Things don’t start to feel real until you drag your two empty suitcases into your bedroom and start to pack for your semester abroad. That’s when you realize your life for the next six months will have to weigh less than you do, in fact less than a small child.
There was a morning in late May, just a couple of weeks before I would have to re-pack those suitcases, when the heat of Seville woke me up earlier than usual. Even with the window wide open, as soon as the sun rises there’s no escaping the heat of this ancient Spanish port city. I sat up in bed listening to the sounds of the apartment building waking up, shades rattling open and mothers moving in kitchens. I thought about leaving this city, whether I was ready. Though it was hard to sleep with the noise from the neighbors and the street below, I was grateful for this, to wake up organically with the beginnings of other people’s days.
My six months in Spain were the most exciting, frightening, enlightening months of my life. I learned so much about another culture: what other people value, what makes them get out of bed, what makes them stay up so late. I learned what it’s like to live with a family I’m not related to, and how to explore a country with strangers who would become close friends. I learned how to read a city with my feet, walking through streets so narrow that the sidewalks, where they existed, were no wider than a foot.
There are terrifying moments, like when you walk into your apartment to find the place burglarized. But there are also the magical ones, like discovering, at 3 a.m., a tiny flamenco bar filled with both neighborhood regulars and those passing through. Where the guitarist plays your favorite song and the man as large as a tuba suddenly begins to sing in a stunning and melancholic voice. Being asked to dance.
There’s a poem by Gail Mazur called “Why You Travel” that encapsulates why you should study abroad if you have the opportunity. The photographs of you traveling, wherever you are in the world, show you “having the time of your life, blistered and smiling. The acid of your fear could eat the world.”
That’s exactly it. To confront that fear. To face the newness and difference of everything and everyone. To feel yourself changing while still holding on to who you are.
As someone who’s introverted, I feel drained talking to people for a long time, and I knew my semester abroad would be a challenge. But I also knew my experience would be defined by my interactions with other people. If I didn’t push myself to say yes to every invitation, if I didn’t small-talk with the fruit vendors or the tapas bartenders, if I didn’t ask to share notes with the Spanish students in my university classes, I would miss out on important opportunities to immerse in the culture. Living in a foreign city is supposed to push you outside your comfort zone.
Everything about spending a semester abroad is a learning experience. I learned a lot about Seville by the way people talk: their accent, their intonations, the sheer speed with which they spoke. My host brother joked that Andalusian Spanish is the most advanced form of the language because it’s so economical. People eat their consonants. The phrase meaning “I talked or have talked” — “he hablado”— becomes “he hablao.” Combine that with their phonetic velocity, and it’s no understatement to say that if you can understand the Spanish spoken in the south of Spain, then you can understand Spanish spoken anywhere. More than improving my ability to speak Spanish, I improved my ability to understand the nuances of what people said.
Compared with places like the Middle East or Asia, Seville wasn’t too much of a culture shock. I was still in the Western world. The culture shocks I experienced came in the daily routines, the little details.
The food, for instance. All the fruits and vegetables are so fresh since the Spanish aren’t dependent on preservatives. Meals are heavy on meat, though, especially ham, their pride and joy. Lunch is the most important and biggest meal of the day, and people’s schedules seem engineered around it. We always waited for my host dad to come home from work, usually at 3:30 in the afternoon, and we wouldn’t eat again until about 10:30 p.m.
What I loved most about Spain’s gastronomy is how traditional and local each dish is. In Seville, people are proud of where they come from; they are born, live and die here. The food they eat reflects their municipal pride.
There is a phrase in Seville that “life is lived on the streets,” and there’s no better way to describe the city. Seville has a culture of extroversion; people are always going out with friends or grabbing a beer between classes or after work. If you walk around at midnight on the weekend, the people you’ll see at bars are parents, grandparents and young children. Anyone who is still at home is simply getting ready to go out — and to stay out until the sun rises. Yes, there’s a huge economic crisis: The youth unemployment rate, especially in Andalusia, exceeds 60 percent. Yet people are still going out. They would rather live with less than sacrifice going out with their friends and family.
This emphasis on going out also reflects the importance people place on relationships. Families are very close, and not just because multiple generations often live under the same roof. In the States, especially in a city like Washington, I feel as though I live in a work-centered culture where something as simple as getting coffee with a friend is a luxury of time I can’t afford. Not so in Spain. The de facto motto in Seville is “no pasa nada,” meaning it doesn’t matter, it’s fine, everything will work itself out.
The phrase also applies to the university system, where there is no homework, attendance is never recorded, and the typical student only really works in the last two weeks of the semester for his one and only grade in the final exam. Although it sometimes did feel as though no one my age ever worked hard, it was wonderful living in a culture where friends and family always come before work.
Everybody’s study abroad experience is intensely personal. In asking to go to Spain, I was asking to go away from my home, from everything I identified with. Yet, for me, being in Spain was one of the deepest ways I was able to understand myself. My mom and her family are from Buenos Aires but with ancestors from Spain. So, in many ways, living in Seville was a way to see what life I might have had if my mom’s ancestors had never left the village of Andoain 500 years ago. Much about my host family’s apartment, especially their kitchen, reminded me of my grandparents’ house.
When my family came to visit, we met in San Sebastian in the north of Spain. Thirty minutes outside this city is where my grandfather’s ancestors had left their comfortable house in the heart of the Basque country to move thousands of miles away to Argentina. Amazingly, the house that the Alurralde family had lived in was still standing up until the late 1990s. An athletic center has been built in its place, yet it still bears our family name.
When I think of Seville, yes, I think about the late schedules and the churros with chocolate; my host family and Spanish friends; and the major week-long holidays of Holy Week (Semana Santa); and the flamenco festival (La Feria).
But what I really remember are the marathon flamenco classes I took with my friends at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays; how we would celebrate afterward with our scoops of quemesabe at the best heladeria in the city.
I think of the silence of the tens and tens of thousands lining the streets during Semana Santa, waiting for the floats with la Virgen and for the rain of rose petals and serenades people would give her from the rooftops.
I think of the intensity of the futbol games, which you knew the entire city was watching by the perfectly synchronized cheers erupting from the apartments and streets around you.
This essay may read as my love letter to Seville, but what I really hope to convey is how important it is to live in a foreign city. What makes study abroad amazing is how much you learn about life in such a condensed period, away from everything familiar.
So to those of you debating whether to leave the comforts of the life you’ve built for yourself at your university, my unconditional answer is: Go.
Adrianna Smith is a student at Georgetown University and a native Washingtonian from Chevy Chase.
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Study Abroad Tips
For those of you preparing to study abroad, lessons I learned this past semester:
Get as smart as you can about the city you will be living in.
Do research, talk to students who’ve traveled there. Why did they choose that location; what should you see, bring, do; what do they wish they knew now?
Set goals for yourself.
Make your semester abroad purposeful. Hold yourself to these goals and remind yourself of them periodically.
Write things down.
From catchphrases, to favorite dishes, to daily emotions, to little moments. Writing is a great way to both reflect upon your experience while there and reminisce when you’re back home.
Stay with a host family.
This is really the only way to get a constant perspective of what daily life is like in another culture. Some students worry about losing their independence, but a lot of these families have hosted students for years and are used to respecting personal schedules.
Push yourself with the language.
Don’t let the fear of making mistakes or being embarrassed stop you from speaking. It’s the only way you’ll learn, and isn’t this why you went abroad in the first place?
Travel around your host country.
This might be your only opportunity to live in another country. Live in the culture of your host country. You’ll also discover surprising diversity among different cities and regions.