MADRID — It was my first night in Spain, and my enclave group was spending it the way every group of underage Americans does in Europe — in a bar. While waiting for another round of drinks, a few of the people at my table began bouncing Euros into an empty shot glass. Within thirty seconds of smacking the coins against the lacquered surface, a bald man, who looked eerily similar to the head judge on Top Chef, and his wife beelined our table.
“Whenever I hear someone playing quarters I’m like a dog when his dinner bell rings,” he said with a thick Chicago accent.
That was it. The Americans had found us.
An all-too-similar story happened my second night in the country, when my group found itself in an Irish bar being bought shots by a sketchy Texan who claimed to work for NASA and insisted that we stay for ten more minutes, just so he could have people to speak to in English.
I brushed off the two incidences as a mere product of my group’s excitement for being in a new country — when we talk to each other, we don’t say things, we shout them at the top of our lungs. But as the days went by, I noticed everywhere my group went, any Americans within a four block radius would inevitably find us. I wondered what it was about my group that was attracting every Yankee this side of the Pyrenees. Were we emitting some sort of serum that repelled all Spaniards but attracted Americans like dogs to a dinner bell?
There are a lot of things you learn about yourself while traveling abroad: how well you can handle new situations and manage your money, as well as how many pork-flavored products your body can handle. Most prominently, however, is the realization of just how American you really are. Being a part of a large group of Americans makes it even more obvious: we’re loud, we’re jaded and we take lots of pictures. And, for some reason, we all seem to attract each other.
At first, I was incredibly grateful and excited to be talking to people who understood my language and culture — as well as how to properly play quarters. But as the weeks went by, I found myself pretending to not speak English and avoiding Americans at all costs, even though all I wanted was to be able to talk to someone who fully understood what I was saying.
This brings me to my biggest personal debacle so far on this trip. Which would I rather do: fit in with my group and stick out like a sore American thumb or attempt to become more Spanish with a glass of sangria in one hand and a pair of super skinny jeans to boot?
During my group’s orientation, the program coordinator talked about culture shock and how some students tend to either completely shut themselves out of their new surroundings or delve into the new culture and sometimes lose themselves in the process.
The more I thought about the concept of culture shock and clinging to people who are similar to myself, I decided to make a conscious effort to somehow balance my dual Spanish and American. During my first day in Spain, the program coordinator taught my group the most important phrase we’ve learned so far — “no pasa nada” — which means not worrying about anything since everything will work out in the end. I decided to not waste my time being preoccupied with how American or un-American I look or act and simply soak up all I can from Spain.
Nevertheless, everything came full circle last night, when an American couple decked in fanny packs and “I Love Madrid” T-shirts approached me for directions while I was waiting for my bus. Knowing very well that I was picked because of how American I looked, I froze, but then realized I actually knew how to get where they wanted to go. I confidently pointed them to the next street over and boarded my bus proud of myself for knowing something Madrid-related.
While I may not be able to call myself a Spaniard by the time the semester is over, at least I know I have a future as a Spanish-American directional liaison.