I have now been back in the U.S.A. for a week, and have thus theoretically had some time to reflect on what I learned while abroad. Instead of writing a super long, boring, intellectual article, I am just going to give you a list of 20 things that I learned while abroad, in no particular order.
1) Not speaking for fear of messing up is stupid and pointless. The only way to improve your foreign language skills is to try.
2) Even if you try and fail, like maybe you tell the pharmacist that you have been sick for two years instead of two days, and in that moment you feel as if the humiliation will never fade, it eventually will. And you might even get a free aloe vera body wash with your purchase because he feels sorry for you.
3) You can’t be afraid to try new things, especially new food. You may discover you like foods you never thought you would. You also can’t be too worried about gaining weight. You probably will gain weight, but tapas are definitely worth those extra pounds.
4) Realizing that everyone else can speak English as well if not better than you can speak Spanish is both motivational and disheartening in your pursuit of perfecting Spanish. It is easy to just rely on their English skills, especially when people automatically start speaking English to you even when you try to speak Spanish to them.
5) The name Shelly is impossible for Spanish speakers. The closest the baristas at Starbucks will get is “Chelli”. Your host mom will probably take a good month to get it right, and only after you have repeated it a million times, spelled it out a million times, and written it up on the white board in the kitchen for further inspection.
6) Sometimes it’s okay to just walk around the city by yourself. There is no better way to enjoy the scenery and learn to navigate a new place than by simply wandering.
7) You are not going to get along with everyone in life, and that’s okay. Imagine how exhausting it would be if every single person you met became your best friend.
8) Sometimes the conflicts you have with above non-friends will lead to the sharpening of your argument skills, and will ultimately leave you feeling more confident in yourself and your relationships with the people that actually are your friends.
9) No matter how much you think you are bad at adjusting to new situations, everyone is in fact capable of adjusting. By the end of my four months it felt weird to be leaving my host home, whereas in the beginning it felt weird being there.
10) If you can’t learn to go with the flow and accept that things aren’t always going to go as planned, studying abroad is probably not for you. From your card refusing to let you withdraw money from an ATM, to being forced to take a ridiculously expensive cab ride from the airport, to all the stores being closed when you need to get your boarding passes printed, the universe will thoroughly enjoy throwing wrenches into your carefully thought-out plans. Don’t let it ruin your day.
11) Don’t have too many expectations for where you should go or what you should do while abroad. Some of your best memories may come from plans that were last minute or unexpected, like deciding to go on a trip to Morocco, a place I never considered traveling to before I arrived in Spain.
12) Currency conversion matters. 50 euros is not equal to 50 dollars. Remember this when you go on shopping sprees.
13) People around the world will either love or hate the fact that you are American. It will be obvious which within a few seconds of talking to them.
14) Things that seem normal about our culture will seem hilarious, weird, or just plain stupid to people from another culture. For example, you will get very strange looks and comments from your Spanish host mom if you try to explain the concept of eggs for breakfast.
15) Switching between English and Spanish is extremely difficult. You will talk in English to your host mom without realizing it. More strange looks and comments will ensue.
16) Levels of PDA vary greatly around the world. Spanish couples seem to think it is appropriate to show their love for each other by kissing passionately in public places such as on a bridge, in a cafe, or on the metro. Americans will appear to be the only people who find this awkward.
17) You will be unable to escape the popular American songs that you kind of wanted a break from. Your host sister will probably blast them at top volume from her room.
18) Though America is a great country, it doesn’t have things like old cathedrals and castles in the middle of cities. You will definitely miss being able to visit historical places like this when you return home.
19) There is no right or wrong way to do something or think about something. It is amazing how many different opinions, stories and ideas there are in the world. It’s easy to forget that the American culture is not the only culture.
20) Most importantly: I learned never to take anything for granted. My semester abroad might have been the first and last chance I get in life to travel and see the world. Hopefully I will be able to travel like that again, but if not, I will cherish the memories I made and the lessons I learned.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain