When I first arrived in Huelva, a small city in the southwest of Spain, close to the Portuguese border, I thought I knew all I needed to know about Spanish culture.
I had already spent a year as an Erasmus student in Santiago de Compostela, where, despite some gloomy pandemic lockdowns, the city won me over. Although I had to finish my degree in Ireland, I was inspired by living in Santiago and during my final year at University College Cork I applied to teach English in Spain. I was accepted and Huelva is where I was placed.
In September 2022 I traded blaas for bravas and left my family home in Waterford for my new city. It was daunting, but, thankfully, I was not alone. I moved to Huleva with my boyfriend, Ben, who had just finished studying in Manchester, both of us ready for a change.
The first day of school arrived quickly, and I apprehensively entered the unfamiliar environment of a Spanish primary school.
[ ‘I left Dublin because it was so expensive. Now London is equally expensive’ ]
I realised it was going to be a challenging year teaching English to children who hadn’t learned to read or write in Spanish yet. It helped to meet other auxiliares de conversación, or English-language assistants, most of whom were from the US or Britain. I was relieved to hear they shared my struggles at work, and as a group of outsiders away from home we were instant friends. It seemed that this year might be a lot like my year in Santiago.
School finishes for the day at 2pm, when Spaniards have lunch and take a siesta. These short days, along with a four-day week, leave time to get to know the historical city and try the regional wine and olives
Unlike with Erasmus, however, I had the new responsibilities of a job in a foreign country. I spent weeks when I first arrived in Huelva attempting to obtain a Spanish ID and open a bank account. This involved multiple trips to the foreign office and then the local branch of Santander. I had heard about tricky Spanish bureaucracy, but now I had first-hand experience of it.
I thought my time in Santiago had prepared me for life in Spain, but Huelva is in Andalucía, at the other end of the country, and Spain’s autonomous regions are famously diverse. Huelva feels less international and more traditional. It took me a while to adjust to the Andaluz accent, but once I did I found people to be friendlier than in bigger cities. I began to appreciate the lack of tourism and the familial atmosphere in Huelva and I really started to enjoy life in the sunny south of Spain.
School finishes for the day at 2pm, when Spaniards have lunch and take a siesta. These short days, along with a four-day working week, leave time to get to know the historical city and try the regional wine and olives (pushing my Spanish to its limit).
[ Since I retired from the Defence Forces, at 41, we’ve lived all over. Sun, sea and sand are big considerations ]
One of the first things Ben and I did after arriving was to buy season tickets for the local fourth-division football team, Recreativo de Huelva, the oldest in Spain. It might not be Manchester City or Manchester United but we got fully involved, attending home matches every second weekend, meeting local supporters who taught us the chants and eating sunflower seeds, an essential stadium snack in Spain. I even bought the team shirt, which gained me some points with the kids back at school.
Visiting home in December, I spent the holidays catching up with friends and family. It was my first Christmas in Ireland in three years, and I was happy to have finally made it home. It felt strange too, noticing the changes that had happened while I was away, particularly among friends and family.
During the long, warm Spanish nights I sometimes still miss home, but I look forward to having family and friends to visit
In Huelva I missed home more than I had in Santiago. I felt like this time I was learning what it really means to live abroad. I found myself feeling sad to leave Ireland in the new year, but I knew I was lucky to have a life in Spain too.
In Huelva, Ben and I rent a two-bedroom apartment with a balcony on the top floor of a building in the city centre, something that would be impossible for us in Ireland or Britain. We know many young people like us who have come to Spain because there are opportunities here for them that do not exist at home.
We earn enough working part-time here to eat out for lunch and dinner, to meet friends for drinks at weekends and to really make the most of the sunny days with which Huelva is often blessed.
During the long, warm Spanish nights I sometimes still miss home, but I look forward to having family and friends to visit. I know things will change in Ireland while I am away, but I have realised that in Huelva, a city I hadn’t heard of before moving to, I still have a lot to learn.
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