Spain and I have a lengthy history. It started long ago, in the spacious, bright white hallways of Crawfordsville High School. Its ending has yet to be played out. After a semester of high school Spanish, I began to imagine myself in Spain. My heart would pick up speed at the mere thought of being in Europe, let alone Spain. I would insist on speaking Spanish with my friends at lunch, trying to improve in any way possible. I did extra pages in our workbook, thrilled when I could master a concept without the teacher’s help. When my high school Spanish teacher, Mr. Welch, told us about his stay in Valencia, the paella and beaches and host moms named Nieves, it was all I could do not to hop on a plane right then—I was hopelessly enamored of a culture I’d never experienced.
Thus, when I graduated, I knew what I wanted to do—study Spanish. I thought it was clear that such a course of study would serve me well in the future. After all, the U.S. has plenty of immigration from Latin America, and many of my small town’s residents’ mother tongues were Spanish. At IU, I often found my Spanish classes to be boring and repetitive, but I never let them dampen my spirits. I listened jealously as older students described their “abroad experiences,” even if I found them snide and condescending at times. (“In Spain, we always …”) I started planning to go abroad as early as 2006, but I wasn’t even going until spring 2008! Eventually, unsatisfied with my options, I designed my own program, sponsored by the University of Minnesota. I was going to Spain! Toledo, to be exact.
Upon setting foot on Spanish soil for the first time, I could hardly believe it. It was like turning a year older – you expected it to feel different, but it didn’t. I was the same old me, but in another country! This alone excited me beyond words. The first day, hazy with jet lag, I set off to explore the city, losing myself in its meandering narrow streets, stopping for a glass of wine and olives, the wine causing bouts of uncontrollable lethargy.
I won’t pretend that semester, spent thousands of miles away from everything and everyone I had ever known, was easy. Indeed, I spent many nights crying on Skype with my mother unsuccessfully trying to calm me. I didn’t always like the food or the culture, but I did love one thing – my intercambios, or conversation partners. Alberto and Carlos were the keys to another world, a world in which I didn’t stumble shamefacedly over my words in a cafeteria. Instead, I could hold my head up and say what I wanted, without fear. We talked for hours in broken English and Spanish, laughing as we found ways to communicate when the words would not come.
I learned a lot that semester, not only Spanish, but about myself. I learned that I had what it took to live in another country. I arrived a stranger and a foreigner and left with best friends. I had my passport stolen in a foreign city and fixed everything before I had to go to Paris the next week. I was strong and confident and able. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t happy to go home to the land of free refills and 24 hour Walgreens. I was. But I had caught the bug…
To be continued.