This article was first published in 2015 in Issue 9th of TFEM. The author, Nats Sisma Villaluna finished Master in International Sectorial Economics at the University of Santiago de Compostela. He is now the Editor-in-chief of The Filipino Expat Magazine and volunteers as Artistic Director of Filipino youth singing group Coro Kudyapi in Barcelona.
Twelve years ago, I had an epiphany. I had a vision of myself walking on the cobblestone streets of Spain surrounded by chatting Spaniards. That vision became an obsession. I took up Spanish classes, opened a dollar account, bombarded a lot of Spanish universities with letters of application and stared at a postcard of Spain, daydreaming of España every day. My friends thought I was crazy but I didn’t care. I knew that one day the universe would be so sick of hearing my desperate cries to go to Spain, it would cave. My prayers were answered two
Every year, the Spanish government through the Agencia Española Cooperación Internacional gives scholarships to select students from all over the world, allowing them to study masters or postgraduate degrees at any universities in Spain. I was one of the 15 Filipino scholars who came to Spain for the school year 2004-2005. I was going to Santiago de Compostela. I was going to study Masters in International Sectorial Economics. I was going to rock Spain.
The rocking part didn’t happen right away. When I arrived in Santiago one foggy September morning, I immediately went to meet the person in-charge at the economics department of the university. We had been exchanging e-mails and she knew I was still room-less. As it turned out, all student dorms had already been filled.
The Foreign Students Office couldn’t help either. “You are a bit late now. You should have arrived a month ago,” the director told me.
For my first two days, I stayed at a pension. Every day, I found myself walking to and fro the university, pestering the Foreign Students Office for a room. I got the same sorry answer. I ended up noting down room-for-rent ads on street posts and walls. With my broken Spanish, I checked out each of these places but it was either the room was exorbitantly priced or I was on a waiting list. On my third day, I finally found one near Plaza Roja. Relieved and extremely thrilled, I checked out of the pension and dragged my 30-kilo suitcase to my supposed new place.
Then, my phone rang. The owner of the room had changed his mind. I walked back to the pension only to be informed by the owner, Manolo, that my previous room had already been given away.
I was already contemplating spending the night at the bus station when I noticed a woman waving at me from afar.
Her name was Mena, a Portuguese mother who happened to have overheard my conversation with Manolo at the pension. She told me not to worry. She would find a room for me.Mena was in Santiago to visit her son Pedro, who was staying at the pension with full board or pension completa, food and laundry included. As a valued client, Manolo gave in to Mena’s request. I had a room for the night.The following day, she talked to Manolo again: Why not give me work at the pension’s bar and restaurant in exchange for free food and lodgings until I found a room for myself. Manolo and his wife, Marissa, were just too happy to have me on board, their first instant employee. The following Monday, in a corporate attire, the one I used to wear at work in Manila, I was memorizing the names of hundreds of drinks Manolo was reciting in front ofme. I was to tend the bar and serve 10 students availing the pension completa.
My first two weeks were not really that bad. Well, except for some unavoidable circumstances like breaking five wine glasses. Or accidentally pouring soup on one of the students. Or absentmindedly finishing the peanuts which Manolo had prepared for clients.
From kitchen window, I could see the old part of the city with the Cathedral looming on the horizon. It was such a beautiful sight. I would be the seventh occupant of the flat located on the third floor, sharing rent with six other students from Germany, Galicia and Brazil. Except for me, all seemed to know how NOT to burn their food.
Months went by, I was already living the best times of my life. Our classes were only from Monday to Wednesday, from 10 am to 2:30 pm. Afternoons were reserved for watching Spanish movies, playing chess with my German flatmate, short walks in the old part of the town, and going to Language Exchange meet-ups to brush up on my Spanish. Despite my “busy” schedule, I still found time studying my notes. Wednesday nights would find me standing in front of a big map of Spain on the wall of my room, planning for short trips either within Galicia or some other cities in Spain. On Thursday nights, all the pubs and restos were full to the rafters as students normally went out to party till dawn. Fridays meant going back to their hometowns outside Santiago leaving the campuses deserted during weekends.
Studying abroad was a wise decision. I learned not only about my course or about Spain but also about myself. I managed to fend for myself.I learned more about the world. I saw things in a wider perspective. Meeting different people from all over opened my mind and broadened my outlook in life. I learned how to cherish even the tiniest details or appreciate simple acts of kindness from people I had only met for the first time. Being “room-less” was the universe’s way of letting me know that things could unexpectedly go wrong but at the end of the day,there would always be somebody, like that Portuguese lady, who would lend helping hand.
Right after the post-graduation snacks, I ran straight to the pension to see Manolo and Marissa. They were delighted to see me. I proudly handed them my graduation certificate, made a short speech and the next thing I knew, Manolo was giving me a very tight bear hug and a lot of warm kisses from Marissa. A bottle of champagne was uncorked and several clients joined us to toast to the new graduate. On my way back home, I walked past Rosalia de Castro square and I was suddenly transported back to that fateful afternoon where I was alone and homeless and hating the innocent pigeons in front of me. I stopped walking and fished my phone out. The happy voice of Mena rang through my ears as she showered me< with congratulatory wishes. I carried on walking promising to myself not to hate pigeons anymore.