When I look back on my time in Spain, there are so many memories to share: exploring Sevilla through five days of rain, spending a weekend in Portugal, doing homework on the school’s terrace, kayaking on the Guadalquivir River. In two short months, I experienced the most mundane activities to world-changing events. However, the moments I cherish the most are the everyday conversations I had: the shopkeeper in Toledo who encouraged me to keep practicing Spanish, the native Spanish woman who asked me for directions (and being able to give them to her!), and most importantly the abuelos at the Hospital de la Caridad.
Through Acción Solidaria, a service-learning class, I was placed at the Hospital de la Caridad, a nursing home for older gentleman, to help serve merienda (midday snack) and spend time with the abuelos, as we affectionately call them. Admittingly, it can be awkward to talk with older gentlemen in Spanish for several hours, especially when they are hard to understand. Their life stories were so incredibly different from mine. Some had hardly left Sevilla, much less Spain. Others had been to more countries and seen more things than I could even hope to see. But these differences in culture, language, and life experiences are also what made the experience so special.
There was one abuelo in particular whom I will never forget. He was actually the first one I met. For having little formal education, he is one of the wisest men I have met, and he had the greatest willingness to share all he knew with everyone. He was always waiting for our volunteer group to arrive at either the front gate or in one of a few gray plastic chairs and tables scattered about the red brick-paved patio where he liked to watch the passersby and think. We talked about poetry, biology, Spanish culture and history, religion, and languages. Matter-of-factly, he told us the hardships he’d encountered in life without losing the joy-filled sparkle in his eyes. He told us he felt God called him to teach those He put in his path, including his American hijas, as he called us. No one could look into his brown eyes and doubt his sincerity and desire to help others.
One week, he invited us to his poetry reading. University of Sevilla. Seven p.m. Second floor of the Department of Philology. That’s all he gave us. I didn’t know if I was going to go at first. I had two tests that week and wasn’t too keen on wandering around the university for an event that may (or may not) be taking place, but despite homework and the vague details, we walked into the university a little before seven to try to find where an older man might be sharing his poetry. We wandered around the silent marble halls filled with studying students, trying not to look like lost Americans who didn’t know what we were doing, before asking someone for help. Turns out it wasn’t on the second floor. And we had already walked past it.
Thankful we had found the classroom in time, we sat down in wooden chairs that looked like they could have come from an American one-room schoolhouse. The words ¡Corred! (Run!) and #cruelworld were carved into the desks by bored students’ pencils. For me, just getting to sit in a desk in a foreign university was exciting. Then, when everyone was seated, he shared his poems: stories of love for a woman, people in general, and most importantly Jesus.
This became one of the most rewarding experiences of my time in Spain, not just because of the poetry or the experience of being in the university. I was there for a man who was always willing to be there for me, even though I only knew him five weeks. That night at the poetry reading ended up being the last time I ever saw him. Under the circumstances, I didn’t know that would be the case, and sure, there are things I wish I could have told him, experiences I wish I could have shared with him, but I will never regret going to listen to his poetry.
If I learned anything from studying abroad, from being sent home early, from quarantine, it’s to relish every second. Some seconds will be hard, fun, beautiful, heartbreaking, life-changing (good and bad), but as cliché as it sounds, we don’t know how many we will get. Five short weeks with the abuelos wasn’t enough, but they were all I got, and if they taught me anything, it’s that our lives don’t turn out the way we plan, but we do choose to be joyful or bitter. Our stories are given to us to encourage others, to teach them, to guide them. Maybe someday I’ll be as wise as them.