I was so nervous to board the overnight bus from France to Spain. I’d never studied Spanish in school before, and although I had picked up a few things from my Mexican coworkers over the summer, I really couldn’t say much beyond “hello” and “I’m bored, tired, and sweaty” (an essential phrase when you work in landscaping). I had always been good at French and Italian in school, so I decided I might as well learn Spanish too. Instead of taking a language course, I just took my chances and went to go live in Spain.
I really had no idea what I was in for. Like a lot of people who have never been to Spain before, I thought it was all about bullfights, sangria, flamenco, and paella. Nope. There was absolutely none of that in the small Cantabrian village where I volunteered for two weeks. Instead, I found myself on a little blueberry farm in between velvety green mountains. This place looked like a fairytale brought to life – it was so quiet and misty, and you could always hear the faint, musical clinking of cowbells in the distance.
As if the magical location wasn’t enough, the people I met here made it one of the best volunteering experiences I’ve ever had. There was a mix of English and Spanish speakers helping out on the farm, and we never stopped laughing. When we weren’t out pulling weeds (unfortunately I missed the actual blueberry harvest), we went cliff diving in the waterfalls, explored abandoned prisons and train stations from the Franco era, and watched really badly dubbed movies in Spanish.
The derelict train station in the mountains was a bit creepy, but I loved exploring the ruins. No one else was ever there, so it felt like stumbling upon some forgotten relic of the past. Same with the empty prison. We had to walk through incredibly long, dark, empty tunnels through the mountains to get there, and it felt like we were in some kind of horror film.
Every day in Vega de Pas was a good day. I ate the best food of my life there – our host, Patri, had gone to culinary school, so you can only imagine the quality of her cooking. I also discovered vermut del grifo and the famous Cantabrian pudding, quesada. I felt so lucky. Good food, good friends, and lovely scenery – honestly, what more could I want?
Cantabria was gorgeous, but Vega de Pas wasn’t exactly the most exciting place in the world. A couple days after I got there, we heard there was going to be a festival in town. I think we were all imagining live music and food vendors and beer – but the “festival” turned out to be a whole lot of cows. That’s it, just cows. Hundreds of them. People just went to look at the cows in the rain. We walked for nearly an hour from the blueberry farm to check out this “festival” and all we did was look at about five hundred god damn cows. But it was still a good day.
I can’t say I learned very much from the cow festival, but I did surprise myself with how much Spanish I picked up in Cantabria. After two weeks, I could actually have a conversation – my grammar was really terrible, but I could at least get my point across. I was so proud of myself! Honestly, being a native English speaker is a blessing and a curse, because literally everyone in Europe seems to be able to speak or at least understand English. It’s wonderful to be able to communicate with just about anyone, but if you’re trying to learn a foreign language, it’s very hard to discipline yourself by speaking only that language.
People give English speakers a lot of shit for being monolingual, but I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve tried really hard to practice another language with a native speaker and they’ve just switched to English because it was easier for both of us. Not everyone will be patient with you, especially when you’re a beginner, so you have to just find people who understand that you really are trying your best to learn their language. I got lucky in Vega de Pas – everyone helped me with Spanish as much as they could, and I learned very important things like “me cago en tus muertos” which means “I shit on your dead family”.
The two weeks in Vega de Pas went by incredibly fast – time flies when you spend every day exploring and cooking and laughing and singing and jumping into waterfalls. I can’t believe I was lucky enough to end up here during my very first visit to Spain. Even after exploring other parts of Spain, Cantabria is still my favorite place in the whole country.
Also, because my life is incredibly random, I met my boyfriend Sam in Vega de Pas, of all places. And that is the main reason I was able to stay in Europe for so long. The whole thing is so weird and wonderful. He’s from northeast England and I’m from Wisconsin and we just both happened to volunteer on a Spanish blueberry farm at the same time – I’m telling you, life is bizarre! But it’s also amazing, and it’s definitely an adventure that just keeps on going.