I’ve now been in Spain for six weeks (how did that happen??), and I’m constantly going back and forth between feeling really comfortable in Salamanca and feeling just as American as I did when I arrived. These have been the biggest adjustments:
1. Walking everywhere. Unless I’m headed to class, a friend’s apartment or a restaurant near South Carolina’s campus, I really can’t walk to anywhere I need to go back in the U.S., and neither can most people I know. Here, everyone walks – to the grocery store, to work, to drop their kids off at school or simply to get out of the house for a little bit. This is one culture change I’ve adopted with enthusiasm. I have more free time here than I do at school in the U.S., so if it takes me 30 or 45 minutes to walk somewhere, it’s not a huge deal. After my classes are done for the day, I usually have an hour or two before I need to head home for lunch, so I usually take the opportunity to meander around Salamanca, exploring the side streets and scouting out new cafes. It’s helped me really get to know the city after only a few weeks, and it makes me feel a little better about eating all the bread my host mom feeds me. It’s a win/win situation.
2. The daily schedule. Have you ever heard of “Spain Time?” It’s real. Spaniards thrive on it. Breakfast is small and served whenever you get up, and lunch is LATE – my host family starts eating between 2:45 and 3 p.m. The afternoon lasts until 9 or 10 p.m., when you sit down for dinner. If you’re looking for good nightlife, there’s no point in heading out before one or two in the morning at the earliest, and if you really want to live like the Spaniards, stay out until 5:30 or 6 a.m. And don’t worry if you’re running a few minutes late for class, because the professor probably is, too.
3. Clothes. This change might have been bigger for me than for others because most of the students at South Carolina dress very casually to go to class, and because my hometown of Chattanooga is full of outdoors enthusiasts and hippies (in the best possible way!). In contrast, Salamantinos (natives of Salamanca) look, well, spiffy. All the time. For the first time ever, I’ve actually had to put thought into what I’m going to wear to class. Most of the older women here wear long fur coats if it’s below 50 degrees outside, and some wear fairly high heels, which seems very counter-intuitive considering all of the walking they do on cobblestone surfaces. I almost never see people wearing t-shirts in public, and I’ve got a sinking feeling that running shorts are going to be a no-go once the weather gets warmer – unless I’m actually going for a run.
4. The shock of seeing ancient buildings casually tucked away between more modern ones. This is still jarring, and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. For example, there’s a Catholic church called Sancti Spiritus less than a block from my apartment that I pass every day on my way to Plaza Mayor and my classes. I wondered what its story was, so I looked it up online.
Construction began in the 1200s.
It’s mindboggling that I live so close to an 800-year-old building, but it’s even more mindboggling that the people here don’t give it a second glance; Europeans are used to being surrounded by ancient history like this, and we Americans simply aren’t.
5. Being surrounded by Spanish. You might be thinking I’m an idiot right about now. I chose to study in a Spanish-speaking country, didn’t I? I really should have seen this coming. And I did – but there is a staggering difference between taking Spanish classes three times a week in the U.S. and having to translate every single aspect of your life to another language once you get over here.
The news, movies, billboards and TV shows are in Spanish. The instructions on your bottle of medicine are in Spanish. The economics class you’re taking, which wouldn’t have been your strong point in English, is in Spanish. The bus schedule you’re trying to read is in Spanish, and the man helping you find your way across town is giving you directions in Spanish. The fourth graders in the English class you’re volunteering with are speaking Spanish, and it makes them sound a whole lot smarter than you.
It was very disorienting at first, believe me. But the longer I’m here, the more comfortable I am, and the more grateful I am for this incredible opportunity to experience something completely new.