When my dad dropped me off at the airport with a 53lb suitcase and my passport, I wasn’t nervous. Sydney, I told myself, You’ve been through China. What can a trip to Spain [alone] have on you? But as soon as the check-in woman told me my bag had to drop three pounds, my aura began to change. My face turned red as I stuffed three pairs of shoes into my backpack, before I finally handed her my bag and headed towards my gate. I watched the people walking around me float by, almost as if it all was a dream. As I headed towards my gate, I suddenly realized that I knew no one. I sat idly by as I waited in the international terminal all by my lonesome. Shaking, I looked around at all the happy families and class trips that were on my flight. I swallowed hard and prepared for the 9 hours ahead.
When I got on the plane, I realized slowly that the only person next to me (it was a 2–4–2) was a quiet Spanish teenager who spoke English about as well as I spoke Spanish. The entire plane-ride she read a book about American weddings. The number of sentences between our few exchanges can probably be measured on one hand. I put on my headphones and tried to sleep but found myself failing miserably. I pulled out my Spanish workbook and tried to concentrate on the situtation I had begged to be put into.
Our arrival in Madrid was terrifying. Of course, the plane behaved calmly — it was my nerves that kept making me sweat. Getting off the plane, I found it was at least a mile walk to the baggage claim. Once there I grabbed my bag and tried frantically to follow the signs to the “exit”. Walking through the throngs of people holding signs for tours and loved ones, I saw no one with a similar t-shirt. I laughed to myself. Of course. Can’t make this too easy. Eventually I found the guy I was supposed to meet and followed him back to a table where one of my tourmates awaited. After about an hour of listening to them talk as though they’d known each other all of their life, I realized that they had, as they revealed they were actually cousins.
Next came two more girls and a seemingly odd Hungarian-Chinese guy. Little did I know I would later refer to him as Patito. Eventually the Dallas and the Newark flights arrived. These had been organized so that kids with Study Programs International could travel together and virtually avoid the past 15 hours I had been through. As we got on the bus, and people began to socialize I sat next to the first girl I had met at the airport. The bus winded throughout Madrid and our young tour guide seemed a little flustered as she spoke about the history of the great city we now found ourselves in. Our first stop, thank lawd, was the hotel and everyone quickly grouped with their roommates before they were handed the keys to their rooms and sent off to take their first siesta.
My roommate had been touring Spain prior to the start of the program, and so, as a result, wouldn’t arrive till later that night. I couldn’t wait to meet her, but I didn’t mind the privacy as I settled into the incredible little beds. At 2:30, we made our way downstairs and headed to a local square where we told to find lunch. After hearing that the local delicacy was bocadillo de rabas, I found some other girls willing to be adventurous. It was delicious, and afterwards, as we went outside and the sunshine warmed our faces, I began to smile. This is the experience of a lifetime. Treat it as such. Later, when given the option to visit La Prada museo or chill in the hotel, I took the opportunity to see one of Picasso’s finest works (La Guernica).
I briefly met my roommate at dinner that night, but she spent the evening with her sister as she prepared to return to the States. She joined me at 5:00am the next day, an encounter I vividly remember because I had been freezing all night and she walked in quickly understanding as she threw an extra blanket on a girl she barely knew. We returned to sleep unsure of what awaited us.
The rest of that day, we visited the home of Queen Isabella in Segovia and were split into our two program groups. The majority were headed to San Sebastian, a beachy city in Northern Spain. Only a few hours apart, I was, with the rest of the group, headed to Santander, a more obscure city also situated on the beach, with a long history of banking. The busride from Madrid (central Spain) to both of these cities was about 6 hours.
The next day classes began at the University of Cantabria. Unlike the rest of our classmates, we lived far up the hill by the Sardinero Beach. It was a solid 25 minute walk to school each day and our coming in late became less and less unusual. This was, after all, the European way. As we took our placement tests, I shook my head. The material on it was all mechanics and virtually everything I had forgotten from the past May, when I had taken the AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam. Failing the test with flying colors, I was placed in the lower of the two grammar classes. At first, I was unhappy with my placement. Frankly it was a little embarrassing to have taken the highest level of Spanish at my high school and still be placed in a class where basic grammar concepts were the curriculum. But as I began to accept my fate for the next 14 days, I recognized that my Spanish education had been full of gaps. Learning virtually nothing my sophomore year (“Spanish 3″), and skipping Spanish 4, I soon became grateful for not having to be thrown back into the advanced level Spanish I had been struggling with the past year. Because, at the end of the day, who doesn’t need a little help with the basics? After grammar class each day, we had speaking and culture class.
As far as roommates went, I think there definitely was some culture clashing at first. I was from a big city in the South and she was from just outside of a massive city on the West Coast. I walked with a purpose, she walked leisurely. I felt the need to talk to complete strangers, she told me I was crazy. But slowly we began to embrace each others’ differences. I taught her Southern hospitality and she taught me the openness of California. I came to love her. And, I think, she even liked me (or at least pretended). Because, when our friends went home at the end of each day, it was only each other that we had. It was her who put up with my quirks and it was I who listened to her go on about the love of her life. No matter our differences in upbringing, a bond was definitely formed. Some rainy nights, we’d even cuddle up in one bed and watch movies.
Class each day was from 9–2, and afterwards we would make the trek up the hill to Conchita for almuerzo. Sometimes this meant hotdogs and fried eggs. Sometimes it meant fried chicken and papas fritas. Sometimes it even meant tiny fish with more bones than meat. But it ALWAYS MEANT BREAD. Loaves were served on the side for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was toast. Just toast. Sometimes buttered toast. Sometimes little cakes that were virtually squishier, sugarier toast. As a family that doesn’t keep bread in the house, this was a hard adjustment. Lunch was the big meal, and they ate it LATE. 2, sometimes 4 o’clock. Dinner was not significantly smaller than lunch but it was much less of a big deal. And it was taken at 8 or later. 7 o’clock was obscure, we found out, as we tried to eat early so we could spend more time with our friends.
After lunch, I’d love to say we went straight to the beach every day, but being in the mountains as well, it was often too cloudy. It rained almost every day. But the program provided planned activities that probably made the trip. I took a surfing class one afternoon that was in complete Spanish. Though I definitely couldn’t understand everything he said, I don’t think it would have made a difference as we had a blast in the rain and freezing ocean that day. The waves were small, but our smiles were big and I became closer with everyone that went. Other activities included ziplining, horseback riding, kayaking, sailing, and trips to the lighthouse or Farro. On the weekends we took excursions to nearby cities and sights. But this all only lasted till about 8, when of course, the real fun began. At this point we could meet up with our friends and experience the Spanish nightlife for ourselves..
One thing I think it’d be a crime not to mention is the ridiculous ice cream served across the city. A specific company called Regma served up some ridiculous helado in incredible flavors from chocolate to avellano (hazelnut, my personal favorite) and turrón (almond). This, among with my friends, is something I truly miss about the beautiful country.
After two week of homework, learning, and plenty of fiestas, I found I was proficient in Spanish. And in Spanglish, I was an experto. We headed back to Madrid that Saturday sad that we had to leave it all behind. Our last stops were Burgos and La Reina Sofia, a beautiful city with an incredible chuch the biggest Classical Museum in Spain. We stayed in one of the largest hotels in Europe on our last night and made our quick trek back to the airport the following morning.
Spain was the trip of a lifetime and the immersion experience was more than incredible. I made friends from across the country, and even the world, that I still talk to and truly miss. If nothing else, it made me only more ambitious to find a career where I get to travel the mundo. Exploring new cultures is humbling, and learning how/why other people think and believe the things they do is one of life’s greatest treasures.
About the Author: Sydney Frankenberg participated in SPI’s 2014 summer language immersion program in Santander, Spain.