The Power of the First Friendship

Finding My Feet in Sevilla, Spain

Justo Ibañez Rodriguez playing guitar in Sevilla's iconic Plaza de España

The most difficult part about moving to a new place is getting started. When that new place is in another country, where English isn't the dominant language, the level of difficulty rises significantly. Add a dose of shyness and crippling social anxiety, and a year abroad can start to look like a quite a daunting prospect. Luckily for me, these difficulties were balanced by curiosity, determination, and nearly ten years of previous study in Spanish, which ultimately made my year studying in Sevilla, Spain a transformative one.

I loved Sevilla, even before I arrived. From the moment I found the study abroad program I knew that this was the place I wanted to explore. The colorful customs. The way the city was constructed of different cultures quite literally built on top of one another. Even the warmth of the climate. They all called to me. As an undergraduate in anthropology, I could tell that fighting to study in this city would be well worth the effort.

And it was a fight. Reed College, where I studied, did not have an accredited program in Sevilla - only in Madrid and Barcelona. I ended up needing to take an official year off and hoping that they would approve my credits when I got back. I did it anyway, because as far as I'm concerned, 'no' is only an acceptable answer when there's a damn good reason behind it. Now Sevilla is an approved option for study abroad.

A rooftop view of Sevilla

I arrived in Sevilla in August of 2011, nervous and excited, and very quickly bewildered. The language was much more difficult than I expected; no one told me that Andalusians (people from the South of Spain) drop half their consonants and compensate by speaking twice as quickly as most other Spanish speakers. The other Americans in my group only seemed to want to party and drink, so I distanced myself from them. I was there to have a 'cultural experience,' not to get drunk. Rather than taking classes at the study center (which, by all accounts were closer to high school level anyway) I enrolled at the university. My homestay family was sweet, but I didn't want to spend all my time there.

So I wandered. I went back to places that intrigued me from the orientation tour. And that's how I met my first friend in Spain.

It was a beautiful day in early fall. I had wandered through the labyrinthine streets past the university and to the Plaza de España. Although I knew it was a tourist trap, I didn't care, because I had never seen such magnificent architecture. The plaza was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition's World Fair. Although the city itself was broke, the state stepped in to build a monument worthy of representing the glory of Spain. Each of the tiled alcoves along the semi-circular building depicts a different province of Spain. The intricate towers are a nod to the Mudejar heritage of Spain's moorish past. Horse-drawn carriages wait at the entrance to carry visitors through the neighboring park, and vendors selling painted fans and postcards click their castanets and call to tourists from the edges of bridges and staircases.

The Plaza de España

That weekend I entered the echoing hallway and heard music. At first it was faint, ethereal beneath the chatter of the tourists, the constant click of castanets, and the clop of horse's hoofs. But as I moved forward I could hear it more clearly: intricate, beautiful, guitar music. I followed the sound until I descended a stairway and found him: an unassuming man sitting on a white plastic stool and playing an acoustic guitar. A bicycle leaned against the tiled wall behind him.

People walked by. Several dropped coins into the guitar case lying open in front of him. A few stopped to watch for a moment, but most of them moved on. I sat on the stairs and watched until the man took a break. Screwing up all my social courage, I walked up to him, dropped a few coins into his case and, in my best Spanish, said, "You play very well."

It turns out that Justo is just as fascinated by people as I am. He was astonished that I could speak Spanish as well as I could, and had never met anyone from Colorado before. I found out that he plays guitar every weekend, and that he was both a total clown and something of a closet philosopher. We had a lovely conversation and I continued my wandering.

A couple of weeks passed. Classes began. I started getting lonely. So I decided to go back to find Justo. It took a few tries. He only plays on the weekend in the morning, so I missed him a couple of times. But the moment I heard the unmistakable flow of his guitar, I smiled and followed the music.

A closeup of Justo playing his guitar

And so it went. I went back two or three times, and finally Justo invited me to join him for a drink. He wired everything onto the back of his bike in what was clearly a well-practiced sequence, and we walked to one of the many tiny cafes that dot the city. That day, Justo had discovered that I can sing, and we had tried, with only some success, to improvise together. The problem was that we didn't share a common repertoire of songs - or even musical styles. But it was still fun to try. As we sat sipping our ColaCao (basically Spanish powdered hot chocolate and a favorite afternoon snack beverage), Justo invited me to a concert. A couple of friends were playing, he said, and he wanted to introduce me. He gave me the time and place and told me he would see me there.

That night was my first direct experience of Spanish timing. I believe the concert was supposed to be at 7:30 pm, or something like that. I showed up on time, relieved to have navigated the maze in time to get decent seats. I needn't have worried. There was no one there. I awkwardly hung out for at least an hour before the concert started. Once it did, though, I was thrilled. The band, YellowRed, had a distinctive mix of mellowness and passion, along with the inherent charm of anyone that sings a song or two in English when that isn't the first language. I was one of the only foreigners there, so I was probably the only one trying not to giggle as they sang 'welcome to the ma-cheen.' Once I got past the awkwardness and confusion of having gotten there so early, I felt welcomed and accepted by this crowd of friendly strangers.

After the concert, Justo found me and introduced me to the band. He mentioned that I could sing, and the next thing I knew I had been invited to join them as a guest singer. I only sang with them twice. Turns out that music performing isn't really my biggest talent. But that one introduction sucked me into the gritty and joyous underworld of Sevilla's indie music scene, where I met many people I'm still friends with to this day.

Justo and Icia, who are in a band together, testing a new sound system

Years later, I realized what a privileged view into Justo's life I had gotten just from the way we met. I returned to Sevilla while I was completing my masters degree in London. During that time, I made a number of short documentary portraits just to practice my skill. One of the first was of Justo playing in his usual spot. When I shared it on social media, I realized that most of his friends had never seen him play freely. They all knew him because of the bands he is a part of, playing someone else's music. Most knew that he played for tourists on the weekend, but few had ever heard him improvise. It was a moment of validation for me, being able to show my friend in a new light.

Of course, none of this would have happened if I hadn't overcome my social anxiety for a moment to complement a street musician on his playing. Justo is still one of my best friends whenever I visit Sevilla. He doesn't really do social media, so I basically have to show up and surprise him when I'm in town. He says my Spanish would be perfect if I swore more (swearing is more daily vernacular than actually considered bad language in Andalusia), and although to this day he has never once pronounced my name correctly, he still proudly introduces me as "Katie, the girl from Colorado."

Justo, playing in his usual spot

female travel
Kaatje Jones
Kaatje Jones
Read next: Camping > Hotels
Kaatje Jones

I am a documentary filmmaker and artist living full-time in a 5th wheel RV. I love to travel, meet people from different cultures, and engage in artistic collaboration.

YouTube: Solo Femme Warrior

Instagram: @heartofthedream

See all posts by Kaatje Jones