So right now I´m writing this journal in my town´s library because I foolishly forgot to bring an outlet converter to use with my laptop. I´ve been in Spain now for four days and thankfully, this is the most of my troubles. I arrived safely in Barcelona, Spain after a nerveracking plane ride. I couldn´t really figure out what about it made me nervous (besides the fact that I was realizing what exactly I was about to do), but for the whole time leading up to my landing in Barcelona, I just didn´t feel myself. As my Outbound Student Handbook will tell me, this was my first incline on the roller coaster that is the emotions of an exchange student. Fortunately, my coaster began to decline as soon as my plane prepared to land in Barcelona and I looked out my window to see the thriving city stuck in between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees Mountains. The sight of the two extremes are so contrasting that it was astonishing. I was utterly convinced that this was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.
After thankfully retrieving my bags from baggage claim without a problem, I was met by a smiling host mom, dad, and little brother. We then drove about twenty-five minutes to our secluded town-and my new home--Sant Feliu de Codines. This town is like nothing I´ve ever seen. It literally sits on the side of a mountain and not a single road is horizontal, everything is at an incline. Something quite opposite from the flatness of central Florida, where there is maybe...I don´t know, one hill? My favorite part is that when you go to the edge of the town (or drive anywhere, for that matter) you can see all the mountains surrounding you, and the valleys in between. One thing in particular I noticed about my town is that they sure know how to save space. The roads are barely wide enough for a single car, not that that stops people from driving recklessly, and the sidewalks shouldn't even be called sidewalks, because you can´t walk on them comfortably. Most are about 10 inches wide and you constantly have to look around to make sure you don´t get hit by one of those reckless drivers coming around the ever winding roads. And on occasion when the sidewalks are wider, you still have no room to walk because cars are parked all along it. Sant Feliu can only perfectly be described as quaint. Every road leads to home. If it doesn´t, you´ll know it because there´s only empty land outside of the city (and your ears will start to pop because of the altitude). It almost looks like a diagram from my Spanish textbook during the chapter on people and places. There´s a plaza in the center of the town, and around it are several shops, each with its own specialty. La farmacia, la biblioteca, el carnisseria, etc etc. The only thing that I don´t like about Sant Feliu is that every now and then, a large truck carrying about 30-40 dirty, smelly, pigs will drive by and leave you traumatized not only by the helpless oinks you hear, but by the horrid stench which lingers in the air for about five dreadful minutes. This is especially nice during mealtimes.
My house isn´t much smaller than my home in Florida. However, there is only one full bathroom that everyone shares. This is quite different than what I´m used to, and another one of those ¨conserve space and energy¨ things that this place is so fond of. On the contrary, I am very proud of myself for cutting my twenty minute showers that my parents love so much down to about five. Being a girl, this was very difficult. My room also never looks like a tornado came through it (as my parents like to describe my room in Florida) I keep it nice and neat, make my bed every morning, and put my clothes back where they belong. My parents are probably dying of shock right now.
As for my family, they are really sweet people and have welcomed me with open arms. I mostly just hang out with my little host brother, Nestor. I´ve come to the conclusion that little boys are the same everywhere. We play video games, watch dubbed over Spongebob, and play fuzbol (or futbolinn). I even showed him some of the best games from my childhood that he´s now hooked on. I also taught him how to play Ninja and Bubble Trouble haha(or should I say ¨jaja¨). He always makes me laugh, whether its from a meow, or a random noise, or showing me his gross scratch n´ sniff trading cards...this is how I know we are going to be great friends.
In my six days in Spain, I have noticed many small, yet distinct differences. For instance, the bathroom has become a very confusing place for me. The toilets have TWO flush buttons. This was an interesting and scary experience the first time around. I still haven´t really figured out when I´m supposed to use one and when I´m supposed to use the other, so I just stick with one out of fear. Also, I don´t think Spain got the memo that MC Hammer pants are no longer fashionable. Although, I will admit that I´ve seen many people make them work. Table manners were also an interesting learning experience. Apparently it´s in bad manners to keep one hand in your lap while eating. My host dad always has to say to me ¨las manos!¨ so I remember to barbarically keep my hands on the table, hovering over my food. I certainly don´t want to be rude though and will make this a habit. Mealtimes are very important around here; in fact, I´ve come to realize that when the entire city closes down for the siesta, it´s not necessarily to sleep like I thought, but so that they can give their undivided attention to lunch, figures.
Today the other Rotary exchange student in my town and I went to our school to speak with a guidance counselor. Turns out that she is making us both specialized schedules to make our time here easy and enjoyable. You see, usually students have to choose between a math and science schedule, a history and literature schedule, or a mix of both, with few choices or electives. But for us, we hand picked the classes we wanted to take and we even have a special class with just the two of us and a Spanish tutor. This, I am most excited about. For a while there, I was afraid that since my entire peer group and school spoke Catalan, that I wouldn´t be able to become fluent in Spanish. Fortunately, this won´t be the case.
Anyway, I´ve written enough for now, no need to go off on more tangents. I always seem to write a book whenever someone asks me to write a page. I´m sure my next journal will be filled with more confusions and realizations. I have to say that my exchange is off to a great start. :)
It was brought to my attention today that I have been in Spain for just over 90 days, a figure that I can’t even comprehend. It seems like so many, ninety; yet feels like so few. I can’t believe that it has already been a year since I attended my first Rotary Youth Exchange meeting. I sat there, soaking in all the unfathomable opportunity and adventure the Rotarians promised and that the inbounds vouched. When I think back to how I got here, I still don’t really believe it; all those steps I took to prepare and now I’m actually living my exchange. I’m ninety days through. Ninety days filled with learning, wonder, confusion, excitement, loneliness, apprehension, adjustment, awkwardness, and sublimity; ninety days that I never want to forget and ninety days that I will never get back.
Like too many other journals I’ve read before, I want to apologize for the two month gap in between entries. I never understood all last year why the outbounds didn’t seem incredibly anxious to tell the world of their experiences and reflections—I know I was, and I hadn’t even been accepted yet. Now I understand. I don’t know where my time went or what I have been doing, but writing this journal has been a challenge for me. Words typically come very naturally to me, but right now, I’m almost at a loss. As I type, I feel like I don’t sound like myself. I’m not sure if it’s my English I’m having to pry out of the dusty nooks of my brain, or just the mere fact that I’m changing. Youth exchange does something to you, something you can’t explain. You wake up some days and see yourself, the world, in a different way. You find yourself reflecting and thinking, and keeping your eyes wide so as to not miss a beat. My time here so far hasn’t necessarily been busy, or extremely exciting, it’s just been life. But even as I say that I have to remind myself that this isn’t your typical every day. I’m learning, growing, feeling things I can’t explain. I repeat how difficult I’m finding it right now to write, because a lack of words is such a foreign feeling to me.
Anyway, I know this journal is well past due, but in all honesty, for the past month I couldn’t write a single word without going off on tangents or just sounding morose. My emotions have been so erratic that one day I’m happy, feeling completely at home and normal, but then the next I spend all day in my head, thinking of home and how I still don’t understand when someone asks me a simple question. There have been plenty of times where all I wanted was to just be able to go to sleep in my own bed and go back to a home that I know and feel loved. But that’s the trick about being an exchange student; it messes with your head. Yet you have to get over those hurdles and jump through those flaming hoops, and trust me, it’s a challenge. You’re put to the test every day, whether its restraining yourself from going on Facebook, or not letting the small stuff get to you, or just plain old living in a different culture with a different language. This “three month homesick period”, as the Rotarians call it, has a completely appropriate reputation. I am SO happy to be practically over with it.
One step at a time, little by little, poco a poco, everything comes together. I think this week has been the first time that I’ve felt like a normal person and not ‘the exchange student’. I’m more comfortable with people at school, I actually have a few friends lol, and I even joined the soccer team. Oh, that was very interesting. One day (it was one of those bad days), I decided I was sick of not having much to do and that I had too much time to think to myself, so I joined the soccer team, no big deal, except that soccer is not a sport that I’m accustomed to. I’m a volleyball player, my running and foot-eye coordination skills are very low. Nevertheless, it’s definitely made me happier; I have things to do and something to work at, not to mention more friends, haha.
I learn more about Spain, and especially Catalonia every day; and trust me, there’s a difference. I’m happy to say that there have been a lot of information exchanges. People are always so interested in the United States, or “California”, as many people call it who don’t really realize that there are 49 other states… My teachers at school always make connections to the United States in order to ask me questions. I can’t tell if the USA really comes up that much in lectures, or if they do it more because I’m there. Regardless, isn’t that why we go on exchange? To learn about the world and to teach and enlighten each other? The other American exchange student and I are currently on a tour of the English classes in my school, giving various presentations. It’s always funny to see how the tables turn when we’re no longer the ones who don’t understand the language, and our peers are dumbfounded that we have a rate of more than twenty words per minute. We also give English lessons around my town. People are very interested in the English language, and everybody wants to learn how to speak. We give a private class on Tuesdays and then on Fridays we go to the town elementary school and give little conversational sessions. This has been something that I really enjoy. So in the course of about two weeks, I went from having way too much time on my hands, to having a full schedule. It’s a nice feeling; it feels like home, like routine.
It’s pretty much winter here and getting COLD. I don’t live that north, but I’ve lived in Florida my entire life, and this is something very new to me. I think I’m adjusting though, minus a little head cold. But that doesn’t keep my host mom from always worrying about me. She’s always telling me to put more layers on and that I’m not accustomed to the cold and I’ll get sick. Clearly, she’s right. I do enjoy the opportunity for buying clothes though, hehe, thanks mom and dad. I am now the proud owner of a pair of boots. That’s right, my first pair of winter boots. Everyone in my host family is really nice and treats me like part of the family. I think my little host brother especially likes that he has someone to act as a “big brother” to, since I’m clueless when it comes to a lot of things. He really likes to shoot me lines that clearly came straight from his parents’ mouths. He always tries to act like the adult, it’s cute. He’s fun though. I actually just got a Hanukkah package from my mom that had a menorah, dreidels, and chocolate inside. He’s really fond of this whole playing a game that requires no skill to win chocolate thing.
So basically the past ninety days have just been life. Sure there have been many ups and downs, but at the end of the day, you get out of it what you put in. I may dream about going home sometimes and not wanting to “learn and grow” from yet another experience, but I am so happy to be here. I’ve only just begun, and I’m so excited for the next seven months.
People tell me all the time that they would never be able to do this, to be an exchange student; to be away from their family and friends for practically a year, away from everything they know and opening themselves up to the unknown and to the vulnerable. I never really understood that though. I never heard “youth exchange” and thought about all the reasons why it would be uncomfortable or challenging, I just sort of saw the opportunity and did it. But now that I’ve been in Spain for close to five months, I have realized why exactly so many people react the way they do to the idea of an exchange. I now feel the hardships they automatically imagined. They say distance makes the heart grow fonder, and I can definitely vouch for that. My life here has become so normal that home is no longer something that is always in my head. So much so that when I do think about home, it almost hurts. It’s so hard to completely let go of your life and start a new one. But now that I have, it’s even harder to go back and try to imagine your old life, how things were, how things will be. I honestly never thought I would feel this way, but after five months in a foreign country, I’m kind of used to things turning out differently than I imagined.
This past month, I experienced the holidays Spanish style. Here, the Navidad (Spanish for Christmas) is about a month and a half long process filled with various holidays. This begins at the end of November with the day of the Immaculate Conception and continues to Jan 6, where the real fun is: the Three Kings Day. This is basically the same as Christmas day except that the three Kings who witnessed the birth of Jesus are the ones to bring the children their presents. The holiday season, though with a few add-ins, seemed very similar to that of the States’. It was a time filled with family, presents, decorations, and food, lots of food. There was however one extremely distinct Catalonian tradition that I will never forget. In fact, you probably won’t even believe it when I tell you. The number one Christmas icon here is the Caganen, which means “pooping boy” in Catalan. The greatest part is that nativity scenes and houses alike are adorned with figures of this Caganen. The story goes that during the birth of Jesus, an on looking pastor really had to go, but he waited until after Jesus was born to go. Apparently it’s supposed to demonstrate humility. So right there in the nativity scenes, next to baby Jesus is a little figure of a pastor with his pants down, squatting over a fresh batch of #2. You can imagine my surprise when one day while passing through the center of a mall, where I expected to find a towering Christmas tree, I found in its place a giant man, doing his business. You can even go into any town this time of year and pick up a figurine of your favorite sports star or politician in their little act of Mother Nature.
As time progresses here, things definitely get somewhat easier. It’s never really that easy though, I just get more used to life. Language is definitely still a challenge. It’s so hard at times to not get frustrated with myself because I’m not further along in fluidity. I have to remember to take into account though that there are two different languages spoken where I live: Spanish and Catalan. And in my house my family only speaks Spanish when they are speaking to me. But while before I thought that that would make it impossible to learn anything, I find now that I can almost understand Catalan as well as Spanish. Four months ago, I thought Catalan was a crazy language and couldn’t understand a word. Now, I can make simple sentences! Even still, I never really realize how much I’ve actually learned until I’m in the middle of a conversation with someone, speaking without translating in my head, and understanding everything they say back to me. That I think is the greatest feeling in the world.
This exchange feels like it’s going as fast as a bullet train yet as slow as a slug all at the same time. It makes me so sad to think that I have such little time left, yet sometimes I would love to skip to the time where I can speak with ease and have made close friends. I have so much to look forward to though, and I don’t want to miss a thing or take a minute for granted. I love my exchange, all the bad and all the good. Thank you Rotary, thank you friends, and thank you family, I really can’t say that enough. Happy new year to all, hasta luego!
I’m so sorry I haven’t updated my blog in a while, these last few months have passed by so quickly. I can’t believe that I am already in my eighth month abroad and that I only have two and a half months to go. I also want to apologize for the probable lack of eloquence in this blog; it seems as if right now I’m not fluent in any language. That’s one of the weird parts about going on exchange, before you realize, you forget how to speak your own language. I’m almost embarrassed now to help my peers in English because nothing that I say seems right anymore. Not to mention that they use British grammar books here, which although you may think would be the same, it’s not. Even still, I end up helping everyone in English, but it’s because I like to and I want to. It’s like we’ve all come full-circle. Now that I can speak Spanish, I happily give up some of my time to help my friends in English who have helped me this entire year in Spanish, even when that meant giving up speaking their own native language of Catalan. As you take, you must always to remember to give.
About a month and a half ago, I changed houses. Normally, in this area of Spain, the exchange students don’t change host families because there just aren’t enough. But when I started to have some problems with my original host family, a good friend of mine invited me to come live with her. So here I am, living with my best Spanish friend and loving it. They have taught me so much in such little time and I really feel like a part of the family; like I live with people who love and care about me. I know this will be a lifelong relationship and I am so excited about that.
Although the point of this exchange is primarily to experience another culture and create understanding between countries, a large part you spend learning about yourself. Throughout an entire year in a foreign place, with new people and countless uncomfortable situations, you learn how you cope as an individual, how you resolve problems, and how you grow with every experience. You see the world from a different perspective and begin to let go of the learned customs you’ve known your whole life. You learn about people, language, and life lessons. You learn about the good, and you learn about the bad. But above all you become a person more in touch with reality, more aware of the happenings around you, and you change; I know I have.
That’s all I have for now, but I promise for real this time that I’ll write more often. Thank you again to everyone who has made this exchange possible! Rotary district 6980 and John Siegel, my host families, my friends, my family, and my mom and my sister whom I will see this weekend!