In many ways, I have revolved my entire college experience around this semester. I loaded up on classes at Alabama so that I would be able to graduate on time. I chose to minor in Spanish so that I would be able to communicate when I arrived (or so I thought). I saved money, studied hard, spent hours in my advisor’s office filling out paperwork, and even made the 10 hour drive to Houston on a Wednesday afternoon during midterms for my visa appointment. My first month in Salamanca, Spain is already worth every heavy class load and every frustrating battle with the financial aid office. My expectations are completely, utterly blown out of the water. I have been to some of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever seen. Above all, I am learning. There hasn’t been a day yet that I haven’t picked up a new Spanish colloquialism, heard about a new city, or even learned some trivia about the Royal Family. Here are the 5 most important things that I’ve learned this month (spoiler alert: I didn’t learn them in class):
- That I don’t know Spanish as well as I thought I did. I spent one hour a day for 4 years in high school Spanish class, tested out of three college level semesters and aced a Spanish culture class in which my teacher did not speak a word of English for three months. Coming to Spain, I felt pretty confident in my abilities to communicate, and was looking forward to being completely fluent upon my return to the USA. After one hour on Spanish soil, my ego was knocked down a quite a few pegs. My teachers in the past had spoken slowly, enunciated every syllable, and used basic, yet relatively formal vocabulary. Communicating with the locals is a completely different ball game. They talk fast, slur their words together, abbreviate, use nuances that I’ve never heard before, and as if trying to understand them isn’t daunting enough, I am expected to respond in the same manner. I was intimidated to say the least. After a few days in Spain, though, I started to adapt. Now, a month later, my Spanish has improved exponentially, but I am still nowhere near where I’d like to be by my homecoming. It’s taken a lot of practice, and I’ve made many many embarrassing language abominations, but I am learning.
- That it’s okay to be without a phone. I don’t have an international cell phone plan. I considered it, but ultimately decided that the 80 Euros/month would be better spent elsewhere (like planning my trip to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day!) So, when I’m connected to WiFi I can text or FaceTime, but other than that my phone stays on Airplane Mode. There have definitely been times when I wish I could use it, like when I was locked out of my Residencia and had to ring the doorbell until my housing director woke up. As happy as Raquel was to see me at 4:30am, a working phone definitely would have come in handy to call one of my roommates to let me in instead. Other times though, it is liberating. Since public WiFi is rare, we are forced against our will to communicate with each other rather than scroll through Twitter. It is incredible (although not surprising) how much the quality of conversation improves when everyone is engaged. We describe the places we’re traveling to rather than showing a picture. We argue rather than just looking up the answer on Google. We use maps.
- That the best way to find your way around a new city is to get lost. One of my favorite things about Salamanca is its size- big enough to be interesting and small enough to walk everywhere. When I first arrived, though, it was overwhelming. The now 10 minute walk to class took me a half hour. I hardly went anywhere without getting lost. As frustrating as it was at first, being lost in a strange city has its definite perks. The hours I’ve spent aimlessly walking around the city have helped me to get a grasp on Salamanca that would have been unobtainable had I known where to go. I wandered down random streets where I found the best and cheapest café con leche in town and stumbled upon an organic farmer’s market.
- To try new things, even if that thing sounds disgusting. Anyone who has been to Spain will tell you that one of the best parts of the culture is tapas. Every night, tapas bars are packed with Spaniards socializing, drinking, and eating small plates of appetizers that usually are included in the price of a drink. The tapas are different in every restaurant, which makes trying new places even more fun. On one of our first nights out in Salamanca, we were in a jam-packed tapas bar. Since it was so busy, I didn’t want to make the bartender describe every tapa that was on display (they all looked good anyway) so I just asked him to bring me his favorite. He set in front of me a piece of toast topped with what looked like a pepper stuffed with ground beef. He looked proud of his choice, so I dug in. The meat definitely wasn’t hamburger, but it wasn’t terrible either. Once the dinner rush cleared out, I asked the bartender what was in the pepper. He told me it was morcilla, blood sausage, which is exactly what it sounds like. A Spanish delicacy I had heard about and was planning to avoid at all costs. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a mini-stroke, but I’m glad I tried it, even if it wasn’t by choice. Moral of the story: try everything and ask about it later, you might surprise yourself. Even though I probably won’t order morcilla again, I never would have tried octopus if I didn’t think it was chorizo sausage, and that is one of my new favorite dishes.
- That I’m going to miss home. Yes, I’m having the absolute time of my life already. Yes, I’m so excited about my upcoming trips. Yes, I’m so glad I came. But I’d be kidding myself to say I don’t miss home at all. It’s hard being away from my family and friends and missing out on a semester at Alabama. I miss having free water at restaurants (it’s true- wine is cheaper than water), being in the same time-zone as my loved ones, seeing street signs in English, cooking, my dogs, Wawa, and the list goes on and on. Everything that you hear about studying abroad is the romanticized version: living in a foreign city, meeting amazing people, travelling to incredible places. These things are all true, but they leave out the emotions between all the awesome experiences. I wasn’t expecting to give home a second thought once I boarded my plane, but that hasn’t been the case. I think one of the most important things that studying abroad has taught me is to appreciate home. But, as much as I miss you all, I am so not ready to come home yet.