I was the team leader of a group of college students for one of the Institute for Foreign Study’s semester break exchange program to Salamanca, Spain. I have never been to Europe before then and I am minoring in Spanish so needless to say, I was so excited and so ready to go and have my dream come true! Being an exchange student and experiencing first hand a culture completely different from your own and away from the protective wings of your parents is one of the life-changing things that I would never have gotten if it weren’t for the programs like these.
I went to Appleton, Wisconsin for a whole year as a high school exchange student for a gap year and it has been four years since then and I can still say that I am a much better person because of it. I gained life lessons that have helped me throughout college and I know will help me in the future. That experience also helped me be a good team leader or an “ate” to the other girls who have never been away for so long before. I was also proof and a spokesperson to the parents in letting them know that they were making the right choice in letting go of their kids – even for a little while – so they can experience the world on their own.
Four words: Best. Sem. Break. Ever.
Everything was completely different in Spain. Everything was in Spanish (of course), they ate at the weirdest and latest times (lunch at 3 and dinner at 10!), there was public display of affection everywhere (which actually made for an interesting way to watch people – hah), the weather was almost close to freezing (remember, it was November!), they strictly obeyed the siesta (the town is dead for 3 hours) and then party like crazy during their fiestas (there’s no way anyone would go home at midnight – it only starts then). Salamanca is also known as a UNESCO World Heritage City and one of the most popular and most beautiful places to visit. I never cared much for architecture before, but there definitely was magic in the golden walls of Salamanca. There were students from all over the world and of course, being a majority of girls that we were, we definitely went loca seeing all those guapo Spanish boys, from the Universidad students, Prince Felipe of Spain (Yes!!! He was in Salamanca for the day and we were so lucky to see him!), Andre - that one Brazilian student in our school that all us Filipino girls loved, David Beckham during the Real Madrid game (Okay, he’s not Spanish, but still!), to even the chico that sold stamps in magazine stands. It was fun for us to get the attention that we did since we were the foreigners – like someone staring in your face, a non-Spanish university student saying that you were a 15 (“quince”) on the 1-10 belleza (beauty) level, and some good looking boy saying, “Hola guapa, que tal?” We took things in stride and just laughed at ourselves and what was going on because the Spanish were different, and they loved to live life. We were young and I don’t think there’s a better time in our lives to be in Spain.
The first time I had desayuno (breakfast), I was shocked and said to myself, “That’s it?!” My host mom – Leonor – left a glass of orange juice, butter, and one piece of toast on the table for me. In Spain, they really don’t eat so much in the morning. After breakfast, I would walk for around fifteen minutes through the cold but sunny streets of Salamanca to get to Spanish class. Everyone walked in the morning – people going to work, grandparents going their daily routine, parents dropping off their children to school, and hundreds of colegio and Universidad students rushing to their classes.
Then, I would see the other Filipino girls and other foreign students in our language school, Enforex, give each other the double beso every day, and get to class. I had the most interesting, coolest, and craziest profesores who made learning Spanish not only challenging and easy at the same time, but also fun and up-to-date. Did you know that Spanish girls never change their surnames and that only one person is supposed to pay when a group of friends go out? My class was made of one Japanese girl who was so much better in Spanish than I was (but couldn’t pronounce the rrrr’s!), an older guy from Slovakia who just wanted to learn a new language after he retired, a Brazilian boy who was cool and nonchalant because Portuguese was close to Spanish anyway, another Filipina friend whose presence made me feel more comfortable, and a sweet blonde German girl who would always invite me to parties. I looked forward to go to class everyday and was muy excited about what new thing I would learn next.
Classes would last from 9 to 2 pm and siesta would begin. Everything was closed and during that time all of us Filipinos would go back home and have lunch with our host families. I would be insanely hungry by then since I wasn’t used to it, but since it was their biggest meal of the day, I was full right away. My host mom always prepared soup, and two (note: TWO!) main courses. Honestly, the food for me was okay and the weirdest I ate was rice and tomato sauce – nothing else. It’s for sure though, that the españoles loved their olive oil because they must have had it in every meal they had – since olive oil was cheap there. My host parents were home during the siesta for their work break so I would talk to them a little bit and get to practice my Spanish before I took a nap.
By 5PM, everything comes back to life. Tiendas would start putting back their abierta (open) signs, people would start filling the streets again, and others would have to go back to work. In my case, I would meet up with the other Filipinos or other friends I made in classes, and we tried out the different cafeterias and restaurantes near the Plaza, went shopping crazy by going to Mango, H&M or Zara and had our daily routine of Spain’s well-known and muy rico chocolate con churros. We saw movies in Spanish and didn’t care if we didn’t understand most of it, just hung out and sat around the Plaza Mayor – the most beautiful part of the city - to watch the people, walked around in the cold of the city to see the sights and just for the sake of it, took hundreds of pictures of anything and everything, and just breathed in the culture and magic of everything that was going on around us.
After having dinner out, going back home and to do homework, resting or hanging out with our families again, I would meet up with mis amigas under the famous clock of the Plaza Mayor an hour before midnight. Late at night, high school to university students would go out for a night of ir de marcha (going out) and stay out until the madrugada (wee hours of the morning). Hundreds of people, mostly students, would wait and meet up with their own friends before they went to the bars and discos. Thursday was the official night of going out and everyone, of all shapes, sizes, nationalities, ages, and even genders – go out. No other people party like the Spanish do and they know how to have a good fiesta. I enjoyed every minute of it. It was a good and fun way to meet other students and also to dance to Spanish music. (Bailamos!) With everything that was going on around you, and all the guapos y guapas, you just had to dance. I don’t think I’ve ever danced that much in my entire life! All the bars were next to each other so we would walk from one place to the other and completely forgot about the cold. Who would have thought that the streets could be alive and scattered with young people at 3AM – on a Monday? Friends met up and enjoyed before finally going home and walking through the well-list and safe streets of Salamanca.
On weekends, we went to school-arranged trips and with that we saw the Aqueducts of Segovia, toured around the magical and caste-like city of Toledo, visited and went in the different museums of Madrid, like the Museo del Prado (my favorite) and the Centro del Arte del Reina Sofia. I was able to see the most famous paintings of Picasso, Dali, Miro, El Greco, and more. We even got to watch a Real Madrid soccer game and saw the most famous futbol players in the world play – Beckham (!!), Ronaldo, Raul, Robinho, etc. Those names may not seem much to you but being the ex-futbol player that I am and futbol being practically a religion in Spain, it means mucho mucho mucho!
I had the BEST time – and I’m sure everyone did too. But I have to say that it was not always the easiest, like everything else. There was definitely a feeling of being overwhelmed in a completely new place, loving and being scared of everything in it, missing and actually not missing home at the same time. Some people got homesick for a couple of days, got intimidated by the language, and one girl even got an allergy and had to go to the clinic to get a shot. I thought that being an exchange student for a year in high school would easily prepare me for everything. But to be a team leader was different. It was daunting in the beginning because I thought about all the responsibilities that I had but I quickly learned that nothing really prepares you to be one. You just do it. I became a team leader by using the skills I learned in life and in my past exchange experience, by sharing what I knew to the others and telling them that what they were going through was completely normal, and by having understanding and keeping love, a whole lot of sense of humor, and hugs. Being a team leader multiplied my usual growing up during any trip. And that will definitely always be a good thing.
I think the other, and major, thing that I loved best about Spain didn’t actually come from there. It was the group that I was with. For some reason, we instantly bonded and mixed together all our different and crazy personalities. We made for an interesting group – one girl shopped almost everyday, another girl broke a poor German boy’s heart, the only guy with us for sure had a renewed understanding of the female psyche, another girl learned to laugh at herself when she said the wrong thing to a waiter. Being in a loving group like that made it easier to have a better time in a foreign land because there was always someone to lean back on, complain to, and have fun with.
Three weeks may seem like a short time, but I feel that personally and for the other Salamankers (that’s what we call ourselves), we left Spain and came back being a little bit different, more open minded in our perspectives, a lot more thankful for our parents and the things that we have here at home, and a hundredfold richer as persons. We have more than a thousand digital pictures from all of our collections put together and we will never forget what we experienced in Spain. Being there and experiencing everything that happens when you’re an exchange student again, and actually helping the others have that kind of experience too, made me remember that being an exchange student and is one of the best things anyone could ever experience. You gain so much more than you can imagine and the effects can last you a lifetime. If I could be an exchange student in every part of the world, I would. I wish I could share what I know now to everyone and I just wish people actually get to experience the same thing.
When we were going in the airport to leave the Philippines, some girls were reluctant to say goodbye and some parents were beginning to cry. It IS hard to let go but deep inside I knew that the same parents would be happy and proud of the same thing. I knew that we were going to have the best time ever. And we did. Muchissimo.