This past summer, I studied abroad in Barcelona and completed my minor in Spanish. I lived with a host family that did not speak English, and I took two courses, Contemporary Images of Spain in Cinema and The Silver Age: Intellectuals and Artists in the Interwar Spanish Vanguard, at Universitat Pompeu Fabra on the coast of the Mediterranean. My classes began at 3PM and ended at 7:30PM Monday through Thursday, and were taught entirely in Spanish. My class size for both courses was under 10 students, and the demographic consisted entirely of international students from around the United States with ONE local student from Spain. For me, the class size was intimidating rather than comforting; there was only the professor and one student from the university to lean on and try to perfect my fluency with! Moreover, many of my international classmates spoke in broken Spanish or ‘Spanglish,’ with no added effort to speak with an accent in the classroom. While I did not struggle with understanding nor communicating with my professors in an academic setting, I found myself sincerely uncomfortable in any other location: restaurants, shopping centers, on the street, at concerts, walking back home, and the like. Even though I spent years studying the Spanish language and reading books, watching television shows to prepare myself for the culture of Spain and Barcelona, nothing would prepare me for actually living, breathing, eating, sleeping, and surviving in Barcelona every single minute of every single day for 45 days.
I quickly found that tasks as simple as ordering a cup of coffee or going to the grocery store were very different from what I was accustomed to; initially I wanted to run back to my house on Avenida Diagonal with my sweet host mom, Olga, and her family and never leave. My home was not something I felt at ease with, but it was the least uncomfortable place in Barcelona. Because everything was foreign and new and different, nothing made me feel better. Nothing made me comfortable. For the first two weeks of my education abroad experience, I spent my days struggling to use public transportation, sweating in the classrooms without air conditioning and a heat index of 97 degrees, starving until dinner time at home at 10PM because I did not know how to feed myself or find someplace to purchase midday snacks, and trying to find the good in everything that lowered my spirits.
Then one day, like someone had flipped the switch for me, I was okay again. I woke up one morning and I walked down to Café Buho and ordered ‘un café con leche para llegar, porfa,’ and I found bakery on the street where I stopped and asked for ‘un pastel de xocolat,’ and I sat down at the park under a tree and finally felt at peace. I recognized, at that moment, that it did not matter if I was from another country. It did not matter that I was not fluent in Spanish. No one cared if it took me a few extra seconds to count Euros to pay in exact change. What mattered was that I was in Barcelona and that I was trying my hardest to learn the culture and to speak the language and that every single person around me minded their own business. I spent one-third of my trip worrying what locals were going to think of me, when the reality was that no one was thinking of me at all. If anything, I was ‘la peliroja que quería un café con leche,’ and once I left no one would remember my face, and that was something I was absolutely okay with.
Once I made this realization and accepted my new life in Spain, my spirits soared and I began to find my place in the city. I integrated into the culture by attending events and celebrations such as ‘El Día de San Joan;’ I visited neighborhoods like El Raval and Eixample; I stayed out late and watched the sunset at the beach; I explored other countries on the weekends and I discovered myself more and more through these adventures. While I had a roommate in my house from OSU, we spent most of our free time doing our own thing: we went our separate ways in the morning but met up for class and to walk back for dinner, and then made our own plans for weekend excursions—with little overlap. This high level of independence presented me with the opportunity to explore Barcelona entirely on my own, and then share my experience with my roommate when we met up again. As a result, I found that I am very flexible and open-minded to learning and seeing new things; I am accepting and patient of new cultural customs rather than annoyed or ignorant to my surroundings. I am not afraid to make a mistake or ask a question or get a little embarrassed in order to learn a new skill. I am humble and I am gracious and I am interested in trying new things.
Specific examples during my education abroad experience that shaped my personal growth and development include my experience in any café in Barcelona ordering coffee. It took me many tries to learn that getting a coffee ‘para llevar’ (to go) means that the baristas will give you your beverage faster than if you order something ‘para tomar’ (to stay, to dine in). I struggled with learning how to pay for meals when the waiters and waitresses did not return to the table to ask how I was doing or if I was ready for the check. As a result, I became a more assertive individual and also began asking locals for advice or tips about the cultural norms of Barcelona.
A second example includes adapting to the constant strikes and protests from the public transportation systems. Throughout my stay, the metros went on strike every Monday from 7AM to 11AM and 6PM to 9PM—conveniently the two intervals that presented the most traffic in the underground transportation system and the two intervals I used the metro to get around Barcelona. Trying to maintain high spirits, I learned how to walk from my house to the university and found the commute to be comforting—despite the heat and the humidity and the hills. I used this experience to shape me as a much more flexible, patient person; and very grateful for air-conditioning.
A third and final example that supports my personal growth during my education abroad experience includes dinnertime and conversations with my host mom and her family every night. Olga fed a total of seven mouths nearly every evening, and we sat around her little table in the dining room rubbing elbows and sharing what we did that day. Here, I asked many questions about Spanish culture and proper etiquette—such as how to walk past someone without cutting them off on the sidewalk, where the best grocery store was to find snacks for class, why it was not customary to eat during lecture, why many professors did not dismiss class at its scheduled time but rather much later, and the like. Olga enjoyed my curiosity and shared her world with me, teaching me Spanish customs and culture through my countless inquiries and in between bites of food.
Moving forward to discuss the significance of my STEP Signature Project, I chose to complete my minor abroad because I wanted to test myself and discover if I would be able to truly live in another country. I wanted to see if I could adapt to another culture, speak another language, and thrive halfway across the world with minimal feelings of homesickness. Following my education abroad experience, I can confidently say that I can live in another country. I can integrate myself into Barcelona’s culture and I can adapt to new customs with an open mind and an adventurous heart.
For the time being, I will complete my degree at OSU and then attend professional school—but where in the world I will go to professional school remains a mystery. I am very interested in going abroad to complete my education, and I am open to the idea of living abroad for an extended period of time. My STEP Signature Project offered me the opportunity to experience life in another country and to test the possibility of moving abroad indefinitely; for that, I am grateful. Thank you STEP, for your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I will cherish my summer in Barcelona for the rest of my life and will reflect on my personal transformation for years to come.