Adventures in Studying Abroad
A journal of the life of a TAMIU student studying in Spain
“Wow, Texas? That’s quite far down south! How was your trip?”
I pondered my response to the question asked by a fellow exchange student. His question had been asked by other students studying here, but I felt somewhat relieved receiving this question from a fellow North American. A native of Vancouver, he most likely had to deal with the headache that comes with crossing the ocean in search of adventure, great photo opportunities, and in my case, brief independence. Unlike our European classmates, we didn’t arrive to Spain by dinnertime after leaving our respective homelands.
As I continued thinking about how to answer, my mind wandered back to the events that led me to sit across this young man with a plate of potato wedges and a pitcher of sangria in front of me. Where do I begin? I thought. The flight wasn’t so bad, except for the food. So it was good, I guess.
“Good,” I told him. “Long, but good. I’m just happy to be here.”
We discussed our frustration that stemmed from being unable to find the correct chargers for our laptops, then joined in on the festivities of the “unofficial welcome party.” All of us students went home donning red neckerchiefs and silly smiles. It was my third day in Vic, a small town only 90 minutes away from Barcelona by train. As I settled in for the night, in my tiny room surrounded by pamphlets, fliers, and other Welcome Week souvenirs, one last thought crossed my mind.
But everything before and after the flight was absolute hell.
Unknown to my new schoolmates, the previous week had been filled with angry and panicked phone calls and emails, numerous breakdowns (complete with gross sobbing in public), and an impromptu 3 AM road trip to Houston with my sister. And that was before I even boarded my flight.
My “adventure” to Barcelona began with a phone call at 5 PM on the Friday before my planned departure, the following Monday. The call came from the Consulate General of Spain in Houston, telling me my student visa was ready. This was the call I had been waiting for since early July, when I first applied for my visa. There was a slight problem with one of the documents I presented at the time, but they assured me that I’d receive my visa as soon as they received a physical copy of my health insurance information. All I had to do was request the copy, send it on over to the Consulate, and check my mailbox a few days later for my passport. What could possibly go wrong?
I let the Office of Student Affairs know about the problem. They contacted the insurance company, who said they’d send the materials over to TAMIU. Yet weeks went by, and by mid-August, the documents hadn’t been received and communication with the company had come to a sudden halt. OSA advised me to contact them as well, in hopes that they might understand the urgency of the situation. After firing off a few passive-aggressive emails and making one very exasperated phone call, I got an email saying my documents were ready. I ran over to school, picked them up, then zipped on over to the post office to send them via priority mail. With my calculations, I’d be receiving my visa by Saturday or Monday morning at the latest. I’d be cutting it close, but everything looked like it was going to be okay.
However, as a former remedial math student unfamiliar with the post office’s schedule for outgoing mail, my calculations were wrong. I wasn’t off by a lot (just a couple of hours), but it was enough for me to get this phone call on a smelly crowded bus on my way back home, three days before my flight.
“Miss Rodriguez, your visa is ready. However, even with the envelope you supplied us, we don’t think it will make it to you on time. You’ll have to come pick it up on Monday.”
“But...I leave on Monday,” I said. A lump grew in my throat and I felt the tears streaming down my face. “And I live five hours away from Houston. Are you sure it won’t make it?”
“Yes. Are you going to be coming on Monday? We need to know, so we don’t put it in the mail. We’re closing in ten minutes.” I asked her to wait just a few minutes for me to call back and give her an answer. I made a panicked call to my friend Alexis, who accompanied me during my trip in July; she offered her sympathy and a few suggestions, but knew there was not much that could be done. I called the Consulate, and asked if there were any alternative solutions to the problem, not even hiding that I was hysterical at this point. They said no.
“There is no other option for you at this point,” she said. By this time, strangers at the bus station were staring at me, a sobbing, sweaty, frizzy-headed mess.
“Fine, I’ll do it. I’ll be there on Monday.” I hung up. A few more phone calls and one Facebook post later (my poor phone must’ve gone into shock), I still didn’t know what to do. I started feeling sick at the thought of all the time and money spent only for everything to fall apart. Then my sister, Terry, called.
She’d seen the post and had a plan: we’d leave to Houston, in the wee hours of Monday morning, pick up my passport, then head back to Laredo, just in time for my flight. It sounded crazy. It was crazy. But I said yes, and thanked her profusely. A friend of hers, Ignacio, agreed to come along for the ride as co-pilot and share driving duties with her.
Despite all that had occurred, luck was on our side, and the trip to and from Houston went smoothly. I returned to Laredo on time, said goodbye to my family, then boarded the plane. The day-long journey to Barcelona had a few minor hiccups, but nothing like the events preceding my departure. Settling in for the last leg of the trip, a short flight from London to Barcelona, I asked myself once more, What could possibly go wrong?
One of my plans that had fallen apart and come back together before I left was my housing situation. After communicating with several students, I finally found three roommates: Marilena (from Germany), Anastasia (from the Ukraine), and Arianna (from Italy). Arianna and I were arriving an hour apart from each other, and agreed to take the train from Barcelona to Vic together.
Yet for some reason or another, my flight was rescheduled to arrive two hours later. I let Arianna know and was sure our plans wouldn’t change much. Unfortunately, luck escaped me once more, as the airport’s mediocre WiFi prevented Arianna from seeing my message. By the time I’d arrived, she had left. At first I found the situation funny, but as the hours passed, my laughter gave way to full-blown panic.
I’ll spare you the exhausting details of my first night in Spain, mainly because I don’t remember them too fondly. Two hours spent hopping on trains with well-meaning Spaniards trying to help eventually brought me back to square one, twenty minutes before closing time. The last train to Vic had departed five minutes before. Being stranded in Barcelona once sounded like a dream, but now it was a living nightmare just before midnight.
However, a kind taxi driver saw me with my massive luggage outside a nearby hotel, where I was about to inquire about prices. Concerned for my safety, he loaded my bags into his car, and began calling nearby hotels. We found an affordable placed, and I checked in for the night. All I had to do was board the earliest train possible and I’d be in Vic by dawn.
And sure enough, I was. I arrived at my new home with just enough time to drop off my bags, then walk with my roommates to school for the first day of Orientation Week. First activity of the day? An intensive Catalan course. During an information session later that day, I developed a headache and contemplated getting back on the earliest plane to Laredo.
A new language to learn. A new CULTURE to learn. I’m broke, hungry, and tired. Why did I think this was a good idea?
I’ll tell you why it was a good idea. Despite all the annoying, embarrassing, and even frightening moments I went through, I am here and I am okay.
I’ve been here for almost three weeks, and the phrase “it’s all uphill from here” could not be more true. Every day has been spent learning, in and out of the classroom. The biggest lesson I’ve learned since that night in Barcelona is that sometimes, preparation is never truly complete. I am used to calculating my every move back home, from the moment I wake up. Now, I have to adjust to allowing to go wherever the wind (or my roommates) take me. This doesn’t mean I am abandoning all my responsibility; after all, this is a study abroad program. Instead, it means I am willing to accept sudden changes more than I was before. If there is anything I learned since that Friday afternoon, it’s that most, if not all problems have a solution. They may sound crazy, but if you really want something to happen, you’ll follow whatever path you’re required to take. My path started in Laredo, and through all the twists, turns, and minor crashes, I am here.
I am here, and I am not okay.
I am great.
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