study abroad

Why Are You in Spain?

Ah, the question. The question. I ask it a lot of others; they in turn ask it of me. I love and hate this question, because I love knowing other people’s stories, but I have no idea how to answer it without starting off on some ten-minute-long storytelling session, leaving my questioner with his/her mouth agape and mind reeling by it all.

So, let me just ask you, readers:

Why are you here?

Now that I’ve asked that, I can tell you why I’m here. As it says on my about page, I came to learn Spanish. I stayed for a boy. Mainly.

Would it shock you to know I kinda sorta hated study abroad? I was old enough not to get homesick, but I still did. I did not like living in a teeny-tiny room in an old nunnery with walls so thin you could hear your roommate typing late at night. I didn’t like having to wash my clothes in the shower because the laundry room charged upwards of $10 a load. (This was back when the one euro equaled something like $1.50.) I didn’t like feeling as if it were impossible to make friends except for drinking buddies and intercambios who weren’t really interested in hanging out with me after hours. I didn’t like seeing my bank account drain slowly down to almost nothing.

But I did like learning Spanish. I did like that, and so I dove in headfirst, as much as I could. I got another intercambio because one just wasn’t enough. I spoke to all the waiters in Spanish, even if they insisted on speaking to me in English (the bastards). I studied vigorously, even when all of my classmates were basically taking a semester off. I traveled as much as my budget would allow. I learned to love red wine, olives, and tortilla de patata.

But there was so much I didn’t know at the end of my stay! I didn’t know how to tapear, I hadn’t mastered the subjunctive, I had never had a real Spanish friend that I could text and ask to hang out with. This bothered me. I went back for my senior year unsure of the future and what would happen after May 2009.

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As senior year wore on, I had a decision to make—find a job or go back to Spain? I chose Spain, specifically Salamanca. I was excited to experience a new side of Spain, to live in my own apartment, and meet Spaniards. Oh yeah, and improve my Spanish.

I got back to Spain in September 2009, a year and three months after I’d left Toledo. A few days later, I met Mario. He came to the door of the place I was interning, and I was unintentionally rude to his friend and him, but he still went out to dinner with us. The next day, I pretty much asked him out, and the rest was history. My mother waited patiently by the computer to hear updates about this guy I talked about all the time, even though she’d warned me not to fall in love with any Spaniard (only because that could keep me far away from her). Oops! I was head over heels after a few weeks. After a month, I met the family. After three, I was ready to stay indefinitely, if it meant we could be together.

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Staying in Spain is not an easy task for many reasons. There’s bureaucracy. There’s homesickness. There’s cultural differences that drive me crazy at times. There’s times when I get so sick of Spanish, of struggling to find the word that I just want to scream, pack my suitcase, and get on the next plane to Chicago. Get me outta here! Mario knows this more than anyone. Luckily, although he wouldn’t feel the same way, he sympathizes as best he can.

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There are some expats that love Spain much more than I do (although, don’t get me wrong, I do love it), and they’d stay forever if it were up to them, boyfriend / girlfriend / husband / wife / lover or not. I wouldn’t, though. If not for this husband of mine, I’d be in the States, where my family is, where my friends are, where my history is. Living in another country wears on me, and I’d love to be able to just hop in my car and drive to my parents’, but right now it’s just not possible.

Right now we’re here; right now this is our home. It may not be for forever. That’s okay. When I married a Spaniard, I gave up that right to certainty about where home is. Home is here. Home is there. Home is Zamora, it’s Crawfordsville, it’s Bloomington, it’s Salamanca. It’s Spain and it’s the US. That’s why I’m here.

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What about you?

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Student, Auxiliar, Expat

Do you remember study abroad? I’ve talked about it often, if only because it was the beginning of so many things (good, bad, and neutral) for me. It was the first time I set foot in Spain; it was the first time I felt overwhelmed by the idea of becoming fluent in another language; it was the first time I truly embraced my Americanness.

At La Fundación José Ortega y Gasset in 2008.

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Of Little Significance

Have you ever met someone who’s profoundly affected you and then lost contact? Of course you have; we all have. But there are probably dozens more people that—after all’s said and done—ended up as not-that-important. You know, the person you meet on the train or the airplane and have a fun conversation with, but soon forget about, except for every once in a while when you think, Hmm, I wonder what happened to her.

In Spain, I’ve had loads of those sorts of encounters:

  • The Korean lady who ran an alimentación shop in Toledo. Study abroad isn’t really about studying, in case you haven’t heard. Inside the walls of Toledo, there wasn’t even a Carrefour or Eroski, so we did all our late-night shopping there, buying liters of Mahou or boxes of Don Simón sangría.
  • Pablo, a Spaniard, who studied in Cologne. Pablo chose la Fundación José Ortega y Gasset (which we affectionately referred to as “The Fund,” pronounced with the long Spanish “u”) to stay during a vacation. I can’t even remember why anymore. We lived in a renovated convent, and, while it was located in a rather idyllic place, it was still a dorm. We talked about politics (why we had reelected George Bush and whether Obama would be elected), Spanish food, and studying. I don’t remember much else.

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A view from my room.

  • My first intercambio, Carlos. We were a true intercambio—we spoke one hour in English and one in Spanish. Always. He gave me my first insights into the true Spain, not just the idealized version I had read about in books.
  • My Spanish teacher in Salamanca. I can’t remember her name anymore. She at first thought I was horrific at Spanish, but soon realized I am just shy. She finally coaxed it out of me. When she heard I was dating a Spaniard, she told me, “¡Qué bien! Es la mejor manera de aprender un idioma.” Or something like that. I finished my classes with her and never saw her again, except once—through a window. She smiled knowingly, the kind of smile where you realize you don’t have much to say to the other person, but you had indeed shared something.
  • The waiters at this certain bar in Zamora. It was close to my house, comfortable, and free wifi. (Remember, in Spain it’s pronounced wee-fee.) I would usually head there in the late evening, grab una copa de Elías Mora for the ridiculously good price of 2€, and settle down for a nice Skype date (but maybe not as often as my mother would have liked).

People come and go; I’ve come and gone from several different places. We all change, and in some ways we all stay the same. I’m still me, after all. It’s jarring to think of these people, people I laughed with, ate with, talked with … existing somewhere out there without me. They live and go on. So do I.

Do you have these sorts of people in—well, out of—your life?

About Study Abroad

I owe a lot to my study abroad experience.

Toledo Alcazar

This whole “Spain thing,” if you will, started about three years ago in the fall of 2007, when I took the first steps toward applying to a program in Toledo, Spain. I had been studying Spanish since I was a 15 year-old sophomore in high school. From the very beginning, I loved it – Spanish, that is. In school, we learned Latin American Spanish, didn’t even bother with a verb form called vosotros, the second person plural. (It’s like our “you guys.”) The teachers scoffed, telling us, “You’ll never use it.” Well, they were right – in something like 95% of the cases. The other 5% of us did need it. My friend Lauren went to Spain in the summer of 2007, half a year before me. She certainly needed it. She had to learn the Spanish pronunciation, slang, vocabulary.

I’d no desire whatsoever to go to Latin America. If you look at this post, you’ll see that, unfortunately, on the coolness scale, Europe ranks low. “It is also important that you understand the study abroad ranking system.  Europe/Australia form the base level, then Asia, then South America, and finally the trump card of studying abroad in Tibet.  Then there is the conversation killer of studying abroad in Africa.” Yeah, I obviously did not care. I had always dreamed of Spain, its ancient cathedrals and winding streets, its Castilian allure. (I later learned about the ham.) So, Spain it was. Before my arrival, I had dreams of fluency, millions of Spanish friends, and a ticket back after graduation. I’d no idea most study abroad programs are designed for two things: travel and partying.

Travel: It’s nice if your daddy’s rich because, my dear, if not, your weekends will be spent in relative solitude. You see, all the other students have money enough to travel (almost) every weekend. They’ll go to Rome to eat gelato, Paris to climb the Eiffel Tower, London to mock the Palace guards, Prague to seem oh so Bohemian, and Amsterdam to discreetly (or not so discreetly) smoke pot in a “coffee” shop. I went to Lisbon one weekend and was shocked at the cost. Traveling to and from the airports is what kills you. It’s the unexpected, lurking cost that sneaks up behind you, wraps its bony fingers around your mouth, and silently chokes you. So, the best thing is if Daddy gives you $10,000 upfront.

Partying: Did you know the drinking age is lower in Europe? There is alcohol, and lots of it. In Spain, there is even the phenomenon known as botellón, where the collge/high school age students gather outside to drink out of 2-liter Fanta bottles mixed with cheap vodka or whisky. Since school is easy (usually), partying happens. And when I say happens, I am implying a conscious effort to party 5 days out of the week. You are in Europe, for God’s sake. Drink until you can’t see straight -it’s only natural. Plus, it perpetuates the ugly American stereotype and we can’t have that dying out, now can we?

But really. The main problem with studying abroad is the lack of contact with the local culture. It seems quite silly. You are in another country and yet you hang out with Americans. You can see them any day, walking along your campus’ tree-lined pathways. But you choose, time and again, to spend time with people who don’t speak the target language and aren’t that interesting anyway. This, I believe, is study abroad’s fundamental problem. We try to make students stay with families, but this system fails too. In Spain, the families are paid, naturally, and many do it for the money, not to introduce a foreign student into the local culture. It’s a shame, really, because knowing one Spaniard intimately can get you in the back door of Spain. (I do love Rick Steves.)

So, how do we solve this? I don’t really know. It’s frightening enough to put 20 year-olds in a foreign culture with 30 other companions. To put them somewhere completely alone? I don’t think it would work. But there has to be another way.

Alternately, you could just do what I did. Find a significant other. Best way to learn a language and a culture.