I had just signed up to take part in the Spanish Exchange trip with school.
I took a deep breath, processing what I had just done.
I had just signed up to go and live for 1 week with a person who I had never ever met.
I – someone who cannot for the life of me make friends or even start up a conversation with anyone – signed up to live with a total stranger who spoke a completely different language, of which I didn’t know a word of.
Oh, and it was also going to be on my birthday. I was going to spend my 16th birthday away from my family in a total stranger’s house.
What the hell have I just done? Part of me was absolutely kicking myself. Why have I always gotta throw myself so far outside of my comfort zone that my comfort zone is constantly like a dot on the horizon?
For the years running up to the exchange, I had always been convinced that I would never, ever take part. Never. I was certain of it. But yet when the time came… I signed up?!
Maybe I was just on some weird high after my summer of clubbing in Mallorca.
There was some truth in that. I had seen just how much fun I could have when I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I’d been pretty scared to go clubbing with a group of people who I felt were far more outgoing than I could ever be. I had been shy and nervous. But when I actually went, I had a blast – perhaps the best nights of my life so far.
Spanish Exchange had the potential to be another of those amazing experiences which I would miss out on because I was too scared.
I’m my own worst enemy.
My shy and reclusive nature means that I opt to sit out on, what could be, incredible experiences.
No matter how hard I try and shake the niggling doubts in my mind, I just can’t silence them. They’re always there. Telling me I’m not good enough. Telling me that the worst will always happen. Overanalysing to the point where I feel sick. Is this what anxiety feels like? I wish I could make sense of my thoughts sometimes.
What worried me the most was that the only reason I pushed myself to go clubbing on those nights in Mallorca was because I’d had something to drink. The alcohol had given me the nudge I needed to silence the doubts in my head.
Fear is one of the most powerful and irrational feelings. It had the influence to make me live my life under a rock. But I wasn’t going to let it.
So I had to ignore my fears. I had signed up and there was no going back now, no matter how hard I wanted to. Take that fear!
In the run-up to exchange date, I felt pretty nervous. I was however helped by the fact that I’d been in touch with my exchange student via Facebook. She was lovely! We spoke on most days, learning about each other and getting hyped to spend time with one another. It also helped that her English was almost perfect. It almost made up for the fact that my Spanish was abysmal.
On the flight to the town of Valladolid, a couple of hours north of Madrid, I was terrified.
However, I was fortunate enough to know 3 girls who were also on the exchange pretty well. We had each other to fall back on for support if everything went wrong. That thought alone made me feel better. Plus, we’re all experiencing this together. I’m not alone.
Already things were not as bad as I thought they could be.
Our exchange was taking place in a the Spanish city of Valladolid. The city is famed for its stunning medieval structures which are found in abundance throughout the city.
We arrived in Valladolid and I met my Spanish Exchange at the airport. Just her warm, welcoming smile melted my fears away. She wanted me here and was so pleased to see me. It also helped that she was experienced with exchange students. She had had a French Exchange student come to visit the previous year. Impressive.
Everything was as good as it could have been.
But the first night was still tough.
I lay in bed, shivering with cold. The room I was in was decorated with personal items. I was in a family member’s bedroom. I felt strange, like I didn’t belong there. The reality that I was living with another family that I didn’t know was starting to sink in.
But the worst was the cold. Oh, it was so cold!
Then there was the toilet. I always need to pee in the night and the bathroom was right next to my exchange’s parents’ room.
The family were very energy conscious so any lights not being used were switched off at all times. I’m all for saving the environment but it did make my bathroom expeditions slightly more challenging.
I stumbled in the pitch black, banging into doors and treading on items on the floor. Down the hall I went, praying I didn’t slip and fall down the stairs on my way. I knew the stairs were somewhere round here. But I couldn’t see them!
Finally I found the toilet. I just prayed I hadn’t alarmed anyone in the process with my horrific crashing about. I felt embarrassed and moronic.
Finding my way back to my bedroom was just as tough. I finally crawled under the overs, shivering with renewed cold. Spain in the winter is not warm.
I thought back to my family back home and the comforts of my bedroom. Finally, I drifted off to sleep.
The next day I regrouped with my school group.
Two members of our group had dropped out, unable to take the new, alien experience. They would be staying with the teachers for the rest of the trip. I was surprised to see who dropped out. They were two outwardly confident and popular individuals.
For a moment, I allowed the thought of quitting to flow into my mind. But I shrugged it off almost as soon as it arrived. I was here and I was going to follow through with the experience. I was not a quitter. Besides, my exchange was so sweet and pleased to have me. She was constantly checking that I was okay and asking me what I wanted. I couldn’t let her down!
So, I experienced a week of Spanish Exchange. And you know what, I enjoyed myself. I spent the evenings with my exchange buddy and the days going on excursions with my school group.
I made a great friend in my exchange buddy and was excited for her to come and visit me a few months later.
I woke up on the last full day of the exchange to find a note pinned on my bedroom door. ‘Happy Birthday Ella!’ It read in colourful writing. I was almost moved to tears.
My exchange friend and her family took me out for lunch at a lovely local restaurant where we sampled some of their favourite dishes including blood sausage. They fully expected me to hate it but I surprised them by gobbling it all down. I love blood sausage.
I was sad to leave my Spanish Exchange. There may have been a few watery eyes as we said our goodbyes. It had been a moving, worthwhile experience. I had no doubts that it helped to shape me as a person.
I had learnt to make the most of every opportunity given to me, no matter how difficult it sounded.
You never know how much you will like something until you try it and even if you don’t like it, at least you can say you tried.
It was this same attitude that led me to spending a night in Namibia looking after a baby baboon and going to the south of France with a boy I had only met 4 times in my life, who is now my fiancé.
Grabbing opportunities by the horns has been the single best decision I’ve ever made and has shaped my entire life. I cannot stress enough just how much life begins at the end of your comfort zone.