Immediately after graduating high school, I decided to take a gap year and become an au pair in Spain for a year. Nothing panned out the way I intended it would. I saw myself in Barcelona, beach-side and carefree for a full year. Instead, I ended up in Vitoria-Gasteiz, after leaving the family in Barcelona. Vitoria-Gasteiz is located in the Basque Country of Spain and is cleverly coined “Siberia Gasteiz” for its brutal winter climate, and therefore was not the tropical climate I envisioned for my year abroad. The lessons and experiences I gained by fleeing my homeland at the young age of 18 are irreplaceable and are unlike most challenges faced by the 18 year olds entering college. Of course, these morals and lessons seemed to be outrageous obstacles I needed to overcome in order to continue my stay in Spain, but as my Spanish living came to a close, it all started to make sense to me. Now I would like to present to you what traveling at a young age has taught me, and how it is beneficial to every young person.
1. Being alone is okay.
Going into my year abroad, I had this whole romanticized outlook of how my year was going to be. All of my friends would be exotic and I would have a Spanish boyfriend who would show me around Barcelona on his scooter (like the Lizzie McGuire Movie, except in Spain). But it wasn’t like that actually. And for a while I was alone. More than just in the sense of the dating realm. This is where I learned that being alone is not the end of the world. It was a time where I got to know myself, I got to explore a city, I read, I learned. In the end, I became in fact very attached with my alone time — an inseparable bond was formed.
2. Sometimes bad things happen and you have to recover quickly.
Throughout my time in Spain, I was faced with a plethora of unfortunate situations. The reason I had gone to Spain in the first place was to be an au pair in Barcelona. So how the hell did I end up in the North of Spain, living in my own flat, teaching English? Really, just a series of problematic events, that in the end, turned out for the best. Traditionally, one lives through their formative years in the homes of their parents or guardians and when a mistake is made or something bad happens, you are punished or reprimanded but given ample support of those sheltering you regardless. Being a world away from my home, it was a pretty big shock when I learned that I no longer had a crutch to lean on — I was all I had and dwelling on a certain matter was no longer acceptable. Of course like every rule, there are exceptions. But when I quit being an au pair, mourning over my shattered gap year plans was not an option anymore. Recovering quickly, finding a job and a flat was now the priority, and in turn, everything worked out beautifully.
3. Things never really go as planned, and that’s okay.
Clearly, I had some expectations that did not happen as planned. But where I was, compared to where I thought I was going to be at the end of my trip, was much more magnificent than I could have ever imagined it being. I have never been one to exactly plan out what I am doing, I just go for it. I knew I was going to be in Spain, the rest was just a messy cluster of “what could be.” I met people I never thought I would meet; I went on spur of the moment trips; I got heartbroken; I fell in love; I ended up living in a different part of Spain that I had no intention of visiting even. But if it weren’t for these unplanned surprises, I wouldn’t have come back with half of the lessons and stories I have to offer now.
4. You have to deal with crappy people wherever you go.
It sucks, and it happens. The best thing you can do is try not to fall into their mindset and keep a level head. Again, this was a shocking lesson for me to learn as well because I no longer had the unconditional support of my parents at the snap of my fingers. I had to deal with some pretty shitty things on my own for a change and it’s a hard feat to overcome. But it is everywhere and the only way to handle it is to stay calm and collected. Nothing can be accomplished through piercing symphonies of profanities and agitation.
5. Do not be overly trusting.
The horror stories you hear from your parents at a young age about little Susie being kidnapped down the street seem to lessen in severity as you get older. Talking to strangers becomes a way that one makes friends, whether its in a cafe for lunch or at a bar at night. Human interaction is normal. People can seem very nice, but their intentions can be completely different. This lesson was learned the hard way when I was lured by a charming Spanish guy away from my friends, where he abrasively pinned me against a wall. Moments prior to this, he seemed shy and considerate, and within a blink of an eye, he was violating me until I was finally able to use my defense mechanisms and escape the situation. Sometimes we forget to apply our common sense and can wind up in a vulnerable state. Apply your common sense every day because that shit is important.
6. Timing is everything.
This, I know, is cliche. But it wouldn’t be cliche if it didn’t hold some sort of truth, right? I met some people who have changed my life, just by being in the right place at the right time. One of my greatest memories is often in reference with this old adage, when an utterly romantic situation occurred, but I won’t bore you with the gory details.
7. Make the most out of right now.
Time flies and the experiences you make right now will only be fragmented memories of your future. So savor the moments while they’re happening and don’t worry about what tomorrow brings, because in the blink of an eye, now will be gone.
8. Traveling is experiencing a culture.
It is getting to know your surroundings in a foreign place. It is learning a language. It’s eating different food. It is being able to acknowledge how these individual experiences have shaped you as a person. It’s about meeting people and learning through them as well as yourself.
9. Abandoning everything you know is liberating.
People say to step out of your comfort zone for a little while, but I think you should leap out of it. Leaving the United States on my own to experience another culture was exhilarating. It allows you to take a look at your country, habits and customs in a completely different light. It unveils the imperfections and highlights the subtle qualities that make where you come from, home. Suddenly, you realize you don’t live in this perfect bubble and that there is much, much more than what you think you know. You begin to learn in a way that no one can ever teach you in a classroom and that in itself is pretty special.
10. It’s okay to fall in love.
If Spain has taught me any lesson, it’s that falling in love is okay. I became completely vulnerable in the hands of this great country and what it had to offer me. I fell in love with their culture; one that is loving, friendly and relaxed. A place where taking your time is okay, where one is not swamped by a constant agenda and deadline. A culture where you savor your moments, your food, your friends and your lovers.
I fell in love with a city that is rich in history, architecture, and fiercely unpredictable weather patterns.
I fell in love with my friends — the people who were my family away from my family, the people who let me drink too much, the people who made me laugh, the people who knew me inside and out, the people who taught me from their own experiences, the people who ate far too much with me, the people who challenged me.
And I fell in love with someone.
I became aware of what I was capable of in terms of compassion, in ways I never thought I would experience until later on in life. The truth is, it’s happening all around us, right now. It just takes some savoring of your moments to realize it.