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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Gracias Por Todo

Written by Camila Zrein
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“We are now entering into the beautiful city of Cadiz [Cadith],” announced the soft-voice of our tour guide on the bus from Madrid to Cadiz; his “z” sounded like a “th.” I peered out the window at my new home. Entering a new country becomes an experience that changes one forever: new sights, new smells, and new sounds. In my time traveling, I learned that to appreciate a culture was to immerse myself completely in it. My trip to Spain proved to be one of these life-changing experiences—landing in Madrid, I had no idea what to expect. The sky looked the same; the sun had followed us from New York and sat in almost the same spot. Our group of thirty Villanova students sleepily piled onto a mega-bus and headed towards our hotel, which would be our home for the next couple of days. Three days later, still jetlagged and overwhelmingly hot, we once again piled into the travel bus and began the five hour descent to southern Spain where we would set up residence for a month. Madrid had been exciting, and all around I found differences in the scenery and architecture that hinted at the country’s ancient history, the kind of history that America never knew. However Madrid still felt like another version of New York City. As Cadiz slowly approached, I realized I was heading towards a new adventure entirely. 


One sight during the bus ride particularly stood out in my mind; the sunflowers. Rows upon rows of striking yellow sunflowers stood facing the bright sun. When we passed them, the entire world seemed to turn yellow for a minute. The sight was breathtaking—I couldn’t pull my eyes away as the flowers stretched across the land for miles. As we approached Cadiz, we also approached the ocean, and the horizon blended with the blue of the water as we got closer and closer to our destination.


A small port city, Cadiz and lies directly on the Atlantic. In fact, in order to reach Cadiz, there is only one bridge that connects this jutting out island to the rest of Spain. Cadiz itself is the capital of the Cadiz province, which includes 8 cities in Andalusia. As we pulled into the bus station, we could see a small of group of Spanish women waiting in the parking lot. All of a sudden, everyone’s faces plastered themselves against the windows—“Those are our moms! Look!” Part of the abroad experience included staying with host families, and we felt excited yet extremely anxious to finally meet our Spanish parents. Immediately when the bus door opened, the smell of salt water flowed through the stuffiness of the bus and filled our heads with thoughts of the relaxing beach days ahead of us; Paradise, we’ve arrived. 


Slowly, pairs of students on my trip met their families and ushered off to see their new and foreign dwellings. We all glanced at each other as each pair left, nervous to separate, scared of what was to come. Suddenly, Sara (my best friend who had come on the trip with me) and I were the only ones left waiting for our mother. We began to giggle nervously, joking that we weren’t going to have a mother, when we saw an elderly woman tottering down towards us, waving, and yelling in Spanish how sorry she was. Thus, we met Rosario, or Charo, as she preferred to be called. By the end of the month we lovingly addressed her as our Mama Charo.


Today Cadiz divides itself into two distinct parts. The old city, or Casco Antiguo, and the newer part called La Avenida. The old city is located within the older stone walls which were built to ensure the safety of the port because Cadiz constantly sought protection from attacks throughout its history. La Avenida , the more recent addition, is a long strip of shops and restaurants that lead towards the bridge connecting back to the rest of Spain. On La Avenida, across from La Playa Victoria Hotel, and one block from the only McDonalds in the entire city, lay Calle Zurbaran. On this street sat the skyscraping apartment tower that became our home. Charo bustled along the street jabbering in Spanish as we lugged our suitcases behind her. Once we got off the “3” (the number of the bus we took), and stepped passed McDonalds, I gasped when I looked to the right. The Playa Victoria literally lay only one block away from the bus stop. The strong breeze from the ocean attempted to blow my skirt sky high, yet I barely noticed as Sara and I exchanged excited looks—we had never lived so close to a beach. 


Charo opened the door to the apartment, and we could immediately smell food that she had prepared earlier that day. My stomach grumbled, and I remembered that I had not eaten for at least five hours. Still chatting on in Spanish, she led us around her modest apartment of three bedrooms, a quaint living room and kitchen. Finally we reached our room—two single beds and a closet. I smiled quietly at the lone cross decorating the wall—I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother. I took a deep breath as I lay my suitcase down on my bed; this was it. Already I wondered what would it feel like leaving here in four weeks? We could hear Charo asking us if we wanted lunch, and we eagerly accepted. Soon into the meal, we realized that she knew zero English. Scared as we were, Sara and I decided this would work as a blessing for us and knew our Spanish would improve immensely. 


On the table sat two bowls of carrot soup and the classic tortilla Española. This typical Spanish dish is an omelet with eggs, potatoes, and onions. Along with the food, a basket of many different types of bread sat on the table, and a Brita sitting in the center between our plates. Charo sat down with us, her plate quite obviously containing much less food than ours. I wondered if she was not as hungry, or if she wanted us to have more than her as a sign of hospitality? The food tasted incredible, and we would later realize that nothing coming out of Charo’s kitchen would fail to satisfy us or taste delicious. Her dining table also stood in the living room, so she turned on the TV while we ate. We quickly learned that her favorite channels were the Spanish game show channel and the American movie channel which showed such oldies as Singing in the Rain. Throughout the meal, she chatted about how to get to school in the morning (we had to take the seven and it would cost two euros each day), asked about where we came from and our families, and told us about her family—who all lived within ten minutes of her. Charo loved to talk and on days when we felt exceptionally tired, Sara and I took turns focusing on her conversation; if you stopped concentrating for a minute, you were completely lost. Even after our meal that day, my heart still held flutters of excitement about our new home. This experience didn’t feel real; my gratefulness for this opportunity overwhelmed me as I sat there in Charo’s humble living room.  


Flash-forward to four weeks later—we had successfully explored and immersed ourselves in every tourist attraction and native attractions Cadiz had to offer; we burnt our now tan bodies to a crisp, gained a couple of pounds through trying every exotic dish we found—but our time to leave this beautiful paradise had come. Our group lounged about at the bus station that had seemed so frightening four weeks earlier. The Spanish moms mingled with each other and within the group. The air felt thick with forced happiness because no one wanted to admit that only minutes away we had to say good-bye. Then the bus pulled in, silence replaced the laughter. Sara and I looked at each other, nodded, and made our way towards Charo. We each both gave her a tight embrace and told her in Spanish how amazing she was and how much we appreciated everything she had done, “Gracias por todo”—thanks for everything. I lacked the Spanish vocabulary to truly express what Charo had given me and frustration bubbled within me as I racked my brain for a way to better relate my appreciation. Then Charo did something I will never forget.  She took one of each of our hands in hers and put them to her heart. That’s when I realized she understood. There are some actions that speak beyond any language barrier. Even though all I could stammer out was my simple Spanish thank you, I knew Charo comprehended the love behind it. 


“Gracias Cadiz, por todo”


©Camila Zrein 




Last modified on Monday, 01 July 2013