One of my biggest fears doing an exchange program was the level of independence required, especially since it was my first time abroad. Before I left I kept thinking “What if something bad happens and I don’t know how to handle it and I have to come home” or “What if I can’t handle adult problems like dealing with my landlord in Spanish?”. I think these fears are present in many people’s heads when they are heading abroad and/or these fears are holding them back. For these reasons, I made a list of the not-so-great things that happened to me to prove to everyone that you will be okay. Also, I can now laugh at these experiences (at the time I didn’t find them as hilarious).
On my way to Madrid and in my first few days in Spain, I ran into some issues that at the time seemed really inconvenient and I wasn’t sure how to navigate, but that I managed fairly well. Here they are:
- On my flight to Madrid, we hit some moderately scary turbulence (my phone and book flew into the air). This was incredibly scary because this one lady wouldn’t stop screaming, and it was only the third time I have ever been on a plane, so I was freaking out for a few minutes. Luckily, the pilot came of the intercom to assure us we would be okay, and that he was going to try to fly around the storm rather than through it. I think I fell back asleep within 15 minutes.
- After it taking me 20 minutes inside the Madrid-Barajas Airport to figure out the MyTaxi App (I highly encourage downloading this before you arrive and connecting your credit card in advance to make your airport experience easier, if you don’t want to speak Spanish to a taxi driver), I finally made it to the taxi. However, when I was getting into the car I dropped my phone outside of the car and almost left it. Luckily, I heard something fall and stopped the driver right after he pulled away and ran back for it. Not only was I embarrassed, but I think I saw my actual life flash before my eyes on day one.
- The first day I was in the city, I literally just slept the entire day. However, on the second day, I needed to leave to buy groceries and furnishings for my apartment. On my way back home from the grocery store, I could not get my apartment unlocked despite having the key. The key was not a traditional key I was used to because the building was old, and despite turning the key all the way until it stopped, the door would not open. At this point, my roommates were not in the apartment yet, and my landlord’s office was not open and they could not be reached.
With no other solution in sight, I started knocking on doors in my buildings. Person after person rejected the exasperated girl speaking broken Spanish at their door (probably because my Spanish was making no sense). However, I finally found a woman to come and help. She got the door open after many tries and we practiced on the door together. However, when I left again later, the same thing happened, and I could not get the door open. I had to ask another stranger for help. At this point, I was afraid to leave my apartment, so I spent the entire weekend inside until I could get into contact with my landlord because I didn’t want to get locked out, have no one to help me, and have to pay for a locksmith. On Monday I called the landlord probably 5 times to get them to send someone over. When they finally came, they taught me the trick to opening the door (which they probably should have told me when I checked in) and I never got locked out again.
This was by far the scariest part of my entire trip. I called my mom crying (which made her freak out) and I had never wanted to come home more than I did on this day. However, looking back on it, I realized that I was letting my fear get to me, because if I could open the door at any point, I probably could have opened it those first few days, but I let my exhaustion and fear of being in a new country get a hold of me. Additionally, it taught me that I would have to be incredibly persistent with my landlord in comparison to the U.S. Now that I have overcome that though, I feel like I am more resilient.
- The last semi-dramatic thing that happened to me abroad was that when I arrived, our toilet was broken for almost two weeks. Upon arriving to the apartment, I noticed that there was water by the toilet, but since it had rained, I thought it had come through the open bathroom window, boy o boy was I incorrect. Turns out, every time we flushed the toilet, some of what we flushed would end up on the bathroom floor minutes later. Generally, Spaniards are a little more relaxed than in the U.S., and the landlords follow suit when answering requests. We had to email them a total of ten times to even get them to come to the apartment. In total, it took 12 days for them to completely fix the toilet, and for most of those, I refused to go into the bathroom because of the smelly health hazard. This experience taught me that those in charge are not as receptive in the U.S. and without resources like Student Legal Services and the Student Advocacy Center, I would constantly need to advocate and push for my needs while abroad.
At the time, all of these experiences seemed like everything I feared before I left was coming true. However, these problems have taught me how to rely on myself for problem-solving, advocate for my needs, and maintain my own safety.
Although these experiences were difficult and should be discussed. They were outweighed by the positive experiences I had. While in Spain, I formed cross-cultural friendships inside and outside the classroom that will last me a lifetime. With my fellow students, I was able to discuss world problems and receive viewpoints and experiences that are not common in the United States. For example, I learned a ton about the Denmark legal system while in Spain, just by comparing business law with another student in my class. This cross-cultural experience was the most valuable part of my trip.
However, learning to manage all of my apartment problems did have some almost immediate real-world applications. While traveling during my time abroad (to England, Ireland, Morocco, Germany, and within Spain) I felt like my problems solving abilities was heightened. I understood that when I experienced a problem or mix up in a different country (language barriers, transportation issues, payment mix-ups), that I need to be conscientious of the culture of the country I was in and how my American mindset would cause me to react to things. This allowed the few mix ups I had while traveling (flight delays, credit card problems, not knowing how to use public transport) to seem like small bumps in the road whereas if they occurred at the beginning of my time abroad it would have seemed world ending. Reflecting on my trip abroad, it has allowed me to realize that I can feel completely comfortable travelling almost anywhere in the world, and that would not have been possible without all the not-so-good things.