I love learning. Now don’t get me wrong, I am in no way, shape, or form the student that asks for additional homework or quizzes for the class. In fact, I find the academic responsibilities associated with learning to be draining. However, from the moment my eight-year-old self told my family at the Thanksgiving dinner table that I was thankful for school, they knew I was an enthusiastic learner (and a nerd). Little did they know that I’d grow up learning new cultures to expand our little family across the ocean.
Moving to Spain wasn’t my first trip around the block. From my previous year abroad in France, I knew what kind of stresses come from moving to a country not knowing the language. I remember my first day in France, my host mom was giving me a house tour until we stopped at my room and the only sentence I could form to make some kind of logical sense was “It’s me?”. I couldn’t even ask if the room was mine. So moving to Spain, I was prepared with at least one sentence: “This is my room?”, and that left a much better first impression on my new family.
I lived in the city of the sun, Valencia, Spain, with a wonderful couple that had been welcoming exchange students to their home for 15 years. We were right outside of the city center about a half-hour away from the beach. My host dad, Jaime, took me on a tour of the city and brought me to the vacation home to celebrate my arrival and my host mom, Isabel, was ready for me with the first of her many gourmet Spanish dishes for dinner. She made paellas that restaurants simply could never. Their granddaughter made us matching bracelets that I still wear a year later, even though the aging bright pink beads don’t necessarily match my uniform at work. Host families can make or break an experience abroad, and this wonderful couple gave me the opportunity to be the curious American learner that I am with other international students. Every week, the excitement of new housemates would fill my veins. I lived with students from all over Europe, but the Italian girls were always the most fun at the dinner table every night and the kindest for a quick wave on our way to our classrooms the next morning.
I attended an international school for Spanish learners and a Spanish University for even more cultural immersion. The most interesting part about being abroad is meeting new people, especially from your own country. I made new friends from countries like Poland, Korea, and Switzerland every day, but when I met my first fellow American, we were inseparable; constantly comparing our experiences, programs, and planning new weekend trips. We traveled all over Spain, and even took a trip to Morocco! It wasn’t until our trip to Hungary that the coronavirus had finally taken over our new home.
It was one email that cut my six-month semester into a third. Jaime took Isabel and I to their vacation home to finish my time in the city of the sun with all the Spanish Netflix binges and new Spanish recipes that I could imagine. To say I was disappointed to leave was an understatement. Every spring, Valencia holds a festival called Las Fallas. All year Valencianos prepare for the festival by making extravagant dresses, building-sized sculptures based on current events, and traditional meals for the week in the streets. I saw my premature departure coming as the festival had been canceled for the first time in history rippling sadness throughout the country. Not saying goodbye to my dearest friends, professors, and the beautiful sites of the city during such an almost-eventful festival season only excites me for my next trip to my old home to get the hugs and kisses on the cheeks that I long for. Studying Abroad: 0, COVID19: 1.
Until my return, Whatsapp is our best friend, as it has been mine for years since I left France. I’ve stayed in touch with all of my loved ones from abroad and I look forward to our reunion in their home countries. Traveling is fun, but learning new cultures is exhilarating. Although my time in Valencia was cut short, it provided me the skills I need for my future and inspired me to apply for the Fulbright Scholarship. With a new foreign language under my belt, I hope to become a Fulbright Scholar to do research about the disintermediation of mass media in Bogotá, Colombia at La Universidad de la Sabana. COVID-19 is a setback, but the cultural learning will go on.
By Dana Damiani