Para Continuar…

The greatest advancement I gained in my language skills in my time in Madrid was an increase in comfort with the language.  My confidence in Spanish was actually very high as I boarded the plane headed to Europe, but plummeted once I landed. I realized that even though I could write a ten page essay on Spanish poetry and film, I had no idea how to respond to the cashier at the grocery store when asked “¿Quieres bolsa?”.  Through accumulating daily interactions with people on subways, asking for directions, complimenting outfits, and speaking in class, I was able to finally accumulate enough off-the-cuff conversation to finally consider myself “colloquial”. I am also surprised at how much peninsular “lingo” I gained during my time in Spain… I am constantly saying phrases only utilized in Spain, such as “tranquila”, “no pasa nada” and “¿Que tal, chica?”.  I am looking forward to learning more subtle differences between regions in Latin America as I pursue my goal of working in American international aid to Latin American countries.

The SLA gave me the gift of independence for the first time.  Though I technically live “by myself” in college, I am still in a strong and structured community of track practice, dorm events, and dining halls.  In Madrid, I was truly by myself for the first time. Knowing that I can not only operate on my own, but do it in a foreign country, gives me a new sense of agency that helps me to hold my head higher today.  

Culturally, I have been made aware for the first time of the extreme depth of variation between cultures, customs, and ways of the world.  Whereas before my experience in the SLA, I thought that culture stopped at religion, politics, and language, I now realize that it extends into how the waiter gives you your check, how to locate a street sign, and whether or not to greet someone on a metro or a street corner.  I am thankful to acknowledge early on that there is so much, in fact, that I do NOT know. As I pursue a career abroad, this humility will ensure that I listen more than I suggest as I aim to be a voice for the underrepresented.

To someone pursuing an SLA program in the summer of 2020, I would suggest to find a program that is well reviewed by students.  My study program in Madrid was definitely unorganized, and that made it difficult for credits to transfer and for my classes to be scheduled accordingly.  I would also suggest staying somewhere where you feel free and safe to travel, since some of the highlights of my summer lay in weekend trips across the country to get to know the region more as a whole instead of just one city.  Be fearless in what you pursue, but do so with awareness and new friends by your side!

La feminina y la dictadura

Throughout my time in Spain, I became increasingly more interested in their political past from the 1940s to the present.  The reason this patch of history is so interesting is because it contains “la edad del franquismo”, or the dictatorship of Franco.  Though unifying Spain under specific standards and expectations, this was also a period of terror for many Spaniards that were jailed for minute offenses such as wearing skirts above the knee, red lipstick before marriage, being outside of the home at night, or saying anything at all contrary to the dictator’s political agenda.

This period of history was brought to my attention by my professor Maria Luisa, who was named such because she was born during Franquismo, in which it was illegal to name baby girls anything other than “Maria” (for religious reasons).  Her her recollections of the changes that took place in her life after the dictator’s death enthralled me: buying her first swimsuit, seeing the night sky for the first time outside of her house, and the frustration of being only months too young to vote alongside her country for the first time since 1939.

Knowing the history of Spanish liberty and lack thereof through these conversations with Maria Luisa give me a fuller context of understanding the nation that I was living in, especially why many Spanish women dress so formally.  Just as the United States values religious observance and sexual purity before marriage because of our Puritan origins in the colonial era, of COURSE today’s Spanish women would retain the expectations of class, domesticity and formality that were expected of them during the reign of Franco.

Though women were highly discouraged from pursuing careers during the dictatorship since “all women are called to be mothers just as Mary mothered Christ”, certain courtship customs suggest a more independent role in society than American women.  For instance, when I asked profesora Paz why Spanish women don’t change their last name in marriage, she haughtily responded, “I am still my own person after marriage.  I am equal to my husband, not an addition to him”.  Just as living under a patriarchal dictatorship in the 1970s may still hold the residual effects of proper dress and etiquette in Spanish females, it also seems to have formed a hyper-aversion from submission to male authority.

Of course these are not the only elements at play in peninsular female identities, but I am thankful to be able to apply these historical factors to more fully understand the psychology of the men and women I am interacting with every day!

La Cocina Española

One of my favorite local interactions with the native Spanish community was making a traditional dinner with my friend Anton’s host father from Basque Country.  I was very touched that I was invited to their home since inviting guests into private spaces is not interwoven into Spanish culture like it is in the United States… since most urban citizens live in small apartments above restaurants, it is more common to spend hours on end in public spaces such as bars and cafes, having discussions over as little as one piece of cake over the course of three hours.  This is also the reason why it is considered just as rude for a waiter to bring you your check as it is for a friend hosting a party to push you out the door since both actions suggest that it is “time to leave”.

Once I arrived at the apartment, I was automatically offered a glass of coca cola with a splash of red wine, the most typical drink of the region in Northern Spain where Anton’s host father was from.  He informed us that we were cooking tortilla española and gazpacho, which I would describe as a light egg omelette eaten at all times of the day with a crisp cold tomato soup.  Since my mother ran a bakery out of our home as a child, I have been around/ learned to appreciate quality foods my whole life (at four years old, I caught my hair on fire reaching over a candle for my favorite food, mushrooms stuffed with elk, chili peppers, chives, and parmesan in a white wine sauce).  What I found myself most surprised about through the experience of flipping my own tortilla española and blending the tomatoes was that Spanish cuisine has nothing in common with Mexican cuisine.  Spicy food is nowhere to be found, wheat and corn “tortillas” found in America are nonexistent, and wine is served with nearly every meal.  Instead of mixing flavors and spices, optimal Spanish cuisine is achieved through minimalism and quality.  Whereas I cook at home by blending spices, vegetables, and sauces to create depth and complexity, a Spanish soup such as gazpacho may call for only five ingredients: a three+ day old bocadillo loaf to absorb the tomato juice, a peeled and seeded cucumber, minced garlic, tomatoes, and salt and pepper.  Though the ingredients list is simple, the food remains exquisite because of the freshness of its components.  Fruit is to be bought the same day as the food is intended on being eaten, which is a completely different philosophy from my rural upbringing in which weekly trips to the grocery store supply my entire family until we drive 25 miles to the nearest supplier again.

Though one night of cooking with another family seems like a simple event, I felt very loved throughout the experience since we were all so excited to be performing the task together, both in teaching and learning.  I am ecstatic to bring the recipe back home to “cook up” some new memories!

“family dinner picture”: 

How to flip a Spanish tortilla:

Tensiones Civiles

Having been in Spain for a month, I am starting to learn how to recognize political tensions between regions in the country.  This has been aided by my weekend travels to different cities across the country, such as San Sebastián to the North, Valencia to the East, and Barcelona to the Northeast.  Not only do all of these individual regions have their own official languages outside of Spanish (even though the heavy dialect of “Valenciano” is debated to be a separate language), the most tension present between these regions stems from their desire to retain a national identity while operating under the blanket government of “Spain” centered in Madrid.

In order to more fully engage in the dilemma of balancing between national and local identities in Spanish territories, I decided to start a conversation about it with a woman I was sharing a car with from el País Vasco, or Basque Country, on my way to San Sebastián.  Though there were several cases of terrorism in previous years from members of the ETA, she stated that she felt no strong desire to be independent of Spain like the generations before her.  Though she found it difficult to learn Basque in school since it is a language completely independent of both Latin and Germanic influences, she recognized its importance in her future if she were to ever pursue a white collar career in her native autonomous community (the “state” equivalent on the Iberian Peninsula).  I related her situation to my own region’s desire to separate from the main state of California into the state of “Jefferson” to have a political voice since conservative farmers are outvoted by mainly liberal cities with higher populations.  Though I have concluded there to be benefits for Spain in controlling the rich resources of the forests and beautiful tourist attractions and economy that the North has to offer, speaking with this young woman has shown me that even though one can engage in their regional identity through language learning and keeping up tradition, this does not necessarily have to compensate or compete with national identity.

Though I did see some explicit graffiti telling tourists to “GO HOME” in el País Vasco, where I noticed the most regional tension during my time in Spain was actually in the subtle negative comments shared by those in the capital of Madrid.  Though I spent much more time in this city than the other regions, it would be common to hear someone of an older generation remark “Bah! Los catalanes todavía no han cambiado!”, complaining about how the threat of succession has been present for a substantial amount of time, yet nothing has resulted from all of the fuss and talk.

As an American Studies major, this social aspect of Spanish politics was especially interesting to me since I related it to my own nation’s history of gaining independence from larger authorities.  It also made me aware of my own bias towards regional independence since I connotate revolution to freedom and independence when in reality, it has more often represented the opposite for Spain (considering their history of civil war resulting in military dictatorships, famine, and mass migration to Argentina in the 1950s).  My Spanish culture classes also helped me to contextualize these current events with an awareness of local realities that are different from my own.

Hasta Luego

I’m writing this last post as I wait for my flight in the Dublin Airport. Now that my time in Spain has officially ended, I can confidently say that it was the best experience of my life.

Before I arrived in Spain, I had so many worries, all starting with the most infamous pair of words: “what if.” What if I feel lonely living abroad? What if I don’t like the Spanish culture? What if I get homesick? Thankfully, these fears were all for naught. As I’ve alluded to before, I met some of the best people I have ever met. Among them are Issy, Claire, Emily, Daniel, Benjamin and Jaden. Issy is intelligent and selfless; Claire is witty and wise; Emily is quirky and adventurous; Daniel is mature and funny; Benjamin is energetic and entertaining; and Jaden is open-minded and lively. Some of my memorable moments with them include: walking 50 minutes in 95 degree heat to get to the swimming pool; watching the sunset at “the spot”; playing Benjamin in a tennis match featuring our very own ball boys; routinely getting ice cream at 10:30 in the Plaza.

Although being in good company can make any experience better, I would have liked Spain regardless. As I mentioned in a previous post, I love the siesta culture. The best part of the siesta culture, apart from the nap, is that it allows the day to last so long. (Yes, the sun setting around 9:45 might have a role in that as well, but the Plaza is lively long after sunset!). Living in a place where families and friends are out and about at 11:30 pm made me sympathetic to John Donne’s quote: “No man is an island.” Additionally, the rich history of Salamanca, and Europe overall, was something I had never experienced before, and something I will miss when I get to the US.

Lastly, I feel more confident, yet insecure, in my Spanish. My confidence stems from my placement in the highest level of classes, my purely Spanish conversations with friends, and the compliments I received from native speakers on my Spanish. Nevertheless, my insecurity comes from the realization of exactly how difficult it will be to speak Spanish fluently. Yes, I know I can get by in a Spanish-speaking country without much troubles. But speaking Spanish almost as easily as if it were my native language? That will be a huge hurdle to overcome. Hopefully my five months in Chile will significantly help with this, but I now anticipate that I will have to live in a Spanish-speaking country post-graduation if I hope to achieve true fluency.

I have to sign off now since my flight is about to board. There is so much more that I would love to rave over when it comes to my time in Spain and Europe, but it would take too long to type. I’ll save it for when I see my family and friends back home and on campus. Because I fully intend on returning to Spain (I never got to see Barcelona!), I’ll sign off with the popular Spanish phrase: hasta luego!

Last sunset I saw with Issy and Claire from “the spot,” Salamanca.

I can’t decide if bars or Catholic churches are easier to find

Given what I’d learned about the Spanish Inquisition in history class, I knew that Spain was a country with strong Catholic roots. However, I didn’t realize how prevalent Catholicism was until I arrived in Salamanca and found out that nearly all of the must-see buildings are either churches or convents. The main tourist attraction of Salamanca is its cathedral, which is actually composed of two separate cathedrals, the Old Cathedral and the New Cathedral. Although I like how the cathedral’s beauty demonstrates the devotion the builders had for God, it unsettles me that the cathedral seems to be a tourist attraction rather than a house of worship; one has to pay 10€ to enter if not attending mass, and tourists can walk around the Church while mass is going on. I understand that many churches around the world (or at least around Europe) require admission fees, and probably use the fees for maintenance, but it seems wrong that people should pay to enter God’s house. Additionally, by making people pay to enter, it makes the cathedral seem like a commercial institution rather than a religious one. As a consequence, I associate the cathedrals with museums and palaces — places that strive to preserve history in an ever-advancing world — and I don’t think the Catholic Church should become a thing of the past, appreciated solely for its elaborate buildings.

Rose window in the cathedral of San Sebastián
View of the Old and New Cathedral, Salamanca
Bell tower of the cathedral, Salamanca
View of the cathedrals from across the river, Salamanca
My friend Sabrina and me in front of the cathedral, Segovia
One of the chapels in the cathedral, Segovia
One of the many churches in Porto, Portugal
Interior of a church where a wedding was taking place, Porto
One of the many churches in Salamanca

Charo y Pacho

Every weekday I attend Spanish classes from 9:00 to 13:15 (when in Spain, keep time as the Spaniards do 😉 ). On my first morning in Salamanca, I took a placement test that determined which level of classes I should be in. The level I tested into suits me well not only because I find the content difficult yet manageable, but also because the class atmosphere is very lively; my classmates participate a lot in class, and they are all more dedicated to becoming fluent in Spanish.

For the first two hours of the day, I attend a grammar class taught by Charo, who is a great professor; she’s willing to joke around with us, but she takes our comprehension of the material seriously. In class, we review Spanish grammar concepts that are particularly difficult. For example, we’ve studied the different uses of the two verbs that mean “to be” — “ser” and “estar” — as well as when to use the subjunctive tense or indicative tense. Although I’m familiar with these concepts and the others that I’m learning in the grammar class, determining when and how to use them has always caused me to second-guess my Spanish writing and speaking. The grammar class alone won’t allow me to reach complete confidence with the material, but it already has significantly improved the comfort I have with the challenging concepts.

During the third and fourth hours of my school day, I take electives. The electives are Spanish History and Spanish Art, which I mentioned in my previous blog post. Pacho, the professor who teaches both courses, loves to relate what we learn about Spanish history and art to current Spanish culture. Since my last post, my history class has studied the 1930s in Spain, which witnessed the Spanish Civil War — I finally know what Franco looks like and what the ideologies of the two opposing sides were! In my art class, we’ve learned about the differences between Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture. I love that when I’m learning about these art styles in class, Pacho shows photos of the buildings downtown as examples. Living in such an old city is still surreal at times.

Speaking of the historical aspect of Salamanca, next week our classes are going to be held in the Old City. The Old City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s my favorite place to be in Salamanca. Hence, I’m looking forward to the move, even though I like the current building my classes are in.

Salamanca Cathedral, Salamanca
Courtyard in Old City, Salamanca
Old City, Salamanca
Grammar class with Charo, FES Edificio
View from classroom, FES Edificio
Hallway, FES edificio

Spanish Siesta: The Greatest Thing since (or before?) Sliced Bread

My previous blog post discussed how, due to my living situation, I’ve been learning about numerous European cultures. It should go without saying, however, that the culture I have learned the most about is the Spanish one.

I’ve adopted some parts of the Spanish culture into my daily routine; for example, every morning and evening I drink café con leche with friends at local cafés, and every afternoon I take advantage of the Spanish siesta (which shouldn’t come as a surprise given the title of this post 😉 ). At least once a week I go out for tapas with friends, which involves going to two or three restaurants over a three hour period and trying small plates of food with drinks. Other cultural excursions have been more unique, such as watching the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona—something I will never do again!—and trying pintxos in the Basque Country. Evidently, food is a big part of the Spanish culture, so I’m also taking Spanish cooking classes; today we made paella and arroz con leche, both of which were delicious!

Along with learning about the Spanish culture through experiences, I’ve also learned a lot about it in my classes. The two electives that I take are Spanish History and Spanish Art. In my history class, we talk a lot about the political state of Spain; currently, there are five major political parties and the president is a socialist. I’ve also learned about major issues that Spain is dealing with, such as people moving in throngs from rural areas to big cities and the current generation having too few kids to support the older generation. Through my art class, I’ve learned about the prominent Spanish artists, such as El Greco and Velázquez, and the large amount of cathedrals in Northern Spain due to El Camino. These tidbits about Spanish culture and history are just ones that stick out in my mind—every day I learn at least one new thing about Spain, thanks to my awesome professor, Pacho.

Despite only having been here for two weeks, I already feel much more familiar with the Spanish lifestyle, and I look forward to other ways I’ll learn about and experience it within the next four weeks!

Pintxos, San Sebastián.
Post-siesta café con leche with Issy, Salamanca.
Eating croquettes while on a tapas tour, Salamanca.
Walking the streets of Pamplona after the Running of the Bulls, Pamplona.

6 Nationalities on One Floor: Life in a Residence Hall

When I registered for Cursos Internacionales through the University of Salamanca, I chose to live with a host family. However, there was a mix-up with scheduling, and I was placed in a single room in a residence hall. When I heard about the change in my accommodations, I was disappointed and nervous; I worried that not living with a host family would significantly hinder my ability to improve my Spanish and that living in a single would make it harder to meet people. Thankfully, my worries were all for naught, and life in the residence hall has been my favorite part about Salamanca. With regard to language acquisition, the majority of my classmates who live with host families say that they spend a lot of time away from their homes, so most of their Spanish improvement occurs in the classroom. In reference to the facility of making friends in a dorm, living in a residence hall has helped, rather than hindered, my social life. There are 12 other students living in my hall, all of them between the ages of 18 and 22. Apart from being a group of adventurous, intelligent, outgoing, and interesting people, my friends in the hall represent a wide range of nationalities: Issy and Dan are English; Steve and Mark are Canadian; Thomas is Belgian; Caroline is Swedish; Gabrielle is French; and Claire, Emily, Lucia, Ellie, James, and I are American. Learning about the cultures of my peers over meals has been one of my favorite things to do here. I’ve learned from Daniel how important football (soccer) truly is in the UK, and I’ve learned from Caroline that flower crowns in Sweden are a Swedish tradition rather than part of the hipster movement. While learning about their cultures is super fun — over dinner tonight I learned all about the education system and culture in England from Issy and Daniel — it’s great to simply be in my friends’ company I’m not one for social media, but I may have to re-activate my Facebook to stay in touch with some of them after we leave.

Issy and Emily, out for dinner right near Plaza Mayor, Salamanca.
View from my dorm window (with a filter), Salamanca.
From left to right: James, Caroline, Daniel, Claire, and me in front of a monastery, Salamanca.
Claire, seconds before eating THE BEST SLICES OF CHEESECAKE, San Sebastián.


Arrival in Madrid

I can’t believe that I’ve finally arrived in Madrid!  After befriending a native from the city on my flight and riding my first metro to get from the airport to my host family, I am shocked by how detailed, bright, and clean all of the high rise buildings are.  Since I’ve only associated “cities” with the concrete skylines of the United States, I am shocked to see a completely different take on city life.  Though the streets are brimming, public pace is extremely slow compared to my home.  I soon realized that this is because Spaniards spend their free time outside of the home, unlike Americans who host parties in their own living spaces (which is not common here at all).  Though I would assume a late dinner is the result of a hectic day with not enough time to cook, my family’s evening meal at 8:00 is considered extremely early for Spaniards, who eat their main meal around 3:00 in the afternoon.  The social schedules and norms are surprisingly different from what I’m used to, even though Spain and the US both share western culture.

Ultimately, my arrival in Spain has humbled me more than I expected it to.  Since I’ve only traveled for leisure and not for learning, I’ve been challenged here in Madrid in ways that I didn’t expect that have made me aware of how very narrow my idea of “society” and what it’s constructed of has been my whole life.  For instance, I spent a full minute standing in front of an elevator with my suitcase, waiting for the manual door to open for me since that’s how they operate in the States.  To anyone passing by, I looked like a total “tonta”, or idiot, plugging up the stairwell… but in reality, it is only through allowing myself to be humbled by my lack of knowledge regarding these small nuances that I will be able to grow in adaptability during my two month stay here in Spain.

I have made great friends my first week at Nebrija University, and even visited the nearby town of Toledo, which is the capital city of the providence “Castilla la Mancha”, the home of the incredibly popular fictional character Don Quijote.  This book has been immortalized as more central to Spanish culture than Shakespeare is to the English, its pages and images adorning metro walls and shop windows alike.  I was shocked at the contrast between the antiquity of the cobblestone streets and iron smelting shops of toledo with the modernity of Madrid, making me realize the history present in the country that I lack exposure to in the US.  As and American Studies major, I am amazed at the depth of the country’s timeline that is simply not present in our 250 year old nation, and am ecstatic to continue exploring it.

There’s so much I have left to learn.  Just today, I spent an extra thirty minutes on the metro because I got on the train going the wrong way, and ended up completely outside of the city by a river (that I made a mental note to run by later).  Overall, it has been in these moments of complete confusion that I have stumbled upon my favorite parts of the country… whether it was finding my favorite open-window café after painting a nearby fountain after school with friends from class, stumbling upon a rose garden and horseback policeman during a run in Parque del Retiro, eating an actual hot-waffle strachiatella ice cream cone with raspberry jam on a street curb in Toledo, or sipping on my first cup of gazpacho walking through the indoor/outdoor flea market called “mercado de motores” because of the locations history as a Madrid train station.  The more I make steps outside of my comfort zone, the more rewards I receive as I open myself up to being humbled and forming new friendships in the home of my favorite language.