Toledo, Spain. I arrived here in the fall of 1992 to study. I learned much more than I had anticipated.
"Is our apartment on fire?" It was painfully obvious from the thick plumes of smoke billowing in the dark sky of Toledo, Spain but I demanded confirmation from my roommate. It was the very early morning of December 31, 1992 and our year ended in a most dramatic fashion. We returned home in the wee hours to see the off-campus apartment that we had just rented about 2 weeks prior go up in flames. When the bomberos finally showed up in their fire engine they were able to extinguish the flames but everything within the apartment was destroyed. I had no money except for a few pesetas in my pocket, no clothes except for the outfit on my back, and no passport to legitimize that I was who I claimed to be.
I knew from previous experience that studying abroad would have ups and downs but nothing prepared me for such a rock bottom moment. Perhaps, if I had returned home after one semester as originally planned I could have avoided this catastrophe. But I was in love with Spain, and more importantly, deeply in love with a green-eyed waiter who promised me the world. So, I begged my parents and my college for permission to stay another semester. Of course, I did not reveal that romance was the reason for my zeal but I proposed an elaborate research project that I insisted would take my academic career to the next level and could only be completed if I could fully immerse myself in Spanish culture for a full school year. How could I know that my green eyed guapo would unceremoniously dump me on the very same day that I received the official notice from my college that my request had been granted? And, that just weeks later my remaining happiness in Spain would literally go up in flames? Homeless and heartbroken, what a way to start the new year.
The party must go on and my Spanish friends convinced me that I still had to celebrate New Year's Eve and could deal with the fallout from the fire in a few days. I remember sitting sadly in a corner all night wearing borrowed clothes as the music blared. I knew that I was blessed to have not been in the apartment when the fire happened but I was too involved in my pity party to care about the festivities around me. Finally, the midnight countdown began. I tried to choke down a few of the twelve grapes that Spaniards traditionally eat in the last 12 seconds of the old year but every part of my body just felt weak. 3, 2, 1, Feliz Año Nuevo!
The first few days of 1993 were a frenzy of angry and worried calls from my parents demanding that I come home and unsympathetic lectures from my college's study abroad director. After all, they had advised me not to move out of the official student residence - a sturdy (and I suspect virtually fireproof) former convent from the 17th century. Sad but still stubborn, I decided to stay in Spain. I spent a week or so sleeping on a friend's sofa until I humbly returned to my old room in the residence.
Somehow, documentation was produced that enabled me to get a new passport. My Spanish friends showed me incredible kindness and collected money so that I could buy new clothes and essentials. Care packages and letters of support arrived from friends and family in the U.S. Slowly, my broken heart began to heal, the smoke filled nightmares stopped, and amazing things began to happen. My Spanish language skills were better than ever thanks to having to recount the story of the fire countless times. I won a local karaoke contest and that led to me being invited to sing at a local jazz club. The school year ended and I tried to convince my parents that I should stay in Spain and become a big star but I packed my bags and returned home more confident than ever.
I've celebrated New Year's Eve in many different ways since 1992 but nothing has ever compared to that fateful night in Spain. I did not get the new year I wanted or expected but what I needed. Thankfully, there have been no more fires but many moments where I had to muster the strength to start over. And, I know that each time you get to start over is a reason to celebrate. Happy New Year!