After months and months of saying, “Is this Spain trip real?” I am finally discovering that it is indeed real. It’s been a week since I left for Sevilla, and what a ride it has been so far.
The journey from St. Louis to Sevilla took a relatively easy 15 hours. Maybe I’ll be over it eventually, but I was so excited for my first international trip that not even tight propeller planes, too short and too long of layovers, and airplane food could spoil the great time I was having. One thing that did bring me down from the clouds a bit was my lost luggage, but it finally arrived Monday afternoon, and after that I was much less stressed out (and super excited for some wardrobe variety).
Most of the weekend I spent with the TCU group doing orientation. We all stayed at the Hotel Zenit Friday and Saturday night and spent time there talking about cultural differences, what to expect at the university, etc. Mary Alice, an American who has lived in Sevilla for the past 10 years and works with TCU, led the group. She helped us feel right at home from the moment we arrived and will be guiding us throughout the semester. This woman is a God-send. She helped us get Spanish cell phones, showed us key places like the metro station where we’ll meet next week for school, and took us to several delicious restaurants for our first taste of some Spanish especialidades.
Because my New Year’s resolution is ‘say yes,’ I said yes to trying everything we ate. Well…almost everything.
Some of the key Spanish dishes I’ve tried (I know I took a couple photos but I can’t find them at the moment):
- Té con leche: Tea brewed in milk instead of water. AMAZING.
- Café con leche: For me this meant a tiny bit of coffee and a lot of milk. I preferred the tea, but the coffee wasn’t too bad.
- Spinach salad with dried tuna: Salad, good. Tuna, not so much. Imagine tough fruit roll-up but with a fish flavor.
- Mixed salad, which traditionally includes lettuce, tomatoes, olives, corn, hard boiled eggs, and tuna: Again, all good except the tuna. And I’m not much of an olive fan either. In Spain the traditional way to dress the salad is a little salt and pepper, vinegar, and olive oil, which is really good.
- Vegetable paella: Yummmmmm. Still getting used to everything being cooked in olive oil, however. It’s a big deal here.
- Strawberry ice cream with some sort of sweet cream and a warm plantain: It’s cold. It’s hot. It’s delicious. (I mean, this is me and dessert we’re talking about, it’s pretty hard to go wrong.)
- Various tapas: The best? Pisto, almost a salsa-like texture containing tomatoes, eggplant, peas, and other vegetables. The worst? Tie between fried calamari and fried dog shark. After that I passed on trying the tuna tapa. For someone who hates seafood, I figured I had tried more than enough for one weekend. But hey, I tried, so that counts for something, right?
- A couple things in my host home that I cannot remember the names of at the moment. But I enjoyed a squash soup, a stew of lentils and vegetables, and tortilla española, which looks like a cake made of potatoes.
On Sunday, we flew from our hotel nest and headed to our host homes. I’m living with three other TCU students in Los Remedios, one of the barrios of Sevilla. One big difference between Europe and the US is that apartments are much more common here than houses (typically owned, not rented). Ours is actually bigger than I expected, simple but with plenty of space. Two of us share a room; mine and Alayna’s has a huge window looking over the balcony towards the street. Neat view, less neat when you’re trying to fall asleep (it reminded me of a tame downtown Chicago at night).
Our host family includes una madre, Puri, and una hermana (sister), Selène, both of whom are very nice and incredibly, incredibly patient with our broken Spanish. I had no real concept of just how difficult it is for our international students back home. Now that I’m the international student, I understand their struggle. Living immersed in another language in a city where most people cannot communicate with you in English as a backup plan is terrifying. It’s frustrating to have something to say and no idea how to say it. It’s awkward when you want to make conversation with strangers who are suddenly your family for the semester, but shyness, fear, language barriers, or a little bit of each prevents you. And the only thing you can do about it is keep speaking, no matter how broken your foreign language is. Already I have noticed that I’m more comfortable speaking Spanish than I was at the beginning of the week, now that I have done an intercambio event (Spanish students spoke English and we spoke Spanish so we both could practice), taken language intensives at the Giralda Center, spoken in my home and at businesses, and have tried to speak with my classmates in Spanish. It’s still exhausting, and there are moments when I crash and crave English media. But poco a poco, little by little, I am confident that I can internalize my Spanish and one day consider myself fluent.
I have begun to explore Sevilla and discover the sights and treasures of the city, but I’ll save that for a separate post. From now on I’ll work on more frequent but shorter and more focused posts. For now, here are the major differences between my home in the U.S. and Spain that struck me the first week:
- You have to put your key card in a slot to turn on the electricity in hotel rooms. Just a helpful hint in case you don’t want to use your phone flashlight to take a shower because you haven’t figured out how to turn the lights on. That happened. Here they are more careful with resources, which means turning off all but absolutely necessary lights, short showers (apparently my definition of short, about 20 minutes, is about four times too long), and rarely-found central heating/AC (we have space heaters in the rooms though). I think this mindset is partially due to costs and partially due to environmental concerns.
- So many people smoke. The scary thing is that Mary Alice told us that it’s so much better here than it used to be. Fortunately no one in my home smokes, because that is one thing I really can’t stand. It’s weird to me that the Mediterranean diet is supposed to be so healthy, yet it seems like smoking would make those health benefits irrelevant. And despite the concern for the environment, people just toss cigarettes onto the streets. Every culture has its inconsistencies.
- This whole schedule thing that is throwing off my biological clock like crazy. Small breakfast around 8 AM, lunch (the larger meal) at 2 PM, siesta until you wake up (though it’s supposed to be 30-45 minutes), dinner (the smaller meal) at 9 PM. Just a difference I’m still getting used to. Also, the sun has been rising at 8:30 AM, though Mary Alice said it would start rising earlier, so that’s good. I need the sun to be awake when I am. Not everyone takes a siesta—my host mom never has—but it is nonetheless respected. My friend and I went out exploring around 4 PM and many businesses were closed; the streets were eerily quiet. Businesses generally open in the morning until 1-2 PM, then re-open around 4:30-5 PM for a few hours. That made me realize how much I take for granted being able to go to the grocery store or Target at nearly any given time. But I wonder how much more productive American workers would be if they had a little time to rest so they wouldn’t get burnt out.
- People are much more social here than in the US. As my host mom was explaining to us at lunch today, the people here like to be in las calles. She actually said people get depressed if the summer heat shuts them up at home, because going out in the streets cheers them (basically the exact opposite of my personality). I see tons of couples, families, and friends as they dar un paseo around the plazas. Cafés and tapas bars abound. Generally people gather in the town rather than in each other’s homes, and this is much easier since most people live in city apartments and not spread out houses. For an introvert from the suburbs, that is definitely an adjustment. But as a traveler, I like being able to really see people interact as I’m exploring the city.
- Affection is displayed quite differently. In the US, friends hug and it’s pretty casual. In Spain, hugging is much more forward and generally for couples, while two kisses on the cheek (right then left) is a natural greeting between friends. When meeting for the first time, a handshake would be considered cold, and the custom is to kiss as with friends. It’s definitely a little awkward at first because my natural instinct is to shake hands. But hellooooo, Spanish guys, I’m not complaining 😉
This first week has been crazy. Culture and language shock is difficult, but it’s also a good life lesson. Neither my native American culture nor this new Spanish culture is better than the other. They’re simply different. And I can’t wait to see what else I continue to learn every day.
But seriously, y’all, peanut butter?! Why is this not a thing here?