Author: Marisa LaValette
As the plane began its descent towards Barajas Airport in Madrid, I have to say I felt like a little bit of a poser. I had been teaching Spanish for four years already, but this would be my very first visit to Spain. As I climbed into one of the white Mercedes taxis lined up along the airport curb, the driver asked me immediately “¿Es Mexicana?” He wanted to know if I was Mexican, which in its own way was validating. I intentionally teach my students to speak with a Mexican accent, or any accent from the 10 other Spanish-speaking countries where I have spent time.
Money was the factor that kept me away from Spain from so long. In Guatemala, I had a place to lay my head for 70 cents per night, and a grand meal ran me about two dollars. A beach front room in El Salvador was a reality at $7 nightly, and I could even get a decent hotel in Mexico City for $25 per night. Friends of mine on the European backpacking trail reported back to me about bug-infested dorm
beds for $65. If that’s what $65 could get me, I wasn’t interested.
Home-sharing options changed all that for me, along with the fact that I was
finally, more or less, an adult, and could spend more than $10 a day on travel. My
trip to Spain was made possible, thanks to finding accommodations that would
never run me more than $30 daily. I still wonder if this great rate was aided by
Spain’s wounded economy, but while traveling the stunning country, I was
completely unaware of the economic recession, as people seemed to have incredibly high standards of living, at least in those places where I traveled.
My first stop, like many travelers to Spain, was the Prado Museum in the heart of Madrid. As I took in the summer’s El Greco exhibit, I realized that I could not have appreciated El Greco before having become a Spanish teacher. At the risk of sounding smug, I decided right there in Madrid that the rendition I had of El Greco in
my bedroom in San Francisco was exceedingly better than the amazing works I
gazed upon in all their splendor in front of me, in one of the world’s finest art
venues. An 8th grade student had painted for me View of Toledo as a birthday
present. It differed from the somber original in that she infused her own choice of
violets, aquas, and teals throughout her interpretation. Had I never had the privilege
of teaching this particular student, the exhibit in Madrid wouldn’t have meant much
to me personally, albeit it impressive.
My relation to the El Greco exhibit at the Prado was not my only personally
significant experience in Spain. As a solo female traveler, I faced the ever-dreaded
experience of dining alone. While traveling alone in the past throughout all of
Central America, I was younger and tended to follow the backpacker trails where
one is hardly ever alone. Being a little bit older and eating at nicer restaurants, I
faced the traveler’s dilemma of being surrounded by people but being truly by
oneself. I treated myself to a pricier than usual seafood dinner in Nerja on Spain’s
Costa del Sol on an outdoor balcony at sunset looking towards Morocco. Instead of
marinating in any feelings of loneliness, I congratulated myself on all the ways my
identity had developed over the past few years from early-20s backpacker to late-20s sophisticated traveler, and I’m happy to say that I’ve managed to hang on to my raw adventurous spirit from those earlier travel days while developing more refined aspects of my personality.
My Spanish adventure came together for me when I arrived in Valencia on
Spain’s Mediterranean coast. It reminded me so much of my current home in San
Francisco that I immediately felt that I fit in.
Valencia is fashionable and trendy, but its grungy neighborhoods, particularly Barrio Russafa where I stayed, keep it real. The old plazas and cathedrals show off Valencia’s classy side, while the miles of beach keep things fun, hot, and sandy.
I felt an extreme sense of irony while exploring Valencia. In addition to being a Spanish teacher, I shepherd my STEM program students to visits at Silicon Valley tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. In Valencia, I encountered a huge emphasis on technology, engineering, and forward-thinking architecture as seen in the city’s Ciudad de las Artes y las Sciencias complex. I caught an iMax at the eyelid shaped Hemisfèric and explored the interactive aquarium Oceanogràfic complete with shark viewing tunnels and outdoor marine bird exhibits.
On top of the city’s innovation, my experience in Valencia really got to me as it harkened back to my lifelong love of languages –Spanish, German, and Arabic to date. While I got along just fine with Castilian Spanish in Valencia, I look forward to a time when I might live in Valencia (perhaps teaching English!) and learn Catalan. In fact, I had to learn how to type the “grave”accent mark while writing this reflection, which only serves to feed further into my lifelong passion for learning and teaching.
Ultimately my trip to Spain taught me that when it comes to travel, you never
“miss the window.” It’s never too late to go somewhere you’ve always had your
heart set on visiting. In fact, when you finally do get to go, the timing may be just
right. The culmination of your life’s experiences will show you how to find the
reflection of your own identity in a brand new place.
***Since I’m in Antarctica without internet access for 22 consecutive days, I’ve selected a few articles from other great bloggers to share with you. I’ll be back on February 3rd, 2015 with loads of fantastic adventures from Antarctica to share. Chat soon.***