Back in the end of December I made what was a very difficult decision. I was going to leave Spain. I had originally planned on staying in Spain until April, but I was having more difficulty in Spain than I imagined. Of course there were incredible successes too. Every day I could feel my Spanish improving. I no longer had any trouble understanding anything that was said to me, could easily respond, and was even beginning to understand random conversations that I heard on the street. I was learning a lot at my Spanish classes at Universidad Nebrija, and having fun playing hockey for S.A.D. Majadahonda, the local club.
Despite this I was feeling lonely, and actually a little bit trapped. I was going to school with juniors in college who traveled every weekend while I stayed in Spain to play hockey, so I was never able to make any close friendships with any of them, and the guys who I was playing hockey with were very nice to me, but it seemed like we were always a bit separated by the knowledge that I would be leaving in April. That meant that none of us ever put a lot of effort into getting that close. I also had a big logistical problem: My classes ended at two, and hockey didn’t start until eight or nine, leaving me with six to seven hours of awkward time, not enough free time to do anything I really wanted to do like travel, and too much time to spend reading at a cafe or watching Netflix every day. Basically I had a lot of free time, but it didn’t ever line up in ways that I could use very well. On top of all this I was not as comfortable living in a city as I thought I was going to be. I have lived in a tiny town in New Hampshire all my life, so Madrid was a big change.
I was completing my goal of becoming fluent in Spanish, but I really didn’t feel like I was enjoying myself as much as I should be on my gap year. So, I started looking into programs in Spanish speaking countries I that I could do. I knew that I was interested in a program because I realized that it was realistically a mistake to try to do everything on my own in Spain. Since I was on my own, I didn’t really share the same experience as anyone else, but on a program everyone is on their own so I figured it would be easier to make strong connections. Pretty soon I was drawn to NOLS Patagonia. They ran a cultural expedition through the Chilean Patagonia that promised 31 days of backpacking and cultural interactions. This sounded perfect, the outdoors, speaking Spanish with locals, getting to meet new people, it checked everything off on the list of things that I wanted. But even then I was not totally sure if I wanted to leave. As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” I started to realize that I actually had grown closer with my Spanish hockey team than I had realized. The idea of telling them I was leaving was daunting. After. Several days of mulling it over I finally decided to sign up for the NOLS course, and to leave Spain in late December. Telling people that I was leaving early was certainly not the most enjoyable experience, but I knew that I wanted to make a change, so I did it anyway.
None of this is to say that I didn’t have an amazing experience in Spain, I would not trade what I learned for anything. Did I make mistakes? Of course, but the ability to speak to people that I never would have been able to before makes every mistake I made worth it 10 times over. I do want to help others learn from the mistakes I made though. If you are reading this blog and trying to plan a gap year the two biggest questions I would ask you are as follows:
What will your day to day life look like? and Who will your friends be?
I would ask you to think about these two questions hard, because these two questions are the root of where I went wrong. As I was planning my gap year I would have said I will spend my days learning Spanish and playing hockey and my friends will be my classmates and hockey teammates. But I didn’t consider how these two things would affect each other. Since I had hockey every nearly every night and every weekend it was difficult to spend time with my classmates outside of class, and since I didn’t go to school with any of my teammates it was difficult to spend time with them outside the rink. Having a game every weekend for hockey was also difficult, because while I love hockey it made traveling, which is pretty much synonymous with being in Europe, pretty difficult to arrange. So, make sure you think about these questions so that you don’t do what I did, make yourself simultaneously too busy and not busy enough.
So, reader who may be considering taking a gap year, should any of this make you reconsider? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I now want to talk about some of the many amazing things times I had living in Spain with some pictures.
Playing hockey in Spain:
Playing hockey for S.A.D. Majadahonda was definitely one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. As anyone who has played a sport knows, communication with your teammates is key, and I had to communicate in Spanish. This forced me to get good at listening to people and being able to respond quickly. It also gave me the opportunity to travel throughout Spain with Spaniards. Every weekend that we had an away game we would leave the night before on a bus, play a game, and then have at least 6 hours to explore the city. Experiencing Spain with Spanish hockey players was probably one of the most unique experiences I had.
My Host Family:
My host family were probably the nicest people I had ever met. They were the real reason that leaving Spain was so difficult. They brought me to their summer home up north, I want to their grandparents 50th wedding anniversary. They treated me like I was their son. I will be forever grateful to them.
Classes at Universidad Nebrija:
I am actually amazed at how much I learned in 4 months. I started off with a pretty solid foundation, but wow, I honestly never imagined that I would understand Spanish as well as I do now. When I started out, speaking was easier than understanding, but now I can understand everything so speaking is definitely the harder part.
I was lucky to have three close friends from home in Europe at the same time I was there. One in Salamanca, Spain, just a few hours north of me in Madrid, one in Switzerland, and one in London. I traveled the most with the one in Salamanca, and the friends that he had made on his first semester at Colby College that he spent in Spain. We went to Barceonla (my friend in England actually came on that trip too) and Milan together. I also went to visit both friends in Switzerland and London.
So, am I glad I spent 4 months in Spain? Yes I am. Am I happy I left when I did to pursue other things? Yes I am. Would I change some things? Yes. Would I trade my experience for anything? Absolutely not!