Finding confidence 4,000 miles from home

New routines should be exciting, not scary

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The apartment smelled a little different than I expected. Not bad, per se, but the odor of a foreign spice I had never experienced before. The rooms were a bit small but, nonetheless, I was just pleased to have cool air oozing from the vents on the hot Spanish day. “This is my home for the next six weeks,” I thought anxiously to myself.

My host mom — or “madre” as we called her — instructed in rapid Spanish for my roommate and me to place our luggage in our bedroom and hurry to the dining room table. I could sense a mutual nervousness amongst all parties in the room, which had a calming effect of its own. In my jet-lagged stupor, I hadn’t realized that welcoming two teenage strangers into her home was just as nerve-racking for this 75-year-old woman as moving to a foreign country was for us.

As a fairly experienced traveler, I wasn’t really concerned about my impending study abroad trip in the weeks leading up to it. In preparation, I mindlessly began to load the entirety of my closet into two massive L.L. Bean duffles with my initials stitched into them. It was more routine than conscious, as it hadn’t yet sunk in that I would be spending the majority of my summer in Valencia, Spain.

Eventually, the day arrived and my parents shuttled me to JFK Airport and we said our quick goodbyes. And when I took that first step into the airport looking like a pack mule, it hit me like a brick wall — I was completely alone.

Sure, I’d lived by myself at college for a full year but cross-continental travel just me, myself and I? That was a new one.

Soon after takeoff, 40,000 feet in the air, I reclined my seat (grateful for the extra leg room) and tried to doze off for the nine-hour flight. Instead, my mind was flooded with hundreds of questions that I had been unconsciously avoiding for weeks. What if I get pickpocketed? What if I lose my passport? What will my temporary family be like? Will they be strict? Even worse, what if they don’t have Wi-Fi? 

But less than a day later, sitting at the kitchen table with my new madre to my left and my roommate to my right, my worries had already begun to evaporate. Before us sat a spread as grand as a Thanksgiving dinner — a pan of paella with the circumference of a motorcycle wheel, a vegetable salad overflowing from its dish, bowls of chicken and rice soup and a flourless chocolate cake for dessert. I guess they call it comfort food for a reason.

We all shared some awkward laughter — mostly madre at our broken Spanish — and the conversations began to flow naturally. She had a reassuring aura about her and oddly reminded me of my grandmother, right down to her flowered apron and curly black hair.  

I spent the next few weeks navigating the beautiful city with the help of Google Maps, seeking out the best local bars, exceeding my data overage (sorry Dad) and sharing massive meals with my new familia. My passport and belongings remained in my possession all six weeks, and I transformed myself into a confident citizen of Valencia.

My nerves didn’t return until the very last day of my trip but for a very different reason — I simply didn’t want to leave. I had created a home for myself and bonds that I never expected would feel this real. It was a painful adios as I hopped in my taxi to the airport, leaving behind a city and its people that I had grown to love.

My ride home felt surprisingly long as I sat back and contemplated what it took to get here. My initial apprehension was nothing but a silly memory. Had I not been thrown into independence and forced to land on my feet, I would have forfeited the opportunity to grow and thrive halfway across the world. I realized that sometimes, when new situations arise that make you uncomfortable or nervous, the best way to solve them is to dive in headfirst — a lesson I carried with me all the way back to Charlottesville. 

With an experience of a lifetime under my belt, I recognized that my newfound ability to adapt was one that changed me for the better — and I began to plan my next adventure.

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