It’s the serenity and commotion that I love about Spain. I must seize the day because I will never again be 17 running around a Spanish city I love.

Home away from home in Spain my clandestine paradise

Zaragoza (Photo by Asher Lefkoff)

 This article, by high school student Asher Lefkoff, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Asher is a student at School Year Abroad, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.

One Friday evening, feeling sentimental, lonely and bored, I wandered through the winding streets of Zaragoza, Spain.

Winter was approaching. It was not cold enough to warrant sitting inside, but the jacket around my shoulders seemed a must. Exhausted after another week of studying in a foreign country, racking my brain to craft sentences in Spanish, I found my way to a café. Calle Alfonso, on the side of the main street, seemed the perfect spot to watch the night.

In Spain for two months, I had nearly convinced myself I was a local. Sipping a warm horchata, I soaked in the busy city. The glow of the string lights overhead, the buzz of residents taking their evening walk and the crackling of fresh hazelnuts roasting a few meters away — all set the mood. I broke into a smile.

I thought of how everyone dresses up in Spain. Not just for that mid-day meeting or a Friday night club outing, but every day, all day. As if every day is a special occasion. The pressed shirts, flowing dresses, scarves, big watches and delicate jewelry. It was all so foreign from the sweatpants and hoodies I was used to, yet so comforting.

An old man walked down the street in front of me. He fit the night perfectly. With his tweed jacket, pocket square, pressed shirt and cigar, he seemed a movie character. His gait suggested a life well lived. He clearly enjoyed the afternoon light, ready perhaps to sip a cortado or a glass of wine, reflecting on another day in his own, almost clandestine, paradise.

In Spain, I have the chance to explore.

I began to make my way home, still in a state of bliss. Dodging trams and crowds, I inhaled the smells of the city. Expensive perfumes mixed with light smoke from Marlboro reds. Sweet flowers outside a café and the congested smell of old, tight streets. The stone walkways hinted at the city’s endless possibilities. All of this was foreign to a boy from Colorado, used to the smell of pine and wildflowers, fresh garden herbs and campfires.

Entering my apartment building, I headed for the elevator. Wood panels inside, floor buttons tilted in different directions, accordion doors — it drops an inch or two whenever I step inside. It’s an elevator that takes its time. It doesn’t care if I am rushing to leave or want to get home to take a siesta. It does not care about homework assignments or the girl I am stressed about. It gets me where I need to go in what, in hindsight, in the perfect amount of time.

The whole city is slow. Infuriating at times, but still I love the tranquil pace of life. In Zaragoza, the coffee is not in a to-go cup but in an old porcelain mug. A churro is always next to it. Long after the churro is finished, everyone continues to enjoy their tepid coffee. In Spain, coffee is not just a drink. It fuels conversations — the “how is the family” that hours later turns into the “I think she’s the one” or the “where to next.”

Crew practices meant to take an hour devour an entire afternoon. No one heads home after training. We stand around, taking in the sun, soaking in the conversation. After a filling Sunday lunch, no one goes to their room or heads home. We sit around for hours and talk.

How I love the Sunday lunches and late dinners. Families spend Sundays going to mass and cooking lunch. The first course, second, third, fourth and all the others I lose count of. The recipes have been passed down through generations, never once written down. The meals make me part of a family.

Moving from a small town next to mountains to the heart of a city is an exciting and terrifying experience. It presents the opportunity for constant adventure. The chance to explore — instead of mountain trails, back streets.

It’s the mix of serenity and commotion that I love about Zaragoza.

No matter how much I walk around and explore the city, I always find a new favorite spot. In my home town of Boulder, I know every store. They all seem so dull, as if someone sucked the color out of a photo. Not vintage black and white, just bland and colorless. In Zaragoza, every corner is a brilliantly-colored adventure.

I remember the used book store I stumbled into one day, where I found beautiful leather-bound classics for one euro each. The books radiated European culture. I could barely read them, but merely holding the books made me feel I had learned some Spanish.

A ramen shop stashed in an alleyway has become my destination every cold Friday night. Whenever I am a little too lonely or a little too far from home, the golden broth picks me up once again.

Each coffee shop carries a different feeling — one for studying, another for a quick cup, one for good laughs, one for late nights. “Churrería La Fama” runs on a different clock than the rest of the city. Whenever I walk in, the grandmas behind the counter rapidly take my order. Its menu of three items — churros, chocolate and cafés con Leche — leaves little room for choice. The steaming churros show up quickly, and the grandmas’ looks tell me I’m to eat them quickly and leave. Enter, order, eat, drink, pay and leave. It is the most un-Spanish spot in the most Spanish city.

It’s the mix of serenity and commotion that I love about Zaragoza. The laughter on a Saturday night street, an ambulance on a Thursday afternoon, muffled piano practice late one evening — all remind me that I am not alone. As the cold creeps into my room on a quiet evening, the piano quells any sense of loneliness and encourages me to try to read one of the leather-bound books. It reminds me to “seize the day” because I will never again be 17 running around a Spanish city I love so much. Never again will I explore the back streets, hoping to get lost, or stay out late laughing with newly made Spanish friends as we listen to Spanish radio sipping on cortados.

Three questions to consider:

  1. The author says the pace of life in Zaragoza can be “infuriating” but that he loves the city. How can you explain his ambivalence?
  2. Do you think the author would have the same experience if he moved within his home country from a town to a large city?
  3. Have you ever traveled in a foreign country, and if so, how would you describe your experience?

Asher Lefkoff is in his second-to-last year of high school, studying this term at School Year Abroad Spain. His high school in his home country of the United States is the Berkshire School, where outside of class he ski races and rows crew. He was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado. He aims to earn a medical degree and “never stop exploring.”

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