by Laura Albrecht
As I sat with my feet dangling in the pool, watching night fall over Madrid and listening to the noises of Calle Acamar 17, I noticed the bats swooping down from the sky over my head. They make a fast dive straight down at the surface of the pool, and at the last minute they turn upward, saving themselves from an icy plunge. I had been in Madrid for a month now, and these bats seemed to serve as the perfect analogy to my experience as an au pair for a Spanish family.
I often felt like I was going to crash head first into the abyss of miscommunication, loneliness, and frustration, just as the bats daringly swooped toward the water. However, bats use echolocation–they send out little sound waves that bounce off nearby objects and travel back to them, allowing them to dodge obstacles.
I couldn’t help but think that a bat’s navigation methods were similar to mine in Madrid. I knew the basics of the Spanish language, so I send out rough phrases, words, even sounds and gestures and see if anything bounced back toward me that I understood. I constantly sent out little messages, like a bat, trying to orient myself in a new culture. Just when I thought that nothing would come back, and the icy plunge was moments away, a little sound or gesture came back and saved me. It could have been anything, like a smile from Carlos the groundskeeper, advice from Begoña (the mother of my family), a giant hug from Miriam (the daugther of my family) when she got off the bus, or an invitation to play soccer with the boys in the garden.
All of these little gestures and acts of kindness kept me soaring through the air like the bats that swooped over the pool’s surface that night in Madrid.
Now that I have finished my work as an au pair in Madrid, I understand that I had to walk that fine line between crashing into the water and soaring above it, or I wouldn’t have experienced anything at all. If I hadn’t left my comfort zone and risked living with a family I had never met before in a country and language I wasn’t familiar with, then I wouldn’t have all the amazing stories and experiences that I have now. I was able to build a relationship with a child, a family, and an entire community that didn’t speak my language, because I took the dive and came daringly close to crashing, but chose to soar instead.