Ciudad de Sueños
© Copyright 2018 by Lizzie Ferenczy
Reminiscing on a year living in Spain feels like watching bubbles appear on the breeze when you are least expecting them. My memories have taken on an almost dream-like quality: the shiny, hazy days of sunlight encased in a soapy film of sad nostalgia. As a university student sent to ‘indulge in the culture’, there was nothing to do except lie on patchy grass and watch the sky extending to the corners of forever. It was peaceful and easy and slow. It was the summer of shaking sand from our bedsheets, wearing the same sunburnt outfit to the nightclub and stumbling home to birdsong. It was taking ten euros from an empty bank account to buy boxed wine and cheap cigarettes. We slept till midday and swam in waterfalls, got lost in art galleries and stung by jellyfish. There was no open and no close to the seasons; only us, sleepy and drunk, floating unknowingly away from the ground.
Yet three years later, I feel the need to take a pin to the bubble and re-examine my care-free, slightly obnoxious past self. What did it really mean to get up one day with a single, bursting suitcase and arrive mere hours later in another world? And why did my attempts to embrace real life in the mesmerising city of Valencia not go quite as planned?
In my experience, the Valencians had friendliness flowing through their bloodstreams. My journey to the city was unnecessarily complicated, with my London flight diverting through Amsterdam and thereby doubling my travel time. I had a crumpled screenshot of Google Maps directing me to the correct subway line, and a handwritten address of the apartment I had thought I would live in. It’s a discredit young adults everywhere to blame my naivety on my age, and yet I continue to credit my lack of common sense to being a twenty year old who felt entirely out of her depth. I rang a buzzer for over fifteen minutes to no answer before a random resident let me in. I took an elevator to my floor, only to meet a neighbour who could confirm (entirely in a language I was only just getting to grips with) that the apartment was the subject of a scam: she had now encountered multiple foreign students who had been shamelessly convinced to send money overseas in their homeless panic. Upon seeing my shaking palms, she recruited two young tenants from the apartment opposite to walk me to the nearest hostel. The boys could sense my distress, and asked me soft questions in English, offering any comfort they could. After dropping me off, I would never see them again.
My first night in Valencia was spent eating a party size bag of crisps in bed and trying not to let the wave of panic drag me out to sea. I had nervously walked a circle around the block, and attempted to buy a pastry from the supermarket. Unaware of the system, I had forgotten to weigh the croissant and was unable to buy it at the register. This right here was the moment I considered heading straight back to the airport and catching the first flight back to the UK. Back in my hostel, doing my best not to cry, a middle aged man unlocked my door and walked in as I stood in pyjamas (the room had been double booked). Overall, my year of intrepid independence had not begun with the blazing musical score I had envisioned. But despite the catastrophe of a day, one thing was clear: I was a stranger in a city of friends. The kind hearted gestures of multiple individuals that day gave me a reassuring confidence that I’d find my corner and the people to go with it. It was one gentle exhalation, at least. However, assimilating was to prove my greatest failure that year, followed closely by my lack of progress with the Spanish language.
After a few confusing weeks, I settled in to a friendship group comprised mainly of other British and American exchange students. And here began the best year of my life. The highlight reel in my head is a mix of drinking €1 beers at the corner bar and nursing a hangover the next day at the beach. With only a few hours of academic classes and an extremely laid back attitude to passing, we were able to spend our university grants on weekend trips to Barcelona or the Basque country, filling our social media with perpetual sunshine and making all our British friends jealous as they sat home in the rain. I did enthusiastically embrace aspects of the Spanish culture: I indulged in far too many patatas bravas and midday siestas. But in all honesty, the fear of my inadequacy held me back from seizing the plentiful opportunities to make local friends and genuinely absorb the language. Despite my pre-travel belief that I would return fluent and practically adopted by Spaniards, I shied away when presented with chances to achieve those goals.
I made feeble attempts to fit in. I moved in to a dark and roach infested apartment with a friend, already inhabited by two Spanish boys. Unfortunately we did not strike up the lifelong friendship and promise to ‘come back and visit every summer’ that we had hoped for; they immediately hated us and we spent the year avoiding them at all costs. It seems we somehow lucked out with some of the few Valencian students who didn’t want to engage with English speakers and also seemed to dislike us personally from the moment we tried to make conversation. Perhaps this early rejection knocked my confidence in regards to socialising, but in hindsight, they were just rude and did not accurately represent the majority of locals I came in to contact with. I did, however, become overly familiar with a wide lexicon of Spanish/Valencian swear words through the wall. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what provoked our flatmate’s nightly outrage and impressively crude outbursts, but it was enough to make my friend and I consider giving up our deposits and moving out early.
I also shopped at the nearby frutería , which had the most beautiful array of fresh produce. Much of Spain still retains the local, family owned business model that many Western countries have begun to stray from, and making the active decision to avoid supermarket vegetables in favour of the friendly neighbourhood store felt like an automatic inclusion in the culture. Yet this did little to provide the full immersion desired. I attended all the festivals and street parties the city had to offer, attempting to separate myself from the drunken tourists. This was unsuccessful. Most Spaniards seem to have mastered the Mediterranean mellowness that follows a number of drinks; my British friends and I could not shake our traditions of overdoing it and vomiting down alleyways/in taxi cabs. A particularly apt example of not fitting in may be the occasion on which I drunkenly walked in to a bollard and flipped over it on to the glass ridden street. It was a pretty spectacular fall that prompted an elderly, head-shaking Valencian to mutter ‘Los británicos y su alcohól’ as she passed. Not one of my prouder moments, and one that shamefully plays in to the infamous ‘Brits abroad’ stereotype: rude, sunburnt and drunk.
I had a language partner named Valentina, with whom I would painfully attempt to hold regular conversations. Luckily for me, she was very keen to practice her English and was already pretty competent, allowing many of our meetings to pass entirely in English. My nervousness to speak in my faltering Spanish and my excuse that I was helping her improve ensured I didn’t progress too far. She continues to be one of the few natives I truly became friends with and still have a connection with. I tended to shy away from investing in other Spanish friendships, given my comfort within the English speaking circles I had formed around myself. As a native English speaker, I continually enjoy the privilege of being understood and of communicating easily with others pretty much the whole world over, and became the epitome of a floundering ‘fish out of water’ when presented with the aim of linguistic integration. Much as I grew as a person during my experience, I don’t think my Spanish lecturers were particularly impressed with the growth of my foreign vocabulary when I returned to university.
Looking back now, it truly was a year of magic. I can still smell the overwhelming scent of bougainvillea and fallen oranges baking in the sun, still hear the melodious chatter of kids on the school playground across the street. I can see the balconies dripping with hanging plants and laundry, the neighbourhoods buzzing with life. I can feel the wind on my face as I hurtle down a quiet street on a city bike at six AM under a sky that’s slowly turning gold. I’m sweaty and dusty and filled with serenity. My cheeks are covered in freckles and my head is full of music. Yes, I regret the wasteful neglect of a unique opportunity to truly understand the foreign world around me and its remarkable people. Many did a much better job than I did. And yet I’ll enjoy what I was able to take from that long, hot year: an infinite love for the city, a handful of new best friends and a version of myself that would never view the world the same way again.