For the past few weeks, my posts have largely been about what I’ve done and where I’ve been. As interesting as that may be, my writings have lacked a sense of depth and reflection. Over the past two months, I’ve adapted to living in a different country with a new culture while simultaneously attempting to master a second language. Before this experience, I had been to 5 countries outside of the U.S. By the end of this semester, I’ll have been to 12. The opportunity my parents are giving me to see life outside of my comfortable bubble is absolutely spectacular. However, there are aspects about living and studying abroad that can’t be seen through the smiles on Instagram or the blog posts filled with the words “picturesque” “beautiful” and “incredible.” As I’m just about halfway through my experience, here’s my attempt to reveal the unapparent, but important truths about studying abroad.
This isn’t meant to be a negative post, but rather an honest one. A year ago, I found myself scrolling through Instagram and looking at older girls who were abroad and thinking that their lives were absolutely perfect. I want everyone to know that although these past few months have been some of the best of my life, every day isn’t about sunny travels and inspiring cultural immersions. In fact, most of my days are quite mundane. I wake up, go to school, go to my local gym, and study. Some things are challenging, others are outright frustrating. It’s rarely a perfect dream world. So here’s the honest, sometimes not-so-pretty truths that accompany the mostly amazing, i-cannot-believe-this-is-my-life experiences.
Despite the fact that Spain is a part of the western world, it feels so much different than the United States. The culture in Spain is not that which I am used to. I’m still surprised to see couples engaging in serious PDA on the metro, and I don’t understand the seemingly sexist situation in which the word for wife is “mi mujer” (my woman), while the word for husband is “mi marido” (my spouse). People kiss me on both cheeks with genuine delight when they greet me, yet men rudely stare and whistle at me on the streets. Just as in any society, there exists good and bad. Although my uptight self misses living in a more fast paced setting, there’s something to be said about sitting down and actually enjoying my meals with the people around me. The lack of urgency for most things (especially flights) can be frustrating, but it is also teaching me to have the patience that I absolutely lack. Spaniards are more conscious about the environment than most Americans, and it seems that they value living in the now more than the future. These are things that I hope to carry with me when I leave Spain because I find them both to be vitally important in building a sustainable life. Additionally, it’s been so nice to live in a country where people seem to be so appreciative of how I am attempting to blend in. Between the man at our favorite coffee shop to the clerk at our local supermarket to strangers on the bus home from school who ask about what we are studying and why we are in Barcelona, I have met so many people who applaud my shaky Spanish and encourage me to keep trying. I was expecting most people to switch to speaking in English once they heard my strong accent, but it turns out that most people really appreciate my attempts and continue to engage in conversation with me. Being around such a supportive culture has definitely helped me to progress in my Spanish and made adapting much easier.
Something that has surprised me more than I expected is that “European living” is basically a nonexistent concept. This may seem obvious as Europe consists of so many different countries with varying cultures and societies, but I definitely expected my European experience to be very similar to Knut’s life in Norway and the Netherlands. However, living in Spain is almost nothing like Knut’s Europe. In fact, it appears that Knut’s world is closer to my life in the U.S. than Spain in many ways. It sounds absolutely naive to think that all of Europe would be similar, but it’s something that I admit I thought and I’m grateful to have corrected. In that way, living in Spain has helped me to think more broadly about the world in general and has helped me to pause before making assumptions about other places and cultures.
Taking classes in Spanish is HARD. I don’t mean that it’s hard in the way that college level Spanish classes are hard. I also don’t mean that the content of the classes is any more difficult than that of those at Vanderbilt. What I’m talking about is sleepily walking into a class at 8:00am surrounded by native Catalonians and attempting to catch every word that the professor says about a book that I can’t read because I don’t understand anything past the first page. As I am in the Advanced Liberal Arts program, my level of Spanish is “quite high”. However, high does not mean fluent. Think back to high school or college English literature classes and having to Google analyses because Shakespeare (even though he wrote in your language) didn’t really make that much sense. Now try doing it in a language that you’re not even fluent in. It can be unbelievably frustrating. Someone coughs, and I miss an entire sentence. The whole class laughs, and I wonder what the professor said that I missed. For potentially the first time in my life, I genuinely question my intelligence. And it’s wonderfully sobering.
Living in a place where English is not the dominant language has definitely helped to put me in my place. It’s crazy how someone can live somewhere for 20 years and forget that there’s an entire world out there. Being timid in class is definitely not something that I am used to, but I really think it’s good for me. I am learning that I am such a small part of this huge world and it’s okay to feel lost. Not understanding every word doesn’t mean that I failed, it just means that I have to keep trying.
Although I feel like I am struggling with the language, it’s helpful that my professors are incredibly supportive. The teaching staff at CIEE is constantly challenging us to better our Spanish and they continuously compliment us on our improvements. Although there’s less communication with the professors at Universitat de Barcelona, whenever I speak in class, my professors applaud me for my attempts. I think they might just be trying to make me feel better about my broken Spanish, but nonetheless it helps.
I have truly enjoyed traveling to so many different places almost every weekend, but it can honestly be exhausting. When my friends and I booked all of these trips in early September, we didn’t think about how constant travel has the capacity to really weigh us down. Being in an airport for so many hours (especially when we are delayed almost every week) is not fun in any manner. However, I have definitely learned that there are ways to make waiting better. Sometimes, it’s studying or writing a paper to make the time pass. Other times, it’s going for a walk around the airport and getting my steps in for the day. Either way, it’s made me a much better traveler because I’ve had more unfortunate travel problems in the past two months than ever before. I am confident that although it may take me double the time, I can now use any train system and navigate any airport in the world. However, without Google Maps, I am pretty much useless.
The realization that I don’t want to leave
As much as I miss my family and friends back in the U.S., there is absolutely no part of me that wants to go back right now. I know that I still have 9 weeks in Barcelona, but I really can’t imagine leaving. I’m not one to feel homesick in general, but there have definitely been times at Vanderbilt when I really needed a weekend at home. So far, I haven’t felt that urge for a moment. People always talk about reverse culture shock when returning to the U.S., and I’m a bit terrified that I am going to face something like that. I just feel like I am learning so much about myself and the world through my daily life here and I don’t want that to end. I hope that when I return to Nashville in January, I can take my experience abroad and use it to take advantage of the little time I’ll have left in college.
This post is a bit less exciting and definitely more negative than usual, but as I said in the beginning, I don’t want anyone to take it as me not loving being abroad (because I really do). As you should be able to gather from the last section, I don’t want to go home. I love studying in a new place and integrating into another culture just as much as I thought I would. I knew my semester abroad would be the best yet, and it’s definitely feeling that way so far. The point of this post is to show the parts of abroad that people don’t always talk about and to be honest with everyone. Studying and living abroad is absolutely amazing, but there’s always going to be a downside. I don’t want people to think that every day consists of touring cool neighborhoods and eating at fancy restaurants. Because it’s not.
What I’ve realized in the past 8 weeks is that the splendor of being abroad is more about how every day presents something new than about how many famous sights I have seen. It’s nice to check cities off of my wish list, but it’s even better to see how I am learning so much about life and myself at such a rapid rate because I have thrown myself into a new way of living. Visiting new places is satisfying my urge to travel, but it’s also causing my desire to live abroad to grow even bigger. I think of each new city as a potential future home and wonder what my life could be like there. I pay attention to the people, the culture, and the aspects of everyday life (like the selection of peanut butter in the grocery stores, the usage of bikes versus cars, the general weather patterns of the city, etc.) in order to weigh the pros and cons of places I could one day live.
What I’ve realized most about being abroad and traveling is that four months of living in Barcelona and flying to other cities on the weekends isn’t enough. I want to truly live somewhere outside of the U.S. for a solid amount of time. The next question is where? I guess I’ll just have to wait and find out.
P.S. I didn’t write a post about my weekend in Rotterdam because it was my FOURTH time there in the past 11 months, and I figured everyone has had enough of the Netherlands from my posts here, here, and here. However, we did do something different this time! We biked for about an hour to the Kinderdijk which offered the most charming views of classic Holland windmills. Although I have been to the Netherlands three times before, it was actually my first time biking around and I absolutely loved it. I am finding that I really enjoy cities with a strong bike culture, so it looks like that’s definitely on my list of must-haves for my future European home.