Rachel Story is an honors anthropology, history, and Spanish student in Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. She spent last spring studying the language and culture of Spain in Málaga – and learned a little about herself along the way.
Indescribable. That’s how I would “describe” my study abroad experience on the Costa del Sol (the sun coast), in Málaga, Spain. To sum up my semester abroad in a blog post would not only fail to do it justice, it would be impossible. But I’ll just promise to do my absolute best, and you can just promise me you’ll understand that there is oh-so-much more that I couldn’t include. Now, as it is called study abroad, I may as well start with the academic component. I had heard contradicting things from past study abroad students before arriving in Spain: the classes are so easy you’ll never have to go, it’s actually very hard because your whole grade will be based on one test, you can’t understand your teachers, etc. Now perhaps I just got completely blessed, but my experiences in Málaga’s classrooms were just about as ideal as they could get. I tested into the advanced Spanish level, and took five classes, four of them in the Spanish language. These four were Advanced Grammar, Spanish Women in the 21st Century, History of Art in Spain, and Spanish Culture. My fifth class taught in English was Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Spain. My teachers were seriously amazing – helpful, charismatic, entertaining, and truly interested in their subjects. They spoke quickly but clearly, and I think it was in the classroom setting that my Spanish listening skills truly accelerated. One thing that I loved most of all, was the amount of material. Certainly we covered a lot of information each day, but it was focused information. What I mean is, coming from majors such as history and anthropology, many of my classes cram a truly insane amount of information into one semester: hundreds of pages of reading each week, multiple books over the semester, at least 7 pages of notes taken during each 50 minute lecture, and so on. While I understand the difficulty in narrowing down the material for a history class, it’s my opinion (and experience) that it is just entirely impossible to remember all of that information when it is covered in such a hurried and frantic manner. If you asked me a specific fact or detail about ancient Rome, even though I took an entire class on Rome last fall, odds are I won’t remember it. But if you asked me any detail about any of the information covered in the classes I took in Spain, I am confident I will remember it all. We didn’t just go over material quickly and move on, we discussed it, questioned it, and truly learned it. And THAT I love: actually learning and absorbing the material I’ve been given in a class. There were really only two or three hectic weeks during the semester, when either midterms, class projects, or final tests took place. And yes, as you may have been told, those major projects or tests really do constitute your whole grade. But as I mentioned, my professors were all extremely helpful and willing to work with us students to ensure we achieved the grades that we desired.
As a whole, I honestly did not feel very affected by the culture shock. I’ve grown up my entire life in Portland, Oregon and then came to the University of Arkansas for college, so I already knew a little about adjusting to a new culture, and to being very far away from the only life, family, and friends that I had known before. The language was of course the biggest shock; remembering to use Spanish wasn’t hard for the obvious things (such as talking to a professor, or to my host family), but took a little while to get used to for the habitual things (such as apologizing after accidently bumping into someone). Another adjustment was living with a host family that I had never met before. I lived with a Malagueñan couple in their sixties, who spoke absolutely no English. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to practice my Spanish, and I know it helped me a great deal to improve my speaking skills over the semester. But of course, it’s a whole new world living in someone else’s house and under someone else’s rules: no showers after 10:30 pm, keep my room tidy (we found out the first week our standards of tidy were very different), showers under 10 minutes, etc. But trust me, the adjustment was absolutely nothing to the benefit of eating home-cooked Spanish meals, having practice speaking Spanish all the time, getting to know more about Spanish, and specifically Malagueñan, culture from locals themselves, and being in an incredible location (I lived about a block from the Mediterranean). I would recommend a home stay over living in your own apartment to anyone who asks.
The food. Let me just say this first: to all of my friends who thought I would die in Spain because I can’t handle spicy food…there was nothing to worry about. Spanish food could not be further from Mexican food! Now that I’ve blown your mind with my own personal myth buster, I’ll explain more. Spanish food is more about letting out the natural flavor of whatever the dish is. Some would (and did) call it plain or flavorless, but they didn’t have my host mom as a cook. Spanish food is delicious! Since I lived in Málaga, right on the southern coast of Spain, a lot of what we ate was seafood. Shrimp and oh-so-many types of fish were staples in our house, prepared baked, fried, breaded, in paella, and more, always in some delicious sauce that would only have one or two ingredients (like tomato and garlic) but tasted so extravagant. We also ate a lot of chorizo (a sausage type of meat that is extremely flavorful) and a LOT of eggs. To us Americans, it was hilariously quirky that the Spanish put fried eggs on top of everything – rice, sandwiches, as a side on a plate accompanying salad and a piece of fish, and so much more. Interesting…but good! When I think of Spanish food, I just think fresh, natural ingredients…they don’t cut corners with mixes and boxed foods. They make the real deal, and you can really tell when you taste it. Two of my favorite dishes were gazpachuelo and pisto…I won’t bore you with a list of ingredients in them, but look them up if you’re interested. They’re wonderful!
Thinking about daily life in Málaga just makes me smile. It’s a relaxed way of life, but somehow it never got boring. It just felt…content. Weekdays I got up around 7:30 for my morning classes, took the bus to the university (which is about a 25 bus ride from where I lived near the city center), and had my first three classes at 8:30, 9:30, and 10:30. Then I had a break from 11:30 to 12:30. During this break three friends and I would generally walk the 2 blocks to the beach, and sit and talk, lay out in the sun, nap, and debate for at least 5 minutes if we could really make ourselves get up and go to our 12:30 class (I promise, we always did). I can’t even tell you how many days I walked to class with sand all over myself and my notebook…what a life! The days when it was cold or rainy (not many), during that break we would walk across the street to Café Aguacate and get tea or coffee from our favorite waiter in the world, who had a long ponytail down to his lower back. He knew us so well that one day when one of us didn’t have money, he told us we could pay him tomorrow. Man, do I miss him! Then from 12:30 to 1:30 I had my final Spanish class of the day, and at 1:30 I’d take the bus back home for lunch with my host family. In Spain, no one takes sack lunches anywhere. Meals are a time to be home with family, and eat real food, not food that can fit in a paper sack. I love that. After lunch I then had to go back to the university for my one class taught in English. Instead of riding the bus again however, I walked. It was about an hour walk to and from class from my host family’s house, and the entire hour was along the breathtaking Mediterranean coast. The hours I spent walking are definitely among my favorite memories of my study abroad experience, and are generally what my mind goes to when I am asked about Málaga. After this final class I would go to a café with friends, hang out on the beach, do some homework, read, walk around the center, or just relax until 9pm which was dinner time with my host family. On Tuesdays and Thursdays after dinner, I went out with friends (a couple other Americans from my group, and then a group of Spaniards we had made friends with) to a salsa bar where we took lessons and practiced salsa in the least touristy, most authentic feeling Spanish place I went to in all of Malaga. The few of us Americans were the only foreigners there, and these dancers were incredible – memories from those salsa nights will stay with me forever. Of course, it would have been nicer if the salsa nights were on weekends since we would get home around two or three in the morning and still have to get up for class at 7:30 the next day. But “no pasa nada” as the Malagueñans love to say, a phrase literally translating to “nothing happens” but that is used in Málaga to say “it’s no big deal.” As you can tell from the portrayal of my daily life in Malaga, “no pasa nada” really describes the entire way of life. Life is more relaxed, slowed down, and focused on enjoyment rather than school, work, or staying busy. I gathered quickly that success there was based more upon happiness than accomplishments. And this was just a description of my daily life during the week – weekends were either more relaxed (sleeping in, beach time, going out dancing), or full of travels (I went to Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, Morocco on my spring break, and Greece after my program ended). Either way, I kept the Malagueñan lifestyle close to heart. I’ll never forget what my host dad told my roommate one night when she was stressed about a class. I’ll translate it for you: “If you have a problem that has a solution, then why worry? And if you have a problem that does not have a solution…why would you worry, you can’t change it.” Málaga.
Now I could go on for just about ever discussing all that I learned about Málaga, Spain, and myself while I was abroad (and it seems I’ve already gone on just about that long!). From history to political system to pop stars to dancing to food to way of life, to my own growth and understanding of who I am, I feel confident in saying that I learned more in this one semester than I have in my entire college experience thus far. The things that I missed about home (laying on my couch, watching TV, Mexican food – very difficult to find in Spain!, playing with my dog, actually having friends over – in Spain you always go out, and of course seeing friends and family) simply paled in comparison to what I now miss about Málaga. I made friends there that I will have for the rest of my life. I got to learn more about myself by travelling to a place where I literally knew no one in the entire country, and as the people who I met got to know me, I got to know myself better as well (and yes, I recognize just how cheesy that sounds). I got to spend the majority of each day speaking and thinking in a different language, and feeling a sense of accomplishment with each day as I could respond more rapidly to questions, learn more advanced vocabulary, use slang phrases in the right setting, and so on. And, let’s face it, I lived about a block from the beach in one of the most beautiful areas of the world I have ever seen. So I guess along with “indescribable,” I’d like to add grateful to my list of how I would explain my experience abroad. I am just so extremely blessed and grateful to have experienced all that I was able to, and to have gotten the taste of what else is out there in our world. I’m grateful to be home now, writing this to you all, and I’m grateful for the confidence that one day soon, I’ll return to my other home in Málaga, España. Te echo de menos, Malaga!