My First Big Adventure
by Michelle Mock

My parents and younger brother and sister had arrived in Spain several months earlier.  My sister Cheryl (who was 11) and I had stayed with relatives to finish the school year in California.  Our first big trip away from home was a big adventure.  It was fun, exciting and a bit scary.

The only thing more embarrassing than the pink striped dress was the fact that my sister and I were dressed alike.  We were traveling alone and my mom wanted to make sure we wouldn’t get lost.  Not a chance dressed like that!!!

We stopped in New York City to visit our uncle.  We got to visit the Empire State Building (at the time the tallest building in the world), the zoo, subways and the Statue of Liberty.  After a few short days, we were back on the plane, headed across the Atlantic Ocean to Madrid, Spain.

New York was a cool place but I had never been in a city so big (LA doesn't seem so big and crowded because it is more spread out).  NYC seemed a little scary to me.

Arrival in Spain was also a little scary at first, because we had to go through Customs for the first time ever.  It seemed like an eternity.  We were not allowed to greet our family until they had searched our luggage ... and we could not understand anything that these people were saying.

When I arrived in Spain on July 4th, 1965 (the summer the Beatles played in the Plaza de Toros in Madrid), I did not speak a single word of Spanish.  I had never been out of California, and when I was growing up, we did not hear ANY foreign languages.  It felt very weird arriving in a place where everyone was speaking but not saying anything.  That was how it seemed to me.  They could not be saying anything if it sounded like a lot of made up words!  They spoke so fast too!  Food was different.  Even the American meals that my mother cooked tasted different.  At that time, you could not find any American foods at the grocery store (which was an open air market).  Everything was really strange.  Luckily they drove on the right side of the road!

Going to a Spanish School in Spain

Since we didn't speak a single word of Spanish, my parents sent us to a Spanish school for the summer.  We arrived at the huge wooden front doors of El Colegio de las Madres Concepcionistas.  The three story building came right up to the edge of the sidewalk.  The ground floor was partially underground with the windows touching the sidewalk.  All the windows on the lower floor had wrought iron bars on them.  I was never sure if it was to keep people in or out!  We knocked on the huge doors.  A nun dressed in a white and blue habit (that's what they called the clothing nuns wore in those days) opened the door to the darkened entry way.

The nuns at Las Concepcionistas could be very strict but they could also be very nice and they really helped us learn Spanish quickly.

Her face was kind, her voice was animated.  She seemed genuinely happy to see us as she motioned for us to enter.  She called for the other students to come greet us.  Many girls appeared, all chattering happily.  They took us gently be the shoulders and kissed us on both cheeks.  Right cheek, left cheek ... that is a common form of greeting in Spain.  It sure surprised me though!

The girls talked and talked, and we did not understand a single word.  They probably had never met an American before and they were very excited!  While my parents were talking with the Mother Superior, the girls escorted us to class, talking to us all the way.

Some of my friends at recess.  Isabel Díaz, Margarita Jorge and Mari Carmen Paz ... where are they now?  Our friends really helped us learn Spanish.  They were great!

We spent approximately two months, going to class every day.  The object was to learn Spanish and not speak English amongst ourselves.  Several other American children came to the school that summer.  We had all arrived because our fathers were assigned to the NASA tracking stations.  By the end of August, we were able to communicate fairly well.  One of the girls who was boarding (she lived at the school) was going to return to her home in Valencia (in the east of Spain on the Mediterranean Sea) until school resumed in October.  She asked her parents if my sister and I could go with her and visit Valencia.  To our surprise, our parents said yes and off we went on the second greatest adventure of our lives.

We spent two weeks in a tiny Spanish town outside of Valencia.  Maria Jose was our friend and our guide.  It was hard to communicate, especially about food, because everything was so different.  We did all right and learned that Maggi and Knorr soups were about as close as we were going to get to Campbell's Chicken Noodle soup.

María José González was a wonderful friend.  Her family was very kind to us and patient with our lack of Spanish skills.

We experienced so many different kinds of food and drink.  Milk did not have to be refrigerated because it was not pasteurized as ours is here.  It lasted a long time at room temperature.  Everyone drank wine with their meals.  Kids drank gaseosa (similar to 7-Up) with a little bit of wine in it.  Most families did not own refrigerators so food was prepared fresh from the market and there were virtually no leftovers.  We ate figs and delicious oranges fresh from the trees.  Everyone in Valencia was so kind to us.  After two weeks, mid September) our parents arrived to take us home to El Escorial.

In just two and a half short months, we had absorbed the language and the culture.  We would never be the same again.  Over the next five years, Spain became a greater part of us.  The weird place that we had arrived in on July 4th, 1965 was not strange anymore.


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