Mi corazón está en Granada por siempre
I wrote about studying abroad in general in my last post and about travel before that, but now I just have to share my specific experience. Almost 2 years ago, in the spring of my sophomore year of college, I spent a semester studying abroad in Granada, Spain and my life has never been the same.
I knew I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country to be able to complete my Spanish minor while I was abroad and focus on class for my major upon my return. I ruled out Latin America just because there were so many other places I wanted to visit in Europe and I knew it would be easy to travel from country to country over there. So I settled on Spain, but the next question was which city to study in. I wanted a pure experience; I didn’t want the influence of Catalan that was so strong in Barcelona. I didn’t want an especially big city because I wanted to experience Spain, not a tourist destination. So that left Bilbao in the north of Spain or Granada in the south. Both looked appealing, but the thing that really convinced me was the living situation. Students in Bilbao lived in dorm-style housing or apartments but in Granada students were placed with host families. This sealed the deal for me; I would be totally immersed in the culture and the language if I lived with a Spanish family, which was exactly what I was looking for.
I filled out an application about my preferences (did I care if my host family smoked? Had pets?) and about my dietary needs. I am vegetarian so I was a little concerned I would not get an accommodating family, but when I finally got the e-mail in December telling me about the family I was placed with, it sounded like a perfect match. I couldn’t wait to meet them when I arrived in January. When my whole group of about 70 students from 3 different Big Ten universities arrived in Granada, we all stayed in a hostel together in the center of town. Our program directors took us on tours and taught us things we needed to know in orientations over the next few days and then it would be time to move in with our host families. The day before our families would pick us up from the hostel, we gathered together and received maps of Granada with our homes marked on them. When the secretary of the school got to me, she said she needed to explain mine to me… I was worried, and a little offended. Did I really look so dumb that I couldn’t read a map?! But she handed me an envelope along with my map and explained that there had been some kind of emergency and my host family couldn’t put me up anymore. I was being assigned a new family—less than 24 hours before I was supposed to go live with them! As you can imagine, I panicked. The Wi-Fi at the hostel had broken, Verizon set up my international phone plan wrong so I couldn’t make phone calls. I had no way to get in touch with my parents and tell them everything had changed and give them my new address. My freak-out continued pretty much until I arrived at my host family’s apartment the next day. By then I was just nervous, my host mom was hard to read and I couldn’t tell if we’d get along. I was so disappointed; I thought my other family was the perfect fit, so how would this one be?
My “madre” lived with her youngest daughter, who was 25, and her other 2 daughters lived nearby. Her husband had passed away several years ago, but all her daughters came over to her place for lunch and “siesta” that day to meet me. Now, like many people, I had studied Spanish in school since 7th grade, so I thought that meant I knew it. Right? WRONG. There is nothing like having lunch with 4 fast-talking native Spanish-speaking women to make you realize you know NOTHING. I am someone who has never been shy, I am the girl who was voted “Most Talkative” in high school, but I could barely carry on a conversation with them. Fluent I was not. I also tiptoed around the apartment for the first few days (okay, weeks). Even though I was living there and had my own room, I felt like a guest in their home.
Eventually, though, that feeling began to dissipate. They were very sweet, welcoming, and understanding. My host mother and sisters smiled through my “umms” and “uhhhs” as my brain struggled to translate my thoughts from English to Spanish. They patiently waited when I held up a finger and consulted my dictionary countless times. They also corrected me sometimes, which was embarrassing as it sounds, but it really did help. As the semester progressed, my confidence and proficiency in speaking and comprehension rose so much my host mom even commented on it. One day, as we were sitting on the couch talking and having a snack after I got back from class, she mentioned how much I had improved. She said I didn’t pause as much anymore, I spoke more fluently. This was the best compliment.
Besides just being able to talk to my host family and have them better understand me, I grew close with my family. I went out with the 2 younger sisters and their boyfriends and friends, I got invited to family parties, I watched cartoons and colored with my host mother’s sassy 5-year-old granddaughter… I really became a part of the family and this shaped my entire study abroad experience in a major way. I realize I was one of the lucky ones; not everyone on my trip got a great family or bonded with them in the way I did with mine, and for that I consider myself very fortunate. And to think, this wasn’t even the family I was originally supposed to have! As my real mother said, maybe some things happen for a reason and I was really meant to live with the second host family I got.
Like I said in a previous post, some of my best experiences happened when things did not go the way I planned. I guess Granada is just the best example of that. I still write to my host family from time to time and I plan to return to Spain after I graduate this May. And you can bet I will be visiting the people and the city that changed my life more than once! I hope everyone gets to visit the beautiful and enchanting city that is Granada someday. There is a famous line by the Mexican poet Francisco de Icaza: “Dale limosna, mujer, que no hay en la vida nada como la pena de ser ciego en Granada.” It translates to: “Give him alms, woman, for there is nothing sadder in life than being blind in Granada.” I can honestly say this sentiment is true, it would be an incredible shame to be unable to see the beauty in Granada, and I can’t wait to see it again.