Doing Spain as an Introvert

By staff writer Cathie Nichols. Photos Copyright © Cathie Nichols.

TO SAY THAT I was shy growing up is an understatement. 

I rarely spoke and I never wanted anyone’s attention so I did nothing to draw it to myself.  I wore a uniform of turtlenecks, baggy pants, and quiet sweaters. 

However, in my 20’s, I did one thing as a certified introvert that was so out of my comfort zone, I knew it would be life-changing.  And it was. I traveled to Spain for a month with a group of people I didn’t know. I never met them before finding my seat after boarding the airplane. 

Did I also mention I didn’t speak Spanish?

My grandpa died and I received a small inheritance.  As a super-responsible young woman, I toyed with paying off a credit card. My grandpa and I were very close; there truly has never been a sweeter man in my life.  He was so good to me, so loving, caring, attentive—he showed me how great a man could be.  The check I received wasn’t very much money but even then I had a funny feeling my grandpa wouldn’t have wanted the money he worked so hard for to go toward a bill.

It just didn’t seem right to spend the money on something so temporary as a zero balance on a credit card.

I remembered seeing a flyer about a trip to Spain advertised at the community college I was attending. Spend a month in Spain and learn Spanish.  I didn’t know Spanish at all, only French. Back and forth my brain went as I wanted to do the responsible thing and get rid of the debt . . . but something told me I should do something more fun.

I picked up the phone and called Cathy House, who was the Spanish instructor at my community college.  I thought it would be a good idea to inquire if the program was full; all the due dates had come and gone.  If there was no room, then the decision was made for me.

Cathy answered after the second ring.  I told her my name was also Cathie, and then I asked if there was any room in the program.  She told me somebody had just canceled the day before and she had precisely one space available. I still get goose bumps when I think of that call, even though many years have passed. I took it as a sign from my grandpa. Without thinking things all the way through, I informed the instructor I would fill the vacated spot.

I had just committed myself to a 9-hour plane ride with a bunch of people I had never met, and then a month in a foreign country not knowing how to speak the language.  Smart!

The flight on Iberia was uneventful except for the fact that the flight attendants were on strike.  All passengers received everything they would need for the flight in a plastic bag.  We had dinner, breakfast, water bottles, moist towelettes and ear plugs.  Apparently the flight attendants on Iberia used to go on strike often.

After the long flight to Madrid, we boarded another flight to take us closer to our final destination of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.  Entering the Santiago airport, I began to empathize with aliens from outer space.  Everything was so different from what I was used to in California—from the language and the money to the people and the food.

The first night in a foreign city is what cemented a newly-minted friendship between Laura, Laurel and me. None of us spoke Spanish and we needed dinner.  Since the Spanish instructor was too tired to take us anywhere, we had to leave our beautiful Spanish hostel on our own.

Laurel and Laura

Laurel and Laura

Scared to try anything different, we opted for hot chocolate and a croissant.  It was delicious but not very filling. We went to bed in our clean rooms starving.

Spanish cafe

The cafe

The next day, we ventured out again.  I had not anticipated the cool weather in July so my new friends and I went in search of a sweater to buy.  There was so much to see while out and about.  After all, each building is from the 1600’s.  In San Diego, buildings are “old” if they’re from the 1970’s!

A typical street in old Santiago

A typical street in old Santiago

As each hour passed, we became more and more adventuresome, easily walking through the streets of both the Old Santiago and the new Santiago hunting for a bargain sweater.  In the Old Town, we saw many artists creating amazing drawings on the path using only chalk.

Sidewalk art in Santiago

Sidewalk art in Santiago

Santiago de Compostela is a very charming town. It is where I learned how to enjoy a siesta.  At first I was annoyed by the fact that all the shops (including banks) shut down for a few hours during the day.  I certainly miss that daily nap after a good meal and wonder if the U.S. might benefit with a few extra zzz’s.

At one event, I learned another valuable lesson: Americans view safety as a top priority whereas Santiago may be more lax. 

At the annual Feast of St. James celebration, everyone gathers at the cathedral in the enormous courtyard to see fireworks. The fireworks were launched right in the middle of the massive group, each more brilliant than the last but with one problem—the debris also rained down on the people!

The fireworks for the Feast of St. James are like none other. I have never seen such a spectacular display and, unless I go back to Spain like I plan to one day, I am sure I will never see one like it again.

Learning Spanish in Spain is probably the best way to learn.  I had no way to communicate except through trial and error.  The people in the town knew the Americans were at the Universidad de Compostela and would not speak to us in English.   By the end of the trip, I was arguing about capital punishment in Spanish with a Spaniard.

The people of Spain were friendly, especially when they saw I was really trying to communicate.  But one guy in particular I will never forget.  He was a waiter at the Universidad’s cafeteria.  Every morning I asked for café sin leche but every morning he gave me café au lait.  He never smiled and simply slapped the coffee down on the counter. 

On the last day of my time in Spain, he served me a coffee the way I’d been asking for it for over a month and, more importantly, he smiled.  What a great send-off!

Spanish waiter

I finally got my smile – and the coffee I wanted!

Being an introvert and traveling with a group was a great opportunity to be someone I’m not. Nothing outrageous: just losing one label (introvert/wall flower) and taking on another (adventuresome). While traveling with a group of people I didn’t know, I became someone else.

I think every introvert should travel with a group to gain insight into other parts of themselves.  Traveling with a group allows for safety, and there are always opportunities to see new things and forge new friendships.

I credit the trip to Spain as the beginning of my new life as an extroverted introvert.  I now speak to people I don’t know and the turtlenecks have all been donated.

And, let’s be honest, my credit card balance is still not zero!

Cathie Nichols

Cathie Nichols


Cathie Nichols (aka @Bloggoneit) is an author-in-training and is in the process of writing a book. Sometimes overwhelmed with three kids, a husband, a dog, a cat, and an overactive imagination, she finds her sanity by escaping life through a super sappy movie or tweeting about twending topics.

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  1. Bernadine says:

    Enjoyed this immensely. As an introvert it gave me courage to try to travel with a group as you made it seem like it was fun, not uncomfortable. thank you!

    • Hi, Bernadine.

      Glad I could help. You should definitely give it a try. Because you’re in a foreign place, the friendships with the other participants are usually forged early and are quite strong. Nothing like not knowing the language to keep the Americans together but still exploring the unknown!

  2. What a great post, Cathie!! It’s amazing how being in a new environment prods us into leaving our comfort zone. And I can totally relate to your self-description of “extroverted introvert.” I seem to fall into that category myself. Thanks for such a great read! I really enjoyed it!!


    • Hi, Valeka.

      Thank you for the very kind words. Yes, it’s fun sometimes to venture out into our “discomfort zone,” and grow as a person.

      I think that both travel and having children helped push me out of the introvert nest–nothing like being indoors with an infant for a week to make ya run out into the world and become a “Chatty Cathie!”

  3. Hello, My name is Betsy, and I am a “extroverted introvert.”

    Well I think I am at least, but maybe not as I will talk to anyone who is willing to listen. So maybe I am an X-“extroverted introvert”…LOL

    I am the youngest of five children and four years younger then the closest sib, so I entertained myself most of my young life, with not a lot of friends.
    I found when I got older that traveling to other places, I could be with others of the same ilk, and also find out more about wonderful and mysterious (to me) places and people. To do this I had to ask questions and that made me start conversations. The results were so freeing!
    I so relate to this article and enjoyed it very much!
    Thank you for sharing.
    I look forward to reading more from you.

    • Thanks, Betsy!

      I was the eldest child with my sister being 6 years younger than me so I was truly on my own. I recall making a lot of “forts” alone in the pine tree forests of Michigan so I am very well aware of entertaining oneself for very long periods of time.

      Hopefully you want to read lots more from me because I’ve been a lot of places this summer! LOL. I just need to settle in and start writing now that all the photos are uploaded.

  4. Cool post Cathie. I was very much an introvert as well when I was in my twenties. What you did going there on a whim is not very introverted at all. So cool. Way more fun than paying off the credit cards. Glad the spanish waiter finally got your order right. What an experience.

    • Thank you, Tim! I appreciate your comments about my trip to Spain.

      The funny thing about getting older is I started as an introvert, became an introverted extrovert, and am now heading back to being an introvert. The best part is being an introvert no longer bothers me like it used to when I was younger. I think I am *finally* growing up!

  5. What a great travel post and a great story! And as someone who often needs to be an extroverted introvert (and often also longs to be a true extrovert), I can definitely relate.

    • I hear you loud and clear! I’d love to be an extrovert — it’d make my day job so much easier but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to accept who I am and have begun toying with the idea of making my career fit *me* rather than the other way around.

  6. Lisa Mark says:

    Cathie, what a great adventure to share. Feels like I was there with you. Thanks for taking me back 🙂 look forward to more … keep on blogging !

  7. Cathy, Oh my Spain is absolutely on my bucket list. I love the pics. You seem to have had a wonderfully adventurous life.

    • This comment made me pause because I don’t think I’ve had an adventurous life, but after taking stock, maybe I have after all.

      Did you check out my post about the Hagia Sophia? I went to Turkey and Greece this past summer. I will be writing about a Greek Island today, in fact, and can’t wait to share my photos of Santorini. Stunningly beautiful island that absolutely must make it onto your bucket list along with Spain!

      Thank you for commenting, Teresa.

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