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.
The last week in Spain we visited a few other castles and famous landmarks. The biggest breathtaking memorial we went to the last week was Franciso Franco’s grave. The memorial and church inside this mountain was absolutely amazing.
Franciso Franco was a fascist leader in Spain despised by many of the natives. Franco was a Spanish general and the Caudillo of Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. People despised him for his views and support of the Nazi group. His grave place was built by slaves, which the natives did not appreciate as well. The monument (Valle de los Cáidos) is known for it amazing architect and the 500ft cross, placed on top in the mountain.
While the monument is a grave and daily functioning church, it also was created to be a monument for the fallen of the Spanish Civil War. The inside of the monument and the outside are just breathtaking and to really understand how amazing the monument is, you need to see it for yourself.
Our last week here in Spain everyone seemed to want to go home. We all seemed to miss the United States a little after not having any summer time to ourselves in our home country. This being said, my experience in a foreign country has been great. Learning about a different culture in Spain has really been a big eye opener of how great we actually have it in the United States. I would definitely recommend anyone to travel overseas to have a similar great experience as my fellow students, friends and I had.
After finally getting into my routine, it’s already time to leave Alcalá, but this past week has been awesome. On Sunday, my class went to Madrid to go to El Retiro, the Madrid equivalent of Central Park, and afterwards we stayed in Madrid to go to a bull fight.
The bull fight was exactly what I thought it would be, and although it’s becoming a controversial topic in Spain, I really enjoyed it. Classes this week were interesting because they were more of a conversation than a lecture. Because we have a small class, myself and three others, we were able to hold a few of our classes outside of a café. I guess that’s the perks of studying abroad on a small program through our small college. We talked about everything from the economic situation that Spain is dealing with, to the outlook for college graduates in Spain, and even the elections that are crazy enough to rival our own in the United States.
On Wednesday, we took our last excursion to El Escorial and El Valle de los Caídos (The Valley of the Fallen), and despite all the amazing places we went over this past month, I think this was my favorite trip. El Escorial was built in the 16th century as a tribute to the battles won by Felipe II and as a place to entomb his father, Carlos I. To this day, the building is still used as a school, a library, a monastery, a museum, and the actual burial site of all the kings and queens of Spain since the 1500’s. We went down in the octagonal room where all of the coffins are and could see the names of the kings that we had studied over the past month, and for me this was the coolest part of the entire building. I really appreciated El Escorial that much more after this visit, because I was able to follow everything that the guide was saying, and I was able to connect it back to what we had learned in class. After the tour, we took a trip up into the nearby mountains to visit El Valle de los Caídos.
This is actually a basilica that was completed 20 years after the end of the Spanish civil war as a memorial to those nationalist soldiers that fought in favor of Francisco Franco. It is an amazing place because it has a giant stone cross that sits on top of the mountain, but the basilica itself is actually built into the mountainside. The building itself represents a dark time in Spanish history, however, it is hard not to be amazed by the architecture.
I can’t believe that our month in Spain is already up. I definitely picked up on some subtleties of the Spanish culture that I missed before. One of the most interesting things that I realized while I was here is the fact that the Spanish people, and people from other countries as well, are extremely in tune with the American presidential election. Almost every day since I’ve been here, I’ve seen either Clinton’s or Trump’s face on the television. People would constantly want to talk to me about it, and I couldn’t believe how interested they were about the whole thing. I find it especially interesting that they are interested in our election, but the Spanish presidential election is coming up in a few weeks on June 26th. Their election is just as, if not more interesting than ours because it is actually a run-off election. The first election was in December but there wasn’t a majority winner out of the four candidates, so now they’re having another one. After talking with my host family and some other students from the University of Alcalá, I got the impression that they’re just as fed up with the political process as many Americans are. It was awesome to be able to have these in depth conversations with people in their own language. I realized that even though our cultures are completely different, Spanish and Americans deal with and care about many of the same issues.
I’m really going to miss the Spanish lifestyle when I get back to the States: the food, the laid-back attitudes, the weather, the public transportation, but most importantly the people. The people here have been extremely nice and helpful. I plan on staying in touch with my host family and especially my little brother here in Spain. They’ve been awesome this entire trip. I’m extremely glad that Hampden-Sydney makes it so there is only one student with each family because I don’t think I would’ve had the same experience had one of my friends been with me.
Finally Getting Accustomed
Classes this week have been more interesting in the sense that we’re finally being able to see how Spain’s history is affecting life today. Most of the issues that Spanish people are dealing with are due to a combination of medieval history and the struggles that the country faced over the last one hundred years. For nearly forty years, from 1939-1975, Spain was ruled by the dictator Francisco Franco. I’m not going to go into all the details of his reign, but just know that some of his biggest allies were Hitler and Mussolini. In 1975, after Franco died, the historical royal family, the Borbons, resumed power but only as a figurehead of the state. Spain is still feeling the repercussions of Franco’s reign as there is once again a lot of uncertainty and instability in the country’s government. One could say that their presidential elections that are set to take place on the 26th of this month could rival our own unpredictable presidential election. As for the effects of medieval history on Spanish politics today, the country is currently dealing with an attempted secession of one of its regions. Hundreds of years ago in the late 1400’s, Spain was united by the marriage of the Catholic Kings. King Fernando brought the region of Cataluña into the Spanish kingdom, but even to this day, the people of Cataluña speak a different language called Cataluñan (Spanish is also spoken there). Due to cultural and economic reasons, the region is attempting to secede from Spain, but I really don’t think that is going to happen for various reasons. We are only a few classes into our class on contemporary issues in Spanish culture, but I’m really enjoying the fact that I am able to apply what we learned in our Spanish history class to the issues that the country is currently dealing with.
Week three has been exciting in the fact that we’ve taken more trips to historical sites around the Madrid region.
On Tuesday, we went to Segovia to see the Alcázar of Segovia, the city’s roman aqueduct, and the Cathedral of Segovia. The Alcázar was not only the site of the marriage between the Catholic Kings, it was also the inspiration for the castle in Walt Disney’s movie Cinderella. The aqueduct is by far my favorite monument in the city because it is still standing perfectly after 2000 years. It is impressively large and is definitely a testament to roman engineering. The Cathedral of Segovia was interesting; however, I enjoyed the Cathedral of Toledo which we visited on Saturday much more.
Toledo is the home of the grandest cathedral that I’ve ever seen. I’m not Catholic, but just being in the building made me appreciate the magnitude of the project and the power of the religion in Spain. Toledo is also famous for its mixture of three cultures: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. Before Spain was united as a Catholic country, the three religions lived peacefully in the city. My favorite example of this is the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca. It was a synagogue that was built for the Jews by Muslim architects at the order of the Christian king Alfonso VIII. Toledo, aside from Valencia and its beautiful beaches, is my favorite city that I’ve visited thus far. On top of visiting historical monuments, we spent Thursday in Madrid visiting the Reina Sofia Museum and going to a Flamenco Show. Being modern art, some of the art in the Reina Sofia was a little too abstract for my liking, but I did enjoy Picasso’s Guernica and the Salvador Dalí collection. The show was interesting; even though I didn’t understand half of the words in the songs because it was Spanish sung like opera, I understood the storyline. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before in the States. Despite the fact that I’ve been to and seen most of these places and things before, it was awesome going back to see everything again, and this time I found out and saw new things.
It’s hard to believe that our trip to Spain is coming to a close. It really feels like we just landed a few days ago, but I’ve already seen and learned a lot on this trip. My ability to speak and understand Spanish has increased immensely which has been awesome. There’s something about being able to communicate with people that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to that makes me want to continue to work at becoming fluent. The way I see it is that if I can speak another worldly language, then it opens many more opportunities for me. One example of this is the conversations that I’ve had with my host family. My little host brother has taught me a lot about soccer just by us being able to play FIFA together on his PS4. I’ve talked with my host parents and their friends about the state of the Spanish economy and comparisons between the United States and Spain. That’s awesome for me, because I’m talking to them in their language. I didn’t realize I would be able to have these high caliber conversations before I came here, but my Spanish has really advanced over the three weeks that I’ve been living with them.
Work Hard, Play Hard
Our second week in Alcalá was a little less exciting than last week, but that’s because we had to do all of our classwork in the first half of the week, so that we could enjoy a vacation during the second half of the week. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were each days full of six hours’ worth of class. For us, that meant covering Spanish history from the medieval times until the early 1900’s. This completed our crash course of 2,500 years of Spanish history that we completed in six days of class. We didn’t find out until the last day of class, but we completed in two weeks what Spanish high school students learn over two years. At first it was very tedious having to learn dates, the organization of the government, the various capitals and the constant power struggle in Spain; however, for our final project we had to write a paper about one of the 17 autonomous communities in Spain, and I realized that everything in Spanish history is still relevant to everyday life. Learning the history of the various regions of the peninsula gave me insight into why things are how they are today. For example, Aragón has historically disagreed with the kingdom of Castilla. The two were brought together through the marriage of the Catholic Kings, but even today the land of Aragón (Cataluña) is fighting to be an independent, sovereign nation.
Once we finished our final paper on Thursday, we were able to travel for the rest of the weekend. Most of the group, including myself, went to Valencia. I traveled with two other guys, Kyler Vela and Brett Shaw, and I enjoyed not only my first hostel experience but my first Blablacar experience as well. Blablacar is like a long distance Uber, you can catch rides with people driving to other cities for only a fraction of the cost of a train ticket. Our driver, Benjamin, grew up in Valencia, so on the 3.5-hour car ride he told us where we should visit and what we should do. It was a cool experience given that he didn’t speak any English and we were able to travel the highways like Spaniards do. It was my first time really getting outside of Madrid in either of my trips to Spain, and it was awesome being able to see the changes in the landscape as we drove from the middle of the country to the coast. While we were in Valencia we divided up our time between visiting the
historic monuments like the two medieval towers, the silk market, the cathedral, and the functioning market in which you could buy almost any food you could desire. When we weren’t exploring the city, we were either trying out some local food like the famous paella,
or we were hanging out on the beautiful Playa Marvillosa.
The lifestyle of Valencia was a lot different than the lifestyle in Madrid; it was still a giant city, but it had a small town feel that would be impossible to obtain in Madrid. Valencia is large and historic but it is also inviting and modern. As of now, if I were able to move back to Spain, I would more than likely move to Valencia.
The UEFA Champions League final was on Saturday, and just like in 2014, the two teams were Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. Soccer in Spain is a religion with politically infused sentiments, and it was awesome being able to experience the madness that takes over during big games like this. We weren’t even in Madrid during the game, but the Valencians were going crazy. We were at a restaurant that didn’t have a TV when we realized that the game was going to be determined by penalty kicks, so we ran over to a bar. When we got there we found out that there weren’t any TV’s in any of the restaurants or bars on the street, so we listened to the end of the game on the radio with the Argentinian bartender. It wasn’t ideal, but it was an experience that I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy if I wasn’t able to understand the Spanish language.
The second week of our program was definitely front loaded with
classroom work given that we had to study nearly a millennium of Spanish history, but it was well worth it. I’m loving being back in Spain again. It’s like no place else. I can’t believe how fast the experience is flying by, and even though it’s my second time here, I’m constantly learning more about Alcalá and all of Spain.
Week three was quite an adventure. We visited many very important Spainish landmarks. The first landmark and most fascinating landmark we visited, in my opinion, was the Royal Palace.
You may think your own personal house is big, but try a 1.45 million square foot one. We were not allowed to take any pictures of the inside of the house, but let’s just say the chandeliers were as big as cars and everything was gold. To put it into perspective of how much money is in this building, in 2012 there was a violin that fell off of a table that was on display and the damages were worth 20 million. The family itself actually lives in the palace, only a few months out of the year, if any. They are always on the go and have things to do. I’ll share some pictures of the courtyard and from the outside of the X10 huge mansion.
The second place we visited was the Nacional Bibleoteca.
This library holds 26 million different books, newspapers and manuscripts. The library is by far the largest library in Spain and one of the largest in the world. There were many sculptures of famous Spainish leaders all around the library that helped represent it’s 304 years of establishment. Right next to the library is a huge museum of modern art. There were many Picasso and Dali paintings here. I’m not really a big art guy but these paintings really caught my eye. Many of the paintings that were on display were almost priceless and extremely unique.
Don Quixote’s hill and castle of windmills was the fourth landmark we visited. This is a famous folk story of Spain, and has been around since there were knights walking around in armor (1607). Don Quixote was a man who was very mentally confused. To summarize the story, he went to the top of the hills in his small town to fight the windmills alone, which he thought were dragons. He failed miserably and the “dragons” clocked him in the side of the head, he then retreated. This story is one of the most important stories told in Spain and has been the most popular for many years.
Learning about the Spanish culture has been quite an experience and by going to major landmarks, plays, castles and museums, it has really opened my eyes to see a different perspective of the world.
After I stepped off the bus into the city of my new home earlier this week, I noticed things were a lot different in Spain. Along with the extremely fast language they speak in Spain, something as small as the layout of their grid of the city is different. This first week I found myself pulling out my phone quite a bit after I got lost a few times to check my GPS. The grid of the city is set out however it fell hundreds of years ago. There is no coordination in the streets or any set structure, so the streets go all different ways and directions. The people of Alcala de Henares and of Spain walk an enormous amount. The amount of walking they do in Spain has resulted in a very fit population. And when I say walk, if it’s 5 miles a day to get to work, they are walking. They walk to dinner, they walk to the grocery store, they walk everywhere. With this being said, the streets are not as clean as ours in the United States due to the amount of traffic they endure. One of my first experiences, on the first day, was an old man almost getting hit by a car. The cars here do not have to yield to pedestrians as they do in the United States, if you would like to cross the street you just take a step out into the street. Kind of risky if you ask me, so I look both ways every time I cross, as they do not. Things are very different here and I’m sure I’ll discover some new things to share with the readers in the next few days.
I just ate my fourth piece of bread for the day. For every meal of the day, Spaniards eat non-processed bread. Bread cleans your pallet in your mouth and has some kind of history with their culture I have not figured out yet. (The language barrier is quite difficult, haha!) Oh, and lunch is at 2:30 where dinner is at 9:30, a little different than at home, huh? The nice family that is sharing their house with me for the month has two boys. One of the brothers is 15 and the other is 17. Both speak very little English and the parents speak none at all. The conversations between the family and I have resulted most of the time in me saying, sí and no, from what I can translate from the rapid fire talking.
I went to a bullfight earlier this week. There were tons of people in the coliseum. It was kind of strange to see a human fight an animal because that would never happen in the United States. This is part of their culture, and has been dated back all the way to 1726. Things like this may be something us as Americans would not agree with, but it is their culture and we must respect that.
My First Week Back
I have been lucky enough to be able to return to Alcalá de Henares for the second time during my career at Hampden-Sydney. We are lucky that we are able to return to the historic town and study at one of the oldest universities in Spain: La Universidad de Alcalá de Henares. When I came back, I felt like I never left. The town hasn’t changed at all over the past two years, and with laws in place that maintain the historic feel, I don’t see much change happening any time soon.
The town has a rich history that includes being the cite of the birthplace of the famous author Miguel de Cervantes, the first meeting between the Catholic Kings and Cristopher Columbus, and the creation of the first Spanish grammar books used to teach the language to natives in the new world. However, it is very much so a modern city. Once you venture away from the center of town and the countless historic buildings and churches, Alcalá becomes much more modern.
On my 20-minute walk from my host family’s piso (apartment) to the school, I walk by other apartment buildings until I reach the main road that I take all the way to the Plaza de Cervantes. On my walk there, I pass by everything from clothing stores to bakeries. The window of my favorite bakery is filled with freshly baked pastries and sometimes paying 1.50 euros for three of my favorites is too good of a deal to pass up. This is especially the case when I’m heading home for our siesta/lunch break in between classes.
I love the experience of living with my host family. My host mom, Tere, is always checking up on me when I’m in the house to see if I need anything, and she has constantly been reminding me that I can grab some fruit or yogurt whenever I want anything to eat. There’s absolutely no chance of going hungry. My host dad, Nacho, kind of reminds me of my own dad. He’s serious when it comes to work, but likes to hit the one-liner jokes. He’s constantly giving me a hard time, but it’s always in a lighthearted manner and makes me feel at home. I also have a little brother this time around. Pablo is 15 and most of our relationship thus far consists of us playing FIFA together on his PS4. Sometimes I’ll sit down at the kitchen table with my host mom or on the couch with my host dad simply to talk. It took me a couple of days to reacquaint myself with only speaking Spanish; however, the entire family was and continues to be extremely patient with me.
Despite the fact that I’ve been here before, it is still extremely difficult to get used to the eating schedule of Spain. Here, breakfast is not bacon and eggs; it’s coffee and a sweet pastry or cookies. I don’t usually eat either with breakfast back home, but I’m slowly getting re-accustomed with it. Another difference is, due to the fact that breakfast is so small, the first filling meal of the day is the lunch we eat around 2:30. Then we won’t eat a real meal again until about 9:00 or 9:30. This isn’t just my family, it’s the way the Spanish culture works. Another thing that is hard to adjust to is the way we dress. Everyday it is between 85-90 degrees during the hottest part of the day, but you’ll only see foreigners wearing shorts. I don’t understand it; it’s as if Spaniards just don’t feel the heat because they are always wearing pants and usually a long sleeve shirt. I tried to wear pants for the first couple of days in an attempt to assimilate, but it was way too hot for me.
So far we have visited Consuegra and Madrid. Consuegra is famous for its windmills that Don Quixote fought in Cervantes’ novel and the 1100-year old castle that sits between the windmills. We toured both and then we were able to explore through the modern town.
I use the term modern loosely, because Kyler Vela and myself ate in a medieval palace that had been converted into a restaurant. We took on the “when in Rome” attitude, so we paid 13 euros for a ration of Manchego Cheese from the region and then decided it needed to be paired with some wine from Consuegra. It was definitely worth it. When we were done, the owner took us inside the restaurant and showed us that the dining room in the back of the restaurant is made up of old caves that the Romans used to store their grains.
On our two other class trips thus far we went to Madrid. Every Sunday morning in the middle of Madrid, there is an open air flea market that takes over called “El Rastro”. There, you can buy anything from clothing to kitchenware and anything in between that you could imagine. We also went back this past Friday to see some of the major attractions of Madrid. With these being a feat that would take more than one day, we stuck to touring the Royal Palace of Spain and going to El Museo del Prado. In 2014, we were unable to go inside of Palacio Real; therefore, it was extremely cool to see the inside of it. It is beautiful from the outside, but the inside is unbelievable. After we toured a portion of the Palace, we made our way to El Prado. This museum houses art dating back to Roman times up until the start of the 19th century. My favorite painting, El Jardín de las Delicias, is housed there, so I immediately made my way to go see it. I know we have more trips coming up as a part of the program, and I’m excited to see what other new things I learn this time around.
The Last Week
I cannot believe it is December and that I already have to leave. The time has flown by; this is by far the shortest semester of my college career. In between traveling, acclimating myself to the host culture, and learning the busy city of Barcelona, it feels as if I have only been here for a few weeks. I have had a few down moments—getting lost in the city, having my debit and credit cards stolen—but I do not regret a moment of the experiences I have had here. A few of my favorite moments/parts:
Living with a family has really enhanced my experience. As I have mentioned before, they speak essentially no English, which really forced me to use the Spanish language. I never realized how frustrating it can be when you are unable to express yourself verbally. The combination of my three Spanish classes, especially the one with my professor Rosa and my living situation fostered and improved my ability to speak, understand and communicate with Castellano or the Spanish language.
While I did spend a lot of my time exploring Barcelona (and it is a city that I recommend everyone visit and explore), I also was fortunate enough to travel to several countries throughout Europe. My first trip was to Munich for Oktoberfest. This was one of my favorite trips and a great cultural experience. I also was able to see Paris, Normandy, Amsterdam, Brussels, Salzburg, Rome, the Vatican, Grenada, Tarragona, and Berlin. Studying here has really increased my appreciation for Europe and the culture. It is a bit different than living in the US, but it was easy for me to adapt. One of the drawbacks is that you almost always have to pay for water, but the ease and low costs of travelling make it completely worth it.
It is difficult for me to articulate exactly how I have changed. I think it may be a bit too early to tell. I know for sure that I hold Europeans and other cultures in much higher regard. I recommend that everyone, if given the chance, to travel to another place and ignore your comfort zone. Learning to live differently and to adapt are valuable skills and will serve one well in life. This has been a great ride. I cannot express enough the gratitude I have towards my family for the great food, environment, and conversations of which they have provided me. I also am very appreciative of H-SC, Dr. Widdows, and the entire study abroad program. In terms of the application process and support, it has been incredible, and I owe this incredible experience to you.