by Callie Ahlgrim
Photo Courtesy of Ryanair.com
Nearly a month after my program began in Madrid, my host parents took me to a birthday party for their niece. I had met my Spanish extended family upon my initial arrival; at the time I was sleep deprived, overwhelmed and embarrassingly rusty with my speaking abilities.
Four weeks later, my host dad’s sister complimented me on my improvements. I thanked her, feeling indescribably comforted and relieved that I could actually hold up conversations.
My host dad, overhearing this, chimed in: “Callie speaks Spanish very well,” he said, “but when she leaves Spain and goes away for the weekend, she comes home and she’s noticeably worse.”
One of the greatest and most jarring characteristics of Spanish people is their blunt honesty.
I laughed at the time. But the more airline miles I’ve collected, the more I have realized that my weekend travels have greater expenses than just my dignity at a 13-year-old’s birthday party. Speaking the language is just one piece of the puzzle when you want to feel like you belong in a different country.
I have wanted to study abroad in Madrid for as long as I can remember; I’ve been taking Spanish classes since I was six years old, and this was the opportunity I had always wanted so I could finally immerse myself into the culture.
But upon receiving my acceptance to the program, my excitement was more than just about tapas, Pitbull songs and abusing the flamenco dancer emoji.
Europe is a veritable feast of magical moments and Instagram pictures waiting to happen—and so I began mapping out everywhere else I wanted to go as well.
Many students, especially those who study in Europe, take the semester abroad to achieve RyanAir Frequent Flier status and hop around from country to country every weekend. And don’t get me wrong, the convenience of travel and the wealth of different cultures in this continent is a privilege and a joy to experience.
But abusing this convenience can take its toll: on your wallet, on your energy levels and on your morale (the novelty of airports wears off even quicker than you’d expect, and most people hate airports on principle anyway). Possibly most importantly, it can take its toll on your quality time with your home country.
“Once I stopped travelling and stuck around towards the end of the program, that’s when I absolutely fell in love with Madrid,” said Olivia DelVecchio (CAS ’16), who studied abroad as a junior.
Getting to know Madrid really was like falling in love. Around every corner and wrong turn (thanks, Google Maps) there was something new to discover and at which to marvel, and another opportunity to think to myself: ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m actually living here.’
And every time I touch down at the Madrid airport—no matter how phenomenal my weekend away has been—I breathe a sigh of relief. I swipe my student pass at the airport metro station and revel in knowing how to get home without having to look at a map.
I don’t want to touch down at JFK at the end of the semester and regret not getting to know the city I’m actually living in as well as I possibly could.
Of course, weekend trips aren’t always an option for study abroad students. Becca Matta (CAS ’17), for example, took Organic Chemistry, Cellular Biology and Statistics during her semester in Madrid and couldn’t find the time to juggle travel and studying.
She did, however, feel that this benefitted her in the long run. “I got to know Madrid pretty well,” Matta said, adding that she had more opportunities to spend time with her host family on the weekends.
There is a certain indescribable comfort in being able to walk around like a local; to give someone directions when they stop you on the street; to look at tourists and chuckle a little to yourself. Remember that feeling when you had gone to BU long enough that you suddenly found Duck Tours extremely amusing?
“There’s really no end to your exploration. It’s such an awesome feeling to discover cool, hip places that not many people know about,” DelVecchio said.
“Home sweet home” is a tired adage that has never meant more to me. Sure, I miss Boston and I miss my family back in the states. But adding a new city to my repertoire of “places I feel at home” is more than I could’ve ever asked from this experience.
So, in summary: go and see Big Ben. Take a picture in front of the Berlin Wall. Walk through the canals of Venice.
But, don’t forget to soak in every moment of studying abroad, including (and especially) the time spent in your home country, not just the time spent on weekend getaways. Be present in the “in between moments and not just the catalyst moments.” Find hidden restaurant gems, chat with your neighbors, become a regular at a café and carve a place in the city that’s only fit for you.
And if you’re studying in Madrid, most importantly: go out somewhere other than Kapital.