- 16 Sep 19
You've finished the Leaving Cert. So what's next on the agenda? Niamh Browne decided to take a gap year, during which she would travel to Spain, learn the language and get some real life experience. Now, slightly bruised but considerably wiser, she is looking forward to studying arts in UCC, with renewed vigour.
"Nif! Nif! Ayudame!" This is my flatmate Alejandro's way of pronouncing my Irish name and of alerting me to the mind-numbing pain he's in. I run into his bedroom: he's doubled over, sobbing. He hands his phone to me. He's in too much pain to speak to his mother himself.
"Nif, will you please go to the hospital with my son. I am so worried."
"Of course, Isabel." I don't know what else to say to a Spanish matriarch.
I pull out my phone and ring my parents, who happen to be visiting, to tell them that I can't make brunch, that I am going to hospital with a friend. The ambulance arrives and I help Alex walk down the stairs as best I can, while updating his mother on developments. I ask the paramedic to speak a bit more slowly so I can understand.
All this time, Alex is clutching his gut. We make it to the hospital and I fill out the paperwork while begging everyone to speak a bit more slowly, explaining that Spanish is not my first language.
While we are waiting to be seen, Alex asks for some water. I ask a nurse. He tells me to go to the vending machine. I realise that I left the flat in such a rush that I've forgotten to bring my purse. Still in dire straits, poor Alex has to reach into his pocket to dig €2 out, so I can buy him water. When we are finally seen, he is put into observation.
I wait for two hours, all the while texting his mum, dad and brother. His dad and his brother are already on the road, driving the 300km from Cadiz to Granada. My parents call to the hospital to say hi: their flight leaves this evening and they won't see me again till Christmas.
"Nee am h"! I turn around, presuming someone is reading my name phonetically. It's a nurse. "Hello, the doctor would like to speak to you," she says. Assuming it's an update or that I have to sign some kind of consent form, I follow her to the doctor's office.
"Hello Nee am h".
"He has appendicitis."
It is a new word to me in Spanish, but I understand very quickly.
"So I am just wondering should I operate now, or later?"
"Ehm excuse me? I don't understand. I'm not from here."
"Oh you're not Spanish! Excuse me." More slowly now: "Should I operate on him now or later?".
I have no medical qualifications nor ambitions to work in health. Should I really have to look a qualified surgeon in the eye, in a foreign country, and tell her that treating appendicitis is rather urgent. I want to cry.
ROLLING IN IT
This was not necessarily the sophisticated, educational life experience that I had hoped for, as I embarked on my post-Leaving Cert gap year, in Europe. There was never much doubt about what I wanted to do after school: I always knew I had a humanities soul, so I was planning to take either Creative Writing in NUIG or Arts in UCC, in my native Cork. But I was also trying to decide whether it'd be wise to move away from home to study. It is a dilemma that every aspiring student faces. For their part, my parents suggested that I should move out for a year and see how I liked it. I moved out alright: all the way to Spain.
So this is a disclaimer: I know only too well that taking a gap year is an immense privilege. I am very lucky to have been facilitated by my parents. If you are trying to save money to pay for registration fees, or to get an apartment, it may not be financially viable. I appreciate this. But, many European countries have a lower cost of living than Ireland, and there are different ways to approach a gap year.
Au pairing, for example, is a great option if you want to practice a language. Workaway is a useful website where the arrangements on offer include free accommodation and meals, in exchange for an agreed number of hours child-minding a week. It's doable, depending on circumstances, to get a part-time job at the same time.
I lived in Spain from September to May, a full academic year. From September to December I did a language course in Granada. The Spanish economy is by no means the strongest in the EU, but you can always find a hustle. As native English speakers, Irish people are in a strong position for jobs in the tourism industry.
In Granada, an Erasmus mecca, there was no shortage of jobs as a bar promoter - handing out fliers and urging people to try a particular establishment's abundant (well, maybe) charms. At €300 a month, my rent was a fraction of what it would have cost in Ireland, for a double bedroom in a shared flat in the city centre. The cost of three beers and three tapas, €8. A cappuccino? €1.50. Dublin could never compete.
Then, I spent from January to April working in a guesthouse in San Sebastian as a cleaner. However, the grim Basque weather was not what I emigrated for and so I decided to move down south again to Sevilla in April to catch Semana Santa - the Easter processions where everyone dresses like a member of the clan and makes the city into a massive incense hotbox. Here, my job was a workaway: I was technically an "ambiance creator". There was no pay, but free meals and accommodation. I led pub crawls, and bars would give me money based on how many people I brought in. I also sold flamenco show tickets and got a cut of that. I did it for six weeks, and while I was by no means rolling in it, I was able to live it up nonetheless.
I have no idea if I "grew" as a person, or if travel is truly the best education, but I do know that it was the most fun I have ever had.
While living in Granada, I shared a flat with my Spanish flatmate, who now longer has an appendix; a Sicilian girl who spoke no English; a half-English half-Peruvian guy; and a Turkish bloke, who spoke little English and no Spanish, only Turkish. It sounds like the start of a terrible joke where we all walk into a bar, but with the help of duolingo, we communicated.
We had house parties everytime my Turkish flatmate went to class, which was only 4 times in the semester. We played a lot of poker. And we tried to teach one another bits and pieces of our diverse native languages.
In San Sebastian where I cleaned, I lived with hippies who held their pants up with string and cooked beautifully. I dabbled in surfing. San Sebastian is a gorgeous city, nestled on a peninsula with a beach on either side.
Sevilla, where I was an "ambiance creator", was an unending fiesta. My nickname among the hostel staff was "Go On Niamh". Which is a useless nickname, since it fails miserably to circumvent the pronunciation issue with my Irish name. Here, I met hundreds of people from all over the world. During Semana Santa, you can easily slip on the streets of Sevilla if you are not careful because of all the candle-wax from the processions. I am not religious, but there is something divine about the spooky cavalcades of pilgrims carrying crosses; of brass bands; and large effigies or statues, lit by candle light so it appears they are really moving.
So while distressing ambulance-riding moments can happen (I rode in two ambulances in my time in Spain, never having been in one before), there are exhilarating new experiences to be had, things you wouldn't dream of trying in the place you grew up in, for fear you'd be seen by Mary O'Keeffe down the road.
COLD AND SHOCKING
I am probably no more insightful than when I boarded the plane, but I did learn some things other than Spanish curse words (some of which are great, by the way). First, I realised that I was not fed up with Cork: I truly love the real capital, but I was fed up of life in secondary school and the sheer slog in Leaving Cert year - and all the pressures that come with it. It is an important distinction to make. Secondly, your parents are the best flatmates you will ever have. They take out the bins.
I must also mention something else that surely applies whether you try a gap year or leave home to go to college in a different place: You will be lonely.
By this, I mean that you will have intense moments, where you are acutely aware that your family and friends and all you know are far away. I moved to Granada without knowing a soul there, having this foolish, romantic notion that the land of the Moors, Boabdil and the Alhambra Palace would give me something our lovely damp island couldn't.
It did, but the entire natural spectrum of emotions will also come with you to your new home. There is no shame in trying it and realising it is not for you and heading home by Christmas.
Here's the rub. There is so much choice - and such a vast sense of possibility - in the modern world that, as soon as we commit to one thing, we are inclined to feel we are missing out on something else. I remember the night I got my Leaving Cert results, I had a sesh in my house with ten friends or so, and looking around and feeling a sort of happy melancholia. Two were moving to the UK to study, four were heading to Dublin, I was going to Spain and then the rest were staying in Cork. It felt odd: we were all so happy and excited about our imagined futures, but we were parting too. My ma said that it was thrilling that I was going off on my Spanish adventure, and my friend Hugh wisely said: "Yes, but there's something nice about jumping into the same bucket with everyone else."
So there is a touch of FOMO. People build up a rapport in college about modules. They get new boyfriends, girlfriends, fake friends, acquaintances and soul mates. You can find yourself back at Christmas and be surprised to realise: yes, they missed you, but also you missed the developments in their lives and all of a sudden you're around a table of friends who are talking about the gas antics of a mutual friend you've never met and that house party where they met a Czech flame thrower. Lives move fast, more than ever nowadays.
There are good things about taking a year out, phenomenal, wonderful things. The first and most obvious is the people you meet. Erasmus students, travellers, musicians, hippies: the friendships you make in these situations are quick and intense, particularly if you're both expats trying to figure out why Spanish people walk so slowly. You meet interesting characters and you have lifelong offers of sofas to crash on all around the world.
It is a great experience to have all the time in the world to listen to gitanos play guitar in the streets, watch sunsets and just appreciate that you are alive, you are well and there are simple pleasures to be enjoyed. It was like swimming in the Atlantic: cold and shocking at first, but when the blood gets pumping and you start paddling, you feel all the better for it.
As it happens, the experience of working made me realise how much I enjoy studying. The way I am feeling now, I can't wait to get past the main gates of UCC. Ultimately, I decided to stay in Cork and study Arts, with a new-found verve. Had I gone straight into college this time last year, I suspect I would have felt slightly cheated of the riches the world has to offer. There's so much out there to get your teeth stuck into that to have jumped straight into the bucket without looking to see what else was going on would've gnawed at me during my undergrad.
In a way, seeing friends drop out or switch courses or not enjoy college as much as they thought they would affirms it slightly: better to do the right thing the long way round, rather than rushing into something.
And so here I am: a student at last. Older and slightly wiser. I hope.