Growing up in a family of eight, we rarely took trips beyond station wagon rides to Six Flags Great America. At 17, I decided it was time to start seeing the world. Or at least take a peek over the border of my state line. I saved a year’s worth of grocery store earnings to go to Spain with my high school Spanish Club. All I wanted at the time was to take an exotic spring break with my best friends. What I received was a valuable life lesson that would redirect the trajectory of my young life.
Before I can back up such a dramatic statement, there were a few lessons to be learned along the way.
My Spanish teacher and her brother were charged with herding 30 over-stimulated teenagers clear across Spain in the span of 14 days. They designed an itinerary that was meant to keep us exhausted and out of trouble as we immersed ourselves in Spanish culture. The first part of the trip included separating us into pairs and staying with a local host family. Our “Mother” met us at the airport. My roommate Molly and I greeted her in Spanish, having practiced extensively for this moment. She then started asking us additional get to know you questions and I quickly realized my limited Spanish-speaking skills didn’t account for an accent or topics more complicated than asking where the bathroom was located.
We silently made our way toward the parking lot, where I assumed we would deposit our heavy bags into our Mother’s minivan. To my surprise, we kept walking past all of the vehicles and started heading into town – on foot. Not that I was a lazy teenager, but I simply never walked anywhere back home. It never even occurred to me that our home-stay family owned only one vehicle and it was seldom used. By contrast, my family owned four vehicles and each one was driven every single day.
My culture shock continued to deepen as I dragged my oversized roller bag over two miles of cobblestone through a densely packed city center. We arrived at the entrance of a multi-story row house. Their home was more of an apartment consisting of several sparsely furnished rooms. All of the furniture was covered in plastic. I quickly discovered that everyone in the family smoked. A lot. Indoors. With the windows closed.
Molly and I did our best to limit the number of inhalations we took and presented our new family with a few housewarming gifts. We carefully planned and selected the items beforehand, trying our best to make them culturally relevant to our homes. We decided upon a family size jar of JIF Peanut Butter and an XL Bucky Badger t-shirt. Our Mother held up the massive t-shirt against her petite frame. Molly and I sheepishly tried to explain the concept of “one size fits all,” which more accurately translated to “comically large” in this case.
Our host family tried to make us comfortable and expose us to true Spanish culture. We ate paella sprinkled with hotdogs. We attempted to have discussions in Spanish, but our mispronunciation of common words like “mango” tended to create confusion rather than casual conversation. One evening, we were served an odd-looking soup. It was cloudy with unfamiliar chunks of floating meat. Molly wouldn’t touch it, but I bravely downed the entire bowl and spent the remainder of the evening vomiting every 30 minutes.
My class had plans to tour the Alhambra the next day, but I was too exhausted to drag myself out of bed. After initially accusing me of wanting to watch MTV instead of touring the ancient structure with the group, my chaperones begrudgingly allowed me to stay behind and arranged for someone to check on me later that day. Around noon, a beautiful, worldly woman wearing chic, perfectly fitted clothing knocked on my door. To my excitement, an extremely good-looking college guy accompanied her. He had long, romance-novel hair that he repeatedly ran his hands through. I didn’t fully understand who they were or why we were together, nor did I care. I was simply thrilled to be tagging along with these cool-looking Europeans who didn’t seem to mind spending time with an awkward, semi-mute American wearing powder blue polar fleece.
The three of us spent the day casually strolling around town, drinking exotic beverages like tea, sparkling water and Coke Lite at tiny coffee shops. We spoke about politics and pop culture (in both English and Spanish). The beautiful woman had to go, leaving me alone with Mr. Europe. I relished his undivided attention as he showed me both the famous and lesser-known landmarks. He spoke at length about Spanish culture and what his daily routine was like. Our worlds were both surprisingly similar and shocking different. At the end of the day, we sat on top of an old stone wall watching the sun set behind the Alhambra. I thought about how the rest of my classmates had been shuffled around its interior all day, while I sat just outside its walls with my personal tour guide. We lingered a little longer, then the time came for me to rejoin my classmates. As we said our goodbyes, he handed me an odd-looking phone number and told me to ‘keep in touch.’ I did not, simply because the thought of calling a European college guy on my parents’ landline was mortifying.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was given an invaluable gift, cleverly disguised as food poisoning. Those two intriguing strangers allowed me behind-the-scenes, giving me an all-access pass to their culture, rather than simply allowing me to skim along its surface. For the very first time, I got to experience the magic of being a curious traveler instead of a gawking tourist.
After I rejoined the group, I was more deeply invested in learning about the culture of the cities I visited. The best souvenirs I brought back were a United Colors of Benetton wrap skirt and the newfound knowledge that walking was a perfectly acceptable form of transportation in other parts of the world.
Travel has since become a major part of my life. It’s my continued education, my money pit, my favorite daydream and my greatest inspiration. Each time I depart on a new adventure, I return changed in a small way. I’ve learned how to bike commute in style from the Dutch. That driving around Ireland takes much, much longer than Google Maps suggests. And being mistaken for a local is a huge compliment. I’ve also learned to practice gratitude for the things I tend to take for granted, like clean water, a stocked refrigerator and the ability to obtain an education. Travel has also opened my eyes to some of the shortcomings of my own habits and lifestyle.
Nothing else has the ability to crack you wide open and slowly fill you back up again quite like the experience of traveling. I can’t claim having the foresight to predict this at the age of 17, but I am eternally grateful I was brave enough to try the soup.