I think of my life as a collection of stories: colourful tales that I gather, one by one, as I move through my days. These stories weave themselves together, a patchwork quilt of
smells, tastes, feelings, memories and colours.
Five years ago, I decided that I needed to leave Canada in order to experience what it was like to live life in another country. I wanted my stories to be filled with new sights and sounds and places.
I chose to live and work in Madrid, Spain for two years. I threw myself into a country where I knew no one at all, to see how I would fare. Much to my surprise, I actually learned to speak a language I had known only through reading and writing.
It was an eye-opening adventure. My journey was full of joy, loneliness, exhilaration, uncertainty and a lot of growth.
Sure, I was not making too much money and living a rather simple existence, but I saw so many wonderful things. A starry sky like I have never seen in a small Spanish town in the south of Spain. A beach music festival in Zambujeira Do Mar (Portugal), where I
saw Shaggy perform live (yes, the one and only Shaggy. Who knew we’d find him
in some small far-flung music fest?).
Marrakesh’s amazing market. Italy’s lake Garda. Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial.
And then there were the mundane, embarrassing moments. The moments where you wish you could simply disappear. Have you ever tried to buy, say, cheese in another language and country? Depending on where you are, there may be tons of different kinds, and you have no idea what they all are, but you just want them all. You can’t ask for them though, because you really can’t speak yet, while the people in front of you, behind you, and to your sides order copious amounts of meat. In the meantime, you desperately try to get a word in edgewise.
Or when you didn’t realize that, by translating one word into Spanish from English (they sound the same in both languages, so they must mean the same thing, no?), you told everyone you were pregnant rather than embarrassed.
Or perhaps trying to find an apartment in another language? Oh, the humanity.
You mean the room you advertised is for three people, not just one?
Or – Where did you say the room was? Oh, you mean that the bedroom has no window? I didn’t realize I’d be sharing a windowless basement room with another foreign English teacher – for a pretty hefty monthly rent. I see.
All of these moments – the embarrassing ones, the joyful ones, the completely unexpected ones – turn into stories that stay with you long after you’ve finally bought that cheese or gotten a room of your own, with a window.
I learned so much abroad that I could never have learned in Canada. I met wonderful people and went to places I never thought I would see. I always wished that I had gone on an exchange during my undergraduate years, but I did not take the opportunity to do so.
Interested in creating different stories of your own far away from home?
Look no further: U of T has some amazing exchange programs available. You have scores of countries to choose from, and what’s more, you can earn your school credits while living abroad.
Stay tuned for next week. I will explore these programs and others at U of T’s Centre for International Experience (CIE).
In the meantime – where would you go on an exchange?