When it comes to ESL teaching opportunities, as a non-EU, it’s hard to refuse the chance to work and live in Europe. Delicious food? Bring it. Arts and culture? Can’t get enough. Giant castles? I’ll take a one-way ticket to Westeros, please. Of course, for those of us new to the area, there is that inevitable adjustment period where real life doesn’t exactly live up to expectations. It usually involves a series of mishaps, unpleasant surprises, and the occasional urge to sit on the couch, watch movies and pout until you fall asleep.
As an ESL teacher who has lived on three continents and counting, I dread these moments of Netflix and ill. Surprises are inevitable but you can learn to manage expectations and find a lot of positives from your new experiences. Here are a few of the most surprising things I encountered in Europe and why they turned out to be not so bad at all.
- You may experience a little claustrophobia
It will be apparent from the moment you step off the plane. There really isn’t much space to spread out here. Europe is small and densely populated, a fact that is particularly obvious in urban areas with cramped, narrow walkways and tiny elevators. To further complicate matters, older buildings tend to be renovated rather than torn down so living quarters may contain thin walls and fewer modern amenities than you are used to.
Why it’s not so bad – The high population density is a huge advantage for people who love to travel but don’t have reliable automobile transportation. Anyone with an internet connection and Google Maps will find getting from point A to point B is relatively easy and quick. As for your living quarters, the preservation of construction in many cities and towns provides a unique charm, especially for those of us from newer cities in the U.S., Asia, and Australia. Thin walls aside, you will often find the Instagram-ready architecture far outweighs the lack of modern amenities.
- It is easy to misunderstand immigration rules
Many first-time visitors to Europe often confuse European Union rules regarding immigration and tourist visas. Travelling on a tourist visa (aka travelling to a foreign country without a specific student, work, or other long-term visa) usually enables one to stay in a single country for up to 90 days. However, the European Union has a large subset of 26 countries called the “Schengen Area” which operates as one jurisdiction with respect to tourist visas. In other words, if you spend one month in France, one in Spain and another in Italy, your time in Europe officially expires and you will be required to leave if you have not yet secured a longer-term visa.
Why it’s not so bad – There are opportunities for CELTA graduates and teachers to secure longer-term stays with Oxford TEFL in Barcelona or Prague for example that will allow you to freely move about the EU for a much longer time. The school also offers free personal assistance to guide you through the process before and after your arrival. Once you take the initiative and understand the rules, you will have far more options to travel and explore.
- Throwing out your trash requires some serious project management skills.
Another by-product of the high population density of Europe is a keen awareness of environmental issues. Not only do people meticulously sort their trash into plastic, glass, paper, organic, and other waste, they make sure items are washed, prepped and ready to be recycled. Your tiny kitchen may feel even smaller due to the presence of multiple color coded recycling bins.
Why it’s not so bad – While there will always be room for improvement, it is hard not to be impressed by the initiative Europeans have taken to reduce, reuse and recycle. Once you get the system down, you will find it a lot easier to transport small bags of sorted trash rather than a giant overstuffed bin of everything you accumulated from last night’s impromptu pizza and beer night. Use this opportunity to gain more awareness of environmental issues and you can help others back home learn from your good habits.
- Your wardrobe may need some modification
It is easy to underestimate the weather in Europe. Its position on the globe lends to colder temperatures and longer periods of “sweater weather” than you might have previously thought. Yet despite the often chilly atmosphere, most European cities and towns encourage outdoor activities such as walking, dining and biking throughout the year. Many first-timers will find themselves in need of an extra coat and more comfortable shoes to adapt to their surroundings. Much to the dismay of my fellow Americans, even flip flops can be unbearable, especially on long walks up and down cobblestone streets.
Why it’s not so bad – While it can be a pain to wear extra layers and let your favorite pair of shoes gather dust, embrace the opportunity to try out a new look. Europe has some of the most fashionable cities in the world and the locals tend to be experts at combining form with function. Get inspired by the people around you and head to a thrift store or flea market to find the best deals when you are in need of another layer or two.
- Your expenses can add up quickly
European countries have varying economic circumstances but regardless of where you land, the cost of living is relatively high. Many teachers, especially those coming from areas in Asia and the Middle East, are surprised at the amount of money they spend when they first arrive. While there are a lot of inexpensive ways to travel around Europe, housing, food, clothing, taxes, and other day-to-day expenses can add up for those who choose to stay for a longer period of time.
Why it’s not so bad – Adjusting to a new country with a different standard of living is always a challenge, but there are strategies to make the experience much less painful. As a general rule of thumb, you will spend less money if you avoid areas with a lot of tourists and expats. No one expects you to acclimate to your surroundings overnight, but when it comes to questions like where you should rent an apartment, what to eat, and how to entertain yourself, try to find out “what do the locals do?”. You will often find the answer to this question will give you the biggest bang for your buck. Grocery shopping is a great example of this. Avoid looking for your favorite foods from back home and search for items the area is known for whether it be local wine, cheese, coffee, seafood, etc. You will be the envy of your friends back home and rewarded with higher quality, better tasting food at a fraction of the price.
If you would like to find out more about what it’s like to teach in Europe, take a look at this infographic. You may also be interested in reading more about living costs in Barcelona, Prague, Malaga or Cádiz. Whichever location you choose for your TEFL certification, make sure you take advantage of all the accommodation, visa and careers support that Oxford TEFL provides. Get in touch or apply for your Trinity or Cambridge-accredited TEFL certification here.
Blythe Hooker is one of our Developing Teacher with Spanish and Teaching Business English graduates. She is a freelance ESL teacher and entrepreneur currently based in Barcelona, Spain. She began her teaching career in Bangkok, Thailand where she served as an English educator for the Royal Palace of Thailand. She has since worked with teens, adults, and business executives over the course of her 10+ year teaching career.