In September 2019, I found myself doing something highly unusual. Instead of enrolling in a degree or frantically looking at graduate schemes and the like, I was boarding a plane that would whisk me away from the dreary throes of English weather, to those of sun-kissed Valencia.
Although I would miss the familiarity of rain and grey skies, of family and friends – I was unbearably excited.
The reason for my departure, though seemingly impulsive, was planned. I would be starting my placement as a Language Assistant with the British Council in a Valencian primary school. Like many other English students, I was exceedingly worried about those dreaded ‘next steps’ after graduation. Would I be lost in the sea of thousands of graduates, hoping to stay afloat in a competitive and constrictive climate?
I never imagined I would be one of those people that took a gap year or went abroad. I had loved studying Spanish at secondary school and decided to be spontaneous and throw myself into an environment that was unknown and exciting. It would turn out to be one of the best decisions I had ever made.
My primary school was located in a sleepy suburban town, by the name of La Cañada. Surrounded by luscious orange trees (a much-loved Valencian fruit), it was a train ride away from the city centre, where I was staying. My daily tasks consisted of organising and managing students from all year groups, and I would plan (what I hoped were) interesting speaking activities for pupils to get stuck into. The school were particularly invested in contemporary UK culture, and this led to eventful lessons on Christmas and Halloween, with games like ‘search for Santa’ and ‘pin the nose, eyes and mouth on the pumpkin’.
Some more memorable moments included seeing the pupils in heaps of laughter whilst playing charades or ‘mímica’. Day-to-day teaching was consistently different, which was challenging but also enjoyable, and I always returned home having learnt something new. The staff were unwaveringly kind – helping me secure accommodation and answering my unending questions. They never failed to put me at ease. I also became accustomed to eating lunch several hours later than I would normally and was introduced to scrumptious Valencian dishes, like paella and calabaza.
In my spare time, which fortunately I had a great deal of, I explored my surroundings and tried to cram in as many galleries, gardens, and other sights as I possibly could. Valencia truly had the best of everything – the city, the beach, and the countryside. My favourite discovery was the University of Valencia’s Botanical Garden, a lush and inviting place with plants both beautiful and brain-like. To my inner bookworm’s delight, I would catch glimpses of literary things everywhere. I saw Petrarch and Dante in museums I visited; the most exciting experience was happening upon Gulliver Park – a huge playground structure entirely modelled on Gulliver’s Travels! It might have been for children – but I had an amazing time!
I also learnt about the annual Falles festival that spectacularly ‘combines tradition, satire and art,’ and which Valencia is famous for. Though the cruel arrival of Coronavirus halted any formal festivities, including the celebratory bonfire, I was thankful for what I had learned from the teachers and from museum visits. I was lucky enough to be shown around the city by a very kind teacher, which led to enjoyable ventures such as visiting the Tasquita de la Estrecha (the narrowest building in Europe), scenic hikes in mountainous villages and the sampling of delicious turrón (nougat). My language skills also improved during these outings. The locals were friendly and accommodating, which allowed me to practise my Spanish freely. I found that my speaking skills developed significantly after several months.
I wholeheartedly recommend the assistantship – it has changed my life in so many unforgettable ways. I am reminded of acclaimed South Asian novelist Anita Desai’s thoughts on travelling: ‘wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow’. The remarkable experience I had as a Language Assistant will always be a part of me. I had an outstanding time teaching, and I will treasure my memories with the staff and students.
The experience has provided me with a fascinating window into Valencia’s enriched culture through visits to renowned sites and the knowledge of important festivals. It has also helped me hone an abundance of skills – resilience, communication, and adaptability. My journey has made me the person I am today and is something I will cherish forever.