In conversation w/ is an interview series featuring friends, acquaintances, and people that I admire on social media or IRL. This series celebrates people of all races, genders, identities, and orientations who are doing the damn thing in their twenties. We all know someone doing some mad cool shit, whether it be a job, living abroad, or using their influence. So why not share their passion with everyone? Let’s share the wealth of what we know, what we learned along the way, and what we wish we could change.
In Conversation w/ Shannon Hurley
Location: Valencia, Spain
What’s She Up to: English Language Assistant, English Tutor, and Traveling
College Major: Journalism and Spanish
Graduation Year: 2017
Social Media: @shurleytemple
Meet Shannon. Shannon has been living and teaching abroad in Valencia, Spain for the past two years and it’s one of the best decision’s she’s ever made. I sat down with Shannon, who also happens to be my best friend, about her experience going abroad and what life has been like during her time there.
What once was a pipe dream we discussed on the floor of our college apartment, turned into a reality when Shannon applied to the North American Cultural Ambassadors Program. She has always had a love and passion for traveling and becoming fluent in Spanish, so she forged her own path after college and decided not to pursue a career in journalism.
What did you do after graduation?
SH: After college I decided to forgo getting a job in my degree field of journalism to work at Continental, a trendy restaurant in Center City Philadelphia. I knew that I would be doing some sort of program after graduation and that traveling would be a huge component of it, so I wanted to properly save for it. If I got a job in my field I would not have made as much money as I did at the restaurant. I started working there my senior year of college and I was happy to continue working there full time after graduation.
What made you want to live abroad? Why did you choose Spain and how did you decide on Valencia?
SH: ”I always knew that I wanted to live abroad after college. I have always had a love of travel and exploring other cultures, but going abroad to Barcelona in college really reaffirmed my idea of living abroad so I knew I had to make it happen. After this I don’t think I’ll ever stop traveling.”
I definitely knew it had to be a Spanish speaking country so I was stuck with two choices, either somewhere in South America or Spain. I ended up deciding on Spain because I wanted to explore Europe first and it would be the easiest to accomplish the most amount of travel goals. Don’t worry though, I still fully plan on living in South America in a few years, definitely after all of this Covid-19 hoopla is over with and everything is safe.
I decided on Valencia for many reasons:
- It’s the third largest city in Spain and not as touristy as Madrid or Barcelona
- From my experience in Barcelona I knew I wanted a similar climate and some of the same aspects of the city so Valencia was appealing. The weather here is beautiful and it’s comparable to LA so it’s pretty much perfect all year round. It hardly ever rains and the summer lasts from May to October.
- Valencia has mountains, the beach, and is a city so there’s always tons of exploring to do. I love being able to go to the beach, walk through the river park, or go on a hike. Plus the city is super walkable and has such a rich culture.
- The program pay is the highest for Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia. I already lived in Barcelona and I wasn’t interested in Madrid so Valencia was the obvious choice plus the two reasons above made it the right one for me.
How did you find the program?
SH: I was looking into a bunch of programs and was even considering getting my TEFL certification, but I ended up finding out about the program from a Bumble date. The guy was 26 and his profile had a TON of travel photos so I asked him about them. He told me he did the program for three years and recently moved back to Philly. We talked about Spain and traveling for most of it, but other than that I wasn’t really interested in him. We didn’t have any chemistry and it was safe to say there wasn’t going to be a second date. He sent me the link and then we never spoke again, just mutually ghosting each other, but that date changed my life forever. I’m happy I went on it, but I wish I remembered that guy’s name. After that I let Google take the wheel.
What was the visa process like?
SH: My first piece of advice is that you always need more time than you think you do. Getting a visa is the weeder part of the process and separates those who are serious about going. Once you get your placement in May you are then able to apply for the visa which takes a minimum of 3-4 months. The process is very slow and needs to be taken seriously. There are a lot of detailed steps involved so organization is key. This was one of the most adult things I’ve ever done and you have to be aware of all of the moving pieces. You just can’t decide to go on this program to Spain on a whim because you end up not getting your dream job, this process needs to be well thought out and planned to a T.
Getting the visa isn’t that inexpensive either since you have applications, fees and other associated costs. Every region in the country’s visa process is different so you need to pay attention to your region’s guidelines. Definitely leverage all of your resources like blogs, forums, websites, groups, and the internet to help you get through it, you need to be patient.
How much money did you save for this program?
SH: You don’t need to have a lot of savings to do this program, everyone came in with a different financial situation. You only really need enough to cover your flights, rent, and all of the application fees. If you’re just relying on the program’s salary it’s really not enough to travel around Spain and Europe.
My initial savings goal was $10,000, but I ended up saving a lot more than that which was awesome and definitely enabled me to take some big trips and stay a second year. I was so surprised to supersede my goal because it’s not like I wasn’t spending money during that year in Philly. I still went on vacation and took trips with my friends, went to the bar pretty much every night after work, paid rent, and still had a great time. I totally see why people work in the service industry for long periods of time.
How much does this program pay you and do you have any side gigs to earn extra money?
SH: The program is funded by the Spanish government and pay participants a monthly stipend of
- Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona: $1000 Euros ($1,200 USD)
- All Other Regions: $700 Euros ($800 USD)
The Valencia rate is a pretty sizable salary for a full-time 40 hours a week job to Spanish standards. Except, I only work 16 hours per week through the program. You can live comfortably in Spain off the program’s salary but it’s not enough to travel the way I want.
Yes, I have been working as a private English tutor on the side to earn some extra cash for my travels. It’s a pretty common side gig for program participants, including my best friend here. It typically pays 15 euros/hour and I usually have 4 hours of private lessons a week. I tutor children the same age as my students, but many tutor adults for the English language exams.
The job is great because it allows me to practice my Spanish even more, plus the money has enabled me to take more trips and not feel pressured to live solely off my savings. The one drawback is that It’s hard to keep students because there are private English academies, so I am always looking for more.
How did you find housing in Spain?
SH: Since I knew that finding housing abroad would be up to me, I started doing some research a few months prior to familiarize myself. I used Idealista, which is like Spanish Zillow, Facebook groups, student housing, and I also used Badi, which is like Tinder but for Spanish housing. Finding housing was really stressful and hard, I can’t sugar coat it for you. It was probably the most difficult part of getting situated in Spain.
It was a difficult and exhausting process all around. I was immediately thrown into speaking Spanish and it was hard to tour the apartment and get my questions answered. It was so difficult to effectively articulate what I was asking in Spanish at the time, I couldn’t imagine having a greater language barrier. Literally no one spoke English and my brain was hurting from translating my thoughts and I was sweating all of the time – there were no elevators so I climbed a ton of stairs, I was nervous speaking that much conversational Spanish, it was hot, and I sweat a lot on a normal basis. I was not cute.
What is it like living in Spain and what traits would you like to bring back with you to the states? Are you fluent yet?
SH: I love it here. I am so happy living here and despite what everyone thought, I always knew I would be doing this after graduation. I think Valencia was the right region for me, I am always taken aback by its beauty. I knew the culture would be different, but I was craving that so I was prepared for the culture shock. Even being here two years there are still moments that are different from what I’m used to in the states. In the beginning I was a little homesick, but it didn’t hit me as hard as some of the others in my program.
Every region is so different and diverse, there’s no blanket culture to living in Spain except for tons of Spanish pride. I was so surprised to learn that there are seven different languages spoken throughout Spain and they aren’t dialects, they are their own distinct languages. My region speaks Valencian and that is what is taught in schools, just like how Catalan is taught and spoken in Barcelona. Everyone can speak Spanish in addition to their regional language, but many struggle with it.
I would love to bring back the laid back and relaxed culture. “No pasa nada” or no worries (kinda like hakuna matata) is one of my favorite sayings and it’s the general attitude of Spain, everyone says it. I would also love to bring back universal healthcare. I have been to the doctor a few times here and I haven’t had to pay for anything, it’s been great. Universal healthcare all the way.
Every person’s definition of fluent is different, some people would say that I am, but to me I have not reached that point yet. I feel like I’m close, but for grammatical purposes I am not there yet.
How did you make friends in a place you knew no one?
SH: Most of my friends here are American, but that’s because Spanish people are usually homebodies and aren’t interested in being friends with non-Spaniards. I am friends with my Spanish roommate and teacher friends, but other than that my friends are American. To meet other people I definitely took advantage of the numerous WhatApps and Facebook groups that my program has. People are always posting about meeting up and doing cool things on the beach or in the city. It’s never really intimidating and people are always super welcoming and friendly when we decide to go.
What’s the dating scene like in Spain?
SH: You mostly meet boys out at bars, clubs, or restaurants. Dating apps are only really used for hookups and not for dates, so a hit it and quit it vibe. Boys here are very shy and won’t approach me especially since I don’t look Spanish. I think they are more timid to talk to me because 9/10 times their English isn’t so great, but if I see a cute guy I’ll usually go up to them and talk in Spanish so they know what’s up. After that they usually warm up and we chat. People in Spain don’t really like to venture out of their friend group and similar to America, they won’t come up and talk to you if you’re in a large group of girls.
Unfortunately, cheating is a very normalized part of their culture and it does happen very often so you never know if the guy you’re meeting also has a s.o. on the side.
What is your favorite weekend activity when not traveling?
SH: I currently live with my best friend here, Sarah, we met through the program and I am so happy that we live together especially during quarantine. It’s made the experience much better for each of us being so far away from our friends and families.
Before coronavirus, weekends would be market days. We would wake up around 10 or 11 and get ready to go to the market. Markets are a huge part of Spanish culture and every city or town has their own. You can get meats, cheeses, vegetables, fish, and pretty much anything you want. Everyone has their own individualized stands that specialize in one type of item, it’s always super fresh and authentic. I love it there, plus I love being able to speak Spanish with all of the vendors. It makes me so happy. We always go to our favorite vendors to get our fresh goodies – we love olives, cheese, meats (for Sarah, I’m vegetarian), fruit, bread, and coffee among other items depending on the day. We either take our items home or go to the park to have our spread and it’s a magical experience. It’s definitely one of my favorite things to do here.
After we eat we usually pick a neighborhood and walk around to explore more of Valencia. Valencia is very walkable and flat, so it’s super easy to see and I highly recommend visiting. We also like to go to the riverbed park or the City of Arts and Science, it’s a beautiful park that looks very futuristic and was actually featured in this season of Westworld, you can see it in the season trailer! We also sometimes go hiking, but if it’s hot outside we like to go to the beach.
It’s easy to lose track of time and I easily get lost in the beauty of Spain. I’m so happy to be living out my dreams, it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. Oftentimes we end up wandering to little street cafes to sit down and get a beer and tapas and people watch for the rest of the afternoon.
What are the biggest differences you see between Spanish and American life? What has been the most difficult thing to get used to?
SH: The overall vibe of Spain is very different from the US. Life is much slower here and everyone is more relaxed. People don’t work as hard but are just as happy, it’s been interesting to see. Siesta happens everyday from 2-5 so all of the shops and stores close and reopen later. Nothing is open on Sundays either, it’s basically illegal and it is one of the more frustrating aspects of living in Spain.
Other differences I’ve noticed is that table-turning in restaurants isn’t a thing. A table sitting and staying for 4 hours is the norm and you need to make a reservation if you have more than 2 people. Beer and wine is served everywhere and is cheaper than water. Water is never served to the table, you have to ask for it and it comes bottled. I always carry around a reusable water bottle with me and everyone thinks it’s so weird; it’s just not a thing here. It’s also very normal to see older Spanish men drink beer or red wine as early as 9 a.m. Right after they finish their morning coffee they proceed to the alcohol portion of their day with a side of cigarettes.
It is totally normal for people to stare. It is not considered rude and they will stare at me all of the time since I’m blonde and stand out. It’s just something that I have had to get used to, but it’s been hard. I know it’s never with malicious intent, they’re just curious, but it’s still so weird.
You’re a lifelong vegetarian, how has that been with finding food in Spain and food being such a huge part of traveling?
SH: Honestly it’s hard being a vegetarian and living abroad. I was raised vegetarian so it’s the only thing I know, but it’s definitely frustrating when traveling. For most, food is a huge part of the travel experience and I just don’t get really excited about it since I don’t eat meat or seafood. Some countries are better than others, but overall it’s a hassle for me. If I’m ever feeling sad about my meal I’ll order an extra glass of wine or a dessert and then everything is okay.
What do you want to do after this program?
SH: Honestly, I have no idea, I know that I’ll be moving back to Philly #gobirds and that I would like to use Spanish in my everyday life. It’s one of my favorite things about myself and it’s only gotten better by being here. I would love to be able to help people, maybe work in immigration or something, but I’m not sure. I still need to figure it out. I contemplated starting a travel blog my first year, but there are so many out there. However, I do wish I freelanced or had some writing samples to use to secure a job upon my return if I choose to go back into journalism or another creative field.
Do you have any recommendations or advice for someone looking to live abroad?
SH: Google is your best friend. Use it for anything and everything — flights, research, organization. Travel blogs and vlogs are also a must. There are so many of them. They answer so many questions that you haven’t even thought of and are a great resource for you to leverage.
I want to tell anyone that it’s okay to have a non-linear path after college. This option is available to anyone to do after school, but it’s not for everyone. There is so much pressure in the states to start your career, but that’s not the same way for the rest of the world. If you think this is something you possibly want to do, go for it. This is not the lazy way out and you aren’t pushing off adult life, it’s just a different experience. It’s possible to do this program for multiple years and many countries have similar ones. I am living life as an adult with rent, bills, and expenses on my own in a foreign country. My reality just looks different. Financial security will come later, but if it’s something you know in your heart you want to do, make it happen.
I would like to thank Shannon for taking the time to speak with me on behalf of the New & Confused community. If you have any questions or want to learn more about Shannon’s experience, feel free to reach out to her @shurleytemple on Instagram. She loves to talk about Spain and she encourages anyone who has been interested in this type of program to take the plunge! It’ll be an adventure of a lifetime!
’til next time.