As exciting and adventurous as traveling and living abroad is, there are those homesick moments when you wish you could magically appear back in your hometown. All the times you yearn to be in the comfort of your loved ones and close friends with a big plate of American food in front of you (In-N-Out Burger and Marie Callender’s pies…I craved you both everyday).
With time, the friends you make while abroad tend to become your family away from home.
Today, I have the great pleasure of introducing you to my dear friend, Meredith Miller- a North Carolina transplant in Spain. We met in Spanish class the fall of 2012 in Madrid at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas near the Embajadores metro. The class began with about 30 students. But soon trickled down to 10 students once the year progressed and people became engulfed in tapas, cañas and “work”. Meredith and I stuck it out to the end of the school year, along with an Italian language teacher, two Ukrainian home cleaning/nanny professionals, a graphic designer from Portugal, a thrift store shop owner from Morocco and a handful of Americans of varying professions.
It was only natural that the small group of Americans in class bonded and formed a red, white and blue network of sorts. We reminisced about home, went on a road trip together and celebrated Thanksgiving in a makeshift there-is-no-turkey-but-jamon-will-do kind of way.
I always admired Meredith and her honesty. She is unapologetically herself. She says what’s on her mind and doesn’t let anyone’s baffled look deter her opinion. She has an open attitude to people and places. And without hesitation, she agreed to share her expat experience with me and my readers.
I was fortunate to catch up with Meredith a few weeks ago in June at her flate in Madrid. In our interview, she talks about exploring life abroad, culture shock, Spanish cursing, and the Royal Family.
For readers who are sensitive to foul language, some of the words in this conversation may be too harsh for your eyes as Meredith helps us understand the ins and outs of Spanish cursing. So heads up!
Without further adieu, Meredith Miller.
Sarah: Why did you come to Spain?
Meredith: I always really hoped that I would be able to live outside of the U.S. at some point in my life. And because I always liked Spanish, I thought Spain was a good choice. I really liked the idea of living in Europe. I thought it could be a fun experience and Spain made the most sense. I learned of a job opportunity here and it seemed to be the perfect fit.
What was that job?
Working as an auxiliar de conversación. Well I guess in English you would call it an English Language Assistant. I was placed in an elementary school and I have been doing that for three years.
Have you been to Europe before this move?
Yes. I had been and I had even been to Spain once for two weeks. So, I didn’t know it that well but I was certain that I would like living here. I didn’t see there being any problem. I thought it would be really nice to live here.
When you first arrived to live and work here, were there any surprises?
Big surprises? Maybe just that compared to the U.S. things are so much smaller here. Once you start looking for an apartment…the biggest difference I think you notice as an American is the difference in size. For me it was the first time I had lived in a big city. So the public transportation was a surprise. But a nice one. I didn’t have to rely on a car. And, the Spanish food schedule…it’s so different from back home. In Spain they eat very little breakfast, then a big lunch, but late in the day. And then something really lite for dinner. It never ceases to amaze me how late Spanish people eat. There are standard times for all of those meals. Like lunch at 2:00 pm and dinner at 9:00 pm. But those times can get pushed back so much further. As far as food is concerned and their schedule, that was very different for me.
Has it been easy or difficult to adapt to the lifestyle here?
I think easy because I liked it. It’s not so extremely different than back home. I mean, if I went to a country in the east, that would be more of an adjustment. But I don’t think it’s really hard for an American to adjust to life in Spain.
Tell us about your school and beginning your job as an Auxiliar. What was it like the first month on the job?
I liked it. The kids have a lot of interest in learning English. They know a lot about the U.S. mostly because of pop culture. The movies, the songs, the celebrities…they know all about that stuff. It’s really popular here. So it is nice to see there is such a positive attitude about English and I felt like it was nice that I had something to share with them. They really wanted to learn.
Overall, for me it was really positive. And the teachers as well for the most part. I mean, right now everyone in Spain, everyone you meet seem to want to learn, or be in the process of learning, English. So it’s a good time for an English teacher in Spain.
Why do you think the English language has become so important here?
I guess because internationally it’s so important. And Spain has always kind of been behind the times with that compared to the rest of Europe. I think Spain is making a big effort now to catch up with Europe and the rest of the world. But this is really the first generation. And even Spanish people my age might not have a necessarily good level of English. But this generation of kids is really the first ones with a lot of resources and a lot of energy focused on trying to learn English. It’s an interesting time to be in Spain for that reason and watch that process and see such a big change.
As an English Language Assistant, are you allowed to speak Spanish with the children? How does it work in the classroom when many of the children are just beginning to learn English and they have little or no experience in the language?
The point of me being there is to speak English all of the time to the kids. Even though they don’t understand me a lot of the time. But the point is to speak as much English as possible and “hacer oido” as they say in Spanish, meaning “get a good ear for” the English language. So really I’m supposed to speak English to them all of the time. To the point that sometimes the kids don’t think or know that I can communicate with them in Spanish. Which is kind of purposeful to force the kids to speak in English. If they think there is no other option, then they will try a little harder to speak English.
But you of course know Spanish yourself, correct?
Yes. If I didn’t know Spanish outside of the school, my life would be very difficult. Because in general, the English level here is not very high. So I think to live comfortably, you would want to learn Spanish at some point.
Did you study Spanish before you came to Spain?
Yes, it was my minor when I was at university. And I studied abroad in Argentina when I was in school. And I had a job for one year where I worked with a lot of people who spoke Spanish. So I had been around a lot of Spanish. And I think I had a decent level when I first moved to Spain. But of course it improved a lot when I moved here and got settled.
When you are in the classroom with your students and they say something in Spanish, do you understand what they say?
Usually yes. This year I’m working with preschool aged children as well, and with them it’s difficult for me to understand them just because their Spanish isn’t that great. But overall, yes. And most of my interactions in the classroom with the younger kids are that I will speak to them in English, but they always respond to me in Spanish. But still, somehow, they don’t manage to put it together that I understand Spanish.
Have you experienced in your time here when maybe one of the children has said something in Spanish under his/her breath or in passing that caught your ear?
The kids to be funny sometimes take advantage of the fact that, or their impression rather, that I don’t understand Spanish. And I had one kid tell me jokingly in front of his friends, “Señora, tienes que adelgazar” (English- “ma’am, you need to lose weight“). I think he told me that thinking that I wouldn’t understand him and he was being really funny. Of course, it was really insulting. But overall the kids have said personal things to me. But for the most part I haven’t probably caught them. Even though if they are talking directly to me, I can understand them. But they talk a lot amongst themselves in Spanish and I don’t think I always understand what they are saying. So it’s possible that they could be insulting me and I’m not aware of it.
What have some of the challenges been living and working here as an American?
Overall, I like it. Professionally it’s hard to compare because I have never worked at a school in the U.S. I have friends who are teachers in the U.S. and are here doing this auxiliar program and it seems like their experience has not been very positive in Spain. The attitude here is a lot more laid back. Classroom management is really different. Spanish teachers tend to teach a lot by the book. There is not always a lot of innovation or creativity in the classroom and I think people who have had the experience of teaching in the U.S., this is a more negative experience for them. But since I don’t have anything to compare, I would say overall it has been nice for me. The thing that is surprising is the teachers working hours here. The school day goes from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. Then the teachers are at school from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. And as far as I understand in the U.S., the teachers would have longer working hours. I think that is also because here the teachers teach so much by the book that they may not have so many responsibilities outside the classroom.
And here it’s never considered rude for one teacher to come into another teachers’ classroom in the middle of class to interrupt them for whatever reason. It never ceases to bother them. Whereas I would always think that another teacher is doing something. I should wait until they are finished. But there are so many little conversations that go on between the teachers that last 10 to 15 minutes. The class is totally paused while the teachers are talking. And this happens all of the time. And it’s not considered rude or out of the ordinary at all. So it just seems like a lot of time is wasted. Maybe time management is not as good in the classrooms as compared to the U.S.
Didn’t you experience this as well?
Yes I experienced the same.
It’s hard to keep the kids focused and productive when this happens. And just in general it seems like classroom control is looser here. But maybe that depends on the teacher. A lot of the time the teachers I have worked with have not been that great at controlling a class.
Let’s move to physical appearances. You mentioned to me before that you don’t feel like you fit in here with regards to your physical appearance. To me, you have this beautiful blonde hair. This lovely porcelain skin. When you are walking around in the street, how do you feel? What’s the reaction from Spaniards?
I know I’m a lot paler and a lot taller than the typical Spanish woman. I definitely stand out here. I don’t feel like I get a huge amount of attention. It’s just that by looking at me, people here always know I am not Spanish. Some people from America could probably blend in more easily. But I’m not able to do that.
Other friends of mine from the U.S. have complained about stares. And it’s been more difficult for friends who were not white. People who were African American or Asian American have gotten a lot more attention. And sometimes negative. I don’t feel like I get negative attention. But it’s just like you constantly feel like you are different in that way. But overall it’s not something that bothers me. And people a lot of times can figure out that I am American especially if they hear me speaking English. But they don’t always necessarily know where I am from. They just know by taking one look at me that I am not Spanish!
But I have been with you many times here in Spain when we were in some kind of social setting with Spaniards and you carry on complete conversations in fluent Spanish. I have seen how Spaniards react in shock to your fluency. You really are at a near native fluency. I’ve heard a lot of Spaniards compliment you on your Spanish. How did your foreign language level get to this point? That native fluency level?
Well I guess when I first moved here, I lived with two guys who were Spanish. And I have been dating a Spanish guy now almost since I came to Spain and we only speak in Spanish. So in the beginning it was just speaking a lot of Spanish, hearing it, reading it. I took a class for one year here which helped as well. Though, I have made an effort to try to do it. But I think more than anything else it’s been speaking as much as possible. But, yeah I really appreciate it when people tell me, especially when Spanish people tell me…it really is the best compliment. I really like it.
Throughout this learning process living and working here, have there every been any instances or social interactions where you felt lost in translation from English to Spanish? Or completely cast away from a social interaction because of a language barrier?
My Spanish is at a level where I guess I don’t feel totally at a loss. But it is frustrating sometimes that I can’t express myself one hundred percent. Especially when you’re in a relationship with someone. I think relationships are so difficult anyways. But when you are having the whole relationship in a foreign language, and also getting to know his family in a foreign language, it feels like you can’t be one hundred percent yourself at all times. Yes, some of it is going to get lost in translation. I don’t know how to express myself as well in Spanish as I do in English.
So yes, the place where it is most difficult for me is with Alfredo, my boyfriend. Maybe there are times when I’m tired. Or times when it would be so much easier to explain something to him in English…but at this point it’s not an option.
How is Alfredo’s English?
Well, I think it’s improved since we have been together, even though we normally always speak in Spanish. But he is part of the group of Spaniards who goes against the flow and really is not that interested in English. He wasn’t before he met me. Now he is a little bit more, obviously. But still it’s not a desire of his to learn it. The relationship is still all the time in Spanish. It can be frustrating. I really hope that one day his English will improve and that the relationship can be more 50/50. Even though I like that it is in Spanish, sometimes it can be really fun. But all the time, no. It gets a little tiring.
Being in the culture here, have there been some phrases or words that have shocked you? Or words that you hear used a lot in society that may have different meanings?
Yeah, when you date a Spaniard you are going to pick up on a lot of Spanish terms. I think the thing that is most shocking to me here is Spanish cursing. Because for Americans it’s a little…well, depends on who you are with, but it’s probably a little more taboo. And here they do it a lot more openly. Especially if I am ever driving in the car with Alfredo, I think I hear ever possible Spanish curse word in combination with other curse words. It’s incredible how when he is driving, the array of different words he can use for the situation. And I enjoy it. I mean, to me since it is not my language it kind of sounds funny. But in general, they curse a lot more openly here. It’s difficult too as a foreigner because even though they curse pretty openly there are still things that are not acceptable or would not be acceptable…like around elderly people or around children. And as hard as it is for a foreigner, if you want to start using that terminology, you need to distinguish when it is appropriate and when it isn’t. Because you can’t just say coño if I’m at work and the printer isn’t working. I can’t say like, “Joder! Coño!” I mean, even if that would be a typical Spanish response to that situation.
It was funny to me how many uses they have for the word leche. For example Alfredo will say…well not just Alfredo…Spanish people will say when they are angry, “me cago en la leche”. Which basically, in English it would be like saying ‘I shit in the milk’.. And to me that is so entertaining! That just sounds funny to me.
In what other sense do they use, “me cago en la leche”? Only when they are angry?
Maybe if something takes them by surprise or something has not worked out the way they wanted. Like for example, when Alfredo, well what Alfredo used was a little stronger, but we were walking in a park one day and a bird shat on his shoulder and what he said was, “me cago en la puta”. But also I think ‘me cago en la leche’ is a lighter version of saying that. But you hear a lot of that- me cago en- anything.
So when you say me cago en (expletive), is that the English equivalent of “shit” or “oh man”?
It’s to show disgust at a situation, I guess. But yeah, you can basically say me cago en- anything: Me cago en dios, me cago en la puta, me cago en la leche, etc. Alfredo and I were watching a movie where they said, ‘me cago en la calavera’ which would be like, “I shit in my skull”. I think their cursing is enjoyable because it’s so creative. There is something that is more fun about it than English cursing. There is more variety.
What other cursing have you learned aside from me cago en….?
Well, I also like…this isn’t necessarily cursing but they use milk—leche—in a lot of different things. So if they are talking about themselves and they want to say they are cool, they could say, “soy la leche”– I am the milk. Which maybe is just funny because I interpret it in English and that is why it’s funny.
Or if someone is in a bad mood, they will say, “tiene mala leche”– he/she has bad milk. Which I mean sounds silly in English but you can kind of understand where that comes from in English. Like rotten milk is unpleasant and he would be an unpleasant person. But they use the vulgar word for vagina—coño—all of the time. Constantly. The equivalent in English is cunt. But that sounds so strong to me in English that it is not something I throw out all of the time. They are constantly saying that word. I’ve even heard old ladies at the airport saying coño when getting their luggage. I mean anytime there is any frustration, they bust out that word. And it’s just constantly entertaining to me to hear them cursing.
They also say a lot of different words for penis. Which a lot of them I have learned from Alfredo. That doesn’t sound too raunchy, does it?
Well, there is that saying- the best way to learn a foreign language is between the sheets.
(Laugh.) Yeah, I’ve heard that. But it really makes you wonder what is wrong with these people. That they can possibly have so many words for penis. But they do. There is rabo- which also means tail, minga, cipote, polla…yeah the list goes on.
Any other slang that you find curious or funny?
They have a way of saying when you are talking really bad about someone, they say: “poner a parir”, which you can say referring to a man or a woman and it means that you make them have birth. Parir is the word for birth. This is a term they would use if someone was telling a friend like, “the other day people were talking bad about you- te ponía a parir.” Something like that. It works for men or women.
It’s just very interesting. I feel like in some ways Spanish must have very visual and creative terminology and it seems kind of more old fashioned to me in America. It seems like…I mean I know this happens with Spanish slang, but American slang is always changing with every generation. You know, each generation has its thing to say and then it dies out and a new generation has new things to say. But I don’t think that happens as much in Spanish slang. Because there is so much variety of it and it’s hard to imagine that things die off and new things begin. It’s like a tradition they have and a lot of these things have just continued. And even they get a kick out of it…out of how funny their cursing is. Because if you ask them about it, maybe they have never thought about it before. But they will think ‘oh, that is really funny. I don’t know why we say that’. But it’s really enjoyable to get to know the language well enough to get to know the insult part and the slang part of it too.
Do you ever overhear some of the children at school cursing?
Yes. Joder which I guess is like saying fuck in English. But not strong to them. I hear kids say that constantly. There is a word here, as far as I can tell, I mean this is the danger here in learning the slang is that you have to learn what is appropriate and learn what it means. But most of all, when that word is appropriate. And there is a word that is really strong which is hostia.
But I have heard people say ‘ostra’. Is that the same?
It’s like the difference of people saying damn and dammit. They have these words that are the really strong version and then the really tame version. So the strong version is hostia. If maybe something takes you by surprise, you can say ‘hostia’. But the word that I hear the kids use at school is ostras, which means oysters. But I guess it’s similar enough that it gets the point across. A good example is the difference between damn and dang. There is the harder version and the lighter kid friendly version.
But before I realized that I was with a friend once and her two daughters and I said hostia and I realized by the kids reaction that I should not have said that. But you learn these things from use and being around Spanish people and experiencing it this way.
Dating a Spanish guy and meeting his parents and grandparents and everything is in Spanish. Its hard to think of an exact example but you always wonder that because you are not expressing yourself in the language that you are most capable of expressing yourself in, that you are always giving people the impression that you are kind of dumber than you are. Maybe I’m talking to Alfredo’s mom and I don’t totally understand her and I respond to something in a way that shows that I didn’t totally understand something. And people are very nice and patient with you but at the same time you end up feeling like people might think you are stupid a lot of the times. But the more you practice and the better you get, then the less that happens to you. But I think the biggest thing is to just go for it and be brave with the language. Don’t hold back and just go ahead. And you will learn a lot from trial and error when you are learning a language.
Switching gears a little, today has been a big day in Spain. Today Spain celebrated the crowning of their new royals- King Felipe and Queen Letizia. I have heard some of these curse words out and about in the city both for good and bad reasons. What are your impressions of the Spanish monarchy?
For me, I don’t think it’s negative. I think any American feels kind of charmed by a monarchy since we don’t have one. It’s something that’s kind of enchanting to us and interesting to us because it’s not something that we have or something that we can relate to. But the Spanish people I know seem to dislike it for the most part. And at the very least, since they live in a democratic country, they want the right to be able to choose to have a monarchy. Because they haven’t been given that right. The monarchy is in place because they are in place. But I don’t think overall they are unpopular. But there are a lot of people who are unhappy with it because they feel like it is not necessary anymore. And at the very least they would like the right to vote for it. And that I can understand because in the end it is what the Spanish people want to do. But I don’t see the monarchy as being anything bad. If anything it gives them connections and international attention. There are a lot of good things that can come of the monarchy as well.
To wrap up, what are your thoughts about the future? Are you going to stay here in Spain a little longer? Do you think about going home?
I know I will be here for at least one more year because I’ll have a job. But after that, and I imagine probably if I am happy and established it could continue longer for more than one year. It’s really hard to imagine going back to the U.S. I do go back every year over summer when I have vacations. And I’m glad to go back. I miss it. But as far as living back in the U.S., I don’t feel any desire right now. I feel really happy to be in Spain and I think I have a good job. And I have friends here. So overall I’m happy with things. But also, its hard to imagine living in a foreign country…the commitment to living in a foreign country for the rest of your life. I don’t know if that happens year after year after year of living abroad. Or if that’s a sudden one day you wake up and you know it. But it would be hard for me to imagine living in Spain forever. Even though I don’t know when I will make it back to the U.S. either. More than anything else, I just don’t know.
In general I’ve been lucky enough to be able to travel and spend a lot of time outside of the U.S. and I think for anyone who has the opportunity to do that, then it is something they should take advantage of. Because you improve as a person in ways that you never could in the U.S. There are all kinds of realizations that would be impossible in the U.S. I know not everyone can live away from home, but at the very least I think it is important to travel and see things different than what you already know. If you can… If you are lucky enough to have that opportunity. It’s something that I would suggest for anybody.
Thank you, Meredith!
Have you lived abroad? What was your experience like? We would love to hear from you!