Stories: First Week in Spain
To my future self:
These are moments I want you to remember and relive as you revisit these posts some day. I don't know where you are in life today, but I hope that reading this brings you back to your first week as an exchange student away from your parents in arguably the most critical year of high school. These stories are not in chronological order but rather arbitrarily, as some memories were more fresh in my head than others when I wrote these. Hopefully these provide some clarity, no matter where you are or what you're doing.
- 16 year old Vismaya
My second night here in Badajoz, I remember being so nervous for my first day of school. I decided to start school on a Friday, as opposed to the traditional "first day of school" Monday; looking back, I'm so glad I started school on Friday because I was able to take the weekend to reflect and absorb all the new words, new concepts, and new mannerisms thrown at me. Thursday night, Roberto and Laura (my host parents) called me into the kitchen to have dinner and I remember being so absent-minded the whole night when they asked me questions and made conversation, as I was in anticipation of what I predicted would be the hardest first day of school ever for me. We soon finished eating, and my two sisters left the table to shower and prepare for school the following day. As soon as Carmen (the younger of the two) followed Catalina out of the kitchen, Roberto and Laura closed the door. Given I've been a teenager for more than three years now, I'm quite accustomed to the general vibe in the room before you receive a talk from your parents. You just know when both your parents have discussed something, and they present themselves together before you more oddly than usual. Roberto proceeded to explain to me that he and Laura wanted to teach me curse words in Spanish that they figured I would encounter in school. Laura, being a high school teacher herself, stressed the abundance of profanity in Spanish classrooms, and told me that she certainly did not want me to be blindsided. I remember feeling so grateful in the moment that there were two people here in this new and strange country who cared about me and wanted to protect me from the damage that ignorance could cause in this situation.
My first day of school, I remember being so lost in class not only because I hardly understood the language, but also because I did not have the class schedule and an idea of how the Spanish classroom worked. The day moved both slowly and quickly in my eyes; my terrible comprehension of the language paved my path into the wonders of daydreaming all the more faster, while my mental fatigue and frustration of having completely extracted myself out of my comfort zone seemed to strongly drag the day minute by minute. When Carmen entered the classroom, I remember snapping out of my fatigue rather quickly. Carmen teaches my human anatomy class (and yes, teachers are referred to by their first names in Spain). Having met her earlier during my tour of the school with my counselor/English teacher Juan, I felt more comfortable in her presence, as she took the time to introduce herself to me. Class started and Carmen very sweetly asked the class to include me and treat me as one of their own. She knew I could not speak Spanish or understand the very fast accent here in Extremadura so she spoke slowly to me and asked me how long I had been in Spain. What I failed to understand before my journey as an exchange student was the fact that it is so incredibly easy to zone out when others speak in a language you don't understand. I heard her raise her tone at the end of the sentence, assumed she asked me a question, and simply said "sí " and then she asked me what day I arrived in Spain. I responded with "el miércoles, hace dos días" (Wednesday, two days ago) and she looked at me with a very confused look on her face along with some of my classmates who also suddenly turned around. It so happened that as I zoned out, Carmen had incorrectly reiterated to me the fact that I had been in Spain for two years. Earlier that morning, she has confused Juan who had introduced me to her with the facts that I had studied Spanish for two years in high school and that I had been in Spain for two days. I remember feeling so stupid when some of my classmates helped me tell her that I had only been here two days; the feeling of stupidity was accompanied by a strong sense of embarrassment because I certainly knew the difference between "años" (years) and "días" (days). That moment, along with being embarrassing, highlighted the fact that I really had to make an effort to pay attention because my inability to understand everyone around me made me all the more prone to zoning out.
My host parents have been encouraging me to get involved in activities here in Spain after school to meet more people and immerse myself in more situations where application of the Spanish language is obviously important. Having told them I play the guitar, I was delighted to hear from them that there exists a guitar academy not far from our house. I also told Roberto and Laura that I fully intended to purchase a guitarra española as a souvenir of Spain to add to my collection of guitars. Knowing this, Roberto took me to a guitar store today to see my options and test out guitars. Roberto, Catalina, and I went to the store, and I remember noticing a girl observing me as I was testing out a guitar. I didn't think much of it in the moment but as I began tuning the next guitar I wanted to try, I heard Roberto make conversation with her. She explained that she was from Germany and that she had been living in Badajoz for three years. I could sense in her a slight interest towards me, and as I approached her, she asked me if I played the guitar professionally. I explained to her that I was a student here (I was still in my uniform so this was rather evident), and she immediately switched to English. She spoke English very well and I proceeded to ask her how long it took for her to understand the Spanish spoken in Extremadura and she told me it took her around five to six months. She then proceeded to tell me that the two most important phrases for me to speak like a true local of Extremadura were "acho" and "a ver". This was really amusing to me, as I had heard my classmates say both these expressions so many times. I felt reassured in the moment that I too would come to understand the language as she had (she of course spoke like a local); in the moment, however, I was impressed by how willing two strangers were to talk to each other in a random store and strike up a conversation. That certainly is not something I would actively try to do back home, for now ;)
My second day of school, I remember feeling more comfortable communicating with others and by then, I knew who spoke more English and who could translate more words for me with others. I remember two boys speaking next to me (Adrian and Diego) and upon hearing an unfamiliar word, I stopped one of them and asked what the word meant. The other started laughing and they explained to me in very slow spanish that what they had just said was a curse word in Spanish. They certainly would have proceeded to teach me more words had the teacher not walked into the classroom at that very moment. A couple days later, one of my friends Lucía saw me sitting alone and confused during chemistry while others were doing problems together and she decided to talk to me. Again, I heard her use a swear word in Spanish and not knowing what it meant, I asked her for a definition and she proceeded to teach me several swear words. Of course, several of the boys around us who heard the use of such words proceeded to add to my list. The fact that I wrote these words down in my journal as part of my observations added to the hilarity of the situation for them. I now have a very long list of curse words in Spanish, taught to me by people I actually know who use them as opposed to the many characters in La Casa de Papel.
My first weekend here, my host parents took me to a shopping center. Primarily, I needed to buy a coat, as I had severely underestimated how cold mornings in Badajoz would be. An hour passed inside the mall and my host parents decided to sit down in a cafe and drink a coffee. Catalina and Carmen had been begging their parents for a while to go to a stationary store in the mall called Flying Tiger, and they asked if they could go with me alone. Ecstatic upon receiving approval, they ran into the store holding my hand and dragging me along lovingly. Upon entering the store, I was very impressed by the selection of novelty items. As I observed all the products laid out in front of me, I heard Catalina tell Carmen she found something she wanted to buy. She had with her the allowance she received weekly, and she was sure she could afford the squishie she wanted but to be sure, she decided to ask the store employee how much the squishie costed. I vividly remember Catalina going up to the store attendant and asking "¿tanto vale?" (how much does it cost?). Perhaps it was my lack of enough Spanish vocabulary in the moment or the fact that I deliberately forced myself to pay more attention to things being that I was in a different country, but I remember making a strong mental note of that phrase. There had been a few times earlier that weekend and on my first day of school where I wanted to ask people how much something costed but I didn't know how to form that question. I was more impressed by the fact that simply observing taught me more than I expected.
The evening following my first day of school, my host parents decided to take me to a local supermarket so I could observe how they bought the food they needed for the week. My first day of school had gone worse than I had expected, as the language barrier was certainly harder to crack than I imagined. Up until then, I had been slightly confident in my ability to understand Spanish but the local accent combined with the slang my classmates used left me in a state of confusion and despair. Roberto and Laura certainly noticed this and forced me to go to the supermarket with them to distract me from my confusion and homesickness as well. I remember waiting in line to check out with Laura and she asked me about the people I met in school. I told her that I had made no friends, as most people did not know how to talk to me since I obviously spoke very limited Spanish. I remember her very lovingly telling me, "Las buenas amistades se tardan" (Good friendships take time). Retrospectively, I desparately needed to hear that. I had waltzed into what I thought would be a fairytale where all friends would come to me with little effort on my part in the beginning. Moreover, I underestimated the impositions placed on me and most others with whom I interact in the school setting by the language barrier.
This is my journal in which I take thorough notes about my school days documenting all my thoughts, observations, and reactions. The word highlighted in this pictures means "curse words" in Spanish; I found it rather amusing that my classmates voluntarily taught me so many curse words in Spanish. If I'm being honest, it made me feel very welcomed into their community.
This is a sketch I drew as I understood nothing in my philosophy class. This sketch is the first page of my journal that I take to school with me. I take vivid notes in this journal, documenting all my observations about life in the Spanish classroom and anything new I learn from my friends.