Today we board a plane for Valencia, where we’ll stay for six weeks.
Traveling Alone to Spain
When I was sixteen I stood with my mom in Guanajuato, Mexico, on the rooftop of the Instituto Falcon where we were taking Spanish classes. Earlier that day I’d met a girl in class my age from the States, there for the summer to learn Spanish. But she hadn’t come with her family like I had. She was there by herself. “I want to do that,” I told my mom as we looked out over Guanajuato’s winding, cobblestone streets. To my surprise, she said we could look into it, we could try to find a way.
When I was seventeen, with financial help from my grandparents, I was able to go to Spain for a year through the student exchange program American Field Services (AFS). In Vinaros, the small town on the Mediterranean coast where I was placed, I stayed with a single mother, Amparo, and her five-year-old daughter, Helena.
Amparo was a busy, well-connected woman who wore bright red lipstick and couldn’t walk from her house to work without stopping seven or eight times to talk to people she knew. We prided ourselves on the inventive salads we came up with for dinners in front of Operación Triunfo (the Spanish American Idol). Helena was both bossy and sweet, quick to correct my Spanish, and also to climb onto the couch with me to watch La Bella Durmiente (Sleeping Beauty). I see her in the faces and spunky nonsensical quips my own four-year-old makes now. Helena is now, of course, in college in Barcelona.
I was also taken in by my Spanish high school’s French teacher, Francoise, and became best friends with her son, Marc. They lived in a house in the countryside, and I would often stay for weekends, walking in orange groves, listening to music, learning about new foods, watching movies, writing in my journal. Marc and I became inseparable, and he took as much joy in introducing me to horchata as I took in drinking it. We both took ballet at the same school in the next down over, and he’s now a dancer, performer and writer living in Valencia.
I had no idea what was going on in school in the beginning. The other kids were also confused by my presence, having never had an American exchange student in their small school before. A mixture of Valenciano (the local language) and Spanish swirled all around me. I tried so hard to both fit in and disappear at the same time. I perfected the nod-and-smile until my Spanish improved and I could actually carry on a conversation. These kids were so different from the ones in my high school; they rode around on their mopeds, smoked in the school patio during their breaks, went out dancing and drinking at the discotecas until 6am. They were wrapped up in each other’s lives outside of school for the many, many festivals that went on throughout the year: San Antonio, San Juan, Carnival, and on and on.
Some of the teachers expected too much of me (Art History) and some pushed me to be better (Economics), some were impressed with how much I improved (Spanish Literature) and others pretended I wasn’t there (Valenciano). I paced the hallway at home when Amaparo and Helena were out, reading my text books aloud to myself, circling words I didn’t understand. I read the newspaper, El Pais, front to back on the weekends. Marc watched movies with me, pausing them in places that I didn’t understand so he could explain in slow Spanish what was going on. Francoise even sat me down and gave me official lessons in Valenciano. During exams, which were always longform (multiple choice didn’t exist), I wrote and wrote and wrote. My one job was to learn Spanish.
AFS organized orientations every couple of months and I made good friends with an American girl, Jill, from New Hampshire. In a year and a half she would become my college roommate at the University of Massachusetts, and we would become friends for life. And Massachusetts, of course, is where I met my husband. So you could say that if I hadn’t gone to Spain when I was 17, I wouldn’t have met Lyon, and we wouldn’t have Jojo. Just saying.
When I think back to my year abroad it feels like I was there for many years. I soaked up everything, and my experience there continues to inform how I live today.
Going Back to Spain
So going back to Spain this summer, bringing my husband and my daughter feels like something much bigger than the three-month trip we took to Costa Rica. It feels like some kind of circle has been completed. Now I have my own little version of Helena. And when we visit Vinaros, because I’ve worked so hard to make sure she’s bilingual, she’ll be able to talk to Amparo, Helena, Marc and Francoise in Spanish. This feels like everything to me.
I am acutely aware of how precious it is that we can travel freely in the way we do. That we have the time, money, flexibility, and immigration status to pick up and leave. To return to our home when we want. I don’t take it lightly, especially since, as we gear up to leave on our trip today, ICE has been gearing up to conduct raids of undocumented people in an effort to spark fear and terror in immigrants living here and those wishing to come. The two thoughts are so inharmonious, and cannot go unsaid as I strike out on an adventure with my family, exercising my right as a global citizen, something we all are.