Living Abroad: The First 24 Hours (Part 2)

In case you missed part 1 of this story, click here.

Soon enough, it was time to land and then disembark from the plane. Since I was on an international flight, we had to go through customs and put our luggage through another set of scanners and then go on our way.  I did just that but needed to exchange some of my remaining dollar bills first.

I had two things working against me at that point: 1) extremely sore feet from walking a few blocks in Manhattan and 2) a really tired and jet lagged body that just wanted to curl up somewhere and sleep.

I wasn’t fortunate enough to be able to do the latter and I tried to connect my little netbook to the WiFi at the airport and send an email back home before I caught the metro. No such luck. I couldn’t figure out which website to go to once I had connected to the network.

So, I braced myself for the real test. The one I had been studying for…

The metro.

I had to navigate the Madrid metro with no one by my side to guide me and no cell phone service. And my first obstacle right off the bat, after I found the entrance to the metro, was buying a metro ticket. I had never used a subway system in my life, though I had just come from NYC.

After a couple of trials and errors, and even a nice madrileño who offered to help me -but spoke too fast-I managed to buy the ticket to the Atocha train station. My main obstacle was figuring out where to put the coins in! So silly but so frustrating at the time. Once  I would arrive at Atocha, I would catch a high speed train (the AVE) to Sevilla, my final destination.

And as much as you can study something on paper, especially a map, the real test of knowledge comes when you have to put it into practice. This is where you see what you’re made of in tricky situations like those.

Again, I had never used a metro or subway system before. I hadn’t even used a city bus! I had spent most of my life up until that point being driven to a place, walking or riding my bike somewhere or borrowing someone else’s car to get there (sending out thank yous again to several friends in Jacksonville who helped me get around for all those years!).

These modes of transportation are all normal for city dwellers but when you come from a gigantic country like I do with an underdeveloped infrastructure, driving everywhere in a car is the norm.

Now, who can tell me how to get to the Atocha Renfe metro station? (Photo taken in January 2017)

Boy, did I have a lot to learn in such a short time. And unbeknownst to me, back in Ohio during my study sessions, I had somehow chosen the longest route possible to take on my very first morning in Spain.

I lugged my suitcase and bag down the escalators and followed a small crowd of other travelers down to the platform to wait. I hadn’t ever seen any of the things I was looking at before: an overhead digital board that announced in how many minutes the train would arrive and what direction it was headed. Signage for the stops it would make on that line from the starting point at that station.

Let’s back up, though. Direction? “As in North or South, East or West?” I asked myself. It didn’t make sense.

Once I rode the pink line (8) of the end of the line, I got off with many other people but had my heavy suitcase to deal with and keep track of. Plus, I was really wanting to take my black wool coat off as I was starting to burn up on the train. But…I didn’t want another thing to carry in my hands so I kept it on and suffered.

However, the bigger issue at hand was just trying to figure out where the next line (the Circular, line 6) was in the huge station I had presently found myself in. I was able to find the platforms for that line but I foolishly thought choosing a platform was going to be as easy as it was at the airport.  I was very wrong.

So, I asked a friendly-looking older lady nearby for help.

Sometimes the only word between you and getting some help is: “hola.” (in Spain)

I mentioned something to her about needing to go to the Atocha train station and that I didn’t know much about the Madrid Metro. She could tell I had just arrived from some foreign land but she helped me make sense of the map I had in my hand.

And then she dropped some knowledge on me. Something I couldn’t have learned back home (cause I didn’t Google transportation tips – shame on me!) as no one there used metro systems or knew how to read metro maps.

It was at that moment that she explained to me that if I wanted to figure out which direction I needed to go, I needed to look at the very last station on that metro line to get it. The light bulb clicked and suddenly I had felt I had had some pretty powerful information in my head now.

Or at the very least, I wouldn’t look as puzzled as I did at the ticket machine earlier. I’ll take that.

So, once I had figured that out, things were a little bit smoother sailing from then on. Except I was getting ever so tired and more annoyed at how heavy my suitcase was (but would realize later on that I had packed much lighter compared to other students). Luckily I met some good Samaritans along the way.  Gentleman who offered to help me carry my suitcase down a wide staircase with very narrow steps for me.

Spanish guys were pretty nice. Maybe I could get used to this kind of chivalry.

Then, I got lost again once I had made it through all those stops on the Circular from Nuevos Ministerios. (Which in hindsight I now pity my younger self for choosing such a long and tortuous route.)

I knew I didn’t have a working cell phone at the time but all of a sudden I had this burning desire to call my mom and ask for her help. Nothing could quench that desire at that moment. But let’s face it, there’s nothing my mom could do to help me, even I had been able to call her.

She and the rest of my family were fast asleep at home, as it was 5 a.m. for them. I wished I could be asleep in a warm bed, too.

This was the bed that was waiting for me at the end of a very, very long day.

But no, I was off on my international adventure in the middle of a metro system some 4,000 miles away from home. And at the time the only thing that was getting me confused was to find the last line where I needed to get off, which was the line 1 at Pacífico.

Asking more questions and seeing that my questions were answered with more helpful replies and tips, I made it to the last line and then, eventually made it to Atocha. I was a  bit tired and thirsty but I was all in one piece, with luggage in tow.

If I remember correctly, I believe that first metro journey lasted just under 2 hours. Now I know how to get from the airport to the train station much faster and in a more efficient way but back then I didn’t.

I was also jet lagged, frustrated and a little bit shy to ask for help. These are all normal things you experience in your first 24 hours.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the train station all in one piece that I started to notice more details around me. I had observed different fashion styles I had seen on the metro earlier but I didn’t pay too much attention to the way things around me looked. I mean, after all, most of the metro stations started to look the same, minus the different colors to match each metro line.

The train station was enormous and I felt like its size was swallowing me up as I slowly walked towards the main entrance to the long distance trains, my head swiveling around on my neck, trying to take it all in.

And then I noticed the view outside one of the gigantic windows.

As if I were being drawn towards it by a magnet, I walked a little bit faster to get a peek at what was outside.

Madrid.

Not the underground view of it, either. Finally, I was able to catch a glimpse of what a real, major European city looked like. I saw parts of brick structures that made up the train station, a whole line of taxis parked out front (and thought to myself, how many taxis does one city need?!) and then farther off in the distance I saw this tall, historic looking buildings. I tried not to noticed that it was also a pretty gray and dismal January day, but I would soon be enjoying the sunny skies of the South of Spain.

My first ever glimpse and photo of Madrid, la capital.

I had a feeling I was going to enjoy living in Europe these next four months.

After taking a couple of pictures, one of the view outside and one of me after over 24 hours of travel and sightseeing – which today, hat particular photo is called a selfie-, I remembered I was thirsty and lugged my stuff to a nearby vending machine. A juice box, which I hadn’t ever seen in a vending machine back in the US, for just over a euro, caught my eye. (I actually got ripped off at that price as I would later learn that you could get 4-6 of them in pack for the same price but it was good at the time.) It satisfied my thirst for a little bit but after that, I decided it was time for me to go on ahead to my train platform and wait for the train. And maybe take a short cat nap if I was lucky.

Final destination: Seville (photo taken later on in 2016)

So I made my way on over to the main entrance that was next to a huge digital board that listed all of the departing train for the next few hours. I saw “Sevilla – Santa Justa” and took note of the platform number. Where said platform was actually located beyond the buzz of activity past the line for security was beyond me.

As I went through the line with my ticket and passport in hand, I was told to load my ginormous suitcase on to the conveyor belt along with my other bag. That was a lot of fun. *Groan.*

I also walked through the typical security gate with things in my pockets, I’m sure, but that was it.

In the back of my mind I thought Spanish airports and stations didn’t put as much focus on security procedures as the US did. Oh, well. I still felt safe but I was minutes away from sitting down and maybe taking a nap.

Finding a place to sleep and boarding the train in a couple hours were the most exciting things on my mind, haha.

As soon as I found the seating area near my gate, I sat down and inched my suitcase closer to me. Maybe I could turn it on its side and prop my feet up on it.

None of that happened because that’s when the exhaustion set in big time. I ended up falling asleep in my chair, holding my handbag and my carry-on luggage close to me.  I didn’t want to have any of my important things swiped from my hands, after all.

I’m not sure how long I ended up sleeping in that chair but it was long enough for passersby to stop and stare at me. I was probably quite the sight and in hindsight, I probably would’ve stared at me, too, haha.

After what felt like a short nap, but hours of waiting for my train, it was time for me to board. I was finally on my way to my new home in Spain: Sevilla!

I ended up finding my correct seat based on what it said on my ticket, after asking for help, of course, as I was clueless. Once I found the seat, and  the appropriate racks to store my luggage, I sat down and took in the surroundings. I don’t remember too much about what I saw but I do remember being impressed that the train took off on time.

The monitor said 15:00 but my body kept arguing with me that it was really 9 a.m EST and it was trying hard to persuade me to take another snooze. I was sitting in a fairly nicer chair now.

I wouldn’t listen. I was stubborn and decided to pull a book out of my handbag. I don’t remember what it was but I do remember not reading more than a line of it and looking out the window for a few seconds at some very green pastures…I didn’t think Spain had green…I thought.

Then, my eyes shut and my head slowly tilted towards the window.

Bam. I was out like a light.

It wasn’t until many years later that I actually saw what few sights there were on the AVE train line between Madrid and Sevilla because I slept through the entire ride my first time! I was excited to experience my first high speed train but I was at the point of my travels where I couldn’t stay awake.

And the nap was supposed to be refreshing but I think because I didn’t pull the shade down and slept in broad daylight. My poor body clock was so confused.

What I was supposed to admire and enjoy outside my window on the high speed train.

So, that high speed train experience went a lot faster than I should have and by the time I knew it, I was finally in Sevilla! The man next to me was kind enough to retrieve my carry-on luggage for me and as he handed it to me, he said, “Very heavy,” and started to walk down the aisle. Huh?

How did he know I spoke English? (He had plenty of time to read the front cover of whatever book I had in my hand, which was in English, that’s how he knew, haha).

I was able to snap myself out of my slumber and get ready to meet the coordinator for my study abroad program.  I was finally going to be able to talk to someone and start to make a connection with someone who lives in this country.  I was starting to feel excited again and less tired.

But, I forgot one little thing: my actual suitcase. I have no idea what I was thinking but maybe I thought that the train attendants would load the luggage off the train for us?

Again, I was thinking train stations worked like airports. Silly me.

Not too long after I found my coordinator, she told me where my luggage would be (in the Renfe office) and we went to collect it. I was glad to finally get into her car and chat about my journey up until that point. I was feeling a bit more energized but not too much. I was looking forward to the couple whose house I’d be living in for the next month.

And I was looking forward to climbing into a bed and sleeping about 12 hours. Give or take, haha.

The drive to Triana, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, was a blur. The only thing that stood out to me was this huge, sort of odd-looking tower towards the river and I kept remarking to myself how big everything looked.

We made it to my host mom, Manoli, and her apartment building fairly quickly. Mary Alice, the coordinator, helped me take my things up not one, not two but five flights of stairs! Bless her. And after Manoli opened the door and greeted us with two kisses on each cheek – that was odd-, and we did our introductions. Mary Alice also went back down to her car and got the 5L jug of olive oil she brought from a family member’s farm (I think?) and gave it to Manoli. I tried not to let my jaw drop as I didn’t know olive oil could be bottled in jugs that big! Wow.

After a short visit, Mary Alice reminded me when and where orientation would be (with her and 3 other girls from  the program in a bar, like no joke) and we said goodbye. Manoli showed me my room and I started to get settled. I desperately wanted to shower and go straight to sleep but I was only able to shower as she wanted to serve me dinner.

Tortellini con mantequilla y queso. Not the meal I had that night but it was one of my favorites later in the semester. (Insert heart eyes.)

The shower felt great and the only thing I remember about dinner was I ate pasta, Manoli’s husband Antonio came home and the two of them chatted with me and told me that “How do you do?” was the only thing the knew how to say in English. They didn’t exactly know what it meant and I was honestly too tired to tell them.

So, once I finished dinner, I thanked Manoli for the meal and wished her buenas noches. To which, she replied, “hasta mañana.

As I shuffled down the hall, the exhaustion had begun to set in again. Why didn’t she just say buenas noches back? I wondered. That’s strange.

At that point, I didn’t have the energy to contemplate anything else. Not in English nor in Spanish.

And with that final thought, I climbed into my bed that first night and fell fast and blissfully asleep.

I had survived day one. Can’t wait to see what the days to come would hold.

Have you moved abroad before? Was your first day anything like mine was? Share your thoughts in the comments below! I’d love to hear them!

Stay tuned for next week’s addition.

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