I have been in Spain for 36 hours and I have four words to sum up my thoughts so far: beautiful, compact, and culture shock.
I am studying in Alcalá de Henares which is a suburb of Madrid, the capital of Spain. The city is full of history, beautiful old buildings, cobblestone roads, and plenty of coffee shops.
Everything in Spain is very compact together. All of the buildings are side-by-side unless there is a street that runs between them, but even then the roads are not very wide. Most have cars parked on both sides of the road bumper to bumper. It amazes me how so much can fit into such a small area. During one of my orientation sessions this morning, they told us that there is a lot of stuff in Alcalá and Madrid and the surrounding areas, but not much outside of the Madrid area. We were given the analogy that the area is like a donut. Madrid and Alcalá are in the center (like the hole in the donut) and the rest is the rest of the donut and there’s not much there. Which I guess doesn’t make sense because you would think the ‘donut’ would be something of sustenance..but oh well.
In some aspects, I feel like everything here is different. From the coffee that they drink daily which is mostly just espresso or coffee and milk (also known as café con leche) vs. the brewed coffee we drink in America, the fact that they can take their dogs into the malls with them (my host dad, Antonio, took their/our dog to the mall with us when we went to pick up a couple of things I needed), to the sun not rising until about 8:30 am, the fact that they don’t eat lunch until 2 in the afternoon and dinner until 9 or 10 pm, to the besos (kisses) that are given when greeting somebody of importance to you, the fact that almost all stores and restaurants close around 2 pm and don’t open back up until 5 pm because it is a time called “siesta” which means to nap or take a break, to the front doors not having knobs that turn and the knobs they do have are located in the center of the door.. (yes I found this interesting, thanks to working at Pella Corp. building doors for 3 summers and the fact that I could not figure out how to get back into my host families house last night after adventuring to find some coffee while my host family continued with their daily lives..), to taking public transportation instead of driving myself to where I want to go, to the language difference.
I went to a coffee shop this afternoon and had a “café Philadelphia” which was espresso with a scoop of ice cream in it and whipped cream on top. It was amazing. After that, I decided to explore the city by myself for awhile. My university had taken us on a small guided tour this morning, but I wanted to explore more on my own. So I basically followed the route we went on this morning..Which, if you know me at all, is amazing considering how directionally challenged I am. It’s also amazing because I’m not a very independent person. I usually always have somebody with me whenever I go out in public. I simply do not feel comfortable going most places alone in this crazy world we live in. However, I do not really have any friends here yet, and one of my goals for my time here in Spain is to become more independent. I want to be able to do things on my own and not be afraid. Plus, if I am by myself, I don’t have to worry about the other person that I am with not wanting to do what I want to do. I can do whatever I want because it’s just me. At first I was a little nervous, but once I started walking around I started to feel more comfortable and began to really enjoy myself. Plus, anybody who knows me knows that I am almost always taking pictures. It was easier for me to go by myself and take the pictures I wanted without having to worry about anybody judging me for taking pictures of every little thing I found interesting or beautiful. Sometimes I take pictures of things just because of their design or graphics because I am a nerd. It’s just something I enjoy, but I find it easier to take pictures of those things when I don’t have somebody watching me and wondering what in the heck I am doing.
I also sort of figured out the bus system today which was a big step for me. I’m so used to driving myself to wherever I want to go, that having to wait for a certain bus to come pick me up and then having to figure out which stop I needed to get off on, was definitely a learning experience. This morning I knew I had to get off at the Plaza de Cervantes which is the plaza they took us to yesterday to meet our host families. My school is right next to it, so that part was easy. It was how to get back home that was the challenge. My host dad had told me that buses 1 and 7 would take me close to home. I decided to take bus 1, which was fine and did get me close to home..but it took me over an hour longer than I had anticipated because I was not exactly sure which stop I needed and when I looked at the map of the route at the bus stop, it appeared that the stop I was planning on getting off at no longer is a thing. So, I had to stay on the bus for a complete cycle until I could get back to the stop where I had recognized the coffee shop I had walked to last night. One-way trips on the bus cost about 1,30€, which isn’t much but without a bus pass (which I’m getting soon), it’d soon add up if I would have gotten off and taken another bus which who knows where that one would end up taking me. I knew that if I at least stayed on the bus that I was on, that eventually I would get back to where I needed to get off, so I did. Little did I know that it was going to take about an hour for that to happen, but I eventually made it home.
As far as the language change goes, let’s just say that I am very thankful that I took Spanish for 4 years in high school and for a semester in college. I do not know how some of my classmates here know no Spanish. Almost all of the host families hardly speak English and I cannot imagine what it is like to not be able to understand what they are saying or be able to communicate decently with them. Even though I can understand a decent amount of what is being said, most people here talk very fast (or what seems to me to be very fast). During one of my orientation sessions this morning, the staff member who was presenting about Spain was talking in Spanish, but he was talking slower than most, which helped immensely as it allowed me to easily translate what was being said. However, I am quickly learning to pay attention and listen carefully to what is being said. I also know that it’s okay for me to ask for whoever I am speaking to, to repeat what they said or to tell them that I don’t understand, and they are more than willing to try to rephrase or use what little English they know in order to help me understand, as long as they can tell that I am actively trying to speak Spanish and communicate with them effectively. My speaking is not very good yet, because it is hard for me to say what I want to say because of the different verb tenses and which words to use when, but I’m getting there slowly but surely. Even today I noticed that I was speaking to Antonio (my host dad) with more ease and a little quicker than I was yesterday. So that’s exciting. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to speak with little to no problems!
Here is a short little video (or as the kids these days like to call it, a “vlog”) of some of my adventure today!