What if it’s really awkward with my host family? What if my Spanish is really bad? What if I miss mum too much? These were a few of the many uncertain questions playing on our minds as we touched down in Madrid.
Coming off of a 35 hour journey with little to no sleep, we were all a bit weary and run-down (well, apart from Mrs. Renner; Mrs. Renner was as vibrant as always). But there was nothing stopping our exhilaration as we each said our first Spanish words - ‘Hola’ and “Sí” - to a slightly cranky-looking customs officer. That simple Spanish-speaking interaction was enough to get us energised again and we were ready to meet our new families for the next two months, even if we were a bit nervous. We very quickly realised that there was absolutely nothing to be worried about. After a very warm and relaxed introduction and a few group photos, we were off home, ready for a much-needed rest before instantly into our first day of school the next day.
One of the main things we noticed about Highlands El Encinar, the school that we attended, was that it was a very devout Catholic school. Instead of a principal, they had a head priest, and prayers were said in lines outside before classes started each morning. There were also about four or five other priests who, among organising monthly services and carrying out other religious activities, also acted as friends and compulsory counsellors for the students. The students themselves were very fun and outgoing and we had no problem making many friends, especially as most of the students spoke a good level of English when our Spanish wasn’t enough. As well as soccer, basketball was a very popular sport in Spain, and more than a few times we were challenged to a very one-sided game (not in our favour). We spent two weeks at Highlands, having a mixture of English and Spanish classes, before going down to the south of Spain for the two-week Christmas break.
The south of Spain, or more commonly known to the Spanish as Andalusia, is very different to Madrid. While Madrid is a very modern European city, Andalusia is more traditional and typical of what we see when we think of Spain. We left our host families for a week after spending Christmas with them, then toured the south of Spain, spending a few days each in three Andalusian cities: Seville, Granda and Córdoba.
Starting our tour in Granada, we were instantly struck by the randomness of the streets. In the old parts of the city, the streets were so narrow in some places that we often had to flatten up against a wall when a car approached, and furthermore, the streets were placed in seemingly random angles. So random that even our tour guide got lost a few times as we found our way to our hotel. After spending a few days in Seville, having our fill of churros and tapas, we travelled to Granada, about a 2 and a half hour bus from Seville. The main attraction of Granada was the massive historic city, called the Alhambra, that was built on the mountain above. The Alhambra was built for exclusively the royal and the rich and has been preserved to keep all the extraordinary luxury of its time. It took us a whole day and more to briefly walk around and cover the whole expanse. This was probably one of the main highlights of our trip and, even without considering the amazing history behind the place, it really is just an amazing place to be and spend the day.
Our last stop was in Córdoba, where we spent the New Years. A famous Spanish tradition is to eat one grape every second for the first twelve seconds of the year, to secure good luck and fortune for every month of the year. We took part in this tradition in the centre of Córdoba, with a few thousand others before enjoying fireworks and a live concert. Probably one of the most enjoyable highlights of the trip was the thermal pool that we went to in Córdoba. It was apparently the very same thermal pool that was used by the wealthy hundreds of years ago, and started off with a hot spa, then an extremely-hot spa, an ice-bath, a steam-room, and a massage. The historic architecture of the pools had been preserved, so it was quite a relaxing, archaic feel that you got to enjoy while relaxing in the perfectly heated water. The massage was a very nice addition to complete the experience.
A couple days after finishing our week in Andalusia, we were back to school, which had become our norm by that time. Amadeo, a teacher from Kavanagh who also spent the week in Andalusia with us and was our main supervisor for the rest of the trip, organised many different activities for us for the second half of our time in Spain. Some of the things we did were: a day trip to Segovia and Avila, a day going to the various museums and art galleries in Madrid, we went to a few weekend markets, and even watched a Spanish play. We also got to have a very interesting tour of the Real Madrid City; the massive complex where the upcoming and current Real Madrid players train, learn and, in some cases, live. We were able to do this because Amadeo’s step-dad had a consultancy role in the club, and he was also able to get our Real Madrid jerseys signed by the whole team.
One of the places we frequented most throughout the trip was the El Retiro Park. Being one of the largest public parks in Madrid, the park is filled with peaceful nature next to beautiful picnic spots, but the main attraction is the big lake that’s at the bustling heart of it. On weekdays, for about 5 euros, more than a few times we rented a small boat and roamed the water for 40 minutes, listening to the non-stop jazz flowing in the background and, if we timed it right, watched the sun sink into the trees. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful ends to a day that you can have and we had a lot of fun there just hanging out.
Nearing the end of the trip, as we were about to leave, it suddenly dawned on us that we were on the opposite side of the world, having an amazing adventure that many people aren’t lucky enough to have. We realised that we were coming to the end of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and probably wouldn’t do something quite so spectacular in a while. It was especially saddening to say good-bye to our host-families whom we had come to love, but coming out of the trip, it was easy to look past the sadness of leaving and wonder at the special kind of bond that we had created and that would be a part of us for the rest of our lives. The special kind of bond that we had created not only with our host families, created not only with our fellow classmates, both Spanish and Kiwi, but also the bond that we had created with the Spanish culture as a whole. Giving my host-mum one last hug, I promised her that I would definitely return again.