by Jessica Vaughn
“I have got to be absolutely insane. How did I convince myself that this was a good idea? This may have been one of the top three worst decisions I have made in my 21 years of life. I don’t speak Spanish very well. I don’t know anyone on that side of the Atlantic. And I have never stepped foot off US soil.”
This soliloquy was stuck on repeat the night before I left New York to start my two-month marketing internship in Madrid, Spain. I sat in my room frantically packing and unpacking trying to make space for each trinket and reminder of home, unable to shake feelings of self doubt and dread of the unknown as I prepared to abandon every inkling of comfort and “normalcy” I had ever known. Underneath the thick layer of fear, somewhere deep down, something told me I would be fine. I knew I was preparing for two months of sight seeing, language learning, and meeting people that I would never forget, no matter how brief our time together would be.
Fourteen days later, I’m still alive and breathing in a hot sunny foreign city on the Eastern side of the Atlantic. Although, the words “still alive” hardly give these past two weeks any justice.
I do not think it is possible to wrangle up and enclose all of the ways I have been mentally challenged and all of the novel experiences the past fourteen days have brought. I have never been more aware of how similar yet drastically different we all are and how much language plays a role in our interactions.
Before I left NY, I felt fairly confident that I was “fluent” in Spanish. Knowing enough to help direct a lost tourist here or there, I felt that I would be able to navigate and survive Madrid no problem. Then, “Spanish” only existed in a textbook that I had sitting in the back bookshelf collecting dust. Now, Spanish is the vehicle for me to live my life here in Madrid. Of course I knew everyone in Spain spoke Spanish before I got here, but the reality of living in this world wouldn’t hit until I landed in Barajas airport and I needed ask questions in a foreign tongue about reporting lost luggage. I immediately realized I wasn’t as fluent as I thought a few hours before.
Living in an unfamiliar language has by far been the most testing aspect of life abroad, yet at the same time it has been one of the most rewarding. Before coming to Madrid I never appreciated the simplistic act of going to the store and asking for a product. I took for granted the ability to walk up to nearly any New Yorker and ask for directions to the subway or the cross streets of a good place to sit down and get lunch.
My first days here, I had to think about each word before I spoke. I spent what seemed like minutes trying to fish through my recent memory for the right word to fill in the blank in my mind, to finish the puzzle and make my needs or desires known. Each completed thought and nod of comprehension was a mini victory. Being understood and making a connection with someone was worth every moment of linguistic struggle. Two weeks later words are coming out with less labor and the pauses searching for phrases are becoming shorter. Victory never tasted so sweet.
But life has more substance to it than being able to make your demands known. Life is about meeting people and sharing information, ideas, and experiences. I quickly learned that gestures, facial expressions, and pointing will only get you so far in this area of interaction. To express this part of our lives we need language. And many times, even with out language barriers, finding the words to share our experiences can be difficult.
In the past fourteen days I have made friends with students from Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Canada, Austria, Brazil, and Trinidad. We laugh at each other’s quirky habits, we argue about global politics, we share our culture’s worldviews, and we make plans to get tapas in the evening all in Spanish. This intercultural exchange in Spanish has been the most incredible part of my trip. I never thought I would be able to sit and speak for hours on end in another language.
My experiences so far have all been incredible, and I am anxiously waiting to see what the next six weeks have in store for me. That night, two weeks ago, when I was locked up in my room anxiously packing for the unknown, I wish someone had told me this quote, “The key to change…is to let go of fear.” In fourteen days so many of my perspectives on the world, and more importantly on the languages we use to carry on our lives in this world, have changed. But, just as my little voice of reason predicted, all of this change, it has been for the better.