“Una bolsa quiere?”
“What?” I thought to myself. Do I want a purse? This was my first experience buying groceries in Spain. The employee had to repeat herself a couple times and then pointed at a plastic bag. I quickly understood and agreed. The vocabulary word I had learned as a purse in school also referred to a plastic shopping bag in Spain.
This was a little taste of the confusion I felt. I had recently gone to Spain, and was literally across the ocean from everything I knew. I felt like a foreigner. I stumbled across my words the first week or two because it had been months since I had spoken Spanish. The people talked fast and I couldn’t understand. “Tres euros” sounded like “trece“. When I finally got to rest after nearly a day and a half of traveling, I cried. I was so overwhelmed. I worried about how I would survive four months in this country and wanted to go back home.
A year ago today, I boarded a plane and flew halfway across the world by myself. It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long. I had no idea what I was getting into. But going to Spain changed my life. I miss it every day. I can say that I successfully lived in a foreign culture and navigated life there for four months. And hey, that’s a feat.
Departures and Arrivals
July 31, 2013 || November 23, 2013
A week or so ago, I posted a picture of Málaga with a description, and will probably repeat myself here. But Spain really did change my life. The most obvious way is that it made me realize how much I love Spanish literature and how I want to teach about it at the college level. Before I had gone to Spain, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But Spain grew me as a person, too. I went through some hard things, like getting money stollen from someone close to me (at that time) and getting my phone stolen in Madrid. But even those things wouldn’t deter me from going back. My friend Emily just got back from Chile (you can read about it here) and I was talking with her before she got back, and she articulated some of my feelings well:
When I first got here I was like, “if this is really bad I’ll never want to travel again” and even with the bad experiences it’s like I’m an addict for adventure and new experiences now…I love living with less stuff. I love being free to go places. I love feeling independent and capable because I can navigate a foreign country reasonably well most of the time due to the languages I know. I’ve had some horrible experiences here but they don’t change how I feel about everything…they almost make you feel a little more like a duck with water rolling off your back to have these “bad experiences” that are supposed to be travel nightmares, and coming through them more unscathed than you’d think. And you realize that unfortunate stuff might happen, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world.
That’s how I feel…that despite having bad things taught to me and having to learn some hard lessons, it grew me as a person.
Near the end of my time studying abroad, I was sitting on a bus and observed as someone tried to communicate with the driver but couldn’t because they couldn’t speak Spanish very well. it was kind of painful to watch, but offered some perspective, because it made me think of my first experience speaking with an andaluz.
I had gone to two different luggage carousels from the Madrid flight, and my luggage was nowhere to be seen. I was stressing out, thinking my luggage was lost somewhere, and an employee approached me and said, “Hablas español?” That was about the only thing that I understood as he proceeded to speak super fast. He kept saying maleta, which means suitcase, but I thought meant ticket at the time. I pulled out my passport and showed him the sticker on the back and he directed me to the international luggage carousels. I walked up and my luggage was right there.
It surprised me how fast my Spanish-speaking abilities picked back up. Within a week of living with my host family, I was speaking so much better than I had. There is something to be said about being completely immersed in the language. My first host family didn’t speak any english either, so I had to look up a fair amount of words in the dictionary. The thing I loved about staying with host families is that we would just talk, and they would correct me, but not in a mean way. If you’re afraid of making mistakes when you speak, you won’t speak. So even though I said some things stupidly, I just kept talking and learned from my mistakes. Some of my favorite memories in Spain were times I sat with my family and chatted in Spanish. The thing I miss the most about Spain is speaking Spanish.
You know how certain songs remind you of certain times of your life? (Or maybe I’m the only one?) Well, that happened for me. This one day, early on in my time in Spain, I laid down for a nap. Naps probably didn’t help my jet lag, but hey, when in Spain, take a siesta, right? Anyway, I remember waking up to the song “Wake Me Up” by Avicii blasting through the floor. I go downstairs and my host parents are just kinda dancing around. Neither of them spoke English and told me that they just liked the way it sounded.
When I think about Spain, I think of a bunch of random memories. It’s hard to put into words how going to Spain changed me, but perhaps putting it into words is just the culmination of little stories like these. Spain is a part of me. It’s my enthusiasm for Spanish literature. It’s my affinity for bullfighting. It’s my ever increasing wanderlust. It’s in the way I find it hard to hear Spanish words pronounced with an English accent. It’s my cravings for Spanish food. It’s the bittersweet feelings I have thinking about memories created there, and looking back on photos.
“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” -Pat Conroy
I was lucky to have been in Málaga in mid-August for their annual feria. It’s basically an 8 day long street party, celebrating the reconquest of the city by Ferdinand and Isabella. People dance flamenco in the streets. At the conclusion of the event is a parade commemorating the entrance of the monarchs. The discotecas are open all day round, I believe. It is an interesting atmosphere, so carefree.
Calle Lairos, pictured above, is a popular destination. Full of stores and restaurants, there is plenty to do. No cars are allowed on this road. This street changed from an interesting, unfamiliar place, to a place I miss. The full name of the street is Calle Marqués de Lairos. Most of the streets are named after people. I lived on Avenida Pintor Joaquin Sorolla. They’re kind of mouthfuls, but I find it a nice way to commemorate people.
La plaza de la merced sits in the center of Málaga. There are restaurants around it. Picasso’s birth house is on the corner. The monument in the middle of the plaza, pictured above, pays respect to General Torrijos and his 48 soldiers that were assassinated, whose remains are there as well. I love the plaza life in Spain in the summer. It’s so relaxed. People go out to eat and sit and chat for hours. People congregate around the plaza and little kids play soccer. It’s a site I miss.
Part of a town’s feria is the corrida de toros. Usually they’ll have one every day during the fair. I didn’t get a chance to get to one in Málaga, but I went to the last corrida of the fair in a town called Fuengirola. It’s a really cool event, and the atmosphere is unique. Despite its controversy in other countries, the Spanish love their bullfights. I enjoyed the two bullfights I went to, and would like to go to more.
There’s just such an artistry as the matador guides the bull; a brush with death. Some bullfighters get killed. Many get killed in the running of the bulls in Pamplona during San Fermín. Yet with each pass the matador proves his power over the bull.
This is one of my favorite pictures from Spain, and I believe that it captures the essence of bullfighting. It is an exhilarating, exhausting ordeal for the people who do it. You can see exhaustion on this torerro’s face. A bullfighter is considered good when he can kill the bull with one plunge of the sword. One matador that I saw plunged the sword and then just waited, standing with his arms up, so confident in his delivery, until the bull collapsed. That was a pretty surreal experience.
They’re pretty good looking, too.
Posters like these are all around the city during the season, being really the sole form of advertisement. The details are different for each fight, but the posters all have a distinct look.
Málaga is the home to Picasso. He was born there. This sculpture sits on a bench in La plaza de la merced.
His birth house was pretty cool, but pictures aren’t allowed inside.
This was the school I went to. Well, technically, this is the housing part that some students stay at, but it connects to the school, looping over to the right. I loved my stay here and all the amazing people I met. I still stay in touch with some of the teachers.
This restaurant was one I frequented often. It’s very close to the school, and up the hill from where I lived. After a while the waitress knew my order without me having to say it. I wish I had tried to talk with her more, because when I did, near the end of my stay, she said that my Spanish had improved. On my last night, I had dinner there, and she gave me a tiramisu. She asked if I would come back, and my response was the same now as it was then: yes. I don’t know when, and I don’t know how, but I’ll come back.
I loved the bullring.
While I was there, I took a trip to Granada and got to stop at the birth house of Federico García Lorca. He was a Spanish poet and playwright, part of what they call the Generation of ’27. (1927). I’ve read some of his poems and plays. It was really cool to see his birth house, though it was a quick stop.
One of my favorite things about Spain was the sunrises and sunsets. I saw so many beautiful skies. Here, back in the USA, nothing really compares to that, but sometimes there are some nice ones.
This is only a part of what Spain means to me. I am so grateful that I got to spend that semester abroad. I have an ache in my heart for Spain that won’t rest until I go back. I learned a lot of things on that trip. I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I am capable of living and thriving in a foreign culture. I am capable of carrying on hours of conversations in Spanish with people. I learned that I had such a narrow perspective, that though I don’t consider myself a ‘typical’ American, in some ways, I was. I learned that we’re all ethnocentric, but it is possible and so beneficial to step into another culture’s shoes. I learned about the beauty of the Spanish life. I learned that sometimes, being an ocean away from everything you know helps you to work out issues. I learned so much and met so many people and I miss them. It’s difficult to put Spain into words, or to fit it into a neat little box. The experience and everything about it is infused in me, it’s a part of who I am. I didn’t really know what I was getting into a year ago when I left, but I’m glad I stuck out the initial bad feelings and learned to love Spain. I wish I had branched out a little more and tried more foods, but I know that now that I have gone, that next time I will try harder to branch out. In the meantime, I’m trying to make up for it. I’ve got my eye on a Spanish tapas bar in Chicago that I want to go to, and at some point, I want to try to start making Spanish food. The first food on the menu is churros con chocolate. A year ago, I boarded a plane. And everything about my experience, everything that happened to me in Spain, has made me the person I am now, and, in my opinion, a better person. But now I’ve got to get back to reading The Sun Also Rises…gotta get my Spain fix!