I will never forget my first glimpse of Spain nearing the end of my 28-hour journey from New Zealand to Madrid. The memory is vivid, for it was the moment everything felt real. Whether it was the Spanish desert, or the airplane breakfast of olives and cheese, I felt engulfed by a new world. Prior to that moment the idea of Spain had been just a fantasy, but now, it was coming to life. And whether it was the declining altitude, or the realization that there was no turning back, my stomach dropped.

My GeoVisions Walk and Talk adventure was about to begin. Very soon, I would be meeting my new Spanish family that I would join for three months. As an Au Pair, I was set to tutor English to their nine-year old son. I had also signed up for Spanish classes, fulfilling a lifetime dream of learning the language, which I would attend in my free time during the day.

Thankfully my brief moment of plane panic defused as we continued to descend.

The passing mountains, pueblos, and olive trees made me smile, as every element seemingly met my dreamy expectations.

Very soon I was back in fantasyland, idealizing my awaiting Spanish experiences, the cities I would visit, the people I would meet, the language and customs I would learn, and of course, the food.

Before my arrival I had been communicating solely with my English-speaking host dad. Unfortunately, as he works in Saudi Arabia, I would not be seeing much of him. Communication with my non-English speaking Chilean host mum had been limited to some basic messages in Spanish. I had not spoken with or messaged my host brother at all. But from what I had been told, I understood that he had a good grasp of English. I had it in my head that he would be my translator, and that I could use him to talk to my host mum.

As I met my host mum and host brother, I was greeted with hugs and the customary Spanish kiss on both cheeks. Almost immediately they threw questions at me in quick-paced Spanish. My daily Duolingo hadn’t quite prepared me for this. I couldn’t understand anything! Sadly this meant my first impression was likely reduced to nervous laughs and confused expressions. In the typical emotional-rollercoaster kind of way, worry and doubt eased back into my mind.

Lessons in Language Barriers

Still in the airport, I decided to change tactics, and speak to my host brother in English. It didn’t take long to see that his English was at a lower level than I had anticipated. Certainly not translator level. I felt knocked down. Neither of them spoke English and I couldn’t speak Spanish. I never imagined communication would be quite this difficult. My distress was certainly amplified by exhaustion, and as soon as we were home, it was all I could to do but go straight to bed. What I had gotten myself into? How was I going to survive three months here?

So, here’s an important lesson: Do what you’re told, and Skype your host family before you leave! Whatsapp isn’t good enough! Having an idea of who you are going to be with, and how you’re going to communicate is incredibly important for the adjustment period, and for reducing the kind of culture shock that I felt that day.

Anyway, after a long rest and some food, everything felt much more manageable. I was slowly communicating with my host family (admittedly, google-translate was whipped out a lot), and it didn’t take me long to realise that my host mum and brother are some of the kindest and funniest people I’ve met. They’ve got strong personalities and big hearts.

My host mum has taught me many life lessons including “it’s good to be crazy”, and she has been super supportive as I stumble my way through speaking Spanish. She told me once, that it’s good that we have trust. And I agree, with patience and trust, the language barrier is never so daunting.

I’ve been here just over seven-weeks now, and I am completely in love with Spain. I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed! I love my language classes, in which I have made friends from all across the globe. Furthermore, I have been lucky enough to travel to Córdoba, Ciudad Real, Toledo, Barcelona, and Tarragona. I hope to spend my remaining weekends visiting Salamanca, Segovia, Granada, and Seville.

This has been the experience of a lifetime for me, and I couldn’t recommend the program enough. It’s the difficult times, and overcoming the challenges that they bring, that are the most worthwhile. Don’t be afraid of them! I have grown so much in such a short time, and I know that I will create many more amazing memories before it’s time to head home.

~ Claudia 

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