Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pre-Departure and Arrival (Prequel)

I was so full of things to say about my first week in Spain last post that I didn't write a single thing about preparing to leave, how I felt before my departure, and the trip itself. A few things are noteworthy, and end up being relevant even more so in retrospect.

The day before I left, my mom and Larry had their annual holiday party, which they plan for the first Saturday after the Epiphany/Three Kings' Day. This time, it coincided with my traveling and my grandmother's 88th birthday (thus it miraculously became a Bon Voyage/Happy 88th Birthday party). I felt very grateful to see all my loved ones before I left, including all my mom's children, all her siblings (my favorite aunts and uncles), a few cousins, my godmother Cheryl, my roommate Judith (who just flew in from Spain three days prior), my best friends including Ang, Sam, Lauren, and Maria, and of course Julius. I spent the night running around and juggling multiple conversations simultaneously and attempting to eat in the few moments I could sit. Although in my mind knew it was the last time in a long time I would see most of these people, my heart didn't quite believe it. So when everyone - and it really was almost everyone - asked me if I'm excited/thrilled/nervous/scared to go, my honest answer was, "It's tomorrow, and it still doesn't feel real." There were many highlights, including when my mom put on "Concert for George" and blasted it, dancing the entire length of the recording. It was really funny when it was just her breaking it down for songs like "Horse to the Water," but then it got really fun when the rest of us joined in for songs like "Taxman" and "My Sweet Lord."

I spent my last night with Julius at his house. In the morning we had a couple hours before he had to drop me off, and we spent it cleaning (his home was being washed from top to bottom for an Open House that same day). I ended up being glad to have menial chores to keep my mind off my undulating emotions. In fact, all week I'd been shamelessly clutching at distractions so I wouldn't think about how frightened I was to be leaving everything I was comfortable and happy with behind. I enjoyed a very loving, heartfelt goodbye with Julius' mom Chris, his dad Jules Sr., and his sister Seraphina.

Julius took me home. We told each other why we were thankful for one another. He took me in his arms and asked if I wanted him to sing something. For some reason hearing his voice singing so sweetly finally broke through the defenses I'd been building up against my own emotions, and then as I sang "Don't worry about a thing..." to him we both started sobbing. Rushing relief and pure fear gripped my chest - I finally showed how I scared and sorry I was. I shivered as I walked him to the door.

Ang came over in the afternoon and cheered me up, as she unfailingly does. We set up Skype, ate lunch and chatted with Aunt Nancy, Uncle Jimmy, Mom and Larry. She made me smile as we said goodbye.

I ran upstairs to grab my luggage at 5:30 and call Julius one last time before shutting off my phone for the next six months. My breath caught in my throat and I started panicking, but he talked me out of it, saying how good it'll feel to get to Spain and shut off the light and get into bed after all this. Downstairs my mom saw tears on my cheeks and how much I was shaking, and she told me to let it out. I wept very high-pitched and pathetically on her shoulder as she held me in a tight hug. I've never heard myself cry like that before. Aunt Nancy hugged me next, saying how she wanted to feel it too - our family's got some trouble with expressing emotions - she cried and gave me some words of encouragement. Then Uncle Jimmy gave me a big hug and told me this is what it's all about - you can read books all your life but you never really learn until you experience it, and traveling's the best way.

Mom and Larry drove me to the airport in the big white Buick, with all three of us squished up front so Mom we could see each other. That was the most intense car ride of my life: when I talked to Mom about Bonnie Miles and The Four Agreements I felt calm and pensive, but a split second later I would think of Julius or Ang and get suddenly dizzy, choked up, sick to my stomach and start tearing up all over again. By the end of the ride I was exhausted, and I hadn't even started flying yet! Walking into the airport and waiting in line at check-in, I was just a bundle of nerves. Mom made me smile and laugh by waving to me from the window like an enthusiastic madwoman.

The flight to London was smoother than my two past trans-Atlantic experiences. I slept most of the time and read Lorca's "Poet in New York," the bilingual edition Julie Abernathy gave to me who knows how long ago. I was on one of those planes that have little individual screens for each passenger with games, movies, and music to select. Eager to practice my Spanish, I found the five movies offered in the language and selected "500 Days of Summer/500 días con ella." I didn't think anything of its romantic comedy label or possibly painful storyline until a scene where the girl puts her hand on the boy's chest in a beautiful, intimate stomach plummeted. I quickly turned of the screen and shut my eyes to block out the image and the strange, uncontrollable ache. Grabbing my purse, I dug out my iPod, selected the soothing melodies of The Album Leaf and fell asleep.

Joe bought me my first legal alcohol of the journey: a half-pint of Stella in the Heathrow airport. He brought a 5-pound note just for that reason!

The whole flight to Madrid I slept on and off. When they gave us a snack an hour before arrival, I got so nervous that I felt sick. I realized I'd have to either mentally repress my butterflies or take out my iPod and put myself to sleep again. This time I selected Enya.

The landing was easy and my butterflies finally turned to excitement. The airport was massive - it was such a quest just getting to the baggage claim! Customs was surprisingly simple though; they didn't check our bags at all. Our tutor Manuel found us and talked our ears off (not for the last time!) then left us with Anna, the housing coordinator from our program. Katie from Oklahoma joined us and we took the bus to another terminal while we waited for other students to arrive. I spent my first Euros on Fanta and some pineapple.

As we embarked the bus at 6:30 we thought we were heading home; but alas, Anna and the bus driver took us out to the highway and back around to pick up straggling travelers so many times I lost count. Some from Colorado, another (Rich, the one I mentioned below) from Oklahoma and a huge group of students from Alabama climbed aboard...and as we drove away, Joe and I realized we lost Anna. I have no idea where she went that night, but another lady ended up getting us to Alcalá and depositing us where we were supposed to meet up with our host families. I was the last student of the whole batch to be picked up, about 10 minutes after the other two dozen students were already gone. It gave me time to memorize my surroundings and take photos.

Then Mercedes arrived in her Mercedes...

Just kidding, though I had to do it, right? Her son Alexis was strapped in to the back of her nondescript mini-van. The 7-year-old was all big, curious eyes and toothy grin. He has such an adorable voice and accent - talking with him was my first taste of really interacting with a Spaniard outside of the tutor-student role, and it was hard but fun.

When we finally got to my new home, Mercedes gave me a tour and explained how everything works. She said electricity here is very expensive and asked me to turn the heat off (which consists of two separate units, a ceiling/remote air heater and a halogen heater on the floor) when I go to bed or leave the room. She also taught me to close each door behind me so the heat in the rooms of the house doesn't overwork futilely to warm up the eternally cold hallways and spacious three-tiered staircase. I also know from living environmentally-conscious all my life to unplug my computer, cell phone charger, etc. when not in use.

We sat down to dinner after the tour. La abuela made tortilla and lamb (only the second time I've ever eaten it in my life). I told them about my family at home and all my siblings. Mercedes' interaction with her son is interesting for me to witness, because she's one of just a few mothers I've seen with little children. Alexis is a smart cookie; he tries to get away with a lot because he's an only child and has a brilliant smile. After dinner they asked me if I wanted to shower, and I said yes, very much (I'd been longing for a shower even more so than bed since Heathrow airport). The shower stall itself is the tiniest I've ever been in, but I make it work. I'm just glad to have hot water! At the end of the night, we discussed plans for breakfast and getting to the university for orientation the following morning. Mercedes gave me slippers to use since I didn't bring any - I didn't believe another house could be as cold as Mom's and Larry's...but I was wrong!

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