Katie Arnold of the field hockey team spent the Spring 2017 semester in Hong Kong and writes about her time on the Iberian Peninsula. Here is her experience.
By Katie Arnold '18
Everyone said it would be a culture shock, but it felt more like a culture earthquake. I even spent most of my winter break trying to prepare myself by reading travel tips on Pinterest, browsing my future neighborhood on Google Maps, and asking teammate Jen Tordella (who did the same program last year) a billion questions. While that may have helped a little bit, I quickly realized that studying abroad is something you can never be prepared for no matter how hard you try, it just takes time, an open mind, and a lot of perseverance, but then poco a poco (little by little) the shock begins to shrink day by day.
I still vividly remember walking out of Barajas (Madrid's Airport) jet-lagged, overwhelmed, and terrified, with three suitcases, a backpack, and a piece of paper that I managed to scribble a sentence that read, "Puedo ir a Calle Valls Ferrera, por favor". I was far from my comfort zone, 3,723 miles to be exact, and it took me at least a half an hour to find the courage to get into a taxi and say the simple 8- worded sentence that I had rehearsed in my head for the last 30 minutes. I look back at this memory with a smile, because it is unbelievable how far I have come since that first day. My life as a Madrilen͂a (a person of Madrid) has been an unforgettable adventure and the things I have learned, the people I have met, and the ways I have grown in the last four short months are something that have impacted and will continue to impact my life forever.
I wouldn't consider myself a city girl, but Madrid will always have a special place in my heart. Moving from little Chestertown to the third largest city in the European Union was not an easy transition. However, I was lucky enough to be in the same program as classmates and fellow WAC athletes Jordan Weir (women's basketball) and Annie Grosscup (women's rowing), so we were able figure things out together. Now, after 114 days, I can't imagine leaving.
I attended Universidad de Nebrija which is a small private school in Madrid and took classes taught entirely in Spanish with topics ranging from grammar, to art history, to Spanish culture. Much like WAC, my classes were small (5- 10 students) so I was able to develop a personal relationship with all of my professors and classmates. While all of my professors were Spaniards, my classmates were from places all around the world such as Australia, Denmark, Japan, South Korea, and Kentucky to name a few. The coolest part about taking classes with international students is that in some cases, Spanish was the only language in common, so even before and after class small talk would be in Spanish.
Everyday afterschool, I went home to my host family and enjoyed comida which is the largest meal of the day in Spain and is typically eaten as a family around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Comida consists of three courses including a fresh baguette from the panadería (bakery) and postre which is supposed to be dessert, but is actually fruit or yogurt. My host mom exposed me to many types of traditional Spanish food like paella (seafood rice dish), croquetas (fried mash potato balls), jamón ibérico (a type of ham like prosciutto) and manchego (Spanish sheep cheese), and my favorite tortilla española (Spanish omelet with potatoes and onions) which she even made me on birthday. After the large meal, it was the best part of the day; siesta (nap). Siesta is actually a popular Spanish tradition. In fact, the majority of non-commercial stores and restaurants close during this time so everyone has the opportunity for a midday rest. After siesta, most days I would go down to Madredelicia, which is a quaint bakery and café under my flat, and get a café con leche (espresso with frothed milk) and do homework or just catch up with friends. And finally, I would meet up with friends for dinner around 10pm which is actually early for a typical Spanish dinner. However, since I was usually still full from comida, I would normally order a tinto de verano which is red wine mixed with lemon fanta (it sounds gross, but I promise it is amazing) and it would come with a plate of tapas. Tapas are little portions of Spanish food that could range from a bowl of olives to a plate of bocadillos (mini sandwiches) that are gratis (complementary) which is every college students' favorite Spanish word.
Contrary to popular belief (including my own), Madrid is NOT like any other large city. After living there for four months, I was able to experience and realize Madrid's charm. It is the only place you can get lost in a park (called Retiro) and encounter a botanical rose garden, glass palace, a turf soccer field, and a paddle-boat pond all in one park. You can walk the same ornate halls as the many kings and queens of Spain in Palacio Real (Royal Palace). You can impulsively buy tickets to see one of the best teams in the world (Real Madrid) play in one of the largest stadiums in the world (Santiago Bernabéu) or even catch Rafael Nadal play at the Madrid Open. You can see incredible ancient artwork at the Prado Art Museum which is home to the less famous, but equally beautiful other 'Mona Lisa'. You can go on a shopping spree at the four-floored Zara on Gran Via. You can be in the very center of Spain at Degree 0 in Sol. You can go to a seven-floor discoteca that stays open until 7am and finish off the night with churros con chocolate. You can walk into an open-air concert FOR FREE for a holiday for San Isidro (the patron saint of Madrid). You simply can stroll through any street and admire the beautiful and unique architecture for the buildings. And the best part is that everything is only a metro ride away.
As much as I loved being immersed in Madrid's culture, my favorite part of my time abroad was traveling. During my first month, I stayed local and took day trips to the incredible medieval towns of Toledo, Segovia, and Salamanca. From the breathtaking cathedrals and castles, to the cobble stone streets, to the 1st century Roman Aqueduct, I truly felt like I had traveled back in time.
Next, I made my first weekend trip to the north eastern Spanish region of Galicia where I met my dad and sister. We first visited Santiago de Compostela which is famous for being the endpoint for The Camino de Santiago (Walk of St. James) which is a 500-mile Catholic pilgrimage across the north coast of Spain to the tomb of the Apostle St. James. Then we drove to the nearby cities of Lugo and Coruña where we saw FC Barcelona play Deportivo La Coruña.
The following weekend I went to the southern part of Spain called Andalusía and visited the cities of Córdoba, Sevilla, and Granada. Andalusía has a history and culture that is unique and distinct from the rest of Spain because it was controlled by the Arabs for almost 800 years. We walked through a town whose building were completely covered with flower pots, saw a flamenco show in the birthplace of flamenco, and after waking up at 5am to get tickets, spent an entire day in the incredible Alhambra castle and gardens.
My next trip I leaped out of my comfort zone and traveled to Tangier, Chechaouen, and Asilah, Morocco. We walked around a town where each and every building was painted light blue- apparently bugs don't like that color- we rode camels on the beach, and mastered the art of bartering because nothing has a fixed price in Morocco. Visiting a third world country was such an eye-opening experience that is hard to put into words. From the mountains to the beaches, it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen; but at the same time, the poverty and lack of structure made me thankful to live in the United States.
For spring break, I spent the first weekend in beautiful Barcelona. Like Ed Sheeran's song Barcelona says, 'the sun was shining bright' and we went shopping at Las Ramblas (which is a beautiful shopping street), drank Sangria, danced around the amazing Sagrada Familia, and to top it off we went to Ed Sheeran's concert and heard him play Barcelona in Barcelona. Then, I survived a $15 Ryanair flight over to Scotland to visit my friend Sydney Rossetti who was studying at St. Andrews for the semester and saw where Prince William met Kate Middleton, played golf at the oldest golf course in the entire world, and even snuck into a lecture at one of the most prestigious colleges in Europe. To finish the week off, I met my mom and step-dad in Paris and saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, admired the stain glass in the Notre Dame Cathedral, climbed the many, many stairs of the Arc de Triumph, and saw the magical Eiffel Tower sparkle at night. It was the best week of my life to say the least.
My final international trip was to Germany to visit my friend for a long holiday weekend because in Spain May 1st is 'Dia de Trabaja' (Labor Day) and May 2nd is 'Dos de Mayo' which is the anniversary of an important uprising over Napoleon and the French army in Madrid. In Germany, my friend showed me around the large cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf and several little towns surrounding them. I fell in love with German breakfasts, learned how to say three words in German, rode a flying train, climbed over 500 stairs of Cologne's Cathedral, saw the tomb of the Three Wise Men and Charlemagne, and visited a bright pink castle. We also took a road trip and traveled through three countries in one exhausting day- Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands.
I ended my adventures with a weekend beach trip to Ibiza, which is an island off Spain's east coast in the Mediterranean Sea and a wine tour in one of Spain famous wine regions, Ribera del Duero.
The experiences I have had and the people I have experienced them with are priceless memories that I will remember and hold on to for the rest of my life. But the most important thing I have gained from this semester is excitement. Studying abroad has made me excited for what the rest of my life entails. It has made me excited to save my money for my next adventure. Excited to learn a new language. Excited to see a new city. Excited to go visit my new friends around the world. And excited to experience more of the world's story. It's amazing what happens and how much you learn, change, and grow when you step out of your comfort zone. If had not stepped out, I would not have had these once in a lifetime experiences and never have learned the things that can't be taught in a classroom like that 'No pasa nada' is my favorite phrase, that navigation is not nearly as bad as it seems, that it is possible to survive hostels and overnight bus rides, that every cathedral and castle are NOT the same, that the history behind artwork is fascinating, and that the experience of studying abroad is a step outside your comfort zone that is worth taking.