This past week, I walked the infamous Camino de Santiago. Throughout the Camino, we walked 104 kilometers all the way across Northern Spain; with nothing but a backpack containing: 1 change of clothes, my camera, a sweatshirt, a towel, and a blanket. On Wednesday, October 11th, we took a 3 hour train to madrid from Alicante, and then a 5 hour train through the night to Ourense where we arrived early in the morning and began our journey.
On day one of walking, we discovered a small house with food inside. We stopped in and introduced ourselves to the man inside, whose name was Caesar, and offered to buy some of his food. He insisted that we eat for free and try his homemade wine. It turns out that Caesar’s house is infamous for Camino travelers, and he had photographs with nearly 6,000 people who had walked the same path. He was so friendly, and provided us with some much needed food and water.
After leaving Caesar’s we continued walking to our destination for the day: Dozón, which was roughly 28 kilometers of walking for day one. In Dozón, we stayed in a small hostel where we met many other individuals from around the world who were also walking the Camino. We hand washed our one change of clothes, hung them up to dry outside, ate some dinner, and passed out in our room of bunk beds.
The next morning, we awoke at 7:00am, grabbed our clothes of the drying rack, laced up our shoes, and headed out onto the trail once more. We walked an average of 25.5 kilometers a day, which is about 16 miles. We stayed in a variety of small towns such as Río Ulla, Silleda, and Estrada. In these towns, we stayed in remote hostels along the trail and tried many local foods and Galicia wines.
Along the trail, we picked fresh apples and grapes for snacks when we got hungry, and swam in rivers when we got too hot and sweaty. As each day passed, it became harder to continue walking at such a fast pace due to soreness, blistering feet, and all around exhaustion, but we persevered as a group and finally made it to the renowned city of Santiago de Compostela.
In Santiago, we stayed at a ministry where they provided us with a room full of beds, because, after all, the Camino de Santiago was originally a religious pilgrimage to the holy city of Santiago. In the city, we toured cathedrals and got our certificates proving we
walked the entire Camino.
The Camino de Santiago was a tough, week long journey, for the body and the mind. That being said, it was an incredible experience that taught me a lot about the beautiful region that is Northern Spain, and a lot about myself. I would absolutely do it again, and recommend it to anyone who is considering it.
I have now been studying in Alicante, Spain for a month. During this month, I have completed classes, gone on numerous trips around Europe and Spain, and learned a lot of new things. Perhaps the most interesting experience I have had, however, is simply living with a host mother. Now that the awkwardness of living with a complete stranger has passed, I have been thoroughly enjoying the experience.
My host mother’s name is Cristina. She was born and raised in Alicante, Spain. Her first language is Spanish and her second language is French; she does not speak a word of english, making it somewhat difficult to communicate sometimes.
Although sometimes it can be difficult to communicate my exact thoughts to her, my Spanish language skills have drastically increased and things are getting a lot easier. We eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, so I am being forced to speak a lot of Spanish in order to maintain fluent conversations.
I have found that I learn much more quickly and effectively here than I do in classes in the United States. I believe this is because I actually need to use it here and rather than filling out worksheets or taking quizzes, I am breaking a language barrier one day at a time.
In addition to my increased language skills, I am getting to experience authentic Spanish cuisine on a regular basis. Cristina is a wonderful cook, and she cooks for both of us everyday. She solely cooks Spanish foods that she would eat on a regular basis which is really nice, plus it is saving me a lot of money.
Staying with a host mom has really allowed me to immerse myself in the culture of Alicante much more rapidly than some of my peers who are staying in apartments with other American students. Although it can be awkward and confusing at times I am loving everything about the experience and would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity in the future.
Don’t create a life for yourself based on those things
If you do you will never know
You will have to constantly check yourself
and that is no way to live
In the past month and a half, I’ve had an unquantifiable number of experiences. I rediscovered my spirituality under the vaulted ceilings of Sagrada Familia and Saint Peter’s, and witnessed a never ending sunrise over the North Sea. I’ve received a Papal Blessing; studied the Cradle of the West in the shadows of both the Athenian Acropolis and the Roman Pantheon; and contemplated life, love, and friendship in the French Riviera – turns out the fifth floor in Marseille has some great views.
Barcelona is as vibrant as Rome is mighty. Florence is as moving as Luzern is stunning. Venice is a curious city, and Milan has some righteous pizza; word on the street is that it’s known for fashion, but I digress.
These experiences will be covered in due time. In my last entry, you probably gathered that I am a longwinded person. As such, never doubt that I’ll find an excuse to talk about things of the above nature. But those stories and all they contain are for another entry.
For it was in the Alps where I found my peace.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Rockies guy. Those mountains are in my blood, and I truly believe that some of the most beautiful sights on earth are in the great state of Colorado. However, there’s just something special about wandering through the jagged peaks that appear to have sprung to life from the words of Tolkien, with lakes and clouds alike winding lazily through the stone behemoths.
Our program had an excursion during which we were able to hike through the highest Alpine Pasture in Austria. The timing could not have been more perfect as we were arriving when the people of the Salzburg area were taking their herds down from the mountains for the river and giving thanks – imagine something akin to Thanksgiving, but with more cows.
Every year at this time and only this time, a mass is held in a small chapel set in the middle of this meadow in the clouds. The organ plays and the congregation sings on what seems to be the top of the world, as cattle graze peacefully in the foreground set against a backdrop of majesty.
It was within this moment, with music and sights, that I found peace. This isn’t to say that it is a peace that will be felt forever – life is full of unprecedented shifts and unpredictable turns. But it reminded me of an exchange I had a few weeks ago in Nice, France.
Good friends are want to clash on occasion, particularly when they travel in such close quarters for extended periods of time. But it was during this mild conflict that my old friend reminded me of something – be at peace with who you are. Don’t just own it, celebrate it.
Often we are faced with to urge to justifying the essence of ourselves, what we believe in, or who we aspire to be. Too often we shy away from these challenges. We laugh away the discomfort, belittle ourselves, construct walls to shut people out of the most critical portions of what makes us who we are.
I put it to you then – defend who you are, and be at peace with who that is. For the record, this is not about “Finding Your Beach”. The Study Abroad Department couldn’t land me the rights for that slogan in time for the release of this entry. This is about finding your Alps. Finding your peace. You don’t have to be around a chapel and alpine bovines – all you have to do is be unafraid of what makes you, you.
Don’t try to lie to others about yourself, and absolutely don’t cheat yourself from being the person that you are meant to be. Don’t second guess or yearn for the past, but be at peace with everything that you are in the present, and continue to develop that into who you are meant to be. You owe it to who you are in the now and who you will become.
Additionally, I need to provide a disclaimer: The University of Denver is not responsible for mishandled or lost Amazon shipping orders of Austrian Cattle.
-Your meek conductor and Watchword Guide, T. R. E.
I was scheduled to leave for Salamanca, Spain in early September of 2013, but had one foot out the door in June.
Sitting in my parent’s house in Boulder, Colorado, I was itching to rediscover the freedom I so coveted while in college and excited to explore Spain and Western Europe, where I’d never been before. I had worked all summer, leaving all my worldly possessions strewn across the floor of my childhood room, knowing that those 3 months were just a stop gap to where I really wanted to be.
In my sagely, and immensely humble, 20 years on this planet, at that point, I’d learned if you got an itch, you’d better scratch it. And so I did just that, I scratched that study abroad itch and was consumed by the desire to leave. Instant gratification definitely got the best of me.
In all that scratching, though, left me without a few key pieces of information that would have been really valuable before leaving for my trip.
First, improvising will get you a long way, but some structure is both nice and necessary.
I arrived in Spain at around 8:30pm, with the last bus leaving for Salamanca from Madrid around 9:00pm. I thought it would be easy to simply walk off my flight, find the bus station, buy a ticket, and that would be that.
In short, I was profoundly, utterly, and horribly wrong. In Spain, you are supposed to buy your ticket well before you arrive, something I realized as the ticket office was closed and I watched my bus drive away. This, however, is where structure comes in. Knowing I didn’t have a lot of time to make my bus, I researched the departure times of trains leaving for Salamanca from Madrid. The last train left at 9:37 from Chamartín station in southern Madrid, which I decided was my last shot.
I ended up needing it. After realizing I missed my bus, I ran to a taxi. The old man driving the taxi was one of the most kind individuals I had ever met in my life. I explained my predicament to him, he flew to the station, then jumped out of his cab to walk me to the ticket counter and make sure I got on the right train. Having flexibility in a loose structure quickly became my mantra.
Secondly, arrange what you need for your extended trip, get rid of half of it, and bring an extra bag for your flight home.
In packing, especially, I found that I could have packed much more efficiently than I did, and I only brought one suitcase and a carry-on backpack. If you’re studying abroad for a few months, mine was a total of four, often times you’re going to span two seasons. This leaves you with a slight predicament, in the sense that there generally isn’t a one-size-fits wardrobe that you can wear throughout your entire trip. In my case, coming from Colorado, I expect 60-70 degree days to extend through October and the occasional day in November. Moreover, I thought, when the sun is out, it’s always warm, so I’ll need plenty of shorts.Spain is notorious for being hot and I thought I was in the clear.
Not only did I find that wearing shorts was largely looked down upon by Spaniards in autumn, it never was quite warm enough to warrant wearing them anyway. So they sat and took up valuable room in my suitcase. The same principles apply towards toiletries and other non-essentials, particularly in the developed world. No, your host country may not have your preferred body wash or shampoo from home, but they will have an equivalent. Don’t pack it, there are greater things at stake, and often times, you can find higher quality items to augment what you can’t bring, like the sweater, dress shirt, and pea coat that accompanied me home.
This brings me to the last packing point, bring an extra bag for your return. When I was gone, I missed birthdays, holidays, and all sorts of other occasions that require gifts. I had accumulated a few new things myself, and was gifted more, all of which added up, slowly but surely, to take up a lot more room. Having an extra, cloth duffle bag that I folded up into my original suitcase allowed me to fit everything coming home. That being said, this only works if you have one checked bag and one carry-on when you leave home. Most international flights allow for two checked bags, so take advantage of it when you really need it: on your return flight.
Finally, realize that your accent will forever be tainted by the guttural, Spanish version.
It doesn’t matter how much you resist. It doesn’t matter how much you practice. It doesn’t matter how many classes you take on your return with professors from Latin America. The Spanish accent sticks like a tongue to a flagpole on a blustery winter day.
Give into it. Learn that joder, with that scratchy “j”, is the most descriptive, utilitarian word in the Castilian dialect. Resign yourself to the bizarre existence of vosotros, and forgive yourself for the first time you say zapato as your tongue slithers its way through your front teeth.
And more than just resign yourself to it, practice and immerse yourself in a Spanish dialect that you’re not necessarily familiar with. Websites such as Matador Network have lists of Spanish idioms that are really useful. Watch a soccer match in Spanish, if not only to count the number of seconds the announcer screams “GOL!!!!”. Practice your vosotros. Watch a Spanish movie, there are a plethora of wonderful ones, my favorites being “Mar adentro”, “Hable con ella”, and “El laberinto del fauno”.
Joder tío, obviously, there are many more ways to prepare, but I hope this helps with a few aspects that may have slipped under the radar.
For the record, I don’t quite know what my next adventure will be yet, nor will I pretend to have everything under control when it comes. Study abroad definitely beat that tendency out of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s bring it back a bit.
For many people, including myself, I got to truly travel independently for the first time when I studied abroad. I’d visited out-of-state friends in college, gone on road trips with others, but there’s always an added dimension when “international” gets thrown into the mix. There are more logistics, more languages, and more complications if something goes wrong. Through a few moments of brilliance and many more epic missteps, I learned quite a bit about living and traveling abroad. So, here’s a quick list of tangible ways study abroad prepared me for my next aforementioned adventure:
I navigate a mean airport/bus terminal/metro station
I have spent a lot of time traveling, not in the sense that I have spent a lot of time abroad, which I thankfully have, but more that I’ve been exposed to some hellish layovers and travel days. Coming home from study abroad, I worked my way through four airports over two days of travel. It’s exhausting, and you shortly find that duty free looks the same just about everywhere, but I’ve found that I can navigate my way through almost any transportation hub, at this point. If I can’t, however, here’s a great segue into point 2…
There’s nothing that you can’t express, unless you’re too embarrassed to mime it
I first experienced complete and utter language confusion when I studied abroad. I was on a bus from Zadar to Split, Croatia, when an elderly, balding man with a significant amount of missing teeth looked right at me and said a sequence of words that my brain was unable to register. Not a word. Not a phrase. Nothing.
So I sat there, I smiled, I nodded, I placed my hands in my lap, and then stupidly stared ahead, blankly, at the colorful, speckled fabric on the back of the headrest in front of me. I’d never felt more useless in my life.
Slowly, though, I learned to appreciate the art of miming and apologetic shrugging. While I never condone complete ignorance, when your faculties fail you, a grateful, wordless plea and the choo-choo noise will point you in the right direction to most train stations. Thankfully, standardized bathroom signs have saved me from ever miming number 1 or number 2.
Proactively Google Map
Most smartphones have some sort of map feature, which come in handy quite often. What most people don’t realize is that when you use them, your route is saved in the phone until it either dies or you select another. So, when you’re heading out and don’t have Wi-Fi, map out the route to your destination while you still have Wi-Fi. It will help you get to where you need to go and will give you your starting location as a point of reference for when you need to go back. Please, however, take it with a grain of salt and make sure you’re going to the right place before you leave the warm, safe embrace of free internet.
Don’t lose your cool
There are some situations where Murphy’s Law always holds true, and one of them is definitely international travel. Somehow, something you’re expecting underwhelms. Now, this can occur in varying degrees along the lines of “Damn, I forgot to pack a lunch, guess I’ll have to settle for a sandwich at the airport!” or “I’m stranded in Marrakech, Morocco without a passport because it just got stolen.” Both occurred to while I was studying abroad, ironically on the same trip.
The key to surviving these situations is to either not lose your cool or have someone there with you who won’t lose their cool. My good friend Ian was with me in Morocco and was instrumental in helping me stay sane as I
became increasingly hangry searching downtown Marrakech for the right documents I would bring to the U.S. consulate. I, on the other hand, was unflappable in finding a wayward friend one of my first nights in Salamanca when her phone was dead. Flexibility, I’ve learned, is key to weathering both the little and large snafus that will happen along the way.
Now, as I plan ahead to an epic Patagonian backpacking trip, tramping across New Zealand’s rugged, Middle-Earthen terrain, or exploring the Colombian beaches, I know I have some excellent skills in my toolbox. Undoubtedly, something will go wrong, but, *knock on wood*, it won’t be that serious and I’ll know how to deal with it, or at least fake it until I make it.
I do not like eggs. I’m not sure what it is about them, but it is just a no go. I can’t smell them, I can’t clean my roommates’ dirty saucepans with little burnt egg crisps, and I cannot crack them. While I can muster the courage to eat baked goods like brownies, cakes, and cookies, even French toast is too egg-y for my taste buds.
However, in Spain, I have found the perfect egg dish: Tortilla de Patata. It is kind of like a Spanish omelet. All of the locals eat tortilla de patata. It is common for both dinner or as a pinxto (which is like the Basque country version of tapas, made as a single serving). We learned how to make Tortilla de Patata in my Spanish Gastronomy class, so, I decided to include the recipe so everyone can try typical Spanish cuisine! Food is culture, am I right? Note that the ingredients are for 12 people, so change the ingredients depending on how many people you are cooking for.
Tortilla de Patata
Serves 12 People
6 kg potatoes
1.5 L olive oil
To start, peel the potatoes and put them in a bowl of water. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying pan on the stovetop. Then, cut the potatoes (in a uniform size) and put them in the frying pan, once the oil is hot. Add salt on top of the potatoes and fry them. Make sure to stir the potatoes until they are browned and cooked through. When the potatoes are golden brown, use a slotted spoon to remove the potatoes from the pot.
Put two generous spoons of the potatoes into a bowl. Then, crack two eggs into the potatoes and add salt. Mix these things together with a fork. Next, put a little of the leftover olive oil in a new, hot frying pan. Add the egg and potato mixture from the bowl. After about 2 minutes, remove the pan from the heat and flip the tortilla using a plate. Cook the other side a little more (for 30 seconds or so). Remove the tortilla de patata from the pan. Repeat this process until all of the tortillas are made!
Oh boy. You’re a returnee. You’ve just gotten home from abroad. Now, you’re responsible for validating your existence and entire experience in a 30-second-or-less recap where you attempt to explain a roller coaster of emotions, a sense of self-actualization, loneliness, elation, and tangible experiences. Good. Luck.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve learned the greatest deflecting tactic on the planet:
Acquaintance A: “How was your trip?”
Me: “It was amazing!!!”
For most people, that interaction will suffice. They’ve engaged you to a surface-level point where they’ve shown enough interest to maintain your relationship, but still remain depth-free, and while you’re stricken with guilt knowing you’re telling a minuscule portion of your experience, you are more than happy to avoid talking about your trip’s pit falls and focus on the amazing parts. Win-win.
Acquaintance A: “What made it so amazing? What did you do? Were there any difficult parts? ”
Once the second probe happens, you buckle down. They’re really interested. You’re not getting away scot free. Winter is coming.
You have to understand, I’m extroverted and still hate this part. I like to think of myself as articulate, but have an extremely difficult time encapsulating the holistic nature of a trip abroad. The peaks feed into the troughs, which then feed into the peaks, in an endless cycle that still affects me well after my return.
For example, during my study abroad program, I directly enrolled in the University of Salamanca, meaning I set up my own classes, lived with a host-family, and didn’t have an immediate support group of Americans I saw every day. I loved the freedom of this lifestyle, where I didn’t have to answer to anyone but myself, but simultaneously was driven crazy by the amount of time I spent alone. Working through the loneliness, on the flip side, remains a great point of pride for me, as I found my own inner strength and moral compass, but doesn’t take away from the fact that I was really lonely at times. In short, my experience was a double-edged sword, which was not always easy to explain. Returnee-ism reared its ugly head.
So, here’s my advice for dealing with returnee-ism:
First, accept the fact that these interactions are going to happen, and are going to happen whenever you come home from an exciting place. I just got home from attending two of my best friend’s wedding in Japan a month ago, and I dealt with the exact same questions I faced coming home from Spain.
Second, if the trip didn’t have a frustrating aspect, then you’re either remembering incorrectly or lying to yourself. Overall, my trip to Japan was one of the best of my life, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t low points. The longer you live somewhere, the more this is magnified. Even if you can’t explain the complete nature of a trip to someone else, be as truthful as possible. Gilding or demonizing your trips can discount what you learned from them.
Third, debrief. I went to Israel during December of 2014 and had an interesting experience, but one that was really frustrating as well. I wrote a blog on it, which really helped me put my trip in perspective. I’m in the process of writing one for Japan, and always travel with a journal. Find whatever mechanism is best for you to debrief, it’ll do you a lot of good.
Finally, internalize everything, and go out again. Each time I’ve traveled after my study abroad experience, either domestically or internationally, I applied what I learned before and gained new skills to boot.
You’re a sophomore (maybe a junior by credits, don’t get cocky). You’re about to study abroad. You notice a lot of the coolest places (*cough* Spain *cough*) require or highly suggest a homestay. You wish you had someone to give you advice about the dirty details of the homestay life. You stumble across this blog.
Or, scenario B: you’re a future employer stalking me on Google. You stumble across this blog.
So, either way, here you are, reading my advice about homestays. Homestays are tricky to write about because everyone has such a unique experience. So, I would like to disclaim that my observations and experiences may not hold true for every place, family, program, etc.
To begin, I would like to touch on the type of people who sign up to host a student. The first type of homestay is a family that wants to provide a room to a student in order to supplement their income. As Spain is having tough economic times, this is a very common scenario. The next type of homestay is someone elderly and/or alone, usually a woman, who would like some company. This situation can be weird because you almost feel obligated to spend time with your host family. The last type of homestay includes a family with kids. In this type of homestay, the family sometimes would like you to practice English with their kids.
The three scenarios for homestays are just generalizations, naturally. Sometimes, the host family can be a combination of the different types described above. For example, my host mom Maria* is a combination of the first and second situation. However, sometimes homestays can be nothing like what I described. For example, my friend’s family requested to be a homestay because their cousin hosts students as well.
After realizing the different types of families, the best advice I could give is to fill out the homestay request form as detailed as possible. A lot of other applicants do not take the time to do this. Therefore, if you are more specific you will likely get things you request. For example, I wrote down a specific neighborhood on the form. You could request a specific walking distance from school. Some of the surfers on my program asked to be closer to the beach (however, this did pose a longer commute to school and metros don’t run super late every night of the weekend!). A lot of people request families with kids.
Another important part of the homestay request form is the roommate section. I said I did not care if I had roommate and I was assigned a single. At first I was excited to have a single, because roommates sound like the epitome of freshman year. I soon realized there were pros and cons to living in a homestay alone. For example, it might have been easier to have a friend to work through the language barrier with. It also could have been nice to have a friend to go out with, because it is always safer to walk home with someone. However, living alone helped me be independent from the group and I also got to practice more Spanish! You should consider these things before filling out the form because it really shapes the homestay experience.
Finally, once you are abroad and living in a homestay, remember that it is going to be weird. Maria treats me like a child a lot, as if I have not been living on my own for a while now. For example, after my return from Morocco, my host mom had reorganized my whole closet. All of my sandals are now missing. The same thing happened to my swimsuit top in September. If my bed isn’t made perfectly, she will remake it. She does my laundry, cleans my dishes, and has even blow dried my hair. And I kind of feel helpless because I never had the courage to tell her these things bothered me and that I am a capable adult. I also was not really sure how to say all of these things in Spanish. If I had been honest with Maria, I would have saved a lot of time harboring anger toward her. However, if you are only going to be honest with your host family about one thing, let it be the food. Otherwise, they will cook you the same crappy dish they think you like (think: pigs’ feet).
In the end, I had a lot of trouble getting along with my host mom. But do I regret it? Not really. If I had lived with friends, I would not have practiced Spanish every day. I would have wasted time cooking and cleaning that I could have used exploring. In the end, it is one thing to live alongside a while culture abroad, but my homestay let me live within the Spanish culture.
I’ve been in Bilbao, Spain for almost two weeks, and so far I’m realizing that our textbooks have taught us a lot of Latin American Spanish. So, I’ve been sitting in front of mi ordenador for a of couple days (previously known as mi computadora portatíl), trying to detail my experiences abroad thus far. And I’ve been having trouble putting my experiences in words; I’ve been having trouble thinking of the most important things to tell.
This is what I know: I am so lucky to be studying abroad. I do productive things every day because my time is limited, and there is not much to do inside anyway since the Wi-Fi connections are all shoddy (no longer la conexión inalámbrica). I’ve seen ornate churches, toured famous museums, been wine tasting, swam on nude beaches, and hiked through the Basque country. And the best part? I can do all of these things after class (or on Fridays because there aren’t classes—remember those times, Pios?).
Additionally, I’m learning a lot about myself abroad. Like, I’m not good with maps (which I may or may not have known before, but it is now confirmed). My Spanish needs work (a lot). And, I’m noticing a lot of little things that I take for granted. Google Maps, hot showers, cold milk (don’t even ask), peanut butter? Never forget.
I know my experience is barely starting, but I’m already excited to bring photos, souvenirs, and a “better me” back to The States. However, what I’m most eager to take home? The study abroad mentality. It’s easy to put off seeing things and doing things when you’re comfortable. Whether that comfort comes from your go-to Chipotle order, your daily routine, or your best friend: do what you can to be uncomfortable.
I cannot wait to go take the Light Rail and see what exists at the end of every stop (pro tip: Santa Fe Drive off of the 10th and Osage station is a pretty cool area). I can’t wait to take the long walk home instead of the easy walk home after class. I will turn my phone data off (sometimes) in order to tune into the world. And as corny as it seems, I vow to not be so worried about getting lost because that’s the best way to figure out where you’re going (or at least the best way to find a new coffee shop). I have until December in Spain, but I promise I will never stop “studying abroad.”
Hello Internet? I don’t know, introductions are tricky. My name is Kerry and I’m a junior studying English and Spanish. The past month I was studying Spanish and Iberian Culture with a DU program in Santander, Spain. The program is now over and I am spending a little time traveling until September 1st. From then until December, I am participating in the ISA Hispanic Studies and Electives program in Sevilla, Spain. I chose to study abroad in Spain because I want to learn Spanish and experience a little European future and oh boy has Spain delivered. After only one month I can feel my Spanish improving emensily. The post below was written two weeks into my Santander program, so let’s all hop in our time machines and get to work.
English and Spanish at DU. I have been studying abroad in Spain for about a month (!!!!!!) already and I am head over heals in love. The past month I did a program with DU Spanish professors and students in Santander, Spain taking two classes in one month. Then, starting September 1st, I am participating in and ISA Hispanic Studies and Electives program in Sevilla, Spain. I wanted to study abroad in Spain to learn Spanish and to experience a bit of European culture and oh boy has Spain delivered. I can hear myself speaking Spanish with more confidence and fluidity. The blog post below was actually written when I was about 2 weeks into my program with Santander. So let’s hop in our time machines go back to the future¡¡¡¡
I have always been really bad at anticipating my emotions. Before a big event or a change in my life, I am incapable of really anticipate how that change will make me feel. For instance, when leaving school for the summer or for our long December break, I never really completely comprehend how much I am going to miss my friends. I see my friends crying and hugging each other so tightly it must hurt. I do hug my friends tight and say goodbye, but I never cry, or really feel much of anything. But then I leave and I find myself thinking about them at the most nonsensical times and my stomach twists and only then, I feel like crying. For instance right now, I am thinking of my excellent friend Tiffany. She is ridiculous in the most marvelous and fabulous of ways, and she was the one who encouraged me to tryout to be a DU blogger. I wouldn’t be “here” without her. And.. I’m crying. Send help Tiff.
Point is, I have never been good at foreseeing my emotions.
I’ve been in Spain now for a full week and, perhaps inevitably, I feel nothing like I thought I might. Honestly, I thought it would be weirder. I thought I would miss home and DU more. I thought it would be odd to live with a stranger in a home stay program and I thought I would be in a constant state of fear. I thought all of this on the way to the airport. I felt nothing but small waves of excitement the months of June and July and then, on the way to the airport, all my nerves hit me at once. My poor parents where trying to talk to me, the last in-person conversation for five months, and I shut down. Sorry Mom and Dad, I didn’t mean to.
But holy-guacamole I am having so much fun. (also like, guacamole. amirite?) The program I am a part of in Santander is a very work-intensive program. Last week, we had one day to explore the city, 7-8 hours of one class in 2 days and then a full day excursion. woof. These next 2 and ½ weeks are only going to get harder, and I even have a mid-term on Wednesday. Obviously, I am learning a lot. Outside of the many hours inside studying, my time here is invaluable (My time studying is also very important, the other stuff is just more fun).
One of the first notable experiences happened on Friday: the whole class went to this replica of a Celtic village. The Celtic people are a group of people indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula, and then the Roman’s came and conquered as Roman’s do (did). If you’ve seen the movie “Gladiator,” it’s more or less that. (Learned that shit in class last week). Before the excursion, we were told to dress “comfortably.” To us, that meant walking shoes, jeans or shorts, and some sort of shirt—casual, comfy, cute. Upon arrival, we were presented with a sizable hill. It was not that long of a walk up, however the plethora of cow mierda (google it) made the walk a little less enjoyable to say the least. Then, we met Raúl: straight up the smelliest man alive. He showed us how to build a house out of mud like the Celtics did—with water, dirt, and sticks
Then, he told us we were to help repair some damages the snow had caused in one of the houses. He said this is very fast Spanish, so there was a moment when we were all just looking at each other. “He didn’t just say.. no I must have heard wrong.. We’re doing what?” Nobody had any idea that we were going to have to basically roll around in the mud and build a house, and were thusly not dressed appropriately. We immediately bonded over the shared distaste for manual labor, in nice(ish) clothes, in the rain (it was raining). One hombre in my group was wearing new white vans–they were pink at the end of the day; he was so salty about it, but we all just laughed and laughed (parents: salty=angry, mad, bitter). Throughout the day and on the walk back in nice, wet cow mierda, I laughed harder than I had all summer. I realized then, the phenomenal group of people I had been thrown together with would make any walk through cow poop fun. (Mierda is Spanish for shit if you hadn’t caught on or googled that yet.)
Not to get too broad and preachy, but I think that that is a big part of being abroad. You can’t always know what you are going to do or how it is going to make you feel. When you are in a new circumstance, knowing how you will feel coming out of it is nearly impossible. You don’t know that you are only going to learn the Spanish word for shit by walking through it for ½ hour. You don’t know a smelly Spanish man named Raúl is going to, without warning, smear a bunch of mud all over your face for no reason. You don’t know not to wear your favorite, fancy pants to a Celtic village where all of your effort will be put into not ruining them. And you also cannot explain or control your reaction. But, sometimes with the right group of people, you can have a fond memory of cow poop. Study abroad you sneaky bastard you—thank you.
Oh, María. That’s how I start many of my stories about my Spanish host mother. María was the best. She was a chubby, 68, year-old Salamanca native who had hosted students for 30 years, and made my study abroad experience 100 times better. We would huddle around my computer to watch Barcelona soccer matches, she would cook me paella every Sunday, and we would spend dinnertime joking around, watching terrible Spanish television, and talking about our days. When I would come home for a midnight snack, which was more like a 5-6am snack, María started calling me “The Ghost” and asking if “The Ghost” had visited the night before to raid our refrigerator.
Something wonderful about study abroad is that you have time to develop local relationships, whether they’re with your host family, roommate/flat-mate, or other students. No person I met on a weekend or week-long trip has ever impacted me as much as María did with her kindness and fun home atmosphere. She taught me to be more blunt and reinforced me to shamelessly laugh at myself, whenever possible.
Find Local Gems
Let’s just say Trip Advisor only goes so far. Yes, it will give you the best restaurants, destinations, etc., but sometimes you don’t want the “best” experience, you want a genuine one. My favorite spots in Salamanca were the ones I made my own, like the coffee shop I would go to after class to chat with Beatriz, who would give my friend Ian and I advice, or the Erasmus Bar where my team and I would play trivia every Wednesday (we won thrice, I might add). None of those places would make a website because they were unspectacular at face value, until you made a memory in them.
You live outside your comfort zone
Some say that growth comes from discomfort, which I agree with 100%. Growing as a person means exposing yourself to new experiences, feelings, and situations that lie outside of the status quo. The wonderful thing about study abroad is that you are uncomfortable all the time, so by default you’re growing all the time. Whether you’re navigating a new country in a new language, battling your way through classes, meeting new people, missing old people, or finding your niche in your new home, study abroad is difficult at times, and it SHOULD BE. If everything has a shiny exterior and you never come across a meaningful challenge, you miss the depth that leads to growth. There was one weekend, pretty early into my study abroad experience, where the eight people I knew were out of town, and I almost went Jack Nicholson-style The Shining on everyone due to cabin fever. That experience prompted me to be more proactive, but also helped me learn how to be alone and made me a better person.
You learn street smarts AND book smarts
First of all, when you’re studying abroad, you’re ideally doing some studying. Wow, novel concept here, I know.
While I was in Spain, I took Portuguese classes, a class on the history of the Jews in Spain, a class on Spanish literature, and the History of Philosophy, of which I learned a lot, to the point where I still have trouble calling philosophers by their English names. Aristotle or Aristoteles? I don’t know either…
But, moreover, you also learn street smarts. You learn the skills necessary to navigate uncomfortable situations (cough, exactly what I mentioned in the last reason, cough). I had my passport stolen my first night in Morocco, which makes most problems a cakewalk when I face them now. At least I’m not in a foreign country and speak none of the national languages desperately trying to find a way home…
You have the opportunity to travel and live in the world.
Now, in case you were worried, I’m not advocating for a study abroad trip with no travel when I mentioned finding local gems and forging local relationships. I had a blast visiting other places in Europe while I was abroad and have many friends whose travel stories are mind-blowing. What I am advocating for is for you to soak it up when you’re out there. This is usually a once in a lifetime opportunity, make sure you leave a different person than when you entered.
I recently read a fascinating article on how to maximize your happiness (You can click here for the article). Essentially, the article reports that scientists have found the quest for happiness comes through experience, rather than material gains. In essence, we are happier when we DO more rather than OWN more.
Now, how does this relate to study abroad?
Studying and living abroad is an incredible experience by itself, and an investment worth making. Studies have shown that study abroad returnees report having higher confidence, experience better job placement, gained career interest from the experience, and much more (see one of many reports here). So, naturally, my first bit of advice for budgeting is to budget to study abroad, if you haven’t already. I highly doubt you’ll regret the experience.
So now you’re abroad. How do you make sure that your money is going to good use? Naturally, all college students have different budgets. Some can afford to live lavishly, others have to conserve their money very tightly. For those who are watching their purse strings a little more closely, here are a couple pointers that I found that really enriched my study abroad experience.
BILLY MAYS HERE, I WANT TO MAKE SURE YOU GET SAVINGS, SAVINGS, SAVINGS!!!
I’m so sorry, I couldn’t help the infomercial joke. But seriously, know your exchange rate before you leave home and how much you can or want to spend. Cost of living could significantly increase or decrease abroad, so save everything you can before you go. I worked 3 part-time jobs the summer before I went abroad to help pay for it. Believe me, you’ll want every penny, and you can always do whatever you “missed out” on when you come home.
Plan a list of adventures you would like to do during your time abroad
Anticipating and planning adventures is probably one of the most exciting things on the planet. Seriously, I have published a list of all the things I want to do in my life online (my bucket list), because I have way too much fun with this stuff. Know what you might want to do while you’re living abroad, whether that be backpacking Patagonia, attending a England-New Zealand rugby match at Wembley Stadium in London, going on a SCUBA diving trip along the Great Barrier Reef, walking the Camino de Santiago, or hiking Mount Kilimanjaro (I have friends who did all of these things). They knew they wanted to DO something special while they were abroad, and budgeted accordingly.
Find atypical adventures
What I mean by this is that hopefully, at some point in your life, you’ll have the opportunity to be a tourist. When will you have the opportunity to LIVE abroad and have access to the little-known nooks and crannies of your continent? For me, this meant when I traveled, I wanted to go to atypical places. So, rather than see the Eiffel Tower and taking a picture of my finger touching the top of the Louvre’s pyramid in Paris, *cough* boring and cliché *cough*, I went to Croatia, cliff jumped in the Adriatic Sea, shared a 50cc scooter with my friend and travel buddy, Garret, and visited the UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site Plitvice National Park. I DID something out of the ordinary, and it was the best traveling I did abroad.
Have an it’s-time-for-a-ridiculous-unforeseen-adventure fund
If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that good things just happen around you. My friends and family call it “Spiro Luck”, because I have the uncanny ability to get a good break when I need it most. Many people refuse to play games with me anymore because of “Spiro Luck”, and perhaps my penchant for excessively celebrating after winning…
Back to my point, one of the things I found when I was abroad was that opportunities presented themselves, so plan for the unexpected. One of the craziest experiences I had while abroad was that I got to attend the Clasico, the biannual soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona in Barcelona. I planned to be in the city for the match and to experience the atmosphere, but getting tickets were nigh impossible. That was until a miracle happened. A member of my travel group was accidentally given two tickets instead of one, and I got to go with him for a half-priced, nose-bleed ticket. Without having my it’s-time-for-a-ridiculous-unforeseen-adventure fund, I couldn’t have gone. Being at that game, where the glorious Barcelona won 2-1, was one of the most incredible experiences I had abroad. I still have to pinch myself to remember that it was real. Remember to have a little something to draw on if there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You won’t regret DOING it.
Find local adventures that are free, or at least cheap
Some of my best memories from studying abroad are those that didn’t cost me a dime. In my first week in Salamanca, Spain, I joined the local Ultimate Frisbee team, where I met many of my local friends from abroad, and had a fantastic, fun time practicing every Tuesday and Thursday. I played pick-up soccer every weekend and explored the culture of Salamanca. I jammed with a three good friends on the steps of the cathedral in Salamanca and got a crowd of other students to listen. I took the bus into Madrid and spent the day visiting the modern art museum, then walked around the city for hours. I took the train to Toledo for a day, just because I could. While not as eye-popping as the travel stories, they were the ones that truly defined my study abroad experience. What I DID was worth spending money on, unquestionably, and I didn’t need to always break the bank to make a lasting memory.
Today at work, I got the chance to reminisce. This, by far, is the best part of my job: once a week or so, I get to give a presentation to students about to go abroad detailing my experience studying abroad. So for our blog this week, I chose 9 extremely superficial things that have still stuck with me over a year since I returned from Salamanca that I tell other students about ALL the time:
Anytime dinner is before 8 o’clock, you get very flustered.
Bedtime and wake-up time seem eerily similar…
You try using vosotros in class, to find your classmates utterly confused/disgusted.
Don Simón has utterly ruined your taste for sangria.
Only walks over 30 minutes are considered a “trek”.
You have AGGRESSIVELY chosen a side in the Real Madrid, Barcelona feud.
Any “small” coffee in the US looks insanely large.
Whole legs of pig no longer phase you.
Nap time errday. Enough said.
Believe me, study abroad left a much larger impression than 9 little idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, though, it’s funny that the little things are easier to remember than the personal growth, the increase in confidence, and the maturation that inevitably occurs when you survive and thrive a new environment. However, despite all that, it doesn’t make getting used to an early dinner any easier.
Recently, one of our DUSA Bloggers had a quote that really resonated with me. She wrote, “After living here for 5 months, I don’t really see how people can travel places for only two, three weeks at a time. I don’t see how I’ll be able to do it in the future. There’s no time to build a routine, find the fastest way home because you’ve literally walked every possible route, find your ice cream shop where they start only charging you 75 cents instead of the very steep 80 ‘because you’re so sweet.’ Where is the living?”
I found myself in a very similar situation this past break. For the first time since coming home from study abroad, I found myself outside the United States. I was traveling in Israel on a tour bus with 40 young adults aged 21-26 for 10 days. The trip illuminated some fascinating distinctions for me, and I’ll describe those now.
What struck me first were the difficulties in traveling en mass. My entire life, I had never travelled outside of Colorado with more than 10 people. The words “all”, “inclusive”, and “resort” put together sounded like nails on a chalkboard to my family. Going off the beaten path was something we strived to do, so much so that my mother once had a trip agenda to “walk into open courtyards.” That sounded eerily like trespassing to me at the time, but thankfully went off without a hitch and I saw some pretty neat courtyards.
While studying abroad, my desire to explore on foot and without an agenda had a profound impact on my experience. I learned the intricacies of Salamanca, Spain, my host-city, by running aimlessly: a right turn here, a left turn there, until I wandered my way home. Walking in a lemming-like train of 40 people allowed no room for creativity and encouraged a sheltered view of the cities we visited.
What struck me further, however, was my craving for depth. My wanderings in Salamanca led me to my favorite coffee shop, where my friend Ian and I would go to chat and get advice from Beatriz, the shop’s owner. The get-on-the-bus, get-off-the-bus mentality robbed me of my opportunity to find hidden gems, like Beatriz’s coffee shop.
This, I feel is the difference between traveling and living. Traveling is like eating the icing off the top of the cake: it’s briefly tasty, a little too sweet, and doesn’t fully satisfy you. The meat, or cake in this analogy, of the experience is finding the richness and density only living in a place will give you.
More importantly, however, I think the trip taught me the difference between tourism and adventure. To me, tourism is scripted. There are assigned places for you to be at certain times. More than just being scripted, it is an experience catered to you through another person’s eyes. Adventuring, on the other hand, is taking traveling into your own hands, exploring at your own pace, and looking at a new place through your own lens. Going on an adventure is an intense, individual experience.
So, in short, here’s what I would recommend. Try to live while you’re studying abroad, and if you don’t have the time to live, adventure. Always be an adventurer.
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.