Of Planes to Spain Exploring New Terrain

13 May 2019

Here is a new benchmark for defining what it means to be old: when your daughter visits a country with an airport named after the leader who was in power when you lived there.

It just happened to me. My daughter Lisa recently left for a three-month stint in Spain to learn Spanish. This thrilled me, not simply because going abroad to learn a language is such an enriching experience, but because she went to Spain, where I also lived for a year. When ironing out the itinerary with her, I was jolted to discover that the name of the Madrid airport is called Adolfo Suárez, who was prime minister while I was there in 1979-80. It drove home the fact that this had been nearly 40 years ago.

This was just one of many differences between our two experiences. I was utterly naïve at her age. Now that I think of it, I wasn’t even her age: she is 17 and I was 18, fresh out of high school. Despite being a year younger and still in eleventh grade, Lisa is infinitely more city-savvy than I was. Having grown up in Munich, she has been taking the train her entire life and began traveling on it alone at age 10. She has flown probably 15 times on vacations to the U.S. and numerous European countries; I stepped onto my transatlantic flight in Cleveland, Ohio, without ever having set foot on a train or plane.

My flight ticket had been laboriously booked during an afternoon trip to a nearby travel agent; Lisa both booked and prepared for her trip easily on the internet. Fly to Madrid, catch the local cercanía train to Chamartín station and take the RENFE train to Ávila, which is an hour and a half away. The trip began uneventfully, but then bad luck struck, the wacky kind that seems only to occur when you are wholly incapable of dealing with it: The train broke down on its way to Ávila. A train official came to the carriage and said something in Spanish which visibly upset everyone – except Lisa, since she hadn’t understood a word. No problem. The nice guy next to her used google translate to let her know what had happened and that everyone had to get off and board another train.

Contrast that to me in 1980 trying to get around Madrid – and this was at the end of my stay, when I spoke fluent Spanish. Never having lived in a city and born with the genetic condition known to medical professionals as orientatus defectus maximus, I was baffled by the map of the metro system. Despite the decades that have since gone by, I vividly remember a man explaining in a very animated fashion where and when I had to change trains (I think), literally circling his arm in the air vigorously while doing so. Was he trying to tell me to exit the station and reenter it somewhere else? I’ll never know, but it was at that moment that I knew I would get lost, which I did. For hours. With gusto. My daughter Lisa, for her part, was helped by the kindly googling man to get her suitcase off the broken-down train and onto the functioning one.

But the single biggest difference is the constant crackle of connectivity which did not even remotely exist in 1979. I got on the plane and didn’t talk to my family again until Christmas, something that seems inconceivable now with the endless channels of communication available – for free! At the time, a 30-minute phone conversation easily cost about $80. I was really on my own, with no way of contacting home for help. This meant not just getting lost in the Madrid metro system and starving on the train (What? You have to bring your own food?!) but also dealing with all of the daily challenges of living abroad on my own. I never felt deprived of support. That’s just the way it was.

When Lisa finally did arrive, she texted us: “Nice family, everything’s fine.” That’s what I “texted” my Mom way back when, too, except it was with a pen and paper and she didn’t receive the letter for weeks. I first had to sit down, collect my thoughts and formulate them in a reasonable way, but worst of all I had to get up the nerve to go the post office and ask about the correct postage and stamps in Spanish, trying desperately not to look and act so foreign.

I have a friend whose daughter flew to Asia with her boyfriend. She texted her mother several times a day to get advice on ferry schedules, car rentals or the next best course of action. She was thousands of kilometers from home and yet never really cut the strings. The ability to be in constant contact would have been considered magic just a few decades ago and few people choose to go without it, yet because of this she lost out on the chance to test her own troubleshooting abilities and take one step further towards adulthood.

The internet did not prevent all mishaps for Lisa. To identify each other at the station, she and her guest mother traded details on what they were wearing. The online translator produced the wrong word for purple: instead of morado it said marrón, brown. But there was no woman in a brown coat on the platform. Lisa knew the word for red, rojo, which was the color of her sweater, which she had texted to her guest mother who quickly – in her purple jacket – found her.

I was secretly happy to hear about this minor misstep, for what would a trip abroad be without a few language blunders? Pretty mundane. Who ever gets off the plane speaking perfectly? The mistakes are just part of the fun.

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Expat chatter

An American from the Midwest, I landed in Bavaria many years ago. It's been an adventure from day one!

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