The last two hours of my flight from Atlanta to Madrid, I could hardly sit still in my seat. My anxious jitters were making the passengers next to me a little nervous, but I could hardly hold in the excitement building up for the months leading up to May 27, the day my flight would land in Spain.
Once I and 19 classmates finally arrived at the Madrid airport, we boarded a two-hour train ride to bring us to Sevilla, our new home for the next 10 days. Once I finally set foot in Sevilla and met my host family, more excitement ran through my body. My host dad and little brother were awaiting me at the train station. They greeted me with smiles and kisses on both checks. The kiss on not one, but both checks was a Spanish tradition I got used to immediately.
Pablo, the host dad, helped my roommate and me pack our baggage in the car, and then we headed to my new home. As we drove, my host dad began to make small talk. I was able to confidently answer his conversation starters in Spanish. Within a few minutes we arrived. When I walked inside, I could smell dinner was cooking, and Angela and Michelle, my host mom and little sister, were awaiting us at the doorway of the apartment. I had only had a few minutes to settle into my room and call home to inform my parents of my arrival before I was called to the table for dinner.
I nervously sat at the table. I anticipated the questions I wouldn’t understand, or the ones I understood but didn’t know how to respond in Spanish. Dinner arrived, and it was an unfamiliar dish with heavy tomato. The majority of the days I was served tomatoes, a food I strive to avoid here at home.
Throughout the first dinner and many of the home-cooked meals, I felt embarrassed. I often found myself saying “no say” (“I don’t know”) or looking to my roommate, whose Spanish was better than mine, to translate for me. The dinner which seemed to last forever ended, and I was able to go to my room.
I learned from the first night I would have to quickly adjust to the living situations in Spain. For one, everything was “fun-sized,” from hallways to the rooms to the beds. The cost of water is very expensive in Spain, meaning short showers were necessary. Also, air conditioning, even in the summer, isn’t used.
The next morning was Sunday, and my roommate and I woke early to get on the class bus heading to Cadiz. Instead of sleeping the two-hour ride, I decided to take in the scenery. We drove at least 20 minutes before we made it out of the more industrial city of Sevilla.
As we drove past highways and took exits, I noticed road signs. None of them looked familiar, but I started to think of ones in Georgia. I started to compare and contrast the signs from home and the signs here, but I couldn’t decipher what any of them were trying to say. I began to notice speed limits, and for a while I couldn’t understand why the limit was so fast. I soon remembered in Europe they use kilometers, unlike in the U.S.
For what seemed like forever we drove past endless pastures of dandelions. I had never seen anything like it. Before I realized, we had arrived in Cadiz. A group of girls and I wandered the town. I realized how narrow the streets are in Spain when I thought I was walking on the sidewalks and several cars came behind me. They began honking because I was actually on the road.
Our tour guides took us up a tower where we could see the entire city of Cadiz. The view was breathtaking, like something out of a movie. The rest of the day, my friends and I played on the beach for hours. After a long day at the beach, we headed home.
In the United States, most students are out of school for summer break but in Spain, the kids are in school until July, so Monday through Friday we attended classes at Mundolengua. Classes were only a few hours and were very interactive and fun. I never felt uncomfortable in class, mostly because I was surrounded by people like me, and my if language skills got in the way, my teacher would help because she was fluent in English.
Each day after class was over, we had lunch at home, and then had about four hours of free time before embarking on excursions (touristy activities). During our free time, I did a lot of shopping, mostly for food, gelato especially. I felt the most nervous when ordering food, fearing I wouldn’t know how to say how much and what I wanted. I specifically remember trying to order pizza and accidentally saying “Yo quiero doce pizzas.” This means “I want 12 slices of pizza.” I meant to say “I want two slices of pizza,” but I didn’t catch my error until everyone in the restaurant began laughing and the server looked at me like I was crazy.
Each day I felt nervous when in conversation with natives. Many Spaniards speak English but this isn’t anything to rely on. I always felt I would say something that wasn’t actually a word, or my accent would be to heavy for someone to decipher what I was trying to say. I tried to keep conversations short and not say anything more than what was needed.
Toward the end of my trip, I had the pleasure of meeting students my age. To my surprise, the majority of them not only knew Spanish and English, but many other languages such as French, German and Italian.
Each day, my group was taken to a new and exciting place, including Aires de banos, Plaza de Espana and Real Alcazar de Sevilla. I didn’t understand much of the Spanish our tour guides used throughout our tours of the sites we visited, so I found myself taking time to think and take in the scenery.
I often thought of the Latino and Hispanic people back home in America. I thought of how often some Americans mistreat them due to the language barrier. I felt I was almost in their shoes. By being in Spain for only 10 days, I was able to see a glimpse into what it may feel like to be a immigrant in a foreign land.
Imagine waking up in a land where you are not fluent in the native language, and you know no one. You’re unable to understand the street signs or the television, and everything is different from what you know back home — from the street signs to the wall plug-ins to the food. On top of being a foreigner in every sense, people are not always friendly or understand, and you may even feel unwanted.
On the flight back home, I sat next to a Spanish native. She spoke no English, but I still began to create small talk with her. As the flight attendants came around with food, to my surprise none of them spoke Spanish. A flight attendant came to our seats and offered us food. I immediately realized the woman next to me couldn’t understand what was being offered, so I did my best to translate for her.
I was so happy to be able to do such a small favor for someone since so many people in Spain did the same for me. The greatest take away from this trip for me was the appreciation of immigrants, especially Hispanics.
Jhoanna is a rising senior at Atlanta Girls School.
VOX Investigates — our semester-long project where teens tackle a subject they feel is critically important to the Atlanta community — will cover immigration and refugee experiences this fall. To be part of the team, join VOX before Aug. 12. Application online here. To share your opinions voice, or experience, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.