Bodenhamer Fellow Mason Hollis clearly has a passion for his computer science major. He built his first website in fifth grade, worked to automate the creation of Facebook apps, and helped a Fayetteville High group develop a system that let you turn your spin class into a well-watered garden. But this summer, he focused on another passion – his love for Spanish language and culture – in a study abroad trip to Madrid, Spain.
When I arrived at the airport on the morning of May 31, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from my upcoming trip to Spain. The time I spent researching Madrid wasn’t adequate to cover all that there was to do in the city and my efforts at Facebook stalking the other travelers were met with a disappointingly large number of profiles set to “private.” So I arrived at the airport unsure of what was ahead but excited nonetheless. As excited as I was, the next two months surpassed everything I could have hoped for. I was completely immersed in Spanish culture for two months, I came a couple steps closer to fluency in a language I love, and I was part of a group that I now consider to be the best group of friends I’ve made since coming to the U of A.
Upon arriving in Madrid, we immediately took a bus to meet our host families. My host mom was named Ofelia and, honestly, gave a pretty mean first impression. However, my housemate, Jansen, and I quickly learned how passionate she was about the program and how excited she was to teach us about her culture. Ofelia’s tablecloth was a map of Spain she had bought in order to more easily explain regions and cities of Spain to her study abroad students. She used it almost daily in the telling of her many personal stories or general information about Spain and its history.
As much as I learned from Ofelia, I learned even more outside her house in the city. Although I’ve tried to limit it, I’m sure my friends back in America are sick of my constant commentary on the cultural differences of just about everything we do. Of course I confirmed some obvious differences – olives with pits, the siesta, huge lunches, etc. – but I also discovered smaller things every day that no one would ever think to mention in an American classroom. The following is a list of just a few of the many things that surprised me on a daily basis: Spanish schools don’t have GPAs; it’s bad manners to shake someone’s hand without bending your elbow; laws apparently don’t apply to any store named “alimentación”; and telling a bouncer you’re on a semi-mythical “Oshie’s List” will get you into any club in Barcelona for free. These and many others are things I never set out to learn but instead discovered mostly by accident along the way and are all things that make me feel like, for two months, I became a part of another country rather than just learning about one.
Obviously, many of these things would not be possible without speaking the language. Prior to this trip, I had taken 6 years of Spanish classes but rarely had the opportunity to have a real conversation with a native speaker. No matter how many years I spent studying the language, I always felt like I would be missing a piece without this experience. Fortunately (and sometimes unfortunately), Spain has far fewer English speakers than many other European countries. I was constantly forced to speak Spanish to my host mom, new friends, waiters, teachers and anyone else I might interact with. Even the classes were different than what I was used to in America. I took Spanish grammar, culture, and business classes, all completely in Spanish and with teachers who at least claimed to not speak English (we found out later one of them definitely did). Forcing myself to learn Spanish without having the usual option to fall back on English was a new experience and one that prepared me to be able to communicate more effectively outside of class. The first few weeks in Spain were frustrating at times as I realized that speaking Spanish in the real world was much different than simulated conversations with other non-native speakers in American classes, but at the end of the two months I found myself understanding almost everything and speaking confidently and (mostly) correctly, even if I am still working on a pretty bad American accent.
Through all of this, something else happened that I hadn’t quite expected as much; over the span of 2 months – or even 1 month for most – I became closer to each person in a group of over 20 people than almost anyone else I had met in my first year of college. It takes certain characteristics to make someone decide that they want to to leave their home for a month, travel 9 hours by plane, move in with a stranger, and hope for the best; we all had it and it made for 2 months of exciting trips, cultural explorations, and experiences with other similarly-minded people.
Even before arriving in Madrid, we started a group text that was the center of communication in our group. It started as an informational chat where we’d ask each other what time we were supposed to meet at school, but it quickly transformed to mirror the friendships we were building as we joked, planned our nights, and – most importantly – shared embarrassing videos of each other. The group from the first session returned around July 1st but over a month later I don’t think there has been a single day, or couple of hours for that matter, of silence in our group chat. We’re already planning our reunion and I’m sure we will remain friends through college or longer, and I hope to have the opportunity to travel abroad with some of them again.
It’s now my first month back in America and while I’ve certainly enjoyed the free refills, split checks, ranch dressing, and normal bacon, I can’t help but miss the place I’ve called home for the last two months. I’ve brought as much of Spain back with me as possible as I’ve continued the siesta, eaten dessert after lunch, texted in Spanish with my host mom, and been late to almost everything (including doing this blog, sorry Honors College!). I’ve also brought back memories from two of the best months of my life. I feel confident that I will look back on this trip for the rest of my life, not only glad that I went and had more fun than I ever could have imagined, but also thankful for the opportunity to see the world in a new light, experience a new culture, learn a language, and make a great group of friends.