On my last night in Seville, three friends and I are waiting to take the metro home when one turns to the group and asks, “What do you think is the most important thing that studying abroad taught you?” It sounds dangerously close to a question that would be asked in an interview with a potential employer and I get nervous in spite of myself. I try to think of something true but not too clichéd.
The unfortunate thing about clichés is that they represent a feeling that strikes so many people as genuine that they become popular, then overused to the point that even those that don’t truly understand them use them, their sentiments, in turn, becoming disingenuous. I want to say something about how studying abroad has changed me as a person, about how I feel definitely yet indefinably different. Yet “study abroad changed me,” sounds like one of the most trite and possibly insincere comments one could make.
I can imagine the fictitious interviewer’s response: “Sure, study abroad has changed you, but how?”
Another unfortunate thing about clichés is that they’re hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced the feelings that inspired them. So, I decide to go with something more concrete.
“I think I’ve learned that that I would rather try something new even if it scares me than miss out on the opportunity,” I say. The group agrees. Study abroad may be fun and exciting but it also carries moments of stress and confusion. Over the past four months I have, on several occasions, found myself in situations that are outside of my comfort zone and I have survived each of them without incident. Through each new experience I have become more confident in my ability to adapt to a foreign environment and realized that I am capable of handling a lot more than I originally thought. While trying new things hasn’t necessarily become any less scary, I’m happy to ignore my fears. Being a little scared is worth the memories made, people met, and skills learned.
The next day, as I’m sitting on my plane back to the U.S., I can’t help but think about how different I feel from when I was on my flight to Spain in September. I remember being so anxious I couldn’t sleep. My thoughts were caught in a rapid cycle of wondering if I was going to catch the bus to the hotel, if I could get a taxi and direct the driver to the hotel if I missed the bus, what my roommate would be like and more, all the while being disoriented by the constant Spanish being spoken around me. Now, I feel calm and relaxed. I’ve taken several taxis and been able to communicate with the drivers perfectly well (despite my Spanish not exactly being perfect). I think about how I’ll miss my roommate and my housemother. I’m content to listen to people speaking Spanish all around me; it’s become my norm. I’ve changed in so many ways, and as I think more about the experience, these changes become more easily definable. Here’s a short list of what I’ve gained along the way:
Better foreign language ability
Not everyone will have the same experience. The only certainty is that study abroad will change you, not always in a way that is easily explainable to others or even easily understandable to yourself, but that is nevertheless immeasurably valuable.
After more than a month in Spain, I have a new level of respect for anyone who decides to move to a country where they will have to speak a different language. Even the simplest sentiments can be difficult to translate. Oftentimes, it takes me about twice as long to say the same sentence in Spanish as it would take to say it in English. Sometimes I hold up my hand, say “espera,” and take a minute to search for the word I need. And every once in a while, after staring into space for far too long, I sigh and say, “no importa.”
Though I try to practice as much as possible, it hasn’t been as easy as I expected. Originally, I imagined myself speaking Spanish all the time once I got off the plane in Madrid but it soon became clear that our program coordinators were going to communicate with us almost exclusively in English. Whenever I was hanging out with other people in my program they spoke English too. After a couple weeks I felt myself comfortably slipping into speaking English whenever I could, which was often, considering all my friends were Americans from our program.
Wait, I would think every so often. This isn’t what I came here to do. It felt wrong to only ever be speaking in Spanish when I was with my host mom or in class. Wasn’t I supposed to be trying to immerse myself in this new language? At the same time, I didn’t want to ask my friends to try to have Spanish-only conversations with me, and I really did not want to attempt to ask a native speaker if they ever wanted to chat. I’ve played out the scenario in my head, and the only way it ever ends is badly. So badly. And awkwardly.
The perfect solution to my problem came a few weeks after we started classes: an intercambio. In Spanish, the word intercambio means “exchange,” and in this instance the exchange is vocal. Our university matches us up with a native Spanish-speaking university student who wants to practice speaking English and, once we’re given their contact information, it’s up to us to set up a meeting and start practicing.
Intercambios are the best thing to happen to my Spanish conversational skills since the Spanishdict app. I’ve met with many of my friends’ intercambios as well as my own, and they are all extremely friendly and speak near-flawless English too boot. They help you with your grammar mistakes and teach you slang that varies from the useful to the, well, less-than-appropriate.
The other night I had my first dinner out where it was just me with my intercambio and her Spanish-speaking friends. To say the least, it was intimidating. Not a word of English was spoken. Many times I ended up grimacing because I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to react with surprise, disgust, or happiness. The pace of conversation was so fast that whole minutes passed with stories flying over my head as constantly nibbled on my food to make it look like I had a reason for my silence. Every once in a while, my intercambio would turn to me and translate a story that had just passed, rapid-fire and full of slang I don’t know, between her two friends.
Though the experience may have been a little bewildering, it was fulfilling in a way that spending a night speaking in English wouldn’t have been. I felt like, though I struggled, I was accomplished in some way.
And the things worth accomplishing, the ones that leave us with a sense of pride after we’ve achieved them, are the ones that present the hardest struggle along the way.
To help with navigating the struggle that is overcoming the language barrier, I’ve compiled some facts/ tips that I’ve picked up in the last month and a half:
You will be scared. Don’t be. Nervousness may keep you from saying something wrong, but it will never allow you the chance to learn how to say it right.
(Most) people appreciate your efforts. Speaking in a country’s native language shows an appreciation for the people and their culture, and you are more likely to run into people who will help you through a conversation than people who will judge you for your mistakes.
Learning a language takes time; progress may seem slow, but as long as you keep practicing it will happen. Everyday phrases will become easier when you actually start using them everyday.
Sometimes the only reason you understand what people are saying is because of the accompanying hand signals they make.
Just today I had an entire conversation with my tapas professor using hand motions and sounds to imitate what food would sound like in the pan. Seriously. (And it was probably the most entertaining conversation I had all day). You can get by even when you don’t have the words to, so don’t get flustered when you can’t figure out what you need to say.
Judging by the first two weeks I’ve spent in Spain, I will feel like I have packed in a whole lifetime’s worth of experiences by the time my three and a half months here are up. Time here feels contradictorily fast and slow – while two weeks has felt more like a month, I’m already lamenting the fact that I didn’t decide to study abroad for a whole year.
The feeling that time has been warped is due in part to how busy I have been. While at home I’m more apt to pass up activities in favor of relaxation, here I have been embracing the “you’re only here once” mentality and have therefore had days that never seem to end (but have taught me that I hit my limit somewhere around 4:00am). When days last that long and almost every moment is full, some experiences are bound to be less enjoyable than others. Sometimes I feel excited by new things. Other times, I just feel alienated. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, I try to keep in mind something one of our program directors told us on our first day here: “No one’s culture is good or bad, or better or worse than another – they’re just different.” Reminding myself of this from time to time helps alleviate the unavoidable awkwardness that comes with learning different customs and a different language. Bearing this in mind, I have tried to categorize some of my experiences thus far into three categories. First, I’ll list ones that have been truly good. Second, the truly bad. And third, the “different” – experiences which are both good and bad in turns and which I will eventually come to embrace as simply new realities that shape my life here.
The Good (+)
Okay, so maybe I’m still bitter that they cruelly took away naptime from us post-Kindergarten, but I’m strongly in favor of the semi-official 2-5pm naptime that Spaniards have built into their schedule.
In the first week, whenever I started feeling homesick and I went on a tour with my program, I instantly felt better. The historical sights are so beautiful and interesting that you can’t help getting caught up in the moment.
As a plus, these excursions allow you to meet all the great people you’re studying abroad with! Bond while exploring a new city and taking all the same tourist-y selfies.
The Bad (-)
The first day we arrived in Seville, one of the host families mistakenly loaded a piece of my luggage in their car. I realized how dependent I am on my laptop after three days without it.
The Different (+/-)
You walk almost everywhere in Spain, which can be a good workout. (+)
If you walk too much your feet will hurt, you will get blisters, your ankles will get swollen, and you’re going to have to get up tomorrow and do it all over again. (-)
My university is outside of the city (as in, it’s in walking distance of nothing) and unless you feel like biking on the highway you have to pay to ride the metro every day. (-)
The metro is new and efficient, and the ride can actually be nice if it’s not too crowded. (+)
The typical Spaniard dresses with much more flair and general effortlessness than the typical American (read: it’s possible yoga pants don’t even exist here). So, you will either end up blatantly sticking out as a foreigner (-) or you’ll have to go shopping (+)
Spain is cash-based – it’s rare to pay with a credit card (and it’s a hassle if you don’t have the microchip that is standard in Europe). Using cash is a bit more complicated experience, especially when the denominations are different from what I’m used to. (-)
The euro is valued more than the dollar, which basically means that once I came to Spain and exchanged my money I was poorer than I was in the US. (-)
However, paying in cash also helps to keep me on a budget. It’s a lot easier to keep track of how much I’m spending when I can physically see how much I have left every time I look in my wallet. (+)
This is only a brief look at what my life in Spain has been like, and so far I can say that the good points definitely outweigh the bad. The cultural differences are starting to feel like they are just that – different, new, exciting, though at times overwhelming. Every day I am so glad to be here, to be absorbing a new culture, and to be learning how to adjust to the many nuances it holds.
I’ve been anticipating the customary semester abroad that the majority of University of Denver students take during fall of their junior year since before I even started college. Still, the fact that I would be living in Seville, Spain starting this September didn’t quite feel real even as I was picking programs and attending pre-departure sessions at our International House. The fact that my next semester will start with a plane ride to a different continent instead of a sweaty day of moving boxes into a new dorm never fails to make me feel like I’m at the top of a roller coaster before it drops: a little scared, a lot excited, and incapable to focus on anything but the certain but unknowable change waiting for me in my immediate future. As summer starts to disappear and I imagine myself abroad, I’ve realized that if I made a Venn diagram of the ‘scary’ and the ‘exciting’ parts of my upcoming semester, I would only be able to fill in that weird, sort-of oval shape in the middle. The only experiences that will be rewarding will also require me to step outside of my comfort zone. No one thing can be exclusively categorized as a ‘fear’ or a ‘hope’ or a ‘goal’ for my time in Spain because, really, they’re all connected to one another. Life, inconveniently, can’t always be separated out into neat lists, but I’ll try to detail the basic parts of study abroad that make me nervous-excited-anticipatory, and will end up making it all worthwhile.
Once I get to Seville, I plan on taking advantage of the several side-trips included in my program, which I have heard are essential. These trips I am not worried about – rather, I’m quite looking forward to them. They come with guides and itineraries. The ones I am worried about are the ones I’m planning to take on my own. I am not travel-literate. The first time I traversed an airport on my own was mere months ago, and, even following the signs, I got lost once or twice. When you struggle to navigate a building, trying to figure out how to get around a new town full of foreign signs is sure to be an experience with a difficult learning curve.
Learning more navigational skills, beyond “the mountains are west,” (which, beyond Denver, is useless) is a definite goal for my time abroad. Up to this point, the only reason I arrive anywhere on time is Siri. The Maps app is my guide, faithfully held up to the steering wheel as I squint towards exit signs and try not to turn at the wrong one (rerouting is stressful). In an age where those who are directionally challenged are saved from natural selection by their iPhones, how will I survive without one in a completely alien land? I guess I should learn how to read a real map? Buy a guidebook? Right now I know I’ll have to at least plan my trips in advance – spontaneous travel may lead to spontaneous breakdowns (or kidnapping. I’ve seen Taken). While learning how to get around by myself makes me anxious, I look forward to becoming more independent and confident in my navigational skills. When I don’t have a guide (or Siri) to hold my hand, I will have to rely on my own capabilities to travel. Once I successfully explore one place, the next is sure to be easier. Besides, if I do struggle with getting around new places, something good is sure to come of it. Aren’t the people who get lost in foreign countries in movies the ones that always find the best pastry shops, anyway? Not that I want to plan on getting lost, but with my track record, I’m bound to eat plenty of delicious crepes by the time December’s over.
Learning the language
While I’m hoping I’ll actually be able to carry on a coherent, awkward-pause-less conversation in Spanish by the time I return from Seville, I’m also dreading the actual process of attaining that comfort with a second language. Inevitably, before I reach that covetable level of semi-fluency, I will put my foot in my mouth and accidentally tell someone I want to eat their child or something. Not that I haven’t already embarrassed myself locally in my quest for bilingualism. Back in middle school, I may have made the mistake of ordering “polla” instead of “pollo” from a native Spanish-speaking waitress at a local Mexican restaurant. Once I got home and SpanishDict’d what I had actually asked for, my memories of the wait staff chuckling at me from behind the bar became seared into my memory with the clarity of belated embarrassment.
Despite its abject cringe-worthiness, that moment didn’t keep me from pursuing Spanish. As of last quarter I was able to make my way through two novels in Spanish and correctly translate some of the conversations between Mexican cartel members on Breaking Bad without reading the subtitles. Both of these accomplishments, though different in size, provided equal amounts of thrill – I can now make convincing death threats and talk about Emilia Pardo Bazán’s work in Spanish with similar dexterity. The promise of future achievements such as these makes the promise of future missteps worth it. I’m preparing for conversational awkwardness to become a daily reality come September, and my grammatical accidents will become useful lessons and hilarious memories (in a few years, surely – maybe by my forties).
One of the main reasons I chose Universidad Pablo de Olavide as my school when I applied for different programs was because of the classes they offered. Though the many other facets of study abroad may be initially distracting, my studies are the real reason I’m going to Spain. Which can really put on the pressure, considering I’m walking into an entirely new educational system. My GPA is precious to me as though it’s an extension of my reputation – I will go to great lengths to protect it (I have seriously wondered why they don’t have dedicated nap rooms in the library. I would probably live there if I could). Knowing beforehand that European universities are run differently than they are in the US has already caused me moments of worry, but I am comforted by the fact that my program has dedicated on-site advisors for abroad students. Still, I’m planning on a little stress and confusion before I understand my new routine. And my new university’s library? Well, let’s just say we’re sure to be seeing a lot of each other, if my syllabus’ reading lists are anything to go by.
Underneath the worry I have for my grades is an excitement to begin my classes. When I read the descriptions online for what I would be learning, I already know I will enjoy all the classes I plan to sign up for. The university provides options for both of my majors, though I’ll be focusing on Spanish because of the interesting variety of classes available that I just wouldn’t be able to take at DU. There’s something kind of nerdy but undeniable about the thrill I get looking through class schedules and book lists. Knowing that I’ll be learning about the culture and history of a country in theory while being able to experience the reality of it at the same time is certainly one of the biggest appeals of study abroad.
Even after trying to categorize them, my emotions regarding study abroad are still fairly inextricable: exited-scared-elated, all in one, and about every part of it, all at once. The weeks are ticking down. It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and it’ll be scary, but it’ll also be amazing. I can’t wait.