“What do you think of us Spanish?” one of the teenage students asked me in his tentative English. I was sitting in my first class at the International Immersion Institute in Valladolid, and six young students were already peppering me with questions.
“No.” The teacher quickly cut in before I could think about answering. “You’re wrong. And do you know WHY you are wrong?
Six students looked at him expectantly. I did too.
“Because,” he explained to the class, as though exasperated, “I’ve already told you this. When Americans hear the term, ‘Spanish,’ they automatically think Latin Americans. Here, you are very different from the people living in Latin-America. So the correct question would be, ‘What do you think of us Spaniards?’”
Spaniards, indeed. This quick exchange sums up the most important aspect I’ve learned about being here: the people. It’s expected that while traveling you meet many different types of people, and my journey from Jamestown to Valladolid has been no different. Even now, I am discovering the ways of the people of Spain, (You’ll notice I didn’t refer to them as Spanish) and the amazing qualities that they share. Let me tell you about them from my personal experiences.
It was a cold and clear morning as the sun rose over Madrid. I had flown into the airport three hours earlier, and watched as pink rays began to slide through the windows of the train station. I sat on my suitcase and basked in the warmth and light, allowing myself to momentarily forget about my dilemmas. I was feeling rather lightheaded after almost a day of travel with no sleep and little food. My mindset roved through a complicated mixture of feelings. I was finally in Spain, I was euphoric, I was exhausted, and yet excited out of my mind. . .
And also— there was a pressing problem. I was without a phone and had been counting on finding Wi-Fi to contact my boss when I arrived. Much to my dismay, there was no W-Fi. I was cut off from the world of communication.
To relive the previous two hours since arriving, I quickly realized that my best option would be finding a payphone. I questioned many Spaniards— security guards, police officers, and civilians on their way to work in my tenuous Spanish, and was amazed when most of them gave me the time of day to figure out what I was asking. A few guards accompanied me and helped translate my question as I continued to ask endlessly for Wi-Fi or a payphone. I was astonished at the willingness to help from every person I encountered, but I eventually received the same doomed answer: “I don’t know, sorry.”
I thought I was in luck when one woman pointed me in the direction of a payphone in a nearby café. I rushed into the café and tried to ignore the stares of the coffee-drinking Spaniards as I shoved my only two euros into the payphone. One man in particular was staring at me intently as he stood at the counter slowly eating his breakfast. Too excited to care, I held my breath as the phone rang and rang. No answer.
My face probably matched my sinking heart as the line went dead, and I slowly hung up the phone and turned to leave. I was suddenly startled by a tap on my shoulder. I whipped around to find that the same Spaniard who had been watching me intently was holding his cell phone out to me with his head cocked expectantly and a concerned look on his face. I took the phone, hardly able to believe this stranger’s generosity. Once again hopeful, I attempted to call my boss twice— with no more luck than the first time.
I managed to give the man a brilliant smile and thanked him a million times before I walked back to the train station. I was only sitting for a few minutes, however, when sudden motion disturbed my reverie. I thought I was dreaming as I watched the same Spaniard run towards me in the train station. My boss had called back the number, and this man had frantically searched for me until he found me! I finally spoke with my boss, and the man beamed with obvious relief at being able to help me. I thanked the Spaniard profusely and was overcome with amazement at his empathy and helpfulness towards me, a random stranger.
Thus are the Spaniards. I could tell about many more times—especially within my first two weeks when I was frequently lost—where Spaniards helped me find my way. Like the day I became quite disoriented and found myself on the opposite end of the city. There, I stopped to ask an elderly gentleman where I was; he took one look at my tiny map and confused face and decided to walk me all the way to my destination! I was so astonished— this man had just walked at least an hour out of his way to help me.
Yet another night I was lost—again—and had been wandering for hours before I decided to ask a couple for help. Not only did they help me regain my directional bearings, but they asked me for my address and then drove me home in their car!
Strangers are not quite strangers in Valladolid. Most people seem willing to help others at a moment’s notice, as though time means nothing to them. I have thought long and hard about what the student asked me that first day of class—what I truly thought about Spaniards. If I had another chance to answer him, I would tell him about the many times Spaniards have stopped everything to help me and have shown me incredible kindness and generosity. It’s difficult to count the number of times that Spaniards have completely saved the day!