How 6 weeks of studying abroad set up one student’s life in Seville, Spain
My abroad story began long before I boarded a plane, rumbo Madrid. While earning college money the summer before leaving to study journalism at the University of Iowa, I came across an old, crimson photo album. Worn gold letters on the binding read, LOYOLA ROME CENTER, while the yellowed pages contained gem after gem of 1970s hair, bell-bottoms and the most celebrated sites of the Eternal City.
This guest post is by Cat Gaa.
I spotted my mother right away – eating a gelato on the Spanish steps, her now cropped hair reached her sedere – in a way I had never seen before. I didn’t even know that she’d studied a semester in Rome. Story goes that her cousin eloped, leaving my great-grandmother so furious, she offered my mother a semester in any place she chose, leaving her an opportunity masked in a revenge plan.
Clutching the book to her chest when I presented it to her, she promised, “ Your father and I will send you abroad.”
My curious nature sent me into a tailspin looking into destinations, programs and homestays. When all was said and done 18 months later, I had settled on Granada, Spain. Visions of free tapas and the Alhambra, a Moorish masterpiece atop the Sierra Nevada mountains that surround the city, danced in my siesta-ridden head every afternoon after class.
Turning in my paperwork at the Study Abroad office, I was told that the programs I’d chosen wouldn’t count for credits towards my International Studies degree. As deadlines loomed, I was faced with one option: Valladolid.
Vallado-what? I couldn’t say the name of the city, let alone place it on a map. Seeing no other way to get to Spain, I signed onto a six-week program in the capital of Castilla y León.
Months later, a cramped Iberia flight regurgitated us into the Barajas International in Madrid and onto a bus. By the time I had awoken from a siesta, we were entering Valladolid. Nose pressed to the glass like my other 24 classmates from around Iowa, I saw what would be forever imprinted in my mind: a little boy, pants down, peeing on a tree.
Soooo, this is Spain, I thought.
As we pulled into the university plaza – one of the oldest in Spain – a group of host mothers awaited us. My classmates filed off the bus, and I was left with the girl who was to be my roommate and the meanest looking one in the bunch: Mamá.
Aurora gave us the customary dos besos – one kiss on each cheek – and, without saying a word, waddled away. Carrying our heavy bags, we walked for a half hour in silence, passing crumbling monasteries. Aurora spoke in a rapid, yet clear, castellano, outlining the rules of staying at her place. We weren’t immediately clear how she felt about having study abroad students, as we heard the rumor that some older women did it for extra income.
Then she plopped down a plate of ensaladilla rusa in front of us. “I didn’t know what you liked, since I’ve had students from all over the world and they all like different things,” she said as she scooped dollops of potatoes washed in mayonnaise with peas, tuna, hard-boiled egg, corn and carrots. “so I thought I’d just take everything that was in the fridge.”
We ate in silence for three more meals until her daughter, also named Aurora, burst in one day at our mandated 6pm snack and coffee, scooping us into hugs and telling us she’d be throwing a party in our honor that night. In a flurry of activity, we prepared tortilla española and bacon-wrapped dates and tested out our knowledge of Spanish liqueurs on the shopkeeper down the street. As the Pisuerga River brought a cool night breeze to our open terrace, I felt that fate had somehow landed me right smack dab where I needed to be, the way my mother waxed poetic about her time in Rome.
After the initial culture shock wore off, I settled into life in Valladolid. The younger Aurora patiently practiced Spanish with us, took us to her favorite rincones of the large city and treated us to movies and ice cream cones. I embraced life in Spain, taking my daily siesta, followed by a paseo as night fell.
And then, all of the sudden, our six weeks were up, and we were doing the reverse trip back to the Midwest.
As I touched down again in my native Chicago two months later, my mother greeted me in tears. It was my turn to cry, too, wailing that I felt cold without the warm Castillian sun on my face and that I would defiantly find away to move abroad after my graduation two years in the future.
As it turned out, the six weeks I spent studying abroad changed the course of my studies and my plans after throwing my cap in the air. I began to take courses about European culture and politics, attended seminars and began researching ways to get abroad.
It was when I’d decided on Ireland that I got a phone call from a radio station in Chicago wanting me to begin work as a beat journalist as soon as I graduated.
My time studying siesta, culture, and castellano in Valladolid had been all about trying new things, and it’s safe to say my appetite was definitely whetted for travel, culture and languages. I had to make a decision – live the life I had worked to have for years, or follow my heart and go back abroad?
Not five days before commencement, I received an email saying I’d been offered a job through the Spanish government’s Language and Culture Assistant program. On a whim, I’d applied for the grant which put native English speakers in public schools around Spain.
The decision to mark the ANDALUCÍA box on my application and hope once more for Granada set the rumbo on my next five years.
Four months later, I said goodbye to Chicago and hola to Southern Spain as I was placed in a rural high school outside of Seville. For three school terms, I taught my students about American football, Thanksgiving and even Evil Knievel, happy to have found a job that I liked and allowed me to live in a place that felt right to me.
Making a life in Seville has not been without its challenges, from crippling paperwork to homesickness to language blunders. I sometimes feel like a bobblehead walking through life in a bit of a daze, though this gorgeous city and the promise of a tapa remind me why I’ve made the sunshine and siestas a permanent lifestyle choice.
It’s clear that my experience studying in Spain ignited a need to travel, become fluent in Spanish, to experience something new every time I step outside my door. As the months passed, I surprised myself at my ability to make friends, travel alone for a weekend and become an adult – all in my second language. One year stretched into two and three, I found a job as a first grade teacher and just celebrated the anniversary of my five years in Spain.
Without having the experience in Valladolid – of settling for a different choice because of the adventure and uncertainty it presented – continues to prove to be a theme in my life. Sometimes, rather than taking what’s behind Door Number One, it’s more fun to throw open Door Number Two and walk right in.
Cat Gaa left the skyscrapers of Chicago for the olive groves of Southern Spain five years ago. Now working as an English teacher, she blogs about Spanish life and culture at Sunshine and Siestas. You can also catch up with her on Twitter and Instagram at @sunshinesiestas.
This guest post is part of an ongoing project on The Study Abroad Blog about the Study Abroad Experience. The goal is simple: collect as many guest posts as possible, with posts written by current and previous study abroad students. While the topic can be just about anything, ideally students will pick a specific aspect of a city/country that they were most interested in or passionate about. If you would like to contribute to the project, head over to the contact page and send me a message!