“You can never go home again”
I sat in a stuffy lecture hall as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan with several hundred other prospective study abroad students. An eccentric man with large hands spoke to us, telling us that once we embarked on our journeys, we could never go home again. I later learned that that man was the brilliant professor Ralph Williams. Later after that I learned that what he said was more true than any words I had yet heard in my 20 years on earth.
Before we can fully grasp the profound impact my study abroad experience had on my life, a little backstory must be addressed. I grew up in a low income family in the Midwest. In fact, the poor and crime-ridden neighborhood in which I lived is not-so-lovingly referred to as “shacktown”. No one in my family had attended a university or traveled abroad, and yet, I always felt like I was being pulled forward by an invisible thread to explore and experience bigger things than I could imagine.
If I had listened to anxious family, discouraging teachers, or bullying peers, I never would have attempted to strive for more than what I saw around me every day. However, by some divine intervention, I never hesitated to dream bigger. This is how I found myself to be a nervous and excited student looking forward to my summer abroad in Spain.
Making new friends
Since I had never traveled alone on a plane before, I sent out an email to other students on my trip seeking travel companions. I hoped this would reduce the likelihood that I would board the wrong plane and end up on the wrong continent. (This was clearly before I knew all the secrets to buying flights!). Once again, serendipity would intervene and send me my soulmate-friend, Christine. Christine and I had similarly modest backgrounds, yet found ourselves on this unbelievable experience. We became fast friends, and by the time we landed in Madrid, our soulmate-friend status was complete.
As soon as we landed in Madrid, Christine, several other students from the trip, and I rolled our suitcases to an ancient plaza. We sat at an outdoor table in the sun, and ordered a round of Sangria. Trust me when I say nothing has ever tasted so sweet. (Well, actually, true spanish churros, or gofres con chocolate were sweeter…but I digress).
We spent our first week in Madrid, exploring the city and riding the wave of excitement that was the 2006 FIFA World Cup. On the night of the Spain vs France match the whole group of students in our program wore the Spanish Red and Yellow, shared bottles of wine, and got to know each other a bit better. By that night we were buzzed and ready to cheer on our team as if we had lived in Spain our entire lives. In the Plaza del Sol, the heart of the city, thousands of people gathered to watch the match on jumbo screens. Long into the night, cheers of “Ole, ole, ole, ole….Oleeee, oleeeeeee” could be heard. My memory of the rest of that night is a bit fuzzy, I know Spain lost the match, but its still one of the best nights of my life.
After our initiation week in Madrid, we loaded onto buses to drive to Salamanca, the ancient university town that would be our home for the next few weeks. To understand Salamanca, one must behold the magic that is the Plaza Mayor, regularly voted among the most impressive plazas in all of Europe. This incredible feat of engineering simultaneously became an awe-inspiring spectacle to behold, and our familiar cornerstone with our nightly meeting spot debajo del reloj.
Once in Salamanca, our weekdays settled into a regular routine. Each morning we walked from our host families’ flats to La Universidad de Salamanca for classes. This will be the first and last mention I make of our actual classes during this study abroad trip. We learned about Spanish history (and some other things I assume? I don’t remember…) in class, however the real learning happened outside the classroom. After classes, we stopped in the Plaza Mayor for helado to keep us cool on the hot walk back to our flats for almuerzo and siesta.
After a brief siesta, we all met at la piscina for swimming and more helado. After a lazy afternoon in the sun, we headed back to our host families for cena. In the evenings, we met debajo del reloj in the Plaza Mayor, maybe have some more helado for dessert (have I mentioned the helado??) then head out for the nightlife. Salamanca’s nightlife never disappointed. We spent memorable nights dancing and singing at Daniel’s, sampling the menu at La Chupiteria, playing in beer pong championships, enjoying Michael Jackson music at Jacko’s and dancing the night away at Camelot.
The Running of the Bulls
Our weekdays had a regular routine in Salamanca, however our weekends were spent traveling around the rest of Spain. We were in Spain in July, so of course we had to travel to Pamplona for San Fermin, or as the rest of the world knows it, The Running of the Bulls.
Spain has a very long history with using bulls for sport. When I traveled as a 20 year old, I had only a vague notion of this history and of animal rights. Twelve years later (please don’t do the math) I am a staunch animal lover, believer in animal rights, and vegetarian/part-time vegan. I still have mixed feelings about Spain’s treatment of their bulls. On the one hand, the brutal spectacle of bull-fighting (in reality torture-murder for entertainment) is heartless and probably has no place in the modern day. On the other hand, it feels uncomfortable as a white American to pass judgment and impose my beliefs on another country’s traditions. So, I will just leave my personal thoughts at that.
The bulls run the morning, however each night of the festival is filled with joyous reveling and partying. We stocked up on supplies at The Corte Ingles before they closed, making sure we had enough calimocho (cheap red wine mixed with cola) and snacks to last through the night. We then danced the night away to the two biggest hits in Spain that summer, The Pussycat Dolls’ – “Dontcha” and Shakira’s – “My Hips Don’t Lie” (genius music classics, obviously). Thousands of us bonded over the miracle that is a summer night and shared boda bags. If you ever travel to Pamplona for San Fermin, just be aware that there are no hotels… be prepared to stay up all night or sleep in the grass in the park.
The next morning, after watching the bulls run, the sun was bright and harsh, the streets were sticky with wine, and we ready to return “home”. We boarded the train back to Salamanca, however there was just one problem. Christine had lost her return ticket! As a loyal soulmate-friend, I vowed to her that I would also leave the train, wherever that could be, if she were to be caught and thrown off the train. Luckily, through some clever deception of feigned sleep and perfectly timed trips to hide in the bathroom, we all made it back to Salamanca safely. Only one of us sustained any injuries during this whirlwind trip. Our friend Sam contracted a nasty eye infection when a stranger generously shared some wine, however he over-enthusiastically squeezed the boda bag, resulting in a wine shot to the eye (but, #worthit, haha!).
Another weekend, a small group of us traveled to San Sebastian, a gorgeous coastal town in an area of Northern Spain/Southern France known as the Basque Country. Somehow we found ourselves staying in a hotel that is basically a castle at the top of a very tall hill. The views from our balcony were from a dream. We frolicked in the waves of the Cantabrian Sea and worked on our tans in the sun on the sand.
Yet another weekend excursion took the entire group of students by bus to Lisbon, Portugal. Portugal is endlessly charming with their friendly people, quaint cafes, and strange love of roosters. We all greatly enjoyed our time seeing wild peacocks and hiking to various vistas of the Atlantic.
Once again, European nightlife did not disappoint. We danced at a club in Lisbon (I wish I could remember the name) that to this day is one of my favorites…and I have been to many American and international dance clubs! None of us spoke any Portuguese, but we were able to mostly get around this somehow, by meeting in the middle among shared English and Spanish. When we first arrived at this club, we knew we wanted a drink, but could not read the Portuguese menu. So, my fearless Christine took a chance on English and asked the bartender for “the strongest shit you’ve got”. He dutifully responded with providing us and joining for a round of absinthe. Needless to say, it was a fun night…but left me with the weirdest hangover of my life the next morning.
Life lessons learned
I could probably write and talk for days on my experiences in Spain that summer, but I think I will end it here. It still pains me to remember boarding the train in Salamanca at the end of our trip to return home. The train traveled backward (or is that just my memory?) away from this beautiful and lively town and away from the moment in time that we all shared together. I left on that train not knowing if I would ever see the Plaza Mayor at night again. I still have not been back.
Ralph Williams was right….you can never go home again. Home, and life as I knew it had changed. I returned both more than and less than at the same time. I had grown into more of a person than I ever could have anticipated with all these experiences, memories, and friendships added to my life. It was also the trip that infected me with wanderlust and the knowledge that despite my simple beginnings, I was truly worthy of traveling the world. But at the same time, I knew that I was returning without a piece of my heart. I left a piece of my heart in Spain. I know that if I ever want to be whole again, I have to go back to that magical country and visit that part of me that will live there forever.
Leah Little has a full time job as a social worker, and has managed to travel the world while wearing beautiful clothes by knowing how to score deals in travel and fashion. Learn more about her journey here. Join the Leah Little Travel and Fashion tribe by entering your email to subscribe to be the first to learn new ways to enjoy the best in travel and fashion for less. Say hi and send her a message! Contact