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)  

The Valley of Baztan

The road trip I took with several friends to the north of Navarra took us through the Valley of Baztan twice. The valley, one of Navarra’s seven largest, is named for the river Baztan, called Bidasoa further downstream where it forms the international border between Irun, France and Hondarribia, Spain.

On the way up north, we visited the village of Amaiur-Maya. I saw it on the map and suggested a quick stop as I had seen pictures of its mill in one of the tourism guides. In the end, we didn’t even see the mill – but we strolled down main street (the only street?) and up a hill to a strange monolith, built (as I later found out) to commemorate the a Navarran revolt in 1522.

Night was falling as we headed back south, stopping in Elizondo (the capital of the Valley) and little adjacent Elbete. Elizondo’s church is worth a look (Eliza = Basque for Church) but mostly I just enjoyed the quiet streets with their yellow lamp-lights.

Published in: on December 10, 2010 at 16:48  Leave a Comment  

Snowed In!

Marketa and I had planned four days of road trips around Navarra, but then the snow came, and made the roads so icy that our friend Nerea’s parents couldn’t even get from Bilbao to Pamplona. We decided to play it safe and stay in instead, maybe for the best with finals approaching. We’re hoping to get out for 1-3 days next week…

Published in: on December 4, 2010 at 22:18  Leave a Comment  

Snow and Studying

One of nine snowman in Plaza Felix Huarte

It’s snowing pretty hard today. First serious exam tomorrow – Cultura Visual.

I made a quick grocery run – bought milk, bread, tomato sauce, and relleno. I could have survived the day with what I had in my cupboard, and shouldn’t have wasted the time with my exam approaching, but then again it only takes ten minutes, and tomorrow I’m busy, and Sunday it’ll be closed, and Monday and Tuesday perhaps too – there’s some sort of holiday. Even today lots of things are closed for Dia de Navarra, but luckily not the grocery store. Besides, I wanted to feel the snow under my own feet – this was an excuse.

Snowball fight in Plaza Felix Huarte

Plaza Felix Huarte has nine new residents as of this morning – very pale and a bit misshapen. I don’t know if they’ll make it to nightfall without melting away entirely- the temperature is only just at freezing, after all.

My room smells like the wet laundry hung up to dry. It’s not unpleasant. There’s enough light bouncing off the snow and coming in through the window that I can leave the electric ones turned off. The air is cool but I’ve got my wool socks and a sweatshirt on as I sit in bed and study with a mug of Colacao. Life is good.

Published in: on December 3, 2010 at 15:57  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  

Las Bibliotecas Publicas de Pamplona

Today I finally got a library card. I don’t know why I didn’t do so earlier – I wasn’t sure where the libraries were, I was afraid there would be some complicated proof-of-residency required… and I guess it just seemed too complicated to deal with.

It’s not. Civivox, the big building near my flat that often serves as a meeting place, is apparently a multi-purpose community center with, among other things, a pool and a library. All they needed was a look at my passport and a wallet sized photo, and I’m now free to check out books and dvds. If I’m not missing something, the library’s quite small compared to the ones I’m used to back home – but there are several within Pamplona that seem to have different collections, and the same library card is good at all of them.

They’re quite flexible about the wallet sized photo, by the way. I cut up a photo I had pinned  up in my closet to make one I thought would be far too small of my face – they took it without a comment. Better yet, I found (ex post facto) that you can apply online: http://www.navarra.es/AppsExt/opac/abnetcl.exe/O7054/ID005a0837?ACC=101

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 18:54  Leave a Comment  
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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  

To Pain with Love

“Amaia Gabantxo: In Basque, there was just a very simple line that used the verb “to fall in love.” But, you know, it seemed so clumsy because the Basque is so beautiful. It’s maitai mindu. If you split the word, if you look at the two words that form it, it just means “love pain.” So, to fall in love in Basque, is to pain with love, you see. So, you can never love without pain in Basque.”


Published in: on November 5, 2010 at 22:03  Leave a Comment  
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