What you need to know before studying in Spain

If you’ve ever been curious about how Spanish culture differs from that of the United States, then this is the post for you. I’m going to explain just a few—but certainly not all—of the differences between Spanish and American culture that could help prepare you for your own study abroad experience here.

1.) The Siesta

The first point I must make is, of course, about the siesta. This is something that many Americans already know about Spanish culture, but our conception differs greatly from reality so I think it is really important that I clarify what it is. Basically, the siesta is a dedicated portion of the mid-afternoon where businesses close down shop to give their employees a rest before facing the rest of the day (or night, as the case may be). There is no fixed time for the siesta, but it could be anywhere from 2–5PM or 4–8PM, depending on the type of business. Many cafés, clothing stores, restaurants, etc. will close down during this time before reopening again later in the day. For many Spaniards, dinnertime doesn’t begin until after 10PM, so the siesta can be a much-needed break for an otherwise long day. However, this doesn’t mean that every Spaniard just packs up their stuff and goes home to take a nap. Many people continue working or studying during this time, and some might even go for a long walk to get some sun and exercise.

It definitely took some adjusting to the siesta, especially coming from a culture that values convenience and profits above all else. The siesta really made me confront how we in the United States are always going, going, going, usually at the expense of taking time to slow down and appreciate the little things.

2.) Meals

Meals in Spain can be quite different than in the United States. First of all, the schedule is very different. Breakfast is largely at the same time, but lunch and dinner differ drastically. In Spain, lunch starts at around 2 or 3PM and dinner not until after 10PM. Lunch is considered the most important meal of the day, so Spaniards usually only have something small for breakfast, like toast and a coffee, and a smaller dish at dinner, such as a sandwich. At school, the daily lunch special includes a small salad, a first course such as a soup, a second course/entree, a drink, and a dessert.

Because lunch is the main meal of the day, it is not unusual to spend up to two hours eating and talking after the meal. This has been such a change for me, considering lunch is usually a quick affair with friends before heading off to class or the library to study, but it has been a change for the better. My lunches with friends will honestly be some of my favorite memories that I take away with me from this trip.

While I’m on the topic of food, I will take this moment to issue a very important PSA: the Spanish concept of a tortilla is very different than what we would consider a tortilla. Spanish tortilla is a bit more like what we would call a quiche, without the crust and with fewer ingredients. Basically, it is a really fluffy omelet with potatoes and potentially onions or other vegetables. It can be served hot or cold, alone or in a sandwich. It is a very typical dish that you should expect to come across if you spend any amount of time in Spain, although know you are armed with the knowledge that a tortilla is not always a tortilla.

3.) Salutations

Greeting and saying goodbye is really such a small thing, but it really can be a make-or-break moment, especially when meeting people for the first time. Before arriving to Spain, I thought the only difference would be the whole European cheek-kissing thing that I always saw in the movies, but in reality salutations are a bit more complicated that that.

Now, it is true that the people of Spain do the European cheek-kiss, although it is important to note that the nuances of such may vary country to country. In Spain, the proper way is to touch your right cheek to the other person’s and make an audible kissing sound, and then repeat on the other side. (And you really do need to touch cheeks, otherwise you may get called out on it, such as happened to a friend of mine.) It is typical, and even expected, to do this when meeting someone for the first time, or after not seeing one another for a bit of time. It has been a bit difficult to judge exactly how often it is normal to do this because my American identity usually precedes me and thus makes people hesitant to approach me since they know that we generally have a wider understanding of what constitutes personal space.

Nonetheless, it is polite to greet every person with at least an “Hola” upon entering a room, when sitting down at a table, etc. It is polite to greet people even if you are strangers. Thus, it is common courtesy to greet employees when walking into a store or when encountering others in an elevator. And if you are colleagues/friends it is also polite to ask how the other is doing and wait for a real response. Likewise, it is courteous to say goodbye to everyone before making your departure. Depending on the situation, it may even require another kiss goodbye.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem all that different from how we behave in the United States, but in practice they are very distinct. After all how many times have you answered the question “How are you?” by simply saying “How are you?” back to the other person. Or, how many times have you looked at your phone or stared straight ahead to pretend you haven’t seen an acquaintance so that you don’t have to stop and make conversation? Overall, expect to say hello and goodbye more in Spain than you would in the United States.

And with that I conclude three of important take aways between Spanish and American culture that I have come across while studying in Alicante. Overall, our cultures are more alike than different, but it is nevertheless fun and even helpful to analyze the differences that exist between cultures.

A Day in Madrid…and Cuenca and Toledo

The Glass Palace
Inside the Glass Palace in Madrid

Classes ended last Friday and exams don’t start for another week, so of course I had to take advantage of my time off to take a quick trip to Madrid. In the span of three days I visited Madrid, Cuenca, and Toledo. My feet hurt from all the walking, but I am so incredibly happy that I was able to cross so many things of my travel bucket list.

I first went to Madrid and visited some of its most well-known sites, including the Parque del Retiro and its Glass Palace, the Palacio Real, and the Museo del Prado. Like with Barcelona and Granada, it was surreal to visit a city that I had heard so much about but never really could imagine myself actually visiting. For that reason, my visit to the Museo del Prado will stay with me for the rest of my life. Since I started learning Spanish, I had studied artists like Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya, and during this trip I actually got to see their works up close and personal. Seeing Las Meninas in person took my breath away, both because the work itself is truly a clever masterpiece but also because it was like coming face-to-face with actual proof that I have successfully realized a years-long dream of living in Spain.

Overlooking Cuenca
Overlooking Cuenca

Cuenca is a gorgeous city famous for its hanging houses, which truly have balconies that are suspended over the mountain. The views of the houses and the old city itself seen from the Bridge of Saint Paul are also incredibly beautiful. One of my OU professors had recommended that I take a day trip to Cuenca if I had the chance, and I am grateful he put it on my radar because it was the perfect day trip. It is definitely one of the prettiest places I have visited in Spain, which is really saying something. None of the pictures I took could do it justice.

Museo del Greco
El Greco Museum

On the last day of my three-day trip, I went to Toledo, primarily to visit the Museum of El Greco, a Renaissance painter born in Crete who lived in Toledo. I am not necessarily a huge fan of his morose religious paintings, but like with the visit to the Museo del Prado, the important thing was actually getting to see his work up close and personal. The museum is also a reconstruction of the painter’s house. Toledo is an incredible Medieval city with a long history, and I really enjoyed walking along its cobblestone streets and appreciating its architecture.

My time in Spain is drawing to a close, and time is passing quicker than I’d like. I am so grateful that I got to take this excursion in between the end of classes and the start of finals because I want to take advantage of what time I have left here. But I know that more adventures yet await.

“The Palace”

“The Palace” is a long poem by Kaveh Akbar that was published in The New Yorker in April. I hope to be able to link to it through the blog, but if that doesn’t work, I highly recommend you google it and find it on The New Yorker’s website, where it is accompanied by some brilliant illustrations.

“The Palace”

I read “The Palace” a week or so after it was published, after hearing about it on a podcast. I have been thinking about it, on some level or another, since then. I have read it several times – certain sections of it many many times. I think it is remarkable. I don’t want to attempt to analyze or criticize the poem too much here, but I will briefly explain why I think it’s relevant. “The Palace” is a poem about America , and what America means in a global community that simultaneously has more promise than ever before, and is more perilously fraught than ever before. I think it’s also about poetry itself, which is magnificent, but that’s not why it belongs here. Akbar was born in Iran, and his family immigrated to the United States when he was young. He sees America as a land of opportunity, and a land where people spew hatred. A place where he loves and is loved, and a place where he is somehow separated.

I think the poem captures how vitally important America can be in shaping the future of globalism, for better or worse.

I really hesitate to describe or summarize the poem any further. I may have already done too much. It stands for itself.

Here are some small excerpts, but please read the whole thing if you can:

To be an American is to be a scholar
of opportunity.
Opportunity costs.
Every orange I eat disappears the million
peaches, plums, pears I could have eaten
but didn’t.
In heaven, opportunity costs.
In her heaven
my mother grows
peaches, plums, pears, and I eat them till I pass out

A boy’s shirt says: “We Did It To Hiroshima, We Can Do It To Tehran!”
He is asked to turn his shirt inside out.
He is asked? His insides, out.
After he complies, his parents sue the school district.
Our souls want to know
how they were made,
what is owed.
These parents want their boy
to want to melt my family,
and I live among them.


International Research

This post is kind of just me spitballing some ideas.

I need to do my Honors Research, and I would really like to find a way to do it with an international component. I have thought about trying to do some sort of comparative health care system study between different countries. I have thought about trying to apply some biology to some historical research, whether through considering epidemiology, crops, diet, flora and fauna, climate change… I don’t know. I would love to think of a way to do this.

Without delving too deep into history, maybe I could look at current epidemiology globally through some sort of a humanities lens? Or health care in general through the lens of the humanities could certainly be made international.

I feel like I have a great opportunity by having a fifth year of (a lot of) my scholarship left, and I have so many supportive resources at OU, I could make this happen.


Borderless Art

I attended an art exhibition in the Union called “Borderless Art” but on by the organization LatinARTe. This student group is focused on promoting Latin American art, and art by Latinx students. I kind of just stumbled into this exhibition, because it was in the Union, but I am really happy I did!

The art was stunning – and not all of it was visual. I found myself drawn to the event, not just because of the aesthetically pleasing art, but because the art was all so bold. The even centered around the idea of borders, how artificial they are, how violent they can be, how violent the rhetoric that surrounds them can be… how they make us view people as “others.” To be completely honest, I thought that was so brave, given the political and rhetorical climate of the moment. And the event was so inviting. I hope to follow what LatinARTe does in the future.


Global Engagement Day

This year for Global Engagement Day I attended the session titled “The Impact and Benefits of International Education.” To be completely honest, I was worried that I might be setting myself up to hear a lot of things that I had heard before, but I could not have been more wrong. The two speakers at this session were both very interesting, engaging, and informative. One was a current international student, and the other a former international student who now works for the University.

Both speakers brought very valuable perspectives to the conversation and made me think about how I am participating in international experiences just by being a student on this campus. They also raised every compelling points about how international education can actually be a huge benefit to the United States economy, creating jobs and bringing in capital. I think this was a very astute and appropriate defense of international education, given the criticism it has fallen under by some in recent years.

I’m glad I chose this session!


Spanish Club – Roma

This year, the Spanish Club held a showing of Alfonso Cuaron’s newest film, Roma. The film won awards at the 2019 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and best director. It’s also a Netflix production, which makes it pretty significant, because the Academy had shown resistance towards considering movies that premiered on streaming services. But Roma was simply too great of an achievement to ignore.

Roma is based on memories from Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood in Mexico City. It’s a stunning portrait of life, love, loss, upheaval, and perseverance. The film centers around a struggling young woman named Cleo who is a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family that’s enduring its own, very different, struggles. The film is shot in 65 mm black and white film, which in the hands of any other director might have felt like a cheap gimmick, but Cuaron wields it with expertise and creates a perfectly dreamlike work of art.

I have admired all of Alfonso Cuaron’s films that I had seen before Roma: Children of Men, Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But Roma is special. I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone who might be reading this, but the opening shot of the film – in which a reflection of an airplane appears in the water Cleo is using to mop the entryway– made me fall in love with it immediately. Roma is the first of Cuaron’s films that I have seen that is in his native Spanish language. While I still only understand snippets of Spanish, the cadence and delivery of the dialogue felt so deft and precise throughout the entire film. I love that Cuaron was given the opportunity to make this deeply personal film in the language it deserves.

Four of the last five Best Director awards given out by the Academy have gone to Mexican directors. Mexico has a very rich history of filmmaking, and we are living during one of its peaks. It’s a privilege to watch.


Tour of Morocco

Saharan DesertThis study abroad trip has been so full of adventures I can’t believe how fortunate I am! I have just returned from a week-long trip to Morocco. I am currently on holidays in Spain, which was the perfect excuse I needed to make my long-awaited dream of visiting Morocco a reality.

I was particularly excited to go to Morocco not just because it’s a beautiful country and I have heard that the food is delicious, but because of the fact that my participation in the Arabic Flagship Program means that I will apply to spend a year in Morocco to study Arabic and complete an internship. I looked at this trip as a sneak-preview of what is to come, and spoiler alert: I can’t wait to go back.

I traveled with an organized tour group, which meant that this trip wasChefchaouen jam-packed with tours and activities. In the end, we visited Fes, Chefchaouen, Merzouga, Ourazazate, Marrakesh, and Casa Blanca, and we spent a night camping in the desert. I got to see the Hassan II Mosque (the largest in Africa), the Majorelle Garden, the Bahia Palace,
Hassan Tower, the Blue Gate of Fes, and so many more incredible sites. Parts of Morocco, especially in the north, were completely different than what I imagined: there were hills covered in wildflowers, blue lakes, snow-capped mountains… completely different than the image of the desert that I had in mind. Of course, the Saharan is about what I pictured, with golden orange sand in every direction.

Of all the places we traveled, Marrakesh was my favorite stop. It was certainly a busy, active city with a lot going on. One look at its busy main square, the Jemaa el-Fnaa, and that becomes patently obvious. The city has many wonderful little parks and cultivated gardens full of roses, which makes it very charming.

Morocco amazed me, and I highly recommend visiting should you ever get the chance. The country is so rich in history, and it was incredible to visit. I look forward to returning one day soon!

2019 General Elections in Spain

Spain Election ResultsOn Sunday, April 28, Spaniards took to the polls for snap general elections that were called for by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in February of this year after his government’s budget proposal was voted down. In this election, all 350 seats of Congress and 208 seats from the Senate were up for election.

In the end, Sánchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) won the elections but failed to get an absolute majority, meaning that a coalition government will need to be formed. It remains unclear as to what exactly that coalition government will look like because neither the left-wing bloc nor the right-wing has enough seats to form a super majority. On the left, there is the PSOE (123 seats), and Unidas Podemos (42 seats), although together they fall 11 seats short of the 176 needed to form a super majority. On the right, there is the Populist Party (66 seats), Ciudadanos (57 seats), and Vox (24 seats), 29 seats short of an absolute majority.

Although the final outcome of the elections remain to be seen, it is undeniable that they have had a huge impact on the country. It was fascinating to be in Spain for this election cycle to witness such an important election. Spain, like other European countries and even the United States itself, is facing a rise in far-right politics. In Spain, this rise is embodied by the political party Vox, whose growing popularity has alarmed many Spaniards and created strong ideological divisions in the country. Vox rose to national attention in December 2018 after winning 12 seats in the Andalusian regional elections, which was significant because a far-right party had not entered Spain’s government since the end of Franco’s regime. Many had believed that Spain was immune to the wave of right-wing populism, but Vox’s success has proven this to be false. Vox’s particular brand of right-wing conservatism seems at odds with the Spain that I have come to know: a tolerant, feminist, liberal country. And while Vox won only 10% of the vote, in the Spanish proportional representation system this is significant.

In many ways, this election cycle reminded me of the 2016 presidential elections in the USA. The elections were never far off the minds of my Spanish friends, and it frequently popped up as a topic of conversation. Many Spanish youth were truly afraid of the outcome of the elections, worried that the success of a divisive, far-right populist party would take their country in a direction they don’t want it to go. In the weeks leading up to the election, I saw almost daily reminders on social media encouraging people to vote or request their absentee ballots. The fear, the rise in youth participation in elections, generational divides along ideological lines, all of it took me right back to 2016.

I am eager to see the outcome of not just this election, but the outcomes of future elections in Spain as well, to see how far-right populism fairs in a country that still remembers its recent fascist past.

Fallas Festival

IMG_20190318_191656419Each year in March the city of Valencia is home to the Fallas Festival (a commemoration of Saint Joseph), which means that a swarm of people descend on the city –some estimate that as many as one million tourists visit Valencia during the festival. I was so happy that this year I got to be one of them.

Trying to describe Fallas to someone who has never been is rather difficult, and as I learned, no description will prepare you for the real thing. The best way I can explain it is a giant five-day block party but on a city-wide scale. Every neighborhood participates by putting together a falla, a kind of fantastical sculpture/monument. There are large and small fallas of varying themes, but the thing that most have in common is that they are humorous, colorful, and oftentimes critiques of society. On the last night of the festival, every falla is burned down in a symbolic gesture of welcoming spring and rooting out the negatives of society. Throughout the festival, children are running around with firecrackers, everyone is stuffing their faces with buñuelos, and the people of the city are marching around in their traditional styles of dress.

I highly recommend attending Fallas if you ever get the chance. It’s such a spectacular look at Valencian culture, and an event that I will never be able to forget. My description cannot even come close to doing justice to this grand festival, which is so much bigger and better in person than I could ever describe.