The year was 1994. I had just finished a semester abroad in Toledo, Spain, followed by about three weeks traveling around Europe on the cheap. My experience was a combination of culture shock, anxiety, enlightenment, and just plain fun. My Spanish was the best it had ever been, and I ate a ton of wonderful Mediterranean food but never gained a pound. (Probably a combination of my twenty-year-old metabolism and the unprocessed, healthy diet). However, by the time late May rolled around I was more than ready to head home.
Let’s start by saying I wasn’t one of those students who came back from abroad and had to make sure everyone around them knew how “worldly” they were. I wasn’t wearing a long peasant dress and constantly working references about Spain into normal conversation just to get attention. Okay so maybe I did think, “Wow, you have no idea how sheltered you are” when I ran into a few people, but for the most part I just felt so lucky that I lived in the United States and could come back to such a wonderful country. I had missed my family and friends so much; with email in its infancy, I had to rely on good old-fashioned letters during my entire stay. I saved every one. I also came to miss the little mundane everyday activities we all took for granted. For example, when I had composed a list of things I wanted to do over the summer, one of them was actually “go grocery shopping”. (Ironic since I now absolutely hate grocery shopping unless it’s Trader Joe’s or Costco.)
Now the second thing you need to know is that I had grown up in a family that was exposed to other cultures quite often. Even though I lived in a small town, my dad was a member of the local Rotary Club that would host exchange students every year. It was common for our family to host students for a weekend here or there; when I was in high school we hosted a Japanese girl for a semester. The whole experience with Rotary was based on kindness, fellowship, and generosity. My family was not compensated for hosting these students; we willingly took them in, took them places, and bought them Christmas gifts as if they were part of the family. That was just the way it was, so I somewhat expected the same kind of treatment when I studied overseas years later. I was so wrong.
So here we are back in Toledo, Spain.My last day abroad. I got up around 5:30 a.m. in order to catch a ride with a neighbor to the bus station. That’s right; my host family had already said their goodbyes the night before and were not actually taking me to the airport about an hour away. This was definitely not the send-off I had expected, but I knew that my host family was being paid to have me in their home. Despite this, I still felt hurt that our friendship was not worth a trip to the airport.
So instead there was Carlos, clearly annoyed he had to bring me to the bus station on his way to work. I struggled to get my suitcases down all the stairs to the waiting bus. Once in Madrid, I managed to find a taxi to the airport, relieved that I was almost there. Until we actually got to the airport, that is. The taxi driver did some calculations on a piece of paper, careful to include my 2 suitcases and the carry-on, then announced that I owed him $120.
I was cranky already and now this guy is trying to rip me off? I didn’t even have $120 on me. And here we had such a nice conversation in Spanish on the ride here…MIERDA. He tried to play nice and offered to help me with my bags as I went to find an ATM (and a police officer, which I never did find. They were probably on strike. Every other day someone was on strike in that damn country.)
Once I was robbed by the taxi driver I got into the long check-in line. As I was waiting, a chipper lady from the airline approached me and told me that the flight was oversold and she was looking for volunteers for a later flight. Since my family was driving 5-6 hours to O’Hare to meet me, this was out of the question. I smiled at her through gritted teeth and told her no while shaking my head wildly. My crazy eyes seemed to tell her: Leave. Now.
I checked in, found my gate and settled into a chair, now more than ever just wanting to get home to my land of Taco Bell and peanut butter. But alas my hell was not over. Soon after I sat down, a forty-something Spanish man decided to lie across the chairs directly across from me. He closed his eyes and seemed to be hunkering down for a pre-flight nap. But first, he had to take care of a little business. And by business, I mean sticking his hand down his pants and scratching like he had pants full of poison oak topped with mosquito bites, then sprinkled with an allergic reaction. He was not adjusting any balls, he was not playing with himself…he was just SCRATCHING.
I looked around the gate. Uh…yeah, is anyone else seeing this? Why isn’t anyone else looking disgusted? What is wrong with you people? This guy is rubbing himself so much his balls have turned into one huge human scratch-off ticket.
I closed my eyes and dreamed about kissing the ground when I landed in D.C.
Try not to be ethnocentric. Try not to be ethnocentric. Try not to ethnocentric.
Hell, all bets were off at that point. I can still appreciate other cultures and celebrate their differences while thinking my country is the best, right? Everyone should think their own country is the best! (I can’t speak for those countries that are so corrupt and full of terrorism that people need to leave – of course in that case then yes get the hell out.) But I’m not going to apologize for loving my country. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
Happy belated Independence Day, everyone! And may your days abroad be safe, merry and scratch-free.