44 (Metro: Gran Vía, Tribunal)
    • Wednesdays (Starting at 21:00) and Sundays (Starting at 19:00)
Remember, the crowd changes from week to week.  Don't rule it out if your first time ends up being a "dud" night.  One night at a J&Js intercambio with my friend Izzy, we had to leave early because we couldn't stop laughing.  There was an Italian guy at the intercambio who was a replica of the character Buster from Arrested Development.  He also reminded us of Izzy's annoying Italian roommate at the time, and we just could not keep it together.  At a different intercambio later that year, a friend and I met two Spanish guys who wanted to practice English.  We actually then started meeting weekly just the four of us, going to a different bar each week.

Intercambio Groups

There are a few intercambio groups in Madrid that plan a variety of international/language-focused activities through their Facebook pages.

If you happen to be teaching English in Madrid, don't forget to tell your older students about intercambios, too!

Have you attended any of these intercambios before?  Let me know how it went in the comments!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Guiri run for Boston

I run for Boston
If you're currently in Madrid and want to show some support for Boston, Hamantha @ Pass the Ham is organizing a 10K for this Sunday, April 28.

She's gotten many businesses in Madrid to donate awesome prizes for some lucky participants that donate to The One Fund.  RSVP here on the event's facebook page.  It looks as if you'll have to scroll down and read the organizer's posts on the event page, since the event "information" section hasn't been updated.

If any readers go, let me know how it is!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Antes de morir...

Sometime last year, I saw a TED Talk about an interactive community art project called "Before I die...".  The project consists of a wall covered with multiple lines of "Before I die I want to ____________".  Passersby can fill in the blanks with chalk, sharing their dreams with the community.

The project debuted in New Orleans, but has since spread and been recreated around the globe.  I was delighted to read the other week that Cassandra (@ Gee Casandra) saw a "Before I die" display in Malasaña, a neighborhood in Madrid.  Check out the pictures on her post.

While looking for pictures of the display in Madrid on the "Before I die..." website, I discovered that there was a display in La Latina from July - October 2012.  I might have walked past it without noticing!

Antes de morir...
Antes de morir...
Photographer: Antonio García

Antes de morir... Madrid, Spain
Antes de morir...
Photographer: Alberto Vizcaíno

Antes de morir... in Madrid, Spain
Antes de morir quiero...
Photographer; Alberto Vizcaíno

The display that Cassandra saw more recently has since been taken down, but seeing the pictures reminded me of the Inside Out project I saw in Madrid last fall, inspired by TED Talk award winner JR.  As I've said before, this is just one of the many perks of living in a cultural and vibrant city like Madrid.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Las Fallas 2012: The burning (Cremà)

Today is the last day of las Fallas in Valencia.  Last year when I went to las Fallas, I couldn't stay to celebrate the last day of the festival because I had to work.  The last day is significant; it's when they burn all of the gorgeous, expensive sculptures that artists spent all year making (it's called the Cremà).

So I don't have any photos of the Cremà, but I found some youtube clips.  Here's the burning of Da Vinci, one of my favorite fallas in 2012:

Here's another video of the burning of a Falla in Valencia in 2012:

Have you ever seen the Cremà at las Fallas?  What did you think?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Las fallas 2012: The funniest sculptures

Today is day four of Las Fallas in Valencia.  Last year I had two favorite fallas overall, but there were lots of funny fallas that I appreciated as well.

Not sure what the heck a falla is? Check out this post first.

Probably the funniest falla in 2012 was the one where a woman was waxing a man's crotch.  Take a look for yourself to see what went wrong:

Funniest falla in Valencia 2012

Here's a closeup:

Funniest falla in Valencia 2012

Here are some more fallas from 2012 that brought smiles to many peoples'  faces:

Funny falla in 2012, Valencia

Funny falla in 2012, Valencia

Funny falla in 2012, Valencia

Fumar mata (menos a Fidel)

Close up:
Fumar mata (menos a Fidel)
Fumar Mata (menys a Fidel)
Smoking kills (Everyone except Fidel)

And last but not least, it's not really funny like the others, but here's how the USA was represented in a falla:
Las fallas 2012, Valencia 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Las fallas 2012: My two favorite fallas

Today is the second day of Las Fallas in Valencia, which goes until March 19.  If you don't know anything about the fallas sculptures on display in Valencia during this festival, take a quick look at this post.

There were two fallas last year that really stuck out to me as favorites:

1. Da Vinci

Da Vinci Falla: Valencia 2012
Da Vinci
Las Fallas 2012: Valencia, Spain

Da Vinci
Las Fallas 2012: Valencia, Spain

Da Vinci Falla: Valencia 2012
Da Vinci falla, 2012 Valencia
Source: Matthias Oesterle

And here's a model of the falla that was on display near the real thing:

Model of the Da Vinci falla
2012, Valencia

2. Flower Fairies

I'm not sure the actual name of this one (nor the Da Vinci one above), but I've named it "flower fairies".

Fairy falla 2012, Valencia

Flower fairies falla, Valencia 2012
Flower fairies falla
Las Fallas 2012, Valencia

Flower fairies falla, Valencia 2012
Flower Fairy
Las Fallas 2012, Valencia

And here's a picture of the falla taken by a pro during the daylight:

Las Fallas 2012, Valencia