by Sarah Masker ’13, Staff Writer
I could write about the shenanigans I’ve been getting into lately here in Ecuador, but that would be silly, because I haven’t even shared stories about my summer in Spain. Don’t go getting ahead of yourself, Sarah.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: Spain in July is hot. Hot, hot, hot. I studied at the Universidad de Alcalá in Alcalá de Henares for four weeks, and somehow I managed to survive without air conditioning. I wish I could say I also managed not to get sunburned, but everyone who knows me is also familiar with my evil twin, Sunburned Sarah, who likes to make frequent appearances throughout the summer months, and even occasionally in the winter. I write this with a red nose and the nickname Rudolph. So original.
When I tell people I spent a month in Spain, they get really excited and ask, “Where?” They expect me to say something like Madrid, Barcelona, or Granada…places they went on high school Spanish trips or vacations with Mom and Dad. Maybe the grandparents own a house there, or they visited once on that Europe tour that everyone but me seems to have experienced. The thing is, spending a week in Spain does not make them experts on the country; a lot of my American classmates suffered from this delusion. When I arrived in late June, a bunch of students had just finished up their first month of studies, and were ready for another round. One girl in particular considered herself quite the expert when it came to all things Spain. I received several lectures from her about Spanish laws that I had no intention of breaking, but of course she was just looking out for me. She definitely wasn’t trying to make me feel inferior.
Anyways, when people ask where I stayed and I answer “Alcalá de Henares,” the common response is a confused “Where?” These people, these wonderful geniuses who are so knowledgeable about El Reino de España that they could make bank as tour guides, have never heard of the town where Miguel de Cervantes was born and baptized. Miguel de who? Okay, people, take a literature class. Then brush up on those UNESCO World Heritage Sites. When you’re done with that, review some history, and ask yourself: where was Catherine of Aragon born? Oh yeah, Alcalá. I could just make the whole thing easier and say I was in Madrid – meaning the autonomous community of Madrid, where Alcalá is one of the largest cities – but that would just confuse those Spanish experts because they’d think I meant Madrid, la ciudad. What other kind of Madrid is there, you silly blond?
The next question people usually ask: “What did you do there?” Well, you see, I received one of five scholarships from Sigma Delta Pi, the National Collegiate Hispanic Honor Society, to study and learn, so those were kind of my main activities. If someone else wants to pay for my education, I’m going to make the most of it. I took two classes, and due to a schedule that was one part torture and one part brilliance, we managed to fit in a whole semester’s worth of information in just four weeks. I sat in a room with weird slanted desks for 2.5 hours, ran away to quickly down a weird, small coffee, and then returned to those weird slanted desks for another 2.5 hours of truly fascinating conversation. Four days a week. Always. The. Same. By the time the very last Monday arrived, I did something completely unprecedented, and slept through half of my first class. I don’t want to make excuses, but I did just return from a long weekend in Paris. “Professor, I’m a French minor. I had to go!” He wasn’t impressed.
Apart from the 80 hours I spent daydreaming/attempting to be intellectual in a classroom, I also spent a lot of time travelling. I arrived early to spend several days in Madrid, and after making some friends in my hostel, I went to the Santiago Bernebéu stadium to watch on the big screen as Spain took on Portugal in the Euro2012 semi-final. My Spanish swearword vocabulary was put to excellent use, and I almost got to watch my new Australian friend beat up a pothead who kept accidentally elbowing me. It was fantastic. When Spain beat Italy in the final, I was one of those maniacs running around town with Spanish flags painted on my cheeks. Hey, at least I wasn’t swimming in the fountains like some people.
I visited Chinchón, a small town that’s home to the world’s only square-shaped bull fighting ring. (No, I did not go to a bullfight while in Spain, even though I was there for the San Fermin Festival. Even if bullfights are part of the culture, I consider them inhumane, and don’t want anything to do with them). I went to Aranjuez to see the summer palace there, and that’s when I decided to start picking out a house for future Sarah. I still can’t decide between the palace in Aranjuez or Louis’ marvelous Versailles, which I visited while in Paris. I guess it depends on whether the Spanish or the French government is more willing to let me take up residence in an important historical building.
I went to Burgos, a town more to the North that also happens to be a stop on the Camino de Santiago. I saw El Cid’s tomb and a statue in his honor, and if you don’t know who he was, obviously you weren’t in my Special Topics class with Elena Deanda last fall. Your loss.
I spent two weekends in Andalucía touring Sevilla, Córdoba, and Granada. In Sevilla, I fell in love with the Plaza de España, and tried not to be too creeped out by the guy that tried to get me to follow him into the park “for a favor.” Even though I’ve never been to Morocco, I decided Córdoba had quite the Moroccan vibe. In Granada, I went to the Arab baths, and discovered that there is, in fact, heaven on earth. I also went out to a club that overlooks the Alhambra from its upper level, while the lower levels are caves. Yes, that’s right, caves; I went clubbing in a cave. Camborio was a blast; I highly recommend it. If you flirt with the guys right, they just might buy you drinks.
My last weekend was devoted to Paris. Paris is one of my favorite places in the world, as long as I choose to ignore the overpowering smell of urine. After a month of Spanish food (eggs, potatoes, lettuce with salt, white bread, unidentifiable meat), Paris was like a trip to Willy Wonka’s; my friend, Shannon, and I were eating six meals a day, and let me emphasize that we did not care. When we couldn’t decide between pasta or falafel, we had both. Pain au chocolat or an éclair? We had both. Wine and cheese or a real meal? You guessed it: we had both. I even tried cactus, and it was pretty good. The phrase of the trip quickly became “Why is life so good to us?”
In three days, I managed to do everything I wanted to while in Paris. I asked for directions without sounding stupid (at least I hope so), ate a baguette while wearing a beret, tried escargots and every other food my French classes ever taught me about, got sweared at by a rude waiter, and climbed the steps to Sacre Cœur without fainting. Paris truly is enchanting. Shannon and I listened to Edith Piaf while strolling along the Seine at dusk, and we even ran into other students from the university. Small world, right? The only things missing were singing gargoyles at Notre Dame and, of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. This English major really would have liked to meet them, dang it. Hollywood, way to disappoint me.
I learned a lot while travelling around Spain. I met two guys from Senegal while waiting for the bus to Sevilla, and I figured out really fast that switching back and forth between Spanish and French really isn’t my strong point. I’m pretty sure I made up my own language at one point there…let’s just call it Spench. I learned that calamari isn’t all that bad (ohh, but octopus is) and sangria comes in juice boxes, straw and all. I learned that Americans really are hopeless when it comes to history; every time my professor would ask who was president when this or that significant Spanish event occurred, we would go through maybe ten names before landing on the right one. Well, the rest of the class did. Not me, I’m brilliant.
As educational as my classes were (I am now an expert on Spanish art, which made visiting the Louvre ten times more exciting), the real lessons came from travelling around and having to navigate a foreign country on my own. Studying abroad isn’t like class; if I don’t know a word, I can’t just ask my English-speaking professor “Cómo se dice…?” and instantly expand my vocabulary. I can’t settle into old habits, like driving anywhere I want to go, and I can’t expect the grocery store to have all the foods I want. Living with a host family—and a grouchy cat—was completely new to me, but I came to Ecuador prepared. I like to think of my month in Spain as a warm up for this semester. I’ve already been in Quito for a month, and so far it’s been “pan comido” (a piece of cake), thanks to the wonderful opportunity that was my adventure in Spain.