Chapter 3: Spanish Men Aren’t That Hot If You’re Distracted

Her name was Heidi. She’d been on the program some eight or so years ago. Mid-October, she’d just disappeared. Skipped classes, left her host mom, and dropped the program without such a reason as why. A few months later, Dr. H (our resident Cal Poly professor and basically father) received a call from her.

“Are you safe?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“Where’d you go?”
“I met someone.”

And she never came home. Eight years later, she’s still here. In Spain. Married to some Spanish man.

Now personally, I seemed to have a thing for the Italians. And the Portuguese if you count that one time I fell in love for four years. Also, given that my heart and mind were occupied somewhere at a frat house on Foothill, I couldn’t see myself giving up my life at home for a Spanish man, but I could see myself giving it up for Spain.

Values were different here. I was 15 years old when I went to Spain for the first time, and a singular experience had made me determined to come back.

It was a topless beach, as most beaches here are. And it wasn’t the envy  of people with actual breasts that sparked my desire to return (still waiting, puberty…), it was the confidence. All shapes and sizes and body types lay naked on this beach, basking in the sun, and not once did you see a look of judgment. Not once did the heavier woman look up in fear of snide remarks or giggles. Not once did a skinny girl strut past someone less genetically blessed with an aura of superiority. Everyone minded their own, and everyone seemed to feel beautiful. It was a concept so foreign to me, but it was breathtaking.

Because this is something you’d never find in the United States, where someone will berate your body before they ever berate your character.

But I digress. After story time, it was time to get on the bus and reach our final destination: Valladolid and our host families. I was nervous. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t stop my mind from racing. And to the continued chagrin and annoyance of my classmates, I could not shut up.

But when they called me and my roommate’s names (first), and we got off that bus to meet our “mama Española,” my nerves seemed pointless.

She reminded me a bit of my own mother, short brown hair slightly feathered, brown eyes, and a personality big enough for someone three times her size. She was fiery, loquacious, and immensely opinionated. She was perfect.

Walking into the place I’d be living for the next three months felt like home. It wasn’t fancy. It was actually quite small. It was messy, and a tad disorganized, and I shared a bunk bed for the first time since I’d lived in my dad’s Foster City apartment. And I absolutely loved it.

There was no grace period. No awkward time of trying to find my footing or get comfortable with my new maternal figure or my surroundings. It just felt like I belonged there. It was comfortable.

The first week saw a multitude of occurrences. Friday night, we all went out. Naturally. Nothing special there. Sunday saw my first home-cooked paella. Sunday night saw me getting the stomach flu for the first time in three years. Monday morning saw me barely making it through my Spanish placement test without puking on the table, and Tuesday morning saw my placement in a level that obviously reflected just how shitty I’d been feeling.

But I didn’t mind. Out of six levels, I’d been placed in Level 4. While not the most challenging academically, it would cover crucial grammar, syntax, and vocabulary that I knew I needed to re-learn desperately. My teacher was a pistol, and while her aggressive teaching style rubbed some the wrong way, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There were groups, as was natural in large gatherings of people. People found who they clicked with, who made them comfortable, and smaller subsets formed. It bothered me in the beginning, but didn’t anymore.

The Universidad classes were easy. They were thought-provoking and the homework load was light. I found it easy to pay attention. The Cal Poly classes…well. I had never been one for history. It either pissed me off, or bored me to death. So the history of Spain, at 6pm while I’m fully fed and wide awake, brought out the worst side effects of my inattention. I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t shut up, and then upon knowing I was annoying my classmates I would become anxious. And, as anyone who knows me knows, the more uncomfortable I am, the more obnoxious I get. But I tried to find new ways to distract myself and tone it down with every class.

We shared language classes with some students from Eau Claire in Wisconsin. The students in my class didn’t speak much. I’m not sure if it was from a lack of understanding, or that they partied harder than we ever did. But in their silence I asked questions, and I practiced. I’d come here to learn the language, and I wasn’t going to do that by staying silent in class.

This apparently rubbed some the wrong way. Wednesday, October 12 was a holiday, so Tuesday night we all went out. I was talking to one of the Wisconsin students who was in my class, when another walked up and said, “are you telling her she talks too much?” I turned to face him.

“He wasn’t, but it seems apparent now that you are,” I smirked.
“You think you’re so smart just because you can talk fast, like, slow down.”

I found this response comical, and it perplexed me that someone would equate the velocity of my speech with my intelligence. I talked fast in English, too. But why not have a little fun with the drunk boy?

“Alright, well then Thursday in class I won’t say anything. And when she’s standing up there asking questions none of you answer, feel free to just go for it.”

I began to walk away.

“Alright, bitch, see you Thursday.”

I raised my eyebrows and turned back to face him.

“Oh sweetheart…don’t fuck with me.”

My roommate, Julia, and I left the bar, wannabe-alpha male screams of, “oh now you’re gonna call me sweetheart? Now you think you’re the shit?” fading into the background.

I had not previously valued myself above this boy, but anyone who will call a woman a bitch based on her intelligence has a dick smaller than my nonexistent one. How tragic.


Chapter 2: Wine and Less Important Things

My first night in Madrid found me alone at a bar across the street from my hotel drinking white wine. I loved going to bars alone; it was absolutely prime for people watching. I sat reading the paper, and laughed at the amount of time the U.S. came up and how we were portrayed (sort of like a giant island of Donald Trumps).

I guess Madrid was playing a soccer game, because a man outside was dressed like a chicken, and he and his group of rowdy companions ordered beer after beer after beer after beer. I had no other explanation for this behavior. I would have to learn that soccer was to Spanish men as football was to the boys back home.

“Doh-bless cervezas por fuh-vahr,” a voice next to me at the bar struggled in broken Spanish. I smiled, not at her lack of lingual prowess but at her obviously strong accent of something else behind it.

“Where are you from?” I turned, asking in English.

“We’re from Ireland,” she smiled back, “we’re here in Spain and we’re going to be teacher assistants.”

That explained the other accent.

After three glasses of wine and a sample of each complimentary tapa (because your alcohol comes with free food in Spain, U.S. take notes), I found myself satisfied, thoroughly exhausted, and asleep promptly by 10pm.

We had a good group. There was no awkward getting-to-know-you phase. Everyone clicked pretty well. Personalities were strewn across the board from the shy and timid to the “beer at 10am” types, but the chemistry between what had previously been 15 strangers was eminent.

Our first day was breakfast down the street (where I was blessed with Spanish tortilla and orange juice, my new addiction), a rest, and then we met up to take a walking tour of some of Madrid’s more prominent features. We had to be awake and ready to get on the bus to Toledo at 9am the next day, so we all planned to go out, but to take it easy.

These things did not happen.

We started with a hotel room pregame and a game of Kings Cup played with what might arguably be the worst wine I’ve ever tasted. But, in Spain’s defense, it was three-dollar wine from the corner store. However, not in Spain’s defense, it was ten times worse than any box of Franzia I’ve ever tasted.

We meandered down the street looking for a bar that seemed interesting enough to enter. We were beckoned into a nearly empty bar with promises of free beer. Not being a beer drinker, I ordered a tequila shot to join the ranks of my peers. Now I’m not sure if they took this as a challenge, or if what happened next would’ve happened anyways, but suddenly free beer turned to rounds of shots and everyone was much, much drunker than they intended.

We came to Spain knowing full well binge drinking was not the Spanish culture. However, coming from the U.S. where a shot costs more than my life is worth, being able to get three servings of alcohol (beer, wine, shot, etc) for under $7 had everyone pretty excited.

We ended up in a Plaza—the name escapes me now—and a voice beckoned from the shadows.

“Hello! You like to dance?”

We exchanged glances, and whether it was the booze or the first night confidence, we followed this random man into a nightclub, tickets for a free sangria in hand. We danced around to the same playlist I used to hear at my middle school dances, buying more drinks, making more noise. And then, grace of God that she is, Sloan Cinelli came out of damn nowhere.

At 1am, someone wisely reminded us of our waking hour, and we headed home.


There is something to be said for an American college students’ ability to fully function through debilitating hangovers. Not speaking personally, in this case. I woke up feeling mediocre. But I would like to take a moment to appreciate my peers who puke and rally on a regular basis—you are warriors of your own liver-killing kind.

We boarded the bus to Toledo at 10am. An hour later, the view from the window was breathtaking. Toledo was the kind of beautiful that almost made you emotional. I don’t know how to describe it, and pictures would never do it justice. It just was.

We walked all day. I wrote as often as I could. Pen to paper, every thought that came into my head, like it might kill me to be anything less than honest. Sometimes, it felt that was the only way I could be.

We went to two churches, and I was haunted by something different in each one: in the first, the cathedral, a gigantic painting of Saint Christopher. In the second, a statue of Vírgen de Guadalupe who seemed like she could see right through me. In the cathedral, I had wandered off from the group, enchanted by some tombs. I found myself alone, but not panicked. I wandered around the cathedral alone, without the drone of the tour guide in my ears, making up my own stories. It was an eerie calm…a calm I felt guilty feeling, because I had walked away from the Church a long time ago. I saw a nun, and considered asking her to pray for me.

I don’t think it would help.

I couldn’t sleep anymore. I had gotten three hours the night before, and maybe a forty-minute nap. I was learning to run on fumes and, while impressive for someone who used to barely function on nine hours, I knew I was destroying my body.

That night, we had a dinner of tapas with our professor, Dr. Hiltpold. I tortured the boy next to me with stupid questions, and the one on my other side probably with my mere presence. It didn’t matter to me, I merely enjoyed the game of it all.

We found ourselves in an empty karaoke bar. We had all be under the impression we would only be staying there briefly to get drinks But, several songs later (including, but not limited to: Don’t Stop Believin’, Drops of Jupiter, and Smack That), we had one of the most fun nights I’d had in a while.

At 3am, I realized exactly why most people hate Americans. Eight of us walked over a mile to a 24-hour McDonald’s. Drunken slurs of broken Spanish asking for McNuggets, euros dropped on the floor, and the sheer madness of drunchies tortured everyone around us, except for one laughing woman who seemed to enjoy it as much as we did.