Saturday, November 10, 2007

Arrival in Spain

Hey everyone- I just wanted to keep a blog of some of my experiences while abroad. I got home July 1, 2007 and started this blog in August after returning, as part of a requirement for the Gilman International Scholarship that I received to go abroad. Most things were wonderful and a few were difficult’ but everything- both fun and difficult- was an integral part of the entire experience, and I can honestly say there is nothing that I regret.

Arrival in Spain
I arrived in Spain on January 5, incredibly exhausted after only two weeks vacation following the end of fall semester. When I entered my dorm, I was disappointed to find that I would not be spending the first fews days there, but in an apartment nearby because my room wasn't empty yet. I was STARVING because you had to pay for food on my connecting flight and I hadn't converted any U.S. dollars into euros before leaving the country. So when they told me to move my heavy bags to the apartment down the street, I wanted to just sit down and tell them that I couldn't. Of course, I made myself go to the apartment, which was tiny and depressing at first glance. I was completely alone, and didn't really know what to do with myself. I tried to lay down for a while, but in spite of my exhaustion, could not sleep. After about an hour I decided to walk around and explore the area around my temporary residence. On the way out of the apartment, a girl stopped me and said "Hi, are you Stacey?" and shook my hand. I was completely bewildered because she looked Spanish, but it turned out to be my roommate, a girl from Rutgers who I'd never met before. Turns out, she'd found out my name from the same people I checked in with at my dorm who sent me to the apartment. I was happy and relieved- she was friendly and at least I had someone to talk to.

Class begins- Exploring Valencia- January

We began class two days after arrival, a grammar course from 9-11 a.m., and a history course from 5-7 p.m. Lunch was served between 2:30 and 3:30, and dinner from 8:30 to 9:30. The Americans always the first to arrive in the dining hall, hungry and unaccustomed to taking meals so late. There were 22 of us in total, 19 there for the spring semester and 3 that were already there when we arrived because they were doing the year program) were.
The first weekend we explored OUR city, Valencia, by doing morning and afternoon tours. These consisted of history lessons which we had to take notes on. At the end of every weekend we wrote a 2-3 page paper on the lessons from the weekend and turned them in as part of our history course.
We also found out that we were a 20 minute walk or a five minute tram ride from the beach! Needless to say, that’s where we spent most of our free time, especially before we discovered other things to do.

Orientation trips- Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, and Cordoba- January through beginning of February

The next three weekends were even more incredible because of the traveling we did. First we visited Madrid, where we saw the Prado and Reina Sofia museums and saw GUERNICA up close. Unfortunately we were on a tight schedule so I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time looking around the Reina Sofia as I wanted, but I plan on returning this summer and visiting that among many other things. It was about a two hour train ride back to Valencia, and most of us wrote our papers on the way home
Next we were off to Barcelona to admire Modernism, most notably the Parque Guell and La Sagrada Familia de Antonio Gaudi, as well as a house called La Pedrera that he designed for a wealthy family. We also visited a Picasso museum. Our last day we were allowed to do whatever we wanted, and we went back to a free sculpture exhibition. Barcelona is a little further from Valencia than Madrid, about a 3 hour train ride.
Our final trip was to Southern Spain, where we visited Sevilla, Cordoba, and Granada. In Granada we saw the famous Alhambra, the last Moorish stronghold which was taken over by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel in 1492. It was bigger than I had imagined, and the first time I’d seen Arabic architecture up close. But the most memorable part of this weekend was the Flamenco dancing we saw in Sevilla. Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take photos of the dancers so I don’t have any to post, but they were mesmerizing. After the Flamenco show we went on a brief tour and the streets looked beautiful. It had snowed during the show, and we trekked up a small mountain through pure undisturbed whiteness glittering under the streetlamps. While everything we saw was amazing, the aesthetic image of that night is most vivid in my memory.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Orientation comes to an end

It was really sad when we realized that we weren’t going to be taking any more trips as a group, but it was also a bit of a relief to feel settled, knowing we wouldn’t be packing up our things in a few days. We were assigned a somewhat unusual but very worthwhile assignment for our history class that week. We had to go visit a museum chosen by the professor (everyone had a different museum) and take notes to give a brief presentation on it. That was easy, but we also had to locate and arrive at our museum on our own, and that was a challenge for me because I’d never read a map before I went to Spain (I get lost a lot). Fortunately my museum was close to my dorm, and I got there and back without any problems. It was a really good feeling to actually take a trip alone in Spain and find out that I actually can read a map.The week afterwards, we took a final exam in our history course and were DONE. Although the course material was pretty easy, I’m not great with history and was glad not to have to worry about it anymore.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Semester Begins- February 14th

We then had a one week hiatus (although we still went to our grammar course twice a week) to begin choosing our regular courses for the semester. As a result of getting the history course out of the way during orientation, we only had to take two courses in addition to the grammar course to make a total of 12 credits for the semester. A lot of my friends took 3 more classes, but I only took 2 because I had extra credits and wanted as much free time as possible to explore Spain and other countries.
However, even choosing 2 courses was a bit daunting. A lot of the information online was not updated, and courses showed up from other semesters that I wanted to take but that weren't actually offered the semester that I was there. In addition, I was nervous about taking a course in which your only grade is the final exam, which is how most Spanish classes are set up. I finally settled on a "cushy" course taught in English (you were allowed to take one English course but no more than that) and a translation course which I thought was way beyond me but was convinced would teach me a lot. I'm not a translation major, and what we did was completely new to me. In addition, the entire grade is based on the final exam, so I had no way of measuring my progress until then.
After choosing classes, you have to go through a bureaucratic process in which you make an appointment to register with the university and then pay a 6 euro matriculation fee at a bank. Although it seems silly and a little irritating, I was enamored with the country by this point that even these tasks seemed fun.

As I got into the swing of things, I got more comfortable in my courses. My grammar class was a breeze because I've always kind of enjoyed grammar, I felt comfortable in my English course, and figured I'd work things out for my translation final. I was able to arrange my classes so that I had Mondays and Fridays off, and could do some traveling outside of Spain, which was a huge reason I went to Europe in the first place.

FALLAS!!!!- one week in April

I didn’t know anything at all about Fallas before I got to Spain. It’s a week long festival honoring Saint Joseph in which huge ninot structures are displayed in the city. These were traditionally made of wood but are now made of synthetic materials- and are multiple stories high. At the end of Fallas, all except the best ninot, which is kept in a museum, is burned. There are also series of parades every day and night, fireworks everywhere, and Fallera girls (the Spanish equivalent of beauty queens here) walk around in their Fallera clothing. There’s a lot more to the experience, but it’s something you need to see to understand. My Spanish suitemates went CRAZY during Fallas, and as incredible as it was, I was relieved when it was over, because I was just tired and wanted to sleep through the night. The fireworks there are a lot more about sound than sight, and when they went off your whole body shook.

Independent Travel- Italy- April

The first trip that I took outside of Spain was to Florence to visit a friend who was studying there. I was lucky to have someone to stay with who also knew the city well enough to show me around and make sure I got to see the best things. I saw Michelangelo's David and Brunnelleschi's Duomo, things I had read about in textbooks but never thought I'd see in real life. I also visited the Buboli gardens which were massive, and something I didn't even know existed until I went. The country was beautiful and the food was, of course, incredible. I ate dinner one night with at a restaurant famous for its rigatoni, and I can honestly say it was the best pasta I ever ate.

Independent Travel- The Netherlands- May

In the end of April, I decided to visit a friend who was studying in the Netherlands, in Leiden. I arrived on Thursday afternoon, explored Leiden for the day, and met all her dormmates. There were only two actual Dutch people in her dorm, but I got to meet a bunch of people from Great Britain, and we all ate dinner together that night. The following day we went into Amsterdam because I was curious to see the famed "Red Light District" and a photography exhibition that my friend mentioned. My friend didn't want to pay to visit museums she had already seen, so I returned myself the next day to visit the Van Gogh museum, the Anne Frank House, and the Old and New Church. The most memorable thing for me was the Van Gogh museum, because he's been my favorite artist since childhood, and I'd never seen his work in real life. It was set up chronologically, and I had the leisure of looking at things for as long as I wanted because I was traveling alone. On the train back to Leiden that night, a man sat next to me and started speaking Dutch to me. I told him I was sorry that I didn't understand, and we ended up speaking in English. But that was a cool part about being in the Netherlands- no one could point me out as a tourist because I look Dutch. In Spain, people are always shouting "Hey rubia" (meaning "hey blonde girl”) at me, and it's impossible to pass myself off as a native no matter how well I'm speaking Spanish that day. In the Netherlands I felt like I was almost passing for a native (I rented a bike like they do), and that was fun for me.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Independent travel- Belgium- June

My final trip was to Belgium in June. There is a long, complicated story which accompanies this trip, and I'll do my best to explain. I really REALLY wanted to visit Paris while in Spain, but when I tried to book things I was disappointed by the hostel reviews because the only available ones were said to have roaches crawling in the showers. I decided to go to Belgium instead because I thought I'd get some chance to practice speaking French, and I could meet a friend to stay with in Leuven. Well, I went to meet that friend at the address she gave me, and it turned out to be the address of a pizzeria. She had moved in only a few days ago, and her neighbors jokingly told her that her own address was this pizzeria address, not knowing that she was passing this information on to me. I ended up arriving at this pizzeria completely bewildered, and talking to the owner trying to figure things out. Meanwhile, a series of well-intentioned people came up to me asking me what was going on, and one of them offered to let me stay with his family! Another one had lived in Michigan for four years, and he told me he loved Americans and would help me any way he could. Then the story gets really crazy: the owner of the pizzeria asked me to describe my friend, and after about an hour of us all being puzzled, she said "I know who your American friend is. She orders pizza here all the time." She then actually called my friend (that's another crazy thing- my friend mistakenly sent me the wrong phone number, but this woman had the right number) because she had her number from when she ordered pizza there! About a half hour later, my friend showed up, anxious and happy I was ok. Meanwhile, I'd been having a great time talking to all these strangers, and the owner even gave me a free pizza because she felt bad for me and said I looked hungry! I honestly could not believe my good fortune, nor the generosity of the people who wanted to help me.
The next few days the weather was cold and rainy, but I ate lots of chocolate and was happy from consuming so much coco. I also tried steamed oysters and french fries just because it's a famous dish. One particularly exciting part of my trip was when I was coming back to Spain and arranging my trains to get back to the airport (I had to take two, and a bus). People are always insisting you can get anywhere knowing English, but there was actually a woman at this rinky-dink connecting train station who didn't speak English, only French, so I got to speak to her in French. It wasn't anything complicated, but it was still a great feeling to put the language in practice. I also got a simple newspaper in French, and even though I'd taken 3 semesters of the language and obviously had to read in class, I was surprised that I really COULD read something that I picked up. It made me really happy that I took the time to start learning the language because it doesn't count towards either of my majors, but has still proven to be fruitful for me. At the end of my Belgium trip, I returned to Valencia to spend the rest of my days studying for my final exam.

Final Days

Final days
When I got back to Valencia, I began to study in earnest for my translation exam, but I was so upset about leaving soon that it was difficult. I honestly can't translate the experience into writing because the words I choose are frustratingly inadequate, and because the culture shock I felt when I arrived there was not severe at all. I was prepared for it to be difficult leaving Spain, but I didn't realize how affected I would be, especially because leaving the U.S. was much easier than I’d anticipated. I knew I'd be seeing the friends I'd made that were from Rutgers back in the U.S., but there was something unique to that time that enabled us to have a relationship that was very different from our relationship here. We've all stayed close and spend a lot of time together, but we were all different people when we were abroad. In retrospect, I can actually identify the ways in which I've "re-Americanized" myself, and I'm still struggling with the fact that I miss the way things were. Actually leaving to go to the airport and come back to the U.S. was terrible, and I console myself with the thought that I can go back to Spain when I graduate. Being abroad made me realize how much more I still want to see, and instilled in me a confidence and tenacity which will help me achieve the goal of seeing and doing more in the future.