This summer I was in Barcelona, Spain for six weeks taking two Spanish themed courses at a local University. I attended Universitat Pompeu Fabra and there I took courses about Images in Spain (a Spanish film class) and the Vanguards in the Silver Age of Spain. However, my experience was not only about the classes. I had the opportunity to reside in a homestay with a local Spanish woman and her daughter. I ate with them, spent time with them, and asked questions. This aspect of my study abroad was probably the most impactful because I had a direct connection to Spanish culture. I also was able to go on multiple weekend trips of other parts of Spain as well as other countries such as France and Italy.
During my time abroad in Barcelona, I experienced several different types of transformations. The first change in myself that I noticed was a higher degree of independence. This was the first time in my life I was truly alone for such an extended period of time. I did not have my family only 2 hours away as I usually do, I did not previously know any of the students in the program, and I was in a completely different time zone that restricted my contact with friends back home. This forced me to leave a comfort zone that I have spent years building. At first, it definitely made me uneasy and a bit anxious but once I got accustomed to more independence I was able to successfully transition into life in a big city.
I also noticed a transformation in my interaction with people from different cultures. Coming from the midwest, I noticed that the stereotypes of midwestern people being generally warm is for the most part true, at least from my experience. It was a transition getting used to people who did not smile at you in the streets or say hi when you passed them. Everybody avoided eye contact, and it was deemed disrespectful which I had never experienced before. I am the type of person who likes to greet people with a smile, a nod or a simple hello, but I found that I had to morph my typical daily behaviors here in the United States to better match the culture I was living in. Neither one was better or worse, it was simply something that took getting accustomed to.
Most of all, my transformation occurred in the form of my language development. Prior to coming to Barcelona, I already spoke a great deal of Spanish. I grew up listening my parents speak but given that I was raised in English speaking schools, I was never in an environment where I could practice my Spanish skills in a natural setting. Barcelona gave me the opportunity to speak in Spanish literally 24/7. The most simple settings, like buying my metro card or getting lunch at school, allowed me use Spanish in ways I would never get the chance to here in the United States. I was able to see a huge development in my Spanish during my time abroad and although I know there is no replicating Barcelona and its culture, I hope that I can continue to develop my language skills here at home for the next time I travel abroad.
Some of the key events that took place during my study abroad experience were weekend excursions that allowed me to discover areas around Barcelona and take advantage of the proximity of Europe. I had the opportunity to travel to three countries, Spain, Italy, and France, and discover numerous cities in each. I did the most travel in Spain, where I got to discover the south of Spain, an area called Andalusia, the northern coast called Costa Brava and prominent areas in the countryside where much of their agriculture takes place. This traveling within Spain allowed me to get a taste of Spanish culture from all over the country, not just the northern big city of Barcelona.
Traveling around a country that only spoke Spanish was incredible because I got to experience people with different accents, dialects, and traditions. I learned that in Andalusia the people speak drastically different from those in Barcelona. The culture in the south of Spain had tons of influence from the Moorish kings of the past, a prime example would be the Mosque of Cordoba. This mosque is a beautiful landmark with influential architecture that was unbelievable impressive for the time period, however when the Spanish kings (Ferdinand and Isabella) conquered the Moors they converted it into a church. Instead of tearing down the existing mosque, they were able to appreciate the architectural beauty and decided to keep the now world renowned arches and detailing in tact. Getting to see such a drastic difference from the North and South of Spain was a huge step in my cultural understanding of the country and the development of my Spanish language.
My level of independence was tested with my travels to France and Italy, while my grasp of the Spanish language is advanced, my French and Italian were not so developed. It was a trying experience to navigate a country where I spoke barely any of the language. I had to figure out how to use the public transportation system, how to order food, where to lodge, etc. My American identity felt much for present in these countries because I had to hope that someone either spoke English or Spanish, otherwise it could take me twice as long to complete a simple task, like asking for directions. But luckily, the people were understanding and wanted to share their culture with a foreigner, so I found it to be a positive experience even though I happened to be very lost in the language.
My language and independence development will be crucial to my future plans and professional goals because I want to one day work internationally and to do so I need strong language skills and the ability to leave home and function independently in a country where I may know no one. My Spanish level has developed from a very structured environment, like a classroom, to a most natural setting where it can be used conversationally, professionally, or very casually (with slang and dialectal differences). Having Spanish as a language asset will be so important in the future because it is the fastest growing language in the United States and almost all Latin American countries speak Spanish, with the exception of Brazil. It is my goal to work for and hopefully eventually run a nonprofit agency in a Spanish speaking country to provide adequate shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, etc. I have no doubt that the language skills I developed in Barcelona this summer will help me greatly in my future endeavors. The independence that I gained will also be crucial in my future development because I now I know how to navigate new and unfamiliar places with a sense of confidence and ability.