I kept a journal of sorts while on exchange. Looking back on the experience a year and a half later, I’m glad I have things like that – random entries and even conversations with friends on Whatsapp and Facebook to look back on when I’m feeling nostalgic, which is often.
The Lead Up
Before going to Salamanca, I had no idea what to expect. The thing is, people who go on exchange talk about their experiences all the time, but no matter what they say, you never really know how things will pan out for you. Personally, I spent time wondering about all the stereotypes of the country and how I could possibly fit into them. I mean, I sort of liked ham, siestas could be great if I was sleep deprived, and bulls were cute (actually bullfights were one aspect of Spanish culture that I never took to, even eight and a half months after living and travelling there), but I couldn’t picture myself actually living in Spain, rather than being just another of your average ignorant tourists.
My exchange was my first time truly having to fend for myself, and I think the prospect of that was what excited me the most. Every challenge seemed surmountable, every struggle an adventure.
Apart from getting to go on exchange in the first place, amid my cluelessness about Spanish bureaucracy and how to obtain a visa (let’s not even go there! It suffices to say it was an ordeal), the hardest thing, unexpectedly, was finding a flat. Everyone raved about how easy a task this was in Salamanca so I wasn’t particularly stressed. But as the date for my departure from New Zealand loomed closer, I started having some tingling anxiety about the prospect of being homeless in a country where I didn’t speak the language (well, not like a native in any case).
I sorted out my hostel for two nights and, fuelled only by optimism, I set to sending messages to flat owners and potential flatmates about seeing their apartments in my first days of arriving in the city.
The trouble was that after my first eleven-hour flight to Hong Kong, I was met with a fleet of messages from said potential flatmates saying they’d already leased the rooms to others. If anything, I at least remained more or less calm and hopeful. I was sitting in Hong Kong airport with no way of really changing my situation other than to use the free airport wifi to keep looking, messaging, trying.
My second, thirteen-hour flight from Hong Kong to Madrid was my first chance since leaving NZ to properly practice my Spanish as I ended up seated next to a Spanish couple who were super majo (incidentally, they were the ones who taught me the expressions “majo/a” and “es un coñazo”, which have both turned out to be pretty useful while living in Spain, for very distinct reasons — google translate might be useful here if you don’t speak Spanish *wink*).
And of course, I eventually ended up in Madrid, moved through the motions, met a friendly but very imposing middle-aged man from Tenerife who invited me to his house in las Islas Canarias (I politely declined) but who actually genuinely seemed nice and accompanied me to the metro station in an effort to help me figure out how to get to the Estación Sur de Madrid in order to catch a bus to Salamanca. I ended up taking a taxi because I hadn’t slept at all during the flights and could see myself somehow ending up in France by mistake, but I was still so grateful that he’d seen me clearly struggling to make sense of things in my jet-lagged, sleepy state, and had gone out of his way to offer help.
Developments One Month Down
Something I noticed while being in Salamanca during that first month, and continue to see while travelling is that people LOVE New Zealand. Majority didn’t know where it is, who lives there, or anything about it at all really, but what they know is that they love it. I think it’s just the aspect of being an island located so far away, that makes it automatically possess this exotic charm. I’m not complaining at all though! I met so many amazing people from all over the world on my exchange, and they, as well as the city of Salamanca, welcomed me with open arms. If there were any pearl of wisdom I could offer, if you’re thinking of moving overseas or going on exchange, it would be to take every opportunity you can to make friends and meet people. Find out what social groups are operating on campus or in your new hometown, source relevant clubs and organisations to your interests. Upon arriving in Salamanca, I walked deliriously from the bus station to the hostel and what should have been a twenty minute walk, according to Google Maps, turned into an hour long trawl through the beautifully cobbled streets. I was so tired I walked right past the cathedral without even really noticing. Despite all this, I still went to a welcome party organised by Erasmus (an organisation that allows European students to study abroad and receive a scholarship while doing so – lucky for some!!) and the people I met at this party ended up being some of my closest friends while living in Salamanca, and I still keep in contact with them.
My jetlagged self ended up settling a little bit when it came to flatting – I unknowingly employed the services of an agent to find the flat and stupidly agreed to pay this guy 80 euros commission – a ridiculous amount of money, but hey, I’ll blame it on the jetlag, my desperation to not be homeless, and also my naivety back then, I guess! I should have looked for more flats or reflected a bit more before paying, but I’ve at least learned from my mistake (here’s hoping, anyway). At the time, I wrote in my diary that a skill I was hoping to acquire while on exchange was the art of finding the happy medium between complete spontaneity/rashness and over-consideration. I’m not sure I can say I’ve completely managed to master that even now, but one month into my exchange, I know I was feeling pretty content with how things turned out – our flat building was flawed, like any other, but it was home, and when it was filled with people was when I liked it best!