Lake Bluff’s Madeleine Fawcett shares lessons earned after a semester in Spain
Beneath the light of a lunar eclipse last September, I found myself shivering on a Mediterranean beach in Barcelona, teaching a Belgian man I had just met how to play the ukulele while new friends from all over Europe sat around us on the sand and sang. Above us, the largest, brightest, and fullest moon I had ever seen exploded from an inky sky. Around us, dread-locked men and women beat drums and danced erratically.
When I look back at my time in Barcelona, this particular night encapsulates my entire semester there. Everything I had hoped and dreamed about studying abroad—meeting people from different cultures, being spontaneous, stepping out of my comfort zone, trying new things—culminated right there on the beach.
I had been dreaming about studying overseas since I was a student at Lake Forest High School. Most colleges promote study-abroad programs to prospective students, but when I got to Santa Clara University, where I’m currently a junior, I learned that not everyone gets into the program of their choice—and some don’t get in at all.
I applied to an IES Abroad program in Barcelona because it would allow me to live with a local family, practice Spanish, and take classes that counted toward my major. I’d also have access to cheap and easy travel to other European countries. Fortunately, I was accepted into my first choice program, and I spent the summer working and saving money until the departure day arrived.
I had been out of the U.S. before, but never for such a long time on my own. I was very nervous. On the drive to O’Hare airport, I sat in near silence as my parents cheerily tried to ease my fears.
I can say with full confidence, however, that all the worrying was for naught. Almost as soon as I arrived in Barcelona, the nerves were pushed aside by excitement, wonder, and joy. I will remember that first cab ride from the airport for the rest of my life—I sat in the backseat, ukulele on my lap, sweating from the heat, and craning my neck to see as much of the city as I possibly could from the constraints of the small car. I was full of excitement at the thought of the adventures, learning, and opportunities to come. And my experience only got better from there.
My favorite part of my time in Barcelona was getting to know my host mom. I highly recommend homestays, because they offer unique access to the daily life and culture of locals and provide a more enriching and personal experience than an independent apartment or dormitory. Nearly every night, my host mom and I ate dinner together then watched a TV game show called Pasa Palabra. During the commercials, we’d chat about our days and comment on which actors we thought were cute or funny.
I also loved traveling to other Spanish towns and cities as well as to London, Paris, and Portugal, where I was exposed to the incredible variation of language and lifestyles in Europe.
One thing that disappointed me at first was the difficulty I encountered integrating into the local culture. My classes were with other international students and my roommate was from Kentucky. Besides my host mom, the people I encountered were mostly American.
Because of this, I joined a language-exchange group at the public library. Since English is an internationally used language, there is a high demand for access to native English speakers in many foreign countries. My group consisted of four middle-aged locals. We met weekly and I got to know them very well, and they provided me with the cultural integration I had been craving.
I left Barcelona with tears in my eyes wondering how the months had slipped away so quickly. I couldn’t believe I had to leave the city and people I had grown to love so much. Something that my host mom repeated, however, as I hugged her goodbye, was, “Es hasta luego, no es adios,” “This is see you later, not goodbye.” And she was right; it wasn’t a goodbye, because I know that someday I’ll be back.