It’s nerve-wracking to move to a foreign country, especially one that you’ve never visited and know very little about. The least scary option, while you’re sitting Googling from your home country, is the place you’ve heard about—the major city or the hot tourist destination. Bangkok sounds like a safer bet than Surat Thani simply because you’ve heard of Bangkok. Medellin rings more bells than Barranquilla, Seoul more than Daegu. It’s understandable to grasp at the familiar when you’re about to dive into the wholly unfamiliar.
I experienced this when I first moved to Spain to teach English. I had requested a placement in Madrid or Barcelona, not because my depth of knowledge had led me to believe that I would be happiest there (I knew absolutely nothing about either city or about Spain in general), but simply because I had heard of those places. Madrid has that famous soccer team, and Barcelona has Gaudi and the Ramblas…surely they’d be great places to live, right?
So when my placement letter came, I was disappointed and terrified to find that I had been placed in Zafra, a small town in the rural, remote, isolated region of Extremadura. An image search turned up almost nothing, there was no tourist information in English, and only about half the town was even on Street View at the time. I was nervous, to say the least. I told myself I could power through my 9-month contract, learn some Spanish, and come home with some good stories.
Then I arrived. Zafra, it turned out, was wonderful exactly because there was no English tourist info or high-speed rail connection to Madrid or Barcelona. It a treasure of Arabic ruins and medieval plazas, a 15th century castle at its center and a 9th century wall around its edge. The people there weren’t used to foreigners, so they were incredibly welcoming to me, eager to hear my story and make me feel a part of their world.
This is the Spain of half a century ago, where people sit on the plaza sipping wine until 3am on a Tuesday, where little kids run around the pedestrian streets kicking soccer balls while their parents have a coffee at the corner bar, unconcerned about their children in this safe little pueblo. My very low teaching stipend afforded me and my boyfriend a two-bedroom apartment with a rooftop terrace overlooking the town’s central plaza, and on weekends we could walk for ten minutes and be in one of the most beautiful countrysides I’ve ever seen, tripping over Roman ruins and climbing a rocky hills to sit in the crumbling Moorish fortress.
I ended up staying for two years, unable to pull myself away at the end of those nine months. I became fluent in Spanish, which I never would have pulled off in the more cosmopolitan, English-speaking cities. Although I later moved to Madrid and absolutely loved it, I know how lucky I am to have had those two years in Zafra, where I learned about Spanish culture and language and actually became a part of the community.
My closest friends were Spanish, a group of people who had spent their entire lives together but opened their arms to me, teased me about my Spanish while helping me along with it, invited me to their parents’ houses for paella and wine. Our 70-year-old neighbor took us to his country house for a barbeque, where he showed us his massive collection of bullfighting memorabilia and served us olives from his own grove.
These are not experiences you get living in a famous city or a popular tourist spot.
So the best piece of advice I can offer to those about to take the plunge: keep an open mind about your placement. You may not end up in Barcelona, Seoul, Medellin, or Bangkok, and that may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you.