How I moved to Europe in the middle of the pandemic

I moved to Madrid from Manila in September 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I would have wanted better timing, but better timing didn’t want me. 

Everyone was still locked inside their houses in quarantine, wearing mandatory face shields during the essential occasions they stepped out. The whole world had come to a halt.

I was at the airport. A silver car pulled up and my childhood friends jumped out for a surprise five-minute despedida, despite non-passengers not being allowed on the premises.

“Just tell the guard you’re flying Turkish Airlines,” I said when they were having trouble getting through. “I told them the same thing and they didn’t ask me further questions.”

Philippine immigration wasn’t letting citizens out without a long-term contract abroad. What I had was a nine-month letter of appointment to be an auxiliar de conversación. It was written in Spanish. Every year, Spain’s Ministry of Education recruits language assistants from English-speaking countries like the US, the UK, India, and the Philippines to help their own students gain fluency in the language.

Those who had flown from Manila in the preceding days for the same position had been held, questioned, and allowed to board at the very last minute. By the time it was my turn, the interrogators had been worn down by the stream of language assistants who had passed before me, collectively arguing our case. The officer took a cursory scan of my papers and stamped my passport. Officially, I had left the country.

In about 20 hours, I would be halfway across the world in Spain, hunting for an apartment at a time when airlines were parking their fleets.

It surprised me, too, that not only was this pushing through, but it was also doing so on time. I had expected—even hoped for—a delay. If Spain’s Ministry of Education bumped down our start dates from October to January, that would have given me another Christmas with my family. But despite all the delays caused by sporadic lockdowns and closed offices in Manila, all my papers were processed on time. My visa came out on time. Schools in Spain were opening on time. The program was set to start on time. And so, in the last days of September 2020, my fellow auxiliares de conversación and I stepped off the plane like a fresh batch of cookies, promptly served into a recently shattered world that was insisting on getting its bearings.

A sliver of luck

How do you make sure your dreams and long-term goals push through despite a worldwide tidal wave of events? You can’t. What Spain decided to do with its borders and sectors was beyond my control. And I know many others who lost their plans and years of preparation to seismic shifts that were also beyond their control. All I could do when the pandemic broke out was watch, listen, and be thankful to be spending lockdown with my family, in a household with two gardens, and our beloved dog, Poochie. 

I tuned in to all news about Spain. I would even join Zoom meetings about study abroad programs—not because I was planning to earn another degree (academia is not my thing), but because the opportunity I was gunning for as an auxiliar de conversación was in the education sector. I listened to any channel that would give me a pulse.

When the call for applications finally came out, I could immediately tell it was tight. There were 40 interview slots, and the Facebook post announcing this also had 40 likes. As someone who worked in performance marketing, I had seen countless posts and ads with only 3 or 10 likes on the surface bring in thousands of clicks and revenue behind the scenes. Real consumption online (purchases, clicks, sign-ups, even stalking) tends to be potent but invisible. Likes are nice to look at, but often they are passive displays of interest. People go straight for the action they want to take when they’re truly keen on something.

Filipinos were desperate to leave the country at the time, fired up by the government’s mishandling of the pandemic. And when the “passive interest” in an opportunity that is in high demand is equal to the slots available, that doesn’t mean there’s enough for everybody. That means the invisible bottom of that ice berg is going to fuck you over.

I didn’t have access to see exactly what the competition looked like numbers-wise. I just knew I had to be really fast. Interview slots opened for booking at 9 am on a certain day. I wasn’t a morning person, but I was up at 8:30 am. I had the page open on two different browsers, which I kept refreshing. When the slots finally appeared, I jabbed on a timeslot, quickly filled in my details, and didn’t dare to take another breath until the slot was locked down and confirmed.

Once I had my slot, I refreshed the page again. More than half of them were gone. I refreshed again. Two or three left. Many claimed they were there at 9 o’clock but didn’t see anything. Some checked at 2pm (lol). It took about two minutes for all slots to run out. 120 seconds. That was the difference between me being in Madrid vs. possibly still living in Manila today.

In the following years, moving to Spain via the language assistant route from the Philippines has become even harder. Requirements have become more stringent, the openings narrower, and the number of people wanting to leave the country has multiplied exponentially. My timing may have been far from ideal, but I haven’t seen better since.


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