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Leaving a Culture You Just Began to Know

By: Callie Schaden |

Arriving in a completely different country without knowing the language or having any idea what to expect is hard, but leaving that country at the end of three months is harder. Disclaimer—if you’re anything like me, you’ll start the semester thinking this couldn’t possibly be true and not realize you’re wrong until it’s too late. My first week in Valencia was a whirlwind of not understanding anything. I’d taken Spanish classes for five years but I still felt like I was navigating the city in a glass bubble. I could hear everyone speaking but all the words blurred together into a meaningless jumble I couldn’t sort out. I ordered coffee and hoped the barista wouldn’t ask me any questions. I didn’t want to be alone with my host mom for fear of having to ask her to repeat herself three times before I knew what she was saying.

I don’t remember exactly when, but the glass bubble eventually started to melt away. The words were finally distinguishing themselves so that my brain could process their meaning. I began to embrace my slow conversations with my host mom and her patience with my many repetitions of, “Lo siento, pero no entiendo”, telling her I didn’t understand. The barista at my favorite coffee shop even made a joke and I knew exactly what it meant. Along with my increasing comfort with the language, my comfort with the culture was also increasing. After just a few weeks, I had settled into a routine: class, run, lunch, tea, relax at the park, homework in the house when the sun went down, dinner, telenovela (No Sueltes Mi Mano—highly recommend), bedtime. My roommates and I started the semester taking the bus from our apartment to the university, but quickly discovered that we actually preferred the two-mile walk.

Callie Schaden, “My Barrio”, 2022

Walking made me a part of the city’s routine. My shoes saw the same sidewalks every day, they passed the same man with a cigarette between his fingers buying coffee at Fresa y Chocolate, the same two ladies on an aerobic walk through the park, the same mom and kids running to make the bus on time. And I sank comfortably into the idea that the coffee man and the walking ladies probably thought nothing of the girl with the grey backpack. Nobody knew I was studying abroad from a small town in Ohio. Nobody knew I wasn’t Valenciana, and for some reason that made me feel more like a part of Valencia than anything.

Three months, of course, isn’t enough time to get to know an entire culture, especially when the new culture includes a new language. But it is just enough time to start feeling at home, so that right when you feel the most comfortable, it’s time to go back home. I stood on a thin line between knowing I wasn’t a local but not feeling at all like a tourist. After only a few weeks the barista at my frequented coffee shop knew my order by memory. When friends visited I showed them the places that had become familiar to me, I communicated in a language they didn’t understand, and I walked the streets like they were home. And—I realized as I pointed out these places that were a part of my routine—it had become another home to me.

My last week in Valencia, I became hyperaware of all the things I was leaving that I had grown so accustomed to. One of those things was the comfort of my barrio. We lived in a quieter part of the city, for which I was incredibly grateful because I had never really experienced a city so up close and personal. It was nice to be walking distance from the center of everything while still being able to retreat to something calmer. Our apartment overlooked the barrio’s plaza and there were four small restaurants close by that were always buzzing with chatter and laughter. When I went on runs I would pass a café, a bakery, a fruit stand, and a karate gym for kids; and the faces in the shops were familiar to me. When I came back I would notice the flowers in the window boxes, the soft pastel colors of the buildings, and the trees planted every so often along the road.

Callie Schaden, “Walking Back”, 2022

I remember one of my last walks back, thinking about how everyone had said, “It’ll go so fast,” and how I had known they were right, but how I couldn’t believe that it was already the end of my third and final month in Valencia. I had just begun to know my way around the city and in less than a week I’d never walk those same familiar routes again. I looked back on the Callie from the beginning of the semester and thought about how she couldn’t give directions to people on the street because of the language barrier and the lack of familiarity with the city, and then I thought about her at the end of the semester. How she could understand when a woman asked her where the nearest tobacco shop was, and how she knew how to explain it to her. The last week was bittersweet. I wanted to go home but I didn’t want to leave. I felt like I wasn’t ready to go, but I could see that I’d grown so much.

Now I know this sounds kind of sappy and dramatic, but leaving Spain felt a bit like I was mourning some kind of loss. And there’s multiple layers to that. I wasn’t the same person I’d been when I got there. I hadn’t completely changed personalities or anything like that, but I’d grown a lot—in my language skills, in my cultural awareness, in my horizons that had expanded not just from cornfields to cityscapes, but far across the bounds of my comfort zone. What’s more is that I had been away from all my friends and family while this change was happening. It was only three months, but it was a whole—important—part of my life that they would never get to experience or fully understand. I couldn’t bring that back in stories or pictures or souvenirs no matter how hard I tried, and that made me feel like I’d left a little bit of myself in Valencia. I said goodbye to this whole new life I’d lived after only three short months. Sometimes when I look back it feels like I was never even there. But I was, and I think that part of me will stay there forever.

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Callie Schaden is currently an English and Spanish student at Cedarville University. She grew up in a small town in Ohio and has expanded her horizons in El Salvador and Valencia, Spain, two places which have given her a love for the Spanish language and a desire to continue learning outside of her native tongue.

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