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17 posts categorized "Ellen Grinnell"



In the several months leading up to my parents’ visit to Madrid, all my chocolate-crazed mom could talk about was how excited she was to try churros and chocolate for the first time.

On their first day here, she passed a churrería-chocolatería that had creme-filled and chocolate dipped churros in their display case and quite literally jumped for joy. She was then shocked to discover that I have never tried filled or dipped churros. How could I live in a land where those existed and never have had them?

That got me thinking. Despite being the chocoholic that I am, I realized that in the eight months that I’ve lived in Spain, I’ve only had churros three times. Three. And all three of those times were in my first month of being here. It didn’t make sense, because there is nothing I love more than a steaming cup of thick, rich, and creamy hot chocolate. So why had I stopped going for churros con chocolate?

And then it hit me: getting churros felt like something a tourist does. And after just one month of living in Madrid, I had stopped “touristing.”

Throughout the rest of my parents’ trip, that realization continued to be reinforced. Guiding my parents through Madrid’s major sights and watching them marvel at their quaint European and Spanish charm, I noticed just how normal and natural those wonders felt to me now.

At first I was worried that this meant I no longer appreciated how lucky I am to be living in Spain - that I took it all for granted. But in actuality, I think my feeling so settled and comfortable in Madrid is proof of how far I’ve come. I’ve moved to a new continent and have been living in a different country, surrounded by a foreign language and culture, and have successfully adapted and adjusted to the differences. What an accomplishment. 

While I still love being a tourist in other cities around Spain and throughout Europe, I’m very grateful that my "touristing" days in Madrid are over and I've graduated to simply "living."

Day Trip: Sierra de Madrid


If you’re looking for something fun and outdoorsy to do now that the weather is finally starting to warm up in Madrid, then a day trip to the Sierra de Madrid is for you!

The trail starts at a little outpost called Puerto de los Cotos and is relatively easy for those new to hiking, a fact to which I can personally attest, having just completed it as my first major hike since I was little. Despite my misfortune of making the trek before all the snow had melted and having to stomp through it in very soggy sneakers, I still found the course manageable and just the right amount of challenging.

 Even for the more experienced hikers out there, this trail does not disappoint. Its wide variety of landscapes are breathtaking and keep you guessing as to what you’re going to find “just around the riverbend.” From pine-covered mountains, to steep rock walls, to trickling streams, rushing rivers, rolling fields of grass, and majestic lakes, the Sierra de Madrid offers a little bit of everything.


A Spain I Call Home


“Ellen, guapa! Qué tal? Cómo fue tu viaje?”

Walking through the front door to CEIP San Fernando the first day back from Semana Santa, I was instantly greeted by these welcoming words and kisses on both cheeks from Rosa, the physical education teacher. A spirited woman and just about the friendliest person on the planet, Rosa is part of the reason I feel like I can call Spain a home.

When I made the decision to move to Madrid for Teach Abroad, I was extremely grateful and excited beyond measure. Two of my lifelong dreams have always been to 1) live in a foreign country and 2) become fluent in Spanish. So basically, this was the best decision I could ever make.

My first couple of months in Madrid were indeed a dream come true. I spent my spare time wandering down cobblestone streets, admiring gorgeous architecture, meandering through parks, visiting ancient ruins, and pinching myself to make sure that everything was real.

As incredibly happy as I was, however, it didn’t take long to feel just how far away I was from my amazing network of friends and family. Having moved to a new continent on my own, I hadn’t yet developed a new network of people, and so there were many moments when I missed the simple things: movie nights, family dinners, and just having people to sit around and do nothing with.

Don’t get me wrong, there was not a single instant when I regretted my decision to move. From the moment I arrived in Spain I felt perfectly comfortable, but being so far from my support system in the U.S. made me realize that for Spain to truly be a home, I needed to establish deeper roots.

Oddly enough, giving private English classes ended up providing me with a major sense of belonging. I happily agreed when two of the teachers at my school, Rosa and Laura, asked me to give joint private lessons to their fifteen-year-old daughters, thinking that the extra cash would be great. Little did I know, the personal relationships I would develop with those two teachers was the best form of payment.

Rosa and Laura take turns driving me to one of their houses, feeding me snacks, and kindly bringing me to the train station after the lessons are over. It has been incredible seeing how close the two families are and getting a direct glimpse into Spanish culture. It has been even more amazing how they’ve so effortlessly invited into their world to experience it for myself.

Rosa and Laura stay up to date on my life, always asking me about my travel plans and checking in with me whenever I’ve been sick. Their warmth and caring always brightens up my day and has helped integrate me into the community of the other teachers at my school. Not to mention, my Spanish has improved tremendously throughout all my conversations with them.

Now being seven months into the program, I’ve built up my much-needed support system of friends from both the U.S. and all over the world. But it’s Rosa and Laura that make me feel to connected to Spain and its wonderful culture, and for that I am so grateful.

Packing for Winter in Madrid

When I made the decision to move across the Atlantic ocean to Spain, there were some things I knew I would miss, like large breakfasts, bagels, and Target. But there were also a lot of things I was looking forward to leaving behind, such as rain, snow and freezing temperatures.

Unfortunately, it turns out my perception of Spain as a sunny vacation destination was slightly exaggerated. While summer may be swelteringly hot, it does not last all year and its residents are not exempt from braving through other kinds of weather conditions.

Not only have I been caught out in the rain more times than I’d like, but there have been a couple of occasions when I simply stared up at the sky in shock as white, fluffy flakes of snow came falling down. I’ve woken up on countless December, January, and February mornings to freezing temperatures, and spent a lot of time next to a radiator trying to warm up by numb fingers and toes.


So, if you’re planning on living in Spain anytime from November through March, here’s a list of essentials to bring:

  • Umbrella
  • Rain jacket
  • Rain boots (or waterproof shoes)
  • Winter jacket
  • Earmuffs, scarf, and/or hat
  • Thick socks
  • Long-sleeve shirts
  • Sweaters/cardigans

Of course, don’t let my melodrama scare you away! A Spanish winter is still one million times better than a New England one. There’s no need for heavy snow boots and on average temperatures are much, much warmer. I’d take that over being buried in several inches of snow any day of the year.

Uno, Dos, Tres: Stepping into Salsa


Uno, dos, tres; cinco, seis, siete….

They say that it’s good to try new things, but that’s just not something I’ve ever been good at. I am a creature of habit who loves routine and hates change.

So when I think about it, it’s actually very strange that I have a passion for travel. Going to new places where everything - culture, language, food, you name it - is different inherently catapults me into the realm of change and trying new things.

Lucky for me, living abroad has made me less afraid to embrace change. Wanting to truly feel like a part of another country inspires me to break out of my comfort zone. I’ve now reached a point where I’m not only accepting new things, I’m seeking them out.

Salsa dancing has always been on my list of things I wish I could do, but something has always stopped me from trying it. From not having time for lessons to not being coordinated enough, I expertly pushed off going for it with excuse after excuse.

That is, until I moved to Spain. My new adventurous spirit took over and signed me up for Salsa Cubana classes.

My heart was pounding at the start of my first lesson, but as the rhythmic steps gave me something to focus on, my nerves were completely forgotten. Uno, dos, tres, I was whirling across the dance floor, spinning and turning with pure joy; cinco, seis, siete, my whole mind, heart, body, and soul were connected and living in this happy moment. I was salsa dancing!

I’ve walked out of each class with cheeks glowing from the warmth of exercise and heart glowing with a sense of pride and accomplishment. While I may only know very basic salsa steps as of now, I’ve taken a giant step in the direction of personal growth. I can confirm that it’s true what they say - trying new things is a very good thing. So go for it!

Illusion of Immersion


One of my personal goals for my Teach Abroad in Spain year was to solidify my conversational Spanish. What better way to immerse myself in Spanish than by living among the Spanish and doing as the Spanish do?

It seemed like the perfect plan in theory, but after a month or so of living in Madrid, I realized how surprisingly easy it is to not speak Spanish in Spain. I discovered a dangerous trap, one that I’ve dubbed “the English Bubble.”

What is the English Bubble?

It’s the fact that despite living in a non-English speaking country, I spent the majority of my time speaking in English when I first moved here. My language assistant job is in English, of course, but that was only the beginning. Unless I made a strong effort to start conversation with the Spanish teachers during coffee break, it was all too easy to just chat with my fellow auxiliares in English. Along the same lines, a lot of the friends I’d made were native English speakers, and it felt weird to try to speak Spanish with them. Many store attendants and restaurant servers recognized my American accent and would switch to English for me, making it awkward to continue speaking in Spanish, and many sources of information - menus, brochures, signs, etc - were all available in English.

At times I was grateful to not have to strain to use a non-native language all the time, but as comforting as my English Bubble was, it meant that when I finally found myself in a situation where I had no choice but to speak Spanish, I was all of the sudden too nervous and self-conscious about my abilities. I would wilt into a stuttering, jumbled mess. After several months of living in Spain, I came to the horrifying realization that my dream of becoming fluent in Spanish was still no where close to coming true.

So, I took a hard look in the mirror and decided to make some changes. I signed up for Spanish classes, as well as some salsa classes taught entirely in Spanish. I started making a very deliberate effort to speak with the Spanish teachers during coffee break at work. I chose the Spanish TV shows on Netflix and put on Spanish subtitles or dubbing for English shows, and before I knew it, I was surprising myself with how much I could understand and produce. I started picking up new vocabulary and feeling more confident with verb tenses and grammatical structures, and it felt amazing.

I had to learn the hard way that language immersion is an illusion. Just living in a Spanish environment isn’t enough to magically become fluent - language skills don’t subconsciously soak into our brains (at least not as adults!). It takes deliberate effort and active participation in language practice for immersion to be able to do its job. It’s most certainly not easy, but it’s most definitely worth it.

Follow the Music

The day in Málaga began beautifully - warm and sunny. The night before my friend and I had made a list of sights we wanted to see and now we were headed off in the direction of the first one - la Alcazaba de Málaga.

We arrived at the fortress wall, climbed up, and were rewarded with a lovely view of the city. We were slightly disappointed at how small the wall itself seemed, but decided to be on our way to the next item on our list.

We found a path and walked down it, came to the end, and had to choose which way to turn. Unsure, we were about to pull out Google Maps when, suddenly, the soft, twangy sounds of a violin echoed from a tunnel on our right. We peered down the dark passageway but couldn't see anyone in the bright glare shining from the other end. We made eye contact with each other, shrugged our shoulders simultaneously, and turned right. If ever there was ever going to be a moment when the universe sent us a sign to guide us, a violinist playing sweet music at the end of a tunnel certainly felt like it was one of those moments.

And our violin-guide did not lead us astray. As we stepped into the blinding, warmth-enveloping light at the end of the tunnel, we involuntarily stopped in our tracks, eyes glued to the splendid scene before us. This was the fortress we had come to see. Behind us, the wall meandered through the hills endlessly. Before us, the sparkling Mediterranean sea was framed by a bustling waterfront lined with little boats, and lush gardens and palm trees filled in the edges. We hiked up the steep path along the fortress wall, planted ourselves on a stone ledge, and soaked in the beauty of it all.

 Several peaceful minutes later, we descended down the fortress and were about to decide where to go next when we heard an electric guitar playing a slow song around the corner from us. Laughing to ourselves, we obediently followed the music. It took us to a lively plaza and up on our right appeared the ruins of a Roman theatre nestled into the bottom of the fortress. We nearly giggled with excitement as we stepped onto the crumbling stone, took our seats on one of the ancient benches, and imagined ourselves sitting for a play (the people-watching from our spot was just as entertaining as any Roman piece of theatre).


So, for the rest of the day, we committed ourselves to following the music. It guided us to the breathtakingly beautiful Cathedral, to a giant, multicolored cube, a gorgeous waterfront with salty sea air and an adorable Christmas market, a bench with the perfect view of a caricaturist hard at work, and a quaint gelato shop with the most divine red orange flavored gelato we had ever tasted and probably will ever taste again in our lives.

 We forgot all about our list of “must-sees” and not once did we again pull out our phones to ask them where to go. We let Málaga and its music guide us to its little wonders and it made for an absolutely perfect day.

Día de los Reyes Magos

Christmas time in Spain is just as magical and wonderful as it is in the United States. Every city puts up a tree, festive lights are hung from the buildings, and children look forward to playing with toys on Christmas morning…

Oh wait, that last one doesn’t apply to Spain.

Gifts are most certainly brought, just not by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve night. Rather, it’s the Three Wise Men that visit homes and leave gifts the night before the twelfth day of Christmas aka Three Kings Day - el Día de los Reyes Magos.

I happened to be in a small port town in southern Spain called El Puerto de Santa María on January 5th, the day before Three Kings Day, and was treated to a spectacular show of festivities prepared for the occasion.

As I wandered through the narrow cobblestone streets, I suddenly found myself in the midst of Christmas music and crowds of children and families huddled together trying to catch a glimpse of the floats passing by for the Three Kings Parade. Children in costumes sitting on the floats tossed out candies, and the children in the crowd scrambled around with bags, gathering up as many pieces as they could and squealing with joy as they counted their treasures.


After the last float passed, I fell in line behind it and followed it to its destination - el Castillo de San Marcos. The magnificent castle was decorated with flags to welcome the Three Kings, who climbed up and stood between the stone pillars, telling the story of their visit to baby Jesus, and tossing out gifts to the children below. Jolly music and merry singing filled the air, along with puffs of “snow” and colorful confetti. The happiness of everyone there was palpable and infectious. 


It was an absolutely marvelous celebration, and an experience I would highly recommend to all Spain travelers!

Why Teach Abroad?


The first time I heard that teaching English abroad was a real thing, I thought, “Wow, what a cool thing to do with your life!

Yet, despite my intrigue, I never considered it to be a serious option for myself. It was something other people did, not me. I don’t know why, but I felt it carried a stigma of not being a viable post-graduation plan.

However, now that I’ve chosen to go through with it and have been living in Spain for over four months, I can happily say that that line of thinking was completely misguided - this has without a doubt been one of the best life decisions I’ve made to date. Period.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on why this experience has been so wonderful and influential to my growth as an individual. So, without further ado, here are my three reasons why anyone who is even remotely interested in the idea of teach abroad should definitely consider it as a legitimate option:

1. The People You Meet and Everything They Teach You

Naturally, moving to a new country means meeting a lot of new people from a different culture. I both expected and looked forward to meeting a lot of Spaniards and becoming immersed in Spanish culture while living in Madrid. What has surprised me, though, is how much I've learned from meeting and speaking with the other language assistants like me.

I say “like me” lightly because in reality, the language assistants in Madrid come from all over the world, with different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. We are united by the fact that we all chose to come to Spain to teach, which builds a bond and sense of community between us, making it that much easier to learn from each other and grow together. It has been so wonderful to listen to how others found their way to teach abroad, what they want to get out of it, and where they want to go next. As someone who is searching for my own path in life and struggling to figure out my next steps, this exposure to the variety of viable paths available to me has been eye-opening and inspiring. 

2. The Free Time that Shows You What’s Important to You

As a language assistant, I work sixteen hours a week. Sounds super lush, right? What on earth could I possibly do to fill up all that free time?

That’s just it, though. I can do anything I want with all that free time. Teach abroad is a breath of fresh air after working myself to the bone studying in a high-pressure, fast-paced American University. I used to be so busy and focused on school that I never had time to discover what was truly important to me. How could I possibly have chosen a career path right out of college if I had never figured out what I want from life?

This year is giving the opportunity to do just that: to learn what my priorities are and what will make me happy in life. I’ve discovered a newfound love for cooking, something I never had time for before. I’m getting the chance to travel and see more of the world, and the more I see and experience, the better I’m able to define my goals for the future. I’m slowly starting to grasp what’s important to me and how to build a fulfilling lifestyle. 

3. The Different Way of Life that Teaches you Life Skills

Living in another country, immersed in another language and culture, has taught me a lot of practical skills. Problem solving and improvisation are much more second-nature to me now, as I’ve had to navigate and survive in an unfamiliar world. From trying to buy groceries I don’t know the name of to needing to get to the hospital in the middle of the night by myself, I’ve had to learn to use my resources and even more importantly, how to ask good questions.

Furthermore, the very fact that I’ve adapted to a different way of living has broadened my mind and made me inherently more understanding of cultural differences, and I believe that is a fundamental skill that will never cease to be of use in any future endeavors I undertake.


So there you have it! Of course, not everyone’s experience is the same, so the above list merely represents the reasons I’ve personally found to be the most valuable and rewarding, and why I will forever be grateful that I made this choice. I hope they may be of help to anyone who is on the fence about deciding to teach abroad!

To Learn the Local Language or Not?

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Last weekend was a weekend of firsts. Not only did I visit the gorgeous country of Portugal for the first time, but it was also my first time being in a country where I didn’t speak the local language. Until then, I’d only ever been to English-speaking countries (USA, Canada, and England) and Spain.

As a lover of languages, I decided to try to learn some basic Portuguese to prepare for the trip. During the weeks leading up to my departure, I loyally completed my daily DuoLingo lessons and listened to YouTube recordings of useful phrases, repeating them constantly so that I could use them if necessary. 

Yet, once on Portuguese soil I discovered that my efforts had been rather unnecessary. Not one time during the five day trip did I come across someone that didn’t at least know English or Spanish. Sometimes when I would try to use my newly learned phrases, my American accent would give me away and whoever I was speaking with would automatically switch to English for me.

I’ve been told that this is the case throughout much of Europe - that English is everywhere and we English speakers therefore have no need to learn foreign languages because we can get by easily enough without them.

But what do we lose by depending on our English to get by in the world? In my opinion, quite a lot!

For one, we’re losing out on an opportunity to exercise our brains! Language learning is a great way to keep the mind and memory skills sharp.

We also miss the chance to show respect towards the people of the country we’re visiting. They are “hosting” us as tourists, and to me it seems only polite that we make a small effort to use our hosts’ language. It’s a small gesture that goes a long way, not only for avoiding breakdowns in communication, but also for encouraging positive cultural exchange.

Lastly, we deprive ourselves of the beauty of experiencing a new culture through its own language. Language and culture are inherently intertwined, so by learning a little bit of the language, you are therefore brought closer to the culture. You can appreciate it on a level that goes a bit deeper than the surface experience of looking at cool art and architecture. For a just sliver of a second, you can come closer to understanding not only what it’s like to visit a new country, but what it’s like to live there the way the locals do. It’s a both a humbling and thrilling feeling like no other.

So yes, English is a global language, but in my opinion, that doesn’t mean it’s the only one that matters. If you like to travel, I invite you to enrich your experiences even further by always making just a little effort to learn the local language. You won't regret it!

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