When I reflect on my adventures in Spain, and on subsequent conversations with friends who have also been fortunate enough to make the trip, I find that the first words in recounting our respective experiences are often the most telling. References to time spent on the beach, in the Prado, and in Madrid’s shopping district (which, I’m told, looks eerily like that of New York–who knew there were so many Victoria Secret’s in Spain?) diverge sharply from my three weeks living with a host family in the small industrial town of Valladolid, where Se Vende (for sale) signs are as plentiful as the homeless dogs that roam the streets.
An AFS scholarship for Spanish language learners had brought me to Spain for the very first time. My eyes just getting used to the sharp sunlight and sting of cigarette smoke in the air as I exited the bus, I spotted my host sister Sandra, with her streaks of platinum blonde hair, amongst the crowd of host families. Taking my hand with an immediate familiarity, we forwent public transportation and walked straight to a sports bar near her apartment. With a similar intimacy, Sandra’s mother Eva kissed both of my cheeks, taking me aback. The last time I had been kissed by a stranger in Connecticut was, well, never. She smiled at my shyness, the laugh lines at the corners of her eyes creasing. That night, the three of us visited what I thought was a record breaking seven bar-restaurants (I would later find out that this was typical for a Friday night). Amused by the fact that I was a vegetarian, and one who wouldn’t make an exception for bacon, at that, Eva ordered plate after plate of tortilla española for me, pushing away my euros when I attempted to pay for the food.
As the three of us strolled out of the last bar, I casually asked whether we would be heading home. If their raised eyebrows and disbelieving smiles could have, they would have shouted, “home before eleven P.M.? You must be kidding!” A twenty minute bus ride running alongside the Pisuerga River delivered us in front of the University of Valladolid, where Eva had studied law years prior. Spain’s economy, which had only suffered in response to the 2008 financial crisis, had pressured her to drop out before graduation and begin work as a hospital secretary. Regret from never graduating coupled with pride at having attended one of Spain’s best universities was evident as she described her time as a student to the two of us.
As we began the long, midnight trek back into town, I was surprised to see a small creature crawling alongside my sneaker. Upon further inspection, we determined that it was, in fact, a baby lobster. Despite the humidity and sweltering ninety degree heat, it was propelling itself forward with all its might towards the river. Sandra shrieked as I picked it up, while Eva watched silently. “We should help it,” Eva declared, “it’s going to take a long time to get there on those tiny legs.” I ducked between the fences separating the street and the river and delicately placed the lobster on the riverbank, happy that it wouldn’t be smashed by an unaware pedestrian. As I climbed my way back up the embankment, I could see the outline of Eva’s outstretched hand offering to steady me in the darkness. “Come on,” she said, “it’s your first night in Spain, and you’ve already rescued your own langosta. Let’s go home.”
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