Gunther, Janice


Name: Janice Gunther
Location of Study: Madrid, Spain
Program of Study: Enforex Madrid


A brief personal bio:

I grew up in Maine, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 with a BA in biochemistry and MS in chemistry. At Penn I also discovered the fields of intellectual history and after history of science. I worked for a government contractor in the DC area for two years after graduation doing what I call “chemistry-related administrative work,” but kept feeling drawn towards further pursuing my interests in history. Thus, I entered the history MA program at the University of Connecticut in 2010, and am have now finished my second year in Notre Dame’s PhD program I history.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

Near-fluency in Spanish will be fundamental for writing my dissertation, conducting research in Spain, and successfully engaging with the Spanish academic community. My dissertation will examine intellectual life in sixteenth-century Spain, and therefore I need a strong command of Spanish to read primary and secondary sources. I am able to read Latin, but many Spanish scholars also wrote in the vernacular and I wish to be able to consult archival documents in Spanish. Conducting research in Spain, for my dissertation and beyond, requires familiarity with the country and strong communication skills, as well. Studying in Madrid will also give me the opportunity to visit some of the most important research libraries in Spain to more effectively plan future trips. Furthermore, I need to communicate fluently with Spanish scholars and encounter Spanish interpretations of their past to make my work relevant to their academic community and appreciate their contributions. Particularly because my work encompasses some of the most contested periods of Spanish history, such as the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims and expansion of their empire, I wish to understand what shapes their research agendas and how my work might be received in Spain.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

First and foremost, I hope to be as fluent as possible in Spanish by the end of the summer, in speaking, reading, and writing. I believe that fluency also encompasses more subtle cultural understanding: for instance, how to conduct oneself, order in restaurants, ask people questions, and what to expect in terms of living conditions, food, transportation, and given that it’s Spain –when to eat! Fluency, in this broader sense, is important to me because I am studying Spanish history, and need to read and interpret material in Spanish libraries and archives, interact with the staff at these locations, and live in Spain for extended periods of time doing research. I will visit museums and other historical sites in order to learn about how the Spanish interpret their own past and what historical issues are important to them. Studying Spanish this summer will not only help me communicate better in a myriad of ways, but also help me gain a deeper understanding of this different culture.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. By the end of the summer, I will be able to communicate in Spanish with native speakers on academic topics, particularly sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish history.
  2. By the end of the summer, I will have a better appreciation and understanding of Spanish culture and be able to live there alone for extended periods of time in the future. As part of this cultural awareness, I will also have a deeper understanding of how the Spanish interpret their own past and what historical issues are important to them.
  3. By the end of the summer I will know the procedures for using Spanish archives and libraries and have experience in doing so.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

I will be taking an intensive Spanish course of twenty group lessons, five culture classes, and five conversation classes per week at Enforex Madrid, a language school. These classes will help me improve my Spanish from a variety of angles and promote cultural awareness. I will also visit archives and libraries in the afternoon, including the Biblioteca Nacional, the Archivo Histórico Nacional, and the Real Academia de Historia in order to find sources pertinent to my research interests in sixteenth-century Spanish natural history. Using these resources and conversing with librarians and archivists will help me to learn the logistics and etiquette of doing research in Spain. I will also visit museums and other historic sites in order to learn about how the Spanish interpret their own past and what historical issues are important to them. Finally, I will be living with a host family, and have at least one meal with them per day. Hence I will engage in Spanish conversation on a regular basis and learn more about Spanish culture.



Reflective Journal Entry 1:

I have now been in Madrid a little over a week, and in just this short time the city, and Spain, have produced some major news stories: the goring of several matadors at the San Isidro festival, the World Cup (yes, I live near Real Madrid’s stadium, and yes, there was much rejoicing), and now the European elections. So, it is an exciting place to be – though I would add that there is much more to the San Isidro festival, the celebration of Madrid’s patron saint, than bullfighting, such as: several different processions, music and dancing in the Plaza Mayor, a music festival, comedy sketches in separate neighborhoods over the course of several days…

It is difficult to find exact counterparts in the U.S. to some of the elements I’ve seen of Spanish celebrations, like the parade of massive dancing wooden figures on the eve of San Isidro’s day. But perhaps we expect unfamiliar elements in Spanish festivities? And these events attract tourists by design, as well. In some ways, day-to-day life presents more difficult challenges to one’s comfort level than trying to wrap one’s head around singular festive phenomena. For instance: eating!

One of the hardest adjustments when living in Spain is knowing when to eat, and what, and how. For instance, the large meal of the day (during the week) is around 2. Yes, you are expected to eat slowly. Eating lunch in half an hour is not slow. Supper might not be till 8 or 9. Restaurants (at least for Spanish food) might not even have supper available until 7. And then there are the categories of food: tapas, raciones, bocadillos, menú del día… You see, in the U.S., when we go to a tapas restaurant, we order many different small dishes – and if you are me, you leave feeling like the food was tasty enough, but not filling. Kind of like eating sushi when it’s not all-you-can-eat. But that is NOT how the Spanish do tapas! You get a drink in the late afternoon or later, and order one or more tapas to go with it. Or, you order raciones to go with your drink – i.e., a big plate of meat. Or, at some point during the day, you could have a bocadillo– French bread with meat on it. And maybe cheese. Because when the meat is as amazing as it is here, why use condiments? If it’s Sunday afternoon, you might forgo the big meal altogether, and spend the afternoon going to various restaurants and eating tapas and having drinks (coffee, wine…) with your friends (note: drink sizes here are small, by American standards). And during the week, many restaurants offer a menú del día for the luncheon meal, where you can get, with variation, bread, two courses, a dessert, and drink for a set price, even for 10 euro or less.

The information above should not be taken as your new gospel Spanish travel guide, for there are many nuances of Spanish eating habits that I have yet to discern, and that exact practices may vary by region. But it does takes awhile to figure this out (for instance, the sad case of going to a restaurant at 6 and expecting to be able to get a big meal). The process of ordering food also has its stresses to the outsider. For instance, it’s a beautiful day and you see a café you’d like to try with outdoor seating, and what do you do? Do you tell someone with authority inside that you’re going to take a seat outside? What you actually do is to sit down without informing anybody and trust that the waiter will see you (and you can try to grab his attention if you like). Furthermore, the waiters are there to let you enjoy your meal, not come up to you every ten minutes to ask you if you need something else. It also takes some practice to catch their eye to ask for the bill. And at eateries of various sorts, you can sit or stand at the bar, or order at the bar and take your food to a table – but as the waiter is serving many people at the counter, you have to be confident in catching his eye and ordering (and then asking for the bill, as necessary). And then, you’re trying to do this in a foreign language!

All of this I am still getting used to, and it takes practice – especially when I order at a café-bar. As an unknown it can be stressful, but with more experience there is also something very “chill” about it. You can do what you like with your food– eat standing or sitting at the bar, or at a table. You can focus on enjoying time with your friends, or reading, instead of being interrupted by a waiter. You can sit or stand there as long as you like, on your own time. And most cafés certainly do not have wifi- they are places to relax, not to do work. Also, Madrid really depends on tourism for a large part of its economic survival, and so one of my teachers has encouraged us students, as tourists, to spend money here; this is to say that whatever discomfort one may initially feel, the waiters are probably very used to confused tourists.

And I haven’t even gotten to what to eat. I’m still discovering this myself. But I can, without a doubt, say that Spanish olives are out-of-this-world. Forget the silly Greek olive collection we get in the States when we eat at Mediterranean restaurants. Find legit Spanish olives, even if it costs you $15 per can. Your life will never be the same.

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

More exciting times in Spain – King Juan Carlos has abdicated! This past week I’ve heard many different opinions on Juan Carlos, the royal family, and monarchy in general from my teachers, host family, and newspapers. I also visited the Palacio Real (royal palace) in Madrid, it turned out the day before the abdication was announced.

One of the many interesting aspects of Spain as a country is its regional diversity, in terms of environment, culture, and of course, politics. In the U.S. we certainly hear every now and then about tensions in Spain between various regions and the central government, and I have been able to learn more about these situations during my time here. For instance, one of my teachers is from the Basque Country, and recalls growing up surrounded (unsurprisingly) by Basque nationalism, which emphasized their oppression. In her mid-twenties, however, she went to teach children in a Mexican immigrant community of Los Angeles. This experience changed her in part because she realized how many more economic opportunities and how much more prosperity they had in the Basque Country. Though she has friends who are Basque nationalists, she does not support this position herself.

To cite another example, language politics influenced Spain’s 1968 Eurovision song contest entry (the one year they have won). The winning song, sung in Spanish for the competition, had initially been written in Catalan by the famous singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat. He refused to sing it in Spanish, and so last-minute the regime replaced him with another performer.

The Catalan version (the cars in the background were supposed to show Spain’s modernity, I’ve been told):

The Spanish version:

In his first speech after his father’s abdication, Philipe VI spoke of Spain’s unity and diversity (yes, a reference to Catalonia). I, also, am learning more about Spain’s diversity every day.

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

For me, the most difficult part about learning Spanish is trying to understand what people are saying and speaking the language when not in a classroom setting (well, and sometime even in the classroom setting!). I feel like I still have so far to go that it can be easy to feel discouraged, and to wonder how much my listening/speaking skills have really improved over the last few weeks. Granted, sometimes when I go to historical sites and the like, the people working at the counters have noted “you’re Spanish is very good!” Very good Spanish for travelers and the Spanish of someone who wants to devote herself to studying Spanish history are very different matters, though. A few days ago, however, an experience helped me realize that I have really made progress.

You see, the first day when I was in Madrid, I knew that I needed to buy a SIM card for my phone so that it would work in Europe, and figured I would just go to the first cellphone-provider shop I saw. The woman in the shop seemed to talk really fast, and I had a difficult time understanding what she was doing (and cell phones are mystery enough to me, even in English). So, I left with a functional SIM card and number, but no information about contracts, how to put money on the card, etc.

A few days ago I decided to switch cell providers, for various reasons. When I went to the store of the new provider to buy a new SIM card, I managed the whole transaction using Spanish! Granted, I know I didn’t understand every detail. But I had the confidence to use Spanish in this setting and to ask questions when I wanted clarifications. To me, this shows that I really have made significant improvements during my time here!

And as a plus, now I have much more know-how on which cell providers to use when visiting Spain.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

This past Thursday, Prince Felipe of Spain officially swore the oath to become Philip VI of Spain. After the ceremony, he and queen Letizia proceeded through the streets to the Imperial Palace, people waving and cheering them the whole way.

I watched the ceremony on TV, and was happy to be able to understand so much of King Felipe’s speech. One of his important themes was how a great strength of Spain as a nation is its unity and diversity, and he exhorted his listeners to work in solidarity. He explicitly spoke of the importance of respecting regional languages, and finished the speech with saying “thank you very much” in Spain’s official languages: Castilian, Catalonian, Basque, and Gallego. I’m sure that such an emphasis stems in part from a desire to find a way to reconcile Catalonia and the Basque Country with the rest of Spain. (And for the record, I have yet to find anyone in Madrid who actually sympathizes with Catalonian separatists – including my Basque teacher – though know that if I went to Barcelona, it would be a very different situation!)

A smaller comment he made dovetails with some things I’ve heard others say here: comments about Spain needing to be modern. In Joan Manuel Serrat’s video, the cars in the background were supposed to show Spain’s modernity; I have been told that Spaniards looked to the U.S. for fashion under Franco because the U.S. was a “modern country;” and Price Felipe spoke of the need for more science and technology to help modernize Spain. To me, it is strange to hear people here talk about modernization and wanting things to be modern, since Spain seems modern enough to me (which isn’t to say that there isn’t room for science- and technology-based innovation in the country), and since the need to be modern is not a theme of American political and social discourse. If anything, “modern” is a bad word for us, with connotations of pollution, social isolation, and unbridled capitalism – hence, the need for postmodernism! (There is always the possibility, of course, that if I didn’t spend so much time in academic settings, I would have a different sense of “modern” in the American context.) It’s one thing to talk about a desire to be modern in 1968 – but in 2014? But perhaps we are able to critique modernity because we are assured in having it, whatever it is; in contrast, countries and cultures that feel “behind” will anxiously look for modern models, or to some idealized conception of what it means to be modern.

But back to the speech: to me it seemed appropriate for the occasion, hopeful, even idealistic (though these occasions are supposed to inspire, no?). Is it possible for Spain to be united around the institution of the monarchy? Well, so far, myself and the family I live with are the only ones I know who actually watched the ceremony (even though Thursday was a public holiday for Corpus Christi, so people were off work). There is also discussion about how many people were actually in the streets and in front of the palace to cheer on the new monarch; though certainly people lined the streets, there were not throngs of people tightly packed together. Some people I’ve talked to express respect for King Felipe, without being committed to the monarchy; others think that it’s time for Spain to do away with this institution. It will be interesting to see if the career of King Felipe VI will help convince people in any way of the potential benefits of the institution of the monarchy for national unity, like he seems to hope. One of the major sound-bites from the speech translates to “a renewed monarchy for a new age;” can people be convinced that the monarchy itself is appropriate for this age?

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

One of the most interesting ways in which my experience in Madrid has dovetailed with my research interests is in the field of religion. Before going to Spain, I had read about how Spaniards still celebrate certain religious holidays with processions featuring statues of saints or scenes from the life of Christ. These feasts include universal holidays, such as Corpus Christi and Holy Week (the most famous example being in Seville), but local saints also get their own celebrations. Many of these traditions stem from the early modern period. As you can well imagine, knowing this about Spanish culture, I was very excited to find myself in Madrid for the feast of the city’s patron, San Isidro the Laborer!

As I discovered, the celebrations for this holiday last for several days in Madrid, Thursday through Sunday. Associated events this summer included: a series of rock concerts, street performances in different neighborhoods, special markets, a zarzuela concert in the Plaza Mayor, dance performances, fireworks… And where are the more traditional elements, you might ask? Well, bullfights, for one (though halted prematurely this year, due to an uncharacteristic number of injuries to the matadors). There is also a parade featuring large puppets in traditional costumes dancing to music, apparently a Leonese practice dating from the middle ages. And for the most distinctly religious part? Apparently, people picnic outside the city in a meadow near a sacred spring and hermitage dedicated to San Isidro, though I did not manage to get there myself. I did see the religious procession that evening, though, in which different officials, confraternities, and other groups paraded through the streets with the statues of San Isidro and his wife Santa Maria de la Cabeza. After the procession, visitors had the opportunity to venerate the relics of San Isidro in the church dedicated to him nearby, followed by a mass.

There were certainly many people who watched the procession with San Isidro and Santa Maria de la Cabeza (though I’m sure many were tourists), and many people visited the church of San Isidro after the procession. Given the number and variety of events, though, it is quite possible to celebrate San Isidro’s Day with events of only minimal, to no, connection to San Isidro himself. In fact, several people I talked to who live in Madrid had never seen the religious procession or the parade with the dancing puppets, nor had they ever picnicked outside the city.

The festivities surrounding San Isidro’s day seem to reflect in part the great attachment to place in Spain- or at least, a special way of celebrating attachment to place. I even saw groups of people dressed in traditional regional clothing attending various events and in the parade. Not just older people- small children, too. The long weekend celebrates Madrid itself, and with far more extravagance than even Washington, DC celebrates the Fourth of July! I can think of no close parallel in the United States; cities and towns sometimes celebrate significant anniversaries, or have yearly festivals (the most notorious nearby example, I suppose, being St. Patrick’s Day in South Bend and Chicago). Though these events are a chance to celebrate cultural heritage, or, more likely, just to party, they do not focus on a specific place. The annual Johnny Appleseed festival in Fort Wayne may be more akin to San Isidro’s feast day in Madrid.

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

One finds the tortilla española, otherwise known as a tortilla de patatas, everywhere in Madrid: cafes and restaurants, supermarkets, cafeterias… I had it for breakfast sometimes, in small portions as a tapa, and as part of supper. A simple recipe for the tortilla española even made an appearance in my Spanish textbook, and it’s a Spanish friend of mine’s go-to dish to cook for foreigners. In English, we might know the dish as the Spanish omelette.

The basic ingredients are simple: thinly sliced potatoes and eggs. After frying the potatoes until they are soft and draining the oil, you mix the potatoes with beaten eggs and slowly fry the mixture on one side, flip, and then fry on the other. But even with these simple ingredients, taste and consistency vary depending on the ratio of eggs to potatoes, thickness and type of potatoes, the time spent frying the eggs and potatoes, the heat when frying, and freshness of the tortilla itself. You can buy the tortillas at the store to eat later, and cafes might make a whole bunch to eat throughout the day; these are certainly good. But I also went to a restaurant rated highly for its tortillas (at least on that arbiter of all good gastronomical opinion, Yelp) in order to try this higher-tier variety. This tortilla was thicker and softer than the ones I normally ate, with more eggs. Tasty indeed! You can also add onions when frying, as one of my Spanish teachers prefers.


Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

I could tell in Madrid that my Spanish was improving; I found it easier over the course of the six weeks to interact with store clerks, waiters, archivists, and librarians, and I could even understand most of Felipe VI’s speech. I also developed a thicker skin about my language skills; it can feel very embarrassing when you have difficulty understanding what someone is saying to you and when your own statements come out mangled, but perseverance is necessary for improvement. By the end of the trip, I had more confidence when interacting with Spaniards, and received several comments on my good language skills.
I also gained a greater appreciation for some of the differences between Spanish in Spain (and specifically, Castile) versus Spanish in Latin America. I knew beforehand that there are differences in vocabulary and pronunciation, and that Spaniards use the vosotros form of verbs (a specific you-plural conjugated form). However, I had not realized that Castilian Spanish uses certain tenses much more often and in more complicated ways than Latin American Spanish, and that it even has different names for certain tenses! Knowing these distinctions will help me in understanding Spanish academic writing and speaking more professionally when in Spain.

On the level of cultural interaction, among other things, I learned the lesson which every American traveling Castile (and much of Europe in general, I think) must confront eventually: Americans, even those from New England (such as myself) smile a lot. Europeans sometimes note how much we smile, and at times think it’s at least a little weird. And just because the waiter or store clerk isn’t smiling at you doesn’t mean they’re not being friendly! You just have to learn to read people differently.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

I like studying Spain in part because the culture there is so different from what I’m used to. This challenging situation spurns me to better understand what is around me. I learned a lot about life in Madrid this summer with respect to the logistics of living there and getting around, and how to interact with people in restaurants and stores; and of course, I saw many historical sites and old neighborhoods. But all of these experiences also drove home many things with which I am still unfamiliar and have yet to learn. For instance, from my teachers and host family I heard about some of the political and social issues facing the country and the way they view these situations, but I can in no way claim an expert’s perspective on what it’s like for the people in the country to have gone from Franco to democracy, and now the economic crisis and its ramifications. I know that many people face economic hardships right now, and I heard talk of “the crisis” all of the time, but I have yet to grasp all of its dynamics. On the cultural front, one thing among many I noticed is the prominence of Don Quixote, at least in Madrid (perhaps because Cervantes was born nearby)– there is a large statue of Don Quixote and Sancho in the Plaza de España, for instance, and you see references to the work in exhibitions, advertisements… Not until going to Spain did I realize that Cervantes and Don Quixote might be celebrated in this way, even including the large statue in one of the most prominent places in the city. Still, I can observe this, and frankly admit that I have yet to appreciate exactly what Cervantes and Don Quixote mean to Spaniards (or at least, some Spaniards) and why. Learning that I have much more to learn is valuable indeed!

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

I will be returning to Spain for many years to come (I hope!) for dissertation research and beyond, and so this experience in Madrid has laid the groundwork for future work by providing me the chance to improve my language skills, live in Madrid for an extended period of time, and become familiar with important libraries and archives. These language skills will also help me interact with Spanish professors and read primary sources. I will be reading Golden Age Spanish literature for my upcoming comprehensive exams, along with many early modern books and archival material in Spanish for my dissertation proposal after that. Without having spent this time abroad, I would have a very difficult time using these sources or planning a research trip to Spain. I also traveled to important historical sites which previously I had only known through reading, like Alcalá de Henares, the Escorial, and the Royal Palace in Madrid. Visiting these places brought them to life for me, and also showed me some ways in which the Spanish interpret these sites and their own history. I now better know the culture of the country and people I study. For all of this, and more, I am incredibly grateful for the generosity of the SLA program and its donors!