♪ It’s the most wonderful time of the year ♪…cue Staples’ petty AF back to school commercial from the mid ‘90s. Also cue my 45 seconds of uninterrupted cackling at this commercial, still, after all these years because #pettyparentsbewinning. Whether or not back to school is the most wonderful time of the year is subjective, because las rebajas could easily take that title as far as I’m concerned, but I digress, already. However, back to school does hold a very special place in my heart, because it will forever serve as the hallmark of when my life, and presumably yours, literally [will be] changed forever. If you’re like many of the Morenas en España, that means you’ve recently arrived, or will soon be making your way to Spain for your assignment as some version of an English teacher. If you’re like me, that means your first year assignment didn’t materialize exactly in the way you had hoped. Which is to say, when you received your placement, you literally wondered “Bish, where??” and proceeded to Google the small city you’ve never heard of, only to learn that it is far and away from any of the famous, bigger cities you dreamed of.
You may be wracked with disappointment, to which you are entitled. Or maybe you rolled with the punches, but can’t shake apprehensive questioning of whether you will be able to thrive as a young, black face in a foreign, white, and now small town space. You may be thinking that when you signed up for this adventure to move abroad, that you didn’t plan to jump through all those hoops only to wind up el culo del mundo. Friend, I hear you! And here’s where I tell you to adjust your IG filter, because small cities have something to offer you that big cities don’t. Shall I proceed? Yes, indeed!
Smaller cities and towns have their charms in comparison to big metropolises like Madrid or Barcelona. I’m not just saying this—as a bonafide city girl who loves Madrid so hard I metaphorically consider it to be my first true love—I also legitimately at times miss Murcia, the city in which I lived my first year in Spain, with such an intensity, that it surprises even me. So let me get right to why you should be excited to live in a smaller city in Spain.
♪ Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M. get the money, dolla dolla bill y’all! ♪
For starters, money is everything, and your money will go a lot further in a smaller city than a big one. The auxiliares program has to pay the Madrid assistants significantly more than everyone else because the cost of living is so high, that the standard program salary would barely cover rent, metro card, cell phone and groceries in Madrid. While you’ll get paid less in regions outside of Madrid, you’ll also pay significantly less for almost everything, especially rent and transport. Trust me, I have lived both, and the difference in pay isn’t necessarily to scale. Big cities offer a lot more ways for you to spend your money—a fact I know all too well as a hopeless sufferer of FOMO*. Smaller cities tend to have less to offer by way of extracurricular entertainment, and inherently provide fewer opportunities for you to spend your cash. This is actually a good thing, because you’ll expend far less energy mentally debating with yourself about going out on the town on a Wednesday night vs. staying in and hoarding your euros for your next trip. Remember, traveling while living in Europe is LIFE and if you’re an auxiliar, three day weekends are standard #wheelsup #byebishes.
Quieres hablar en Español?
Assuming you want to learn Spanish from scratch (como lo hice) or improve your proficiency to fluency (como lo haré), living in a smaller city will certainly improve your Spanish more efficiently than a big city. Moving to Spain as a native English speaker can at times be bewilderingly lonely, while simultaneously and annoyingly overrun with a never ending supply of other English speaking expats. English speakers tend to be more heavily concentrated in big cities, which can create a vortex-like phenomena, known as the English bubble. This bubble can be a gift and a curse—serving as a concurrently fantastical** resource, free from the spirit-breaking language barrier and rich with shared experiences upon which to build friendships—while also a powerful force that can unwittingly divert your time and energy away from improving and practicing your Spanish with the locals. Smaller cities tend to present a much smaller English bubble, thus facilitating by way of necessity, opportunities for you to use and improve your Spanish constantly. My Spanish proficiency, while flailing in its mediocrity, but scrappy in its spirit to survive whilst I reside stateside, would be nothing close to what is, had I not lived in Murcia my first year. Additionally, a smaller city with fewer native English speakers may present shrewd business opportunities for you to teach privately, with fewer competitors on the market (dolla dolla bills y’all). Who gon’ check you, boo?! ¡Haces tú!
Smaller place, slower pace, authentic space.
I know what you’re thinking: That a slow pace of life is for retirees and country bamas, and you’re a bad bish of international intrigue who came to slay. Well, arguably, you can slay anywhere, even in a pueblo, but I’ll come back to that. Moving abroad is a taxing experience, as you may already know. It really can be beneficial to your initial transition to live in a place that doesn’t attempt to eat you alive, take all your money, or traffic you into a Lifetime movie. A smaller city with a slower pace can really allow you decompress and adjust, so that you can have both the time and mental space to fully appreciate your new international home. What exactly is there to appreciate you ask? Well, the palpable Spanishness of your small city, I say.
As much as I love Madrid, I’ll admit that it does require a bit of digging in order to experience its authenticity. Its ever-present English bubble increases that challenge, requiring you to be very intentional in finding cultural experiences. Many of the bigger cities with strong tourism economies have sacrificed a certain level of their cultural authenticity in order to appeal to a broader market. The smaller cities, however, where Rick Steves may have only dedicated a paragraph or page in his travel guides, are where you are far more likely to hear, see, and feel their Spanish heritage. I get all misty eyed thinking about my evening paseos with Kona in Murcia, where I would routinely marvel at its famous, architecturally hodged-podged cathedral, illuminated in the moonlight. The entire concept of a leisurely stroll with my dog did not exist for me in Madrid, ever, and sometimes I get exhausted just thinking about my daily life while I lived there.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I actually had my first (and only) full-blown anxiety attack while living in Madrid. I’m a card carrying member of team #doingtoomuch, and it all caught up with me about four months into my life there. I made some very necessary adjustments, immediately afterwards, and I share this, not to scare you, but to illuminate how big city living can get the best of you at times if you’re not vigilant in making time and space for self care.
Smaller city living inherently presents the time and space, there are fewer people, fewer distractions, and generally less stress overall. The big cities in Spain pretty much live up to the hype, but that doesn’t mean that the smaller cities can’t offer you a great Spanish experience. I know for a fact that my placement in Murcia, in spite of its shortfalls, was a much-needed blessing for me. And so too, can a small city placement be for you, trust and believe me.
There’s plenty more that I didn’t get to share about small city living in Spain, so be on the lookout for part two. In the meantime, hold your head high, put on your favorite lipstick and best sunnies, and embrace your blessing, no matter where under the Iberian sun it’s placed you.
*Fear of Missing Out. Which means I try to do everything all the time, much to the detriment of my coins.
**I make up words, and use them in professional settings. Who gon’ check me, boo?!
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Bernadette is true Jersey girl — impatient, unfiltered, and infamously averse to mayonnaise. Her affinity for the finer things in life include high-end leather boots, jamón ibérico, and all things bourbon. She and her miniature poodle Kona, currently reside on the wrong side of the Atlantic in Baltimore, MD. But Madrid is their spirit city, and they plan of finding their way back in the future, this time for keeps. You can find more of her work here.