Senior Grace Naify went on a trip to Spain and Greece from July 25 to Aug. 19, visiting chiefly Madrid and the Spanish countryside of Segovia.
While in Spain, she stayed with a friend, Andrea Acero, whom she had hosted in Sacramento last July as part of a foreign exchange program. Naify’s parents and brother joined her later in the trip to meet with the host family and then move on to Greece, where they stayed with friends.
Q: How did you plan this trip?
A: Last summer, Andrea came to stay with my family for a month in July (through an exchange program). I heard about the program from the lady who comes to visit (Spanish teacher Patricia Portillo’s) class every year and talks about it, and my family thought it would be a good idea.
We became really close, and Andrea ended up inviting me to come and stay with her (this summer). It wasn’t through the program or anything – it was personal.
It kind of just happened. It wasn’t planned to (host) a student and then visit them at their own home, but we clicked so well – she was such a good fit for our family – that we were like, “Well, might as well.”
My family doesn’t travel much, but we were overdue for a trip. We talked about it for a good six months leading up to it.
Q: How long was your trip?
A: I left on July 25th – I flew from Sacramento to Los Angeles with my dad, and then my dad had to leave me in the airport alone.
I flew by myself from LA to Madrid, and my (host) family picked me up in the airport.
I’ve flown alone before going from San Diego (to Sacramento). But then I was 16, and I was also walked to the gate. So this was the first time I was really alone – my dad wasn’t allowed to walk me to the gate – and plus I was in LAX, and it’s humongous.
Q: Were you nervous at all about about flying solo or the trip itself?
A: I was kinda worried in general because the mom in the family doesn’t speak any English, and the dad doesn’t either, really.
I was expecting when Andrea came to stay with us last summer that she wouldn’t speak perfect English and that I would be able to help her using my Spanish, and it would be an “equal” trade-off, but no. She speaks better English than I do! So I was kinda just worried about being with the family and speaking Spanish and not knowing anything and being embarrassed.
I wasn’t afraid of the flight (because) at least at that point everyone spoke English, and I was still in America, so I thought that if anything happened, it would be fine.
The flight was just boring and long – about 12 hours.
Q: How long did you spend in each place?
A: I was alone in Madrid with Andrea and her family for about a week, and then we (all) went to the countryside about an hour away. That was another three or four days.
Then my parents showed up in Madrid, so we went back to meet them for a day and then left them there to come back to the country. We stayed about a week, and then my parents showed up (in the countryside), and we were there for another four days or so before leaving for Greece on the 14th.
Q: What was Madrid like? What did you do there?
A: In Madrid I landed in the afternoon, which was nice because “Siesta time!” – and I was really tired.
I’ve traveled to Spain several times before, but this felt way different. One, I’d never been to Madrid before, and two, while sometimes we did touristy stuff – like go to the Prado, a big art museum there – the off part was just doing normal things.
Andrea’s family lived almost in the center of Madrid, so it was a lot of walking around, and the first day they went around showing me things like, “Oh, here’s where the king and queen lived!”
(Yes, there was) a lot of sightseeing – it is the capital, after all – but other times I was just living a normal, non-tourist life with Andrea. It was kind of just like, “Eh, now I’m over here.”
Q: What did you do while exploring Madrid with Andrea?
A: Andrea is already 18 and going to university, and she wants to be a nurse, so we took the subway to go to her school. Her school was also connected to a hospital, so I got to spend time there, which was interesting.
On the first or second day, I met two of her friends, and we went out to this hill with an observatory to see the eclipse.
It was cool to see things from a 17- or 18-year-old point of view instead of travelling with my parents or being a tourist.
Q: How did you do with the constant Spanish?
A: At the beginning, it was harder. I was nervous to leave (home too). It was overwhelming; I can do conversational Spanish, but do you know how difficult it is to charm people in a language that you’re not super comfortable in?
It was a lot of work, and I was exhausted every day; I was just counting the days until my parents showed up. I wasn’t homesick, but I thought I would be more comfortable with them. My brain also wanted a break to speak English.
I was also really worried about not being able to understand the accents. (Portillo) is Salvadorian, and all the friends I have who I speak Spanish with are Mexican, so the Spain accent I was really worried about.
At first the speaking part was a little difficult, but I started to get OK with it, and I could just start spewing stuff out. I found out that I knew a lot more than I expected.
I was actually really thankful for (Portillo and her class). Seriously, she’s the only reason I’m not dead right now.
Q: What about the shift from Madrilenian Spanish to country-influenced Spanish?
A: Andrea had a lot of really well-educated friends who had also gone on exchanges before, and I could even have conversations about English with them. The country kids didn’t speak any English, though. That was a little more difficult. They sound kinda different from (the people in Spain), and their Spanish is also a little improper.
At first, understanding “vosotros” was difficult because (Portillo) doesn’t teach us that. I also realized that a lot of words are different in Spain compared to Latin America. Like I would say stuff, and everyone would just be like, “What?” So that took a little bit of getting used to.
Now I’m probably going to come back, and (Portillo) will be like, “What are you saying?” because I picked up stuff without knowing.
It got easier near the end, and right now I think I sound weird speaking English. (That’s) kind of what immersion does to you.
Q: So did your Spanish improve significantly as a result?
A: Well, I got good at the conversational Spanish – where I’m from, what I like – but my parents thought all of a sudden that I would be able to translate everything, but … no.
No one in my family really speaks Spanish, (and) one time on the trip, we were sitting after we got off the plane, and we totally forgot about our luggage. So my dad and brother ran off to find it, and then we couldn’t figure out where they were (by their description). Then my mom was like, “Ask someone where that is!” But I didn’t know what it was called, and this was like “airport Spanish” – I didn’t know it! I kept looking at the signs and trying to ask (an employee) for help.
My phrases improved a lot, though. I knew the words and the verbs, but it was hard to put everything together. So I picked up on how they phrased things and certain things.
Andrea helped me a lot. She pushed me – at the beginning, I tried to speak in Spanish, and then I’d give up and want to go back to English. But she would stop me, say, “No, you got this,” and get me to figure it out.
Honestly, just listening to her and talking to her friends really helped.
Q: What was it like to adjust to living with strangers? Were you more of a guest or part of the family?
A: Obviously, I was trying to help out as much as I could. But certain things they wouldn’t let me do, (like) doing the dishes. In a way, they were like my other parents: very welcoming and very comforting but also just kinda more casual.
At first I would just nod and smile to (Andrea’s parents). The mom went out with us a lot, and she talked a lot. We’d walk around the city, and she would be like our own little tour guide, explaining everything about the city. I would just say, “OK,” and I could technically have a conversation with her, but I was more comfortable speaking Spanish with Andrea. If I made a mistake, the mom would just repeat the correct way, but Andrea would help me or push me to explain it in a different way.
In the beginning they just let me sit in my room. At first I was mentally exhausted from all the Spanish and the jet lag, and I was really big on the “siesta” and staying in my room a lot, sleeping a lot, just to kind of avoid the Spanish. But at the end it would be like, “Grace, get your butt out here! We’re watching TV.”
(Photos used by permission of Naify)
Q: After living in Madrid for a week, what was moving to the country like?
A: The country house was a lot larger, (so) we’d spend a lot of time in the house. We started watching “Black Mirror” in Spanish; we watched one or maybe two episodes in Madrid, but once we got to the country, Andrea and I just binged it.
There’s not much to do in the country, although there was a group of teenagers we’d hang out with. Around 6 (p.m.) we’d go out to this place (with) a restaurant, tennis courts and a football court – which is like urban soccer, because that’s a big thing there – and we’d be there until 10. Then we’d go home and eat, and at 11 we’d go out again and sit in the street until 1 or 2 a.m. We’d talk, and, of course, the teenagers would smoke because it’s Europe.
We definitely spent more time out doing stuff while in Madrid.
There’s just more to do (there). If we weren’t doing touristy stuff with her parents, then Andrea and her friends and I would go shopping or spend most of the day out.
Most teenagers don’t really do siesta, but one time we were out with the mom, and I was so glad because I was so tired. We would go out from 1 to 3 (p.m.), and then she’d be like, “OK, siesta time!” And I would be like, “Oh, OK,” (but internally) I was like, “Thank God! I’m dying.”
Q: What were some of the other cultural shocks that you had to get used to?
A: In the country, I had to get to culturally staying out late. I can stay up late – all-nighters are my thing – but we would be out late. I couldn’t drink or party, but it was weird to be sitting out in the street until 2 a.m.
Q: What about food – any strange encounters?
A: I’d been to Spain a few times before, and my dad loves to cook, so I was pretty used to the food in general.
There was one weird thing, though. Maybe it was just the family, but when Andrea was with us (last summer), we let her pick out whatever she wanted from the grocery store, especially with snacks or breakfast. So we were asking her in the car before getting to the store, “What do you eat for breakfast?” And she said, “Cookies.” We were like, “What?”
And when we got to the store, she really did pick out chocolate chip cookies to eat.
It was the same thing when I was there. I’d eat the same thing as them – literally, I’d eat cookies or a donut for breakfast.
I think it’s kind of like two extremes. Sometimes people eat ham and cheese for breakfast – regular food – sometimes they eat straight-up cookies.
Andrea also would put sweetened condensed milk on her cookie and eat that, but that was way too sweet for me.
At the beginning, I was like, “I can’t do this.” I even brought a bunch of apples from the market and ate those. But by the end, I was fine with the cookies.
Q: What did you do during your few days in Greece?
A: We stayed with a family whose son is friends with my brother. They had a house in Greece, so we decided to stay with them since we were already in Europe.
We were an hour outside of a city called Thessaloniki, near a village called Halkidiki. Their house is right on the beach, and the first day we just walked to the beach.
It was full-on vacation mode – basically just sitting and eating. I also had my first glass of wine! We were at a really nice restaurant, and the waiter asked me, “Can I serve you some wine?” I probably didn’t look underage because the age limit (18) is so low there.
I still don’t know how I feel about wine, though.
Q: What about the trip was most unexpected?
A: I actually made serious friends in the country. Initially, I wasn’t looking forward to the country. I was like, “Oh, there won’t be much to do,” and I was sad to leave Madrid. But when my parents arrived in Madrid, Andrea asked me if I wanted to stay with them, and I said, “No! I want to go back to the country.”
I still talk to some of the people I met there. And even though I can go back to Madrid, I’ll never have that same experience again. I’ll never be living as a teenager, hanging out with all of these people.
Q: What would you say to people about trying out this kind of exchange system? Should they do it, either hosting or being hosted?
A: I can’t speak for every case, but from what I’ve seen, if you have the resources – like a good place to stay – it’s something that I don’t think you’ll regret.
I have a friend who did the same program as I did last year (with hosting someone), and she was in Spain the same time I was, visiting her own host person. I’m probably gonna be friends with Andrea forever, and hopefully the same thing (will happen) with the people I met this summer.
So I would say, “Yeah, do it.” And don’t be afraid to go out there.
—By Mohini Rye