They say to write about what you know. Unfortunately, for the next three and a half months, this will be almost impossible. I’m more than 3,000 miles from familiar faces, familiar customs, and a familiar language. I’ll be lucky if these few months will even help me scratch the surface of all there is to know about the majestic place where I currently reside: Madrid, Spain. Yes, I am reporting to you live from across the Atlantic, where I’ll be doing a whole lot of self-discovery (so they say) and a whole lot of whining about how my budget for this trip is actually almost $700 less than I thought it was because of currency conversions.
I truly feel like a child again. I’m relearning some of the most basic social customs that, back home, were completely second nature. I find myself having to ask things like, “What time is dinner?” “Do I eat this meal with a fork?” “How do I greet someone?” “Do I pass on the right?” I’m still learning the basics, but so far I’ve obtained some very useful knowledge during my first week and a half here in Espana. I learned that fewer people than I thought actually speak English, that I have to specifically ask for lined notebook paper (graphing paper is more common), and that patterned ankle-biters are fashionable. I learned that men dress way better here (sorry BC boys!) and that I stick out like a huge sore American thumb: fast-talking, zealous, and with a heavy enunciation of my r’s.
The more people I meet here at my university, the more fascinated I am by the seemingly endless differences between the cultures. If America is a melting pot, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid is a double rainbow with colors both inside and outside of the visible light spectrum. In the first week alone, I’ve met and actually befriended students from all over the world. I’ve learned Korean songs and how to say “How are you?” in Dutch. I met a German girl who has never been to Oktoberfest. I definitely find myself drawn to these more personal interactions where I am able to let my inquisitive nature flow. I have no problem asking international people random questions about their daily lives and about what is typical for their country. In fact, I thrive on it, and it excites me more than any museum or art exhibit ever would.
As important as I think it is to spend some time abroad visiting famous galleries and landmarks, I would much rather spend my time changing my definition of normal. I’m less interested in visiting random attractions than I am in learning about what Spaniards typically eat for breakfast or what they would wear out to a club on a Friday (or, as I’ve learned, Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday) night. I’m trying as hard as possible to shed the “tourist” vibe that I might be giving off. I want to become fluent in Spanish, enjoy Spanish food, live a Spanish life. I personally don’t think I need to visit a million museums to make this happen. It took me 19 years to visit the Museum of Modern Art back home, and that fact certainly does not make me any less American than the next person. What makes me American is my ambition, my values, and my routines-not that I’ve been to a museum in New York. Of course, it’s true that a country’s fundamental values must come from somewhere. I’m sure history and art play a huge role in shaping the functionality of a nation. However, my personal interest will always be in the now, in what is relevant today. It is this interest that drove me to actually live in Spain and immerse myself in the culture as opposed to simply read a Spanish art history textbook.
At the end of the day, I’m going to explore as much as I can about this place, even if it means having to wear a headset and listen to a tour guide while doing a walking tour of local streets. I won’t love it, but I know it is part of the study abroad experience. But give me a group of foreign kids, a few rounds of 1.50 euro tinto de verano at a local bar, and some open minds, and I’ll be one happy American.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.