Orange and lemon trees blurred past us as we drove down the dirt road. Old, Spanish barns added splashes of blue, pink, and yellow to the fields of green trees. The vegetated mountains stretched past the trees, fading into the distance. Tori, Marshall, and I were studying abroad in Alicante, Spain, a city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. For the weekend, we were staying in Murcia, a city south of Alicante, to spend time with Marshall’s family’s friends José and Mariví. The friendship between Marshall’s family and José and Mariví developed when their kids, Pepito and Mariví, studied abroad in Indiana and Marshall’s family served as their host family.
José and Mariví drove us to their relative’s country house. We had come because the family was celebrating the health of a member who recently came out of the hospital. I had been a little nervous about the party. Meeting new people is hard for me; as an introvert finding topics to talk about, attempting to keep up a conversation that I want nothing to do with, and trying to maintain my energy so I do not seem like a walking corpse are all struggles I deal with at gatherings. Now I have to do it all in Spanish?
Great. The first two months in Spain showed me that seven years of classroom Spanish did not prepare me for living in a hispanohablante country. My fears were confirmed when we pulled into the driveway and twelve cars were parked with their owners and families waiting inside. We got out of the car and saw to the left was the main part of the home, with a kitchen and lots of chairs and tables to sit and eat at. Behind it was a pool, covered for the winter. To the right, a smaller building sat with one bed and a bathroom.
Pepito, the 18 year-old son of José and Mariví, and his girlfriend Lucia saved us from the curious relatives. “Sorry about that,” Pepito said. “My family can be over the top.”
“Oh it’s totally fine,” Tori said. “I think it’s really cute.”
Lucia smacked Pepito on his arm: “Español por favor, no puedo entenderos,” she said, her eyes wide in frustration.
“Lo siento mi amor,” Pepito replied, kissing the top of her head.A shower of two-cheek kisses and “Hola, qué tal?” greeted us as we met every family member—aunts, cousins, grandmas, uncles, grandpas, friends, and dogs. Soon after the greetings, Mariví handed us Estrella de Levante, Murcian beer, and bread.
The people of Murcia are known to eat a lot, which we learned as bread, aceitunas (olives), revuelto (type of tapa – Spanish appetizers), conejo (rabbit), salchichas (sausages), and more beer were presented to us as the afternoon went on. Our stomachs were full before we even had the the main lunch. The aunts, uncles, and grandparents approached us foreigners throughout the day. Some practiced their English skills: “Hello, my name is Javier. How are you today?” a man with a green sweater and silvery gray hair asked us. Others asked about our time in Spain: “¿Te gusta España? ¿Cómo están tus padres españolas? ¿Te gustan las clases?” And others wanted to teach us more about their culture. Joaquín, a shorter Spaniard wearing a plaid sweater vest and Stetson light blue Ivy hat, said, “Quiero bailar contigo. Lo necesitas aprender.” My mind kept jumping from interpreting to what was being said to the food on the table to the little kids running around the pool. I could not tell if I was going to rupture from overstimulation or not.
We switched back and forth between English and Spanish, teaching each other about the language as well as our lives. The sun streamed through the windows, creating the perfect environment for the grandma and her dog to curl up on the couch and take their siesta. Groups of people filled the living room and spilled outside, random loud outbursts of laughter overcoming the mix of Spanish and English music playing in the background.
When it was time to cook the paella, a rice dish filled with vegetables and meats, all the men put on cooking aprons and crowded the huge stove in the kitchen, shouting their tips as the dish was made. After an hour, the rest of the guests and I ate the most delicious dish Spain has to offer – paella con conejo.
To give our stomachs and minds a break, Tori, Marshall, Pepito, Lucia and I walked along the country road, ignoring the sign that said “prohibido.” The landscape stretched for miles, tall green grass filling the space. We came upon a bridge that stretched over a dried up river. Pepito went into a grand narrative about how the river used to fill the valley, its waters gushing over the rocks before it all evaporated. Little hills of orange fruit trees rose and fell before the mountains. The sun faded out more mountains behind. We kept walking with nothing but our footsteps and the whirl of my camera making noise. None of us stood close together, but we did not stray too far away. Our eyes all gazed upon the mountains ahead, mountains that never seemed to get closer no matter how far we walked. Once we hit the second prohibido sign, we turned back to the house.
We entered back into the house filled with traditional Spanish music. The strums of a Spanish guitar and claps of the castanets blasted through the room. One of the aunts, Sofía, was a professional dancer, so all the men took their turn dancing with her. “I want to learn flamenco,” I muttered to Marshall and Tori.
“I’ll make that happen,” Marshall said, a mischievous grin plastered on her face.
Before I could stop her, she had found Mariví and told her about my wish. Mariví smiled and nodded, grasping my hand and leading me next to all the other dancers. First, she showed me the basic moves. Step the left foot forward, right foot behind it, repeat.
With the hands, coge la manzana, come la manzana, tira la manzana (grab the apple, eat the apple, throw the apple). She moved with grace, I stumbled and staggered. Sofía saw me dance with stiffness and slowness, so she came in to help me. After a few spins, the drunken uncle grabbed my hand and bowed. My American self would have laughed and shook her head, immersing herself back into the crowd and pretending that never happened. My new Spanish persona thought, “This is fun, and I am never going to see these people again. Why not?” I bowed back, accepting the invitation, and we began dancing the flamenco. Everyone watched for we were the only ones dancing.
My cheeks warmed and my heart fluttered as I tried to keep up and figure out what to do—Spanish orders yelled over my head. Near the end of the song, Sofía stepped in and got me out of the dance. People smiled and clapped for me. I felt silly yet alive.
Couples took up the space where we had danced, proof of my braveness dissipating as each minute passed. The sun was hanging close to the mountains, so we left with Pepito and Lucia to return to the heart of Murcia. Pepito drove with Lucia sitting
in front with him. He cranked the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “What do you guys want to do tonight?” Pepito yelled over the music.
“Uh, nothing too crazy,” Marshall said.
“Pepito, debemos salir a fiesta esta noche,” Lucia said to Pepito. “Las chicas necesitan ver más de Murcia.”
“Right,” Pepito nodded to Lucia. “We’re going out tonight! We’ll show you our favorite bars and clubs so you guys can see the nightlife of Murcia.”
Tori, Marshall, and I looked at each other knowing we all felt tired from socializing in Spanish with new people and eating and drinking a lot. While we just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep, we remembered our agreement from the beginning of the semester- that we would try new things, make ourselves go outside our comfort zones, and experience the Spanish lifestyle.
“Let’s do it,” I said.
Lucia drum-rolled on the dashboard. “How do you say, estoy emocionada, en inglés?”
“I’m excited,” Pepito answered.
“Yes, I am excited,” Lucia smiled.