By Haley Metcalf
The lobby of Hotel Havana was full of Spanish women, most appearing in their mid 40s and older. My heart was pounding. Mind racing, I couldn’t quit formulating questions in my head. Which one is she? Should I talk in Spanish and risk making an embarrassing mistake on the first impression? My name was called, moment of truth.
“Hola, I’m Montse,” said a short skinny woman with a huge smile and deep set brown eyes. “Hola,” I replied, “Encantada.” She grasped my hand and pulled me closer to air kiss each side of my face. We walked to catch the underground metro to her apartment; both of us on the way getting lost somewhere in between English and Spanish and some of the words I may have made up.
I bought a metro ticket and five stops later we got off and walked a block until there was an intersection at the bottom of a hill. Actually, mountain seems like a better word for it. Looking back it was a good thing my luggage was lost on the way to Spain because I would have broken down in tears trying to get my two over-packed roller suitcases up to her apartment. I almost did as it was. We walked in the middle of the street, each of us holding a handle to my carry-on. Montse suggested a quick break when she noticed the massive amount of sweat pouring out of my body. Hiking commenced as we trudged up the brick street and up a flight of exactly 16 stairs. I remember that because this was the path I would walk up every day for the next six weeks. When we got to the door of her apartment building I was distraught to realize that the exercise didn’t end there. Four flights up to her third floor apartment confused me, and she explained that in Spain the first floor is zero.
I must admit that by this time I didn’t know if I could survive for more than a week at her apartment. The flight over was bad enough; sitting in the O’Hare airport for an extra four hours by myself, missing my connection in Philadelphia, a three-hour delay in Munich. It was no surprise that my luggage didn’t meet me at my destination in Barcelona. After many emotional phone calls to my mom, I realized I was on my own.
The first week in Spain was booked with walking tours, bus tours, dinners, shopping, and a weekend trip to France. Thirty students my age from all over the United States were my traveling companions. I was excited to meet Sam, a student in my program from the University of Iowa. We became instant friends and our weekend trip to France was amazing. We hiked up to castle ruins in Carcassone. In Tulousse, we found ourselves running under the rainbow banner of a Gay Pride Parade.
Classes started back in Barcelona the next week. I left the apartment two hours before class the first week to account for the aimless wondering due to my failed attempts to understand the metro system. My Spanish course was two hours long consisting of absolutely no English. It was a struggle, but I learned to understand Spanish and speak it much better. I was getting brave enough to strike up conversation with taxi drivers or people on the street. Montse would help me with my Spanish at dinner time. Her young daughters, Kamala and Bipana, would giggle when I said something ridiculous. It was hard to adapt to eating dinner at 9:30pm each night. In Spain it is common to eat between 8:00-10:00pm. I quickly learned that tapas, a light afternoon meal, was the solution to hold me over.
A lot of my time in Barcelona was spent at the beach. The first time I went with friends, I had no idea the beaches were topless. Also, the nightlife in the city was like nothing I had experienced before. The clubs were huge and open until 6:00am because it was normal to go out close to midnight. When classes were finished, I was invited by many of my friends from the program to spend an extra couple weeks traveling through Europe. Instead my grandma and two of her friends came to visit Barcelona. I was happy to impress them with my ability to communicate with Spaniards, and served as a tour guide of the city.
I made many friends during my study abroad in Barcelona. Sam and I still hang out now that we’re back in Iowa City. Once I accepted the things that were unlike American culture, I began to love those differences. My time in Spain allowed me to appreciate and understand other perceptions of politics, values, and life in general. I discovered a sense of self that only an abroad experience could give. As a journalist I grew in the ability to explore ideas from many angles. My International Studies background was complimented by hands-on experience. Overall, studying abroad was one of the best decisions I have ever made and I recommend studying abroad to anyone willing to put themselves out there for a life changing experience.
Haley Metcalf graduated from the University of Iowa with a double major in Journalism and International Studies. Specializing in arts and culture, she also enjoys painting, photography and biking.