Find, embrace cultural differences abroad

It’s just the first week of school and I can’t sleep. I’m having a seriously difficult time trying to go to sleep before 2 a.m., and I can’t wake up before noon. This may sound incredibly normal to some of you upperclassmen, but I can assure that this is not the norm for me. I have odd sleeping habits now because I spent the past summer in Spain.

After debating internships, taking classes or even a possible summer job, I finally decided that I wanted to leave campus. So I did —in a pretty big way.

This summer I participated in the Spain LBAT programs, one in Cádiz — a small peninsula in the south of Spain and the other in Madrid—the industrial and political capital of the country. My summer was a whirlwind of travel, beach time and cultural immersion.

I wandered the narrow, winding cobblestones in Toledo, picnicked along the banks of the River Guadalquivir in Sevilla, visited some of Hemingway’s old haunts in Madrid and watched the sun set over Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona. I drank Spanish wine, ate authentic paella and salsa-danced on the beach. The entire summer was simply a dream.

The best part of all of this was that I occasionally had to go to class, but I finished the summer with a minor in Spanish and a stronger grasp of both a language and the culture from which it came.

However, there were a couple of things I really would have loved to know before even stepping on the plane for the ten hour flight to Madrid. In order to truly savor the richness of the pieces of culture that you will be experiencing, one word is key: research. That is my one regret from this summer. I honestly did not always understand what I was seeing when looking at a piece of architecture, or the history behind it.

The following is a list of things of which every student who travels abroad, in Spain or otherwise, should be aware.

First is indoor air-conditioning. It does not exist anywhere in Spain. This is not new technology. Seriously, I looked it up. In all of the old palaces and cathedrals we visited, there are often tall ceilings, open entryways and even fountains to help deal with the ever-burdening heat that spans Spanish summers. For whatever reason, this style of architecture was lost between the time of the Arab occupation in Spain and modern day, because no such thing exists in the modern Spanish household.  I’m originally from the South, and thus I can usually deal with heat. But I often found myself lingering in doorways of banks and supermarkets when walking home from the school just to get a respite from the high temperatures.

Second is public restrooms. They don’t exist there. And if there is one, there isn’t toilet paper….which often leads to creative and ingenious methods of using the facilities.

Third, breakfast. My favorite meal of the day. Apparently, no one eats breakfast in Spain. When we were in Cádiz, my host parents thought my roommate and I were crazy when we wanted more than just a piece of bread. In our hostel in Madrid, we paid almost ten Euros a day for a cup of café con leche and prepackaged bread. (I do have to concede that a regular cup of Spanish coffee is superior to anything I’ve ever had at Starbucks).

Fourth, sleep. No one sleeps. Everyone stays up late. Really late. On the weekends, the dance clubs that are incredibly popular with the under-twenty age demographic don’t even open until after 3 a.m. Also, siestas are a myth. Our Spanish professors just used them as incentives to get us to stay awake in class, but then we had to come back in the afternoons (during siesta time) for our classes with our American professors, because they follow an American schedule.

The most important piece of advice I could give to any student interested in traveling abroad, however, would be to blend in as often as possible. I truly felt like I was absorbing the Spanish culture when cashiers and waiters asked me to pay in Spanish, instead of assuming I was American and asking in English. Eat local cuisine, read up on the current political climate of where you are headed and travel whenever possible.  Talk to locals and listen to the music that is popular wherever you are. Read some newspapers and try to go to see a movie in a new language.

Truly experience your new environment. I did, and I loved it.

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