With my host family on the San Sebastian coast
My first trip to Europe… I moved there. For real. My senior year of college I decided I wanted to teach overseas. In 2009 I packed my bags over winter break and flew to Bilbao, lived with a student’s family, and started learning how solo travel is uncomfortable, amazing, challenging, and the best thing I ever did. Please enjoy my persuasive essay below on why everyone should do two things in life- travel alone and study abroad!
I’m not sure if I watched the Lizzie McGuire movie too many times, or Sex in the City, or romantic comedies, but for some reason I was determined to head to Europe before I graduated college. I had never been, but I KNEW that it was going to be me skipping though some cobblestone European streets, riding on the back of a scooter, sipping coffee at a cafe, you know, basically the perfect montage of a European vacay. Two reasons that didn’t happen- A) I went in the middle of winter and B) I’m awkward (see gallery below) and didn’t speak Spanish as fluently as I thought. The trip was riddled with mistakes and unanticipated obstacles, but I don’t regret going for even one second.
It all started on my flight in– when I got stranded at the Madrid airport for 13 hours due to a huge snowstorm. This was significant for two reasons– it’s the only time I’ve used luggage as a bed, and it was where I quickly learned being good at Spanish in America in nowhere near the same as being fluent in Spanish in Spain. I tried to call my host family to tell them my flight was delayed and it was a STRUGGLE. I definitely cried a lot in those first 24 hours. I was sure I had made a mistake, that I wasn’t cut out for traveling by myself, and that my Lizzie McGuire dreams were destined to not come true.
Everyone lined up trying to figure out what the heck to do to get out of the airport
I finally got to Bilbao and met my host family. They were the sweetest– a mother, father, and Kindergarten daughter named Carlota. They truly could not have been kinder to me during my two months living with them, and to this day I am grateful they were willing to take in a stranger. But here’s a fun fact about Bilbao, Spain– it’s part of the Basque country, and they don’t speak strictly Castilian Spanish. Nope, they speak Euskara, which is closer to German than it is to Spanish. While my Spanish wasn’t great, my Euskara was nonexistent. Another challenge facing me that I was unprepared for.
Carlota and I with her friend Angela
Things turned around when I got to the school I was teaching at. My co-teacher was this amazing woman who had moved from Vermont to Bilbao when she met her husband. She was open-minded, empathetic and was a great first example of what a teacher should be. I was teaching 7th-9th grade English at the school, and it was perfect. I made friends with the gym teacher, the first grade teacher, the Kindergarten aide, and the Vice-Principal. You could find me drinking with them most weekends and nights while I was there.
There were weekend trips to Rome and Barcelona, which had truly bad decisions all throughout. There was the fact that my grandpa got very sick while I was gone, and never fully recovered. There was the fact that these people partied late into the night, and while I thought I was hip, I was not Spanish hip. It was not the amazing time I dreamed it would be, until I looked back on it.
That traveling alone– looking back I DID have a lot of good times, a lot of laughs, a few challenges. I did cry because I missed home, but I also shouted because it felt so good to be free. Yes, I struggled with all the different, new things I was finding, but I overcame all the obstacles I encountered all on my own. I couldn’t have my mom call the front desk, couldn’t have my friends cheer me up with inside jokes, couldn’t have my ex come over when I was lonely. I had to start to figure out what is was that made ME happy, that made ME strong, that made me ME without all these other pieces I had come to rely on to help me through the rough times.
Not to sound preachy, but it was the first time I realized I didn’t NEED anyone. Now of course, I wanted to be around other people. But becoming dependent, needing someone? Nope. And even though I still had a few more lessons in my life headed my way before I fully understood this, looking back this was a huge first step in that direction. It was so scary, and I will never forget the joy I felt seeing my dad at the international arrivals gate when I got back. However, it gave me confidence that I had been lacking, it was something I got to look back on when times got tough in the future and think,
“Remember that time you moved to Spain on an impulse and it was uncomfortable and scary, but you survived, and even more than that, you thrived? You can handle this.”
It’s the good and the bad that mold us, that shape us, that force us to grow, and that’s what this time in Spain did. So go study abroad, because even if it’s terrible it will be awesome. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.