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.
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.
Two Kisses: a Spanish greeting includes two kisses beginning on the left side then the right. However, these are not real kisses. You either lightly touch each other’s cheeks together or kiss the air (no lips touching cheeks action).
Small Bubbles: space in general is limited in Europe so it makes sense personal space is not as big as it is in the U.S. This was awfully awkward at first but then I found it very efficient; there is a lot less yelling.
Walking: in Spain walking somewhere mean actually going walking speed, not that shuffle awkward thing that Americans do because they are in a hurry. I learned to take the time to greet people, enjoy the weather and take a few minutes to myself.
Late, Always Late: the concept of time is very different around the world. I had to get used to the fact that my professor or friends may be late and they wouldn’t even apologize for it. This was probably because they were walking slowly (see number 4) or because time is respected differently in Spain.
Manzanilla Tea: chamomile tea is just as common as coffee in Salamanca. This was wonderful for me because people in the U.S. look at me funny when I say I hate coffee. In Spain, I was able to participate in the cultural norms without having to drink any coffee.
No Tipping: camareros are paid better than they are in the U.S. so nobody needs to tip. You are welcome to give a small tip if you are super impressed, and small only means a couple euros.
Going to another country and learning the nitty-gritty details about the culture can be exciting and fun but it can also be very difficult right around the time homesickness hits. The important thing to remember is that these things don’t have to be better or worse than home, they can just be different. As soon as we stop comparing our experiences abroad to home we can enjoy them a lot more. Although all of these things seemed odd at first, now they are what I miss most about Spain.
Culture Shock may be the most blandly defined word ever. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary calls it “a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place (such as a foreign country) that is very different from what you are used to.”
It is truly astounding that a definition can fall so short. True culture shock is elation and terror, excitement and frustration, adventure and nostalgia. While these pairs seem to be in conflict with each other, in reality, they act in perfect harmony, albeit one might be acting a bit more strongly than the other. Let me explain.
Truly being in a new culture, for me, comes down to an internal battle between adventure and nostalgia, as I mentioned before. While traveling, carpe diem (YOLO for all you hooligans out there) seems to rule my psyche. I want to see everything, do everything, and experience every little facet that will imbue the place to me. For example, when I was in London this past September, my travel partner and I decided to walk from our hostel near King’s Cross to London’s Natural History Museum (our route).
Had we walked straight there, it would have been 7 miles. All of our detouring and site-seeing probably brought us up to 9. We talked in British accents, took pictures, ate lunch in St. James Park, and tried to grasp the fact that we were thousands of miles away from home. We turned our excitement up to 11, culture shock was staring me straight in the face, and life couldn’t have been sweeter.
That’s the upside to culture shock: it can be riveting and awesome, new and shiny.
Then there’s the flipside: the nostalgia of everything you left behind. Whether it’s friends, a significant other, a physical location, or your family, you made sacrifices to “live the dream”, so to speak. At first, you’re too caught up in the moment to realize this; while every cloud has a silver lining, every warm, sunny day gives you a higher chance of contracting melanoma. Wow that was incredibly insensitive. I’m going to rephrase, hyperbole and melodrama aside.
The point I’m (so offensively) trying to make is that culture shock is a double-edged sword. Going abroad is a fantastic journey that can come at personal sacrifice. That being said, I believe the benefits outweigh the shortcomings tenfold. No, everything will not be just as you left it, but that can be a blessing in disguise and the relationships that really matter will deepen.
Now, the greatest graphic ever. You will forget just about everything the Study Abroad Office tells you before you go abroad. We do our best, but the reality of the situation is that a lot of information falls through the cracks. The one piece that will remain with you when you come home from your grand adventure is the graphic below:
This is you over time. As you slowly assimilate into your host-country’s culture, there will be ups and downs. Always remember, though, that no matter how low you go, if you keep working hard, the next euphoric moment is right around the corner.
The first few days in a new place are really exciting. No matter how blandly something is painted or regular to the locals, for you, it seems everything you see is new and shiny. These feelings get magnified when abroad. Being immersed in culture for the first time, and for me on an entirely different continent, EVERYTHING WAS SO COOL. Here are a few of the lessons I learned in those first few days I was abroad.
1. You’re Not As Fluent As You Think You Are
I’ve been speaking Spanish since I was 5 years old, a total of 15 years. I attended bilingual Elementary and Middle Schools, finished AP Spanish in High School, spent a summer living in rural Nicaragua, and one of my majors is Spanish; needless to say, I thought I was super prepared to go abroad and speak entirely in Spanish.
Melodrama aside, it was the little things that fell through the cracks. For example, what do you call shower gel in Spanish? I spent roughly 15 minutes in the soap and shower section of a Carrefour grocery store in Spain desperately trying to figure out if Crema de ducha, which literally translates to “shower cream”, was indeed shower gel and not a lotion you applied post-shower.
Crema de ducha is indeed shower gel, I luckily discovered, however hovering stupidly in the aisle for WAY too long taught me that no question is ever too silly, and having a sense of humor and embracing your idiosyncrasies is key to not getting too overwhelmed.
2. Change Matters
How many of you out there carry around spare change? What’s that? None of you do because it’s totally not worth it and is a waste of valuable pocket space? Fancy that, I thought the same thing!
Here in the States, I leave anything less than a dollar at home. Change is reserved for saving in a piggy bank, then exchanging for an Amazon Gift Card when you think you have enough. In the UK and the Eurozone, however, I found this to be far from the norm. Most restaurants and local shops deal exclusively in cash, and coins are worth up to 2 Euros or Pounds. Be prepared to have some heavy pants and purses, ladies and gentlemen.
What I was left with was, ironically, the small changes to your life always seem to be the most impactful.
3. Umbrellas are a real thing
Growing up and going to school in Colorado has many advantages: we are the fittest and most active State, host the smartest city in the U.S. (Boulder), and get 300 days of sun a year. There are mountains to climb, fields to frolic in, and most importantly NO RAIN. We vacillate between snow and sunshine, and as the saying goes, if you don’t like the weather in Colorado, wait 5 minutes.
Then I discovered how the real world worked.
An umbrella’s only role used to be taking up valuable space in the closet. Abroad, umbrellas are not the relics from when you lived “back on the East Coast” and it “rained” frequently. This became blatantly apparent when I was walking around Salamanca one afternoon with some friends and it started to drizzle. Like any good Coloradan, I said, “this will blow over.”
One torrential downpour later, miserable and soaked from the waist down, thankfully I had the foresight to bring my raincoat along, I returned home, only to leave as soon as the rain subsided to buy myself a fancy new umbrella.
The moral of the story here is to be prepared for the small things in your life to change: you never noticed how much time you had at a supermarket checkout line in the States until you have a gruff German woman frustratingly urging you to hurry up packing your produce into your backpack.
So you want to study in Spain, do you? Well, tío, let’s take this one step at a time. Before you can be jovially joking with locals over a Mahou and chatting about Mourinho’s big move, you’re going to have to learn at least a few camouflage techniques before your North Face, Yankees hat and flip flops get you written off entirely.
On par with English, Castellano is riddled with twists, turns, idioms and and a caña-load of colloquialisms. While meager in length, this list aims to bridge the gap many Americans struggle with upon first arriving in Spain. It is hardly meant to be an end-all be-all, rather to give an elementary rundown on many of the most common phrases of the calle. There are clearly thousands of other phrases and idioms that really are a hoot and a half (see tabla de chocolate), but those are all the more interesting and appreciated when you learn them –sometimes accidentally – on your own. Also, I realize these will seem comically obvious to some folks, especially to those with prior experience/exposure to peninsular Spanish. However, for those who don’t know vosotros from velociraptors, and have previously indulged in a much heavier diet of Latin American-focused Spanish such as myself, hopefully this index will help shine some light as to just what the heck all those mayores in the pub are yammering about.
1.) GUIRI – Most likely, YOU! A guiri is to Peninsular Castellano what a gringo is to Latin American Spanish. The word itself is not necessarily offensive or a cause for alarm, but if heard, it’s probably a sign that you’re not exactly blending in. It’s often accompanied with an eye-roll and something along the lines of, “look at all the guiris at McDonald’s today, madre mia.” Also, a quick google image search will tell you all that you need to know – albeit with a bit more socks and sandals than actually exist in real life.
2.) VALE – A friend told me that the very first thing his program director from southern Spain told him was, “the first and most important thing you need to know about Spain is vale.” From a linguistics standpoint, truer words have never been spoken. The uses and meaning of the word are expansive to say the least, and it is often one of the first true colloquialisms Americans seem to pick-up on and use. Essentially, it can be boiled down to mean: ok, alright, understood, sounds good and just about any other affirmation to a question your mind can conjure up. It is also an odd animal in that it can be used as a question of verification, with the proper response being the exact same word: “Vale? Vale.” Basically just to ensure that the listener is picking up what the speaker is throwing down.
3.) TÍO/TÍA – You got it Dude! Sorry, but Michelle Tanner would have so been all over this if she happened to be born in Madrid instead of San Francisco. This slice of slang, known academically to mean “uncle” or “aunt,” behaves as what in English would be: dude, man, bro…fill in the blank with fratty term of endearment. The somewhat refreshing spin is that it is used by and to describe females just as much as it is males. Don’t know about you, but I think the last time I heard a girl seriously use “dudette” to refer to a gal pal was, well, never.
4.) EN PLAN/O SEA – As far as direct translations go, en plan functions similarly to “like” in English and o sea acts as something along the lines of “I mean…” Essentially, both of these phrases are used in the place of a comma in the vast majority of spoken Spanish interactions. If you are able to get these down and use them freely while abroad, a tip of the cap to you, as it is something that has constantly plagued my Spanish vocabulary – or lack thereof. These fillers will do nothing but help you get your chameleon on when speaking with locals and, in fact, probably make you seem more fluent than you actually are. Phrases such as these are always the trickiest to work into daily speech in any second language – so start practicing now!
5.) VENGA – This is a crafty sliver of sentence meat, simply because the definitions run from here to timbuktu. If you take the word for it’s textbook definition(s) it is the formal usted command or the first and third person subjunctive, but man-oh-manischewitz does it mean more. Used mostly as an interjection, it is often paired with other words to form phrases such as, “venga ya!” or “venga hombre!” which in English roughly translate to, “no way!” “Come on!” or “Yeah right/get outta here!” Although, perhaps the most common usage of venga is a goodbye at the end of a conversation – you’ll really be cookin’ with gas if you can casually drop that in at the end of your first phone conversation with a Spaniard.
6.) JOLÍN/JOLINES –I had it explained to me that this is the word you (have to) use when you stub your toe in front of your grandmother – while your brain may be rattling off phrases that would make Lil’ Wayne look like Papa Francisco, you need to filter yourself to save your dome from a slap upside the head courtesy of abuelita. In English it can be related to replacing “shoot!” for another, similar four-letter word. And no, not spit.
*I’m tempted to mention yet another fascinating verbal pillar of the Spanish language here, but still don’t know how kosher that would be even after living in the motherland for 10 months. I’ve heard 80-year-olds and I’ve heard 8-year-olds casually fling it into convos, but just for the sake of keeping things semi-PG, I’ll leave the extracurricular reading up to you.
7.) ¿QUÉ TAL? – An absolute staple of Spanish communication. If vale was the potato in a tortilla, qué tal would have to be the egg. Exactly like the aforementioned ingredients, both are ubiquitous, often go hand in hand, and are so unbelievably, quintessentially Spanish. How you greet someone every single time you see them, whether it be on the street, at a party, or walking into church, qué tal is the turkey to the linguistic Thanksgiving dinner, the Hall to the verbal Oates, an auditory handshake – well, you get the idea.
Oh, and if you’re like me and were taught it means “what’s up,” don’t be made to look like the gillipollas I was and respond nada. ¿Qué tal? basically means, “how are you?” or if talking about a specific thing or event, (usually in the past) “how did X, Y or Z go?” So how do you respond? 95% of the time people respond with bien, regardless of how they are actually doing.Like in English, who ever wants to admit to having a crappy day?
8.) ‘STA LOOGO – Say bye-bye to adiós, and hola to this daily, linguistic necessity. Short for hasta luego or “see you later” in English, this is the phrase you will hear from shop owners, roommates, host parents, professors – you name it – as you exit any situation. Although, don’t take it too literally. Just because someone says “see ya later” doesn’t necessarily mean they have any intention of seeing you again, rather a polite way to keep the possibility open. And don’t ask me why, but many folks are keen on saying it in the deepest, most guttural voice that a human being can muster. So, if you can get the shortened, bastardized version down and say it while simultaneously trying to swallow your own voice box, people will be mistaking you for un@ español/a lickety split.
9.) PINCHO/PINTXO – Yeah, yeah every schmuck and their hermano know about tapas by now, as just about every major American city has a slew of token tapas establishments. But, before ordering enough patatas bravas to clog up your arteries well and good, know that you might get straight up cold shouldered if you mention tapas anywhere north of Madrid. Originating from the Basque Country, pinchosare the equivalent of what would be referred to as a tapa in the south, though they are bigger and come at a fee unlike their complimentary, southern cousins. It all depends on where you go, where the chef is from and if they want to give you a hard time, but at the risk of sounding like a goober, just be aware there is a difference between the two.
10.) NO PASA NADA – If England has “God save the Queen,” Spain has “no pasa nada.” This phrase sums up the general attitude of many a Spaniard, and it is nothing short of fantastic. Late for class? No pasa nada. Break a glass in the kitchen? No pasa nada. Exams? No pasa nada. This often becomes the gospel for study abroaders in Spain as they slowly become entwined (and rightfully so) in the wonderful whimsy of wanderlust.
-Pasta – NOT Barilla. Often used to refer to dolla dolla bills.
-Majo/maja – Adjective used to describe a genuinely nice, goodhearted person (or just good-looking).
Well there you have it. This list is meager to say the least, but hopefully it will help break some of the ice and make you stick out more like a sore pinky or ring finger as opposed to thumb. Also, if this was too PG for your liking or you just have natural pirate-like tendencies, go to your local urban outfitters and get this – but remember just because it’s in Spanish, doesn’t mean you’re not a potty mouth.
Where can I go to get to other places?” paraphrases a question that I once received from a student. The allure of education abroad, through study and travel (not necessarily in that order), surpassed my passé mantra of academic rigor, cultural entry points, and provisions for safety and security. Travel persuasion was not necessary. I could already imagine her standing before a world map, filling it with pushpins.
Other students need more assurance. The academic and personal leap of faith can be a process, not a plunge. Some students may feign having “just a few more questions”—ultimately indicating good old-fashioned hesitation. Study abroad advisers are in a unique position to help students see past needless constraints and encourage them to pursue their dreams. One can easily think of ten common concerns, which unanswered could prevent a student from having a transformative educational experience abroad. My “Top Ten Reasons Not to Consider Not Studying Abroad” reflect comments from real-live students as well as a condensed form of my answers, and resources that study abroad advisers should keep in mind.
1. It will cost too much.
Students may be surprised! In many cases, students find that they pay no more to study abroad than to attend their home college for a semester or a year. Most state and federal financial aid transfers.
2. My grades will go down.
Students’ grades may stay the same. Despite the fear of a dropping GPA, many students return with the same GPA as when they left. If students study hard and keep up, their grades tend to show it (just like in the States). Advisors can help diminish this fear by citing some pre- and post-study abroad GPAs.
3. My courses won’t transfer.
If students plan ahead, courses will transfer. As soon as students arrive on campus the options should be described. At PurdueUniversity a letter was sent to over 7,000 first-year students before they arrived. The study abroad advisor should make sure that his or her advice agrees with the recommendations of the academic advisor. For example, courses should satisfy major, minor, or general studies credit requirements, not those few precious elective credits.
4. No university abroad will have the courses that I need taught in English.
Many study centers abroad have selected courses in most of the general academic disciplines. Urge students to look at course offerings both in English and in the language of the host country. Independent studies may be possible too, if arrangements are made in advance.
5. I am an introvert.
Remind students that making a new home abroad for a semester or year is unnerving for everybody, and people who are naturally introverted may find themselves even more daunted after trying to make a conversation in a second language with new acquaintances. But they don’t have to be “the life of the party.” Introverts will learn language and culture just as well as extroverts, and they may grow in ways they never imagined.
6. I am a leader and my school cannot get along without me.
Great! These students can now become leaders overseas. Students’ concern that their school will “miss them” will eventually be far overshadowed by the experiences they will have. Students develop more self-confidence than they ever imagined and come home with even more mature leadership skills. But for that, they’ll truly “have to be there!”
7. I don’t know anybody who is going.
In many cases most students do not know the others in their group. But they all have one thing in common—willingness to risk the adventure of living and learning in a different country. Some have made life-long friends in the process.
8. I have never done anything like this before.
Most people never do this. Emphasize to students that it is a tremendous privilege to be able to study abroad. On-site staff will help students to understand what they need to do to adjust to a completely new environment.
9. I don’t have very good reasons to study abroad.
There is not one single “litmus test” for study abroad. There are as many “good reasons” to study abroad as there are good programs. Students become international citizens. They learn a new cultural system and see their own from a new perspective. And, they build resumes and relationships while growing intellectually and culturally.
10. I do not know how to contact study abroad providers.
Study abroad advisers, providers, and other professional make it easy. Students can talk with on-campus study abroad advisers and other students who have studied abroad; surf the web; and read Transitions Abroad.
Study abroad advisers are uniquely positioned to view the transformation that comes from an overseas experience. Perhaps one of the chief constraints is the imagination of the student. Advisers are to be lauded for their challenging role as administrators, advocates, consultants, and, perhaps, detectives. Sometimes only after myths are debunked can students let their imagination wander overseas, followed by their body.
The concept of being vegetarian has not caught on in every country yet. This may be because every person who identifies as vegetarian has their own definition of the word. I am guilty of this myself. I decided to become a vegetarian my right before I moved into my dorm my first year of college. I’m still not sure why I made the decision. Part of it was that I grew up eating organic meat from my uncle’s butcher shop and Sodexo was just not cutting it.
When I arrived in Spain I was extremely relieved to learn that my host mommy had cooked for students who were vegetarian and she could adjust to the fact that I am lactose intolerant as well. People outside of my home however, were not as understanding. I sure it was especially hard for the people of Salamanca, Spain considering that their home is known for delicious cured ham. They could not believe that I hate ham. When I went out with friends they said it was okay for me not to eat meat because there was plenty of chicken. It was hard to explain that I did not eat that either. By the end of my time in Spain I had broken down and started eating chicken about once a week.
It is a bit comical to think about now, but it was difficult for me to find things to eat at times. The important thing I learned is that you have to stay positive and remember that every culture has a different cuisine. I tried to be careful and explain that it was not their food that I didn’t like, I simply did not eat any meat (or chicken), regardless of how it was cooked.
Where I’m from, the only places open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are churches, movie theaters and Chinese restaurants. My upbringing in suburban New England has foolishly duped me into thinking this fact is a universal truth; that Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue must close as to not disrupt Kris Kringle on his circumterrestrial route and that there is simply nothing else to do on December 24th and 25th other than stay in, absorb your caloric intake for the week in mere hours, and watch a Christmas Story on TNT, of course.
Well, after spending the holidays in Spain I have come to realize that all of that is a big sham, a mountebankery, a flimflam if you will. And, Spaniards being Spaniards, Christmas Eve is one of the biggest party nights of the year, naturally.
I think this sentiment and my experience on Christmas Eve are best expressed in (butchered) holiday verse:
While listening to an assortment of Spanish club jamz, there arose such a clatter; I sprang to the balcón to see what was the matter.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear? A street full of Spaniards, like it was any other day of the year.
Translated from the tongue of “Holiday Cheer,” shortly after I finished a shockingly delicious, self-prepared dinner (yeah Betty Crocker, I see you) I peered outside of the apartment I was in only to discover everyone and their Santa-hat-wearing brother was out and about tossing back kalimotxo like it was a Thursday in October.
Apparently this was nothing to write home about for the rest of the folks I was with, but to me it was about the equivalent of rolling out of bed any given day and finding Pat Sajak in the kitchen making pancakes. It’s taking a normal, average day, then add something completely atypical and extraordinary to it – say Mr. Sajak flipping some ‘jacks like it ain’t no thang, or in this case, streets bustling with Spaniards at 4am. The latter is not an uncommon occurrence in the least, but oh yeah IT’S 4AM ON CHRISTMAS EVE, AREN’T YOU PEOPLE SUPPOSED TO BE DREAMING OF SUGARPLUM FAIRIES SOMEWHERE!?
The truly baffling notion to me was that it wasn’t just one street or one establishment, it was everywhere. Everywhere I went it was packed – packed with Santa Claus impostors and candy cane wielding folks all looking to have a good time holiday style. I think this shot says it all:
This picture has everything: Papa Noel, a crowd of people, and to top it off, a scantily clad dancer in the background. If that doesn’t scream Christmas, I don’t know what does.
However, after having some time to mull it over, the initial level of surprise in regards to this phenomenon has greatly diminished in my mind and has now reached the point to where it is almost infinitesimal. Everything about living, studying and merely existing in another country seems surreal, holidays being one the paradigms of this concept and Christmas being the icing on the Pat Sajak-made (pan)cake. Very few things here are exactly how they are in the States, so why should holidays be any different?
The danger of this situation comes when many foreigners often times feel robbed of their own, in this case American, traditions and values. However, I think a more appropriate phrasing is to not feel robbed of your traditions, rather added on to. There’s no need to get angry that people go out until the witching hour on Christmas, nor that most stores are closed during the seemingly vital business hours that are siesta, just take it as it is and go with it. And I may have missed out on Labor Day, Halloween and quite a bit of election coverage, but I did get a long weekend at the beginning of December, got to celebrate New Years two weeks early with 50,000 other students, and a day off from school in November for a continent-wide strike. I think I can live with that. Not to mention the day all North Americans can all agree on anything, let alone a pre-arranged day to peacefully vent political and social frustrations, is the day Chancellor Coombe does the robot at commencement.
So, while Christmas was certainly unconventional by my definitions, it’s all a part of this whacky, flimflam-filled, surreal experience called studying abroad. My advice would be to just enjoy it as much as you can, try to learn something and wave to Pat Sajak along the way.
I guess I first realized it at El Escorial in Toledo. To most people, the 16th century monastery/palace is a grand and awesome display of Golden Age architecture, brimming with culture and reverence. For me, it was a maze of lethally low doorways and staircases that I probably would have been better prepared for by watching the classic montage from “Dodgeball” rather than the historical pep talk our group received from the tour guide.
I remember thinking, “Man these doorways are really low, but then again, it was built in the 1500’s – people were way shorter then. I’m sure Spaniards have accounted for evolution and the overall growth of the human body.” Well, it seems that wave of science hasn’t quite made it over here yet – that or there is something in the water in America, because everything in this country seems to be just 3-5 inches too short/small/cramped for my lanky 6’5 frame.
I realize I’m not exactly a skyscraper by American standards, but to Spanish eyes I seem to come off as this uncannily large person and someone with dimensions there simply has never been a need to accommodate for.
I have had to do some serious adjusting in the way I carry myself, my posture and even the way I wake up in the morning. To name a few particularly problematic structures:
1.) Doorways. – This one is probably the most obvious, but also one of the most injury-inducing. All of the doorways in my homestay have been pleasant greetings for my forehead on many a morning. These greetings are often accompanied by a cackle from my host-mother and a semi-concerned, semi-sarcastic “Hombre, Cuídate!”
2.) Desks. – Freshmen year at DU I put three bricks under each corner of my desk in halls in order to elevate it and try to fit the stilts that are my legs. I don’t know how practical it would be to carry around a bag of bricks with me at all times, but I am seriously considering it. The desk in my bedroom is all but unusable and everything at the university is essentially the same. Although, at school I don’t have a choice so I end up kind of swinging my legs to the side, or, if I get agitated, just putting them to their normal, natural height, causing the desk to come off the ground 2-3 inches. I have gotten some puzzled, freightened looks, but it just feels so right.
3.) Beds. – I have a twin bed in my homestay. Here is what it looks like when I lay down with my head as far back as possible. ‘nuf said.
4.) Lights. – The soul source of light in my bedroom is a jerry-rigged lamp hung at an uncomfortably low level, so that when I wake up I either hit it, or end up wearing it like a hat. Although it looks extremely fashionable, it isn’t exactly an ideal wakeup routine.
One more example that is not really a structure but more of an item is that I had the naive impression I would be able to buy shoes here once I arrived, after I lost a pair at the melee that was Tomatina. To my chagrin, my requests for a size 50, or just anything larger than a 45, were met with puzzled stares and a few mutterings of “hombre…no,” which in this case can be translated to, “’Da heck you mean you looking for a size 50? You crazy?” The most comical factor of this in my mind was that nobody even apologized or offered to check the back room, it was as if they had simply never heard of a company manufacturing such an absurdly unnecessary size.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to complain and vent about my femur frustrations. I realize that in the scheme of things, a few bruises is a small price to pay for the dream life I am able to live here – I mean the idea that I am allowed to galavant around Europe for a year is almost too awesome to be true, but it is and I am. I am simply pointing out the, often comical, differences in size appropriation between America and Spain. If anything, my bruised noggin has in fact taught me something, that being that while you are abroad, you can’t change the culture of the country you are in, but the country certainly can and probably will change you. So while I may not be the biggest fan of having to walk around my house like Quassi Moto, I’ve gotten used to it and adapted to the situation and culture around me. I think that is the entire point of studying in a foreign country, so although I may have had to endure a few welts on the forehead, I’m slowly but surely letting Spanish culture sink into every aspect of my life, and that feels pretty awesome.
Also, I’ll gladly endure hitting my head and scrunching my legs for the rest of my life if I can continue seeing things like this:
“Congratulations! I am happy to inform you that you have been officially accepted into ISA’s Individualized Studies With Spaniards Year 3 2012/2013 program at the University of Salamanca in Salamanca, Spain.”
Those are the now (in)famous first words that I heard alerting me that I would be spending 10 months abroad. With them came a frenzied wave of excitement, a pinch of trepidation, and dozens of high-fives, hugs and “That’s going to be so awesome! That’ll be an amazing experience!” facebook posts.
Like most of my friends, I was ecstatic with the thrilling opportunity set before me. However, that initial giddiness subsided after a day or two, and after a brief scan of the rest of my acceptance letter, which included quite a few “as soon as possibles,” I continued on with my life and nonchalantly thought nothing of the pressing deadlines before me…like only a 20-year-old could.
So, as thoughts of actually preparing to go to a foreign country cozily rested in the distant corners of my brain, days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. After a disturbing amount of time had passed, I finally broke my fast of abroad information and realized that I should probably send one of these ISA folks an e-mail – just to make sure everything is gravy. Well it turned out gravy things were not, and screwed I sure was. In the middle of May, as finals started turning from specks on the horizon into precipices in front of me, I got hit with a firestorm of abroad paperwork – and it hit hard, very hard.
To break it down for you, I got absolutely slammed by all of the following (in order of realization):
My passport was due to expire in a month, so I needed to get it renewed. (Takes 6-8 weeks to process)
Realized I was going to have to go to the Consulate General of Spain in New York City to get my visa…which had no openings until July, and there is absolutely no way to expedite. (Takes 6-8 weeks to process)
Realized, “Oh wait, a safety net! ISA does this all for you for a fee!” Then realized I had to get a hefty packet of materials to Austin, Texas in two-and-a-half weeks, with miles of red tape and government bureaucracy to trudge through to get there. Yikes.
Realized I had to get a criminal background check for any state I’ve lived in over the past 10 years – Colorado and Connecticut.
Realized said background checks had to be stamped and signed by the Secretary of State for each state. (Takes 2-3 weeks to process)
Realized I had to get a physical scheduled with a doctor in Colorado…where I knew no doctors. (Earliest appointment was 10 days out)
I thought it was over. The fat lady had sung. The pigs had flown around the world and back. I was not going to Spain. This sucks. But, the tale does not end there…I am writing this blog after all. Sparing many details, I somehow, someway scraped and clawed my way to that ISA deadline and got my materials to Austin, Texas on time. It involved daily phone calls with my parents, dozens of light rail trips downtown, repetitive head banging on the steering wheels of friends cars, hundreds of dollars of expedite fees, and hours upon hours of restless anxiety. Needless to say, it was not exactly a mosey through a meadow on a spring morning, and I would not recommend it or wish it on anybody.
However, that two week experience, taught me my first two, and perhaps most important, lessons of my study abroad experience:
1.) Be prepared and organized, only bad things happen when you aren’t.
2.) Relax, breathe and know that things will eventually, somehow, by some miracle, work themselves out…usually.