Life in Spain-More than siestas and flamenco

For travelers, 80 days have much potential. You can follow the example of Jules Verne’s classic book and go around the world. Or, like me, you can choose to spend a semester abroad and immerse yourself in what might as well be a whole new world.

This fall, I’m studying in Salamanca, Spain, a postcard-perfect city two-and-a-half hours northwest of Madrid, where I’ve learned more than is possible in any classroom.

The culture contrasts are endless, but somehow my life as a journalism major at the College and a foreign student at the University of Salamanca complement one another. Each offers something the other doesn’t – at best, an outside look at America and a more intimate one of Spain.

Sure, in Spain I’ve had to sacrifice my Starbucks Frappuccinos, 24/7 Internet access, long, hot showers and the latest celebrity gossip, but that is all a small price to pay for what I’ve gained. Below, the abridged version of Spain through the eyes of an extranjera.

La Vida

Life in Spain operates on a schedule distinct from the rest of the world. Morning lasts until 2 p.m., when many stores and schools shut down for the mid-day break, which lasts until 5 p.m. Spaniards traditionally return home to eat the heaviest meal of the day with their families. By this time, Americans accustomed to lunching at 12:30 p.m., and eating more than a small muffin and fruit for breakfast, feel just about famished.

Each day on my 15-minute walk home from class at 2:15 p.m., I see passersby with a loaf of bread tucked under their arm or sticking out of their shopping bags – pan is the staple to every meal. Here, carbs are not evil. You won’t find products boasting the Atkins seal or a Weight Watchers point value. Nor will you find many obese Spaniards in spite of this. The extensive walking they do and their healthier cooking habits keep them in shape.

After the meal, Spaniards may doze off in their chairs for 10 to 20 minutes before heading back to work, though foreign students often turn this siesta into an hour or two.

The afternoon lasts until around 9 p.m., when the Spaniards eat dinner, a smaller meal, considering they’ve often whet their appetites earlier with a snack or tapas – small appetizers enjoyed over conversation at bars.

If night seems to begin late in Spain, that’s because it lasts much longer. Salamanca, as a university town, is especially known for a vibrant nightlife. Supposedly, there is a bar for every 11 people in this city of 160,000. American students are notorious for dancing and drinking the night away at Jacko’s, a Michael Jackson-themed bar, until 4 or 5 a.m. on a school night. An alternative to the smokey and inebriated environment of a bar is a classy caf?, of which there are also plenty, where you can chat with friends over a caf? or chocolate con churros.

New Family and Friends

The heart of the studying abroad experience – literally and figuratively – is living with a host family, at least if you’re as lucky as I’ve been. My host family consists of my se?ora, her husband, their 30-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter. Since renting a piso, or an apartment flat, is expensive, it is not uncommon for young adults to live with their parents longer than we would in the States.

As independent as we American twentysomethings try to be, we inevitably miss our parents when we’re thousands of miles away from them for three months. My host mom, a lively redhead who turns life into a musical when she belts out the theme song to her favorite soap opera, is always there to offer the comfort and laughs that ward off homesickness. Her job is to cook and clean for my roommate and me, but beyond that, she chats with us and confides in us, showing me the undervalued strength of the Spanish housewife.

Friendships among the foreign students are equally important. Even when we Americans stick together and talk in English, we’re still experiencing diversity. For the first time ever, I’m the lone Jersey girl amidst a bunch of Westerners and Southerners, which makes for some fun accent comparisons as well as clashing world views.

I have also met Spaniards through an intercambio, which is when an English-speaking student converses in Spanish with a Spanish student, and vice versa. It’s eye-opening to discuss our perceptions of one another’s country. My intercambio, Sof?a, for example, has the impression that the United States is deeply religious, since she often hears President Bush speak of God. And
when I told her I was from New Jersey, she exclaimed, “Oh, Bon Jovi!,” the same reaction a Japanese student I met had. So much for thinking it was Bruce Springsteen who put us on the map.

When meeting Spaniards, it can be awkward for Americans, since custom is to greet one another with a kiss on each cheek (the exception being between two men). With familiars, Spaniards also stand close together and are touchy, though with strangers they are stereotypically more guarded than Americans. If they know English, they shy away from it, which forces us foreigners to practice our Spanish. Luckily, our endless capacity for inventing words and butchering grammar doesn’t stand in our way.

“Studying” Abroad

Though in our eyes the College is a venerable institution, having just turned 150 this year, it is merely a baby compared to the University of Salamanca, which was founded in 1218 and is Spain’s oldest university. If it’s hard to put the university’s 787 years in perspective, consider the fact that Christopher Columbus passed through its doors before America was even “discovered.”

Classes for “extranjeros” are much more relaxed than courses at the College, as we rarely receive substantial homework assignments. The resulting disadvantages that our grades are based almost entirely on two exams. The advantage is that we are not glued to a computer screen or stuck researching in the library. For us, a visit to the doctor, when we have to explain our symptoms in Spanish, or listening to the news on TV, is exerting and a test in itself.

Now, as Christmas lights are strung above the streets and Nativity sets decorate store windows, I realize my 80-day adventure is just about over. Sometimes it feels bitter to have reached the end, but then again, “home for the holidays” never sounded sweeter.