In September 2018, I jumped on a plane to Madrid, Spain to become an auxiliar de conversacion or a language assistant. It's part of a program led by the Spanish Ministry of Education that enables Filipinos to assist in English classes in Spanish public schools. We were granted student visas, worked only 16 hours a week, and received just enough stipend to survive in Spain. We weren't allowed to get "real" jobs, but most of us earned a little extra as private tutors.
As a 24-year-old burnt out marketing professional, it was exactly the kind of opportunity I needed. Nine months in Europe, four-day work weeks, and nothing and no one to hold me back?
I was sold.
However dreamy that experience was, it wouldn't be as life-changing as it had been if it weren't for some serious life lessons along the way. Looking back from my old bedroom in Manila, here are some of my favorites.
I'm a strong independent woman…with a lot of things to learn.
I've always taken pride in being a "strong independent woman." I've traveled solo using my own money; I've managed to move on from heartbreak (and stayed single); I've started my own business; I'm unapologetic about my body. I thought I was invincible.
But everything I knew about being strong and independent was put to the test when I moved to Madrid and started from scratch. I was faced with a new job, a new city, and most importantly, a new language.
I could no longer charm my way through conversations, because guess what? No hablo Español (I don't speak Spanish). When it came to looking for an apartment, most landlords would hang up on me the second they realized communicating with me would be difficult. To most of them, it wasn't worth entertaining my inquiries. One time, a student questioned me in the middle of class and demanded to know how I could possibly move to her city without knowing how to speak proper Español. How dare I?
For the first time in my life, I didn't have my family to come home to.
I had to adapt quickly to make things work, and I couldn't let those barriers intimidate me. After all, for the first time in my life, I didn't have my family to come home to. If I didn't step up my game, I wouldn't even have a roof to sleep under. I no longer had a safety net—emotionally or financially.
After a turbulent month of trying to settle in, my roommate and I finally lucked out on a two-bedroom flat in the heart of the city. It was quaint, with thin walls—a small space that was my refuge for the school year that followed. In school, I charmed my students not through my linguistic prowess, but by telling them that I was a Youtuber. Haha! I learned to embrace my weaknesses and discovered some new strengths.
It all worked out eventually, but I never overestimated myself again.
Taking care of myself should be a priority.
When I was living in Manila, I ate horribly, exercised only on occasion, and barely slept. I was always on the go, juggling a full-time job and several side hustles.
When I moved to Madrid, that lifestyle, I realized, was not going to cut it.
I caught the flu over winter, and it was the most horrible two weeks of my Madrileña life. It was so cold that going to the bathroom was a struggle. My room didn't have a window, so if I stayed in bed, I wouldn't even see sunlight. All I wanted was my mom to cook me lugaw and bring me to the doctor, but instead, I had to layer up and make my way to the clinic—walking to the Metro station in the middle of winter, when I could barely stand. I couldn't afford to take a cab ride.
I've made it a point to set proper boundaries and to live better, because there was no one to nurse me back to health but myself.
Since then, I've made it a point to set proper boundaries and to live better, because there was no one to nurse me back to health but myself. "Bawal magkasakit" took on a deeper meaning when I found myself alone halfway across the world from my loved ones. It also made me appreciate my family more, knowing how much I was taken care of growing up.
It's a fun adventure when you make it one.
One of the common misconceptions about living abroad is how fabulous it must all be—the picturesque spots, the wild Instagram stories, the fun vlogs. But quite frankly, it can be just as mundane as home if you don't make an effort to go out and explore.
As soon as the novelty of my new city ran its course, I often found myself not wanting to go out at all. It was extremely easy to stay in, watch K-dramas, and binge-eat takeout food. But the adventurer in me would thankfully often win, and I'd made it a point to people-watch in parks, hike on the weekends, visit galleries, go on first dates, or just walk around even when I'm alone.
I realized that moving abroad and living in your hometown will feel the same at a certain point. The true adventure begins when you decide to actively find things to marvel about. Now that I'm back in Manila, I appreciate my city a lot more, and I don't itch to leave as much as I used to. Being able to explore Madrid slowly for nine months made me realize that there was so much to see in my own backyard, too—I just never gave it a chance.
Family is everything. And everywhere.
Madrid would have been a lot less fun and a lot lonelier if it weren't for my constants. There was Jannica, who was my roommate for six months, Billy, my former boss-turned-hiking buddy, and Garrich, Jannica's high school friend who soon became my weekend go-to person. Our little group would convene at the Filipino church on Sundays. Afterwards, we'd either cook a Pinoy dinner at home or eat out at an Asian restaurant. We were on the hunt for Madrid's best bubble tea place (surprise: not a lot of options), and we had spent Christmas in Paris together.
On December 24, we found ourselves at the Louvre, in the glorious presence of the Mona Lisa herself. But—and I speak for all four of us—the highlight of that day was sitting down on one of the museum benches and video-calling our families in the Philippines. There we were, in the middle of one of the world's finest galleries, completely distracted by our phone screens and the pixelated faces of our loved ones back home.
That night, when the clock struck midnight, we were out in the chilly streets of Paris, clutching two wine glasses, and singing Jingle Bell Rock. We had our own noche buena afterwards, and made the most of what we had—each other.
Sharing the experience with people who understood exactly what I was going through was priceless.
Looking at everything with gratitude.
Being away for that long and learning how to fend for myself has taught me never to take the little things for granted. The fact that I have a support system in Manila, I realized, is more than what I can ask for. Being able to come home to my mother's cooking, or having my dad to help me with minor inconveniences, is such a gift. I reconnected with a lot of old friends from high school and college, and learned to appreciate their presence and time. I also learned to value my career opportunities more, because I now know what going back to zero feels like.
Madrid was magical and life-changing, and I highly recommend the experience to anyone. But keep in mind that it's not all sexy Spanish men, decadent tortillas, and mouthwatering sangria. You'll change, you'll grow, and you'll come back a new person. Now, that is the best part.