Sara Mahan
2010-11 Outbound to Spain

Hometown: St. Augustine, Florida
School: St. John's Academy
Sponsor: Coastal St. Johns County Rotary Club, District 6970, Florida
Host: Sierra de Madrid Rotary Club, District 2201, Spain

Sara M's Bio

Me llamo Sara y ¡yo voy a España!

Every day now, this little rhyme plays itself over in my head. Hi, I’m Sara, and I’m going to Spain! It still hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m having one of my greatest dreams realized.

To give you some more background, my name is Sara Mahan. I’m seventeen years old and I am currently a senior at St. John’s Academy. I live with my family in St. Augustine, Florida. My father is a marine engineer and travels often, my mother teaches first grade at my small school, and my brother is thirteen years old and attends St. John’s as well. We also have two wonderful pets: Cuddles, our cat; and Dolly, our dog.

I enjoy school, friends, playing music, dancing, and reading books. However, my passion is studying foreign languages. Over the past three years I have been trying to learn as much French and Spanish as I can! My goal is to someday be multilingual in French and Spanish. I cannot thank Rotary enough for giving me this wonderful opportunity to learn Spanish!

I’m falling in love with Spain and Spanish more and more every day. The sounds of the Spanish language seem like music to me in the lilting poetry of Pablo Neruda and the vibrant prose of Gabriel García Márquez. Even the art of Picasso and Goya has a new and poignant significance to me. I am going to be immersed in this language and this culture next year, and though I know it will be difficult, I cannot wait to begin this new adventure and seize this tremendous opportunity! Thank you so much Rotary!









Sara M's Journals

September 10

It's hard to believe that I've been in Spain for nearly four weeks now. I arrived August 18th at the Madrid airport at around 7:30 in the morning. Everything went smoothly in immigration and soon I met my wonderful host parents, Angelines and Carlos. I am so thankful to have been placed in such a wonderful family. In no time, I felt right at home! They took the long way home to show me around the city and then introduced me to Tres Cantos, the small suburb in which they live. It's full of kids my age and is conveniently located between the city of Madrid and a beautiful mountain range farther north called La Sierra de Madrid. However...when I arrived it was August. For any typical American, this would mean nothing, but here August is the month of vacations. Tres Cantos was a ghost town! After only two days in Spain I was quickly whisked away to Murcia, a vacation town in Southern Spain on the Mediterranean coast. It was a four hour car ride and I could not believe how drastically the landscape changed. I talked in broken Spanish with my host parents the entire time about The United States, American movies, music, and my Rotary club. My district's grueling interview process really shocked them! I stayed in Murcia for a little less than a week. It was a wonderful experience because apart from getting to experience another region of Spain, I also got to know my host brother, David, and my host mother's parents.

I took a train back to Tres Cantos with David, and soon things really started moving! People flooded back to town with lovely Spanish tans from a month of sunbathing. Parking places became scarce, the sidewalks were bustling with people, and kids suddenly started calling me wanting to hang out! Apparently my parents told all of their friends about me before my arrival. Their children were eager to meet the new americana. One of the aspects of Spanish culture that I love the most is the genuine warmth of the Spanish people. Nearly all of the Spaniards I have met have been eager to help me and introduce me to new friends and places. I have made so many friends and have become especially close to my host father. He has a more flexible work schedule than my host mother, and talks to me constantly about everything while feeding me lots of food! At least my Spanish is getting better... I just hope I can fit into my pants by the end of this year! He has a small business distributing high quality wine and olive oil to restaurants around the Madrid area. I've gone to help him on many occasions which has been a great way to get to know Madrid, especially the good places to eat! My host mother works as an economist in a small business that manufactures safety wear. A coworker is getting married at the end of this month, and I'm invited to the wedding. I'm excited to see what the weddings are like here!

Well Rotary, what can I say? How did you know I would ABSOLUTELY LOVE SPAIN!!!! I am so so happy here. Every day that I wake up it seems like a new chapter in an incredible dream. Of course there are hard days..mostly due to the fact that in Spanish I have the verbal eloquence of a 2 year old. Nonetheless, every day my Spanish does get better, and now I am impressed by how much I understand. The food is great! The people are incredibly welcoming and super funny, and Spain is just so full of culture and history. I do something fun and exciting nearly every day. I've already seen the Mediterranean, climbed a mountain, sipped coffee in a cafe right next to a medieval castle, gone kayaking, and I'm going to do so much more! However, the most exhilarating thing for me has been every day life here. Spain has opened my eyes to the importance of slowing down and enjoying the little things you encounter each day: the smell of mountain air, the taste of good jamón, the fiesty rhythm of a latino conversation. It's true that time has flown, but I also feel like I have already lived here for a couple months. I guess I'm just finally learning to live each day to the fullest. Thank you, Rotary, for this tremendous opportunity. Thank you Daphne for all your help, and thank you so much Al Kalter for all that you do. Only now do I truly understand the profundity of the gift you all have given me. Thanks Rotary for the best year of my life!!!

November 29

I know it’s cliché, but time flies!

Now that I actually sit down and think about it, I can’t believe I’ve already been in Spain for three months now, and with December starting this week! These past months have been quite a roller coaster of emotions and challenges, but I’ve also had some of the most fulfilling and happiest moments of my life. I’m still totally fascinated by this incredible country. The more I get to know Spain and it’s people, language, culture, and history; the more I realize how much I don’t know. I’m constantly humbled by this struggle to learn and understand, and I surprise myself every day by how many things seem perfectly ordinary as I continue settling into my daily life here. Plus… I’m having SO MUCH FUN!

My life is very busy here and is basically divided between school, friends, family, and dance. School is going very well for me. I understand all my classes and I also don’t have to worry about studying too much because I already graduated in the States. My favorites are Greek, Latin, and Spanish. I have learned so much about sentence structure and etymology from these classes. I even used a word the other day that my host father had to look up! My Spanish teacher has helped me so much with my Spanish and I’m learning so many new things about Spanish literature in her classes. The tremendous influence of Arabic on the language is something that I had never noticed, having learned my Spanish in America. The first primitive literature in the Spanish language was actually written in Arabic script! They also have certain expressions that have morphed over time, but can actually be traced back to Arab roots. “Ojalá”, which is what you say when you’d really like something to happen, comes from “may Allah grant” in Arabic. I also feel very lucky to be where I am because I’m learning the purest dialect of the Spanish language: Castellano. I’ve already become a Castellano snob! It will be funny to come back to Florida and get laughed at by my Cuban friends for my weird accent.

Speaking of friends… I’ve made so many here! I’ve really enjoyed how open the culture is here and how many kids my age live in my town. While walking down the street and taking the train, I regularly bump into people I know. My best friend is named… you guessed it! María. She’s such a great friend and has helped me so much here. We go to class together every day, and go out with her group of friends on the weekends. We also share a passion for flamenco! Her family is from Andalucía, a region in southern Spain where flamenco was born. She gives me CD’s by Cameron de La Isla and Paco de Lucía that her mom recommends to “culture” me a bit. My family here is also very nice. I can’t thank them enough for all of their hospitality and help.

I’ve been dancing a lot too! I take ballet and flamenco lessons four times a week after school. It’s been a great way to make friends and learn new things, not to mention vocabulary for parts of the body! My ballet teacher is wonderful. She’s the stereotypical strict, Russian ballet teacher with perfect technique. She’s taught me a lot, but I’m afraid I haven’t learned much from her Spanish! She has a very strong Russian accent. In fact, sometimes she just speaks in Russian when she counts out time or yells at us “niet!”. It’s quite a challenge to process so many languages at once, especially with the French ballet vocabulary on top of everything! Flamenco is a blast. I take a beginner’s class with a group of older women who absolutely love me. Right when I walk into class they start saying, “¡Hola guapa! ¿Qué tal estás?” My flamenco teacher is Andaluza, which means that she speaks with a hilarious accent, just like my friend María’s parents. She’s actually a professional dancer in Madrid and is very talented. I’m thinking about taking some classical Indian dance classes here too, but I don’t know if I have the time. I’m just trying to live this year to the fullest and stay as busy as possible! The more I focus on living in Spain and enjoying all the opportunities I have this year, the happier I am and the easier it is to be here. Of course there have been hard days, but the countless happy moments I’ve had outweigh all of that. Thank you so much Rotary for this incredible experience. I am so grateful for this year of learning, sharing, and exploring you have given me. Thank you so much Daphne and Al Kalter for all the work you do to make this possible! ¡Hasta luego!

March 12

Well, I know I haven’t written in a while, and I’m so sorry. Time has flown by and I’ve been so busy. I hardly know where to start…

The holidays were a very different experience away from my family. At this time I felt my first homesickness this year.  Problems with my host family certainly didn’t help me recover from it. However, I was lucky enough to get to travel to France and stay with some close family friends for Christmas and New Year’s! It was almost like being back at home, except everything was covered in snow! Unfortunately, my French has gotten awful due to Spanish… Although I regained a lot of my comprehension in French, I still couldn’t suppress my impulse to respond to everything in Spanish. It certainly made for some funny conversations. I had such a wonderful time there and I will never forget it, especially when I arrived at the train station in Paris when it was snowing and the streets were filled with beautiful Christmas lights!

When I returned to Spain we were still on holiday because of “Los Reyes Magos”. This is celebrated on January 6th and is when Spanish children traditionally receive their presents. Los Reyes Magos are the Wisemen. They come into the home late at night and leave presents in your shoes (if they are clean). Don’t forget to leave some water for the camels too! My present was a trip to Valencia with some fellow exchange students. We had a great time collecting sea shells on the Mediterranean coast and even spent a day-long road trip touring La Costa Blanca.

February was the hardest month I have had here. Problems with my host family got worse, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to change homes due to lack of available families here. I was so torn between my negative feelings and everything that I love here. It’s true that I had many positive things in my life, but the tension at home became so emotionally taxing that I couldn’t realize it. If I didn’t have my friends and my dance classes I’m not sure I could have made it.

Two weeks ago, my Rotary Counselor called me to tell me he might have found me a new host family. And sure enough, here I am! I moved in this Wednesday and I am so happy here. They are very generous and treat me like part of the family. I’m actually living with the family of one of my best friends, Ana. She has another brother named Lucas who is actually the same age as my brother Luke! My host mother is Japanese and my host father is Spanish. She speaks to my host siblings in Japanese, and with her husband and me in Spanish. The bookshelves are full of Japanese books and we have lots of strange looking Japanese things in the pantry. I love it! I feel so lucky to get to experience another culture. I’m determined to learn a little bit of Japanese too!

I am also doing very well with my Spanish. It seems so natural to me that I don’t think of it as a foreign language anymore. It sounds like English to me now, and I catch myself thinking and dreaming in Spanish all the time. Writing this journal actually made me realize how bad my English has become! The weather here is starting to warm up and Spring is coming. I’m realizing how little time I actually have left and how many things I have to experience before I leave! Lately I’ve been trying to spend more time in Madrid, enjoying the museums and parks. I’m trying to read as much as I can, and talk constantly. I’m also trying to learn how to cook all of my favorite dishes now that I’m worried about not having jamon and croquetas in the USA.

I’ve learned so much since my last journal, and even though these past few months have been full of of blood, sweat and tears; I don’t regret any of it. I’ve grown so much from this experience, and it has helped me appreciate everything I have now so much more. Now I know the importance of family, friends, and hospitality. And above all, I now realize how dangerously easy it is to judge with stereotypes and distance yourself from the unfamiliar. No matter where you are, you can find good people. You just have to set down your differences, be yourself, and accept them for who they are.

Thank you so much, Rotary, for this amazing opportunity. It hasn’t been easy, but that’s exactly what makes it worthwhile. I want to thank Daphne and Al Kalter for all of their advice and support! Thank you all for a wonderful year!