Junior nursing major and Path student Julissa Cervantes spent her summer thriving among the roses and crowds of Madrid, where she improved her Spanish grammar while interacting with locals and expanding her gustatory horizons. Here she writes about the value of learning through exploration, the art of people-watching and fighting through fatigue to make the most of her study abroad experience.

Before leaving for Madrid, where I spent a month studying Spanish at Nebrija University, I had a list of places I wanted to visit. I had prepared myself with an open mind for a new city with a new culture, customs and food. Between the culture shock of how Spaniards really enjoy eye contact to learning how to properly accent words in Spanish, I think Madrid was the best place for me to spend time, learn Spanish, enjoy the culture and more importantly try the food. But even with all my mental preparation, I was never completely ready to experience Spain.

People-watching in a park next to El Rastro

After the first week of getting up at 7 a.m. every day to get to class and exploring the city nonstop, I thought I had seen it all. By the end of the week, we had just gotten back from Salamanca, and I was amazed by all the architectural elements there; I didn’t think this trip could get any better than that. Many people gave me traveling advice and the one thing that stuck with me was “no matter how tired you are, always keep exploring.” They were right; I was exhausted, but I knew I had to keep exploring. Sunday morning, I woke up early to visit El Rastro, the most popular open-air flea market in Madrid. There I people-watched and felt the tranquility of the shoppers as they took their time picking out one specific thing, whether it was just a ring or a shirt with Frida Kahlo’s portrait. I could hear people trying to bargain. I could also sense how people were on the lookout for potential thieves, walking with their purses, bags or wallets clutched to their body.

When I left El Rastro, I thought that would be the highlight of my day. I was wrong. I kept touring the city, and I concluded that the best way to interact with other people or see what a place has to offer is to keep an open mind and just explore. I may have easily walked about 10 miles a day, no joke, but it was all worth it in the end. I would walk down streets like Gran Via, Sol and even Chueca, and everything was worth the trip. That same Sunday I walked from Rastro to a metro station called Puerta de Toledo, that took me to the most amazing view of Madrid. The smell of river water made it clear that we were approaching something I hadn’t seen yet. As I stood on the beautifully-designed bridge, I looked out to the gardens, the park, the architecture and the outskirts of the city. I could not stop staring; in awe, I took my time to take it all in. I tried their food, saw their street art, heard the leash-less dogs running and playing, and I could smell the aroma of the delicate red roses that paved the city park. I was also able to see the Palacio Real and its garden, along with a view of the city perfectly sun-kissed by the Spanish sunset.

City view with a focal point on the Palacio Real and its gardens

Even though Spain seemed perfect in every way, I couldn’t wait to come home and enjoy the company of my family and friends and eat some Mexican food.  I made friends, visited amazing places like Barcelona, Cuenca and Valencia. I tried foods like paella, tapas, tinto de verano and tortilla española. In Spain, I was able to grow both academically and spiritually. My Spanish grammar improved drastically, which will help me in my nursing career. I was able grow spiritually in the sense that I was able to admire so much culture, learn more about myself and experience different ways of living. Overall, I think everyone should make a stop in Spain – there is so much to learn, and so much to enjoy.