Mari Katherine Raftopoulos: A Spanish heart

Mari Katherine Raftopoulos

Mari Katherine Raftopoulos' column appears in the Craig Daily Press and the Saturday Morning Press.

— Some people set goals when they are about to embark on a life-changing experience, such as studying abroad. Others would rather forget about expectations because of their fear of failing to meritocracy.

Before being accepted to the program in Madrid, we were asked in the application, "What do you want to gain from this experience?"

In other words, what are your goals?

I had written the expected answers, such as to travel, to learn Spanish and to immerse myself in a different culture. I struggled with this at the time, because my response was manipulated with the fear of a neglected acceptance in the program.

In reality, my goal of personal growth outweighed the academics. This is the reason I spoke timidly, and my response reflected the program's expectations but didn't reflect my passions.

But, is following expectations worth the consequence of leaving your heart behind?

As I look back on this essay, after returning from four months in Madrid, I find the answer written clearly in the conclusion of my essay with no supporting evidence in the body.

I wrote:

"My personal goal for studying abroad has changed from exploring myself to exploring how to fall in love. Because falling in love forces you to explore yourself."

And now I am asked on my return, "What have you learned since being abroad?"

This is best answered by a quote by William James, the philosopher who inspired me the most this past semester, the same philosopher who I saw in myself. He said, "Believe that your life is worth living, and your belief will create that fact."

Being abroad has taught me every little moment that has and will create my life has a value and must be cherished in the present.

I have learned that love cannot only heal the heart, it can teach the mind.

I have learned that at the end of the day, it is your life, but to live it freely is the greatest feat.

I have learned to acknowledge my qualities with humbleness, but to also recognize the changes and growth I need to make.

But most important, I have learned about falling in love.

I often questioned whether I would ever fall in love. Not necessarily falling in love with a boy, but falling in love with the idea of love. What does it feel like? What does it look like? How do you know it is love?

So she taught me love. My 65-year-old señora, Emilia, taught me how to fall in love with life.

From the kitchen, I could smell the smoke of her after-dinner cigarette, her mid-dishes cigarette, and her sweet-tooth cigarette; it trickled through the crack of my window. And so did the deep sound of my cough after weeks of travel. And within five seconds, she would come into my room with a cup of tea and a spoonful of medicine.

It may have been the Spanish version of Dimetapp and it may have been for children younger than 6, but when it was in her hands, I was quickly healed. Behind the closed doors of her kitchen was something magical.

She can turn three ingredients into a five-course meal.

She can turn the music of her 1970s radio into a discoteca.

And she can magically turn a plastic bowl, salt and water into a homemade facial and detox.

We called them her "secretos."

But, as one of the most honest women I have met, I know that she keeps very few secrets.

Because her secrets are her lessons.

The way she swung her hips in circles when she taught me the salsa or chose the shorter dress and dangling earrings for my outfit instantaneously made her seem 20 years old again. I would lose track of her age because she just seemed like one of us. But when I would come home from school on a cool winter day to see her bundled in five different layers, because of her poor circulation she couldn't find warmth, it reminded me that she is older than 20; in fact, she is 45 years older. She has been a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a mother, an aunt and a grandmother.

But what if she is an angel?

Sometimes I wonder if she was sent down from heaven to watch over girls like us and point us in the right direction.

And if you don't believe in angels, Emilia will make you.

I find myself reminiscing daily since being home.

I find the most comfort in my journal I kept throughout my experience in Spain. But not on a day-to-day basis or even as a way to record the monuments or museums I had visited.

I could have written, "I went to the Eiffel tower, I went to the Acropolis, I went to the Duomo, and I went to the Prado." But I would have rather written nothing. Because for me, it wasn't the monuments that deserve the recognition, it is the culture.

This experience for me wasn't about seeing every tourist attraction or to return back to the United States and boast about stamps on my passport. It was about people I met along the way who transformed my views on life.

The day I left Spain, I walked among my Spanish strangers, friends and memories in tears. Not because I was homesick, but because I felt so much at home it made me sick. Sick in the fact that I felt so blessed to have been given this experience.

I was afraid of the return to America and found myself lost in translation. How do I translate my American lifestyle and my Spanish heart?

This experience gave my life that glow and sparkle for which one searches all her life. I had never in my life been so lost, yet so found; so calm in the present, yet so antsy to explore the future.

I walked for miles with no destination and no time limit, only to find myself at ultimate peace with my life and my future.

And this abroad experience is the reason all these "nevers" have become "forevers."

At the end of my semester abroad, a close friend said, "Know that a chapter might be ending, but another one is about to begin, and never hesitate to tell people you love them."

So as we exchanged kisses on each cheek and said good-bye, I told Emilia that I loved her, I told Jose, my doorman, I loved him, and I told Spain, "I love you."

And I fell in love, leaving a part of myself behind, yet taking a newer self along.

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