The Ambiente at Home

Ceci M. is currently a senior at SYA Spain and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Texas.

I spent Christmas break at home in Austin, Texas, and what I missed most about Spain was something that doesn’t have a satisfactory equivalent in English: ambiente. The word translates to “atmosphere,” but is not so much relevant to coffee shop decoration and climate change as it is to people. Ambiente is the sense of energy and excitement that comes with a crowd. It’s rare for Spaniards to hang out at home. Instead, they find things to do outside, where people are. On any evening, Zaragoza’s central area has ambiente. The streets were nearly empty at night in Austin. Arriving in the Madrid train station, I was comforted by the familiar ambiente and happy to be back in Spain. 

I sat down at the train station’s cafe as I waited for my train to Zaragoza, where I would greet my host family. Being able to order in Spanish made me excited for the next few months in Spain. It was my first time arriving in Spain and finding that everything–ordering, people-watching, hearing Spanish all around me–was familiar. I felt comfortable in the atmosphere, and I felt energized to leverage this familiarity and perfect my Spanish, try new things, and deepen my relationships with my host family. The ambiente comforted me while also giving me the confidence to stretch my comfort zone. 

My ease was confirmed when I greeted my host family at the train station in Zaragoza. They welcomed me with big hugs and bad news: things in Spain were pretty shut down because of Omicron, and our New Year’s plans would have to change accordingly. Instead of going out after eating twelve grapes at midnight, we would stay home, and make our own ambiente in the living room. 

Intellectually, I knew I was jet lagged and needed sleep. Emotionally, I was excited to see my host family and needed to experience the ambiente of New Year’s Eve, albeit inside. We were seven–me, my host sister, my other host sister, and three family friends. The night’s festivities compressed into one evening that contained everything I missed about Spain. I met new people and got to ask questions. We had a long meal that I helped prepare and talked for several hours after. The conversation was replete with harmless teasing and colloquial words I hadn’t heard before. We ate our twelve grapes at midnight for good luck and prosperity. My host sister and I danced and played whatever silly song occurred to us, collapsing into bed at 4 a.m.  With every sentence I spoke, sang, and heard that night, I was expanding my comfort zone within Spanish culture. Even during the second Covid-cancelled New Year’s, the Spaniards around me found a way to create ambiente, and the grapes, it seemed, brought me the good luck to be a part of it. 

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