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Expat students: Homeless in Santiago

Expat students: Homeless in Santiago

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
years later.

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.

So there I was, sitting on one of the bird-poo-stained benches of Plaza de Rosalia de Castro, staring enviously at pigeons, so carefree and untroubled, cursing them and my luck. For almost an hour, I just sat there thinking, even doubting my decision to come to Spain: Was it really worth it? Dropping everything –my good job, brand new car, be away from my family –just to find myself homeless and alone on this side of the world?

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.

While my fellow scholars all over Spain were partying with their new friends or planning their trips to Portugal or South of France, I was busy washing plates and wine glasses, mixing concoctions for loyal clients, perfecting my café con leche, waiting on tables, folding table napkins and sometimes,helping Manolo take the garbage out.

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. Despite all these, my new bosses didn´t seem to mind. In fact, on my 29th birthday, Marissa came out of the kitchen with a big plate full of grilled lamb chops for lunch while Manolo opened a bottle of red wine. They even prepared a chocolate cake for my special day. Before leaving for Portugal, Mena had left a beautiful t-shirt for me as a birthday present. It was one of the most memorable birthdays of my life.

School officially started third week of October. The class turned out to be a small melting pot of nationalities: Ya Ping from China, Michel from Peru, Ara and Patricia from Mexico, Gustavo from Paraguay, Julio from Chile, Sergio from Brazil, Yolanda from Galicia, Spain and then me from the Philippines.

The first few days of classes found me photocopying all the notes of Ara´s. I studied Spanish in Manila for two years before coming to Spain but that didn´t help especially when some of my professors were spewing words at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Master in International Sectorial Economics was composed of several modules covering European and world economics and its related sectors. One of my favourites turned out to be the Evolution and Perspectives of Latin America, Asia and Africa. First, because the professor spoke less rapido and seocn, because it was a chance for me to showcase my country. About 99% of the class was clueless pf the Philippines. So whenever I could, I would inject interesting trivia and photos to spice up their interest in my country.

I still went to check out room-for-rent ads posted on street posts and walls everyday. I even found myself stalking Fina, the concierge of one of the student dorms near the university to help me find a room. Well, actually, I befriended her. Okay, I bribed her with muffins during my unannounced visits every afternoon, in between my shifts at the restaurant.

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One lazy Sunday afternoon, when I was about to drop the idea of having my own room. I got a call from Fina´s friend who happened to own a three-storey student building. His tenant was leaving at the end of the month. Would I fancy to rent the room? Seven days later, I was giving Manolo and Marissa goodbye hugs, thanking them for taking me under their wing for a month.

The new flat was a 15-minute uphill walk from the university. From our kitchen window, I could see the old part of the city with the Cathedral looming in 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 a helping hand.

Days turned into months and before I knew it, it was time for my thesis defense. I imagined my graduation as a formal ceremony coupled with emotional speeches and teary farewells. It turned out to be just a casual affair. For example, my Brazilian classmate was just wearing acid-washed jeans.

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. A happy Mena answered right away and after hearing the good news, she showered me with congratulatory wishes. I carried on walking promising to myself not to hate pigeons anymore.

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