Experiences, thoughts and mistakes from my first month abroad

Rosalie Toupin ’20 | Features Staff Writer

For the past month, I have been living and working in Madrid, Spain as an au pair. I live with a family of four in a small city about 30 minutes outside of downtown Madrid and serve as an English tutor and friend for the two 11- and 12-year-old girls. My days consist of hanging out with the family, playing a lot of card games with the girls, studying and taking Spanish classes in the village and exploring the endless wonders of Madrid. I’ll be here for three more weeks before I begin my 40 hours of travel to Auckland, New Zealand (which is conveniently located on the exact opposite side of the globe).  

I decided to au pair in Spain on a whim, and if I’m being honest, I still don’t really know what I’m doing here. Because my spring semester starts so late in New Zealand, I had more than two months off for winter break. When I first went on aupairworld.com last fall, I was just trying to avoid my homework — I never thought I would actually work abroad as an au pair. However, a family reached out to me one day and asked if we could meet over Skype. I agreed, still thinking I would ultimately say no, but somehow a week later, I was buying a ticket to Madrid. When my parents and sister dropped me off at the airport shuttle on New Year’s Day, I thought to myself, “What the hell am I doing?” I was excited and nervous, but ultimately, I was just confused by my unusually spontaneous decision.

Luckily, my family here is wonderful, and it all worked out better than I could have ever expected. My job is simply to play with the girls, help them with their English and teach them about life in United States. On the weekdays, I work with the girls after they get home from school, and on the weekends, I join the family for excursions to museums, palaces and shops around Madrid.

When I’m not working, I take a short bus ride into the city and wander aimlessly around its beautiful streets. I thought exploring a foreign city alone would be lonely, but it’s actually been quite wonderful. On my morning bus ride, I search up “best café con leche in Madrid” and pick my coffee shop of the day. After enjoying a delicious coffee and pastry, I walk around the narrow cobblestone streets and explore the local restaurants and shops.

It’s always fun playing tourist in the downtown area along with the other Americans (man are we easy to pick out in a crowd!) but there is something uniquely special about wandering the side streets of Madrid’s barrios. The old, colorful buildings are lined with potted plants, laundry flapping in the dry winter air and the occasional woman shouting down to her grandchildren playing in the streets. People sit outside in the square and enjoy a midday beverage and cigarette together. It’s truly like something out of an old romance novel.

I’ve also found the most precious stores and restaurants during my little barrio adventures. One day, I enjoyed lunch and a glass of red wine in a colorful café with walls covered by bright green plants. The next day, I wandered around an indoor market with a seemingly endless array of artisan cheeses, freshly baked bread and local seafood. So far, my favorite spot is this hole-in-wall bookstore in Salamanca, where used books line the cracked stone walls in no particular order, and the ceiling just barely brushes the top of my head.

Overall, living, exploring and learning in Madrid has been an amazing experience that I could have never truly prepared for. I have made a lot of little mistakes, many thanks to my suffering Spanish skills, such as telling people that I study police (policía) instead of politics (políticas) or getting on the wrong express bus and having to blubber my way through convincing the driver to let me off on the side of the road. Ultimately, my attempt to navigate a new, foreign city has taught me to be okay with messing up and looking like a fool. Through my mistakes, I’ve learned a lot about local customs, the Spanish way of life and the importance of just mimicking those around you. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out what I’m doing here, but I’m having a great time and laughing a lot — mostly at myself. I may not know what’s going on 75 percent of the time, but so far, the confusion is well worth the experience of living here in Madrid.

Sophian Smith