Speechless in Valencia
As soon as I stepped off the plane, the panic began to set in. My friends and I stepped inside Barcelona airport just after 10 p.m. The airport was dimmed and silent, except for the passengers who just flew in from Dublin, Ireland. Our voices echoed through the halls as we made our way past airport shops that were locked up tight. The only sounds were our chatter and the wheels of our bags. As we made our way to the baggage claim, my eyes examined the signs and advertisements of the building.
This was not my first time walking through an airport at night. Growing up with divorced parents I’ve grown accustomed to flying. Some of my oldest memories are of planes, pilots, and soggy airline food. However, this airport was not quite the same. The main difference was that I could not understand any of the words. Walking through the airport, trying not to get lost, I clung close to my friends who all spoke some level of Spanish. For the first time, I could feel real doubt about my choice to spend a month in Spain.
My experience with the Spanish language has always been complicated. It has always been in my life, but I never picked it up. My grandparents spoke Spanish and English fluently, but it had lapsed among my mom and her siblings. My mother’s first language was Spanish until my grandparents decided she needed English for school. By the time her sister and brother were born, English was the default language among my family. Combining that with the fact that my father was of Irish and German descent, the chances of me learning the language were low.
I still wish that my family had made the effort to teach me. Growing up in a city where a sizable portion of the population can speak Spanish was difficult at times. When I got my first job at a local McDonald’s down the street, I would deal with people who took my inability to communicate as an insult. In one instance, a customer decided to scold me after I informed her I could only speak English. While I always been reluctant to admit it, these experiences created a bit of resentment in me. Now, as I found myself in a foreign country with virtually no Spanish experience, all I could feel was fear and nervousness.
The next day my friends and I arrived in Valencia just after noon. We had been loaded into cabs as soon as we arrived at the train station. Denny and I met our house mother Pura outside of her apartment building. During our introductions, Denny informed her that I did not speak Spanish. I felt a familiar sense of discomfort that I had grown up with when meeting parents of friends who did not speak English. Now I found myself using a technique that I had used my entire life. Smile politely and laugh when they laugh.
Later in the room where I was going to be a guest for a month, I took a moment to think. I had looked forward to this time abroad as an opportunity to learn new skills for my career. However, part of me hoped that I could finally pick up some of the language. As I moved forward on this experience I decided to try to forget my past experiences with Spanish. My Spanish classes were scheduled to start the following week and I decided to take them seriously and be willing to make an effort and not worry about making mistakes. For the first time since landing, I could feel a little bit of the excitement that I felt leading up to the trip. I was finally in Spain with my friends with an opportunity to learn. Nothing was going to stop me from taking advantage of this.