SYA Spain: Because Learning a New Language Apparently Isn’t Hard Enough

         Walking through clouds of cigarette smoke and dodging couples engaged in excessive amounts of PDA on my way to and from school every day was not at the forefront of my mind when I signed up for School Year Abroad in Spain. I knew everything happened later in Spain, but I didn’t realize that that would not include the start of school – 8:30 a.m. is still the dreaded hour of my weekdays. I also didn’t realize just how much self control it would take to not go to the same café every morning during break (I’m still working on that one).

         However, I also never expected to make so many friends so quickly. It turns out that being in a foreign country where you aren’t fluent in the language is a pretty surefire way to create bonds far more quickly than in the United States. Stumbling through ordering a coffee at nine in the morning with another person creates a connection that I’d never experienced until this month.

         There are seventy of us: seventy American teenagers, moderately proficient in Spanish, spending nine months in the fifth-largest city in Spain. We are completely out of our element. I remember landing in Madrid and walking to the buses that would take us to Zaragoza, and being utterly overwhelmed by the sensory overload. From the rapid fire Spanish, to the desert-like landscape, to the two suitcases I was carrying that held my life for the next nine months, I felt completely lost.

         And then I turned to my right, and saw Nicole, the girl I’d sat next to for the seven-hour plane ride. I looked to my left and saw Willie, a boy who’d helped me pick up my suitcase from the conveyor belt in the reception area. Surrounding me were Skye, Emmett, Johnnie, Lindsay, Liam, and 62 others, all just as bewildered as I was. None of us knew what we were in for, even though we’d spent the last six months preparing for it. It was a feeling I honestly have no idea how to describe, and probably never will.

         Since I got to Zaragoza two weeks ago, I’ve eaten more seafood than I probably have in the past year and drank more coffee than I have in my entire life. I’ve learned that authentic churros are nothing like the ones they sell for a dollar at Costco, and that it’s inevitable to adopt the “z” lisp that comes with the Spanish accent. I’ve become familiar with the public transport system, a concept that really doesn’t exist in Atlanta (honestly, I think I’ve taken the MARTA once).

          We just finished our first week of classes, and I can now say firsthand that honors precalculus does not get better just because you’re in Spain. However, I’m also about to start reading Lord of the Flies in Spanish for my Political Science class, an opportunity I’d probably never have in Atlanta. Besides Political Science, I’m also taking Cinema and Theatre in Spanish, as well as a course called DELE, which is going to culminate in a government-issued fluency exam in May.

         When I got here two weeks ago, I remember feeling terrified and lost, and wondering if it would be possible for me to stay at the airport and take the first flight back to New York. All the Spanish I’d learned since kindergarten flew out the window, and the people around me might as well have been speaking Korean for all I understood. I was experiencing the crushing weight of homesickness on a level I’d never been to before, and I almost shut down. My first night, I went to bed at midnight, and slept until 2:30 PM the next day.

          On the first morning of orientation, I walked in ten minutes before nine, and sat down at the end of a bench of people I’d never met. I curled in on myself, nervous and unsure. Before the principal stood up, though, seven different people had introduced themselves to me, telling me their names, where they were from, the composition of their host families, their hobbies, and how afraid they were, too. I was immediately comforted, and found one of the first real smiles I’d had since I got here on my face.

         I have so much more independence here, and I love it. We get 45 minute breaks every morning, and my friends and I always go around the corner to a café called El Criollo – by now, they know my name and order (one cappuccino, three churros, and a small pot of melted chocolate to dip them into. I’d like to say I share it with my friends, but I’d be lying). After school, a couple of us will go sit in the park and work on homework together, people-watch, and talk about the week. Our curfew on weeknights in 9:30 p.m., and we take full advantage of it, often walking through our front doors at 9:27.

         Though I’ve packed plenty into my first two weeks of SYA, I don’t feel like I’ve been here long enough to summarize it into one feeling. After all, isn’t a trip the summary of all the smaller experiences you have while there? If I had to come up with one sentence to wrap up everything I’ve felt and done in the past two weeks, though, it’d be this: last night, I went with my host family to see the second Maze Runner movie in Spanish – and I understood everything.