Madrid

While I haven’t traveled much while abroad, I did go to the Spanish capital with IES for a three day excursion. And I’m quite in love.

Coming from a small town I’ve really loved being in a city, especially one as vibrant and bustling as Barcelona, but the constant thrumming heart beat of such a densely populated and hectic place has started to wear me down. The first thing that struck me about Madrid was how huge and spacious it felt. Barcelona can start to close in on you after a while, mostly because while it seems so large it’s actually very enclosed with the ocean on one side and the mountains so close on the other. Madrid stretches out and feels endless.

I also had the extreme pleasure of being surrounded by the Spanish language. In Barcelona it’s a seventy-thirty shot that something you’re reading or hearing is Catalan, and in Madrid that cultural difference is non-existent. I enjoyed that because I’ve been studying Spanish, and I actually felt like I’d come a long way towards fluency when I was in Madrid, understanding signs and picking up bits of conversation.

Madrid is also absolutely gorgeous, I took a tour of the major sights, and every edifice seems to be some mesmerizing, historical, architectural, masterpiece. Nestled among this major city are such things as the royal palace, the homes and haunts of everyone from Cervantes to Velázquez, it’s a lot. All of Europe seems connected to a long and illustrious past, but in Madrid that history seems so much more alive and present.

I had the immense honor of seeing (a small fraction) of the Prado. If there’s any place I wish I could visit again, it’s the Prado. There’s so much art and history, and every room is equally as breath-taking as the last. It’s also one of the largest museums I’ve been in, so getting lost for a day or two wouldn’t be a bad idea. I also toured the Reina Sofia, which was more modern and less expansive, but equally as inspiring. My favorite thing about Madrid was how much it inspired me artistically. Even if you’re not an artist, I feel Madrid has an energy that’s particularly haunting in that sense.

And perhaps the greatest aspect of this trip I haven’t shut up about, was the green. Very close to our hotel was the Retiro, and huge and tranquil park in the middle of the city. Sure, there are parks everywhere, but there’s so much in the Retiro, you feel less like you’re in a park and more like you’re in a desolate forest. There’s a solitude and quiet there I haven’t been able to find anywhere else.

There’s a few other highlights of course, the late night churro place, the Puerta del Sol, so on. But I think my favorite thing about Madrid was the energy – it’s unlike any other place I’ve been and it’s now in stiff competition for my favorite city.

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Surviving Midterms – Spanish Style

By all accounts I descended into a state of mental dormancy for the last month or so, if not to preserve my own sanity, to actually learn to focus on the here and now. Focus has never really been an issue for me, but anyone abroad will tell you that the greatest fear of any student is wasting time on school, and thus Midterm Hell.

At home there are so many resources to keep you on track; a free library that’s open all night, office hours, places to study, WiFi! And of course all those exist in one form or another abroad, but with a series of hoops to jump through. Libraries in Spain, like every other business, have the least convenient hours possible. A consistent WiFi connection is a rare and beautiful thing. As for professors, most of them teach elsewhere or have full time careers doing something else, so meeting with them is possible, but difficult.

This is really just a long list of excuses to explain the overwhelming stress of midterms, or course work in general. And now that I’ve just managed to come out on the other side of exams and papers, it’s time for finals.

A better title for the post would probably be Distraction. You get warned over and over that school is harder abroad because there’s so much going on that you want to be a part of, and of course none of it is studying. It’s really easy to get possessed by this idea that a day spent reading or working on an essay is a day you could have spent meeting people, or sight seeing, or travelling, and you end with this persistent fear of missing out that never really goes away.

I made the decision toward the beginning of my semester not to travel as much as some of my peers. Yes, that means I haven’t been to Paris, London, Rome, or Amsterdam. My logic is that I have the rest of my life to be a tourist in yet another European city, but only one opportunity (that I know of) to feel truly at home in a place like Barcelona, and get to know the city like a local. Plus – I’m saving tons of money.

It’s a good thing for me, because I feel confident saying I’ve seen everything I wanted to see in Barcelona, and I have real answers when people ask me where to go out or where my favorite spots are. So if I blew off studying to hike to the bunkers, at least I have some nice memories and some great pictures.

This post has been a tad disjointed, but that’s a pretty accurate representation of my state of mind with so much going on around me. So enjoy the window into my consciousness.

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Mi Casa es Tu Casa

I think everyone who goes abroad should live with a host family. Period. There’s nothing more immersive, and frankly, I don’t know how I would survive living in Spain without two square meals a day and a lovely set of Spanish parents to guide me.

Picture this – you spend all day at school learning and working, hang out in the city, do homework, navigate public transportation, and then you finally get to come home to a real house (It’s an apartment, but you catch my drift). Not just a real house, but someone’s house that they’ve decorated and made up so that you see family photos and art and plants – stuff that really makes it feel like a home as opposed to some sterile dorm or student apartment.

My host parents are honestly the nicest people I know. Their names are Maria and Arman, and they’re very much the quintessential set of grandparents. I enjoy coming home, because they’re usually there and we greet each other, but there’s no real expectation of a conversation, and for the most part they leave me be until dinner. Most of that is probably because they know by now that my Spanish is sub-par, but let’s pretend otherwise.

Living in a homestay in no way constricts my freedom. I have a key to come and go as I please, I don’t share my room, and my host parents aren’t fazed if I tell them I’m getting dinner with friends or spending the night out. I don’t even really have to tell them where am I as long as I tell them whether or not I’ll be there for dinner. And I can come home at 3 AM or later (not that I would) and no one would complain because that’s more or less the norm for youth here in Spain. As long as I’m not loud I pretty much have the freedom to do whatever and go wherever I wish.

Living in a homestay is also a utter dream because everything I would normally do myself is done for me. Goodbye hiking to the cafeteria to get a half grilled chicken patty, goodbye lugging a laundry basket across the building to do two loads of laundry and have the dryer quit on you with the clothes still half soaked, and goodbye cleaning my own room! My host parents (and a lovely house keeper) do all that. ALL OF IT. I come home to a clean apartment, with my freshly folded and crisply clean clothes on my bed, and then I just have to sit around and wait for meals like some sort of spoiled aristocrat. And that’s not a choice I made, that’s just how IES homestays work. I could not be more grateful.

I also get to experience for the first time in my life (as an only child) what it’s like to have siblings. Obviously my two roommates are not my actual siblings, but a homestay vibe is very different from a dorm vibe and they feel much more like relatives then just simply roommates. Especially since we sit down every night to a home cooked meal. It’s lucky that my roommates, who are both named Jessica, are also wonderful human beings, because if I didn’t like them I really don’t know how this experience would have gone. They also knew each other prior to coming abroad, so they share a bedroom and and I get a very nice room all to myself.

Maria makes us a lot of food, and for the most part tries to give us traditional Spanish dishes so we get a taste of the culture. They also tell us the best stories (of which I understand about 20%) but both of my roommates are fluent so they translate the important stuff. The other day I was profoundly exhausted from school, and dinner in Spain isn’t served until 9 PM, so my roommates and I actually considered going out for dinner to stave off starvation. But in that precise moment Maria and Arman came home from a political demonstration and told us they were making dinner. It was pasta and steak, it was so insanely delicious that I cried. I feel sorry for those abroad who don’t have that experience, the experience of a Spanish mom making you steak that makes you cry, that’s one in a million.

Another thing those not is homestays miss out on is pets! My host parents had a puppy named Draco living with them for a few weeks, an adorable puppy with a Harry Potter name, who can beat that? It’s also…free! Well of course nothing is free, but in IES there is no additional fee beyond what you are already charged to attend the program. So people in dorms or apartments have to pay extra to buy and make their own food and do their own chores, but I’m paying nothing extra to be treated astoundingly well by two amazing surrogate parents.

What is the down side? There is none.

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Love in the Time of Political Strife

Hola,

Welcome to the second installment of the eternal quest for WiFi. Obviously I’ve done a lot more than just search the city for free WiFi, but considering my homestay WiFi went out three times in the past ten minutes, it seemed like a relevant struggle to point out.

My life is so full of events that I honestly couldn’t accurately summarize the whirlwind of experiences I’ve had if I tried. I feel like I live a decade every day, and every minute I’m just jamming more visual stimulus, information, language, and maps (so many maps) into my skull. I’ve never been more profoundly mentally exhausted, and that’s just in an hour.

I wouldn’t say I’m settled in yet, because that would mean I can say more than four words to my host family and that I don’t still embarrass myself ordering anything more complicated than café con leche. So for accuracy’s sake, I’d say I’m getting used to life abroad. I know my way around, thanks to Google and an extensive amount of solo walks, and I figured out public transportation.

One day I just went for it and took the Metro home, all by myself, and even though that doesn’t seem like a big deal – I was proud. We don’t even have a subway in South Carolina and I figured it out with no help from anyone. I even went to Las Ramblas alone and survived unscathed, though I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want to be roped into multiple conversations with some deeply shady “salesmen.”

I feel like I get to have an even more interesting perspective on this experience because I’m taking a psychology course called Self and Identity (which sounds very pretentious, but go with me on this). I expected the class to be a huge waste of time, but I think two weeks have given me more personal insight and insight into my peers than two years at Wofford. On the first day I found myself being vulnerable with strangers and considering how I was going to let fear impact my decisions, and that was after one class! If you’re going to Barcelona through IES, please take this class, it’s life altering. And I usually only say that about food and cat memes.

And amidst all the regular tumult of being an American student abroad, I’ve managed to land myself in the middle of an intense political uprising. I, who probably couldn’t have pointed to Catalonia on a map before coming here, now have a front row seat to the Catalan Independence movement. My host parents are very active in the movement and I highly recommend Googling it because my base and uneducated explanations will not suffice. Basically the region of Catalonia, which contains Barcelona, is seeking independence from Spain for reasons ranging from unfair taxation to pure cultural difference. Fun fact: Catalan and Spanish are not the same language, I feel stupid having to say that out loud, but just in case it wasn’t clear that the cultures are very different, they don’t even speak the same language. There’s a million other reasons and I’m sure a timeline would be helpful, but I’ve barely grasped the gist of it myself. It’s fun to be here when this is happening and be a part of Spanish history, because people are starting to get pretty heated about the whole ordeal.

September 11th was the National Day of Catalonia and people came out in droves, dressed in Catalan flags and marching in the streets. I don’t think I’ve ever been around that many people at once, and all of them there for the same purpose. It felt very off to see such a celebration on 9/11 but that just goes to show how far removed a city like Barcelona can be from the United States, and how important this day is in Catalan culture. Since then it’s only gotten more out of hand. People have started demonstrations in the streets and every night at 10 PM for the last two nights the citizens of Barcelona (including my host mother) have gone out on their balconies to bang pots and pans. It’s an amazing display of unity, though loud and confusing if you don’t know what it’s for. It reminds me of Occupy Wall Street, on a much larger and organized scale.

I tend to have a pretty hesitant view of Independence movements (because being from the state that started the American Civil War has it’s baggage) but seeing people united and so passionate about something political is inspiring, even if I still don’t really know what’s going on half the time. Today I’m an American college student, but tomorrow maybe I’ll march in the streets with a Catalan flag and be a part of something, who knows.

– Buenas noches

(If anyone gets the reference in the title, you get a round of applause all the way from Spain)

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First Impressions

Well I did it…

I packed three and a half months worth of clothes and supplies into two suitcases and schlepped from Charlotte, North Carolina to Barcelona, Spain in just about 8 hours, give or take the last minute dinners, tearful good byes, awkward encounters, and a few panic attacks. Just a few.

We all had to take a survey and say how prepared we were, and of course I said I was very prepared because I honestly have no clue what it is to be prepared, or unprepared for that matter. But why wouldn’t I be prepared? I read all the stuff, I went to the meetings, I bought sunscreen, who could be more prepared than that?

I think it really dawned on me that I was going to half way across the globe to learn a language I barely spoke when I drove through Wofford College the day I left. I went there early to help my friend move and as I rolled through the familiar streets I noticed they had set up the rows of white chairs on the main lawn for the incoming freshmen. This wave of nostalgia came over me, and I thought of all the moments I’d shared with people at this school, every exam and all-nighter and party that made me a Wofford student.

I realized that I wouldn’t be there for any of the back to school jitters, all my friends would be going back to school and resuming their lives at Wofford and I would be starting over. I’ll never get to be a freshmen again, but it really feels like I just began my college life all over again. I’m in Barcelona with a whole group of people I’ve never met, with new roommates, a new host family, and not a single familiar face or place to take solace in – plus I have to learn Spanish. It’s like the first day of college on steroids.

So grappling with a very sudden quarter life crisis on top of already present stress, I tried to pack (Never put off packing until the last second, even if it seems like a good idea to wait, just don’t do it). I’ve also never left the US, I’ve never even left the eastern seaboard, so you can understand the increasing terror that gripped me with each step. ‘What will they ask me at Customs? Will they let me on the plane? Will they search my bags? Will every disaster I cook up in my sleep-deprived brain somehow occur in a Murphy’s Law series of coincidences?’

The answer to that is no, which I know now that I’m safe and sound in my housing assignment. But I had a solid night-long panic fest until that happened. But I did it! I got through and nothing bad happened to me! There is hope for the hopeless. In retrospect, I must have been decently prepared, and now I’m here in my host family’s apartment, cringing my way through every interaction because, and this will shock you, I really cannot speak Spanish as well as I’d hoped. Thankfully, I have an understanding host family and much more fluent roommates.

So here’s to Barcelona, may it be kind to me.

The view from my room

The view from my room

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