By Andrew Elmeer
University of Wisconsin-Madison
As I gaze out of my bedroom window, I realize how much has occurred since the first time I stepped into this room and looked upon Alcalá. I remember vividly my mixed feelings of anxiety, excitement, and confusion when I met my host family and they brought me to their apartment: the place in which I was going to stay in this foreign land for two months. Although I had traveled to Spain previously, I had not practiced, nor used, Spanish for two years and was nervous about communicating with my host family, as well as, understanding my professors in class. However, I was excited about the new opportunities I was about to have like regaining my lost Spanish abilities, traveling through Europe, meeting new people, and spending an extended period of time in a different culture.
During my first day with my host family, as I am still relearning basic vocabulary and speaking abilities, I found out that the next day I was going to their cousin’s first communion and that I was going to meet the whole family. Needless to say, I was slightly nervous, but of course, it turned out to be a great experience for me. Even though at times I had a difficult time conveying my ideas, I was able to have many engaging conversations with different family members and, most importantly, experience my first three-and-a-half hour lunch. After I got through that, and actually enjoyed myself immensely, I knew I could at least survive school and the language barrier.
One of the many perks of staying with a host family is that you are able to experience parts of the culture, like my first communion experience, that are inaccessible to people that stay in apartments. It is also important to point out that not having to cook any meals, and having the opportunity to try many different Spanish dishes, is a major perk. In addition, my Spanish speaking and understanding abilities would not be as advanced as they are now had I not stayed with a host family. Almost every day, I ate lunch and dinner with my host mom, during which we conversed completely in Spanish. Having those opportunities, in addition to hearing and speaking Spanish at school, were vital to developing my communication abilities.
Although I was nervous at first, I thoroughly enjoyed taking classes in Spain. Due to taking history and culture classes of Spain, I now have a deeper understanding of Spain’s fascinating past and could appreciate the monuments I saw in Spain more profoundly. They also helped me learn more sophisticated vocabulary that went beyond words used in casual conversation. I notice when I watch Spanish news, I am now able to understand more of the news stories because of the vocabulary I learned in class. Additionally, with having to write papers and answer essay questions on the tests, you are forced to look up and learn more vocabulary to express your ideas effectively. My listening skills improved from the classes, as well, because the professors are native speakers and teach completely in Spanish. Even though they speak slightly slower than normal to ensure we understand more material, I now can hear 95% of everything said during class and always understand the main ideas being taught.
By being in class and having a two-day orientation with my program group, it was easy to meet people and I became close with the group just after a few days. After class, even the first week, it was always easy to find people to go explore Alcalá or to go eat tapas because of how quickly the group became close. Actually, after knowing everyone for a week, I went with a group of friends to Seville and Granada for the first weekend. Having a solid group of friends made it easier to plan weekend trips, as well as, made them more enjoyable.
Because of Alcalá’s location, it was easy to travel Spain and to stay busy. Alcalá is about forty minutes from Madrid, which is in the heart of Spain. Therefore, you never have to cross the entire country to travel anywhere within Spain. Additionally, having an international airport close-by was great for traveling outside of Spain. For example, during the time between sessions, I traveled with a friend to London, which was nice to be in to speak English again for a few days. Although, a few times the first day my friend asked the kiosk owners questions in Spanish by accident, which was entertaining.
Even though Madrid is useful for traveling to other places, it also is a fantastic place in itself. As the biggest city in Spain, it has a multitude of tourist spots, restaurants, parks, etc. Many weekends I would not travel because I enjoyed going into Madrid to see a tourist spot, or hang out in a park, and then eat tapas with friends. It has plenty of sites like the Prado, Reina Sofia, or Royal Palace where one can spend many hours, but it also has places like the Plaza Mayor, Parque Retiro, or the Plaza de España, which are great places to just slow down and watch the world pass by.
This hardly scratches the surface of what I have done and accomplished in my time abroad. I did not mention all of the people I met from Spain, the U.S., and Europe in general, or all of the phenomenal cities and monuments I’ve had the privilege of visiting. As I gaze out my window upon Alcalá now, I think of how I have become so accustomed to life in this town, how many memories I have made, how cool it is to have had to communicate in a foreign language for two months, how I have developed as a Spanish speaker, how beneficial of an experience this has been in my life, and, most importantly, how am I going to be able to say good-bye.