A Year in Andorra: Teaching English at Col·legi Sant Ermengol

This article was written for and published by PAC NEWS.

I arrived in Andorra with sore feet and a thin wallet. I’d spent a couple years bouncing around the globe, making ends meet with odd jobs and volunteer work, looking for something to catch and hold me, something that could keep my attention for more than the usual few weeks it took to decide to move on. Always just another backpacker. Canada, America, and Mexico flashed before my eyes, filled my brain with snatches of small moments: conversations with strangers on busy street corners; bizarre meetings in quiet places; crisp early mornings that gradually melted into warm handshakes and tearful hugs. An expiry date had been stamped on my work visa in red, and the ominous sequence of numbers and dashes had grown bigger and bigger until it seemed that my passport would explode out of my pocket.

In the end I had nothing but a homeward-bound ticket to fill my empty hands.

But home wasn’t the same any more. Or maybe I was different. I flew to Sweden and killed time working as an assistant to a carpenter. Cold weather comes to Sweden in August; I chose to chase summer instead. I blinked and watched as Denmark, Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria passed me by. Italy was still warm in late September. I spent a week idling in the mountains near Florence until I was offered a place to teach English in Andorra. I wanted a job for winter, but I was too used to being a loose end.

Days were spent agonising over whether to accept, nights haunted by dark visions of draconian uniform codes, nails scraping against chalkboards, chairs crashing against tables, and the staring eyes of children.

Eventually I accepted, and a few weeks later I stood in the doorway of my host family’s house, trying to make good impression in my worn out clothes. “I think you’ll be comfortable here,” the father said as he showed me around the house. He showed me my huge bed, my en-suite bathroom, my balcony that looked over the entire city. A penthouse suite in a mountain palace. A month before I’d shared the same square footage with six people. The family treated me with impeccable hospitality and good manners, and I tried to respond in kind. That first night I gazed through my window at the lights of Andorra far down in the valley, trying to shake the impression that I was in an aeroplane during lift-off, gazing at the winking lights with falling eye-lids, until finally I drifted to sleep.

On my first day at school I realised that there are ways to educate children that differ from the British system. There was no school uniform here, no “Sir” and “Miss”, no standing up when a teacher walked into the room. Young children were allowed to hug and hold the hands of their teachers, and all the students addressed teachers by their first names. At lunchtime, wine and beer was provided for free to the teachers and they spoke noisily across their three course meals. As I toured the classrooms I was surprised by the excitement of the children.Everyone knew my name and it followed me in a cacophony of smiling shouts in the corridors. Almost every moment brought a new friendly greeting to crack an unsuppressed grin across my face. The welcome from the other teachers was equal in enthusiasm. I had never known such heady heights of social validation, and all for nothing more than speaking my mother tongue.

I began my first lessons nervously, standing in front of the pupils with little idea how to gain their attention and obedience — until I realised that they would listen to me simply because I was a novelty. Teaching is a performance of confidence and the only rule given to me was that the pupils should speak English. Actually, they don’t have a choice. It’s the only language I know. I, on the other hand, have a lot of control over the classes I deliver, and I transform them as often as possible into lessons of drama, art, or music. I have a lot of fun and learn new things every day.

I’m a couple months in, now, and for me the novelty still hasn’t worn off. Each morning I wake up excited to return to school — a stark contrast to the sleepy slog of my own school-going days. The support I receive from my host family and English teachers is phenomenal, and I find it difficult to believe I am being paid to live a life of such varied pleasures. Not just another backpacker. No need to move along. Settled for a while, and I hope when I leave, it’ll be with hands full. New skills, good friends, and fine memories.

    Christopher Drifter

    Written by

    Writer, comedian, rock climber, and narcissist.