The Expat: Melanie McGeever

Melanie McGeever.
Melanie McGeever.
From: Eastbourne, England
Lives in: Quilmes
Age: 45
Profession: Primary school teacher and English co-ordinator at St. George’s College, Quilmes
Education: BEd Honours in early years education at Brighton University
Reading: Three Cups of Tea
Last film seen: The Hunger Games
Gadget: My iPhone

Argentina is one in a series of foreign teaching posts for Melanie McGeever but to date it has been her longest position over the past 17 years. Having lived and worked in Abu Dhabi, Brunei and El Salvador, she took a risk seven years ago by moving to Argentina without the safety net of a job, and has worked at two schools since then.

She says: “I was teaching in San Salvador in El Salvador, and worked there for three years. I love Latin America and wanted to travel around more and so with a friend, we decided to to go to Argentina for three weeks at Christmas 2004. We saw a lot of the country, booking fairly cheap flights that cost about US$70 back then, and flew to Iguazú, Mendoza, took a bus to Bariloche for New Year’s Eve, then flew to Calafate on New Year’s Day to see the glaciers. We also took the boat to Punta del Este. That was all over the course of three weeks.”

Half-way through her contract in El Salvador, although Melanie was enjoying her three years there, she started to think about her next move. “The people are similar in a Latin aspect, as they are friendly and welcoming and like to meet people from different cultures. I made some good friends from El Salvador with whom I’m still in touch. It’s the smallest country in Central America, and there’s a lot of poverty with around 10 percent of the population owning everything — my school was for children from those families.”

As is the way with foreign teaching posts, Melanie had always had work lined up, which led her to South East Asia and the United Arab Emirates. But she decided to take a risk when it came to Argentina.

Melanie says: “I’d already had the job before I arrived everywhere else I lived. I like applying to countries that were warm — that was part of my criteria! This was before the Internet so I’d find out a job through the Times Education Supplement and send off CVs — and that’s how I got a job in Abu Dhabi, as I really wanted to have the travel opportunities in Asia.

“So when I went from Brunei to El Salvador, it was more about the continent rather than the country, specifically. I had really liked Argentina but the problem was my contract was running out in July 2006, the end of the school year but the Argentine school year starts in February, so I came here without a job.

“It was a calculated risk — I had some savings and thought I could live on those for up to six months. I rented an apartment in Palermo while looking for work — there’s always teaching work somewhere in the world.

“I loved the city from when I had first visited – the architecture was so European and just walking around I fell in love with the city. I thought that the centre is more well-maintained than other areas. I was made to feel very welcome, even though I was just on holiday, then when I started working my colleagues would invite me to meet their family and that was important to me.

“And as a tall, blonde, English woman, I also fit in. In other countries I was always the foreigner but I don’t look so different to the Argentines, so I can go out for a run in shorts and not attract any attention. In other countries I felt more of an outsider even though the people were really lovely and I feel this is more like home. As I really wanted to be in BA, I gave it a shot.

“Within two weeks I had a job covering a sick teacher at St. George’s North, teaching maths which is a bit out of my comfort zone. Then I got a contact at Northlands for three years, and lived in San Isidro.

“I like the fact that BA has a range of cultural activities available, so I love going to see a band or go to the ballet, which other cities just didn’t have, not even my own home town, as they are so small.”

Given her itchy feet, the need to progress started to inevitably niggle and so Melanie once again looked for new opportunities. “After three years, I was looking for a position with more responsibility, and was after change once again, and applied for jobs in Peru, Chile and also St. George’s North, who then passed on my CV to the sister school in Quilmes. I got a phone call on the morning of my birthday in 2009, thinking it was my dad at 9am getting the time difference wrong, but it was the headteacher, inviting me for an interview. Obviously I wasn’t expecting that, as I hadn’t even applied to them! I was living in San Isidro, and wasn’t planning to move to Quilmes — but I went for an interview on the Tuesday, and was offered the job by the Thursday!”

Obviously she moved to be closer to work, and has lived in Quilmes ever since. “It has some affluent neighbourhoods, and it’s grown so much it almost meets Buenos Aires. I live in the nicknamed Quilmes Hollywood, which is a nice area with cafés and boutiques but if you go a few blocks the other way, it gets a bit poorer quite quickly. I prefer Quilmes to San Isidro as everything I need is there — with the exception of Indian restaurants!”

It’s been 17 years since she started her expat way of life, but Melanie says she’s never missed the UK that much, enjoying each new country and the adventures as they come. “I do try to get back once a year to see family and friends, but I’ve never thought that I want to go back and live in the UK. There’s a lot of problems living in England, as there are in Argentina as well, but my quality of life is much better in Argentina.

“I travel quite a lot so I’ve been to Bariloche plenty of times, which is helped by having good friends living there — that’s where I’ve spent this Christmas. I love the stunning scenery, but I also love Mendoza and enjoy going on wine tastings. And Iguazú always blows me away — I always make sure visitors make that their first port of call. As for Salta, it’s like driving around Mars, it’s so beautiful. Seeing the whales in Puerto Madryn was a real experience that I shared with my dad, which we both loved.

“That said, I do miss spicy Indian curries — the first thing I do is go for a chicken dhansak with my mum — bangers and mash, and fish and chips. I try to visit in the summer so I can also sit in a lovely pub garden. And I miss good shopping, so I like to stock up on good quality, not expensive, clothes that fit. Argentine clothes are made for small skinny women and I’m five foot seven!”

And given that she feels so at home in Argentina, she doesn’t have plans to move on. “I’ve been in Argentina for seven and a half years and my contract finishes in December 2014, so I’ll be renegotiating. I don’t feel ready to leave Buenos Aires, as I like my lifestyle, but the country with the current economic situation is worrying. School contracts are changing in light of that, so I’ll see how it works out. You can have an expat contract for up to 10 years, then after that you’re considered a local teacher.”

Of course, Melanie is well versed in local culture, and says that her greeting always makes her stick out when she’s in the UK.

“My most Argentine characteristic is the kissing on the cheek. In the south of England where I’m from, people aren’t very affectionate, but in El Salvador and Argentina, a kiss on the cheek is for everyone whether you know them or not. I do it in England then I get strange looks: ‘Here comes Melanie, she’s going to kiss me again.’

“I taught in England for several years and you can’t have any physical contact with children as it could be interpreted as child abuse. But here, my pupils come in every day and give me a bug hug and a kiss and say ‘good morning Miss Melanie’, as do their parents. That familiarity doesn’t exist in England.”

Buenos Aires Herald, December 28, 2013
If you’ve enjoyed reading about Melanie the teacher, you might like this piece on Abraão the Brazilian fashion consultant.

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