During my airplane flight to Spain for the Hampden-Sydney May Term, I was a little apprehensive because I had never studied abroad. I knew Spanish at a decent level, but was concerned I would not be able to converse with my instructors or my host family enough to communicate properly. This was the first trip I had taken where I had to manage getting back and forth to school, handling my own problems (in a foreign language) and exploring a country and its cities on my own (there were some group activities).
Since Spanish was the only language spoken during my stay and because my host family had limited English, I learned to listen very closely to what they said so I could understand what they were saying. Both my speaking and listening abilities in Spanish increased greatly, and I learned a lot of everyday slang that I would not have learned from my Spanish texts. My knowledge of verbs and tenses dramatically improved, as I had to quickly think which ones to use to make a cohesive sentence so I could communicate well enough.
I had to learn how to handle an environment that was much different than mine in Northern Virginia. I learned how to act differently with Spanish customs, such as bringing the host a welcome and departing gift from my hometown. The afternoon ciesta period was amazing – I live in an area where nothing ever totally shuts down, but in Madrid, the whole city came to a standstill. I had to plan my schedule accordingly for exploration of the city, usually doing my homework instead. However, by the end of my stay I had come to enjoy that ciesta time very much! My host family was very pleasant, and they provided a very nice room with delicious meals every day. I brought them a gift of Virginia peanuts from George Washington’s estate and they had never seen them before – I had to explain you could eat them alone, or chopped in food, cooked, or raw. In return, I have now learned to love paella, with fish, meat, rice and veggies. The homemade bread my host mom made was so delicious, and I probably gained a few pounds from eating it so often there. I really enjoyed the slower pace of mealtimes, where the whole family sat around the table and took the time to savor the food and the conversation – at home, it seems like I am always rushing to get to the next scheduled event or class.
The everyday lifestyle in Madrid also took some time with adjusting to in everyday life. No thirty-minute showers here, as potable water supplies are limited. Accordingly, bottled water was priced higher than bottled alcohol, which can have its pros and cons. Many citizens did not have cars, or drove very little due to the cost of fuel. The public transportation system was far more extensive than the Washington, DC area where I am from. I found that between the bus systems and walking, I could get anywhere I wanted to go in the city and we took the train whenever or wherever we wished to travel around the city and suburbs.
Touring Madrid, Barcelona, Toledo and Valencia made me realize how much older Spain is than the United States. In the States, 250 years is as far back as you can really go with the start of our country. Seeing the Royal Palace dating back hundreds of years, and the Roman aqueducts that were a few thousand years old, or the building where Columbus got the money from the royal family to discover America helped me realize the vast amount of history that Spain had to offer. I experienced events that are unique only to Spain, such as a bullfight and the Real Madrid versus Atletico Madrid Champions League soccer match in Santiago Bernabeu where I had a great time cheering along with the crowd at those venues. I was able to experience cultural festivals and attractions that could never be seen anywhere outside of Spain.
I had the privilege of interacting with the people and culture of Spain through my studies at the University, my host family, at the sporting events, museums, and famous marketplaces. I had the opportunity to talk with local people my own age and interact with them to exchange and understand our different ways of life. Knowing and learning Spain’s history also helped me to absorb how their viewpoints were formed, which increased my ability to relate to others. It was very interesting to hear how people in Spain perceive the United States, as opposed to my own personal experience or assumptions to how we were perceived.
I would definitely love to visit again, just for the cultural events and historical sites that I did not have time to see in the month I was there. I liked the slower pace of Spain, as it seemed to create more personal interactions than at home in Virginia. The experience was invaluable and once-in-a-lifetime, as my fluency in written and spoken Spanish increased greatly and I learned so much about the Spanish history along with the culture because I was able to see Spain in person. The friendships I made with other students and my host family will remain beyond the May term session as well.