Spanish, Soccer, and Stickers

A Poly student transitions to studying in Spain

Lucas Basham, Staff Writer

I stand there, blank faced, as he cries into my shoulder on a street corner that has seen hundreds of our goodbyes before. The jingles of the corner store door’s bell feel endless as people walk in and out, dodging their way around us with their bagels, Milky-Ways, and pretzels. It hurts, but not because we have to say goodbye, but because I’m still emotionless, unable to feel any of the sadness I had anticipated.

That moment — saying goodbye to my best friend of ten years the day before I hopped on a plane to live in Zaragoza, Spain for a year — is representative of my experience abroad as a whole. I had countless expectations of how I was supposed to feel as I bid farewell to the only life I’d ever known. Those goodbyes should be filled with tears; a wave of sadness should be hitting me; I shouldn’t feel so confident striding and smiling through JFK’s Terminal 8. “Arrival can only be complicated by expectation, or compromised by it even…” writes Pico Iyer in My Shock of Arrival. My last few days in Brooklyn were compromised by expectations of how I should’ve felt.

But as I strode and smiled, I finally stopped expecting to feel a certain way. I didn’t need to force myself to feel sad or nervous. Instead, I let the excitement rush in. The stress of expected emotion was gone; my instinctual search for stress manifested in the broken wheel of my suitcase, and nothing else.

Stress has found its way back, unfortunately, as classes ramp up to full speed. I’m taking six classes total: two Spanish classes, Art History, Spanish Civilization and Culture, Calculus, and English. Aside from Calculus and English, all of my classes are in Spanish. While the school — part of the program School Year Abroad (SYA) — is with other American kids, I live with a host family, do extracurriculars with local kids, and overall live in Spanish. As a result, I’ve begun to feel more comfortable having full conversations in Spanish; ordering at a café and elevator small talk has become second nature. 

As I had expected, the soccer culture here is amazing (and so much better than that of the U.S.). On Saturday mornings I go to the park and play pickup with random kids. In the afternoons, the streets are a constant flow of blue and white Real Zaragoza jerseys moving towards the “La Romareda” stadium. On Sundays, I go to a plaza to trade World Cup stickers with other locals. On Wednesday and Friday nights I have soccer practice with a local team. Now, all I can think about is the World Cup, which will likely have begun by the time this is published.

I’ve also found myself playing the other sport I’ve played my whole life: lacrosse. There is a small team in Zaragoza, and probably no more than 300 players in all of Spain. And while I came here to try new things and get out of my comfort zone, playing lacrosse is going to give me the opportunity to travel for games in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and other major cities where there are teams. In fact, I’ve already been to Barcelona once to practice with the Princeton lacrosse team, who happened to be on a fall break trip to Spain. Lacrosse was the last thing I was expecting to do here, but I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities it’s going to give me. 

Now more than two months in, it feels like it’s been two years. To be honest, I’ve felt right at home since early on; when I visit the U.S. over winter break, it’s going to feel like a vacation, not going “home”. I didn’t experience the “culture shock” that I originally expected, nor was there one moment where I suddenly felt at home. But there was a specific moment where I realized how happy I am.

About two weeks after arrival, SYA took all 62 of us on a two day trip north to Alquézar, a small pueblo a couple hours north of Zaragoza. From afar, medieval houses draw your eyes up the hill to a small castle. That day, the backdrop was a gray-stained light blue, gradually darkening into a deep gray. As the clouds rolled in, I stumbled upon a cracked asphalt flat-top lined for tennis with a handball goal at either end. Good thing I brought a soccer ball. 

Surprisingly, as the rain picked up and I yelled towards the hostel for people to come play, the numbers grew. By the time it hit a torrential downpour, there were at least twenty people I barely knew — soccer and non-soccer players alike — playing soccer soaked, barefoot, and smiling. I was living my dream: playing the sport I’ve always loved in the Spanish countryside while getting drenched and laughing, having left the worries of my old life behind.