Straddling the Atlantic and the Strait of Gibraltar

I’ve been trying to imagine what study abroad must’ve been like before the internet. I’ve been pretty engrossed in a variety of social and political goings-on around the world, but specifically in the places I would call home, all thanks to the internet. But what was it like in the 80’s, when my mom spent 6 months in Germany? For one thing, the language immersion must’ve been much more effective. I’m sure that without English on Youtube and Facebook and Netflix, and without talking to my friends on iMessage and GroupMe and WhatsApp, my improvement would be exponentially greater than it is now. There would probably be a greater sense of urgency to make friends and build a (series of) support system(s) here in Sevilla, because I wouldn’t be able to count on the ones thousands of miles away. More than anything, I think it would be a lot harder to be immersed and isolated at the same time.

As it is now, I feel like I’m half here and half there. I take classes here, but talk about Professors there. I go out with friends here, but talk about parties there. I watch the news here, but keep up (or attempt to) with series there. And don’t get me wrong, I’m living in Sevilla, and am mentally present in everything I do here. But I spend my down time reconnecting with my friends at Cornell and in London and Leuven, and my sister in Boston, and my parents in Harare. An experience that may have been (at another time for another person), one of adding distance between myself and my home, feels more like adding a point in the network of places that make up my idea of home. 

Las primeras semanas de clase

[This post is in Spanish, and is a version of a post that I wrote for the MCP blog. It basically says that the first few weeks of class are nerve-wracking especially for foreign students, but we find our solace among other foreign students and then realize that learning is learning no matter where you are in the world.]

Aunque ya hay muchos “posts” sobre el principio de la vida académica aquí en Sevilla, voy a escribir sobre este tema, otra vez.

Las primeras semanas en la ciudad ahora parecen como un sueño. Estábamos muy  ocupados con el intenso seminario cultural, los viajes por España y la novedad de la experiencia. Aprendimos mucho, pero Sevilla seguía siendo un lugar que estábamos visitando. Por eso, el inicio del curso académico fue el principio de nuestras vidas como españoles.

Espero que los nervios de los primeros días de clase sean lo peor de mi tiempo aquí en España. Tuve miedo de perderme, de no entender al profesor, de asistir a una asignatura incorrecta, y, lo que más me asustó: no conocer a ningún otro estudiante.  Nosotros estuvimos acostumbrados a estar bajo presión durante estos primeros días porque pensamos que si no averiguamos todo sobre el horario y la vida social, todo irá mal en el futuro.

Este sentimiento es común entre casi todos los estudiantes extranjeros, a pesar de su país original y el país en donde están estudiando. Hay una afinidad entre ellos (pues, nosotros) y por eso los extranjeros se agrupan entre sí. Porque ahora yo también soy una extranjera, mis primeros amigos en clase fueron, por casualidad o por la afinidad que he mencionado, otros estudiantes extranjeros (la mayoría son Erasmus). Con ellos, pude compartir y compadecer las dudas y los malentendidos.

Y aunque sí tuve dudas, no fueron dudas sobre el contenido de los cursos, sino sobre los sistemas administrativos. Si hablamos de las asignaturas y las materias que estudié en los primeros días, entonces hablamos de la universalidad de una educación universitaria. Los temas, los análisis, aún las lecturas, son parecidos a la información que se da en una universidad Americana. El reto es seguir adelante, superar  las dificultades lingüísticas, y darse cuenta de que aprendizaje es aprendizaje en todo el mundo.

Livin’ La Vida Madrileña

The program took us on a weekend trip to Madrid as part of the Seminario Cultural, and it was one of the most eclectically diverting weekends I’ve experienced. Aside from the brutally early wake up time to catch the train, the travel there and back was fantastic. There is something incredibly soothing about trains; maybe a combination between rhythmic clacking and the knowledge that there’s only room for one high speed vehicle on a train track unlike the thousands of cars recklessly careening down the highways.

Madrid’s city center is exquisite. There are great monuments and old buildings that have been spotlessly maintained and are representative of very specific architectural movements that I don’t know the names of. There is something about European cities, and Spanish cities in particular that gives an impression of wisdom and heritage; these building have overlooked plazas where generations of people have walked off a bad day, or met with friends, or just wandered pensively. Our hotel was very close to the historical center, but was on a street that is home to all of the expensive high fashion stores and theaters. So to ensure that we didn’t spend the whole weekend walking up and down that street that might as well have been Fifth Avenue and Broadway combined, MCP took us to the Prado Museum, and gave us a list of other cultural activities in which we had to participate. My top priority was seeing Picasso’s Guernica in person, so directly after the Prado we went to get lunch and then made our way to the Museo Reina Sofía.

The Museo Reina Sofía is my Tiffany’s. It’s this big square building, with a sculpture patio in the center and 4 floors of exhibition rooms, ranging from Dalí and his surrealist contemporaries to modern photography series and lesser known impressionists. It was incredibly peaceful. Once you enter the doors, time seems to stand still, and you are free to wander to your hearts content. I was also expecting to see more people there, but it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. The art was moving, and intriguing and the whole time I was struck by how grateful I was to be there.

The trip to the museum was wonderful, but because I spent the majority of my time with other students in the program, we were speaking a garbled mix of Spanish and English in an attempt to properly communicate to each other how awesome we all thought the museum was. The language mess managed to untangle itself when I met up with my Madrileño friend from back home. He and one of his friends offered to show me around the city while we were there, and it was phenomenal. I ventured into the metro system and met them in an inexpensive artsy neighborhood in Madrid, near the center, but hidden away enough to be untainted by tourists. The three of us spoke Spanish all evening and wandered around Madrid. We ate tiny tapas sandwiches for a euro a pop, and talked about languages and politics and untranslatable movie humor.

Of the three things that will remain in my mind the most from my trip to Madrid, two of them were from the “real Madrid” segment of the weekend. The first was the old abandoned factory turned art-and-gathering space that we went to first. The building was run down, but all the walls were covered in politically motivated street art and fliers about underground goings-on in Madrid. There was music coming out from under heavy metal doors to a bunch of rooms where rock bands and horn quartets were practicing. The second place that will stick in my memory for ages came after the factory. We went to a small bar where they have live music every night, and although they’re usually jazz bands that Saturday was rock night. First there was a small indie rock band called “No Es Pecado.” I was thrilled, not only because I really enjoyed their music but also because I could actually understand all their lyrics. And the cherry on top was the classic rock cover band that sang top 40 rock singles from 1985 in thick spanish accents. It was intriguing to see American music culture that is so familiar through the eyes of a culture that consumes it from the outside. There was a feeling of camaraderie caused by shared love of this classic music that really reminded me of how minor and changeable cultural differences really are.

I am really grateful for that weekend away. It was incredibly refreshing to see Spanish culture, but not high culture. In the seminar we spent time learning about art and politics and history, which is great for contextualizing the country and knowing what anyone who studies European history would know. What it doesn’t provide is a window into the everyday lives of Spanish citizens, especially young citizens. In Madrid, I got to see and participate in activities that are the equivalent of how my peers and friends would be spending their time. That’s what I came to Spain to learn about, and I really liked what I saw.

Ode to Mediterranean Cuisine

After spending upwards of 24 hours in the mysterious non-place that is air travel, you learn what is truly essential to human existence. I wandered from terminal to terminal and stared down never-ending aisles in search of an elusive booth or that narrow rectangular vessel where I could finally get something to eat. And even once that goal was achieved, there was always something to be desired from the crappy airport food that had to be eaten at light-speed for one reason or another.

You can imagine how much joy I felt when my first meal in Sevilla was three courses of delicious mediterranean food that we mulled over for more than an hour. Delicious, light fish, a beautiful green salad with walnuts, corn and a dressing that I can’t describe, and then fresh fruit salad for desert. It was a meal so completely unexpected and unprecedented that to avoid artistic exaggeration in describing it would be shameful. With every bite I felt my body relax and ease out of travel mode and into vacation mode.

After that first meal, food continued to be an integral part of the adjustment process. Sharing meals became the ultimate method of developing the embryos of friendships within the students in the program. At first, we would all go out to eat in groups of between 15 and 20 people, moving around furniture, discussing cryptic menu descriptions, and generally giving the waiters a hard time. Conversation would orient itself around nuclei of shared tapas, and people would ask which of the three schools you attend, which friends of friends you had in common, and how excited you were to be in Spain. After the first two days in the hotel the groups shrank in size, but eating together in some form or another remains one of the main activities that we all share.

pescitas fritas con papas

pescados fritos con papas

If food was so crucial in developing the dynamics in a group of people who are all the same age, with the same level of education, and who speak the same language, you can imagine how much I relied on it to bond with my host mother. For the first 24 hours in the house, on the few occasions when our conversation wasn’t necessary debriefing about bathrooms and transport, she and I would either be agreeing vehemently about the oppressive heat or discussing the advantages and superiority of la dieta mediterranea.

Although it’s been difficult adjusting to speaking Spanish all the time, and although there is so much about this city and this country that will take me a while to get used to, the food is a perfect fit. The long lunches and small dinners, the olive oil and garlic, the gazpacho, the pescado, the jamon curado, all form a food lifestyle with which I am 100% contented.

PSA: apologies for technical difficulties

I started working on a post about a week ago and was more that 75% done and about to publish. I went to class, shut my computer, and my draft reverted to three sentences and the title. I will attempt to rewrite that one and the next one and hopefully release them at the same time.

Thank you for your patience and consideration.

Observations Upon Arrival

I have finally made it to Sevilla! Things are incredibly busy, and we’ve already been plunged into the Seminario Cultural. So I thought instead of detailing everything that’s happened right away I would make a post in list form with a few of my random observations during the flight here.

  1. In airports, the height of the ceilings is directly proportional to the severity and rigor of the security measures. In Heathrow the ceilings go on forever and they have three security check points for people in transit. In Sevilla and Harare you can almost touch them, and you could walk out the door with all manner of illegal objects.
  2. All middle aged Spanish women look in some way or another like my high school Spanish teacher.
  3. When you’re mentally primed to hear Spanish, languages like Italian, French, Greek and Czech, can sound an awful lot like Español.
  4. People who are afraid of change or have weak stomachs no longer need fear travel. Starbucks is Everywhere. So is McDonalds.

I promise that I will post in full about the flight and my arrival and the suchlike, but as of now I have to attend to homework, meetings, and explorations.

Departure Approaches**

**The following is a very very late upload of a short piece I handwrote in the middle of an internet dead spot. It’s more of a musing than a complete post, but I figured I’d upload it anyway.


The past few weeks have been spent in blissful ignorance of the speed with which time was passing. Doing nothing but see friends and watch movies led me to foolishly believe that this summer would continue in interminable leisure. My bubble was tragically burst at the end of last week, when I got a call from the embassy informing me that my visa was processed and ready for pick up. The next day was spent on a search for the least arduous series of flights from Harare to Sevilla. And now, 36 hours later I have my tickets and passport all ready, a mental list of essential items to be purchased and packed, and in 6 days I will be on my way to my new temporary home.

This strange anxiety and excitement is hard to put into words, and as I’m contemplating everything that awaits me in the next two weeks I find myself at a loss for this post’s content. The space that I’m occupying is liminal, and it’s impossible for me to decide which side of the doorway I should stand on. Reflecting on my summer at home would engender a sad nostalgia. Imagining the future is futile and having expectations (high or low) is risky for such an unpredictable venture.

the Harare Spanish Connection

It would appear that things have a way of working themselves out.

Just two days ago I wrote about feeling unprepared for the overwhelming Spanish that awaits in Seville, and wishing that I could find a way practice speaking the language. Well today at yet another trip to Spanish Consulate in Harare, my wish was granted.

The woman in charge of visa applications (who also happens to know my mother from church) introduced me to one of the Embassy’s interns. She’s a girl from Madrid who’s around my age and is looking to connect students traveling to or from Spain. Not only does this girl seem friendly and intelligent, she is also the perfect person to practice my Spanish with. And on top of that, she has family in Sevilla and offered to connect me with her cousins who are also college age. We exchanged phone numbers and she lent me a book that she had sitting on her desk.

This stroke of good fortune came at a great time. I definitely feel like it’s the sign I needed to reassure myself that I’m doing the right thing and this next year will be a great experience.

La Lengua Española

Aside from running around gathering paperwork for my student visa, I’ve realized that there isn’t much I can actually do to prepare for my year abroad. I can’t really shop because I don’t know what I’d need and there aren’t exactly department stores in Harare. The process for selecting classes online is still under construction by the university. But probably the thing I’d most like to prepare for but can’t is the language challenge. Living in Sevilla promises to be a culture shock for numerous reasons, but the fact that all communication will take place in Spanish is (as of now) the most daunting and immediate.

So far, my attempts at language preparation have consisted of watching Spanish movies without subtitles. My ear for Spanish is not too shabby and watching movies has always been one of my favorite pastimes, so this solution fits like a glove. I’ve made it through masterpieces like Pan’s Labyrinth with a brand new appreciation for the movie and the script in particular. The only problem seems to be the difficulty of acquiring Spanish movies in a primarily English and Shona speaking country, but my high school Spanish teachers have managed to hook me up with a couple DVDs. 

The movies are fun, but they only solve half of the problem. I have very little trouble understanding spoken Spanish, and even though the Andalusian accent is said to be pretty thick and distinctive, I’m not too worried about missing what people are saying to me. My real fear lies in my ability (or lack thereof) to talk back with clarity and complexity. I’m sure it will be a common struggle that everyone in the program faces, but I’m afraid of sounding like I have third grade language skills when I try and speak to people just because I had no one to practice my Spanish with over the summer.

Hopefully the language jitters will fade when I arrive in Spain, or at least once I start taking classes. Until then, I’ll just sit back and be entertained by the best from the Spanish film industry.

How nervous is too nervous?

They say that before you make a big decision or change in your life, a good amount of nerves is important. Supposedly being nervous helps focus your brain and, so long as it’s not debilitating, we should all be thankful for a little anxiety.

Since moving to a different country for a year counts as a pretty big change in my book, I’ve been pretty open to the plethora of nerves that comes with this experience. This isn’t to say that I’m not extremely excited about Sevilla, and a big part of me can’t wait for my arrival*. But the fact remains that I worry a ton about many aspects of the trip. Most recently, my concerns have been laser focused on class selection for the university.

The process is sort of like pre-enroll at Cornell: before classes start the students have to go online and select all the classes they’d be interested in enrolling in during the coming semester. According to our program advisor, this process should really be like a free-for-all. We’re supposed to select any and all courses that we might be interested in taking, because during the second round when we plan our schedules we’ll be limited to only the courses we selected during this pre-enroll process. We’ve been told many things about how important this pre-selection is, but I haven’t gotten many details about the how or the when. My response to this limited information: send regular emails, written in rusty Spanish with thinly-veiled anxiety, to the program coordinators, reminding them that I still don’t know how or when to choose my classes. I fear my nerves are turning me into an insufferable nag, but I’m hoping it falls under what they call ‘healthy nerves.’

I think that a big source of my nervousness comes from a feeling of isolation. It’s the middle of summer vacation, and I’ve been away from Cornell for almost two months now. Being in Harare, Zimbabwe can feel like being in the opposite corner of the world, and in that corner it’s easy to feel cut off from the other students who are also preparing to take on this trip. But the fact remains that I am not alone, and that if I’m worried about all this, then I can bet a fraction of the people I’ll meet in Spain are feeling the same way right now. That thought plus the composed and reassuring email responses I get are helping quell the nerves enough to let some of that excitement peek through. And who knows, maybe by the time August rolls in all the nerves will be gone and I’ll be fearlessly ready to fly! Just kidding; I’ll be a mess. A girl can dream though!

*Spanish visa pending