I was just two weeks fresh into my semester exchange in Madrid, Spain at Universidad Pontificia Comillas and I woke up to some concerning news. My communication lifeline, a Samsung Galaxy 7 smartphone, had died while I was sleeping. Although this might seem as a first-world complaint, when one finds themselves in an unfamiliar and foreign country the GPS and Maps capability of a smartphone alone are priceless. As the price of purchasing a new phone while I was in a foreign country was too high, I was relieved to hear from my U.S. based cell-phone insurance company that there was no problem in having a replacement phone shipped internationally. Excitedly I waited till the next week for delivery, anxiously checking the tracking information daily as the package traveled over land and ocean. On the day of expected arrival one of the worst sentences one can hear when shipping internationally flashed across my internet browser, your package has been held in customs.
As I quickly learned, living abroad requires one to quickly adapt to a given situation. As the news came in I raced to the internet to research what I would have to do – after nearly 10 days without a functioning phone – to retrieve the package. Over the course of the next seven days, I visited 3 separate government agencies on 5 total occasions while spending 10 hours of my life in mind-numbing government queues. I had made no progress whatsoever.
When living abroad, there are times when you realize that you are in over your head and need the support and advocacy of a trusted party, requiring you to think critically and accordingly as to who that might be. As such, I turned immediately to my exchange university academic advisor for help. After pointing me towards an International Relations office housed within my exchange university, I had a dream-team of two of the nicest and caring Spanish women I think I have met in all of my 6 months in the country helping me. Through broken Spanish we began to discuss what the issue was and began the process of correctly retrieving the necessary government documents to get my phone back.
A critical point must be made here, my ability to make it this far into the process of retrieving my phone falls back on one huge factor, learning Spanish prior to coming to Spain to a high enough level, so that I could communicate through these events albeit at the level of a fourth-grader. One of the worst attributes of the ugly American tourist stereotype is the inability to understand that not everyone speaks English in the world. That is okay, in fact citizens in foreign countries have every right to speak exclusively in their native tongue and you have to adjust accordingly to this reality rather than letting it bog you down.
As the next week passed I paid daily visits to my government-bureaucracy savior, Marta. This rekindled how much I have realized the importance of building relationships are, during this time I learned about Marta’s family amongst other things as I shared photos of my dog back home and stories. Not only from hearing others experiences can you learn lessons about the world that you wouldn’t have experienced otherwise, but it also opens dialogue between yourself and another that allows you to share your dreams, interests and goals with others.
This part is critical, as it is the bridge to the rest of the story and why I have found myself in some incredible experiences on the Student Exchange Program, and in life. At some point in our many interactions and through my intermediate Spanish, I shared my interested in the developing world and that I had previously visited Washington D.C. due to interests in International Finance. Marta immediately lit up, from what I could understand from our conversation in Spanish she had a friend that worked in D.C. that would be coming back to Madrid very soon and that I should meet him.
More time passes and I forget about the prior conversation we had regarding Marta’s D.C. connection. With luck, 21 days after my phone dying I had finally gotten my replacement phone out of customs. In my own eyes I realized that words of gratitude would not be sufficient for Marta and the other woman that had helped me. Sometimes another’s action is great enough that it requires a gift. I opted for flowers.
Thanks to the gift of gratitude I found myself once again in the International Relations office. After expressing my gratitude deeply, I remembered the conversation that I had with Marta and asked her about her D.C. connection. To my surprise he wasn’t a friend of her’s, he was actually the manager of a study/work abroad program at the University and was back in Madrid just an office away.
We immediately hit it off, as it turned out Jose was not only a long-time resident of the U.S.A. but his study abroad programs were incredibly successful at the university. As we continued to discuss U.S. politics and global affairs, Jose informed me of a few events and conferences that he was coordinating at the university. After learning a little more about me he asked if I might be able to speak at a few of the conferences regarding the U.S.A. and its culture.
I really credit the time that I spent at Ohio State for preparing me for this request. Thanks to the many opportunities I have had to present in front of professionals and fellow students through student organizations, I was prepared. Over the next couple weeks I spoke on several occasions at his scheduled events.
This is where things come full circle, as I have found through the many opportunities that I have had in my life the old adage “luck is where opportunity meets preparation.” After my final speaking engagement, Jose shocked me with the information that he was requesting that I be allowed to join a delegation from the university to meet with His Majesty King Felipe VI of Spain. The delegation visits the King annually as a sign of support from the Royal Family towards globally-minded university programs. After a decade of visiting delegations to King Felipe VI, Jose said it was time for a foreign-exchange student to join the delegation, and thanks to my rapid involvement on campus he believed I was a good fit.
Forward-thinking really came in handy when preparing for Spain, I thought that I might find myself wanting to attend a formal event while in Spain. Therefore I made the effort to make enough room in my luggage for my suit, tie and dress shoes. Never did I know that I would be using my suit to meet the King of Spain!
With the event a week away, I decided to take a step back and prepare myself for meeting with the King of Spain. I had been honored to have been blessed with the possibility.
Want to know how it went meeting the King? Stay tuned for my next blog post about the meeting with the King!