I’m leaving the United States for the first time in just under a month for my final destination: Salamanca, Spain. I started taking Spanish classes at my community college three years ago, successfully completed the program last spring, and graduated last week with an A.A. in Spanish. I have also spent the past year working at my school assisting with the Spanish 101 class. If that wasn’t enough to convince you, dear reader, of my passion for the Spanish language, this Salamanca trip is my preparation for entering university in the fall as a Spanish major. I will proudly admit I am obsessed.
In stark contrast to my exposure and experience with the Spanish language, I am a novice at going abroad. As such, I’ve been spending time every day trying to mentally and physically prepare myself for the experience of being an outsider in another country, and I wanted to document my approach to reflect back on it when I return after 7 weeks abroad.
1. Go with the flow. Easier said than done, but also vague. I had to read the journal of a first-time study abroad student in France for a class, and my takeaway was that he went abroad with too many restrictions. At the time, he was a body-builder, as such, he was extremely limited in what he could eat, and was expecting to keep up his exercise regiment, which ended up being a very stressful experience for him. Where to get the special food? Where to get the equipment to work out?
As a mostly vegan individual, I am going to have to release the hold that I have on many foods, but I can still maintain reasonable restrictions. Pork, shell fish and beef, for example, are not going to happen; but dairy, fish and chicken seem reasonable. “When in Rome,” right?
2. Better safe than sorry. I’m talking about money and IDs. Having an internationally recognized credit card (with the chip) is great, but there is technology now that can essentially “download” all of the information from your card without anyone ever touching or getting into your belongings. This also applies to new passports. If you have credit cards or a passport with a chip, RFID-blocking wallets and passport books are available, and they are the key to protecting yourself.
3. Immerse yourself. Similar to “go with the flow/when in Rome,” but from a different angle. I chose not to live in student housing or apartment because I want to avoid speaking English at all costs. It is my hope that living with a Spanish family will give me a chance to have the local experience in Salamanca. I want to experience the day-to-day rhythms of the city and its people, including the flavors, sounds and smells.
I understand that Spain begins to “come alive” around 10pm, and I have been wondering how to immerse myself into that aspect of the culture when I have 8am classes, 5 days a week. As someone who cherishes sleep, I find myself at a crossroad. Perhaps I’ll be my own trailblazer, cut through the two roads and find a way to accommodate my sleeping needs with the need to take full advantage of the Spanish experience. I truly have no idea how to navigate this, but am confident that there is a solution. How have other students handled this?
4. When the loneliness strikes, how will you fight back? Five years ago, I packed all of my belongings into storage and embarked on an open-ended adventure with a backpack and my eager heart. Unfortunately, family disaster struck while I was en route to my first destination, and I was left with a very heavy backpack and a very heavy heart. My excitement vanished, and I found myself on a vineyard, 20 miles from the nearest “town,” completely out of my element, surrounded by strangers, all of us forced to sleep, packed like sardines, from lack of space. Under different circumstances, I may have adapted better to this shocking change from my urban, city-girl life, but I was devastated, and miserable.
I turned to a number of things as my connection to the life that I had left behind: a book, a ring from my mother and a journal. Going abroad will be exhilarating and exciting, undoubtedly, but has potential to show its shadow: loneliness and isolation. To combat these feelings, I’m encouraging myself to bring the same “pockets of home,” to Spain.
5. “Man plans, _______ laughs.” I can only make educated guesses on how to make the most of the time I will spend in Spain, and these attempts at preparation may be successful, perhaps they won’t be. At this point, it seems, I must surrender myself to the experience while maintaining an open mind and open eyes.
As my dad says, and yes with a double e, “Bee safe, and have fun!” And I think that’s probably the best advice.