A week ago I celebrated my nineteenth birthday. I had a countdown for the month leading up to my birthday and I was incredibly torn between emotions. I felt torn between excitement for having a birthday in another country, yet sadness and nervousness about experiencing it without my family. I was torn between wanting to hurry up and be nineteen, to feel a little bit more like an adult, and wanting to be turning 17, to be a closer age to my classmates. Everything about my birthday had a double side to it, and I desperately wanted to feel whole, and choose what I was going to feel, and how I was going to act. But, in the last couple of weeks leading up to my birthday, I realised that it was alright, better than that, it was good, to feel a huge range of emotions - to feel both excited and scared, both looking forward to and dreading my birthday. Celebrating a birthday away from family, if you've never done it before, to me, was a big step in independence, and I wanted to take that step, but also wanted to continue to be the child at home. But, I'm growing up, and with that comes the independence, the living away from home, the different joys and challenges... I woke up on Wednesday, the 12/5, excited and delighted to be in a different country, while sighing in relief that the wonderful invention of Skype was readily available.
In my home, in Australia, we have a tradition of opening presents in bed, with the family. We get up early, open up our presents from the family, have a shower, eat breakfast and go to school/uni/work. It is a tradition that I've known my whole life, and I wanted to still do that in Spain. So, I awoke at six thirty in the morning to a buzzing under my arm - my mobile was ringing. I answered it to hear, "Happy Birthday Laura!" from my Dad. Ahhh the loveliness of familiar voices on special days. I got onto skype and chatted with Dad for a little bit, eager to open my presents, and continue our tradition of opening presents in bed, just over two countries, and a skype conversation. Dad was flying to Melbourne that day for work, and Mum was in Wollongong for her uni/work. So for my birthday, my Dad and Mum were in two different states, and I was in a different country! Dad had to leave for the airport, and get some work things together, so I said goodbye to him, and got to talk to Mum. I hadn't thought that I would have been able to talk to her until the afternoon, but she had been able to get some internet where she was and talk to me. There is nothing like talking to your loved ones on your special day! As I was talking to Mum on skype, she called Dad on her phone, so I got to speak to them both briefly as I opened their presents. It was so lovely to have a birthday card and something to open on my day, and I felt so special and loved. I love giving gifts and receiving them, so it was especially nice to have something physical there. My host parents were in the Caribbean on holidays the week before, and were hoping to get back for my birthday, but we were unsure, because of the volcano clouds... So, after I talked to my grandparents (I got your birthday card yesterday! So lovely, and loved getting the poem too :P), I went upstairs and had breakfast and then got ready for school.
I wasn't sure how my birthday at school would be, if people would remember, or how Spaniards celebrate birthdays. I have to say, I was a little nervous about going to school, unsure of the cultural customs. I wanted to get it right, for my birthday to be natural and enjoyable, not continually wondering what I should be doing. I got into class and stood awkwardly at the doorway for a second before entering it, looking around and hearing Nora yell out, "Felicidades!" ("Congratulations!" - The equivalent of Happy Birthday in English.) This commenced the kissing fest. In Spain, when congratulating (or saying hello to someone) you kiss the person on each cheek - so dos besos (two kisses). I had the whole class come up to me saying 'Felicidades!' and give me dos besos. It was quite crazy, and a little overwhelming to say the least. I felt so special and it was really lovely to be made a deal out of. Nora came up to me halfway through and told me that my 'cheeks are red', which made me blush even more, making her say that they were even redder! It was lovely nonetheless and cemented the fact that this was my birthday and I was going to enjoy it no matter what.
recreo (break) I had todo el mundo (everyone) come up to me and say 'felicidades!' and give me dos besos. It was so funny, because most of the people I had no idea who they were, but it was really nice nonetheless. During the fifth period, I came into class to see a big HAPPY BIRTHDAY written on the blackboard. The teacher came in, and everything was normal, until Adjowa entered the room with a cake and the whole class gathered round and started singing happy birthday to me, half in Spanish, half in English. Ahhhh I was as red as a beetroot, but I felt so special and cared for, and it was so nice to be made a big deal out of! We cut the cake, (banana - my favourite!) ate it, and had a group photo taken. It was so lovely, and definitely was the highlight of my day. I felt like it made me feel much closer to my classmates. I had been worried about my birthday, struggling with the fact that I might not feel that special or acknowledged, and it was something I definitely spent a lot of time praying about. But God, being the awesome provider he is, gave me a day extremely special. It was so lovely, being at school and I felt so blessed and lucky to be able to be a part of such a wonderful class.
I got home, and told my host family about my day, and then took the kids to their afternoon activities. I had to walk María home, but it was raining, so by the time we got home, we were soaked to the bone! But, when we got home, María Antonia, y José Antonio were home. It was so nice to see them, after a week of them being away, and they were very generous, giving me a gift of a silver ring, with a blue stone that can only be found in the Caribbean. I hung out with the rest of the family, got to speak to my brothers and sisters and Mum and Dad again, and got to tell them about my day, which made my day seem complete. I also got presents from my Aunty Cath and Uncle Bruce and family, and both my brothers and sisters. It was so so much fun, and overall was an exciting, culturally full day. I definitely felt like the day had been wonderful, and it showed me that being away from family is not all bad. I feel like this time away from my family has just made my relationships stronger - bonding over emails, my blog, skype conversations. Some of my favourite times, are the 10 minutes in the morning when sometimes Mum and I find ourselves both online on Skype at the same time, so I get to see her eat breakfast, and she gets to see me getting ready for school.
It's days like these, days where you can choose to feel homesick or lavish up the experiences that make me believe that God is the biggest part to my happiness. He alone is the one thing that makes all possible. I was walking to school this morning, with my broken headphones, not being able to listen to music, when I realised just how powerful God is, and how without him, you and I wouldn't be here. I thanked God for the life, and with this life, the opportunities he's given us and me. It makes me want to be a piece of bread, that soaks up the last juices of a meal; I want to live with my camera and diary attached to me, recording all of these amazing memories. I want to live a life devoted to thanking God for the amazing opportunities he has blessed me with, and the family and friends I have in my life. So thank you, God, for allowing me to have had such a wonderful, blessed, joyous birthday, and for enriching my exchange and allowing me to learn and grow, and stretch myself during this year away from everything. I saw someone write that while they are away on exchange, they are stripped bare; stripped bare of all preconceived notions of self, of family, friends, of language. And being bare, they start all over again, building ourselves up again, with new language, friends, a second family... learning to strive through challenges and soak up the blessings. It is my hope and prayer that I don't get stripped of my family and friends in Australia, but that I can somehow allow a little more space in my heart for my new friends, my new family, this new exciting language, and learn to embrace the great times, and learn from the bad.