Already Only a Month

It’s the last day of the solar summer. September is drawing to a close, and that means I’ve been on this exchange for nearly a month. It doesn’t feel like it. Depending on the time of the day, who I’m talking to, what I’m doing, it seems like I’ve been here forever, or like I’ve only just arrived. Never like I’ve been here for a month. And yet, I’ve now spent more time in Spain than in any other foreign country – longer than in Japan or Scotland. The time spent so far has been less action packed than a month of pure tourism, but not nearly as routine as life back home.

It’s funny now, to remember how I arrived in Spain after spending the night in the Manchester airport, how Allan and I wandered through Barcelona for two days as if in a dream, meeting up with Emily in Valencia for Tomatina and the beach, and then spending another long, sleepless night in route to Pamplona. I was happy to have Allan with me for the first few days here, as I moved into my apartment, walked around Pamplona for the first time, as a stranger, and even impulsively visited Puente la Reina based on a single photo in the train station. And then, Allan left, and suddenly I was totally alone, and far from home.

I took things one step at a time, with some challenges leaving me triumphant and others in a pathetic heap, but I got everything straightened out, in the end. I went through orientation, picked classes, matriculated, found my way around campus and groups for projects. I got a hair cut and learned where I could find this food and that and for what price. I learned how to use WIFI and the copy machine and the library and the bookstore. I’ve adjusted to Sundays and Siestas.

I made friends and we had curry parties and pancake parties and long nights drinking wine on apartment balconies. We travelled to San Sebastian and Vitoria and Bilbao. I met up with a girl from and went to a Basque concert with her and her friends. I started learning Euskera. I went hiking in the Valley of Arpan, explored Alquezar and went canyoning in la Sierra de Guara with Club de Montana.

If I put it this way, yes, I suppose it has been one month. And yet one morning when I didn’t have class until 12, I lay in and when I woke up, it took me several long seconds to remember I was in Spain, because everything felt so normal and natural and safe and clean and good. I’ve found a new normal, made a new home here.

Not bad, for the first month.


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.

Mood Swings and Making Friends

It’s hard to avoid having mood swings here. You do something right, something goes well, and you feel absolutely amazing, like you can take on the world. Five minutes later and inevitably you’re faced with a new challenge, and sometimes you fail – sometimes the man at the library explains to you five times in a row that you should have made sure no one was logged in on the computer before you ordered your books, sometimes a professor asks you something and you have no idea what the question was, much less the answer, sometimes some little thing happens to make you realize how alone and far away you really are.

Jaime says they stare at her here, even laugh sometimes. I haven’t noticed that. I’m lucky – I can slip under the radar, go undetected – until I open my mouth. This is mostly a good thing. I think. There’s often, then, a flicker of surprise… and then anything can happen. They might become annoyed at the delay and added frustration of dealing with a foreigner, or else apologetic that they spoke to me too quickly, or they might start smiling, asking me where I’m from in the U.S. (although they never know Missouri), and offering me help. Once, during a relatively quiet passing period, I asked a girl what she thought of Wuthering Heights. We were about to have one of my first genuine peer-to-peer conversations in Spanish, when another girl came out of nowhere, cornered me, and started speaking English. She studied abroad in Canada and wants to go to America for her masters, and is desperate to speak English. That makes her the exception here, which is mostly a good thing. I think.

I don’t know anymore… pero no pasa nada.

Published in: on September 13, 2010 at 15:33  Leave a Comment  
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Jornada de Bienvenida

Today was the first day that I did anything pertaining to the University – in short, it was the International Student Orientation. Despite a few misgivings I thought on the whole it was very well done – in the morning mostly information sessions, and in the afternoon more of getting to know each other and the city of Pamplona.

Jaime, Gianfranco, and his two friends Francesco and Francesca all went to the main building with me, and there was a bit of a flurry as we were given name tags, information packets (with maps, Navarra tourism information, general university resources, etc), and asked if we wanted to sign up to go to San Sebastian tomorrow. I definitely signed up – it’s the right time of year to head there, most of my new friends from today are going, and it’s even a good deal, 10$ whereas a round trip on the bus costs 14$. My initial thought looking around the room was that there seemed to be an enormous number of Americans, a lot of English being spoken, and not many communications majors…

We listened to lots of pep talks about the University and about being an International student, and more useful stuff about finding accommodations (at least that’s out of the way now!), volunteer and work opportunities, and extracurricular activities. Figuring out my classes and how much time/energy they will take is my first priority – but afterward I’m going to look into babysitting (either in English or in Spanish), and into the Club de Montaña… the volunteer activities look good too, but I’m only here one semester, so I might not have time for them, especially if I can find a few hours of work a week.

We split into groups by faculty – I felt much better once we were divided into the communication group. There weren’t so many of us, actually a pretty good number, maybe 30 or so? And unless I’m mistaken, I might actually have been the only American, and the median ability/willingness of this group to speak Spanish seemed to be higher than the general average.  I met three students while in this section who seemed quite nice – a Finnish girl, a French/Lebanese girl, and an Italian girl.

Our coordinator kept explaining the system of advisers and coordinators etc etc and explaining what we should do when and how and why. I think she meant to help us but I was actually getting more confused and worried the longer the explanations went on. AFTER all this, however, she handed out folders with almost all the information I’d been wanting in it – class request forms to fill out, some information about different courses (even the schedules!!!), etc… plus our student IDs, which is at least one concern down. I sort of wish she’d given us those at the beginning, but I’m basically just glad to have it.

We went outside for a group picture, but it wasn’t well organized, and I was too short so I’m not even in it a little bit. Ah well.

Then we went for the Paella Gigante, which is fun and quite well advertised. It had snails in it, and it was my first time trying them, but they were really quite tasty! I ate mostly with the Finnish girl, Ida, and started realizing that my first impressions of the group were a bit off. I don’t think there were any people I’d thought were European or Latin, that turned out to be American, but the reverse was definitely true. Some of the people looked like they could be from Joplin or Cape Girardeau and yet came from France or Ecuador. So many came from mixed or complicated backgrounds. One boy was named Toshimi (a Japanese name), but looked and sounded totally, totally Midwestern American – and was from the Dominican Republic! And although there was lots of English being spoken, not all of it was by native speakers – there were lots of people from all over Europe speaking in English together, some of them barely knew a word of Spanish – so its not just Americans who can come to a country ignorant of the language! (It is more embarrassing for us, I feel, since we didn’t even learn English, but in a way it’s not our fault that we don’t need to, that we have it by default.)

So perhaps I judged the group too quickly, but then again I felt that there was a difference in the attitude of the Americans and the Europeans or Asians who didn’t speak Spanish – they looked more shy, more embarrassed, more bashful about the situation – even if they needn’t be ashamed, after all, they’re going to learn a lot, the humility was refreshing compared to the blank or even annoyed stares some of the Americans gave off when addressed in English. (By the way, I need to lump a large percentage of the Australians I’ve met so far in with the majority of the Americans in this regard.)

The worst? One girl, whose situation there I admit I don’t fully understand, but whom I can only assume had the nerve to come there as a student, spoke no Spanish. I mean it. I knew more Spanish at age 5, without even knowing it was Spanish, from nursery rhymes and the like. She couldn’t even ask me where I was from (she did manage to ask my name) – even this would have been one thing, if she’d been a bit nervous about it, really willing to learn, but no. She had the most smug look on her face imaginable, and although she had attached herself to one of the most bilingual members of the welcoming committee and was having her translate the most basic of phrases, she managed to sound incredibly condescending. It was really unbelievable, I mean it – her tone would have been inappropriate even if I was a small Spanish child going around in the U.S. and requiring that she try to use her fragments of Spanish because of my inability to understand English, and in the present situation, it was absolutely ludicrous.

They split us next into random groups for Icebreakers, which I was sort of dreading as Mizzou has just about given me my lifetime dose of those! But it wasn’t too bad in the end. We stayed with the same group throughout a tour of campus and downtown and throughout the scavenger hunt. It was a good group – I spent most of the time with a Chinese-Australian girl and an Icelandic girl, both very nice – pity we did speak English together, but there are worse things as long as I speak Spanish with most of my friends here. Our group actually won the scavenger hunt and I thought I made quite a decent contribution – I knew about Hemingway, Rincon de Caballo Blanco (by chance!), and also, very helpfully, the meaning and pronunciation of the Chinese character for tea.

We were rewarded for winning with free drinks and pintxos (tapas). The pintxos barman was acting funny and I’m pretty sure he was messing/flirting with me, and sort of glad to have so many new friends about! For some reason, although I thought I ordered a simple jamon sandwich thing like the others, mine took much longer to come out of the kitchen, and when it did some I had three little sandwiches, instead of just one! O.O I have no idea if there is any connection between that and the barman’s strange behavior…

After eating I saw Jaime, and the two of us tried to go and get groceries together. We started talking and not paying attention to where we were going, and ended up walking almost in the opposite direction! But in the end it was fine, we even managed to get in and out of the store before it closed at ten, just barely – and we definitely had  good talk!

In the end, there’s a lot of information and new ideas spinning around in my head – it’s a little overwhelming to be honest! But I’m also feeling pretty confident, and very excited about what the next semester will hold, in terms of academics, in terms of travel, in terms of languages, in terms of new friends and new experiences, here so far from home.