First Days in Cecelia’s Red House

Cecelia is a 69-year-old Costa Rican woman who lives in a cozy, brick-red painted house. As you enter her front gate and pass several lush potted plants, the first thing you’ll see is a large, industrial-style oven outside her front door, bolted securely with a large padlock. This is not a common installation in San José homes. Cecilia is special. She spends a large amount of her days whipping up tortas chilenas, Chilean cakes. This is more of a side hustle, however. Her main gig is graciously hosting international students who are studying at local Universidad Veritas.

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My first day in San José, I am overwhelmed but optimistic. I had spent every waking moment of the weeks prior packing, planning, and going over the travel route in my head. I hadn’t thought ahead to the part where I’d actually arrive. I am here. I made it. My anxious brain hadn’t planned how to feel next. I simply let Cecelia guide us home as she orders an Uber (here, there always seems to be one right around the corner) and gives us the tour of her cozy red house. She shows us her large back room where laundry is hung, and ingredients stockpiled to make her tortas. One of the first things she does is make us a ham and cheese sandwich, slathered with butter. She then takes a worn page out of a drawer that lists her rules of the house. Come home quietly, laundry is done on Mondays, and never lose your keys. She tells us she has been hosting students for the last eighteen years and seems practiced in her speeches about never walking at night, never flushing your toilet paper, and keeping your valuables safe. She comes across as a loving grandmother who knows what’s best for you and is not afraid to tell you at least seventeen times.

After our snack, I sit upstairs in my room and think about unpacking. With the next three months stretching ahead of me as I stare out the window at a completely unfamiliar city, I feel a pang of sadness. What if I don’t love it here? What if I miss home too much? What if my Spanish isn’t good enough to be understood?

“One day at a time,” my housemate, Izzy, tells me.

I feel nostalgic almost, because I am reminded of being dropped off at summer camp as a child. Tomorrow our study abroad program will take us on a tour of the city, and classes start on Monday. With all the rules and new people from new places, I feel like I am 12 again and missing my parents. I feel like an outsider in a brand-new place, one with a completely different language and norms than what I’m used to.

But I take it one day at a time, and it is now seven whole day-at-a-times later. I already feel a deep sense of attachment to this place, and a growing connection with Cecelia. I’ve now become accustomed to her routine and her mannerisms as she scurries around each day with cakes to deliver. I know I will feel out of place here again, but San José has welcomed me graciously so far. Three months now seems like it will pass in the blink of an eye.

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