After three months in South America and six weeks of student teaching Catholic high school girls, I headed to Burgos, Spain, with 30 students and a handful of professors from Iowa State and the University of Iowa. It would be my way of earning the final credits of my dual degree.
Linda, a high school acquaintance from U of I, asked to be my roommate. What I didn’t know when I agreed was that she was also coming with her boyfriend and that she would spend most of her time with him.
We were the last two people dropped off by the bus, meaning we were the furthest out from the campus and maybe given the last choice of host families.
I presented Ismael and Teo with the popcorn and package of Snickers bars I’d brought as hostess gifts.
“Pig food!” Teo said about her gift of corn kernels.
She took the Snickers package, and I never saw it again.
Unlike the host family I’d dreamed of, this one seemed to be doing it less for cultural gain and more for profit. The refrigerator had a lock on it. After a few weeks, Teo turned off the hot water, so we were forced to take cold showers. Near the end of our six-seek stay, she filled up the tub with laundry, so we couldn’t take any type of showers, cold or hot. We washed our hair in icy water in the shallow bathroom sink.
The meals were coffee and sweet biscuit cookies for breakfast, a large sit-down meal midday after our classes had ended, and a late night supper, which was the worst. Teo would fry two eggs per person, plate them sunny-side up (runny yolks), and then go watch her TV show for 30 minutes before calling us to supper. The cold eggs would be floating in green olive oil, and I couldn’t pretend to eat them. To this day I don’t love eggs too much, or olive oil, either.
My accent was wrong to Teo. After three months in South America, I was fluent but didn’t pronounce words the Spain way. Some Spanish king with a lisp had made his subjects say soft c’s and all z’s like a soft th sound (teeth and lips only, no vocals). So the word for beer — cerveza, sounded like thehr VEH thah. I said it wrong, unaccustomed to lisping my words.
“I can’t understand her!” Teo would tell my roommate, pointing to me.
Teo’s comments did little to boost my confidence to speak at her dinner table. Linda entertained the family while I choked down the liver and onions. Mostly I survived on bread, fruit, table wine, and lots of trips to las pastelerias (the bakeries) on every corner.
Every day on the way home from classes, I would stop ay the huge cathedral. I am not Catholic, but I would wander inside to look at all the lit candles, the altars, the figurines of Mary and Jesus, and remind myself that if I could survive three months running around South America with a blond, buxom, non-Spanish speaking roommate, I could survive anything.
The students were clique-ish, the U of Iowa students glomming onto their professors for nights out in cafes, and the Iowa State students, two years younger than me, glomming onto each other. My roommate was off with her boyfriend, and I was alone walking the several blocks back to the austere apartment with the locked refrigerator.
I spent a good deal of time in my room studying, and less time out in the world soaking up the culture. I found out later that I was taking two more classes than everyone else. They were going for 9 credits, I was going for fifteen. I had no choice if I wanted a second degree. I would graduate the day after we got home.
Linda went out with me one night after a fight with her boyfriend. We walked home at 1:00 a.m. She was drunk, and a car of men she’d been flirting with followed us. One guy got out and tried to pull Linda into the car. He had her by the arm, and I dug my fingernails into his flesh. He let go, and I pulled Linda into the locked entry of our apartment building. After that people from Iowa nicknamed me las uñas.
The last two weeks we traveled to Barcelona, Granada (the palace of Alhambra), Cordoba, Segovia, Toledo, and Madrid. Since I’d made no friends I roomed with Joy, the squeaky clean, cheerful teetotal-ing member of the group. Once, the bus left a restaurant without me while I was in the bathroom. No one even missed me, and I had to walk to the church at the top of a huge hill before the professors realized I was missing and came back to find me.
The bus pulled up, and the door opened. I climbed aboard, sat down, and didn’t say a word. What was there to say? I was exhausted, having had a beer at lunch, and no one said a word to me.
The day we went to the Madrid airport to go home, our charter flight didn’t exist, so we had to divert to Morocco and spend the night before we could head back to New York. We were given a huge feast as part of the deal. When we landed in New York City, I saw the headlines, Elvis is Dead. It was the first English I’d seen in two months.
We got our connection to Chicago and then Des Moines. I was pooped but had to get up the next day to go to Ames to walk for summer graduation. My mother had insisted. My weight was up from all the baked goods, and my hair was short from not being able to wash it too much. I was glad to be back in the states and to be done with college.
Couldda Wouldda Shouldda
I don’t regret going to Spain, but it sure wasn’t the trip I expected. It was too close on the heels of the South American trip, and instead of being one of two student teachers taking on the world, I was the forgotten one of thirty, too old, and too busy studying.