So, I've studied abroad. And before you ask sarcastically, why yes, yes, I am extremely cultured. Immensely so. Basically, anyone who walks within five feet of me begins to immediately start quoting Don Quixote and scribbling Spanish romance poetry on the nearest flat surface (think Shia LeBeouf in Transformers). I kid. Although I do know a lot more about those things, about architecture, about conquistas and reconquistas, about Luis Buñuel and Pedro Almodóvar, about orxata, paella, tortilla de patata, and the best spot in Valencia to get cheap gyros and even cheaper beer, in reality, I don't feel much different. I feel a little sad that those seven weeks fluttered by like a pigeon in a plaza, but I also feel a little relieved to be home again. In any case, I'm still me: epiphany-less but content, culturafied but re-wired for life's routine to start again.
Yet the differences are still striking. Here I sit at 7 am, my body thinking it's already past noon, and instead of walking out on the balcony of my palace-turned-university residence to watch young Spanish kids bouncing to school down a 15th century street, I lounge on my parents' back porch and listen to the distant but familiar droning of traffic down I-85. I won't be walking to class today. I won't be deciphering the rapid-fire, blink-and-you-miss-it lectures of my endearing professors. I certainly will not be going to the beach, which has suddenly and sadly become a several hour car ride rather than a 20 minutes trip via train. Instead, I'll probably watch ESPN and go for a drive (a well-missed luxury). I might play some basketball and eat Chick-fil-a. And I'll make sure I say soccer a bunch of times so I stop calling it fútbol. But I digress. I lived in Valencia, Spain for six weeks, so I'll get into some details.
I have very fortunately been to Europe a few times in my life, and I'm always profoundly struck by the history that's literally at your fingertips. Spain is no different. Valencia has been occupied more or less continuously for over 2000 years. Civilization built upon civilization and era blended into era to produce a city dappled by ancient ruins, temples-turned-mosques-turned-churches, towering defensive forts, time-worn walls, and palaces long since converted into apartments or businesses or restaurants. All of this history surrounds and informs the bustling metropolis that is the current city in a way only semi-comparable to the oldest spots in the U.S. Eating lunch at a bar below a 400-year-old church tower changes your perspective. I felt smaller, and time felt more fleeting, but it seemed like I could just breath the air and commune with the memories still so evident. Outside the city, the atmosphere of modernity clashing with, or even stampeding over ancientness was readily visible. On what seemed like every other hill outside our bus's windows passed crumbling castles, squat, dilapidated farmhouses, or little hamlets whose homes always encircled a stone church. Highways identical to those in the U.S. and pocked with the same malls and factories and shops, yet just off the road would rise a little peak capped by a vestigial castle wall. About an hour from Valencia we toured a still-inhabited medieval town by the name of Albarracín. Of course, not currently inhabited by people from the Middle Ages (a pity), it's the perfect homage to the "patrimonio" or heritage so enjoyed by the Spanish people. And, alas, so too enjoyed by me. Each time we went to the beach I thought about the explorers, invaders, merchants, and tourists that had all wandered ashore with their distinct purposes and experiences. There I was, just another traveler in a long line of travelers. Like my sandy footprints, I'd simply be replaced by the next. An on history crawls. On a side note, I think we should build some old-looking castles around Georgia to get the same vibe. They might make us all slow down a little bit or remind us to leave behind something enduring. Or like me every few minutes down the ole' carretera, just make us go "Oh hell yeah, a castle."
The food was surprising. We dined at our residence for pretty much every meal, so, not to dig on the amazing staff that fed us, but the finite permutations of the same ingredients definitely made the menu repetitive. Sausage, hamburgers (literal ham), rice, fish (bone in), veggies, soup, croquetas (little fried balls sometimes stuffed with ham or fish), fries, and salad were the staples. Chicken, beef, tuna, and stuffed eggplant also made appearances. Although everything was slightly bland (an unfortunately common theme throughout the trip), I think it was a good look at the average Spanish diet. Yet rice was king. Rice was a classic and constant option from restaurant to highway rest-stop. Add rabbit and chicken or maybe some squid with green beans and tomato and you've got a Spanish delicacy.
We tried our American hands at cooking paella one day, so we witnessed the intricate preparation that's as much a part of the dish as the ingredients and taste. Despite the heavy supervision and my team's loss in the cook-off, I'll happily boast of our successful mastery of that sacred process (ours should've won hands down).
Other than rice, Spaniards love a sandwich. Although sandwich isn't quite accurate. More like baguette ft. lunch meat, but lunch meat only sings the bridge. Heavy on the bread is what I'm trying to say. People would usually eat them (called bocadillos) or toast with tomato or some other tapa as a kind of brunch. And they'd always wash it down with a glass of beer or wine. Most days we skipped the beverage.
Lastly, I'd be remiss not to mention the primacy of ham. Lots of ham. Museums of ham. Ham is a breakfast, lunch, dinner kind of thing in Spain, and it's heavily featured on every menu. I'm not complaining, I mean I'll eat ham from link to prosciutto to burger, but we did see a vegan protest marching down our street, and I guess I get where they're coming from. Because ham.
Not to be cliché, but the best part of the trip was easily the people. I left the U.S. completely blind. I didn't know the country, I didn't know the people, and despite their best efforts at organizing some pre-take-off meet and greets, I didn't know the group leaders that made everything run so smoothly. We were bound to either hit it off or suffer two months of agonizing soft smiles and small-talk. Luckily, we experienced the former scenario. Amid classes, group trips throughout the city, soccer matches, and a healthy dose of nighttime mischief, everyone became buds pretty quick. Unsettlingly quick in some cases. There's a certain kind of bond that forms among an isolated group of people experiencing something new. Throw 4,000 mile between them and the closest Cookout and it's like a Band of Brothers episode, just with friendlier Germans. Our leaders, comprised of three UGA professors/grad students/cool people, led us on all our excursions but struck the perfect balance between supervisor, friend, and Spanish language expert. They were quick to a joke but made sure we were all safe and enjoying ourselves. We truly were a tight-knit group by the end of our seven weeks, and, like all breakups, it was hard to let go. But yet, here we are.
So, what did I learn? A lot about Spain? Yes. A lot about how I still don't like seafood? Big yes. A lot about myself? Ehhhhhh, maybe. I still can't be trusted not to leave my wallet in the back of a taxi (thanks for the souvenir, Valencia P.D., but that police report did very little except give me heart palpitations). I still struggle to wake up for an alarm. I'm still not a soccer fan. Really, I don't think I broke any bad habits, nor did I develop a new outlook on life, but maybe that's just me. I'm stubborn. In the end, I made some invaluable (don't check my bank account) memories with people I never would have met otherwise. I wasn't looking for a life-altering experience, but I received more than I anticipated. So, definitely study abroad. See some other world, break out of your shell, and for the love of God, remember your wallet when you leave a taxi.