auxiliar program, reflection, spain, travel

Looking Back: Galicia

It’s a cloudy and rainy Sunday, a rare occurrence here in sunny Aragón, where it’s as dry as a desert most of the year. Days like today tend to spark nostalgia for my time living in the north of Spain: first in Bilbao, then in Cantabria. But I haven’t reflected as much on the short time I spent living in Ferrol, Galicia. I don’t go back and look at photos very often either, mostly because the phone I had that year was a really low quality one and the camera took pretty terrible pictures. (Therefore, all the pictures in this post will be pretty bad. You’ve been warned.) But every time I look back at my time there, I smile thinking about the wonderful year I had.

Galicia, tucked away in the far northwest corner of the country, was a place I was fortunate enough to live in 2016. Rainy most of the year, it’s affectionately called the Seattle of Spain by many Americans. Similar to the rest of northern Spain, it’s green all year round, full of trees and lush forests. It’s got hundreds of kilometers of coastline with stunning beaches and cliffs. 

Unlike many other regions of Spain, there aren’t many public transportation options, though you can take a bus (8 hours!) from Madrid. There are a few trains, but no high-speed railway lines. So this is the story of how I landed in Galicia and didn’t leave the region at all for over seven months.

7:45 AM, December 16, 2015. The bus pulled into the station and I sat up in my seat, bleary-eyed from the not-very-restful night on the moving bus. I had decided to take the overnight bus leaving at midnight from Madrid to save on hotels. I had flown in from the US to Madrid the day before, just in time before my visa for the previous year ran out, cutting it close because I had 90 days from the official expiration date of September 30th. I had decided to come back to Spain after originally leaving my Spanish life to move back home, but I missed it terribly and wasn’t really thrilled about any of the potential career options back in North Carolina. Nothing was really working out that fall, and I didn’t have a strong urge to stay. So when I got a message from a fellow auxiliar I had met on Instagram that Galicia was still looking for language assistants for January, my heart skipped a beat. I had to try! I immediately emailed the coordinator, and she quickly got back to me with an assignment for an elementary school near Ferrol. I didn’t think twice, grabbing a one-way plane ticket back to Spain for December 15th.

So by the time I rolled into the bus station in Ferrol, I had already made contact with my school, a landlady with a possible apartment, and old friends to spend Christmas with. Beni and Alicia, my school director and one of the English teachers, were so kind and offered to pick me up from the station before going in to school that morning. They took me for coffee and croissants and made sure I felt welcome. Shortly after that, I had a meeting planned with the landlady, María. She showed me a couple of older apartments with rooms available, and then she said “I do have one more if you want to see it.” Walking up to the pale green building, I immediately liked it. Inside, it was just adorable, it felt like the apartment had been waiting for me to arrive. There were two bedrooms, and she would be renting out both of them, so I wouldn’t have much say in who moved in. But it was too great to pass up, and I definitely made the right choice. A couple of weeks later I got my new roommate, Yesica from Chicago, another auxiliar working in Ferrol. She was really nice and quiet and we got along well even though she was several years younger.

Yes please!

I “hitched a ride” on the rideshare app Blablacar to Santander, four hours to the east, where I spent Christmas with a friend from when I studied abroad at the Universidad de Cantabria. I spent a couple of nights there before heading to Bilbao and Castro-Urdiales, where I’d spend the next few days and ring in the new year with the family of a good friend in Castro. 

Back in Ferrol after New Year’s, I explored the town a bit and met another American auxiliar who had already been living there for a few years. She quickly introduced me to some of her friends, other international people who had been living in Ferrol for a while and were mostly in their late twenties and had long-term Spanish partners. We hit it off immediately, and I felt welcomed right away.

The welcoming continued when I went to school on the first day, January 7th. The school had made a giant Welcome Dina sign and the teachers were all really nice. I was their very first language assistant so they were super excited to have me there. Colegio O Ramo is located just outside Fene, a small town that’s a suburb of Ferrol, just across the Ría de Ferrol, which is more of a bay than a river. I had arranged to arrive to school with one of the teachers in her car. So on my first day, I was introduced to all the students from preschool to sixth grade. “All” in this case sounds like a lot, but I soon discovered the school only had around 100 kids in total. So each grade was just one small class. The sixth grade only had seven kids! All the grades were honestly so adorable. I hadn’t worked with elementary aged kids since I moved to Spain, and they had so many questions. Like, do you go back to the US every day after school? How many husbands do you have? I played them Baby Shark and they were absolutely obsessed. They loved singing and dancing so we did a lot of that. They made me wonderful drawings. I was even able to help some of the older ones learn to do perspective drawing, because the art class was supposed to be in English. The Carnaval celebration was also adorable, as each class dressed up as a different sea creature. I dressed up with the second grade class, and what were we? Goose barnacles! (Because this is a delicacy from Galicia.)

My goose barnacle children

Outside of school hours and the private classes I was starting to pick up through word of mouth, I had plenty of time to explore Ferrol and the surrounding areas. Ferrol, with its 60,000 inhabitants, has a pretty bad reputation for being an ugly industrial city, and that’s partly true. You can’t really see much of the ocean from the city, only a small part of it at the port. On top of that, there are shipbuilding yards with giant cranes that obscure a good number of the views. But hey, jobs! Ferrol is home to a huge shipbuilding company called Navantia that employs many engineers and shipbuilders and other workers. There’s also a dry dock,  naval museum, and even a naval library as well as Marine Infantry barracks which are the oldest in Spain. On any given day there are plenty of sailors walking around town, both local sailors and international ones. They’re always out and about enjoying the nightlife, which, for a small city is surprisingly vibrant. Plenty of clubs and bars, and the free concerts at Super 8 were always a highlight of my week. There was a Celtic group called Böj that I loved to watch and they frequently played at Super 8. 

One of the best things about Ferrol and Galicia in general is the food, especially the abundance of free tapas you get with each drink. You typically hear about tapas being very small plates of food like appetizers, but Galicia goes big. Most bars decide what their tapa will be and just give it to everyone. The most memorable tapa I got was a big bowl of steamed mussels. Of course I quickly learned where the biggest and best tapas were served and I started to taste different local dishes. Although Galicia is famous for its seafood, its pork is some of Spain’s best. My favorite meat dish was called raxo, which is small pieces of pork with peppers and sauce served over fries. Of course in any new city, newcomers have to discover the best potato omelette. Zahara Hostel has the best tortilla de patatas in town, and if you want your tortilla in a baguette sandwich, Bar Canario is absolutely amazing.

I discovered all of these gems thanks to my growing network of auxiliares and locals. Soon after arriving, I signed in to Couchsurfing.org, a website that is primarily used for hosting travelers in people’s homes, but has a robust list of events and is also useful for finding contacts in your local area. I came across an old posting for a language exchange event in Ferrol listed by a profile with the name of Sara. So I reached out to Sara to ask if there were still events. She kindly wrote me back right away to say that recently there hadn’t been any events but we could still meet up. On a chilly late January evening I met Sara along with Cristina, who had attended previous events. We tried switching back and forth from English to Spanish, which is always a bit awkward, but they were friendly. We agreed to meet again soon with Paula, another friend of Sara’s. So this is how I ended up in a lovely group of four girls who spent many weekend afternoons together exploring seaside villages with Paula’s adorable English bulldog Macarena. 

The four of us visited different towns around the area, always stopping for a coffee or drink with a tapa before heading back home. I loved riding around the winding two-lane roads and seeing the rolling green hills dotted with small vibrantly-colored villages next to the water. They showed me all around the towns of Pontedeume, Ares, Mugardos, Redes, Valdoviño, Doniños, Faro de Cabo Prior, and more. We also hiked in the beautiful natural park Fragas do Eume.

Redes

If it wasn’t the four of us gallavanting around the Rías Altas, I was spending time with the other auxiliares having coffee in Praza Amboaxe, drinking Estrella Galicia or albariño with tapas, and even a Eurovision party. One Saturday a few of us took a trip to the lovely village of San Andrés de Teixido where we ate a picnic lunch after exploring the tiny picturesque stone village.

It seemed like my free time was endless, and it may sound like money was unlimited as well, but fortunately in Galicia there are plenty of affordable travel and food options. I also had the chance to take a few solo day trips. One of my favorites was the village of Betanzos, between Ferrol and A Coruña. At the beginning of my stay in Galicia I had taken a train to A Coruña for a weekend. On the way back to Ferrol this little town captured my attention, so I made a note to come back to visit. Betanzos was a quaint town right in the bend of the Mendo River, so it’s surrounded by river on three sides. There are small boats, unique for their covered roofs, anchored along the river. I lost myself in the narrow streets, popping into a café for a slice of tortilla de patata and a café con leche, and picking up a local newspaper that I could read in Spanish (as I obviously didn’t understand Gallego). The ambiance in the town was lively and warm despite the cloudy weather, making me feel like I was in exactly the right place at the right time.

I loved exploring all these villages, and in fact spending so much time in small towns made the cities of A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela feel a bit like New York. I had the chance to visit A Coruña two or three times and really enjoyed the city, but I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything by living in Ferrol. The public transport to get to school every day would have been a nightmare, and I had a great social life.

Santiago de Compostela really captured my heart when I went to visit two other auxiliares who lived there that I had followed on Instagram for the last three years. I thought the city was so charming and I loved seeing all the Camino de Santiago pilgrims around town with their backpacks, reaching the end of their journeys. The people I met there were so friendly and I ate some of the best octopus of my life. 

A great day in Santiago de Compostela

On top of all the social activities and local trips, I also signed up for a belly dance class and a yoga class at Espacio Vivo, a community center with a variety of activities. I had never taken a real yoga class before and definitely hadn’t tried belly dance, so I was learning some new things and getting fitter and more flexible three nights a week. I bought a cheap membership to the local gym and went to the indoor swimming pool as well. I also frequented the library and checked out plenty of interesting books, some on travel, some on drawing, and other fiction books. I was learning and improving in so many areas! I was also preparing to take the C1 level Spanish exam in the summer. I had to learn over 200 expressions called frases hechas as well as practicing listening and vocabulary exercises. 

Being so busy, the year was absolutely flying by. The end of the school year was rapidly approaching and that would mean plenty of goodbyes. I wouldn’t be able to stay at my school the next year because I had snuck in through the back door, so I’d had to reapply for the auxiliar program from scratch and had done so a bit late, therefore landing me in a small town in Salamanca for the next school year. One of the end-of-year activities at the school was to take all the kids out on a military boat for a cruise around the bay. I’m not sure all the kids were totally thrilled or enjoyed it all that much, but it was a nice excuse to be out of the classroom and just hanging out with them. On my last day at school, I received tons of adorable drawings from almost all the classes. One of the sixth graders drew me a picture that proved she had really been paying attention in class. 

Spot on: she even captured my love of maple syrup

The last hour of the day, the English teacher led me to the library where all the kids were gathered and all shouted “SURPRISE!!!” in unison when I walked in, which obviously made me laugh-cry. I was so touched by their massive going away party. Some of the students and teachers got up to make little speeches about how they would miss me and they were so glad I had been part of their school. They gave me an enormous greeting card signed by all the kids and teachers as well. And now for the comedic episode: At the end of the speeches, some kid decided it would be a good idea to group hug, so all at once, I had a giant mass of children herding toward me. We kind of managed the group hug, but the force was too strong and someone accidentally pushed over one of the bookshelves, landing on top of a sixth grader’s foot, causing a scene of total bittersweet chaos. The party ended in a flash, all the kids being herded back to class so the injured girl could be attended to. A couple of the kids cried because they felt bad about hurting her. Sigh, their passion was just too intense. I really would miss spending my mornings with them and their energy and their daily hugs and dances. Years later, I’ve still kept many of their drawings and smile when I come across them.

On the first of June, I needed to haul my belongings a few blocks over to another, much uglier, apartment because María would be renting out the one where I had been living to summer guests. I’d be living with Chinese university student Jiang and elementary school teacher Lucia. School was finished and I’d be earning a lot less money in the summer, although I had built up a roster of students from Lingo Live, a company I had been giving classes with part time during the school year. Fortunately I could enjoy my summer free time by hopping on a bus to a nearby town with a beach. I spent several beautiful mornings reading books and sunbathing at Playa Magdalena near Pontedeume. Then I’d head home, have lunch, teach a few classes in the afternoon, and then meet up with friends later in the evenings or stay home and relax. I also had the chance to visit some rural areas like the tiny village of Irixoa and O Xestal, and other nearby beaches Miño and Insua. 

As if I wasn’t already having enough fun, the summer celebrations in Galicia are not to be missed. I had the chance to spend San Juan night on the beach with bonfires, fill up on octopus and empanadas at the Festa do Polbo (yes, there really is an octopus festival!) in Mugardos, a bread festival in some other town, watch the Las Meninas painting festival in Ferrol, and I got to celebrate my birthday barbecuing at a campground near another beautiful beach. After all those festivities, I took a short trip to the south of Galicia with Sara and Paula to Sanxenxo.  I finally had the chance to travel outside Galicia for the first time all year in August, where I celebrated La Marmita in Castro-Urdiales and Aste Nagusia in Bilbao. To top it all off, I passed the C1 exam! I can honestly say the summer of 2016 was probably the best I’d ever had. 

When summer came to an end, it was time for me to say goodbye to Galicia because I’d be moving to Salamanca for the next school year, where I would pine after my time in Galicia with huge amounts of morriña. I’ll never forget the amazing year I spent in Ferrol and all the lovely people I met!

Terrible pictures, amazing summer

 

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