Two years ago, I took one of the biggest leaps of faith ever. I boarded my first plane of three, and I jetted to Miami, then Madrid, and then Valencia, the Spanish city I would call home for almost a month. I remember sitting on our first plane and looking around. There were a few purple t-shirts scattered throughout the plane (Go Catamounts!), but no truly familiar faces were anywhere near me. Reality was setting in; I would be spending about half of summer, 2013 3,000 miles from home, with two professors whom I had never taken a class with, and ten complete strangers (sans the few classes I may have had with them in Cullowhee). I was even going with two of them to Paris in a couple of weeks for our “fin de semana libre.” This was, without doubt, the craziest thing I had done at that point. At the time, I was uncertain about a lot of things, but grounded in one idea. I knew not how, but study abroad would change me. I could feel it.
Overall, our flights were pleasant. When we landed in Valencia, all of our luggage made it, and our professors greeted us gleefully as we walked out of the airport and into the Metro. As cheesy as it sounds, I can still hear the subway coming toward us like it did the first time. Of all of the public transportation systems I have used throughout my years of travel, Valencia’s remains distinct. Maybe the pitch of its breaks squeaking to a halt was a bit higher than usual. Maybe I remember it because it was so efficient. Or, maybe I just remember it because it was my ticket to several class excursions, shopping trips in the city center, and nightly adventures in which none of us had a plan.
Our residencia was small, but comfortable. Estella and Acension, the ladies who ran the establishment, immediately made our group feel welcome and made me realize that I needed to do some crash-course remembering of my Spanish that had gotten rusty. Even though nothing can replace the adventures and escapades we had across one of Spain’s largest cities, some of our best times were spent in Hostel Palacio getting ready for our nights out, goofing off during siesta hour, and discussing things like politics, our majors (most of us were in different university programs at Western and studying Spanish as a minor), and our plans after graduation. Spending such an extended amount of time with people of all different walks of life was a cultural experience in itself.
There were so many times during the 2012-2013 school year that I doubted my impulse to got to Spain, and I told my intuition to shut up. Since I had to pay for study abroad myself, it was one of the biggest financial commitments I had ever made. Could I really afford to spend a year’s worth of RA salary on one summer extravaganza? I had a lot of other doubts as well. What would I miss at home? Would I get too homesick? Would I learn enough Spanish for the trip to be “worth it?” Truth be told, there are a few people I can really attribute my going abroad to. My friend Mary Hannah is as big of a gypsy soul as I am. She was studying abroad in South Africa for part of the spring semester, and we spent countless nights at work in the RA office looking pictures of beautiful places and catching such big cases of Wanderlust for which passport stamps were the only successful antidote. Several other friends of mine helped urge me along too. My friend Monica was in the process of applying for an internship with NBC for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and she had travel on her mind as well. My friends Tanner and Adam talked continually about how much they loved studying in Germany. I was always jealous of how good their second language was! Finally, my selfless, incredible new fiancé gave me so much encouragement. Colby reassured me time and again that we could survive a summer apart (I moved back to Cullowhee shortly after returning home from Spain), that we would find a way to pay for our wedding and other adult expenses, and that I needed to go on this trip because study abroad was something I had always dreamed of. We had only been engaged for about a month when he dropped me off at the Charlotte Douglas Airport, but he never made me question my decision. In fact, he was my rock through it all. I knew from the beginning he would make a great husband, and I was correct! 🙂
It took me basically no time at all to know I had made the right decision. Valencia quickly became a third home for me since my actual home was first and Cullowhee was second. The first time I felt acclimated was on one of our group’s first nightly rendezvous in our neighborhood. Turkish restaurants in Spain are comparable to Mexican restaurants in the United States regarding popularity; there was one on practically every street corner! Our block had a Turkish restaurant called Sofras that was open late and inexpensive. It was the perfect place for a bunch of college kids like us! No wonder we went there at least five or six times… it was “our restaurant” in our new place! And, if we had a restaurant, we had a home.
Our first night at Sofras was full of laughs, especially when we had a misunderstanding and thought that a Valencian man was calling us a bunch of dumb Americans. Let’s just say that some phrases that are offensive in Latin American Spanish are not offensive in Spain and vice versa. The look on the man’s face when he realized we interpreted him wrongly was hilarious. It became the inside joke for our entire trip! Our laughter rang throughout the restaurant, and I’m sure we looked like the stereotypical American Millennials: loud, boisterous, and absurd. We could not have cared less. We were living in the moment, and life in Spain was dazzling. Our reactions to its brilliance were only natural.
After eating way too much Turkish food, we returned to our residencia for a night of playing cards, conversing, and staying up way too late considering we had an early language class the following morning. It is crazy how quickly ten strangers became some of my close friends.
But, I suppose the fact that we became friends isn’t that crazy at all, really. I’ve learned that travelers have many things in common… empathy, open-mindedness, impulsiveness, passion. We were all on different courses for our lives, but we watched each moment with glittering eyes, looking for beautiful things that many people would likely glance over without second thought. Our paths had crossed and we would be forever connected. I do not believe in coincidences in life, including our enrolling in such an incredible program. There are many things I think of when I picture Valencia, Spain, but the people I shared it with are definitely among my most missed elements.
Stay tuned for two more blog posts in my “Flashback to study abroad” series. This was one of the most influential time periods of my life, and there is no way I could fully articulate how much this experience changed me in one solitary blog post. In Part II of this series, I will talk about some of the Valencia specifics aka why everyone should go there at least once, and in Part III, I will talk about the end of study abroad and what it is like to come home after such a grand experience.
P.S. Some of the photographs on this post came from my lovely friend Darien, who happened to be my roommate in Valencia. 🙂