Monday, 28 February 2011

Sevilla: My year abroad experience as a language assistant

Returning to Sevilla recently, I was struck by how little has changed since I first arrived there as a year abroad student in 2004. Yes, the main thoroughfare of the Avenida de la Constitucion is now pedestrianized (a welcome improvement) and the city is now better connected by means of a metro, some swanky new tapas bars and shops have sprung up; but so much has stayed the same. Las Columnas on Calle Mateos Gago is still providing local workers with their morning tostada, the 'lazy beggars' are still haunting Calle Tetuán with their pleas for cash to buy beer or whisky, Calle Betis is still alive with young party-goers until the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings. Stepping off the bus from the airport, I could easily have stepped back in time by seven years: the city's grand beauty and my feelings towards it are unchanged.

My first visit to Sevilla was in September 2004, shortly after installing myself in the nearby town of Alcalá de Guadaíra, my home for the academic year. The first time I heard of Alcalá was when my mum read its name to me over the telephone, breaking the news of where the British Council had posted me as an English Language Assistant. Her slightly creative spelling meant that my internet search brought up nothing more than a photo of the local firemen: nevermind population, attractions and such trivial statistics, at least I knew I'd be safe in the event of being engulfed by flames. Fast-forward a few months, and I arrived in Alcalá accompanied by my parents, understandably concerned at the prospect of sending their twenty-year old daughter to live in a town inhabited entirely by firemen. Finding my place of work was the first challenge: Alcalá's streets are notoriously difficult to navigate, and all the shopkeepers and passers-by I quizzed as to the location of the high school claimed ignorance (or at least, I think that's what they were saying: the local accent took more than a little getting used to). Resorting to abandoning the car and taking a taxi, we eventually pulled up at the IES Cristobal de Monroy to meet my new boss, the friendly head of the English department. My dad was a little puzzled as to why the chic Spanish lady professed to be from Cardiff, until I later enlightened him that she was from a very different coastal city, Cádiz. A couple of hours later, with her assistance, I had found a rather ramshackle three-bedroom apartment, all dark wood and crucifixes above the bed, and my mother had decided that Alcalá was just like Salford and that she had no desire to return. Sadly, there were no firemen in evidence.

Welcome to Alcala

Flat found, there was just the signing of the contract to get out of the way. Arriving at the estate agents', someone's brother's cousin's boyfriends' friend greeted us in enthusiastic English. 'I am pastry chef', he beamed. Was this some kind of local tradition, I wondered? Or a 'rent a flat, get a free cake' promotion? No, after meeting me the estate agents had simply decided I spoke no Spanish and plumbed their contacts for someone who did. It quickly became apparent that pastry chef's English was inferior to his abilities with a filo parcel, and I was left to do the talking. He did offer me his phone number 'in case I needed help' though, which my dad declined on my behalf. Ordeal over, I had the keys to my first ever flat in my hand.

Before I had time to settle in to my surroundings or get used to the searing September heat, my parents were back in the UK and it was my first day at work. In class just ten hours a week, it was my duty to assist the English department at one of the town's high schools with the teaching of English. This experience did nothing to alter my conviction that I didn't want to be a teacher, but it did make me into something of a local celebrity among the town's teenagers. They started most lessons by telling me where they had seen me during the past week and cheerfully greeted me everytime they spotted me out doing my shopping. Assigned mostly 14-15 year olds to teach, I had my work cut out for me: class sizes were large, motivation was generally minimal. I can't pretend I didn't enjoy my role as human dictionary though: having 30 Spanish teenagers repeat 'bath' and 'bus' back to me in a northern accent felt like a minor personal victory over the tyranny of the RP lady on the tape. However, my flat vowels were allegedly the reason that one teacher declared she no longer wanted me in her classes, claiming that she 'spoke better English than me'. I feel the truth was probably the opposite: she realised I was exposing her limited language skills.

With some of my favourite students

It wasn't just my accent that proved problematic. The andalus accent is famously difficult for foreigners to understand, with locals dropping the 's' at the end or in the middle of words, and contracting -ado and -ada endings into 'ao' and 'a'. To say I was tired in an Alcalá accent, for example, I would say 'Toy cansa' instead of 'Estoy cansada'. Even though my spoken Spanish was of a reasonable standard after 8 years' study, the language barrier was significant for the first few months. Making friends was difficult too: even the younger teachers were much older than me, and my background and first language only hindered matters when we went out for a post-work drink. Fortunately, I did have one friend in a similar situation: another Language Assistant posted in a town on the other side of Sevilla. My weekends were spent with her, or wandering the centre of Sevilla, visiting sights such as the cathedral or Alcazar, spending my grant in the city's shops and enjoying a thick hot chocolate in one of Sevilla's many cafes. For the first few months, Alcalá's proximity to Sevilla (a half-hour bus ride) was its main selling point: although most nearby towns pale in comparison to Sevilla's grandeur, Alcalá certainly wouldn't win any beauty prizes.

Trying to make friends in Sevilla

But I wasn't destined to remain a friendless wanderer. My saviour arrived in the form of Macarena: no, not the dodgy song, but one of my older students, taking night classes in order to pass her Bachillerato (the equivalent of A Levels). In a Q & A session one evening, her class quizzed me on whether I preferred going out in the UK or in Spain. At the risk of sounding terminally uncool, I confessed I hadn't actually been 'out' in Spain. 'You'll have to come out with me and my friends!' cried Macarena, and a friendship was born. Soon I had a group of Spanish friends to spend my weekends with. Keen to introduce me to their area and to Spanish culture, they took me to restaurants, bars, ferias (local festivals based around eating, drinking and dancing, one of my favourite things about Andalusia) and as far afield as Cádiz, the beaches of Huelva and the sierra (mountains) of Málaga. In time, the accent ceased to be a problem, and without realising it, I acquired one too: visiting a friend in another part of the country, her Spanish friends almost fell over backwards when they heard the little blonde guiri's thick Sevilla drawl.

Success at last: with friends at a feria

Alcalá may not be as charming as one of Andalusia's famous pueblos blancos or as appealing as its great cities, but Salford it is not. After a few months, it felt like home, thanks largely to the people who went out of their way to make me feel welcome. And so, in this most unlikely place, my love affair with Spain and my life as a Brit abroad began.

  • You may also be interested in the recent article I wrote about the sights of Sevilla for The Travel Belles. You can find it here.

Photo of sign by koggaccio/Flickr.


    1. Hey,

      I did a CELTA course in Sevilla a few years ago and was impressed by those homeless guys you mentioned. At least they're honest about why they want the money... :)


    2. Hi Kate! I saw a documentary on Seville several years back, and it struck me as the most beauitful city I had ever seen - from the architecture to the horse drawn carriages.

    3. Thanks for your comments! Stuart, I agree - I think their approach has done them more favours than the alternative one. Michael, you should definitely visit - I don't know anyone who has been and not fallen in love with Seville.


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