I, Paloma

I have two weeks left in this small city by the sea and I have reached a decision. I will eat as much tortilla as medically allowable before my feet land on American soil. It is not that I particularly love the stuff; I have simply dawned my rose colored glasses for these last few weeks and developed a fierce passion for everything Spanish. Bring me your bulls and tapas, Spain. I am here to be cultured. ¡Venga!

Before I enter into the food coma that awaits me, I suppose I should say a few insightful things about my time abroad. Or, more appropriately, that time I got really good at charades and aggressive smiling. First the obvious: I got to spend a year abroad with no other obligation than to learn a new language and culture. I was lucky enough to go abroad without really sacrificing anything in my old life; I can reasonably hope to slip back into my old routine without many long term consequences. I did miss a year of opportunities on campus and I’m sure there are hundreds of inside jokes with my friends I will struggle to understand next year, but through my current tinted glasses, all of that seems like Future Paroma problems. Or, since I am still in Spain, Future Paloma problems.

For those of you who haven’t heard me introduce myself to a Spaniard, Paloma is my Spanish name and my Spanish identity. It came about through the confusing similarities in the spellings of the two names and my tendency to stumble over Spanish (including saying my name) when meeting new people. Paloma means pigeon or dove, depending on who you ask, but if you ask me, it means a girl who chose to not correct people when they called her a wrong name because she simply did not have the language skills to do so. What first started out, however, as a frustrating embarrassment quickly turned into a comfort blanket for me. Obviously, I have an odd name in both American and Spanish cultures, but when someone mistook my name for Paloma it was almost as if a cultural gap between Spain and me shortened. After all, my odd name could be normalized for Spanish culture with the alteration of one letter. How different could our cultures really be when my name could flow so easily between the two? Paloma allowed me to become someone different here, someone who could speak Spanish and sew herself into the fabric of life here without too many noticeable seams. Paroma, on the other hand, felt faded and outdated, an ugly patch drawing too much attention to itself.

Besides a new name, I am bringing home many souvenirs (my favorites being a cuckoo clock from Bavaria, Germany, and a postcard of a Matador’s butt from Seville, Spain), some incredible pictures of my travels, and a whole new group of friends. The thing I am most excited to bring home, however, is my new respect for international students at Cornell. When I was an RA my sophomore year, I tried my best to engage my international residents and to welcome them to campus, but I always felt that I could not connect to their experiences as well as I could to students with similar backgrounds to me. But now I have spent a year full of culture shock, homesickness, and general confusion over ordering food and grocery shopping. I think I have caught a glimpse into the lives of my international residents and plan to use that to coordinate better programs for them this coming fall. I remember standing in my first grocery store here wondering what all these labels meant and why people were wearing gloves to pick out vegetables. On a particularly stressful homesick night, I nearly broke down crying in the tea aisle when I couldn’t find black tea (my normal choice for breakfast, but not a good enough reason to start sobbing). I know that many moments like this await my international residents, but at the very least, I can plan a trip to the Ithaca Wegmans to show them all the wonderful international food ingredients they have there. It will not be home for them, but maybe it will bring them some comfort.

Soon, I will be home, buried under my familiar old comforter as the air conditioning fends off the Atlanta summer. Santander and its crashing waves will be an ocean away. I can already feel myself forgetting things about this city I learned by heart, like the fastest route to my favorite bakeries and exactly how much a coffee costs at the school’s cafeteria. I refuse to believe that I will forget everything, though. I spent a year here; I collected twelve months’ worth of experiences here and that cannot leave me so quickly. Next year, in those weeks that I have three prelims and a lab report due and everything feels like a giant tidal wave whipping me off of my feet, I will focus instead on those times I watched the light house at the entrance of the Bay of Santander embattled by a storm surge of six meter waves, but still standing the next day. I will focus on the times I travelled alone to foreign countries and absolutely nothing negative happened. I will focus on the fact that this year has shown me that I am a resilient, adventurous human being. I will focus on the fact that I, Paloma, have faced my fears and have renamed them as experiences.

Adiós, España. Gracias por todo.

The Grandma Rule

I am going to admit something to you that I don’t really like to say out loud in Spain: I’m a vegetarian. Somewhere in the distance I hear my host mom tittering a noise of disapproval and a hundred Spanish butchers throwing their hands up at my use of that dirty word. In a country of jamón iberico and chorizo, I sit in my apartment eating tofu stir-fry and crispy falafel. I have lived seven months in one of the top food cultures in the world and have somehow missed the obsession with all things Spanish and meaty.

On a recent trip with my program, all the engineering students were treated to lunch by a local construction firm. Free food and college students is always a good combination, but when the paella de marisco was set down in front of me for the first course, my stomach did a somersault from all the beady black eyes of the shrimp staring at me from the the dish. The students around me dug in; happy slurping noises filled the room and a small pile of unwanted shellfish bits appeared next to each plate. I sat there moving my rice into small mountains to make it look like I was eating. My clever ploy failed, however, as my Spanish friends took notice and asked why I was not joining them in devouring the feast. Some commented on my paella’s lack of shrimp and offered some from their plates. They all looked on with hope that I may enjoy their cuisine as much as they did.

I was flattered and completely embarrassed, but I just could not stomach that much seafood. The meal was hard for me because I could feel the disappointment of my Spanish friends; not eating the paella with gusto felt akin to insulting the entirety of Spanish culture. I wanted to shout at them this is was not the kind of traveler I was. I wanted to tell them that I liked trying new things! I liked new cultures and new food! I loved Spain! But these words got stuck in my throat as the thought hit me that maybe I was a hypocrite.

It hit me that maybe in my insistence on being vegetarian, I was insisting on being a bad traveler.

I try to follow Anthony Bourdain’s “Grandma Rule” where if a grandma, any grandma, invites you to her table and offers you something she cooked with her arthritic hands, you better eat whatever she puts in front of you. You also better ask for seconds. Despite the name, this rule applies to any person or family that invites you to their home to share a meal with them. You are a guest and should enjoy the experience the family is trying to give you to the best of your ability, barring allergies.

But what happens if what they are trying to feed you is something you just can not swallow? Honestly, I am still trying to figure that out. To eat at someone’s table is to almost agree to let the chef take you on a yet unknown culinary journey. This is the idea behind tasting menus at fine dining restaurants. You would never go to Noma and tell Daniel Giusti, “Hmm, maybe just some steamed broccoli for me tonight.” They would throw you and your broccoli out of the restaurant.

And they might throw me out of Spain if I continue to live my vegetarian lifestyle (maybe). In all seriousness, I am trying to be more open when dining out with friends here. As much as my gag reflex will allow, I am venturing into the fleshy side of Spanish food (I have actually developed an apprehensive fondness for morcilla, don’t tell the other vegetarians). Maybe someday I will return to paella de marisco and enjoy it as much as my friends do, but until then, I will continue to hoard tofu in my refrigerator.

Heimweh and Field Trips

2015 was just beginning, but I wanted to talk about endings. In February, I mistakenly wrote 2014 on at least four homework assignments and attended three goodbye dinners. I said “see you later” in three languages with the knowledge that they might be empty words no matter the way communicated. Six months into this experience and I was saying goodbye to most of the people who helped shape it.

If I sound a bit down, it is because I was. They warned us about this part of studying abroad before we left, the part where you look back at your decision to leave your life for a year and wonder what exactly you were thinking. They showed us a chart of how we would feel; they armed us with the knowledge that the honeymoon period would end at some point and that we should not let ourselves fall into a rut. I heeded their advice and tried to do things that put the glamour back in studying abroad, like planning our next big trip or wandering into an unknown part of Santander. Still, I sometimes found myself on Facebook looking at pictures of my friends at school, wondering about everything that I was missing.

It did not help that as my friends from first semester here all returned home, I felt my sense of community slowly slipping away.

But then we took a field trip.

My environmental engineering class hopped in a van one sunny afternoon and headed to Cantabria’s main waste processing plant (or simply, a sorted landfill). We took a tour of the plant where they take all the mixed waste coming into this region and sort it into recyclables, compostables, and items easily burnt for energy. What can not be sorted into these categories is sent to the neighboring landfill. Ok, so this may not sound like a super exciting field trip for most, and honestly taking some who feels down in the dumps to an actual dump might not be the next big thing in mental health, but it had an odd, uplifting effect on me. As I listened to one of the operators describe the constant struggle with gulls, the whale cemetery within the landfill (yes, whale cemetery), and the super high tech waste to energy plant (where we set trash on fire to produce heat and then steam to turn turbines), all in Spanish, I could feel a smile spreading across my face.

While staring at eight week old compost steaming from its own internal reactions, it occurred to me that I had lost sight of why I came to Spain in the first place.

I came to meet people, of course, but I really came here to see engineering in a new context. I came to see how engineers taught in a different school of thinking pondered human/ environment interactions. I wanted to see a society solving a problem outside of my textbook and I wanted to do it in a foreign language. These were and are my goals, so why did I feel like I made the wrong decision in studying abroad? Yes, I am missing a year of campus life where new buildings have sprung up, lots of new friendships have formed, and interesting classes have been missed, but I am lucky enough to be at one of the best civil engineering schools in Europe slowly, but surely, on my way to speaking Spanish. I am working on my goals and that is something to be proud of.

As far as feeling like I am loosing my community, there are 200 new Erasmus students in Santander eager to meet someone who knows what bar has the best pinchos. Yesterday, I signed up and went on an Erasmus excursion to a local brewery that gave me the opportunity to meet some of these new students. It felt a bit like deja vu of August with the common questions of “Where are you from,” and “What are you studying,”, but it felt good to be making international friends again.

I still miss home a bit and maybe this Heimweh never really stops aching, but I feel recharged and excited to be here again. Spring is coming and I am ready for more adventures.

A Touristy Traveler or A Traveling Tourist?

Ten years of German, every memoir, novel,  Wikipedia article, every first, second, third person account of what happened between the years of 1933 and 1945 led me to the metal gates of the Jourhaus twenty minutes by bus from Dachau, Germany. My fingers were clasped around the camera in my pocket, ready at any moment to capture the infamous metal words “Arbeit Macht Frei”  in the iron fence at the entrance of the Dachau Concentration Camp. These words had been seen by every prisoner who entered the camp and were eternally linked with the Holocaust. Like me, thirty other tourists stood a few feet from the gates, searching eagerly for the words to appear before them. I and my fellow tourists were poised to document the sign with all our various forms of technology, but we were instead greeted with a small plastic sign near the gate. The information sign noted that the notorious sign was stolen sometime in early November. My disappointment at the notice quickly turned into anger at the thieves. How dare they steal such an iconic part of history? How dare they desecrate a site so significant to so many?

How dare they rob me of a terrific photo?

This last thought scared me. Was I angry because I honestly felt that the memorial was robbed or that I was robbed? Was I here to stand witness to human atrocities or to take photos to prove to others that I traveled places?

These questions stayed with me for most of the day as I walked through the memorial for the camp. Often, while reading a display or walking through a reconstruction, I would hear twelve camera shutters going off behind me. Sometimes my camera joined the chorus. Scenes like this reminded me of every other so called “point of interest” in cities I have traveled to. If there is something interesting to visit, some landscape worth gazing at, some sign indicating your current location, a tourist has taken a photo of it. It makes you wonder why you travel- to see enriching places or to prove you are well traveled. I have noticed that when I travel, I go, I see, I take a picture. It does not always feel like I am having a genuine experience.  I am currently living by the mantra “photos or it didn’t happen” and moving along this conveyer belt of tourism. I hope after a year of living and studying here, I can step of this conveyor belt and become more of a traveler and less of a tourist.

An Uneasy Ambassador

Between the loud music being pumped onto the dance floor and the shouts of nearby Erasmus students greeting each other in ten different languages, it was hard to make out the words my new French friend was saying, but in a rare moment of silence between songs, I heard her shout, “so why did you vote for Obama?”

Wait what? I stared back at this girl I had met thirty minutes earlier with my mouth slightly agape. I was completely at a loss for words. Not only did I not expect to be asked about my political opinions in the middle of a party, I felt that not enough time had passed in our acquaintanceship to engage in political conversation. I thought we were still at the point where we talk about how strange we find spanish siesta and what classes we are taking here; I was expecting small talk and instead was being drawn into a political discussion.  Further, I always thought you were supposed to avoid three conversation topics when meeting new people: religion, sex, and politics. So why was she asking me about Obama? I must have paused too long because my friend then proceeded to shake her head, wave her hand in my direction and pull me onto the dance floor.

Another night, I was warming up dinner for two Spanish kids I babysit when they sat me down and asked, “why does everyone in America own a gun? Why are all Americans fat?” I blinked blankly a few times at the ten year olds sitting across from me before answering, “well I don’t have a gun and I hope I’m not that fat, so maybe not all Americans are like that.” The kids giggled and proceeded to rattle off statistics about how many people are obese in the US and about news stories they have read concerning the death of small children due to firearms. They then waited patiently for me to respond with my own statistics and facts. They waited and waited, but I had nothing other than my own experience to speak from. This was completely disappointing to the kids who could not understand how I did not know more hard numbers about my own country.

While being an exchange student here, I have become an pseudo ambassador for the US. The above situations are just two of many experiences I have had where being an expert on the US is expected of me. At any given moment, I feel as if I am expected to defend US policy or American behaviour. In my Spanish language course, my professor often asks me to name the differences between how a Spaniard would react to a situation and how an American would react to it, but I never really know how to answer. The US has people from every country and culture; I have never once met a “typical” American. I am a child of two cultures. I am a product of my family of Indian immigrants and of Southern culture, so my perspective in life is bound to be different from an American raised in a Jewish household on the west coast. How can I speak for the “typical” American in any situation when I have no idea what that means?

As I struggle everyday to accept this role of representing my country, I am realizing that all I can really do is speak from my own experience. While this endlessly disappoints my babysitting kids, it would be fraudulent for me to speak in any other manner. This also means being honest with others when I do not actually have an opinion on something. The US just had a policy change about gun laws? Great, but I do not know enough about the subject to have a genuine conversation about it.

I feel that regardless of culture and background, honesty is always appreciated and that is the way I would like to represent the US here.

My Love Affair with Deadlines

If you are a Cornell student right now in the midst of prelims, papers, and group projects, then you will probably want to punch me in the face after reading the next sentence. I miss deadlines. I miss looking at my agenda and knowing that I have a problem set due in two days. Granted, when I usually looked at my agenda, it was more like I had three problem sets and two prelim in two days, but nostalgia gives you rose colored glasses. We have started engineering courses here recently and also been issued our first few problem sets. We were handed stacks of papers, shown around the library, introduced to our host school’s version of Blackboard, but we were given no deadlines. When asked when to turn our work, the professor shrugged his shoulders and said maybe sometime next week. While many of my comrades here have embraced this idea of do the work whenever you want, my schedule orientated self is suffering a bit of culture shock. My agenda is currently littered with question marks all over because I have no idea how to organize and plan for something without an end goal. What do you mean I have to set my own deadlines? I get to decide when I have free time? What do you mean I have to learn self discipline?

But this kind of fits most things I have experienced in Spain. Between the hours of two and four in the afternoon, Santander takes a city wide siesta. Most stores, all government buildings, and some restaurants are completely closed for those few hours. As a student, you are done with classes for the day and faced with a familiar problem here: what do you do now? Work on your homework? Well, no one knows when that is due, so what motivates you to finish it? Take a nap? Well, nothing is open, so that seems like a good idea. Watching netflix for a few hours seems like a good idea too, especially when it is in the language you are trying to learn. No one will tell you what to do for those completely free hours; you make the decision of how best to manage your time.

Similarly, no one will tell you when to go home from a fiesta. Thursday night is a weeknight? Not here it is not. If you would like to stay out with your new exchange students friends until the sun makes it way above the waves, then you get to do just that. There is always someone around to go out with; there is always some sort of distraction. The only person who makes sure you get home with enough time to sleep and become human again for your classes the next day is yourself. This past month in Spain has been a lesson in learning your limits and your distractions and how to push past them to reach your goals.

When I thought of coming to Spain to study abroad, I never thought self control would be my first major hurdle, but here I am procrastinating on work I’m not really sure is even due soon just because I can. I am trying, however, to reconnect with my Cornell self and find my work ethic again. To-do lists are littering my desk and I am attempting to set my own deadlines, but I am also wondering if this is the opposite of assimilating. If the Spanish approach to learning is a bit more relaxed and designed to span over long periods of time, then why am I fighting that? Maybe it is time to bid farewell to my love affair with deadlines and embrace this budding relationship with open ended learning.

Small Victories

Things I have done in Spanish in the last few weeks which I feel deserve medals, but also do not deserve medals because anybody with a phrasebook could do them:

  • Filled my bus card at a store with no translator needed
  • Ordered a coffee exactly the way I like it instead of a disappointingly small cup of espresso (which is what I unwittingly ordered far too many times)
  • Asked to and pet several dogs on my way to class. The dogs of Santander and I are friends.
  • Complimented my host mom’s cooking and interior decorating skills. 10 points towards being a great exchange student.
  • Had a (kind of) political conversation with my host mom about Michelle Obama’s arms in which we both declared our admiration for them. That was the extent of the political commentary, but the grammar was (mostly) correct.

As you can see, elementary school children could do these things, but I still hold them as accomplishments as they are in a language I have only started learning. Did I practice most of the words I would need in these situations in front of a mirror? Why, yes I did. Did I force my Spanish speaking classmates to repeat sentences to me several times before I said them myself? Yes and I will have you know I am determined to master the Castilian accent before leaving this country.

Before leaving for Spain, I bid adieu to my German grammar notes and promptly decided to forget every tense except present. Upon starting my language course here,  I realised that in my class of seven students, four are from Germany and three are from the United States. I also quickly realized that the present tense is great, but I would really love to have my grammar books to communicate about broader amounts of time. Our professors are outstanding, but sometimes the english terms for Spanish words escape them and we have to spend a bit of time figuring out what they mean. Though the Germans are pretty adept at English, there are terms during this discussion that they are understandably unfamiliar with. This translates to me attempting to switch between three languages to connect what the professor is saying to my German friend sitting on one side of me and to my American friend on the other. At the end of the day, my brain feels like it has been the victim of a meat pulverizer. I thought coming to Spain would lessen my knowledge of German, but now I feel more engaged in learning both languages at once. I feel sorry for my achy brain, but I feel like the luckiest language student ever, so thanks to whichever language gods are helping me out (also if there are any language gods still listening, sending me more knowledge about the future tense so that I can make plans with my new German friends would be great thanks).

The First Day by Numbers

36 hours- The amount of time I have been awake now. From Atlanta to New York City to Madrid to Santander. I am seriously questioning why we have not invested more time in researching teleportation technologies. What little Spanish I have retained so far is hard to access when my head feels full of cotton, so I have resorted to creative charades and aggressively smiling at everything.

30 minutes- The time my wonderful host parents spent attempting to help me connect to wifi here. They do not speak English and are determined to make me as comfortable as possible, no matter what method our communication takes. Between the three of us, charades about technology, the internet, and Windows 8 has reached new academic and comic levels.

2.9 kilometers- The distance from my homestay to the beach pictured below. I walked this today and stuck my feet in the water for at least half the afternoon. I think it is appropriate for you to be jealous right now.


2 – The number of dictionaries involved in my conversations with my host dad as he helps me plan what to see tomorrow. While I try to make small talk by spurting off sentences from my phrasebook about being excited and wanting to take pictures, he translates “take a train around and see the sea lions” into words I will understand. This takes a while, but if it is not the basis of a solid friendship, then I do not know what is.

1 – The number of seats the kitchen has, so my host parents have me eat first while they watch and ask me why I insist on being vegetarian when there is so much good meat and fish to consume. My host mom is convinced I will convert away from being my non-carnivore ways once I taste her cooking. In response, I aggressively smile because I think my face has frozen into that expression by now.

Estoy nerviosa!

T- minus five days until departure and the butterflies have squarely settled into my stomach. Between worrying about learning a new language, making sure my baggage is not overweight, and daydreaming about the trips I will take while on the continent, the days seem to be slipping away from me. The nerves of moving to a new place and culture make it feel like freshman year all over again; I even signed up for an orientation program to meet other students before engineering classes start in September. As a RA back at Cornell, I have a peculiar love of orientation games (I kick butt at Two Truths and a Lie), but this time I am going to attempt to meet people across what is currently a pretty substantial language barrier. I realize that most of the students speak English and would probably be willing to slow down Spanish for me, but I keep getting frustrated with myself that they will have to. I want to be able to  jump into conversations and not worry about anyone having to translate for me, but for the first few weeks at least, a translator is going to be necessary.

I keep thinking about international students at Cornell  and if they felt the same way before they came to campus. Do they feel they have to know English fluently in order to truly integrate into the culture of the campus? This year in Santander is going to make me appreciate international students’ experiences at Cornell in a whole new light. If I could pick any superpower right now, it would be to speak and understand all world languages. Since there is no nuclear plant disaster nearby for me to acquire superpowers, I am relying on the internet to stuff as much information into my head as possible. If you are like me and would also like to learn Spanish, I find the following sites helpful in learning the  basics:

Despite my worries about the language barrier, all signs so far point to a great year ahead in Spain. The university has assigned me a host family for my first two weeks there who sound wonderful and welcoming. A few other Cornell students and I have been able to find an apartment for later in the semester with a landlord who has been nothing but helpful and understanding. When I received my visa earlier this summer, the Spanish Consulate sent along the card pictured below (super classy Spain, way to go). All I have to truly do now is take a breath, get on my plane, and hand out free candy on my first day of orientation (a hall mate of mine did that freshman year and she made friends instantly, so new lifehack).


Un idioma nunca es suficiente

Did you know that gmail translates Spanish within the body of the email? Well, it does. Technology is magical and it is helping me look for an apartment in Santander. Okay, full disclosure: my Spanish is at a beginner level. I speak and understand German moderately well, but Spanish is all Greek to me (I don’t speak Greek either).  My desk is currently littered with flashcards, notes on grammar, and tears of frustration. I am just kidding about the tears (kind of). The last few months have been full of me attempting to teach myself Spanish. I am lucky enough to have a mom and friends who are familiar with the language, but I am 88% sure they are tired of me bouncing random sentences off of them at all hours of the day. But if studying German has taught me anything, language learning is all about making mistakes because that means you are trying. Additionally, I will be taking a language course in Santander starting late August, so that should be  a nice knowledge boost.

You might be wondering why I am going to a Spanish speaking country if I have studied German. Well, for one, I really love the idea of an engineering exchange program. Not only will I take engineering core classes in a different context, I will return to Cornell with a group of Cantabrians; I have the unique opportunity to experience studying abroad as both guest and host! Second, learning Spanish has been a goal of mine for a few years. I am studying environmental engineering in order to work in sustainable development in Central and South America. Being fluent in Spanish will obviously be an asset in that endeavor.

Frank Smith said, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” To have more opportunities, one language is never enough.