For most international students at university, the end of fall term signaled the return to their home country, where they could once again speak their own language, sleep in their childhood bed and eat all the food England’s supermarkets hadn’t bothered to carry. For me, as I watched my friends leave one by one, Winter Break wasn’t about returning to the familiar; rather, I was preparing to dive headfirst into the unknown once again.
I left Canterbury on December 22, flying from London to Bilbao, Spain, where I would spend the next four days with my friend Lucia and her family. She lived in the countryside, where Christmas Day meant hiking around the green hills and visiting the beach, trying to soak in all the sun we had been deprived of in England.
Perhaps the best part about Spain was the food; after months in a country that considered salt to be an acceptable spice, Lucia and I scarfed down everything in sight. Nothing escaped my plate. Tortilla with eggs and potatoes? Absolutely. Homemade bread and chorizo? Obviously. Giant prawns with the legs and heads still attached? Pile it on.
I’ll admit, my eagerness didn’t extend to the fresh snails that were often cooked for dinner; the line did eventually have to be drawn somewhere.
After Lucia’s, I was off to Madrid for two weeks, staying with my friend Helena and her family. Our days usually consisted of walking around to different parts of the city: parks, fancy shops, famous landmarks, cheap restaurants with even cheaper beer.
I also learned how to navigate the public transport. One night, Helena and I were racing through a metro station to catch the last train available. Even with three-inch heels on, she was at least fifty yards in front of me, showing a determination I usually reserve for … well, not much. In my hurry to catch up, I tripped on the escalator and went flying, skidding on my hands and knees in front of the giant late-night crowd.
Two seconds later, Helena came back to inform me we had missed the train after all, and would have to walk the three miles back home.
“And why are you on the ground?” she asked.
Because Helena still had exams to study for, she often would pawn me off on her mother for the afternoon, and we would go for churros and chocolate in a nearby café. Our conversations mostly revolved around the food and took place in both broken English and Spanish, with a hand signal or two sometimes thrown in for emphasis.
And sometimes I would wander off by myself, roaming the streets and taking pictures of anything and everything I thought I might like to remember. Admittedly, a lot of this free time was spent skulking around places that advertised “Gratis Wifi’; I never bought anything, so I imagine I always looked mildly suspicious, holding my phone in the air as I waited for a connection.
After Madrid, I flew to Paris to meet up with my friend Dayana. I loved everything about the city: the streets were clean, the architecture was beautiful, and the number of cafes that sold chocolate pastries was astronomical.
Of course, we also visited the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, all of which involved taking hundreds of photos with Dayana’s selfie stick. Us, tourists? Definitely not.
The final stop on my month-long trip was Switzerland, where Dayana lived and had grown up. With a total population of only 8 million, the whole country could be driven through in just a few hours. One of the days we went ice-skating in the mountains, another we visited the local cheese shops, and another we helped plan and carry out a surprise party for her mom.
One night, we were sitting in the modest Jacuzzi in her backyard. Leaning back, I could see the whole of the night sky, the Swiss Alps faintly visible in the distance. I thought back to this time last year, when I hadn’t even owned a passport yet. And now here I was, in a hot tub in Switzerland, drinking wine and watching as snow quietly drifted down and settled on the frozen grass.
Life is strange like that.
Sydne Aguilar is studying English and film. She is studying abroad in Canterbury, United Kingdom during the 2016-17 academic year.