Spain: A Mixture of Experience and Culture
By Celina Rivernider ’19
It’s easy enough to travel. Recovering from jetlag, booking a hotel and being on time for a flight can be stressful, sure, but the real challenge is finding the “experience.” When a group from Wilbraham & Monson Academy went to Spain, we could have stayed in one of the many beautiful hotels in Madrid. We could have taken a bus ourselves to each tourist attraction, gawked at castles and eaten paella in any tourist trap restaurant. And of course, this would have almost entirely eliminated the need for any of us to speak Spanish, save for ordering a meal or asking if there was Wi-Fi.
But we didn’t. A handful of Spanish families opened their homes to us, and in doing so, turned our comfortable tourist “experience” on its head.
Our plane departed from Boston on a Sunday evening, and landed in Madrid at 6 a.m. on Monday. We wasted no time, and after a delirious breakfast we embarked on a bus tour of Madrid. When we weren’t nodding off, our excitement and nerves were mounting. The city was gorgeous — the modern sections shining around the proud Madrid Antiguo. But what held our attention the most was the mystery of our host families. At lunch, over our first Spanish meal (croquetas and patatas bravas, of course) we speculated what they would be like, and how well we would be able to understand each other. We returned to the school in the evening, met our host families and bid farewell to each other until the morning.
Here’s an experience: I somehow had to make small talk with my host mother during that car ride. In Spanish. I hadn’t slept in roughly 30 hours. I don’t think that’s something I was prepared for in class.
Our second day, we attended classes at our host school CEU San Pablo Sanchinarro. For reference, when our classes began in Spain, it was 3 a.m. in New England. I think of myself as pretty proficient in Spanish.
I thought I was comfortable holding a conversation, only having to ask for someone to repeat themselves occasionally. I’ve never had three girls ask me “¿Cómo te llamas?” at the same time, slightly out of sync, with a group of students right next to us also speaking in Spanish. It turns out basic Spanish isn’t so basic when there’s background noise and I have no idea what time it is. I found the other WMA kids on a break, and we all had similar experiences of incredible confusion.
That weekend, my host mother showed me how to make seafood paella. The recipe wasn’t too complicated. Although I did write it down, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to follow it exactly, because most of the measurements were by sight and I was translating it into English as I wrote. I stared at it for a solid minute before I ate it: it was a mixture of clams, white fish, calamari and a whole prawn. I thought for a minute of when I was little and so picky that
I refused to eat crackers that were broken. But, I did eat the paella, and somehow that mix of food I normally would not be brave enough to try together was delicious.
It was the day excursions that brought us and our hosts together. Not that they weren’t welcoming on regular days—our hosts and even their friends were always excited to show us their favorite restaurants for lunch after school, and introduce us to what they love about their city. But on the excursions, we would have long bus rides together. On those long bus rides, our Spanish hosts liked to bring a speaker and play music. For the most part, they were Spanish songs, and while they were good, the WMA kids didn’t know the words enough to sing along. We found some common ground: the songs “Despacito” and “Bailando.”
Our excursions included Toledo and Segovia. They were small cities, farther away from Madrid, and each maintained their old European architecture. Both boasted a castle and cathedral, and winding cobblestone streets. Toledo was a mixture of Islamic, Hebrew and Christian culture, and the history of each found its way to the town’s aesthetic. Segovia was spliced by a Roman aqueduct, towering above a rotary where shiny, blue tour buses parked and let off groups like our own. As we explored Segovia, our conversations blended between English and Spanish, neither perfect but both practical.
On the bus ride back into Madrid from Segovia, I watched the mountains morph into the half-built apartment buildings on the fringes of the city. Madrid was surrounded by cranes and construction crews. I later learned this was because of their recent recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. I started noticing the scars of the crisis on the city: abandoned buildings and skeletal parking garages, in the middle of bustling urban centers. But a short metro ride from those empty concrete reminders were crowded plazas like Puerta del Sol. The antique architecture made it a popular tourist attraction, not to mention it was home to the San Gines chocolateria, which is famous for its churros con chocolate. And in the center of the plaza, among tourists and vendors, I couldn’t imagine those abandoned structures had a place here in Madrid.
Our experience was a reflection of Spain and its beautiful city of Madrid: a mixture. Within our group, “Spanglish” conversations brought us together (along with Enrique Iglesias). Madrid’s modern and old sections did not draw away from one another, they supported the dignity and power of each other. For every glass tower, there was a winding cobblestone road that held a proud history. And as Madrid expands outward in its industries and construction projects, it holds onto that pride for their country and its beginnings, its blended cultures. No matter where we went: Toledo, Segovia, downtown Madrid or Puerta del Sol, I could always find a Spanish flag flowing out of someone’s apartment balcony, no matter how faded or tattered, it stood out from the busy street below.