Spanish Exchange This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

     I felt the familiar bump on the runway as the plane’s brakes slammed on, and just like that I had returned from cloudy skies to land. It was all I could do to stay in my seat and wait for everyone to file out. I had finally arrived in Spain!

“I have to admit,” I say, “I’m a little nervous about meeting your family. What if they think I’m weird?” I look at my friend, a native of northern Spain who had spent the last two weeks with my family. She smiled and replied, “Oh, they’ll love you”

It was my mom’s idea for me to go on a youth exchange. I agreed, but as time passed, my confidence about the whole experience began to dissolve. Not only had I never been to Spain, but the only Spanish I knew involved the local Mexican restaurant’s menu. Mireia was to come and live with us, and then the two of us would return to Spain. I have never been very outgoing or adventurous but I decided I could change that. We emailed weekly, getting to know each other more with each letter, which eased the awkwardness of our first meeting. It was amazing how much we seemed to have in common.

Mireia’s time in Canada went well. She tried all sorts of new activities like horseback riding, kayaking and mountain biking. I took her to my grandparents’ place on the coast and she was awestruck by the forests and quiet of the country. We went waterskiing, tubing and snorkeling and spent hours rowing a friend’s dingy. Since British Columbia is rainy, it wasn’t always perfect for the beach, but that left us time for shopping and museums.

I was tired from not sleeping on the plane and a long layover. While we waited for our flight in London, I asked her a ton of questions: “What is your brother’s name again? Should I have brought warmer clothes? Do you think your parents will like their gifts? What are your friends like?” She was very patient, trying to make me feel better.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You’re going to love it!” Finally, after three hours, the board blinked and we jumped up and made our way to another room where we had even more waiting to do. She began drilling me on Spanish vocabulary, trying her best to teach me the basics. Each time I looked up from my Spanish-English dictionary, the room had more people and before we knew it we were ready to board.

The next flight was unlike any I had ever been on. There were storms and the plane shook and bumped against the rebellious sky, fighting the rain and thunder. The flight attendants took their seats and drinks spilled in the aisle. I closed my eyes until the weather finally subsided. After that experience I felt like I could do anything. Well, almost anything.

So that’s how it all began, but once we were actually in Spain, my stomach started doing a strange dance from anticipation and nerves.

“Pasaporte, señorita?” the customs officer asked. I handed it to him and he looked it over.

“Gracias,” I said, and off we went to get our bags. It was sunny and I could tell from the rapidly pumping air conditioner that it must be hot outside.

We moved toward the exit and Mireia made a sort of squeal, then jumped into the arms of a gorgeous woman.

“Kaitie!” she said, reaching for me. “Finally, we meet!” Mireia introduced me to her parents, who were both extremely nice and thrilled to see their daughter and hear about her adventures. As soon as we got in the car, her mother handed us lunches in case we were hungry. The land was flat compared with the coast of British Columbia, but beautiful. The scenery was a mix of yellows and oranges, like the ground’s surface was somehow reflected in the sky and setting sun. Mireia dozed but I couldn’t bear to sleep. I wanted to take it all in! Then the stars began to come out and to my relief I realized there was this consistency between our countries. I couldn’t wait to learn about Spain but I was even more excited to learn about Mireia’s Basque culture!

Her home was beautiful. She lived in a quiet town called Vitoria in a large apartment on a pretty street lined with flowers. How perfect everything seemed! Her family was wonderful: a younger brother, Xavier, was eight; an older sister, Anne, was in her 20s and, of course, her parents.

Her friends were great, too, and I was struck by how many she seemed to have. In Canada teens usually hang out in groups of five but in Spain, girls hung out in groups of 20 at a time! We spent a lot of time at her club where we went swimming or played basketball, soccer or tennis. People seemed to be very athletic, spending all day outside.

I was very lucky to stay in Vitoria because it is the capital of the Basque country. I got to see the monuments and buildings, and Mieria’s parents took us on road trips in the countryside, where we stayed in cas-telos (homes built about 500 years ago that are now bed and breakfasts). One such castelo brought us to the top of a steep hill where we had an amazing view of the country. It was beautiful and I loved looking at all the buildings that had been there for hundreds of years. The old bricks were chipped and fading, with small windows that had served as lookouts in medieval times. Ancient landmarks stood out in the city among the stores; a cathedral in San Sebastian was a museum as well as an operating church.

San Sebastian was amazing, with a sparkling green-blue ocean and a golden sandy beach. The streets were filled with scooters and Smart cars. We traveled to southern France, which was also part of the Basque country. Bakeries dotted the streets and there was no shortage of sweet and pastry shops.

Traditional Basque men wore blue bandannas tied around their necks, white button-down shirts and shoes that tied up the legs, while women wore white shirts with long flowing blue skirts. I got to see a Basque festival where people of all ages dressed in traditional clothes. People lined the streets and sang as spectators cheered. I enjoyed walking around Mireia’s town; shoes and bags there were lovely as well as cheap. It was fun to buy things that people at home wouldn’t have!

I kept a diary and wrote about all my adventures, including visiting the Bilbao Museum of Art, which was extremely modern. The building’s design was very different! It was made from metal and looked like it was tilting from one side to the other. I also ate at the oldest restaurant in the world, where they kept the original old kitchen with its large fireplace and a group of musicians serenading the patrons. I went to symphonies where I saw unusual instruments and traditional dancing. One of my favorite experiences was seeing flamenco dancing where the dancers moved their feet so quickly that it looked almost like tap dancing.

After two weeks it was time for me to return home and I became very withdrawn. I felt like I was leaving a part of myself there; the time had gone by in what felt like only a few days. I had made so many friends and learned so much Spanish I could hardly believe it. Everyone made me feel so welcome; Mireia’s friends even did their best to speak English around me. I was so happy the way things had turned out! I never felt homesick or the least bit of disappointed in the trip or myself. I highly recommend youth exchanges and taking a chance on someone else and their culture. And that’s exactly why I’m going back next year.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

vishnu said...
Jul. 2, 2011 at 11:08 pm
It is okay
AnnP said...
Jan. 29, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Wow, that seems to have been such an amazing time for you!!

Could you tell me what program you used? As in, Youth for Understanding, ect?



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