I stood smiling, hand outstretched by pure habit. Rejecting the stiff formality, my coordinator moved in toward my face with the typical two-kiss greeting.
“We do it the Spanish way,” she said in lightly accented English.
I arrived at 9:45 a.m. in the village of San Martin de Valdeiglesias. The journey from my apartment in the central neighbourhood of Malasana consisted of a five-minute walk to the metro, two stops to Principe Pio, then an hour-long bus ride that would snake through the countryside to the village 60 kilometres away.
I’ve always liked riding buses. Sometimes I feel the ride itself is more enjoyable than reaching the final destination. As a passenger, you can let your mind drift as you observe the passing surroundings. When you arrive, however, you are thrust into the metaphorical driver’s seat, forced to navigate the terrain.
My formal American handshake sprang out automatically like a jack-in-the-box.
This morning was no different. As the high-rises and traffic of the cityscape gave way to rolling hills with their baked grasses and twisted trees, I was free to contemplate this next chapter in my new life. I would soon be on this bus four times a week from November through June.
As we pulled into the village I alighted, Google Maps open. Geographically challenged as I am, I naturally started off in one direction, only to double back moments later. The map told me I was a four-minute walk from my destination; luckily there wasn’t much room for error.
The first thing I noticed after setting my internal compass straight was the quiet. It was almost shocking after the eternal hum of energy and activity in Madrid. I heard birds chirping, the wind rustling the trees. My senses felt heightened as I moved from the shaded part of the sidewalk to the sunlit one; even the temperature was different here, the air cooler and less oppressive.
I found the school easily.
It was a sprawling campus surrounded by a tall, green metal fence. A banner touting “educación bilingüe” hung from the outer wall. Early for the meeting with my coordinator, I ventured past the school and found a park. I sat down on a bench in the sun and opened my book, but it was hard to focus. Over the past few years I have gone from Baltimore to Dublin to Madrid. In that moment, I wanted to enjoy the silence—something that had become a commodity since becoming a certified city-dweller.
When the time came, I headed back toward the school. On my way in the gate, I came across two ladies in white polos. I asked in Spanish where the office was.
“You’re the language assistant,” they exclaimed. It was a truly small town. Everyone already knew I was coming.
The Spanish way of greeting and I have a complicated relationship.
When I feel comfortable, it comes naturally. On a recent trip back to Dublin—much to my Irish friend’s surprise and confusion—I pulled her in for two kisses without thinking. But meeting new people in Spain makes me nervous. With my boyfriend’s friends, I often forget the “encantada” ("nice to meet you") as I’m too busy focusing on the act of the greeting.
Now, in this school environment where my main job is to speak and teach English, my formal American handshake sprang out automatically like a jack-in-the-box. Seeing this, my coordinator gently corrected me with an inviting smile.
She led me through the halls, explaining the history of the school and discussing my schedule. I would not just be assisting with English classes, but also history, biology and even physical education. Trying to keep my ducks in a row, I asked her about formalities. The dress code? Anything goes. My tattoos? The kids will think they’re cool. While we sat sipping café con leche in the school’s canteen, chatting with the staff, I felt a sense of relief and admiration for the complete lack of pretension. I was going to fit in just fine here.
I learned very quickly through the many greetings and introductory conversations that day that this workplace will be as warm and laid-back as the country itself. Although I’m sure the year won’t be without hiccups (teaching never is, especially with teenagers), I feel secure knowing that I will have the support I need to succeed. Coming from the often uptight and super formal atmosphere that is the US workplace, I can confidently say I look forward to embracing “the Spanish way” in all its forms.Add this article to your reading list