This semester, the Vassar-Wesleyan Madrid program started on January 7. Due to the polar vortex that hit most of the U.S., which manifested as a blizzard with “Arctic cold” temperatures in Western New York, my original flight out of Buffalo was cancelled. Rescheduling my flights was stressful and tedious—I spent about eight hours trying to reach someone at JetBlue. (Thousands of people’s flights had been cancelled, and the lines were so busy that the phone operators generally cut you off after a couple minutes.) I finally spoke with a weary-voiced but kind assistant, and was able to reschedule my flight for only two days later.
The snow was quite heavy and the temperatures nose-cracklingly cold until the night before my flight, but miraculously, January 9 held lovely weather. All three flights were fine, and when I arrived in Granada (spring semester students spend a one-week orientation in Granada), our directors Ana and Pepa warmly greeted me with hugs and a bocadillo (a sandwich with baguette-like bread—a very typical Spanish lunch). I met the other students (there are only two of us from Vassar this semester), and fifteen minutes later, we set off to the Alhambra. The Alhambra was initially built in the 800s, and was reconstructed in the 1000s by a Moorish king. It stood as a fortress and palace until los Reyes Católicos (Ferdinand and Isabella) drove the Moors out of Granada. It was used on and off by Christian rulers, and now is one of the most visited sites in Spain for its history and its beauty. From the top tower, one can see all of Granada and the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
The inside of the Alhambra is also remarkable. Most rooms are covered in vibrant Islamic tiles, and the outdoor passages between rooms are often surrounded by cove-like gardens. I found the various fountains and gardens most enchanting; the meditative trickling sound of water, bird songs, humid air (it was chilly but the air felt heavy as in summer), and fruiting trees provided a wonderful commencement to my studies abroad.
The rest of our orientation week was packed: we took intensive courses in Spanish language and history, and visited cultural and historical sites most days. Our classes were in the Centro de Lenguas Modernas, a part of Universidad de Granada. The language class was quite helpful, as we discussed rules and irregularities of usage of the infamous subjunctive. I found the history class to be more interesting and enjoyable; we sped through modern Spanish history, starting from the Second Spanish Republic of 1931. As Spain has had an incredibly turbulent last hundred years, there was not a dull moment in class, and we covered quite a lot of material in four classes.
Apart from classes, highlights included trips during which we could explore and learn for ourselves, rather than listen to our tour guide and passively observe. We took a bus into the Sierra Nevada (Andalucía’s mountain range) the day after our visit to the Alhambra. In two hours, we travelled from hilly but low-lying Granada, through the arid cactus-covered mid-mountains, and finally to the level of clouds. We stopped in various charming towns along the way. In a town called Pampaneira, we popped into an incredible underground chocolate shop. The proprietor had apparently learned chocolate-making techniques in Argentina, and returned to this tiny town of 355 inhabitants to sell chocolate made with a mix of European and Latin American techniques and flavors. The dark chocolate with lemon was especially zesty with a perfect balance of warm and cool notes. After chocolate-eating and later lunch, we hiked awhile up a trail that was probably originally for sheep. The afternoon clouds and mist had rolled into the mountains, and both the earth and sky had a wonderful blue glow.
Because this program is based in Madrid, I knew much more about Madrid than Granada, our one-week orientation site, before coming. The beauty of this region surprised me, as did the expansiveness of the Sierra Nevada.
Other trips included visiting the Catedral de Granada, the Basílica de San Juan de Dios (an extremely ostentatious church of the baroque era—the walls and most decorations inside the chapel were covered in gold leaf), mountain-biking near the Alhambra, and visiting the house of poet Federico García Lorca. Most days ran from about 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The weakness to this schedule was that it was impossible to sleep enough, and we were exhausted for our morning classes. However, I feel that for a week’s time, we got to know Granada quite well. We also were able to get to know each other and become friends before coming to Madrid, where we live all over the city with our own host families. (We will see each other sometimes at school, but I think because we bonded during the orientation, it will be easy to keep in touch.) Last but not least, orientation certainly gave me a better sense of Spanish culture and more confidence in the language. At Vassar, I felt academically strong in Spanish, in that writing essays has become relatively easy, but I did not feel as comfortable in colloquial conversation. After orientation, I feel much more confident with my speaking, partly from intensive learning and partly from truly using what I have learned in the past. For those looking to study abroad in the future, I recommend looking for a program with ample “pre-academic” orientation. (Our orientation was academic but not part of our university studies.) I am about to take my language placement test and register for classes, and feel more at ease with Spanish than even a week ago.
In my next post, I look forward to writing about the experience of delving into Spanish culture and of life in Madrid!