I was weaving through cars on Calle de la Princesa in a taxi driven by a middle aged man to whom I was terrified to try to speak Spanish, especially over the noise of traffic and the shuffle of latin pop and AC/DC on the radio. Thirty minutes earlier, armed with only my suitcase and my limited knowledge of the Spanish language, I had arrived in Madrid – the city that I would call home for the next four months.
Once inside the taxi, I was greeted by the driver with, what I would later learn to be the blunt, but typical Spanish command, “Dime chico.” (“Tell me, kid.”) I scrambled for the piece of paper in my pocket that had my host family’s address and gave it to him. For the next 20 minutes we sat in what would have been silence if it were not for the radio, him driving and me looking out the window so as to avoid eye contact. The lyrics of “Back in Black” pouring through the speakers were unexpected, but somehow comforting. We pulled up to my apartment and he helped me unload my bags onto the street. I handed him the 30 euros for the flat rate airport taxi fare, and he was on his way. I had successfully arrived without ever muttering a word of Spanish.
My journey to Spain actually started after attending a Butler Center for Global Education introductory meeting. I signed up to study abroad with an open mind. I knew that I wanted to go to Madrid. I saw it not only as one of the world’s leading cities, but also as a gateway to exploring the rest of Europe. I was excited to travel, to experience different cultures, languages and ways of living, and I hoped that I would come out of the semester as a more worldly version of myself.
While abroad I had the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to, the most diverse and unique cultures I have ever witnessed, as well as world renowned art, architecture, festivals, and legendary landforms. But, perhaps the aspect of studying abroad that I am most thankful for is the personal growth I experienced during my time in Europe.
When I first arrived in Madrid I had no idea how to get from one place to another. Having always lived in suburban areas, I was reliant on cars to move around. Living in the city was a big change for me, and learning how to navigate the metro and exploring the city was an interesting and worthwhile challenge.
My campus in Madrid was made up of students from across the globe. In the classroom we learned about art, communication theory, history, and language in classes taught by professors from Madrid, London, Boston, and Valencia. Students from the United States, Mexico, Egypt, Montenegro, and a variety of other countries helped me learn concepts for myself, but with a global point of view that I would not have achieved here in the United States.
I lived with a host mom who only spoke Spanish. My roommate was from San Diego and only spoke English. At times it was challenging to communicate with my host mom, and it was even more difficult to translate between her and my roomate. Despite these difficulties, I survived, and because of these difficulties, my communication and Spanish skills increased tenfold.
While abroad I was able to check many cities off of my bucket list. I took weekend trips to Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, and multiple cities in different parts of Spain. Planning these travels forced me to be organized, to plan ahead, to take care of my schoolwork during the week, and to think logistically about timing and cost.
In countries outside of Spain it was often more challenging to communicate. I went to multiple places where I did not have any background knowledge of the national language. At some point my problem-solving skills kicked in, and luckily, I still was able to navigate and enjoy my experience.
On a trip to Portugal, some new friends from Madrid and I stepped into a taxi expecting to be able to speak to the driver in either English or Spanish, or some combination, but he spoke only Portuguese. Thanks to some quick thinking and the power of google maps, we were able to show him exactly where we wanted to be dropped off.
In an elevator in Paris, I accidentally bumped into the emergency call button with my backpack and tried to assure the dispatcher over the intercom that everything was alright by saying “accident” which is the same in French as it is in English. However, they stayed on the line, as I realized that accident can also be translated as “problem,” or “trouble.” After some back and forth in heavily accented English, we were on the same page and continued on our way.
It was moments like these when I learned to think on my feet and roll with whatever unexpected events took place. Canceled flights and trains needed to be rescheduled so that I could be back in Madrid on time for class; sudden weather changes meant some trips needed to be rescheduled or altered.
When you hear stories of students studying abroad, you may think they sound fun, often times they are filled with blow-off classes, endless happiness, and a seemingly perfect life. In my experience, these were just stereotypes and exaggerations.
There were hard times, times when it was difficult to communicate, times when classes were challenging, times when I missed home. However, through those experiences, I was able to grow as an individual, become more confident in myself, and learn more in a semester than I ever have before. On that first day in Madrid, I was anxious, uncertain, and questioning my decision, but by the end of my study and travels, I had transformed. That anxious chico sitting quietly in the taxi was nowhere to be found.