Reverse American Tourism
Primero, I am a graduate student majoring in English with a background in painting and British literature, and my goal is to travel the world. By divine intervention, familial support, and the UTPB email list, I discovered I could move to Spain (temporarily) and study the Spanish language. To everyone, this appeared as a means to attain six credits without having to actually study and also, a way to explore another country cheaper. However, all of us would soon discover this journey would encompass linguistic barriers, American stereotypes, and many altercations between classmates resulting in the best of friendships and utter distaste. Para mi, this odyssey transformed my entire being as I could not communicate effectively because I had a vocabulary grande in Spanish but no idea how to structure my sentences or thoughts formally or even coherently in the language I desired to learn. As an American, I was displaced, isolated, and culturally divided staying in deep Spain amongst a crowd fluent in Spanish but surprisingly supportive of my efforts to break the language barrier. This trip was one of the hardest, funniest, and most eclectic adventure and where I lost my former identity as an American and English major and transformed into the solo gringa, la pintora, y estudiante de espanol. My diary of experiences in Spain entails what I believed to be important linguistically and how through comedy, quarreling, and anxiety, I came to terms with my newfound character outside of the United States.
The language impact from such an excursion resulted in distorted texts, habitual Spanish responses (Si, gracias, buenos dias), and utter confusion on how to adjust back into American life. The order of my words and my spelling became utterly confused and still is; plus, I have developed the habit of responding in Spanish when asked a question. I have already received many strange looks responding to predominately white culture in another language besides English. Por ejemplo, for a petite, white female to greet with “Hola, que tal” at the gym is quite uncanny and elicits unusual behavior. Let’s not forget my graduation right after returning to the states. Less than thirty-six hours after returning to Texas, I graduated with my Master’s Degree in English, and as I sat with my group of fellow graduates, I could not help but dislike the sound of a thick Texas accent and the la lengua of the engineering, business, and accounting students sitting directly behind me. Those selected few were already discussing money, power, and gain not stemming from a degree in the arts, and I wanted to tell them to, “callete”! I could not help but wonder if they would feel the same about life as me had the individuals transplanted themselves to another country. At the most exciting time in my life, I could not help but be very stressed by the idea of not fitting back into ordinary life and also, happy that I would never be entirely “normal” again. Being fully immersed in my own country perplexed and humored me in the midst of graduates who I knew I would not have any other connection with. While waiting to receive my diploma, I remembered meeting my class for the first time as we left for Spain and the way I felt being totally immersed in a new language. I recorded the way I felt not knowing my account would later be read.
Upon my arrival at the airport, I had a foreboding notion of events to come because no one spoke to me in English extensively before departing the U.S. I am standing here awkwardly or nodding as if I understand when I actually only comprehend 50% of the conversation (mas o menos). I am scared, shocked, and frustrated because the trip was advertised as inclusive to everyone Spanish and non-Spanish speakers alike. I feel alone because I am leaving the safety of my own language for another with a group who’s idioma is Spanish, and I miss my home before even leaving. I cannot return having not even reached Spain yet, and I must persevere and learn more. However, the first moments of my trip have been one of the harshest wake-up calls linguistically.
Ironically, only one classmate spoke to me in English, and I did not meet this member of our group until arriving at the Madrid airport. This female from Juarez, Mexico barely spoke English but made an effort to include me despite her broken English and my non-existent Spanish. She would later become a close friend and sister though our notorious arguments will always be remembered. I met her after some of us lost our luggage and sanity the first night in Madrid. Apparently, it is not uncommon for your luggage to come two flights behind you and to not be sent to your exact destination in Spain (two hours away from Madrid). Once again, I am standing in an airport frustrated and having to ask a classmate to help me locate mi maleta. Three laugh worthy events followed…We watched an Italian lady slap the counter tops as if to make our luggage appear, a British lady cursed the existence of the Madrid airport, and our tour guide’s deep-rooted dislike of us from day one appeared. I ponder if these events are mirroring the future or if this is a common practice in airports. I am contemplating my fate without luggage during my first week at school and in Europe and how mad I am that I cannot express myself. I truly believe everyone thinks I am a quiet, meek person because I stand to the side listening and not smiling when I am raging inside. Rosetta Stone did not prepare me for this when I started learning Spanish two months earlier!! Thankfully, my luggage arrived though I informed the attendant it was “azul” not “negro”. My Spanish is already declining, and we hadn’t even left the airport.
Once the maletas were secured, we met our infamous tour guide (not to be named), and it was obvious she already did not enjoy our company. This was the beginning of my personal vendetta with the tour guide. Not because I hate her; I strongly disagreed with her methodology and her habit of talking before thinking in my case (not everyone’s). Having reached the school at 2AM, she spoke slow Spanish to me (how nice) except no one was listening at this point, and her expressions towards me were aggressive/burdensome since my native tongue is not Spanish. She would also often get exasperated with me for not knowing Spanish and not utilizing my strategies to learn more Spanish before my actual coursework began. This was a hilarity amongst the students since I did understand the majority of her lectures and explanations, but these rants encompassed the majority of my first three days in Spain. Truth be told, I felt the woman’s aggression stemmed from her hatred of the job because who wants to lead college tour groups for a living; if so, may God’s blessings rain on you.
The next three days, I found myself happy yet quite exasperated. The atmosphere in Spain is rich, vibrant, and luminous, but I cannot tell anyone how I feel. While my roommate and I spoke in English, my other interactions the first days were predominately in Spanish, but no one was entirely rude to me. Those who understood my situation like the staff at the residence praised me as an American for learning a new language; I began to notice Americans do have a stereotype about only speaking English. If I tried to speak in Spanish, it said 1,000 more things than if I spoke one word in my native tongue. I feel attempting to learn Spanish makes me appear more human or less of a stereotype because whatever influence I had from my past stayed in the states. Though I have traveled extensively in Europe, here, in this moment, I am staying, living, and communicating in a different language, and my interactions with individuals metamorphosed.
In my first week, I was a tempest, tired, and in solitude as I discovered I could not order my own food, find destinations, or ask for help without needed assistance. I feel everyone thinks I am a burden and/or crazy for coming to a country where I cannot fluently communicate in the language. However, my exchanges became purely stemming from deep thought not on a whim. This is when I feel Spanish fully became a part of my life. When I wanted to compliment a classmate or speak to a superior, I had to piece together the phrase, sentence, and/or speech, and I could only say what needed to be said. Nothing more was added to my interactions except how I truly felt in the purest, most basic form. When I saw and heard this in my own speech, I felt that even my communication in English was and still is lacking. What if I could analyze, translate, and speak only the words needed not anymore in English also? Then, I could reach a level of understanding I never had before and become more empathetic. This epitome is the forefront for my continuation and enthusiasm for comprehending the Spanish language in Soria and also, another reason for our guide not to give me hell. For a bizarre reason, I am strangely more confident, less assertive, and more comfortable in my reserve as my ambitions altered in the quest for learning Spanish. Contrary to my newfound attitude, my first day of class somewhat shattered my dreams.
Separated from the little familiarity I had, my group from UTPB went to advanced and intermediate Spanish while I, the solo Tejana, attended a beginner course. Walking into my classroom, I soon discovered the entire course is taught in Spanish without any English instruction. Through various hand gestures, pictures, and repetition, my classmate and I survived the first day without feeling totally lost in the abyss of conjugations, masculine and feminino, and muchos/as. My teacher, a woman younger than I, made it a rule not to ask for help in English as well; thus, we bid farewell to what we anticipated as a normal classroom environment and embraced another aspect of total immersion. Two days later, we had a specific German individual join our small party in the classroom, and I can very happily say I despised him the entire month of class. This hombre decided to take beginner Spanish after already possessing the ability to converse in grammatically correct sentences and with an extensive vocabulary in Spanish. For some reason, I knew everyone saw my disdain for him, and I tried to conceal my aggression towards him the following days. It was not that I hate him; I hated him for coming to my class and being a threat. I began to notice that my initial classmate, a male the same age as the German man, grew increasingly competitive in the course. I began to think a battle for dominance was occurring between the men for the mejor Spanish speaker. This was quite entertaining to me because I had never been in a class where the voices grew louder and studying Spanish numerals sounded like an auction awaiting the highest bidder. All in all, the first week passed with intensity and my own growing satisfaction with studying the Spanish language.
I cannot neglect my notes upon meeting another fellow American who arrived almost four days later to UTPB’s study abroad. This student, a male of African descent, quite literally had an odyssey arriving to Spain. He lost his passport, had to stay in New York overnight, and locate a bus to bring him to the small town of Soria. Let’s not forget that he had a two mile walk to find the school upon arriving in the pueblo also. Therefore, when he arrived and finally met his group of female companeros, he was slightly bitter with the world and the group. We sat at the table, and I am so happy because he speaks English and as little Spanish as I do. I am so comforted having a similar persona during my stay because I had initially felt alone though everyone had included me and encouraged me. However, as a people watcher, I saw his dislike of the others speaking in their native tongue in our presence, and when he announced at our table that he should not be placed in beginner Spanish, I felt the connection severe. I believe he does not mean to be prideful, but I did enjoy watching his uphill climb while adjusting to the title of intermediate Spanish speaker. The professor’s wife, one of my favorite individuals, I was acquainted with, stated the first week, “If he is in the intermediate class, Tessa should be in the advanced”. I have included my observations on his character because his attitude and resentment became a point of departure for me and why I found solace in the companionship with my Latino group.
In the first days, it is also my fault that our only male student is forever nicknamed, “El chimaco” since I did not know his name prior to his appearance, and he is the only male estudiante on the trip. El chimaco is my friend yet a dark cloud I tried to avoid my first week. Humorously, this had the opposite effect on his affections and resulted in several awkward situations for me the first two weeks. Our first weekend in Spain included a wine tasting and wine tutorial class, and el chimaco drank too much in the presence of superiors. Having worked for a European professor, I knew never to drink on an empty stomach, but this is not a habit in American culture. So, we sat at the dining table laughing at his expressions, improved drunk Spanish, and his discontent for not fully understanding the conversations. In the midst of this, he referred to me as, “mi corazon y wapa”, and we could not help but giggle at the one who seemed most happy flirting in a different language. My first week had been filled with mini triumphs and failures, and my only American counterpart learned to flirt.
At this wine tasting, I am acquainted with the wine owner’s daughter, a girl three years younger than me, and one of the kindest souls on the earth. She is sitting directly across from me smiling, and I finally had the courage to speak to her in Spanish. I said, “Me llamo Tessa. Yo soy estadounidense y soy estudiante de espanol”. I remember her smiling, congratulating me, and then, wanting to converse with me though I had beyond broken Spanish. This is the moment my language changed and entered into the spectrum of bilingual, and I knew I could do this not because I could be the best. But I could reach another world I never had access to with one language. After this dinner, I began to make more of an effort with my classmates to speak in Spanish, to compliment in Spanish, and to listen more intently. I noticed the girls felt more relaxed around me in my group, and I became tranquilla as I assimilated into the cultura.
The second week is fairly mundane except I met another female who is now a close friend and sister. Maria, the only individual I will name, is a woman thirty-seven years old, and who I met while souvenir shopping for my family. I am standing in the shop delaying a cultural activity due later in the day, and my roommate starts conversing with the shop owner’s daughter. This is not uncommon because I had the privilege of staying with a kind, middle-aged woman who is getting a Master’s Degree in Spanish at UTPB. I was familiar with her long conversations with people of all languages, cultures, and ages. I am following the term I studied the week before in class, “Ir de compras” to bring my family and friends gifts from Soria, Spain and suddenly, I met Maria. Maria informed us that she is learning English and asked if I would like to have a drink and practice my Spanish with her. At first, I internally debated the idea because I am not acquainted with such hospitality. Where I am from in Texas, there is lacking genuine particularly among the white, female race; hence, why my best friend at home is Latino and the reasoning behind my last two relationships being with international students I met studying at UTPB. We departed from the souvenir shop, and I did not intend to spend time with Maria. The experience played on my mind, and after pressure from my roommate, I Facebook messaged Maria.
At the time, I felt shy and uncomfortable, but the experience altered my perception of friendship, genuine affection, and that not ever person has an alterior motif in desiring acquaintance. Four days later, I met Maria for cerveza and tapas where the locals do not go, and my heart broke as I witnessed her really wanting a friend. No matter where we are in the world, humans have the capability of being lonely even in the utopian city of Soria. She brought me drinks, tapas, and introduced me to her best friends and boyfriend. This event is a harsh awaking to me, and I ponder my friendships, familial bonds, and the way I treat others on my way home. Maria, once an unknown figure, metamorphosed into an older sister, someone I could call any time of the day, and a person I will return to visit as much as I can. Her way of life, reaching across the barrier of language, religion, and race showed me I am capable of more and that I cannot return to Odessa the same. The interaction played on my mind when returning to our dormitory, and I wish to extend the same hospitality to her upon my return or her visit to the states.
My third week passed relatively mundane except until our flights departing for Barcelona on Saturday: the confrontation that almost ended all. My classmates convinced me to purchase a ticket to Barcelona on a website my bank considered fraudulent activity, and I agreed. Upon arriving to the Madrid airport tardy (my female classmates signature staple), it was made known that I had not properly checked in for my flight, and hell broke loose. In my decade of travel extending back to the age of fourteen, I had never not checked in for a flight or been late to the aeropuerto. As a result, the female from Juarez, Mexico in my group informed me that it was my fault for not checking in and being helpless. In Texas, when someone speaks to you the way she did to me, usually, the other person gets decked, and she is very lucky my first response is not violence. I also found her insult quite comedic because the week before, I had demonstrated how to laundry since as a nineteen year old, chiple, had never used a washer or drier. Then, she proceeded to leave me in the airport with a good luck, and go buy another ticket knowing my Spanish is not effective. Before she could finish her soliloquy, I retorted with a yell, “Just go get on your flight”, and I proceeded to look for the bus station back to Soria, my safe haven, fighting tears. In the moment, I hated her with everything, but later (much, much later), I appreciated her callousness because the altercation improved my problem solving, whatever helplessness I did have vanished forever, and I learned how to forgive (something I always struggled with). Knowing we both had done wrong, her and I made amends in the Barcelona airport and barely spoke of the situation again. Her and I became more human that day, and I believe we are more kind, dedicated, and caring because of the event because I would see the following week, almost the entire group oust her.
My final week in Spain, I am a champion playing The Eye of the Tiger in my head; I am speaking short, full sentences, reading, and having conversations in Spanish naturally; I wish I had not stressed the matter the first part of my trip. However, I returned to the states more relaxed having lived the Spanish lifestyle and learning a less rushed, meaningful existence without money as my forefront (an idea of the states and a by product of Texas culture). I am stepping off my soap box to finish this tale of oddity in Paris. My class decided to depart from Spain with one more epic trip: Paris. After two buses and a plane, we arrived in the historical city full of dreams and excitement. However, six females in a one bedroom apartment soon turned quarrelsome. My newfound friend from Juarez, our itinerary organizer, boss, and reason we were able to accomplish so many activities in a day managed to somehow reach the darker side of half the group. At this point in the trip, the females had spent their money almost in entirety, and her ideas suddenly proved abrasive to them. It should also not go unnoticed that they wanted to sleep through Paris. Thus, we split into two separate entities happily, and she is unphased by the matter. I asked her why it did not bother her that “friends” were ugly to her, and she simply responded, “They are lazy, not my real friends, and I have nothing to prove to them”. I thought, “Bravo”!! She had previously swapped shoes willingly with me in the catacombs of Paris because I forgot an entire change of clothes and only had heels. My shoes were too small for her, and yet, she gave me, as Americans would say, “the clothes off her back”. In that moment, I knew she would be my lifelong friend, sister, and future travel companion. My interaction with this girl from Juarez, Mexico inspired me to be more selective in my friendships, brave, and bold and to be myself. I thank her for this and that a heart and my language can change, especially in Spain.
I felt very helpless when I first started learning Spanish in Spain; though my professor, his wife and classmates treated me as family and became mi familia, my initial reaction to the culture was humbling to say the least. I learned the value of friendship, helping others, and to an extent immigration as I left the realm of tourism for residence in Spain. Living in Spain taught me patience, people skills, and how my image of life needed to be shattered for a better perspective. Though I am mirroring an infomercial, my comedic navigation amongst the tides of language changed my existence and my framework of thought and identity. When I left Soria, Maria and I cried together, but I know that my adventure is not over. I must fall, speak barely audible and confused Spanish, and learn the world revolves around more than me and what used to be my only language. Being on the scale of bilingual, I do not look at language as a boundary anymore but as a bridge uniting individuals in friendship, an extension of family, and the forefront of a prosperous life. To fully live, one must move entirely into a new culture where everything they know disappears, and new foundations are laid for the future linguistically, spiritually, and emotionally. Then, you will be free to understand language extends beyond words into love, laughter, tears, and memoirs.
Tessa Townsend is an English instructor at Odessa College, in Odessa, Texas. She has three years of experience in teaching higher education English, and her specialization area is British Literature and its connections with the visual arts. During her undergraduate and graduate careers, she also studied art and Spanish.