Thursday Aug 30, 2012
July 21, 2012 -- As I sit at the Madrid-Barajas Airport after my first of three connection flights home, eating my last Spanish bocadillo, I find it hard to believe that my time to make memories in Spain is practically over.
Why, just last night (or early this morning, depending on how you want to look at it), I was navigating the streets of Santurtzi, a neighborhood in northern Spain’s city of Getxo near Bilbao, where I studied, with other students from my program at one of the city-sponsored street fiestas that define July and August throughout the region where we lived.
Without a doubt, the seaside mountain landscapes and the Guggenheim Museum and our scheduled tours of Toledo and Segovia and Vitoria were unforgettable and made their impressions, but I find myself reflecting on the smaller, everyday pieces of life in Basque country that seemed to me, as an American, peculiar, but not difficult to embrace: from the round speed limit signs in kilometers and the temperature flashing outside the green farmacías in Celsius, to the courtyards where everyone’s laundry hangs to dry because there are no drying machines and where mothers can be heard singing Spanish songs to giggly children; the dogs who sit obediently without leashes outside the stores, panting and staring inside expectantly while their masters shop; the looks of horror when we told residents in bar conversation about America’s open container and public intoxication laws; the mediodía siesta, when almost every shop closes for about three hours; the local fruterías and panaderías on every block, where people buy their daily groceries; even the fact that the sun doesn’t think about setting until 10:30 p.m. (or 22:30) and that the hottest time of day is 6 p.m., when women sunbathe topless at the beaches. These little experiences amount to differences of culture and serve to demonstrate how much we can learn from each other as a global community.
I chose to study abroad in Spain for what I suppose are obvious reasons: immersion into a country of native Spanish speakers, exercising my own faculties with the language, exposure to European lifestyles, expansion of my academic and life experiences before I begin graduate school in linguistics this fall. But I hadn’t fully anticipated the imprint that a month abroad would leave on my thought processes as I saturated myself with the language and the Basque people.
My class was Spanish Composition, a 300-level course taught and spoken entirely in Spanish, and my host family didn’t speak any English, so although I spoke English with the other American students in the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC), speaking Spanish -- even my basic Spanish -- proved incredibly helpful for shopping, ordering food, traveling, discussing plans with my host family and meeting people, so I used it on a daily basis. The effect of so many combined opportunities to practice and learn has been astounding; as I type this, I amazingly catch myself thinking alongside my natural English sentences how I would write them in Spanish. I have only ever dreamed of being bilingual, but the opportunity I have had to study abroad has brought me many steps closer to realizing that accomplishment. But you don’t need to speak Spanish to participate in this program, and you can take international business and marketing courses taught in English; many of my friends here did just that.
The structure of the USAC summer program is ideal. Optional tours and excursions through various areas outside where the students live and study offer a chance to see the sites of the country. (We toured Madrid, for example, in addition to the trips I mentioned above.) Classes are held in the morning five days a week, leaving afternoons, nights and weekends available for the students to group together and plan how to spend their own free time.
One weekend, we all went to Pamplona for the running of the bulls at the San Fermín festival, which was an experience that simply can’t be duplicated. We also organized small groups for surfing lessons. I felt safe and secure at all times throughout the program; Bilbao, where the university is located, is ranked as the third-safest city in Europe.
USAC provided all necessary, valuable information about how best to travel on the metro, which must-see sites are nearby (and cheap) and other practical considerations, such as where to withdraw money. All of the program coordinators and directors were helpful and approachable, and they genuinely wanted to see us get the most out of our trip. Indiana University’s affiliation with this organization and other IU programs, such as the IU Honors program, are a great way to travel abroad safely and to have an enjoyable, educational vacation.
The month I have spent in Spain has been my first time out of the United States, and I couldn’t have asked for a better situation as I embarked abroad. I learned more than I have probably yet realized; I hope that as my journeys in Spain become more distant in time, the cultural lessons and the sharpened Spanish won’t fade. USAC and IU have collaborated to provide once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that defied my most awesome expectations. I could never have anticipated the memories that I will now carry with me forever.