Stage Three: Going Deeper

As I rapidly approach the end of my time in Spain, I can see that looking back my time here has fallen into three stages, each distinct and with its own challenges, triumphs, and small miracles.

Stage One: Crash Landing

On the day trip to San Sebastian, I ended up with three random girls - Lea from Austria, Cynthia from Germany, and Ida from Finland. The first two later became two of my best friends here in Spain.

From the time I arrived in Pamplona in August and had to spend the night at the bus station, to perhaps as late as the end of September, I was getting my bearings. Every day brought a new challenge, and while I took a few day trips to nearby cities, most of my energy was spent trying to figure out this new world I’d been placed in, whether that meant Spain in general, Pamplona and UNAV specifically, or even the entire Erasmus situation. In the first weeks, I didn’t know how to get an ID card or use the school’s WIFI or library. I carried a map just to get across town. I had no idea who my friends were going to be or what classes I was going to be in. The world around me was a giant swirling chaos that I was trying to make sense of, one element at the time – the months ahead, a blank state filled with dizzying potential and a bit of fear. I felt tired a lot during this period, and nervous, and stupid. Sometimes I even felt angry. I didn’t really feel homesick, though – I was too busy for that, and everything was still so new that even when it was frustrating or frightening it was terribly exciting. Hardly a day passed where I didn’t, at different times, feel that I could do nothing right, and that I could take over the world single-handedly.

Stage Two: Far and Away

I spent some amazing days in Galicia with Sara and Colleen. Very rainy, a little stressful, but amazing.

Then, everything changed. Suddenly all the important things had finally been settled, and I knew how to get by. I trusted myself to be able to figure things out and handle day to day activities competently. Classes were in full swing, but exams were still far off and I didn’t have any big projects yet. Spain – or, at least, Pamplona – was starting to feel like home. As summer turned to autumn, I began to look around me for activities to fill my new life. I joined Club de Montaña and went canyoning in Aragon, climbed a Pyrenean mountain, and hiked through the Selva de Irati. I visited a friend in Alicante, partied in Madrid, explored Asturias and Galicia, went surfing in France and saw a U2 concert in San Sebastian. This was certainly the most exciting part of my time in Spain, and to outward appearances my happiest. In reality, though, not every day was storied ex-pat bliss. Travelling is stressful, after all, and although every time I set off for a new adventure I was buzzing with excitement, there were always busses and hostels to coordinate, budgets to keep an eye on, and schoolwork to make up (or at least feel guilty for missing). The stress hit at funny times – some mornings I felt nervous for no reason, other times I fretted over how quickly time was going by, and, I admit it, at the midway point I even felt a little bit homesick. After the first weeks I became more aware at how time was continuing without me back home, that I was missing birthdays and holidays and entire seasons of real life.

Stage Three: Going Deeper

Safe at home is sometimes right where you want to be during a northern Spanish winter.

In early November, things changed again. Winter arrived and brought with it freezing temperatures and the approaching threat of final exams. A homing instinct kicked in and I stopped my boundless wandering and returned to Pamplona, more or less for good. These practical concerns were a blessing, though, because when I stopped moving around so often, I started going deeper into life at home.  A few of my Spanish contacts began to develop into something like friends, and my group of Erasmus friends became tighter and more familiar and comfortable. I learned how to cook regional specialities, I got a library card, I found some volunteer work at a nearby Basque high school. I took some short trips around Navarra, my home state, and was amazed anew at the variety and beauty tucked into such a small area. With a new sense of stability (not to mention a plane ticket in hand to go home for Christmas) the last traces of fear and uncertainty left. My life in Spain began to feel totally normal, even routine – and that – to watch a foreign country lose its foreignness – to see it become home – is a magical thing, a miracle – and it might even be the best argument for studying abroad.


Los Vascos no han visto Pocahontas

There is no grammatical gender in Basque, but they do seperate two categories of nouns, which each have their own cases. Aitor initially explained these two categories as being for ‘people’ and ‘places’ – but obviously that leaves out a lot of nouns. Later, he summarized the difference as being between ‘living beings’ and ‘everything else’, which satisfied us until we came to an exercise involving the word tree. A tree is sort of a place, thought some of the students – you can build a house in a tree, for example. Others of us thought trees might count as living things – they’re organic, after all. Aitor seemed almost puzzled by the question. “Trees aren’t living things!” he said, before realizing the ambiguity of his own definition a second later.

So, trees go in the second category, along with inanimate objects (including places). People and animals are in a seperate category. I scrawled a note on the bottom of my paper, to help me remember – “Los Vascos no han visto Pocahontas” – “The Basques haven’t seen Pocahontas.”

The Gombrich

I had my first exam here in Spain. It was for my Visual Culture class, and, as it covers The Story of Art by Gombrich it’s infamously called “El Gombrich” by current and former students. Now, I took an art history course in high school. I read the book in question. But the test swam in front of my eyes and both of the two choices always seemed right. Later, one of the students told me that they were both right, half the time, you had to pick the better one, and sometimes the difference hung on some minor point, some subtle linguistic shading. Lovely. And did I mention that it’s apparently common practice here for all the students to pass around the exams from the previous years? I’m glad they told me about that more than fifteen minutes before the exam’s were passed out…

But none of that really matters in the end. Either I passed, or I didn’t pass. That’s all that matters, because my grades here translate back as pass/fail. I didn’t really think about the possibility of failing anything, not before. I was actually shaking a little bit when I signed into ADI. The scale goes from 1-10, but it’s not exactly like our percentages. 5 or above is a passing grade. 5 or below is a failing grade. Either I passed, or I didn’t pass. Above 5, or under 5…

I got a 6,87. It’s nothing to be proud of. But I passed. And I did it in Spanish. 🙂 And some of the Spanish students didn’t, and I know because we all got an email informing us of the consequences for those students. And I passed. 🙂 I can do this.

Published in: on October 21, 2010 at 22:04  Leave a Comment  
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A Little Eustress

Today I came home a bit stressed out, but sometimes that happens, and sometimes that’s a good thing, when you let it get you moving. I called my mom since I hadn’t talked to her properly since I arrived, and needed to know what was going on at home, and what I was going to do for winter break. I bought a calendar and started plotting due dates and exam times. I checked my bank account and planned out a budget. I tidied up a bit and will do my laundry as soon as the washer is free. All things that needed to be done, I can’t keep running from them like I’m just here for a two week vacation.

Published in: on October 1, 2010 at 17:11  Leave a Comment  

Caveat Lector

Add these things to the list of things they should tell us during orientation here, but eschew in favour of jokes and ice breakers:

1.) Books can only be checked out for 7 days at a time.

2.) Fines are 1 euro – per day, per book

3.) They do not cap the late fee at the value of the book

4.) You cannot renew books if they are overdue

5.) Once you return a book to the desk, they may take their sweet time checking it back in, and not backdate it.


About two weeks ago I went to the library and checked out two books for my classes. Yesterday, I realized that, although it was hard to remember as time passes strangely here, I thought it had been about two weeks since I checked them out, so, relaxing under the assumption that the lending rules would be at least somewhat similar to those in America, I walked over to the library and pulled up my account.

I had 24€ in late fees. 1€, per book, per day… and they’d only been checked out for a week, as I’ve subsequently learned is how they do things here. Which is great, you know, as I need the books for about a month, and had had them a bit more than two. I also couldn’t renew them, as they were already overdue. Anxious to avoid putting two more euros on top of that, as the dollar keeps getting weaker on top of everyting else, I ran all the way home, got the books, and ran all the way back to return them before the library closed. I needn’t have bothered. Today, I watched and waited for them to be checked into the system, but at least I was sure they’d be backdated. Nope – they’re listed as having been returned today, and another day overdue. Having worked in a library, I’m frankly disgusted by this last detail. You just don’t do that. You backdate, even when you’re not sure.

I was not pleased and not very willing to pay the fine. The flimsy paperback books would have cost me about 5$ each in America, and here I was paying twice that because I kept them what should have been a few days too long. I was tempted to just stop using the library’s lending services, as I suspect that I could flee the country and the debt at the end of the semester as long as I kept myself out of sight and mind. But the more I thought about it, the more it just wasn’t practical… I need access to the books for my literature class, in English, and, as an undergraduate, I’m not even allowed to use books in-library without checking them out.

I went grumbling to the desk to pay my fine. There, to add insult to injury, the man working there seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. I told him I wanted to pay my fines, that I had returned some books late and had to pay. He told me that I didn’t have to pay to return books, and kept getting more and more confused. Finally, I tried to explain as slowly and clearly as I could, “I had some books, and I returned them too late, so now I have to pay. I can’t check out a new book, because I owe the library money. So, I want to pay the money now. Where should I go for that?” He still didn’t get it, which just boggled my mind. What he finally did do was ask for my card, and try to check out a random book under it. There was a block on my account, which seemed to really confuse him and which he expected to confuse me equally. The funny part is that they use Millennium, the same book-keeping program the library I used to work at did, and I was pretty sure from watching him use it that I could do the job better than he does. Finally, he told me that the block would expire next Friday, so if I needed books before then I should just use my friends’ cards. Lovely.

Published in: on October 1, 2010 at 16:22  Leave a Comment  
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Ni Gure Tximeleta Txikia Naiz

The beauty of learning languages from the ground up, grammatically, as I am doing with Basque, is that you make sudden leaps forward. For the first two weeks, when people asked me what I had learned, I couldn’t do much more than smile sheepishly and explain that I’d only been to a few classes. The first week we’d only learned case endings, with a single word – mutil, boy – to fill out the paradigm. The second week, we learned some vocabulary, mostly animals and basic adjectives, and I could at least put a few words together. Nothing useful, but I could say “two big goats”, or ‘the young girl’, but I didn’t know a single verb, so I still couldn’t put a sentence together. This initial frustration is why, I think, popular modern teaching methods try to jump right into useful phrases and silly songs, but I think the best thing to do is to be patient, and push through, because afterward things start moving really quickly.

Apple Butterfly, from a Basque Blog.

Last week, we learned family terms, and, more crucially, our first verbs. To be, in present tense, and reflexive verbs, in past tense. It’s only a start, but it lets us make sentences. A surprising number of them. I can say, for example, that “two big goats have washed themselves” – “ahuntz handi bi garbitu dira”, or “the young girl is my sister” – “neska gaztea nire ahizpa da.” I can even say that “the sons and daughters of my aunts and uncles are my cousins” – “nire osaba-izeben semea-alabak nire lehengusua-lehengusinak dira”, or, as I realized quite happily, sing the DDR song “I-I-I, I’m you’re little butterfly!” – “Ni Ni Ni, Ni gure tximeleta txikia naiz!”

Basque has different words for a brother, depending on whether it’s the brother of a girl, or of a boy. Same thing for sister. My sister is my ahizpa, but my cousin Trevor’s sister is his arreba. Whereas Spanish will just double the masculine noun to make a collective noun encompassing both males and females (padres for padre – father and madre – mother), Basque smashes them both together, creating semea-alabak for children, and the unwieldy lehengusua-lehengusinak for cousins. Sometimes, simply out of a finite number of linguistic possibilites, Basque grammar winds up closer to English than Spanish – nouns in genitive, for example, appear before the word they modify, like English and unlike Spanish, so our teacher keeps explaining that you have to swap them to understand that amaren aita means mother’s father, when to me it’s quite clear!

Published in: on September 29, 2010 at 20:13  Leave a Comment  
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Día del Deporte

Can you imagine this at a school-sponsored event in the States?

Campus life is sort of a US thing – for better or for worse, universities abroad just don’t tend to organize as many social events for their students. This makes UNAV’s Día del Deporte somewhat unusual, so I felt like I had to show up to see what all the fuss was about (and get a plate of the free paella!).

There were a surprising number of activities set up, with a rock climbing wall, ultimate frisbee, and even a foosball tournament, and the students even appeared to be enjoying it all. As for myself, I’d signed up for paintball with some Eramus friends.

Of course, as American as the hoopla felt now and again, we were still in Spain, meaning that things were a bit… let’s say, relaxed.  Paintball was supposed to start at 10:00 sharp, so we’d all rolled out of bed in varying conditions for that… but when we finally managed to assemble around 10:10, we were totally alone. Not until 10:30 did a few other students show up and look stupid along with us, and finally someone started asking around. Apparently, the organizers still weren’t sure whether or not paintball was even going to happen this year. Um… okay?

Best. Paintball/Lasertag Team. Ever.

We finally played at 11 o’clock, although what they were calling Paintball was actually laser-tag. Still, it was fun, and my team was awesome!  They told us to come back for round 2 in a few hours, but with San Fermin Txikito happening downtown and absolutely no guarantee on when they would pull a second round together, we regretfully withdrew from the tournament.

Giant Paella for the crowds!!

Despite some frustrating organization, or lack thereof, Día del Deporte was a good effort on UNAV’s part – worth attending, and best of all, free!

Published in: on September 25, 2010 at 17:13  Leave a Comment  

Basque through Spanish, Spanish through Basque

They say that whoever doesn’t speak a second language, does not truly know his first language. Can we take this further? Will learning a third language, Euskera, through Spanish help me to better understand my second language?

Don't I look studious?

I’m two classes in now. Tonight we learned a handful of vocabulary words but mostly just charged ahead with cases, learning what happens to them when you throw in adjectives and more. And I was learning almost as much about Spanish as I was about Euskera – that it was more difficult for my classmates to break the sentences into clear semantic ‘chunks’, because word order is more flexible in Spanish, that they feel more comfortable pretending the definite and indefinite articles are embedded in the case ending, rather than just ceasing to exist in Basque. I’d never really thought about the ambiguity of saying ‘un coche’ in Spanish before, until I got a Basque question wrong because I went for what would translate to English as ‘a car’, instead of ‘one car’.

I kind of think that, when I go back to Mizzou, they should just hand me a linguistics minor for getting through this class, no questions asked. 🙂 With every language that I study, I become more amazed at the diversity of humanity’s linguistic landscape, more conscious of what a small part of our potential is used in a specific language, more ready for whatever the next language will have to throw at me. In some ways, Euskera is the holy grail for linguistics geeks – it’s so famous for its difficulty, its strangeness, its isolation. If, at the end of the class, I can read a sign or two, maybe say a sentence or two, it’ll be a bonus, a side effect. But what I’m there to do is experience the language, witness it in all of its unique glory.

Elements of Pamplona

Since I’ve been here at Pamplona, my experience has sort of splintered into five areas, based on my interests and situation. These are basically the five ‘lives’ I want to lead here, the things I want to explore. Of course, I won’t be fully immersed in any of them if I split up my time, but life is short and I want to taste as many things as possible. 🙂 These are not exactly equal to each other – they vary in terms of my motivation, the time and energy I will put into them, etc, but they’re all things I look forward to experiencing this semester.

1.) The Spanish Experience

Well, I don’t think I could get out of this one if I wanted to – it’s basically my default experience here. And it’s awesome. I’m taking all but one of my classes in Spanish, living with a Spanish woman, and making a few Spanish friends too, so I’m hoping to improve my knowledge of the language and the culture (both with a capital and a lowercase c). I love my province, Navarra, but I’m also very interested in exploring as much as I can of the rest of Spain – I’ve already been to Barcelona, Valencia, and Bilbao, and am going at a bare minimum to Madrid before I leave. Galicia is also on my almost certainly list. I’m also definitely eating as much Spanish food as I can!

Example: Every minute, every day.

2.) The Basque Experience

Yes, Pamplona is most certainly in Spain. But it’s also in Euskal Herria, or, the (greater) Basque Country. Fully half of the people I’ve met who have grown up here speak the language, Euskera, and the political situation is a constantly changing, dynamic thing reflected by graffiti, posters, and protests on the street here. I’m also close enough to Euskadi, or, the (autonomous region of the) Basque Country, that I’m able to explore it as well as I explore Navarra. So far, I’ve visited the three capitals – Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Vittoria – and loved them. With any luck, I’ll rent a car with some friends to head back and see some of the smaller towns. And anyone with a drop of linguistic leaning blood can’t help but be fascinated by Euskera itself.

Example: I signed up for a weekly Euskera course – I couldn’t resist!

3.) The Academic Experience

Yes, it sort of hit me by surprise, too. I may be studying abroad, but I’m still going to need to study – as much or more as I do back home. My classes aren’t just Spanish language, either – I’m studying visual culture, literature and its impact on the modern world, film and literature, linguistics, and the aforementioned Euskera, all in Spanish, with Spanish students. Of course, I can’t claim to love every second of this experience, but it’s a valuable one and fascinating if I let it be. So much of art history, for example, is the same as back home (imagine that) that differences really stand out and shine.

Example: Sitting in a huge classroom and trying to understand abstract lectures about Romanticism, while being unsure whether the processor just said concession, connection, or conception.

4.) The Pyrenean Experience

I love mountains – both for their scenic qualities and the possibilities for fun and exciting activities. Pamplona itself is surrounded by low mountains, and the Pyrenees themselves are just a short trip away. It´s very exciting for a little Missouri girl, and I want to make the most of it!

Example: I plan to go on many of the Club de Montaña excursions, mostly hiking, but this weekend an intense two days of canyon exploration, repelling, etc!

5.) The Erasmus Experience

This one is somewhat controversial among people studying abroad. Some love it and embrace it as a full half of their exchange experience – others feel that mixing too much with the Erasmus students from all over the world will take away from their immersion in the native culture. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about it myself, as I’ve already experienced the craziness and wonder of an international community at Mizzou. I also know that spending time with the Erasmus students means more speaking in English and less practice with my Spanish. But ultimately, I think its an exercise in futility and self-isolation to try to avoid it on principle. Besides, the Erasmus students are my friends, they keep me sane, they’re fun, and, since we’re all (let’s face it) just tourists on speed anyway, its nice to have traveling companions. 🙂

Example: Last night a group of us (from Germany, Portugal, Lithuania, Peru, Austria, Finland, Spain, and Taiwan) had a pancake party together. Not exactly traditionally Spanish… but part of the experience, just the same.

Euskera – The Beginning

A linguist of the middle ages, describing Euskera as one of “the fourteen languages that Latin didn’t destroy”, that the Basques “say they understand one another, but I don’t believe it.”

For years, the language only had one word – Euskaldun – meaning both a person of Basque Ethnicity, and a person who spoke Euskera, as if the two could not exist separately.

There is even a legend that the devil went to the Basque Country and spent seven years trying to learn the language, but failed to progress beyond ‘bai’ (yes), and ‘ez’ (no).


Well. I’ve spent two hours trying to learn the language, my first class, and I’ve already gotten farther than Satan. Yee-haw!

Euskera. Words that start with tx and tz. 28 cases. Agglutinative grammar. 10 words for shepherd. Base 20 counting system. No living relatives.

… this could be more difficult than Finnish. ^^

Published in: on September 14, 2010 at 20:33  Leave a Comment