The Best Of 2016


Since David Bowie left the mortal realm, the world has become a terrible place. But despite this, I thought it was important to look back at my personal positives of 2016… no matter how sad I am that Carrie Fisher is dead. 2016 was a year of big changes for me. After months of agonising over the decision, I decided it was time to repatriate myself back into British life. I’d gotten a tad complacent with everything… so obviously my brain decided to change it all at once. 2nd times a charm, right?

So, in order, I bring you my highlights of 2016.

Visiting Florence

I’ve wanted to visit Italy for as long as I can remember – and after almost two years of living on the continent, I finally got my chance. I traveled round the country by train – and although the trip was slightly derailed by the destruction of my passport – Florence was by far my favourite desintation. I saw amazing architecture, did fantastic shopping, marvelled at incredible art… and saw creepy fetus mannequins from the 19th century. I will definitely be back.

Reading Stephen King’s It

Much like visiting Italy, I had always wanted to read It. And although it really didn’t live up to the ‘omg so scary’ reviews I’ve been hearing my entire life, it was huge. Like, physically. And I’m glad I read it. And it makes me feel less terrible about failing my Goodreads Reading Challenge this year. Seriously, it was huge!

Giving up teaching

Although I have never wanted to end up as a teacher, it somehow became my job.  Yet it was always my means of staying in Madrid and getting a pretty decent income. So I stayed. But at the same time I was interviewing for summer camp positions to keep myself fed for the 3 months of Hell I was about to experience, I took a chance and interviewed for an unpaid editorial internship. And got it. Although I then had to decide between teaching and eating and gaining experience in the field I loved and starving – I’m glad I took the risk as it proved I was capable and qualified to do what I loved and gave me the push I needed to leave the safety net of Spain. Even if I did have to eat a lot of pasta to do so.

Seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Seeing this play was a long time coming. I first bought the tickets in October 2015 and spent an agonising year waiting for my time to come. I’ve written about the show in great detail already, so I won’t dwell on it too much, but it was definitely my favourite part of the year. Not only did it fill the empty place in my soul of the waiting for a new Potter release, but my quick trip to London was the catalyst for my eventual return to the UK. Thanks, Harry.

Doing a Brexit of my own

And finally, the most important change for me in 2016, moving back to the UK. Despite being on the top of my game in the ESL world, I knew it was time to move on. So after packing my entire life into two suitcases and a cardboard box, I took the leap and moved back “home”. I write this blogpost to you from my new place in Brighton. I have no idea what’s going to happen next, but I imagine it will begin with job interviews, vegan food, and maybe a new haircut.

Cheers to you, 2017.

The Great Expat Dilemma: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Let’s get real for second. When I first decided to start my expat adventure I was a naive little 21 year old, fresh out of university, with no life or work experience. I was feeling defeated and like I was running out of options, regretting all of my life choices that had led me to that moment.

To avoid spending another minute wasting away in my teenage bedroom whilst all my friends went on to bigger and better things, I thought maybe I’d move abroad and teach English. I wish I could remember my thought process for deciding this, but I imagine a lot of it had to do with just wanting to prove that I could do something other than receive job rejection emails. Thus, I set myself a task to work towards (so my days could be spent doing something more worthwhile than watching Catfish marathons) and for the first time since education, my life had purpose again.

I chose my destination (Madrid), worked out my plan (to begin with a four week TEFL course and then wing it), bought my plane tickets, and off I went. Soon I was a qualified English as a second language teacher living in a capital city and hanging out with a crazy diverse group of friends. And my initial plan to teach English for a year and then head home then turned into two years with no plans to leave yet. But yet, that expat dilemma remains: when is it time to go home?

By moving to Madrid, I definitely accomplished what I wanted to do. Before I left I was crippled by intense social anxiety and could barely function in situations I hadn’t rehearsed in my head before hand. I couldn’t talk to strangers or look people in the eye or make small talk in shops. But moving to a place where you don’t understand a single thing anyone says, or have your mum to do things for you, really forces you out of your comfort zone. And whilst I still don’t revel in talking to others, I no longer feel like my throat is closing up. I can navigate through life without that omnipresent sense of dread following me around – and let me tell ya, it feels super refreshing. I recently spent a few weeks in the UK and had multiple people comment on how different I was so. So life experience? Check.

Another thing I wanted was work experience. And whilst teaching is in no way what I want to do with my life, it pays the bills whilst I embark on multiple unpaid internships – something that definitely wasn’t available for me in a place like Hull. I’ve managed social media accounts, learnt CMS, written articles about things I knew nothing about before I started – aka I’ve basically become a digital media wizard. So whilst teaching isn’t exactly where I imagined I’d be at 24, I’m getting that much needed experience all those “entry level” jobs somehow expect you to have already. It just took me a little longer to get there and I’m talking about verbs whilst doing it. Work experience? Working on it but let me give it a preemptive check.

So after doing everything I set out to do (and spending double the expected time here), why am I still in Spain? The simple, gross, and horribly cliché version is that I fell in love. With the city, with a dude, with my entire existence here. And why ruin a good thing? I’ll stick with the cheap wine and sunny weather and good Mexican food, thanks.

But another major factor in my decision to stay in Madrid is that I don’t know what would happen otherwise. Here I know I can keep getting teaching gigs, keep living cheaply, keep enjoying this big city life I’ve grown accustomed to. Before I moved here my life was so uncertain – whether I’d get a job, be able to move out, the sensitive state of my mental health, etc etc. Shit was scary, but here I don’t have to worry. As I keep saying over and over again, this definitely isn’t where I expected to be, but as long as I’m paying the bills, having fun, and improving myself as a person, I don’t see what the problem is. I may not be as far along on the career ladder as my classmates but look at all that sexy life experience I’m racking up. And I’ve learnt more Spanish talking to supermarket cashiers here than I did in in four years of German in high school, so there’s that.

So although expat life has its flaws; friends leaving every year, language barriers, and cultural mishaps – and even though Spain is definitely not the utopia all those retired Brits make it out to be, it looks like for the moment I’m here to stay.

A misleading title? Mayhaps. ‘Cause I have no freaking idea what I’m doing with my life other than enjoying it. But at 24, I think maybe that’s okay.

My Favourite Language Learning Apps: Spanish

I’ll admit, after almost fourteen months of living in Madrid, my Spanish is pretty terrible. I got complacent. I learnt what I needed to know (restaurant talk, bank talk, basic pleasantries), and then just stopped. Whether it’s because I’m lazy or because shrieking ‘NO HABLO ESPAÑOL’ when people try to engage me in conversation is an introvert’s dream, I’m not entirely sure. But somehow it happened. Occasionally, however, I do go through bursts of inspiration and/or guilt over my terrible language skills, and crack down for a week or two… but it never lasts for long. Especially with a Spanish boyfriend who I can look at expectantly whenever anyone asks me a question. But with a new academic year comes a new eruption of determination. So I figured I’d review my favourites of the countless language learning apps I’ve used over the last year, in the hopes it can help other little clueless expats out there. De nada.

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Duolingo:

Duolingo seems to be everyone’s go-to language learning app, probably because it’s so easily accessible on both mobile and PC. My first experiences with it were a few years ago when I attempted to relearn German… which didn’t go great. But once I decided I was going to move to Spain, I decided to give it another try.

Pros:

  • The language tree is a great way to quickly see which areas you need to work on. It’s bright and clear and not cluttered, which doesn’t make you feel overwhelmed by everything you need to learn.
  • The point based system makes it like a game, and if you’re as competitive as I am, earning those lingots is a great way to get motivated when you feel like skipping a day. Particularly with the chance to ‘buy’ extra levels, such as the flirting pack, which I love to terrorise my boyfriend with.
  • The comments on the questions make it really seem like a community. Sometimes the example sentences on Duolingo are odd to say the least, and seeing what other people had to say about the hilarious statements is a good way to remind yourself that other people are going through the same thing.

Cons:

  • Along with the strange sentence choices, some of the topics on Duolingo are a bit useless. In the job category I learnt about soldiers and commanders and lieutenants, words that I barely ever use in English, whilst completely skipping out professions such as butcher and baker and, uh, candlestick maker?
  • The fluency percentage thing. There is no way in hell I have 47% fluency in Spanish. 4.7% maybe, but not this. How is this even worked out?
  • THAT DAMN OWL. It looks so disappointed when you miss a day, that I’ve found myself not going on the site for weeks because I can’t deal with his judgemental little face. Thank you, uncanny valley.

Verdict: Duolingo is a great starting point for language learning, and also a great supplement to other services, but as a whole it just doesn’t do enough to help you really learn a language. For vocabulary stuff, it’s great, but I found that it didn’t help progress my grammar at all, so I ended up talking like a simpleton all day (whereas now I can speak like a toddler, yeaaaah).

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Cat Spanish:

Cat Spanish was my first paid language learning app, and you can only use it on your mobile. I am a very visual learner, so Cat Spanish was great for me, as it uses hilarious and adorable cat pictures to help you remember phrases easier. It probably helps if, like me, you are obsessed with cats. This app is definitely more a memorisation type of learning, rather than teaching you to figure things out for yourself, and although that might not be everyone’s way of learning, to me it really helped me find my confidence and gave me a basis to work off of.

Pros:

  • Lolcat-esque images that relate to specific phrases. If you’re a visual learner, a cat rolling around in toilet paper might help you remember what to say if you need toilet paper (which came in useful for me when I couldn’t reach it in a store).
  • Small levels which feel manageable. The app only introduces a couple of phrases at a time, so you’re not overwhelmed by words and grammar and pronunciation.
  • It’s in Castilian Spanish! Most of the language apps I’ve tried have been in South American Spanish, which is completely useless for me living in Spain. My biggest language app pet peeve is that developers don’t clearly mark which continent their language is for. Cat Spanish means I can actually use the phrases I learn in confidence knowing that people will understand me (other than my awful pronunciation, of course).

Cons:

  • Sooooo much repetition. I know that repetition is key to learning languages (spoiler alert, I’m an English teacher), but this app really takes it to a whole new level. I find myself screaming ‘yes, yes, I’ve got it now THANK YOU’ at my phone when it’s asking me a question for the millionth time. This is particularly relevant in the part where you have a conversation with a cat… they don’t flow fluently and even if I didn’t know the answer it would be easy to guess anyway because they give you all three choices. Come on guys, give me a challenge.
  • Refers to itself as a ‘social language learning app’ but for those of us who don’t have FB friends also using the app (or don’t like connecting absolutely every account we make to FB), social doesn’t even come into it. It paired me up with some random people who I guess downloaded it at the same time as me, but they stopped using the app months ago. So for me, this is the most solitary of all three apps I use.

Verdict: This was the first app that really got me to stick my teeth into learning Spanish, and acted as a great stepping stone to me -finally- starting to understand the language. For me, the memorisation technique works really well, but other people might prefer a more grammar based approach. I love this app, and think it’s worth the money, but it will all depend on what learning style works for you.

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Memrise:

The most recent app I’ve tried, but definitely my favourite (and actually from the people behind Cat Spanish). I’ve been using this app all summer now and feel I’ve progressed more with Spanish in these last few months than the entire year I’ve been here. Like Duolingo, you can use both the mobile app or the website, set a daily goal, and keep up your learning streak… but for some reason it just works so much better for me.

Pros:

  • Whereas other language learning apps start at the very beginning, Memrise offers a whole variety of courses so you can start at whatever level you feel comfortable at. I’m currently dabbling in two different levels, so it really feels like a more personalised course than the others. Yay.
  • The option to skip levels is really useful. Sometimes constantly failing on one aspect makes you not want to continue, so when ser vs estar was getting too much for me, I jumped ahead to the next level, and went back to tackle the earlier level later.
  • The review option actually seems to work. As in, the things it chooses are phrases that I probably should be reviewing at that time. Unlike Duolingo which seems to make you review everything every damn day. It just makes using this app an actual pleasant thing to do instead of something I dread. Go Memrise!
  • When you’re struggling with a word or phrase, you get the option to pair it with a ‘meme’ to help you remember it. More of that good ol’ visual learning stuff again! For me, the word for wrong is an angry avocado.

Cons:

  • Sometimes I don’t really understand the order it teaches things in. Like taking a million different levels to teach me the numbers, something I learnt myself before I used this app in about ten minutes, but trying to cram every variety of ser and estar into one level. One of these things is not like the other.

Verdict: Memrise pretty much gives you the best of both worlds mixing traditional and visual learning together depending on when you need it. I feel as if Memrise is more customisable than other apps I’ve tried, making it more enjoyable to use as I actually feel like I’m getting somewhere. More enjoyable to use, better Spanish skills. Yay!

So I think it’s pretty obvious which tool is my favourite. Memrise just ticks all the boxes for me, and although I’m still guilty of skipping a day every now and then, I’m more dedicated to this app than I have been the others (owl or no owl). I’d recommend Memrise to anyone trying to improve their language skills, particularly the Spanish course. Of course, I’m supplementing my use of this site with a textbook and activities of my own creation (as well as, y’know, going outside and interacting with Spanish people), but I like to consider Memrise the centre of my current language learning endeavour, and I doubt I’d be as learning as much without it there to guide me.

Teaching English in Madrid: Pros and Cons

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So teaching English in Spain was a bit of a whirlwind decision for me, and since deciding to do it last May and moving to Madrid in July, my opinions and expectations have changed a lot. Firstly, I was so completely against teaching children. I hated high school when I was there myself, why would I willingly spend more time there as a grownup? One of the selling points of teaching for me was that I could work exclusively with adults. So how did I end up, eight months later, working with kids (and more importantly, enjoying it so much more)? Let’s investigate.

I’ve pretty much done the whole teaching spectrum during my short time in Spain. I’ve worked in an academy, taught in-company Business English, and taught in a secondary school. I’m by no means an expert, but just in case anyone is an obsessive Googler like I am, here are my thoughts on all three of my teaching gigs so far.

Teaching In An Academy: Most people who teach in a language academy will tell you the same thing: it’s very hit or miss. I kind of fell into academy work. It was one of my first job interviews in Spain, and they were the first place to offer me a job. As an unemployed college graduate, I jumped at the chance. I was gonna have money? Yes please! However, I really wish I’d done more research first. I quickly found out that my €10 an hour pay was kind of, well, terrible. I pretty much just spent my days teaching straight out of a textbook and fighting with the CD player to get listening exercises to work. Also, for all my fear over teaching kids, adults (with barely any command over the English language) will very often fight you over basic English grammar or word pronunciations. Like, who’s the English teacher here, Juan?

  • Pros: Your classes are all in one place and most of the time materials will be provided.
  • Cons: The pay isn’t the best and there’s a strong possibility they’ll expect your academy classes to have precedence over any privates you might have.

Teaching In-Company Business Classes: I really liked teaching Business English, but I did get amazingly lucky teaching only C1 level students. A lot of the time Business English students will want to focus more on conversational English that will help them with clients and travel, rather than revising the joys of the past participle for two hours. Originally I was worried that my lack of business knowledge would hinder my ability to teach Business English, but you’d be surprised how much stuff you pick up from just general day to day life, and there weren’t any instances were I couldn’t answer my students’ questions. A lot of the time I’d plan a lesson on a specific subject, and by the end of the class I’d be answering random questions about Scottish Independence and the, uh, nightlife in Amsterdam. Definitely more interesting than phrasal verbs.

  • Pros: You have more control over the lessons and can ask your students what they specifically want to learn (you’ll also get to sit in fancy conference rooms a lot).
  • Cons: When taking on new classes, you have to account for travel time between locations, so you better bring a book to read on the Metro.

Teaching In A School/Being A Language Assistant: After my Business English contract was coming to an end and seeing how much my friends liked working in schools, I decided to try my luck applying for the Ministry Program… in the middle of the school year. Shockingly enough, it actually worked. And I’m so glad it did. Teaching kids is very different to teaching adults, but for the first time since starting this little teaching adventure, my job actually feels… rewarding? I thought that teaching paying adults would feel like this, but I quickly realised their interest mainly stems in landing a job. Whereas kids might not be learning English by choice, the majority of them do seem to actually enjoy their lessons. And the best part is that because I’m only a measly language assistant, I just get to play games and do fun stuff with them, all the boring grammar stuff gets loaded onto the teachers. It’s like being the cool aunt or something.

  • Pros: Your classes are all in one place, you get to hear sentences like ‘Madonna will have a baby… and then kill it’ whilst teaching the future tenses, and let’s be real, the pay is pretty great.
  • Cons: The likelihood of getting placed in a school in the centre is slim, but honestly the commute isn’t so bad. When I first got placed in Zone B2, I almost cried. But it only takes me about 45 minutes and my 40 book reading challenge is coming on like a dream. So not really that much of a con after all.

So that’s my experience with teaching English in Madrid. I know the experience is different for everyone, but that’s part of the fun of it. It’s supposed to be an adventure! And if you really do get a job and it’s completely terrible, just change it. In case you couldn’t tell from what I just wrote, there’s lots of opportunities for teaching English in Madrid and you’ve just gotta find your perfect fit. If you’re thinking of applying to teach English abroad, I highly suggest it! It definitely changed my life for the better… although whether that’s the joys of teaching or the cheap vino blanco is purely a matter of opinion.