I’ve been in Spain almost two weeks now and am having a great time. We’re not in Madrid yet because we’re still having our orientation in Santiago de Compostela, which is in the northwest region of Galicia. This is a Vassar-Wesleyan program and I didn’t know most of the Vassar students or any of the Wesleyan students when I met them at the airport, but we’ve bonded a lot already, though we’re supposed to start speaking more Spanish than English to each other. When we get to Madrid, we’ll all be living with different host families spread throughout the city, but I hope we’ll still be able to see each other at the university where we’ll be studying and on weekend trips.
The program started this year on August 17th when everyone left the United States, but I actually didn’t join the others until the next day because I was already in Rome. I came with my family early for some sightseeing because it’s my first time visiting Europe. My family and I got to go on a two-week tour in England, France, Switzerland, and Italy, with a stop in Monaco. It was an amazing experience and I got to spend some great quality time with my family before leaving home for a whole semester.
During our two weeks of orientation in Santiago, we take two classes about Spain, one on literature and one on history. We have 3.5 hours of class Monday – Friday, but in Madrid we’ll have more choice with regards to our schedules. We have our final exams on August 29th, which also happens to be my 20th birthday, so I’m sure we’ll all go out and celebrate. We’re staying in dorms near the University of Santiago de Compostela, and we’re near the main plaza where many restaurants and the cathedral are, but unfortunately the exterior is being renovated right now. What’s great about this program is that everybody gets a daily stipend of €11 (about $14.5) to cover one meal not provided to us, and there’s no tax or tip.
Spaniards definitely have a different way of life. Everyone has dinner quite late, usually anywhere from 9:00 – 11:00pm. Also, most people drink socially over meals, often having a glass or two of wine or beer. I had to learn to ask for agua de grifo (tap water) because otherwise restaurants will charge you for bottled water. I think the reason they have dinner so late is that they don’t start partying until at least 2:00 or 3:00am. In order to have energy for all this, one usually takes a nice midafternoon siesta (nap). Some of my favorite things that I’ve tried so far are sangria, croquetas (croquettes), tortilla española (Spanish omelet), and pulpo (octopus), and I still need to try some authentic paella. However, I am desperately missing vegetables in my diet (I hope that my host family in Madrid cooks some). Santiago is also much colder than Madrid because it’s by the ocean, so I can’t wait for some warmer weather. Another difference in Santiago is that some people speak a different dialect of Spanish. People from Madrid and most other Spanish-speaking countries speak castellano (Castilian), and people from Galicia speak gallego (Galician), which sounds different and spells words completely differently (I’ve had to use a dictionary to read quite a few signs).
On Sunday we got to go on an excursion to a city called Tui in Galicia right on the border of Portugal. The Minho River separates the two countries and we got to cross over to Valença, Portugal (another country I can check off my list). We got to visit another cathedral as well as climb a mountain, Monte de Santa Tecla, and go to the beach. By the time we got back home we were all exhausted, but it was a very fun day. On some other nights in Santiago, we’ve gotten to go out for dinner in small groups with our monitores (monitors), who are young locals who have shown us some great restaurants and bars. It’s been helpful to talk in Spanish to people our age about the culture and get to meet new people.
On August 31st we arrive in Madrid and separate at the airport to finally meet our host families. I speak Spanish with near fluency and have lived with a host family before in the Dominican Republic, so I think everything will work out. I’m also excited to choose my classes, but first we have to take a placement exam for our Spanish language course. We have another week of orientation in Madrid before the semester begins, and then we’re on our own. I can’t wait to explore Madrid and fall in love with my new home!