Unfamiliar places

BY EMILY LEPAIN

Traveling has always been a stressful experience for me. I hate packing; I always feel like I’m forgetting something and that without that unknown thing, my trip will suck. The process of traveling isn’t much better because I freak out about missing my flight—like I did last Friday due to the unreal amount of construction through downtown Madison on the way to the airport—and becoming stranded somewhere unfamiliar.

My previous traveling experience went somewhat along those lines. My mom and I flew to France to visit my brother for Christmas, and we arrived in Paris realizing that we were unable to use debit or credit cards because my mom had forgotten to call the bank to let them know we were going abroad. Neither my mom nor I speak French, so how we got to our hotel with no money nor the ability to communicate with most taxi drivers is completely beyond me. But you get my point: Traveling is stressful.

Under grey skies rain misted from the heavy clouds overhead as my mom drove me to the airport. I got out of the car in the large, cold parking garage across from the terminal, and after crossing the street, I walked through the automatic sliding doors, lugging my suitcase and REI pack along with me. As I went through security, TSA decided it was necessary to rifle through my entire backpack, only to find my audio equipment. I know they have to be thorough, but I’m a 5’2″ 19-year-old; I’m not very ominous.

The flight from Madison to Chicago was quick, only 45 minutes. My layover in O’Hare, however, wasn’t. With my me-sized backpack in tow, I searched for a place to buy decent food and settled for a slice of pizza that seeped grease. My gate was on the opposite side of the terminal from where I arrived, and by the time I sat down to wait for my flight from Chicago to Madrid, my back ached. Even after I sat down on the plane to Madrid, the ache grew worse. Sleeping was next to impossible due to the constant jostling of the plane, but I did get some awesome pictures of the sunset and sunrise. And as I sat in my semi-comfortable but not really-comfortable blue seat and tried to watch a movie on the miniscreen that popped out of my chair, my mind was restless with the pervasive feeling that this month abroad in Valencia, Spain, would be, in some way, life-changing.

After a seemingly never-ending flight from Chicago to Madrid, and then Madrid to Valencia and the 24 hours in transit, I was exhausted and starving, but not as uncomfortable as I imagined I would be.

My first few days here have been completely different than I anticipated. I don’t know if I honestly expected anything, since my mind hadn’t really grasped the fact I was going to Spain until I was flying over the Atlantic.

I arrived at my new home and immediately jumped into a cold shower. It wasn’t until later that I actually looked at the apartment in which I’d be living for the next month. The walls and ceilings were white and barren, lacking any decoration. The wood floors were a dull brown, and as I walked from the bathroom to my room, my feet shuffled across its smooth surface.

We went out to dinner that night, and meeting everyone else in the program was a bit frightening, as I’m one of the youngest people on the trip. But it wasn’t difficult to strike up conversations, as they were all probably as nervous as I was. Dinner was very different than the usual routine I was used to because we didn’t order like we would at a traditional restaurant. With course after delicious course, the smell of cooked potatoes, ham, vegetables and fresh bread filled the heavy, warm air. The constant supply ended with dessert platters filled with almost every kind of chocolate cake you could imagine.

After dinner we went to a flamenco show, and it was somewhat of a culture shock. Generally, Spanish culture is much more passionate and expressive than the American culture I’m obviously accustomed to. The movements of the dancers are so emotionally expressive, provoked by the soft guitar strumming and the powerful voice of a Spanish singer. The performers, two women and one man, worked as one unit, their movements sharp and powerful as they moved across the wood floor of the bar, black lace skirts  swirling through the air. It was an incredible thing to witness how much emotion and story they could express with their bodies. I called it a night shortly after the show ended, as I hadn’t slept for more than 30 hours.

We went on a walking tour of the city the next day, and the city is beautiful. Much of the architecture is very Baroque-esque, which was my favorite historical period architecturally, and I loved learning about the history of the city. In such a Catholic country, I was surprised to see obvious signs of loathing and contempt for the church and its teachings. Our tour guide pointed out some examples: Masturbating Gargoyles lined one roof, and carvings of men depicting fornication, homosexuality and bestiality surrounded a doorway. The stark contrast between these images and the strong Catholic presence in Valencia and Spain is an amusing example of the serious religious conflict prevalent in previous times.

Another surprise: Valencia is difficult to navigate. Streets criss-cross over each other, winding around buildings and turning off into small, somewhat sketchy alleyways, the high brick walls muffling every sound. Cars drive through the alleyways on narrow cobblestone roads, causing me to push my back against walls warmed by the mid-day sun to avoid being hit.

And on the language front, communicating with locals and my host mom can be difficult, as my Spanish skills are limited. But it’s usually possible to awkwardly muddle my way through a conversation. Living in a new city where you don’t speak the language well is intimidating, but the people in Valencia are  welcoming and the Spanish culture honest and straightforward, adding color and character to the city they reflect.

Today was the first day of classes, and I must say, it was a long day; almost 12 hours. We went over a lot of basic photo principles. Although a bit of it was review for me since I took both film and digital photography classes in high school, it was helpful to refresh the skills in my mind, and Bruce is an incredible teacher who explains things very well. It has started to make me consider taking more photo classes when I go back to school because the profession has become much more interesting and enticing over these past few days. I’m also excited to start the writing process. Writing has always been the one thing at which I’ve excelled, and the idea of developing those skills excites me. And even though I have next to no experience with video and audio and much of the software we’ve had to get for the program, the notion of improving my nonexistent video skills and learning how to use the software is also exciting. I’m nervous about what projects we’ll be working on over the next month and how intensive they’ll be, but, I mean, I’m in Spain. I think I’m doing all right.

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