I think I got drunk off one beer. Or maybe I was in a delirious state after having flown from the U.S. to Madrid where I was to be a nanny for three children. I can´t sleep on planes anyway so instead I had watched three movies back to back on the flight. I don’t even remember what they were, but I use movies to get lost anyway. After the overnight flight with no sleep, I was going on 30 hours awake when I found myself at at a restaurant table full of Spanish children and parents, including my new host parents. Sleep deprivation combined with the mental bombardment of the Spanish conversation among children and their parents made my head swim. Then my new host dad offered me a beer.
I accepted nervously – was an au pair supposed to drink beer in front of her charges? Did it matter in Spain? Apparently not, because I got a beer. The first sip was gloriously grounding because it tasted just like the watery Bud Lights I was so used to after four years of frat parties and tailgates at the University of Southern California.
Already, today had been quite the adventure. I arrived early in the morning in Spain and thought I would whatsapp my host mom with the WIFI in the airport. Of course, my poor, old iPhone4 wasn’t in the mood. I got through the border control – who had no questions for me whatsoever: they just stamped my passport and let me through to the nonexistent customs. I worried about how lax the country’s security seemed. The arrivals hall was bright. The morning sun splashed through the glass panes and canary yellow beams that crossed the room. The light was startling; my body and brain thought it was midnight. Disoriented by the sunshine and my phone’s incompetence, I looked around for help. I spotted a cute Spanish boy who, judging by the company name on his t-shirt, the list in his hand, and the lost looking college students who surrounded him, was there to collect kids studying abroad. Sigh. If only I could have been one of them again, the way I was not so long ago for six months in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
I approached him. And in true awkward-Katy-fashion explained I wasn´t a lost study abroad student, but simply a lost au pair and could I please use his phone. He lent it to me but I had no luck. He seemed very concerned for my safety as I said I would figure it out and walked purposefully away with no clue where I was going. I found Information and I asked the lady behind the desk, who seemed very concerned with her nails, about the WIFI password. She responded to my questions in rapid Spanish; of course I had no idea what she had said. As I hovered near the desk, typing fake letters into my phone as if I were texting, I heard two of the girls who were part of the study abroad group ask where they could buy a sim card. The lady behind the desk reluctantly looked up from her nails. She pointed upstairs.
“Sorry, do you mind if I follow you? I need to get a sim card for my phone, too,” I said. They let me tag along as the three of us with oversized bags squished into an elevator. They seemed fascinated that I was an au pair, and that I had already studied abroad in Brazil, no less. I wistfully told them to cherish their time abroad and in college, because graduating is the worst. Good inspirational pep talk, Katy. Scare them into having fun.
They became even more impressed when, in my broken Spanish, I asked another information lady how to find the sim card store. We wandered through the airport chaos of people coming and going, and attempted to weave our way through the bustle until, to my relief, I saw a store that seemingly sold phones and such. The initial impression of me as a sauve Spanish speaker was shattered after I confessed to the man at the phone store that I had no clue what he was saying as he explained different cell phone plans. After telling the college girls one more time to “live it up!” – Who am I? – I messaged my soon-to-be host mom, Esther. She was downstairs, smiling, with her two eager daughters, Blanca, 8 and Ana, 10, who were simultaneously timid and excited: basically how I was feeling, as well.
On the 45-minute drive back to their village outside of Madrid, Esther told me things about the city and pointed out places. I tried to talk to the girls, but after a summer of not speaking English, it seemed very foreign to them. Esther translated a lot. I always get nervous trying to connect with kids in front of their parents; this time was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn´t sure if they understood anything I was saying. The city, as we passed through it, seemed smaller than I had imagined. There were plenty of large apartment buildings but it had four skyscrapers in the whole city, lined neatly in a row in an otherwise bare skyline.
We left the city proper and began to pass tracts of land with herds of sheep and cows fenced in, with small stone walls that crumbled as if they were tired from standing so long. The road wound towards the mountains until we came to my new pueblo and continued up and up. The house rose in front of us: marigold yellow in the Spanish sun, perched on top of a rock that jutted out of the mountainside. Behind the back garden stretched the mountain, Abantos, covered in thorny blackberry bushes and whispering pines. The dry air wicked away my nervous sweat, a welcome change to the sticky Missouri summers back home.
After that morning, I needed a quick nap and then somehow I had made it to sitting upright at this dinner table with mine and another family at an outside restaurant on top of a mountain, a place they called the seat of Felipe the Second. The mountain top was named after a man who had been king when royalty had worn ruffles around their necks. He apparently had liked to view his kingdom from up high, taking in his subjects as they herded their sheep and cows fenced in by those now crumbling stone walls, taking in the palace and monastery he had built in the valley below, and now here I was, taking in that same view. The mountains breathed history but the slopes dotted with pueblos didn’t look that different from the U.S.; it was hard to believe I was really all that far from home. It looked like the landscape of Colorado, the same rocky peaks and dry foliage that I knew from my numerous cross country road trips in my Volkswagen to and from school.
As I turned back to the table from my thoughts, I wasn’t sure about taking a second sip of the beer. Because, in addition to my befuddled state, the languages were all mixing in my head. The mother of the other family was speaking French to her children. The father of the other family was talking to me in heavily accented English whilst the mountain top where we ate dinner was buzzing with the constant chatter of Castillian Spanish. I just wanted to take my beer and go take a moment to breathe on the rocks where the children now played, hopping around like mountain goats. But I remained at the table with the swirl of languages and culture enveloping my sleepy self.
Abruptly, the general din grew louder. Something had happened. And Blanca, the youngest of my family at 8, was crying. Her tears were something I learned came often because, after all, she was the baby of the family. Her mother soothed her and my surroundings quieted to a buzz once again. My dad, Jose, could tell I had been zoning out because he said, in Spanish, “Spanish is a little difficult right now, huh?”
“Si, un poquito.”
Then, in rough English, he said, “In 3 or 4 months, it will be –.” With his thumb and fingers, he made the sign for OK.
Apparently my few sips of beer had emboldened me, because I replied in Spanish, “Dos meses, me gusta el desafio” – I like a challenge. Who says that?
As my fingers peeled at the label of my cool glass bottle, the gravity of what I had embarked upon sank in. I was here for a year. I was going to need to learn Spanish for survival. Feeling foreign was going to be the norm. Feeling lost in languages was going to be a daily struggle. Feeling friendless, surrounded by strangers, was going to be an obstacle. I would overcome this, alone. Had I made the right decision? I elected to come to Spain as an au pair ultimately because I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life and felt woefully unprepared mentally to take on a job where I had to wear a suit everyday. So here I was, atop a mountain outside of Madrid, finding a taste of home in my super light, Spanish beer, attempting to decipher the meaning of the languages that floated around me and into the warm summer air.
I soon would fall into the routine of the family and the obstacles of the here and now distracted me from my reservations of whether I has made the right call. Breakfast in the morning where I struggled to convince the kids to drink orange juice. Classes at the elementary school where I battled to maintain the attention of energetic 9 year olds. Afternoons where I strived to maintain the peace between three siblings while getting them to successfully finish their homework, make it on time to sports practice, and actually wash their hair in the shower. And without forcing it, my initial fears were resolved. Friends came naturally. Spanish improved over time.
Last week a new au pair arrived in my small pueblo. She mentioned her anxiety about the newness and strangeness upon her arrival. I smiled and said “I got you girl, we’ll go get a beer soon.”