One of the best feelings in the world is to travel to the foreign country that you have dreamt of visiting. For me, it was Spain. After taking five years of Spanish classes, I was able to put my language abilities to good use. I had lots of practice back home in the United States. In fact, a Spanish exchange student went to my high school when I was a sophomore. His name is Tómas. I helped him learn English, while he helped me learn Spanish. We became great friends. Four years later, our paths crossed again, and I reconnected with Tómas in Spain! I had just finished my study abroad program in Italy. The journey wasn’t over yet!
We planned out the whole week together: Albacete, Sevilla, Granada, Cordoba, and Madrid — five cities in about a week. Traveling to a country and being a tourist is one thing, but visiting a country and residing with a local is another. It all started in Albacete.
I now know why afternoon naps, (siestas) are a thing: because there are some very late nights in Spain. It all started in Albecete. Albecete is a very famous city in Spain known for their exotic pocket knifes. Traditionally, the base of the knife is made from a bull horn. I visited a place called “La Casa de las Navajas” and bought my very own pocket knife — quite the souvenir! I danced bachata and enjoyed the night life with the locals. We were out until the wee hours of the morning. I’ve never stayed up so late in my life!
When we arrived in Sevilla and the streets were practically empty — because it was a Sunday! The Spanish culture definitely adheres to leaving the Sabbath Day as a Day of Rest. The streets were deserted and the shops all closed. We visited the Plaza de Toros, which is a very famous bull ring from the 16th and 17th Century. It’s the largest bull ring in Spain, holding 12,000 people plus 32 people for the band. It’s like the Spanish version of the Colosseum when it comes to scale and design. Construction began in 1761 and it was finished 120 years later. Contrary to popular belief, the bull fighters would flash a red cape to guide the bull because of tradition — not because the color red invokes rage in the animal. In fact, bulls are actually colorblind. Rather than pigments, bulls see the movement of the cape, which grabs their attention. The fight-time between the bull and the bull fighter is about 10 minutes.
In Sevilla, I found my favorite Spanish dish and I didn’t even know it yet. It was there were I discovered a most delicious food item that I would eat nearly everyday for the rest of my travels in Spain. There were croquetas: bit-size pieces of ham cuddled in a warm white sauce and deep fried — delicious. Another interesting Spanish dish I had was bull tail. Yes, bull. It was very unique!
The main Cathedral in Sevilla is made entirely of wood and gold. Inside, I was surprised to find the Tomb of Christopher Columbus. How crazy is that? Four statues held each corner of tomb. I didn’t expect to see that at all!
Nearby, was La Plaza de España, the Spanish Plaza. Made in the early 1900s, the plaza has all of Spain’s main provinces on a tiled map around the plaza. Apparently, Tom Cruise was in a movie that was filmed at this plaza— Knight and Day.
Tómas and I had this running joke, where whenever we’d see a McDonald’s, we’d say, “Mira! Comida de España! (Look! Spanish food!)” The “M” stands for Madrid — duh!
In Cordoba, Tómas took me to La Mesquita: the largest ancient mosque in the Western World. Built in 6th Century (786AD). It took ten months to construct, but the founder died while the courtyard was being built. His son finished the Mosque and it was used for 45 years before it was conquered by the Christians. The place changed between Christian and Islamic worship oner the centuries and there are both elements of Koran and Biblical themes. It amazes me that nothing was removed or destroyed when these transitions occurred — only added. To me, it was proof of coexistence and respect for each other’s faith.
The Mosque, like all Mosques, point in the direction of the holy city of Mecca. Interestingly, the Arabic design has no human depictions, as this was forbidden — yet the artwork was just as beautiful. It was a very tranquil place. Walking back to the courtyard, I admired the orange trees and the water-ways that spiraled throughout. Just beautiful!
Pomegranates are one of my favorite types of fruits, and I got to visit a city named after the big red fruit — Granada: the land of pomegranates. Even the gelato was amazing! There, I visited the most intricate and beautiful church I had seen in Spain: San Juan de Dios.
Then, a childhood dream of mine was reached. In my Spanish classes, I remember learning about all the different kinds of Spanish food. And one type of dish, in particular, stood out to me — Paella. I have been waiting for this moment since 7th grade. Tómas and I dined at “El Pescaillo de Carmella” for paella and the food was delicious. Then it was siesta time!
Next, we visited “Alhambra” a monolithic Arabic Palace, remaining almost intact. It was practically a fortress on a mountain. I have never seen anything like this in my life. Everything was so intricate. The designs looked almost natural. The craftsmanship was impeccable, yet extremely light and delicate. I loved this place! I was almost channeling my Arabic heritage on my father’s side while observing and learning about the Arabic landmarks. These places were quite unique.
By the end of the trip, my Spanish improved ten fold. I was very relaxed so I was able to talk more fluidly without thinking about what I wanted to say from English. Tómas’ friends told me that I spoke so well that I almost blended right in. That made me really happy.
Unfortunately, Tómas couldn’t make it with me to Madrid, so I toured the city for the day on my own — which was a ton of fun. I visited one of the best museums in the world: El Museo del Prado — the world’s largest art gallery. Holding 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, and 8,200 drawings, the museum is absolutely incredible with works by Velázquez and more. I am no art historian, but I was able to decipher and better understand the paintings I saw based on symbolism and color. I even knew some of the paintings from high school. I was practically the first one to enter the museum at 10:00AM and I left at 1:00PM. I saw everything! I really appreciated the artwork I saw.
Then, I toured the Spanish Royal Palace and walked in the rooms where generations of Spanish Kings and Queens once resided. I couldn’t take any photos, but it was the most luxurious interior decor I have ever seen! One room was decorated in a special type of porcelain that took over 40 years to make. Each room had a specific color: red, green, blue, gold, and so on. The dining room and ballroom was my favorite. Image a royal event here! Everything was absolutely incredible. The palace was magnificent. There was an armory adjacent to the palace that had shields and swords of knights. Purely stunning.
Living with Tómas and getting to know his friends was the most inclusive Spanish-speaking experience I have ever could have asked for. It took me a little time to adjust properly, but I was able to speak the language very well. It was then I realized I was truly fluent in Spanish. I was speaking Spanish with ease, I was thinking in Spanish all the time, and even dreaming in Spanish. In fact, I didn’t speak English for a week. I was forced to acclimate. It was perfect. I would highly recommend emerging yourself in the culture of a language you desire to learn. Not only will you learn more about the culture, but also about yourself.