The Start of Teaching English in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain!

Vitoria-Gasteiz

Hello World!

A few weeks ago, I embarked on a wonderful journey to teach English in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, and one thing is for certain: it has been quite the ride! From departing Dulles International in Washington, the layover in Brussels, Belgium, and arriving in Bilbao International Airport, it has all been very exciting! My first thoughts when arriving? I’m in Spain! That, and of course, frantically, how do I get in contact with my family without an internet connection? Oh, how much we rely on technology!

But that in itself is the adventure. I walked off the plane, and using my basic knowledge of the Spanish language, playing a game of Pictionary with the airport signs, and following the crowd, I eventually found baggage claim. I walked outside and within minutes, Alberto, my host dad, found me in the crowd. I’m guessing it wasn’t too hard to pick out the English-speaking Asian in a crowd full of Spanish people! I hopped into his car and enjoyed conversation with Alberto and the mountainous view outside my window. What a sight it was!

An hour later, I arrived at the house and one by one, I met all of five children: Andres, Tomas, Miguel, Mariana and Juan (the sixth child, Diego, is away studying in another town). What a rowdy bunch! I come to find out that it is Mariana’s sixteenth birthday, and I am welcomed with tons of food and cake. After, I was invited to go to a soccer game with Andres. Vitoria’s team lost 2-0, and as expected, I noticed that soccer is treated almost as highly as religion! Hours later, and after realizing the sun doesn’t go down until 10:00 p.m., I went to my room, and quickly passed out.

Vitoria-Gasteiz

Over the next couple of days, I learned so much about my family and their traditions. Similar to America, the kids still struggle to wake up for school and, consequently, would still be eating as they rushed out the door. The difference though is that the all the kids biked to school; Vitoria was awarded the Greenest European city in 2012 for its city spanning bike baths and abundant parks and walkways. While the kids are at school, I help out my host mom Cristina with cooking and chores as well as brushing up in my Spanish. However, different from the United States, the kids come home from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. to enjoy a family lunch and then return back to school until 5:00. As a former teacher, I find this interesting and actually prefer it; the kids have a break, are able to have a family meal, and catch up on homework. After the kids return from school at 5:00 p.m., we promptly begin English lessons for three hours, and then enjoy playing soccer in the yard before dinner.

The first couple of days I explored the city as well as searched for a gym for lifting. Here in this search for the gym was the first time my Spanish was really tested since I was doing it solo. After several tries, needing to avoid the crazy high matriculation fees, I found a gym three miles away. I’ve made some really great friends at the gym, as they all seem really fascinated by the fact that I am from America. My usual introduction to meet people is: “Soy Americano. Lo siento porque no hablo mucho español. Tú hablas inglés?” My host family finds it really funny, but, nonetheless, it works!

Well that about sums my initial thoughts here in Vitoria. Keep checking the blog for posts about my first and second weekend in Bilbao and Barcelona! Hasta luego!

Jan is Teaching English in Spain as a Conversation Coach with InterExchange Working Abroad.

Embracing Jet Lag in Southeast Asia

Noodles for breakfastMy favorite thing about jet lag is experiencing times that I forgot had existed. Like 4:30 a.m. Okay, staying up until 4:30 is one thing. But when your body demands that you stay awake after sleeping for a mere three hours, why not embrace it?

In Southeast Asian summer when the mid-day heat can bring activity to a crawl, embracing the cooler early morning hours is particularly nice. Running or biking before it gets too hot lets you cover more ground in a short time. Plus, then you can work up an appetite and have noodles for breakfast!

It may seem weird at first, but I’m telling you, noodles in the morning is the best first meal, especially if you’ve had an active start to the day.

I also think it’s easier to stop and appreciate the little things when you’re awake and fresh (and it’s not in the 90s yet). Like this industrious little vehicle in Chiang Mai:

Or these cool looking phone booths:

Or this peaceful little reservoir you can jog around if you’re a participant in our Hanoi program:

Southeast Asian pond

There was one scene on a recent morning walk in Chiang Mai that I so wish I’d caught on camera: A man stood over the open hood of his car praying. A monk encircled the car wafting incense against it. The monk comes full circle and the men walk inside a temple together. Evidently a blessing for a car that had just been repaired – brilliant!!

If you’re a soon-to-be participant of our Teach English in Thailand or Teach English in Vietnam programs, my advice when you arrive is to embrace your jet lag rather than fight it. Take advantage of the cooler mornings. Sure you’ll be tired later, but that will be the case whether you go exploring in the morning or lie awake bored in bed. Get out! Go explore! Do what you set out to do!

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Vietnam, You Have My Heart

Vietnamese mountains

Oi gioi oi! (exasperation)

How do you say goodbye to a country you’ve come to love and friends you think of as family? I certainly don’t have the answer.

Living and teaching English in Vietnam has been one of the greatest eras in my life. Once upon a time, I thought of the word “Vietnam” as a verb, a war. Now, I think of it as a country with great people striving to do great things to build up their reunified country. Vietnam is developing rapidly and the kids I taught are part of a generation that is going to continue propelling the country forward. The hope and ambition of the young people in Vietnam is humbling and inspiring.

I will make it back to Vietnam one day, but for now I said goodbye the best way I know how: by hiking and taking a motorbike trip through the northern part of Vietnam.

Motorbiking in Vietnam

Our eleven-day trip started by hiking Phan Xi Pang – the highest mountain peak in Indo-China, then we drove the famous Ha Giang loop and ended at Ba Be Lake.

Hiking in Vietnam

We complained our way up to the top of the mountain; drove up, down and around mountain peaks; stopped to appreciate breath-taking views; drank sugar cane juice and ate meals prepared by young entrepreneurs in small towns; and enjoyed the tiny glimpses into tribal life we saw driving through the mountains as kids waved and yelled “hello” when we passed.

Vietnam

The trip allowed my appreciation for Vietnam to grow and develop memories that will stay with me forever. And the people I have met through this journey will have a piece of my heart forever because they are the only ones who can truly understand this journey.

Vietnamese mountain view

To anyone who makes the decision to teach English abroad: take time to really understand the country and culture. What you will learn can change your perception and break down barriers, and I think that’s what truly makes the world a better place.

Vietnam

Teaching English Abroad: The Power of Communication

As my teaching English in France program through InterExchange Working Abroad comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on some of the lessons I’ve learned through this experience. The major theme of the past few months has been the power of communication. Spending time in a culture that does not primarily speak my language has really highlighted this. I’ve been reminded of the various aspects of communication and how vital it is to remain aware of its far reaching impact, especially when going abroad.

Your interactions with others and what you project can set the tone for your experience. However, there are small details to our communication that we often overlook. As a result, we can end up expressing something, either verbally or physically, that we do not intend. In giving lessons as a Conversation Coach, for example, I have found that details such as my tone of voice, posture and eye contact all dictate the enthusiasm I bring to the table. Students, of course, pick up on this. If your students or other members of your host family seem awkward or disinterested, first consider what you are communicating to them, not only your words but non-verbally as well. Taking this step is key to improving relationships of this kind. Furthermore, being mindful of these details is a good habit to bring home with you and incorporate into your interactions with family and friends.

Though I have learned many things throughout my time as a Conversation Coach, if I had to choose one that has stood out to me the most it would be the importance of clear communication. What we project in our interactions with others can strongly affect our relationships, whatever sort they may be. There is nothing like traveling abroad to really bring out the relevance of this concept. In light of this, I’d say my Conversation Coach experience has been an enriching one. It has inspired me to make the most of each moment and each interaction. Furthermore, I will return home with a renewed perspective on the value of relationships and how clear communication can so powerfully impact them.

Jacob is teaching English as a Conversation Coach in France with InterExchange Working Abroad.

English is a Diverse Language

Teaching English in Vietnam exposes you to many languages and customs. Not only will you be exposed to Vietnamese, but also British English. We teach British English at Wellspring, where I work, and work with English speakers from the U.K., Ireland and Australia. When I came to Vietnam, I thought the only language barrier I would encounter would be when speaking to local people. It turns out language barriers can be encountered between British and U.S. English speakers.

Most of the time, we have a lot of fun debating the difference of words used and which we each believe to be correct – eraser = rubber, sweater = jumper, backpack = rucksack, mom = mum, math vs. maths, color vs. colour and so on. But sometimes simply understanding each other can be a challenge; the use of different words plus understanding an accent different than your own can add many challenges.

I gave a Cambridge test last week to my 5th-grade class and it included a listening test with a thick British accent. I listened to the recording before administering the test and my lack of comprehension caused me to worry about my students. This is just one small example of the difficulties students face in Vietnam when learning English.

We can joke and debate about which form of English is “correct,” but we always need to keep in mind how challenging learning a foreign language can be and adjust our lessons accordingly. We English speakers should also be cognizant of the way we speak and ensure that there is some continuity across teachers. When students reach a higher level, it becomes important to expose them to different forms of spoken English and the varying vocabulary, but when they are young and at a lower level, learning the language in an understandable and consistent manner will help them grasp the language.

When I return to America, I will now be putting the rubbish in the bin and taking tea with my mum in a fortnight’s time. I’m picturing the sideway looks now.

Samantha is a Teach English in Vietnam participant with InterExchange Working Abroad.

Don’t Dream About Going Abroad, Just Do It

Ever since I was quite young, I had always enjoyed traveling. Growing up in rural Maine, much of the world seemed to live a far different life than the one I had come to know. Encountering new sights, smells, people and customs: it was all quite enthralling for me. Although I had traveled somewhat when I was younger, comparatively it wasn’t much. Despite being so close to Canada, I had never left the United States before, and had only flown once in my life, when I was in third grade. Now, at the ripe age of 18, having just completed my first year of college, I find myself in the odd predicament of having the aspiration to travel the world, but lacking any real travel experience. Young travelers who find themselves in a similar situation to mine should fear not, as I can assure you it is quite possible to begin seeing the world on your own as I shall outline below.

In high school, I had chosen French as my foreign language of choice and over the years, had grown quite fond of the subject. Naturally, this mean I wanted to stay in France for a summer. Having stumbled upon the InterExchange Working Abroad Teach English in France – Conversation Coach program, I knew that I had found the right program, which is something every traveler must keep in mind.

The next week, I had sent in my passport application, and began looking at the prices for flights online. When it comes to finding a good flight at a decent price, the best piece of advice I can give, is look at different airport combinations, and look often. By the time I had picked out the flight for my trip, I had been searching online for almost a year! Also, don’t feel as though you have to fly out of the airport closest to you. Bus tickets are relatively cheap, and you can sometimes get a better deal if you fly out of an airport farther away from home. I chose to fly out of Canada as it was much cheaper than flying out of any U.S. airport.

With everything in place, and your flight booked, you have just one thing left to do: embark upon the journey you have laid out before yourself. I won’t lie, this is the most terrifying part. All you have to do, however, is keep calm, go with the flow and (most importantly) watch what other people are doing. The international and air travel system is incredibly intricate with its own set of social norms and rules. A newcomer to this system will feel quite out of place, with no clue where to begin. Just do what the other people around you are doing, and follow the signs. It’s really not as terrifying as it might seem at first. People are usually very nice, so don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need help! Don’t let your inexperience keep you from going out and exploring this immaculate world that is here for us to discover. Go out and make your dreams of yesterday today’s reality. Just keep your wits about you, and the earth beneath your feet.

Hunter is a Teach English in France – Conversation Coach participant with InterExchange Working Abroad.

Motorbiking Through Vietnam

Once upon a time, bicycles were the most-used mode of transportation on the streets of Hanoi. Now it’s motorbikes. There are some cars, and I fear for the day they take over Hanoi, but motorbikes dominate the streets by far.

Hanoi has some sidewalks in some areas of the city, but it is definitely not a walkable city, and although there is a prominent bus system, public transportation is still developing. Some people do still choose to cycle as a mode of transportation, but that endeavor seems a little too life threatening for me. So, I drive a motorbike.

The idea of learning to drive in a sea of bikes through a developing city seemed quite scary when I first decided to rent a bike, but it’s also pretty cool. Don’t get the wrong idea, these are not motorcycles – they would be called mopeds in the U.S. No one drives fast through the city – nor are they able to – so a motorcycle would lose its appeal even if they were widely available.

Driving a motorbike equals freedom for me, just like when I passed the U.S. driving test and got my first car. You can get anywhere you want in the city and you enjoy an important part of the culture of Vietnam. Not only are motorbikes used for everyday transport, but they also offer a fantastic opportunity to really see Vietnam.

Motorbike trips are very popular and I plan to embark on one of the most famous routes this summer – the loop near the China border from Ha Giang. We plan to take a longer trip starting in Sapa, heading to Ha Giang, and then visit the famous Ban Gioc waterfall before returning to Hanoi. This trip is meant to have some of the most breathtaking, mountainous views of Vietnam.

Driving a motorbike can be quite scary and is not for everyone, but it’s worth riding with people around the city to determine if you can muster the courage to drive one yourself.

Samantha is a Teach English in Vietnam participant with InterExchange Working Abroad.

The Art of the Side Trip: Making the Most of Travel Opportunities in France

Since arriving in France a couple months ago for a teaching English program through InterExchange, I’ve had the opportunity to take several side trips throughout the country. This has been an added bonus on top of the already enriching experience of living alongside a French family. In fact, the combination of these two elements has been my favorite aspect of the Conversation Coach in France program. It has allowed me to be immersed in French culture to a degree that would be impossible as a regular tourist. Whether during free time or a regular week of lessons, there is always something authentic and new to be experienced.

As far as side trips are concerned, France is a great place to explore whether you are interested in strolling through culturally rich cities or hiking secluded trails amidst natural beauty. I’ve taken advantage of the public transportation system here for my excursions. The railways will easily take you to most of the crucial locations on the list of attractions to visit. However, if you would rather venture to more remote locations to stay clear of tourists and busy cities then it might be necessary to take a bus, do some extensive walking or even rent a car. It all depends on what you are hoping to get out of your side trips.

I’ve come to realize that when you are visiting a country that has as much variety as France does then you need to be a little more selective than usual. In other words, trying to do too much can make planning difficult and usually ends up detracting from the experience. For me, it’s been important to determine which places I am personally driven to see. There are so many options and suggestions flying around when you read through guides and get advice from other people that at some point you have to stop and identify what you, yourself, are passionate about. Once this is clarified you can then decide which options you can really do justice with the time and resources available to you. Some destinations may deserve their own individual trip in the future and are just too vast in scope and important to you to be attempted as a side trip. At the same time, as you move along in the decision-making process, certain options will begin to stand out as a good fit.

To summarize, staying with a host family can give you a unique glimpse into a culture other than your own while also providing a fantastic opportunity to do some exploring through side trips. Taking some extra time in advance to clarify what is really important to you and then assessing how to best approach and select from the options can be a great help in making the most of an adventure abroad.

Jacob is teaching English as a Conversation Coach in France with InterExchange Working Abroad.

Uncontrollable Thoughts: What Will Teaching English in Spain Be Like?

Los Angeles Metro

As I hop on the metro to visit the lovely city of Los Angeles, my thoughts begin to wonder what the city of Madrid will be like. Maybe the streets are like Los Angeles where I can smell fresh street foods from a mile away, crowded with people as I try to get to my destination. Are the people generally nice or will they be rude because I am a tourist? Will there be a ton of trees and greenery near my home? I have no idea what to expect. I have heard the metro and bus systems are some of the greatest in Europe so that gives me a sigh of relief.

As my metro ride continues, my nerves and excitement for my trip begin to arise and more thoughts begin to flood my head.

I am not positive about what I should expect to happen during my time here as a Teach English in Spain – Conversation Coach with my new family, but I believe that is the most exciting aspect of this program. I love being thrown into new situations and exploring outside of my comfort zone. What better way to do that than fly thousands of miles across the world and live with a family different than my own? I am beyond excited to meet my new family whom I will be living with for the next three months and I hope we are able to bond with one another as if I were another member of the family.

One of my end goals after college is to travel abroad so I can continue to learn about different cultures and people, all while teaching English. This opportunity that InterExchange has given me to live with a family and not only take care of, but also teach, their children English is a small glimpse of what my future may look like. Aside from my nervous thoughts, I am very thankful and thrilled for this opportunity that I have been given and I cannot wait to be challenged in ways I have never been before.

6 Types of Vietnamese Food You’ll Love

Che. A traditional dessert.

Oh, how I love Vietnamese food. There seems to be endless options of dishes, snacks and desserts to choose from. I recently read somewhere that there are roughly 200 dishes that are unique to Vietnam, and the style and flavor of food choices depends on what part of the country you are visiting. Even the style of noodles can vary based on region – Hoi An’s cau lao dish uses my favorite thick noodles.

Bun Oc. One of many noodle dishes to choose.

Visiting a local market to purchase fresh produce and herbs to cook your own dish can be a learning experience. I occasionally purchase fruits and vegetables that I’ve never seen before to conduct cooking experiments on. Sometimes, you cut the fruit or vegetable open to find that you actually are familiar with the crop – I have now bought what turned out to be a form of cantaloupe and melon, they just look different on the exterior.

And then there are those times when you feel like stepping out of your comfort zone and being an adventurous eater – a very easy feat in Vietnam. There are some foods I have yet to muster up the courage to try, but I have enjoyed my fair share of snails and squid, which were both new to me. I plan to tackle grasshoppers and snake next.

Snails with lemongrass dipping sauce.

I will leave Vietnam (for now) at the end of June and I will miss the many varieties of fresh fruit available the most. I have fallen in love with mangos and would happily eat them every day for the rest of my life. I have also immensely enjoyed jackfruit, dragon fruit and chom chom and lychee.

Mango, banana, dragon fruit, and honey. A breakfast staple.

There is much to love about Vietnamese coffee.

I could go on and on about the joy of eating in Vietnam, but I will leave you with this short blog and say that the deliciousness can only be appreciated in person.

Crabs we had for dinner during our Halong Bay cruise.

Samantha is a Teach English in Vietnam participant with InterExchange Working Abroad.