I grew up in Miami, Florida until the age of 10. I loved it there. Then we moved to Great Neck, New York. I hated it there. You can read about that here. After suffering from depression, being ostracized by the kids in school, and contemplating suicide, one month in the summer of 1993 would drastically alter my life and set me on a path to love, happiness and success.
As President of the Interact Club (the High School Division of Rotary International), it was suggested that I should take advantage of their exchange program. I applied to go to Spain and received the notice in the mail that I had been placed with a Rotarian family in Tenerife, Canary Islands. I remember looking at the globe in my room and finding the Canary Islands well south of Spain and off the coast of Morocco. I called the number on the acceptance letter and said that I thought they had made a mistake. “I had applied to go to Spain…” I said. “The Canary Islands are part of Spain,” they replied. I felt pretty stupid.
I remember the day that my parents dropped me off at JFK airport. I was 17 years old, and it must have been quite difficult for them. I remember vividly as the plane was making turns in the air as we landed into Tenerife. I had “The Power of One” soundtrack playing on my Walkman, written by the great Hans Zimmer. His music has often been my soundtrack and this was the perfect fit.
The Rodriguez family met me in the airport, and during the 1 hour drive from the Tenerife-Sur airport up to La Laguna, we had quite a bit of difficulty communicating with each other. The truth is, I really didn’t like Spanish very much in school and my grades weren’t great. I’m actually surprised that I was so interested in going on this trip. Maybe it was just the fact that I was getting away from Great Neck that was the draw for me.
The family I was staying with had 4 kids. It wasn’t more than 24 hours before Guillermo, the son that was around my age, took me out with his friends. I think we went to the beach in a “Furgoneta”… which is like a car with half of a moving van attached to the back. Guillermo wasn’t old enough to drive a car yet. He had a ‘moto’ or motorcycle, but not a car. One of his friends was older though and he came to pick us up and take us out. At the beach, this beautiful blonde girl joined the group and I asked Guillermo “who is that??” “That’s my girlfriend…” he said with a look that implied “Don’t even think about it.”
There were probably 10 people in that group of friends and for the first time, I felt what it was like to have a real group of friends. Not only that but… I was the cool one! I was from New York (ok, Great Neck Long Island) but they didn’t care. These people had never left Tenerife. I was different, and that was a GOOD thing. I remember that afternoon going to a restaurant which became our regular spot, and we ordered sandwiches and milkshakes. I sat in amazement as all of these kids within a few years of my own age sat around and just… had fun. There was no judgement about what clothes anyone was wearing, no competition over who was better than the other. I was in heaven, and as I watched them all talking and laughing, I felt a burning desire to learn Spanish as quickly as possible. This was the greatest experience I had ever had and I was not going to miss out. I pushed myself to participate in the conversations, the jokes, asking how to say things that I didn’t know. Luckily nobody spoke a word of English so I really had no choice.
Everyday, we would wake up whenever we wanted, gather with our group of friends and spend the day at the beach. We would typically come home for a late lunch or dinner, relax, and then go out at night partying. Here I was, this 17 year old, after feeling like I hated life and had little self worth, being lifted up by this amazing group of people and having experiences that any American high school kid can only dream of having.
This changed everything. EVERYTHING. All of those people back in Great Neck that had made my life so miserable for the last 7 years… THEY were clueless! The rest of the world was not like Great Neck, and I couldn’t wait to get the Hell out of there and start exploring it. As soon as I got back I started looking into study abroad programs that were available. I debated between Semester at Sea and going to Seville for a semester. I decided to go to Seville (you can read about that here). Another unbelievable experience that I will never forget.
Unfortunately, I have pretty much lost touch with Guillermo and his crew. I am in touch with him and his then girlfriend, Isabel, thanks to Facebook. I once wrote him a long note thanking him for everything and explained to him what a profound effect that summer had on my life. He never responded though. I hope that are all doing extremely well and are living happily in Tenerife. Maybe one day I will get to see some of them again.