In Spain, of course, they speak Spanish. And I vaguely remember that that seemed strange for the first few minutes after I landed in Barcelona, because where I grew up, speaking Spanish meant certain things about the speaker. Generally it meant aged 25-50, a darker, more exotic look, people who had a little, or a lot, less than I did. There were exceptions, of course, and I’m not even sure how conscious I was of these generalities until I left.

Still, it was strange to be in Spain and hear everyone speaking Spanish – from the Chinese immigrants working in the convenience stores, to the kids playing outside (who otherwise looked just like American kids back home), to the old woman walking around with her cane and her furs, looking down her strongly European nose at everyone who passed her. It was different – but it felt somehow right, and after an hour or so, I completely forgot about the old connotations. Spanish after all is a living language, spoken by entire societies – their rich, their poor, their young, their old – and in the United States right now, our perception of Spanish-speakers has come out incredibly skewed and unnatural.

On my journey home, I went through Madrid first, and then Miami. The proportions of English speakers to Spanish speakers changed gradually, and the flight over was about half and half. This itinerary might have softened the linguistic transition for me, but it also brought me back face to face with the language’s reception in my own country.

The flight landed and the airport workers descended on us as we disembarked, herding us into different lines while shouting at us – in English, mostly, with one or two Spanish words thrown in, as a condescending afterthought, so mispronounced and devoid of context that they couldn’t have been helpful. “Go to the left for customs, you’ll have to show your passport… pasaportay! After that is baggage claim, those of you with connecting flights need to pick up your luggage too… equipajay!”

They hadn’t given us the customs forms on our flight, so I had to go up to the counter to get mine. There I found another worker standing imperiously over a tall counter, talking to a short and nervous looking woman standing below. “You need an address in the United States,” she was saying again and again. “Direcciones. Direcciones. You need to write down the address next time you travel. The officer needs to see an address. Direcciones.” She was getting more and more frustrated, speaking more and more loudly, as if that would help. I started filling out my own form, but stopped when the worker kept asking her who was coming to meet her, and she wasn’t understanding at all. I stopped for a moment to translate – it was such basic stuff, just, “Who is coming to meet you? Your daughter? Can you give me your daughter’s name? Your daughter’s address?” You’d think the customs officers in MIAMI would be trained to handle that.

I finally got in line myself and was called up to the passport check. I had an American passport, and obviously understood English, but I said few words, and it was noisy, and I have a Spanish-looking first name. I guess that was all it took. Every other time I’ve gone through customs, they’ve stamped my passport and handed it back saying, sometimes even with a smile, “welcome home.” And after a long journey, that feels… good.

But this time was different. The officer never smiled. Before stamping anything, he gave me one more long look. Then he thrust the passport back into my hands, gestured in the direction of the exit, and muttered, “Entre.” – “Enter.”

The implications made me want to throw up.

Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 14:58  Comments (2)  

Long Way Home

View from my window

December 18th was probably the longest night of my life. I mean literally. I’ve never been so far north, so close to the equinox. But figuratively it wasn’t a piece of cake, either.

To save money, I picked a cheap flight from Studentuniverse.com, even if it was a bit convoluted. In the end, I had to spend a short night in Bilbao, get up at 5 to get to the airport, fly to Madrid, transfer, fly to Miami, transfer again, and then fly home to Tampa. I was awake for a full 24 hours, and going through security twice and customs once and fighting stairs and busses with all my suitcases, they weren’t particularly pleasant, either.

At least I kept flying south – the bad winter Europe’s having is playing havoc with all airports north of about Paris, and when I was in Bilbao they kept delaying the flights to Germany and the U.K. by hours at a time.

As we neared Miami, the Spanish pilot came on the air and said, only in Spanish, “As you know, Iberian ham products of all kinds are prohibited in the United States. If you declare them, they will take them away. So, you have two choices – either you can not declare them, and take them home and enjoy them with your family for Christmas… or you can declare them, and we will take them home and do the same.”

Published in: on December 20, 2010 at 22:40  Comments (1)  

Last Laundry, Last Groceries…

I’m down to a few more lasts as I prepare to move out of my piso and fly home. I did my last big load of laundry today so that I could actually start packing. I did my last groceries, as well – a loaf of bread, a carton of peach juice, and two potatoes. Really it’s only what I need to use up what I already have. It’s amazing how much needs to be done before I actually leave.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 15:52  Leave a Comment  

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.


Pass the - rubbery fish in tomato sauce? Not exactly my most traditional Thanksgiving meal to date!

Being away for Thanksgiving was a bit harder than being away for Halloween. Sure, I missed stuffing my face with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and dressing up with my friends, but Thanksgiving is more than a party and a sugar rush – it’s about pulling out cookbook’s with a years worth of dust on them, sitting in a circle pulling apart bread and painfully hot chicken by hand to make traditional Metheny stuffing, and playing Aggravation and Tripoli between mini-feasts.

On Facebook, my friends back home joke about how much turkey they’re going to eat and how much weight they’re going to gain, or count their blessings (sarcastically or in earnest).  Meanwhile all of my fellow American ex-pats have changed their Skype statuses to reflect their homesickness. Some of the international students are even putting on little Thanksgiving dinners in miniature – limited both by what they know how to cook themselves, and on available ingredients. 

As I told my sister, yes, I’m alone for Thanksgiving, but it’s not as if everyone around me is baking turkey and sweet potatoes and hugging relatives while I’m eating a turkey and gravy t.v. dinner. Life goes on as normal, and it helps. But it’s hard to ignore completely. The truth is I’m glad to spend only one fall abroad. The highlight of the day was talking to my family via Skype. They’re at Todd’s in St. Louis and it’s snowing there. Everyone took turns talking to me – Mom, Dad, Melissa, Uncle Bob and a barrage of cousins.  They even held up Tidbit for me to see/talk to… she could hear me calling her and was cocking her head back and forth – so confused about where the familiar voice could be coming from!

Ida from Finland tried to get into the Thanksgiving Spirit with this super-traditional Native American attire...

The International Office here held an event the day after Thanksgiving called “Spainsgiving”. A little cheesy, and confusing too – the meal had nothing to do with Thanksgiving whatsoever – not turkey, not green bean cassarole, not even pumpkin pie! Still, several of my friends signed up, so I went along too. The food was not terribly good, (although the chorizo appetizer was tasty), and the event as a whole was overpriced, but I guess it’s the thought that counts!

Published in: on November 29, 2010 at 16:44  Leave a Comment  

The Center of the World

I’ve been having some trouble with Google since I arrived in Spain. Namely, Google thinks I should be Spanish, and automatically redirects me to Google.es when I type in Google.com, complete with Spanish language results first. Sometimes – like when I’m working on a project here – this is useful. But most of the time it’s just annoying. Besides, it would be easy enough for me to choose Google.es by typing THAT in – but since the U.S. version seems to be the default, I couldn’t figure out an easy way to stay there. I was using Google.co.uk (the British version) for a while, and this worked well… for the most part.

The most unsettling part of the redirect for me was Google Maps. I’m so used to opening that up and having it centered automatically on the United States, with Missouri conveniently near the center of that. But now it was showing me Europe, and I was having to drag the map a few thousand miles west if I wanted to remember the exact distance between St. Louis and Columbia. It’s such a funny thing, a random thing – of course European countries don’t want the U.S. map as default… but without thinking about it, I’d accepted that we were the center of the world, and part of me was shocked every time that Google.co.uk would center me on London, or Google.es on Madrid.

Well, today I finally bothered to look up a more official way to stay in good old familiar American Google. There are a few options: http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=873. I typed in Google as http://www.google.com/ncr, and since then haven’t had any troubles…. my browser even seems to remember that I really do want the American version.

Published in: on November 10, 2010 at 11:50  Leave a Comment  

November Picnic

A lovely day in Ciudadela

I’d wanted to have a picnic for a while – specifically, in the fortress that forms the heart of our Pamplona – Ciudadela. I’d given up due the difficulty of organizing all seven of us and the weather – but to my surprise we had a few brilliant days in early October, and we snuck a picnic in at last! A magical few hours under the pine trees and blue skies while elementary school children ran about playing tag and hide and seek. 🙂

Published in: on November 3, 2010 at 00:29  Leave a Comment  
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Settling Down, Settling In

When I reread my old blog posts, I can see how much I’m really settling in. Fall and winter are bringing their own challenges, but the initial panic is gone. I feel legitimate checking out in the grocery store. I rarely get flustered by a new and creative way they ask me if I want a bag or how I want to pay. Sometimes I have short conversations with the other residents of my building in the elevator or the foyer. I relax.

Today I went to campus an hour early to study for the To Kill a Mockingbird exam with Sofia. She’s Italian, but we always speak Spanish together. The exam was brutal, but I laughed about it with Sofia and Florencia (from Argentina) and Marta (from Pamplona). Sofia and Florencia and I were staying for the exam, so we ate a quick lunch together in the cafe first, speaking mostly Spanish but occasionally switching into English, since we all three spoke it. Switching between English and Spanish is getting easier and easier. Sometimes I forget which one I’ve just spoken. We went in to watch the movie and I had no real problem understanding it, just like I was able to understand X-Men and Fantastic Four and Anna and the King on the bus ride from Alicante. I laughed at Florencia putting her feet up on the desk. Hadn’t we been told a half-a-million times in Kiser and Altadonna’s classes that Hispanics and Latin Americans would kill us for even thinking of doing such a thing?

At the end of the day I put on my coat, swiped out at the door along with a flood of Spanish students, not slowing anything down, not confused, not sticking out in any way. Just moving out with the crowd into the dark night that wasn’t scary or chaotic any more. It didn’t unnerve me to be alone in a strange country, in a strange city. They’re just not that strange any more.

Published in: on October 26, 2010 at 12:35  Leave a Comment  

Far From Home

“In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny sublimal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth.”

– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I was never homesick before coming here. I used to laugh at the kids who were, at summer camp and even at slumber parties. But it’s different now, to be here. You don’t just miss the comforts of your mother and father and favourite sofa, you miss the comforts of understanding what strangers around you are talking about and recognizing the snacks in the vending machine. It’s fun at first, and then you can’t pretend anymore than it’s just a vacation. You’re a baby again, studying abroad, except not as cute – just helpless and awkward. I think that’s the hardest part for me – being stupid, confused, a burden.

And after a hard day, the stress somehow does seem to pull out the sense of distance, when you realize how far you are from home.

Published in: on October 10, 2010 at 14:34  Leave a Comment  

U – Dos, San Sebastian

You too! (Get it? Get it?)

I just went to a U2 concert. In San Sebastian, Spain. It was the closing event for this year’s International Film Festival, and I was there, along with a high school friend, Sara, and her friend Colleen – both studying in Madrid this semester.

We got to the stadium quite early, but it was already pretty crowded. We had standing room only tickets, (we snatched them at about 60 euros each!), so we moved as far up as we could, and sat down and ate a picnic dinner while the crowd slowly filled in….

That's right.

The show? It was awesome. What else do you expect of U2? This was the 360* tour, and there was some really creative use of the giant video screens – they showed the concert, they showed animations, they showed poetry, they moved, they glittered… but always only complimenting the music itself. The night air was a little cold in the open-air stadium, but once everyone was on their feet clapping and dancing it warmed up quickly – it was a surreal experience to raise your hands in the air and feel the difference in temperature. My flatmate Gianfranco, who was in Rome for an exam, made me call him from the stadium so he could hear his favourite song. There were odd little Spanish touches here and there, too, reminding us that we weren’t back home in the Scottrade Center. Bono greeted the crowd in English, Spanish, French, and Basque, and, instead of Encore, the crowd sang, “Ole, ole ole ole…. ole, ole.” !!!

We walked back to the hostel on a cloud of elation, riding the wave of concert-goers through an otherwise deserted city. San Sebastian isn’t quite the party capital of Spain, and on a Sunday night at… 1? 2? It was totally empty except for the U2 crowd. A few bars right next to the stadium were absolutely packed, so we kept walking hoping to find one a little bit less busy. We were out of luck, as most of the city was completely shut down and closed up. Once at the hostel, we found a few other U2 fans asking the front desk about places to get food – his only grim suggestion was a vending machine several blocks away. The four of us marched over to what had become a very popular vending machine! Luckily it was a pretty good one that spit out hot toasted sandwiches… enough to get us through the night, anyway. At a pinch, U2 would have been worth going hungry for… at least until we ate lunch in France the next morning! 😀