For all my preparation for this trip arranged via the La Cañada Flintridge Sister Cities Assn., I had not braced myself for the first encounter with my host family. The perennial dilemma of whether I would shake their hands or embrace them did not cross my mind until Mr. Barreiro’s hand collided with my chest as I went in for the hug, with him obviously expecting to shake my hand. Luckily, that was the peak of awkwardness in this otherwise incredible exchange program.
Already in the past few days, I have gained an invaluable local and private insight into the daily lives of the people of Villanueva de la Cañada. After getting settled into my host family’s house, we made our way to Esther’s house, one of our “Spanish sisters” here and Veronica Muller’s host family. A pickup game of football — the original kind — and volleyball was all the icebreaker we needed to start messing around as if the six of us had known each other for years.
We then took a day to explore Madrid, seeing such touristy sights as the Prado Museum, Royal Palace and Plaza Mayor, but also spent time at a mall the residents here frequent, delving into the special local flavor of this particular journey.
I was even invited one night to attend Mr. Barreiro’s private music rehearsal, where I learned the necessity of beer in performing rock ‘n’ roll. All the while, we swapped stories of life in California, Spain, and simply as adolescents. We found many resemblances.
Expecting great differences in life here, I was both shocked and comforted by the many similarities I have discovered so far. Most amusing has been the Barreiros’ love of American music. Although their colloquial English is not the best, they are able to rock out to the lyrics of nearly every American classic that comes on the radio, and surprisingly know more songs than I do. Whitney Houston’s greatest hits and the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” seem to be among their favorites. I’ve come to enjoy every car ride as a carpool karaoke and howl with laughter whenever Mr. Barreiro attempts to hit the falsettos.
Yet as comforting as the similarities were, it has been the pronounced differences that have worked to make this trip meaningful. Meals here, for example, have an importance that far surpass sustenance. Meals seem to be the foundation of companionship here, as conversations prolong far past the food is finished. Hours can easily pass as the people sip on their cervezas and catch each other up on their lives. This is so unlike mealtimes in the United States, where it often seems like a chore to get lunch hurried and over with. However, what I’ve come to find in my years of traveling is that the unexpected makes the most memorable aspects of a journey.
I am so thankful for the warm welcome I was immediately afforded upon arriving in this city. But more than that, I am thankful for the utter normalcy of my life here. Needless to say, everyone here treats us foreigners with respect and kindness, but never have I felt the need to present a faux display of rigid formality or decorum.
I complete this record of my experiences here after just having finished a three-hour-long dinner with all the host families. We all spoke with refreshing casualness — and even some indecent humor — even though the majority of us had never even met until before this program. We taught each other tongue twisters in our respective languages and attempted to change one member of our dinner party’s hatred of soup. And through all this I have come to realize that I am more than a guest here — I am family.