When I told one of my friends from my home campus of The University of Alabama that I’d be spending Spring 2020 studying abroad in Seville, Spain (Sevilla in Spanish), his first remark was, “Oh! They use ‘vosotros;’ it’s like the Spanish ‘y’all’!”
And while I did move from one south to another, the two could not be more different.
My very first experience on Sevillian soil was stepping off of the bus that brought me there from the airport. My AIFS Resident Director, Edu, called my name over the small speaker system as if to make a big reveal of my being about to meet my host family for the first time; “and next up, Madilynnn!” he said in his Spanish-accented-English.
Edu had briefed us on the drive there: in the culture we were about to call our new home, it is custom to give “dos besos,” or two kisses, on each cheek when you meet someone for the first time. It would also be polite for us to say “encantada de conocerte” or “un placer” (“nice to meet you” or “a pleasure”).
All of these were necessary and helpful tips, but they served a dual, unintended purpose; they increased my understanding of just how unprepared I was for this immersive experience I was about to enter. Incessantly repeating the phrases Edu had taught me 10 minutes prior, I stood up shakily from my seat, slung my heavy duffle over my shoulder, and walked toward my new life.
There to greet me was my host father, Manolo. His wife had stayed home to keep the kids (as I had arrived very late on a school night). I clumsily stepped off of the bus and stumbled in his direction.
Although I don’t remember exactly, I probably mumbled something along the lines of “Hola, me llamo Madilyn” in a very unconfident fashion. What I do remember exactly is that I then, being the hugger I am, leaned in and hesitantly put my arms around him. I did so just slowly enough for him to give me uno beso on one cheek, but not dos besos on both.
Our organizer and spectator Edu, attempting to salvage my first impression, corrected me in a friendly tone saying, “oh no, dos besos… remember?” It was at his direction that this stranger and I then had to lean back in to one another and redo our dos besos… I cringe just to type it.
But then, the stranger took me home.
It’d be there that I’d meet my host mom, Inma, and she’d make me the first of many meals (despite the fact they all had already eaten and were getting ready for bed). She would show me my room and the closet she had cleared out for me in it, point me toward the bathroom, and show me a bottle of body wash she’d bought for me. All to which I would simply nod and say “sí” because in my overstimulated and jetlagged haze, I couldn’t think of anything else.
It’d be there that I’d be introduced to my three (three!) new host brothers: Manuel (9), Marco (6), and Juan (4), who would show me their personalities right away — loud! 🙂
It’d be there that I’d make many more mistakes like my dos besos incident; letting my coffee cup overflow because the machine looks like a Keurig but doesn’t quite work the same, or accidentally ringing the doorbell instead of turning on the light switch in the hall, and then not even knowing the Spanish words to explain what happened when Inma opened the door!
But it would also be there that Inma would complement me on day three that my Spanish was getting much better; there that I met both my host grandmothers and gave them dos besos swiftly and successfully; and there that after my first weekend trip away, I would ride back into Sevilla with the feeling that I was finally home.
One of my favorite aspects of traveling to a new place has always been the idea that I can walk down a populated street or through a busy park and experience it as an outsider looking in. I get to people watch in a very special way: silently masquerading myself in the crowds, but really just seeing a completely different culture close-up.
Today, two weeks into my study abroad experience, I was sitting in a tiny café where I ordered (ironically) an americano in broken español. Sitting there, drinking my coffee, I stared out the window and watched the people as they passed. After a minute or two, a woman walked by and we locked eyes in recognition.
My host mom’s sister, Lola, walked into the shop and gave me dos besos, saying “Qué tal?” and patiently listening while I tried to explain that I was muy bien (because it’s all I know to say) and I was just getting coffee before I headed back for lunch with the boys. She explained she was picking up her daughter, little Lola, from her school nearby, and from her body language I could tell she was saying it was good to see me, but I didn’t have the words to reciprocate the sentiment.
She continued on her way and I kept staring out the door as she went, still in a frenzied fog from my communication, (or lack thereof), and thinking how peculiar it was that one of these people I observe had seen me back. She knows me.
It was then that the truth dawned on me: this is not a vacation, this is not a trip; it’s my home. I love and am building a life here. I am known here.
If in the past I have called being a tourist seeing people close-up, then I am viewing Spanish life through a microscope now. I am living in their home, eating their food, learning their customs, and making mistakes. I am seeing people as more than romantic passersby. I’m seeing them as family, as flawed, as special and as worth the effort.
On my first night in my host home I told all of the new faces “buenas noches” and shut my door to unpack. I sat down on my bed and felt a wave of relief that I no longer needed to be thinking in a foreign language. I opened my journal and wrote, “I am really glad I chose a homestay. It is uncomfortable in a comforting way. And if I’ve learned anything it’s that people are always the best part. Tonight reminded me of that. I cannot wait to see + learn.”
I pretty much hit the nail on the head with that one. Allowing people to really know and love you is tough work, but it is surely the most enriching stuff I will do here. I can (and intend to) see the whole world while I’m abroad, I could jump out of an airplane (working on the courage for that one), or I can — you fill in the blank. But when all of it is said and done and all I have left are the memories, what will matter most to me is who I lived them with.
While, in a way, studying abroad is checking something off of my bucket list, Sevilla is not a dreamy week away on vacation; Sevilla is my home! And what makes this home, to me, is having someone to ask “¿Qué tal tu día?” when I open the door.
(And give me dos besos because now I have it down!)
After two weeks I can confirm that people are absolutely the best part. And I still cannot wait to continue to see + learn.